The Silent City: Part Five
Their hamper now empty, Luke and Ashie began back towards the palace.
“It was good of you to go back,” Ashie observed, swinging her arms and walking in exaggerated strides across the pink sand. The sky was dark overhead, and there wasn’t a star in sight. Ashie hugged her coat and scarves closer, trying to block out the sharp evening chill.
“I couldn’t just leave them,” Luke replied, after a moment’s hesitation; a compliment from Ashie was as rare and precious as a gargantuan diamond and it took a moment to sink in. He glanced sideways at her, hit yet again by the alert tenseness that seemed to exist in every shadow on Ashie’s sooty face. Her stiff black plait had relinquished its steely grip on some of her hair, which now danced around her face, gambolling in the wind.
Luke stepped up onto the solid street first, offering a paw to Ashie with a teasing smile. To his surprise she grinned back and accepted his paw, allowing him to pull her up onto the pavement.
But there was someone in the shadows, armour glinting.
“Lu-” she began, cut off as he lurched forward. He toppled to the ground face first, without a single attempt to save himself. Now Ashie could see other shadows sparkling, other figures stepping into the bleak lamplight of the street. She stepped backwards in horror, paw swinging her trusty sword free of its sheath, bringing the blade around to collide with the first metallic knight. The clang of metal on metal reverberated through the noiseless streets.
She danced, her sword gliding through the air, a chorus of metallic notes ringing through Rosewater City, and all the while the knights laughed. Undaunted, she lunged, and finally one of the knights fell. With an unnerving suddenness the other knights seemed to lose their sense of humour, laughter fading. The nearest indistinguishable figure swung out with a metal-clad arm, knocking Ashie to her knees; he swung again, sending her forward onto the cold stone floor, where she lay, holding her breath, trying to think. She reached out a paw, stretching toward the unconscious Luke, but a foot crashed down her arm. She winced, pain shooting through her bones. The next movement came from nowhere, spiralling Ashie into a dizzy nothingness. Her head hit the stone.
One glinting figure pushed up his visor, revealing the steely features of a pirate Poogle. With a nod to the other knights he bent forward, throwing Ashie across his shoulder with ease. Another took Luke, and together the two knights began across the sand, eyes locked on the enchanting cave entrance to the stone labyrinth below Rosesand.
* * *
Smith, Pedin and Alice were still frowning. Deena edged uncertainly towards the door, not quite sure if she was still needed; her clothes were caked in mud and she longed to close her eyes and fall asleep.
“There’s something wrong,” Smith agreed, still wearing her travelling cloak; she hadn’t long returned herself. The starry Zafara was still dressed in the practical formal wear of Thistleford, and Deena suspected the advisor secretly liked the smart calf-length trousers and high-necked, embroidered white shirt.
“Double the guards,” Alice said decisively. “It doesn’t hurt to be prepared.”
“If we double the guards we leave the whole of Thornstone with just a handful of Town Guards for protection,” Pedin pointed out.
“Well, what else can we do?” Alice asked desperately, running a paw through her limp black hair. Deena could see an uncharacteristic tiredness set across the queen’s face, and noticed for the first time that Alice was almost as messy as Deena; her sleeves were stained with ink and there were smudges on her face. She supposed sending two of her advisors away had left the queen with a lot more paperwork than she’d estimated.
“Be prepared. Instead of making this sound like a nice outing, reveal to the guards how this really is.” Smith rubbed her eyes. “Everyone needs weapons – even you, Alice. Come to think of it, did that apothecary of ours leave anything useful? I hear she’s not quite as inactive as she used to be.”
“Etana’s cupboard is crammed with potions,” Pedin answered, nodding. “She says they’re less messy than swords. She’s developed a spray nozzle to ma-”
“So we have potions,” Alice butted in rudely and remorselessly, appearing to have not noticed that Pedin hadn’t finished talking. “And weapons. But we have no idea what Etana’s trying to warn us about. This letter is useless.”
“We just have to be careful,” Smith said softly, “There’s nothing else we can do.”
* * *
Etana stumbled into the small dungeon chamber and promptly collapsed onto the lumpy pallet. The door clanged shut behind her. For a moment she considered standing up, but her whole body ached with the hopelessness of the situation and she sagged against the prickly pallet, longing to be out of this strange place and back at home. She wriggled a paw up to touch Thyora’s Tear, comforted, as always, by the feel of the cool stone.
Etana tensed. Slowly, slowly, she pushed herself upright, gazing into the darkness. As her eyes slowly adjusted to the lack of light Etana could make out a shape sitting on the floor, not all that far away.
“Hello,” said the stranger again, waving, “is that silk?”
“Uh, maybe,” Etana said. “I don’t know much about fabrics...”
“I used to have a silk dress,” the stranger mused, leaning her head back against the stone, smiling at what was obviously a fond memory. “It was beautiful and sea green. Beautiful.” There was silence for a moment, then the stranger, with a happy sigh, crawled towards Etana. She extended a dirty blue paw, “I’m Mirabel.”
“Etana.” Etana gave the paw a quick shake.
The dirty blue paw belonged to a dirty blue Lupe, whose nose was split in half by a diagonal scar. Two inky eyes watched with jaded intelligence as Etana rearranged herself on the pallet.
“How is it up there these days?” she asked, grinning.
“Empty,” Etana replied honestly. “How long have you been down here?”
“Forever,” came the simple answer, the Lupe waving a paw to dismiss the question. “It is summer? Is it still light out? Oh, oh, is there dancing? I hope they still dance... I never hear music down here. It’s very depressing.”
“I’m not really from around here. But it’s winter, and it’s dark, and I don’t think anyone feels much like dancing, and even if they did there aren’t many pets to dance with...”
“Oh.” Mirabel’s face fell. “No dancing.”
“Do you know anything about Queen Melesse?” Etana asked abruptly, seizing the opportunity to find out more.
“Mother? Is she here?” the dirty, scarred Lupe cowered, staring around the darkness madly. “Did you bring her? You shouldn’t bring her down here.”
“No, no, she’s not here!” Etana assured, swallowing this new information quickly. “You’re... you’re a princess? It’s really true that she had her own daughter locked away in the dungeon?”
Mirabel’s face was now serious. “She doesn’t like me much. I’m a threat. She wants the throne for ever and ever and ever. She thinks I might take it from her, but I can’t take it from her if I’m locked down here – in the dark, where there’s no music or dancing.” She looked away, her expression pained, and when she looked back she’d assumed a sort of cheerful mask, “Do you dance?”
“No,” Etana answered impatiently. “Why would Melesse think you’re a threat? Just because you have a claim to the throne?”
Mirabel considered Etana stonily for a moment, and when she next spoke it was with the jaded intelligence that Etana had seen in her eyes not long before.
“I wanted to change things. Not Mother’s changes; they were awful changes. She expanded into our crop land, and gave pets manors on a whim. She thought she could buy loyalty, but all she was doing was limiting our food resources. And she was getting older, and she’d heard that in our neighbour realms older rulers were constantly being overthrown by their relatives. I was all the family she had. She gave me some lovely dresses, though...” Mirabel shook her head. “And she found this mirror. I don’t know where it came from, but she seemed more powerful with it around. She sent the palace apothecary away when she bought it home. Then I was in here, and there’s no music down here. No dancing... but the food’s good. Is it Friday? I love Friday. Friday’s cheese day.”
“The mirror... the mirror breaks us all eventually,” Etana murmured, unsure if everything were starting to make sense or falling further and further into senselessness.
Mirabel titled her head to one side. “You’re not from around here, are you?”
* * *
Ashie’s stomach heaved. She wriggled her arms, pushing herself up – then slumped back dizzily. The ground beneath her back was uneven and uncomfortable; rock, she thought. She tried again to sit up, and this time, although the world seemed to spin and lurch from side to side, she didn’t fall back. She leaned over the dark shape of Luke for a moment, then drew away, his sword in her paw. She’d lost hers in the earlier scuffle with the knights. Gritting her teeth, she scrambled to her feet, one paw to the rough stone wall. Her feet splashed slightly in small puddles and with a mixture of reluctance and necessity she followed the wall, walking quickly and steadily over the irregular ground.
It felt like she walked for hours, and every now and then she had the distinct feeling she was roaming in circles. Sometimes she discovered corridors where the rock had been smoothed, and there were carvings on the walls. When she followed these paths, though, she always ended up back in the jagged chambers, splashing through shallow puddles.
Finally she turned a corner and saw light, gushing through a tiny crack in the wall. She pelted along the smooth corridor, ignoring the forest-like carvings that adorned the walls. She leaped up the five smooth stone steps and threw herself at what she hoped was a door – it gave easily, pouring Ashie into a pit of leaf mulch and twigs. A slorg looked at her with appalled eyes for a moment, then slimed under a shelter of leaves.
Ashie vaulted out of the pit. She was in the thick forest. Through the darkness she could make out one of the ruined houses, and if she squinted she thought she could see the rough shape, through the trees, of the sandy streets beyond...
She should go back. She had been assigned to protect Etana, and after that display of hostility from Melesse’s knights Ashie had no doubt that her charge was in peril. But she turned guiltily away from Rosesand and began to jog in the opposite direction.
She had to warn Alice. Etana would have to look after herself.
To be continued...