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[1520.06.09]Here is a short excerpt to whet your appetite:
When the small round humps appeared in the distance, Tekura gave an inward cheer at seeing the houses of Itrelir. As much as he always enjoyed the summer gather, he wanted to reach home again. A lot of work remained to be done at the end of summer and through the brief Northern autumn before the long winter took hold. Salmon from the fish run needed to be packed away, there would be hunts to organize, and countless things to bring out of storage for winter use.
As a raiser, it was Tekura's duty to guide children through helping with those tasks that could be trusted to small hands. He swept his gaze across the children clustered on snow-unicorns near him. They all seemed fine, though growing restless with proximity to home. Then he glanced upward. The Others were high and far today, no more than a sprinkle of star-sized motes halfway between horizon and zenith, visible in the clear blue sky of day. There would be no trouble from them for now.
When they neared the village, a small figure atop one building gave a cheerful wave. Tekura waved back, his heart lifting. That was surely Osro, Tekura's sometime-lover who had come early to Itrelir for his chance to design a new storage building. It would feel good to get back together after their uncomfortable parting at the summer gather. Despite their somewhat different desires, Tekura hoped they would have better luck now that they had a winter in the same village ahead of them.
As they rode into the village proper, Tekura was surprised to see his mother Amirel sitting on a bench far back from the construction, yet obviously watching its progress. Her hands carded a basket of fiber with desultory strokes. She had a brilliant head for design but no hand for actual building. Recurring accidents eventually removed her from the roster of able-bodied adults. These days she tended to avoid the builders. So what had enticed her to keep watch over this particular project?
Tekura spent the rest of the day getting the older children settled back into Fledgling House and the younger ones in Eyas House. He spoke with Luulan and the other raisers about possible tasks for tomorrow. Likely the older children would help put away the cured salmon. Younger ones capable of simple tasks could start packing up summer things for storage.
That night, Tekura managed to slip away long enough to find Osro. The short, chunky man embraced him exuberantly. "I'm glad to see you, Tekura," he said. "Thlanir decided that he wanted a female lover as soon as everyone returned to the village, so we restrung our necklaces a few days ago."
Tekura grinned. "I just so happen to have a bead," he said. It was a delicately worked disc, half white bone and half wood stained black, joined along a dovetail seam.
"It's beautiful," said Osro. He offered Tekura a square of ivory with an artic warbler building a nest. Tekura recognized Thlanir's exquisite scrimshaw in the fine black lines. "So do you have time for a sauna trip before you have to go back to the infants?"
"I will make time," Tekura said firmly. He wanted to get clean after days on the trail. He also wanted to renew his relationship with Osro, and there was a sauna frequented by men where nobody would look too closely at the dark corners. With a number of small saunas scattered through the village, it was fairly easy for people with similar interests to bathe together, or conversely, avoid things not to their liking.
* * *
The new storehouse was nearly finished. Tekura took advantage of this to bring one of the older age-sets to the construction site for a lesson in safety and a discussion about building techniques. At nine years old, the children could ask good questions and behave themselves. Druuth and Vrimani, the more accident-prone members, hung carefully back. Yolinir kept an eye on her age-mates, as she often did. Tekura watched them too. Druuth's exuberance put him at risk about as often Vrimani's clumsiness did for her. Tekura was determined to get through the lesson without a practical demonstration in first aid.
Leilu connected her interest in ceramics with the concrete used in many building projects; she asked Osro some insightful questions about the mixture of ingredients. Shraiya, who favored wilderness lessons, aimed her questions at the finding and gathering of good building materials. Wood could be cut nearby, but some of the best ingredients for concrete came all the way from the Lichenwold. Although she usually focused on finding food, Tefein also joined the discussion of suitable materials.
Then Nrath pursued his special interest, wanting to know what kinds of accidents most often occurred on a construction site. Tekura winced and let Osro field that one too, speaking about falls and mashed hands or feet. Tekura knew the answers all too well, though. He'd seen enough of that with his mother. That reminded him ...
"Osro, how did you manage to convince Amirel to help with your project?" Tekura asked. "I mean, she loves design but she really doesn't ... do well on construction sites."
"That's just it -- I asked for her input in the planning stages, and then she sat watch to point out possible improvements in process," Osro said. "She saved us a good deal of rope, figuring out how to rig the lumber for more efficient transport." Then he shook his head. "I don't know what slush-brained idiot wanted her for roof-work, though. Plain to see she doesn't have the steadiness for it. So I invited her to watch from a bench; I won't have any accidents on my site. She's been a delight."
Tekura smiled. He couldn't recall anyone ever describing his mother as a delight before, but he was glad that someone had finally offered a way for her to be useful and safe at the same time. "No wonder she likes you," he said to Osro. "As for who wanted her doing active building, that was mostly old Frona. He retired to record-keeping a while back."
"I hope he does less damage there," Osro muttered.
The children tittered. "I'm sure he's a diligent elder," Tekura said, not wanting to encourage disrespect. "Speaking of roof-work, Osro, could you give us a quick demonstration of some safety precautions for that?"
"Of course," Osro said. He propped a ladder against the side of the building. "First, plant your ladder in a secure place. Second, get someone to hold it for you while you climb."
Druuth immediately volunteered, along with Shraiya. Since they were the two biggest and strongest of the age-mates, Tekura beckoned them forward to brace one side while he took the other. Osro climbed the ladder.
"Third, you can clip your safety harness to one of the anchor ropes up ..." Osro's commentary trailed off.
"... on the roof," Tekura finished. "What's the matter?"
"I see someone coming," Osro said. He scampered up the roof, sure-footed as a wild goat, to get a better view. He stood, shading his eyes against the slanting autumn sun, as he gazed northward. "Single rider on a snow-unicorn, coming fast."
Tekura stuck his fingers in his mouth and gave a shrill whistle, attracting the attention of the messenger Tikite not far away. Tikite trotted over, his shoulder-length hair swaying with his stride. "Osro sees someone approaching at speed," Tekura explained.
Just then Osro dropped down the ladder, scarcely touching the rungs and using his gloved hands on the side rails to slow his descent. "Don't do that except in emergencies," he told the children curtly. "Something must be wrong to push a snow-unicorn that hard. I'll go find a ranger to care for the messenger's mount."
"I'll get one of the Elders to talk with the messenger," Tikite said. He dashed away, long legs eating up the distance.
"Look at him go," Shraiya murmured to Leilu. "He's so fast."
"Let's get back to Fledgling House," Tekura said, rounding up his charges.
"If somebody's hurt and they need a healer --" Nrath began.
"-- then it will be easier for people to find you at your house than in the middle of the village, if Krethel wants your assistance," Tekura said firmly. The children dragged their feet, trying to see what was going on, but he had enough experience to get them moving in the right direction. "Remember, it's like the way that the full healers head for the healing house if there might be trouble. The rest of us can help by staying out of the way for now. I'm sure we'll all hear the news soon enough."
So they did. Before the sun had traveled the width of two fists, word spread from house to house. A fire had swept through Itadesh some time during the summer, destroying the entire village. The summer-tenders were missing and presumed dead. The people who had just returned to Itadesh from the summer gather would probably need to spend the winter somewhere else, so Itrelir would have to prepare for an as-yet-unknown number of refugees.
"My father, Amariin -- he stayed in Itadesh this time," Shraiya said, her small face turning pale. "Does that mean he's dead too?"
"I'm afraid that's very likely," Tekura said. There was no hiding from painful truths in their harsh homeland. "The people of Itadesh will surely do their best to identify who died and who may have escaped somehow. We'll just have to wait for more news."
"I don't want him to be dead!" Shraiya wailed. She burst into tears and flung herself into Tekura's lap.
He wasn't the only raiser with a handful of sobbing child. Nearly half the children conceived at summer gathers had a parent -- usually a father -- from Itadesh, given people's tendency to choose lovers outside their home village when they had the chance. The probable loss of the summer-tenders would affect many people in Itrelir.
Tekura himself wondered about the mother-tender Falju who had watched over Tarlikii, a pregnant woman whose previous pregnancy had ended in miscarriage. They hadn't wanted to risk traveling to the summer gather. Staying home should have been safer. Now the young mother and the man who cared for her were presumably dead. Tekura hugged Shraiya and sniffled, trying not to cry himself.
"Here," said Nrath, pressing a couple of handkerchiefs into Tekura's hand. The boy had an armload of them. "I pulled out all the ones we had in the storage basket."
"Good job," Tekura said hoarsely as Nrath moved on to pass out the rest of the handkerchiefs to people who needed them.
* * *
It was quite early when Lildoru came to Fledgling House with fresh news. She had just passed her adulthood tests at the summer gather, and had not yet declared an occupation, so she often invited the Elders to assign her whatever needed doing. Recently that involved a lot of running messages back and forth across the village as people prepared for the refugees.
"Today's the day," Lildoru told Tekura. "Itadesh sent a scout ahead; Eshra says the rest of the travelers will arrive before supper time. She also thinks the weather will get worse."
"What's it doing now?" Tekura asked. He hadn't left the child-house yet to see for himself.
"Dark grey clouds hanging low over the mountains, and mist below that," Lildoru said. "The Others are high overhead, one broad stripe through the zenith."
"Oh yes, that's likely to turn nasty," Tekura said. His time as a ranger, before becoming a raiser, had given him a pretty good understanding of the weather. "It will probably rain before it snows."
Nrath popped up at Tekura's elbow. "Chills," the boy said. "Maybe frostbite if the temperature drops far enough. Could we help here by warming up the children who are cold, but not enough to need a healer? Grandmother Krethel is sure to be all busy. We could heat some blankets and clothes by the hearth, and start extra pots of soup."
"Those are good ideas, Nrath," said Tekura, hugging the boy close. "Let's get started."
So they worked to ensure that when the refugees arrived, there would be warm beds and clothes waiting for them along with plenty of hot food. The bunk arrangements were condensed, with age-mates piling in together, three in beds meant for two and four in beds meant for three. That left space for the new children moving in from Itadesh. Not all of them would fit, of course. Some other houses had been hastily refitted to make a new infant-house and child-house as well, which had kept Osro busy building a hearth-fence and other crucial safety features.
By the time Tekura made it outside, the mist had thickened to rain and the temperature was slowly dropping. He found Eshra and asked her about people he knew from Itadesh. Shraiya's father Amariin, the mother-tender Falju, and the pregnant Tarlikii were all confirmed casualties of the fire. However, most of the Itadesh population had been safely at the summer gather grounds.
Many of Tekura's ranger friends were coming to Itrelir. Birka and Fala were age-mates, and Tekura looked forward to seeing the two women again. Dlameda and Tiren were both older men whose experience would be valuable in the coming winter. Also coming was the crafter Inama, mother of Tekura's son Kumar who had just passed his adulthood tests with his age-mate Lildoru.
"Fala took tail-guard today, so she'll be the last to arrive," Eshra warned Tekura.
"I'll watch for her," Tekura said.
"Good," Eshra said. "She pushes herself too hard sometimes."
Tekura caught Lildoru as she hurried toward a storehouse. "Will you check to make sure that Song Sparrow House still has a space available?" he asked. "I want to put Fala in with Karavai, if possible."
"I'll check," Lildoru said.
When the refugees began to arrive, Tekura was grateful for the early warnings. They huddled miserably around the hearth. Itrelir children handed out the items that had been warming by the fire, and hung up the soggy clothes to dry. It helped that numerous parents of Itrelir -- especially fathers who had sired children on Itadesh women -- came to volunteer their time at Fledgling House. There were so many that the child-house didn't have room for all of them at once. Tekura offered to let someone else take his bunk for the night.
Then he went to stand watch as the long line of burdened snow-unicorns made their way to the village. Domestics swarmed around the train, unloading baggage and stowing it in various destinations. Rangers took charge of the tired snowies, removing their harnesses.
Lildoru confirmed that Song Sparrow House was holding a bunk space for Fala. Tekura thanked her, then immediately turned to survey the rangers caring for the last few snow-unicorns. He spotted his age-mate Jeruq, her wavy brown hair escaping from its braid and glistening with beads of sleet.
"Jeruq, I have word that Fala is riding tail-guard today," said Tekura. "I need you to take over her snow-unicorn as soon as she arrives, so I can get Fala indoors to warm up."
"Gladly," Jeruq said.
When Fala arrived, her stiff movements confirmed Tekura's concerns as she climbed down from the high saddle. Tekura intercepted her before she could start grooming her exhausted mount. Jeruq discreetly assumed that task.
Tekura saw that Fala was soaked, her long dark hair dripping water, bits of ice crusted along the outside of her heavy winter coat. She didn't seem to be shivering much -- a bad sign -- though her teeth still chattered. Quickly Tekura tugged off his mittens and ran his fingers over her face, checking for frostbite. Her skin felt chilled and taut, but not actually frozen. She also grumbled at him for fussing over her, definitely a good thing. Tekura kept his responses calm and factual. Eventually she gave in.
Tekura guided Fala to Song Sparrow House. He shucked off her wet clothes and hung them to dry by the fire. Then he dressed her in a warmed night-tunic and sat her on Karavai's bunk.
The eternal soup on the hearth was thick with cured fish. Someone had sensibly made it extra nourishing today. Tekura dished up a bowl for Fala and one for himself, then got her to eat. She responded to direct conversation but clearly didn't feel like talking much. She seemed glad, though, when Tekura explained that he didn't need to leave.
After they finished eating, Tekura crawled into Karavai's bunk with Fala, pulling the heavy furs over them both. Sharing body heat was an effective way to warm up a chilled person. Fala snuggled against him without protest. Tekura did not hesitate to wrap his arms around her in return. She knew that he preferred male lovers, and wouldn't ask him for anything he was uncomfortable giving.
Some time later, Karavai and Ularki came to bed. It was a tight fit, squeezing four people into a bunk meant for two or at most three. Tekura rolled up onto his side and pressed his back against the wall of the house. Fala squirmed closer to him. Karavai tucked himself against Fala. Ularki, who was not a small woman, wedged herself into the bunk after Karavai.
Fala's hair was finally dry, Tekura realized as he smoothed a hand over it. She lay warm and quiet against him. Tekura reached an arm across her to grope for Karavai, and found his age-mate also reaching for him. They pressed their friend between them and went to sleep.
* * *
The gather-house echoed with the sound of many conversations. Everyone struggled to find ways of making not enough resources stretch a little farther. Tekura wandered through the crowd, touching lightly here and there, listening for places where he could contribute something useful.
"Tekura!" called Dalvo, waving him toward the hearth. The young ranger of Itadesh crouched over the pale stones where he had sketched out a map. "Come help us plan some trips."
Carefully Tekura edged into the circle of rangers standing shoulder-to-shoulder around the crude map. His age-mate Jeruq nodded to him, her hair swaying. Anler lifted his hand in welcome; he was an age-mate of Birka and Fala. Eshra was adept with snow-unicorns but she rarely spoke much. Dareg could be a challenge in any discussion, with his temper. The older men Tiren and Alvardu would be a welcome buffer.
Dalvo had already marked the village and major landmarks on his map, along with one long loop of trail. He tapped that with the end of his charred stick, explaining, "Dareg wants to take a herd of snow-unicorns east to browse. Tiren is thinking about making a long trip too, maybe westward."
"We do need to reduce the burden on the local plants, or they won't grow properly come spring," Tekura agreed. Normally a quiet time, this winter looked to involve a great deal more travel than usual. Hunting and trapping expeditions, trips to browse snowies in fresh places, extra messages to run between the remaining villages ... it all added up. "I know more about local trapping than distant browsing, though. You should ask Fala about that."
Tiren shrugged. "Dareg, Jeruq, and Alvardu have been very helpful," he said. "We're doing all right without Fala. She doesn't know as much about Itrelir as Itadesh."
Tekura wasn't so sure about that, but he let it go.
"I want to do some short-range hunting, but I don't know the terrain here very well," Anler said. He waved a hand vaguely over the map.
"Well, there are major game trails here and here," Tekura said, leaning forward to point at the map.
"Thanks," Dalvo said as he dutifully added those to the sketch. He handled himself well as a new adult. Tekura assessed the very serviceable map done with impromptu materials, and thought he might drop a word with the record-keepers to see if they needed extra help these days.
"Then you're thinking ... what, one or two nights camping out, no more than that before you return to the village?" Jeruq asked. Anler nodded. "I suggest aiming between the long loops." She traced a finger along Dalvo's map, taking care not to smudge the lines. "We'll have to send out several browsing parties, at staggered intervals. So the snowies will be eating those areas coming and going. If you make your short loops between, instead of the same direction, it will further spread out the browsing pressure. Otherwise your mount won't find much to eat."
"There are good places to lay traps along the mountains," Alvardu added. "You could set some and then do a bit of spear-hunting before coming back to check the traps."
Dareg nodded. "Scarred Mountain has folds that channel game down a series of small valleys," he said. "It's a good place for a short trip, if you watch out for Others. Those folds make it possible for them to sneak up on people. That happened to me and Fala once -- we had quite an adventure!"
Anler stared at him with wide eyes. "Maybe somewhere a little less exciting?" he suggested.
"You could follow the river," Tekura said. "Any watercourse is good for hunting and trapping. If you choose different feeder forks on different trips, you'll avoid overstressing any one area."
"Someone needs to survey the big game too," Eshra said. "Not only will the hunters want to know where to find shagbacks and such, but those of us herding snowies also need to know what places have already been browsed or grazed heavily by wildlife. We have to spread out the kind of food we take."
Tiren tapped a few ovals delineating the presence of nearby lakes and ponds. "What about ice-fishers?" he asked.
"We need to wait for the temperature to drop enough to make a solid surface, then we'll start sending parties out on the ice," Alvardu said. "The message to Itakith recommending ice-fishing there too."
"I'm glad I didn't go there!" Anler said. "They go ice-fishing on the sound." It was safer in winter, when ice kept most of the sea monsters away from people, but it still posed enough risk that people only did it when they really needed the extra food. Tekura knew rangers who had caught a tremendous amount of seal or fish on a lucky trip. He also recalled stories of unlucky fishers who had gotten eaten themselves.
Tekura shivered even in the sweaty atmosphere of the crowded gather-house. He was glad to be in Itrelir too, and more of a raiser than a ranger these days. Even so, the map held his gaze, and he spent a long time poring over it and thinking about where to find extra food. He still liked to go out occasionally when the ruckus of childcare made him long for the quiet woods.
* * *
Treg, a crafter whose skills included making felt beads, put out bowls of his plain yellow or orange beads for anyone to take who needed one. Simple spheres were much faster and easier to make than more elaborate felted beads, let alone those carved from solid materials. A slit in one side made it possible to snap them on and off the thongs of a necklace without needing to restring the whole thing. Numerous people sported one of Treg's creations now. Tekura understood why.
Everyone felt the loss of Itadesh's summer-tenders keenly. They wanted to replenish the population. Even men and women who preferred their own kind for recreational purposes were taking a duty-month for procreative sex. So there was an even higher demand for beads than usual. Some people were even taking older beads off their coats or dancing belts to put back into active use.
Unsurprisingly, Fala accepted a bead from Karavai when her necklace opened. The second year after her adulthood tests, she had spent a happy winter with him, learning about relationships and lovemaking. Karavai was keeping his own center space unfilled, though, indicating his availability to other women who wanted a mating partner. He was quite popular.
Tekura felt very glad for Osro's presence at Itrelir this winter. Wearing each other's beads provided a buffer against the large number of women in want of men. Tekura would probably give in to a duty-month eventually, but since he had fathered several children already, it was just a matter of fending off individual women rather than the Council of Elders. He preferred the company of men, and ideally, a long-term arrangement rather than hopping from one bunk to another.
The gather-house was crowded. Karavai was telling a romantic story, illustrated by puppets, in which Urari tried to entice Rai into offering her a bead. In the audience, several men were rolling loose beads in their fingers. Women with open center spaces were fingering their necklaces and occasionally glancing around at nearby men.
Tekura leaned against Osro. Maybe they could talk Karavai into doing one of the men's romances. There was one with Rai and Erora in Smokewater Valley that Tekura particularly liked. But when the romance concluded, Karavai launched straight into a bawdy story about Li and De making an embarrassing courtship mistake.
"It smells like seashell in here," Osro muttered. "Let's make tracks before some woman asks us to be dutiful."
"Treg said something earlier today about a sauna session for the friendly men," Tekura said. "Want to go see if that came together?"
Osro grinned at him. "That sounds great."
They slipped out into the cold and made their way to the relevant sauna, not far from the house where Treg lived. From the sounds inside, Tekura and Osro gathered that the plans had proved successful. They removed and folded their clothes in the outer area.
Inside, the sauna was thick with steam, lit only by the dim gleam of coals. The sweat sprang out on their skin immediately. Men lounged on the slatted wooden benches. Here and there, couples or trios moved together in an intimate dance. That was one advantage to loving your own sex: you didn't have to restrict yourself to one partner at a time if you liked bigger parties in your bunk. Women were expected to take only one man per month, and some men chose to reciprocate. That cut down on opportunities to team up. Of course, a few people broke the rules, but that was frowned upon so it happened rarely.
As Tekura's eyes adjusted to the dim atmosphere, he began to make out more details. Anler sprawled in a corner with someone face-down in his lap. Although he preferred female companionship, Anler had yet to father a child and that made him increasingly unpopular with women. He wasn't the only one left out of the scramble for mates, either. Those men who loved their own sex were gentle and understanding about taking care of the "leftovers" who would accept comfort where they could get it.
Another motion caught Tekura's attention, and he chuckled. "It looks like Treg and Dornev are having a good time," he murmured to Osro. "I wonder if that's why Treg wanted to set this up."
"Who cares?" Osro said with barely a glance at the couple. "We're here. It's nice and hot. Sit down and let me start on your back." He picked up one of the cloths used to encourage sweaty skin to give up its dirt.
"Mmm," Tekura murmured as he sank back into Osro's grasp. This was surely turning into a wonderful night. There were no women around at the time, and after they got clean, they could put the bench to ... other uses.
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