They were waiting for him, all of them.

They were waiting for him, all of them, with their pink, well-​​scrubbed faces, their neatly combed hair, and their spotless clothes. He could smell dinner roasting in some unseen part of the castle, and those servants had been whisked away who had not been required to meet him – bowing and grinning – as part of their duties. It was clearly an important day.

Just for a visit.

“Finn! We’re so glad you’ve come!” Lady Lili beamed.

“Just for a visit,” Finn said quickly.

“Of course,” she replied, faltering neither in her speech nor her smile, “but do stay as long as you like. We shall make room!”

'Do stay as long as you like.'

“I’m very glad to meet you,” he added. It was not an apology for his rudeness, but it was the best he could do.

Finn could not see his father’s face from where he stood, but he could almost hear him grinning.

Always before today there had been someone else with him to ease the awkwardness of being with his father, someone he knew well – Osh or Paul, or even his cousins Catan or Flann. Today there was no one.

Today there was no one.

Indeed, of all the people there assembled, it was his father he knew the best. It was his father who would have to ease the awkwardness of being with the others. It did not occur to him that anyone else would be feeling as nervous as he.

But there was someone else – someone he knew perhaps not as well, but who could ease the awkwardness better than any man or elf.

Old Belsar came padding up to him.

Old Belsar came padding up to him, so meekly that one could scarcely hear his claws clicking on the floorboards, and if his tail had been longer, he would certainly have been carrying it between his legs.

Finn grabbed him by the rolls of dense skin that protected his neck from bites. “Remember me?” he asked, playfully shaking Belsar’s heavy head from side to side.

If the dog’s mind had been keener he might have been alarmed by this sudden affection, but Belsar was not so burdened. “Isn’t this wonderful?” he yowled, trembling with hopeful excitement. “Isn’t this wonderful?”

'Isn't this wonderful?'

“This is wonderful!” Finn agreed, laughing like a dog until he could bear it no longer and had to laugh like a boy. “I’m so happy!”

“I’m so happy too!” Belsar cried. Now his claws could be heard, as well as the thumping of his paws as he leapt and pounced in glee.

“Woo woo woo!” one of the little boys howled, trying and utterly failing to imitate the dog’s speech. “You sound just like a dog!” he laughed.

'You sound just like a dog!'

Finn felt his father’s broad hand settle for a moment on his shoulder. “Finn, this is your brother Wulf.”

Finn was too young, too childless, too foreign to understand what had weighted his father’s voice down to a register deeper than even its usual bass, but he did not need to understand it to feel it settling over him. He wanted to shrug it off, but the best he could do was to shrink away from the hand.

The best he could do was to shrink away from the hand.

“Half-​​brother,” Finn whispered.

“My mother was an elf,” Wulf said proudly.

'My mother was an elf.'

That much was made apparent by the pointed ears, but Finn did not find it a reason for pride. It were far better to have a human mother as he had – with a drop of khórrón blood, making her more than a mere woman.

Nevertheless, it was also apparent that he and the little boy were sons of the same father. They would both have the nose and the chin. Even strangers would recognize them as brothers, in spite of the ears.

“What about you, Gillie?” his father asked.

Finn turned and came face-​​to-​​face with a face he almost recognized.

Finn turned and came face-to-face with a face he almost recognized.

“I’m glad to meet you,” the little boy mumbled.

“That’s Gils,” Wulf explained. “He’s five,” he added apologetically, as if the fact rendered him significantly less interesting.

Finn, however, found him fascinating. He had already been made to understand that his foster brother was the child of a rape, but no one had told him who the father might be.

Now, for a moment, he felt as if his world was spinning out from under him.

Now, for a moment, he felt as if his world was spinning out from under him. Gils had the face the old elf Dru must have had when young. Dru had been a friend of his father – his elf father. How many times had Finn drifted off to sleep to the comforting rumble of the two big elves’ voices from the front room?

But he was reassured by the memory of the last time he had seen Dru’s face on a stranger. This little boy did not have Dru’s heavy, glaring eyebrows, but thinner strokes with an insolent lift, and the same night-​​blue eyes beneath. The elf Lar was this boy’s father. It did not occur to Finn to wonder how Lar had come to look so much like Dru.

“Let me look at you!” Lili pleaded.

'Let me look at you!'

Finn turned to her, eager to find something inoffensive on which to rest his eyes. She was not beautiful like an elf, but she was indeed cute, as everyone had promised.

Still, he found it shocking – and embarrassing – that men allowed their wives to show themselves when they were so obviously pregnant. It was all the more embarrassing to remember that it was his own half-​​brother or half-​​sister in her belly – and excruciatingly so when he thought that his father had put him there.

“Ach, Egelric!” she sighed wistfully at the sight of Finn. Then she leaned closer to him and giggled, “You won’t be offended if I tell you you look just like your father?”

'You won't be offended if I tell you you look just like your father?'

“I shouldn’t,” Finn said, “since he says you tell him he is very handsome.”

“Oh, does he?” she laughed.

“I didn’t know it was a secret, henny,” his father said. He bent suddenly to scoop up a tiny girl as she ran past, on her way to join Belsar in his ecstatic gyrations. “Come here, girlie! Let your Da have a look at you!”

'Come here, girlie!'

Jehanne squealed and kicked her feet at the empty air, apparently delighted to find herself trapped.

“Let me have a look at you, too, Finn,” his father said with that low, low voice again.

'Let me have a look at you, too, Finn.'

“The devil!” his father whispered when he had lifted Jehanne up to the height of Finn’s head. “Wulf has the look of his mother, but the two of you are the image of me, I’m afraid to say. If you’ve ever wondered what you would have looked like as a woman, Finn, you’ve only to wait until this wee girlie grows up a bit.”

“Don’t I look at all like my mother?” Finn asked mournfully.

'Let me have a look at you, too, Finn.'

“Ach!” he smiled. “You’ve her fair skin and her freckles. She – ” His voice broke as Finn’s often did, but instead of sounding ten, his father suddenly sounded seventy. “She always did hate her freckles, poor girlie,” he said hoarsely. “And she never did believe me when I told her I loved them. She never did believe… those things…”

His father tucked Jehanne under one arm and reached up with the other hand to roughly pat Finn’s fair and freckled cheek. Finn turned it aside so the hair would fall over it.

He had developed a dread of his father’s hands – they were big and broad, and the backs were dark and spotted with black hairs curling over them, and the palms bore thick calluses like scales. They were still a farmer’s hands, as his father said, after all these years. They were everything that was inelegant about hands, but the worst seemed to be when they touched him, for they were a weight Finn could not bear.

They were a weight Finn could not bear.

His father had not said so, but Finn thought he had his mother’s hands. He would love them more than ever, since they and her skin were all he had from her; he would never know her face if it could not be seen in his. But forevermore he would treasure the freckles he had always hated, because she had hated hers too.

Belsar came bumping between the legs of Finn and his father, just in time to provide an excuse for Finn to escape that sorrowful gaze.

'I'm so happy!'

“I’m so happy!” the dog grinned.

Finn tackled him to the ground. “I’m so happy too!”

“He certainly does like you!” Lili cried.

“Because of my odor,” Finn explained. “His nose tells him I’m his master’s pup.”

'His nose tells him I'm his master's pup.'

“I guess I am, too!” Wulf said eagerly. “And Jehanne too! We’re all your puppies, Da!” He laughed and rolled around on the couch very much like a dog indeed.

Finn leapt on the dog and wrestled with him until Belsar gave up and begged to be stroked, and then he stroked him until Belsar gave up and fell asleep.

He stroked him until Belsar gave up and fell asleep.

He was only a stinking, stupid dog, but from Belsar’s level and with Belsar in his arms, Finn found these people far less intimidating. Now that he had Belsar to ease the awkwardness, now that he was on the floor and safe from his father’s heavy hands, he could talk and laugh and almost feel at home.

Finn still knew far more about dogs than men. It was easier to be this man’s puppy than this man’s boy.

It was easier to be this man's puppy than this man's boy.