by Geneseepaws

 

“Har?”

”Ashunta!!  OooAhhh!  Vaga’s eyeballs, You scared me, Tanna!”

Har looked -pale  -shaken up.  Perhaps he had been nodding off a bit.  He didn’t even smile at them.  Keeping watch, Har had half the herd here, on this side of the camp.  With moving the camp to this location he was as exhausted as any of them, but now Tanna and Moo would relieve him of the hungry herd.   There was precious little grass here for them to eat.  Why had father moved them here?

Tanna’s oldest brother, Lauw, was watching the other twenty-five kortans on the other side of their new encampment.  He was not so lucky, he would be up all night without relief.  There was precious little grass on that side, either.  Oddly their herd still thrived.

“Twenty-five,” was all her brother Har said.

Neither the full formal ritual, nor the relaxed short passing of the herd to another, only and just the count, “Twenty-five.”

Tanna made her count.  A count of twenty-five.  That was correct.  And looking down on twenty-five milling kortans, their counts agreeing, and she accepted his charge presenting him the brass herding token, allowing him to return to camp.

“Thanks!” was all he said. He turned, heading back toward their tents.

Kor!  Har looked exhausted from the move!

She frowned again, her mouth turning down, her ears lowering.  Why had Tilsit moved them here so suddenly?

What had spooked him?

She glanced over at her little brother laying out his bedding.  He also looked so very weary, unsteady on his feet.  Well, they all were, but she was probably the least tired of them all.  She frowned again, then shook off the worry.  Tanant Khat-T’heer relaxed, stretching her tired muscles, and sat down on the soft cold sand to begin watching her herd.

For a half hour she sat watching, waiting, then tired of sitting she stood, striding around in a large circle to get warm again.  The desert air seemed very cold tonight.  Especially in the twentieth hour,- with seven and a half more to go.  Maybe Moo would wake and take his turn.  She sat again, in the desert style, one knee up, one knee out, an arm locked about the vertical knee, scanned the dunes for trouble, and glanced over at her brother.

In this dead time, the middle part of the night, one was free to do some real thinking, away from jeering townsfolk, away from chores and washing, or today; packing and unpacking.

Tanna looked down at her brother.  Dear Moo, her troubled little brother, sleeping soundly on the sand curled up in his brown kortan-wool blankets pulled tight against the cold.  She envied him for a moment, his sleep.  But not who he was.  Not that.  He was her shadow.  She was his rock in shifting sands, his center post, just as Father was her anchor against chaos.

She noticed his peaceful face, relaxed- almost smiling in his sleep.  She smiled tenderly back at him, despite the exhaustion her body felt and the fear in her heart.

Her father was on edge.  He was nervous, so his family was nervous, and in turn the animals were nervous — the kortans restive and milling about all day, upset with an abrupt change in pastures.  It was unnerving to her to have her anchor so on edge.

Realizing that even at this late hour the kortans had not settled for the night, she walked out among them, her presence calming them and some few moved to lay down to sleep.

That afternoon her father had returned from selling his entire stock of fleece, and all the hides, brought back a lot of credits and some fresh food. Then announced that they must break camp without making a sound.  Pack it all up!  His face was hard, set, his determination showing, and always looking about, scanning for danger.  What danger, she wondered?  Had he cheated someone?  It would be unlikely.  He had no need to cheat; his herd had the best meat, the best hides, and the longest softest fleece of any kortans anyone had ever felt.  Yes, he was secretive, and always had been.  With the quality of their herd there was no need to cheat here.  But he kept looking around, – scanning the dunes, – the level sands.

So he moved them around to the other side of the town; suddenly, and without warning, nor excuse given.  He moved his whole family, herd, tents, and all to the other side — for no apparent reason.  Why?

If she was as confused as the kortans were, then she was in good company, and all her brothers and sisters were exhausted from tearing down camp, packing, moving, and then setting it all up again.  Why?  It was the why that had her worried.  Her father, the anchor for the whole family seemed adrift.

Clearly upset, while trying to hide causes and reasons from his family, her father excused her from all work setting up the new camp, and she sighed at the news.  She knew what was coming.  She knew what he expected of her late in the night.

In exchange for a lighter workload during the day, that night while he slept snuggled in his warm tent, he would expect her to stay up, stay awake, keep watch over his kortan herd.  Watching with her brother, all night.  He trusted them to stay awake all night, they were older now.  It was time they carried some responsibility.

Tanna was a good child, and she had her tricks for keeping sleep at bay.  Counting the kortans; there was a count of eight hands of fingers plus one finger, that made twenty-five.  She would stay awake counting kortans, mulling ideas, remembering lessons, trying not to worry.  Counting her blessings.

Now, she had many blessings to count, hadn’t she?  If her clothes were hand-me-downs from her older brothers, clothes cut for a boy, grayed with dirt, faded from sunlight and the washings, well … she had joy in her family and enough to eat?

Right?                                              Those were blessings.

In towns they had lived near she saw children who were dressed as poorly as she.  Not often had she seen them, and they were skinnier and often looked hungry, and her family was seldom hungry.  But she felt shy in town, because of her clothes.  Some of the townsfolk were dressed in bright colours, and new clothes – clothes without holes, or tears and rents, clothes with bright colours so vivid they looked made from nature itself, not pale, worn, torn, faded.  Sometimes a kilma, or kilmi would point at her laughing at her clothes.  She imagined what it might be like to wear clothes as nice as her father’s going into town.  She sighed.

This was one trick to stay awake, imagining wonderful things.  Telling herself stories of what might be.  In her mind she was beautifully dressed, she was Landed Gentry surveying her fattening herds, guarding her possessions.  She stood tall in the brisk night air, wrapped in her blanket and robes; imagining herself a princess gazing over her demesne.

 

 

Moo rolled over in his sleep and sighed.  He would wake soon, and allow her some dream time, she hoped.  But now, again, it was time, time to count their sleeping herd.  Not that they lost many animals in year, but an animal could fall into distress.  Tanna began her count, …

Three, six, nine, twelve, fifteen, eighteen, twenty-one,  twenty-four, twenty-what?

Start again.

Three here, plus two there and one there; that’s six, and three that way; that’s nine,…  And so on – she counted them again, but again, it didn’t come out right.

Start again, … Hmmm, twenty-six.  Still one extra.

 

 

And counting again didn’t make it any better.  There was no working around one extra kortan on the top of the dune, by itself, one funny looking kortan, curled up sleeping.  She was very tired, but in the poor light of the moons and the cold air, it looked less like a natural kortan and more like a stuffed lumpy kortan?  She would check it out to see for sure.

She approached the solitary twenty-sixth kortan.  It was still and unmoving atop a low dune.

From its colouration, black and golden where hers were cream and brown, it couldn’t be from their herd!  Curled there upon the sand, it looked all wrong, lumpy in the wrong places, clearly her eyes must be playing tricks, and she must be much more tired than she thought.  Struggling against the sands shifting under her feet, she hurried up the dune.

 

 

As she approached, she saw that what looked clearly like a kortan from across an expanse, was, up close, clearly not a kortan but instead a girl some few years older than herself.  She lay wrapped in a kortan fleece robe and blanket, relaxing on her side, cross-legged on the cooling sands, her head propped up by her arm.  She seemed to be staring directly at Tanna, smiling.  Her clothes were strangely cut, and many layered against the chill air.  And such clothes!  Her ava bright in color, fine of weave, and glittered and twinkled in the dim light, as if sparks or dew drops were woven into the cloth.

Tanna looked all about the dune, for others, for a camp, for any trace to give her a clue.  And saw nothing, but the lone and level expanse of sand broken only by the rise and fall of the gentle dunes.

Tanna was cautious approaching such a grand kilma, baffled by what she should say.

It was not an issue.  As she closed in to speaking distance, Tanna was greeted by name.

“Kar’ Tanant Kaht-T’heer, be you welcomed here!  You and I, the sole awake souls, here, in the middle of this cold night.  Are you as lonely as I?  Sit you a moment with me, and we may the watchers for your herd together be, yes?”

Tanna didn’t know how to greet her, this stranger who knew her name, and who was so strangely clothed, strangely out in the desert with no one near.  Again the stranger spoke.

”You are moved from your place, your camp!  I tell you I was very cross to have to hunt so hard for you!  And I now have found you!  And now that you are here in a new place, are you happy,” the stranger continued?

Tanna thought about what she might reply, but no plan – no idea formed.  In the end she just shrugged.  She replied that they were all tired, now, from the move.

 

 

“Why is your herd the best?”  This was an sudden odd question, but Tanna knew her animals and if she was unnerved by this question, she was but game to defend her knowledge of her herd.  She counter questioned.

“Why are you here?  You are a stranger very far from the town.  And I do not know you, so what should I tell you about kortans?”

“That is a fair question.  However you have met me, before, many years ago when your brother, there, was fresh born.  But very well.  I am here to guess your weight, to see your balance.  You have tended your Kortans very well, do you not find it strange that their fleece is so much longer than it used to be where you lived before?  … And this despite the lack of good grazing?  How can that be?”

 

 

Tanna was very quiet for a moment.  She had raised these kortans, she knew her herd, she knew other kortans.  Her father’s were the very best, they had the longest staple, the finest strongest fibre, the very softest fleece she knew of.  She had assumed that it was her father’s skill.  She had never thought about it, analyzed it.  She saw the truth of it now.  Her ears fell a bit, and she looked down, embarrassed, peering at her toes and flexing them, digging them into the cold sand, trying to think what to say.

She responded, looking up, “It is odd, I see that now.  And do you have the question’s answer, for me,” she prompted?

“I do know that, and more than that.  I ask you, why are your clothes so poor, when your kortans are so fine?”

 

 

Tanna didn’t know what to make of the question, and shifted from foot to foot.  She looked down, feeling cross at the hardness of the questions, feeling her ears droop, feeling the cold and weariness from packing and staying up half the night.  Exhaustion and the late hour making her brain feel cloudy, sluggish against the bright hardness of the stranger’s probing questions.  She frowned.

“I have said nothing that was meant to vex you or hurt you.  But I do have some questions for you to answer.  As you style yourself a Young Princess, we will be close to equals.  So, if I am not too scary come sit here, beside me – is it not possible to be friends with me?  I will help you pass the night quickly and we will count each other honored to have shared watch together over such a herd, yes?”  So, feeling brave, Tanna sat beside her.

“And please, be my honored guest to the Family Camp Kaht-T’heer,” began Tanna, “With what honors shall I call you?”

And feeling more brave she studied the girl, and now up close, realized that they were not close in age.  This was no teen like herself but a grown lady, ‘though she looked so youthful.  Tanna felt confused, and blushed to have been so mistaken, at how she had been so far off.

“Why do you stare so?  Perhaps you do not recognize me?  Well, you may call me Zahn’Chee, may I call you Tanna?”  An easy question for once and Tanna nodded.

 

 

“Do you know of anyone whom you have met, who honors the desert or the  kortans in her charge as you do?”  Tanna was shocked by the question, and shrugged her shoulders not wishing to give offence.  She did not think what she did so special.

“Do you know of any kortans fine as yours?  Have you seen their equal?”

And Tanna shook her head, no.

“This herd is not fine for your father.  It is fine to spite your father, and to honor what you teach your little brother, and to honor what your mother taught you, and what she was taught by your grandmother; to honor the desert, to honor the kortans in your care.  Your mother honored the old ways, and taught you what she could, bef- …

And here the Stranger paused, and looked down at her hands, her ears spreading wide — eyes flashing in anger.

“And you honor the desert as well as you can,” she concluded.  ”And what is it you wish?  To do?  To be?  You, whose heart is so tender and so caring?”

And Tanna did not have a clear answer.  She felt wary of answering, the question might be a trap, a clever test.  It seemed too personal, too private, coming from a stranger and not a family member.  And Tanna had very little experience with strangers.  But such a question!  What did she want?  Her father wasn’t wealthy, she could not aspire to royalty.  To wish for clothes seemed so tempting and yet so petty.

And so she had no ready answer.

 

 

They sat together, wrapped against the cold breezes of the night, sat on the cold sands, each beside a stranger, and for an hour they chattered on, amicably.  The stranger with many questions.  And Tanna with few answers.  The kortan-woman asked if Tanna was a ‘good’ child.  If she had taken part of any mischief with her animals.

Tanant was incensed at the idea, outraged at the concept, denouncing the thought as evil.  Tanant responded harshly.

“Who, why, to what end?  Why would I do such a thing, to what end, indeed who would do such a thing?”   The stranger looked pained.

”That question will not be answered tonight, but soon, but soon.  Your father trusts you with half his herd and with your brother’s care; do you not find this burden too heavy, too much for your age?”

Again, Tanna was shocked, and leapt to defend her charge and her honor.

”No, he is my brother!  He may be neither large nor strong, but he is very smart.  He learns so fast, he is very good at building things … Or fixing things.  Please, Zahn’Chee, if you have a boon for me, I would ask for an opportunity for my brother, the Kaht-T’heer’s Muss, my dear Moo …”

“Good Tanant Kaht-T’heer, how got you the thought that I have boons to grant?  Did you imagine me a magician?”  And she laughed, smiling at Tanna, to show she was amused not offended.

Tanna ducked her head,  blushed, -confused  -ashamed.  She assumed that this was some Great Lady come to visit and might, at a whim, make her problems go away when it was clear that she was just a simple kilma like her, a simple stranger.  Although Tanna still had no explanation for the glints of light on her clothes, they might be mirrors woven into, or sewn into the cloth, sparkling in the moonlight.

“Oh I beg that you take no offense, I didn’t mean to suggest, I mean, I don’t,… “. Flustered, Tanna fell silent.

This apparently satisfied Zahn’Chee and Tanna relaxed a bit, too.

“Let us play with words,

“You are such  an odd and loyal one, trying so hard, and acting so brave.  Yet you mind the old ways as you can, and with a good heart.  I love visiting with you.”  Such an odd way to say, “Having Fun!”  It struck something in Tanna’s mind, had she perhaps heard someone say it to her a long time ago?  But with her watch so late and her mind so sleep muddled she wasn’t sure of anything.

Toward the the end of the watch, Zahn’Chee asked her a question.

“Oh, Tanant, might you do something for me, do something for yourself, for Muss; Could you be very obedient to her father?”

”Of course!”  Tanna was shocked!  As if she had to ask?  But Zahn’Chee pressed her.

“Well, even if it was very hard to obey?  Because it might hurt?  Even then?”

Tanant affirmed her status as a good daughter, and as her shy brother’s mentor, she would obey even if it was hard.

“Yes I will do that.”

“That is good then, be a good daughter, and teach Moo what you may the way you were taught.  It may well be a hard day for you, but it will come right, brave strong Tanant Kaht-T’heer.”

This pleased Zahn’Chee, and as a reward she offered Tanant a hug.  Not having known her for very long, but still intrigued by the odd feeling that maybe, maybe that Zahn’Chee was telling the truth when she spoke of being at Muss’ birth, she allowed a hug.

She felt odd about it, mostly because for all the clothes Zahn’Chee was wearing, she seemed not to be very firm, not very real under all those layers, and Tanna was moved to break the embrace early.  Clearly no insult was taken, and they laughed and told jokes and stories to each other through the night.

As the setting of the constellation Vulpecula heralded the coming of the false dawn, the two found themselves on their backs, laughing and pointing at the stars and giggling, and acting like best friends as ever might be.  The joy that Tanant had not felt since her Mother’s death was now brought to the surface with humour, and her sides were sore with the exertion.

“Oh, here, this is a great laugh!  Have you ever seen the kortan in a tree?” Zahn’Chee was so full of mischief.  Tanna was quite confused about how much of what she said was fact and what was fiction but she said it with great seriousness sometimes.

“No, no, here, look this way, see the bright star there, now over past the constellation Puppis, see Pyxidis?  Now if you turn your head to the side see the palm tree?

“No.”

“Not in the bright stars, in the fainter stars, see, there is the trunk, that way the top …”

Suddenly Tanna saw the tree, and the kortan perched on top of it.  I looked so ridiculously like a palm tree with a kortan atop it, that she burst out in a fit of giggles, and she could not stop she just kept laughing and then laughed so hard she was crying.  After a while she calmed down and sat up, to wipe the tears away, and blow her nose.

“Oh, Khan-een, haha, that was so good, Hahahah, you have really made my night go by so fast.  This has been so much fun!

And she laughed so hard she woke herself up.  She lifted her head off her knees, wiped her eyes, gazed out looking for her new friend.  She scanned the dunes and checked the time.  It was past dawn; with Nolar already set and the sun clear of the horizon.  The only evidence that there had been anyone atop the dune, was Tanna’s footprints going up and the indents left by their two bodies in the warming sand, alongside each other, where they shared looking at the stars, together.

Moo was standing up on the other dune where she had left him sleeping, wrapped in his blanket, standing his watch.  Watching over the waking herd.  When he saw her sitting up, he strode down his dune, crossed to hers and clambered up.

“Good morning, Tanna!  Sorry! I was slow for you waking me up, I guess.  I was so asleep, I thought you had diamonds sprinkled on your clothes when you shook me for my watch.  By the time I wiped away my sleepies you were already gone, here, to your dune.”

“Good morning, Moo, I did not mean to fall asleep!  Share your count?”

And Moo recited the long version.

“You have valued my honor in the past.  My count’s in your eyes, worthy: and the count is thirty,” he offered her the full formal ritual smiling broadly as he did, so she would play along.  But she didn’t.

She frowned.

“Moo, dear, wasn’t last night’s count twenty-five when we handed off the token?”

“Well, that is what I remember, isn’t it?  But it cannot be, because there are clearly thirty, here.  So I’m misremembering, yes?  I mean, that cannot be right?”

“Well, I remember twenty-five when we took the herd.  It is supposed to be twenty-five, by my last count, dear Moo, twenty-six,” and she giggled.

“I guess five appeared by magic, na?”  And laughed hard and long.

And Moo giggled with her, to see her joy.

“What shall we tell Father?  That we made a mistake and Har gave an undercount?”

“Well, no.  If he gave us other than what the tally board showed, then he couldn’t have had the token to bring back.  Right?  Five appeared last night, and it should not be hard to tell which ones.  Will it?  Father will at least be pleased!  Even if confused!”

 

 

“Tell me, have you ever seen a kortan in a tree?”

“No, I don’t think it is possible, or not without a siege engine.  Why would you want one in a tree?”

And they both laughed, as they spread apart to began urging the kortans to newer grass.