Queen stared at the meer before her. A strange female with four small pups huddling behind her. Noble stood stiff and regal beside the strange female, his gaze as impenetrable as always. The dark scar lashed across half of his face made him appear even more stoic than he was. What had he said her name was? Poppy?
Pride and Noble’s sister, Grace, stood by Queen’s shoulder. The fur along her spine was bristling and her teeth shone. At Queen’s other side was her grown son Ruff, from her first litter. He was only a year old but already a big meer. He was taller than Queen, and he stood so close to his mother that their pelts brushed. He had always been protective, but unlike Grace he wasn’t losing his cool, yet. Ruff’s littermates, Daisy and Stripe, hung back from the crowd and shared nervous glances. They were too inexperienced to know how to handle a situation like this.
It was rare that a female meer from outside tried to join a family that she had no blood relation to. And with tiny pups in tow! It was almost unheard of. Sorrel, Queen’s six-moon-old pup, was more inquisitive. Queen watched as she sniffed the pups, who cringed closer to their mother. Sorrel must have realized that they were scared and drew back from them.
There were muffled squeaks from the burrow entrance. Queen’s newest litter was only two turns old and not yet ready to leave the burrow. Queen glanced behind her, about to plunge into the tunnel to check on them, when Grace nudged her. The meaning was clear, so Queen turned back to face Poppy while Grace retreated to check on the pups. Poppy must have heard them too, for she suddenly perked up. “You have young pups?” She asked, and Queen could not deny the quiver of hope in her voice.
“Yes.” Was Queen’s reply. She knew what Poppy was doing. She wanted Queen to put herself in Poppy’s position. Alone and raising four pups.
Queen remembered how it felt before Pride chose her. When she was facing the prospect of raising her first litter alone. The fear and desolation. Knowing that without help she would surely fail as a mother. But then Noble had found her. And then Pride had come, followed by Grace. Without their help Ruff, Stripe, and Daisy may not have survived their puphood. At the same time, they couldn’t afford more mouths to feed. How were seven grown meer supposed to raise seven pups? And their family hadn’t eked out a chunk of territory yet. They were staying in a burrow wedged between Power and Delta ground.
Yet, there was an ache in her chest. Leading a family sometimes required her to make seemingly cruel choices. Was this one of those times? Could she really turn away pups in need and a mother who would do anything to keep them safe, including approaching a family that she didn’t know?
She knew what Grace and Ruff thought. They wanted her to send Poppy far from them but denying pups in need didn’t sit right with her. She knew what Noble thought, Noble had brought Poppy and her pups here, but he would not offer his opinion. This was Queen’s choice. Queen’s and her partner, Pride’s, choice. Her gaze found his startling green eyes from across the sand. Pride crouched some paces away, observing, thinking. His expression was open as he gazed back at her. What he wanted her to know was evident. If she followed her heart, he would support her.
And she knew what her heart was telling her. Before Queen looked away Pride gave an almost imperceptible nod. Queen’s gaze was drawn back to Poppy.
She took a deep breath. “Poppy…” Poppy’s eyes widened with a mixture of hope and fear. Queen offered her a reassuring twitch of her whiskers. “Welcome to the Alphas.