The Silent City: Part Two
One step at a time.
Etana didn’t know where she’d be now if she hadn’t taken the last year one step at a time. She’d probably be back in the library, she thought, the events that had brought her to the palace just a distant, foggy memory. As it was, taking everything one step at a time had become second nature to Etana; almost a game she played with herself.
Now she stood in the familiar courtyard and she knew that her ability to take everything one step at a time was about to be tested. Her heart was stomping in her chest, stomach fluttery with a feeling that was almost hunger and almost sickness but actually neither of the two.
“Ready?” Brogan asked, nudging her fondly. His voice had a fake lightness to it; a bad attempt to disguise a tense anxiety of his own.
Etana ran a paw along her belt surreptitiously, feeling the familiar shapes of her favourite potions, the hilt of a tiny dagger and a small velvet purse. She adjusted the belt a little so that the slumberberry potion and freezing potion were easiest to reach.
“My offer still stands, if you want some company on this...” he faltered, stuttered a little, then finished: “trip.”
Etana squeezed his paw. “Thank you, but... I’ll be okay.”
“I wish I could come see you off at the gate,” he said wistfully, “but the stupid council has insisted on a stupid meeting...”
“You’re a member of that stupid council,” Etana reminded him, pleased for the minute distraction.
“Yes, well, I was expecting a bit more excitement when I accepted the job – a bit more excitement and a few less urgent discussions about removing airax droppings!”
Etana opened her mouth to reply, but shut it again quickly as six members of the Queen’s Guard strode, single file, into the courtyard, each with a bag slung over their shoulder. Etana turned to Pedin and Brogan, heart twisting in her chest.
“Good luck,” Brogan said quietly, no longer disguising the worry in his voice.
“Good luck,” agreed Pedin, smiling encouragingly, “and take care.”
“I’ll be back soon,” Etana replied, walking backwards, reluctant to turn away from her brother and best friend. Then she had no choice. She tore her eyes from them, blinking furiously, and joined the guards on the other side of the courtyard. Already three had separated off, surrounding Advisor Smith protectively. Etana presumed that the three remaining guards were waiting for her.
As she neared she was surprised to find one of her escorts to be Luke, the fire Gelert she’d spent so many long hours training with, looking strange in the traditional grey Thornstonian uniform. Another was the mysterious shadow Acara, known by everyone as Ashie, who had appeared in Thornstone not long ago and had been accepted into the Queen’s Guard with no training at all; she already knew more than the trainers. Then there was another familiar face; a yellow Ogrin dressed in shades of green, a small white flower pinned to her shaped tunic. Etana struggled with herself for a moment, trying to remember where she recognised the Ogrin from... the Rebel Camp! This was the guide who’d found her wandering in the woods all those months ago and lead her to the Rebel Leaders, back when King Moris was on the throne.
The Ogrin stuck out a paw excitedly. “Hi! Name’s Deena.” Then, as if she couldn’t restrain herself any long, “I just finished training!”
“Congratulations.” Etana accepted Deena’s paw, giving it a brief shake.
“Ashie,” Ashie announced, unsmiling, extending a paw.
“And I’m Luke.” Luke grinned, taking Etana’s paw and bowing a little at the same time. “And I feel duty bound to assure you that I will not be poking you with any wooden implements during this journey.”
* * *
She always forgot how beautiful the outside was. Grass speckled with tiny pink, white, blue and purple flowers; trees that hadn’t surrendered their leaves in autumn now swaying in the early winter wind; and if Etana turned and walked backwards for a moment, Thornstone rose, grand and grey, appearing to vanish into the distant pewter sky. They crossed the grassland quickly, gravel and grit crunching and grinding underfoot as they marched across the bridge, then they wove along a well-worn path through the now barren crop fields until they finally found themselves being enveloped into the dense forest beyond.
They walked almost non-stop all day, until only Ashie looked like she could carry on walking. They settled into a clearing, and as Ashie tried to construct a shelter, the others collected sticks and twigs for a small fire.
At last Etana flopped down onto one of the sleeping mats. Luke was sitting close to the fire, whistling tunefully as he kept watch. Etana curled on her side, holding her knees to her chest in an attempt to keep warm. All she wanted to do was close her eyes – yet when she did, she found she couldn’t sleep, despite the aching tiredness that filled her body. Finally she gave up, rolled to her feet and instead joined Luke at the fire.
“Can’t sleep?” he asked, offering her a slice of bread from their food bag. Etana accepted it with a word of thanks, nibbling on the crust. “Well, not long now. We should arrive tomorrow. If we’d struggled on tonight we’d probably be on the outskirts of Rosesand by now, but they wouldn’t be too happy to greet us at this hour.”
“Have you ever been to Rosesand before?” Etana asked, peeling the crust away from the slice of bread.
“No, but...” He hesitated. Etana glanced across at him, and thought he looked slightly pained. “Did her Majesty tell you... anything...”
“King Moris sent seven pets to Rosesand and only two came back,” Etana recited, nodding. “Yes, she told me.”
“My father,” Luke began, in such a soft voice that the crackling fire almost drowned him out, “was one of the five that didn’t come back. The two that did make it back were honoured, but... but they were the ones that fled...” He looked across at Etana, as if to check she was still awake, then gazed back into the flames. “It won’t be that way this time. It won’t.”
* * *
They reached the outskirts of Rosesand by midmorning of the next day, although it was almost impossible to tell. The only thing that marked the changeover from the free forest to the edge of a realm was a short, steep downward incline and a sudden scattering of huts – all lifeless and deserted, some little more than piles of wood. By lunch time they had left the cover of the forest and were walking down deserted streets, through deserted towns. The buildings slowly got shinier and fancier until, eventually, they seemed to be in a bright city, and between the buildings they could see the ghostly sea merge with the grey sky. Yet even here the word ‘deserted’ sprang to mind; among the beautiful carved stone shop fronts many of the windows showed scenes of orderly emptiness, and the silence of the city was so complete that Etana was sure she could hear the waves against the sand.
The huge white stone palace reared up between the elegant, empty buildings like a vast, foaming wave about to wash away a city of sandcastles. The closer Etana, Luke, Deena and Ashie got to the palace, the more signs of life they noticed; pets sat meekly on benches under trees, or on doorsteps, or looking out of windows. Once or twice a pet would stand up defensively as the group moved by, but there was still that eerie silence.
“I don’t like this,” Ashie mumbled, glaring ahead, “The last time I saw somewhere this empty some joker had set off a stink bomb...”
It was a relief to reach the palace, which was so close to the beach that the path was covered in the pinkish sand that maybe gave Rosesand its name. Guards in full armour, their faces completely hidden, marched purposefully around the palace like a living moat. A whistle sounded and the marching stopped immediately as the doorman strode across to greet the visitors.
It was then that Etana saw him for the first time. In a city that seemed to belong to wraiths, he, at first, didn’t seem at all out of place – but there was something different about him. As Etana looked at him she realised, with a jolt in her stomach, that she couldn’t just see through this Zafara; she could see a faint version of her own face reflected on his chest, and she could see Luke greeting the doorman, and the still guards – as if this figure had been cut from glass. A sort of Zafara-shaped window, waving and smiling as if he was pleased to see her – before he gave a strange, bright twinkle and vanished.
“Welcome!” came a powerful voice, followed closely by a tall Royal Lupe, glimmering from head to toe with jewels, gown foaming around her ankles like sea spray, “Welcome to the fabulous Rosewater City!”
Then one of the guards grabbed Etana’s elbow.
To be continued...