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Anler had forgotten how much he disliked Lichenwold until they got there.
As a child, he'd loved the idea of Lichenwold. Most of the children did; they'd hung on the stories of Tiren and the other rangers who had been there.
But the one and only time he'd actually been to the place, on a trip with Tiren and Fala a few years after passing his adulthood tests, he'd found it desolate and creepy. The passage under the mountain was terrifying, and Lichenwold's rightfully famous beauty didn't make up, in Anler's opinion, for the unnerving silence and lack of animals. He couldn't understand why Tiren loved it so much.
Now he stood at the Lichenwold end of the Great Northern Gate, looking down onto a windswept, alien valley. Wind had scoured much of the landscape bare of snow, with no trees to break the force of the gales that roared through the mountains. At least the lack of snow would make travel a little easier and less exhausting for the snow-unicorns. But it left the land desperately bleak and bare. In winter, Lichenwold's brilliant colors were faded to dull shadows of their summer glory, like a once-bright blanket that had seen too many years of smoke and washing. By habit, Anler scanned the landscape for signs of game, but saw none -- just the scattered, tiny tracks of mice and voles on the snow around the Gate.
He shuddered and turned away. Tiren and Birka were doing a final check of the gear the travelers had loaded on the snow-unicorns after breaking camp that morning. The snowies were restless. They'd managed to find a few scattered stands of willows around the Gate to browse on; plants, like small animals, were beginning to migrate onto the fringes of Lichenwold. Tiren said there were noticeably more plants now than there had been when the first time he'd first been here, twenty years ago. But for the most part, the snowies were bored, and a bored snow-unicorn was one who got frisky with the others, chewed through its traces, and otherwise made a nuisance of itself.
Birka's long hair, unbound and spilling over the hood of her parka, gleamed in the light of the newly risen sun. For a moment, her beauty caught in Anler's throat like a fishbone he couldn't quite swallow. There were times when he'd wondered why he and Birka had never chosen to trade beads. As age-mates, they'd been close all their lives; she probably wouldn't have turned him down if he'd offered. But the time had never been right.
Now Anler fingered the bead in his pocket.
It was a special bead and he'd always hoped to find a special woman to give it to. As a hunter and trapper, Anler often spent time alone in the woods near the village or camp, and he enjoyed collecting small, interesting items while he worked. He could never quite shake the feeling that these things were special, lucky. Others sometimes smiled at the little charms he made from bits of eggshell or knotty wood, but Anler liked wearing them; if they weren't at least a little bit lucky, he wouldn't have found them, and what were beads, after all, but lucky, special items?
In the gravel of a streambed, he'd found this: a little snail-shell made out of stone. It was perfectly bead-sized and bead-shaped. He wasn't sure if it was a bead someone had carved long ago, or something that had formed naturally, but it was exquisitely perfect in every small detail. He'd had to use sand and a horn scraper tool to remove bits of sandstone clinging to it, and when he was done, he had bored a hole. He'd never found a woman who seemed right for that bead, though. In recent years, he'd had trouble finding women to share his furs at all.
He looked again at Birka, turning to laugh at something Tiren had said to her, and worked the small hard nub of the bead between his fingers. She hadn't knotted her necklace to indicate a lack of interest. Perhaps this trip would be an opportunity to renew their acquaintance and see if it might lead to anything more.
Birka glanced over and noticed Anler watching her. "If you're quite done fur-gathering, perhaps you could mount up," she said in a laughing voice. "Or maybe you've decided to stay here while the rest of us go adventuring in new lands."
Anler tried to shake off the melancholy hanging over him. It was a gorgeous late-winter day and they were on the verge of a grand adventure. He smiled in response to her playful mood and used the remains of a long-ago rockfall to climb to Grayfeathers' high saddle. "I'm more than ready to get on the move."
The faster they got underway, after all, the faster they'd be done.
They were making good time so far. They'd crossed under the mountain in less than two days, arriving on this side with plenty of time to camp for the night. Tiren had wanted to wait until morning and tackle Lichenwold with a full day ahead of them. Without having to discuss it, both Birka and Anler deferred to Tiren's expertise as their leader on the Lichenwold part of the journey. He'd spent more time in Lichenwold than both of them together. Tiren could lead them through if anyone could.
Before meeting the southerners, there had been no point. Lichenwold seemed to go on forever, and for all anyone knew, it might. Perhaps the entire rest of the world was the same, a lichenscape where nothing grew to sustain human or snow-unicorn.
Now, though, they knew that Lichenwold came to an end, and beyond it were people -- many people, according to Malaamig. All they had to do was find a way. In addition to travel supplies, the snowies were laden with trade goods for the people beyond the mountains, samples of the finest products the artisans in Itrelir had to offer: soft wool garments, fine carvings, luxurious furs.
But the majority of the snowies' loads consisted of fodder for the trip through Lichenwold. There would be little opportunity for browsing along the way. Some of the lichens might be edible, but the snowies' need for food was tremendous, especially on a long trip. A not-inconsiderable portion of Itrelir's precious store of barley and rye filled the saddle-packs. The Elders had agreed that this was a proper use of village resources; they couldn't possibly carry enough feed for the journey otherwise. Even so, before entering the tunnel, the three travelers had cut great bundles of birch and willow twigs to provide bulk fodder to supplement the unfamiliar, high-energy feed, which would otherwise make the snowies ill.
It was still a gamble. No one had tried to do this before. No one knew what waited for them beyond Lichenwold's polychromic hills. They could only guess if they carried enough feed for their mounts or if they'd have to turn back, if they would find their way blocked by impassible obstacles, if they would meet strange beasts and even stranger people.
As the snowies picked their way down the slope leading away from the Gate, Anler looked over his shoulder, where the dark opening of the Gate gaped like a hollow eyesocket in a bleached skull. For a moment, it was all he could do not to wheel Grayfeathers around and gallop back to the tunnel and the familiar lands on the other side. The urge passed almost as soon as it came, but the sense of uneasiness stayed with him all day, as if they'd made a terrible mistake by coming here, and nothing awaited them in Lichenwold except tragedy and disaster.