"Are you sure this is safe?" stammered Miss Eliza Livingston, dubiously eying Cressidor Blan-Virgine's dog. Miss Livingston was the governess for the Tempranillo children, including their youngest, Marcia, who'd come over to the Blan-Virgine house to play.

"Don't you like dogs, Miss Lizzy?" Marcia asked, concerned.

"Of course it's safe!" Cressidor chimed in. "Shuck's a good boy! He's very well-trained!"

The dog in question woofed and wagged his tail, happy to receive praise from his mistress. The sound did little to calm Miss Livingston's nerves, since it was deep and rumbling as befit a creature that stood much taller than either eight-year-old and even the governess. Shuck was in fact fairly large even for a barghest, perhaps owing to a more nutritious diet in the Blan-Virgine kitchens than was found in the wasteland fringes of Hell where the Black Dogs were native to.

Cress gave her pet a pat on the shoulder with a mittened hand. He always got a little depressed when people didn't like him. Reassured by the contact, he gave her a doggy grin, tongue lolling. Miss Livingston didn't seem comforted by his friendly face, though. Maybe it was the little flames licking up and down the length of the tongue. Steam rose from his jaws in the cold winter air.

At least Marcia likes him, Cress thought. That's what's important.

Dismissing the governess as a lost cause, Marcia turned back to Cress and Shuck.

"You said that he plays fetch, didn't you?"

"Mm-hm! Did you want to play?"

"Uh-huh! Louis's spaniel won't retrieve the stick after he goes and gets it, so this'll be fun!"

"Okay, I'll get his stick."

Cress turned and found an eighteen-inch length of metal rod, dented and scratched by past games. Gripping it in both hands, she spun herself around twice to add momentum and let go, sending it arcing into the garden with a cry of "Fetch the stick, Shuck!"

The rod plunged into a snowbank as Shuck went bounding after it, kicking up a shower of snow in his wake. He followed his stick's flight easily, since Cressidor couldn't throw it all that far, but soon got in trouble as he dug around in the loose, powdery snow, because the rod's weight and his own strength made it shift around in the pile, getting deeper and deeper. He backed out and turned back to Cressidor, making the girls giggle at his snow-covered face and chest.

"It's okay," Cress answered the questioning look in his fiery eyes.

With proper permission gained, Shuck turned back to the snowdrift, inhaled deeply, and then breathed out a stream of flame that boiled a wedge-shaped chunk of the snow away to steam. He plucked the revealed stick from where it lay and trotted back, wagging.

"Good boy!" Cressidor praised him when he dropped the rod at her feet. Marcia clapped happily.

"Can I try next?"

"Sure. We'll take turns."

"Do you want to play, too, Miss Lizzy?" Marcia invited politely. Since she turned her head to ask, she was in time to see Miss Livingston's eyes roll up in her head and the governess crumple into a snowdrift in a dead faint. "Miss Lizzy!"

"Mama says that some people are just scared of dogs," Cressidor remarked sadly.