**My chief! You have a daughter!**
The open send was from Kestrel -- the elder was one of the few in the tribe who was strong enough a sender to reach the distance, more than a day and a half's ride from the Holt. There other minds joined with hers in that triumphant send, shimmering shadows of excitement and happiness. **Congratulations my chief! Whispersilk and the cub are both well, and are waiting for you to come home.**
The babe. After two Turns of waiting, the child of his Recognition had been born. Windburn clutched his bow tighter, and his booted feet crunched in the snow as he turned away from his companions. He looked up into the clear night sky. The stars above sparkled and glittered like ice, distant and unreachable.
The rest of his hunting party watched him, their faces bright with joy. Windburn forced himself to overcome his sense of bewilderment, of being adrift, and managed to find a smile somewhere to present to them when he turned to face them.
"Let's finish," he said aloud, as he'd said only a little more than two hours ago, when Kestrel had sent to tell the hunters that Whispersilk's water had broken and that she was going into long-awaited labor. "We don't know how long this break in the weather will last. Let's not waste it."
He saw surprise on those familiar faces -- Bowflight, Ringtail, Thornbow, True Edge. On his own father's face, he saw the disappointment he had expected. Windburn knew himself unable to win his father's approval. He figured that if he'd chosen to abort the hunt and rush his hunters straight back to the Holt, Blacksnake's dark eyes would be equally critical of that decision, of rare, clear weather wasted, when the tribe was hungry for fresh red meat.
"Don't be daft," True Edge said in exasperation. "Forget the branch-horns. Windburn, you'll have other days aplenty to hunt by. You'll only ever feast your eyes on your first child but once. Let's go home."
Windburn turned back to face that challenge, giving his uncle a flinty look. "We're a day and a half's ride out. Racing for home now will mean time that time wasted. We make our kills, and we take home fresh meat to celebrate with."
True Edge's expression was argumentive, but he ducked his head in grudging acceptance of his chief's command. The other hunters didn't argue the matter further; Blacksnake had already turned his wolf back onto the trail and was riding ahead, breaking trail for the others to follow.
Windburn scowled at that. He threw another, raking glance toward the sky, taking measure of the stars and the clouds, and seeing no hint of another coming storm, he put aside other concerns and narrowed his focus back to the hunt.
It was snowing again by the next night, as the tired hunters carried home their kill. Windburn looked up from the travois pole he was dragging to see the fur-bundled shapes of his tribemates Bearheart, Dreamberry, Tallow and Finch, breaking a trail through the fresh snow to greet them.
"Chief!" Bearheart exclaimed, pushing to the fore. He embraced Windburn cheerfully and touseled Windburn's hair as he had when his chief had been just a cub. "You've a fine, fat daughter waiting for you!" the bearded hunter exclaimed, grinning with all of a new grandsire's due pride. "Let us take that up, and you ride on ahead to see your mate and pup."
"Go," echoed Dreamberry, giving Windburn's arm a gentle push. "Whispersilk's waiting for you."
Windburn gave his kin a brief nod of thanks, handed over his burden, then slipped onto his she-wolf's back and asked Snowglare for a run. The white she-wolf complied, even as behind them, Windburn overheard Tallow and Finch telling Blacksnake to hand over his share of the haul to them, and to hurry and go and see his new granddaughter.
With a trail broken for them through the snow, it was relatively easy going back through the silent forest to the dentree grove. Warm light and the warmth of home seemed to radiate from the lashed-tight hide-covered windows of the three conjoined hometrees. Windburn flung himself from Snowglare’s back as a hooded tribesmate hurried out of the Father Tree's entrance to meet him. Snowfall had obviously been watching for him on her sister's behalf.
"Whispersilk and the babe are waiting for you in your den," the tall huntress said, her blue eyes glowing with pleasure. "Congratulations, my chief. Your daughter is perfect."
Windburn nodded as he passed her, letting her move on to greet his father as Blacksnake rode up. He took the stairs into the tree one at a time, aware of his dignity, feeling from the hush-and-skyfire atmosphere inside that his tribesmates were listening for his tread from their warren of dens. The central room of the chief’s den would be crowded with his kin. He knew that before he entered, and nodded reflexively to the glowing faces that turned his way without truly seeing them or hearing the words of congratulations they offered. Instead, his eyes were fixed on the dappled hide that curtained off the sleeping den which he shared with his Recognized. He strode to that doorway, conscious of being watched by his gathered tribesmates, intending to go straight to his lifemate’s side without delay. Yet as he reached for that curtain, he breathed in the strange new scent that lingered there. The milky, newborn odor was mixed with Whispersilk's own perfume, and issued from his sleeping den. Windburn caught that scent, and found himself frozen for that instant, one hand reaching out for the fur hanging, his belly gone to knots and his mouth as dry as an empty creekbed.
**newborn** and **infant** and **stranger.** He tasted the flavor of that odor, and it triggered his pulse in ways that mere words had not. The scent made this real in ways that hearty congratulations had not, and inexplicitly, Windburn felt his courage fail him. He stood, hand still outstretched but knees locked.
“What are you waiting for?” called Rhythm, his face flushed from the dreamberry wine that was being passed around merry gathering. “Go see your little girl!”
“She’s lovely, and too little to bite yet!” added Cider with a giggle.
The words spurred him enough to force Windburn into movement. He pushed past the curtain without a backwards glance for the knot of celebrants.
Inside, the chief’s sleeping den was as warm and snug as it could be made, with the windows lashed tight and furs layering the floors and walls. Whispersilk was propped up in the oval expanse of the bed, her black hair a long loose curtain around her. She smiled at her Recognized, her blue eyes half-lidded with cat-like pleasure. Their newborn was cradled at her breast, swaddled in the softest of furs as it nursed. The fuzz of curls on the baby's head shone bright red against the pale cream of Whispersilk's flesh.
**Come and see what we've made,** Whispersilk sent.
Windburn came and sat at the edge of the bed, and rested a hand on his lifemate's thigh. "How are you?" he asked, watching the babe as it nursed.
Whispersilk's laughter was like a bubbling stream. "Glad she's out!" she said with a smile, her eyes sparkling as she watched their child nurse. "I've got a lap again; I can use my laploom again! You have no idea how frustrating the last few weeks have been, hardly able to get to my weaving. Lucky for me, our little masterpiece here has all sorts of admirers who can't wait to tote her around and change her soiled wraps." Whispersilk caressed the babe's sunset-red head, and she spared a glance for her lifemate. "I want to name her Foxtail. She's as red as a fox, just as you must have been as a cub, and I can already tell that she's got your grandmother's temperament. She'll be a handful, this daughter of ours."
Windburn reached out a cautious finger and stroked the babe's head. The infant didn't interrupt her fierce feeding at her father's hesitant touch; instead, the busy little face puckered harder and the eyes flickered, a momentary flash of new-leaf green. Whispersilk chuckled with pride.
The curtain door stirred, and Blacksnake entered; Snowfall glanced in, smiled to see the family together, and pulled the curtain-door closed to give them privacy. Blacksnake knelt at the bedside, his eyes fixed on his grandchild.
“Look at her, the greedy little thing,” Blacksnake said. “She’s a strong little kitten, isn’t she?”
“She’s determined,” Whispersilk said with pride. “She knows what she wants, and she’ll get it or else.”
Blacksnake smiled at that, a smile rich with pride and delight, but shadowed as well with grief. “Aye. Just like a little chief should,” he said.
A moment of cold calm dawned for Windburn, and the nebulous fears which had been gnawing at his marrow since first catching the newborn’s scent crystallized. He saw his father’s eyes on the tribe, and knew what it was he so feared.
All his life, Windburn had struggled to grow in the shadow of his chief-mother’s firstborn son, Riskrunner. Riskrunner had always been stronger, cleverer, more able, more charming – and no matter how hard Windburn had tried as a youth and as a young hunter, he had never been able to be his brother’s match in anything that was important in the eyes of their father, Blacksnake. Easysinger had been more forgiving, and had taken more pride in Windburn’s artistic talents, but a painted bow didn’t shoot straighter, Blacksnake had said. A painted arrow didn’t bring home meat to feed the tribe’s hungry. Painting pretty designs on weapons or hides or pottery was fine enough during the long nights of winter when a hunter couldn’t safely forage, but more valuable to the tribe, to a chief’s son, was skill in hunting, in bowcraft or spearcraft or fishing and tracking. At times, Windburn had won rare compliments from his father… but never could he win that proud, bright glitter in the eye that Blacksnake always had when it was Riskrunner he looked upon. When Riskrunner had died, Windburn knew that their father would have traded Windburn’s life for his favorite’s. And that unspoken knowledge haunted him, and would continue to haunt him life-long.
And here the new child was. Windburn’s daughter was like a freshly tanned hide staked out beneath the brush for painting. She was raw and unformed, and he knew from his own painful experience that her life would be shaped by his actions and his mistakes. And something more as well – his daughter was the one the rest of the tribe would look to when Windburn himself had died. She was the flame-haired promise of his own mortality, someday, somehow. She was his future and his ending both. She was perfection in this unformed state. And looking at her now, Windburn knew with a fierce, aching passion that he would never be able to be as perfect a father for this child as she needed. He would do his best. Windburn was resolved to that. But she was so fragile, so precious. In a flash, he imagined a thousand ways he might fail her.
He would make some mistake with her. He knew he would. And then she would grow up as torn inside as he himself often felt, especially when he remembered the glitter that had been lost from his own father’s eyes the night of Riskrunner’s death.
“Look at that hair,” Blacksnake was murmuring. “She’s as red as a vixen.”
“Foxtail is what I want to call her,” Whispersilk said, laughing at Blacksnake’s words. “If her father agrees.”
Windburn nodded slowly. “It’s a fine name,” he agreed.
With an abrupt popping smack of her lips, the newborn decided she’d had enough to eat for now and released her mother’s nipple. She gave a long, lusty yawn, smacked her lips experimentally a few times, and then subsided with a sigh. Whispersilk pressed a kissed against her daughter’s fiery head, and then offered her out to her father. “Here. Your turn to hold her.”
Windburn awkwardly accepted that charge, feeling himself as clumsy as a drunken bear. He held her stiffly, fearful of dropping her and bruising that glowing silk of her skin, or shattering her eggshell bones.
|Illustration by Megan M.|
“Not like that,” Blacksnake snapped, reaching at once to correct his son. Windburn misinterpreted that reach and willingly gave the infant over into his father’s arms. “That precious little neck is weak, you’ve got to support her head like this,” Blacksnake said, showing Windburn how it was done. Blacksnake moved to hand the infant back, but Windburn shook his head, reaching instead to busy himself instead with his lifemate’s care.
“And you, love? Are you well?” he asked, tucking the sleeping furs gently around her shoulders, then taking up her cold hands and chafing them between his own to warm them.
“I’m well, and can’t wait to get back to my weaving!” She beamed at him, always pleased to have her lifemate’s attention. “I’d very much appreciate having my laploom again, if someone will fetch it for me. I had to give it all up for my belly these last few months, and I’d be so happy to get that last bit of that moufloun scarf woven…”
Windburn rose at once, glad to have a mission to occupy him. He glanced once at his father, saw Blacksnake wholly absorbed in cradling his new granddaughter, and quietly slipped out of the den doorway, his father’s whisper in his ears as he went.
“You’ll be a fine chieftess someday, precious little kitten,” Blacksnake was saying. “I’ll help see you raised right, and you’ll be strong and beautiful, and your grandmother Easysinger would have been so very proud and pleased with you…”
Windburn closed his eyes and breathed a prayer of hope to his departed mother’s spirit, holding close to his heart the faith in him Windburn knew Easysinger had always held. ‘I promise you I will not make the mistakes with my daughter which I fear,’ he swore. ‘I will not, and upon my soul, my daughter will be everything that I know that I am not.’
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