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Taiv hiked higher on the ridge, breathing hard. It would have been much easier to ride - Bowback and Swift were both saddled but free of loads, and Serac seemed particularly puzzled that she wouldn't ride, continually shuffling into Taiv's path and pausing, causing Taiv to pound on his back leg and whistle until he moved. Brownie's slight, stubborn colt, Fleet, had no such compunction, and was ranging twice the distance of any of the rest of them, stopping to smell and taste every spring-budding plant with no plans to eat any of them, still preferring his mother's milk. No one had expected him to weather the winter, and everyone was pleased that he had.Author's Notes
They were the tail of a slow, steady string of snowies, heading for the fields that were beginning to show green as the snow retreated. Dasa and Jothan were in the lead, carefully mindful of spring hazards and places where snow melt might turn dangerous, and they led the group at a lazy pace, encouraging the snowies to stretch their legs and amble. It was a pace Taiv could match on foot, with effort, and she liked the heat in her limbs and the feeling of free movement again after a winter being bundled against the cold. She still wore several layers, but her hood was free on her shoulders, and the nip of the still-chilly wind was mild compared to its recent winter bite.
She also liked the concentration it took; it kept her from thinking so hard.
Ahead, Dasa turned and gestured with wide sweeps of her arms to indicate that they were close to camp, and Taiv watched with a smile as the snowies slowly clustered, then dispersed to chew on the grass that was growing on the sunny-side of the slope when no whistles called them back into trail formation. Taiv stayed where she was - the other two would leave her plenty of camp-building chores without prompting, and she took a blissful pause to look out over the landscape and catch her breath.
Spring was stretching over the landscape. Bright hare-thorn tickled the edges of the valley growth below, and the snow that was retreating on the slopes revealed grass and other short ground-cover in bright greens and last year's yellows. Buds were starting to appear on the trees below, lending the forest a haze of green.
Several old, twisted methalerf trees marked the alpine slope: they looked dead, weathered down to their inner bark and wind-battered into twisted, wizened shapes. No hint of green touched the tips of their branches. The branches that remained looked unwilling to sprout, and many of them didn't. Every summer, Taiv loved to come and touch these trees, to see which ones came back, and which wouldn't. They were hardier than they looked, more alive than they seemed. She remembered being very young, and crying on her mother Tukarn in the spring.
"They're dead," she'd cried. Tukarn was a raiser, and had come with Taiv and the members of her young age-set with a group of adults to harvest some of the plants that grew well here. A quarrel with her age-mates had sent Taiv fleeing to this place - her grief mixed, child-like, with her confusion.
Tukarn rocked her, smoothing back her hair and folding her too-long limbs into a lap they almost no longer fit into. "They aren't dead," the raiser assured. "These trees are only very, very good at sleeping. Inside, their hearts are still beating, just more slowly than we can see."
Taiv shook her head, not convinced. It was later spring than this - every other tree was sporting wildly growing leaves, but not these.
"Some years, they won't put out leaves at all," Tukarn said calmly, and she stood and took Taiv to where she could touch the smoothed bark of the tree. "They know that they only have so much time in this world to grow, so they stretch it out as best they can, staying safe in the very center of their tree until there is a good summer, a long summer, and they can put out leaves and grow for a little while. Maybe this isn't the summer for them, and rather than put out leaves to be sad, they stay inside this year. We'll come back next year and see if it's a better one."
A year was a very long time when she was a child, but Taiv had managed to remember that promise, and returned that following year, to find that indeed, the tree had put out a hardy handful of leaves, a pale new branch, and even a blossom. She touched it reverently, and took the image of the stubborn, quiet tree to her own heart.
Sometimes, she thought now, her hand in the same place it had been then, she wondered if she hadn't taken it too much to heart, walling off her private fears and loves too carefully behind the tough bark of her skin. Did the tree feel fear, those springs it held its leaves inside? Did it long for the touch of sunlight on its green fingers when it slumbered a summer away?
Taiv fingered the bead on her necklace with her other hand. Did Meru suspect her timing, choosing to go out on this trip when she did? Was it noticeable, how careful she was to be conveniently away during that time she was most likely to become with child, not only with Meru, but with every man whose bead she ever wore?
Her heartbeat was beginning to slow from her exertions, and the wind was reminding her that winter wasn't so far past. It wasn't quite cold enough to pull the fur hood over her ears.
At 20, it was already becoming just a little odd that she had not started a child, and it wasn't a lack of wanting children that stopped her. This... just wasn't the right summer to put out leaves, she convinced herself, burying her fear. She was careful, and quiet, and took more women to her bed than men, and left Itrelir whenever she could to let the mountain wind touch her skin and let these trees remind her that it was alright to let a summer pass without bearing fruit.
A querying whistle sounded from Dasa, below her, and Bowback snorted noisily through her mouthfuls of grass.
Taiv gave the tree one last pat, and pulled her hood up over her head as she left it to sleep.
A story prompted by Lorna Cowie during the August Muse Fusion.