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None of the balls were bigger than his fist, and most were smaller. These were the remnants from a winter of knitting. Karavai had grown up wheedling leftover yarn from adults reluctant to hand over big balls of nicely matched yarn to a small boy. When they started offering him better materials, he turned them down politely, having fallen in love with using remnants. Although he preferred ranger work to domestic work -- and storytelling to anything else -- Karavai liked to have something to do with his hands. He also enjoyed putting together bits of things to create a multicolored whole.
"Why red?" piped a voice.
Karavai turned to see his age-mate Ularki, a little older than him in body but forever younger in mind. Her widening curves gave the impression of womanhood. "It wanted to be in this project," he said.
Ularki poked a finger in her mouth. "Doesn't go," she mumbled.
Karavai thought about how to explain the concept of an accent color. "Think of the forest's edge, all blues and greens, where it lets out into a meadow. There are black shadows and a few white stones," he said. "Got that?"
"Uh huh," said Ularki.
"Now imagine one red flower blooming in the meadow."
"I'm glad you think so, because I'm making this for you," said Karavai. "It's going to be a blanket to keep you warm."
"Blanket!" crowed Ularki. "Me me me!" She bounced on her toes.
Karavai wrapped an arm around Ularki and hugged her close, steering her away from his basket of browns so that she wouldn't trip over it. "Here, you can help. Put these balls into any order you like." He waved a hand over the bench.
Ularki pounced on the balls, knocking them out of their piles. Some fell onto the ground. Karavai rescued them and placed them back on the bench. Ularki leaned over her task with fierce concentration, tongue protruding between her lips. She had thoroughly mixed up the dark and light values, but was cleverly putting the cool colors into blue-teal-green sets.
"Little balls," said Ularki.
"Yes, these are odds and ends left over from projects the adults did," Karavai explained.
She looked up suddenly. "Am I an odd or an end?" Ularki asked.
Karavai flinched. Sometimes people picked on Ularki for being slow. It made her sad and made him furious. "Well, you're the second oldest person in our age-set, so I guess you're not an end. That makes you an odd." His voice cracked, as it often did these days. He hugged her again. "Ularki, it's all right to be odd. Think how boring the world would be if everyone were the same."
Her sweet face began to crumple. "Want to be like you," she snuffled.
"Then there would be two of me!" said Karavai. He made an expression of comic horror. "I don't think the elders would know what to do."
Ularki giggled. "They're still mad. You made Athano sound so silly!"
Karavai wondered how long it would take to live down the incident. In retrospect, making up a wicked chant about the elder had not been very sensible. It was still a funny chant. He just hadn't meant for it to spread quite so far...
"Why do I have to be different?" Ularki asked, doubling back on her tracks like a hare.
Karavai's gaze fell on the red yarn. He handed it to her and said, "Because you're the flower in our meadow, sweetie. Where do you think you belong?" He nudged her hand toward the rows she had made on the bench.
"With you!" Ularki said. She plunked the red into the midst of the arrangement, surrounded by blues and teals and greens.
"That's right," said Karavai, "that's exactly right."
Ularki leaned against him. "Will you still take care of me when we're adults?" she whispered.
So that's what this was all about! Karavai thought. She knew that their age-set would be taking the adulthood test at the summer gather, and worried about how it would change their lives.
"I will always take care of you, Ularki, no matter how old we get," Karavai promised. "So will our other age-mates. Whatever roles we wind up taking in the village, we'll make sure that someone stays with you to keep you safe and find ways to help." He brushed a hand over the rows of yarn balls. "When you wrap yourself in this blanket, it will remind you of me and how much I love you."
"Yay!" said Ularki. Then she planted a sloppy kiss on his cheek and scampered away.
Karavai packed the yarn into the empty basket, carefully preserving the order of colors that Ularki created. When he came to the red ball, he cuddled it for a moment before tucking it with the others. "Always," he whispered, "always."
This story came from the February 2, 2010 Muse Fusion. It was inspired by a prompt from Padparadscha. Here we get an early glimpse of the close relationship between Karavai and Ularki. I wanted to show how a "slow" character could fit into a Northern village. Her age-mates protect her and help her find ways to be useful.
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