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"I need to think," Malaamig told Diren after his initial flippant response.
Malaamig wasn't going to admit to being squeamish, but nothing inside of him was going to allow him to go down and try to kill one of the unicorns for food. Squeamish had nothing to do with it - sacred, maybe. They were a symbol of everything good and righteous and were always, always, the miraculous saviors of the tales they appeared in. To be sure, the tales had vastly underestimated their size, and to Malaamig's recall, they had always appeared singly, to people in great need, to lead them out of the enchanted forest or purify food or something. No mention had ever been made of a herd of them - the idea seemed simply absurd.
He had to put them out of his head. Jem put her nose in his glove, hoping to take advantage of his stillness to receive caresses. Malaamig obliged.
More interesting than the unicorns - which he could no longer consider a potential source of food or fur, and therefore ranked somewhere below items to be thought of for survival - Malaamig turned his attention to the smoke. It still flowed steadily into the sky, well below the level of the clouds, and hypnotically sinuous.
Civilization? Malaamig frowned.
Margaa needed some kind of food or medicine that the Scientists had no access to or knowledge of - if there were a people here, they might have what she needed. They may have supplies and luxuries they had long gone without. Malaamig caught himself drooling at the idea of greens, and bread that wasn't standard travel-pack. He pulled a piece of cooked meat from his pocket and gnawed on the unpalatable, frozen strip to muffle the grumble in his stomach.
It was a good day's walk to where the smoke originated - maybe two. They couldn't go explore it without first returning to Margaa. At least, not together. "Go back," Malaamig finally decided. "Go back to Margaa and tell her what we've seen. I'm going to go find out what that is; I'll return as quickly as possible." He did not mention that he hoped it would be more quickly than on foot - with horses, perhaps, he could not help thinking wistfully. Horses, and a full stomach.
Diren acted as if he would protest, but he had no argument to offer, and Malaamig shouldered his pack again. He wanted to move quickly - and the strange sight made everything feel slow and unreal.
Neither of them mentioned the unicorns again - Malaamig wondered if they didn't both consider them a kind of mirage, a trick of ice-strained eyes after too much dazzling snow-light.
"Take Issar," the ranger commanded. "I will take Obi and Jem."
"What if they're hostile..." It wasn't a question, so much as a warning. Not every culture met the Empire with open hands.
"The dogs'll protect me, to their ability. If I'm not back in a tenday, I probably won't be. You aren't a bad hunter, and our base is solid - you should be alright until spring, and then you just need to go straight north to the ocean. You know the commands for Issar and Oslila, they will do as you say, and bring you small game as they find it."
Diren put on his own pack, rather more slowly, and nodded obediently.
It was a long, long walk. He kept to wind-swept ridges when he could, and let the dogs break trail when he couldn't, but it was still hard going. Malaamig rested twice, unfurling his sleeping furs in a snowbank to nap as long as the cold would allow. One nice thing about the cold - the snow wasn't as likely to melt if you slept on it, and dry was more comfortable and safe than wet, by a long shot. The dogs slept on either side, and he was as close to warm as he'd been since the sun had lost its strength for the season. As the far ridge of the valley rose in his vision, the smoke continued. He had a moment of doubt, as he pressed forward - wondering if it would disappear as he grew closer, but it remained. The remarkable creatures that his mind insisted on calling unicorns had herded their way down the valley, and disappeared from sight into one of the many crags and crannies that the land had a way of opening up once you were close. From far, it tended to look flat and un-featured, but once you began crossing it, tiny ravines would open up, and small ridges with bluffs unexpectedly on the far side. It took him an extra two hours to find a place to cross one such ravine, and it involved scrambling down into a riverbed, and being incredibly grateful for the winter season and the plentitude of snow. His fall would have been much less enjoyable on the rocks he suspected lay beneath it.
The largest moon was nearly full, so he could walk through most of the night and all of the short day, and he only stopped when his body made him, or the dogs needed snowballs removed from their feet. Obi developed a limp, late in the second day, that slowed them down to a snail's pace.
Over the far ridge of the first wide valley, there was a forest, sheltered in a shallow space. The closer he got to the smoke, the less confident Malaamig felt. It was too wide a base, and too white, to be a domestic fire. It didn't smell like smoke, though after a consideration, Malaamig realized it did have an odor: sulfur.
He was unsurprised, then, to find a game trail through the woods that led directly to a frost-drenched clearing above the first open water he had seen in three months. It was gorgeous -- and keenly disappointing. Odorous steam masked the far edge of the clearing, rising densely off the water. The trees nearby groaned under the weight of the moisture that had crystallized on their branches, heavily laden with frost. A bird in one of the trees screeched at him, and flew off, his take-off making musical shards of ice shatter off the branch he launched from.
It was, if nothing else, a place to take a break, and Malaamig took off a mitten and tentatively tested the water. It was perfect - perhaps a few degrees warmer than the bathhouses of home, and he could see, when he bent through the steam, through crystal clear water to a stone floor. It looked to be about waist-deep. He unloaded the dogs, scratching them and ruffling their bellies when they rolled in happiness. He let them wander - they were too well trained to go far, and would warn him if any predators came near. He had no towel, of course, but he could dry off with his sleeping furs - drying with fur would leave him covered in shreds of hair, but the lure of the warm water, of being clean again, deeply clean as he hadn't been in months - it was too much to resist.
He explored a few hundred feet of the bank, and found a natural snow-covered beach that cut down from the ground in a perfect ramp to the pool. Removing his clothing was shocking - it was bitterly cold without them, and the barest of breezes that moved through was enough to cut through skin. Jem sniffed at the water, and flicked her tongue out reflexively, then backed away in disgust, looking offended.
Malaamig laughed dryly, and eased himself into the water. It was almost sinfully pleasurable. Like sex, he caught himself thinking, and he stopped himself before the thought went any further.
It wasn't hard to think of nothing, to simply let the warmth soak into his tired bones. "Obi," he commanded after only a moment, "Guard child."
Obi sank down on the bank, head on his feet, eyes riveted to him. The command was more complex than 'guard.' Any dog could learn guard - they were taught that one as young puppies. But guard child meant full attention, the whole time, no wandering or partial play. Among other things, the dog was trained to watch for drowning, and would automatically bark if Malaamig slipped below the water, and, in a worst case, would jump in and drag him out.
Dogs were useful, Malaamig thought in sleepy exhaustion as he arranged himself on a convenient underwater rock so that he was propped with his head above water and everything else submerged. He couldn't imagine surviving this climate without them.
He thought he was dozing off when Obi barked, and Malaamig gave the 'all's safe' command by rote - his nose was still safely above water. Jem barked at that point, an alarm bark, and Malaamig looked up to find a young woman standing, bare at least to her waist, in the water before him.