The Guardians crossed terrain littered with sagebrush, juniper trees, and wildflowers. Perished lodgepole pines laid on their side, seemingly forced over by strong winds. Accepting their fate, they lied in place permanently. Exposure in the form of wind and sun quickly bleached the bark of the thin, lifeless trees to a pale white. Their branches were dry brittle, easily breaking with sharp snaps when stepped on. Small, narrow trunks left them ineligible to be recycled into nurse logs; no new growth such as mosses or second-generation trees sought refuge upon their fallen skeletons. A worthless commodity of the forest, they acted only as a hinderance for the Guardian’s journey.
It wasn’t the path of least resistance headed west by any means, but they had found it easier to take a direct route towards geothermal locations by using rising pillars of steam as beacons. Festelda hung back a few yards behind the group, picking various herbs, seeds, and berries she found along the way for testing and mixing. An elk called in the distance; a drawn-out, high pitched bugle called longingly for a mate. Rodents scurried from cover to cover, grabbing whatever they could with haste before retreating to safety, leaving only plumes of dust in their path. The activity comforted Dahj. It was relieving to see that there was still life amongst the plains.
Dahj lightly touched the etched runes on his horns – one trait he had not lost during his evolution. Running the skin of his fingers through the grooves, he thought of the day he was awarded the unique markings. Proceeding to inspect his chest and shoulders, he found the markings from a previous life had faded away. His herd had once used a combination of reddish-brown mud combined with bark shavings of red cedars to ‘mark’ significant individuals within the herd. The markings had since washed out of his thick, matted hair throughout their journey.
“I miss my markings…” he said casually, loud enough for the group to hear.
“Markings? What did the markings do?” Reblex inquired lazily.
“Purely cosmetic. Was just something to make a herd mate stand out, that’s all,” Dahj replied, glancing at Festelda as she picked brightly-colored juniper berries. “Kind of a coming-of-age ceremony… Each spring, cows would gather small piles of mud; still saturated from post-winter rainfall. Using their hooves, they would scratch the softest layer from the surface of red soil. Bulls used the friction of their horns to grind dead bark from red cedar trees. When combined, it creates a dull copper hue, used to paint the herd’s adolescents. I always thought there was a subtle metaphor to it, myself. ‘Bark of the bull and mud of the cow’. The bark represents strength and fortification, but without the soil, there is nothing to support the bull…”
“Huh,” Festelda said, subconsciously accepting Dahj’s passive plea. She lightly crushed a berry between her fingers. “I like that, Dahj. Simple harmony. You know, I have a few things that we might be able to use to paint new marks. I’m sure these pigments would dye your fur. The fur you have left, at least.”
“We can give it a shot,” Dahj said with a smug grin.
Festelda procured her homemade mortar and pedestal – typically used for making potions – from her pouch to grind the purple berries into a pulp. Mounting-in red mud stretched it further. Berries alone would not yield enough paint to recreate significant markings on the large bison. The mud would also assist the paint in clinging to Dahj’s matted fur once applied. Mixed together, the ingredients produced a deep purple.
Brenloru and Reblex watched Festelda use two fingers to scrape the mix out of the mortar before lighting dapping spots and lines onto Dahj’s right shoulder.
“That’s never going to hold. Will wash out with the next rainfall! Besides, he’s too big… gonna take a lot of paint to cover that hide,” Reblex said.
Dahj knelt, awkwardly leaning to his side to allow the raccoon to match his height.
They were simple markings; just as a test. However, Festelda explained that they represented the land. Small, jagged squares were the rocks, straight vertical lines the trees, and a deep ‘V’ shape running down his arm was a canyon.
Dahj chuckled. “Hah, yeah, that makes sense,” he lied, grabbing his shoulder with his opposite arm to pull it towards his face. His slouch prevented him from actually being able to see the markings on the side of his arm, but was grateful for the attempt. “Thanks Fes.”
“I want some too!” Reblex cried.
“Okay, what color?” Using a wad of dried grasses, Festelda scraped the old paint from the bottom of the bowl to start anew.
“Two big red swirls. Right here. One on each arm, to look like my horns!” Reblex said, flexing his bicep.
Festelda chose bright red berries and dust of ‘redder’ rocks she found in the area. Using the sharpened edge of another stone, she chiseled away bit of red rock. Mixed together, they created a deep red paint. Using two fingers, she started at the middle of the ram’s bicep and swirled upwards towards his shoulder before circling back around to the middle of his arm, just above the elbow. Long trails of paint bled down his arm and dripped to the ground below. “I will need to circle around the back of your arm a bit… It’s not as thick as you think it is,” she teased.
“Sick!” Reblex shouted, raising his elbow above his head to invert the horns. “No predator will mess with me now.”
Dahj mimicked the action with his arm to check if he could see his own markings from a different angle. It didn’t work. His horns just poked his own arm, making him wince. Brenloru snorted quietly at the contorted bull and gave him a nod of approval to ensure that they did, indeed, look acceptable.