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Late autumn sunlight beat down on the low alpine slopes. The only stream of Others was across the valley, high and tiny in the sky, and no clouds marred the perfect blue sky.
The snowies were all hobbled, and making giant, munching inroads on the shoulder-high brush that rolled over low spots in the high hills. They almost never came over this pass, so these were un-razed browsing grounds. The snow-unicorns were doing their best to make up for lost time, chewing willows and alders down to stumps with eager teeth. They snorted as they ate, contented crunching sounds mixed with snuffling and the whining, bleating and groaning vocal communication that was a constant with the beasts.
"I want it to stay this way for always," Birka said, laughing and throwing herself down onto the moss next to Fala. "Us, back together again as an age-set out in the mountains, with autumn lasting forever and ever.?
A basket came flying, to hit her in the stomach. "Less reminiscing, more berries!" Inav grinned at her, shaggy dark hair dancing around his face in the mild wind. "You lazy rangers, thinking you can get outside the boundaries of the village and immediately go lounge in soft moss doing nothing."
"Hard-handed, herd-riding domestic!" Birka groused, gathering the basket into her lap as she sat. "I wish I had it so easy as you," she teased in return. "At least you get to spend all of winter under a sturdy roof."
"You'd go as crazy as I would," Fala reminded her, sitting up and opening her hands so that Inav would throw her a basket as well. "Though at least you wouldn't be worse than worthless if you were stuck there." As skilled as Fala was in the wilderness, she was laughably incompetent at crafts and cooking - only Birka's patient tutoring had coaxed her into mastering the simplest knitting stitches and mending techniques.
"It is so nice to have everyone back together," Emeina said peacefully, taking her own basket from Inav. This was the first trip their age-set had been able to take together since they had graduated. First, Fala had chosen to move to Itrelir, then, just as she had moved back to Itadesh following her disastrous and dramatic break-up with Dareg, Anler had gone to spend two winters in Itrelir with a girl he'd met during the summer gathers. Summer gathers scattered them, and this would be the first winter in eight years that they spent all of a winter together as a set again. It felt to Birka like coming home after a long time. She grinned at shy Emeina, making a broad arm-gesture of agreement, and rose to her feet.
"I'm glad you came out with us," Fala said fondly, climbing to her own feet. Though Komesh, Emeina and Inav had chosen domestic duties, in mirror to Anler, Fala and Birka's preference for ranger duties that took them hunting and herding into the forests and mountains, the three had eagerly accepted Fala's offer to lead them out for a last harvest trip before winter. Tetefii, who bounced between domestic and ranger duties at will, left her young daughter behind to come out with them, completing the age-set.
"As long as you don't trap us out in this pass to freeze to death, we'll keep wearing our age-set beads," Komesh said with a sidelong look, checking Fala's reaction. Threatening not to wear an age-set bead was a broad, exaggerated insult; he was fishing for a laugh with it. Even the badly fractured age-set that had graduated from Itadesh with strident Areluu and meek Lenarai last summer still wore each other's beads.
Fala chuckled, but she also swept the sky with her gaze out of habit, and the amusement was short-lived. Birka knew that this trip was something of a risk - this wasn't a pass they often came through, because it was high and the weather got chancy very fast, and they were usually long miles from Itadesh during the summer. When the healer Kalitelm had asked wistfully if there were any signs of everberry, Fala had suggested this spot as a likely place to look for some, and, with some hesitation, decided that the winter weather was going to hold off long enough to risk the several-day trip.
Privately, Birka thought it was a bit of a wild snowy chase - everberry was rare and getting rarer. The similar - but hardier - blueberries tended to crowd it out of the territory they competed for, and several of their usual patches had become too unhealthy to harvest from. The berry was useful as a dermal wash to help with allergies, but more prized as an indelible ink, starting out with a reddish wash that darkened to a rich, dark black that wouldn't fade on birchbark paper for decades. As careful and prudent as they were with what they recorded, the precious ink was always in short supply. Everberries or not, Birka didn't mind the excuse to come up into the mountains in fine weather. Even if they didn't find what they were searching for, other berries were enjoying the unseasonably warm autumn and offered an abundance of harvest. They would not return empty-handed.
From below them, Anler whistled and waved his hands in the air - he'd found a berry patch he was willing to share.
"I'll head down there," Birka volunteered, waving a reply.
Emeina lay claim to a likely looking slope to the east, Tetefii chose to head off with her, and Fala, Komesh and Inav went west.
True to Birka's suspicion, the berries were all innocuous blueberries, fat and juicy, and her hands were very shortly stained pink-purple from the overripe ones she weeded out for her mouth.
"Take a break," Anler teased her, several hours later, when their baskets and several others had been filled and lashed over for transport. Birka gladly let him draw her down into the soft alpine moss and tipped her face to the low-angle, setting sun as he put a companionable arm around her shoulders. Equinox was past, and they were moving to the time when night claimed more than its fair share of the day cycle; you had to appreciate the sun while it was there, not just miss it when it was gone.
Below them, Fala and the domestics had begun to set up their camp near the treeline. Tetefii was grooming one of the snow-unicorns, while the other beasts continued their slow circles of destruction through the hardy willows.
"It's too bad Kireg got there first," Anler said, teasing at the bead that was centered on her necklace. "You'll have lonely furs tonight."
Birka chuckled. "Maybe next month. Our timing has always been bad," she said lightly, touching the side of his face tenderly. "Fala's got a blank space on her necklace," she suggested. "And Tetefii."
Anler kissed her on the temple, shrugging. "We've got time," he said carelessly.
"All winter, at least," Birka agreed, lazily, leaning back to gaze at the sky. Stars were just beginning to appear against the darkening backdrop overhead.
Anler leaned back with her and they curled together for a long moment watching the sky, until Tetefii's sharp 'come-here' whistle cut through their comfort, and they laughed and scrambled to their feet to bring the berry-laden baskets down to the camp and help tend to the snowies.
After they had all eaten, groomed the content snowies, and packed the day's harvest, there was a lull. It was cool and dark, but a quick look at Fala showed that she was unconcerned by the temperature drop, so Birka merely shrugged into an extra shirt layer and dismissed her own worry.
"Alainya has decided she wants to be a carver," Tetefii said with proud amusement, throwing another branch onto the cheerful fire.
"Didn't she want to be a ranger a tenday ago?" Fala was drumming out a slow, complex pattern on a small hand drum while Komesh made a counter-rhythm with a ceramic rattle. Emeina clapped in time where it didn't interfere with the tea she was drinking, and Birka occasionally moved her feet to let the bear-bells at her ankles add to the twining percussion. She was too lazy and comfortable to get up and dance, but it was nice to have the beat filling up the cozy camp.
"She's not quite three," Tetefii laughed. "I figure she'll change her mind a few more times along the way."
"You've really warmed up to her," Komesh observed. "Are you going to remain a raiser?"
Tetefii shook her head. "No, I'm going back to other domestic duties this winter. I don't mind spending some days at the infant house, but I like having a full night's sleep." Precocious Alainya had come partway up into the mountains when they left Itadesh, but returned to the village with a raiser with only minimal complaint when her mother split off from the main gathering party to go with Fala's party.
"Isn't Brem ready to be in an age-set this winter?" Emeina asked suddenly, and Birka let her ankle bells ring out of pattern in surprise.
"Has it been that long?" she asked, reaching up to finger the bead that dangled from the left side of her necklace. "I guess it has!" She laughed.
As interested as Tetefii was in her offspring, Birka was equally uninterested in her own. Occasionally, she would identify the boy from among the knot of other infants, marveling at the idea that she'd brought him into this life, but distantly. She found being pregnant a bore, and had been very happy that Brem took well to snow-unicorn milk and required her nursing for very little of his life. He didn't seem to miss the attentions of a dedicated mother - he was far from the only child whose parents chose not to be involved in raising, and Birka was just as happy to leave his rearing to people better suited to the various fussy needs of babies and children.
Emeina already had two beads dangling from the leather of her necklace, representing the two sturdy children she had borne. Her attention to them was somewhere between Birka's complete disinterest and Tetefii's warm, motherly instincts. The age-mates spoke of them for a time - the oldest was in an age-set and reluctantly learning to write, and the youngest was still toddling. No one spoke of the bead that Emeina wore in the center of her necklace - a carved knot of wood encased in a cleverly spiraled lacework of shell. Pregnancies were too likely to end in disappointment to bring a lot of early attention to them, so besides taking special care to see that Emeina took breaks during her day's work and did not over-exert, no one overtly acknowledged her condition.
The long autumn twilight gradually faded to full darkness, and Fala let her hands still on the drum as their conversation dwindled. Komesh finished the thread of his rhythm with the rattle, and the only sound that remained was the muttering of the snow-unicorns and the light mountain wind.
Without speaking to divide the tasks, they buttoned the camp down and banked the fire for night.
Morning came with a slow sunrise and Fala hiked to the top of the nearest ridge to stare at the sky and taste the wind as the sky brightened. She returned for a warm cup of morning milk to report that they could stay and harvest another day, but probably no more. She and Anler decided to do a little hunting, while Birka, Komesh and Tetefii continued to scour the slopes for the elusive everberries and harvest the late blueberries and cranberries. Inav and Emeina talked about riding a little ways south into the valley to harvest a small patch of apples that Fala had found the day before. "Apples!" Birka exclaimed happily.
"Don't go too far," Fala warned them all. "We need to be able to leave quickly if the weather turns."
Hours later, Birka stood, stretching the muscles in her cramping back. "Oof!" she said, looking back over the patch of berries they had stripped. "I should have gone hunting with Fala." She looked up automatically, checking the sky for dangerous Others or incoming weather. A tiny, far-off strip of bright, slow Others was the only thing that marred the brilliant blue field.
She wandered over to Komesh, who had filled up as many baskets as she had, and also had a fistful of a particular stringy root that added a hint of burgundy to some dyes to show for the day's work.
"You'll be able to trade something good for that," Birka said approvingly. "Maybe even get Laisesu's favor for it. Laisesu was Itadesh's dyer, and drove a notoriously hard bargain for her coveted wares. Komesh blushed; he had something of a crush on the flashy woman, and had clearly been keeping an eye out for just such a harvest.
"So that's why you wanted to come out into the mountains with us," Birka teased. "Nothing to do with spending some extra time with your old age-set, only prowling for something catch Laisesu's eye with..."
"It wasn't just..." Komesh realized he was being needled and elbowed Birka back. "Well, you couldn't possibly think I only wanted to spend more time with you lot," he teased in return.
Laughing, they went to collect Tetefii, who was walking to meet them with a brace of baskets over her shoulders.
"Haruu!" she greeted them. "I win light duties tonight!"
Birka raised inquiring eyebrows, while Komesh demanded, "How so?"
Tetefii put her baskets down and spread her hands to show them. Rather than the pinkish stains left by blueberries, her hands were dark blue and black, almost as if they had been badly bruised.
"You found it!"
"Is there more?"
Tetefii shook her head, braids swinging. "I picked it clean, along with all the blueberries in the whole area."
Birka was poking at the baskets. "Which ones are they?" she asked, looking at the piles of dark berries. There was no difference between the four baskets, and Tetefii blushed and laughed, embarrassed. "I have no idea."
Birka and Komesh stared.
"They look so much alike," Tetefii protested, grinning. "I didn't realize I was picking them until my hands changed colors, hours later."
They all shared a sheepish laugh at that, and argued, good-natured, about whose job it would be to pick them all carefully apart as they returned to the camp. Though not dangerously poisonous, the everberries were not good to eat, and the blueberries would dilute the strength of the precious ink.
Emeina and Inav were back within moments of their return, happy to share the abundant fruit from their day of picking and tales of animal sightings. Fala and Anler returned with a brace of autumn-fat silk-hares and a handful of silvery creek fish as they finished caring for the snow-unicorns, and they sat down to an impromptu feast.
That night, Birka did dance, and her age-mates joined her around the fire, beating their own accompaniment with hand drums, rattles and belled ankles. Emeina sang, high wordless melodies, and Inav even did some impromptu throat singing, laughing when he could not hit the low thrumming noises quite right and daring the others to do better. Birka stayed to percussion, and Tetefii raised blue hands into the air as she danced lightly beside her.
They curled that night in twos and threes, talking quietly in private discussions, long into the autumn darkness.
Fala was first up, and Birka was up to greet her with snowy-warm milk when she returned from her weather inspections on the ridge.
"Another day," Fala declared, and everyone cheered.
"I choose hunting," Birka said, stretching her back muscles with exaggerated care.
"You're just sore that I found the everberries and you didn't," Tetefii teased.
"I just don't want to get stuck sorting everberries," Birka retorted.
"I'll sort them," Tetefii conceded with a falling sigh. "I'll sort every one of them, if you take my camp duties for the rest of the trip. My hands are already stained!"
Birka considered, and agreed, far preferring a little evening work over the careful tedium of future berry-sorting. She almost felt guilty; the trade of work seemed unfair.
Anler chose harvesting with Inav and Emeina, declaring his undying love for more apples as his reason.
Inav snorted. "You'd better," the man declared. "You tried to eat half of our harvest last night!"
Birka was happy to follow Fala quietly into the forest underbrush in search of small game.
They had taken down most of a flock of grouse with their slings when Fala began to get restless. Birka recognized the early signs at once - the nervous fiddling with the beads on her coat, the constant checking of the sky, and the way that Fala looked around at every rustle and birdsong. She was not surprised, then, when Fala finally bit her lip. "It's time to go," she said firmly.
Birka wrapped a leather thong around the feet of the last grouse and rose to follow Fala back. She was not surprised that Fala walked fast - but was caught off guard when Fala began to jog, and had to sprint several paces to catch up.
They were both panting when they made it back to the camp, and Fala immediately whistled to one of the hobbled snowies and released its big foot-restraints. "I'm going to fetch Inav's group," she said, without further explanation, and she swarmed up the snowy, clinging to its thick fur, without bothering with a saddle.
"I'll get the others and pack up!" Birka replied, immediately moving off. If Fala was spooked, she didn't plan to wait around and see why, though the air still smelled clear to her, and there were no clouds in the sky above.
Once she'd moved further up the slopes, giving the alarm whistle until she heard a reply to it from the berry-pickers, Birka could turn and see what Fala had sensed before her eyes could verify it - a bank of clouds was rolling in, far from the south, promising snow. While it seemed comfortably far off, Birka trusted Fala's instincts, and knew how fast that weather could move in the mountains. She returned to the camp to start preparing the snowies and break down their tents.
Anler helped her saddle the snowies and pack up the camp, as well as their packed berry baskets. When Fala returned with the others, they only had to saddle her own snowy - she didn't even let them redistribute the loads they had packed up. Birka was half-convinced Fala wanted to leave the saddle, hating the time it took to kneel the ponderous snow-unicorn and strap it properly into place.
They all caught Fala's anxiousness and didn't question her when she led them into a fast walk straight for the pass, taking the steeper slope forward rather than the gentler, longer approach. Only the snow-unicorns complained, groaning and wheezing at the pace after their lazy days of grazing.
By the time they made the first ridge, the smell of snow was obvious in the air, and the wind was colder. The bank of clouds was rushing to catch up with them, and by the time they hit the second ridge, it had obscured the sinking sun.
"Do we camp?" Birka asked, when they stopped to let the snow-unicorns eat and rest. It could be dangerous to cross the pass at night, but it would be more dangerous to be caught on the wrong side of the pass.
Fala shook her head. "We don't stop now," she insisted. She fidgeted while the snow-unicorns grazed, and stopped the feeding sooner than Birka would have.
It was several hours hard riding, and the very last of the lingering twilight was just fading away when they hit the last pass... just as the snow began.
Fala, riding point, came to a stop, and the others clustered up around her, bumping snowies against each in the darkness.
"We can't stop here," Birka said quietly, pulling up close enough that the others couldn't hear. "This is the top of the pass."
She couldn't see Fala's expression, but could hear the anxiety in her reply. "We can't bumble along in the dark, either - we'll lose one of us for sure." Something was pressed into her hand - a rope, and Birka nodded to herself, tying the rope securely to the saddle horn in front of her. "You take the rear," Fala told her, and called to the others over the rising wail of the wind until everyone was accounted for and strung together.
"Tie those knots well, age-mates!" Birka called, more cheerfully than she felt. "This matters more than our first test!"
When they became age-mates, their very first test together had been to spin a simple rope, one strong enough to hold their age-set together against a good solid tug by the adults. It had been a game, then, giggling five- and six- year-olds with little four year-old Tetefii, rolling an ugly, twisted cord and tugging on their crude fiber rope.
This was far from only a game - a slipped knot now meant wandering off alone in the snow-filled night.
Trusting Fala to lead them, and trusting the rope to hold, they set off into the new snow again.
In the darkness, with no moon and no stars, the world shrank. Dim glimpses of falling snow reduced everything to a meaningless visual blur. Birka reached out frequently to check that the rope was still taut by touch, trusting that her age-mates still struggled through the murk before her.
Her beast was beginning to slow beneath her, even its tireless strength reaching an end, when Birka thought that the sky was beginning to lighten. It took an immeasurable time before she was sure that it was, and she could see glimpses of the rider ahead of her, continuing through the snow that was falling from above and being driven into drifts before them. The snow-unicorn became more sure-footed, lifting its head and bleating to the others, who replied in kind. Birka thought that the depth of snow was getting shallower as they continued to press downhill, and she was could make out all of the snowies traveling in front of her when Fala finally called a halt and they dismounted stiffly.
Of all of them, the snowies seemed the least bothered, shaking the snow out of their fur with little more than irritation, and calmly browsing on all the tender willow ends in reach.
"Sweet mother of the Upheaval," Birka said, drawing up next to Fala. "I never want to do that again."
Fala's face was all relief as she squinted through the light snow at the outlines of the hills around them. "We're west of where I thought we were," she admitted. "But not too far."
"Considering," Birka added wryly.
"I am never leaving the village again,' Inav swore.
"I am never leaving my bunk again," Komesh added.
"Domestic babies," Anler scoffed with exaggerated nonchalance. "We rangers do that all the time."
Tetefii aimed a kick at him that didn't connect across the space between them. "Admit it, you were scared spitless, you big stuffed-shirt."
"Almost peed myself," Anler admitted frankly. "I wasn't sure we'd be seeing Itadesh again."
Eneima gave a nervous squeak and Anler quickly added, "Except that Fala was leading us, and she never gets lost."
They pitched a rough camp and had a hot meal of grouse and snow-unicorn milk before snatching some sleep. The wind kicked up again, and Fala woke them after only a few hours to set out while they had daylight to travel with; they were still a solid day's ride from the village, and although they were through the worst pass and equipped for winter travel, none of them cared to be out longer than they needed to, now.
They pitched another camp in the trees that night, and the snow stopped.
"I can't wait to see Alainya again," Tetefii admitted, as they sat around the fire before going to sleep. Komesh had borrowed Fala's drum and was tapping out a soft rhythm.
"I can't wait to have a sauna again," Eneima added. Anler had tucked one of the big snowy-blankets around her, fussing until she made him leave her in peace.
"I can't wait to watch Tetefii sort all those everberries," Birka teased. Tetefii examined her still-blue hands wryly by the light of the fire and grinned.
Their return was almost anti-climatic. As they descended from the mountain slopes, it was like going back in time. The snow thinned to nothing, and when they entered the deciduous forest, it was as if they were suddenly back in autumn, with autumn smells, and autumn leaves, and autumn warmth. Birka's extra shirt got packed away again in her saddle bags. There were pockets of drifted snow, but most of it melted off over the day. Looking behind, Birka could see that the mountain pass behind them was still shrouded in thick clouds, and the white line of snow was still creeping down the slopes they'd just left.
They were greeted at Itadesh with relief. "We weren't sure you'd make it over the pass in time," Beqash said, as she helped unload the snowies. "The weather came in out of nowhere." Birka wasn't sure if the ranger was more concerned about the unicorns, or their riders. She was, at least, pleased by their fine harvest, and Tetefii showed off her blue hands and giggled before leaving her baskets with the domestics who arrived to help.
"Alainya will laugh at my blue hands," Tetefii said cheerfully as they walked back towards the squat, round buildings of Itadesh.
"They'll be that way for a tenday, probably," Birka chuckled. "Especially after all the sorting you've got to do."
They arrived at the infant-house to find that the raisers had brought everyone outside to enjoy the last mild sunlight before winter. Alainya leaped to her feet and ran to greet her mother. "Momma! It snowed!"
"Did it ever!" Tetefii agreed, sweeping the little girl into her arms.
"Your hands are blue!" This alarmed the infant, and Tetefii was quick to cheerfully explain.
Birka watched the other infants, recognizing Brem but making no move to approach him - he didn't recognize her, and was thoroughly engrossed in playing at domestics and rangers with the boys and girls who would be his age-mates soon.
"If you need help with the sorting, let me know," she said to Tetefii, too guilty over their unfair trade to let her take all the work.
Tetefii's laugh filled the air like music. "Oh, I won that trade," she said with a sparkle. "Didn't you know that everberries sink, and blueberries float? All I have to is put the berries in water and scoop the blueberries off the top."
"You vixen!" Birka exclaimed, but she laughed. "Like domestics and rangers," she observed, watching Brem herd plush snowies while the other infants pretended to cook and weave. "Berries know what they want to be."
"And me," Tetefii chuckled. "Bouncing in between like I can't decide."
"You've decided," Birka laughed. "You'll be everything at once. Come on, let's go sit in the sauna until you've sweated the blue out of your hands."
Tetefii put Alainya down, and they left the infants with the raisers to warm away the last chill of their journey home.
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