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Diren hadn't realized how much he relied on Malaamig's quiet strength until it was gone.
At first, it had been simply odd; Malaamig's solitary trip to find the source of smoke was the first time they hadn't been stuck together like burrs for months on the trail. Diren expected to take some pleasure from his absence, but found that instead, he missed the man much more than he expected to.
The chores were not so onerous, and Diren had developed more muscle on their long journey than he realized, but he was still aware that he could not hack frozen meat from their cache with the same ease that the mighty wayfarer could, and he wished he could consult the more experienced man about the signs of weather and the high, fast-moving clouds. As much as he had cursed the tiny space in their snow-shelter and felt like they were too many seeds in a firebell casing, he didn't find the place any less claustrophobic for the absence of the big man. Where there had been shreds of hard-won conversation, now there was nothing, and it made him realize how much Malaamig had opened up to the two of them.
More than anything, Diren wished Malaamig were there to talk about Margaa.
She insisted that she was fine, when she spoke at all, and they both knew it was a lie. She was fading fast, in and out of low fevers that left her in constant restless sleep, with little energy. She had lost weight, and the only color in her face was in her bright cheeks. Even her voice seemed to drift, all of her usual focus and brightness drained out of her speech.
Diren knew it was his fault, even while he knew she would insist it wasn't.
If it weren't for him, she would still be safely back in Affamarg, ensconced with her books in the carpeted library where they'd first met. Bai, introducing them, had been so sure that Margaa's careful ways and quiet, dutiful habits would tame Diren's headlong habit of rushing out to new places. Instead, Diren had sparked in her the same wanderlust that drove him to scale heights and take ridiculous long journeys into unexplored wilderness.
How he had loved watching that love of exploration ignite in her. Poring over maps together, basking in the passion of her new interest; it was the fulfillment of every dream to have a partner so brilliant and beautiful who wanted as badly as he did to see the blank places on their maps filled in with contours and measurements. In her, he found someone as willing as he was to go find the stories, instead of just reading about them in books.
But maybe his family had been right. Maybe Bai had been right. Maybe he'd taken advantage of Margaa's naive love - for him as well as their shared passion of exploration. Everyone had frowned at their marriage; he was too old for her, too reckless and undisciplined. She was too young, too sheltered to be dragged out into ice-cold northern lands full of unknown dangers.
Diren gnawed over the knowledge that he had brought her to this place, that she ought to be safe at home in orderly Affamarg; it would be almost spring there, now, and the guild medics would be able to provide more than ineffective willowbark and alder tea for whatever it was that ailed her.
I took her away from that, Diren thought, wracked with guilt, as he tucked an edge of her blanket around her sleeping form and left the shelter of the snow house to run the dogs one last time before he attempted to settle in for the night himself.
Two days had stretched into three, and Diren missed Malaamig as much as his dogs did, sighing and looking longingly to the southwest where the edges of their trail were just beginning to smooth in the wind. He shied from thinking that Malaamig might not be coming back, and barely kept himself from wondering what they would do without him. Their progress over the frozen land had come to an abrupt end. Spring melt was unlikely to be better traveling, and Malaamig had already talked about how difficult travel across the marsh would be in summer. Could they even make it to the coast before Iremima gave up on them altogether and returned to the Empire without them?
In the darkness, as clouds gathered over the child moon and its attendant parent satellites that night, it grew worse than simply wishing that Malaamig were there for companionship. Diren didn't consider himself a coward, or a man given to flights of imagination, but every strange noise and wail of the wind was a predator that night, stalking their little shelter, and he felt unqualified to face the dangers of the wilderness alone, fear a potent mix with his growing feelings of despair.
Bears would be hibernating, he reminded himself, dry-mouthed. They'd seen no signs of wolves - no meat eaters larger than foxes seemed to roam these foothills.
That didn't mean he didn't start a little, and look around in instinctive caution, as he did all the little chores outside their snow-shelter and relieved himself. The dogs, usually relaxed and comforting to have around when Malaamig was there, picked up on his irrational fears and compounded them, flickering their ears at sounds he couldn't separate from the wind, and anxiously lifting their noses to scent the air.
Diren squinted into the darkness, hating the way it pressed on his eyeballs, wishing his little lamp cast more than a token flicker of light out onto the snow. They'd left the better lantern back at the cache near the bodies of the horses, one of so many little sacrifices they had made to lighten their loads.
He was reminding himself again that there wouldn't be bears, that the sounds were just variable pitches of the wind, that his imagination would run away with him if he let it, when he abruptly realized that it wasn't his imagination, that the dogs were aligned like iron flakes in a magnetic field along the path he and Malaamig had taken to the south, and that he could hear something in the darkness beyond the range of his vision. Something that wasn't just wind, something large, crashing through the snow and brush as it approached. He had to fight back knee-jerk terror. It could be Malaamig returning at last, he told himself, but he reached for the wayfarer's spear with a calm logic that knew it wasn't; there was no welcome in the dogs' stiff poses, and one of them was growling low in warning.
He battled to keep his fear from overwhelming him, telling the dogs 'Guard,' too quietly over the sound of the wind, mouth dry and teeth clenched. One of them howled, and there was an answering roar from the darkness.
'Margaa,' he thought achingly, at last. 'I'm so sorry.' He wrapped mittened fingers around the shaft of the spear and braced himself, just as a giant form, taller than a house, stomped out of the snow and darkness and loomed over him like a monster from a fairy tale.
He lifted the spear in futile defiance and found a blood-curdling yell from somewhere in his chest, charging forward with all of the courage and strength he could muster.