The Silent City: Part One
There wasn’t time to think.
The blade missed Etana’s ear by a hairsbreadth. She flattened herself against the wall, stunned – then she thrust outward with her own blade. The Gelert dodged expertly, bringing his sword up to block while twisting away. She sprang after him, arm arching, her sword diving forward to collide with his left shoulder. The Gelert whipped around, eyes and blade set on her heart.
“Quick!” someone shrieked from the shadows.
Instinctively, she dropped to the ground, rolled sideways and swung her leg out, hooking it around his knees.
It looked like it might work. He wobbled for a moment, but then somehow he was steady again, a foot pressed against Etana’s lower back. She struggled to move away, crying out with frustration as she waved her sword in the general direction of his ankle – but all she could do was graze his boot. Then she felt the tip of his blade between her shoulders and she sagged, defeated. That was it. It was over.
Someone grabbed a handful of her golden hair, pulling her face up off the ground. Breath escaped Etana in a hiss, eyes hot with unwelcome tears. She wanted to dash them away but she had to make do with blinking until they slid to the hard stone floor. A round, red face sneered at her, a triumphant gleam in his eyes.
“We always win,” he hissed. “If great warriors can’t beat us, then stinking advisors certainly can’t.”
There was a startled cry and the pressure was released from Etana’s back. Without stopping to question her second chance she leaped to her feet, grabbing the red Shoyru and pressing him against the wall, the blade in her other paw raised...
“Okay, okay!” Luke’s laughing voice called out. “You win! There’s no way I’m getting out of this one.”
Etana lowered her sword and bowed her head with strained politeness to the red Shoyru. Curious, she turned to see Luke, the fire Gelert of the Queen’s Guard, his sword gone and Pedin’s wooden blade slanted down towards him.
She threw her wooden sword back into the pile with relief. It wasn’t real, she reminded herself, but that didn’t matter. She didn’t like swords, no matter what they were made of or intended to do. They were messy and clumsy and they complicated things. She hurried across to the low table, set back into a cluster of neatly trimmed trees in enormous plant pots, and gulped down a goblet of strawberry cordial gratefully. Setting the goblet back on the table she reached, shaky with exertion, for her belt of potions. She felt vulnerable without it, remembering all the times simple potions had saved her from situations where a sword would have been useless.
A bright paw came to rest on her shoulder. She turned quickly, sweat-dampened golden hair whipping her face. Luke grinned down at her, his own fiery ginger curls plastered to his dark-furred forehead.
“I wasn’t ready for a double act,” he confessed, reaching across Etana to take a goblet.
“I thought you were meant to be ready for anything,” she teased back, giving her belt a final tug, feeling suddenly reassured by its weight around her waist.
Luke laughed and shook his head, walking away with the goblet still in his paw. Etana’s gaze roved until she spotted the modest, chocolaty brown Xweetok form of Pedin, half hidden among the crowd. She gave her wings an absentminded flap, stretching them out after keeping them pressed close to her back in combat.
“Advisor Carew?” a small voice piped up. Etana turned. A tiny blue Aisha, dressed in the formal garb of a Thornstonian messenger, peered up at her through slanted eyes. Etana smiled back. “Advisor Carew, her Majesty the Queen asked me to tell you she’s very sorry but she needs your answer now.”
Etana turned her gaze back to Pedin. She already knew her answer; in honesty she’d known it since Alice had first mentioned the task. She also knew Pedin and Brogan wouldn’t like it one iota.
“Yes,” Etana finally said to the waiting messenger. “Tell her Majesty that I accept.”
* * *
“And you said yes,” Pedin concluded, flatly.
“I know it might be dangerous,” she said quickly, “but it’s my job! I couldn’t say no.”
“Yes, I know,” he sighed, looking resigned. “But...” he paused, appeared to change his mind, and instead asked: “Have you told Brogan yet?”
“No. He’s meant to be coming to the city for a council meeting tomorrow. I’ll tell him then.”
“And when do you leave?” he asked, concerned. Etana looked at him for a moment before she answered, gazing into his eyes. Pedin was blind, and had been for as long as Etana had known him, but to Etana his caramel eyes served as a pair of strange windows into his thoughts – and right now the dread and trepidation in his eyes felt like arrows to her heart.
“In two days, but I shouldn’t be gone long. Alice showed me a map and it doesn’t look like an especially long journey.”
Etana remembered the map clearly; she’d gazed down at Thornstone, its solid stone city radiating five solid stone towns like a strange, grey sun on the faded map. She’d seen the Thistle River, weaving through the Stone Wood; the wiggly line of the cliffs slowly becoming the wiggly line of a beach the further you followed it away from Thornstone. And there had been a large pinkish shape pressed against the roving beach line. Rosesand, Alice had declared, before pointing out another large shape, this one cutting into a thick patch of trees with a light green hue: Thistleford. Thornstone, Rosesand and Thistleford: known, once upon a time, as the Sister Realms. Etana frowned now as she remembered Alice’s warnings, but she shrugged them off quickly; she couldn’t let Pedin know she was scared. It was important for him to think she could manage this.
“Etana, be careful. Rosesand is... well, Queen Melesse... they say she’s even had her own daughter shut away in the dungeons.”
Etana rested a paw on his lower arm, smiling. “I won’t be alone; Alice has arranged for three of the Queen’s Guard to come with me. Three! I think she’s worried, too. But I can do this.”
Pedin’s mouth curled down at the corners. “I know you can. But I’m meant to look after you; I promised I’d look after you. If anything happened...” He faltered, then sighed. “I just don’t want you to get hurt – so be careful.”
“Actually, I think I should be the one begging you to be careful.” Etana squeezed his arm playfully. “You should hear the list of things Alice needs done while I’m gone – and of course Smith’s playing messenger to Thistleford, so...”
Pedin groaned. “Being an advisor just isn’t what it used to be.”
“Oh, I don’t know.” Etana grinned. “I quite like it.”
* * *
Etana watched her brother worriedly for a moment. He didn’t look happy.
“Queen Melesse is unimaginably powerful! She’s been on that throne for so long that no one even remembers who was on the throne before her! And she’s mad – although I’m actually starting to question the sanity of our own queen... you’ve only been doing this job-”
“A year,” Etana cut in. “I’ve been doing this job for a whole year. And that aside, I’m surprised Alice didn’t do this sooner. We’re in a dangerous situation. If Rosesand or Thistleford choose to go against us we’ll be trapped by our own walls. We have to return to the old way, and quickly.”
“The old way...” Brogan snorted. “Good luck getting Melesse to agree to that.” He stared out of the window for a moment, watching a bread cart trundle by. Without looking back at Etana he said, “I’ll come with you. Four guards are better than three.”
“Oh, Brogan,” she said gently, giving him a thin smile, “They’re not just three guards; they’re three highly trained members of the official Queen’s Guard. Pick the smallest, weakest looking one and even he could overpower you with both his paws tied behind his back!”
Brogan looked wary for a moment, then slowly a grin spread across his face. Silence ensued once more, the tall, thin shadow Wocky looking anywhere but at the petite, delicate white Draik. Despite their differences (some more obvious than others), she was his equal, his sole family, his friend; it hurt just to think about life completely without her.
“I’ll be okay,” Etana said seriously, breaking the silence in a slightly uneven voice, suddenly unsure who she was convincing. “I will be okay.”
Brogan grabbed her, hugging her tightly.
“Of course you will. You’ll be fine.”
* * *
Her packing was done. Weak sunlight was fighting its way through the persistent pewter clouds, illuminating the glorious city as if to show Etana all she was going to miss. She tried to swallow the feeling down, reminding herself she’d be back soon...
She heaved her case across to the door and reached for the doorknob automatically – then hesitated. Her paw rose, instead, to touch the beautiful teardrop jewel of Thyora’s Tear for a moment, her throat tight and aching. Maybe she really wouldn’t be seeing this place as soon as she’d thought. Alice’s words spun in her head like odd dancers, spinning until all the letters were out of order and all she remembered was the suggestion of danger, a mention of peril.
She gazed around her chamber, at the comfort and luxury she’d grown accustomed to, drinking in all she could. She valued Thornstone beyond all measure; not just the place, but the pets that lived there, too. This place was her home – and she might never see it again.
To be continued...