(This story is related to "the birth of Suddendusk & Quick Fang's child" - see listing for more related stories.)
The thin wail of a new cub. A head of white hair and ears wrinkled like rippleshells. A tiny grasping fist. Pale eyes that looked like they were made of ice. He'd already grown and renamed himself by the time he saw his first birth in the tribe, and the delicate, tiny tribe's son was more strange to him than anything. Newt's arrival made him happy, as it did everyone, but a young bachelor had little time for such an incomprehensible little alien. It was a joy, of course, but not his joy.
Suddendusk stirred, partially waking up as he shifted positions. His hand sought to stroke the hair of his Recognized, and he woke up fully with surprise that the hair he stroked wasn't braided. Even two years later, he was still rather unused to having two elf women to call by the title “Recognized.” So long he'd been alone, six centuries, and then suddenly, like three bolts of skyfire, he had (almost) three cubs and two elves who could call him by Name. Although the path had been a rather twisted and rough one, he never felt more surrounded by love and family.
Quick Fang had grown more and more snappish and ill-tempered the bigger her belly grew, and half the time Suddendusk stayed with her in her den he wasn't sure whether she actually wanted him there or was simply too tired to object. He decided not to mind either way. The closer the new-green and her time to birth their cub came, the more time he spent with her, being unwilling to be too far from her. He missed Windsong and Crackle, the warmth of being surrounded by them in the furs, and knowing Evervale was only a hands-breadth of wood above him, but he also looked forward to this new cub with a fire in his chest hot enough to rival the daystar itself. What would his son be like? Would he be a third auburn-haired cub? Would he have the white hair of his mother's line? Would he become a hunter or gatherer? Craftsmaker or musician? Temperamental like Quick Fang? Gentle like Snowfall? Suddendusk lay awake, stroking Quick Fang's smooth, loose hair, dreaming of the possibilities.
The hearty cry of a strong set of lungs. A mop of silver hair and ears wrinkled like rippleshells. A proud father. A new heir. The chieftess' new cub, this tribe's son, passed from arms to arms and cooed at and exclaimed over. A nephew in miniature. Blackberry took the cub, his brother's son, and marvelled at how such a tiny little being would someday grow up to lead them all with his mother's wisdom and his father's strength. Blacksnake's pride was a palpable thing. A joy, of course, but his brother's joy.
Suddenly, Quick Fang stiffened in his arms, and his wake-dreams vanished.
“Are you all right?”
After a heartbeat or two, she relaxed a little. “Just a cramp.”
He relaxed as well, almost willing to take her at her word. He resumed stroking her hair, although he suspected it was more than just a cramp. He waited.
Soon enough, she stiffened again and sucked in her breath. He raised himself on an elbow and snaked his hand around to her stomach. The muscles were tense and quivering.
“This doesn't seem like a cramp.”
She grunted, a half-growl, and partially sat up herself, cradling her swollen belly and looking at him with questioning eyes. “It hurts. Is this how it happens? Is it coming?” He was surprised to see what looked like fear in her expression. He'd never seen that before, and it made him want to turn the Dentrees upside-down to assuage it.
He nodded, and even though he'd been through this twice before—relatively recently, even—he felt just as lost as he did when Evervale came along. How could he be six centuries old and yet feel so inexperienced and nervous? He tried his best not to let it show. “It might be, yes,” he said. “Evervale gave us one or two false starts before she decided to come out, though. Drove us all upriver.” He bundled up one of the furs and put it behind her, so she could sit up a little. She relaxed into it gratefully.
The steady shriek of an infant. A head ringed with a wisp of dark gold and ears wrinkled like rippleshells. Her eyes squeezed shut against the harshness of the world and the absence of a mother as the newest tribe's daughter was passed from eager hands to eager hands. Hers was the first birth partially seen with only one eye, but it did not diminish his part of the tribe's shared delight. Little Trip only settled when nestled in Tallow's arms. She was a joy, of course, but her mother's joy.
“Do you want me to call for Starskimmer? Or Cloudfern?” He hesitated a moment. “Snowfall?”
He could see the hesitation in her eyes, both wanting and not-wanting her mother. And then her eyes squeezed shut with another wave.
Excitement got the better of him, and he sent for Starskimmer, loud and piercing, and too late realized he'd done so openly. He must have woken the whole tribe with it. Quick Fang opened one eye and glared at him. “You're loud. My head is ringing.”
Starskimmer must have been asleep—her sending was straining to sound coherent: **Has her flood burst yet?**
Remembering the soaked furs at both Evervale and Crackle's births, he replied, **Not yet. Just the pains.**
**Good. No rush just yet, then. I'll be there soon.**
Evervale must have been already awake and nearby, because she was the first to arrive at the mouth of the den.
The sweetest howl he'd ever heard. A head aflame with red-brown curls, and ears wrinkled like rippleshells. Fair cheeks so delicate he feared to touch them. Two years previous, his whole world had collapsed and rebuilt itself around her mother, and now once again around this tiny little tribe's daughter. The world looked so different now, except for them. He felt their familiar presence as though they'd always been there, and he had just now been reminded of them. Joy suffused him, his joy, and he couldn't imagine anything eclipsing it.
She did not come in, though, out of respect for Quick Fang's strong sense of privacy. “Do you need me to fetch anything, Father? More blankets? Water?”
He nodded, remembering. “Thank you, yes. Hot water.” He remembered that much, at least.
Evervale disappeared from the opening, and looking out, he saw Cloudfern and Greenweave already building up a fire, looking bleary-eyed, just roused from sleep. He heard One-Leg's defeated bellow from elsewhere: “Blast it! I was sure she wouldn't drop for another hand of days at least!” It seemed he had indeed woken up the whole tribe. The only one he didn't see stirring was Windsong.
“Father! Father!” Crackle ran breathless up to him. “Is he coming? Is he here? Did I miss it?”
He couldn't help but chuckle as he shook his head. “You didn't miss anything. It might be a little while yet—first cubs can be very stubborn.”
Crackle leaned to one side and looked around Suddendusk to Quick Fang, evidently estimating exactly how stubborn this cub was likely to be.
As if stubborn enough to prove them wrong, Quick Fang sucked in a sudden breath and had she not been already sitting, would have doubled over. Crackle's eyes went wide as the moons and Suddendusk lock-sent excitedly, **Windsong! Mytan!** She was not near, but that was all he could tell. **It's time! Her water has broken -- the baby comes!** and then was swept up in the excitement of it all.
A burble rather than a cry. A head mopped in the same red-brown as her older sister, and ears wrinkled like rippleshells. Miniature hands grasped at everything within reach and clung there. Sweetvine's eager face peering at the cub and glowing almost as much as their mother. He was almost getting used to the shifting nature of his world, collapsing and rebuilding, each time making room for one more. He'd been afraid, this time. He loved his first so much he feared not having quite enough for the next, but the instant she arrived, his fears were dashed into a thousand shards of joy.
Their son's cries were strong and steady, and inspired a round of cheers from the remainder of the tribe outside. Quick Fang, exhausted but happier than he'd seen her in a long time, took him in her arms as naturally as anything. The instincts that coursed so strongly in her veins included more than merely hunting and biting, it seemed, and it warmed him to see it. Snowfall and True Edge leaned in to peer gladly at their grandcub. Cloudfern and Starskimmer smiled happily at each other. Willow looked a bit stunned as she looked at her hands as though they still glowed, trying to absorb a year's worth of learning in the short time the birthing had taken. Crackle draped herself over her father's lap, gazing in wonder at her new little brother. Evervale, patient as always, hung back and started picking up the rather dishevelled den.
After he was swaddled and cuddled a bit, Quick Fang held him up to Suddendusk. Crackle displaced herself into a prime viewing spot and without hesitation he took his son in his arms, a great fat lump of joy in his throat. He looked perfect. Four tiny fingers and four tiny toes; a light dusting of golden hair around his head, already drying; eyes as blue as spring skyflowers; and--
“His ears are all wrinkled!” Crackle exclaimed in surprise.
He laughed. Wrinkled like rippleshells.
(The sequel to this story is "The Naming".)