The family is growing

We had all made our way to the small village of Middlemead, not too far from our farm - the home that we all missed. The grey ominous clouds in the distance were like a blanket of discomfort upon all of our minds, even though we knew it was safe now: or as safe as one could make it, during the circumstances. Duncadda, the fool, had a few nights before sworn an oath to us, as a token of our friendship and appreciation for saving his life upon the East Wall some time ago. He is indeed a fool, but a strong and honest fool he remains, and one I’m proud to call a friend and brother. He would keep an eye out on the farm, and possibly even find Wynn again? If anyone could do it, he could - I know as much from his set of skills in tracking and forest-wandering, even if he’s still healing. My own shoulder still felt strained, though it had healed nicely and wouldn’t leave behind anything more than a small scar: no different than any of the others I already wear as a reminder of all the battles fought in times past. Ethel rode behind us upon her young steed Roan, and the expression on her face was unreadable to me, even if I had known her since the moment she was born. The girl was so like me and Eda both, neither of us too eager to show our emotions clearly in front of others, and she had begun to grow rapidly the past year and resemble her mother even further. My little girl… soon to be a woman. My eyes then wandered to Yllfa who rode beside me upon a borrowed horse from Edoras: Yllfa the she-wolf, the woman that stands by me and Ethel as we were her own. No words can describe how much I respect and care for this woman for all that she’s doing for me and for my daughter, and every day she seems more of a mother to Ethel. It’s just what she needs, I thought. No man can ever teach a young girl about life as a woman, and Yllfa had promised to do just that in my stead. And how she had flown into righteous rage to protect her from the warhound, without a second thought… By Bema, I truly love this woman, and she keeps awakening feelings and emotions in me that I had long buried deep inside, and never thought to return.

The road to Middlemead was longer than I expected and far deeper into the forest than I remembered from one of my very brief visits here in past times. Perhaps the forest had grown more since then, I wondered - maybe it had grown wilder, untamed and unruly, just like our land in general? At last we saw the guard posts of Middlemead, and we rode quietly inside and left our horses by the stablemaster. Our visit here was to be swift and to the point, for all we wanted was to come home again: yes, home to our farm to once again know the sweet scents of Yllfa’s herbs and the tender embrace of our soft beds and woolen blankets, a welcome change to the dusty, lumpy excuses for beds that the tavern in Edoras could offer. Ethel dismounted and swiftly ran off to find something to eat, as usual. That little girl eats more than three grown men these days, it seems to me. But she’s growing every day, and needs all she can get to become a tall and strong woman, ever full of life and vigor, to prepare her for the cruelties of the world. Yllfa had her eyes set upon the marketplace to find uncommon seeds and herbs for our fields, while I had business with the local thane and authority, and so we parted ways: She to the market, and I to the Thane to inform him of the more active patrols in the area to the south of them, those that lord Eodhere had so kindly put together for all our sakes. We spoke for a long time of all manner of things, and I learned of their own troubles by raiding parties to the north, where their trading caravans and business more often go. He was glad to learn of the new patrols in the south where their own presence is much lacking, and we shook hands as friends - only once or twice had I met the man before, though he seemed like one willing to protect his people at all costs. A good man.

My task with him was done, and home beckoned for us all. I walked up towards the marketplace and found Yllfa along the road. Her disappointment was clear to me as she returned without spoils, and her words about the difficulties finding what she needed were discouraging, though not unexpected. We spoke for a while, and wondered where our girl had gone on her adventures for food. A couple of minutes later we spotted her familiar figure moving towards us as she passed around a house, and in her hand she held a stick with a piece of grilled meat upon it - not an uncommon sight if one knows Ethel, my daughter. But she was not alone as she walked this day, for close behind her walked a small creature upon thin, unsteady legs. A dog was following her, the creature was small of frame and perhaps one or two years old at most, and in dire hope of getting a snack, no doubt. The poor creature looked thin and malnourished, as if he hadn’t eaten properly in weeks or even months. Ethel was not happy about its presence, and it seemed my fears had come true. She, the one who had loved all animals as a child and would never harm or turn one away, was now clearly annoyed and distraught at the presence of a dog in her wake. She shooed it off, but it did not take long until he was right back at her heels again and begging for a scrap with those big, dark eyes so full of sadness and longing for the love he’d never had. Ethel quickly came up to us and placed herself behind me, almost as if she was hiding.
- “Get it away from me, papa.” she said and I turned my head to look upon my daughter with a faint smile. Her recent experiences had clearly made her wary of dogs - and who wouldn’t be, if one had severely bitten you, and could’ve been close to killing you if Yllfa hadn’t been there? The bite marks on her arm were still there, and they would likely leave some small and faint scars upon her skin for the rest of her life.

We had spoken earlier of getting a dog for her, one she could raise as her own and become friends with, but her answer then had only been an expressionless face and her words lingered in my ears:
- “I’ll think about it.” - a token that she was not comfortable with the idea at all. I looked at Yllfa, and we both seemed to be of one mind in that moment. Our hands reached down to give the poor thing some careful strokes over the head, and Yllfa had some dried pork in her bag which she treated to the dog, who ate with a hearty appetite but only when he was allowed to. Someone had trained him well, but not stayed to care for him. Ethel remained unimpressed and took another bite off her own snack, as if she was mocking the poor dog. One of the local men walked by us, and his words were harsh but rang true as we listened.
- “Don’t you mind that runt, good folks. Noone wants him, he’s too small and thin to be a proper hunting dog. He lives only on what scraps we can offer, and these days it’s not much. Leave him be and let nature have its course, I say. Good day to you.” I felt the anger rising inside me, and I knew Yllfa felt the same as the man walked on with so little regard for the dog… her eyes were full of disdain for the man, while Ethel remained unmoved. We played with the dog for a little while, to show Ethel that this little beast wasn’t dangerous in the slightest. He kept moving up towards Ethel however, for reasons unknown. Perhaps he felt she was also a youngling, just like him? I urged her to at least play with him for a spell, since he was already so enamored with her.
- “Go on, Ethel. Throw a stick or something at least?”
- “If I do, will it make him go away?”
- “Probably not, but you’ll have a friend.”
- “Maybe I don’t want a friend.”
, she said but picked up a stick to throw all the same, and the dog lit up in that kind of happy smile and shining eyes that only a dog can do, and he rushed off to find the stick and return it to the girl who had finally noticed him and thrown it. A lady clad in a brown dress had watched us from afar, and finally came forward to speak.
- “Oh bless you, kind folk. I always feel so bad for this poor dog. I feed him when I can, but I don’t have enough to feed both him and my children.” We looked to the woman with kind smiles, for she seemed a good and proper lady, even if she had not the means to feed him herself. She continued speaking as we made the dog feel comfortable with belly rubs and comforting words. Ethel’s face was still unreadable.
- “The owners were dog breeders, you see, and they’re famed for their well-trained hunting dogs. But they care nothing for the animals in the end, all they want is the coin. When they moved up north, they left this little boy behind since no-one wanted him except their daughter. Cruel and dishonest folk, if you ask me. I never liked them at all, and barely anyone here did either.”
Our hearts sank like stones thrown into a body of water… how could someone, especially a breeder of dogs that should love their pets as their own children, leave such a fine animal behind? Cruel folk indeed, I thought. Yllfa and I looked at each other again, our common goal unspoken but clear before our eyes: This dog clearly needed a home, a family, someone to care for him. We needed a calm and soothing presence in our home that could also be taught to protect us, and a family can never grow too large. The good lady laid sensed Ethel's discomfort and laid a hand on her shoulder, and she spoke kindly to her as the dog fell down exhausted on the ground before Ethel’s feet. His tail still wagged and hit the ground like a whip, as if he was happy to just be near someone in his dark hours, when much of his strength had left him and all he wanted was to be loved.
- ”My pretty girl, you probably remind him of the daughter in that family. She was about your age, and she cared for him as a pup, I remember, but they wouldn’t let her keep it when they moved, since they could always have more and better ones, they said.” The woman shook her head and stroked Ethel over the hair, not unlike a loving mother would. Ethel just stood there in silence, watching the dog at her feet as he tried to regain his strength.
- “I beg you, kind folk, if you can find in your hearts to take care of this poor pup, it would mean the world to me. It breaks my heart to see him go hungry and unfed, while I have nothing to give but scraps, and no-one else here cares enough to share their hard-earned food to him. He won’t survive another winter, I fear.”
- ”We’ll give the dog a home. Right, Ethel?” I said with as kind a smile I could muster to my little girl, and she finally relented and sat down to give the exhausted creature a good belly rub, and he shone up with pure delight despite being so weak. Ethel sighed before she spoke, as if much of her doubt had left her with that breath, and she needed only to convince herself from then on.
- ”Well we can’t let him starve, can we? All right… but the moment he bites me, he’s out. Got it?”, Ethel said with conviction in her voice, though the last part was said more in jest, as is common with her. The woman clapped her hands together before her mouth and sniffed, her eyes now teary and full of gratitude and mirth.
- “Oh Bema bless you kind folk! Thank you. At last I’ll know that he’s in good hands, so I can rest easy at night without wondering how he’ll get his next meal. Thank you so much.”, she sniffed again and walked away before we could see the tears rolling over her cheeks, and she stopped to speak with another woman some distance away, and she pointed at us and they gossiped with merry voices that the stray dog had finally found a home with good folks, I heard. We were pleased with that, and our path was set… our loving family growing ever larger, even if Ethel still had to convince herself that our new friend was her friend as well, in every aspect of the word.

We did not have to wait for long. We bought some food for ourselves and our new-found friend, and we rode home again, as slowly as we could, so the malnourished little creature could keep up with us along the path, for we had no means to carry him safely on our horses, and home wasn’t far away. We stopped here and there to let him rest and eat and drink, and soon we spied the farm in the distance - our dear, beloved home. It was then I heard a cry from behind us, a terrible neighing from a horse as Roan reared up high, for he had unknowingly trampled upon a snake in the grass, and it hissed angrily with fangs bared at him; Ethel could not control her young, frightened stallion, and she fell off her horse and landed heavily upon the ground. It was in this coming moment, I think, that Ethel realized that our new friend was hers as well - for as she lied there in the grass, winded and with all air knocked out of her lungs, the dog whom that followed her hurled itself towards the snake in the grass without a second thought, and he barked and barked louder again, and stood firm as a shieldwall between it and Ethel. The snake lowered its head and slowly slithered away, and the dog hurried back towards her. While Yllfa and I dismounted to check up on our girl, he was already there buffing his nose on her shoulder, trying to dig himself under her back to help her get up. Once she was finally up again and catching her breath, the dog sat down beside her and tilted its head, as if he wanted to make sure Ethel was unhurt and all right. Falling off a horse was not something new to her, but seeing this small dog - weak and starving, yet giving his all to protect and wanting to help her - that act of unbridled love and kindness lit a bright fire in her eyes, and I saw her smile and merrily scratching the dog’s ears and chin, to his great delight.
- “I think you have a true friend there.”, I said to Ethel as I extended a hand to help my little girl up on her feet again, and she regained her breath and brushed off the dust and straws of grass from herself as if nothing had happened. “You should name him.”, I continued while she glanced at the dog with much tender eyes, now certain he’d never harm her, but always protect her instead.
- “I’ll think of a good name for my friend.”, she said with a smile.