Above our life we love a steadfast friend. — Christopher Marlowe
Major Louis Ferretti led SG-2 down the ramp from the Stargate as the wormhole sizzle-whooshed out of existence behind them and the new trinium-enhanced iris slid shut, its segments interlocking like the petals of some strange metallic flower.
General Hammond met them at the foot of the ramp. “Gentlemen, did you find anything of value or interest on P4X-293?”
Ferretti gave him a crooked grin. “That’s one crazy place, sir. About a mile from the gate there’s this big field of something that looks almost exactly like grass, except it’s speckled with pink. Every blade, bright green and this wild, almost neon pink. Weirdest thing I’ve seen yet, I think, at least as vegetation goes.”
Hammond shook his head, a trace of humor in his expression. “I trust you brought back samples for the botanists to study. You and your men report to Dr. Fraiser and then get cleaned up and changed. We’ll debrief in one hour.”
After the standard post-mission examination by the SGC’s chief medical officer and her staff, Ferretti made his way to the officer’s locker room and prepared to shower. Stepping under the spray, he sighed as he allowed the hot water to relax shoulders tense and tired from carrying a pack. That speckled grass had actually been kind of pretty, he mused. It was also one of the most notable things about the planet they’d visited. Odd-colored flora, some small to medium fauna in vaguely reptilian forms, and not a human being in sight. Truth be told, it had been one of the quieter missions his team had drawn lately, and he hadn’t minded the respite.
Or at least he wouldn’t have, if not for the fact that he’d spent the entire time wishing he and his men, along with SG-1, could instead have been combing P2A-870 for Frank Cromwell.
SG-2’s debrief went quickly and afterward, the major found himself alone with Hammond in the conference room. The general was gathering pages, tapping their edges against the table to align them before placing them into the folder in front of him. He looked up as Ferretti cleared his throat.
“Something on your mind, Major?”
Ferretti nodded. “Yes, sir. What’s the situation with Colonel Cromwell? Has the weather cleared on P2A-870?”
A shadow passed across the general’s eyes, almost too quickly to be noticed — but then again, Ferretti noticed everything. “No, Major. We queried the MALP again half an hour before your return, and the storms are still too intense to risk sending any personnel through the gate.”
“Damn.” Hammond’s eyebrows rose a fraction as Ferretti swore. “Sorry, general. I was just hoping that it was possible to send a team to look for the colonel.”
Hammond nodded. “I understand. Major, as I said at the end of this debrief, SG-2 is on stand-down for forty-eight hours. However, if you and your men are willing to remain on base or otherwise closely available, the mission to accompany SG-1 on the search when the weather does clear is yours.”
“I’ll go and let them know, sir. Thank you.” Ferretti headed for the door.
He paused and turned to find Hammond eyeing him. “Thank you, Major. Colonel O’Neill is going to need all the help he can get.”
Reading the general’s deeper meaning, Ferretti nodded again. “Understood, sir.”
A light snow had fallen overnight, adding a thin layer of fluff to the two inches already accumulated on the ground. True winter weather had arrived in Llanavon a week previously, and the thatched rooftops of the newer cottages and outbuildings bore a frosty coating. Bennaeth Bod’s tiled roof still warmed enough in the afternoon sunshine to shed its load before evening, as did the shingled roof of the cottage that Cromwell shared with Tesni.
At the first snowfall, the colonel’s thoughts had turned to the fact that this would be his second winter in Tir Awyr. Although he’d never dreamed at the time of his arrival that he would remain on the planet this long, he could honestly say he wasn’t at all sorry to be here. Funny how much difference a little time can make, he mused as he stepped out onto the cottage’s porch, drawing on a pair of warm woolen gloves.
A dun-colored shape wriggled and bounced around his feet, panting and barking in excited eagerness to be off. The puppy that Cadogan had given him now accompanied him on a brisk walk about the village in the mornings before being returned to the cottage while his master went for a run. At some point the pup would be big and strong enough to keep up for the entirety of the arduous cross-country training course the colonel set himself on most days, but for now Cromwell felt a short jaunt was enough for his new charge.
Tesni followed him out of the cottage, closing the door behind them. Like her husband, she ran in the mornings as well, and often accompanied him and the pup on walks beforehand.
“Have you decided what to name him yet?” she asked, reaching down to pat the furry head that butted up against her shins.
The puppy had come to live with them eleven days ago, and still had no formal name. Each pup in Ethni’s litter had borne a “whelping name” based on some physical characteristic. The irregular splotch of lighter fur just behind his right ear had earned Cromwell’s pup the nickname Blotyn or ‘Patch’. However, the Pridani held hunting dogs in such high regard that a number of traditions surrounded their ownership. Once a pup was fully weaned and placed with a permanent owner, he or she must be given a formal name to carry into adult life. Tesni had made it clear that since the animal was a gift to her husband from her uncle, the colonel should be the one to name him. Cromwell wished to choose a name that truly suited the pup’s personality — another element of the tradition. He was coming to know the dog better, but no fitting name had yet suggested itself.
“I’m still working on it,” he replied, squatting to check that the pup’s leash was firmly attached to the leather collar.
“Well, the poor creature can hardly remain nameless for much longer, Nye.”
“I know. Give me a day or so, and I’m sure I’ll come up with something. He can be ‘Patch’ until then. I don’t think he’ll come to any harm from it.” Cromwell kissed his wife on the lips as the subject of their conversation wove in and out between their legs, still panting and yipping.
Several turns around the village square failed to tire the pup, who romped excitedly in the snow while wearing an expression of unmitigated joy on his fuzzy face. Cromwell and Tesni turned back toward the cottage, intending to let the dog inside and continue with their own morning routines. When they opened the door, however, Patch refused to go in. Instead he sat down at their feet, gazing up and them and whining. Tesni shook her head, chuckling.
“I guess he doesn’t want to be cooped up this morning,” she said, reaching for the rope leash attached to the porch rail. If he got too restless inside the cottage, Patch occasionally was allowed to spend time in the dooryard, on a lead to prevent his wandering off. The friendly pup seemed to enjoy people-watching, and many of the neighbors would stop with a kind word or a pat for him.
As Tesni bent to remove the walking leash and attach the porch lead to the pup’s leather collar, he pulled away, whining again. “What’s the matter, bach? You don’t want to be on your lead and you don’t want to go inside… what are we going to do with you?” She petted him between the ears, chuckling again as he suddenly lifted his muzzle to lick her face.
Cromwell looked up at the sky, gauging the weather. Heavy grey clouds blanketed the sky. They looked full of snow, and even as he watched them, fat flakes began to drift down. “Go ahead and put his walking leash back on. I suppose I can make it more of a short hike than a run today and take him with me, then turn back when he looks to be tiring. He’s still small enough that I can easily carry him part of the way home if I have to.”
“Are you certain that’s the best idea, Nye?”
The colonel shrugged. “Sure; why not? He seems restless, so at least this’ll get it out of his system. I still have training scheduled with my men this afternoon, so a half-mile or so in the woods should be enough for me this morning.” Cromwell knew he tended to be restless himself if he didn’t get enough physical activity, but a brisk if abbreviated hike followed up by an hour or so of PT with the Black Wolves later in the day should be sufficient. One or two of his men might even benefit from the extra intensity he was likely to visit upon the team in an effort to compensate, he thought mischievously.
Tesni smiled at him. “All right, then. The two of you have fun; I’ll see you back here in a while.”
The puppy surprised Cromwell, who had purposely started out at a slower than normal pace to make sure that Patch could keep up with him. It soon appeared he needn’t have worried. Even when he broke into a jog, the pup ran at his side, outsized paws churning the snow and tongue lolling. The colonel knew from talking to Cadogan that these hounds were bred for speed, strength and stamina, but even so he was impressed by the capabilities of one so young. When he paused to drink from the flask of water he carried on his belt and give his companion a chance to rest, Patch ate a couple mouthfuls of snow and then sat down at his feet, panting through a doggy grin that seemed to say, ‘Hey, let’s go!’
Suddenly, the puppy’s head turned and his expression altered. With hackles up and a low growl issuing from his throat, he stared off into the trees.
The colonel followed the pup’s gaze. Perhaps thirty feet away at roughly three o’clock, a grey shape was visible through the snowy forest. A wolf stood there, watching the two of them.
Cromwell hadn’t yet encountered a wolf on Tir Awyr, though he’d been told they were present. Cadogan himself had explained that the hounds his family owned belonged to stock traditionally used both for hunting the ubiquitous deer and guarding against the much rarer wolves. Indeed, the colonel had encountered wolfhounds and deerhounds on Earth, and the Ethni’s breed looked to be somewhere between the two. Apparently instinct ran strong in them, for this young pup was already reacting to the presence of his ancestral foe.
Of course, a thirty-pound, twelve-week old deerhound puppy, no matter how brave, was hardly a match for a wolf. And neither am I, thought Cromwell. He carried no weapon save a utility knife — a rather largish one, but nevertheless, not something he’d want to have to defend himself with against a possibly aggressive wild canine. According to Llanavon’s residents, wolf incursions were incredibly rare this close to the village itself. Indeed, it was something that happened fewer than once in every fifteen or twenty years, which was why Cromwell and his neighbors didn’t feel it necessary to arm themselves against such creatures when going for a walk or a run within a mile or two radius of home.
Right now, however, he wished mightily that he had the sidearm he’d left light-years away on Earth.
The wolf remained still, a grey shadow in the light filtered through leafless trees and falling snow from the overcast sky. Cromwell could see its nose lift and twitch, sniffing the air. As the three of them stood rooted to the spot, the wind shifted over their frozen tableau, placing the wolf downwind and carrying their scent toward it. Patch still growled, and the colonel worried that this might incite the wolf.
“Shhh…” he hissed, but the pup paid him no heed.
A rustling came from a thicket off to Cromwell’s eleven. A deer broke cover and bolted off through the trees away from both trail and wolf, heading deeper into the forest. The wolf turned and gave chase, disappearing into the trees. A shiver ran down the colonel’s spine as he heard the hunting cries of not just one, but at least three wolves moving away in the direction the deer had taken.
A moment later, he reached down and scooped up the puppy. “Come on, bach. It’s time we went home.”
On the walk back to the village, the colonel’s senses were heightened. Not that he ever really tuned out his surroundings; twenty-odd years spent honing a warrior’s instincts made that impossible. But until now, he’d felt nearly as safe on these trails as he did in his own cottage. At the moment, however, he was fully alert to each small sound from the forest. So, clearly, was the pup he carried, who kept sniffing the air and whining softly. After a few minutes, he set Patch back down on the trail and resumed the brisk walking pace he’d adopted. The pup trotted at his side, still alert for danger. Idris, Cadogan and Nenniaw need to know of this, thought Cromwell. They’ll want to do something about the wolves, if they’re coming in this close to the village and the fields. I don’t mind them if they keep their distance, but we can’t risk losing livestock, or worse.
A wave of relief flooded him as they entered the cottage to find Tesni already there, gathering up her basket for a trip to the baths. Although he’d scarcely dared admit it to himself, he’d worried about his wife’s safety, knowing that her own preferred running trail took her not far from where they’d encountered the wolves.
She looked up as he shut the door and began to strip off his gloves. “Nye, did you hear anything unusual in the forest?”
“You mean the wolves? I didn’t just hear them; I saw one at fairly close range. Actually, this little one noticed it before I did. He got his back up and started growling for all he was worth.” Cromwell scratched behind the pup’s ears with an ungloved hand. “I think I’m going to go have a talk with your brother and Nenniaw. Cadogan too, when he gets back. I don’t like the thought of wolves this close to the village. Not the four-legged variety, at any rate.”
“Yes, we’ll definitely have to do something about them.” Tesni set her basket down on the table and reached for her cloak, pausing to kiss her husband. “It sounds like our little friend here is going to be a good hunter when he grows up.” Shrugging into the cloak, she said, “Gather your things and you can walk with me to the baths.”
Cromwell had hoped to find Idris or Nenniaw in the baths, but neither was present when he arrived. He passed a few moments talking with Armagil, Issui and Coll, but overall he gave abbreviated attention to his ablutions and left the baths again in short order — clean, dressed and freshly-shaved, but with much on his mind. There would be time to take a relaxing hot soak after he’d conferred with Idris and Nenniaw and then led his team through their scheduled training session. Today, he might hold it in the square… or perhaps his Wolves might be just the men to deal with their four-legged namesakes, and would have their exercises by more productive means.
He found Idris at Bennaeth Bod, in the smaller first-floor study that served as the chieftain’s own workspace. Quickly apprising him of the events of his morning run, Cromwell added, “I’ll be honest, this is the first time I’ve been that close to a wolf in the wild.”
Idris looked at him curiously. “‘In the wild’? Where else would you expect to find wolves, Neirin?”
Shit. The colonel realized he’d spoken without thinking. Of course all wolves would live in the wild here, and likely on any of the Five Worlds. The concept of a zoo was so alien that Pridanic had no word for it.
He cast about for some way to explain his remark. “Sorry; what I meant to say is that I’ve never been around a live purebred wolf. My world does have some dogs that are wolf crosses, and I’ve met one or two of those, but they’re at least somewhat tame.”
This answer seemed to satisfy his brother-in-law. “Ah, I see. I know that does happen from time to time, although I’ve never personally encountered one. I imagine they’re very fierce, aren’t they?”
Cromwell nodded. “They can be, yes.” He sipped from the cup of tea Idris had poured for him, mulling over the situation. Wolves might be endangered in many places on Earth, but here the intelligent, cunning predators posed a menace to the local populace and its livelihood. While he certainly didn’t begrudge the creatures their right to live the lives for which they were so beautifully adapted, he didn’t relish the thought of potentially meeting them on any random journey farther than half a mile or so from Llanavon, nor of the hardworking villagers and other nearby farmers losing livestock to them. “I’m given to understand that wolves don’t generally come this close to most established settlements hereabouts?”
Idris topped up both of their mugs. “No, they don’t. The last time we had them this close in the area was…” He gazed at the ceiling, ticking off on his fingers. “It was sixteen years ago. My father ordered a hunting party. I went along. There was just one pack, thankfully, and they numbered only a few. We haven’t been troubled by wolves since, until now. Thank you for bringing this to my attention so quickly.”
“So when are we going to address the issue, Idris? My men and I would be willing to —”
Idris raised a hand. “I know that, Neirin. I want to speak with Nenniaw as well. He’s something of an expert tracker, and so is Dynawd. We’ll want to have some idea of how large this current pack is, and where they’re spending most of their time. Then we can tackle this. Perhaps a couple of days, all right?”
Well, Idris is clan chieftain. It’s his call, and I’m sure he knows what he’s doing, Cromwell told himself. “Of course.”
The snowfall had ceased, and sunshine found a break in the clouds as the colonel made his way home to take care of some chores. Breathing deeply of the crisp wintry air, Cromwell mulled over the conversation with which he and Tesni had begun their day. She was right, he knew. The puppy deserved a name, and having something consistent to call him going forward would make it that much easier to train him.
He recalled the dogs they’d had in the Gulf, serving in the K-9 unit that had been attached to the same forward base where he and Jack had been deployed. One in particular brought back bittersweet memories, for she was a young stray that Jack had found hanging around and had befriended. As a result of some subtle machinations on Jack’s part she’d become part of the K-9 unit, and Jack had wanted to bring her home with him when the war was over. He’d even managed to secure permission to do so, right before his capture. Cromwell had later managed to obtain permission himself to have the dog transported home and deprogrammed so that she would be able to live out her life as a family pet. She’d gone to live with Sara and Charlie just before Jack’s release from the hands of the Iraqis, and Cromwell had seen her only once — and that at a distance — between then and her death, which had occurred not long before Charlie’s own…
Shaking his head to dispel the reverie, Cromwell turned his attention to the here and now as he arrived at the cottage mounted the porch steps. Patch had one trait firmly in common with Star, the dog from Iraq. Both were brave animals, facing danger with aplomb. Like Star, Patch demonstrated a steadfast nature, not allowing fear to distract him from his master’s side. Bravery and loyalty… the colonel realized that he had come upon the very thing he’d been looking for in choosing a formal name for his pup: a core component or components of Patch’s personality. Whatever name he chose would have to be related to bravery or to loyalty, or to some combination of the two.
The Pridanic word for “steadfast” was gadeyrn, which also carried connotations of strength or could also mean ‘robust’ or ‘stalwart’. In his Naina Cromwell’s Welsh the word was cadarn; consonantal mutation and vowel shift apparently had served to alter its sound although the meaning remained essentially the same. The pup that Cadogan had given him exhibited all of these characteristics, mused the colonel. Perhaps his name should be Gadeyrn.
He pushed open the cottage door and entered, blinking as his eyes adjusted from the brightness of sunshine on snow to the dimmer indoor light from windows and hearthfire. A furry missile struck his legs only seconds later, emitting yips of joy. “Down, boy!” he commanded, chuckling as he squatted to pet the pup who promptly began licking his face. Tesni had gone to attend to duties of her own, and the cottage was empty save for himself and his furry charge who clearly didn’t appreciate being left alone for long.
Cromwell hung up his cloak and added a log to the fire, then began preparing meat and vegetables for a pot of stew that would simmer throughout the afternoon. The pup nosed around his feet, waiting for scraps to fall. When none did, save for the single chunk of meat the colonel gave him early in the process, he retreated to the hearthrug and observed his master through soulful eyes.
When he had the stewpot filled and hanging over the fire, Cromwell busied himself with basin and pitcher, washing up. A fuzzy head butted his shins as he dried his hands, and he looked down to see Patch — no, Gadeyrn it is — looking up at him. The pup carried his favorite toy, a rag-stuffed ball made of scrap fabric from Anwen’s sewing room, in his mouth.
“Oh, so you want to play, is that it?” The colonel grinned and scratched between the pup’s ears, then checked his watch, still functional after nearly a year and a half on Tir Awyr and even longer on the same battery. “All right. I have almost an hour, so we can go outside for a bit.”
He patted the pup’s head again. “You have a new name now, too, so you’ll need to start learning it.” He crossed the room to pluck his cloak from its peg near the door. The puppy followed, still carrying the ball.
Once outside, the pup dropped the ball at Cromwell’s feet, his established signal that he was eager to play fetch. The colonel picked up the ball and threw it across the small dooryard, chuckling as his furry companion bounded to retrieve it. “Come on back, Gadeyrn,” he called, crouching and clapping his hands in the ‘come’ signal the dog was already beginning to recognize.
Gadeyrn romped through the snow to drop the ball at his master’s feet. All doggy grin and excited bark, he bounced up and down until Cromwell threw the ball again. “Here, Gadeyrn!” he called again as the pup retrieved the toy.
They repeated the process a half-dozen times before a voice said, “So our friend finally has his new name?”
Cromwell turned to find Tesni leaning against the porch rail with a basket in one hand, watching the game.
“It seemed to fit him, cariad,” he said, grinning.
“Given what you told me this morning, I agree.” She set the basket down on the steps and came to join him, reaching down to pet Gadeyrn, who grinned up at her, his tail wagging. “So, Gadeyrn,” she said. “Do you like your name?”
The tail wagged furiously now, and Tesni laughed. “I think he does.”
She slipped an arm about the colonel’s waist, beneath his cloak. “I’ve brought some fresh bread and cheese for our lunch, and there’s some roast chicken as well, from Glenys. Yes, for you too,” she said to the puppy as he nuzzled her leg. “Let’s go inside and eat.”