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Jrilii and Shraalan huddled under a thick knitted unicorn-fur blanket in the rough unicorn-hide shelter. Starflower, the reason they were outside on a cold spring night, was walking back and forth uneasily. The snow-unicorn's breath wreathed around her head like a succession of winter hats. Jrilli watched the mare with love. Admittedly, Jrilli watched all the snow-unicorns with love, but Starflower was one of her favorites. The mare was more than eight feet at the shoulder, almost average height for her breed. She was white mottled with the dark, storm-cloud grey called blue, and had soft blue eyes. Her lines were good, she had strong hips and shoulders, a beautiful face, and broad, careful feet. She responded well to all the normal whistles and a few special ones (she was a very good mount for gathering fruit from trees). And she was pregnant, making her even more valuable to Jrilii's people. Author's Notes
"I know it's a big honor to be on foal watch by ourselves, even if it's because of the adults' Combing Festival dance," Shraalan started, then trailed off, watching Jrilii gaze at the pregnant snow-unicorn. "You're actually worried about this, aren't you?"
Jrilii nodded. "I know it's early compared to when she was bred, but look at how big she is."
Starflower was on the delicate side for a snow-unicorn mare, with shoulders just low enough that Shraalan could stretch on tiptoe and tease her by pulling on her mane. Jrilii couldn't even reach that far; she had to tap the mare's knee or withers if she wanted to catch the mare's attention without whistling. But Jrilii wasn't talking about the unicorn's height. Starflower's belly was quite obviously broader than her shoulders, making the unicorn waddle as she walked around the birthing enclosure.
"Surely if they thought--" Shraalan waved, but Jrilii knew what she meant. If anyone thought Starflower would foal tonight, they would not have left her with only two near-adults at hand, even though Jrilii had proven herself very skilled with snow-unicorns and, as leader of her age-set, capable of making responsible decisions. But the snow-unicorn herds were slowly dwindling, and every foal was precious.
"Babies come when they want to." Jrilii quoted the village's healer.
"I know that." Shraalan yawned. As female age-mates nearing adulthood, they had received those lessons together. "Gosh, I'm tired. I'm going to miss my bunk tonight." She yawned again.
"You might as well sleep first." Jrilii pushed at Shraalan's shoulder playfully, but she was glad Shraalan was so tired. She wanted to think about something she'd overheard, something she wasn't comfortable talking about. Not even with Shraalan.
Shraalan looked so grumpy that Jrilii giggled. "Because you're yawning." She looked out at the mare and sighed. "I won't be able to sleep until she settles down anyway."
Shraalan shifted so she was lying down and closed her eyes. It wasn't long before she was snoring softly.
Starflower bleated again, but more quietly.
Jrilii turned her thoughts back to the conversation she'd overheard. One of the new adults had been complaining about a pregnant woman getting the limited supply of dried plums. Now, this particular person complaining was nothing new--but this time the healer took the young woman aside and told her in no uncertain terms that she was being unreasonable and selfish, adding, "You are not pregnant."
"But nothing. Pregnant women need fruits, greens, and extra sleep to make healthy babies."
She rolled her eyes like a very young girl. "Babies. There's squalling babies everywhere."
The healer had frowned sternly. "If we don't have enough babies, there won't be anyone to care for you when you're an elder."
Jrilii's first reaction had been shock to hear someone--even a healer--discussing pregnancy out loud like that, even when they thought no one was near enough to hear. But once she got over that discomfort, the healer's final words kept echoing in her mind, and (like nearly everything she learned) she thought about how it applied to the beautiful snow-unicorns as much as to humans.
The math was simple--too simple. The village had lost six snowies over the winter, two to old age, two to falls, one young unicorn had wandered too far from its herd and died of the cold, and an almost-yearling had been been found dead one fine morning with no obvious injury. To balance that, only five of the Itadesh mares who had become pregnant had not already miscarried. All her life, snowy births had only matched deaths about half of the time.
Even with the snow-unicorns to provide milk and carry food gathered from all corners of their land, some winters the villagers went hungry. Could they survive without unicorns?
Jrilii tried to imagine domesticating the wild goats--they could milk goats, but goats couldn't possibly carry much, even if one assumed they would. Snow-unicorns might look a lot like giant goats, but they were a lot more bidable.
While she thought, Jrilii watched Starflower move around restlessly. The snow-unicorn was beautiful. Her face had graceful lines and soft lips over a curling beard; her winter shedding had been combed out just before sunset, so her limbs shone in the firelight. Her mane hung like a fancy festival cape around her horn and down one side of her strong neck. Her tail had been combed too, and cascaded like a waterfall behind her. Jrilii didn't want to imagine a world without that beauty, even if her people could survive without unicorns.
Starflower let out a low, unhappy bleat. Jrilii could see the unicorn's belly ripple. She slid out from under the blanket and went to the unicorn, hoping this contraction was just a sign that the mare's body was getting ready for to give birth in a tenday or two.
The aurora flared overhead, raising the ambient light level a little, but serving more to distract Jrilii's eyes than to illuminate anything. Starflower lowered her head when Jrilii approached, and Jrilii rubbed the mare's nose until the mare seemed calmer, then ran her hands gently along the mare's belly. Suddenly, she heard the sound of liquid falling. She drew in a breath, and her eyes widened--it wasn't the sharp, familiar scent of snowy-pee, but something richer.
Starflower bleated again, shuffling her huge feet back and forth, and Jrilii crooned to her, returning her hands to the mare's face to calm the huge snow-unicorn. Jrilii was careful to stand with her feet well away from the unicorn's hooves. "Shraalan," she crooned, working to keep her voice calm for the unicorn's sake, "I think you'd better go interrupt the party."
Shraalan let out a snore.
Starflower bleated again, twisting her neck to look at her belly.
Jrilii reminded herself that there should be plenty of time before the birth. She stayed by the unicorn, petting her and crooning until another contraction ran along her belly. Once that passed, Starflower sighed, relaxing. Then Jrilii went to the lean-to and shook Shraalan. "Wake up!"
"Hunnh? Is it midnight already?" Shraalan rubbed her eyes. "I feel like I barely fell asleep."
"That's right. But you have to run back to the village." Jrilii realized she sounded alarmed, and she reminded herself that would not help Starflower stay calm. Focusing, she added softly, "I think tonight is the night."
Shraalan gave Starflower an anxious look and answered quietly, almost in a whisper, "But it's too soon!"
Jrilii sighed. "I know. All the more reason we need experienced unicorn tenders here, as soon as possible."
Shraalan sighed, yawning. "I'm on my way."
Once Shraalan was on her feet, Jrilii returned to Starflower. The mare was once again walking back and forth, bleating and muttering. Taking care to keep her feet out of the way--by the time they were grown, snow-unicorns were very careful of humans, but Starflower was understandably distracted--Jrilii walked with her, crooning wordlessly and reaching up to rub the mare's foreleg.
After a few minutes, the mare sighed, spreading her hind legs wide and crouching a little. Her belly rippled, and she turned to look at it, lips rising to bare her teeth. Jrilii crooned at her, reaching up to stroke the unicorn's nose. Starflower leaned into her fingers, muttering, but let her lips drop. She lowered her head, tilting it to get Jrilii to rub around her horn, still milling about uneasily.
Eventually, she stood still for a bit, and Jrilii moved to her withers to see if anything was happening yet. There was a tiny bubble of tissue sticking out of the womb, but Starflower's long, elegant tail obscured the view.
Jrilii whistled *calm* and *stand*, and the mare sighed again. When she didn't stomp or shuffle, Jrilii reached for her tail and started to braid it. She had to use wide movements to braid it high enough, which was only possible because it had been brushed just a few hours earlier. Jrilii talked quietly, working as fast as she could. The braid was messy, but that didn't matter right now. Jrilli had just started when Starflower bleated again and crouched for another push. She twisted her head toward her belly, teeth bared again. Jrilii whistled *calm* again, and the mare replied with an expressive, unhappy bleat. The bubble expanded, then shrank again.
Jrilii kept talking and whistling, braiding while she could. By the time the mare started walking again, she had the tail braided down low enough to be able to follow Starflower, the rest of the tail in her hands, while standing far enough from the huge snow-unicorn that her feet were safe.
The slim crescent moons barely moved, but it seemed like hours passed while Jrilii waited for Shraalan to return with the herders, especially the head herder, Beqash. She could be demanding, but she knew everything there was to know about snowy care. Jrilii walked back and forth with Starflower, working when she could to finish braiding the tail. Acutely aware of how important this baby was to the future of her people, Jrilii was very nervous being the only person there to help Starflower. She wasn't even an adult, and was only starting her training in snowy-birth and the care of newborn foals.
By the time she got the tail half-braided, there was a protrusion like a bubble the size of Jrilii's head coming out of the birth-passage. Jrilii kept her voice calm, but it was hard. "Don't you worry, Starflower, I'm here."
The snow-unicorn snorted and turned suddenly, so Jrilii had to jump to the side to keep her feet well out of the way. She whistled *caution* sharply, and the mare's ears flicked back and forth. "Hey, girl, careful there. Your feet are still a lot bigger than mine." She realized she still held the tail, and took a strand of hair to tie off what she'd done so far.
Starflower flicked her ears back, then started to stride away. She pulled her tail out of Jrilii's hands, swinging it at her belly as if flies were harassing her. Jrilii followed, talking gently. "It will be easier with your tail braided, silly girl". After a while, the mare slowed and allowed Jrilii to recapture the tail. Jrilii started braiding again.
They walked all the way to the far side of the fenced area, then the mare spread her legs and bent her knees. She lifted her tail and pulled it from Jrilii's hands again. Her belly squeezed, the bubble expanded, and a pair of hooves jutted out over Jrilii's face, their shapes only slightly obscured by the membrane. The silhouette was clear against the aurora for a moment before the tiny hooves slid back inside the mare.
Jrilii stood there, silently gaping, Starflower's mostly-braided tail fell, thwacking Jrilii in the shoulder. Jrilii hurried to tie it off again.
The mare bleated and turned, and Jrilii stumbled as she hurried to follow. "That's--that's good, girl. You're doing fine." She looked back toward the lean-to, and past it at the path toward the village, but there were no lanterns to show people coming. Starflower shifted to rub her face against Jrilii's hand, bleating resentfully.
Jrilii rubbed the unicorn's nose and around the horn. "Sorry, girl."
They walked back and forth together as the moons slowly rose. With each ripple, the hooves peeked out again, pushing against the membrane. After a few false starts, Jrilii finished the tail, tying the end firmly with the few strands of Starflower's tail that had come loose in her hand as she worked. "They'll be here soon, girl. I know they will." Unless Shraalan had slipped on the ice and fallen, or some other disaster delayed them. Jrilii pushed that thought away. Shraalan was competent and careful, and the herders knew better than Jrilii how important the snowies were. "All will be well. You'll see."
While writing Wild Snowy Chase, I realized that the story really began earlier, with Jrilii's first life-and-death experience taking care of snow-unicorns.
This story is dedicated to Ellen -- Happy Midwinter!