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The fruit from the sour-apple trees looked very similar to the fruit of the rare spike-apple, so it was an easy mistake to make. The leaves had the same pointed-oval, velvet-green shape, and both were short and tended to grow in chaotic tangles, sheltered in low valleys with good drainage. Author's Notes
Worse, they tended to grow together, and if you didn't look very closely for the characteristic bright speckles on the ripe spike-apple, you might never know it was not its innocuous cousin.
Birka had not looked closely, and she had not kept a close eye on frisky young Kicker, who found what she had not looked for.
The snow-unicorn, barely past its first year, lay motionless in the knee-high grass.
Birka bit a lip as she knelt beside him, her basket of harvested sour-apples tumbling, forgotten, to one side. Only half-grown, Kicker's head was still almost as large as she was, and it moved only slightly at her approach, mouth open and panting. Birka sucked a thankful breath in for that much life, then stood and, after two dry-lipped false starts, was able to sound a shrill alarm whistle, standing and cupping her hands around her mouth.
An answer echoed off the bluff, and after only a moment, Lenaroth came into view, waving a question with his arms. Birka signed back - a medical emergency. He disappeared, to signal Slarath, most likely, and Birka returned to Kicker's side. He still gasped for breath - the spike-apple caused swelling in snowy throats that could choke off air, and Birka pulled his head so that his neck was straight to allow as much air as possible to pass through, murmuring reassuringly.
An adult snowy could shake off the effects of spike-apples, and in most humans it tended to cause only a 'spike' of adrenaline, but young snowies, just beginning to supplement their mother's milk with greens and fruit, could die of it.
Steady was only just noticing that something was wrong with her colt, and began to crowd in, snuffling at the wheezing Kicker. Birka whistled her back and she took two reluctant steps back, calling in shrill tones for her foal to get to his feet. Kicker, brave foal, made a move to try, but Birka whistled a firm 'stay' command, and held onto his nosering. He gave up immediately, noisy breath more of a priority, and Birka murmured praises to him as she scratched his ears.
Lenaroth and Slarath came panting up to see what had happened, and the other snowies had to be whistled back from pushing their big noses into the arena.
"I didn't notice," Birka admitted, holding a pair of the rose-speckled apples in her palm. Guilt rose in her, but she stuffed it back down - guilt would do Kicker no good now.
Lenaroth saw it anyway, and gave her shoulder a squeeze without mentioning it or saying useless things.
There was nothing they could do for Kicker but wait and see if he pulled through under his own strength. While Birka stood vigil over him, shooing mosquitos and flies from his nose and keeping Steady from harassing him to stand, Slarath and Lenaroth picked all of the spike-apples that they could find and chopped down the tree they had grown from.
As the day wound to an end, twilight falling, they returned to Birka's makeshift healer's hollow.
"How is he?" Slarath asked. His gather basket was heaping with the speckled apples. There was no use letting them go to waste, and they would be welcome in Itadesh, even if the sight of them did turn Birka's stomach with fear and guilt.
"He's still kicking," Birka said. Kicker twitched an ear at her, but otherwise remained prone.
Lenaroth insisted that she sleep a while, and Birka did, wrapped in a blanket nearby, half-dozing as long as she could.
When morning came, her eyes were crusty with exhaustion, but Kicker was breathing easier and looking impatient at Birka's insistence that he remain prone. As the sun topped the trees and began to melt off the overnight autumn frost, she let him get to his feet and he wobbled uncertainly around and found Steady, who fussed at his fur until he started nursing enthusiastically.
By mid-day, he was romping and kicking, true to his name. Birka was limp with relief.
"I bet he'll stick to mother's milk a little longer," she said to the other rangers over the fire that night.
Lenaroth laughed at her. "Snowies have memories shorter than winter days," he said. "By tomorrow, you'll be chasing him away from apples again."
Birka gave him a sober smile. "Too bad we can't teach him that some apples kick back."
A Muse Fusion story, written for a prompt by Heidi B.