“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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
“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.
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.
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,
Twelve swans fly,
From the north and,
From the west,
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.