Etana the Coward: Part One
“You should come with me.”
Etana glared over the top of her book. “No. You shouldn’t even be going.” She looked back into the pages of her book and added in a mumble, “It’s dangerous.”
Brogan didn’t seem to be listening – at least, not in the way Etana hoped he’d listen. He laughed and shook his head, as if danger were nothing important. He’d already thrown a cloak across his slim shoulders and was crouching by a bookcase, removing books from the bottommost shelf.
“You shouldn’t go,” she repeated firmly. She knew she was right; she knew it was dangerous outside the realm’s walls; she knew the rebels weren’t to be trusted; she knew getting involved with them was a mistake; she knew Brogan’s last chapter wouldn’t be the sort she liked when she read. She knew something else, too; Brogan would never listen. He simply wasn’t the listening sort. That didn’t mean she couldn’t try, though. “Don’t go, Brogan.”
Brogan frowned but he didn’t reply; the bottom shelf was empty now, the small wooden door revealed. He unlocked it quietly; the door swung inward and he crawled through the gap backward. When only his gleaming ash eyes could be seen, his shadow fur invisible against the shadows of whatever lay beyond the door, he smiled.
“I shouldn’t be long, but put the books back for me anyway, alright? And remember –”
“If you’re going, then go,” Etana snapped. Her eyes felt hot and she had to raise her book to cover her face. Typical Wocky! Too daring, too bold, too adventurous for his own good. She heard the small door click shut and let out a shuddering breath, lowering her book. She silently begged the door to open again, for his face to re-emerge and for him to admit she’d been right all along.
After a moment she begrudgingly got to her feet and started replacing the books. She wished that she was a typical Gnorbu. She didn’t feel like a kind-hearted, good-natured, fun-loving sort of being; she felt like a paranoid, self-conscious, tired sort of creature; a coward. Etana laughed dryly. Etana the Coward, so terrified of danger that she’d barely left Brogan’s library since the end of the Rebellion. It wasn’t a new thought; sometimes she thought she heard pets in the street saying it, too, but that only added to her assertion that she was becoming more paranoid by the day. She didn’t feel paranoid, though, when she looked at Brogan. Sometimes she knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that he thought of Etana as a coward too. Etana the Coward, backing away from fighting for her realm.
Brogan was all Etana had in the way of family, and the library all she had in the way of a home. Although she had her very own bedroom at the top of the building, Etana rarely used it; she hadn’t so much as sat on her bed in over a year. Etana slept on a blanket-draped sofa on the ground floor, in the room beside this one. She liked to be able to hear Brogan coming and going. She also liked to be surrounded by books; she felt uncomfortable being too far away from another world, like being stranded. Etana the Coward, retreating to imaginary places when the real world became too tough.
She blinked back more tears, clenching her teeth so hard it made her head throb. She pulled herself back to her feet, straightening her mud brown skirt with her faded emerald paws. She dried her eyes on her sleeve, taking several deep breaths as she did so, composing herself. The library had been closed for a couple of hours. Etana shuddered for a moment at the thought of being all alone in the huge building at night, then shuddered even more at the thought of Brogan weaving through the Stone Wood in the dark. She impulsively hurried from the windowless, cluttered room to seek sanctuary in the kitchen. A nice hot drink will calm my nerves, she promised herself, dipping the kettle into the basin.
It had been six whole years since the Rebellion had ripped through Thornstone. It seemed like a lifetime; a lifetime of cowardice, she reminded herself solemnly. When the old king – the king that most remembered as Kind King Moris the Fifth – had grown old and weak, his heir had become impatient and seized the throne. Not a good start in Etana’s opinion. Of course, it didn’t get any better: he’d thrown the advisors from the palace, eaten a month’s worth of food in a week and scoffed at the threat of peasants fighting back. The Rebellion did very little to change King Moris the Sixth. The battling and ‘heroic’ stunts resulted in only one thing: punishment. Only the very lucky rebels received a sentence of exile. Etana supposed the very unfortunate rebels were still locked away in the dungeon. Still King Moris the Sixth sat comfortably in his palace, eating more food than a whole town of Skeiths. The only thing that seemed to have any effect on the rotund, regal Ixi was the kidnap of his youngest niece, Princess Alastrine, heir to Thornstone.
The rebels lived on and claimed they were important enough for a capital ‘R’: the Rebels, fighting to return their realm to the prosperous, merry kingdom it had once been. Etana laughed dryly at the thought. What sort of prosperous, merry kingdom was surrounded by walls of the finest Tyrannian rock? What sort of prosperous, merry kingdom was raised off the ground by a rock platform to prevent enemies from tunnelling in (or maybe citizens from tunnelling out)?
A knock at the door brought Etana back to her senses. Her paws tightened on her empty mug. Visitors. Someone returning a book, surely. Or a neighbour wanting to borrow some water. Maybe... they knocked again, harder, more insistently. Etana put her mug slowly on the kitchen table and sidled toward the heavy door. Thieves, kidnappers... she took a deep breath and reached for the door handle. Etana the Coward, imagining foes then not daring to face them.
Two colossal Gelerts in thick, dark armour peered down at Etana; King Moris’s guards. One gazed at Etana with the look of someone who’d just heard a slightly nonsensical joke.
For a long, cold moment Etana wanted nothing more than to say ‘yes’. The word was forming in her mouth, bitter and icy cold, when the second guard spoke.
“Don’t tell me you’ve put your helmet on back-to-front again, you fool; she’s no Wocky.” He gave a throaty chuckle, “She’s hardly more than a petpet!”
Etana felt her face burning like a furnace beneath her fur. Don’t be so arrogant, Etana! Brogan’s in danger and you’re embarrassed! She cleared her throat but found she couldn’t speak so, instead, she waited for the guards to ask her a question.
“So?” demanded the second Gelert fiercely. “You going to tell us if Brogan’s about or are you giving him time to make an escape?”
“He’s not here,” she replied quickly, hoping he couldn’t tell she was shaking from head to toe.
“He going to be back any time soon?” the first Gelert enquired, speaking fast, presumably so that the second guard couldn’t butt in.
“No. He’s gone away. On holiday.”
“Well, then, I guess we’d better come in and wait,” chortled the second guard, “and since we may be waiting a while, you’d better fetch us something to drink. What do you reckon, Tam? A nice glass of roseatte juice?” He grinned as he passed Etana. “It’s been a long journey.”
Frozen in the doorway, Etana watched in horror as the two guards sloped off toward the room Etana slept in. When they reached the door, the second Gelert turned to face Etana. In the light she could see clearly his crimson fur and malicious grin.
“Aren’t you going to join us, Babaa? I’m sure your friend wouldn’t be happy to be whisked away without ever saying goodbye.”
“Wow, ‘Being Faerie Queen’!” came the voice of the first Gelert, Tam. “You know how much this is worth? And ‘Great Grarrl Adventures’! Haven’t seen that since I were a pup.”
The red Gelert growled and stomped into the room, leaving Etana alone in the cavernous kitchen. Her paws quivering and mind numb, she poured roseatte juice into two glasses and removed the kettle from the stove. Somehow she didn’t think a hot drink would help now. She hesitated a little longer in the kitchen. She could still hear the guard Tam exclaiming about various books and every now and then the other dungeon keeper would bark some insult or another. Maybe Brogan would hear them and retreat back to the rebel camp in the forest. King’s Guards were busy pets; they couldn’t wait around, drinking roseatte juice, forever. But were they so busy these days? Thornstone had become a placid, obedient realm – really the guards' only job, now, was apprehending rebels. The thought chilled Etana and made her heart stand still. If there were King’s Guards in her house, then they were there to take Brogan for treason; for being a rebel; for plotting against the king.
There was nothing she could do to save him. Her paws shook more fervently as she neared the door. No, there had to be something she could do. She stopped. She could poison the drinks. She cast her gaze around the kitchen, desperate for some revelation to jump out and hit her... but she’d always been so careful. The thought of accidentally poisoning Brogan or herself had given her many sleepless nights and prompted her to be doubly vigilant with her plants and herbs and vegetables. Brogan kept a few potions locked in a cabinet but she’d seen them before: healing potions in a rainbow of different colours. She didn’t want to make the guards healthier. There was nothing even remotely dangerous in the library. Short of running upstairs to her own secret stash, there was no way she could poison the King’s Guards. Desperation bubbled in her lungs and her breath quickened. Stop, she ordered herself, and after a moment she found herself breathing the word out loud – repeating it like a mantra until, finally, her brain cleared. If she couldn’t get rid of the guards she’d have to get rid of Brogan – she’d have to stop him coming back, without alerting the guards to... well, anything.
Quietly, Etana slid the drinks tray onto the massive, battered kitchen table and tiptoed past the bickering guards. Feverishly, she pulled an old letter from beneath a stack of books and wrote in quick, wobbly letters: ‘There are guards waiting for you. Keep away.’ She glanced over her shoulder, straining to hear the voices of the two Gelerts over the sound of her own heartbeat. Moving quickly and jerkily she pushed the note down behind the books on the bottom shelf. He’d have to see it. She walked backward from the room, not wanting to look away. She couldn’t let the guards take Brogan.
She took up the tray once more, her paws clammy, and hastened toward the room in which the guards waited. It was a large, rectangular room with several arched windows partially hidden behind lace drapes. The second Gelert was sitting alertly on the sofa Etana often used as a bed, his dark armour glinting red. Dizzy and numb with dread, Etana pushed the tray onto the small table that served as a nightstand. The first guard – Tam, Etana remembered – was sitting on the floor by the fireplace, reading by the flickering light. He seemed completely engrossed, and the second guard regularly shot him disgusted looks.
The second guard removed his thick gloves, selected a glass and held it up to the light sceptically. After a moment he lowered it once more, and thrust it forward.
“Take a sip yourself, Babaa,” he growled, eyes narrowed.
She obeyed quickly. Satisfied, the guard took a long gulp from his glass.
“I’d take a seat if I were you.” His eyes glinted coldly, “I thought we’d already established it may take a while for your friend to appear. Maybe you could keep us entertained?” He gave another deep, throaty chuckle and raised his glass as if to make a toast. “I’m sure you have plenty of stories about the Rebels you’d like to share with us, don’t you, Babaa? The king can be very lenient when he wants to be. They don’t call it ‘valuable information’ for nothing.” His twitching, cruel grin disappeared as he took a swig from his raised glass, and when the glass was lowered his face was dominated instead by a hard, impatient scowl. “Talk.”
“I don’t know the Rebels,” Etana replied, quickly and truthfully. She flinched as the guard slammed his glass down on the table, his scowl becoming a dangerous glare.
“Don’t lie to me, peasant. We know how to get our answers and we’re not too honourable to do it the hard way.” He rested a paw on the thick handle of his sword. Etana resisted the irrational desire to laugh. She’d never once in her life considered a member of the King’s Guard to be honourable – or, indeed, anything short of a kidnapping, thieving crook. The guard must have seen something in her face change because he flew to his feet, his sword drawn and a fierce, brutal spark in his eyes.
“I don’t know the Rebels!” she repeated, stepping backward in alarm. “They took everything from me in the Rebellion; I wouldn’t trust them to take my bread to the market, let alone keep their secrets!”
The guard kept his sword held high, watching Etana carefully. Then, with a long sigh, he placed it back in its sheath and sat down once more.
“I told you to sit down, Babaa. We could be waiting longer than you think.”
And he was right. Hours passed by like lazy slorgs. Several times the guards demanded more drinks and by eleven that night every single drop of roseatte juice had vanished. Etana had been forced to search out a very dusty, ancient-looking bottle of qando fruit punch. It made Etana’s stomach shudder but the red Gelert guard – who, it turned out, was called Thomas – seemed to enjoy it.
Etana set a large plate of chocolate cake on the table. The guard named Thomas took the fattest slice and ate hungrily. It was midnight – Etana could hear the clock chiming in the hallway. Brogan had promised he wouldn’t be long; he must have found the note, Etana reasoned, and gone back to stay with the Rebels. She’d stopped shaking and her heart was beating steadily once more.
“So, where has this friend of yours gone on holiday, Babaa?” Thomas asked, licking chocolate from his paw.
“The city,” she answered, before she had time to think, “He’s always wanted to see the great statue of King Moris.”
“Oh, has he? Strange sort of Rebel, is he?”
“He’s not a Rebel,” Etana said defiantly.
“You care to rethink that?”
Etana turned. It was the first time in hours Tam had spoken; he’d been busy rifling through as many books as he could, apparently making the most of the opportunity to claim reading books about faeries to actually be ‘investigative work’. Now, however, he was holding up a long, creased piece of paper with the title ‘The Rebel Code’ written in vivid red, slanted scrawl. Etana watched silently as Thomas got creakily to his feet and took the sheet of paper from his partner. He frowned at it for a moment then held it out to Etana, a satisfied grin twitching at the edges of his lips. A messy signature adorned the very bottom of the paper – the initials were illegible but the word ‘Carew’ was clear.
“As you can tell, I’m not that fond of books and no doubt that means I’m not all that smart, right, Babaa? So, what do you think? Can I use this as evidence that someone in this building’s a Rebel?” He gave a breath of laughter and a content shake of his head.
“It’s mine!” Etana exclaimed, recklessly. “I’m the Rebel.”
Thomas grabbed Etana by both arms and heaved her to her feet. The paper crumpled in her paw. Her breath was short, her arms already aching dully.
“Don’t LIE to me!” he roared. He released one of her arms and tore the yellowed paper from her paw. “Tam – start searching. We’ve wasted enough time as it is.”
Without sparing Etana so much as a glance, he threw her sideways. She stumbled, lost her footing and slammed heavily against the nearest bookcase. She gasped for breath, trying to clear the fog and blinking lights from her eyes. Before she’d regained her sight she heard the door opening. Gritting her teeth, she wobbled forward, chasing the hazy figure.
“It’s me! I’m the Rebel!” she cried again, and then louder, desperate to get their attention.
Something snared her around the shoulders, dragging her backward, hissing something in her ear. She sobbed. The dizzy fog was slowly clearing and instead everything seemed doubly bright. She closed her eyes.
“Are you okay?” the voice was whispering, in between orders of ‘keep quiet’ and ‘keep walking’. Etana didn’t even need to open her eyes. For seven years she’d known Brogan’s voice and she didn’t think she’d ever forget it. If there was ever a time she’d forget his face it wouldn’t worry her – as long as she remembered his voice. Relief and terror mingled in her mind and pounded against her skull like an angry Nuk. She nodded in answer.
“Etana, you’ve got to go stay with them now. It won’t be safe for you here.” He shook her gently, “Etana, are you okay? Look at me.”
Slowly she opened her eyes. There were no windows. They were in the windowless room – they were in the windowless room and standing in front of the bookcase that hid the passage to the outside. Etana tore her gaze from this scene and instead focused on Brogan. He seemed okay, she thought with relief. In his hand he held two faded purple hats. She remembered them, she thought... magic hats. Invisihats.
“You have to go. There’s no path – but head in to the forest and keep close to the river. You’ll know when you’ve found the right place. You won’t lose your way. Oh, and you’d better take this.” He forced one of the purple hats onto her head. “Don’t come back, Etana. And go quickly. Promise.”
“You’re not coming?”
He shook his head with exasperation, but he couldn’t suppress a grin, “I’ll be right behind you. I’ll be a few minutes behind.”
“Promise?” She lifted the hat to rearrange her ears.
“Of course.” Brogan reached down to move the books. “Have I ever lied to you?”
The door behind them crashed open. Etana’s heart leaped and her paws followed suit. The purple hat slipped from her grasp and bounced to the floor as she whipped around to face the guard framed in the doorway – Thomas. He waved tauntingly. Etana took an involuntary step backward. Something whistled past her ear and shattered against the thick, dark metal of Thomas’s armour. The liquid inside the bottle splashed and froze, skittering across the floor like diamonds. And Etana stood between them – she stood between the guard and her best friend, her brother, her only family. Thomas, cackling, was already striding across the room. Etana weakly held out her arms as if to offer herself as a shield, which only made Thomas laugh harder and Brogan groan in dismay.
She realised with an echo of logic that there was one thing she could do. Thomas hadn’t returned his gloves since he’d removed them earlier; she could see his scarlet fur in the dim light. The thought seized her – unthinkingly she whirled around, deftly snatching the second bottle from Brogan’s belt and swinging back to smash it against Thomas’s paw. Too late. His thick, metal-encased arm was around her shoulders, restraining her, rendering her even more useless than usual. The bottle clattered from her fist and cracked on the floor, spattering hot liquid and burning her legs. A small scream escaped her. She’d failed. She’d betrayed her only family.
“Run!” she cried, nauseated by the feeling of failure in the pit of her stomach, “RUN AWAY!”
Brogan was silent. He shook his head, careful not to look Etana in the eye as he withdrew his sword. Of course Brogan was too noble to run away. Hot, angry tears dampened her cheeks. Why couldn’t he be Brogan the Coward for once in his life?
The arm tightened. She struggled, kicking and clawing – but there was nothing except the cold, hard armour. The world blurred with tears and dizziness and frustration, but she could still see flashes of colours and hear the clash of metal on metal – the awful sound of bookcases falling and furniture shattering and –
The world went completely black.
To be continued...