(This story is related to "the birth of Suddendusk & Quick Fang's child" - see listing for more related stories.)
Steam rose like smoke from the surface of the pool. Windsong finished shedding her leathers and stepped cautiously into the hot-spring. The water was shockingly hot at first, almost too hot to tolerate, and she felt an immediate flush rise against the skin of her face. Her nose wrinkling against the brimstone stink of the hot-spring, Windsong eased herself down until she had submerged her body past the shoulders. There was a stone shelf shaped around the irregular walls of the pool; Windsong sought it out and brushed debris off of it before sitting. This hot-springs was one of Starskimmer’s favorites, and the rockshaper had been tending this place for turns, giving the pool contours that welcomed the elven body. The water lapped against the sides of Windsong’s neck, as warm and inviting as a lover’s familiar embrace.
It was early spring yet, and the weather was uncertain as to what it wished to do. The last two days had been warm enough for green buds to begin to sprout in the winter-weary woods, but tonight the temperature had dropped again, and the wind smelled of the promise of snow.
Her she-wolf, Half-Tail, settled with a contented sigh near the edge of the pool. Trusting her companion to keep watch, Windsong let her eyes close and rested her head against the shaped edge of the pool.
A cold blast of wind rustled the bare branches overhead, and tugged at Windsong’s many braids. The chilly breeze was like a caress against her heated face. Windsong angled up her chin to best enjoy the soothing touch.
It felt strange, to visit the hot-springs without her lifemate. But Suddendusk was at the side of his other mate. He had spent the last several moons sharing Quick Fang’s den, often despite Quick Fang’s wishes. Round with child as she was, Quick Fang was even more irritable than usual, and chafed at her strange ungainliness. Having borne two children of her own, Windsong remembered well that swollen, heavy sensation. She, however, had welcomed it, and had gloried in knowing that for a time, at least, her body was not entirely her own. Beneath the steaming surface of the hot-springs pool, Windsong’s hands cupped an imaginary belly, stroking the memory of carrying her own daughters to term.
Suddendusk and Quick Fang’s child was due. Windsong opened her eyes and gazed up at the sky. A few flakes of snow had begun to fall, drifting down through the bare branches and melting as they met the rising steam from the pool.
Windsong was happy for her lifemate, knowing how proud he was of this third child of his. He would even boast good-humoredly of his fertility to his brothers and to other close friends. Blacksnake and One-Leg both took it in good measure, having had children of their own. But Windsong was quick to find excuse to take herself elsewhere when she heard it. Her heart was warm with joy for her lifemate, but part of her heart broke each time, as well.
It had been two Turns since her lifemate’s unexpected Recognition with Quick Fang. Two turns of sharing her lifemate with another, and Windsong still found it a difficult thing to do. The huntress refused to allow herself to accept her own impulses toward jealousy or hurt, even as Suddendusk’s time away from his family’s den grew longer. Windsong knew with her mind that Suddendusk had no more choice in the matter than she did herself – and that for as long as Quick Fang bore his child, he would be there to care for Quick Fang and for the babe. Windsong understood the rightness of that, but rightness didn’t keep her warm at night, while her lifemate slept in another elf’s den.
Half-Tail yawned and scratched, then circled until she settled comfortably on the layered moss that surrounded the hot-springs pool. Windsong submerged her head beneath the steaming water and held her breath until her chest ached. Then she sat up again and breathed deep, enjoying the shock of the cold air in her lungs. Soaked with water, her ragged braids hung heavy around her shoulders. It had been several months since she had last tended to them. She had been waiting for Suddendusk to join her, for the private ritual which had been theirs since before Evervale’s birth. But with Quick Fang’s babe now due, Windsong had given up the hope that Suddendusk would find himself free long enough to join her.
Try as she might to bear this without bitterness, Windsong could not keep her own heart from aching. She simply trusted that Suddendusk would return to her, as promised. Windsong was huntress enough to remain patient. She committed herself to stoic perseverance, knowing that after each winter, spring returned with all of its rewards.
Windsong began to strip out her braids, setting aside the colorful beads and hair ties as she went. Alone in the pool, she worked her hair free of each of the tiny braids in turn, then combed out the tangles until her hair hung in a heavy, rippling sheet around her. It felt strange to do this alone. Windsong had not tended to her own hair in many years, not since before her own Recognition with Suddendusk.
Windsong wound a long lock of hair around a forefinger, watching the silken strands closely as if an answer might be hidden in the curve of a curl. How long had it been since she had worn her hair loose? As a child, she had spent hours playing with her hair. Her older sister Finch had always enjoyed helping her braid it up, then comb it out. Windsong smiled at that memory, and thought of how Finch had always best enjoyed braiding Windsong’s hair up into a crown about her head. Windsong had not worn her hair that way since the day of Finch’s death.
Windsong thought of those days, so long ago now. She thought of how much she herself had changed. She’d still felt like a child when Finch had died. And she’d still felt like a child, all of those many years later, when she had been shocked by Recognition to Suddendusk. But maturity had found her, somehow. If not with Evervale’s birth, then certainly with Crackle’s. She thought about the child she had been, and thought of how her role as mother and lifemate had changed her. Certainly patience was one blessing she had earned. But it occurred to Windsong that there was something, perhaps, that she had lost.
Being mate and mother had taught Windsong how to sacrifice for others. The sister Finch had known would not have been quite so forgiving of a mate who strayed. Finch’s sister would have sought out other company without a second thought, and not mourned an empty bed. Finch’s willful sister certainly would not have sat in a lonely hot-spring and felt a pang of guilt at having left her youngest child in her nephew Pathmark’s care, so that she could sit alone in the dark and waiting on the breath of a hope that her lifemate would appear out of the night to join her.
Almost as if in response to that unspoken bidding, Suddendusk’s locksending swept over her. **Windsong! Mytan!** he sent joyously. **It’s time! Her water has broken – the baby comes!**
Suddendusk’s sending ended just as abruptly, as his focus has called to something immediately at hand.
Windsong laughed ruefully at herself and tugged gently at the lock of hair twined around her finger. She wished, for one last time, that her lifemate had been free to join her for their private grooming ritual. Then Windsong resolutely put that emotion aside, chastising herself for what she acknowledged was self-pity.
Was it love that made Windsong content to sacrifice to the needs of others? She knew it was. And try as she might, Windsong couldn’t mourn such a change in her herself. Yet maybe she didn’t need to sacrifice in everything.
“I’ve worn those braids long enough, haven’t I?” she said aloud to Half-Tail, who thumped her tail in response to the calm, certain tone of her rider’s voice. “It’s time to be free of them for a while.” Windsong picked out her many hair ties and separated them carefully from the beads she had worn. She set the beads aside, then looked down at the bits of leather in her palm. Then, with no regrets, she cast the ties away from herself, out across the surface of the pool, and watched as they dropped out of sight into the steam.