“I’m truly sorry to hear such news,” Eirikr said pensively to Hilton Wheatley as he set the coin down on the counter in front of the man. “I’ve never met Fletcher, but I’ve heard good things about him. He’s Oendir’s second in command of the Wayfarers’, isn’t he?”
Wheatley nodded and wrapped Eirikr’s purchase in heavy brown paper. “Aye. Good fellow. And the missus was a good lady. Smart and kind, she was.” The young man sighed. “The whole thing’s just tragic. ‘Cept, of course, the baby.”
Eirikr agreed, bade Wheatley a good day, and grabbed his package from the counter. He tucked his chin as the winter breeze hit his weathered cheeks and took long strides down the lane from Whitethorn & Wheatley’s. In front of the younger proprietor of the shop, he refused to let his appropriately solemn expression crack beneath the crushing emotion that hit him as soon as Wheatley said “wife died.”
Few people knew him well enough to know that back in Dale, he had been married to the most beautiful woman in all of Arda. That the moment he had met her selling bread at her father’s cart in the market, he had fallen for her and never wished to get back up. Even his brother and sister couldn’t understand why the smell of peppermint made him smile and a daisy could bring him to tears.
The brutal winter wind whipped his cloak about his calves, but Eirikr hardly felt it as he pressed on toward home. He didn’t want to think about her, not now, not ever, because it just hurt too much to think how he failed her not only with her death, but also by her child.
But how could he have cared for the infant in the wilds? In the mines of Moria, or even back in Bree without its mother there?
Sometimes, in the forest, he could hear him crying.
The letter that Eruviel had tried to give him at Yule had said the family had named him Eboric.
Crushing bands of steel around his lungs prevented him from taking a breath.
He did not want the child to have a name. He did not want to see how big his hand had grown or that his hair and eyes had not yet settled into their permanent colours. He did not want to know how strong or smart or funny he was and he definitely did not want to think of him halfway across the lands without him or his mother.
At the gate to the Tenorbekk cabin, Eirikr paused. Beneath his heavy mantle, the hairs on the back of his neck stood up and he felt the heavy gaze from across the road settle on him. Turning slowly, he found the glittering eyes in the trees.
The wolf pushed his head forward enough to confirm Eirikr’s statement and withdrew into the shadows.
Eirikr hesitated only a moment before he crossed the road and plunged into the trees that bordered the land opposite his. A flash of a tail and a trail of fresh paw prints in the snow led him away from the warm fire of home and deeper into the woods. Clutching the package to his chest, he ducked branches and heaps of falling snow until he came into a clearing lined with pines.
Grey sat on his haunches waiting for him. As Eirikr approached, he simply stared up at him with his large, understanding eyes. They followed the man as he knelt in the snow and held his gaze.
“How are you, boy?” Eirikr said. He was surprised at the sound of his voice: hoarse and strained. He raised a hand to touch his cheek and among the cold streaks where snow had melted into watery streams, warm streaks mingled lukewarm on his skin. He didn’t remember letting them come, but they were always there waiting for him to finally face them.
He didn’t wipe the tears away and pressed his face against Grey’s. The wolf nudged him patiently to let him know he was listening.
“What am I doing, boy? He’s out there without family. How can I just ignore him? How can I do that to Nin?”
The wolf did not reply with anything more than a serene gaze.
“I can’t just forget him. Eboric. I can’t forget Eboric. But I miss her so much and it just hurts to even… What do I do?”
Grey pointed his black nose at the sky and let out a long, mournful howl. Then he nudged Eirikr’s arms where he held the package.
Looking down, Eirikr wiped his face with his glove and held up the package. “Just some trail rations,” he explained. “What, you want some?” He began to unwrap the package, but Grey gently pawed at his arm. The great wolf butted his head against the man and nearly pushed him over into the snow.
“Grey! Ho, there!” Eirikr threw back a hand and caught himself. “What’s gotten into you?”
Grey continued to shove Eirikr until he was knocked to his side and then leaped on him when he turned to his back. His heavy paws pressed into Eirikr’s chest as he stared down into the man’s eyes. Once he caught Eirikr’s gaze, he continued to stare, getting closer and closer, until Eirikr finally looked away.
“Fine! Fine, yes. I will write the family. But she’s gone and I don’t know when she’ll be back. She has the letter.”
Satisfied, Grey stepped from Eirikr’s stomach, being careful to launch from his tensed abdomen. The wind was forced from Eirikr’s lungs and he doubled over, glaring at the animal. But as the weight of the wolf lifted from his chest, Eirikr’s mind seemed to clear. Turning onto his side clutching his stomach, with the chill of the snow biting into his cheek, he let out a sigh.
He would write to the family that took in Ninim’s son. His son. He would promise to take care of him now that she’s gone.