The Silent City: Part Seven
No one seemed to know where the flames came from, or why they were so fierce, but it was the perfect distraction; as pets faced this new threat the fighters vanished into the shadows, into the dark wood, leaving behind only those who were still snoozing on the Meetingplace floor. Somehow no one noticed. Somehow no one cared.
Deena raced through the growing flames, dodging and weaving until she was back at Pedin’s side, dragging him to his feet. She wheeled him around forcefully, thrusting him between two walls of flame – then something caught her eye. It seemed strange that, in a room alive with flames, a brilliant glint of light should draw her attention, as if calling out for rescue. There, among the jumble of abandoned possessions and youthful flames, was the beautiful teardrop jewel that had always seemed as much a part of Etana as her arms or wings. She stooped quickly, brushing a paw against the stone; it was still cool, although the shortened chain was heating up quickly. Glancing through the flames at the dark shape of Pedin she hastily scooped up the necklace, stowing it in her belt pouch – then she was through the flames, dragging him onward, the small jewel seeming to weigh on her mind like a huge block of stone.
* * *
Gone. Twelve knights and three queens just gone, with no flash of light or twinkle of stars or bubbling on the face of reality. They were simply there one minute and gone the next.
Etana began to run, faster and faster until finally she leaped into the air, wings snapping out and carrying her upward, through the trees that clawed and grabbed at her and into the wide, open space beyond. She shuddered; she thought it was bad leaving the city, but that was nothing compared to the openness of the sky. She supposed she should have expected it, but flying was something she normally did to reach the top shelf or escape Luke during training. Flying above trees was completely different. She lifted a paw to touch Thyora’s Tear, and, remembering she’d lost it, was surprised not to encounter a physical hole where it should be.
Rosesand spread before her, the land speckled and lined with those silent sandy streets, the ever watchful white palace looming up before her. She sped up, a sense of urgency spurring her onward – and, with accuracy that always appeared when Etana was most in need of it, she darted straight through a glassless upstairs window of the palace and dropped neatly onto the white stone floor.
There was instantly a shadow loping towards her.
* * *
Brogan sucked in a long breath. They didn’t even bother with the bridge. They plunged straight into the river, unflinching as the freezing water splashed around them. Brogan lowered the spyglass, a fierce sense of terror clenching around his heart; the sort of feeling he had to ignore.
“Block the gate!” he bellowed.
* * *
The shadow stood cheerlessly before Etana, her clothes torn and stained with an array of dark colours.
“Ashie?” Etana hissed, astonished. “Are you alright? Where’ve you been?”
“Long story. Maybe one day we’ll be bored enough that I’ll tell you but right now Mad Melesse has got Queen Alastrine, and I think Queen Kichea as well.”
“I know. She attacked Meetingplace. Her fighters... they seemed to come from the shadows...” Etana recalled, suddenly glad for company.
“No. You can’t use magic in Meetingplace; that’s why it’s the chosen spot for agreeing on treaties and all that stuff. But there’s a hidden chamber underneath Meetingplace that’s accessed through the feet of one of the statues-” Ashie stopped, looking at the dazed look on Etana’s face. “Oh, don’t. I wouldn’t know either but I’ve been standing outside Mad Melesse’s chamber for the last half hour and she’s been talking to her mirror, checking on... everything. Meetingplace, the underground chamber, different parts of Rosesand... and Thornstone. Her fighters are advancing on Thornstone as we speak.”
“The mirror...” Etana murmured, “Everything seems to lead back to that mirror. Ashie, could I borrow your sword?”
Ashie begrudgingly passed the blade across to Etana, and in exchange received Etana’s tiny dagger, belt and a murmured ‘thanks’.
“What am I meant to do with these?” Ashie asked, looking genuinely perplexed.
“Keep those dark knights at bay. If you find even the smallest gap in their armour a spray of this potion will keep them preoccupied for a while.” She pointed fondly to the dehydration potion. “Hey, where’s Luke? Did you get separated?”
Ashie looked up, straight into Etana’s eyes. There was something vacant about her expression as she said: “He... he won’t be coming.”
“Oh,” Etana breathed. She felt like she’d fallen right through the ground and plunged into a sea of icy water, struggling to hear or see or feel anything properly. She closed her eyes for a moment, and when she opened them once more the world seemed to be flooded with ludicrous simplicity.
It was time.
* * *
Deena rubbed her paw silently across the cool teardrop, her mind divided; should she tell him? Pedin sat opposite her, looking grim. She couldn’t tell him.
“Deena?” he asked unexpectedly, learning forward with a sort of worried look on his face. She pushed herself up, leaves clinging to her arm. He must have taken her movement to be a speechless form of ‘yes’ because he continued before she had time to reply. “Are you alright?”
She looked at Pedin uncertainly. His upper arm had been wounded, and he’d bandaged it sloppily with his ruined waistcoat, refusing offers of help. He hadn’t said so much but Deena strongly suspected he wanted the healers to hurry up and look after everyone else. She wasn’t sure if he was being selfless or self-destructive.
“I found this,” she admitted begrudgingly, dropping the jewel into his paw. “Etana never takes it off, and I... I don’t know what to think.”
Pedin rolled it back and forth in his paw, then curled his fingers up to enclose it completely. She wondered if he, too, felt like he was holding part of the lost advisor; some missing piece that needed to be fixed back where it belonged.
Deena dropped sideways once more, curled on the damp forest floor. The smell of burning lingered in the air all around them.
“Deena, none of this is your fault,” he promised softly.
“I was meant to protect her,” said Deena miserably, “I was meant to protect her and now... now she’s all alone, and-”
“It’s not your fault,” Pedin persisted, “Besides, Etana can look after herself.”
* * *
Etana stepped calmly into Melesse’s chamber, sword held tightly in her paw.
“What a brave advisor you are. Brave and loyal. Brave and loyal and stupid. Oh, what a wondrous and dangerous combination of qualities!” she laughed.
Etana stepped forward, breathing deeply and carefully. She wanted Melesse to understand; wanted her to be afraid. It was a strange, fiery, new feeling, and it scared Etana – but she couldn’t brush it off.
Maybe Melesse noticed some change in Etana. Her laughter trailed away and she sprung forward, blade slashing through the air. There was a moment – an insubstantial, dreamlike, fluid sort of moment – where it seemed the whole world had come to a standstill and all Etana could see was Melesse’s silly thin sword, the ugly gleam in her eyes, the frightening power and strength of a ruthless queen.
The spell broke. Etana curved away from the sword and, with a cry that was wordless and oozing with every ounce of fear, loss, and longing that throbbed and ached in her heart and blood and bones, her sword crashed into Melesse’s. She saw the flicker of uncertainty on Melesse’s face; the ripples of fear and surprise. But she took no pleasure from it; no satisfaction. Again they clashed, then again, feet and swords moving constantly.
Etana twisted and turned, telling herself all the while that it was just another training session with Luke in the palace courtyard – but the objective was completely different, the glint and crash of metal swords making the fantasy harder and harder to believe in. The smooth surface of Melesse’s magical mirror was just inches from Etana’s folded wings. Out of the corner of her eye she could see the faint light of the glassy Zafara, but she refused to be distracted. This was what she had to do; it was up to her to settle the score. Melesse had done so many things that had caused so many pets to suffer, and there wasn’t even a hint of regret in her cool sapphire eyes.
Their swords locked, and Etana impulsively leaned closer to Melesse.
“I want you to watch your realm crumble,” she whispered.
“Very clever,” Melesse grunted, pushing Etana away. “How do you intend to do that?”
Etana cried out in answer, summoning up every tiny drop of strength she possessed; her sword flew, missing Melesse by a whisker – and the queen lunged forward, taking advantage of Etana’s apparent mistake.
But it wasn’t a mistake. Etana’s blade hit the magic mirror.
To be continued...