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This story is rated 'spicy' and may contain racy or violent material. Click to read this content!
Birka wrapped cold arms around herself and stared.Here is a short excerpt to whet your appetite:
It was spring - the light from the sun should have actual warmth again on her skin, but there was still a chill to the air, and a deeper chill in the pit of her chest that the sun couldn't touch. She'd broken her leg as a child, and remembered how the pain sometimes felt like this: icy and sharp - cold without numbing.
Tamig had been found further upstream, his mangled, frozen body trapped near the shore in an ice jam past the ford of the great braided river that streamed out of the mountain lake. Birka had not been bothered by his body; riders died, and she had taken many bodies to their final resting places. If his body was rather more disfigured, decomposed and purpled than many of the bodies she had handled, it was still only a body. She had accepted his death months ago when he had split from his fellow rangers in the dead of winter, following an argument, and failed to return after several days. Efforts to track him had been thwarted by heavy snowfall.
Birka had helped fish him out of the broken ice, careful not to plunge through and suffer the same fate. Though she had fellow rangers on hand to help her if the ice gave out, spring ice jams were not trifles to be treated lightly, and there would be little anyone could do if the ice broke free. If he had not been so close to shore, they would not have attempted recovery at all. The chaotic stacks of ice were badly anchored and given to strange tilts and sudden structural failures, and the cold spring water was rushing past without mercy. The skin of the body had been ice-cold to the touch, and the flesh was strangely slack on the skeleton they hauled carefully out and wrapped for burial.
The chill in her heart came later, exploring downstream to see if any of his tools could be found, fortuitously washed up on the shores or trapped within easy reach. Birka did not find any tools, but she did find something else...
"That's... Pumice?" Dlameda approached through the dirty, melting snow behind her and used her shoulder for balance as he squinted out at the river. It was hard to resolve the big, charcoal-gray stallion with what they were seeing; if he had been a white unicorn, they may not have noticed him at all. His hand on her shoulder tightened.
Pumice was trapped behind a groaning wall of ice, slowly rotating in the flow. Once in a while, a cloven hoof would surface. Twice, he disappeared entirely, and Birka thought he might have flowed away underneath the icepack, but he reappeared, a bit of lifeless head, and then some matted neck at an impossible angle.
His saddle was gone; bare shoulder and strapless haunch showed gruesome wear where it had clearly been on the body a long while after he'd died. There was no reason to go through the work to salvage his body - he was near the center of the raging river, and neither hide nor meat would be good by now. Even his horn had been broken in the journey he'd made from the river, a bright, ragged shard on his battered forehead.
"He was old," Birka said, in an attempt to ease the knot in her throat. It was unbalanced to feel this way for a snowy, after feeling strangely callous over Tamig.
"He was the reason I have this skin," Dlameda said, touching his bear-fur coat, and he continued, "It was an exciting afternoon. Ivara took Marai, Inama and I out..."
Birka glanced at him, surprised by the tone to his voice. He wasn't making conversation, the way she had been trying to; he was telling a story, the way they might if this were a death ceremony for a person. Snowies didn't get death rites with stories, she wanted to protest, but she let Dlameda tell the story, even though she knew it well - from the snow-cat attack that Marai only avoided because Pumice threw her and broke her arm, through the finding of the bear in the snow, as led by a bolting Pumice. It was a strange disconnect to continue to watch the snowy's huge body, slowly rotating in the flow, and resolve it with the idea of him full of life.
When Dlameda wound to the end, she squeezed his arm, and he offered roughly, "Some snowies are only ever snowies... they eat and crap and complain about things. Pumice... Pumice was different."
Birka nodded, agreeing. Pumice had been skittish about some things, and stubborn, but smarter than most snowies, and had demonstrated unexpected things, like remorse, and tenderness. "He has the right to some ceremony," she agreed. "He was... almost a person."
Dlameda sighed. "He had spark," he agreed.
When he went silent, Birka took the initiative and began her own story.
"When I was nine, I fell from a rock outcrop and broke my leg," she said quietly, watching a lumpy piece of snow-unicorn crest in the water.
Dlameda was quiet, also watching the corpse of Pumice do its last dance. He'd never heard this story; Birka had told it to no one, and the other members of her age-set had sealed their mouths as well.
"It took five months before I was allowed to go out again, and everyone in my age-set was very excited, because were were going to be going out on our own for the whole day to gather spring marsh greens at the end of the valley. We'd made a few close excursions with teachers, and I had been around the snowies since my fall, but this was our first time going out without adult supervision, and the first time I'd actually been on a snowy since the accident."
"Come on, you fat old silk-hare!" Fala called. "You're slowing us down!"
Birka felt like a hare, emerging blinking-eyed and dazed from a warren after a particularly long cold spell. It was midday in late spring, and the sun was low in the sky over the south mountains.
She squinted ahead to where Anler and Tetefii were helping Beqash put tack on Cloud while Fala held Pumice's rein, and made herself walk towards them.
She slowed as she got closer and Cloud and Pumice grew taller, and finally came to a stop several armslengths away from her agemates.
"Does it hurt?" Fala asked anxiously. Birka wondered if her anxiousness was for her, or for Fala's own restless desire to be out on the trails already.
Birka shook her head, distracted, and looked up at Pumice. His saddle was terribly far up in the air, the blanket fluttering above her head. Her leg rarely hurt anymore and she only limped out of habit sometimes, when she wasn't paying attention.
"Then stop being so slow." If there was one thing Fala couldn't stand, it was slow. She turned back to Pumice, who snuffled and nipped at Cloud's ears.
Beqash chirped sternly at Pumice, and the charcoal-gray snow-unicorn laid his own ears back and stepped obediently back, one shuffling step and then another. Cloud surged to her feet after the last of her buckles were tightened and she was given the all's-clear.
Tetefii swarmed up Cloud's saddle-ladder with a joyous laugh, followed by Anler, from the opposite side. They would ride double, taking four of the big snow-unicorns on their day-long trip.
"Do you want the front seat?" Fala offered, coming forward to catch the end of Pumice's ladder. Pumice was a favorite mount - he wasn't as lazy as most of the snowies were, and could even sometimes be persuaded to break into a trot, but he was still sedate enough that the adults felt he could be trusted with them for the day. He knew more commands than the other snowies, and would swivel his head without hesitation at the sound of his own name.
"Yes!" Birka knew better than to turn down an offer for the front seat; the view from the back seat was primarily the back of the person in front. She took a deep breath, and climbed up.
She knew it was the wrong choice as soon as she reached the saddle and settled into place. You could see all the way down the front of the snowy from the front seat. She'd rather be staring at Fala's back; it was such an awful height. She made herself stare ahead, to where Cloud was starting to pull away. It took three tries before she could whistle Pumice after her.
The walk took a little more than an hour, the ground-eating stride of the snowies taking them further and further from the village. Birka relaxed as they rode, keeping her gaze to the trees around, and to the mountains beyond. Fala chattered, pointing out birds and signs of animals as they passed them.
'This isn't so bad,' she convinced herself. She found her early fear shameful - she was the steady one of their age-set. She wasn't the leader that Fala was, or as mischievous as little Tetefii. She wasn't as hot-headed as Anler and Inav, or as timid as Emeina and Komesh. She was the practical one - not given to fear or rashness.
It lasted her the long walk to the low swampy area by the river where they would be gathering early marsh greens.
Then, while Fala scrambled easily down, Birka looked down the long length of Pumice to the ground and froze.
White-hot panic flooded her, and her hands tightened around the saddle horn in front of her. "I can't," she whispered. Fala was too far away to hear her - everything seemed too far away.
They didn't notice that she hadn't joined him until they were gathering up the baskets and preparing to walk away from the hobbled snowies. Pumice gave a curious trill, and they all turned back to look up at Birka.
"Come on," Fala said imperiously. "What are you waiting for?"
"Let's go!" Tetefii added.
Birka began to cry, and her age-mates looked at her in surprise. Birka never cried. Even when she'd broken her leg, she'd been in too much shock to cry, and she was usually the one wiping tears from other cheeks.
But she couldn't help it - terror was filling her up inside and driving the saltwater from her eyes.
The rest of her age-set clustered around Pumice's feet, staring up at her. "I'm sorry," she sobbed. "I can't!"
"Sure you can!" Fala encouraged. The others chorused helpfully, "You can do it!" and "It's all right!"
Birka didn't feel all right, and she knew she couldn't do it. She couldn't pry her fingers off of the saddle, or make her leg move towards the first step. She hunched miserably in place, tears streaming down her cheeks.
The others conferred, out of Birka's hearing, and after a moment, Birka felt a tug on the saddle, and Fala swung up behind her. Strong arms wrapped around her and squeezed tight.
"It's going to be fine," Fala said in her ear. "We'll take care of you and help you down. The others are all waiting at the bottom..."
Birka trembled. "I can't," she repeated.
Fala tried to talk her into moving, alternating between affectionate scolding and warm encouragement, until Pumice, confused by their activity, began to whine.
"Pumice wants you to get down," Fala attempted, but the whine turned into a rumbling purr, surprisingly soothing through Birka's torso. The muscle-clenching terror didn't ebb, though the tears finally dried up.
The sun crawled across the sky before Fala gave up, and climbed down to talk further with the others.
Pumice shuffled in place, hobbled and uncertain. Then, without warning or direction, he knelt forward onto his knees. It must have been challenging, with his back feet together, but he made the descent as smoothly as a beast of his size and awkwardness could manage. Birka still screamed, watching the world fall up at her, and clutched at the saddle. Though most snowies were trained to kneel, not all of them ever got the hang of it, and riders were encouraged not to use the trick unless the snowy was unloaded, whenever possible, to save them the strain.
Pumice snorted, but didn't flinch or panic at her Other-touched scream, though the others scattered back in case he did. When he'd settled, they returned, flocking to reach up and touch her feet reassuringly.
"You can do it now," Fala said with certainty. "Come on! It's not so bad."
Though the tremendous height had been cut into a fraction, it was still too much. The ground was still forever away - she could not hold the saddle and touch it at the same time. The terror had only dulled, not retreated, and she was still incapable of descending.
They tried to talk her down out of the saddle with renewed hope, but Birka continued to cling to her safe spot and sob. They even tried eating their travel rations without her, in hopes that hunger would do what they were unable to. Hunger hurt less than fear, and Birka stayed where she was.
Fala climbed back up in the saddle with her, bringing a dried strip of fish for her age-mate, but Birka couldn't eat it. The others milled around. Tetefii held onto Pumice's nose, and scratched around his horn the way he liked.
"I'm so stupid," Birka sobbed, but knowing it didn't help her.
"What makes it less awful?" Fala asked gently. "Does anything help?"
Birka shook her head. "No."
"If we clapped a rhythm, maybe?" Fala suggested. "Is it better if you have something to distract you?" She demonstrated, echoed by the others.
"No." They trailed off.
"What if you close your eyes?"
Birka tried it, just as Pumice started to rumble in pleasure at Tetefii's attentions. "That's... better," she admitted. With Fala's encouragement, she started to try climbing down from the saddle, but a shift in the contraption made her eyes fly open, and fear swept her again. "I can't!"
"Shhh..." Birka could practically hear Fala thinking behind her. "We can make this work, don't worry."
Birka cried - dry, spent sobs - while her age-mate wrestled with something behind her. "Here," Fala said briskly. "Try this."
It was Fala's belt, padded with an empty pouch, and she placed it gently over Birka's eyes and tied it tightly. "Is that better?"
The pressure and darkness, combined with Birka's exhaustion, was like peace. It even muffled her hearing a little, though she could still feel Pumice's purr through her legs.
"Try now," Fala said, as if at a great distance, and Birka could finally make herself swing herself off of the saddle and climb down the scant few steps.
When she gained the bottom, she was instantly enfolded in hugs and jostling squeezes of affection.
"I'm sorry," she said, unwrapping Fala's belt. She felt a little empty - weak and wobbly. The others all brushed her apology off, and no one teased her for her terrors.
Fala was looking at the sky and frowning. "We should start back," she said.
"How do you feel?" Anler asked.
Birka looked hard at Pumice, waiting for the fear to creep back. Pumice looked back and snorted, then rubbed his head ungracefully against the ground. There was no more terror in her chest, even in the idea of climbing back up on him.
Birka flashed Anler a smile. "Hungry."
"Were you afraid of heights after that?" Dlameda asked quietly.
Birka shook her head. A bead woven into a braid rattled against her necklace. "Not really. If I found myself becoming afraid again, I'd close my eyes for a moment, and concentrate on the feeling of the snowy breathing beneath me. Then, I could get down, or do what I needed to."
Just then, there was a crack like thunder, and the wall of ice suddenly gave way, shifting and turning into fluid chunks as if it had never been solid. Pumice's body ricocheted off one icecube, then another, dunking below the surface in the turbulent flow as the ice streamed away from them downstream in a chorus of loud complaints and cracks.
Dlameda and Birka clung to each other, watching as they could, spotting a cloven hoof, or a charcoal ear surfacing occasionally in the chaos and finally disappearing forever down the river.
They stood there for a long moment after there was no chance of seeing him again before Birka resumed her story, speaking louder over the percussion of the ice.
"My age-set spent the entire day that we were supposed to be gathering greens talking me down out of that saddle," she said. "We came back almost empty-handed. But when the raisers asked us where our berries went... Anler spoke up before any of us could, and said that Pumice had eaten them all."
Dlameda gave a bark of laughter, squeezing Birka's shoulder. "Poor old Pumice," he said. "He took the blame for a lot of things."
Birka smiled, but it faded on her face. "Will he take the blame for this, too?" she asked plaintively, finally understanding the pain in her chest. "Maybe he bolted out onto the ice with Tamig?"
"We'll never know exactly what happened," Dlameda said firmly. "And you don't blame a dead person."
The chill in Birka's heart began to thaw. Pumice had gotten his last rites, and spring sunlight had warmth on her again.
"He was old," Birka said, in an attempt to ease the knot in her throat. It was unbalanced to feel this way for a snowy, after feeling strangely callous over Tamig.
This story came from a prompt in the second Muse Fusion (March 16) and was suggested by Melissa Nelson.
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