“Owe, thayt’s a good ‘un!” said Moppit, remarking the little girl’s powers at snow building. “Round thayt boulder off at the bottom, and she’ll be a good base fer the rest. Yew awl right, Feiza?”
He turned round to where Feiza was a moment before and found only a cloud of moving snow dust and a tangle of fur and limbs.
“All right, Feiza, all right,” was the muffled voice from under the knot.
“Right yew are then,” said Moppit, and then turning back to the little girl, “Owe, thayt’s a noice scarf yew done brought for him.”
“Her,” said the girl stoutly. “It’s a girl.”
“Owe, sorry, love. Aw shoulda known with such a lovely figyah as thayt.”
The girl spied the two shapeless boulders of snow laid atop one another and giggled to herself. “You have very pretty eyes, Mr Moppit,” said she, oscillating on her toes and looking coy.
“Owe, isn’t thayt a lovely thing tah say,” Moppit crooned, colouring. “Well, maw mum gave me this one,” pointing to his left eye, “and this one Aw bought in a shoppe on Tuppman,” pointing to his right eye.
The girl canted her head and frowned, examining Moppit thoroughly, marking the different coloured irises and the manner in which one eye was animated and the other eye decided it was dead. “Which eye do you like better?”
“Well, maw real one’s got the pretty colour, but maw other one can see better.”
The girl appeared to think about this, but before she could ask Moppit how a glass eye improved his vision, a long shadow appeared beside her. “Oh, hiya, Mr MacDunnaigh,” she chimed, staring up at the shade looming over her.
“Hullo, Milleigh,” said a sonorous voice.
“We’re makin’ a snowman, but it’s a snowman that’s a woman.”
“Good fer you, darlin’.”
“We’re gonna put the scarf on her. Wanna play with us?”
“Sure, in a minute, babe. Who you makin’ that snowman with?”
“Oh, this is Mr Moppit.”
“Moppit, aye?” said the voice, in a threatening tenor.
“Aye! He helped me find some rocks, and we’re gonna put them on for the eyes when we’re finished.”
“Aye, that’s good o’ you, darlin’. Mho ludhan, mind if I borrow Moppit for a minute?”
The girl hummed and looked displeased. “All right, Mr MacDunnaigh, but ye gotta bring him back, ‘cause we gotta finish this snowman woman before my ma calls me to bed.”
“Aye, I will so.”
The long shadow moved farther off and the voice belonging to it directed itself at Moppit and said, in a seething tone,“You.’Mere.”
Moppit’s eye wandered toward the edge of the shadow and found two large near the top of the neighbouring bank. He followed the shadow line and found two immense legs presiding over the brow of the hill. A sudden horror seized him, he reached instinctively for the knife hidden beneath his belt, but as he grabbed the handle, the resonant voice called out, “Wouldn’t do that, if I were you. Wouldn’t do that at all.”
Moppit released his hold on the blade and looked up, finding a wide chest with arms folded across obstructing the view above. An obscured brow and darkened expression lay somewhere beyond the summit of a wide chin, but the look of a man displeased blazed forth from his eyes in a quiet fury.
“’Mon,” the voice boomed, “wanna talk to you for a bit.”
Moppit felt the breath of a smith incited fume against his face, and when the man turned and walked toward the shelter of a nearby bough, the shoulders that countless years bent over a forge could produce came into view, the arms that bore the brunt of hammers and anvils clashing in iron warfare flexed, and Moppt shrank into himself as he followed Mr MacDunnaigh into the brush. He stopped when the shadow stopped and stared at the man’s heaving chest.
“Haw, you,” the voice seethed. “Yer gonna tell me yer wantin’ with our wee-uns.”
Moppit’s shoulders tense. “Just playin’ in the snow, sir,” he whimpered.
“Oh, aye? Yer friend there don’t look like he was playin’.”
Moppit felt an arm raise beside his head and move as though pointing to something. He turned and found Feiza swinging the children about, holding them by their elbows and twirling them round, their heels skimming the ground as they whirled.
“And you got a blade on you…”
Moppit felt a curl of hot breath pressed against his the back of his neck, and he dreaded turning back around, fearing the face that he knew must be behind him. “Maw knife’s for protection!” he whined.
“Aye, and yer gonna need it from me if you come here just to rile us.”
Moppit closed his eyes and turned toward the man with a quivering lip. “Aw swear it, sir- Aw swear! We ain’t here to do nuthin’ but enjoy the holiday!”
“Aye, yer not, ‘cause I ain’t gonna let you. I’m the smith here—“
“Aw gathered thayt, sir.”
“—and I know yer new here and bein’ friendly-like, probably ‘cause yer captain told you to behave yerselves…”
The voice trailed. There was a pause, Moppit opened his eyes and looked at the wall of leather and knitted wool before him, and as he looked up, a warming sensation fell on his neck: it was a hand, a hand that Moppit was paling about, the large palm settling on his back and the fingers spreading over his nape. All breathing here ceased, and Moppit, rapt in a thrill of horror, stared at the man’s boots, divided between tears and trembling consternation.
“I’m a good man,” said Mr MacDunnaigh, “but if you put a false hand on our wee-uns ot play with ‘em too rough—“ The grip around Moppit’s neck tightened, and a shadow fell over his features as the smith leaned down, to say, in a low growl,“—I’ll break you.”
A yelp and a “Yes, sir!” closed the business, and just as Moppit sniveled to himself, crumbling under the agony of the smith’s hand, the hand was gone, and smith gone likewise. Distinguishing sounds recommended the smith was moving farther off, the crepitations of heavy steps ploughing through the snow diminished, and Moppit turned around to see the smith lurking over Feiza, who had launched himself onto a heap of giggling children.
“Sure’n the bear’s got yous now!” Feiza cried, raising his claws and nuzzling the child under his chest with his nowl. “Us ain’t lettin’ you go till you pay the bear toll A pot o’ honey for each o’ yous! Raaa--! What--? Amhaile, whose got me?” He was being pulled from the pile, was being lifted, was being taken off his feet. The children and the snow soon fell away, his limbs dangled helplessly being suspended by his tail, and he felt himself being conveyed toward the dock.
“Aff with you, a chilladh,” a voice bellowed. “Don’t care if you are Frewyn. You came off that ship, yer goin’ back on it till you learn how we do things here. Ain’t gonna let you play rough with our babes how you want.”
“Sure’n us weren’t hurtin’ ‘em!” Feiza cried, watching himself hover over a moving gangplank.
“Aye, but you woulda hurt ‘em with that playin’ soon enough.”
Moppit watched from the bank as Mr MacDunnaigh walked toward the ship, the plank bending under the weight of a gargantuan man carrying a small bear, the wood creaking in anguish as he mounted the deck, and he swallowed, wondering how the captain should accept a man uninvited on his ship.
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