A part of me knew I shouldn’t have been surprised. I’d sensed she would need me before I was stuffed away from the world.
I faced the section of the jungle she approached from. Shazer lowered his head over my shoulder.
“What is it?”
“An old friend calling in a favor, I think,” I said. Relief flowed through me. I did not have to decide between my father and Cassava. Whatever help Elle needed I would give her, and hopefully it would take me far from my own problems.
The bushes parted and there she was, her dark hair longer than before, the swirling eyes marking her as a Tracker the same. Her mouth also the same.
“It’s about bloody fucking time you showed up on the radar again,” she gasped as she pushed her way through the foliage to me.
My jaw dropped when the firelight touched her. Her belly was swollen, huge with child, but the rest of her was thin, as though food had been a tough thing to find.
Where was the vibrant Tracker I’d first met? What had happened to her in the two years I’d been gone?
“Yeah, I got fat since I saw you last.” She grinned, but it was weak. “I’ve been searching for you the last six months. I knew you weren’t dead. Where the fuck have you been hiding?”
“Oubliette,” I said. “Someone tried to kill me.”
“Looks like we have that in common.” She winced and touched her belly. I took her arm and helped her to the fire. Ash was awake, Peta still passed out in the crook of his lap. In the time I’d been away, they’d clearly drawn close.
Elle raised her eyebrows at me. “Two men? Damn, I need lessons. I tried to handle two, almost killed me.” Her eyes filled with tears. It was only then I realized she was missing something very much attached to her.
“Where’s Bram?” I softened my voice, already knowing the answer would not be good.
“Demons. They’ve been on our asses the last year. I don’t know why, but they’ve decided I’d make a good kill. He . . . got in the way.” Her lips trembled. “You were right, Lark. I can’t fucking well do this on my own. I need your help.”
Cassava and my father waited for me. My family waited for me to save them from Cassava. The only one I cared about was Bella, and for the time being she was safe.
“Ash, go to Bella. Get her ready to come home.” I didn’t look at him. “Cactus, go to the Eyrie and wait for me.”
Neither man said anything. I didn’t know if they were letting me boss them around, or if they truly trusted me. Or if they were ignoring me. I wanted to believe they trusted me.
Peta let out a pitiful mew. “What about me?”
I scooped her up. “Do you really need to ask, cat? You are with me. You and the horse are mine through and through.”
Shazer snorted and fluttered his wings. “I am no horse.”
“Manner of speaking.” I paused and looked at Elle. “You want me to kill the demons?”
“No, only a Slayer can do that. I want you to protect my daughter when she is born. Put her somewhere the demons won’t find her. You can do that, right?”
A dark chill swept through the jungle, dampening the flames and casting an eerie shadow on her face. “Yes, I can do that. But what of you?”
“I will draw them away. I’ve kept far enough from the nasty shits that they don’t know I’m with child. As long as we can keep it that way, the fuckers won’t even know she exists.”
Cactus cleared his throat. “Lark, your family needs you. You don’t have time for this.”
I swung my gaze to him, anger making my words harsh. “My family thinks I’m dead. The only one who needs me is Bella, and I am sending her the man I love to watch over her. Is that not enough?”
He blanched and his jaw ticked. I turned from him, unable to be kind in that moment. “I will no longer explain myself or my actions. I will do what I feel is right. Elle needs me. That is all there is to this.”
Cactus jerked to his feet and stomped away into the jungle. Ash wisely said nothing. I stood and helped Elle up. Her hands trembled in mine. “The baby will be here soon. Fuck, Bram left at a rather shitty time.” She choked on the words and then broke down. I caught her in my arms, and ran a hand over her head.
“Hush. Your tears won’t help you. Trust me on that.”
She laughed, but it was a bitter sound, one that resonated in me. “Fuck. You got that right.”
She jerked forward and let out a low moan. “Lark, I think . . . the baby is coming sooner than I thought. Eager little monster. I was not planning on this. I’m not due for another few weeks.”
I helped her back to the ground as Ash worked to get the fire hotter, and boiled water. “Peta, are there any villages close by?”
“Yes.” She bobbed her head. “About three miles to the south.”
“Get Cactus and go. See if there is a midwife or wise woman.”
I didn’t look to see if she did as I asked. I didn’t need to. Elle was on her knees panting. “I don’t think it’s supposed to happen this fast.”
“From what I know, babies come when they want, my friend.” I eased her back and stripped off her pants. A quick look was all I needed. “I can see the head. Be ready to push.”
I directed Ash to Elle’s shoulders. He braced her and she dug her hands into his forearms. The look on his face was priceless; in another time, I would have laughed at the mixture of shock, pain, and horror that flickered through his eyes.