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Birka relaxed in the saddle, taking the middle position with Tiren on point and Anler holding tail-guard. A full moon-turn past the solstice, the sun held warmth again, enough to feel good on her hair if not to melt the snow quite yet.
The sun's glare on the snow was blinding. Birka tied her carved wooden snow goggles over her eyes, looking out at the scenery through the slits that cut the glare from agonizing to merely annoying. She disliked wearing the snow goggles, but it was better than the painful and disabling snow blindness that could result from long exposure to such conditions.
Tiren led the group down a well-beaten trail winding across the unstable, crumbling rocks. Every so often he stopped to look for one of the cairns marking the safe path. There was an increasingly well-developed network of trails around the Gate, used by riders who came here on gathering expeditions. Tiren, Birka knew, had scouted a number of these trails himself.
As if sensing her thoughts, Tiren looked back at the two younger rangers behind him. "It's a good thing we're doing this in the winter. We don't have to contend with spores and poisonous insects, and the ground's frozen, so it's easier to walk on."
Although Tiren had clearly meant it to be cheering, Anler looked even gloomier. He'd been moody all morning, and Birka wondered what was eating him. For her own part, she had never felt so energetic and alive. They were going beyond the farthest hills, farther than anyone had ever gone before! It was every ranger's dream.
She thought about asking Anler what was wrong, but decided to let him bring it up if he wanted to. It was all too common for long rides to turn into nothing but a festival of complaints, as the riders rehashed old grievances from back in the village. She didn't want to poison the atmosphere of their first day in Lichenwold. Anler had been perfectly friendly with both herself and Tiren, so it was nothing they'd done. If it kept eating at him, she would try to find a subtle way to get him talking later.
Instead, she took out her maps and studied them. She was the designated map-keeper for the expedition, and had made her own annotated copies of the strangers' maps as well as sketching a Lichenwold map with Tiren's help. Huge parts of it were still blank. From discussions with Malaamig, they knew there was a pass through the mountains on the southern edge of Lichenwold, leading to the warm, settled lands beyond. Malaamig had not been able to tell them where the pass was located relative to the Great Northern Gate, however. Looking at the southerners' maps, even her untrained eye had been able to tell how unreliable and inaccurate the farthest north regions were, and that was leaving aside the issue that everything beyond the mountains was blank on the southern maps.
Just as everything to the south is blank on ours, Birka thought.
The part of Lichenwold around the Gate had been explored in depth, but the rangers' collective knowledge of the area dropped off very quickly as the distance grew between them and the Gate. The farthest landmark that she'd been able to mark along their route was a river canyon, half a day's travel south, that Tiren had told her was the southern boundary of Lichenwold exploration thus far. The rangers called it Shiverfalls because of the avalanche-prone rocks, and since there was still plenty of Lichenwold to explore to the east and west, had not yet made it across the dangerous and slide-prone canyon to the far side.
They would be the first. And she couldn't wait.
For Tiren, who had been to Lichenwold on several trips over the years, the difference between summer and winter travel was as stark as the contrast in a silk-hare's seasonal color changes. Tiren had been here often enough to be wary of Lichenwold's unusual dangers: the ever-present rock slides, the poisonous lichens, the biting insects. But winter was a new experience for him. It was almost like being back in their own lands on the other side of the Gate, crossing any high, treeless region. The path was blown nearly clear of snow, and the footing was sold underfoot; the snowies' hooves rang on the frozen ground. The biggest problem they'd had so far was the snowies trying to swipe mouthfuls of fodder from the bundles of branches on each other's broad, shaggy backs.
Neither of his companions seemed to want to make conversation -- Birka was engrossed in her maps, and Anler was sunk in a mood that Tiren couldn't fathom. He'd been a little distant at Smokewater, though not overly so, but it appeared to have gotten worse rather than better. Tiren decided to keep an eye on that; a long trip like this one was no place to let resentments simmer out of control.
But in the meantime, it was a lovely day and they were underway, finally, with new lands waiting over the distant horizon. They made much better time than Tiren had hoped, and reached Shiverfalls by noon. His companions' reaction was all that he could have hoped for: Birka whistled softly, and even Anler looked impressed. From the top of the bluff, they had an excellent view of the hills on the other side. Lichenwold's winter colors, visible beneath a patchwork of snow on the ridgetops, were muted shades of brown and winter-blue, gray-green and dull orange. The undiscovered land, Tiren thought. Who knew what was out there? And they would be the first humans to lay eyes on it.
Anler began to urge his snowy forward for a better look into the canyon. Tiren whistled a "stop" command and Grayfeathers obeyed; Anler glanced over in surprise.
"Stay far back from the edge," Tiren advised. "It's very unstable."
They ate lunch at the top of the bluffs, with the unexplored land spread out in a tantalizing promise across the river. The sun was at its zenith in a cloudless, white-blue sky, and a knife-edge wind keened down from the hills. The snowies turned with their tails to the wind and lipped disinterestedly at the lichen after finishing their own meager lunch.
As they remounted, a muted rumble from upstream made the snowies toss their heads and the riders look around in surprise. A puff of dislodged snow and dust was distantly visible in the canyon.
"Some kind of animal?" Birka wondered.
"More likely just a slide," Tiren said. "The reason no one's crossed the river is because the rock is so soft and loose. We've always used this as a convenient landmark for the southern boundary of the explored area."
"Rivers' banks often grow shallower as they flow to the sea," Anler suggested. "It would be interesting to see where this river goes."
They rode east, following the canyon at a safe distance from the edge. Every so often, the vibration of the snowies' hoofbeats dislodged small showers of snow and scree, cascading down into the canyon. Now that they'd left the trail, which had followed the ridges for the most part, they quickly discovered a new problem: snow from the ridgetops had drifted in every ravine and hollow. The first time they tried to cross one, Tiren's mount Bluebell punched through the wind-tamped crust and sank up to her withers in dry, sandy snow. The almost human look of surprise on her face would have been comical under other circumstances, but Birka's Startle nearly collided with her hindquarters and Bluebell, unable to move forward or backward, began to panic. Tiren soothed her as best he could, and Birka and Anler retreated to a safe distance, standing ready in case help was needed while Tiren coaxed Bluebell into backing step by step out of the snow. He dismounted and felt down her forelegs to make sure she hadn't damaged anything.
They detoured around the deeper part of the ravine, crossing higher where the snow was only knee-high on the snowies. Looking ahead, Tiren could see that the land was rumpled like a tablecloth; feeder streams, emptying into the river, had worn dozens more ravines like this one, each of them a snow-trap waiting to catch them.
"This is going to take forever," Anler said, echoing his thoughts.
Birka had been studying the landscape with alert eyes. "I wonder if we could use them. One of these might have cut deep enough that we could simply walk down to the river."
It was a good suggestion. The next ravine was too shallow to work for their purposes, but before the sun had moved far through the sky, they came upon a place where rushing water had cut steeply through the river's crumbling cliffside. At this time of year, the little creek was frozen and deeply buried in snow. Birka dismounted and looked up at Tiren, reverting briefly to a young woman seeking his approval. He was, after all, the expert on local landforms.
Tiren nodded, and took Startle's lead rope. The three of them had worked together enough that words were often unnecessary. They both knew that someone had to scout the passage down before they risked the snow-unicorns. From here, it looked frighteningly steep.
"Oh hazelnuts," Birka muttered when she reached for what appeared to be a snow-covered bush, only to snap off a mittenful of lichen. "I keep forgetting. I wanted a stick to test the ground."
She ended up using a tentpole. The other two rangers watched in silence as she tapped her way forward, Tiren holding his breath. They all knew how to deal with avalanche country, but he wasn't sure if either of his younger companions appreciated, yet, just how unstable this land could be. The roots of the lichen burrowed into the rock and tore it up, creating a seemingly stable forest that was actually underlaid by powderlike rock; it could turn into a devastating slide at so much as a sneeze.