A Bard’s Lament (Part 7)

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Read part 5
Read part 6

Part 7

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.

Read Part 8

Video Games, Music, and Ramen in Tokyo

There’s a ramen restaurant near our house. Because of its location, it’s almost unknown, but it’s really trendy. It’s somewhere between a bar and a restaurant and has a theme that’s sort of a mix between music and surfing.

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This time, the owner got out his old SNES console and asked us if we wanted to have a go. Food and games?? I’d just spent the past nine hours on the PlayStation 4 but nobody needed to know.

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He set it up and we had enormous fun playing Super Mario, Tetris, and Street Fighter 2.

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On top of that, we of course got to eat yummy ramen! I like this place because although there isn’t as much variety as other ramen restaurants, the guy can make killer tonkotsu (pork) ramen.

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We also had some gyoza dumplings and it was yummy. What a nice evening!

If you find yourself in Meguro, definitely give this place a try. It is right next to Kushi-Katsu Tanaka and it’s called Iki. Here’s the location on Google Maps.

日本語日記しようかな

14歳から日本に興味がありました。

少し変な話ですが、2007年おばあちゃんと弟と一緒にフロリダ州のディズニーランドへ行って、いろいろな国のテーマがありました。そして日本のテーマ場所へ行って、とてもかっこいいな場所だと思いました。それから日本に興味がありました!

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日本で働きたいを決まりました。たくさんしらべて、日本語を勉強になりました。大学でも勉強したかったから頑張った。おかあさんはCDとかテキストとかを買ってあげました。それから、18歳の時日本へ遊びに行きました。東京が大好きになった!

留学して、日本にずっと住みたい事を決まりました。長野県にも1年半ぐらいに住んで、特別な人に会ってまた東京に引越ししました。

My city! #tokyo #daikanyama #shibuya #tokyotower #japan

A post shared by Poppy Reid (@poppyinjapan) on

今、東京に住んでいます。日本の男(特別な人)にも婚約中と、とても幸せです!

ありがとうございました。

Spoiler-Free Book Review: “Divergent” by Veronica Roth

Netflix is a goldmine of great movies, as many of us know. I watched a dystopian science-fiction movie called Divergent and within about five minutes, I just knew it was a novel first. The way the world was introduced and the sixteen-year-old character was a dead giveaway. I enjoyed the movie, and immediately ordered the book.

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“One choice can transform you. Beatrice Prior’s society is divided into five factions—Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent).

Beatrice must choose between staying with her Abnegation family and transferring factions. Her choice will shock her community and herself. But the newly christened Tris also has a secret, one she’s determined to keep hidden, because in this world, what makes you different makes you dangerous.”

I jumped right into this compelling YA! We see the story from the eyes of Beatrice – or Tris, as she’s later called – and we see her faults as well as her strengths, which was refreshing. She talks about her faults without needlessly putting herself down. She knows she is brave, but also knows that she is too selfish for her parents’ faction, and is very likable.

I try not to compare movies with their books (The Vampire’s Assistant, a crappy film based on an incredible horror series, was torturous enough), but I much preferred the book to the movie. More of what Tris did and said made sense, as most of the logic happened in her head and was difficult to portray on screen.

The world was original. It was set at some point in the future in a city, presumably in the United States, after a war has torn the world apart. Instead of the overused post-apocalyptic scenario, Beatrice lives in a fairly peaceful city where society has been divided into factions based on personality and tendencies. A society that is threatened to be broken by conspiracy.

There are some clichés in the story – no book is free of them – such as training and falling in love with basically the first guy she meets (although in the writer’s defense, she doesn’t fall for him right away). However, I don’t like to pick at clichés in stories if the story itself is true and the characters are likable, which they were.

In short, I really enjoyed this book! I was entertained from beginning to end and immediately ordered the other two in the trilogy. I will avoid the other movies for now (which I never saw advertised or talked about; are they relatively unknown?) so nothing is spoiled, but I’m very much looking forward to the rest of Tris’s story. I’m awarding this book four stars out of five, but it’s more like 4.5/5.

4stars

Get Divergent on Amazon US
Get Divergent on Amazon UK

A Bard’s Lament (Part 6)

Read part 1
Read part 2
Read part 3
Read part 4
Read part 5

Part 6

The afternoon and evening passed in a haze, and Ella made several mistakes in her songs that night because her fingers shook so much. Not that anyone seemed to notice; the tavern was so packed that the chatter drowned out most of her music anyway.

When Ella hurried home and bolted the door behind her, she jumped when she heard a muffled sniffle. She hurried to light the lantern near the door as a shape in the shadows moved.

“It’s me,” squeaked a voice.

“Lu?” Ella fell beside her sister, who lay crumpled on the floor. Lucinda hugged herself, her ragged dress torn at the shoulders. “What happened?”

Lucinda’s makeup ran down her cheeks, the crimson on her lips smudged.

“He… he said a whore like me didn’t deserve to be paid,” she sniffled. Ella set down the lantern and wrapped her arms around her sister’s shoulders, holding her as she sobbed. Ella didn’t need to ask who had said it.

“Ma never wanted this for us,” Ella whispered, rocking Lucinda back and forth as if she were a child.

Lucinda scoffed, blowing wet air onto Ella’s arm. “Ma was this.”
“Exactly.” Ella pressed her forehead against her sister’s. “Exactly, Lu. Ma was this. She didn’t see any other way after Pa died. It was the only way we could keep this house, remember?”

Lucinda gave a quivering sigh in response.

“I promised myself that no matter what, I’d never be like her. Ever. It’ll be over soon, Lu. I’ve been saving up. You won’t have to do this anymore.”

Lucinda’s eyes filled with fresh tears. “You were always the well-behaved one,” she wailed. She fiddled with the signet ring on her finger. “Sell this,” she suggested, sniffling.

“No way,” Ella scoffed. “It’s Ma’s. We aren’t selling it.”

Lucinda seemed too tired to argue, and brought the ringed finger to her chest, closing her other hand protectively over it. “I miss her.” She gave a long, rattling sigh.

“I miss her too,” Ella felt her own eyes burn as she watched their merged shadow rock back and forth on the floorboards.

Two days later, Lucinda was gone.

Part 7

A Bard’s Lament (Part 5)

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Part 5

Ella headed to the marketplace early the next day. She had considered asking Lucinda to come, but had left her sleeping. It was a rare sight to see her in a simple grey nightgown instead of her usual satin dresses and makeup. She’d almost looked like a child again, and so peaceful that Ella left her to enjoy a few more hours of sleep.

Lucinda seemed to have kept her promise; Ella hadn’t smelled so much as a whiff of Lilac Flame since the night before. Humming a new tune, she pulled on her boots, reminding herself again to mend them as soon as possible, and closed the door behind her.

The early morning was bright and breezy, and Ella felt optimistic, even cheerful as she strolled along the street, past the library and along to the marketplace, feeling oddly light without her lute strapped to her back. A couple of coins jingled in the pouch round her neck and she made a mental note to see if the baker’s stall had any cherry pastries.

The sun winked over the west wall as Ella approached the stalls, some of which were still being set up. As she entered the marketplace, a small dog stood tied to a nail on the stone wall by a rope; it gave a happy yap as she passed. She gave the mongrel an affectionate scratch behind the ears.

In the morning, there were barely any shoppers; sleepy-looking stall owners set up their small areas, laying out handmade jewellery, boxes of fruit and vegetables, and scraps of parchment detailing the baked treats of the day. Something sweet wafted through the air from the bakery several doors down as Ella strolled among the stalls, waving or smiling at merchants she knew, ensuring she had spent enough time innocently browsing until she meandered over to the pottery stall.

Her heart leapt when she caught site of a Night Elf servant, who was dusting handmade pottery before setting them on the makeshift shelf. Her back was facing Ella, though the deep scar which burned into her scalp, cutting an ugly, burnt path through her midnight-blue hair, was clearly visible from behind. Ella glanced back towards the guards patrolling the market entrance, before approaching the Elf from behind and whispering, “Alviér, Kerra.”

The Elf spun round, and a wide grin split across her dark face. The scar that ran from her temple was rough and hairless, leading along her scalp and over her ear. One of her eyes was clouded over, like a miniature crystal ball. Her crooked smile, one dimple creasing in her cheek, made Ella grin back.

“Got your message,” she winked, before saying loudly, “Yes, I think we have some of the milk jugs. Let me check,” and rummaging round in a nearby box.

“Lucinda sent the message along. Did you get it?”

“I did.”

“The bridge is finished? Is it big enough for them to squeeze through?”
Kerra didn’t face Ella, but the bard saw her give a tiny nod.

Footsteps approached, and Kerra straightened back to Ella’s level. A beefy woman with a dirty apron wrapped round her waist appeared from behind the next stall.

“Get a move on with that, will you?” she barked at Kerra. “A customer’s waiting.”

Her voice changed considerably when she addressed Ella. “Good morning! Come to look at my wares, have you?”

Ella grimaced back. The handmade pottery, jugs, and ornaments that adorned the little stall were made by Elf servants, not with the thick, clumsy fingers of the profit-snatching stall owner.

“I’m just looking for a new milk jug,” she said in her politest voice. “Mine broke yesterday.”

“Excellent, excellent.” The stall owner’s smile widened, showing yellowing teeth and too much gum. “Kerra! Did you hear that? She’s looking for a milk jug. Is your brain damaged as well as your eye?”

“Got it, got it,” Kerra’s bright voice overpowered her mistress’s, and she held out a white jug with a simple spout. “Six sagles, please, ma’am.”
“Finally,” the stall owner grumbled, as though there were hundreds of shoppers waiting to be served. “You’re lucky you’re so disfigured, or I’d ask the guards to throw you into the Rathole.” She continued muttering under her breath as she ambled off.

Ella busied herself with collecting coins from her pouch until the stall owner had gone.
“I hate how she talks to you,” Ella murmured, deliberately counting the sagles as slowly as possible into Kerra’s outstretched palm.

“Never mind that,” Kerra’s voice dropped to barely a whisper. “The bridge work is done. You said the trapdoor is on the north side, right?”

“Right,” Ella whispered back as she made a great show of stowing the milk jug into her satchel. Head bent, a curtain of red hair hiding her face, she added, “and the window, too. It’s big enough to fit through, I think. It leads to the edge of the wall.”

When Ella looked up, Kerra’s warm fingers closed around her hand, and her good eye, large and pale silver, met hers. Ella’s heart filled with warmth. Before she could speak, however, a pained howl reached their ears.

Ella looked round. The dog that was tied to the post stood cowering against the wall as three men surrounded it. They were laughing, brandishing swords and waving it at the dog, just out of reach of its jaws. The shortest man, to Ella’s horror, kicked the dog hard; it rolled over once and then jumped to its feet, shifting between low growls and high-pitched yelps of fright.

“What do they think they’re doing?” Ella’s fists balled.

Other merchants and shoppers busied themselves with the stalls, carrying on as if nothing was happening, although a quiet had stolen over them. Nearby, people visibly winced as the dog took another kick to the stomach and gave a weak whine. However, they continued as if the dog and its bullies didn’t exist.

“Kick it again, Caskhell!”

Ella shook with rage. She knew that name. The largest and tallest of the group saw them staring and nudged Caskhell. “Look,” he gloated. “It’s the whore.”

The men left the dog alone to look. Ella stood defiant, feeling a dozen pairs of eyes staring in her direction.

“Not the whore,” Caskhell smirked. His appearance was notably more well-kept than the two men that flanked him; his hair looked neat and shiny, and his deep-red tunic seemed to be made of finer material than the surrounding merchants and bakers. “That’s the whore’s sister. The bard.”

Ella shook with rage at Caskhell’s sneering face. Her hand instinctively brushed the dagger at her hip as she strode towards the men, determined not to show fear.

The shorter man, a stocky miner wearing dirt-stained overalls, aimed another kick at the dog, but it was too quick for him; it tried to bite the offending leg, but gnashed at his rough boot. It backed against the stone wall, its tail between its legs.

“Stop it,” Ella snapped. “Haven’t you got anything better to do than harass dogs?”

Caskhell stepped forward, the dagger at his hip glinting in the morning sun. “Stay out of it, you silly girl,” he smirked. “Before we call the guards. Wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of Sackle, would you?”
Ella ignored him and strode to the mongrel, which shied away from her. She pulled out her dagger.
“What are you doing?” said Caskhell’s angry voice behind her.
“Don’t,” she warned, pointing the knife in his direction.

“How dare you!” Caskhell stepped forward and actually jabbed Ella in the chest with his rather porky finger. “Do you know who I am? My family owns half the blackstone mines around here!”

“Which means you should have better things to do than attacking defenceless animals,” said Ella.

She bent down to the dog and cut through the rope in one smooth motion. The dog sped off, past the remaining stalls and round the corner to the cobbled street.

“You little…” Caskhell’s friends rounded on her, but Ella pointed her dagger at their faces while surrounding merchants and stall owners watched. Caskhell sneered at her, his cold eyes fixed on her blade, which trembled in her hand.
“You’d better be careful, bard,” he hissed. “I’m Lady Gertrudine’s nephew. Wait until I tell Captain Sackle. You’ll pay for this.”

“You’d better watch I don’t tell him that you’ve been selling Lilac Flame to the villagers,” Ella snapped. She thrust the dagger back into its sheath and stormed off, trying to shake off the unsettling feeling that she’d caught a glimpse of triumph in the young noble’s face.

Read Part 6

A Bard’s Lament (Part 4)

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Read part 2
Read part 3

Part 4

If Ella was hoping that Lucinda would open up the next morning about where she’d got the drug, she was left disappointed. Shortly after waking up in a daze, sleep sticking her eyes together, Lucinda clammed up completely, dressing in a frilly red dress and ignoring Ella’s questions.

As she was about to leave, Ella grabbed her arm. “Promise me, Lu,” she urged. “That you won’t take that… stuff again. Haven’t you seen what it does to the vagabonds, to the Elves in…” she dropped her voice, as if Captain Sackle was waiting outside their door, “…to the Elves in the Rathole? It makes you slow, turns you stupid! It makes you forget who you are!”

Lucinda made to leave, but Ella held her. “Promise me!”

“All right!” Lucinda snapped, speaking for the first time that morning. She shook her arm free.

“Who’s Caskhell?”

Lucinda froze, her hand on the doorknob. She didn’t answer.

“He gave you the Lilac Flame, right?”

“Keep your voice down!” Lucinda whipped round, her cheeks burning scarlet even under her makeup. “I already promised I won’t do it again, all right? Just forget about it.” She yanked the door open.

“Where are you going?”

“To see someone about the bridge!” she hissed, slamming the door behind her.

*

That evening, the tavern buzzed with conversation, and although it wasn’t as busy as it had been the previous night, gossip permeated the air as off-duty guards, blackstone miners, bakers, and farmers bid the day goodbye with mead and ale. The rainstorm of the night before had promised bountiful crops, and Ella let the positive vibes power her voice.

“…Merry songs were sang, and the people did cheer,
When the holy tree blossomed for the first time in years.”

The lute notes faded. Several of the closest patrons gave a short applause and Ella gave a graceful smile as her hat jingled with coin.

“You should play at Krem’s mansion,” a drunk farmer suggested as he dumped several tullies into the hat. “You’d make nobels by the hundreds.”

It wasn’t the first time Ella had heard this suggestion and as always, she thanked him before depositing half her earnings into the usual pouch about her neck. Gregor gave a short cough from behind the bar.

The door swung open and an Elf boy, wavering somewhere between adolescence and adulthood, stepped inside the tavern with purpose. A woman followed him, her portly figure adorned with fine silk robes, jewels decorating her silver hair. The tavern didn’t quite fall silent, but farmers and merchants’ conversation died and chairs scraped to make way as the noblewoman followed the male Elf through to a vacant chair by the fire.

Behind the noblewoman was a timid-looking Elf girl wearing a grey dress matted with dirt. As she passed the staring patrons, several of them muttered and chuckled. As the noblewoman sat and snapped her fingers for the Elf servants’ attention, interest in her faded and the regulars went back to their drinks and conversations.

Gregor approached the noblewoman. “Welcome to the Pitman’s Respite. How rare it is to see your radiance grace this lowly tavern, Lady…?”

“Gertrudine,” snapped the noblewoman, as if personally offended the tavern owner didn’t know her by name.

“Lady Gertrudine.” Gregor expertly graced.

“And I came because Knora insisted on it.” The noblewoman gestured to the Elf girl, who perched on the end of a wooden stool, her back to the fire and her head bent. “The Jewel Mansion taverns do get dull after a while. They don’t hold the same… adventure.”

“Quite,” Gregor chuckled. “Do enjoy your time here, Lady Gertrudine. May I offer you a drink?”

“She can do it,” Lady Gertrudine waved Gregor away, who bowed and went back to the bar. The noblewoman snapped her chubby fingers again; the Elf girl jumped to her feet and scurried to the bar.

Ella strummed the beginning of her new song on her lute. She had written it in the early morning as the morning sun’s rays had warmed her face and Lucinda had snoozed beside her. Ella watched as the Elf girl, Knora, shuffled towards the bar and ordered a bottle of black mead.

“Did I ask for black mead?” Lady Gertrudine screeched, while a group of miners at a nearby table chuckled. “Stupid Elf!”

Ella strummed notes louder on her lute while Knora uttered a stuttering apology. Ella began to sing, moving her fingers to strum the complicated notes of her new song.

“Winter turns to spring,
The birds return in their flocks.
Hope is in their wings,
The Dragonstone will bless us all with warmth again.

Winter turns to spring,
From the north, twelve swans fly.
Hope flies in their wings,
Summer comes, along with glorious harvest.

With the warm months,
Come the harvests,
Grow flowers,
Bloom trees.

Twelve swans fly,
From the north and,
From the west,
Six geese.

We’re waiting for winter to end
And bring sun’s warm peace.”

Ella glanced up as the noblewoman’s hands clapped together. Beside her, the Elf servants watched her play. Ella gave a small smile and sang the last few verses again, much to Lady Gertrudine’s apparent delight. Scattered applause greeted the last few notes, and the noblewoman ushered Knora ahead as she waddled over. Ella and the Elf girl’s eyes locked for the briefest of moments before the servant dropped some coins into the upturned hat.

“Thank you, my lady.” Ella beamed at Lady Gertrudine.
“Beautiful!” was the noblewoman’s reply. “Do come and play at the Jewel Mansion sometime, won’t you?”
“I would be honoured.”

When the noblewoman had drunk her fill of whisky and her Elf servants had guided her drunken figure outside the tavern, Gregor approached Ella. “You’d think the old hag could afford more than a handful of tullies,” he commented, peering into the upturned hat. Ella laughed.

“It’s the wealthy who hang onto their riches the tightest,” she whispered back.

*

“What was that I heard earlier?” bellowed a voice. It was gruff and strangled as though the speaker’s throat was full of saliva. A squat, red-faced man approached Ella as she was packing away her lute. “‘Play at the Jewel Mansion sometime,’ was it?”

“Father,” Gregor joined them from behind the bar. “It’s nothing… she didn’t mean…”

“Because you’ve got a long way to go before you can even start thinking about playing anywhere else.” The landlord looked even uglier than usual, his face scrunched as though he had just been forced to swallow a sour lillenfruit. “Unless you want to be homeless, you and you sister will be working here until that house is paid for in full.”

“I know, Mr. Farwing,” said Ella quietly. She pulled her lute case onto her back, her hands brushing the pouch at her neck, which was now tucked safely beneath her tunic.

“You’ve got a long way to go before you pay off your mother’s debt!” he shouted after her and she pushed open the tavern door. “A long way to go!”

Ella gave an annoyed growl as she left the dimming lights of the Pitman’s Respite behind. As if she needed reminding. She inhaled the cold air, the icy wind piercing her nostrils, the image of her landlord’s purple, shouting face floating in her mind’s eye. Sometimes it seemed as though Farwing enjoyed reminding her of her mother’s debt, of the fact that she and Lucinda had no choice but to work in the tavern, and that if she wasn’t able to sing and play the lute, Ella, too, would be selling her body for coin…

A loud clanging noise in the shadows yanked Ella from her thoughts.

“Who’s there?”

There was another ringing sound, like something large and metal was clattering to the ground. Ella’s eyes flicked from along the north wall, which was bathed in moonlight, to the darker shadows the silvery light couldn’t penetrate. She briefly thought of the dagger tucked into her belt, but before she reached for it, someone emerged from the shadows and Ella relaxed.

“Skave, you gave me a scare,” she greeted the silhouette of the skinny man in rags who limped from the shadows. On rare occasions, the vagabond that roamed the town would be able to slip into the tavern and order a small ale, to settle by the fire and hear Ella sing. Those days were rare, though, as people feared Skave, with his wispy white hair and skeletal figure. Only Elves were considered to be below him.

As the clouds parted and Ella saw Skave more clearly, she gasped. “What happened to you?”

His face was battered, an ugly bruise forming near his temple and fresh blood trickling from near his eye. Skave waved a shaking hand. “Jus’ got in the guards’ way,” he mumbled.

“Was it Sackle?” Ella whispered, a surge of anger rippling through her.
“Nah, not him,” Skave’s eyes flickered as she gave another weak wave of his hand.
“You’re a rotten liar.” Ella sighed through clenched teeth. “Wait here.”

“Where you goin’?”

Skave didn’t follow her inside; he had probably seen Mr. Farwing march in only minutes earlier. She avoided the gaze of her landlord, who was grumbling into a pint of ale, and scurried to the kitchens. Skave was shivering when Ella returned, clutching a loaf of bread wrapped in cloth, a small lump of cheese, and a tiny bottle of whiskey. “To keep you warm,” she whispered, pressing the goods into his hands.

“Dragonstone bless you, Ella,” he mumbled. Ella eyed his bruise with disgust. “They shouldn’t be allowed to do that,” she whispered, her teeth clamped together. “Especially Sackle… captain of the guard has better things to do…”

“Now, don’t you be interfering,” Skave warned. “Wouldn’t want you gettin’ into trouble. You’re riskin’ enough as it is.”

“I’m risking nothing at all,” Ella replied, but as she spoke, she brought one gloved finger to her lips. “I’m just a bard, remember?”

Read Part 5

A Bard’s Lament (Part 3)

Read part 1
Read part 2

Part 3

Ella finished her song, bitterness filling her as the old scent of smoke and honey pressed in on her memory. To this day, her stomach recoiled at the scent of honey-glazed pastries.

Locals called it the Rathole, though according to the officials, it simply didn’t exist. The abandoned house, one of many on the deteriorating Laxx Street close to Veilig’s northern wall, might as well be empty for all the notice that guards and nobles took. Ella wasn’t so innocent as her seven-year-old self had been. She knew what happened to the Elven prisoners the soldiers brought back from the wars. All Elves were servants, but not all were lucky enough to work as cooks or cleaners in the nobles’ mansions. Especially not the young ones.

Nobles, miners, guards, bakers, and merchants alike, ranging from those who had barely reached adulthood to middle-aged husbands, thought they were sneaky when they approached the old house to creep through the dining room and down the staircase into the cellar. Guards turned a deaf ear to the cries and moans coming from the house on Laxx Street. Sometimes, the nauseating scent of what Ella had thought as a child was honey and smoke couldn’t even be dampened by the rain on the walk home. It sickened her. Lucinda chose the life of selling her body for coin; prisoners of war did not.

Veilig was Mage territory, far from the borders of the eastern forest where, it was said, dwelled the Elves. Ella had first laid eyes on a real Elf when she was a teenager, on her way to take lute lessons. The slender, pointy-eared creatures had enchanted Ella; they moved with a lithe elegance that humans could not, and seemed to disappear in the shadows when unnoticed, melting into the background and reappearing when summoned by their human masters.

Masters. Ella supressed a scoff. Masters for slaves.

Long after Lucinda had retreated from upstairs, rearranged her dress, and left the tavern with her cloak around her shoulders, Ella finished playing her last song, Harvest Moon. The tinkling notes faded to the resuming buzz of talk as she collected her earnings.

She counted nineteen tullies, six sagles, and a single nobel, the finest coin of silver ore. It was adorned with the eye of Shavon, the Mage Lord, reminding them that he was always watching. Ella deposited half of the coins, including the nobel, into the small sack tied around her neck, tucked it beneath her tunic, and packed up her lute into the case. It was her most prized possession, and she’d had to play for six weeks straight to pay it off.

She dumped the rest of the coins onto the bar and bid the patrons goodnight – most of them were singing, arms wrapped round each other, or snoozing into their drinks – and braved the rain outside, pulling the hat over her fiery hair as she slung the lute case over her shoulder. Above her hung the battered old sign reading The Pitman’s Respite, along with a painted picture of a pickaxe crossed with a mug of ale.

Outside, the pattering rain muffled any sounds coming from the Rathole, and Ella was thankful for it. As she headed home on the lonely street, her boots splashing into puddles, she glanced up at the walls that surrounded Veilig. Even in the rainstorm, the guards wandered the walls, eyes on the lookout for Centaurs or Elf soldiers. As she went, Ella silently counted.

Twelve guards patrolled the north wall. As she neared her and Lucinda’s shack, Ella wandered along the cobbled street, cold water leaking into her boots; she made a mental note to mend them. Guards patrolled the west wall, the rain plinking onto their chainmail armour as their dark figures watched over the moonless night. Ella counted six of them.

I’ll have to remember that.

*

Ella closed the door against the pounding rain and pulled off her cloak. She put down her lute case and eased off her boots, which were soaked through to her stockings. After hanging her sodden cloak, she busied herself with building a fire.

It wasn’t until the flames crackled merrily in the grate that Ella spotted Lucinda, curled up on the armchair in the corner.

“Everything okay, Lu?” Ella asked. Her sister didn’t seem to hear her – she sat with her arms wrapped around her legs, staring off into space with her eyes half-open. Ella crouched in front of her.

“Lu, what…?” Ella froze. Permeating from Lucinda’s dress, so strong that she didn’t know how she hadn’t noticed it as soon as she had walked through the door, was the unmistakable stench that Ella hated more than anything in the world: black smoke mingled with sickly-sweet honey.

Fighting to remain calm, Ella asked in a quiet voice, “where is it?”

Lucinda didn’t answer. She looked to be somewhere close to sleep, though her eyes flickered, her breaths shallow and laboured, as though her lungs were full of cobwebs. She protested weakly as Ella searched her, checking in her pockets until she pulled out the small tin tray that fitted in her palm. Further rummaging revealed two short, burnt-out matches and what looked like several tiny, grey stones.

Ella put it to her face for a closer look, and immediately wished she hadn’t; almost gagging on the sickly, smoky stench, she recoiled.
Lucinda!
Her younger sister groaned, and swiped at Ella’s hand, which was clutching the small tray of Lilac Flame. She scrambled away from her.
“How could you?” Ella’s furious whisper was barely audible over the hammering rain that rapped on the window like hammers. “Who gave this to you?”

Lucinda mumbled something. Ella crouched by the armchair as Lucinda whispered, “Caskhell.”

“Caskhell?” Ella replied, puzzled. “Who’s that?”

But Lucinda couldn’t or wouldn’t answer anymore. She lay slumped in the armchair, eyes glazed. Ella grabbed her by the arm and hauled her to her feet. She could barely carry her sister to bed, she was trembling so much with rage. She carried Lucinda to her mattress and laid her onto it, and then ran downstairs to throw the Lilac Flame into the fire. The fire glowed pink for the briefest of moments as the stones crumbled, and then they were gone.

Fighting back tears, Ella helped Lucinda out of her foul-smelling dress and wrapped her in a thick blanket before flinging herself onto her own bed, glaring at the ceiling. How could Lucinda be so stupid? The Lilac Flame was either for the homeless or for those in the Rathole, and she wasn’t going to let her little sister be either.

She fell into an uneasy sleep, waking every hour and checking that Lucinda was still breathing before closing her eyes again, the sweet smoky smell still assaulting her senses. She was still awake when the rain ceased and the morning sun peeked from the hills.

Read Part 4

5 Reasons Why I Don’t Self-Publish Anymore

Since the invention of the internet, the publishing industry has transformed in the last twenty years. Social media is full of writers tweeting and advertising their books and hundreds of new titles are published every single day.

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It’s free for you to self-publish, unless you count the potential costs of editing, proofreading, and book cover design. These are optional, but it’s generally accepted that investing in these makes the quality of your book better.

Self-Publishing

I self-published my first fantasy novel when I was nineteen after paying some guys from my university to create the cover. I was really proud of it! People who read it gave it great reviews and I was full of happy confidence. I’d been writing since I was ten years old and this, I thought, was the first step to reaching my goal.

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The original cover for Blood of the Fallen. I thought it was awesome at the time…

A new publisher got in touch to tell me that they were interested in re-releasing the book under their name. I was ecstatic! On my 22nd birthday I signed a contract and handed over the rights to Quest Publications.

The Publisher

I’d wanted to be a writer since I was a little kid and I felt like things were finally coming together. I wrote the sequel and they published that, too! I waited for the books to appear all over social media and for the fans to come flowing in.

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My books published by Quest. I thought I’d made it.

It didn’t happen, though. Quest Publications, I later learned, was little more than a couple of guys in their basement who had no idea what they were doing. They didn’t even edit or proofread the books before publishing. I was told to market them myself and collect reviews, and I had to remind them to pay me. After a lot of heartbreak and frustration, I cut ties with them.

I was back to square one, except my reputation had been damaged by Quest.

I didn’t bother re-publishing the novels after that because I found out the first few people hadn’t been completely honest with feedback. I found out my books were not very original, the world was a “stock fantasy world,” and there were parts that didn’t make much sense. People were giving five-star reviews out of pity, kindness, or because they wanted similar return treatment.

To say I was “crestfallen” would be an understatement. I completely lost my confidence. Here are some reasons why I don’t self-publish anymore.

1. It’s Expensive

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Yes, self-publishing is (technically) free. Amazon and Kindle Direct Publishing doesn’t charge you for clicking the “publish” button. However, once you’ve paid for editing, proofreading, and a nice book cover, it sets you back at least a few hundred dollars – more so if the book is long.

Unless you’re already famous or extremely market-savvy (which I’m not), you’re never going to make that all back in sales. If you take your project seriously by paying for all the needed services, you’re likely going to lose money. I just can’t afford to do that.

2. You Market More Than You Write

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When you’re self-published, publishing the book is just the beginning. You have to have a big social media presence such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and maybe YouTube, too. You have to schedule tweets. Make videos if you can. Have an amazing blog. Expand expand expand.

I enjoy using Twitter, but I don’t enjoy posting about my own books all the time. I know people whose entire online presence revolves around books they have written and published themselves. Hate me for saying this if you like, but it comes across as narcissistic. Trying too hard.

I like tweeting funny memes and witty one-liners. It’s tiring having to market myself and it’s a lot of hard work for very little reward.

3. The Self-Published Community is a Mess

No, this does not apply to all self-published writers. I have a few friends who self-publish who are really cool. However, indie writers in general are annoying and really up themselves.

I talked about this a bit in my article How Toxic “Book Review Groups” Can Destroy Your Writing Career. Self-published authors flock together to swap Amazon reviews, which to them is even more important than sales. People are dishonest with each other on feedback (“yes, your book is wonderful! I’ve left a review. Have you read mine yet?”), snobby, and often react in an angry way if disagreed with. It’s a community I want no part of.

4. People Agonise Over Reviews, Not Sales

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I’m pretty sure this is a myth, but there’s a sort of belief among indie authors that having lots of positive Amazon reviews makes your book more visible. People will give away free books in exchange for a promise that the reader will write a review, and the aforementioned review groups or the arguably worse review swaps take priority over developing your craft or working on your next book.

I admit that I was swept up in that, as well. But what’s the point in working so hard and spending a lot on releasing your book when you’re just going to give it away for free anyway? The whole system is a mess and just got annoying.

People who have disagreed with me, even with things unrelated to writing, have hunted my books around on Goodreads and Amazon and left (obviously fake) one-star reviews. This kind of behaviour can be really upsetting and isn’t fair at all. Personally, I think there’s a good case for getting rid of Amazon’s reviewing system altogether.

5. Books Can Be Low-Quality

Who doesn’t want to save money? All too often, writers don’t want to or can’t afford help with their book development or design and end up with awful covers, bad grammar, and plenty of typos. I’m sure my first books were the same! The worst part is that if you’re a writer yourself, you can’t possibly tell them. The general responses you get are “I’d like to see YOU do better!”

Even if you do hire an editor, it is generally another struggling indie writer who is just trying to make extra money, and they therefore can’t offer much in the way of valuable, professional editing.

I’ve read some great indie books, but they’re honestly very rare. I can take a book that has been published by HarperCollins or Penguin Books much more seriously.

I’ve published a few stories on my blog because:

  • They can be edited. If I spot a typo, it can be quickly rectified.
  • They’re free to read.
  • It’s not possible to write Amazon/Goodreads reviews for them.
  • I can get more honest feedback. My blog is visible to all, and people might feel better about pointing out errors if it’s not a “real book.”

Self-publishing is something people will continue to do. After all, some self-published titles have found enormous success. However, I don’t personally want anything to do with it anymore.

I’ll probably continue to publish short stories on this blog and maybe look for an agent once my latest novel is done. Who knows what will happen? For now, I’m leaving my short story, The Queen’s Alchemist, on Amazon, but avoiding self-publishing in the future.

*All images are copyright-free unless otherwise stated

A Bard’s Lament (Part 2)

Read part 1

Part 2

“‘Evenin’, miss.”

The beast-like figure of a local blackstone miner with more muscle than brains hovered over Ella, blocking the light of the lantern and casting a shadow over her and her lute. He breathed in ragged breaths, like there were cobwebs in his lungs.

“How many… more songs? You coming to… spend the night… again?” he asked; every few words, he stopped to breathe. Ella didn’t answer, but busied herself counting coins. The shadow wavered.

“Hey, you listening?”

Gregor made a movement from behind the bar, but a second shadow fell over Ella, forcing her to look up.

“Were you looking for me?”

A woman almost identical to Ella sidled up to them. The woman’s slender finger was on the giant’s chest, on which a bronze signet ring glittered in the lantern light. The beast frowned for a moment, and stared dumbly between the bard and the newcomer.

“Sisters,” the standing girl explained. “I’m Lucinda, remember? Don’t worry; we’re almost the same. Just remember, I’m ten months younger.”
She giggled. Ella said nothing, but started fiddling with her lute to avoid looking at the pair.

His face lighting up in eventual realisation, the blackstone miner turned his back to Ella and slid his hands around Lucinda’s waist. “You coming upstairs?”

Ella’s fingers tightened on her instrument.

“Sure,” Lucinda purred. “I normally charge three nobels for the whole evening, but you get me for two nobels and a sagle since you’re so cute.” She gently touched the brute’s nose, an expert smile dancing on her crimson lips. She glanced at her older sister. “The Dragons may have blessed Ella with the voice of a nightingale but they blessed me with these.” She gave another shrill giggle and even dared to briefly grasp her own breasts as she leaned against the miner, who gave a knowing grin.

“Selling her body to patrons,” someone grumbled. “Like some common harlot.”

“I didn’t hear you complain when you stayed here last week,” Lucinda retorted, her voice like silk. Ella looked in alarm at Sackle, but he was giving an appreciative chuckle as the guard beside him blushed. “Asked me to keep your bed warm while your wife was away, didn’t you?”

“Lucinda,” Ella muttered in warning.

An off-duty guard at another table gave a shrill giggle. When Lucinda gave him a knowing wink, he jumped and slopped mead down his front.

“Anything is better than working in the Rathole,” Ella heard Lucinda mutter as she bounced after the miner. Ella watched them go, then busied herself with counting her earnings.

“Ella, was it?” an older woman called from near the bar. “Do you take requests? Could you play Hope’s Horizon?”

“Of course,” Ella replied with a smile. “That one’s my favourite, too.”

*

Ella strummed her lute, allowing the sound of notes to drown out the guttural moans from upstairs and take her to happier times, many years ago, when she and Lucinda were children. Memories flashed in her mind as she played, of making daisy chains, trading handmade dolls for hot pastries, and sneaking to the servants’ quarters to catch a glimpse of an Elf.

The bard sang the requested melody as her memories took her back to the day when they had first stumbled upon the Rathole.

“Lu!” the seven-year-old Ella called, mud caking her boots as she stood to face the abandoned house on Laxx Street. Fear pulsed through her young mind as she saw no sign of her sister anywhere. Was she hiding? “Lu, come out! If you don’t, I’m telling Ma!”

Silence. The old house frightened Ella; it reminded her of scary stories their mother always threatened them with when they misbehaved. Most of the children at the marketplace whispered that the abandoned building was haunted. It stood, black against the afternoon sky, and seemed to tower upwards forever.

“Lu, I want to go.” Her voice came out in barely a squeak.

The door of the house was ajar, as if someone had just come out… or gone in. Ella approached it. Had Lucinda wriggled inside in some game of hide and seek?

Ella left the bright sunlight of the outside world and stepped into the old house. Broken wood and enormous cobwebs adorned the walls darkened by grime. She swallowed. What would Alice and Sammy, the marketplace children, say if they knew she’d come in here alone?

A sudden, odd creak made Ella jump, and she ran across the first floor, her boots stomping on the wood. Each room was empty, stretching; there was nowhere for Lucinda to hide. Ella skidded to a halt, and jumped as she caught the sound of a high, girlish moan. Was Lucinda hiding beneath the floorboards?

Trembling, she reached the top of a staircase, where steep stairs led down to a red door. Ella shook her head in defiance. She won’t be down there, she consoled herself. Too scary.

Ella ran across the deserted house again, the thumping of her footsteps sounding, to her child’s mind, like a hundred galloping horses. She turned a corner and passed a shattered window. There, though caked with dust, was where a rug lying in the corner caught her eye. It may have been pretty, long ago, with a striped pattern of yellows and blues. Now, however, mould and neglect had stolen its beauty.

There was a lump under the rug. Was Lucinda hiding from her? Ella, fury sweeping through her, marched towards the filthy material, ready to berate her younger sister for hiding.

She pulled up the rug and threw it aside. It wasn’t Lucinda hiding underneath, however, but the large ring of what looked like a large, dusty trapdoor. Ella blinked in surprise.

“Lu, are you hiding?”

Something told her that Lucinda hadn’t hidden under the trapdoor by herself, but another feeling was taking hold of Ella: curiosity. They didn’t have a cellar in their shack, and despite her fears, Ella felt rising excitement. What would the marketplace kids say?

Ella’s small hands grasped at the iron ring and she struggled to pull open the trapdoor. With one final pull, it opened with a haunting creak. She wanted to shout, but when she said “Lucinda,” it came out in barely a whisper. A strange smell wafted up from the darkness, like an unpleasant mix of honey and smoke.

Was that another cry? Had Lucinda gotten lost or hurt herself? Ella’s imagination went wild, imagining her sister wandering clumsily beneath the old building, maybe hurt and unable to get out. Though doubt pressed on Ella’s thoughts; Lucinda was scared of the dark. What if she was lost?

“I’m coming down, Lu,” Ella called.

Her small boot touched the first stone step leading down into the darkness. Something echoed below, like falling pebbles. Ella’s small heart fluttered, but she refused to be scared. If Lucinda was down there, it was up to her to fetch her out.

Ignoring her fears, Ella descended the stairs. She counted thirteen of them. With each step, the dull smell of smoke and sickly sweet honey got stronger, making her eyes water. When Ella finally reached the cold floor at the bottom of the stairs, the dim light from the trapdoor showed that a path ahead led to a stone corridor.

“Lu!” she yelled, the echoes of her own shouts bouncing off the stone walls and sending chills down her spine.

The cellar, long and narrow, was black, cold stone walls pressing in from the sides. It was too dark to see the ceiling. Ella shivered, inhaling the smell of honey and smoke mixed with damp, silently wondering whether Lucinda was waiting to jump out at her.

She ventured along the passageway, her breathing growing quicker and shallower. “Lucinda?” she called again, then immediately regretted it; her whisper echoed back like the breaths of ten ghosts. She hurried along to the other side – if she could confirm that this strange corridor was indeed empty, then she could return to the sunshine above…

The passageway curved to the left and Ella almost ran into the wall that greeted her. The walls narrowed, whether naturally or not, it was difficult to tell, so much so that it looked as though only one person would be able to squeeze through at a time.

Curiosity led Ella onward; she knew that Lucinda wasn’t down here in this darkness, but her inquisitive mind spurred her to edge between the stone. Why was it the children never played here? Ella’s dress rustled against the compressing walls. She felt braver with each step. What would Alice and Sammy think when she told them that she explored the house’s cellar alone? Her little steps turning to strides, Ella turned another corner and squeezed through the narrow gap.

A hanging lantern greeted her, and the passageway opened to a much wider corridor; along the passageway, stairs curved upwards on the right. Excitement and fear flooded through Ella. A lantern could only mean one thing: there were other people here. The warm glow illuminated deep boot prints in the earth, as though a thousand men had marched through over years. Ella gently stepped onto one of the footprints. It was big enough to be her father’s.

“What are you doing down here?”

Ella jumped as though she’d been struck by Yuelif’s lightning. The hulking figure of a guard appeared, his muscular arms folded and thick brows raised in surprise. Ella stumbled, the backs of her ankles painfully hitting the stone wall. He towered above her small frame, blocking the lantern light.

“I’m looking for my sister,” she squeaked.
“You’re way too young to be here,” the guard grunted. “How did you get down here?”

Fear overcame Ella as she stumbled past the guard and fled up the stairs, almost tripping on her skirt. “Come back when you’re a few years older!” the guard chuckled after her as she reached the top and slammed into the door. She pushed it open and inhaled; she was inside the old dining room.

When Ella slammed the heavy door shut and turned to go, she screamed at the redheaded figure that stood behind her.

“Ella, it’s me!” said Lucinda as Ella crumpled to the floor, sobbing. “What’s the matter? Did you hurt yourself?”

“Let’s go home,” Ella sobbed.

Read part 3