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On the Rocks   1505.03.06  
Creators: Elizabeth Barrette (Writer), Ellen Million (Illustration)
Eshra keeps watch over the snow-unicorn herd, tending this year's foals. Originally printed in "The Lorelei Signal", January 2011.
Posted: 04/23/12      [No comments yet] ~ 4098 words.
 

Pale spring sunlight spilled down the narrow valley, sparkling on a few lingering chunks of ice. Wildflowers danced in the breeze. The herd of tall, burly snow-unicorns spread out along the valley as they sought tender buds and sprouts of grass. The herders followed them, watching for any threats.

"Eshra, Jomeq, you two keep a sharp eye on the foals," said Beqash. "They seem extra frisky today."

"They're just glad to get out in the sun," said Jomeq, as he waved a lazy hand at the three small forms. This year's foals stood chest-high, still light and agile enough to get into trouble that the heavier adults would avoid. With luck and care, one of those might survive to become a yearling. Last year's colt, Wing, was already the size of a shagback. He liked to roughhouse, often climbing or leaning on things, and would probably be weaned sometime this year.

Eshra swept a critical eye over her charges. That one probably won't last much longer, she thought as the charcoal runt nursed fitfully for a few moments and then lay down. The larger two scampered between low piles of rock, nimble as mountain goats. Their coats gleamed in the sun, one a pure frost-white, the other faintly dappled in silver. These two still look healthy, thank goodness.

No matter how the rangers tried, they could not stanch the slow inexorable dwindling of the herd. So many foals stillborn, followed by more early deaths, made it impossible to replace all the adults gone to normal mortality. Snowies lived a long time -- typically around forty years -- but the herd still lost about one per year. They might or might not gain a replacement from that year's foaling. Eshra sighed, wishing she could do more for the gargantuan beasts she loved. She stared at the romping youngsters and wondered which of them might still be alive this time next year.

Spring was the hardest season for the herders. The mares gave birth in late winter to early spring. They often experienced difficulty with delivery, and the fragile newborns required diligent care. Milk production surged, requiring extra time and hands to collect. Healthy foals demanded close attention as they explored the world. Sickly foals required coddling in a desperate attempt to save their lives, though it rarely succeeded. The stress added up, making the herders cranky. As a new addition to the rangers assigned to this herd, Eshra had drawn the most hated duty: taking the corpses of stillborn foals to the village's domestics for material salvage.

She understood the reasoning, of course. Whereas the rangers of Itakith knew Eshra's skills with snow-unicorns, those of Itadesh were still learning what she could do. For that matter, so was Eshra; as a new adult, her range of possible tasks had widened from her childhood experience as an assistant. Today she and Jomeq -- who had passed his own adulthood tests two summers ago, despite being younger than her -- were supposed to practice their herding skills.

Eshra watched as the mare Cascade carefully placed her massive forehooves on a rock pile, stretching a long neck up to nibble leaves from the tree atop the pile. Cascade's own frost-white foal and her dappled playmate sniffed around the base. They poked their whiskery noses into crevices and practiced point control with their horns. Unlike the wild goats they vaguely resembled, snow-unicorns could and did use their horns as tools. Many of them were dumb, lazy beasts -- but the clever ones, like Eshra's own mount Li, were capable of learning how to untie knots or flip latches. That way lay all manner of mischief for an unwary ranger.

Suddenly the frost-white foal leaped back from the rock pile. Then both of them crowded close, nosing and pawing at a hole.

"All right, what have you found, you little imps?" said Eshra. She walked toward the foals. A shrill whistle came from under the rocks. The foals danced away again, then returned. Eshra laughed. "Leave that poor old marmot alone," she said. Neither of the foals had been ringed yet, so she gripped a handful of mane to lead them away.
"You're pretty good with them," said Jomeq. He sat on a large boulder, legs trailing down the side.

"I try," Eshra said, not wanting to encourage him.

Jomeq slid down from his perch and sauntered toward her. He stretched his broad shoulders. "So, I was wondering ..." One hand slipped into a pouch and withdrew a bead.

Eshra winced. She hated this conversation. Not quite a year had passed since her first month-blood, so the men ought not to pester her -- but most focused on her age, not her time of maturity. "Perhaps another month," she said.

"Sleet, Eshra, you might as well just put a knot in it already," Jomeq said, his hazel eyes narrowing. "You've shaken off more men than I can count."

Eshra's hand flew to the empty space at the center of her necklace. She would like nothing more than to tie a knot declaring herself unavailable. When a young childless woman did that, however, it tended to attract negative attention ... and Eshra preferred to fade into the background. After the last heartbreaking summer when her age-mates cast her out, she found it difficult to be around people and spent as much time as possible outside the village. She tried to keep her interactions quiet and brief. "I don't really know anyone here," she said finally. "Itadesh men are all new to me. I'm still thinking."

Jomeq snorted. "Well, if you'd accept some beads, you'd get to know us a lot faster!" he said.

"Mmm," said Eshra. Then a motion snagged her attention. "Oh, dear, Wing is picking on the runt again. I have to go." She trotted over to the two snowies. Wing was using his horn to prod the small charcoal foal, his nose too tender for nudging due to its new ring.

"Wing! Bad colt!" scolded Eshra, making a sharp downward gesture over his nose but stopping short of contact. Wing hung his head and pretended remorse. "You know better than that." Now the frisky colt put his heavy chin over Eshra's shoulder, cuddling and demanding attention. "Go play somewhere else." Eshra swatted him lightly on the rump to shoo him away.

The runt bleated weakly. Eshra reached down to scoop up the frail body, hoisting the foal to its feet. "Come on, little one, let's go find your mama. You need some more milk." The dark mare towered over ranger and foal alike. She stood placidly for nursing, but again, it didn't last long.

"Hey, you! Give that back!" yelled Jomeq.

Eshra whirled to see the man lunge forward. The frost-white foal jumped out of the way, Jomeq's green hat flapping in her mouth. Without the hat to hold it in place, Jomeq's messy hair tumbled to his shoulders. Its woodgrain color caught the sun, medium brown curls streaked with lighter golden brown. Eshra flipped her own black hair out of the way, glad that she'd wrapped it for the day in two slim tails. Herders learned to take precautions or else wound up with very short hair.

"Stand still," Jomeq said. For every step he took, though, the foal skipped back two or three.

"Jomeq, stop chasing her," Eshra called.

The young man ignored her. All his attention focused on the snow-unicorn now chewing his hat with sharp white teeth. Jomeq whistled sharply in the Drop it! command. The foal tossed her head and trotted away. Then he whistled again, Come! Nothing worked.

"She's too young to know what you want," Eshra said, catching up to Jomeq. "The trainers probably haven't even begun teaching the new foals any commands yet."

"Then she can muddy-well start learning now," Jomeq said.

"Stop it!" Eshra snapped. "You're going to scare her." She grabbed Jomeq by the arm and hauled him back.

The young man shrugged her off. "Don't tell me what to do. I outrank you."

Eshra sighed. She had taken his place as the juniormost herder. She knew he was doing something wrong, but lacked either the authority or the charm to make him stop. Her stomach clenched at the idea of provoking a serious argument.

"Come here, you fluff-brained critter," Jomeq said to the foal, trying again to catch his hat. She jumped sideways toward the wall of the valley.

Eshra looked around for Beqash, hoping that the older woman would come to their rescue. Unfortunately she spotted the ranger some distance away, busy with a trio of half-grown snowies caught up in a play-fight. That could lead to an injury if it got too rough. Eshra bit her lip, wondering whether or not to call for Beqash.

"That's better," said Jomeq.

Eshra turned back to see him backing the foal against the rocky cliff that bordered the valley. "Jomeq, don't corner her," Eshra said.

Jomeq crept forward. He reached out a hand for the dangling hat. "Just a little more..."

The foal leaped over his grasping hand, landing on a narrow ledge.

"Sleet! What did you do that for?" Jomeq said.

The foal scrambled up the sheer wall to a wider ledge where a ribbon of meltwater trickled down the stone. She dropped the hat and bobbed her head at Jomeq. Then she drank from the waterfall. Mouthing the green wool again, she skipped back a few paces. The hat swayed teasingly as she looked down at the fuming ranger.

Jomeq climbed up after her. She dropped the hat again. Then she lowered her head to sniff the wildflowers and fragrant herbs sprouting in the cracks of the ledge.

"I'll get you now, you father-beadless pest," Jomeq said.

Eshra gasped at the crude insult. Every snow-unicorn's parentage was known, just as every villager's was. "Jomeq, stop it! You're just making matters worse," said Eshra.

"Oh, put it in a basket," he yelled over his shoulder. Then he snatched at his hat. The foal got it first and sprang out of reach, running up the slanted ledge. Eshra's hand flew to her mouth as a shower of pebbles rained down. A snow-unicorn had the same kind of cloven hooves as a goat, hard outer shell encasing a tough leathery sole that gave them excellent grip. Still, the foal was now farther up the cliff than twice Eshra's own height. A fall from there could easily injure, or even kill. Eshra turned to call for help.

"Jomeq. Climb down from there at once," said a frigid voice.

Finally the young man obeyed. Eshra heaved a sigh of relief. The foal peered down at them, once more waggling the stolen hat. Her frost-white coat stood out against the darker wall of stone.

"Explain to me exactly what is going on here," Beqash ordered.

"I'm getting my hat back," said Jomeq.

"Evidently not," said Beqash. "Eshra?"

Eshra looked up at the foal, then looked at Jomeq. His thin lips pressed into a line. "I -- he -- the foal was just playing," she said faintly, "and then was frightened."

"I see," the older ranger said. She raked her gaze over the two teenagers. "Is this your idea of keeping a sharp eye on the foals, rangers?"

"No, Beqash," said Eshra. She hung her head, studying the worn toe of her left boot. She needed new ones soon ... if anybody cared to devote good leather to clothing a botch-up like herself.

"I guess we could've done better," Jomeq said.

"I'm certain that a skilled and attentive ranger would have done better," Beqash said. "Now, help me get the snow-unicorn down from that ledge. You both know how to coax a foal." Beqash made the little sucking noise that mares used for calling their young to nurse, not quite a whicker, almost more of a cluck.

Eshra realized that they should have tried this earlier. She hadn't quite mastered the technique, though, and from the sound of it, neither had Jomeq. Still, she did her best.

The foal taunted them -- enyaa, enyaa! -- and flirted her tail. Then she scampered higher.

After half an hour of clucking, whickering, whistling, begging, and beckoning Beqash gave up. "She really does not want to come down from there," the ranger admitted. "All right, does anyone else have another idea?"

"Get ahead of her on that ledge. Have someone climb up there and drive her back down this way," said Jomeq.

"That ledge slants up faster the farther it goes," Eshra said, frowning. "It might work ... but that's pretty high for someone to climb on a crumbling cliff. Crevices could still hold some late ice, too; slippery footing."

"What, are you scared?" said Jomeq.

"Never mind that," said Beqash, fixing him with a steely glare. "A more significant concern is the ledge above this one. If the foal spooks again, she might just climb higher."

"Oh," said Jomeq, looking away. "I didn't think of that."

Eshra watched the foal, who had gone back to chewing on the now-soggy wool. An idea began to tickle at the back of her mind. "I wonder..." she murmured.

"Eshra, have you thought of something else?" Beqash said.

"Maybe," said Eshra, pointing to a low spot on the ledge. "I'd still have to climb up, but not as far. I think that if I sit near the waterfall instead of chasing her, she might come to me."

"It's worth a try," Beqash declared. "At least if this idea fails, it probably won't drive her higher."

Eshra headed for the base of the slender waterfall. As she went, she scanned the sky overhead. That lesson had been drummed into her from an early age: Always look up before going up. Fortunately the only Others in sight were far away, no more than faint glossy specks in the bright midday sky. They would not touch down today to bring death and destruction.

"Boost me up," said Eshra. "I don't want to make a lot of noise scrabbling over the rocks."

Beqash and Jomeq lifted her up so that she could reach the ledge near the waterfall. Eshra crept along the rough path for a short distance, then sat down with her back to the foal. She pulled the two tails of her hair forward over her shoulders. Then she began to hum.

Slowly Eshra's fingers undid the wrappings and left the tail loose, except for the thong securing it at the top. She tossed the long wisps behind her back. As she started on the second tail, Eshra heard the scrape of a hoof. Still humming, she freed the rest of her hair and let it fall behind her.

More tiny hoofbeats sounded, sometimes approaching, sometimes retreating. Eshra pretended to ignore them. She pulled a small green apple from her pouch. This far north the scarce fruit only grew in a few sheltered locations, but people collected as much as they could. This one, withered from winter storage, came from a cache reserved for the snowies. The new foals were just starting to show interest in sampling foods other than milk, and Wing was getting serious about broadening his diet, so the rangers carried tempting treats for them.

Now Eshra drew her knife and cut a slice from the apple. She munched it as noisily as possible. Though the fruit tasted sour, she made a great show of enjoying it.

Something tugged at Eshra's hair. She hid a smile. The tug came again. Eshra ate another piece of apple. Whiskers tickled the back of her neck.

Eshra scooted forward. She heard hoofbeats behind her as the skittish foal scampered away. Ignoring the sounds, she returned to her apple.

Warm, wet breath whuffled against her ear. Eshra held up a slice of apple. A soggy lump of wool dropped into her lap, and the apple disappeared into a ticklesome goatlike muzzle.

Eshra moved to the lowest point of the ledge. The foal followed her, bleating for another treat. Eshra provided one. The foal ate messily, dropping as much as she swallowed, more interested in the flavor than the substance. Looking out over the valley, she saw that Beqash held Jomeq by the arm, quite some distance away.

Now came the tricky part. Eshra slid down the cliff, landing hard and tumbling forward to disperse the force of the fall. She dusted off her scraped palms and shook out her jarred legs. She stuffed the hat under her belt. Then she sat down nearby and watched.

The foal scrambled nimbly down the sheer wall. She nosed at Eshra, lipping the coat and the ragged ends of hair. "Here, finish this," said Eshra, holding out the last bit of apple.

The frost-white foal crunched her treat. Then she slyly reached for the battered hat. "Don't even think it," Eshra scolded gently, pushing away the greedy muzzle. "What are you, half mountain goat and half bright-bird, scrambling all over the world to steal things?" The foal snorted at her. "Yes, yes, let's just get you back to your mama." Eshra led the prancing foal back to the herd.

Cascade ambled over and reclaimed her baby. Eshra smiled as she watched them touch noses. She hiked over to where the other rangers waited. "Here's your hat," she said to Jomeq.

Sadly he stuck his fingers through the holes. "Thanks," he said.

"You're welcome," Eshra replied.

Still watching the frisky foal, Beqash chuckled suddenly. "Maybe we should name her Scramble," she said.

"Scramble," echoed Eshra. "I like that. It fits her."

"By the way, Eshra, how much of your hair did she eat?" Beqash asked.

Eshra pulled a handful of it over her shoulder and studied the ragged ends. "Not much," she decided, "maybe a fingerwidth or two."

Beqash nodded. "No harm done, then. Now that we've successfully diverted the disaster, I'd like to discuss what went wrong today," she said, turning to the two teenagers. "Jomeq, what mistakes did you make?"

"I didn't do anything wrong!" Jomeq snapped. "I only wanted to get my hat back."

"What makes you think of a hat as more important than a snow-unicorn?" said Beqash.

"It's not -- it's just -- my last month-lover made that hat for me," Jomeq said. He twisted the green wool in his hands. "I knew she'd be upset if I lost it so soon. Now it's ruined, and she'll probably never accept a bead from me again."

"I doubt she'll hold it against you that much," said Beqash with a flick of her hand. "Besides, a good knitter should be able to patch the holes, if you have the hat fixed immediately before it ravels any further."

"Maybe," Jomeq grumbled.

"Let's get back to our discussion," Beqash said. "What could you have done differently?"

Jomeq shrugged. "It doesn't matter now. I got my hat back and the foal's fine," he said. "At least we have more ideas for what to try the next time something like this happens."

"If there is a 'next time' then it will be your last with this herd," Beqash said firmly. She crossed her arms. "Jomeq, I think you should spend the next tenday practicing your hunting skills with Lenaroth."

"But I--"

"You're heading for hearth duty, Jomeq," the ranger warned.

"Well fine then!" Jomeq said, and stormed away.

"Should someone go after him?" Eshra said. She raised a hand to shade her eyes. "He seems really upset." Of all his age-mates, Jomeq had the hottest temper: a significant flaw in the small northern villages.

Beqash shook her head. "I imagine he'll get an earful from Lenaroth for leaving the herd in the middle of the day, especially after word gets back that he chased a foal all over the valley."

"You saw that?" Eshra exclaimed.

"I saw everything," Beqash said, looking Eshra in the eye. Eshra looked away. "For instance, I saw Jomeq say something to you earlier that seemed to make you uncomfortable, based on your respective body language. I couldn't make out the words, though. Would you mind telling me what that was all about?"

"He offered me a bead, and I turned him down," Eshra admitted.

"Herdwatch is hardly the best time for that," Beqash said. "Besides, I heard that you haven't finished your first year of month-blood. Jomeq shouldn't be pestering you, and it didn't look like he took no very gracefully."

"You really did see everything, then. I thought you were just watching the older colts," Eshra said.

"That too," Beqash agreed. "However, other people down the line had their eyes on that part of the herd as well, so I was able to step in when you needed me. That's how training works."

"I didn't think of that at the time," Eshra admitted. "The foal was running around, and Jomeq was ignoring me, and -- and I didn't really want to offend him by dragging you into it."

"When you work with snow-unicorns, always remember that the herd comes first," Beqash said. "It's more important than what your age-ma -- er, your friends think of you. It's more important than what your mentor tells you to do. It's more important than your opinion of yourself, or lack thereof. Understand?"

Eshra nodded. "Yes, Beqash."

"Good. Now, can you tell me what you did wrong?"

"I knew Jomeq was causing a problem, and I didn't stop him," said Eshra. She wiggled her toes against the worn patch in her boot, watching it move up and down. "I tried to convince him, but he wouldn't listen to me." She shrugged. "Probably I should have called you. I thought about that, but I didn't do it. I don't know how to make people listen. They don't like me much."

"In other words, your poor social skills put the herd at risk," Beqash said. "You also tend to avoid confrontation, even when it's necessary. In doubting your own wisdom, you lacked the confidence to stand up to Jomeq."

"I know," Eshra whispered.

"Your instincts know what the herd needs," Beqash said. "They'll tell you the right things to do -- but you must trust them and act on them, not let something distract you from doing your duty."

"I'm trying," said Eshra. "I want to keep the herd safe."

"I know. That's why you're training with more experienced rangers," said Beqash. "Good training should hone current instincts, fill gaps in your skills, and instill confidence. It also creates conditioned reflexes, so that what you've learned through practice and experience becomes automatic, not requiring conscious thought."

"I'm not sure my reflexes are much good," Eshra said with a sigh.

"Well, it's a bit different for you," Beqash admitted. "You already know a lot about snowies, and you have good ideas about what to do for them. So in that regard, you're in excellent shape. Your herder training is more about refinement than education. Compare that to Jomeq -- he is still learning how to understand the snowies."

"Maybe he should spend less time trying to push them around, and more time just watching them," Eshra said. "I used to sneak away to the snowies every chance I got, because I liked them better than my age-mates."

"That's a good idea. It does raise another point, though," said Beqash. "This kind of ranger work requires cooperation. Your herding skills outstrip your social skills, and putting the two together brings down your effectiveness."

Eshra looked away. "As I said, I like snowies better than people."

"You can't let shyness get in the way of doing your job, Eshra. What if your reluctance to confront Jomeq had led to Scramble getting injured or killed?" Beqash asked.

"I'd feel awful," Eshra admitted, shifting her weight from one foot to the other.

"Tonight, you'll spend time with Ivara. She can help you figure out how to improve your social skills. Pick one thing to work on; don't try to do it all at once," said Beqash. "Tomorrow, ask Srena for some leather and have Denif make you a new pair of boots. You can run errands for them by way of thanks."

"Yes, Beqash," said Eshra, her heart sinking.

"Now, Eshra, don't ride yourself to a lather over this," said the older woman. "Everyone makes mistakes. Just make sure you learn from them, so that you don't make the same ones over and over again."

Eshra dredged up a faint smile. "I'll try," she said.

"Good," said Beqash, patting her on the shoulder. "Come see me the day after tomorrow. We'll round up the foals and work on your nursing call."

Author's Notes

This story shows how Eshra settles in at Itadesh, having left Itakith after her adulthood tests. It presents both her skill with snow-unicorns and her relative clumsiness in social matters.


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