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He was still dreaming, Malaamig realized, so the apparition didn't particularly alarm him. She wasn't the kind of woman he usually dreamed about. She was lean and muscular, with not too much in the breasts. Her hair was long enough to tie back behind her, though Malaamig could not see where it ended, and it was dark, crowned in white frost. She was a winter queen; her skin was pale, with barely more color than snow, except in her face, which was red-cheeked. High cheekbones and a large, expressive mouth were the dominant feature of an oval face, and her eyes were bright blue. There was a looped leather necklace close at her neck, and several carved beads were strung upon it.
"Hello," he said languidly. She wouldn't last long - his dreams were always highly fluid, and she would be replaced by something else equally surreal soon enough.
She said something unintelligible and fast, as dream-creatures often did, and then turned her head and shouted into the distance as she bent back down to warm her upper half again. Most of her attention was on the dogs at the shore; Jem was still growling. Malaamig blinked and abruptly realized it was no dream. He went to move and unsettled his precarious position on the underwater rock, dunking his face under the warm water for a startled moment.
When he emerged again, sputtering and alarmed, she was still there, only her frosted head now, close enough that he could see the ice in her eyelashes and crusting her eyebrows. She had her hands just above the surface of the water, in a finger-spread gesture that seemed to universally mean 'look, no weapons,' and she was jabbering so quickly Malaamig wasn't sure he could even recognize the syllables in a sharp language filled with consonants, glancing frequently at the dogs.
"Hello?" Malaamig repeated, much more tentatively.
"Haaarooo?" she mimicked back at him before adding another, slower, string of nonsense. A second voice called back from away in the haze - the hot springs did not appear to be a simple round pond, but a series of pools connected by narrow channels, and through one of these channels, another head came swimming - presumably attached to a body. Jem barked again, and Obi growled with her.
"I don't understand you," Malaamig felt obligated to explain, keeping a cautious eye on the newcomer. "Easy," he commanded the dogs. "I am a peaceful explorer," he told her, knowing it was useless. He had licenses for making first contact with a new culture, but was not as trained in languages as Margaa and Diren.
The dogs remained at alert, but kept their growls lower and sank down into tense sitting positions. The strange woman stared at their obedience and he was unspeakably grateful for their presence at his back, though he was already trying to figure out how to get out of the pool, dried and dressed, if he needed to.
The new figure was male, not willing to stand and expose so much flesh to the cold air as the young woman had been, but he showed his hands in the same fashion and said something - slower than she had - in the same language, approaching with cautious glances for the dogs. He wore a similar leather necklace with beads.
Malaamig shook his head to show he didn't understand. "Malaamig," he attempted, putting a hand to his chest.
The two people exchanged an interested look and the man, very slowly, put his hand to his neck and said "Iyamanler." The female put a hand to her neck and said, more swiftly, "Iyamabirka."
He pointed. "Iya-maaa-aaan..."
The female laughed, and put her hand to her neck again. "Birka," she said slowly.
The male said something fast to her, and, more slowly, to him, "Anler."
Malaamig repeated the words back to him, forming the hard sounds cautiously. They attempted his own name, drawing out the long vowels.
The woman pointed at the dogs and rattled something off. Jem stood, and raised the tenor of her growl. Birka looked at him in alarm. "Easy," Malaamig reminded his companion. "Friends," he told the two. "My friends. Mine." He patted his chest again, not sure how else to show belonging.
"Eetzy," Anler repeated curiously, and he exchanged a barrage of words with Birka. "Frentz," he added to Malaamig, and after a moment of visible thought, he spoke with the woman, and mimed with her a clasping of forearms while watching Malaamig carefully for his reaction. "Frentz?" He pointed at the dogs and at Malaamig. He strode forward through the water, still crouched to take advantage of the warmth, offering his own arms rather cautiously. "Frentz?"
Malaamig tentatively clasped his forearms as he'd demonstrated with Birka. She crowded forward with a bright smile and offered and accepted the same.
Both of them had strong grips, thin fingers, and rough palms. The man had short, wavy, dark hair, ringed in frost around his face, and blue-gray eyes against skin with a golden cast. Malaamig guessed the two were about the same age - younger than he was by at least a decade. They were both tall, as far as Malaamig could tell without any of them standing in the cold air, but not as tall as he was, and both were lighter in build. They moved confidently. If they had been in the Empire, he would have figured them for fighters, or maybe hunters. He wondered what they could tell from his own grip.
A third voice, male, called from deep within the steam, and was answered by Birka with easy authority. She lounged back in the water, clearly unconcerned by the idea of being naked in a pool with at least two equally naked men - one of them a complete stranger. She continued to watch the dogs with some unease, but seemed otherwise quite comfortable in only her skin.
The dogs eyed her back, but seemed content to take Malaamig's acceptance of their guests as a sign that they were alright. They didn't lie down - Malaamig had only told them 'easy,' not 'all clear' - but Jem sat and Obi's tail gave an occasional, tentative wag.
The third voice turned into a figure, swimming through the shallow water with only a head exposed to the cold air. He had a wider face than either of the first two, older and more handsome than Anler, with greenish eyes under frosted dark hair.
He called while he was still far away, and Malaamig thought it was the same pattern of sounds that the woman had first greeted him with. She answered for him. Jem barked once at the intrusion, startling the newcomer. He reminded her of her manners.
"Tiren," the man introduced himself. He didn't bother with the hands-up signal of peace, clearly comfortable in the fact that Birka and Anler had made whatever appropriate assurances needed to be made. He asked a question, and Malaamig, more familiar now with the cadence they spoke, thought he picked out the word 'where?'
"Where from?" he asked. The sun was already sinking; the sky above the trees was dimming and putting on its twice-daily display of brilliant colors. He could pick out which direction it was sinking (not far off from the direction it had risen), and pointed that way. "Far, far in that direction." He flapped his hands several times, hoping to clarify.
"Far," Birka repeated in delight. She said the word differently than he did, but clearly recognized it. She asked something, and put her fingers in steeples, then mimed fingers as walking legs over top of them, talking in her too-fast, too-strange language, then repeating herself more carefully. If he didn't listen to it closely, it almost made sense.
Had he come over the mountains, Malaamig realized she was asking. He waffled his hands, mimed the mountains back at her, and then showed the legs walking around mountains, trying to figure out how to show a boat. He pointed in the direction of the ocean, and cupped a hand, putting the legs in the hand-boat and 'floating' it around the place his mountains had been. They looked at him blankly; it was too complex a concept to transfer in hand gestures. "I come from far over the mountains," he said, and re-mimed Birka's gesture. It was close enough.
"Far," Birka agreed, and the men nodded easily. "Come," she said, and Malaamig was startled that he instantly recognized the word; it was clipped the way she said it, but combined with her scooping hand gesture, immediately recognizable.
A different language, he thought, but something very similar. The cultural scientists of the Empire would have a field day with this, he realized. And Margaa thought some stuffy ruins would make their mark in the history books... instead, he'd found people! Malaamig moved into a half-crouch to follow, but was unwilling to stand and wade, as the second man did, fanning himself from the heat of the water and letting it rise from him in clouds of steam. He couldn't be sure these folks qualified as civilization; he hadn't even seen them in clothing yet; for all he knew, they would rise out of the water and change into animals like the shapeshifters his childhood tales told of. Perhaps they lived underwater; certainly they seemed easy in the element. If he hadn't seen the woman standing, he might believe they had fish tails, like the Sea Queen of Irfai legends. He realized with distant alarm that his vision was going black, tunneling narrower and narrower, and that the dim ringing sounds he heard were calls of alarm and the dogs, barking.