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Fala ran up the path, towing her mother by the hand. Laughing, Inama trotted along behind her daughter. At five summers, Fala was already proving a challenge to keep up with. "Fala, sweetie, slow down!" Inama said. "The mountain won't run out of blackberries in the time it takes us to reach the patch."
"I want to get there first!" Fala said. She swung her woven basket so that it bounced against her knee. Bear bells tonkled on her boots.
Fala's mother carried her own much larger basket, woven of willow stems, demurely at her side. She had another small basket for spoiled berries useful as dye. "Considering the rest of the village is hardly stirring yet, I think we'll get there first," she said.
The twitter of birdsong and flutter of leaves led them to where the blackberry patch spread over the south-facing slope. Glints of white and red peeked through the green leaves. Here and there, the earliest berries showed a glossy purple-black.
Fala squealed and dove into the edge of the patch. She stuffed the sweet berries into her mouth as fast as she could pick them.
"One for your belly, one for your basket," Inama called.
Fala slowed down and began harvesting blackberries properly. Before long, though, she filled her little basket and returned to pour the berries into her mother's larger basket. "All full," Fala said.
"Good work," Inama said, ruffling her daughter's dark curls. Fala looked less like Inama than like the man to whom Inama had given her month, six summers ago. The little girl already showed signs of growing into his long hunter legs and shadowy good looks. Inama wore her lighter brown hair in a smooth braid, and her short plump body suited her life as a maker. Smiling at the memories, Inama rubbed her fingers over the bright pearl bead sewn to her vest, a memento of those shining days with Alvardu.
Voices echoed up the trail along with the tonkling of bear bells. Childish giggles split the warming air. Inama hailed them as the main gathering party arrived. Adults and older children quickly spread along the front of the berry patch.
Fala spied three of her agemates in the crowd: Anler, a boy of six summers; Birka, a girl Fala's age; and Tetefii, a girl of four. They ran to meet her.
"Fala the leader!" she crowed, and led her friends on a laughing chase through the little meadow at the base of the berry patch.
Tetefii's raiser, Oromaal, glanced up from her gathering, next to Inama. "Why does Anler let Fala get away with that all the time?" Oromaal said. "He's older than all of them. He should be leading his ageset, but he never does."
"There's talk of moving him up to the next-older ageset. I don't think anything will come of it, though," said Inama, her hands busy among the canes.
"Too bad, that move would make it easier on him as a follower," said Oromaal.
"He follows Fala," Inama pointed out.
"Mmm," said Oromaal.
It was an important consideration, since it would shape much of the boy's life. Each person belonged to an ageset with others born near the same time, a close-knit social group who would grow up together. The raisers, along with the Council of elders, defined the boundaries of each ageset. On rare occasions, they would move a child forward or back in an attempt to match maturity and personality to an appropriate place within an ageset. In this case, however, the precocious one was in the middle and thus not really moveable -- and moving Anler without moving Fala was unlikely to improve matters much.
"Besides, look how attached they are," Inama said. She tipped her head to where Anler and Birka were holding the thorny canes apart so Tetefii could pass safely.
"They're already bonding with each other," Oromaal said.
Inama nodded. "That's what I said when the topic came up around the hearthfire." There was no rule that required the eldest to lead an age-set, merely custom and tendency. They would simply have to make the best of matters as they stood.
The two women took turns watching their children until the foursome dove back into the blackberries, this time on hands and knees. Fala led them along the rabbit trails to pop up deeper in the patch than the adults could reach.
"Don't go too far," Oromaal called. She had a raiser's eagle-eye for children.
"We won't," the children said. Anler waved his basket over his head, spilling berries.
Oromaal sighed. "I suppose his mother should have brought him up here last summer, but she wanted to keep him close to her since he spent so much of the winter sick..."
"I remember," said Inama. "Still, she should have sent him with someone else at least once."
"Well, you're raising Fala yourself, so --"
"Yes, but not alone!" Inama said. "Fala loves Marai almost as much as she loves me, for all she clings like a little burr when she's not galloping over half the countryside. Anler needs to spend more time with other adults and learn new things."
Oromaal chuckled at the children's antics. "Today Anler can learn all about berry picking," she said. Judging from the yelps, Anler was currently learning the importance of not bending down after dropped berries.
"May I pick with you?" said a shy voice.
Inama turned to find Riiran standing with her basket held in front. At twelve summers, Riiran was nearly ready to start counting her months - and the last of her ageset who had not already done so. Inama beckoned the girl to an open section of blackberries and said, "Of course. Many hands make the work go fast."
By noon, busy hands had the base of the blackberry patch picked clean. Half the people, those contributing a casual morning's work, headed home with full baskets. The dedicated gatherers remained, along with a few other domestics whose work could spare them for the day - or toddle alongside them, in the case of several raisers flanked by berry-stained children. Oromaal balanced a tired Tetefii on one hip. The group began to climb up the western edge of the patch.
Fala tugged on her mother's hand. "That side has more berries," she said, pointing east. "I saw them when Beqash brought me."
True, the rangers had scouted this area last week to determine when the blackberries would start to ripen. Still... "You saw all that from snowy-back?" Inama said.
"Yes," said Fala.
"Fala, sweetie, everyone is going this way," said Inama, urging her daughter westward. "We can pick the east side tomorrow."
"I can pick the east side myself!"
"You certainly cannot," said Inama. She took a firmer grip on Fala's wrist.
"Can I go west if I take someone older?" Fala whined.
Inama hesitated, torn between the practical suggestion and the importance of not rewarding Fala for whining.
Riiran turned back, saying, "I could take her, Inama. I wouldn't mind."
"Please, please!" Fala said. She jumped up and down.
Inama sighed. "Can you manage two more?" She tipped her head at Anler and Birka, already heading towards them.
"Of course," said Riiran. "I like little ones."
"All right, then," Inama said with a smile. "We'll meet you back here in a few hours." She released Fala's hand.
Fala scampered along the trail, followed by Anler and Birka. Her sharp eyes and quick hands soon found a section of early-ripening blackberries. Riiran brought up the tail of their little band.
The children worked their way up the slope. Around them, hermit thrushes and white-throated sparrows sang in the bushes. Once they saw the disappearing tail of a snowshoe boar as he grunted his way into the patch. They gave that formidable creature plenty of space to himself. Butterflies danced along the edge where the forest gave way to berry canes. Birka and Anler filled their small baskets, then poured the contents into Riiran's larger basket. Fala, scouting ahead, filled her basket more slowly.
"Look, purple vetch," said Riiran, as she showed the children a patch of flowers. They crowded close to see.
"Enchanter's plant," said Fala, pointing. Narrow spikes bore small white petals.
Birka and Anler spied the cinquefoil at the same time. "Do we need any of this?" asked Birka.
"Sure, it's a good disinfectant," said Riiran. She helped Birka gather some of the leaves and roots, murmuring about various uses. Then Fala pointed upslope toward another clump of ripe blackberries.
As they rounded a curve in the trail, suddenly they saw a half-grown bear sitting in the blackberry patch. With all its attention focused on the delicious berries, it had not noticed either the children's voices or the scare-bells fastened on their clothing.
Riiran froze. Birka's eyes went round. Anler opened his mouth to scream.
"Shh! Back!" whispered Fala. She grabbed Anler's hand and dragged him back the way they had come. Birka clung to Fala but stared over her shoulder at the bear. Riiran shook herself into motion and followed, keeping herself between the children and the feeding bear.
Then a second bear ambled across their path and started eating berries - blocking their way to the gathering party. With two big cubs around, surely the mother could not be far away.
"We're stuck," said Birka. She looked back and forth between the bears.
"This way," Riiran said. She pushed the children off the path and away from the blackberry patch. The thorny canes covered a large part of the slope. It would take the four of them some time to circle around the top of it.
They found it difficult to make their way through the forest. This close to the edge, enough daylight got through to cover the ground with brush, saplings, and wildflowers. Nettles and other noxious weeds formed tangles that they had to skirt around. Fragrant spruce resin stuck to their hands and clothes. Eventually the three stumbled across a deer path that led more or less upslope.
After a long climb, Riiran turned them off the path, back toward the blackberry patch. They squeezed their way through thickening brush into the bright light of late afternoon. They looked around but could not see anyone else or even hear the sound of bear-bells. Head-high brush blocked the view in places, where the forest was regrowing.
"We're going to be late," Birka said.
Riiran hurried them along the edge of the patch. Eventually the line of berry canes angled southward. Riiran followed it.
"You're going the wrong way," Fala said.
"Fala, the mountain faces south. Downslope is toward home," said Riiran.
"But this part doesn't go through," said Fala.
Riiran frowned. "What?"
"The patch is shaped like this." Fala held up her left hand, thumb to the east, little finger to the west. "It follows the old burn scar. Beqash showed me."
"When could she have done that? We just started picking today," said Riiran.
"The rangers scouted it last week. I wanted to go with them. I asked and asked and asked--"
"I can believe that," the older girl muttered.
"So where are we?" said Anler. Riiran tried to shush him.
"I think we're past the thumb," said Fala. She twisted around, eyeing the forest and the slope of the mountain. "This must be the tip of the first finger."
Riiran sighed. "Let's just go down here. It should get us back to the gathering party."
So they hiked down and down, which was easier on their tired legs than continuing to climb. The sun sank slowly westward. The sparrows and thrushes stopped singing.
"I'm tired. I want to sit down," grumbled Birka.
"Just a little farther," said Riiran.
Just a little farther, though, turned into a thickening stand of saplings. So they sat down for a brief rest. Then Riiran led the long trudge back up the slope, along the edge of what Fala called the "middle finger." The shadows slowly changed their angle as the sun rolled its way along the horizon.
When Riiran tried to turn them downslope as soon as the patch dipped again, however, Fala balked. "No!" she said, jerking against Riiran's grip on her small hand.
"We've come farther west--" Riiran began.
"I'm tired. I want my supper. I want to go home!" Fala said. She squirmed out of Riiran's grasp and stomped along the edge of the forest.
"Fala! Come back here!"
"I'm going with Fala," Anler declared abruptly. Birka glanced at him, glanced at Riiran, then trotted after Anler and Fala.
"I hope you know what you're doing," Riiran grumbled. "Everyone will blame me if we get any more lost!"
Meanwhile, Inama and Oromaal stood at the broad base of the blackberry patch, peering up the eastern side as the shifting shadows challenged their view. Tetefii drowsed on Oromaal's hip, snugged in place with a toddler sling. "They should have come down hours ago," Inama said. "Something must have gone wrong."
"They probably got lost," said Oromaal.
"Fala never gets lost," Inama said. "That doesn't mean you should take your eyes off her for a minute - she's an imp of mischief - but it does mean you don't have to worry about her wandering off into the woods and not finding her way back again."
"She's only five. Besides, anyone can get lost."
Inama shook her head. "Not Fala."
"Now you're being overly sentimental, just because she's your body-daughter," said Oromaal.
"Oromaal, think," said Inama. "Have you ever known Fala to get lost before? Can you think of even one time?"
Oromaal pursed her lips in thought, then admitted, "No, I can't."
"So it must be something else," said Inama.
"Well, what then?" said Oromaal.
"I don't know," said Inama. "That's what worries me."
"I suppose we'll have to pull together a search party, and send someone for a ranger," said Oromaal.
"Maybe not," said Inama, turning to face the forest. Twigs snapped and bushes rustled. The sounds grew louder as they approached.
"You're just in time," said Oromaal, as Beqash joined them. The ranger's snow-unicorn Cloud shouldered through the forest, each plate-sized hoof crushing underbrush to the ground.
"What seems to be the matter?" said Beqash. She patted the white cliff of her mount's shoulder. "Cloud and I are here to help."
"We think the children are lost, or something happened to them," said Oromaal. "Riiran took Fala, Birka, and Anler up the east side of the blackberry patch."
"Then they shouldn't be lost. I took Fala around the whole patch myself, just last week," said Beqash. Cloud whuffed, looking up the slope. "Were they all wearing their bear-bells?"
"Yes," said Inama.
"If they went far enough away from everyone else ... they might have run into an animal, and still be out in the woods or even up a tree," said Beqash. "Cloud and I will go search upslope. You spread out down here and search, too." The huge snow-unicorn headed up the mountain at a brisk pace.
Higher up the slope, Fala turned south to skirt the edge of the blackberry patch, saying only, "Little finger." She kept their small party to the path beaten down by wildlife and people along the perimeter of the canes. They pressed onward through the endless day. Mosquitoes whined in their ears. Progress downslope was punctuated by sharp smacks and the tonkle of bear-bells.
Suddenly Fala stopped. "Do you hear something?" Anler crowded her from behind, and Birka piled into him.
"All I hear are these stupid bells," said Riiran, shaking hers.
"Haruu!" someone called from upslope.
"Haruu!" Fala shouted back.
Then came the welcome thunder of hurrying hoofbeats and the ghostly shape of a snow-unicorn coming down the mountain.
"Is everyone all right?" asked Beqash.
"Yes," they chorused.
"Those bear cubs got in our way. We had to go in the woods," said Fala.
"What an adventure!" said Beqash. "Would you young rangers like a ride home?"
"Yes!" said Fala. Birka and Anler joined her at the stirrups.
"I'm not a ranger," grumbled Riiran, but she gladly accepted Beqash's help in scaling the high white side of the unicorn.
Despite her exhaustion, Fala regaled Beqash with the tale of the bears and the hike around the berry patch. "It was exciting, but scary too," she finished.
"I'm sure it was," said Beqash. "Now you know that the bear-bells don't always work, if the bears are too busy to notice them. Tomorrow, perhaps you should stay closer to the main gathering party."
"Tomorrow," said Fala, "I am going to sleep all day." Birka giggled.
Cloud's long legs shrank their journey amazingly. The forest flowed past like a rushing river, loud with the sound of Cloud's passage. It seemed like they had hardly settled into their seats before Beqash was lowering them into warm, welcoming arms.
"Fala, love! I'm so glad to see you," said Inama.
Fala hugged her tight. "I'm glad to see you, too."
"Here are your blackberries," said Beqash.
"Give mine to Cloud," said Fala. "He carried us back."
"Hear that, you greedy wonder? These are yours," said Beqash. She held Fala's small basket under the eager white nose. "Cloud says thank you, Fala."
But Fala was already asleep in her mother's arms, leaving the busy world behind.Author's Notes
I wrote this story at the request of Ellen Million. When I first described Fala to her as a noted wilderness guide, Ellen asked for a story that would justify that description and show how her talent developed. So I searched back through Fala's past -- my initial story idea is set considerably later in her life -- until I found this early adventure when people first started to notice that she never gets lost. I'm really glad that I did this, because I've discovered a lot of important character development and cultural details that I might have missed otherwise.