Two ward bosses later, things start to go wrong.
As we enter Ertaë’s hall, there is a large boom, which shakes the building, throwing many of the elves to the ground. Bits of the ceiling tumble down, striking the already frightened elves.
“What the hell was that?” Rien asks angrily. I shrug.
“Maybe Mýldir placed a bomb near here.” But it didn’t feel like one of the alchemist’s incendiaries. It felt bigger. Could the humans be firing a catapult into Elftown?
Rien orders one of his enforcers to sweep the area outside and find out what caused the blast. As I watch the elf leave, I notice a ruckus near the door. An elven matron is trying to sneak out and the guards won’t let her. I look at her, curious. Is she just afraid, or does she have a more sinister purpose in trying to leave? When I see her face, I understand. It is the breadseller from the marketplace. She sees that I have seen her and tries to push past the guards. They shove her roughly back.
I walk toward her with measured steps. The breadseller blanches and shrinks away from me, looking desperately around her, as though for help. The guards appear disinterested. She retreats before me, backing up until the heavy basket on her back is resting against the wall. She is breathing heavily. I gesture toward the basket on her back.
“Is your cleaver in there?” I snarl.
She nods mutely.
“Give it to me.”
She stares, hesitating.
“Give it to me!”
She lowers her basket to the floor and rustles around inside, reaching in deeply and pulling out the cleaver from somewhere near the bottom. I hold out my hand. With considerable trepidation, she places the blade in my hand and jumps back. I have to admit I am enjoying her fear. I balance the implement in my hand. It’s reasonably well made, solid and sharp.
“Where did you get this?” I ask.
“I bought it from Bolin the dwarf,” she says. Figures. His ghost is haunting us all today.
“Put out your hand,” I order. The guards are watching curiously now. The breadseller does so, even more hesitatingly than when she handed over the cleaver. Her hand is palm down. She closes her eyes and turns her head to the side, flinching hopelessly. She knows I am going to chop off her finger.
She’s wrong. Oh, I’d like to chop off her finger and shove it down her bitter merciless throat. Looking at her, I can hear the little elf’s screams echo in my head. But tonight, I am not the blade of vengeance. I am the song of hope.
I turn the breadseller’s hand over and lay the handle of the cleaver in her palm. Her eyes flutter open, surprised. I close her fingers around the grip.
“Carry that in your belt tonight,” I tell her. “You might need it. I know you can use it. Try to use it to do good for a change.”
I hurry to rejoin Rien and Enturi. Goddess, am I going to be faced tonight with every horrible thing that happened earlier today? What’s next, Raichon animating the corpse of the elven would-be robber whose windpipe I crushed earlier to serve as my shield-bearer?
When it’s my turn to sing in Ertaë’s hall, I decide to start off a different song this time; one about the elven sense of community. Yeah, I am hoping it will hurt the breadseller to hear it. I am not disappointed. When I scan my eyes over the back of the audience, I can see her tears.
* * *
Lainath’s ward is the last one. As I sing some courage into the last group of elves preparing to be led through the tunnel and across the bridge, I see Rien and Enturi conferring with one of his enforcers. Everyone looks worried. Something bad must have happened. I blot them out of my consciousness. If Rien wanted me to stop singing, he would have said so. Since he hasn’t, I need to help get these elves’ morale up.
The plan here is for Rien, Enturi, and me to leave the hall first, with Lainath, so the elves will be following both their leader and Rien. I will sing as we go. Rien’s last few enforcers will bring up the rear, making sure that any stragglers go in the right direction.
We go out through Lainath’s secret entrance and move in the direction of the olive oil warehouse, walking as quickly as we can without running the risk of outpacing the slower elves following. We get a block before I take a break from singing to quietly ask Enturi what the whispered conversation and accompanying looks of concern were all about.
“There aren’t any fires on this end of town,” he says. “Something happened with Myldir. He didn’t finish lighting his bombs. But it may be fine. As long as the humans don’t show up and we can get these elves all through the tunnel, then it won’t matter. If we leave some of Elftown standing, so be it.”
“Enturi, we need those fires,” I reply. “They are intended to shield us. The humans will come if we don’t light them.”
Enturi shrugs helplessly.
“What can we do about it now?”