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The long days of summer were gone, shortening rapidly toward the winter dark. The smell of smoke, both old and new, was an ever-present part of this late season. The evergreens too spread their spicy scent on the cold air. The few deciduous trees loosed their leaves to skitter along the ground.
Fala rode through a nearly silent forest, birds and animals startled into hiding by the passage of Itadesh's people. Her snow-unicorn Birchtail flicked his ears in search of interesting sounds. Riding tail guard, the ranger stayed far enough behind the main group to spot stragglers, pick up lost items, and watch for threats approaching from the rear.
A snuffling grunt sounded nearby. Fala circled her mount around, and spied a snowshoe boar rooting his way determinedly along the edge of the trail. She reached for her spear, but the boar squealed and disappeared behind a trunk. Fala let him go, not wanting the distraction of a chase. It was enough that he'd left the area and would not bother the travelers.
Back on the trail, Fala spotted a scrap of red. She dismounted to find a pair of child-sized mittens connected by a long string. Someone would get in trouble for losing those! The ranger climbed the mounting ladder and settled into her saddle, tucking the mittens into a carrier along with the other oddments she'd found. Suddenly a loud sound came from directly up the trail.
Birchtail tossed his head, dancing in place. Fala soothed him absently as she concentrated on the noise. It sounded almost like a roar, like voices raised at the summer gather. A chill trickled down her back. Abruptly she decided to head in for a report, and whistled her mount into a fast walk.
Crashing thuds pounded along the trail toward them, accompanied by a shout of "Haruu! Haruu!"
"Haruu!" Fala called back, cupping her hands around her mouth.
Beqash rounded a stand of trees, bouncing atop her mount Cloud at a heavy trot. "Fala!"
Both rangers pulled up as their snow-unicorns drew even. Breath steamed in the cold air. "What's wrong?" Fala asked.
Beqash rubbed a hand over her wet face. "Tolnam and Kativa came back with bad news," she said, her voice cracking. "The village -- Itadesh is gone. A fire swept over most of the valley."
The whole village, gone? Fala's belly turned to ice. "What about the summer-tenders?"
"Nobody knows for sure yet, but ... they probably didn't make it out of the village. Otherwise we would have heard word before this," Beqash said. "Fala, I have to go. The elders are calling in all the scouts."
Fala nodded. "Anler and Eshra have flank duty," she said, flicking a hand to either side of the trail to indicate the respective directions.
"I'll go after Eshra next," the older ranger said.
"I'll swing wide and find Anler on my way in," Fala said.
Beqash wheeled Cloud into the forest. Fala watched the huge shape disappear into the brush. Then she urged Birchtail into a bone-jarring trot. They would need to make an emergency camp, keep people together, get the fires started... Fala ran through the list of tasks in her mind, but not even the thought of a warm fire could melt the terrible lump of ice inside her.
* * *
Fala crouched by the fire, a cup of tea cooling untasted in her hands. The fire would need another log soon. Fala had gathered a fair pile of fuel before settling down. Other people huddled in little knots around the campfires.
Movement caught her eye. Fala lifted her head to see someone going slowly from circle to circle, pausing here and there to talk. Yes. Certain of the Elders had done that earlier -- Marda and Ivara excelled at it -- and the older raisers, along with a few others. This figure was younger, more graceful.
Eshra. That was Eshra, of all people, making a check-round. Eshra who barely spoke to anyone if she didn't have to, living as close to a loner's life as possible. As Fala watched, Eshra patted Lenaroth on the shoulder and stood up. One hand tucked a wisp of black hair behind her ear as she headed for Fala's fire.
Eshra crouched beside Dlameda, on the far side of the circle. Fala could just make out the soft words. "I know what it's like to lose a lot of people at once. I know what it's like to lose a home," Eshra said. "Here, you can cry on me." Dlameda leaned his head against the shoulder of her sheepskin coat.
Fala shivered, remembering the tale of Eshra's broken age-set. Quickly she reached out and tossed a fresh log onto the fire. The crackling flames leaped up. Their noise provided a bit of cover, granting privacy for the conversation.
A few minutes later, Eshra hugged Dlameda and stood up. She circled around to Fala's side of the fire. "How are you?" she asked quietly.
"Falling and climbing, I suppose," Fala said, staring into the flickering flames. "I feel awful about losing the village, and all or most of the summer-tenders, but I don't feel as bad as most people do. I lived in Itrelir for several years, and I've visited Itakith plenty of times. I haven't lost my only home."
Eshra nodded. "If you need to talk, though, I'm here."
"That's thoughtful of you," Fala said. Then she tipped her head, considering. "Why are you doing this, Eshra? I don't think I've ever seen you pick up a purely social duty like this."
Eshra shrugged and replied, "I work with the snow-unicorns, I do my share of hunting and guiding; I don't have to be very good with people for those. Most social duties fall beyond my skills." Her eyes took on a faraway look. "But this ... this I know. I can take the weight of loss when a lot of other people can't, give them a chance to pull back together."
"Thank you," Fala said, briefly leaning against the other woman.
"You're welcome," said Eshra. She reached over and put a hand under Fala's cup, nudging it upwards. "You should remember to eat and drink. Finish that, then get yourself a bowl of stew."
"All right," Fala said. She drank the tepid tea, not caring about the flavor. Eshra squeezed her shoulder in parting and headed for another clump of grieving villagers. Fala dutifully went in search of the stew, not hungry, but knowing that she needed the energy.
* * *
The Elders called the rangers together and asked for volunteers to cover the necessary tasks. Some would handle the snow-unicorns. Some would scout the valley to determine what resources remained, while exploring the burned area to speculate what happened with the fire. Some would venture farther afield, into unburned territory, to gather food and fuel.
Fala leaned over the sketchy map the Elders were using to mark assignments, then shook her head. "Just put me wherever you need me," she said. "I can do any of those things, and I know the whole territory like the strands of my necklace." Secretly she felt grateful, and a little guilty, that the task of sifting through the village rubble fell to the domestics.
The Elders assigned Fala to survey the valley and organize reports from the other rangers there. For days she rode through the blackened landscape. She scrambled down the slick grey banks of the streams, where the water ran milky with ash and the air reeked of dead fish. She picked her way through the snaggled stumps of trees and over charred logs, gritty under her chapped hands. She struggled to identify durable landmarks of rock, waterways, and slope in a world where the familiar trees and cover had been stripped away.
Signs of damage and recovery caught Fala's attention. Fungi sprouted from wet wood and bare earth. Here and there a sprig of fireweed poked through the ash, its tough rhizomes sending up red-orange leaves. Next summer the whole valley would be abloom with the stuff in great swaths of purple, pink, and white all busy with bees and butterflies. For now, little wildlife remained in the area, just the skitter of spiders and beetles on the forest floor and the rare twitter of birds as they hunted for seeds or insects amidst the litter. A few woodpeckers drummed speculatively against the denuded trees. No amount of water could wash the bitter taste from the back of her mouth, but Fala kept riding her circuit and simply ignored the ever-present flavor of ash.
Eventually the Elders called them together again and asked for conclusions. Eshra stood first. "We need to split the snow-unicorn herd," she said bluntly. "Even outside the valley, not enough forage remains to support them all. Neither of the other villages could absorb the whole herd. We'll have to break down into smaller herds with a good mix of stallions, mares, and foals. Anyone with opinions for that, come see me -- we're still discussing our options." Eshra sat back down.
Fala rose. "Regarding the fire, we think it was actually two fires in different locations and times. People probably watched the first and didn't notice the second until too late. I have some sketches of the probable fire paths for whomever wants to see those," she said, fanning out a few pages drawn by other rangers on patrol.
"Regarding resources, we don't have enough in the wild to survive the winter here," Fala continued. The valley's creeks are so choked with ash that all the fish have died. Most of the trees are dead and almost all the ground cover burned away. That means no plant foods except for underground ones, and no firewood left to speak of. Wildlife probably won't return until spring, so no hunting close to home. Unless the village stores made it through the fire intact, we have to leave." Already Fala could see heads shaking, and guessed that reports from the domestics fared no better than the rangers. She dropped back into her seat.
Dlameda stood. "Outside the valley, wildlife populations seem erratic in most directions. We think a lot of the larger animals escaped, but they've upset the surrounding territories as they fight for space. While we could hunt over the ridges, that risks destabilizing the local ecosystem even worse," he warned. "About the only good news is that the unexpected flush of new grass and shoots has enticed the mountain sheep and wild goats a lot lower than they usually come." Then he sat down.
Fala perked up at the last announcement. Eshra and several of the other rangers sat up straighter. "If we have to leave the valley and winter with another village, we could at least make a few serious hunting parties first," Fala proposed. "That would give us enough food to travel with, and maybe a little left over to share with our hosts."
"Not just 'another village,' but both of them -- I don't think even Itrelir could take in everyone from Itadesh," Eshra pointed out. "We'll probably have to split people as well as snow-unicorns."
Fala shivered, hearing rustles around her as the idea stirred through the small gathering. Nods from the Elders, though, indicated that they had already recognized this. It would be hard to divide the villagers and decide who would go where. Hopefully they could keep at least the closest relationships intact, but inevitably some disappointments would occur. Fala swept her gaze over the gathered faces and wondered how many of these people would still be part of her life during the winter ahead.
"We should account for that in planning the hunts, then," Fala suggested. "Each group will need a suitable amount of food. If we match the hunting parties to the people heading for each destination village, that will help establish their group identity."
Ivara stood, the dense fringe of her necklace clicking with many beads. "We hoped this wouldn't be necessary," the old woman said, "but from the ranger reports, it is. Let's go over our resources and challenges in a little more detail, and then discuss our options. Tomorrow the Elders can start talking to people about where they'd like to seek refuge."
So the discussion went, long into the night, as they struggled to piece together their past and their future.
* * *
On the trail to Itrelir, Fala cycled through the scouting positions, point and flanks and tail. She had begun to dislike riding tail guard, though point and tail were the most demanding positions and it was a mark of regard to be assigned there. She knew her duty, though, and she did it without complaint.
So it was that Fala found herself riding behind the weary travelers, alert for dropped items since they could not spare anything now. A short figure caught her attention, someone trudging slowly along the muddy trail. Fala whistled Birchtail into a fast walk. They could give the straggler a lift to the main party ahead.
Then Fala realized that the "straggler" was walking toward them, and there was only one likely reason for that. Her stomach flipped over in dread. She recognized that slow, limping walk.
When they drew even, Fala stopped her snow-unicorn and dismounted. "Marda ..." she said, her eyes snagging on the rows of fluttering threads where beads had been cut from the old woman's coat.
"Fala," the Elder said. Her hands pushed back the hood so that her silver hair blew in the quickening wind. Her throat was bare. "Please take care of this for me. Give it to Kalitelm." She pressed a leather pouch into Fala's grasp.
Fala closed her fingers around it, feeling the small hard shapes of the beads within. Her heart slowly froze over. Duty allowed her only one answer. "I will," she promised.
"I'm going for a long walk," Marda said evenly. "Don't worry about finding me."
Fala longed to argue with her, but that was as taboo as speaking about a pregnancy. It was Marda's choice, which everyone else was bound to respect. Every adult had the right to choose death, if life had become a burden to self and others. Fala could guess the Elder's logic -- far too many mouths to feed, and not enough resources to go around -- plus the pain evident in the short woman's face, her twisted body warping further as the years passed. "Do you have everything you need?" Fala asked.
Marda straightened as much as she could, and replied, "Yes."
"Have ..." Fala swallowed hard around the knot in her throat, then continued, "have a nice walk."
Marda nodded, and stepped past Fala, hiking steadily along the trail. Fala climbed back into the saddle and whistled Birchtail into motion. She rode with her face forward, while her tears froze on her cheeks.
When Fala reached camp at the end of the day's travel, she barely had time to dismount before Kalitelm grabbed her. "Have you seen Marda?" Kalitelm demanded. "We can't find her anywhere!"
"Marda isn't coming. She went for a long walk," Fala said quietly. "She asked me to give you this." Fala held out the pouch of beads.
"No," Kalitelm said, backing off in horror. She turned and stumbled away.
Wearily Fala started to follow, only to be caught by a hand on her shoulder. "I'll go after her," said Eshra. "You take that pouch to Ivara."
Fala had to walk through half the camp to find Ivara sitting at a fire beside several other Elders, the little leather pouch seeming to grow heavier in her hands with every step, and the eyes of the villagers heavier still.
* * *
By the end of the journey, Fala had gone from disliking tail guard to actively loathing it. She dealt with that by packing her emotions into the cold hollow of her chest where they could freeze solid and stay out of the way. She picked up the inevitable scatter of lost items and stuffed them into her carrier baskets. Her hair kept escaping from her hood as the bitter wind increased.
Dry leaves flew through the misty air, catching in her hair and in Birchtail's mane. The snow-unicorn snorted and tossed his head. Fala soothed him absently. Her weather sense plucked chill fingers down her spine. She glanced up at the glowering sky. Dark grey clouds hid the tops of the mountains. High overhead, a stream of Others gleamed with surreal light that not even clouds could hide. That threat, at least, remained distant for now.
When the mist turned to a thin drizzling rain, Fala hunched in her saddle and pulled her winter coat tighter. It wasn't even midday yet. The rain gradually thickened into slush. The trail underhoof turned to slop. Birchtail chuffed and grumbled as he struggled to keep his footing on a path already churned by the passage of so many others.
Fala licked her chapped lips and whistled encouragement to her tired mount. Tired, she understood. Her soaked clothes weighed her down as much as her thoughts. Her muscles ached from climbing up and down the mounting ladder every time she had to retrieve something dropped by an equally weary villager ahead of her.
At last Itrelir came into view. Much of the bustle had already cleared away, Itadesh's survivors blending in with the residents. Fala clambered down from Birchtail's back, reaching a numb hand for her grooming tools.
"Oh, no you don't," said a familiar voice. "Let our rangers take care of your mount. You're coming inside right now."
Fala raked her dripping hair out of her eyes. "Tekura," she said. "It's good to see you again. Don't worry, this will only take me a few minutes..."
Warm hands pressed against her icy cheeks. "Fala, listen to me. You're wet, you're cold, you're exhausted, and you haven't done a thing about any of that," Tekura said calmly. "When was the last time you even ate?"
"Morning," Fala said with a shrug. "We didn't stop for lunch today, so we could make it here."
"I thought so," Tekura said. He steered her firmly toward a nearby house.
"Are you coddling me? I'm not one of your toddlers, Tekura," said Fala. She really should take care of her own mount, she knew -- but a glance over her shoulder showed that one of Itrelir's rangers had already taken over that task.
"I've been watching for you since Eshra rode in earlier to let us know that today was the arrival day. I figured you'd push yourself right past your limits and not even look back to see where you'd trampled them into the forest floor," said Tekura. He dragged Fala down the steps into a house that felt too hot to her sleet-chilled skin. But she shivered as he peeled her out of the wet clothes and briskly rubbed her dry, then dressed her in a wool night-tunic.
"Wh-where are we?" Fala asked.
"We're in Song Sparrow House. Karavai stays here," said Tekura. "This will be your bunk. Sit down."
Fala sat without bothering to look. "All right." There was really no point arguing with a raiser who'd decided to go all fussy on you.
Tekura wrapped her in soft furs, then dished up a bowl of eternal soup from the hearth. "Eat this," he said, setting the warm dish in her hands.
Fala obeyed. The rich soup started to thaw the chill inside her. Her teeth stopped chattering. Then she noticed Tekura sitting beside her to take off his boots. "Don't you need to go back to the infant-house?"
Tekura shook his head, black hair flying. "I swapped out for the night."
"I thought it would be a ruckus in a rush-basket over there, with all the new arrivals," said Fala.
"It probably is," Tekura said. "Ever since the first messenger arrived with the news about Itadesh, though ... it seems like every parent with so much as a fetlock's worth of nurturing instinct has volunteered to spend extra time with their children. We have more adults than we can fit under the roof, so it's no trouble to spare me for a night."
"Oh. That's good," Fala said.
Tekura draped an arm around her. "You needed a friend tonight."
"Yes," Fala agreed finally, melting into the comfort of his embrace. She watched the fire burning in the hearth, and finished her soup, and set the bowl aside. She was tired, but that was all right. The bitter wind outdoors could not reach inside the cozy house, or the warm furs, or the gentle arms that held her at the end of a long journey.
This story was actually inspired by my reading of "Homecoming," which specified Kativa and Tolnam as the people who discover the burned-out village of Itadesh. I got to wondering where Fala would be, since point would often be a position of hers. The other challenging trail assignment is tail guard, so that's where she wound up -- and then the situation kind of fell into the muck for her.
Tolnam, Tekura, Marda, Lenaroth, Kativa, Karavai, Kalitelm, Ivara, Fala, Eshra, Dlameda, Anler, Beqash,