The Queen’s Alchemist Part 7: The Test

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Part 7: The Test

Kouzel groaned. Pain ripped through his body and his bloodied fingers gripped the granite. Why was it so rough? Did they make it like this on purpose?

No. He couldn’t get distracted now. He stopped to catch his breath, his hands tight on the rock, his legs bent awkwardly to find crevices in the wall. Ice-cold night wind whipped at his body, threatening to throw him from the plinth.

No one said the Test would be easy, but Dragons above, no one warned him it would be this hard.

Kouzel didn’t know how far up he was. He didn’t dare look down, for fear or dizziness might send him tumbling to his death. What he did know was that he’d been climbing up the Staff of the Gods for hours. All night, he’d gripped the rough rock, pulling himself upwards towards the sky. It was ironic how it was named the Staff, since magic in Atharron was considered evil.

The journey to the Staff of the Gods had been tiring enough. Atharron was far from the Staff, as the enormous natural structure would send a shadow over the royal castle. Now Kouzel dared look around him, sweat almost blinding his gaze, and the kingdom’s glow glittered, awaiting his return. Though why would they wait for him? He was cursed with magic, the ultimate crime in the eyes of Atharron. The only reason Queen Cassandra had granted him this test was because he had concealed his cursed gift so well.

Kouzel groaned. Pain shot through his hands all the way to his shoulders. He couldn’t waste energy by stopping and admiring the view. He had to press on. Had to reach the peak of this accursed Staff.

Kouzel gritted his teeth as he found new footholds in the rock. He reached upwards, ignoring the hot blood that ran down his wrists. Clouds floated around him. The wind was strong, but at least the rain had stopped. He shuddered to think how slippery the rock would be in the rain.

He climbed farther. Kouzel felt as if his arms were about to pop from their sockets. Stabbing pains ripped at his muscles and crimson ran from his palms to his elbows. The wind howled above, like a Dragon roaring in welcome. The Staff wouldn’t defeat him. He could do this.

His heart almost jumped from his body when his hand slipped, leaving him dangling by one hand. He scrabbled at the wall, found a safe ledge and heaved rasping, terrified breaths. His heart pounded in terror, his bleeding hands throbbing with pain and he clutched at the rock, sobbing aloud. He was going to die… he was…

No! Kouzel gave a growl, and he wiped his bloodied hands on his tunic, first the right, then the left. With the last of his strength, Kouzel reached for the next of the rock above. Tiredness threatened him. Taking long, raspy breaths, he struggled upwards. The cold wind soothed his hot skin, even while it threatened to freeze the sweat that ran down his face.

Just a little longer.

Agony tore through his cramping muscles. His legs felt like they had turned to lead. Desperate fingers reached upwards…
Nothing, only air. No more rock. He’d reached the top!

Kouzel fought against the weakness relief brought as he scrambled upwards, gripping the mercifully flat rock of the top. He’d reached the peak. He’d done it.

He lay flat on top of the world, his chest heaving, his bloodied hands stinging and every muscle in his body aching. Finally, his eyes opened, and the white wisps of cloud floated above him, congratulating his victory. A smile stretched across Kouzel’s face. He sensed a warm, orange glow. Struggling to sit up, he shielded his eyes from the bright horizon where the morning sun had risen to greet him.

The wind had dropped, losing much of its earlier power. Kouzel got to his feet, a new strength filling his body as he gazed to the east, where the morning sun melted away the clouds and brought a new day, heralding the magic-cursed man’s victory. From here, the land stretched before him, more beautiful than anything he’d ever seen in his life. There it was, the east, where his fellow magic-cursed brothers said sat a land where magic would be not only accepted, but worshipped.

Theldiniya.

Green hills were bright under the morning sun’s smile, greeting Kouzel with open arms. He looked down at his hands, almost unrecognisable under the blood and fragments of rock, but he felt the powerful magic at his fingertips. No longer would he be forced to hide his gift from Atharron’s magic-hating law. He and his alchemist brothers would venture with their armies to Theldiniya, start new lives, be accepted…

And as if to roar in approval, the enormous silhouette of a powerful Dragon rose into the sky, larger than the hills and even the sun itself. Kouzel watched in mixed horror and thrill as the beast circled the sky, darted through the clouds on powerful, scaled wings, and disappeared into a flash of bright light.

It was a sign, he knew it. He would abseil down this Staff of the Gods and take his tale of victory straight to his brothers. A new age would dawn for Alchemists – no, ‘Alchemist’ had a negativity to it, like some kind of witch doctor. Kouzel smiled as he let the wind caress his hot face. He and his brothers were to be Mages. Kings. Gods.

Thus, would begin their road to immortality.

The Queen’s Alchemist Part 6: The Traitor

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Part 6: The Traitor

Rain pelted the dark streets as a hooded figure darted through an alleyway. He dodged a large pile of waste, ignoring the weak yapping of the stray dog that was always sniffing around there, and stopped beside a dark door. He rapped on it four times, each consecutive knock faster than the last, and a flap in the door opened almost immediately.

“Avenite,” was the whispered password, and the flap snapped shut. The door opened, and the cloaked man slipped inside.

The room was dark save for the small, flickering fire in the corner. At first glance, it would seem as if the room was empty. The Alchemist lifted his hood from his head, sighing as rain flecked from the cloak and dripped to the floor.

Using the light of the fire, a young man sat in the corner of the room, scribbling onto a piece of parchment. His eyes were oddly glazed and two hovering, identical stones glowed in front of him, casting pale green light onto his gaunt face.

Seeing again, Cornelius?” the man beside him asked, his long, red beard almost touching the parchment as he leaned over to see.

“Don’t… touch!” Cornelius snapped, his quill scratching so fast on the parchment it was almost a blur.

“Any news from the castle?” asked a dark-skinned man, sitting on a leather armchair in the corner. As the Alchemist’s vision grew used to the darkness, he made out Krim’s silhouette.

“Uldrid has delivered the rumours to Queen Cassandra,” the Alchemist replied, pulling the wet cloak from his shoulders. “She believes that her sister is plotting to overthrow her throne. With that and the threat of the Giants in the north, I think they’ll barely notice we’re gone.”

Krim chuckled. “Queen Cassandra will definitely notice you’re gone,” he remarked.

The Alchemist smirked. “The silly girl doesn’t even realise I’m hypnotising her most of the time.” He imitated her in an exaggerated, high-pitched voice. “‘I frightened my guards. I frightened myself.’ She really believes that she can be Queen of this wretched kingdom.”

“Let her keep it,” Krim yawned and cracked his knuckles. “The scouts have confirmed a safe passage to the east. We’ll be out of here in no time.”

“Good,” the Alchemist picked at the rug with his long fingers. “And one step closer to…”

“Immortality,” Krem finished the sentence for him, a hungry look in his eyes.

“The answer is to the eastern lands of Theldiniya. I just know it. Once we’re there, we will see the Dragons, take their power, and become kings ourselves.”

The Alchemist grinned. “Once Kouzel gets back, we’ll take our spies and march.”

The Queen’s Alchemist Part 5: The Forgotten

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Part 5: The Forgotten

From the makeshift shelter, it was difficult to tell if the howling in the mountains was a hungry pack of wolves or just the wind. A dead horse lay half-buried in the snow, its legs twisted at odd angles and its frozen eyes black and lifeless.

Three shivering soldiers sat hunched beneath a hill of snow, which they’d gathered up with calloused, cold fingers. From the Giants’ side, it looked like just another mound of snow on the white landscape. They hoped.

James growled in pain, and tried to conceal it by biting down hard on his leather glove. The soldiers either side of him threw him anxious looks. Despite the howling snowstorm, any human sound could carry and reach the ears of their enemies. Burning pain throbbed in James’ left leg; it had succumbed to frostbite after ice had broken beneath his step, and he was loath to take off his boot and assess the full damage. He imagined raw, blackened skin, perhaps toes missing; it was difficult to tell, for anything below his ankle was completely numb, rendered useless for walking.

“They’re not coming back for us,” the youngest soldier muttered, his teeth chattering so badly he had to push his jaw into his folded arms to stop them.

“They think we’re dead,” James agreed, glad for a chance to speak and ignore the burning agony in his leg. “What’s your name, son?”

“Garred, sir.”

The soldier at James’ right side gave an impatient snort. “Great time for introductions,” he muttered. He was clean shaven and shivered under his helmet.

“A man’s last moments should be comfortable, and with friends,” James shot back, wishing they could at least build a fire.
The ground rumbled, sending flurries of snow tumbling around them from the shelter. The soldiers glanced at each other in alarm, but James sighed, almost glad that it would soon be over.

“Your name, boy!” James hissed through clenched teeth at another young soldier.

“Harry,” the bald-faced boy whispered.

A second rumble.

“Well, Harry, Garred,” James IV reached for his bow, trying to steady his trembling, freezing fingers. The younger men watched as the Giant Slayer pulled an arrow from his back. Another rumble shook the ground beneath them – closer, louder. “Are you ready to fight for Atharron one last time?”

Garred gave a quiet sniffle. “We’re going to die.”

“Aye,” James was unable to stop a wild smile stretching from ear to ear, “fighting for our kingdom. There is no finer way to go, gentlemen.”

A roar rumbled above them, and the soldiers trembled. The shadow turned the white snow a dark grey, and the stench of body hair and skin almost made them choke.

“For Atharron!” James IV roared, and aimed his bow upwards. The surrounding soldiers gave brave war cries and bounded from the shelter, wielding frozen swords. The arrow whistled through the air but the angry bellow of the Giant made James’ heart sink. His arrow had missed its target. His vision was becoming blurred, and he was vaguely aware of Garred and Harry bravely fighting in their last moments. James struggled to his feet, and almost collapsed under his useless foot. No! I will not die sitting on my arse.

Arrows at his back and a lion’s roar in his heart, James glanced back through the mountains, where the tiniest of glows on the horizon showed Atharron, his Lady’s kingdom. “For Queen Cassandra!” he bellowed. He barely heard his own war cry above the overwhelming crashing of battle with what was left of the Giants.

The Queen’s Alchemist Part 4

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Part 4: The Queen’s Alchemist

Queen Cassandra watched from her balcony, forcing her trembling hands to steady. It was her first public execution, and the sight of Theo’s thin, convulsing body shudder into death made her feel sick to her stomach. Did it usually take this long for the poor souls’ last breath to escape their bodies? The crowd cheered as the first of rain sploshed onto the streets below.

After several moments where Theodore Bartholomew Ashencroft’s body shuddered to its final silence, his head limp, the crowd dispersed, already bored, their mundane lives continuing after only a moment of entertainment.

Queen Cassandra exhaled, and realised how tightly she’d been clenching her fists. A guard either side of her got to their feet, and she followed, her emerald robes flowing behind her like seaweed in an ocean. The winter air was damp, and the heaviest of the rain came as they reached the pearl balcony doors.

Queen Cassandra maintained her refined, queenly posture as she made for the royal quarters. Guards bowed, their armour clinking steel as she passed, and her slippers tapped on the carpeted corridor. When her guard closed the door behind her, the strong demeanour disappeared. Queen Cassandra buried her face into her silk gloves and wept.

“My lady?”

Queen Cassandra almost jumped out of her skin at the soft voice from the corner of the room. She quickly straightened and dabbed at her eyes, although she knew, with a sinking heart, that the speaker had already seen her weakness.

A young man stepped from the shadows, and her heart slowly calmed back to its usual rhythm.

“I’m sorry if I frightened you,” the Queen’s Alchemist whispered. She responded with a sad smile, and reached for him with trembling hands. There was no one in Atharron she’d rather see right now.

“Are you all right?” The young man lit a floating candle with a wave of his hand, and Queen Cassandra’s large, stained eyes watched, half in fear, half in admiration. “I am now,” she whispered back, as she grasped his fingers in hers.

“There is no need to be scared, my lady. What is it you fear?”

“Nothing, I’m…” Cassandra rubbed her arms, which suddenly stippled with goosebumps. “I just witnessed my first execution.”
“Ah,” the Alchemist gave a sympathetic sigh. “Yes, it can be rather… disturbing the first time.”

He gently pulled his hand from hers. The warmth of the candle flickered close to Cassandra’s face, filling her with a sudden peace. “I know the teachings say that magic is evil, but…” she watched as the Alchemist smiled, lighting more candles around the room with a wave of his fingertips. “I can’t imagine my life without you.”

“We have been best friends for all your life, my Queen. I cannot imagine any kind of life without you, either.”

Cassandra sat with a sigh onto the four-poster bed. Without her guards, her advisors and that beastly Uldrid, the pretence was gone. It was as if an enormous weight of the whole of Atharron had been lifted from her shoulders.

“I am weak,” she uttered eventually, unable to stop her voice from trembling. All the responsibility, all the pressure of ruling was finally flooding from her. Her voice shook as she spoke in a half-whisper. “I’m not fit to rule Atharron. Perhaps my father was wrong. He should have made Anaya queen.”

“My dear Cassandra,” the Alchemist took the queen’s chin in his slender hand and turned her tear-streaked face to look at him. “Your father, the good King before you, made a fine choice choosing your pure heart and marrying your sister to King Roderic. You are a beauty unlike any other, an inspiration to us all, and a fine leader of this great kingdom.”

Queen Cassandra felt her Alchemist’s warm breath on her face, and her eyes half-closed, under his spell. But he drew away, his cool fingers withdrawing, and the crimson cloak he always wore floating behind him, slowly, as if underwater.

“Something happened earlier.” Queen Cassandra sniffed.
The Alchemist didn’t turn round, and the pattering rain on the window drowned out any sound he might have made in response.

“I felt angry. Angrier than I’ve ever been. I broke a vase.” Cassandra shuddered at the memory of her high-pitched, angered shriek when she’d lost her temper at Uldrid. “That has never happened before. I don’t have a temper, yet I frightened my guards. I frightened myself.”

“Pressures can overcome us all, my Lady. Even a Queen,” the Alchemist reassured her. His head was still turned, however, and she didn’t see him smile.

 

 

The Queen’s Alchemist Part 3: The Executioner

Part 3: The Executioner

The young man who stood trembling on the trapdoor was barely old enough to have grown the first hair on his chin. A small crowd were gathered, murmuring quietly, as clouds above were heavily pregnant with rain; rather fitting for that morning’s execution.

“Theodore Bartholemew Ashencroft, you have been found guilty of abandoning your post at Irving’s Foothold, leading to the death of seventy-three Atharron soldiers.”

Theo gave a hoarse sob as the dirty rope was tied loosely round his neck.

“This includes the great Knight James IV of Northwind, the good Queen Cassandra’s Giant Slayer and a tragic loss to Atharron. You are hereby sentenced to death for treason and abandoning your brothers without permission.”

A series of tutting and whispers rushed through the crowd of onlookers. The Executioner’s steel mask was barely an inch from Theo’s pale cheek. The rope smelt of sweat and dust.

Theo looked towards the heavens, his tear-streaked face taking in for the last time the grey storm clouds that threatened thunder. As the last of the accusations rolled off the announcer’s tongue, and the Executioner’s large fist snapped the handle to release the trapdoor, Theo could have sworn the enormous silhouette of a Dragon flashed in the stormy sky.

The Queen’s Alchemist Part 2: The Messenger

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Part 2: The Messenger

Uldrid’s bow was so low that the tip of his long nose was close to touching his silk-clad knees. “My Queen of Atharron,” he purred. “The Dragons must smile upon you, for you are more beautiful than the brightest of stars.”

The tiniest pinch of snow flittered from his moustache and floated to the carpet, where it melted in the warmth of the coal fire.

Queen Cassandra was the epitome of perfection. Her cerulean gown rippled from the throne like a waterfall, and her cascading auburn hair was like fire, illuminating her pale face. Rose lips pursed at Uldrid’s flattery; his appearance barely brought good news.

“Speak,” she said coldly.

Uldrid straightened, and his sunken eyes met hers. He was conscious of the guardsmen, in their grey and white winter armour, clutching spears as their eyes fixed on each stiff move the man made. Uldrid cleared his throat and gave a weak smile.
“I’m afraid King Roderic remains good on his threat, my lady,” Uldrid stammered.

Queen Cassandra’s knuckles tightened beneath her silver sleeve cuffs. “It’s a threat now, is it?” Her voice sent a chill through the warm room.

“The Giants’ War isn’t his greatest concern. He maintains that Atharron has better harvests, better fortunes, and their Queen…”

Don’t…” Queen Cassandra’s fist slammed against the vase beside her throne; it tumbled to the floor and smashed. “…speak to me of their Queen!”

“A thousand apologies, my Lady,” Uldrid gave another sweeping bow. “But forgive me for saying what I must. Queen Anaya is still angry that your father – Gods, forgive me, the late King of Atharron – married her off to King Roderic, leaving his throne to you.”

“The immediate threat is the Giants in the north,” Queen Cassandra said, her voice trembling ever so slightly. “We cannot afford civil war with my sister’s kingdom.”

“Your wisdom sees no ends, Your Worship.” Uldrid simpered. “As War Counsellor, I shall see personally that King Roderic’s threats remain only that – threats.” He gave a third, flamboyant bow and hastened from the room.

Queen Cassandra shifted uncomfortably on her throne. To think that her own sister would betray her! She had no doubt that King Roderic had no say in this; he was Queen Anaya’s trophy, the Fourth Kingdom’s bloodline. Anaya had always been a jealous, selfish swine. Queen Cassandra smiled smugly to herself. Father always favoured me.

A Bard’s Lament (Part 10: Final!)

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Part 10 (Final)

“Ha!” boomed Caskhell. “Here’s the bard!”

Ella froze on the threshold. Sackle withdrew his sword, apparently oblivious to the bangs and screams from outside, his face half-hidden in shadow and Ella in his sights with a piercing glare. Lucinda panted weakly in Caskhell’s grip.

“Let her go.” Ella thundered. She sounded braver than she felt. “It’s me you want.”

“Was this you?” Sackle gestured to the noise from the street. “Stealing nobles’ horses? Allowing Elves to run amok? Killing a guardsman?”

“I warned you,” said Caskhell, a mad gleam in his eyes. “I told you that you would pay.”

And before Ella could do anything, before she could even move, there was a flash of silver. By the time the scream had erupted from Ella’s throat, Lucinda had slumped to the floor, her neck open, spilling crimson.

“No!” Ella wailed. Her knees almost gave way; cold dread filled every fibre of her body, her heart ripping open as Lucinda’s white nightgown turned red, her eyes and mouth wide open in a silent scream, her neck open. Ella stumbled back, nausea making her head spin as her world crashed all around her. “Lu… no…”

“This is what happens to traitors!” Captain Sackle stepped over Lucinda’s twitching body and the pool of red running across the floorboards.

Ella backed away and hurtled down the stairs, adrenaline pounding through every vein in her body. She reached the bottom and in her haste, knocked over the lamp; it smashed into glittering shards of glass, which scattered on the ground like stardust as the room was plunged into darkness.

The stairs rumbled with Caskhell and Sackle’s pursue; Ella snatched up the lute case and tore it open, nausea threatening to take over as she pulled the instrument from its case and held it aloft with trembling hands.

When the huge figure of the captain appeared, Ella swung. Wood splintered and burst against his jaw and he reeled in agony; Ella spun and made a break for the door, but Caskhell tackled her to the ground. Groaning, half-blinded by tears, Ella tried to shout, but the wind had been knocked out of her. She reached for the dagger at her hip and her fingers grazed the hilt. Caskhell pulled it from the sheath at her belt and threw it to the other side of the dark room.

“Get up!” growled Captain Sackle, hauling Ella to her feet. “I’ll make short work of this.”

The captain of the guard ignored the terrified wails of the villagers as horses fled for the gates, some ridden by Night Elves, some cantering with no rider, reins flapping behind them. The main gate had been closed, but the nearby fence lay in tatters, broken on the ground as if a large creature had trampled on it. Guards shot arrows at where Elves on horses jumped over the ruined fence; nearby, a small pony and its rider lay dead, the glassy eyes of a male Forest Elf staring, sightless, into the night sky.

Ella fought, but the captain’s grip was strong; someone tied her wrists behind her back with rope. “Let me go!” she growled, fear turning to blind hatred as she kicked at the captain’s armoured shins. Pain tore at her heart. Poor Lucinda…

A dog appeared in the darkness; barking and yapping, it snapped at Sackle’s legs as he pushed her forwards.
“Back, girl, back!” wheezed a weak voice.
“Out of the way, vermin!” the guardsman roared, shoving a frail vagabond out of the way.

Skave!” Ella screamed, still struggling in her bonds. Skave restrained the mongrel, the very same dog Ella had cut free at the market, while avoiding Ella’s gaze.

“You should choose your friends more carefully,” the smug captain whispered in Ella’s ear. “This little friend of yours told us everything for a few nobels.”

Skave slunk into the shadows, watching with reproachful eyes as Ella was hauled away. His dog whined beside him as his sorrowful gaze confirmed her worst fears.

How much did they know? How many Elves had managed to escape before they realised the horses were not the target, but the distraction? Skave hadn’t known that… had he?

Numb with shock, Ella half-stumbled as she was roughly pushed along to the side streets and led along a dark alley. Where were they taking her? This wasn’t the way to the Jewel Mansion’s dungeons. With a jerking panic, as the clouds parted, beaming powerful silver light onto the ground, she realised that they were leading her up the hill towards the cemetery.

She shivered as they half-shoved her along, the rope biting into her wrists. Were Kerra and Gregor waiting for her by the river? Would they have the sense to get out of there before the guards found them, or would they wait? Would Gregor join the Elves, now? Ella gave a choked sob. If only I’d reached Lucinda sooner…

She barely noticed that they had reached one of the corner watchtowers behind the cemetery; the north-east tower was usually heavily guarded, but in the mayhem, the guards had joined the fight near the main gates. Captain Sackle led Ella up the grassy hill. Ella felt strange, detached, as though she had left her heart and half her brain in the house with her sister.

Hazy thoughts of Kerra, Lucinda, and Gregor swirled through her mind as she was led up some wooden steps on shaky legs. When her tear-filled eyes spotted the noose, she sprang up like a panicked deer.

“No! NO!” she kicked out, resisting and pushing against the floorboards with all her might. New strength seemed to flood through her muscles; she could not die, she would not die, not while she still breathed and while she still didn’t know whether Kerra and the Elves had escaped or not…

“Stay still, you stupid girl!” Sackle growled as Caskhell rushed to restrain her. His perfectly parted hair glinted in the moonlight, and Ella spat at him, trying to throw him off at his touch.

“You’d think I’d let you get away with embarrassing me like that?” he growled as she struggled against them. “In front of the whole marketplace?”

The sharp smack on her temple almost knocked Ella to the floorboards on which they were standing. Off-balance, made worse so by her tied hands, Ella tried to make a break for it and leap from the platform, but Sackle grabbed her around the waist. Caskhell punched her hard; his fist hit her jaw and her head whipped to the left, stars bursting in front of her eyes. Another smack hit her temple, and pain exploded near her eye; it swelled as she gasped in agony, and Caskhell cracked his knuckles in satisfaction. “Stupid bitch,” he snarled.

Ella groaned, barely staying on her feet as sharp pain ebbed through her jaw and her eye. Cursed cowards. The metallic taste of blood flowed on her tongue as her head rang, losing all strength to fight as Skave forced her onto the trapdoor, in front of a hanging noose.

The hill looked over the northeast wall, her only view through her burning eyes as Sackle gripped her, vice-like, by the wrists. Although it was only the three of them there, Sackle loudly declared the charges as though in front of an audience.

“Helping prisoners escape, putting the Mage Lord Krem and the good people of Veilig into danger, and consorting with the enemy! Unforgivable crimes! You don’t even deserve a trial, you filthy little traitor.”

Ella squinted, struggling with her injured eye, over the wall and to the hills, where the moonlight shone silver onto the wood ahead. Dim lanterns, bobbing like fireflies, were moving through the trees.

Despite the pain that flared like fire in her head, Ella’s heart lifted. The lights could only mean that the Elf girls had escaped, and Kerra was leading them. Desperation clung to her soul; they were leaving without her… but they were safe, now…

Nausea was building in her gut. Only an hour ago, everything had been so normal, even peaceful. Ella tore her gaze from the bobbing lights to look at the drifting grey clouds above, where stars winked in patches of clear sky. The moon, bright, white and beautiful, poured its silver light onto her face. The rope tightened around her neck.

Glancing down to the wood again, Ella watched as the lights grew fainter until they disappeared completely. Though her jaw ached, Ella smiled. They had escaped; they were free. And although Ella’s heart was filled with fear and pain, something told her it was going to be okay… she would be with Lucinda soon. And she would see her ma and pa again…

As Sackle stepped solemnly back, Ella hummed Hope’s Horizon between raspy, shallow breaths as her body grew tired and weak, the rope rough on her neck. As her weight shifted on the trapdoor below her feet, her heart pounded against her ribcage, filled with loss and dread, yet with a glimmer of hope. Kerra may think that she’d deserted her, but at least she and Gregor were safe. Lucinda was in pain no longer. It was done, it was over: the bard’s task was complete.

“…to the welcoming dawn.” Her voice quivered.

The trapdoor swung open.

End

A Bard’s Lament (Part 9)

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Part 9

“You made it!” Gregor exclaimed. “It’s all right, come in. No one’s here.”

Ella brought Lucinda inside and she collapsed on a chair, clutching the fabric at her chest.
“Lu,” Ella knelt before the fire, cupping her sister’s face in her hands. “Who did this to you?”

Lucinda hovered on her chair. She wasn’t unconscious, but she had an odd frown on her face, blinking slowly, looking at Ella as if she was seeing her for the first time. The lack of recognition in her eyes made Ella’s concern turn to panic.

“Lu, was it Sackle? Was is Caskhell? Did they take you down there? Is that where they’re making the Lilac Flame?”

“I think she’s not up to answering any questions tonight,” said Gregor gently. “Let’s get her upstairs – in the spare room –”

Together, they helped Lucinda up the dark staircase and into the smallest bedroom, where Gregor hung a NO VACANCY sign on the doorway. Lucinda seemed to fall asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow, groaning as Ella pulled a patchwork quilt over her weak body.

“You’re safe now,” Ella whispered, touching Lucinda’s clammy forehead.

Ella offered to pay lodge for Lucinda but Gregor waved away her offer. “Knowing you’re both okay is enough,” he insisted. “I’ll spin a story for my father, don’t you worry about that. You just keep up the good work, lass. I was worried about you.”

Rage drummed through Ella as she dabbed Lucinda’s forehead with a damp cloth several minutes later. The haunting image of the dead Elf girl kept flashing before her eyes. Lucinda was safe now, but there were still girls down there, maybe hundreds of them…

“Kerra told me that the bridge work was done.” Ella muttered.
“That’s right,” Gregor’s thick fingers stroked his chin. “Thanks to your sister there; she passed the message along in time,” he nodded towards Lucinda. “And Garrett. Broke the bars leading under the north wall, like you suggested. When it happens, they’ll have an easy escape.”

“Right,” Ella agreed. She watched as Lucinda gave a sigh and turned over. Some of the colour had already returned to her cheeks.
“Remember, if they order a lillenfruit ale, it means they were successful. I’m sure we’ll hear something anyway, though. And Ella?”

The bard looked up to meet Gregor’s concerned eyes.
“Stay safe.”

Ella felt the fresh cold air blow on her face as she wandered alone towards her empty shack, silently thanking the four Dragons for blessing her with another day. Dawn was breaking; the morning sun illuminated the clouds in brilliant orange. Ella inhaled the morning air, and her steps felt lighter than they had in days.

*

Over the next twenty-four hours, Lucinda’s strength seemed to be returning. By the time Ella had rested, washed, and packed up her lute in the early evening, Lucinda was sitting up in her own bed at their house and eating soup. She had revelled in lying in her own bed again, though seemed to clam up at any mention of the Rathole. Ella told herself to stay patient; Lucinda would talk when she was ready.

Nothing much seemed to change in the Respite; either they hadn’t noticed Lucinda had gone, or they didn’t think she was worth finding. Ella’s throaty voice filled the tavern, along with the twanging sound of the lute strings. She sung of loss, of heartache, thinking of her mother and thanking the four Dragons again that Lucinda was safe and sound.

A nearby merchant gently nodded his head along to the music, his eyes closed as he caressed a goblet of wine. Calm was filling Ella; her sister was back, and a full tavern meant more coin and a full belly. By the time Ella had finished her ninth song, packed away her lute and was counting the coins in her hat, her spirits were high.

A sweeping wind blew through the tavern, blowing out several candles when the door suddenly burst open. Noting the sudden quiet, Ella looked up.

A guard stood on the threshold, hovering on the spot. The low buzz of talk died as those sitting at tables watched him in silence. Something was off about the way he stumbled inside; was he already drunk? Then the guard’s eyes rolled to the back of his head and he slumped forward, the helmet tumbling from his head as he flopped to the floor.

Screams of fright erupted in the tavern. All the air seemed to rush out of Ella’s lungs. From the back of the guard’s neck sprouted a short, bloody arrow.

Drinks were knocked to the floor as merchants and farmers scrambled to their feet in panic. Someone barged past her, almost knocking the lute case from her back. Her whole body froze as she gaped at the dead guard, crimson spilling from his neck as panicking villagers leapt over his body and into the night.

“Ella!”

Gregor stood rooted to the spot, the colour draining from his face as they stared at each other. The tavern had emptied as though a fierce wind had swept everyone away; spilled ale and mead painted the floorboards brown and yellow mixing with the crimson seeping from the guard’s lifeless body.

“Ella, it’s… it’s happening! We’ve got to go!”

He darted from behind the bar and took Ella’s hand in his larger, warm one. Ella’s legs didn’t seem to want to work, but the urgent yanking of her arm spurred her to follow Gregor past the dead guard and out into the chilly night air.

Ella had never seen the cobbled street so full. Mayhem roamed from the tavern up to the corner leading to the marketplace; panic was taking hold of Ella as she spotted cloaked shadows, which were ignoring the scrambling villagers. One of the stable ponies galloped past, reins swinging, the small figure of a Night Elf perched on top. Ella wheeled round. Unlike the Night Elves, which skulked in the darkness, the Forest Elves, paler with sharper features than their dark cousins, seemed to be causing as much trouble as they could; several nearby stood throwing rocks at windows, brawling, or throwing food at the panicking villagers. Ella couldn’t shake the bizarre feeling that they were rather enjoying themselves.

The Night Elves seemed to be moving with purpose. They darted between shadows like bats, cloaks adorning their dark faces. Several were heading towards Laxx Street, to the Rathole. Ella watched them go as she was jostled by the crowd. Was Kerra among them? What about Knora, the Elf servant to Lady Gertrudine?

“Ella!” Gregor was still clutching her hand; his palm was clammy. “What’s the plan? Do we join in the distraction…?”

His voice trailed off as Ella’s eyes flicked towards the corner than led down to Laxx Street. Even now, with the distraction of the horses and the servants, were Elf slaves being evacuated? Gregor gave Ella’s hand a little shake. “Ella?”

Ella hadn’t planned for this. The messages in her songs communicated various details, but killing a guard…

“We need to find Kerra,” muttered Ella. “Find Kerra. She’ll know what to do.”

Almost as if she’d been summoned, Kerra came pelting at them full speed, her hair streaming behind her. The moon was full; the Night Elves’ power was at the fullest tonight. She was powerful. Radiant.

“There you are!” silver tears formed in the corners of her eyes as she skidded to a halt in front of them and gripped Ella’s free hand. Another horse galloped past them, its hooves clopping dangerously on the cobbled streets.

“Come with us!” Kerra took Ella’s face in her hands, forcing her sight from the running horses and shouting people. Soft, dark palms cupped her trembling jaw.

“You killed that guard!”

“No, no,” Kerra’s good eye was bright; she looked more alive than Ella had ever seen her. “They saw us taking a stallion from the Jewel Mansion, and they shot at us. Their aim wasn’t true, and they hit one of their own.”

Ella’s mind wasn’t working; the vision of the bleeding, collapsed guardsman was still fresh in her memory. Kerra’s lips kept moving, but Ella was stuck in a haze of the muffled sound of screaming, of guards shouting, of clashing swords and flashing images of dead sapphire eyes…

“Come with us, Ella!” Kerra repeated, penetrating Ella’s mind. Kerra pressed her forehead to Ella’s. “I can’t go without you.”

Ella’s mind was suddenly clear. Time sped up to normal speed, and the sounds around them became clear as though she was emerging from water. “I will. I’ll come.”

Kerra beamed, pulling back from her. “I knew it,” her dark hands gripped Ella’s pale ones. “We’ll take the exit like we planned. The broken wall near the sewer…”

“I have to get Lucinda first.” The idea of leaving without her sister was insane, almost laughable; Ella gently pulled her hands from Gregor and Kerra’s grips. “Meet me outside the village, by the river. Gregor, go with her.”

“No, I’m coming too –”

“I’ll be quicker without you,” said Ella firmly. “Go with Kerra. I’ll be there in a moment.”

Leaving her friends behind, Ella dashed along the street towards their shack. Her mind was finally clear. This was the night where not only would the Rathole finally be emptied, but she and Lucinda would be free, too – free from Farwing’s grip and their mother’s debt, free from the corrupt guards, Captain Sackle, Caskhell, Lady Gertrudine, and Lilac Flame. Her lute case bashed against her back as she ran, past panicking merchants and determined Elves, brawling villagers and shouting guards.

“Lu!” Ella burst into their shack, dropped her lute case on the floor, and ascended the stairs, two at a time. She would have to drag Lucinda until they reached the river… she’d carry her if she had to…

Ella pushed the door open with a loud creak. “Lucinda, it’s over!” she exclaimed. “We’re getting out of here, we’re –” her voice died as the scene greeted her.

Lucinda stood in her nightgown, flanked by the two people Ella least wanted to see: Caskhell, who was sporting a bloody forearm and had Lucinda in a steel-like grip, dagger in his hand, and, Ella realised as her stomach dropped like a stone, Sackle, the captain of the guard.

A Bard’s Lament (Part 8)

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Read part 5
Read part 6
Read part 7

Part 8

“Sorry, we’re closed,” Gregor called as Ella slid into the tavern. “Oh. Hi, Ella,” he added, appearing from the back with a box in his arms. “What’s the matter?”

Cold wetness clung to Ella’s tunic, sticking to her like a second skin. She headed for the fireplace and slid the lute case from her back. Emotion bubbled inside her.

“Lucinda,” she whispered. Gregor put the box down and kneeled beside her. His warmth gave her comfort, but she shook from cold and fear.

“She’s in the Rathole,” she whispered. Gregor gave a sympathetic sigh beside her.

“How could I have ignored it?” she buried her face in her hands. “She’s hooked on Lilac Flame, I know it. Now they’ve taken her… down there.”

The anxiety of the past week bubbled until it overcame Ella in short, harsh sobs. Gregor held her as the fire crackled beside them. With the warmth from the flames and Gregor’s large body against her, Ella felt calm sweep through her. Feeling focused, she dried her stinging eyes.

“I’m getting her out.”
“You’re what?” Gregor pulled back. His grey eyes were filled with concern.
“I’m going,” Ella got to her feet. “I lost my ma to that life, Gregor. I won’t lose Lucinda, too. Can you lend me some clothes?”

*

Ella peered into the bowl of water that Gregor had given her. A man’s hat adorned her head, where she had tied her red hair in a tight bun and stuffed under the hat. A too-big tunic sat on her frame over ripped cloth she’d tightly wrapped round her chest to bind her breasts. She looked at herself in the water. Would she pass?

“Not bad,” Gregor commented when he saw her. “But your…” he cleared his throat, and his brown cheeks went a shade darker. “Your hips are moving too much when you walk. Walk more like a man.”

Perhaps it was the severity of the situation or how jittery she felt, but Ella giggled nervously as Gregor sauntered in front of her with exaggerated swagger. Her laughter died on her lips when he asked, “Are you sure you want to do this?”

“She’s my sister, Gregor.”

After a little more practice, Ella felt ready. “The guards won’t do anything about Lucinda. It’s probably Caskhell or Sackle who put her there in the first place, so it’s up to me.”
Gregor watched her, his arms folded. Ella didn’t know if it was scorn or pity that adorned his face. She almost couldn’t bear the silence.

“I’ll see you in an hour or so,” she swallowed.
“How are you going to get in and out? I heard there’s a guard who guards the cellar door.”

Ella thought back to when she was a child: the nauseating scent of Lilac Flame, the dark cellar, the narrow passageway, and the surprise on the guard’s face when Ella had appeared as if from nowhere.

“The trapdoor,” she answered. Patrons used the cellar entrance, and Ella was certain she was the only one, aside from Kerra, who knew about the trapdoor. “The guard is on the other side of the wall. He won’t see me, and if I do I’ll just…” she cleared her throat and finished her sentence in a deeper tone that she hoped sounded like a man, “got lost.”

“Right,” Gregor nervously rubbed the stubble on his chin. “Ella… I’m sorry, but if you’re caught… there’s nothing I can do to help you. My father…”

“I know,” Ella nodded. Fear clenched her heart. For the first time, she truly felt alone.

*

The rain had stopped, but thick clouds blocked the moon from shining on the dark street. The residential area was almost empty; curtains had been drawn, a single street lamp burned on the other side of the road, where two drunk farmers sang with their arms round each other’s shoulders.

Ella’s heart hammered against her chest, the too-tight binds almost crushing her body. She had felt safer when the rain fell. It may have been foolish, but the falling curtain of rain seemed to muffle everything.

At first, she walked down the street normally, trying to put more movement into her shoulders like Gregor had showed her. She hoped that if the guards saw her, they would assume that she was another villager going home after a few at the tavern. She wanted nothing more than to run home and go to bed.

There’s still time to back out, she reasoned.

But she couldn’t. Knowing the Rathole existed was bad enough, but knowing that with each passing moment, her sister was being drugged and abused… Ella couldn’t walk away from that.

She neared the empty house on Laxx Street, where water from the rainstorm dripped from the splintered wood. The smell of wet concrete and honey stung her nostrils. If I go down there, I might never come out, the terrifying thought occurred to her.

Guards turned a blind eye to this place and according to the town nobles, it didn’t exist. If Ella walked away, Lucinda would be forgotten, a name struck from history. The same could happen to Ella. No one would mention the bard or the harlot.

For a moment, she wavered.

Then she took a step forward to the front door and pushed it open. Fear would never overcome her. Without Lucinda, nothing else mattered. She wouldn’t let her have this fate, even if it meant she would die getting her out.

The building showed no sign of life, except the lack of dust in the area before the entrance. The door to the cellar was clearly visible from where she stood in the doorway. Ella went right instead of left, her ears pricked. It took her several moments to find the mouldy old rug that covered the trapdoor, and by the time she’d pulled the iron ring to open the door with a whine, she was shivering. From cold or from fright, she didn’t know.

Dark stairs, identical to her childhood memory, greeted her. A sickly sweet, smoky aroma churned her stomach. It’s now or never.

Ella exhaled, and white mist blew from her mouth. She descended and closed the trapdoor behind her, her palms sweating as she clutched the pouch of coins at her neck. She felt she was walking into a nightmare.

With no lantern to light it and no daylight leaking from the above floorboards, the corridor at the bottom of the staircase was pitch black. Feeling her way along, Ella followed it, turning the corner to find the narrow gap in the wall. At first, she worried that she wouldn’t be able to fit through, but she edged along between the walls, trying not to breathe or step too loudly; every noise she made echoed. The corridor was dark and reeked of sweat, smoke, and the sickly sweet honey-like scent. Ella clamped her jaws together to stop her teeth from chattering.

Once upon a time, the underbelly of this house may have been a wine cellar or something similar. Now, as the end of the narrow passageway finally greeted Ella, the stone around her was covered in moss, reeking of neglect and damp. She breathed in relief as she reached the wall to the corridor where she knew the guard stood. The reek was starting to take a hold on her senses. Lilac Flame wasn’t addictive by the scent, but Ella covered her mouth with her sleeve, her stomach churning.

Stairs on the right along the corridor greeted her, just as they had in her childhood. The guard wasn’t around, but the lantern burned low on the wall, casting flickering light on the corridor. Ella slipped through the archway on the left, pulling the hat low over her eyes.

With the hundreds of bodies in such a small space, the clammy air of the Rathole felt warmer than the floors above. Soft moans and grunts greeted Ella as she came to several narrow corridors leading off in different directions. This place is a maze, Ella realised. How was she going to find Lucinda?

She crept along the dark corridors, where crude wooden fences and dirty curtains separated each small area. Small, glass lamps on the ground lit the way here and there, but there were no windows; did the girls who were kept here ever see daylight?

Some areas behind curtains had the sickening sounds of grunting and soft wailing coming from behind; others, Ella saw when she peeked inside, had the motionless figures of Night Elf and Forest Elf girls, sleeping beneath blankets or staring off into the distance with the same glazed, half-awake look that Lucinda had had when she’d curled up on the armchair. Pity surged through Ella, along with desperation. Only Elves. Elves everywhere. Was Lucinda really down here, or had Skave made a mistake?

The stench of Lilac Flame was in everything; the walls, the floors, and the curtains, sticking to Ella’s tunic and hair, making her want to gag. It had to be more than just Caskhell selling the stuff; there had to be two hundred girls here at least. Drugged into stupors and used. It’s disgusting. Dragons, how could you let this happen?

As she turned the corner of one of the “rooms” where the curtains were thrown open, Ella’s heart jumped when she saw the pale, thin figure of a redheaded girl, lying on a bundle of blankets with her face turned away. She crouched down beside her and gently titled the girl’s face.

It wasn’t Lucinda.

The Elf girl gave a soft moan, pain in her young face. Her eyes fluttered open; they were the colour of sapphires. The greyish-yellow of a bruise was starting to form on her pale cheek.

“I’ll be good to you,” the Elf whispered, her voice weak and raspy. Ella fought back tears.

“Just hold on a little longer,” Ella whispered.
The girl’s body shuddered in Ella’s arms. “So c-cold,” she inhaled like a wounded animal gasping for breath. “Co…”

The Elf’s body shook and her head went limp. Ella sat paralysed for what felt like an eternity. Hot tears fell, landing on the lifeless girl’s cheek. “May you join beloved Parrax in the night sky,” she eventually uttered. She gently laid the girl’s body back on the dirty sheets and closed her eyes, curtaining the dead sapphires. “I’m sorry.”

Ella’s shoulders shook as she crawled through the curtain and back to the corridor. At least she didn’t die alone, was her only comforting thought as she hugged herself, the girl’s pale face pressing on her memory.

She jumped when someone joined the corridor a little way down. He was a hulking figure, someone Ella may have seen at the Respite, his back to her and fiddling with the string of his trousers. He lumbered towards Ella as she froze on the spot.

In the half-dark, the brute gave a lopsided smile. “Evening,” he tipped his hat, as casually as if he was greeting someone at the market. Ella’s body refused to move as the man passed her without a second glance. It felt like a lifetime before she finally exhaled, all the fear and relief blowing out of her like Yuelif’s warm breeze.

A woman’s hand reached out from the curtain in a clumsy wave. A bronze signet ring adorned her thin finger.

Lucinda!

Making sure the man had gone, Ella raced along the corridor to where the grubby curtain had closed. She crouched down and opened it. Lucinda lay there, her dressed ripped open, a confused frown on her face.

“No,” Lucinda moaned, shaking her head as though drunk. “Someone was just here… choose someone else…”

Ella closed the curtain behind her and sat beside her sister. “Lu, it’s me,” she whispered, cupping Lucinda’s face and pulling her close. “It’s me, it’s Ella. I’m getting you out.”

Lucinda thrashed at first, but Ella held her close, humming Hilltop Sunrise. “…and we sing hello to the welcoming dawn. Ma used to sing it to us, remember?” She stroked Lucinda’s hair. Her sister gave a dry sob.

“Can you stand?”

“It’s too dangerous,” Lucinda groaned as she struggled to stand, her weight sagging against her sister’s. “Guard’s there.”

“Don’t you remember when we were kids and I found that trapdoor, Lu?” Ella whispered. “It’s still there. I don’t think anyone knows about it.”

With her free hand, Ella threw open the makeshift curtain and looked left and right. The customer had gone right, towards where the guard and the entrance lay. That meant that the trapdoor was on the left, back to the narrow passageway.

“Come on, Lu,” Ella urged as her sister slumped against her. They stumbled along the corridor, past a room with frightening grunts and the weak cry of an Elf girl – Ella’s heart bled – and back towards the narrow corridor.

As they were edging through the gap in the wall, a shadow moved on the other side the corridor, an Ella froze, gripping Lucinda’s arm.

Somebody was lumbering towards the stairs, his steps heavy and his arms swinging by his sides. Ella’s heart thumped painfully against her chest as she pressed Lucinda against the wall and into the shadows. She didn’t dare move, yet if he came any closer, he’d surely see them lurking in the corner. The man took a few more steps towards them… and then turned to the staircase, stomping up and throwing open the door with a loud creak.

Ella resisted the urge to breathe a loud sigh of relief, then helped Lucinda through the narrow passageway. It was a squeeze with them both, but they finally reached the cellar under the trapdoor, Lucinda gasping as though she’d run for miles.

“Just a little farther, Lu,” Ella encouraged her as they crept up the stone steps to the trapdoor. As Lucinda sat on the steps, clutching her chest, Ella pushed the trapdoor.

It didn’t move.

Panic surged through her as she gave the trapdoor another shove, to no avail. “It isn’t opening!” she whispered, pushing upwards.

A footstep sounded above them.

Ella froze. If somebody opened the trapdoor and discovered them now, there was nowhere they could hide. Ella braced for the trapdoor to swing open, for the surprised shout, but the footsteps faded away. The only sound Ella could hear was her own frantic heart and Lucinda’s rasping breaths.

When she was sure the person had gone, she pushed the trapdoor again and it opened with a creak. Whoever was there only moments ago must have been standing on it.

Ella felt horribly vulnerable when they were outside and had left the old house behind. She wasn’t sure what the guards would do if they saw them stumbling along the cobbled road. Their shack was too far away from here, and Lucinda looked to be on the verge of collapsing.

“Just a little farther,” she whispered.

Read part 9