Over the summer the highest meadows got nibbled bare, so Naida had to bring the flock lower. Life was easier in one way, since Yalenda and Pero had moved into their own hut. Yalenda was so busy becoming a grown woman she didn’t have time to torment Naida with any more than the occasional sweetly bitter phrase.
Naida’d finished her moon at the olive farmer’s and her moon with Zeno and Oios, then moved into Doris and Kosmosr’s house and became a dawn riser so she could swallow her porridge and take the goats up the mountain before Isocratis the Younger slouched out of bed. He’d taken up harassing her in Pero’s place.
There was frost on the grass and she pulled her bare feet up under her shift to try and warm them. The weaver’s boy was now apprenticed to the cowherd and was taking the village’s four cows down to graze on the seagrass to fatten them up for the winter. He got to warm his feet in the cow flops. You couldn’t do that with goats. And his ma was making him new shoes for when snow flew. Maybe even a new pair for his wedding. They’d have some leather after the feast. All summer she’d been dreaming of a Great One… a gigantic ram with a lion’s head, a snake’s head and wings.
Oh, those amazing wings. Gleaming bronze like the metal polished by children’s hands. And in her dream there was a fox sitting next to her, sniggering at the pompous display the Great One… she didn’t even know what to call it… was doing. He’s kind of vain, the fox would say in her dream, before everything would be knocked apart by a giant snake, or ripped to shreds by a sphinx, or carried off into the sky by a gigantic bird so big it covered the whole sky. And she still hadn’t started flowing. She plucked a strand of grass viciously and hurled it downhill. The strands of dead grass fluttered down ineffectually.
All around her the goats bleated and danced and nibbled things and she, on her rock in the highest meadow, snorted. My life isn’t going to change, she thought. These are all baby, longing dreams.
The lead goat, a nanny named Twitch, who belonged to the village baker, along with a dozen others in the flock, hopped up onto her rock next to her and ‘baaaahed’ in her ear.
Naida pushed her away, though gently. “Silly goat. Go away and eat something green and good for you, before the winter comes and it all dies back.”
She kept a sharp eye out. Even in the lower meadow predators were too common. She’d lost a kid to an eagle early on this year. The others herd children were scared of harpies, the remnants of the Hellion sneaking up and trying to steal the eyes out of the adult goats, or a sphinx. Sphinx were big enough to snatch children away as well as goats but she had her sling and nobody from Afaris had ever seen a predator as big as a sphinx or a lion, though they told stories about them living in the pass. One reason they said no caravans ever came through anymore, though Naida figured it was because Afaris had nothing to trade.
The miller would go up to get his stones trued, every few years but no one cared to come back with him.
It was starting to warm up fast and she put her feet down in the sun and wiggled her toes against the grass, frowning at them as if she could make them change.
The unmarried girls… even with Yal not there to lead them, were working up to real torture. Just because she was different. “Found brat. Bird dropping. Dirt girl. No one wanted you and they threw you out in the pass when they rode by.” She got up and scooped up her lunch packet to stash it away. She didn’t want Bruiser or Spots, to get into her food.
Not that it was much. Doris and Kosmosr certainly weren’t poor, but they grudged how much she ate. During her stay with them she was always hungry. People tried to treat her like their own, but somehow just never managed. It was lonely being passed from house to house. She ran her hand over the copper chain at her throat. Her spring triumph seemed really far away.
But it would be Veil night tonight, when the bull calf one of the cows had thrown would be sacrificed and the Gods and Monsters would drink the blood and leave the meat to be eaten by mere mortals.
It was the best time of year for eating her fill. The one time there was more meat than they could all eat, rich and juicy and full of fat, sprinkled with a bit of sun salt, just touched by the fire, with good wheat bread to soak up every drop of gravy. There would be onions that would have to be eaten, too bruised to store, and the olives would be fermented and ready to eat or pressed into oil. That would be one of her jobs next time she went to live with the olive farmer and his brood. That, and more harpy watch.
Oios and four of the babies had gotten sick after the hellion harpies came, and two of the babies had died. The old man was well again, but had gotten more frail and looked like he’d blow away in the wind. Naida and Zeno worried that he’d not make it through the next winter.
She checked the herd again, and stashed her packet of bread (stale) and cheese (fist-sized) into a sapling as high as she could reach. A sapling because the goats didn’t try to climb up anything that small, when there was so much to eat near the ground, though Bruiser could and sometimes did knock her lunch down and eat it if she weren’t watchful.
She turned her head as the sun got high enough to warm her face and addressed the direction of the shrine. There was no sign from the from the serene, painted columns shining against under the Goddess’s Belt but Zeno said that the Gods didn’t talk to their creation much since they tended to be like kids in a garden, eating everything and trampling the rest into the muck.
Her head came up as an eagle screamed above. They were almost as tall as Naida herself and their wingspan was wider than she could reach and they tended to hunt alone but she grabbed her sling and pouch of rocks anyway and ran.
The eagle had pounced into the long grass and Twitch racing toward it baaahing wildly, echoed by Nibbler and White. Half the flock fled while Bruiser reared up on his hind legs, pawing at the bird.
The eagle shrieked, labouring to rise out of the grass with his captive struggling in his claws and Naida yelled as she ran. “Let him go! Let him go you!” She swung her sling, a stone dropped into it even as she ran.
The kid in the eagle’s claws wasn’t being passive, it bucked and kicked and the bird couldn’t get any height. Her stone hit with a thump and knocked both the kid and the eagle over. He wisely let go and thrashed into the air as Twitch tried to jump on him, pulled out a tail feather, didn’t manage to yank him down and dance on him. He flapped into the air, soared up and squawked away in a rage, still hungry.
Naida gathered the trembling kid into her arms, sitting down to look him over. It was an odd time of year for a kid and she didn’t recognize him as any of the goats in her charge. He was white as snow and clean and his horns shone bright in the sun. He had one off-colour hoof that she shook her head over because a trick of the sun had her thinking it was gold, just for a moment. He had no injury but sat in her lap quietly, then leaned into her chest. “Whose are you now?” she said. “Hmm?”
He turned his square-pupil eyes up to her, his face set in what looked like a smile. “Wouldn’t you like to know?” he said into her startled face, bounced off her lap and vanished into the rest of the herd, now milling around her in the grass.
She sat in the grass for a long time, just staring as if she’d never seen the herd before, but couldn’t find the strange kid again, until her stomach growled and she convinced herself that she must have fallen asleep and dreamed it all.
The goats were acting like everything was normal. They even seemed happier, calmer. The meadow in the sun looked lush and almost supernaturally good. Even the brownies were out basking in the sun and you normally didn’t see them sitting on their mushroom houses. I’ve been dreaming such odd things, she thought, yawned, though she didn’t feel as though she’d napped at all, and went to get her lunch.