“We are the last,” I tell the elven matron and boy. “The warehouse is burning. If there are any more elves back there, they can’t get through.” I look back at the guard tower and the open area between us and safety. “So. We need to get to the tower.”
If I were alone, I might chance a sudden run across the exposed ground. But there is no way the three of us will make it across without inviting a rain of human arrows. I glance to the left. The riverbank is a steep, slippery bank, turning into a rocky cliff under the bridge. That won’t do. Even if we could get into the water and swim upstream to the bridge, there would be no way to get back up to the tower. We have to cross the open area.
“Can you try again?” the breadseller asks the boy. He nods and reaches out a hand to touch each of us.
“Try what?” I ask.
The boy begins to shimmer and then fades into invisibility. I look down to where I can feel his bandaged hand on my wrist. My forearm begins to shimmer and fade under his touch. The boy cries out in pain and he – and my wrist – become solid again.
“I can’t do it,” he whispers, tears streaking down his cheeks. “I’m too scared. And tired. And my hand hurts.”
“You tried,” the breadseller soothes him. “You were very brave. We’ll find another way.” She looks at me expectantly.
“Well, then,” I say. “We need a shield.” The breadseller’s basket is neither large nor sturdy enough to do the trick. I cast about, but there is nothing suitable nearby, not even a derelict skiff. The cottage we are crouching against does have a back door, though, a few feet back. I try the handle.
For a moment, I debate. Should I sneak further back into the village until I find something suitable to pilfer?
I lift my foot and kick the door, hard. There is a faint splintering sound, but the door holds. I kick it again. And again. Each time, the splintering sound increases. The breadseller and the street urchin stare back at me, aghast. I give the door another kick and it flies into the cottage, leaving sharp shards of wood hanging off the rusty hinges and deadbolt. As I step through the doorway, sickle at the ready, I glance around quickly, looking for threats.
There are three human children hiding under a table, backs against the wall, staring at me with fear-widened eyes.
I look around again, more carefully. The cottage is one room, with a ladder leading up to a loft above. The adults are either cowering above in the loft or gone. Gone, I guess, or the children would be up in the loft as well. I turn back to the children.
“It’s ugly. What is it?” asks the youngest.
“Shhhh,” whispers the eldest.
“It’s a goblin!” the middle one announces authoritatively.
“I’m an elf,” I say. Stupid human children.
Learning I am an elf doesn’t bring any relief to the children under the table. They gasp, and the youngest one looks about to cry.
“Go away, monster,” says the middle one.
“You call me a monster?” I ask. “You stinking humans turn us into slaves, keep us a few morsels above starving, and work us until our spirits turn to dust and we die of sheer hopelessness, and I’m the monster?” My voice rises, and the children press back further against the wall, cowering. Great.
“Listen,” I tell them. “I’m not going to hurt you. Elves don’t hurt children. That’s not our way.” Most elves, anyway. Calmorien and the outsider have made me a liar on this point, I think bitterly. “I just need your door. When I leave, you go up and hide up in the loft until daylight comes. Then you can go over to the bridge tower and get your door back. Got it?” They nod. I slip my sickle back into my belt, pick up the door, and carry it outside.
The breadseller’s eyes widen with understanding when she sees the door.
“It’s not great, but it’ll have to do,” I tell her and the elfling. “I will carry it and we will use it as a shield. Stick as close to me as you can. Stay on this side of the door so the human archers can’t shoot you.” I offer my hands, and pull the other two to their feet.
I’m not that confident the door will keep back arrows. But there was nothing else in the cottage to suit; the table was too unwieldy. We have to get to that tower.
I take a deep breath, and lift the door again. “Are you ready?” I whisper to the others. They nod, and huddle next to me in the shadow of the door.
“Now,” I say, and begin walking.