Herd Leader guides them over the crags with surety despite the lingering patches of snow. He knows the way; has been Herd Leader of the small herd for two years now, after defeating Herd-Leader-That-Was, his sire. It is the way of the bighorn pear: a young male cast out, bravely following after the herd he was exiled from, assessing his banisher and – sometimes – risking an attack, horn against horn and flesh against flesh. Sometimes he finds no weakness, or doubts his own strength, and slopes off to find an easier challenge or spend a solitary year.
Herd Leader That Was had been magnificently crested, horns spiraling down all the way to the base of his neck; but the young male had sensed a faint softening of age, the faint trace of ethylene that betokened the beginning of overripeness, and had known he could succeed even against such formidable weaponry. The Young Male and the Herd Leader had clashed on a grassy plateau with ragged tendrils of fading snow still on the ground: not enough to let either combatant slip, because the Young Male had understood his opponent’s weakness, and it was brute force, not dexterity, that would win the day. Slippery ground could upset the Young Male as easily as it could the Herd Leader. The Young Male would need good ground in this fight, the better to throw his whole weight at his opponent and batter the aging one into defeat.
And so he had. Young Male was now Herd Leader; Herd Leader That Was had gone away into his own exile, leaving his mates and offspring. The older female, One Chipped Horn, had died last winter. No fault of the new Herd Leader, or his year’s experience; the Thundering carried off whom it willed, and even a nimble young female couldn’t always dodge. One Chipped Horn had been far from young, and the avalanche had taken her life in its white jaws.
Now Herd Leader leads the other female, Quick Leaper, and her pearlet – Herd Leader’s first offspring, the pride of his core and the reason for his watchfulness this fresh spring morning. These crags are safer, but there is no such thing as safe when you’re edible. Too many things roam the rocks, searching for a succulent mouthful; and while Herd Leader’s horns are strong and his flesh sturdy, they were designed for blunt collision with another of his own kind, not for resisting the piercing, tearing teeth of eager fructivores.
Sensory information rolls in: countless impressions from the highly sensitive “freckles” all over his body. Some are akin to a fish’s lateral line system, picking up the vibrations of movement around him; others sample the air for the scent of predators or the alarm pheremones of other bighorn pears. They bring to him the touch of the wind, skirling up the sheer face of his lookout cliff to swirl around his horns and over his back; the vibrations of Quick Leaper’s movements, guiding her little one into the best patches of sun; the warm pressure of the spring sun bearing down upon his back, soaking into the healthy green skin to become nourishing sugar.
Still, something is not quite in tune with this peaceful impression; something whispers to Herd Leader of a reason to keep very still, to strain his senses for more information.
A faint vibration in the ground: the pattern is that of a leaping bighorn pear, but the creature making it is heavier, and moves a little differently. It could be another bighorn pear; perhaps an exiled male, or a female who has yet to give birth. Another herd passed through here early this morning, its Leader giving Herd Leader the respect of a wide berth, so it’s possible this is something so unthreatening as a lone straggler.
Stillness. Seeking the answers with every freckle.
The air tastes of pear, yes, but also carries the small turbulences of breathing – something the autotrophic bighorn pears lack the lungs for.
The lungs, and the mouth: now Herd Leader can detect the too-sweet, decay-tainted breath of a fructivore. He stands motionless only a moment more to pinpoint its direction.
Alarm! Alarm! Herd Leader leaps, spins about and leaps again. Alerted by his motion and his distress, Quick Leaper rounds up her little one and converges on her protector as he descends from his watchtower. The Biting Pear is coming upslope: both good and bad. It gives the litle group less room to maneuvre; but it also leaves them them free to go higher into the mountains, their natural instinct and their more likely refuge. The Biting Pear is a creature of the lowlands and foothills. This one must be very hungry to venture so far upward – or very clever and confident.
Up they go. Herd Leader heads upward, across the plateau toward higher, craggier ground where bighorn pear’s exquisite balance will give his family an edge – more than one predator has found bighorn pears harder to catch than expected, escaping where it had thought escape impossible. More than one predator found death, too, trying to follow where a bighorn pear led – or leapt.
Herd Leader isn’t sure the Biter has detected them, but with the little one in the party they are unable to make the boldest leaps, or ascend the steepest surfaces. Even if they’re undetected as yet, the Biter will have more time to spot them, slowed as they are and open as the plateau’s ground is. He does not want to see Quick Leaper or her pearlet fall to those teeth.
He witnessed a Biter in action, once, when only a pearlet himself; a female who wandered too far from her Herd Leader’s vantage point had rounded a boulder and run right into a young Biting Pear that must have come up from the lowlands seeking territory, defeated by its elders who held territories in the more desirable lowlands.
It had seized Strong Sunlight in its jaws and torn a chunk from her side in seconds. Herd Leader still remembers the shocking suddenness of it, and the smells of juice and pain that had quivered in the air. The Biter bit again, seizing Strong Sunlight by the neck, severing her core, and dragged her limp body away. The entire attack had taken less than half a minute. Strong Sunlight had been young, agile, healthy, fleet… and none of that had mattered in the encounter with teeth and surprise on the side of the Biter.
Herd Leader would not be witness to that horror again. He will let the Biter take him before allowing it to savage one of his family!
His determination, or his caution, is proving its worth – this far up the slope now, he dares to pause a little span for reconnaissance. He detects no distress scent from his offspring – and no increase in the predator’s speed.
Now to be certain.
Herd Leader feels the patterns of the winds, the scents of flowers coming from one direction, of cooler stone and calmer air in another. Perfect.
His kind resort to caves only in great distress; sunlight-eaters that they are, they can become sluggish and starve in the dark. But Herd Leader will take no chances with his family; into the cave they go, the pearlet radiating wonderment at the strange new sensations of still air and darkness.
Why are we here? The little one’s scent asks, and Hush, Quick Leaper says. Into the earth they go, many pearlengths, till the ceiling brushes their horns: far enough that the larger predator will not be able to reach them.
Why are we here? The little one asks again, and now that they are safe, Herd Leader says, We have come to escape a terrible thing.
Listen to your sire, says Quick Leaper. The Biter is a terrible creature, and it was created long ago, when the world was young and all fruit was sweet and free to roam.
Yes. Listen quietly, and I will tell you how it happened.
Quick Leaper’s Tale
Long ago, long and long, all fruit roamed the world without fear. The world was soft, then, and there were no sharp crags. The sun shone each day, and the moon shone as brightly as the sun each night, and there were no holes in the earth such as this. Life was pleasant, and long, for all the wild fruits, and bighorn pears lived on the vast plains of the Soft World.
The world became jealous of the fruit, though, because it could feel the fruit moving, and smell its contentment and its enjoyment of other fruits’ company. So the earth decided it too would move. It strained and it strove, but try as it might it could do nothing, for the earth is a single thing, and has no joints and no flexible core to allow it to spring.
So the world began to communicate with the moon, who moved about the upper air. It spoke of longing, and of jealousy; and its speech found fertile ground. The moon longed to overthrow its fellow, the sun, and be as great as the earth, holding all the power of daylight as the earth holds all the power of life. If you lend me your fire, I can gain the strength to move, said the earth, and then I will help you overthrow the sun and take its fire for your own. This pleased the moon, and it poured its fire down upon the earth each night when the sun was hidden. The earth drew the fire down into itself, melting for itself a core, creating flexibility where there had been only solid stone.
But the earth had never swallowed fire before, and it had never moved before. It did not know how to eat fire as fruit can, so as it tried to take in the moon’s strength it burned great holes in its skin; and when it tried to move great cracks and lumps appeared, because while the earth had given itself a core, it had tried to hide its new power from the sun, and still had a hard, stony skin.
As the earth taught itself to move, the hapless fruit was thrown all about, growing bruised and battered, and some even fell into the great cracks or tumbled from the new upthrusts to their doom. It was a time of great horror for all fruit, who did not know why the world suddenly hated them and had cast off its softness.
Great herds of fruit went wandering, seeking the reason for the terrible changes, or trying to find a place where the world was still soft. There are many stories told of this time, and of the great pears who led their people and performed great deeds; when you are older, I shall tell you those as well.
As the earth shook and quailed, it destroyed the broad plains where thousands of fruits of all varieties would bask in the sun. Now caves and jagged spires blocked the sun in some places, and even in the remaining fields there were often great wafts of smoke that reduced the light, pouring from the burnt places in the earth where the moon’s fire had been too strong. Where once there had been enough room for all, now there was little, and fruits that had peacefully fed side by side now came into conflict.
Some grew horns, as our kind did, to fend off interlopers from choice spots. Others absorbed some of the earth-fire and emitted it in chemical form, spreading spice-heat around them to defend a feeding-place. Some absorbed the earth-smoke and became bitter, able to spray stinging juice should a horn puncture their hide.
Some decided that it was too hard to find a sun-feeding place, after the other fruits had found ways to defend their places. These fruits, the last of the original peaceful species of the Soft World, accepted a horrible change in order to survive. Like the earth, they developed chasms, lined with hard upthrusts that could tear and swallow the flesh of a fruit. Even some pears took this way, and this is what your Herd Leader sensed, and why this place is here to shelter us.
This is why bighorn pears have horns, and also why we stay to the highlands; even our horns cannot protect us from many of the other fruits’ defenses, so we depend upon the hard-to-reach places where others cannot come and drive us out. And this is why the fruits kept their defenses, even after the earth had begun to understand its fire and its motion; now it rarely makes such sudden leaps, but bighorn pears still leap amongst the high crags and bear horns.
Yes, the earth rarely moves now, but all the fruits of the world are changed; and the sun perceived what the earth and the moon had intended. It punished the moon, taking what remained of its fire for its own. The earth could not give back what it had used so poorly; too much had escaped in smoke and flame, or was trapped beneath its stone skin to keep its core molten. This is why the moon is cold and often lightless, while the sun gives us warmth and light and food.
Yes, we are hiding right now in such a crack as was made when the world first tried to move. Those times were terrible and frightening; but the world's wounds are now part of it, as your leaping is part of you, and they shelter many fruits. Some fruits even live their lives in such places, so if you ever again find yourself taking refuge within, be alert for prior occupants. If there are such, you must be respectful, since they claimed its shelter first; but not at the cost of your life, for the world is no longer soft and fruits no longer consider themselves all one herd. For better or worse, we have gone our different ways and become different kinds.
Well, now you know, my youngling, my love. A good thing, this has been: safety for us all, and wisdom for you. I believe it’s safe to venture out now – feel how your Herd Leader is testing the air, and the silence outside the cave. Let’s go back, now, and I’ll teach you how to leap from a standing start.