It wasn’t unusual for Ella to wake up in their room with Lucinda’s small straw mattress vacant, a sad and lonely sight that always conjured up dark images of her sister pinned beneath some hulking miner.
Ella washed and packed up her lute, and fifteen minutes later she was humming her favourite song, Hilltop Sunrise, as she strolled along the street. Their mother had often sung them to sleep with the melody when they were small, and it always made her feel calm.
“…The stars fade away,
A new day is born,
And we sing hello
To the welcoming dawn.”
Despite the peace that the song washed over her, Ella couldn’t help brooding at the only thing, besides the house, that they had inherited from their mother: thousands of nobels of debt. It trickled away year by year as Mr. Farwing smugly took half of their earnings every night – the earnings that Gregor let him set his greedy little eyes on, anyway. Ella absent-mindedly nudged the pouch of coins around her neck again.
Unlike the past few mornings, which had dawned bright and clear, grey clouds hung in the sky and the taste of rain was in the air. Ella wanted to visit the marketplace again, but was put off by the possibility of seeing Caskhell and his cronies again, or Captain Sackle. Her threat had been empty when she’d said that she would go to the captain of the guard about Caskhell selling Lilac Flame. It was likely that Sackle already knew about the drug and worse, let it happen. The guards were so deep in the nobles’ pockets that Ella never went to them for even the smallest problem. To approach Sackle about Caskhell’s drug selling would earn her several weeks in the Jewel Mansion dungeons, maybe worse.
As though trying to confirm her fears, Ella spotted the hilly pathway that stretched towards the cemetery. Beside it were the gallows, constructed from wood and blackstone. Ella supressed a shudder when she remembered the news that a vagabond, whom Sackle had caught stealing a loaf of bread, had been hung there the previous year.
Didn’t Caskhell, whose parents apparently owned most of the blackstone mines and probably dwelled in or near the Jewel Mansion, have anything better to do than harass stray dogs? Probably not, Ella reasoned, kicking a few pebbles as she went. He’s probably bored out of his mind since he doesn’t have to work all day to scrape a living.
A short walk to and from the library brought miserable, drizzling rain by mid-morning, so Ella passed the day writing songs at home, the weather putting her off going anywhere public. The house felt lonely and by the late afternoon, even the lute’s tinkling notes weren’t enough company. Without writing down her new song, Ella headed to the Dragonstone to pray.
The Dragonstone was a grand statue in front of the cathedral that separated the nobles’ mansions with the modest shacks of the other townspeople. Four stone Dragons encircled a tall, slim mountain, enormous stone wings unfurled to the sky. The Dragonstone was said to guard the villages from trespassers and disease, and was a way to connect with Yuelif, Lifa, Kelten, and Parrax, the four Dragon Gods.
Ella touched the bottom of the Dragonstone, whispering a prayer for her sister. “Please let Lucinda be all right,” she said, letting the warmth from the Dragons wash over her. A breeze blew from the north; Yuelif, the northern Dragon, was offering his protection. Feeling better, Ella bowed to the Dragonstone and headed to the Pitman’s Respite.
“Have you seen Lucinda?” Ella asked Gregor as she sat at the bar, breaking a chunk of bread to dip into her stew. The tavern was still quiet; she wouldn’t have to unpack her lute for a while, yet.
“Not since the day before yesterday,” Gregor’s large palms lay flat on the bar, his neck craned as he stared at the door. “Couple of people been asking after her, but…”
“I see,” Ella’s heart sank. The stew sitting in front of her suddenly didn’t look so appetising.
“She’ll be all right,” Gregor’s large hand moved across the bar to settle on hers. It was warm against Ella’s cold fingers. “You might get home tonight and she’ll be there, already asleep.”
Ella doubted it. Today was the day off for most merchants and miners, and so the Pitman’s Respite would be busier than usual come sundown.
As the evening wore on with still no sign of Lucinda, Ella saw from the corner of her eye that some of the men were hopefully looking round for her sister. Many of the men were married; Ella knew their wives.
That’s all Lucinda is known for.
It sickened her.
Coins dropped with dull jingles into Ella’s upturned hat as she finished her seventh song of the night. Over a week had now passed with still no sign of Lucinda, and Ella’s anxiety was turning to panic. This was the longest she had ever gone without seeing her sister, and she felt oddly detached, as if a part of her was missing. Ella’s voice shook as she sang her last song, but by then the patrons were so merry that no one noticed the tremble in her soprano.
After counting three nobels, fourteen sagles, and nine tullies – one of her best nights yet – Ella quickly packed up her lute. She handed over half of her earnings over to Gregor as usual, who grimaced at her with a look of pity.
“Here.” He slid over one of the nobels. “He doesn’t have to know.”
Ella put her hand over the coin, her palm covering the ever-watching eye of Mage Shavon. She glanced over at the nearest table, where some off-duty guards – thankfully, not including Sackle – were having a loud, drunken conversation about blackstone exports. A table of farmers – Ella could tell by their sunburnt faces, several shades darker than the guardsmen – were singing together, slurring most of the words.
Ella snatched up the nobel and tucked it into her pouch. “Thank you,” she whispered.
A cold wind was blowing when Ella left the Pitman’s Respite. Pattering rain fell onto the stone cobbled streets, and a shiver ran through her as she headed along the street. Something told her Lucinda wasn’t home, however desperately Ella clung to the hope. As she passed the dark houses, where curtains were closed against the pouring rain, Ella caught a familiar scent. Her stomach lurched. Honey and smoke permeated the damp air. Her eyes wandered to the abandoned building, and dread crawled in her stomach.
Was Lucinda in there? Ella had angered Caskhell, after all… had he ordered for the guards to take her down, out of revenge or spite?
There was only one man who would know for sure.
Ella’s boots splashed into puddles, her lute case banging painfully against her back as she darted along the streets, searching in the dark corners until she found a small makeshift shelter. She approached it, wondering how Skave could hope to sleep when the rain plonked so heavily on the metal sheet that covered it.
“Skave?” she called.
“Who’s there?” There was a flash of steel.
“Easy! It’s me!” Ella darted back as Skave crouched, his skinny arm wielding a knife, slashing the air.
“Kelten’s scaly tail!” Skave swore. “Don’t sneak up on me like that.”
“I’m sorry,” Ella eyed the vagabond until he’d tucked the dagger away. “Skave, I need your help. Have you seen Lucinda?”
Skave’s eyes, looking too large, stared sadly up at Ella for a moment before he turned and busied himself with his dirty bedroll. “I don’t know nothin’,” he muttered.
“Skave?” Ella slowly crouched until she was level with his crouching figure. The rain pounded into her back and her lute case, making her shiver. “Please. You’ve seen her? Where is she?”
“I said I don’t know nothin’!”
Frustration crept up inside Ella. She glared at the vagabond in the darkness. “Fine,” she pulled at the pouch around her neck and pulled out a nobel coin. “Now do you know where she is?”
She held it out, the side with Mage Shavon’s eye facing down, away from his eye’s sight. Skave hungrily eyed the coin. He reached out with bony fingers and snatched it out of her hand. “They took her.” His voice was raspy, barely audible over the rain.
“Who took her?” Frustration turned to panic. “Took her where?”
Skave rocked back and forth, holding the nobel coin to his chest.
“Skave, where is she?”
“The Rathole.” His arms shook as he hugged his skeletal legs. “I told you nothin’ though, all right? Nothin’!” he called as Ella got to her feet.
“Right, nothing,” she muttered. She got to her feet, the rain suddenly feeling ten times colder.