Singing for the wolf

Related to A Midwinter Lullaby, by Yllfa

Ethel pulled off the dirty linen rag from her head. Her forehead glistening with sweat, yet surprisingly clean when compared to the rest of her young face. Her cheeks and nose were gray from soot and ash, her tangled hair mostly resembled a crows nest, and in dire need of a good brushing. She did her best to clean herself from all the soot, but the dirty rag merely made it worse as it smeared the dirt around, and there was little else inside the smithy that was still on the cleaner side of things. She had been left alone for a couple of hours, an apprentice now trusted enough to do some easier work on her own. And even so, with Heartha gone for an errand, there were always guardsmen and -women patrolling outside, so she was never truly alone there. Often she’d hear orders being shouted from outside, patrols stomping off along the roads, or barricades being built and repaired. 

The security of Bancross had doubled, nay, tripled, under uncle Denholm’s watchful eyes, and with good reason. The threatening shadows of the unrest in Middle-Earth grew closer to Rohan by each day, and every hourly bell was just one further step towards that which everyone feared. Rumours were many, yet answers remained few and far between. 

Little did Ethel think upon such things, however. Her mind was a simple one, nearly always focusing on the here and now, and whatever task that lay ahead of her, and the people she knew best. Ethel cleaned her tools next, one by one, and put them back where they belonged upon the rack. Her own quarters and her own little forge at home - which she had barely fired up since the apprenticeship began - would be a chaotic rumble of randomly scattered items everywhere, and yet in Heartha’s forge, the attention to detail and the motto “a place for everything, and everything in its place” rang through her mind. There was an order to her own chaos, but no-one understood her world like she did. Well, perhaps Waelden did. 

They had a rough life behind them, and nothing would ever get easier as time passed. The roads through life are long and slow and winding, and always full of obstacles as you grow up. And Ethel was indeed growing up; too slow for her own liking, but too fast for her papa’s. The rapid change of pace in a young woman’s life had scared them both, but at least they were not alone anymore. 

The now soot-black rag she threw in the bin, and looked longingly towards the door. It had been a long day, and the silence alone made her body ache for her quiet cellar room. There she could retreat into her own little world, filled with hastily whittled wood totems or other items, and scrolls scribbled with her childish handwriting and woeful attempts at writing down poetry or whatever else that rushed through her ever-changing mind. But at least she knew a little of how to read and write, unlike many others. She sighed wearily, and stepped outside. It was a cold day, where the frost kept a tight grip on all that was once green and fair, and summer seemed so far away. 

She breathed deeply, even as the cold hurt her lungs. The freezing pain was a good wakeup call. Down by the stable, she saw her uncle conducting an inspection of the horses and equipment. He pulled on the straps to the saddles and harnesses, while the stable boys stood straight and still like statues. Her gaze wandered up the hill next, towards the familiar sound of hooves upon the paved road. Clip-clop-clip-clop. It was a woman riding, and it took her a few seconds to realise it was Yllfa riding on Ealdhors, the retired warsteed now living and enjoying a quiet life with them, far from wars and hard work. Ethel pulled her arms around herself to shield her from the cold, and smiled. Yllfa’s entrance into their lives had come as a surprise, but nonetheless a very welcome one. A mother for the motherless. 

Clip-clop-clip-clop. Ethel felt the cold creeping in on her, making her teeth clatter and her fingers freeze. She thought momentarily of going back inside to the red hot forge, but she waited and blew on her hands to keep them warmer instead. Clip-clop-clip-clop. She looked away for a second, as Denholm shouted something about a loose saddle, and how the rider would get hurt and fall off the horse. Clip-clop. Ethel returned her gaze towards Yllfa, eagerly expecting her imminent arrival. She wondered what Yllfa wanted here by the garrison, for it was not a place she’d often visit, and certainly not alone. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed another womanly figure walking from the opposite direction, with a great stride in her steps. Hildfrith, she thought. Clip-clop.

And then, as if lightning struck from the heavens, Yllfa appeared to sway in the saddle, and she collapsed and fell off her horse, landing lifeless upon the cold ground. A thousand thoughts and memories crossed Ethel’s mind in that instant, and a second or two passed before her senses had again made contact with her mind. She screamed at the top of her lungs until her breath faded, a shrill shriek that echoed through the garrison. Hildfrith came running, the closest guard came running, and Ethel galloped, nay, she flew over the ground, jumping the fence with the grace and determination of a frightened doe in flight, screaming and calling out for her mama.

The rest of the night was naught but a blur for her, like walking down the dark and misty roads of memories long past, things that were better left forgotten and laid to rest. There they were again, she and her papa, and once again they stayed by the bedside until Northgyth bid them go, so she could do her healing work and to let Yllfa rest. With eyes red and stingy by the salt of tears, together they sang quietly in hope that the wolf would hear them, and come back on soft and healthy paws.

“Not again. I can’t do this again.”, Ethel cried to her papa. He held her close and cradled her like the child she still was at heart, just as he had done so many times before. “Not again, pumpkin.”, he whispered as they walked out of the infirmary, keeping her small hand firmly in his own. “She’ll make it, with Northgyth’s help and if we keep singing to guide her home. We’ll keep singing, and she’ll hear us, no matter how far the wind will carry our voices.” 

And so, they sang for the wolf throughout the night, stopping only to breathe and cry, and hope.