“Thank you,” I say, though it hardly seems adequate for the pain she’s saved me. “I don’t think I could have fixed it without—”
She waves me silent with her hand again. “Think nothing of it, youngun. We keep the old ways here, and Dugan has deemed you welcome.”
A high-pitched yip interrupts me as I open my mouth to ask. Startled, I turn in my chair.
There, beside the large hearth, is a tiny grey clump of fur and legs I cannot be near. Our eyes connect and he realizes he doesn’t know me. He drops his head and shows his tiny teeth, and growls.
In one tiny instant, in those tiny eyes, I watch all the goodwill they’ve extended us evaporate into nothing. I dart my eyes over to Dugan’s mate and as quickly as I can—but without any sudden movements—back up and out of my chair, away from him, towards the door. It’s still ajar. If only I can make it . . . . My hands up, I beg, “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize . . . please forgive me, I had no idea—”
I steel myself for the vicious assault I’m sure will come. She won’t be rational, she can’t be—old instincts, I’ve threatened her infant.
But she bursts out laughing, instead.
“Orlaith!” she calls toward the back of the room, “come and get your little brother. He’s scaring our guest.”
She turns back to me, still laughing. “Be still, youngun. He’s small, but he’s a yearling. You wouldn’t have made it through the door, otherwise.”
Oh, shit. I laugh out a breath and suck in a few new ones. “I guess I’m still a little jumpy.”
We share a laugh as a young girl, perhaps three years old, steps around the hearth and picks up the pup. She looks at me, eyes steady, no sign of fear, and asks, “Who are you?”
Funny that I should be warier than her. I look over to Dugan’s mate. She nods.
“My name’s Tiergan. You’re Orlaith?”
She nods, as the little puppy squirms in her arms, and tries to lick her face. She tilts her head to one side, and says, “You want to hold him?”
I can’t help but smile—of course I do. I haven’t held a puppy since Conlan, and I was still a puppy myself. But she doesn’t realize what she’s offering. I shake my head.
“Go on, if you want to,” Dugan’s mate says.
I look over to her and she smiles encouragingly, and directs me towards her daughter—no, granddaughter, more likely—with her arm.
Orlaith crosses the dirt floor, holding the squirming puppy out for me to take and I step forward and drop to one knee to meet her.
I hold out my hand to the little guy and he sniffs at it nervously a few times, then seems to decide I’m okay—he licks my fingers with his tiny little pink tongue. It feels soft against my skin. I giggle, and smile into Orlaith’s eyes as she drops him into my hands.
“Thank you for offering,” I say to her. She eyes me quietly, and steps back.
“His name’s Morey.”
I pull him in towards my chest, and he squirms around in my hands. He thumps his little paws up against my chest, and cranes up to my face. “Well met, young Morey,” I say, and he sniffs at my breath, then starts licking at my chin. It tickles and I pull him a bit away, rearranging him in my arms against my chest.
“He is a bit small for a yearling,” I say to Dugan’s mate, and rub his little head.
“Aye. He was sick for a while.” She frowns for a moment, then continues: “We thought we were going to lose him, but he pulled through. He’s starting to grow again, but he’ll probably always be a bit small.”
I feel his wet nose against my right bicep, and I look down to find him craning for the wound. I cautiously move my elbow a bit closer to him and let him sniff at it. He sneezes once, then starts to lick at the sheen of still-forming scab.
“No, no, little one,” I say, as I pull him away from it. I hold him up and look into his eyes. “It’s a bit sore for that. Thank you, though.”
He sneezes again, and tries to lick my face again. I giggle and put him down on the ground. He wriggles around my feet, and tries to climb up my leg again. I reach down and rub him behind the ears and he drops down onto the ground and rolls over. He squirms quietly, licking and batting at my hand as I rub his tummy.
I look up to Dugan’s mate with a huge smile on my face.
She smiles back.