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This is one of the bonus stories from “Coming Home.”  For those of you who purchased the three ebooks that made that book up, this is a partial thank you.  The rest of the bonus stories will come out over the next few months.  Remember, reviews are the second best way to say thank you to a writer, and they’re much appreciated.


Losing an Old Friend

The crisp air of a fall morning greeted Elsked as he slipped through the kitchen door and trotted across the courtyard to the garden gate. Most of the beds had been cleaned out weeks earlier and covered over in leaves from the giant maple which grew in the courtyard’s center, but the pumpkin patch had been left alone until after the autumn holidays. It was a perfect morning to hunt for the greatest pumpkin in the garden.

The Young Prince’s blue eyes twinkled as he spied a pumpkin nearly as wide as he was tall, and he made a mental note to bring his father to this one first. He and his sister Lytteren had a bet on who would find the largest gourd, and he intended to collect the archery lesson she had promised if he won.

Elsked slowly circled the pumpkin, then looked around to see if any larger examples were to be found. Shaking his head, he smiled conspiratorially as he tried to remember the levitation spell his mother had told him about earlier that week.

“Just have to secret you away for a while,” he said as he patted the pumpkin’s bumpy exterior, which was wet with cold dew from the night’s frost, “then sister can be surprised when I… find you.” The boy laughed at his plan and what he expected to see on Lytteren’s face when he and his father rolled the huge pumpkin out of the garden.

Just then, he spotted a bit of pale yellow in the pumpkin patch’s sea of green and orange. Forgetting the great pumpkin behind him, he approached the oddity cautiously, then laughed when he realized that it was Turf of Azure, his mother’s hound.

“Having a nap in the sunshine, old girl?” the Young Prince said. He reached down to scratch the ancient dog between her ears, then stopped when he saw that her eyes were wide and she was panting in distress. When she sensed his touch, a whine of pain erupted from her muzzle, and she tried in vain to get up.

Elsked cried out when he saw the dog’s condition, and he ran shouting to the house. Azure returned her head to the cold ground, and tried to catch her breath while she waited for him to return.

 

Lytteren knelt down next to the dog after following Elsked back to the garden. Tears streaked the boy’s face, and Lytteren felt her own eyes water when she saw how Turf of Azure suffered. Her stomach was distended, and one of her hind legs did not seem to respond when she tried to rise from the ground.

“Shhh, girl,” the young maid said soothingly. “Be still now. Mother and father will be here in a moment.” She had sent one of the kitchen boys running to fetch them when Elsked stormed into the house, stammering about the dog and begging her to come back to the garden with him.

While they waited, brother and sister tried to calm their pet, who cried out in pain every so often as they gently ran their hands over the golden fur on her head and neck. Moments later, Ruarin and DaddyBear, both still in their dressing gowns, hurried into the garden. The Lady of Eyre gasped when she saw how her dog suffered, and paid no mind to the damp earth as she knelt down next to Azure.

“It’s alright, girl, I’m here,” she whispered in a hoarse voice. She looked deeply into the dog’s eyes, then carefully ran her hand across her abdomen. A concerned frown crossed Ruarin’s normally serene face as she mentally ticked off what she was seeing.

“Something’s ruptured inside her,” she said, choking back tears. “How long has she been out here?”

“She was asleep in front of the oven when we came back from our patrol last night,” Lytteren told her. “That was an hour before dawn.”

“Then the cook probably let her out when she came in this morning,” DaddyBear said in a deep, gentle voice. He knew how much seeing their pet like this pained his wife and children.

“Can you help her, mother?” Elsked said. His eyes were wide with fright, and the icy pit in his stomach made him fear his mother’s reply.

Lytteren placed her hands over the dog’s body and closed her eyes. “Aegritudo,” she whispered, feeling power flow through her, but not hope.

The dog’s body glowed briefly in the morning sun, showing a slow heartbeat and a dull, pulsing light in her abdomen. The Lady of Eyre’s family looked at her for an answer, but she could only shake her head.

“It’s too late,” she said in a voice that was barely audible over the dog’s panting. Then, she took a deep breath and continued, “Anything I can do will only make her pain last longer.”

Her son wailed as if his heart had broken, bringing a baying from the house as Water of Fire and Bounder, their other two hounds, came running to see what was wrong with their young master. Upon seeing their matron prostrate upon the ground, the dogs nuzzled Azure and licked at her face, but she could only lift her head a hand’s breadth from the muddy ground before letting it fall back down.

“Children, say your goodbyes so that we may send her to her ancestors,” DaddyBear said, emotion choking his voice. His heart ached to see both the suffering of his hound and the anguish his family felt, but he kept a placid look on his face as Elsked and Lytteren gently touched their dog for the last time.

“I’m sorry, girl,” Lytteren said. Her voice quavered as she spoke.

“Good girl,” was all that Elsked could stammer. “Good girl.”

Then, DaddyBear and Ruarin put their hands on Turf of Azure’s side. DaddyBear’s hands shook as he whispered, “Goodbye, girl. Thank you.” Ruarin was surprised to see a tear running down into her husband’s beard.

“I love you, pup-pup,” Ruarin said quietly. “We shall meet again.” She nodded to her husband, who removed his hands from the dog, whose breath was shallow and ragged. She swivelled her ear at the sound of her mistress’ voice, and again tried to stand.

Ruarin closed her eyes and fought to control the sobs she could feel trying to bubble to the surface. After a moment, she whispered, “Grasta,” and felt her power once more slip between her fingers.

Turf of Azure took a long, deep breath, then shuddered as she let it out. Ruarin’s charm took away the hound’s pain, but the light behind her eyes soon faded as her spirit slipped from the world. A moment later, she walked into a place where the grass was tall, the sun was warm, and her brother, Walks in Shadow, waited to wrestle with her.

 

Ruarin shook with grief as her husband encircled her in his arms. Their children joined them, and the four of them clung to each other while Water of Fire and Bounder howled out their sorrow. Finally, DaddyBear broke the embrace and knelt down next to the dog’s body.

“Let’s take her to her resting place,” he said quietly. Ruarin nodded gravely, while Lytteren wrapped her arms around Elsked. The young boy still cried unashamed tears at the loss of a pet he had always known.

Carefully, the Minivandian lifted Turf of Azure and cradled her in his arms. He led his family out of the garden and into a grove of trees near the creek that ran behind their home. There, in a small clearing ringed by cornus trees, lay a large piece of dark granite. Its surface was flat and smooth from where an ancient glacier had plucked it from a mountain far to the north. At its center, time and water had worn a shallow bowl, which measured a few hands across and half a hand deep. A beam of morning sunshine stretched along its length, causing the surface to glitter as if it were frosted with diamonds. On the far side of the clearing, sitting in a spot where the sun always seemed to shine, sat a jet-black statue of a shaggy war dog. Inscribed on its base was “Walks in Shadow.”

The Minivandian lay Azure’s body upon the stone. He gently arranged her legs and smoothed her yellow fur until it appeared that she was merely asleep in the sunbeam. He gestured to the other hounds, who had followed them from the pumpkin patch. They lay down in the grass, their eyes moving from the still form on the stone to their family, then back again.

The Lady of Eyre stepped forward. Without ceremony, she lifted her hand and slowly waved it in the air above the dog’s body. Elsked gasped as Turf of Azure dissolved into a pile of cold ashes, then buried his face in his sister’s side. Lytteren stroked his hair in an attempt to soothe him, while her own tears dripped unheeded from the end of her nose.

Ruarin pulled a handful of long, yellow grass from the clearing’s floor, then used it to sweep the ashes into the well at the stone’s center. As she did this, DaddyBear could hear her hum a lullaby that he half-remembered his wife singing to a small, yellow puppy many years before.

When she had pushed all of the ashes into the hollow, Ruarin turned to her family. “Our loyal companion has passed from this world, and it is time for us to tell her story so that she will always be remembered,” she said solemnly. “I want each of you to think of your favorite memory of her, then tell it to us.”

“Mother,” Elsked stammered, “I can’t. It hurts to think of her.”

“It’s all right,” Lytteren said quietly. “We did this when Shadow died. It helps you feel better.” She released her brother and stepped forward to stand in front of the stone.

“I shall go first,” she said in a calm voice. She closed her eyes and thought for a moment before continuing, “It was a long time ago, when I was a very little girl…”

 

Lytteren shuffled her boot clad feet through the long pile of leaves running along the fence between the courtyard where she played and her mother’s garden. Her father had spent the morning raking and sweeping them up, and she had helped by picking up handfuls of them and sprinkling them about. The new puppy, whom her mother had called “Azure,” bounded along beside her. The afternoon sun blazed from her golden fur as she jumped into the pile. The little dog would explode from under the leaves, then disappear again when she landed in a deeper part of the pile.

The little girl wore the new clothes her mother had made for her to play in. The cloth was rough to the touch on the outside, but soft and warm beneath. Try as she might, Lytteren had not been able to wear through it or tear the fabric on the rocks and hard ground she played upon as she had adventures. Her brother was inside somewhere, so she had the yard, the pile of leaves, and the puppy to herself.

Where is that puppy? she thought as she looked around. Azure had yipped and barked as she jumped down into the pile, but Lytteren had neither seen nor heard her for several moments. Her ginger hair, braided carefully by the Minivandian himself, whipped back and forth as she looked for Azure. The girl waded into the pile until it was up to her middle, then called out again for her dog.

“Puppy!” she cried. “Puppy, where are you?” Her brow knotted when the little dog did not reply or come at her voice. “Puppy!”

Suddenly, a yellow ball of fur, damp leaves stuck to its side, burst from the pile. Lytteren screamed as she felt wet paws land on her chest, pushing her over into the leaves, then both of them were submerged in them. A cacophony of squeals, barks, and giggles filled the courtyard before she sat up with the chubby little puppy laying across her lap. The dog’s tail was wagging so hard that her hind end moved with it, and her pink tongue hung from her mouth as she panted.

“Azure!” Lytteren cried out, her voice full of joy and love. She grabbed the puppy on either side of her head and gave her a loud kiss on the snout, which Azure returned by stamping her wet, pink nose on the little girl’s forehead. Then, Lytteren heaved herself back into the leaves and rolled over so that the wrestling match with her puppy could continue. Azure obliged her little mistress, and the two of them cavorted in the leaves until they were spread across half the courtyard.

 

Lytteren’s tears ran down her cheeks, but they did not ruin her radiant smile. “Azure was my first pet,” she said, “and she taught me how to care for something more than I care for myself.”

Lytteren reached up and let several of her tears run onto her fingers. Carefully, she extended her arm so that her hand was above the pile of ashes, then let the drops fall onto them. She turned away from the table and let her father’s arms enfold her.

Once he had comforted his daughter, the Minivandian stepped forward.

“I shall go next,” he rumbled. “Azure was a loyal companion, and she accompanied me into the forest on many nights…”

 

DaddyBear the Minivandian walked quietly down a dark path shrouded by thin wisps of fog. Overhead, the cold light of a winter moon flashed every so often when it found a path between the bare branches of the thick forest canopy. In his hands, he carried Clyfrender, his ancient war-axe, and at his side walked Azure, the yellow hound who had become his constant companion while he patrolled his lands. The dog had her nose to the ground as she followed the trail some loathsome creature had left after raiding the smoke house the Minivandian kept behind his manor.

His wife was home with the children. His eldest son, Bjorn, had wanted to accompany the Northerner when he had announced at dinner that he would be hunting down the marauding creature that had stolen one of their hams, but a stern look from his wife had been enough to get him to disappoint the boy. Lytteren, five summers old and ready to take on the world, had sleepily fussed about being left behind as well, but she was fast asleep in her bed by the time DaddyBear and the dog had slipped through the garden gate and picked up the thief’s trail.

“Got it, girl?” DaddyBear asked quietly as the dog snuffled first this way, then the other at a fork in the path. He could see where something large had bent the dry branches of a brambleberry thicket aside, but the dog did not follow that scent. Instead, she turned away from the path altogether and led her master deeper into the dark woods. The Minivandian could not see any tracks or evidence that something had passed that way, but his hound’s snuffling nose kept them on their quarry’s trail.

His breath coming out in puffs of vapor in the cool, damp air, the Minivandian had to jog to keep up with the hound. Her golden fur, which had darkened and become thicker as she had grown from a puppy to a war hound, seemed to glow in the forest’s half light as she darted between trees and into a thick growth of bushes.

The Minivandian could hear her pawing at the ground and barking a few feet ahead of him when he stopped at the edge of the thicket. “Azure!” he ordered in a deep voice. “Out! Get back here!” The Northerner was worried that she would stir up some animal and get mauled before he could intervene, and an axe would not work well in the confines of the thorny bushes.

Suddenly, Azure squirted out of the thicket, with something dark and low-slung at her heels. The dog yipped as the creature swiped a wide paw at her hind quarters, then turned and leaped upon her foe. A loud growl, almost a roar, filled the woods as the animal tried to fend off the dog’s attack, then it squealed as her teeth clamped down on its back.

DaddyBear raised his axe high over his head, looking for a way to strike without hitting the dog. The creature growled again, and the Minivandian heard its jaws snap on empty air as it tried to lash out at Azure. Finally, it was able to swing its short neck around far enough to sink its fangs into the dog’s flank, eliciting a howl of pain from the hound. She leaped up, trying to get free, but the beast held on. It dug its claws into the frosted ground, struggling to pull the hound back into its underground den.

The Minivandian saw the animal’s wide back as a darker blotch of black in the shadows, but now that his hound was clear, he brought the axe down in a long, whistling arc. It thudded into the creature, cutting through its tough hide and breaking its grip on Azure. The creature growled once more and turned on the Minivandian. Its teeth gleamed in a snatch of moonlight before DaddyBear’s axe swung down again, splitting its skull.

Azure limped over and sniffed the creature, then turned to lick her master’s hand as he reached down to pick it up by its short tail. DaddyBear held it up in the moonlight, then cursed under his breath.

“A skittklo, girl!” he cried out in surprise. In the moonlight, he saw its razor sharp claws, which the squat little beast used to both dig tunnels and to tear apart its prey. A pair of white stripes ran through the coarse fur of its back, and its mouthful of teeth looked fearsome even in death.

“You’re lucky you got it out in the open, dog,” he said as he tossed the carcass back into the thicket. He reached down to pet the hound, then ran his hand over the wound that oozed blood on her side. “If it had dragged you into its tunnels, I’d be looking for a new dog.”

“Come,” he said, signalling Azure with his hand, “let’s get home. You’ve earned yourself a treat.”

Azure panted happily as she walked alongside her master toward the house.

 

DaddyBear felt a solitary tear, which felt hot on his cheek, fall into his beard. Carefully, he scooped it onto his finger, then let it fall into the ashes. He turned to Ruarin, who hugged him close.

“I know, darling one, I know,” she said soothingly.

Elsked swallowed hard, then stepped forward. “Mother, may I go next?” he said. “I think I know what I want to say.” Ruarin nodded and gave her youngest son a reassuring smile.

Elsked looked at the ground, then said, “This is from when I was little, but it’s what I see when I think of Azure…”

 

The little boy crawled along the hard stone floor of the kitchen. His mother and the cook were busy doing something at one of the counters that involved puffs of flour and the spicy smell of sweetbark, but he paid little attention to that. His goal lay on a rug in front of the oven. Azure had long ago passed the age where she could enjoy frolicking in the grass with the children. Instead, she was content to lay in warm places and accept the belly rubs and pats the household gave the elder hound as she enjoyed the autumn of her years.

Elsked had always been fascinated by the hounds, and giggled and laughed when his sister had brought one close enough to pet. The dogs had shown curiosity about him from time to time, but little hands are usually not gentle hands, and losing fistfuls of fur, even when done with love, was not something they enjoyed.

Now, though, the Young Prince could come to them.

Azure opened one green-gold eye as the child scuttled across the floor to her, but did not rise from her resting place. She lifted her head as the boy leaned against her, then let out a contented sigh as he dug his fingers into the loose skin around her neck and started to scratch.

The hound yawned wide as the young master snuggled his face into her fur, then pressed her cold nose against his cheek when he stuck his face close to hers. This elicited a squeal and a giggle from him, and he latched onto one of her velvet-smooth ears and scratched behind it like he had seen his sister do.

Azure stretched out all four paws in contentment, careful to not scratch the child as he moved down and patted her on her flank. Slowly, she rolled over on her back, exposing her belly for him to rub. He laughed as her hind leg began to shake in time to his scratches, then used his hold on her fur to pull himself up onto his feet.

Azure looked up at her young master for a moment, then stood up next to the child. Elsked wobbled on his feet as she did, but was able to grab two handfuls of fur to steady himself. The elder dog nuzzled him under his chin, and the little boy giggled as her whiskers tickled him.

The dog took a step away from the boy, but then Elsked took a step of his own. Azure took another step, which Elsked copied. Soon, the pair were making their way across the kitchen toward the counter where Ruarin and the cook labored. When they had reached the midway point, Ruarin noticed the movement and looked up in surprise to see her son taking steps alongside the hound.

The Lady of Eyre caught a cry of surprise before it could escape and startle her son, then watched as Elsked let go of Azure and took the remaining steps toward her on his own. He fell into her arms just as he reached her, then she swept the boy up and embraced him. He squealed in delight and gave her a gap-toothed smile, and she kissed his cheek.

“What a big boy!” she and the cook cried out together, then Ruarin looked down at her dog. “And what a good girl!”

Azure looked up at her mistress and the young master with her tail wagging slowly. Her face, now almost white with age, held a hint of a smile as she turned and slowly walked back to her place next to the oven.

 

Elsked’s face was wet with tears as he finished his story, as was Ruarin’s. She remembered watching her son take his first steps using the dog to aid his balance. The Lady of Eyre lifted her hand to take one of Elsked’s tears for him, but he wiped them with his own fingers and let them drip upon the ashes.

“It’s not much of a story,” he said in a hushed voice, “but it’s the best I have.”

Ruarin scooped him up and squeezed him against her breast. Together, they rocked back and forth for a moment before she put him back down and took a deep breath.

“And now,” she said in a quiet, sad voice, “it is my turn…”

 

Distant thunder rumbled in the night as the Lady of Eyre slept fitfully in the big bed she normally shared with her husband. A late season blizzard had swept down from the north, and its wind and snow rattled the house in its fury. A low bed of coals burned in the fireplace across the room, and the glow from its embers threw stark, uneven shadows against the walls and ceilings. Outside, the wind moaned through the trees, and pellets of ice rattled down onto the manor’s roof.

Ruarin mumbled in her sleep, the memory of some horror disturbing her dreams. The smell of the fire, which she normally found pleasant, reminded her of the smoke of a cottage burning and of creatures leaping out of the darkness to strike at her.

She cried out, lifting her arms and clawing at an unseen phantom, when the sound of something whining and scratching at the door filled the room. Ruarin paid it no heed until the whining had risen to a mournful howl that woke her and brought her up from her bed before she knew where she was.

The Lady of Eyre looked about her bedchamber in confusion for a moment, then her mind returned to the real world and she realized that it had all been a dream. All of it, it seems, except for the scratching of something at her chamber door.

Ruarin crossed the room and opened the door a crack. She peeked out into the hall to find Azure, the younger of their two dogs, sitting on the floor and looking up at her.

“Go lay down, girl,” Ruarin ordered. “‘’Twas only a dream.” The dog, who was normally obedient to her mistress’ commands, tilted her head to the side but did not budge.

“I’m fine,” the Lady of Eyre said, opening the door a bit wider so that she could step out into the hall. To her surprise, the dog jumped through the gap and rushed between her legs. Before she could spin around, Azure had leaped onto her bed and was sitting upon the coverlet.

“No,” Ruarin said sternly. “No dogs on the bed!” She emphatically pointed to the floor. Azure, for her part, merely cocked her head to the side again, as if she did not understand the words.

“Azure!” Ruarin barked. “Get down!” In response, the hound flopped herself down on the mattress, placing her head upon her folded paws. Her green eyes glowed in the light of the fireplace.

Ruarin’s mouth quirked in irritation. She was exhausted from three restless nights without DaddyBear to warm her bed, and the memories of the nightmare still vexed her.

“Stubborn hound,” she growled as she stalked over to the bed. “Fine, stay there, you brat. Just mind you stay on the master’s side!” Azure let out a contented sigh as she closed her eyes and rolled over onto her side.

Ruarin lay back down and let her eyes close. “Just need some sleep,” she muttered as she felt her body relax once again.

Soon, she slipped into the dream again. The roar of the fire filled her ears as she tried to find her way to the door. Above her, the thatched roof collapsed, sending burning timbers down to fall on either side of her. She tried to scream, but smoke seared her lungs, cutting the sound off. Suddenly, Ruarin felt a weight on her side, then something cold and wet was against the skin behind her ear, and she could feel something snuffling at her hair.

Ruarin’s eyes popped open, and she looked up at the ceiling of her bed chamber. Next to her, Azure nuzzled against her neck and poked at her cheek and ear with her nose. Ruarin took a deep, shuddering breath, and felt the fear and pain of the dream melt away as her hand found the hound’s ear and scratched at her fur.

“Oh, girl, it was just a dream,” the Lady of Eyre said once she felt her heart stop thudding in her chest. “Thank you for waking me.” Azure replied by rolling over to give her mistress somewhere new to scratch.

Ruarin sat up on one elbow and regarded the hound. Azure met her mistress’ gaze, then stretched out languidly and closed her eyes.

“Alright, you win,” the Lady of Eyre said as she lay back down. “You may stay until the master comes home, but don’t get comfortable.” The dog answered her with another contented sigh, followed by snores as she fell asleep.

“Brat,” Ruarin mumbled as she let herself drift off to dreamless rest.

 

Ruarin’s eyes brimmed with tears as she remembered Azure protecting her from the phantoms of her own memories, then she caught one and let it drip into the ashes. She took up a stick from the ground, and began stirring her family’s tears into the dust.

“Azure was a good dog,” she said, “and we ought to always remember her.”

Ruarin stretched out her other hand and whispered, “Meabruchan”. The ashes swirled around the stick, then flared in the sunlight. When Ruarin lowered her hand, a statue of a hound with golden fur and a mischievous smile on her face lay at the bottom of the hollow in the stone. Upon its base was carved “Turf of Azure.” Carefully, Ruarin lifted it up and walked over to the sun-drenched side of the clearing.

“Azure knows we miss her, and we will never forget about her,” she said softly as she set the figure down next to that of Shadow. “This will be here for as long as we keep her in our hearts.”

For a long moment, the Minivandian’s family stood in silence, watching as the morning sun shone on the memorials to their companions. Finally, DaddyBear let out his breath and motioned to Elsked and Lytteren.

“Come, children,” he said in a low, gentle voice, “let’s go back to the house. We need to feed the other dogs, and a bit of breakfast will do our spirits good.”

Together, their arms around each other, the family returned to their home. At the mention of breakfast, Bounder and Water of Fire had raced back toward the house, their yips and cries echoing from the manor’s stone walls.

Behind them, the statues warmed in the sunshine.

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13 Comments

  1. mrgarabaldi

     /  July 6, 2017

    He DB;

    Durn Pollen……..

  2. John in Philly

     /  July 6, 2017

    Yeah, what mrgaraldi said, Pollen, way too much pollen.
    Maybe the feeling of loss when you lose a beloved dog is all the more intense because they are with us for far too short a time.

  3. It got a blurry in here

  4. rt895

     /  July 6, 2017

    Would that we had in truth had the magic to make such monuments to beloved pets.. Dusty in here..

  5. suz

     /  July 6, 2017

    This is definitely a 3 hankie story!! But very good!!

  6. Damn dusty in here, all of a sudden.

  7. Quadrupeds and the way they get into your heart… Well done, sir. Well done.

  8. So there we are, at the Farmers Market, waiting on our barbecue…

    Can’t understand why no one else was affected by that gust of smoke from the smoker.

  9. Dammit! Gotta change the A/C filters again!

    Will Rogers said “If dogs don’t go to Heaven, then, when I die, I want to go where they go.”
    Charlie Brown said “The more I learn about people, the better I like my dog.”

    Lotta truth in both of those.

  10. Alan Rognlie

     /  July 15, 2017

    I was in tears – loving my current mutt and remembering those from the past. Thank you for such a powerful story.

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