Fiction Friday; Junicorn

Kariana edged closer to the brow of the hill, her belly flat against the dirt. There was nothing between her and the herd - well, nothing except this hill, and soon there wouldn't even be that. Her heart was in her throat as she finally peeked over the crest of the rise, and looked down at the herd below. There were twenty of them, give or take a handful, mostly females or juveniles, with one antsy stallion pacing near the scrubby acacia trees that provided the only shade for miles around. That was why the herd was here. The trees were their shelter of choice during the hottest part of the day, and the hill itself cast some shade as well, though not much at this time of day. Kari's back and neck felt like they were baking under the blazing sun, but for this moment, she didn't care. Grinning hugely, she whispered notes to herself that she didn't dare take, for fear of betraying her position with noise or movement.

She must have made more noise than she thought, though, because the stallion wheeled to face the hill after she'd been there only a minute or two. Kari froze, eyes wide, and even stopped breathing, not sure if this particular specimen would charge or flee. He was around nine and a half, maybe ten hands at the shoulder, with muscular withers and very well-toned hindquarters, rippling with muscle under his striped hide. His markings were quite striking, too, his white hide painted with savage black stripes and his eyes dark with an almost racoonish mask under the heavy ridge of his brow and sharp, spiraling horn. Both ears were pricked forward with either interest or aggression, and as he took a step toward the hill, Kari had to fight the impulse to squirm backward through the grass. Trying to retreat would only bring him thundering up the hill after her, and she wouldn't stand much of a chance against an angry stallion.

They stared into each other's eyes for a long minute, then the stallion turned away with a snort and led his mares away at a swift trot, as if to say 'I'm not afraid of you, I'm just leaving because I want to.' Among other things, she thought this was very funny, and stuffed her knuckles in her mouth to keep from laughing out loud as she wriggled back down through the grass to rejoin her guide.

"Did you see him?" The guide, a man by the eloquent name of "Rooster," flapped his sweat rag at her, white teeth flashing in his dark face.

"I did. The stallion and his herd, too. I thought you said the mating season was over." Kari took a moment to shoot him a suspicious look as she yanked her notebook out of her pocket, determined to take notes and make sketches while the image was still clear in her mind.

"Ah, well, sometimes they keep the mares a little longer than other years," said Rooster airily, waving his sweat rag as if to shoo the question away like an annoying fly. "If he decided to keep his harem together, then that's his business, not mine."

"It's possible they're more like zebra than horses, and stay together year 'round. But then why such a small group? Zebra are usually at least a hundred strong, aren't they?" Kari paused in the middle of scribbling her notes, speaking more to herself than to her guide. That didn't matter to Rooster, if he even noticed.

"Are you questioning my expertise?" he demanded, drawing himself just as if he were insulted. He might have even been truly insulted, but Kari didn't care much. Five days in the man's company was more than enough to assure her he was a liar and a rogue, and had a hide more than thick enough to bear her rhetorical questions.

"I will always question you, Rooster, even if you were to tell me the sky was blue."

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