(This story is part of the ”Conflict between Windburn and Foxtail; and Foxtail & Notch’s Cunning Plan” storyline – see listing for more stories.)
"Not much longer," Windburn crooned in his lifemate's ear. He knelt behind her to support her crouched birthing position, bare chest pressed against her sweat-dampened back. "Not much longer now."
Whispersilk was panting for breath, her expression taut with concentration as she focused on the work at hand. Sweat beaded her brow. When the weaver's contractions had first begun, the midwife, the healer, and chief's immediate family had hurried to join them before the chief's small sleeping den had been shaped closed to keep out the dead cold of mid-winter that pressed against the Father Tree. The womb-like room had warmed up considerably in the hours since. Snowfall sat close to her middle sister's bedside, next to Willow, who kept her faintly glowing hand unobtrusively on Whispersilk's knee so she could silently observe the birth with her healer's senses. Nightstorm sat near the sealed doorway beside Foxtail and Chicory while Blacksnake stood alone to the side, arms crossed as he watched.
A contraction rippled across her belly, drawing a deep grunt from Whispersilk as she worked with her body’s rhythm to bring their child forth into the world. As her tightened stomach began to relax, she tipped her head back to look up at him. A pained grimace marred her sweet features, sending a momentary tendril of fear up Windburn’s spine. He shot a worried glance at Willow but his mate's soft, weary chuckle eased his tension.
“It’s nothing but a leg cramp. I need to switch positions before...” her soft explanation broke off in a hiss of pleasure as Willow's magic flared, expertly soothing the knotted muscle on the black-haired elf’s calf.
Windburn frowned. “Switch positions? But this is the one you said you used when Foxtail was born. Isn't it the best one?"
A smiling Starskimmer patted his shoulder. “Don’t you know better than to argue with a laboring mother? Different cub, different birth.” The brewer-turned-midwife took Whispersilk’s arms to steady her as the heavily pregnant elf shifted. “Here, let’s try down on all fours.”
As soon as Whispersilk achieved her new pose, another contraction gripped her body. She pushed down with the spasm, groaning with the effort. She reached up with one arm, waving it in Windburn’s general direction.
The chief moved to kneel in front of her. She draped both arms over his shoulders and buried her face in his neck, breathing his scent in short pants. Windburn ran his hands soothingly up and down her back and tipped his head so that his cheek pressed against hers.
"That's it," said Starskimmer, as she poured oil onto her fingers. The midwife touched Whispersilk deftly, then nodded with satisfaction at what she found. "Just one more push should do the trick..."
Whispersilk gave a deep, focused growl and strained in her lifemate's supporting embrace. The bulge of her belly shifted sinuously. "I see the head!" said Starskimmer, while Snowfall squeezed her sister's upper arm briefly in support. The midwife ran both hands around the babe’s head, pressing against Whispersilk’s delicate skin to help ease the passing of the widest portion. Then there were happy cries from the others, as a pink, wriggling form slid into the world and into Starskimmer's waiting hands.
"He's a healthy boy," Starskimmer exclaimed happily, as the newborn flailed his tiny plump arms and gave an angry cry. Windburn nuzzled his Recognized's damp forehead with pride, while Snowfall leaned in to kiss Whispersilk's cheek in congratulations. From their seat near the sealed door, Nightstorm and Chicory cheered and hugged one another while Foxtail hugged herself and looked to be fighting back tears.
"Listen to him," Blacksnake said, his own voice proud. "You've one fine, strong little wolf cub."
Windburn helped his lifemate lie back on the soft supple leather covering the pile of bedfurs. Whispersilk reached out for her newborn, and Starskimmer laid the baby in her arms. After neatly tying two leather laces on the cord tethering mother to child, the midwife offered Windburn a small bone knife. He took it reluctantly, uncertain of how to proceed with cutting the baby's birth-cord, having missed this part of his older child's birth.
"Here," Starskimmer guided her chief. The infant gave a sharp cry of outrage at such treatment, but when offered the comfort of his mother's breast, he seized upon it at once and set to nursing, ignoring the further indignity of his Aunt Snowfall rubbing a warm, wet cloth on his head.
"Look at him," Windburn said, stroking his lifemate's loose, black hair. The chief knew he was smiling in a most undignified, besotted fashion at their newborn child, but for once, he was glad to toss dignity into the middens heap. "Just look at him. Our son. He's perfect, isn't he?"
"He's perfect in every way," Whispersilk agreed. She beamed at her Recognized. "Our best piece of work ever."
With one finger, Windburn gently stroked the nursing infant's damp hair. "Grey," he said, and shot a grin at his father. "Like his grandsire's."
"And those little eyes are like seafoam, just like his mother's," Snowfall added. "He's a beautiful baby."
"What will you name him?" Chicory asked eagerly.
"Boldwolf," Nightstorm suggested at once. "Littleburn. How about Blister?"
"Absolutely not that," Windburn grinned back, although he did find himself thinking twice about Boldwolf. Boldwolf. A good name for his son, wasn't it? It was good name for a chief's son --
"Cinder," Whispersilk announced, as she nuzzled her son's fine, soft hair. "His cub-name will be Cinder."
Windburn looked at his father, and found that his father was gazing back at him. Windburn shrugged an acceptance of that cubname for his son. His lifemate deserved that decision, and Cinder was as equally fine a name. "Cinder he is," Windburn said, and saw his father's approving nod.
The infant ceased nursing, and with a mewling cry, waved his little fists in the air. "He wants his father," Whispersilk said, holding the infant up to her mate. Without resistance, Windburn reached for his son, and cradled the newborn close. He nuzzled the fine, ashen crop of hair on Cinder's head, and drank in the sweet scent of his child.
Whispersilk made a hissing sound of protest as her distended belly rippled with final contractions. "What's wrong?" Foxtail demanded with a glance at Willow. "Nothing," Starskimmer replied breezily, still at her station between Whispersilk's knees. "The afterbirth must follow. It won't be long now until you're all done with this little work project of yours," she said cheerfully to Whispersilk.
"But there's still blood," Foxtail countered. "Shouldn't the healer do something?" she asked. But Willow looked completely unconcerned.
"I know what I'm doing, little kitten," Starskimmer replied. "I birthed you, after all, and you were far more difficult about it at the time, if I remember it rightly."
"You wanted to come out sideways," Nightstorm grinned, elbowing Foxtail in the ribs. "Starskimmer had to rearrange you, and even then, you were all elbows on the way out."
Windburn had listened with only half of an ear to that exchange; his son in his arms absorbed his attention. "My son," he murmured, as the infant kicked his feet and waved his fists. "My beautiful son. My perfect child. My Cinder. We've waited a long time for you, and look, here you finally are."
Starskimmer collected the afterbirth as it arrived, wrapping it and placing it in a basket for Whispersilk to dispose of later. Snowfall took up a sea sponge and a bowl of warm water to clean her sister off with. "The rest of the tribe is waiting, my chief," she said to Windburn.
Windburn nuzzled his son again, lightly wrapped a cloth around him, and reached out a tendril of a sending to Cloudfern. The plantshaper was close by, alert and -- yes, Snowfall was right -- waiting for his chief's signal. Almost at once, the sealed doorway to the larger living area of the Chief's den began to melt open. The warmth of the sleeping den might have swept out like water from an open jug, save for the rush of fur-clad bodies that massed toward the open door.
"Let's see the little pup!" cried One-Leg happily. "We already heard him howling!"
"Baaa baaa!" shrilled little Rill, who was in his father's arms. Quick Fang and Suddendusk's little son had heard the newborn's cry, and he was all ears and glowing blue eyes.
"Whispersilk and I have a son," Windburn said, holding his child out for the rest of the gathered tribe to see. He knew he was grinning like a fool, but for the life of him, he couldn't make himself stop. "We are naming him Cinder."
"Look at that pelt! He's got your hair," Kestrel teased Blacksnake.
"I expect that to mean he'll have my brains as well," Blacksnake retorted smugly.
"He's the smartest, most beautiful boy-cub ever," Windburn said allowed, letting himself revel in the joy that seemed to have swollen his heart right out of his chest.
"Hah," True Edge snorted. "Don't make him chief yet! Every sire thinks that about their own cub."
"And every sire would be right," Moss agreed, reaching out to tug at one of Longshot's forelocks.
Foxtail had edged close to her father through the sudden press, her green eyes fixed on her new brother. Windburn beamed at her, and gently held the infant out to his firstborn.
"Take him," he told her. "Meet your new brother."
Foxtail flickered a glance at him before gingerly reaching for Cinder. She lifted him carefully, as though he were made of eggshells.
"Foxtail, look at that nose! He's just like you, too!" Dreamflight crooned.
Foxtail began to smile, and cast a look toward her friend. At the same time, Cinder kicked his feet, opening the cloth a bit, waved his knotted little fists, squeezed his face up tight -- and promptly sent up a golden, glittering spray of urine, drenching his sister's face and winter furs. Foxtail cried out in dismay and thrust the baby away from herself. Blacksnake deftly snatched the little boy from her, deflecting the steady stream with an experienced hand.
There was hearty laughter from many of the gathered tribe. "Aye, he's a boy all right!" hooted Notch from the back of the gathering in the living area.
"He's already marking his territory!" Longshot agreed.
"You lads won't have to teach him how to do that," One-Leg chuckled.
Windburn grinned as he listened to the tribe's laughter. The joy and pride he felt was euphoric -- he had never been happier than he was right now, in this glowing moment, surrounded by his kin as they all savored the birth of his son.
Windburn looked down at his lifemate's face, and saw that Whispersilk was equally joyous.
**We've done well, Sari,** he sent to her. She nodded agreement, and he saw how his lifemate's smile and her eyes were luminous with both pleasure and satisfaction. He bent to press his lips against her forehead, proud of what they had accomplished together.
In the celebration that followed, no one noticed Foxtail as she slipped away, out of the Father Tree and down toward the lonely, chilled depths of the storage dens below.
Sitting forlornly on the bier that used to hold Honey’s cocoon, Foxtail wiped furiously at her damp face and clothing with a bit of leather she snagged from a basket of scraps on the way down. When she was as dry as she could make herself, she threw the piece to the ground, where it landed with limp whisper of sound. Foxtail scowled. She had hoped for a more satisfying noise.
It wasn't fair. Her entire life, she had wanted for nothing more than her parents' attention. And ever since her new little sibling had sparked, she had instead had to watch them get more and more excited and involved in their new cub. Now he was here -- and they thought he was perfect. Their best child already. They looked at him and they glowed and cooed and turned to mush. Her new little brother would have everything from them, and like always, she would have to make do with whatever little scraps of their attention she could winnow away.
The taste of bile in her throat burned. Foxtail didn't want to feel like this. She didn't want to be so keenly jealous of a mewling, helpless infant. But the little brat was still wet out of the womb, and he had already humiliated her -- and done so in front of the entire tribe! Foxtail had scrubbed her face until her skin felt raw, but she could still smell the taint of baby-piss on her.
'Everyone loved me when I was a little cubling. Now they'll adore him instead.' It was a bitter thought, but she couldn't shake it. It was like a sudden, unexpected blow to the belly, the kind that knocked the wind from your lungs and left you gasping for breath.
Foxtail scrubbed her face on her sleeve, then made a face at the sprinkling of baby-pee that had already soiled the leather and trimmed fur. It made her angry, fiercely so, to think that there was no one she could talk to about this. Not even Notch would understand the jealousy she felt seething in the pit of her gut. Notch would just look at her, and one of his brows would slowly quirk up in that disbelieving way he had, that made her want to question whatever it was she had just said. It was ridiculous to be jealous of a baby. It was shameful, even. But she was, and there wasn't anything she could see to do about it that would make things even. There wasn't anything she could think of to come out on top of this and reclaim her rank, not over a helpless newborn. No. Everyone would expect her to get equally dewy-eyed with adoration over the little toothless milk-sucker. They would expect her to be just as besotted with the brat as they were, and if she didn't play along, they'd think her bitter and cold and just twice-rotted wrong in the head.
"Rut them," she muttered sourly. "They can go rut themselves! I wish the little toad had never --"
There was soft sound of footsteps approaching on the nearest stairs. Foxtail swallowed down that ugly thought unspoken, and struggled to put on a better face. She was going to have to practice looking happy, if she was going to fool anyone.
Her father's scent arrived before he even stepped into the cold stone chamber. He nodded to her and smiled when he saw her. "There you are," Windburn said as he moved to sit next to her. "There's no need to hide yourself away. Everyone gets a little baby spray on them at some point in their life. A birth feast is happening in the Gathering Den.”
Foxtail watched her father out of the corner of one eye, trying to analyze the odd smile on his face. Smiles didn't come as naturally to the chief as did frowns; even her grandsire Blacksnake smiled more often than his son. It was a besotted smile yet, Foxtail judged. Her father wasn't smiling for her; it was residual pride over his newborn son.
“I’m not hungry,” she stated flatly. The last thing she wanted to do was be forced to sit and watch everyone wallow in joy over the brat.
Her father’s easy smile faded a little, and he turned to look at her in the blue moonmoss-light. “Your mother is asking for you,” he said, his voice a little stiffer.
Foxtail shrugged. “All of that blood-stink’s made me sick to my stomach,” she countered, seizing on that Notch-worthy excuse. “I’ll join the party when the heaves stop.”
By now, the smile had faded entirely from Windburn’s face. “Your mother is just fine,” he said, misunderstanding her. Two certitudes in life were always true: the rivers would flow downstream, and her father would misunderstand her. “Willow has double-checked her now, and the birthing has done your mother no harm.”
Foxtail pressed her lips together firmly to bite back the retort that wanted to leak out – that she had no doubt that her mother was just fine, that she had a new project now that was so much more interesting to her than her last one. “That’s good to know,” she muttered instead.
Her father was staring at her; in the blue illumination, his serious blue eyes looked black. “Daughter, what is wrong?” he asked.
The sober question made her determination to play-act her way through this waver and vanish. “What is wrong?” she snarled, fixing her father with the outraged stare his obliviousness warranted. “What is wrong?!? You wanted nothing to do with MY birth! When I was born, you were as far out on a hunt as you could manage to be. Dreamberry and Bearheart used to share with me sendings of my birth – you think I didn’t notice? You weren’t there to hold Mother and get all weak in the knees over me! You didn’t want me! Neither of you ever truly wanted me! But now you’ve both got the perfect cub to be perfectly happy with, and what do I get? I’ll get to just watch you act like fools over the brat, and know I never had your love like he has. Never!”
Windburn had recoiled in the blast of her words. His initial expression of shock was fading, however, hardening into the usual scowl he wore when looking at her. “That ‘brat’ is your brother!” he said in his flat, angry voice. “You can't truly be this selfish? At the hour of your new brother’s birth, all you can think of is yourself and wallow in old complaints? Your mother and I love you. You know that. You’ve always known that. But we let the rest of the tribe spoil you too much as a cub. You just can’t ever stand not having the sun rise and set on your shoulders, can you?”
“Any damage I’ve ever taken, it’s been by your hands!” Foxtail slashed back. “Neither of you ever gave me a second thought. And you both know it! That’s why you’ve both been so besotted over this cub since the moment you sparked it. I've never been good enough for you! You feel you failed with me, and neither of you can tolerate a failure. So you’ll make it right with this one, won’t you?”
Windburn’s fierce stare shifted aside, and Foxtail knew she had scored unexpectedly against him. Instead of joy, the small victory brought only grief. She turned away from him, and pushed herself to her feet to retreat out of her father’s reach.
“If you loved me, and if you were proud of me, you would have let me go spy on the humans to learn their language,” she said into his silence. “I’m better at stalking and spying than Evervale, and I’m worth something in a fight, too, should it come to that. As chief’s-daughter, you should have tapped me to lead the word-hunters in your absence. But no. You didn’t. You’ve never trusted me.”
Windburn had risen to his feet as well. “I know how far I can trust you, daughter,” he said, and the flat tone of his voice had shifted to sadness. “I can trust you to follow Notch into his next wild scheme. I can trust you to come up with something less well-thought-through than Notch, but just as reckless. I’ll trust you with responsibility when I see you seeking to carry it, instead of seeking to flee it.”
Foxtail whirled and glared at him. “I’m Foxsly’s child, more than yours,” she spat. “Grandsire Bearheart said that once, and he was right! I’ll be chieftess when you’re dead. And I’ll be a braver chief than you’ve ever been.”
To her surprise, her father met her fierce words not with a matching flare of anger, but instead with growing grief. “When I am dead and gone, one of my cubs will be chief,” Windburn agreed. “You should think about that, and know that it won’t be you, or me, who’ll choose who the tribe follows. The tribe will make that decision for us.”
Windburn turned away from her then, and left the chamber. As she listened to her father’s footsteps fade away up the stairs, Foxtail felt the sting of his words settle. She hugged herself against the chill, and practiced putting on her best false smile.
There was a birthing feast up there to attend, and her tribe was expecting her.