Penumbras on the Peak (What Will They Do?)
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This is a story of a Penumbra in the Great High Realm of Eterfol. Where the peaks scrape the sky and even our horns must be bundled against the cold.


Lyudmila was a petty official, a small cog in the Potentiate's Bureaucratic Service, Eterfol Branch. She was not happy, though she would not admit that even to herself as she trundled up the mountain roads.

She blamed it on the cold, the wind, the local yokels. This was below her - despite really being thousands of meters above her. She wouldn't have laughed at the humor, though the high mount Penumbras - commonly seen as insane to live so far up - were warm and genial folks. The road rules might say "Help Nobody For Your Safety", but round the hearth there was nothing like a belly-laugh to warm the chill seeping thru fur-barred doors.

She wasn't happy. She felt suffocated in her job. That creeping feeling of regret for the life you fell in to. Climbing a mountain for some pointless missive to a summit elder? She had seen her superiors. They weren't…

We can go on and on. Safe to say - Lyudmila would trudge through a Penumbra's long-life, colder and harder by the year. Small real joys and genuine moments would keep her going, like most folk - Penumbra or Apefolk or otherwise.

Her heart was not in the mountains. Her heart was not anywhere. Damn it all.

Damn it all! My satchel!

And down it tumbled to a crag below. Perhaps she was lucky it didn't keep falling to the void, endless valleys before. But still. Damn it! The missive's in there. Bloody useless, but still-

She stamped snow and paced for half an hour, colder and more miserable by every minute and harsh gust blowing over the ridge. Duty told her to climb down and retrieve it. But duty meant squat. Common sense told her she could probably make it. She saw high mount local kids doing more on worse slopes. But fear - a strange kind of feeling for practically invincible Penumbras - kept her perched above. Damn it all.

Till a rock sailed past her, bouncing off a great bolder. Then another. That wasn't a rock-fall. There weren't any rocks above this ridge. Death moths?

Apefolk. Bundled against the cold like all high dwellers, but obviously apefolk. Port's sake, no horns on that head…

And two-dozen forms around her, three-horned goats. Since when did they follow apefolk? Not that she knew much. Just hearsay and glimpses at the Ape Quarter in Eterfol. What did they want?

The apefolk sidled over, tossed another rock. Like a - well, a mountain goat - one of the herd split off, clambered down, scooped up the satchel, and climbed back up. Offered it to Lyudimila like an obedient servant. She took it, rifled through - all there - amazing.

"Thank you," she said, muffled through her face-mask and mouth-skin.

It didn't make her as happy as she deserved. Not equal with all that stress before. Damned thing. Won't even give me the satisfaction of getting it back.

And she was so far behind the timetable. Didn't matter all that much - there were wide time allowances on mountain journeys, owing to weather and hazards - but where would she stay? Some cold miserable tunnel. Plenty of those in this damned place.

But the apefolk led her on, gestured for her to follow. Lacking options, Lyudimila followed. A warm tunnel, lit by wax candle, containers of curdling cheese along its length. Some illicit cheese operation? Apefolk and the high mount Penumbras? There was no promotion to be had out of this.

And what a miserable thing to think. You're just miserable, Lyudimila.

Miserable. And what of this apefolk? Helped her without a word - breaking every rule of the roads - was that it? What was the angle?

The apefolk - a she, under the layers and layers caked in wind-swept snow - patted a woven rug next to a crackling fire. Still no words.

It was strange. Penumbra mouths are pretty horrific - permanent mouth-skin coverings, high regeneration rate, curved smile like a scythe. Good for spooking apefolk. But there was a subtlety in ape - in the other folk's smile. Lyudimila was good at body language, but this was a challenge. A slight raise in corner. A glint in the eye. Slow, placating, almost soft gestures.

There was an honesty here. Lyudimila said as much. And after a while, she was talking. And after that, ranting. And the fellow traveler listened.

The next time Lyudimila went up the mountain, she asked the local Penumbras. Shepherdess- milk lady - cheese peddler ape - mountain mother. They had names for the traveler.

They met infrequently - a month between, three months, a year once. And I won't go all exhaustive about how our Penumbra found genial hosts in the local Penumbras. How she grew to tolerate, then like, the mountain peaks.

Frankly, she never liked the cold. It didn't make a fellow healthy or strong like the locals claimed. But she did like the locals. She loved them, their honesty and common sense and wisdom, after a while. And the stuffy suffocating offices of Eterfol were like a bad memory.

Strange how one person - or one nimble goat - can do a lot with a little. And Kubileya hardly did anything. The locals did most of the work in the end.

But don't undersell what an honest, kind smile and an hour of warmth can do in a bad moment.

And don't undersell what those goats can do, either.

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