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There had been great comfort in coming home to Itadesh after a long winter browse. The terrain became familiar in stages - at first just the shape of a ridge in the distance, then a well-remembered view down a valley, then a bluff so etched in memory that Birka could almost hear the echo of her age-mates as they called to each other. Favorite individual trees sprang out from the blur of forest that they had traveled through, and well-traveled paths bore evidence of human passing, tamped down for easy walking, even before the village came to view. Their great, furred charges could be left in the fenced snow-unicorn fields, and those last steps to the snow-buried village were springy with new energy and the delight and anticipation of home.Author's Notes
Returning to Itrelir was not coming home, and it didn't come with the same tingly expectation. None of the hills had familiar shapes. None of the trees were burned with the memory of touch-and-run games. If it weren't for the distinctive triple-peak of Akovu's Crown growing larger as they slogged forward through the drifting snow, Birka would not have known that they were nearing the village at all.
The snow-unicorns knew. They sniffed the air and twitched big cupped ears forward at sounds the riders couldn't hear, and muttered to each other and blew steamy sighs into the cold air. Birka sat a little straighter in her saddle, feeling her tired muscles protest, and pushed Startle forward to pass a handful of trudging mares to walk beside Tiren's mount, Amber.
Tiren was slumped in his saddle, that tired slouch a ranger got when they were lulled by the slow, ground-eating gait of the snow-unicorn, glazed eyes from travel too long without pause.
Birka pulled her scarf from her face. "How close are we?" she asked, when she was within speaking distance, Startle crowding at Amber's shoulder and nibbling at her mane.
Tiren blinked and looked around. The sun was long gone behind the mountains, and the lingering twilight was beginning to fade from orange and yellow to violet. To the north, the sky already showed a few bold stars.
"We missed Flower Day," Tiren said abruptly, not answering her question, and he yawned hugely.
"A few days ago," Birka guessed. Flower Day was celebrated the first day the sun returned to the village after those endless midwinter nights. The sun behind the mountains lit the sky for a brief twilight each day, but didn't rise high enough to shine down directly onto the village for most of two tendays. The return of direct light spurred new hope, and the exchange of flowers crafted from paper, fur or craft materials and dyed brilliant colors. "I'll make you a flower when I've slept for a month," she promised.
"We're not far," Tiren said, looking around. He had wintered in Itrelir before, unlike Birka, and knew the area better.
"Should we browse them here?" Birka frowned at the brush that lined the slough they were following. The willows already showed signs of being eaten back; clearly a group of snowies had been through recently, but she knew that pickings would get even slimmer, the closer they got to Itrelir; the reason their trip had gone so wide was to ease the burden that the voracious snow-unicorns put on the nearby resources. With Itadesh gone - Birka tamped down a flare of grief and homesickness - Itrelir's usual fields couldn't support the influx of unicorn refugees.
Tiren pursed his lips thoughtfully and Birka found herself biting her lip hopefully.
"Let's press on," the older ranger said, and Birka gave a deep sigh of relief. Her back longed for a stretch, but the lure of home - even home that wasn't Itadesh - was too keen. Her stomach rumbled, but she ignored it. Their food had been tightly rationed, this trip; more tightly than Birka ever remembered, and the cold made her hungrier than usual. They had taken good game down, but as much as they could was frozen to bring home; the human population of Itrelir had swelled as much as the snow-unicorn population, and everyone lamented the loss of the summer stores from Itadesh. The mares were producing less milk than they hoped, probably because they were traveling further than they were used to, through areas without good shelter. Birka wasn't sure if the winter nights had felt colder because of her own flagging spirits, or if it really had been an especially cold winter snap. She would have to ask Kireg; he was keenly interested in details about weather and Others, and she could trust his judgment to be less clouded than hers. She swiveled in her saddle to look back; Kireg was traveling at the end of their train of snowies, just visible now as they traveled a straight stretch of frozen water. He saw her glance and waved, tiny in the distance. It was a tired wave, a reflection of Birka's own exhaustion, and her return of it was equally lackluster. She gave the arm gesture indicating 'go on,' and he returned with 'understood.'
"The Elders should give us an honor bead for this browse," she said, rubbing circulation back into her legs. "More than two months on the trail, in a winter like this."
"Maybe they'll let us take a turn at Smokewater," Tiren suggested optimistically.
"That would be blissful," Birka said longingly. "I haven't been warm in a month." It had been several years since she was lucky enough to make the trip to the little shared village, and the idea of slipping into one of the mineral hot pools made her toes tingle. It was a trip best taken in the winter, when the heat of the springs contrasted most with the cold of the air.
"We don't have to go to Itrelir," Tiren said slowly. "We could just veer north right now and head straight there!"
Birka realized he was teasing her and responded with a look of exaggerated horror. "Not on your life, ranger!" she scolded him. "I was promised a real bed tonight, and a sauna." Her scalp itched, on cue.
"A bowl of endless soup," Tiren said wistfully, and Birka's stomach growled in sympathy.
It was too much to joke about, and the air was cold. After a moment of silence, punctuated by the creak of the snow-unicorn harnesses and the beasts' bleats and murmurs, Birka wrapped her scarf around her face again and let Startle drop back again.
Soon, she thought longingly. Itrelir might not be home, not like Itadesh, but she could look forward to a hot sauna, and a hot meal, and a soft bunk. For now, home was where she could be out of the snow for a spell.
*rubs hands together.* There is something delightful about getting characters into the places they need to be. This story follows 'Darkening Skies'.