Thursday, March 3, 2016
Lin Hu rapped on the door of the remote rustic cabin. She gave silent thanks to the waning daylight. Twice she’d missed her turnoffs on the winding back roads, and almost missed the near-invisible track that led to the cabin. She didn’t want to imagine trying to find this place, hidden deep in the forest at the very edge of Hancock territory, in the dark. Especially with time of the essence.
The door opened and a grizzled, gray-haired wolf shifter stuck his nose out at her. “About time,” he growled. “She’s already in labor.”
“I didn’t have to come,” Lin snapped back. “This isn’t precisely my specialty. You would have done better to hire a midwife.”
“What? A bunny?” He showed his yellowed teeth. “Don’t think I didn’t look. Nothing but bunny midwives in this Lupa-damned town any more. No stinking carrot-cruncher’s touching my pup.”
“Perhaps I should be going, then.”
“Oh, you’re okay. You’re a bear, right? Aren’t pandas bears?”
Lin sighed. Predators and their prejudices. If not for the young woman inside, she would never have left her office. The woman, and the tiny life she was trying to bring into the world.
A howl from within propelled Lin into action. She shoved past the old wolf and all but charged into the cabin. The wolf shut the door and dashed after her.
The sounds of desperate huffing guided Lin to a small bedroom off the cabin’s single, central space. The woman had taken her birthing-bed’s quilt between her teeth and was currently savaging the hem. This mother-to-be lay at the far distant end of the age spectrum from the grayhair who’d brought her to Lin’s office barely three months ago and introduced them as husband and wife. This was to be her first child.
At least she was fully adult in body, if only just. Her youth would be an asset here. She should have no trouble birthing the oldster’s precious pup. Should the worst happen … Lin had a small notebook in her jacket pocket, and a cell phone. Bunny shifters lived everywhere, even way out here. If complications arose, the old bigoted dog would get a bunny midwife whether he wanted one or not. Somehow Lin suspected his laboring wife wouldn’t object.
She moved to the bedside and took the young woman’s hand. “I’m here to help you,” she said. “You’re Ilsa, correct?”
The girl snarled, and for a second Lin thought she would bite. Then she got hold of herself. She offered up a pained, sweaty smile. “Thank you for coming. Warner says you’re a bear?”
“Close enough,” Lin said with an answering smile. She reached into her bag and pulled out a large rawhide bone. “If you need to bite down on something, use this. When did your labor begin?”
“Almost an hour ago. Right after Warner called you.” Ilsa practically grabbed the bone out of Lin’s hands. She chewed on it vigorously in between straining and panting. Lin timed her contractions while the oldster, Warner, hovered in the doorway. Whenever she stopped growling, he started, but made no move to get in the way.
“You’re remarkably calm, for a father-to-be,” Lin observed.
“This isn’t my first pup,” he said. “How’s she doing?”
“They’re coming faster. It won’t be long now.” Lin set down her bag. “We must prepare.”
They washed their hands, gathered sheets and towels, kept close watch on Ilsa. Lin ordered Warner to brush his teeth. Although she’d brought a pair of scalpels, she knew wolves preferred to bite the cord themselves. She also knew the females sometimes wanted to birth their litters in private. “Do you want him here?” she murmured to Ilsa, “or shall I—”
“He stays,” she gritted around the bone. "I want—ahhhhh!” The bone dropped out of her mouth as she howled. Warner darted to the bedside as nimbly as if he were her age. He grabbed her hand, and she crushed it. Ilsa howled again.
“This is it,” Lin said calmly, and knelt between Ilsa’s legs. “One more good push should do it. Can you do that for us, Ilsa?”
She could, and did. Lin reached forward, cloth at the ready. A tiny thread of a howl joined Ilsa’s as her and Warner’s pup announced its entry into the world.
Warner knelt by the bed with his arms around his wife. “What is it?” he demanded.
“See for yourself.” Lin handed the baby over to the new parents. Ilsa practically snatched the child away, with a ghost of a snarl for Lin. Lin only smiled.
“A girl,” Warner whispered in awe. “We’ve got a daughter, Ilsa.”
The new mother nodded absently. Her entire being was now focused on her child. She cuddled her daughter snugly in her arms. “Anitra,” she murmured.
Lin set about cleaning up, keeping clear of the new parents. Now that the birthing was done, being wolves they would become nervous, territorial and overprotective. She was therefore surprised when Warner got up and touched her arm with a quiet, “Thank you. I can’t begin to repay you for—”
She nodded toward the bed. “Take care of her. Call me if problems develop.”
“That goes without saying.” He went silent. Lin watched alpha wolf instincts begin their feral takeover in his expression, and Ilsa’s. They had a newborn cub to protect, and she was an outsider.
Fortunately Lin had prepared for this as well. She took one last item from her bag, a Tupperware container. She handed it to Warner. “Liver and kidneys. Elk. Fresh from the butcher. Wild caught. No one either of us knows. Ilsa will be hungry, and will need to rebuild her strength. Come to my office next week and we’ll discuss my fee.”
She doubted if either wolf heard a word she said after “liver.” With the parents distracted, Lin made her escape. She had no wish to see what the new mother did with her “birthday gift.”
Perhaps it was fortunate she hadn’t insisted they call in a bunny midwife. Fortunate for the bunny.
And now she was hungry as well. She’d have to drive all the way down to the exit to get any decent Chinese. Provided she could find her way out of this forested maze. Lin hurried to her truck to catch the last of the dwindling daylight.
# # #
Long after dark, with his wife and new daughter sated and sleeping, Warner Hancock stole out of the cabin. This event called for a triumphant howl, but he didn’t dare. Not here, on the Hancocks’ hereditary turf. Damien kept up constant patrols. He and Ilsa had been lucky so far, but they couldn’t afford to draw attention, especially not now.
Though the trees blocked his view, he turned unerringly north. Beyond the sea of pine boughs lay the peak the town was named for, with its mountainside stronghold that had once belonged to the Talbot pack, then to Warner, and was now held in the iron grip of his usurper son. But not for long. Warner bared his teeth. Not for bloody long.
“Heads up,” he snarled into the night. “You’ve got a sister, Damien. You’re not the only game in town any more.” To hell with patrols. He threw back his graying head and howled, long, loud and triumphantly. Let Damien, let all the world know Warner Hancock was here. The rightful alpha was back in Talbot’s Peak. Let the games begin.