Etana the Coward: Part Three
Etana awoke as darkness began to fall, curled at the foot of Brogan’s bed. She breathed in his gentle woody scent, feeling almost content. It didn’t take long for impatience to set in, though; she only had a week to harvest information. Her heart fluttered inside its cage, but she tried to ignore it. She couldn’t wimp out of this; she had to save Brogan.
She took the cloak and staff from the trunk in her room and hurried downstairs, into the windowless room. She kicked the Sleep Ray across the floor when she came to it and swept away the books from the lowest shelf. She’d seen Brogan disappear through this trapped door so many times. It always looked so easy.
She pushed the door open and manoeuvred backward into the space beyond, her staff clunking against the hard stone wall. She hadn’t been expecting the deep step just within the door but managed it with as much grace as she could muster, landing neatly. The door shut easily but the darkness that enclosed her was thick and heavy, making her eyes ache. She dropped to all fours. To start with, the passage was tight, but it gradually became wider and wider until, eventually, her staff stopped clunking against the stone. After a while the darkness eased a little, and Etana was surprised to discover a couple of lanterns still burning. They cast light on the uneven rock walls and floor, and on a slim crack in the stone ground. As she neared it Etana’s knees found rope that, when she was close enough to curl her paws around the hole in the floor, turned out to be a ladder.
Unthinkingly she grasped the rope and swung herself through the hole, finding the first ladder rung swiftly and with unusual ease.
She wasn’t entirely sure how she reached the bottom of the rope ladder, staff still grasped tightly in her paw – but when her feet touched the ground her legs jarred with shock and she allowed herself to collapse against the rough stone wall. She pushed herself back to her feet fiercely; this was no time for second thoughts.
Keeping one paw on the wall she walked haltingly around the chamber. After only a few moments of walking she spotted what she’d been hoping for: a chink of light. Softly she fell back to her paws and knees. There was another slim gap in the stone, this one at the base of the wall. Etana’s throat tightened. She had to keep going. There was no room for Etana the Coward now. She slid her staff through first, then she edged forward and squeezed through the gap herself. There was something strange beneath her paws – something flexible yet somehow sharp. She grabbed her staff and struggled to her feet, blinded by the moon: she’d never known it could shine so brightly.
Now where? She gazed at the trees for a moment, hypnotized by their moonlit glamour. One thing was certain; standing around staring at the forest was going to get her nowhere at all. She pushed onward, but everything was strange. She’d lived her whole life in the shelter and protection of Thornstone, where everything was made of rock. Out here things were different; strange textures and colours surrounded her, and alien sounds whispered in her ears – but the beauty wasn’t lost. Beautiful pink flowers shaped like stars hung from thick trees, twisted vines with heart-shaped leaves, tall silvery grasses and plump fruit in a variety of shapes, sizes and colours surrounded Etana. She tried to pay attention to the task at hand; she had to find the river and follow it to the Rebels.
She walked on. The ground beneath her seemed to be becoming softer and softer, and the strange whispering seemed to be growing to a hiss. Hope clenched around her heart. Slowly, dreading her hopes were about to be shattered, Etana turned. Water! Glossy silver water, running in a wobbly sort of line. She plodded onward, cheered slightly by her success.
The journey was longer than Etana had anticipated, and her stiff legs became quickly reluctant once more. But she had to keep going. The image of Brogan, alone in the dungeons, gave Etana power and precision she didn’t know she had. It seemed illogical; surely her fear and anxiety should be making her more clumsy and muddled?
After a while the river divided itself into two; one continued its wobbly path and the other cut a new line into the trees. Which river should she follow? She stepped into the silver river and splashed a handful on her face, hoping to revive her breathless motivation.
An arrow thudded into the soft ground behind her. She whirled, not expecting the water to put up such a fight, and became unbalanced. She toppled sideways into the water, the staff escaping her grasp as water rushed to seize her. She fought back to her knees, scrabbling in the water for her staff, shuddering with cold and terror. Water and damp fur blinded her.
“What’s your business in these woods?” a voice murmured, a paw closing around Etana’s and dragging the reluctant Gnorbu to the shore.
“I-I’ve come to see the Rebels.” Etana’s voice shook. She kicked herself. She’d been doing so well, and here she was becoming Etana the Coward again.
“What makes you think they’ll want to see you?”
Etana sniffed and wiped water from her eyes with an equally wet paw. What should she do now? Then it hit her. Brogan had told her she’d know when she reached the right place. The arrow was a warning – she was near the camp. Her new companion was a Rebel. She forced herself not to smile in relief, and kept a distressed tone in her voice as she said, “My friend – my brother, Brogan – has been taken by the Guard. He told me to come here. He said the Rebels would keep me safe.”
“Etana?” The paw tightened around her own. “Yes, there’s no one else you could be. Come on. This way.”
Etana, her vision starting to clear, glanced at her new companion. She was an especially tall Ogrin with a glimmering corn-yellow coat and a large pink bloom pinned to her camouflage tunic. Her brow was furrowed in a worried sort of manner and she was chewing her lip, her paw still clamped around Etana’s. Her other paw clutched a large bow. She hesitated for a split second then stepped forward, back into the chill water, dragging Etana after her. The water wasn’t as deep as Etana had expected; it reached her knees at its deepest, and as long as she was walking slowly she remained on her feet.
On the other side of the river the Ogrin led Etana right into an especially thick clump of trees. Branches clawed at Etana, darkness pressing against her – then they burst into a wide clearing. Etana rubbed the darkness from her eyes and shook leaves and twigs from her clothes, staring at the sight before her. A fire blazed, a large pot bubbled, wooden huts crouched together, and pets of all shapes and sizes bustled around. The sweet aroma of peaches filled Etana, making her feel warm and almost comfortable. Shooting a glance back over her shoulder Etana noticed a couple of Shoyru crouching in the trees, their backs turned on the camp, watching.
Now they were in the safety of the camp, the Ogrin stopped walking and turned to Etana urgently.
“They won’t let me come with you,” she blurted, “but I... were you there when they took Brogan? Did they hurt him?”
Etana’s heart tightened. She looked away, pretending to be fascinated by the mud huts. “I didn’t see. I was there but I didn’t see.”
The Ogrin nodded. “He won’t talk. He won’t tell them. He brought me here, after the Rebellion,” she explained. “I was young and silly and I thought it would be interesting to fight for the Rebels – until they had to back away.” She lowered her voice, so that Etana could barely hear, “None of this lot really cared, but Brogan brought me here. I think I owe him my life. The king wouldn’t have been easy on me, that’s for sure.”
She indicated to Etana that she should start walking again. They moved at a much slower pace now, through the centre of the clearing.
“Brogan talked about you quite a bit, Etana. He always joked that we’d only see you here if things were bad.” The Ogrin sighed. “I thought he was just joking. I never imagined...”
They stopped in front of a shallow wooden hut. It was slightly wider than the other huts, with a large domed roof and a brightly coloured curtain hung across the doorway.
“This is it.” The Ogrin sighed. “I’m sorry – about Brogan. I hope he’s okay.”
The Ogrin knocked on the wall then turned away. The room fell silent and after a moment a voice called her in. Her whole body quivering nervously, she drew back the curtain and stepped into the hut.
Inside was one big room, filled with rows of chairs facing a long table. Right now the chairs were empty but three pets sat behind the long table; a Zafara with starry fur and a sweeping pirate-style hat, a plain looking speckled Krawk and an Elephante with the dark colour of the Lost Desert. Etana moved nervously toward them, paws twisted together in front of her.
“Can we help you?” the Zafara asked in an almost indignant tone. Etana couldn’t decide if she was frowning or scowling.
“I...” She hadn’t thought this far. What was she meant to say now? “I’ve come for... help.”
“Well, get on with it, then. We’re in the middle of something here.”
“Let her talk, Smith,” the Elephante scolded, watching Etana with curious blue eyes.
Etana licked her dry lips. She didn’t know what she was doing; some other part of her had overruled her brain. “I’m a friend of Brogan’s. He was taken – a couple of nights ago, by the King’s Guard. He needs help. Please.”
“You saw this?” enquired the Krawk evenly, his brow furrowed.
“I was there. The guards waited until he returned, and they fought. But I didn’t see them take him,” she confessed. “They... used a Sleep Ray.”
“And you’ve only just come for help?” The Krawk tilted his head, a look very akin to suspicion on his freckled face.
“You know Sleep Rays are unpredictable.” The Elephante looked grim. “And why would she lie?”
“Pets have done worse things for food,” Smith piped up, although she looked unconvinced. “But not this pet.” The Elephante shot her companion a questioning glance, and Smith continued: “This is the one Brogan calls Etana – the young apothecary, if I’m not much mistaken, that refused to use her skill to aid us during the great Rebellion.”
“I wouldn’t call it ‘great’ if I were you,” muttered the Krawk, but no one seemed to hear him.
“You can’t hold that against her!” the Elephante exclaimed, her lapis lazuli eyes wide. “The Rebellion was six years ago; surely that’s plenty of time for allegiances to reset themselves.”
“I didn’t say I mistrusted the pompous young fool. I’m entirely willing to believe those rotten guards have taken Brogan. Unfortunately I don’t see that there’s anything we can do to help him.”
“Nothing?” Etana pressed.
“Nothing,” Smith repeated in a crisp, businesslike voice. “Brogan understood the risks better than you ever gave him credit for. He knew this day might come, and he accepted that we are powerless within the realm walls. Barging in there for the sake of one poor creature, even one as useful as Brogan, would be an act of foolishness worthy only of you and your precious king. We could lose dozens of our troops and still return without Brogan.”
“Then, please, let me join you.” She stepped closer to the table, relentless, her mind now back on her deal with Advisor Winch.
“Ha!” cried the Krawk, scowling darkly, “Now you want to join – now the fighting’s over! Typical coward.”
Etana gaped at him, winded by his statement. All these years of paranoia – years of thinking everyone was calling her a coward – and now she’d heard the word. She tried to breathe.
“Of course you can stay here, Etana,” the Elephante said kindly, “We have plenty of room. We can make you your very own hut tomorrow.”
“Oh-” Etana began, but the Krawk interrupted.
“And you think that’s wise?” he asked, incredulous. “How do we know we can trust her?”
“Lots of pets come here for shelter; we never know for certain who we can trust and who we can’t, but we look after them anyway. You can’t turn Etana away. What will she do on her own, without Brogan? She needs to be with family.”
Etana frowned. Family? Pedin had told her to be careful; he bid her to choose her family carefully. But Brogan was the only family she had. She knew some pets swapped family as often as they changed their shoes but Etana wasn’t one of those pets. She tried to calm her twitching mind. These pets were Brogan’s family, too – maybe they were her family by association? But she didn’t even know the Rebels; how could they really be her family?
“Alice was right,” Smith concluded, stroking her chin thoughtfully, dragging Etana back to reality. “Six years is a long time. Etana deserves a second chance. She can stay.”
“Wait,” Etana interjected quickly. “I don’t want to stay. I want to join, but I don’t want to stay. I thought... well, Brogan ran the library. He kept the passage safe. He didn’t stay here... I thought... maybe I could do that, too?”
Smith cackled. “You want to make that dreadful journey every time there’s a meeting? Every time you want to see us? Were you born this mad or did one of your experiments backfire?”
Etana shook her head. “Please, I want to serve the Rebels now. Brogan wanted me to.”
“There are ingredients in this forest. You could live in the camp and be our apothecary. It would be safer, not to mention more interesting than life within the walls. Yo-”
“I don’t make potions anymore.”
“No,” Etana said forcefully, making Smith’s face darken furiously. “I’m not an apothecary any more. I’m Brogan’s sister and I’m asking for your help.”
“Fine,” Smith growled. “Arrange her initiation, Alice. She’s chosen her path.”
Alice hurried away, shooting Etana a reassuring smile as she passed. The Krawk stood up, scowling, and limped toward the door.
“E-tan-a,” Smith intoned, resting her chin on her paw. “It almost suits you.”
“Uh... thank you...”
“You were always very good with potions. It’s a shame that someone so talented would decide to quit... was it a decision you made before or after we asked you to join us?”
“Before,” Etana breathed. This wasn’t something she wanted to think about. Smith’s silvery evening-sky eyes focused on Etana, clear and unreadable.
“Hmmm. I always suspected... Never mind. You’d better get ready for your initiation. Put these on.” She threw Etana a small bundle tied with string. “I’ll come back and fetch you when we’re ready, so don’t leave the clearing.”
Etana quickly donned the tan cotton gown and thick beetroot robe, then sat down weakly and let her head drop into her paws. Pedin’s words ricocheted around her mind, scattering her other thoughts: Be careful. Pick your family carefully. She was going to betray the Rebels, after they’d given her a second chance. They were Brogan’s family and she was going to betray them. But they’d just betrayed Brogan too, she reminded herself stubbornly; the Rebels refused to do anything to help him. Yet the thought didn’t quell her worries – in fact, it did exactly the opposite. Smith was right; rescuing Brogan would come at an extreme price, and for the Rebels that price would be the imprisonment of innocent pets. At least the price they’d offered Etana was fairly innocuous; she didn’t see how information on Princess Alastrine would cause any harm. She smiled a little. Etana was good at hearing things she wasn’t supposed to.
Be careful. Pick your family carefully.
“I choose Brogan,” she murmured. Somehow saying it aloud made it less open to change, and Pedin’s words faded.
“Etana?” Alice smiled, holding the curtain open. “Come on, we’re ready for you now.”
The Elephante led Etana out into the clearing, then through a gathering of trees to the water’s edge. Etana shivered. The two other Rebel Leaders stood on the bank, wearing hats, cloaks and serious expressions. A couple of lamps lit the scene, but the world beyond the river was pitch-black. Etana wondered when Brogan had been initiated into the Rebels, and if that night had been cold too – and what was he doing now? Was he ok? Was he scared? Was he hoping she’d fled to the Rebels for safety? She felt a lump in her throat. She was going to betray his family...
“Ok, Etana. In a moment we’re going to ask you to walk into the middle of the river. When you get there we’ll light this candle. You’ll have to stay in the water until the candle burns out.” Alice smiled as she spoke. “Don’t worry. You’ll be fine.”
Etana clenched her teeth and pushed the threat of NeoFlu to the back of her mind. Without waiting to be asked she walked into the water. The water was even colder than it had been earlier that evening, and her feet slid on the pebbled river bed. In the middle of the river the water reached her shoulders. She watched Smith light the candle and closed her eyes. The cold had already seeped right through her, somehow too cold for shivering. An awful throbbing ache coursed through her body. She forced her mind away from the coldness, torturing herself instead with memories...
The candle flickered, spat and died. Alice ran to the water's edge, holding out a towel. Etana found her limbs unwilling to move, as if her skin had shrunk. She moved slowly and determinedly, her sight set on the towel, and gratefully allowed Alice to wrap it around her when finally she left the water.
“Well done,” she whispered with a smile. “This way, Etana; you have to sign the Rebel code next. We’ve got a nice fire going, and there’s some warm fruit in custard.”
Etana let Alice lead her back toward the camp, past the two other Rebel Leaders. They were bickering, Etana realised dazedly, starting to shiver once more. Her chattering teeth almost drowned out their words, but as they drew level she heard their words quite clearly.
“You fool, Carp! If she reaches the walls we’ve lost before we’ve started fighting. If they find the princess, Carp, you will never be welcome in this forest again.”
To be continued...