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Vlanir, a sour look on his face, watched his age-mate, Riilim flirting with one of the new-adult men from Itadesh, Ilgaraa.
Naturally, Riilim noticed. With a peck at Ilgaraa's ear (carefully avoiding the scruffy dark spots on his cheeks and chin where he was attempting to grow a beard), she got up and came over to Vlanir. "Jrilii wasn't with that last group from Itadesh?"
He shook his head, thinking that Dalvo and Ortein were also delayed. "It was just two old geezers on old mares, leading the mare who'd had twins -- and both baby snowies!" He smiled, proudly, though briefly. "They're both strong and healthy, if a little small. And it was Jrilii's doing that the babies survived."
Riilim knew all that. Ilgaraa was one of the half of Jrilii's age-set that arrived at the gather with the bulk of Itadesh. He had told her at length about the twins, adding that they'd barely been able to drag Jrilii away from those babies for their last adulthood test. "So, if the babies are here, where's Jrilii?"
Vlanir laughed bitterly. "The elders," he said it so carefully it emphasized that he was being polite, "said she thought she saw some wild snowies, and is somewhere off in the mountains chasing after them."
Riilim laughed gaily. "Wild Snowies! That's a good one. What's really going on?" Then she took in the look on his face and stopped laughing. "You can't be -- but you are. You're serious. But there are no wild snow-unicorns. Oh, occasionally one vanishes in bad weather, but we usually find the body, or at least a few bones, in the spring."
"You know Jrilii. Can you think of anything else that would convince her to part with those babies?"
"No. So, what are you going to do?"
He kicked at a tuft of grass. "What can I do? Even if I knew what pass she went through, the mountains are wide. And Kaival and Daarsham wouldn't even name the pass."
"Kaival patted my head like I was still a child, and told me there would be other summers."
"Surely they'll tell the elders! Wait a couple of days, and ask your mother."
"Oh, sure. Wait a couple of days, while Jrilii gets further and further away, with Ortein and Dalvo to keep her company."
Riilim hugged him. "My offer is still open, for next month."
He hugged her back. "That's very sweet." He should say yes, he thought. He could offer his bead for her to wear on a promise dangle. That would please his mother, at the very least. But he'd thought about Jrilii all winter. He'd sought out a piece of unicorn horn, and carved the bead himself, working up the courage to offer it to Jrilii, and now he couldn't bring himself to offer it to anyone else.
He hung around camp the next few days, doing any task that gave him a chance to eavesdrop where any of the elders were talking. Jrilii's foolish side-trip was very much a topic of conversation, a great deal of derision and a little envious admiration. People said things like, "She won't find any snowies, of course, but she might find a rich cache of ancient tools!" and "I should have thought of pretending to see snowies in the distance, so I could get out of cleaning and smoking salmon!" Vlanir spoke in her defense more than once, but his words were laughed off as adolescent hormones.
Among the snowy breeders, who knew her best, Vlanir heard nothing at all. They walked around, doing all the normal things they did during the summer, but looked tense, and expectant, almost like children who'd just taken their last adulthood test, and were waiting to hear the result. At first, he wondered why they didn't defend her.
Riliim laughed when he asked her. "Vlanir -- if there's snowies out there, enough to be breeding in the wild, then that reflects badly on the breeders and snowy-keepers, who must have somehow let a dozen or more escape over the years. On the other hand, the snowy numbers keep dwindling. Finding some snowies that aren't closely related to our herds -- that's been a daydream of every snowy breeder in history. What could they say, that wouldn't risk them looking like fools now, later, or both?"
But no one mentioned where in the mountains Jrilii and her companions had gone. Finally, he went to his mother, as Riliim had suggested, and asked.
"I have nothing to tell you, my son." She smiled, and gutted another fish, skillfully pulling the spine and bones out, then draped it on the line in front of her.
"You can't expect me to believe they didn't tell you where Jrilii went!"
"Of course they told us. But that doesn't mean I'm going to tell you. We agreed that enough of our collective resources are being spent on -- well, on a wild snowy chase. It will most likely be a total waste of time and effort, unless they find an ancient cache. If they don't show up by summer's end, Dlameda will take a party to gather fruit on the other side of that pass and look for them. In the meantime, there's an abundance of work to do to get us ready for the winter." She pointedly handed him a knife. Making a face, he reached for one of the smaller fish. He hadn't yet caught the trick for neatly boning the large ones. They wiggled in his hands, especially out here, where there was no proper flat surface to support their length.
"So, have you given that bead to some young woman yet?"
He groaned. He hadn't come here to have her nag him yet again about grandchildren. "I carved the bead for Jrilii."
"I know you like Jrilii," his mother said, with no respect for how that observation made him blush. "And she's a fine girl, very competent according to all I've heard from the Itadesh elders. If anyone can catch a wild snowy, I believe she can."
He looked up in surprise. There was no skepticism or derision in his mother's voice. "Then why won't you let me go help her?"
She sighed. "Vlanir, you're no better than average at snowy-handling. And we don't know where she is. Even the trail of four adult snowies can get overgrown in the summer in just a few days. There's every reason to believe she doesn't need help. Her own wilderness skills are excellent, and the skills of the young folk with her fill in what she lacks nicely." She hung another beautifully symmetrical gutted fish on the line.
Thinking of Dalvo's muscled form, Vlanir accidentally cut the rather ragged-looking fish in his hand in half.
"Put that one in the pot." His mother handed him a second small fish, and took up another large one. "And if there are wild snowies -- well, if there are, no one has the skills for taming them. We can only extrapolate from the knowledge of people who've attempted to tame wild silk-hares or sheep. And when doing that, having a new person suddenly appear can cause all sorts of trouble."
He hung the fish he'd gutted on the line. Its tail flopped slightly above the line, but the fillets hanging down from it looked only a little ragged, and she gave him an approving smile.
"Do you see why we aren't telling anyone where to go chasing after her?"
He dropped the fish he'd just picked up and jumped to his feet. "I'm not just anyone!" He turned.
"Where are you going?"
"With my fish-gutting knife?"
He turned back and very carefully laid the knife on the log beside her. "Now I'm going hunting!"
"You could ask Dlameda if he'll have you on the harvesting party, when the time comes."
Vlanir remembered Dlameda as the healer who patched him up several summers earlier, when he'd been goofing around on snowy-back, scared the unicorn into bucking, and fallen, breaking an arm. It didn't seem likely that Dlameda would want him around.
Feeling frustrated, he ran to the tent where he'd been sleeping, shoved everything that was truly his own into two travel bags, grabbed a small saddlebag so he'd have a way to carry whatever he found back to camp, and set out, his eyes on the mountains. He didn't really have any plan; he didn't have the equipment or supplies for a long trip. But he couldn't just sit around any more. And given no destination, his feet followed his eyes and his heart.
The direct route toward the mountains was dotted with breeding corrals. Dlameda was walking hand in hand with a woman who, based on the number of white hairs caught in her knitted top, must be a snowy handler. If he walked that way, they'd ask him what he was up to. Sighing, Vlanir turned away from the mountains, and started running on a path that roughly paralleled the coast.
For a while, he just ran. They'd been camped there for more than a tenday; it was unlikely he'd find any game this close to the encampment. And he didn't have the patience for gathering herbs.
Eventually, of course, he had to slow. He was just walking when the land turned marshy. He turned toward the mountains, walking along the edge of the marsh. He kept remembering the time he'd spent with Jrilii last summer -- she was the reason his snowy skills were even as good as they were. There was no way he could have spent time around her if he made snowies uncomfortable.
Ahead, the way was blocked by reeds, green and gold, and a few shaded toward pink and even purple. Even better, some were almost completely yellow!. Sweet reed! It was his favorite treat, and a primary source of sugar. No one would accuse him of slacking if he came back with a load of sweet reed.
He stripped off most of his clothes, took out his knife, and stepped into the mud. He waded past several stands of healthy plants, looking at the yellower reeds for the fat, slightly puckered leaves that he maintained signaled stalks filled with sugar crystals. When he found one, he cut it at high-tide level; the sweet crystals didn't survive daily immersion in water, and he was already wet enough from wading in the marsh.
This was, indeed, a lucky day. Twice as many of the reeds were heavy with sugar than usual. A few hours' work left him pleasantly tired, and with too much sweet reed to carry on his back. He needed some long, straight reeds to use to make a drag-sled. Too bad he didn't even have a yearling with him; he'd have to pull the stuff back to the encampment himself. But then he shrugged. He was strong, even if his muscles weren't as showy as Dalvo's, and he could jog, even dragging a sled, faster than a snowy would be walking in this heat.
He sorted the reeds he'd cut. More than half were perfect! A couple were completely empty of sugar, so he trimmed those to use as drag poles: the sugar-filled ones were heavier, and more prone to breaking. He strung the saddle-bag between the two reeds, tying it securely with the straps meant to secure the bag to saddle snaggles. Then he started to pile the rest on top, cutting the longer reeds in half so they wouldn't poke him in the back while he ran.
One pretty, slightly dappled reed had just started to produce the sugar. Smiling, he whittled out a series of holes, then blew into the end one, testing the positioning with a quick scale. Not bad. He adjusted two of the holes, making them slightly bigger, and tested again. He might be only adequate with snowies, but this was something he was good at.
If only Jrilii were here, he could find out if a sweet reed flute really did have special powers to woo a lover.
Sighing, he sat down on a rare, smooth grassy spot near the edge of the water, and started to play. As he played, he gazed at the mountains. Jrilii was there, somewhere, and would probably not be back all summer. He played his anger, frustration, and loneliness. With no one around, he could pour his emotions into the music.
Slowly, as the sweet taste of sugar, the tickle of water at his toes, and the sound of the music filled his senses, a feeling of peace filled him. He was an adult now -- he could overwinter in Itadesh, or wherever else Jrilii might choose to be.
And in the meantime, well, Nodilu had flirted with him several times. She was old -- almost 30 -- old enough that he wouldn't be constantly reminded of Jrilii. And she wanted another child. He could trade some of the sweet reed for a shell bead, carved into a flower of some sort. That would please Nodilu, and the effort might get his mother to stop nagging him about grandchildren. And, he thought with a smile, he'd heard the stories of the advantages of a month with an older woman. He'd make sure to learn some things Dalvo and Ortein couldn't have shown Jrilii!