**Dhay?"** Windsong sent hesitantly. **Would you please give me a hand?**
Suddendusk sat up amid his furs and rubbed his one eye with a loose fist, sleepy and blinking. He padded then glanced around for another body next to his; his mind cleared a bit when he found none.
He peered out of the den, at the violet twilight, and there was Windsong, perched on a branch just a little below him – not all that high up, their den was low after all, but balanced precariously with her hugely pregnant belly making it all but completely and utterly impossible to reach as much as half a handspan higher.
Suddendusk leaned on the edge of the den mouth, and watched.
"Well," he said, "didn't I tell you it was a completely upriver idea for you to stand watch today?"
"I'm not about to pop like an overripe fruit," Windsong fumed.
"No, but you're certainly about to drop from the tree."
The huntress swore. "I wouldn't have if it weren't for you. I've been as round as Mother Moon for a whole season, and all you've gotten is swollen with pride. I swear that when she is born it's only you who'll have to tree-walk with her. Now help me up!"
Suddendusk sighed as he extended both hands. "Do you at least promise not to do it again?"
"Wolfsister's pelt, am I a huntress or a den-warmer? Pull harder!"
**Uuugh – High Ones, you're heavy, Mytan - **
**And – agh! –whose fault is that?**
**You can't – there, brace your foot on that – choose Recognition!**
**Oww – but you – not there! – can wish – ooof!"
The shove was so strong and sudden, it hauled Windsong clean over the edge of the den and rolled her in, through the great collection of soft furs, onto Suddendusk and both of then onto the floor. For a moment they both lay there panting, flushed and vaguely triumphant, then One-Leg came stumbling through the den mouth and sat down, stretching his peg-leg in front of him.
"Whew!" He breathed out, rubbing his whiskers. "You have a big mate, little brother!"
Windsong turned herself slowly onto her back, cradling her belly, and gave both males a withering look. She started undoing the neck of her absurdly broad shift. Everything was absurdly broad these last harried days of her pregnancy; her belly, her clothes, her lifemate's protective reach, her tribe's smothering presence. Perhaps most of all, the tiny mind that touched her own from inside.
She touched her stomach tenderly.
One-Leg laughed aloud and nudged Suddendusk, whose face slacked in a wide grin. "Like a pair of lovesick cubs, the two of you," he rumbled. "What a joke! But then, I've seen it all when Windburn and Whispersilk turned to mush every time little Foxtail bumped half a toe to let the rest of us known how strong our next chieftess will be. Next you wonder what color of hair would she have."
"Gold, I suppose," Suddendusk said dreamily.
Color rose faintly to Windsong’s cheeks and she tossed her fair braids over her bare shoulder, glancing at her lifemate’s sleep-mussed mane. “It’s just as likely to be black, you know,” she said. “We won’t know until she’s born.”
Picking a handful of berries from a basket, One-Leg nodded self-importantly as he popped them in his mouth, considering the issue and the taste with the same eyes to the sky expression. “Nightstorm and Whispersilk, they both got Bearheart’s black,” he remarked, chewing, “and Foxtail got Windburn’s red, as well. I’d say it’s likelier to be black, if I’m to wager a fat haunch on that.”
“Quick Fang got the white,” Suddendusk shot back. “Dreamflight got the gold.”
Windsong found herself nodding. “And Longshot got Nightstorm’s black. This just goes to show, these guesses are just cloud-watching.”
“Not if I get a fat haunch out of it.” The old fisher smirked. He whirled his fingers around in the basket of berries, enjoying Suddendusk’s theatrical roll of the eye. The crafter leaned back to provide a comfortable pillow for his lifemate, dragging up a bit of fur over her and her belly. Suddendusk toyed with her hair, looking all the master of his den as he eyed his brother. “Make a wager, Blackberry?” One-Leg winked.
Suddendusk snorted. “You’ll forget it by the time the cub’s along.” He eased himself against Windsong’s warmth. “I say it’ll be gold, anyhow. Grandmother Sunlight was golden.”
One-Leg sucked the juice off his fingers. “And I say it’ll be her father’s color, mark my words!”
“For a fat haunch?”
“Whole leg of branch-horn, even.”
“Of course,” Windsong intervened dryly, a hand over her belly, “these are just guesses.”
“Well done!” Starskimmer crooned, raising the wailing bundle up before slipping it back into Windsong’s arms. One-Leg stretched himself, trying to see over the abundance of heads in the den. Since when did so many of the tribe have to be present for a single birthing? Starskimmer and Snowfall, Windburn and his lifemate and cub, Blacksnake, Chicory, half the holt!
“Let me through, you – “ he shoved his younger brother with a deft elbow. Blacksnake scowled at him. “I want to see the cub!”
**High Ones’ mercy, give her a moment to start breathing,** Blacksnake sent back snappishly. Whispersilk and Snowfall were both cooing over mother and newborn, Suddendusk leaned back and wiped his brow. His little half-brother was looking like a squirrel who had just fallen into a basket of autumn nuts, completely dazed with joy. One-Leg could just barely make out the frill of a blanket.
**What are you plotting?** Blacksnake questioned, raising a suspicious eyebrow. One-Leg just stroked his thick chops.
**Just trying to confirm a guess…**
He stood on tiptoe while Blacksnake eyed him. Finally some of his tribemates were moving out of the way, to allow him a growing glimpse of the lifemtates basking in their moment. One-Leg let out a long breath when he realized Windsong was holding her newborn so that the only thing he could see of her was her little head, newly cleaned, hair just drying into a bright shade of –
Red! The cub had red hair! It was unmistakable. No hint of gold, no fleck of black, just a headful of fuzz that was very visibly red.
One-Leg was flabbergasted, staring at the oblivious Suddendusk as though unable to believe his little brother would do this to him. Even if her hair changed like her father’s did, it would be too late! Cubs have been born before with coloring that matched a grandparent, an uncle or cousin rather than their sire and dam – but it had never before cost him a leg of branch-horn!
**You look like a fish,** Blacksnake mind-nudged him, reminding him to close his gaping mouth with a snap. What next? His mind worked furiously. The cub most certainly did not have her father’s color. Not only had he lost the wager, but Windsong would not forget this, she did tell him that it was all guesses, after all…
His wounded pride demanded that something be done. He ran a hand again and again through his thick red whiskers. Foxtail got her father’s red, why couldn’t…
Inspiration struck suddenly.
**Now, Blacksnake,** he sent, taking his brother’s arm and pulling him a little aside, **I think this is the right time. There’s a little thing about the cub’s parents Suddendusk and I did not tell you…**