Because everyone should write at least one requisite cliché fic for their fandom. Call me a lemming and enjoy the fluff.

one

The clean, fresh air of the mountains never failed to invigorate Onua. A hot mug of coffee, clasped by both hands, smelt rich and full. She lifted it to her lips, savouring the bitterness and closing her eyes as its warmth spread through her belly. Early spring, the mountain air was still crisp in the mornings, and the coffee banished the lightest touch of chill. Sitting on her wooden deck, Onua watched the morning mists settled in the valley fade and disappear, revealing frisky ponies and lazy cattle in the green fields gently sloping down the side of the hill.

The last of the coffee swallowed, Onua allowed herself to linger for only a few minutes, watching her ponies frolic and play in the early sun. She was rising to her feet, dusting the back of her worn jeans with one hand while scattering the dregs of her coffee over the deck railing, when the unmistakable sound of hoof beats sounded from the road.

Curious, Onua waited, watching the gravel road for the first glimpse of her early morning visitor. It wasn't often she received visitors this time of the day, and even less common for them to arrive on horseback.

Barely five seconds later a cloudy grey pony appeared from behind the trees lining the road, bearing a young girl with brown curly hair. Pony and rider were too far away for Onua to discern any details, but from the size of the girl Onua guessed she was close to fifteen.

Abandoning her empty mug on the deck railing, the woman walked lightly down the wooden steps, her dog Tahoitrotting at her heels.

"Morning," Onua called out, pausing at the small gate to her front yard.

The girl smiled shyly, brought the pony to a halt several feet from the gate, and dismounted with a practised ease.

"Morning, Ma'am."

Onua realised she'd misjudged the girl's age – though short and of a petit build, the girl's stance and level eyes indicated she was several years older than Onua had anticipated. "What brings you all the way up here so early in the morning?"

The girl's eyes looked hopeful. "I was told down in the village that you normally hire a hand over the summer, to help with your ponies."

"That's true, though it'snot summer yet."

"I was wondering if you might consider me," the girl said bluntly.

Onua appreciated the forwardness – too often people dithered and dathered and avoided saying what they meant. "I'd like to know a little more about you, before I make that decision," Onua smiled. "If you want to come inside, the kettle's still hot. I have a barn for your tack and a field for the pony while we talk."

The girl smiled with pleasure, and held out a hand. "Thank you, Ma'am. My name is Daine, Veralidaine Sarrasri."

"Onua Chamtong. And this is Tahoi – be careful around him, he's a one-woman dog and takes a while-" Onua snapped her mouth shut, staring in disgust at her dog already licking the girl's hand and wagging his tail. "He's usually a one-woman guard dog, not a pet."

Daine smiled. "Don't blame him; my ma always said I had a knack for animals."

Onua raised her eyebrows. A knack indeed. "Come on, the barn is this way."

The grey pony followed the girl happily, and Onua studied the mare while they walked to the barn. Clean, well cared for, and obviously intelligent, the pony looked happy enough in Daine's care. That alone was almost enough for Onua – animals rarely liked a person without good cause.

---

"So tell me a little about yourself, Daine," Onua invited, placing a steaming mug in front of Daine before sitting at the opposite side of the small breakfast table.

"I come from Snowsdale, in the Northern Mountains. I lived there with my mother and grandfather all my life – we had a small farm, see, just a few goats and a couple of milking cows."

"You've come a long way from Snowsdale," Onua said easily, taking a bit of her cold toast.

"My family died," Daine said shortly, her fingers tightening around the mug. "Wasn't much left for me after that."

"No other friends or family to take you in?"

The expression on the girl's face could best be described as bitter, and Onua felt a pang of sorrow – the girl looked far too young to know bitterness. "No."

"How old are you, Veralidaine Sarrasri?"

"Nineteen, Ma'am."

Onua raised her eyebrows. "Tell me another story, and call me Onua."

Daine sighed. "Seventeen in a few weeks."

Normally, Onua didn't like taking on young people. She found them too much trouble on weekends with their drinking, and too hard to rouse out of bed for their chores. "What experience do you have working ponies?"

The girl smiled. "I told you, we had a farm. I've had Cloud – my pony – forever, and I've a fair knack for animals."

Onua studied the girl. She liked the look of her – determined, direct, and seemingly honest. "It's hard work that we do here," she warned the girl. "I have to get these ponies ready before summer – normally I do that myself because I don't like people teaching them bad habits. There's also other animals to care for, and once the summer arrives and the camps start moving through all you do is care for animals and help people learn how to ride and care for the ponies. There is also the danger of rustlers, and we're so cut off down here it's up to us to keep track of the ponies."

Daine nodded. "I understand, and I'm willing to work. I work hard, Onua, and I'm not scared to defend myself or the animals."

Onua finished the last of her toast. "Okay, let's go see how you handle the ponies, and we can decide where to go from there."

---

The mountain ponies were sturdy and strong, with distinctive temperaments and very little patience for fools. Onua, well known amongst local farmers and the like, had made a name for herself through her ability to teach the ponies reasonable manners as well as teaching people how to ride them. Still, even Onua could only exert so much influence on animals who went out of their way to cause mischief.

"Let's see what you think of them."

Those not used in camps before were all corralled together in a large pen with sturdy wooden fences. Onua watched as the girl moved amongst the ponies, letting them lip at her hands and nuzzle her chest with unusual displays of affection.

"Well?" Onua asked when Daine finally moved out of the heard and returned to the fence.

"They're lovely," Daine smiled, "but the strawberry has ear mites, and I'll need a hoof pick for the dun."

Onua raised her eyebrows. "A knack for animals?" she asked.

Daine grinned and shrugged her slim shoulders. "Ma said I spent more time with them than humans; maybe I just understand them better than most."

"The pay isn't brilliant," Onua said after a pause, "but I do give you board and food."

Daine grinned. "Thank you, Onua, you won't regret this!"

---

Feedback is loved and adored – it's nice to let people know their efforts are appreciated!