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The storm rolled down on them from the north. Tiren was the first to notice the signs, and then Birka began to catch them too: a flattening and heaviness in the air, a different taste to the breeze. Anler's weather-sense had always been less acute than theirs, but he was highly sensitive to their moods, and when Tiren began urging the group towards shelter, he didn't have to ask why.
The trouble was finding something that would shelter them. There were no caves in the loose rock, at least none that could be trusted not to collapse, and the lichen "trees" were crumbly and would provide little protection from wind and driven snow.
To the north, the oncoming stormfront was visible now, a line of white and gray advancing over the hills. The wind had begun to pick up.
"Into the ravine," Anler said. It was the only sensible option. Despite the slide risk, they urged the snowies into one of the many narrow gorges that pocketed the landscape. The snow was deep here, and the snowies floundered, becoming fractious and afraid as they picked up on their riders' anxiety.
Part of each ranger's winter travel gear was a short, broad snow axe, useful for cutting hard-packed snow or ice, or for use as an impromptu shovel. With these, they scooped out a shelter. The edge of the stormfront hit as they struggled to erect their tent. They had not often bothered with it on the trip so far, as the weather had been good; they used one tent-hide to reflect back the heat of their fire, and curled up under their furs. Now most of the tent gear was buried at the bottom of the packs. Tiren cursed as a bundle of woolen fabric, meant for trading, broke open and sent rolls of cloth scattering in the wind screaming down the valley.
"Let it go!" Birka snapped at Anler, who was scrambling to pick them up. She was trying to weigh down the tent before the oiled hides were pulled out of her hands. Blowing snow blocked the light, and it was as dark as late evening, a murky gray dusk completely unlike the crisp blue twilight of a clear winter night.
The snowies, now that there was nowhere to go, had settled down more readily than the humans -- turning their furry rumps into the wind, they lowered their heads and prepared to wait it out. This wasn't their first storm and they knew how to handle it. For the present time, the rangers left the snowies' saddles on, with the straps loosened, for additional warmth and protection from the wind. Even so, their small shelter was packed with gear and, of course, three humans in their heavy winter clothes. It was just as well they'd had no time to gather fuel for a fire, since there was no space to make one. Having the three of them huddled in such close quarters, however, they had already begun to thaw out. Sodden furs slapped Birka in the face every time she turned her head.
"This is going to be miserable," Anler remarked.
They spent two days in their shelter while the wind shrieked outside.
Stepping outside meant risking being knocked down by the wind. All they could do was huddle in their inadequate shelter, trying to pass the time with word games, going outside only to feed and milk the snowies and to collect snow to melt. They enlarged the shelter enough to build a fire, although it immediately filled their living space with foul-smelling smoke. The lichen's flammability meant that they didn't have to carry fuel with them -- and they couldn't have, not while carrying snowy fodder too -- but it made dreadfully inadequate firewood. Anler couldn't remember the last time they'd had a fire that did more than gutter and smoke, producing an illusion of warmth but not enough heat to dry anything.
Also, Tiren had warned them that certain kinds of lichen would produce poisonous fumes when burnt, which made the fires even less appealing.
Lichenwold had other hidden dangers, and Birka was the unlucky person to discover one of these. She startled both her companions by erupting suddenly from her position by the campfire. "Hoverflies and honeybees!" she cried, brushing desperately at her arms and legs. "Oh, what are these!"
In the dim light, Anler couldn't see what was wrong; then he felt a tickle on the back of his hand and looked down to see something with many legs skitter across it.
"Get up!" Tiren barked at them. "Get out! They're poisonous!"
They all blundered out into the storm, stumbling in the force of the wind. The snowies whickered at them from the darkness. Anler couldn't even tell if it was day or night; all such distinctions had been lost in the storm.
Birka moaned, and Anler made out her dim shape in the semi-darkness. Tiren was helping her strip off layers of clothing, and Anler felt a sudden, completely irrational twist of jealousy. It was just necessity, and he was ashamed of himself as he staggered forward, braced in the wind, and spread his own coat to block the gale from her partly naked body as Tiren helped her brush herself off, flinging tiny dark shapes into the snow.
"Our fire must have warmed up a nest," Tiren said. "You must've been sitting right on it. Ancestors' own luck, huh?"
"Ugh," Birka groaned. She wasn't panicked so much as profoundly unhappy, as well she might be, half-naked in the teeth of the gale. "If this is what the whole trip would have been like in the summer, I'm glad it's winter." She shivered, and amended, "All right, somewhat glad."
A tickle inside his own furs made Anler yelp and jump. A few unpleasant moments followed, while he got his own clothing brushed out, one piece at a time. Tiren helped him; the lucky fool seemed to have not a single one on him.
Chilled to the bone, the three of them stood in the snow and stared at their shelter, which suddenly seemed much less hospitable.
"Ideas?" Tiren said.
"I guess we dig a new one," Birka sighed.
At least the work warmed them up -- and gave them something to do. In the process of ferrying their supplies to the new shelter, Anler noticed how light the bundles of snow-unicorn feed had become. He mentioned it to Tiren.
"I know," Tiren said. He sighed. "We have a decision to make."
In their new shelter, sitting on piles of gear to keep them off the suddenly unfriendly ground, they huddled around a newly kindled fire -- just as guttering and smoky as the old fire. Tiren, as usual, took charge.
"We've used about half the snowy feed we brought with us. If we turn back now, we can make it with a day or two of safety -- going back is always a quicker trip than going out."
Birka unrolled her map on her knee. "I really think we're more than halfway. Even at the speed we've been traveling, we have to be close to the mountains and the pass."
"I hope you're right," Tiren said quietly. "In another two or three days, we'll be too far to get back without taking a terrible chance with the snowies. We'll have no choice but to go forward, no matter what's waiting for us."
Anler couldn't believe there was even a question. "Then it's not a choice, is it? We have to turn back. We can't risk the snowies -- and ourselves!"
"We need a consensus," Tiren said. "And I disagree that we must turn back. I trust Birka's reading of the map. I think we've come far enough that we can make it easily, if we are bold and press onward. Turning around would only use up the rest of the grain -- and the rest of our winter travel time. The next time anyone could attempt a trip by this route would be in the fall."
Now Birka was nodding too. "I agree with Tiren. We've come this far. The hopes of the entire village -- no, our entire people are riding on us. They trusted us with this. We can't let them down."
"Which is exactly why we have to turn back," Anler argued. He waved an arm in the direction of the snowies, unseen in the darkness. "It's not only our own lives we're risking, but theirs too. Our people need rangers, and they need healthy, adult snowies even more. Not to mention everything we have with us -- resources Itrelir can ill afford to spare after the fire. Can we really justify risking everything?"
"We knew there would be risk when we came here," Tiren said quietly. "That's what the Elders agreed to."
"It doesn't mean we should take foolish risks!"
They faced each other across the fire and Anler told himself it was stupid, stupid; he did believe in his argument but there was more than just that at stake in the fight. Idiotic male posturing; he recognized what it was, but he couldn't seem to stop himself. Having Birka so close made his blood run hot. When did it come to be like this around her? Why couldn't he simply ask? The slot on her necklace was open, but he was still afraid she'd say no. He had no confidence at all, not after the last few months in Itrelir.
Instead, he found himself retreating, as he always did, to sullen acceptance. "If both of you feel it's the right decision, I suppose that's probably what we should do."
"I'm not discounting your words," Tiren told him, reaching out to squeeze his hand, which Anler reluctantly accepted. "You make good points. I simply feel that we are close enough it's worth the risk to try. We've come so far. Do you wish to continue presenting arguments to return? I'll listen."
"I accept the group's decision," Anler said, and felt Birka's eyes on him. Approving or disapproving? He couldn't tell. "We go on."