“Breathe, Elle. She’s almost here.”
“Ah, I hate you right now, Bram! You fucking bastard you did this to me piece of shit son of a whoring goblin!” She screamed the words as she bore down. I washed my hands in the hot water, cleaning them the best I could. I grabbed one of the blankets we’d been using and folded it beside me.
“Push, Elle.” I gave her a tiny pulse of Spirit and felt her own connection to the element reach for me.
With her teeth clamped, she gave a final cry as she bore down. The baby slipped out of her and I caught the tiny body. I flipped the kid upside down and swatted her ass.
A full-bellied, indignant screech let loose and I righted the tiny girl. I wrapped her in the blanket and handed her to Elle. “There you go. All done. Easy as peach pie.”
Elle leaned against Ash as she stared down into the face of her daughter. Every harsh line in her face softened. “Oh my.”
I looked up to Ash. He smiled, and I thought of the little boy with golden eyes that could have been mine if I’d stayed in the Rim. Pain shot through my heart. No, that little boy would have suffered war and the loss of his world if I’d taken that route. I had to believe I’d chosen the right path.
Cactus and Peta showed up a few minutes later with a tiny old woman. She tsked over the baby, helped Elle nurse her daughter for the first time, patted them on the head and left.
“Well, that was a waste of time,” Cactus muttered.
“No, it wasn’t. We didn’t know the baby would come easy. We could have needed the midwife,” Ash pointed out.
Cactus didn’t look at me. “I’m going to the Eyrie. I’ll see you when you get there, Lark.”
He was gone before I could say anything. Shazer flipped his head at me.
“You letting him walk?”
I lifted my hand, but still, Cactus wouldn’t look my way. So be it. “He’ll find a way there. I trust him.”
Peta put her paws on Elle’s leg and peered in at the tiny baby. “She’s cute. I like her.”
“Does she have a name?” I asked absently as I stared into the jungle where Cactus had been only a moment before.
“Yes. Her father and I decided on her name before . . . before he left.” She spoke her name and I nodded. It was a good one. A strong name.
I helped her settle with her daughter and she drifted into a deep sleep. I sat by the fire, staring into the flame. Ash sat beside me, saying nothing.
The night faded, morning came, and Elle cared for her daughter. Around us I felt the twist in the air, the feel of the earth, the calls of the birds and animals. The peace was temporary and soon there would be nothing left.
On the fifth day of my release from the oubliette came the shifting of my world yet again.
Elle lifted her head as she finished feeding Rylee. From where I stood, her eyes swirled like whirlpools of color. She Tracked someone.
She swaddled the baby. “Lark, hold her for me.”
Before I had a chance to protest, she thrust the child into my arms. I didn’t want to hold her. Didn’t want to feel the softness of the slowly breathing bundle in my arms and want it for myself.
Elle bent and picked up her sword. “Lark, it’s time for you to go. Take her and go.”
“What?” I spat the word out as I stood there holding the baby like an idiot. Elle looked at me her swirling eyes serious . . . and full of tears.
“Take her, Lark. Make sure she’s safe. If I ever can, I’ll find her. You know that. The demons have found me.”
I tapped into the earth and felt the changes there, the shifting of light and dark. I couldn’t be sure Elle was right, but the feeling fit. I took two strides and wrapped an arm around her, holding her to me for a breath. A moment that seemed to go on, stretching into the uncertain future.
“Be safe, Elle. I will make sure she makes it, that she survives no matter what I have to do. Even if she hates me,” I whispered.
“I know,” she whispered back. “That’s why it could only be you to protect her. I knew you were special when I met you, but I didn’t want to believe it.”
I stepped away and mounted Shazer, clutching the baby to me. Ash and Peta leapt up behind me and we launched into the air.
We rose up, Shazer’s wings taking us above the trees in a matter of seconds. I strained to see Elle through the thick canopy.
A shout echoed up to us, then a roar of voices that seemed to sweep in from every part of the jungle. I twitched my heels and rested a hand on Shazer.
“We can’t go back, not with the baby,” Ash said.
I held my hand out, toward our camp. “I can buy her time.”
Peta dug her claws into my leg. “Lark. The demons are no fools. They will know you helped her. They will come looking for you. And then they will find the babe.”
I tipped my head back in an attempt to breathe past the lump in my throat. Pain and grief warred with a rage I struggled to control. “She . . . she did not deserve to die.”
“You don’t know she’s dead,” Ash said, but his voice was hesitant.
Shazer banked to one side. I clutched the baby close to me and made myself look at her. Thick, dark auburn hair and eyes that were the pale gray of most human children. Yet in them was a spark of gold, chocolate and emerald. The spark of colors that would someday lead her down the same path as her mother. I stroked a finger down her cheek. “Sleep, wee one.”
Spirit flickered through me, scaring me until the baby closed her eyes, yawned, fell asleep, and my element retreated.