I woke to static ringing in my head. My wards were blasting an alarm, but not because of danger. That would set off warnings impossible to ignore. All of Muddy River would hear them. This was more of an urgent call. To me. Personally. I frowned. I’d never had anything like this happen before.
Raven lay in bed beside me, his long, strong body turned to the opposite wall. He was deep in sleep, so I tried to slide out of bed without waking him, but my fire demon instantly turned to me, alert. “What is it?”
“My wards are sounding, but it’s not anything serious. No enemy. I’m not sure what it is.”
He swung his legs over the side of the bed. “I’m coming with you.”
There was no point in arguing. I’d do the same if he were going to check on something new. “I don’t know what we’ll find,” I warned. “I’ve never experienced a warning like this before.”
“Even more reason for me to go with you.”
We dressed quickly, and as we left the room, my familiar, Claws, padded behind us. It was late December, close to Christmas, and bitter cold outside. We pulled on heavy coats, boots, and gloves. My coven and I spelled the pavements in town to melt the snow, but the roads outside of our wards would be covered with drifts. I’d have to melt them as we drove.
As we pulled out of our drive, Raven asked, “Where to?”
“Past the Dark Forest, to our border. Someone’s trying to cross it and won’t quit.”
Once we left town, Claws sat up in the backseat of my SUV. He stared into the inky darkness. We had streetlights in town but not out here. A pregnant moon provided only enough light to show shapes of trees and bushes—charcoal shadows etched against a gray background. As we neared our border, I followed the vibrations and pointed to a spot. We’d have to trudge through a woods to reach it. “Over there.”
Raven parked the car on the side of the road, and we traipsed through a blanket of snow. Twenty minutes later, we reached the invisible ward and stared, watching a young girl, palms spread, feeling her way along the border. She couldn’t see it but could feel it, and it wouldn’t let her pass. A long coat nearly came to her ankles, billowing around her. No gloves. No hat. No boots. Her feet had to be half frozen. Her legs were unsteady, and she collapsed every few feet. “No magic. She’s a mortal.” When she fell again, I started toward her. “She needs help.”
Raven’s skin shimmered with fire. “Be careful. This might be a trick. She could be hiding anything under that coat.”
Claws padded in front of us to check her out. He sniffed, then planted himself in front of her, blocking her way. She gave a short cry of fear and turned to run. No one expected to see an ocelot in southern Indiana. That’s when we saw her face. And her body. Both eyes were nearly swollen shut. Her lip was split, oozing blood. Bruises covered her cheeks and forehead. And her stomach protruded. I pressed my lips in a tight line. Someone had beaten a pregnant woman.
Raven growled. “What monster would leave that girl like this?”
She was staring at us, clearly frightened. She glanced at the only direction open to her, but before she could run, I said, “We won’t harm you. How did you get here? How can we help?”
She sank to her knees, tears running down her cheeks. “Hank got mad at me. Used his fists, then threw me out of the car. I’m lost, and I’m hungry. I don’t have a cellphone.”
Raven started toward her. “If I ever find Hank, he’ll wish he were dead. Can you make it to our SUV? We can drive you to the nearest town.”
She struggled to her feet. “I’ll try, and thank you. How did you find me?”
I couldn’t tell her my wards had led me to her. “Just luck,” I said. “But let’s get you in a warm vehicle. You have to be cold.”
I took one side of her and Raven the other. I waved a hand for the wards to let her pass. We were half carrying her when her knees gave again and she gasped in pain. “No, please, not now.” She shut her eyes, panting for breath. “The pains keep coming.”
Raven glanced at me, looking as worried as I felt. “Is that why you kept falling in the snow?”
She nodded, gritting her teeth. “I think the baby’s coming.”
The nearest town was so small, it didn’t have a clinic. I didn’t think it even had a doctor. “We need to take you to our hospital.”
Raven stared. “She’s a mortal.”
The girl was moaning too loud to hear him. I didn’t think we had much time. “We can’t leave her here, and we can’t knock on someone’s door and wish her luck.”
He gave a quick nod but didn’t look happy. Neither was I. But I wouldn’t abandon her like her boyfriend had. We got her to the SUV and loaded her on the backseat, Claws curling beside her.
She bit her lip, staring at him.
“Don’t worry. He’s friendly,” I said. I didn’t add “if he likes you.”
We got in the car and when Raven started to pull away, I whispered, “Hurry!”
My fire demon loved speed. He smashed his foot down on the accelerator once we’d turned back toward town, and we flew down the pavement I’d just cleaned. The girl’s pains were coming so close together by the time we reached town, Raven squealed to a stop in front of Muddy River’s hospital. I’d called Caree to warn her we were coming…with a mortal.
Raven scooped the girl into his arms and carried her inside. Caree motioned to the nearest empty room. She laid her palms on the girl, and her pain instantly subsided. She removed her coat, had her lay on the narrow examining bed, and felt her abdomen. “Breech.” She looked at us. “Karl will be here soon to assist me. You might want to wait in the lobby. This might take a while.”
Raven looked relieved. I was, too. Neither of us wanted to watch a baby’s birth. Karl was a shifter who’d lived in Muddy River for a long time. He’d served as a medic during the Civil War, so knew his stuff. He didn’t have the healing magic witches had, but he was a great assistant.
He rushed through the hospital doors ten minutes later and nodded at us. He’d been attacked and changed when he was in his early thirties, so his hair was still sable brown, and he was tall and lean. “Hey, guys, nice to see you.” Then he dashed into the room with the girl and Caree.
We sat there another half hour before we heard a baby cry. A while later, Caree stepped into the hallway and motioned us toward her. “Do you want to see the little boy you saved?”
“We saved the girl,” Raven said, “not the baby.”
She shook her head. “The baby was breech. If she’d have gone into labor out there, he wouldn’t have survived. She probably wouldn’t have either.”
“Thanks for helping a mortal,” I said. “I didn’t know what else to do but to bring her here.”
Caree smiled. “It’s almost Christmas. The season of giving. Besides, I took a vow to heal and didn’t just specify supernaturals. She hasn’t realized what we are. Hopefully, she won’t before we send her home.”
“So, they’re both going to be okay?” Raven asked. “Both her and the baby?”
Caree nodded, but her expression hardened. “No thanks to her boyfriend. I could heal her black eyes and split lip, but then she’d wonder how I did it. She was asking about you. Go in and see her.”
When we stepped inside the room, Karl was holding the baby, and the girl was lying against her pillow, her eyes closed. When she heard the door open, she turned to see who was there and smiled at us. “I don’t know who you are, but thank you. You saved us.”
Karl came to show us the red, wrinkled, little boy. “Isn’t he perfect?” His dark eyes glowed, gazing down at the infant’s thatch of dark hair. He glanced at the girl. “He looks like his mother. Her name’s Miriam. She’s from a small town in the Appalachian Mountains.”
I stared. “That’s a long way from here.”
Miriam gave a tired nod. “I ran away with Hank. We were going to California. He wanted to be as far away from home as we could get. We’d saved our money, but it ran out faster than we thought. We only had enough gas to make it through Indiana and to the Mississippi River. When it looked like I was going to have the baby, Hank lost it. He didn’t know what to do, blamed me for getting pregnant.”
“It takes two.” Karl cradled the baby closer.
She blinked at him. “I didn’t tell him I was pregnant when we left. I didn’t want him to leave me behind. I wanted to leave as bad as he did.”
Raven grimaced. “That’s still no reason to beat you and dump you in the middle of nowhere.”
She shrugged. “I should have told him. He was feeling desperate, but so was I.”
I narrowed my eyes, studying her. The girl didn’t expect much out of life, that was for sure. Karl reached and squeezed her shoulder. “Well, you’re here now, and you’re going to be okay.”
She blinked away tears. “Not sure how. I don’t have any money. I can’t pay you for taking care of me and the baby. I’ve got no car, no anything. I can’t even buy diapers.”
Karl gazed at her, then the baby. “You can stay with me for a while, just until you get on your feet. I have two spare bedrooms.”
Raven’s brows dipped in a frown. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“I know what you’re thinking,” Karl said. “But it would be all right. I live outside of town. That’s why it took me a while to get here. No close neighbors. And I’d buy everything they need and take it home.”
He was telling us he wouldn’t bring them into town. That our secret would be safe. But the longer they stayed, the higher the risk.
“You can’t just toss them out,” Karl said.
Raven crossed his arms, upset. “One month. That will give you time to figure things out. Maybe we can raise money to help them on their way.”
Karl nodded. “Fair enough.” He looked at Miriam. “What do you think?”
“I’ll cook and clean for you. I’ll earn my keep. I have nowhere to go.”
Caree watched the two of them. Then she smiled. “It’s time for me to go home to my husband. You two can spend the night here with the baby, and you can take Miriam to your place tomorrow, Karl. I know you’ll keep a close eye on her.” She turned to walk us out with her. Once out of earshot, she said, “We’re either going to have to let Miriam stay and live with us, or we’re going to lose Karl. He’ll go with her when she leaves.”
“They just met.” I was extra cautious about choosing a mate, I knew, but would Karl decide on a stranger in one month?
“Karl was married to a mortal when he served in the war. A southern girl. She was pregnant when he left to fight. When he returned home, she’d died during childbirth. He’s never taken another woman. But when he held that baby, and looked at that girl, he was doomed.”
“And the girl?” Raven asked.
“She’s never had a man be kind to her, protective. She looked like she’d found heaven.”
Raven rubbed his forehead, troubled. “They’re both mortals.”
“But they’ll live with Karl.” Caree touched his arm. “They need each other.”
We pulled on our coats to walk outside, Raven still stewing over what to do, and rays of moonlight beamed down on us. Claws came to sit by my feet, purring. I looked up at the night sky and sighed. “Should we let them stay?”
A halo formed around the moon, a lovely gold-colored circle, and I smiled. “There’s your answer.” My coven and I didn’t recite the Christmas story every year, but we knew it. “A child is born,” I said.
Raven nodded. “And we took him in. It feels right. They can stay. A Christmas miracle.”
On the drive home, I texted my fellow witches to tell them about our night. We’d see them at our house a few days from now for our annual Yule tide meal. Muddy River was home to many supernaturals, but now we’d include two mortals in the mix. And that was all right.