Shuffling in perfectly camouflaged flocks across the arid Nybelmar plains, the Karnarma Sheep is a creature that appears to be literally at one with its surroundings, and the myth telling of its origins would tend to reinforce this. Carrying nearly its own weight in earth and water with it in its travels, these sheep combine a comical appearance and playful character with aspects of nobility, self sufficiency and determination that makes them a welcome and indelible part of many people’s lives, especially the Kassites, who use them for meat, milk, wool, and as plough animals and beasts of burden.
The Karnarma is a small, tubby sheep, with short, strong legs, of which the
front legs are noticeably shorter, so the head is always held near to the
ground. The hooves are especially tough, and have a slightly spade-like shape
which is perfect for moving soil and rocks. The Karnarma are an exceptionally
small breed of sheep, with even the rams standing little more than a ped at the
most, and often considerably less. They are compact and rounded in build,
usually only a ped or less from nose to tail. This stocky shape is accentuated
by a tendency to large rounded bellies, and the bulk added by their thick coats.
Males are significantly bigger than females, and all Karnarma walk with a
slightly waddling, rolling gait due to their widely spaced legs. It has been
remarked that they are built like footstools.
Their coats are very coarse to the touch, especially seeing as, whilst on a live sheep, they will almost certainly be laden with a very generous layer of dust, grit, mud and earth. This means that a sheep will in effect be the same colour as the earth it lives on, so the actual colour of a sheep can vary through every imaginable shade of brown, ochre, yellow, beige, grey, black and sienna. In areas with red soil this effect is particularly striking, giving vibrant red sheep that do not need to be branded or dyed by the herders as they will be instantly recognisable as coming from a particular area, with a particular colour of dirt.Newborn lambs are a pale yellowish-cream colour, although a healthy lamb will spoil this in less than a day by playing and rolling in the dirt.
The face of the sheep is much shorter and more snub-nosed than that of other species, with large, heavily lidded and thickly lashed eyes in a startling shade of light peridot green. These sparkling eyes seem to contain all the light-hearted adventurousness of this breed. The ostentatious eyelashes might seem decorative, but they are vital in keeping dust out of the animal’s eyes, just as the mobile nostrils have strong muscles to pull closed when the sheep is digging. Karnarma are also one of the few sheep that sneezes often, and the Kassites regard it as a good luck sign if a Karnarma sneezes at you.
The head also sports the unusual horns that are so vital to the lifestyle of the Karnarma, as they are its primary digging tool. The horns are similar at first glance to a cuncu or sawis sheep, but at the base two sharp, straight prongs point forward like a second pair of smaller horns. These are known as “spears” and are used mainly for breaking hard earth apart, though they also make fighting more dangerous than in other sheep. The main body of the horns then curls back round the sheep’s ears, before pointing downwards towards the ground under its head, forming broad, blunt and flattened tips, kept from growing too long by constant use. These are the main digging instruments, and are known as “the shovels”. With the use of its strong neck muscles a sheep can use them to move significant amounts of earth. The horns are generally of a similar colour to the sheep’s coat, as they will all be covered with the same dirt. Both male and female sheep have the same sized horns, and lambs start to grow theirs within a few days of birth. By the time they are weaned their horns will be fully formed.
Small plants occasionally grow on the backs of older, larger sheep, including Zhun geraniums, mudmoss, and common dustorchids. Many Kassite herders, especially children, encourage this, as it not only looks interesting, and occasionally provides a kind of walking garden, carrying choice herbs, but also marks the sheep out as special, and often increases the price it will sell for. Some even believe sheep with luxuriant growths on their backs to be sacred, and to offer protection to the whole herd (see Myth/Lore/Origin).
Perhaps the most useful attribute of the Karnarma is its uncanny ability to find
tuberous plants and underground water
supplies. It is thought to locate food and water
mainly by scent, as it has an excellent sense of smell. They also appear to have
a good working memory, as they occasionally bury tubers they don’t want at the
time for consumption in leaner times, and seem fairly efficient at finding them,
sometimes months later. Herders often leave special markers at places where
sheep have found water and edible roots; so that they can return next time they
are in the area.
It is often remarked that a creature with such a generous fleece should not be able to survive in the arid plains of eastern Nybelmar - and the heavy fleeces certainly look incongruous under the midday sun. However, the thick, nearly impenetrable layer of earth that clings to Karnarma wool turns what should be a plague into a great asset. If you work your fingers through the strata of dust and dirt, you may be surprised to find that under the surface the wool is moist, even muddy, and much cooler than on the outside. The skin in fact loses barely any water, as it is so well protected by the earth held in the coat. It’s like keeping water cool by putting it in a sealed pottery jar.
Territory. The Karnarma is found wild across the plains and semi desert areas of Eastern Nybelmar. It is especially associated with the territories of the Kassite men, who have domesticated them in large numbers, and the Kavogerim dwarves, who also keep them as livestock. They are found in small numbers among other Nybelmarian peoples, but are not commonly kept in areas with high rainfall or rocky soils.
Habitat/Behaviour. The defining feature of a Karnarma’s character is that they like to dig. They do this in an enthusiastic and energetic manner, usually spraying anyone nearby with debris, as they throw themselves headfirst at the ground. Although it appears chaotic, there is method to their exuberant burrowing – they first thrash and stab at the earth with the “spears” of their horns, to break the surface and remove any grass or vegetation on the topsoil. Then they lower their heads further, and use the “shovel” ends of their horns to pry up great clods of earth, moving it behind them and dislodging larger stones with their hooves. Every now and then the sheep will pause and press their noses to the earth, sniffing carefully for nearby roots or water. This is often followed by loud sneezes as they expel dust inadvertently inhaled by sniffing too hard.
The Karnarma’s aim in digging is to turf up as much earth as possible, and so rather than digging deep holes, they plough the earth in great meandering furrows. These furrows weave and corkscrew around obstacles such as boulders and other sheep, form tight, messy spirals in beds of edible plants, and become wider or narrower depending on the depth to which the sheep is digging. If sheep are suffering from any kind of parasite (a real bane for animals with such thick pelts), they will often home in on dusty areas to have dust baths, or even go for short swims if they come across pools.
Karnarma are adapted to live on Nybelmar’s arid plains, but they aren’t true desert animals, as they can’t go for long without water, and as rocky or very hard-soiled areas prevent them from foraging. However, if they have to, a herd will venture across desert areas, braving dust storms by huddling together with their tails to the wind. Provided there is not too strong a wind, a Karnarma’s pelt can hold a significant amount of water, and it is not uncommon to see them licking each other’s fleeces.
Karnarma are very sociable animals, forming tight-knit flocks of up to 50 animals, led by a single ram. Individuals of a flock are nearly always within a few steps of each other (though see Mating). Lambs come under the care of all adults in a flock, both male and female, and Karnarma are always playful, engaging in mock battles, chase-games and wrestling matches at all times of the day. That said, they are not particularly intelligent, and tend to follow the biggest ram unquestioningly, which can get whole flocks into trouble.
Diet. The Karnarma shuns the grass and leafy plants favoured by other sheep, devoting itself almost exclusively to eating roots and tubers it finds underground – alliums, caroots, neeps, tuberroots, and generally the roots of any plant it can get its big teeth into, provided they are not poisonous. Even though Karnarma manage to avoid most poisonous plants, careful prudence is not their chief virtue, and they do occasionally make themselves ill. Karnarma will also occasionally eat flowers growing on the backs of their neighbours, though they don't bother with leafier growths such as moss, unless food is extremely scarce. Domesticated sheep are discouraged from doing this by their herders, as it can lead to them swallowing hanks of each other's wool, which lodges in the gut and causes digestive problems.
These roots take a lot of chewing, but are otherwise more digestible than leaves, and so Karnarma don’t chew the cud as some cows, sheep and goats do. Nonetheless, they still have the very large stomach associated with this practice, though they use it to accommodate sudden gluts of food in their variable environment. Just as their fleeces absorb excess water, a Karnarma can carry in its stomach enough food to last around two weeks. If you were to subtract from the weight of an individual the undigested food and water it carried, you would quite likely be left with only half of what is in effect there. This excess is called the "luggage", and guessing it accurately is a key skill for those buying sheep, as it is the best way of gauging an accurate value for the sheep.
Mating. Though a flock is led by only one ram - usually the largest or oldest among them - during the breeding season this will divide into several smaller flocks, with separate leading rams that have breeding rights over their harem. The head of each harem is decided by fights between males, and if the match is close these can become very vicious, as the shape of a Karnarma horn makes it very dangerous. Blind rams are common, and old rams are unusual if they have no facial scars, but usually one ram will retreat before there are fatalities. Non-receptive females, lambs and unsuccessful males will usually wander randomly between different harems, and an outsider would be hard pressed to discern any order among the flock. Usually the biggest male wins the largest harem by intimidation of other rams. There are always fewer harems than males, so some rams will be unsuccessful in any year.
The toll that such intense competition takes on males becomes clear once breeding is over. Often some of the older males will die as the wounds, exhaustion and lack of food from the past weeks takes over. In domestic animals this is less common, as herders make sure to give extra feed to males before and after breeding, and often confine some males to pens, to reduce competition. Thus, to refer to someone as being "a tethered ram" is to suggest that they are angry at someone who was acting in their best interests, just as a confined ram would be frustrated at not being able to breed.
Pregnant females will start to become reclusive around three months after mating, and move away from the flock to build dens. The den consists of a deep depression in the earth, often with soil banked up on one side to protect it from the wind. The female then curls up in the den to have her lamb (usually only one, though twins and even triplets happen occasionally) and will stay there, hidden from predators until it can walk and suckle easily, which is usually within twenty-four hours of birth.
Usages. Though not particularly vital to any of the peoples who domesticate them, the Karnarma are very useful, being hardy, cheap and easy to keep, and having a variety of uses to the resourceful herder. Among the Kassites, their primary domesticators, they are valued especially for their ability to keep up with other herded animals, even across challenging terrain, and are largely entrusted to children, except during the breeding seasons, and during lambing and shearing, when extra hands and experience are needed. Karnarma are also kept by the Kavogerim dwarves, and various other individuals living in and around Eastern Nybelmar, though in smaller numbers.
Perhaps the primary use of Karnarma is as plough animals, as their natural digging ability means any ground they are let loose on will soon be ploughed. So it was a small step to tie a few strong animals to a plough made either from wood, or, more traditionally, from havach-ox horns, whose shape is better suited to the small sheep than most other ploughs. The main purpose of the plough is simply to keep the sheep pointed in a straight line as they dig. It should be noted that the sheep also perform the valuable service of rooting up and discarding stones as they plough.
Karnarma are also commonly used as pack animals and beasts of burden, especially in carrying young children over harsh terrain.
The milk of the Karnarma is supposed to be very good - being exceptionally fatty and creamy, with a slightly herbal flavour, and makes some excellent cheeses, yogurts and creams. The meat, though quite tough, is easily dried and can thus be kept for a long time, without losing much of its flavour.
The wool of this sheep is quite gritty, but washing leaves a durable, rough textured wool with a variety of uses, whether turned into felt or spun into yarn. Karnarma wool is graded on the number of times it has been washed, and this determines what it can be made into.
Single wash is only suitable for making ropes, as it will still contain a lot of grit and earth. There are tales of tyrannical leaders ordering criminals to be dressed in robes of single-wash Karnarma felt, so that their skin was blistered and raw within a day.
Twice washed wool is still not suitable for wearing next to the skin, but is made into a rough material which still holds the earth colours of the sheep, making it invaluable for camouflage. Cloaks and tents used by soldiers are often made from this wool.
Thrice washed wool is still slightly brown, but much softer, and can be used for every day clothes, blankets, coverings and the like, as it is very durable.
Fourth washed wool takes dye very readily; having lost almost all of the earth it once held. This is used for finer clothes and coverings, as well as banners, as it is light enough to be caught dramatically in the wind. It is noted for its lingering smell of earth, which many people find pleasant.
A fifth wash would be unlikely to yield much difference, either in colour or texture, so the wool is rarely washed more than four times.
Myth/Lore. The origins of the Karnarma Sheep are explained in the well known Kassite folktale “The Karnarma Tree”, which also goes some way to explaining the attraction this breed has for their domesticators. This version of the tale is the most widely told, though there are many variations in the details of the story. It is thought to relate how the early Kassites rejected foreign sheep breeds imported from different areas, and instead domesticated their own. The tale symbolises the independence of the Kassites as a people and their understanding of the lands they live in.
In summary, the story tells of a Kassite herder, F’khar, who struggled to keep a small herd of sheep in the arid plains. The ram of the herd was named Karnarma (lit. “Dirty Horns”) and was especially precious to the herder. One night as he was sleeping, a rainstorm drowned all F’khar’s sheep, bar Karnarma himself, and caused the herder to despair of ever making a living with sheep. However, on inspecting the muddy ram, he found a strange plant growing on the sheep’s back. The plant grew extraordinarily quickly, and within a day it had become a massive tree, whose roots wrapped around the body of the ram, which seemed unaffected by the weight of the tree. The next day, however, the plant’s growth had entirely enveloped Karnarma. As F’khar and his friends watched, the great tree, which had been bearing flowers for some time, suddenly released a profusion of fluffy white seeds, which fell to earth and grew, before the eyes of the herders, into slender flowers with fat, heavy buds, which then split to bear live lambs. Taking these lambs as the beginning of new herds, the herders soon realised that they were a sheep far better suited to the dusty plains than any others, and they named the breed after the noble ram Karnarma.