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Beqash floundered through chest-deep snow, her breath steaming as she tried to find a safe path for the small herd of snow-unicorns. The tall beasts could plow through the snow far more easily than the rangers themselves, but often balked when they couldn't see a clear path -- a sensible precaution when a hidden stone or hole could send them into a bone-breaking fall. Beqash prodded the fluffy snow with her spear. The dodgy mountain path grew more and more rocky as it rose. Finally she shook her head and doubled back.
"We'll have to find another way," she said to Lenar, the older man in charge of their excursion. "There's too much loose rock under the snow here."
Lenar looked up, his sharp brown eyes raking the mountain. "Hah -- I see the problem," he said, pointing upslope. "That face there shows signs of a recent rockfall. You're right, Beqash, we'll have to scout a different path."
Beqash squinted, trying to make out the signs of rockfall, but couldn't tell for certain what was sign and what was just her imagination. "Yes, Lenar," she said anyway. The senior ranger ignored her now, already scanning for alternate routes.
"So, Beqash, I was wondering ..." said Ardeth as he sidled up to her. His round face was turning ruddy in the cold wind, short curly hair sticking out from his hood in wild tufts. He smiled as he offered her a wooden bead carved with snow-unicorn tracks. "Would you consider sharing your month with me?"
"Honestly, Ardeth -- it's freezing, I'm up to my udders in snow, we don't even know which way we're going let alone where we're camping, and you want to talk about sex?" said Beqash.
"Er," said Ardeth, hastily pocketing the bead, "perhaps I'll wait for a better time."
"You do that," Beqash muttered. She liked sex well enough, and enjoyed the occasional romantic evening, but she usually had more important things demanding her attention.
"Get out of that snow, girl," Lenar said. "You can warm up a bit, sitting on your mount. Ardeth, it's your turn to scout ahead for a trail -- move out." A flick of his hand indicated the new direction.
Beqash scrambled into Cloud's saddle and pressed her legs against the furry sides of the snow-unicorn. From her high vantage she watched Ardeth slog his way up the trail. Now that she didn't have to fight the snow, she could enjoy the clear late-winter day and the peace of the wilderness, broken only by the sounds of the herd as they browsed the buds off nearby spruce trees. Ardeth was handsome enough, and charming in his own way, but not always practical.
* * *
The day dawned sunny and crisp, full of cheerful voices as the villagers of Itadesh called out to each other. Ardeth juggled the basket of hot pastries from hand to hand, breathing in the rich smells of dried fruit and nuts. He ducked into the house that he shared with other rangers. "Look, everyone -- the bakers made pastries for breakfast today!" he called.
Eager hands swarmed over the basket. But the one person Ardeth most wanted to see was missing from the scramble. Hastily Ardeth snagged two of them before the other rangers took them all. The pastries made a welcome change from the porridge and smoked sausages that usually passed for breakfast in a house whose residents cooked better over a campfire than a proper hearth. Ardeth finally spotted Beqash sitting on her bunk.
"Here, Beqash, I saved one for you," said Ardeth. He held out the pastry.
"Mffle," said Beqash around the braid in her mouth. She waggled her fingers around the half-finished braid in her hands.
"Let me guess, you lost your ties again," Ardeth said with a grin. He dropped Beqash's pastry back into the basket next to his own and set the basket on her bunk. Then he pulled two short thongs from his belt pouch. "Use these."
Beqash tied off the finished braid. "Thanks," she said, as her fingers flew through the strands of the remaining braid. "Why do you even carry these? Your hair is too short for ties." She fastened the second end and then grabbed her pastry.
Ardeth raked a hand through his finger-length brown curls. "Ah, my hair never behaves no matter what I do with it, so I might as well keep it short enough for easy care. I use the ties for all kinds of other stuff," he said. Particularly helping out young ladies who might be favorably inclined to accept a bead from him.
"These pastries are delicious. I'm glad you saved me one," said Beqash. She gave him a wide smile.
Encouraged, Ardeth fingered the disk of green shell secreted in his pocket. "Now that we're back in the village for a few days, with this nice warm bunk conveniently at hand ..." he began, cuddling against Beqash. He wanted her to think of him as someone warm and appealing to have in her bed.
Beqash rolled her gorgeous gray eyes at him. "Have you gone blind overnight, Ardeth?" she said.
Ardeth dropped his gaze to Beqash's necklace and saw the forbidding scarlet bead in the center space. He winced, feeling his cheeks flame into a blush. "Sorry," he muttered. "I guess I got ahead of myself again."
Now it would take at least a hand of days before her necklace opened. By then, they'd be back in the wilderness, taking the snow-unicorns on another loop through fresh browsing range. Ardeth sighed.
Beqash snickered at him. "Why is it, I wonder, that strong men always quiver when faced with a red bead?" she teased.
"Never mind, there will be other times," said Ardeth. He knew that Beqash only chose a lover three or four times a year. Catching her would require persistence and creativity on his part. "Let's go see if the tanners have cut down any hides. We can pick up some thongs for mending tack, and save the loose ends for hair ties."
"Good idea," said Beqash as she bounced off her bunk.
* * *
Beqash pushed back her hood to give herself a better view as the snow-unicorns crossed the frozen river. Today they were taking some of the young stallions away from the mares in foal and the delicate new babies. The small herd was frisky, even on the ice, squealing and nudging at each other playfully. Her own mount, Cloud, heaved a gusty sigh at their antics. He enforced a little discipline of his own with a stern nip when one of the youngsters crowded him.
They were crossing as early in the day as possible, but the antics of the young stallions had caused delays. Beqash eyed the river, looking for dark spots. She hoped its ice would hold as the temperature climbed.
The last of the snowies stepped onto the river. Lenar waved from the far bank where he waited with the other rangers, gathering in the snow-unicorns as the line crossed onto solid ground. "There's the signal. Let's go," Beqash said to Ardeth.
Ardeth whistled Blazer into a walk. Beqash followed on Cloud, bringing up the end of the line. Snow creaked and crunched under the broad hooves. Beqash heard a high ping and then a much louder CRACK.
The thick ice broke underneath them. Water surged up. The snow-unicorns scrabbled for traction as their hooves skidded on the wet ice.
One vast slab tilted, plunging Blazer and Ardeth into the middle of the river. The water only came up to the snow-unicorn's knees, but that was more than enough to pull a person under. Blazer screamed as he lost his balance, floundering in the slog of ice shards and frigid water.
Beqash tightened her grip just as the ice gave out under Cloud too. She yelled encouragement to her mount as he struggled to remain upright. Then she saw Blazer lose the same fight, going down on his side.
Cloud lurched under Beqash. Clinging to his saddle, she lost track of everyone and everything else for a terrifying moment. Then he righted himself. She looked around to see Blazer and Ardeth wallowing in the breakup.
"Ardeth! Hold on!" Beqash called. She managed to grab Ardeth's hand just in time to keep him from disappearing into the river. His legs dangled in the water, kicking feebly. Together they got him into Cloud's saddle. Water splashed around them in glittering arcs. It soaked their heavy winter clothes.
Cloud surged forward, hooves scrabbling on the edges of ice, and hauled himself onto the sturdy part where the ice was still frozen solid to the riverbed. Behind, Blazer managed to right himself, water streaming from his drenched coat. Beqash and Ardeth clung to each other, also dripping and wracked with shivers.
"Ah, snowy-crap," said Ardeth. His teeth chattered. "Blazer c-cut himself on the ice. Look at all that b-blood!"
Beqash twisted to see the bedraggled snowy clambering onto the solid ice, legs streaked with pink and red. "Lenar will t-take care of him," she said.
Lenar met them at the bank, his face white. "I didn't realize the ice had already washed out under the middle there," he said. "Are you injured?"
"No, just c-cold and wet," Beqash said. Ardeth's lips were blue and her own hands were numb where they clung to him.
"We'll camp here for now," Lenar declared. He turned to the other rangers. "Grel, start a fire. Raldori, unpack dry clothes for Ardeth and Beqash." Lenar whistled for Cloud to kneel and carefully helped the chilled rangers climb out of the saddle. Then he handed them off to Raldori as she hurried over with warm clothes. "I need to take care of Blazer," Lenar said then.
Raldori quickly stripped off the wet clothes and rubbed Ardeth and Beqash dry. She bundled them into fresh garments. "Grel has the fire going," she said. "Come and sit down."
Grel not only had flames lit, she had already started a pot of soup. The pot cleverly nestled among three small pyramids of wood, the kindling just beginning to catch from the blazing tinder. "You did well, young rangers," Grel said to Ardeth and Beqash. "Don't let Lenar's short words discourage you."
"I know," said Beqash. She had seen the worry etched into the older man's face. "He has to l-look after everything, not j-just us."
Ardeth nodded heavily. "I hope Blazer will b-be all right," he said.
Raldori patted him on the shoulder. "Lenar will take good care of Blazer," she said. "Now, you two sit here and wait for that soup to boil. I'm going to go groom Cloud before all that water freezes into his coat."
Beqash huddled next to Ardeth, their shivers slowly subsiding as they warmed up. "Thank you," she said to Raldori, grateful for the woman's care.
Ardeth snuggled into Beqash's side, pulling their shared blanked tighter. Now that the danger had passed, Beqash realized how close she had come to losing him. Her arm trembled as she hugged him.
Ardeth made a perfect trail-partner for her, and somehow she had come to care for him as much as her own age-mates, though in different ways. Losing him would be like losing a leg. That sudden awareness surprised her. She had been acting as if they would always have time to connect when it proved convenient ... but they might not. Either or both of them could have died in that river. Beqash had not yet borne a child for the village, and Ardeth had sired only two, both still infants who might or might not survive to adulthood. Maybe she should reconsider his offers.
Then Raldori handed them the hot soup, and Beqash forgot about partnerships of trail and bed in favor of practicalities such as filling her stomach.
* * *
Ardeth flicked his knife over the bead one last time. He rolled the faceted ball in his mittened hand, assessing it with a critical eye. Done.
Beqash walked past, and Ardeth sprang to his feet, striding after the young woman with a determined gait. "Wait, Beqash!" he called. "I have something for you."
She eyed his hand. "We're only staying here one night, then we're moving on," Beqash pointed out. "I really don't have time for a bed-partner right now."
"You never have time, because you're always on the trail, but that's not a problem." Ardeth showed her the bead. "Look, I'm only asking you for one night, not for the whole month. Surely we can manage one night? If you're really busy, we don't even have to climb into the furs. We can just duck into the cave right there, loosen our clothing a bit, and have a go. I've done it before."
"I'm sure you have," Beqash said, laughing. Then she took a closer look at the bead. "Ardeth! Is that carved from ice?"
"Indeed it is," he said. She hadn't said no yet. Ardeth had planned this since their adventure in the river, and he wasn't about to give up. He trailed his free hand over her hip.
"You flitter-wit, you can't make a bead out of ice. It will melt! Then how will anyone know who I've chosen for this month?" she protested.
"We can just tell them. It's not much different than taking a felt-lover after all; felt beads don't last long either," said Ardeth. He'd thought about trying that approach, but it seemed wrong. "Besides, I have a bead of clear ashaakarg back at the village. You can have that when we get home. You've turned down everything else -- I had to try something different." He gave her a rakish smile.
"You are as persistent as a stallion sniffing after a mare in season," Beqash scolded gently.
"You are as strong and beautiful as a mare," said Ardeth, fingering the long black strands of her hair, "for all that your mane is black instead of white."
"Oh, very well," said Beqash. She plucked the ice bead from his hand and used a spare bit of thong to fasten it to her necklace. "Let's go make some echoes in that cave of yours."
So Ardeth led her to the cave and showed off his talent for catch-as-catch-can lovemaking. He found a convenient rock for them to lean over. As promised, they didn't even need to undress all the way, merely unfastening their clothes enough for access. It was quick and energetic and fun.
They had just finished when an aggravated squeal came from outside. Two of the young stallions were challenging each other, circling with their horns held low for a strike.
"Oh, dear -- we'd better go break that up before someone gets hurt," said Beqash as she hurried toward the mouth of the cave. She fumbled to refasten her clothes as she went.
"See, it could be worse," Ardeth said as he followed her, doing up his own garments. Satisfaction left a warm glow inside him, like the coals of a banked campfire. "You could have two stallions fighting over you like that. Think what a ruckus that would make!"
Beqash threw him a smile over her shoulder. "I'm glad you have you more sense than that, Ardeth," she said. "You're a good trail partner." Then she hastened to break up the fight between the rowdy snow-unicorns.
* * *
Beqash edged her way through the small crowd, looking for Ardeth. Rangers and domestics chattered happily about the warming season, who wanted which materials and where to look for such things. Beqash's triangular scarf fluttered where she had tied it around her waist, showing off her scanty collection of former month-beads. The clear ashaakarg addition from Ardeth glinted at the tip of the shawl like a droplet of ice. Finally she caught a glimpse of her trail partner across the room, and moved toward him.
Predictably, it was Lenar who spotted her first. His brown eyes narrowed at once when he saw her necklace. Lenar reached out a long arm and hauled Ardeth around to face Beqash. "Look sharp, young ranger," he advised Ardeth.
Ardeth flicked a glance over Beqash. She saw his face change from confused to startled, then pleased, when he spied the new bead. Then he shuttered the emotions away, as was proper.
"This is lovely," Ardeth said discreetly, laying a fingertip on her necklace.
"Thank you," said Beqash, proud of her acquisition. The cage bead nestled in its prominent position at the center. Her father Befark had done a splendid job of carving the cave with its fringe of icicles to enclose the tiny bear, its adorable face peeking out through the points. The bear rattled faintly against the enclosure as Ardeth's touch stirred the bead. His gaze dropped to Beqash's still-flat belly. His arms folded her in a warm, careful embrace.
"So ... are you hungry?" Ardeth inquired. He stepped back, allowing Beqash to make her way to the nearby seats.
She nodded vigorously. "I'm starving," she said. "I keep craving fresh greens. The cooks run out as soon as we get any, because greens are still scarce so early in the year." Beqash made a face. "I'm down to drinking spruce tea, and I hate the stuff."
"I will go," said Ardeth, "find some gatherers and lead a picking expedition."
"That's very thoughtful," said Beqash. Her mouth watered at the thought of nettles, fireweed, and dandelion leaves. "I'll just sit here for a while and practice my knitting."
* * *
The two young rangers walked through the muddy ground of the village, then came to a halt.
Beqash stood nervously at the door of Black Bear House. She liked living in a house with other rangers and was unsure what to expect in a house full of pregnant women and mother-tenders. She felt left out, though, with the other rangers gleefully planning long-range summer hunting trips. So she finally decided to move.
Beside her, Ardeth said, "Go on, they won't bite." Hopefully his friend would be happy here too. On one hip he balanced the large basket that held Beqash's personal possessions, and on the other a much smaller basket of greens left over from the day's foraging trip. He gave Beqash an encouraging nudge with one shoulder.
She slunk down the steps, hoping to enter unnoticed and retreat to a bunk.
Instead, Trelon met her at the inner door with a warm smile and a sparkle in his blue eyes. "Welcome to Black Bear House, Beqash," he said, taking her basket from Ardeth. "We have an upper bunk free, if you wouldn't mind sleeping high for now."
"I prefer it," Beqash said gratefully.
The mother-tender nodded and stored her basket in a large cubby near her new bunk. "You can organize that as you wish later. Now, the house's clothes cache is here, organized roughly by waist size ..."
Meanwhile Ardeth proudly presented his offering of greens to the cook, who clapped her hands in delight. "Oh, thank you!" exclaimed Grenora. "Everyone will want a taste of these."
Beqash drifted over to the hearth. "You must be Grenora," she said. "We often ride out with Grel -- you look a lot like her."
Grenora nodded. "Mother taught me to cook, because my raisers weren't particularly good at it," she said, "but it turns out my talents are better suited to a hearth than a campfire."
"Would you like to sit with us?" asked Mirthana. The older domestic patted the bench beside her. "We're stringing a loom to make some teal cloth."
"I'm not very good at that," Beqash muttered, wondering what use she would be for the rest of the year. At least after she gave birth, she could hand the baby over to the raisers and return to her own occupation. That way, rangers could still pass on their genes without getting mired in the domestic life, a good balance for the village. She felt increasing gratitude to the raisers for that.
"Well, the boys managed to grub up some early firebell roots," Trelon said. "You could help Grenora by peeling those while she turns the greens into a nice salad."
"I'm good with a knife," Beqash said. She took the bowl of tough-skinned roots from Grenora and sat down beside the hearth.
"So tell me about your adventure with the half-thawed river!" Grenora said. "I only heard a little bit about it from mother; she's not much of a storyteller."
Beqash eagerly began the story of leading the snow-unicorns over the ice, only to fall through, as her knife flicked away at the firebell roots.
"I'll leave you to your work, and get back to mine," Ardeth said softly. He patted Beqash on the shoulder and slipped out of the house.
* * *
Ardeth was there when Beqash went into labor, awkwardly, in the midst of a ranger meeting about the division of spring duties. He helped her stand up to say her piece, and her water broke, covering their boots with a rush of fluid.
"Oh, snowy-crap," Beqash muttered as her face turned red.
"Well, it looks like I've got foal-watch tonight," Ardeth said smoothly. He guided Beqash toward the door.
"I'm going to die of embarrassment," she said, struggling with her parka.
Ardeth draped the garment around her burgeoning form. "No, you aren't," he said. "I did tell you to skip the meeting if you weren't feeling well, though." He helped get her arms through the sleeves.
"My back has been aching for the past three months!" Beqash snapped. "How was I supposed to know this was any different? I've never done this before!"
"Fortunately the midwives have," said Ardeth as they climbed the few steps out of the house. "I'll walk you back to Black Bear House." He often visited the house dedicated to expectant mothers and the domestics who cared for them, keeping Beqash company whenever he was in the village. He missed her terribly on the trail.
Trelon met them at the door to Black Bear House, his vivid blue eyes lighting up when he saw Beqash clutch her rounded belly. "So today is the happy day, yes?" the mother-tender said. Beqash grumbled at him as he draped her arm over his broad shoulders and helped her down the steps into the house. Trelon ignored her surly words. The three of them had become friends during Beqash's pregnancy, a pleasant if surprising discovery since Trelon normally had little in common with rangers.
"Here's your bunk, Beqash," said Ardeth. "You can sit down now and--"
"I don't want to sit down, I want to lie down!" snapped Beqash. She wallowed on the furs, trying to take off her parka by herself.
"See, I said she'd be a growler," Trelon said cheerfully as he batted Beqash's shaking hands away from the toggles and unfastened them himself.
"Why don't you threaten to geld him, sweetie?" said Mirthana. She sat beside Beqash and patted her hand. "That always makes me feel better. I'm sure I'll be threatening Lenar with total dismemberment in another tenday or so."
"Eeek," Ardeth said faintly. He fled the house, leaving Beqash in Trelon's capable hands.
Hours later, a messenger shook Ardeth out of his bunk. "Beqash sent me for you. She has something to show you."
Ardeth struggled into his clothes and stumbled through the dark village. Overhead the Others danced in distant, baleful lines. Inside, though, Black Bear House glowed with light and cheer.
"Come and see, you handsome stallion," Beqash said in a tired voice. "See the fine little colt we threw." Just then, the tiny bundle in her arms gave a bleat so like that of a snow-unicorn foal that everyone laughed.
Ardeth scooped up his son. The infant already showed a thick shock of wild black hair. "He is utterly perfect," said Ardeth. "Have you settled on a name yet?"
"Fuursh, I think," said Beqash. It meant meltwater, the breakthrough season when ice cracked up and the rivers ran free again.
Ardeth chuckled, remembering the outrageous bead of ice that had started all of this. "Perfect," he said again. Then he looked at Beqash, sweaty and worn and satisfied in her nest of furs. "What do you plan to do now? We've missed you out in the woods, Beqash."
She groaned and stretched. "Well, at the moment, even the thought of a saddle makes me cringe. I'll nurse the little colt for a month or few," said Beqash. "After that, I want to get back on the trail. Village life is not the life for me."
"That sounds good," Ardeth said. He settled the baby back in Beqash's arms. "The raisers will be delighted to take him so that you can go back to doing what you do best."
Beqash uncurled one hand enough to poke Ardeth sharply below the belt. "No more beads between us, though," she said firmly. "You're a fine sire, but I like you better as a friend than when you're sniffing around trying to get your nose under my tail -- and I don't want another baby anytime soon, either."
Ardeth just grinned. "One foal per mare is plenty for me, and you've done your duty for the village," he agreed. Then his voice softened. "Beqash, you're the best trail partner I've ever had. I meant what I said about missing you. I can get anyone to warm my furs at night, and you surely were good at that too. But it's you I want at my side when the ice breaks underneath me."
"I promise," said Beqash, her eyes glimmering in the firelight, "I'll be back at your side by the time the ice returns this autumn."
This story came out of the 6/25/11 Muse Fusion. It was inspired by a prompt from Ellen Million, who wanted something about babies and childbirth, and a story for the picture "Hooded." It's published here for free as a baby-gift.
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