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The sun was just cresting the ridge to the south as Birka led their little party east, following Malaamig's trail back through the snow. The dogs seemed inclined to frisk ahead like foals, but were smart enough to stay well clear of the snowies' big feet, and the newcomer took to the snow-unicorn saddle with ease. He clearly had never seen a snow-unicorn - Birka smiled to remember his surprise and awe - but seemed comfortable with the idea of riding. She had mounted him on gentle Grayfeathers, and placed him behind her; although he was the one who knew where they were going, she didn't trust that he could keep a snow-unicorn to a safe route, and his back-trail was clear and easy to follow, so far.
Kativa rode right behind him, as close as Stonefoot would permit, peppering him with questions that he shrugged off. Birka couldn't decide if he couldn't understand her fast speech, if he couldn't hear her over the intermittent wind and the noise of their travel, or if he was simply recalcitrant. Matelkem took up the rear, grinning.
They hadn't gotten far from the village before a snow-unicorn challenge unexpectedly caught Birka's attention, and she saw a party of riders approaching from the south. She whistled Startle to a stop and raised an arm of greeting in the long-distance arm-language. The head rider opposite echoed a standard reply, but didn't pause in their approach of Smokewater until Birka, thinking of the quarantine she'd left behind, added a second arm, meaning 'urgent!' She scanned the landscape for a likely meeting place, and gestured to where the arms of the hill formed the start of the valley that stretched between them. The other rider started to lead his party there, frustration apparent even across the distance the separated them, but stopped when Birka waved a 'stop' command and indicated just one of them should go. She didn't intend to risk infecting the rider she met, but there was no sense in all of them making the trek. She turned back to see that Matelkem had already started to dismount, and Kativa was showing Malaamig how to do the same.
It was a careful trudge; the ridge didn't have deep snow on it, but you didn't push a snow-unicorn along any unbroken trail, so Birka let Startle pick her own path. She drew up before she met the other rider, and gestured that they stay back, recognizing Dareg by the bold designs on his bearskin-trimmed coat with no small amount of disappointment. Dareg was an able ranger, if proud, but since his ugly breakup with Fala, things had been tense and awkward between the two, and by extension Fala's close age-mates.
Birka tried shouting over the distance, but the mountain winds whipped her voice away without effect, and she was reduced to the limited formal arm-language that every child learned.
It was a frustrating conversation. She had to repeat her gestures several times, and was reduced to miming and pointing when the limited vocabulary of the arm-language failed to convey the information. Dareg looked blank at her signal for 'quarantine,' until she play-acted coughing and repeated it; it wasn't a signal most people ever had to use outside of age-set tests.
Birka wished several times throughout their mute dialogue that she'd met someone from Itadesh; deaf Marai had helped raised most of the village, and being able to add even a little of their informal hand-language would have been enormously helpful. She tried adding some of the simpler signs, to no immediate success, before returning to very basic arm-language and mime. Understanding of the situation - quarantine! strangers from cities to the south! - finally dawned in Dareg's face, his surprise and shock apparent even across the distance that separated them, and Birka grinned at his reaction. She was still smiling when she returned to the traveling party, taking a tiny bit of satisfaction from the fact that she had been able to send the haughty ranger back to Itrelir rather than joining them back at Smokewater.
Then she remembered that Fala was still at Itrelir, and felt sorry for them both.
They were able to follow Malaamig's trail back through the snow nearly all of the way, with one detour around a steep ravine, and a few minor deviations where a ridge he had followed was too narrow for the unicorns to walk along. They found a few indentations in the snow where it appeared that he had stopped and slept, one with a little melted circle where a fire had been.
They paused several times to browse the snow-unicorns, and at one of these stops, Birka directed Kativa to tamp down a circle of snow and build a little fire of their own so they could have hot tea with their cold rations. Protected, for the moment, from the younger ranger's perpetual chatter - which Birka knew firsthand could be exhausting - she drew Malaamig away into quiet conversation. She answered questions about the unicorns, showing him the nose-rings and leads that allowed them some control if a beast grew panicked, and demonstrated some of the whistled commands before allowing Greyfeathers to return to her destruction of the willow and alder that blanketed the slopes of the foothills.
Malaamig showed respect for their size, but not fear, and he returned the favor with a demonstration of obedience with the dogs.
The big canines clearly adored their master, much more demonstratively than the snow-unicorns cared for their herders. They watched him attentively when he called to him, leaping to each command with surprisingly expressive joy, and almost smiling when he praised them for their successes. They lay down, sat, jumped and wheeled at his command, rolled over on their backs, and one of them fetched a glove he tossed into the snow without leaving toothmarks in the leather. They let him put food at their feet without touching it, even when alarming amounts of drool betrayed their hunger.
Birka was impressed.
She caught herself wondering how he had been injured, and how bad it really was, with a speculative sideways look. He was a handsome man, if sober-faced, and there was a delightful guarded softness to his face when he was looking only at his dogs. He didn't seem inclined to extraneous conversation, but was polite, and they shared in interest in their animals. Birka could appreciate a quiet man, and she caught herself toying with her necklace thoughtfully.
They made good progress through the snow, but as afternoon began to color into sunset and the sun slid down behind the mountains, Birka noted a gathering of clouds to the north and a general thickening of the air above them. She drew up and whistled Grayfeathers up beside her so she could ask Malaamig how far they were from their destination.
He frowned and suggested something - a unit of time Birka wasn't familiar with, she guessed. At her shrug, he pointed at the moon, just rising in the east ahead of them, and at a new location in the sky.
"Two hours, maybe three," she guessed, and he shrugged. "We'll keep going," Birka decided. The present moon was nearly full, with its two attendant moons little pinpricks of light to either side, and the sky would remain light for a while after sunset. The gathering clouds would dim the light, but they also smelled suspiciously wet and Birka didn't want to lose their trail to a sudden dump of snow. She was confident that she could find her way back to Smokewater following the range of mountains, but was less sure of Malaamig's unproven navigation skills. She raised her arms to gesture back to Matelkem, who was on tail-guard, and nodded at the younger ranger's answering motion.
A few hours in, Birka began to second-guess her choice, and started squinting into the darkness for a likely place to stop to camp. It was not ideal to try to camp when visibility was so low, but the trail was fading into the gloom before her - fainter where the wind had smoothed it, and the moons were almost indistinguishable behind the clouds that now obscured the stars. Streams of Others ran somewhat lower than usual, unconcerned by the clouds, but they cast no light on the snow below.
Suddenly, Startle's ears flickered forward and she huffed. The dogs, who had been trudging in the trail broken behind her, whined and crowded up behind her, and she broke stride and kicked one big foot back them in agitation as Birka drew breath to whistle her calm again. Malaamig shouted something, muffled in his smokering, that made the dogs fall back to a safe distance and Greyfeathers bleated in echo of Startle's warning.
Ahead of them, there was a sudden, eerie howl that made the hairs at the back of Birka's neck rise in instinctive fear, and Startle gave a ringing cry of challenge.