“Is it a late spring this year,” Kethry asked, shifting the sack of grain against her hip, “or an early foaling?”
“A little of both, I think.” Tarma turned the collar of her jacket up higher and wished that she’d worn a cloak over it like Kethry had. When they’d left the little cabin where they were wintering here in the mountains of Jkatha it had seemed like physical activity would be enough to keep her warm. Now that they had climbed up to the open valley where the horses were wintering, the temperature had dropped more than she expected. Good thing Warrl was off hunting and enjoying himself in the freedom of the mountains, or he would be laughing his tail off at her, making such a child’s mistake.
Luckily they were only up here to put down grain for the little herd and check on the pregnant mares. When they came back tomorrow she would be better prepared.
The day before she’d seen that at least two of the pregnant mares already had full udders and waxy nipples; they could start laboring at any time. She and Kethry would be spending a lot of time up here until all the foals were on the ground and accounted for.
“Beasts are supposed to know the weather better than we do.” Kethry sighed and stopped to catch her breath. “Seems wrong that they can stumble into birthing too early.”
“Nature keeping the numbers down, I suppose.” Tarma walked another few feet through the snow and threw her head back to direct a piercing whistle toward the sky. “Not going to work, though, since we’re here to interfere with it.”
Kethry made a vague noise of agreement and started dragging her heel through the snow, cutting a trough into it almost down to the frozen earth. The late spring meant the horses had stripped everything edible from the valley except tree bark and the toughest of weeds. They would burn more fat chewing them than they’d gain. Hence, feeding them on stores of grain, which ought to be far too precious for beasts at this time of year. Fortunately Jkatha was coming off two bumper harvests and the lordling who had hired Tarma and Kethry to watch over his wintering herd was generous to a fault.
Tarma’s Shin’a’in thriftiness and belief in holding stores for the future screamed against spoiling this particular herd—to a nomad trader’s discriminating eye, they were hardly more than scrubs. The equally nomad horsewoman, though, who fed her beasts before herself and walked over broken ground to save them the extra weight of riding; she was more than satisfied.
Besides, they were being paid to care for the beasts, scrubs or not. The practical mercenary who did her duty shrugged and said fair enough.
Tarma whistled again while Kethry poured the bag of grain into the makeshift trough. This time she heard a high whinny in response, and tracked the sound to where the herd was making its way up from the brush and stubby trees at the edge of the valley, where a mountain stream stayed running fresh even in this cold. The valley was a perfect wintering place; broad enough that the horses couldn’t get caught by avalanche or rockfall, with water bubbling up from the rock and only freezing in the deepest cold, and birches and cattails for forage if no winter herd-watchers were found to bring grain up into the snow.
The first thing a Shin’a’in child learned on her first herd-watch was to count noses even while the beasts swirled around in constant motion. Tarma frowned and checked her count twice. No question. “We’re missing one, Keth.”
Kethry frowned and tilted her head, her eyes going unfocused in the way Tarma knew meant she was asking air-elementals for help. “Oh… of course, our luck. The little black mare with the blaze, she’s foaling down in the trees.”
Tarma bit back one of the uglier Shin’a’in curses and looked around the valley. No other cover, of course; the mare had found the best place she could. Her timing was just terrible. “Can you tell how far along she is?”
“Still on her feet and walking around. Not happy, though. We don’t have too long.” She folded up the sack and tucked it through her belt, then drew her cloak tight again. “What do you want to do?”
Tarma looked up at the sky, estimating their remaining daylight. Two hours at best. That should be long enough, but sometimes mares took their own sweet time, and sometimes clouds rolled in out of nowhere in these mountains. “I need to go back down to the cabin for supplies. Go find her and see if you can keep her calm. Take care of things if they get started, of course, but—”
“I can midwife a horse as well as you, she’endra.” Kethry’s smile was tight, not quite hiding the sting in her words. “I assume Warrl is on his way back already.”
“He is.” There was no time for apologies and patching things over now; their friendship and oath-bond were strong enough for that to wait. “It will take him a while to get back, though.”
Kethry nodded. “Go, then. I’ll leave plenty of footprints for you to follow.”
The mercenary in Tarma could appreciate a clear dismissal, too. She made her way back across the valley to the path that led down to the cabin, one that she and Kethry had tended carefully through the winter, breaking up ice as it formed and treating the surface with gravel and ashes for their boots to grip. Back at the cabin she gathered up her neglected cloak, a lantern, and the bag of basic medical supplies for humans and beasts that anyone tending herd would keep together. Then back up the path again, balancing all that clumsy weight, while the sun kept dipping farther west and the cold sapped her strength away by inches.
The herd was still gathered where she’d left them, cleaning up the last traces of grain in the snow. She bypassed them this time, following the trail made by Kethry wading through the snow until her oathsib had wisely joined up with the path the horses made on their way to feeding. Things went faster from there, leading Tarma down to the trees and brush along the river, where she found Kethry sitting on the grains ack with a magelight hovering over her shoulder.
The mare stood nearby, back hunched and head down, the muscles of her abdomen ripping under the skin. “Tcha,” Tarma said softly, seeing how the poor thing’s tail was wringing between her legs. “She’s near to it.”
“Any minute now,” Kethry agreed. “She’s been down and gotten back up a few times.”
“It’s all right, dear heart,” Tarma said, pitching her voice in the way Shin’a’in did when talking to horses, and slipping into her native tongue. “You can relax now. The Mother is with you.”
The mare stomped and kicked irritably at the air, but after a moment she sank down into the snow and groaned, low and pained. “That’s the start of it,” Kethry murmured.
Tarma squatted down beside Kethry, who shifted aside to make room for her on the sack. Tarma took the gesture to mean the earlier sharp feelings were either forgiven or forgotten; in either case, they wouldn’t get in the way of looking after this poor girl. Yet another reason Kethry was her she’enedra: she was as practical as a woman of the Clans.
Things progressed quickly once they started. There was still a good finger’s breadth between the sun and the high mountain horizon when the foal came into the world, all stick-thin legs and wet eyes and ears as big as Tarma’s spread hand.
“A colt,” Tarma said, allowing herself the deep satisfaction of her people when a foaling went right and new stock came to the herd. “Ugly as mud, but he’s a strong little thing. He’ll be on his feet in a minute.”
Kethry was resting her chin on her knees, watching the mother and baby go through the first timeless moments of a new life. “Our payment is silver and two horses, you know.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“He could be one of them. Our dauntless employer didn’t bother to specify if they had to be grown or not.”
Tarma frowned, brushing snow off her trousers and watching the colt make his first attempt to find his feet. “I thought were going to take some solid three-year-olds and sell them at the fort to make our passage money back to Rethwellan.”
“We were. But we could do something else.” Kethry shrugged. “Take this one, and the mare, go back to the Plains instead. Leave them with Liha’irden and your herds.”
“Keth, these horses aren’t Shin’a’in bloodstock. They’re not up to our standards, they’re not—”
Kethry shrugged again and drew her cloak up to the level of her nose. “You have sale herds, too,” she said, almost inaudible. “Jkatha mountain stock is strong and level-headed, even if they’re not as pretty as yours. Never bad traits to bring in.”
Tarma opened her mouth to speak, then closed it. It was just dark enough for ghosts to walk, and she could swear she felt the touch of one of her spirit-teachers’ hands on her shoulder, a silent signal to check herself, and wait, and think.
“What brought this idea to you, Keth?” she asked finally. Kethry looked up with wide, startled eyes. “I’m curious.”
The mage was quiet for a minute. “I’m not sure. It’s just a feeling.”
Perhaps the earlier prickle of offense, and all the other ones Tarma had clumsily dropped over time, needed a bit more to soothe them out. Goddess knew that Kethry put up with more, following along with Tarma’s quest for vengeance and growing her Clan anew from ashes. Balance, she thought. Always have to remember to balance it out. All right, ghosts. I hear it this time.
“Your feelings are a damn sight more trustworthy than most people’s thoughts,” she said. “We’ll add some big-eared Jkathan mountain stock to the market herds. Might be just the strain of hardiness needed.”
Kethry’s cloak dipped down to her chin, enough that Tarma could see her smile. “Then we need to make sure this one grows up healthy. Think we can walk these two down to the cabin for the night?”
“Ah…” Tarma thought about the narrow path down through the rock from valley to cabin. “No? But I can pull some branches together for a lean-to. We’ll have a cold night but it’ll keep the wind off him.”
“If you make me a lean-to I can give you warmth, Tarma.” Kethry smiled and cupped her hands together, letting the space between her palms fill with light. “Like partners do.”
Warrl was close enough now that Tarma could hear him laughing in her head, and she was more than half sure that it was the Warrior laughing along with him. “All right, all right,” she muttered, as she walked into the trees to gather up branches for the lean-to. “Partners working together to keep our baby alive, and help it grow up strong. When you beat me over the head with it I can see a lesson as clear as a shovel. You mystics are all the same, dragging me over rough ground behind an unbroke godsdamned donkey… swear if I didn’t need you both to revive my Clan…”
Of course the Star-Eyed would never stoop to giving gifts to Her children just because they stopped being pig-headed for a moment, but when morning came to the little valley, it brought a clean, warm wind from the south, and the first birds of spring riding along it.
Divine intervention or random chance was anyone’s guess, but when they caught up to Liha’irden at the turn of summer, Tarma made sure that the big-eared black colt got a shaman’s blessing before he was set free to run.