The shiny sky ball rose and the fluffies all awoke, almost immediately filling the air with babbling.
“Fwuffy haf tummeh owies! Nee nummies!”
“Hewwo, sky baww! Owies! Nu huwt see-pwaces, mista sky baww! Huuhuu…”
“Spechow fwiend? Wakie-wakies!”
“Whewe smawty? Fwuffy nee nummies, nee smawty fine nummies!”
You stand, stretch, and shake your head vigorously. Blinking your good eye (you keep hoping you’ll be able to see with the other again, but you’re pretty certain that will never happen), you survey your small herd. They’ve had problems, with a bad smarty and a milk bandit, but surely they should be like your old herd.
Noticing your mare is awake, you give her a fond lick to get her mane out of her eyes and step back to give her space. She smiles up at you and rolls onto her side to expose her teats.
“Hewe babbehs, mummah haf miwkies fow yoo!”
Both her foals rush from their little fluff pile to her milkie places and begin suckling. The little green wingy-pointy baby is slower to get up, chirping in dismay at losing the warmth of its fluff pile, and toddles over to suckle. It chirps in frustration when it realizes both milkie places are occupied.
The mare looks at the baby doubtfully, sniffs it, looks at you, then draws it up to nestle in her fluff.
“Hewe, babbeh. Snuggy wif mummah, uffa babbehs finish miwkies soon. Babbehs nee shawe miwkies!”
The little blue filly continues suckling, more or less oblivious to its mothers admonition, but the red colt soon quits suckling and steps away to make room for the wingy-pointy baby. Your mare nudges the new baby toward her available milkie place.
“Hewe, babbeh, haf wots uf miwkies! Gwow up big an stwong!”
The little red colt watches, expression inscrutable, as the the little filly painfully moves her sore, abused body and begins suckling. Satisfied that mother and babies are well, you nod to Oscar and he hurries over to tag along behind you. The brown toughie you were with last night also joins you, accompanied by a much smaller blue mare with yellow mane and tail.
“Hewwo! Nyu smaw- hewd weadew, sweep otay?”
“What toughies name?”
“Toughies nam am Twig. Twig bwown wike twee, but mummah nam Twig when Twig am widdwe.”
He seems embarrassed to be named Twig. Maybe he’d rather be Branch? Irrelevant. You make polite noises to acknowledge his statement of identity, then look curiously to the other fluffy. She looks at you shyly and hides behind Twig.
“Dis… dis am Twig spechow fwiend. Her nam am Sky-wawa.”
Sky-wawa? Oh, rain. You think that’s the right word for wawa that falls from the sky. If big brother were here, you could ask him.
“Hewd weadew… hewd weadew wan… spechow huggies wif Sky-wawa?”
You look at him, raising an eyebrow curiously.
“Why herd leader want special huggies with Sky-wawa? Sky-wawa am Twig’s special friend, no herd leader’s.”
Sky-wawa sinks to her haunches with every sign of relief. Twig seems hopeful, but not willing to be misled.
“Hewd weadew nu wan spechow huggies wif Sky-wawa?”
You shake your head. Why is he asking? The fluffies in this herd are odd.
“Nu- NO want special huggies. Sky-wawa am Twig’s special friend, no herd leader’s special friend.”
Twig hugs Sky-wawa fiercely, and you notice tears staining her fluff.
“Why am Twig ask this?”
“Sm… smawty gif spechow huggies tu aww mawes. Sky-wawa nu wan spechow huggies, smawty gif anyway. Twig… Twig gif Sky-wawa spechow huggies so smawty nu gif hew tummeh babbehs, Sky-wawa haf Twig tummeh babbehs. Smawty gif wots an wots of spechow huggies tu Sky-wawa, but she haf Twig babbehs.”
He seems afraid to mention his act of rebellion, but he seems to like you and is opening up now.
“Buh… smawty bwudda steaw miwkies. Gif babbehs bad tummeh owies. Twig twy stahp, but smawty say bwudda du wat wan. Steaw miwkies aww da time. Babbehs haf wongest sweepies.”
Now both fluffies are crying. The toughies in your old herd were too big and tough to cry, at least not where other fluffies could see them. You think Twig is the same, but his heart-hurties are too big to hide. Sky-wawa is sobbing quietly into his fluff and hugging him.
Looking up to meet your eyes, Twig gently pushes Sky-wawa away and stands between you, trembling.
“Hewd weadew nu gif bad spechow huggies tu Sky-wawa?”
“Nu hewt Sky-wawa?”
“No! Twig and Sky-wawa am good fluffies.”
Now Twig seems embarrassed again.
“Twig… Twig can gif spechow huggies to spechow fwend agin?”
Your mind boggles. What was WRONG with their herd le- smarty. That’s all the answer you need. He was a smarty.
“Hewd weadew- Herd leader no care if Twig give special huggies to special friend. That between Twig and Sky-wawa.”
Twig processes this for a moment, then jumps back to his feet, grinning.
“Fank yoo, fank yoo! Hewd weadew am GUD hewd weadew!” He gives a happy dance next to his special friend, then remembers that he’s supposed to be a big, gruff toughie and resumes his strong, silent type persona, gently but firmly nudging Sky-wawa’s rump and leading her away. The change in behavior is comical.
The other toughie, maroon with bright lime green mane and tail, limps up to you, flinching when you turn to look at him. Still sore from where you bucked him yesterday. You consider apologizing to smooth things over, but just looking at him you know his type. He’s like one of the toughies in your old herd; he’d bully the other fluffies if he wasn’t kept in line, and would only respect a leader who kept him in line with a strong approach.
“What toughie want?”
“Hewd am hungwy, nee nummies. Smawty nee-”
“No am smarty, am HERD LEADER.”
“… Hewd weadew nee show fwuffies whewe nummies awe.”
You’re confused. Don’t they know where the nummies are already? Why do they need you to show them?
“Why need herd leader to show where nummies are? Herd know where nummies are.”
The toughie looks at you, like he’s wondering if you’re testing him by playing stupid. Eventually he plays it safe by not answering.
You sigh inaudibly and shake your head.
“Herd leader find nummies for herd.”
If this herd needs to be shown where to find food, then you’ll lead them to food. They’re your herd, they’re your responsibility now.
You have to be a good herd leader. You have to be.
You lead the herd to some good grassies you saw yesterday and pass where you killed the smarty. Just thinking about him makes you angry, and the more you find out about how he treated his herd, the angrier you get. What a miserable excuse for a herd leader. You almost wish he was still alive, just so you could kill him again.
Wait- where is the smarty? He should be taking forever sleepies right over there. You trot over to the spot and see the flattened grassies and the boo-boo juice where you killed him. But he’s not there. He’s still alive? Rage burning in your heart, you grit your teeth in anticipation of finishing him off; it really would be like killing him twice.
Something’s wrong. You sniff where the smarty’s body should be and… you’re not familiar with the smell. Pungent, not a fluffy. You sniff more deeply, trying to recognize the smell. It’s not pleasant, whatever it is. It makes you uneasy, gives you the creepy-crawlies under your fluff. You gesture with your head for Twig to come over.
“Twig, what this smell?”
Your toughie- you notice you’ve started thinking of him possessively now; it really is becoming your herd- bends his head and sniffs at the grassies. His nostrils flare, he shakes his head, and backs away, looking everywhere.
“Dat- dat owangey-whitey munsta! It num fwuffies! It num bad bab- it num pointy-wingy babbeh’s mummah.”
A monster that eats fluffies? You squint your good eye and survey the land. This isn’t a good place for your herd anymore. You need a safer place for them.
“Otay- okay, herd need to find nummies, then find safe place. Follow herd leader.”
Twig and the other toughie, whose name you didn’t get, get the herd of chattering, easily-distracted fluffies moving again, encouraging them with promises of nummies and gentle head butts. Well, not so gentle in the case of the toughie whose name you don’t know yet, but he doesn’t give anyone bad owies, so you let it slide. You notice Twig pick up a chirpy baby that slid off his mummah’s back and gently drop him into her fluff, the mummah completely oblivious her baby was ever gone, and watch him trail the herd, looking for any stragglers. Twig will be a good toughie, you think.
Your mare is trotting along near the head of the herd, both foals and her new adoptee safely snuggled into the fluff on her back, babbling away to Sky-wawa, who is silently sticking close to her. You wonder why Sky-wawa doesn’t use her words. Oscar is following right behind the two mares, making the red colt giggle by making funny faces at him. When the green pointy-wingy filly makes poopies on her new mummah’s back, Oscar removes the poopies before the mare gets upset, then resumes his place right behind her, making silly faces and entertaining the foals.
Oscar’s a good fluffy, you decide. Not strong enough or aggressive enough to be a toughie, but definitely useful. You’re glad you remembered how the hoomins fixed the stallion you talked to, and that it worked on Oscar too. You’re starting to get fond of Oscar.
None of the other fluffies seem to notice the absence of the smarty’s body, and you quickly race to get ahead of the herd; as leader, it’s your job to scout ahead and watch for any danger that might threaten the herd. You’ve got to take your responsibility very seriously if you’re going to be a good herd leader.
Unseen by any of the passing troupe of fluffies, hungry eyes watch their passage. But for now, they’re sated and the herd is safe.