I dislike clichés, indeed as a poet I’m traditionally supposed to either shun them entirely, or if of a romantic disposition, write in little else. But one cliché that does seem to ring true is the saying, ‘It’s a funny old world.’ What brought this to mind was seeing Etan Stor yesterday.
I remember Etan when he was a lot younger and he’d just arrived in Port Naain. He was just some peasant child who’d run away from home and a lifetime of drudgery and early marriage; with only premature aging to look forward to. All he had were the clothes he stood up in and a working dog called Gyp. Etan was young, slim, with long hair and pretty features. Gyp was also distinguished in her own way. The pair of them had been together for a long time, having been born in the same month, and they had slept curled up together on the same straw pallet for most of their lives.
Etan arrived in Port Naain and immediately looked for a way to support himself. He was lucky in that he avoided the Sump and the Warrens and instead wandered somewhat aimlessly down Ropewalk. Thus he was present when Slark the Leg attempted to rob Mistress Pobbert and her three daughters. It was Gyp’s growling that attracted Etan’s attention to the incident. He looked and saw Slark waving a knife in Mistress Pobbert’s face.
In the thoughtless manner of small boys everywhere, Etan shouted, “Get him Gyp.”
The dog leapt forward and sank her teeth into Slank’s buttock while Etan belaboured the older man with a stick. Here Etan was lucky. Slark the Leg was a flutterer. That is he’d flutter his knife in front of the victim to scare them into paying. The minute he felt he’d been rumbled, he fled. Gyp, magnanimous in victory, did not pursue. Of course Mistress Pobbert was gratitude personified.
She hugged Etan to her bosom, a little gingerly perhaps, and called him a ‘brave child’, and asked where he lived. Etan admitted he was homeless.
She looked him up and down. “Then we’ll have to do something about that. We’ll fit you in somewhere. What’s your name?”
Etan took in the three daughters, one of whom was about his age, the others younger, and came to the conclusion that Mistress Pobbert would be happier with another girl in her household.
“I’m called Etania.”
Without further discussion Mistress Pobbert took Etania by the hand and led her four daughters home. Gyp walked behind them with the air of a dog who has done well.
Once home Etania was given a tub full of hot water in her room and the privacy to use it. As she bathed she surveyed the new clothes laid out for her on the bed with an element of concern. For peasant boys, underclothing is an unnecessary affectation. One layer of fabric between the body and the outside world is all that is needed for modesty and if you’re working hard enough, warmth as well. Still she was young and thus the undergarments provided lacked laces, buttons, stays or any of the sophisticated trimmings that she might have to learn how to cope with later.
Once Etania was convinced she was adequately clean, she cozened Gyp into joining her in the tub, and gave the dog a good wash as well. Gyp was less than impressed. She was a dog who fastidiously avoided water when at all possible. Mistress Pobbert was also somewhat taken aback when Etania appeared, dressed in the clothes laid out for her but accompanied by a decidedly wet dog who stopped on the landing to shake herself dry. Still she was honest enough to realise that in the confrontation with Slark the Leg, Gyp had been the most competent protagonist. Thus, in spite of her misgivings, Mistress Pobbert granted Gyp a formal place in her establishment.
To be candid, for the next two years things went better than could be expected. Etania was a quiet girl, respectful and at least when in company, gentle and demure. She even proved to have a considerable aptitude for sewing and embroidery.
The first problem came when it was decided that Etania should attend Madam Mawan’s Academy for young ladies, along with Mistress Pobbert’s oldest daughter Balinia. Madam Mawan sent glowing reports. Etania was making good progress with reading and basic innumeracy, her needlework and basic cooking skills were excellent. The trouble was that she didn’t seem to make friends with the other girls. The difficulty, hinted Madam Mawan, was ‘that dog.’
In this the good lady was mistaken. The problem was that Etania struggled to remember who was whose bestest ever friend this week, and who had fallen out with whom and the differing reasons given for this rift by both sides. Thus she adopted a policy of being unfailingly courteous to everybody, which seemed to further alienate everybody. Gyp didn’t help, having made up her own mind on various issues and had taken to greeting some of Eania’s classmates with silently bared teeth. Some of the girls were a little disconcerted to discover, as they talked quietly together, that Gyp had silently materialised only feet away from them and appeared to be listening.
Hence whilst academically Etania’s school days were a triumph, socially they were not a success. Her only real friend remained Gyp, but as this had been the constant state of affairs for all her short life, it didn’t bother her.
More worrying was the fact that as time passed, she would be expected to develop. Already she looked slim and boyish when compared to Balinia. Madam Mawan had described her as a gamin child. Not only that, but Mistress Pobbert was making gentle and tactful enquiries.
Etania realised that matters couldn’t continue. She felt that revealing that she was actually Etan was unlikely to be well received, so that left her with the option of flight. Older and wiser than the last time she had done this she knew more of the world and its potential pitfalls; thus after some thought he decided he would run away to become a soldier. Along with the other girls he’d watched the horsemen of Lord Cartin’s household riding through Dilbrook on their way to distant assignments, and rumour insisted that Lord Cartin would take any likely lad to serve as a squire, with the chance of becoming a man at arms if he made the grade. So it was early one morning, dressed once more in the trousers and shirt, that Etan and Gyp crept out of the house. They made their way through the silent dawn streets to Lord Cartin’s mansion. Boldly Etan walked up to the armour clad guard on the gate.
“I want to become a squire.”
The guard observed him expressionlessly through the visor of his helmet. Then he bent down slightly and pointed down the side of the mansion.
“It’s morning training. Alman Ulkin is sergeant to the young Lord Cartin and is in charge. Ask him.”
Etan courteously thanked him and with Gyp at his heel made his way round the back of the house. There he could see a tall young man in half plate demonstrating sword techniques to the assembled company. Etan stood silently and watched and when the demonstration was over he walked diffidently across to Alman Ulkin.
The young Urlan watched the child approach. “Yes?”
Etan stopped, “Please sir, I’m Etan and I’d like to become a squire.”
Alman looked at him steadily and was pleased at the way the child didn’t look away. The Urlan walked round Etan, studying him. Decent bone, the child would put on muscle. He couldn’t make up his mind whether it was a boy or girl he was dealing with but that didn’t bother him too much. In modern horseman’s plate you cannot tell the gender of the wearer anyway. Not only that but he was impressed by the relationship between child and dog. Anybody who could win the trust of a dog like that was worth something.
“Right, you start now.” He turned to the house and shouted, “Mabbi, get our new squire some clothes that fit and find a billet for Etan and his dog.”
Yes, it was only yesterday I saw Etan riding though Dilbrook. He was wearing half armour, was neatly bearded, and one of Gyp’s granddaughter’s was picking her way fastidiously through the puddles at his horse’s feet.