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Obi was growling.
Malaamig was bonelessly comfortable, right on the edge of sleep, and wanted to growl back, clinging to the unconsciousness that was slipping out of reach. He wasn't, for once, on hard ground, and he was deliciously warm. Sleeping in the cold was a restless sleep, never quite as deep as he'd like, and this was different. It felt safe, and luxurious, and he could have slept for hours more... except that Obi was still growling.
Alarm inserted itself into his brain as memory flooded back. Strange people, a new culture, Obi growling... he sat up so fast he grazed his head on the thick beam that curved at the end of the bunk, and nearly fell out, tangling with the curtain. Obi was standing, stiff-legged, and Jem was sitting beside him, ears pricked forward, panting nervously. They were both staring at a handful of frightened northerners who had retreated back from Malaamig's bunk. People from other bunks around the room, in pairs and threes, were staring out from behind curtains.
"Easy," he grumbled at Obi. "All-clear."
Obi looked up at him as he swung long legs from the edge of the bank, and stopped growling. He sat, reassured, and panted, tail swishing cautiously behind him. Jem's tail wagged in earnest, and she stood to press her nose into Malaamig's hand. The people murmured in reaction, staring curiously and even pointing as they spoke.
"It's all right," he said, embarrassed. "They won't hurt you." He realized that the bunks to either side of him were empty, and he had a moment of chagrin wondering if he had kept some of them from their beds; every other bunk looked crowded.
A familiar face stepped forward from the little crowd - Tiren, Malaamig remembered, the oldest of the swimmers who had greeted him.
With a glance at Malaamig, he knelt before Jem and offered a flat palm, like Anler had, with a piece of dried apple on it. Jem gave Malaamig a glance so similar to Tiren's it caused a ripple of chuckles through the room and he had to smile. "All right," he told her, and she licked the slice curiously before deciding it wasn't to her taste.
Tiren didn't appear offended, only amused, and offered it to Obi, who sniffed it without interest and proceeded to ignore him. Tiren then offered it to Malaamig, who was not about to refuse fruit, whether it had been licked by a dog or not. "My thanks," he said formally, and he made something of a show of relishing the piece, only in part an exaggeration.
Tiren clearly didn't find it strange that he would eat food with dog spit, and showed him to a partitioned off area where he could relieve himself - as he found he desperately needed to. Conversation rose back to a casual chatter when he emerged again, as most of the people who had been in bunks came out and began morning routines.
Tiren led him to the hearth, where a bowl of soup was offered to him by a pink-cheeked young man. The dogs stuck close to his heels, and when he was pointed to a pad on the floor by an old woman who patted his chest appreciatively, they settled next to him. Malaamig ate with relish, and took the opportunity to surreptitiously observe these new people.
They had no care for modesty, rolling out of their bunks to dress comfortably by the fire; some slept naked, and some slept in soft, stretchy undergarments. They were strong and fit, but very lean; some of them looked nearly gaunt, and the second bowl he was offered once he had devoured the first was mostly broth. He savored it, as he watched them dress (trying not to watch), stoke the fire, and fall into patterns of work. A pair of women were repairing a very large leather strap, and a man was crocheting with thick yarn, but using two tools that lacked hooks at the end. A woman beside him was mending a coat, and a man crouched before them was telling a hunting story that Malaamig could mostly follow, between the words he recognized and the way he was miming the action. They were familiar with each other, touching each other often as the spoke together, laughing loudly and frequently, and sometimes embracing in greeting and parting. One man, sleepy and grumpy, was teased into a smile by two older women who were not shy about snapping him with a blanket, tickling him and mocking him. They were mostly dark-haired and light-eyed, with skin ranging between the ice-pale of the woman who had first greeted him in the pools to a deep golden tan. As comfortable as they were with each other, he would not have guessed they were related - there were a range of face- and nose- shapes, and some of them had slanted eyes and sharp cheekbones, while others had round eyes and soft chins. There were no children in the mix, and there was no sign of the Duurlidurj woman who appeared to be a medic.
They were not half as subtle in their own observation of him, staring outright in many cases, and sometimes even pointing and talking. A few braved the dogs to touch his shoulder, pat his head, or poke his arm. He smiled tentatively back at them over the rim of his soup bowl and was rewarded with broad, enthusiastic grins and child-like arm movements. He was even able to have a half-way coherent conversation about boots with a woman who insisted on measuring his feet.
Kalitelm came in during that conversation and limped around the dogs, who swapped haunches to keep an eye on her but remained laying down. She pressed a hand to Malaamig's forehead and quizzed him clearly on his health.
"I feel wonderful," he assured her. "Much improved by a good night's sleep. The food is nourishing," he raised his empty bowl to her in gratitude and one of the men who was watching them offered to fill it again. Malaamig, pleased he understood the offer, shook his head. "I'm quite full," he insisted, and he patted his belly for clarity. This brought a chorus of chatter from the people observing him, and several of them mimicked his belly-patting and laughed.
Kalitelm eyed him with a skepticism that seemed universal of medics everywhere and Malaamig tried giving her a reassuring smile. "I feel fine," he insisted, and to his chagrin, then sneezed.
This raised several titters of laughter, but also a murmur of consideration, and he was grateful when a handful of people entered from behind the door and drew some of the attention from him. Birka was among the newcomers, and she had not shed their outer coat in the little dark anteroom, though it was loose around her and not toggled tight. She and two others were carrying large bags, and looked ready for a journey. Malaamig was immediately hopeful; he had been wondering how to bring up a trip to go back for Diren and Margaa, and the bags looked more suited for throwing over a horse than carrying on a back.
Obi chose that moment to whine and remind Malaamig that he hadn't been outside yet, and there was a moment of wary stillness that turned into a flurry of activity when Obi did nothing more. Malaamig rose as someone brought him his worn travel pack and an unfamiliar coat that they measured against his arms, laughing, before they gave him his old coat back. They seemed to expect him to keep the clothing they'd given him on underneath it, and though the garments didn't quite reach his wrists and ankles, he knew he would be grateful for the extra layer outside. Kalitelm, frowning, pressed a ring of soft crocheted wool on him, and saw that he pulled it around his neck before she let the others take him (and the milling dogs) outside again.
Obi and Jem left yellow marks in the snow at the base of the nearest trees as soon as he released them, and they were inclined to sniff everything with great interest as they hiked through the little village. Malaamig tried to figure a population from the hints he had - just less than a dozen little round bumps in the snow. A dozen bunks per house, if they were configured like the one he'd been in, with two or three people to a bunk... a hundred people? Would all of the houses be for the same purpose? It was hard to gauge the size of them.
A few people were out in the early dark. Malaamig guessed it was an hour before true sunrise; the sky was already light enough to do simple tasks. Someone wearing a yoke was bringing steaming buckets from the springs to one of the houses, someone else was chopping wood, and a pair of chattering figures raised a brace of hares to show off to their party as they crossed paths. Gender was nearly impossible to distinguish when they were bundled up for the weather and Malaamig had not noticed any difference in what the men were wearing compared to the women.
With Birka was a younger woman who chattered at Malaamig like a glider, and a young man who seemed inclined to laugh at the jokes Malaamig didn't catch. Birka looked amused at them, and exchanged a tolerant look with Malaamig as they hiked through the village away from the hot springs and up a little ridge. He called the dogs to heel behind him as the traveled way narrowed to a foot trail, and was busy reminding them of their positions as they crested the ridge and broke through a band of trees. He turned to look ahead - and came to a stop so abruptly that Jem ran into his calves and yelped in surprise.
Malaamig had forgotten about the unicorns. They were just a snow fancy, he had almost decided; a delirium of exhaustion and isolation.
The nearest of these impossible creatures lifted a giant head at Jem's bark and fixed eyes the size of his palm on him. A marbled spiral horn pointed at him, the animal stomped a feathered foot in warning. Beyond it, other heads raised curiously, though there were no other signs of alarm.
Malaamig stared back in wonder, remaining stock-still in the middle of the trail.
There was a fence, taller than he was, of sturdy logs and cross-members, and taller by far were the creatures on the other side; it was no wonder they showed so little fear of the dogs. They were as large and broad-chested as the rare steppe-yaks he'd hunted once, too broad to reach from side to side and tall enough that he could walk under one, if he ducked. He wasn't sure if he would be foolish enough to make such a walk - what he could see of the feet through the thick fur implied cloven hooves larger than his head, and their horns looked business-like.
They were not quiet animals, and their sounds were not like anything he'd heard before: one of them was bleating like a goat for attention from another who browsed, unimpressed on a bundle of twigs and branches. Many of them were muttering like cows... or old men, he thought with a laugh, and once he'd started laughing, he couldn't stop, holding his sides and chuckling weakly as the shock of the moment washed over him.
This alarmed the dogs, and his local escort. Birka looked anxiously into his face and asked a question.
"Unicorns," Malaamig answered helplessly, chortling like a fool. "You have tame unicorns."
He wasn't sure if he was dreading the report he would be filling out for the Wayfarer's Guild... or actually looking forward to it.