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In the morning, Anler crawled out of their shared furs to find Birka leading Startle in circles. "She's limping," Birka said fretfully as he joined her, fastening the toggles on his parka. "She might have hurt herself when she fell yesterday. Can you ride her while I watch? I can't figure out which part of her leg is bothering her."
Anler obligingly rode in slow circles, putting Startle through her paces while Birka observed her gait. Dismounting, he held her while Birka examined the huge hoof and felt along the muscular leg. At least she shook her head. "I can't find anything wrong -- no cracks in the hoof wall, no hot places on her leg. Maybe she'll walk it off."
But she didn't. By the time the riders stopped to stretch their legs and eat a quick bite from their stored food, Startle was still limping. It hadn't gotten much worse and there was still no visible sign of injury, but they all knew that a small ailment, if ignored, could blow up into a big problem later on.
Under normal circumstances, they would have stopped for a few days and allowed her to recover, but that was a luxury they didn't have in this barren country. They unloaded as much of her cargo as they could parcel between the other two without overburdening them, leaving Startle with nothing but her saddle, Birka, and a few stray items.
"I'm tempted to suggest leaving the saddle behind," Tiren said. "It would make an uncomfortable ride the rest of the way for you, though."
"Let's see how she does with an easier pace."
Birka took the tail position, allowing Startle to walk in the already-broken trail left by the others.
Navigating by the sun, they angled south, holding as close to a steady southern course as they could manage while allowing for the rise and fall of the land. Trying to travel in an east-west direction along the river had been difficult, with their progress constantly interrupted by small ravines, but the general flow of the streams in this area was ideally suited for north-south travel. They followed the spine of a broad ridge, swept nearly clean of snow. In the lower, sheltered valleys, the lichen "trees" grew taller than the snowies' withers, but harsh conditions on the ridgetop kept it low and scrubby, not too different from low-to-the-ground alpine foliage on any normal mountainside.
The wind was capricious and erratic, coming now from the north, now from the west. It was obvious from the clean-swept ridgetops and the wind-sculpted surface of the snow in the valleys that gales were frequent enough to be a potential hazard. Today, however, the wind was no more than a nuisance, ruffling snow-unicorn fur and tangling the rangers' hair. Snowytails swirled along the higher ridges, whorls of dry windblown snow so named because of their resemblance to the snowies' flowing plumes.
"What do you think the land on the other side of the mountains is like?" Birka asked, riding up behind Grayfeathers. She had her maps out again.
Despite his reservations about the trip, Anler found himself caught up in his age-mate's game of let's-pretend. "Well, there will be lots of people -- many different kinds of people," he added, thinking of brown-skinned Margaa. There was some variation among people in the villages, but according to the strangers, the people in the south came in an incredible array of colors and sizes.
"And many different animals!" Birka said. "I asked Malaamig if there were more like the ones with him -- dogs. When he understood what I was asking, he began drawing different animals in the snow for me. So many different kinds of animals. I'd think he was having fun with me, if he wasn't so serious all the time." She laughed. "But no snowies. You should have seen his face when he saw them for the first time!"
"It's hard to imagine life without snowies." Anler leaned forward to scratch Grayfeathers' neck just ahead of the saddle. The mare muttered to herself as she walked, sometimes turning her shaggy head back to grumble at her herdmate -- chatting just like their riders, Anler thought, amused.
"It's hard to imagine life beyond the mountains at all," Birka said, and Anler nodded. For so long, their world had been the three villages and the lands around and between them. The idea that other people might have survived somewhere else in the world was a possibility, but a distant one, far removed from everyday matters.
"I wish Fala was here," Anler said in a rush. Their age-mate was the best scout of her generation. Her ability to find passible trails and her weather-sense were next to none. Surely she must have wanted to come; he wondered how disappointed she'd been when the Elders had chosen otherwise.
Birka smiled wistfully. "Remember when we all got lost picking blackberries, and she led us out?"
"I can't believe you remember that. You were tiny."
Birka laughed. "You're not that much older than me! We were all tiny."
"Are we talking about the old days?" Tiren's voice drifted back to them. "Because if so, I think I remember a few times that young rangers-to-be followed me about until I thought I'd never have a moment to myself."
"Oh, you loved the attention," Anler returned.
Birka's smile was warm and fond. Again Anler glanced at her necklace and the empty space there.
Taiv was the last person who'd taken his bead, but it had only been duty for both of them, and while there was no shame in that, their lovemaking had been over quickly and, for Anler, unsatisfying. He didn't want a duty-match with a woman who, he suspected, had considered it a bonus that he'd intended to leave for Smokewater after just a few days. He wanted more than that; a roll in the furs was well and good -- it relieved tension as well as being a social duty. But it had been a long time since he's given a bead to a woman who looked at him --
-- well. The way that Birka did.
Still, he'd known her so long, and it had become so awkward to ask lately. There was no shame in being refused, only in refusing to take rejection gracefully; still, Anler thought he'd had an awful lot of practice at gracefully receiving rejections, and he wasn't sure if he could take it from Birka. The more years that passed without his seed fathering a child, the more he found himself the recipient of apologetic glances and polite refusals. Surely Birka would not; if nothing else, a pregnancy on the trip would be awkward, so perhaps a man with a poor record of fatherhood would be a benefit rather than a stone in her hoof.
But he needed more time to read her moods first. He did not want to ask without finding out which way the wind was blowing.
They traveled across ridges, hills and valleys for eight uneventful days. Beyond the first line of hills, rearing tawny and white against the winter sky, there was another broad, shallow valley and another row of hills -- and beyond that, another. A trip that had seemed swift and straightforward on the map was soon little more than dull, grinding drudgery.
Tiren pointed out the signs of imminent slippage along the way, quizzing the other two until they, too, could read the signs of the land around them more easily. He could tell they were having more trouble adapting to the unfamiliar landscape than he was. He'd traveled in Lichenwold enough to have developed a feel for its odder quirks. But he could understand their sense of dislocation. As rangers, all three of them spent their lives in the outdoors, learning all the moods of the northern landscape until it became second nature to read snow conditions or the changing patterns of clouds in the sky; they could all do it without thinking about it. Being in such a strange place was like suddenly forgetting how to read, or picking up a needle and not knowing what it was for. There was something very tiring about having to constantly think about little signs in the landscape that they normally would be able to interpret effortlessly.
And even Tiren's once-boundless enthusiasm for all things Lichenwold was slowly being dampened by the monotonous sameness of the landscape. He had to remind himself that they could not possibly be going in circles, crossing the same valley over and over, though it certainly seemed that way at times. The exact details of the land's contours were variable, but its broader features were all too similar: rolling hills, valleys, waterworn bluffs. The crumbling rock eroded easily, which meant many valleys to cross, and many cliffs to detour around.
Once they crossed a huge frozen lake, the ice swept clean of snow. Birka dutifully marked it on her map. Their first sight of the lake perked them up -- something new! something different! -- but that was before they spent a half-day plodding across it, carefully holding the snowies to a very slow walk, more of a shuffle, to keep them from slipping on the ice.
Anler suggested naming it Boring Lake as a joke. It stuck.
Another time, they passed an odd, square-shaped indentation in the ground, some forty paces across and completely choked with lichen. None of them were sure what it was. Up close, it was barely visible under the lichen growth, though it stood out when viewed from the top of the nearest hill, where the knife-edged shadows brought it out in stark relief. They poked around the edges of it, hoping for ashakaarg (and welcoming the distraction). There was no sign, however, of anything other than a dense carpet of lichen and a powdery substrate that might have been rock or thoroughly pulverized concrete.
But mostly, there was nothing to be seen but the same rolling hills. With most of the lichen's colors covered with patchy snow, the most interesting thing to be seen were the dark scars of recent rockslides marring the hills. Tempers frayed and, despite their long comfort at working together, the travelers sometimes found themselves snapping over little things. Forward progress was much slower than they'd hoped or prepared for. The unstable, crumbling landscape forced them to backtrack frequently, and other times they had to lead the snowies down rough, dangerous hillsides. Startle's lameness came and went; some days she'd start limping in the morning and be fine by midday, while at other times her limp showed up when she was tired. Clearly something was wrong, but none of them had the expertise to diagnose it. All rangers had basic animal-healing skills, but it would take a healer, who spent his or her life studying the workings of the body, to diagnose a difficult case like this. Nevertheless, Startle seemed to be able to handle the stresses of the trip and had even begun carrying some weight again, lightening the load on the others.
Aside from Startle's intermittent lameness, the snowies seemed to be holding up fine so far. Both Startle and Grayfeathers were still giving milk -- they'd tapered off the milkings to once a day, and stirred the excess milk into the snowies' grain rations. Despite the humans' lingering concerns that this might not be good for them, the snowies had come to like it.
Yes, the snowies were doing fine; it was the riders who were tense, short-tempered and snappish. As the de facto leader and peacemaker of the group, Tiren did his best to keep the others from scraping raw patches on each other, but it was hard when he was tense himself. Still, there was one developing situation that was starting to worry him; the trouble was finding an opportunity to talk to one of them about it without the other listening in.
Birka found it ironic that as her own initially high spirits sank, Anler seemed to be cheering up. Whatever had bothered him in the beginning, he seemed to have worked it off, and had reverted back to his usual cheerful and helpful self, even as she and Tiren began rubbing saddlesores on each other.
She noticed Tiren watching them as she broke down Startle's gear one night. Anler gave her a hand carrying the heavy packsaddle to their camp and then helped her curry out the rumpled, matted coat where the saddle had rested all day. After he left the campsite, leading Startle and Grayfeathers to the patch of overflow they'd found to water the snowies tonight, Birka turned to Tiren, who was gathering lichen for their campfire -- the winter-dead lichen burned readily, though with a guttering, smoky flame. "What's that look for?" she asked him.
Tiren raised his eyebrows. "Hadn't you noticed the way he's following you around?" Birka just stared at him, and Tiren tapped his necklace suggestively.
"You're ridiculous," Birka said. "Not on a journey with so much at stake. Anler's much too sensible."
"You haven't knotted your necklace," he pointed out.
"I ..." But she had nothing to say for herself. It had simply seemed unnecessary. She wasn't completely averse to a roll in the furs, even on the trail, but she assumed that in a small group like this one, where everyone knew each other so well that they were all sleeping in the same pile of fur anyway, there was little to be concerned about in the way of romantic entanglements. Privacy for such things was impossible to come by, anyway.
"I think you're seeing things that aren't there," she said. "You miss your girlfriends back in Itrelir." Wickedly, she added, "A hand's not doing it for you anymore?"
Tiren laughed. "Not with you two pressed against my back! Watch it, or I'll be offering you a bead just to stop you making rude insinuations about me."
"We already tried that," Birka reminded him. "It didn't work out so well."
His answering smile was a bit wistful. They could both laugh about it now; they were good friends, but they simply weren't cut out to be lovers, at least not for longer than a single contentious month.
"We had some good times, though, didn't we?" Tiren said. Birka, laughing, agreed that they had. Tiren pulled her in for a quick, companionable kiss.
"I'm just telling you what I see," he told her, and she nodded. "What you do with it is up to you."
When Anler returned to the campsite after watering the snowies, Birka found herself watching him, trying to see if he was acting differently towards her. He seemed like the same old Anler to her. But Anler had always been a bit of a strange one in the age-set. He was agreeable, cooperative and pleasant, and he didn't have much of a temper. Most people liked him. Certainly all of his age-mates did. But he also had a tendency to sit on a small grievance until it became a big one. The raisers had tried to train this out of him, but people were simply going to be who they were. Birka remembered that when they were kids, she usually had no idea why Anler was angry or upset, and often didn't even notice until it came out in some unexpected way. In his eleventh year he'd gone through an entire winter thinking that Fala was deliberately snubbing him -- she'd really only been spending extra time with Tiren, learning the finer points of tracking -- and by spring, his muted unhappiness had infected everyone else. Half the age-set had been sniping at each other until the raisers got involved and worked to the bottom of what was twisting everyone's tail.
Anler didn't handle conflict well, and he wasn't good at talking about things that bothered him. Perhaps she should bring it up -- but what if he'd been thinking nothing of the sort? That kind of accidental proposition could lead to discomfort and hurt their ability to work together. She decided to wait and watch and see if she could get a better feeling for the lay of the land before she said anything.
Birka touched her necklace. Tiren was right; she should have knotted it beforehand. She simply hadn't thought anything like this might come up. If she knotted it now, would it seem pointed, like a rejection of something that hadn't even been asked? Besides, did she want to say no? She decided to wait, and let Anler take point on this one.