Etana the Coward: Part Four
Etana didn’t know why she’d chosen the name. It hadn’t mattered what she called herself to begin with; a young Nimmo living in the darkest and gloomiest street of the city didn’t really need a name.
It had become important when she finally decided she’d practised enough. Nimmos were famous all over the world for devoting themselves to a single subject. For Etana that subject had been potions: medicines, healing potions, potions to use in battles and even morphing potions. Etana worked for years, honing her skill until she could make complex potions in her sleep. She had bought a small shop with room for sleeping and a small workspace in the back – she preferred not to think of how she’d afforded to do so. And then it had become important.
She woke up one morning with the name on the tip of her tongue and knew immediately that she liked it. It almost felt comfortable; it almost fitted her. She’d painted it above her shop door in neat, curly writing.
* * *
This room was much smaller than the one Etana had last met the Advisors in; the walls and ceiling were hidden behind intricately entwined curtains in a rich burgundy shade. Winch, Oakes and Pedin were assembled on a padded bench, behind a bare wooden table. A single wooden chair waited for Etana. Oakes waved a paw vaguely and Etana sat, feet together and paws clasped in her lap. She carefully avoided Pedin’s eyes; she could read them too well. She sat meekly and waited to be prompted, still shivering slightly from the time spent in the river.
“Have you brought news?” Winch enquired, his hard voice edged with a strange, hopeful note.
Etana stiffened. She had to do it; she had to save Brogan. But something stopped her... Carp had called her a coward for not joining the Rebels sooner. He thought the brave thing to do was to fight for equality, freedom and justice. All the times Brogan had looked at her and she’d felt certain he was thinking her a coward... was that for the same reason? Did Brogan think she didn’t have what it took to fight alongside the Rebels? Did Brogan still think she was loyal to the king?
Spying wasn’t kind or fair; she’d deceived the Rebels into thinking she’d changed her mind. Had she only stood in the freezing river because she wanted to get information? Was she such a different pet from the young apothecary who’d fought tooth and nail to achieve status in a city of pets who wanted something for nothing? Then another thought – had she ever been Etana the Coward before she’d met Brogan?
Then the words were out of her before she could stop them.
“The Rebels don’t have Princess Alastrine. They don’t know what happened to her or where she is.”
“How dare you!” Winch roared, leaping to his feet. “How dare you insult my intelligence this way! GUARDS!”
Three heavily armoured guards burst into the room, swords glinting in the candlelight. Etana stood up slowly. She’d made a mistake. Why should she care what the Rebels thought of her? Why did it matter that she was a coward? The thought of the dungeons made her breath short. Little spots danced around the scene.
“Take this traitor to the dungeon. I never want to see her again.”
Out of the corner of her eyes she saw Pedin stand up, and through the ringing in her ears she heard his protesting voice – but no one stopped the guards as they took Etana by the arm, and no one called them back as they began to march her from the room.
She hung her head in shame. What had she done?
* * *
The dungeons seemed to have leaped right out of the pages of a book. They smelt of damp and old food; the floor was hard but uneven, causing Etana to lurch as she walked. Mould grew on the walls. There was silence but for the rhythmic drip-drip-drip of water. The guards took Etana deep into the dungeons, down staircases slick with water and through a maze murky of passages. Then they stopped. Etana had the distinct impression that one of her guards was grinning, even though she couldn’t see his face through the visor of his helmet.
“This is where we take the ones that he don’t ever want’a see again,” the guard on her left guffawed, although his words were muffled. He produced three keys and began to unlock the door. It swung forward with an ominous creak. He pushed Etana through the door into the next corridor.
Now Etana stood in a passage full of small doors, each only just big enough for someone to crawl through. A couple of the doors had been marked with names. The guard with the keys stooped to unlock the nearest unmarked door, then helped the other guard push Etana to her knees.
“There’s not much of a view but we think you’ll enjoy the fine cuisine,” chortled the second guard. Etana crawled away in dejected silence and heard the door slam behind her.
It was completely dark inside. Etana forced herself to walk around the walls, to get an image of her new ‘home’. It was small. She couldn’t quite lie down on the floor, unless she stuck her feet down the narrow entrance passage. She crouched in a corner and tried to breathe properly. She’d heard that sometimes the king decided he never wanted to see someone again and they were taken to the deepest, most impenetrable and lonely part of the dungeon. She didn’t know the Advisors had that power, too.
She leaned her head back against the wall, tears tickling her cheeks. Etana the Coward.
Time seemed to work differently in the dungeons. Etana didn’t know how long she’d been sitting in the dark when the sound of scraping made her jump. She listened intently, but there was silence again. Then, when she was about to rest her head back against the wall, she heard the tiny door open and light gushed into the chamber.
“Etana? It’s me. Quick – come out,” hissed Pedin’s voice.
Etana obeyed quickly and quietly, shuffling through the narrow passage. Pedin was kneeling on the other side, dressed in a slightly scruffier fashion than the last time she’d seen him. Another pet sat beside him, leaning back against the wall.
“Etana?” he asked with a frown.
“I’m here,” she whispered back, sitting on her heels.
“Quickly, help with Etana Two.” He indicated to his ill-looking companion, around which he now looped an arm. Etana leaned closer for a better look and almost laughed when the ridiculousness of the situation seeped in. A giant Etana plushie – well, sort of. It didn’t look remarkably like Etana, although it was dressed like Etana and was definitely a petite green Gnorbu.
“What are you doing here?” she asked as she helped Pedin heave the plushie through the small doorway.
“Everyone deserves a second chance.”
“I think I’ve had all mine,” Etana confessed, chewing her bottom lip guiltily.
“Don’t be silly! You were brave, risking your freedom for the Rebels. Brogan would be very proud, if he knew – and Smith’s happy, so that’s something.”
“Later.” He locked the door and used the wall to climb to his feet. Etana did the same. “We have to get out of here.”
Pedin extended a paw and Etana accepted it swiftly. They hurried through the doorway, through the maze of passages, through the damp and cold as if Pedin had made the journey a hundred times. All Etana wanted to do was laugh. How was it possible that Pedin was freeing her?
They hurtled up the final staircase and into the underbelly of the palace. This corridor was deserted, but Etana knew as well as Pedin that their journey had just become more perilous. Pedin crossed the corridor in two bold strides and pushed back a tapestry. There was an alcove behind, into which he stepped, dragging Etana after him.
“Here,” he whispered, taking a sack from a small shelf and passing it to Etana. She glanced inside: a set of vibrant gold and orange clothes made a perfect nest for a bottled potion and a large box. Before she could get a proper impression Pedin had revealed a hidden door and was sweeping her along again.
They emerged into a huge room full of water. The floor, walls and ceiling were all beautifully tiled with shades of aquatic blue. A long curtain separated the changing area from the bathing area. Etana gazed around in astonishment. The royal baths...
“I always imagined you were a white Draik,” Pedin explained, “so I took the liberty of bringing you a Draik Morphing Potion and a White Paint Brush.” He smiled a wide, warm smile. “If it’s not to your liking I’ll fetch you something different.”
“I’m sorry,” Etana gazed at the sack, again seized by guilt, “but I can’t accept this. Thank you, but you’ve done more than enough for me... sir.”
“Come on, Etana – please, drink the potion,” he begged, looking anxious.
Etana gazed at him a moment longer, then wordlessly uncorked the bottle and drank. It tasted bitter and salty. She set the empty bottle on the tiled floor with a ‘clink’ and turned to face Pedin once more.
“Are you alright?” Pedin asked.
Etana shook her head and gazed at the smooth water. “You could lose your job for helping me.”
Pedin didn’t say anything for a long time, then he said, “You’d better wash and change quickly. I’ve already arranged a chamber for you.”
“I’m going to stay here?”
“There aren’t many pets you can trust in this realm. I rather hoped you’d stay...” Pedin paused, maybe to give Etana time to speak. Etana remained quiet and after a moment he continued. “I hear you’re not an apothecary any more, but there are other jobs. And of course I’ll do what I can for Brogan, although it’s not going to be easy.”
“Thank you,” she said quietly, then she repeated it in a steadier, louder voice. She couldn’t remember ever being this thankful for anything.
“You know,” Pedin added, “Winch isn’t the only one who wants to know who kidnapped Alastrine. We – the Rebels – didn’t kidnap her, despite what you heard in camp. But someone did, and I’m not having much luck finding out who.”
“Smith and Carp... they were lying?” Etana asked, confused.
“Yes, they thought it was a clever idea. That way even if you did tell Winch what you heard in the camp it would be false information. I’m sorry, it was partly my fault – I had to let them know what Winch had asked you to do. But believe me, it wasn’t us who kidnapped Princess Alastrine.”
And Etana believed him.
To be continued...