A Bard’s Lament (Part 3)

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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

A Bard’s Lament (Part 2)

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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.

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Struggle (Free Flash Fiction Story)

Struggle (1)

If you’ve ever seen your own mother cry, you’ll know how awful it feels. Especially when you’re the one who is causing her pain. She wept into her palms, great, racking sobs, refusing to look at me. A shadow had fallen across my father’s face and my stomach tightened at the thought of seeing him cry, too. Of seeing my broad-shouldered hero dissolve into tears just like his wife.

He didn’t cry, but wrapped an arm around my mother’s shaking shoulders.

Then we were moving house again, just like that, to a new city and a new life, leaving my betrayal trailing behind us as though by moving across the country the problem would go away. It hurt me that they thought it was a problem, something to hide.

After unpacking my stuff, I walked past our new bathroom. My dad was standing there, shirtless, the tiniest beer belly resting on his belt. He was shaving. He turned to glance at me, one eye spotting me hovering in the doorway, his razor on his chin and frozen on the spot. I gave him a half-smile, shoving my hands in my hoodie pocket.

He hadn’t said much during the drive to our new home. Mum had ranted and raved, screaming about the betrayal of her only child. How she’d kick me out of their home if I were old enough. Dad had stared straight ahead at the road, his grip tight on the steering wheel, his eyes narrowed.

His eyes weren’t narrowed now. He held up his other hand. A second razor.

I shuffled towards him and took it. “Give it a try,” he said.

I squeezed next to him at the sink and looked at our reflections. The shaving foam was stark white against his dark skin. I stood behind him, pale in comparison, taking after Mum’s side of the family with an ivory shade.

“Water.”

I rubbed warm water over my face. “Shaving foam,” Dad reminded me.

I squeezed the thick, creamy stuff onto my hands and piled it onto my cheeks and chin. It looked messy, like a screwed up Santa Claus beard. I gave a shy grin and the foam wobbled, stuck to my skin.

I brought the razor to my cheek and brushed it against my jawline. The blade ran along my smooth skin, collecting the foam as it went. Dad carried on shaving his own stubble, before shaking the creamy bristles into the sink. I copied him, watching as the globs of white slid down the porcelain.

We were shaving together for the first time.

My new school was just like the others before it; it was bland, boring, with students squinting at me, the new kid. I caught one girl looking at me from the corner, her hair the colour of sunset, her sweet smile catching my eye. Everything else behind her seemed to melt into grey. I almost smiled back.

The teacher paused at my name. “Ashleigh Cunningham,”

“Present,” I replied, my voice sounding even higher as my nerves swarmed inside my stomach like bees. “Just- Just ‘Ash’ is fine.”

The girl jumped, and her eyes widened in sudden understanding. She looked around, flustered. Anywhere but me.

“Certainly.”

I returned home to find my mother weeping again. She was clutching a lilac dress, something I’d only worn once to appease her, her tears dampening the nauseating white lace as my dad sat stony-faced beside her.

“Are you telling me,” Mum gasped between sobs, “that I’m supposed to accept the fact that my daughter is dead?”

“Not dead,” Dad caressed her pale arm. “Free.”

He smiled up at me as I came in, slumping my school bag on the floor. Mum looked up at me with tear-filled eyes, the sky-coloured pools I loved so much.

I thought she would scream again, or throw the dress at me, or tell me to get out. She got to her feet, sniffling, wiping away one last falling tear. “Ash,” she whispered, and her skinny arms embraced me.

“I love you, Mum.” My heart warmed at her hug, her acceptance.

“I love you too, son,” she whispered back.

A Bard’s Lament (Part 1)

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Part I

The resounding twang of the lute seemed to breathe life into the tavern. Upon the fluttering sounds of lute strings, nearby conversation quietened, like a dimming candle, as it always did when Ella played.

She plucked another two strings, anxiety building as her eyes flicked between the door, which was partly obscured by a swaying patron, and the barkeep, Gregor, who stood behind the bar. The bottles of local ales and exotic concoctions behind him reflected the lantern light. He caught Ella’s gaze as he cleaned a mug with a rag that had seen better days. His fixed stare was full of just one simple word: careful.

She watched as Gregor’s gaze moved to the table beside Ella; there sat Captain Sackle, an intimidating figure even without the usual glinting chainmail armour, sitting with two other off-duty guardsmen. He chuckled into his mug of ale at some unknown joke.

She’s late.

Ella plucked another string, prolonging the sonnet’s introduction for as long as she dared.

“You going to take up space all night or are you going to play?” asked Captain Sackle, throwing her a look of disdain. He drained his mug, crimson liquid spilling onto his greying beard. He didn’t wait for an answer, but resumed his conversation. Nervousness bit at Ella’s insides as bile that burned the back of her throat.

Where is she?

The stone felt cold beneath Ella’s thighs where she perched in her usual spot, inhaling the smell of ale and firewood. She swallowed, moistening her throat as she tried to steady her trembling hands. Then the tavern door opened with a scrape. Her heart leapt.

The cloaked figure sauntered between the patrons before she plopped her thin elbows onto the bar and ordered a lillenfruit ale. Relief flooded through Ella, and she smiled as she tucked some of her red hair behind her ear.

When she played the first few notes the gathering noise, which had resumed when Ella had stopped picking the lute strings, died down once more, save the odd cough or scrape of mug on wood.

The lute strings told a story of great history, fallen gods, and an empire descending into darkness. Ella’s voice seemed to melt away the gloom of the small pub, brightening the cobwebbed corners, filling the hearts of the patrons with faith and hope. The hooded figure at the bar gently tapped her slim, dark fingers on the wood, nodding to the tune. She hadn’t removed her hood, and the fabric rippled as her small chin bobbed, a single strand of midnight-blue hair visible from beneath the fabric.

“Through our fractured faith,
Evil and darkness reigned
Then, to save us,
The Dragons came.

Yuelif of the northern lands,
Lifa guards the southern sands
Eastern Dragon, Kelten, reigns
Brave Parrax of the western straits.

Bravely, the Dragons fought
The wicked Darkma plague
But evil did endure;
Parrax fell to their dark blades.

The Dragons paid the price
When we forgot who we are,
Parrax’s soul ascended,
Now she watches from afar.

We must regain our faith
Pray to the Dragonstone
And remember the four Dragons
Without them, we are alone

Now the Mages guide us
Strong, our faith will burn,
Waiting for the day
The Dragon Gods return.”

As Ella strung the final few notes, the buzz of conversation resumed as a few nearby regulars clapped. A few of them rose to deposit coins into her upturned hat, where they landed with a jingle. When the small crowd dispersed, the bard glanced back over at the bar, but the hooded girl was gone.

Read Part 2

The Queen’s Alchemist Part 1: The Unwilling

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Part 1: The Unwilling

Theo didn’t know what to do, so he ran.

His gasping sobs were lost under the thundering rumble of the earth, the icy wind’s howls above and the shrieks of dying soldiers echoing through the ravine. Rocks tumbled from the mountainside like leaves in autumn, crashing into campsites. Theo’s freezing feet were blistered in his too-tight boots. The terrible, pained gurgles of the wounded left to be trampled haunted his thoughts as he ran.

The battle was over. The Giants had won.

One of the foul creatures lumbered up to him, covering the half-mile between it and Theo in just a few short seconds. The Giant’s silhouette shrouded Theo in darkness, grey against the shimmering, red-stained snow. A small head was between hunched, hairy shoulders, like a shivering vagabond, and long arms outstretched. Theo screamed, jumped blindly, and narrowly dodged a hairy hand.

The monster roared. Arrows shot past Theo, and he gazed up in disbelief. Someone was here to save him!

He staggered to his feet as his saviour, a knight clad in Atharron’s colours of grey and white, wielded a bow on a bay stallion. Theo didn’t look back; to do so would mean certain death. He sprinted towards the sanctuary of the south camp. Tears frozen on his cheeks, icy breath caught in his chest, Theo knew the thundering rumbles and sounds of crunching bones would haunt him for the rest of his days.

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