Dart crouched by the burrow entrance, wondering whether he should go in. His black tail tip twitched as he stared into the dark, yawning hole, waiting for movement to stir in the shadows. The sharp scent of crushed sage and sorrel clung to him. He rolled in a thicket of the plants before coming back to the Brights main burrow. He didn’t want his family to smell the shame on him, to smell Poppy. His amber gaze grew unfocused as he hugged his empty paws to his chest, his thoughts lingering on Poppy.
His sweet, kind, gentle Poppy. Poppy who had spotted him as a roving male one day and befriended him. For two whole seasons they met in secret. Then Poppy found out she was carrying his pups, and she left. Just like that, left her family before she could be evicted. And she expected him to do the same! How could he? He loved Poppy. He wanted to be with Poppy, but he already had a family, a family that he had sworn to protect. There was only nine of them. Nine. Dart was one of only four males. And their dominant female, Suri, was a little over two moons pregnant. They needed everyone they had to raise her pups.
Then there was Poppy, who he visited for the last time that morning. She had birthed his pups, alone one turn ago. Four of them, a female and three males. Equal parts Dart and Poppy, born out of forbidden love, born of broken truths. He would never forget the look of utter betrayal on Poppy’s face when he told her he couldn’t stay, when he refused to go below the surface and meet his offspring. He knew that if he saw them, he’d never leave them. So, he said goodbye. He left.
A round nose poked through the opening, followed by a snout. A meer with a fleshy scarred face and missing eye emerged to face him. “Dart!” He exclaimed. “Where have you been?” Dart opened his mouth to reply but OneEye interrupted. “No matter, you have a little knowledge of herbs, yes?” Dart nodded. “Good, come with me.” His voice was laced with urgency and his pelt was spiked with fear.
“What is it?’ Dart asked, brows knit with concern.
OneEye’s gaze darkened. “It’s Suri.” He said. “She’s pupping.”
Dart sprang to his paws, heart pounding in his ears. “Take me to her.” No sooner were the words out of his mouth before OneEye dove back into the tunnel. Dart trailed at his heels. Dart heard the yowls and moans of pain two twists before they reached the small chamber in the deepest part of the burrow complex. Suri was alone except for another female anxiously trying to tend to her. Dart flashed to her side. Her flanks heaved with the effort of holding off a writhing contraction. Her fur was hot and sticky, its usual glossy sheen gone. Her slitted eyes were filled with tears and anguish.
Dart placed a gentle paw on her flank and peered at her tail. “The first pup is coming.” He announced. The sand under her haunches was damp with blood. Suri was already growing weaker. Her body trembled. “I think I can get you through this, but you have to work with me Suri, you have to stay strong. Do you understand?”
Suri gave a feeble nod that ended in a groan as another contraction wracked her body. Dart turned to the female, too focused to even remember her name. “She needs sage and dandelion as fast as you can get it.” She nodded and ran from the chamber. OneEye approached him slowly. Dart didn’t even look at him. “The dandelion’s for strength and the sage is for luck. The strong scent will help clear your mind and rid the chamber of negative energy.” Dart explained for both the dominant’s sake. Then he braced Suri for another contraction, murmuring encouragement as the pupping continued.
Some spells later, Dart sat back on his haunches, his work done. Three small, but healthy pups. The chamber was filled with the warm scent of milk and the heady odor of sage, which made for an oddly pleasant combination. The sound of nursing and the easy breathing of Suri as she slept whispered through the burrow.
A bitter ache pierced his chest and flooded his throat. He hadn’t been there when Poppy had his pups. He must have sighed aloud for OneEye shifted close to Dart’s side and rubbed his cheek down the length of his shoulder. “Thank you.” He whispered sincerely. “I don’t know what we would have done without you.” The ache suddenly diminished. Here was Dart’s truth, the Brights were his family, they needed him, and he would not abandon them.