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The storm blew over at last, leaving the world wrapped in unbroken white stillness. With no animals to leave tracks in the snow, no birds darting overhead, it was a very deep silence that surrounded them. Downright creepy, Birka thought. Riding tail on Startle, she kept looking over her shoulder, hearing voices in the wind or thinking she saw something move that turned out to be nothing but a wind-raised snowytail skipping over a ridge.
It seemed that their days of glittering, sunlit vistas had come to an end. A ceiling of low gray clouds lay heavy on the land, hiding the sun and stars. They navigated by landmarks instead, lining up two distant rocks or hills, then finding a second sight-post upon reaching the nearest one, and so continuing in a straight line -- they hoped. It was a notoriously unreliable method, especially in a place with so few distinctive landmarks to use. Trees were the traditional landmark of choice, but there were none here. Worse, even a slight breeze kicked up enough of the loose new snow to reduce visibility to almost nothing.
The new snow slowed them further by dragging at the snowies' legs, tiring the big animals quickly and bringing out Startle's lameness again. It also covered up dangers of the landscape that had previously been visible: holes, slippery spots, patches of crumbly stone. Slide areas became harder to avoid, and they had several narrow escapes when sections of ridgeline collapsed beneath them. It was an eerie experience: the ground would start to creep and settle, and they had to scramble hastily for stable ground, stopping to watch from a safe distance as the place they'd been moments before slumped out of sight in a cloud of snow.
Sometimes the clouds lifted enough that they could glimpse distant mountains, rising in a forbidding white wall. The land was definitely trending upward. Over the next few days, they left behind the hilly plateau they'd been crossing and ascended into the foothills of a truly impressive range of mountains. Able to see no more than a mile or two ahead on a good day, they kept finding their southward progress blocked by cliffs or impassible, avalanche-prone slopes.
"If these clouds would let up, we might be able to see where we're going," Anler said fretfully. He was sitting watch with Birka tonight; he'd claimed that he couldn't sleep, though he looked tired enough to her. Nothing was visible of Tiren but a heap of loudly snoring furs beside the fire.
The night beyond the campfire was black as the bottom of a soup pot. Birka could hear occasional crunching and grumbling as the snowies shuffled position in the little box canyon where they were hobbled for the night. The animals had been restless the past couple of nights, having trouble sleeping despite their exhaustion from fighting through the snow. They weren't getting enough food, and the lack of proper browse was starting to wear on their digestion. Bluebell, in particular, had been losing weight, and Startle's milk had dried up. It was a bad situation. They had to get over the mountains -- and they had to hope that once they did, a land more hospitable than Lichenwold awaited them. These had to be the mountains from the southerners' maps. Surely they would not find their way through, only to be confronted with more of Lichenwold's hills and valleys.
Still, their course was set at this point. Trying to get back would be a deathmarch for the snowies. Their only hope lay forward. "I guess it'll be what it'll be," Birka said.
"You're so calm about it," Anler said. "I don't think I'm cut out for this. I probably shouldn't have come."
She turned to look at him in the dull glow of the fire's dying embers. He looked desperately weary, but he was still her heart's friend from childhood, his features more familiar to her than her own. "The Elders thought you'd do fine."
"The Elders only picked me because I was already at Smokewater with you two."
Birka stared at him, struck speechless for a moment. "If you didn't want to come, why didn't you say something then?"
"It's not that I didn't want to come!" he flared back. "I do. If nothing else ..." He hooked his fingers in his necklace. "The southerners know things we don't. They might know how to heal whatever is wrong with me."
"Oh, Anler," she breathed. She knew it weighed on him that he'd never, in over fifteen years of adulthood, managed to father a child. But it went that way for some people. She herself had carried only one successful pregnancy to term.
He seemed to take her sympathy as pity, and drew away. "Anler," she said, putting her hand on his arm. She leaned into him, and after a time he put his arms around her, too. They sat like that for a while, Birka with her head leaning on his shoulder. Even with the layers of winter furs separating them, it was warm and comfortable.
Anler finally started to squirm around. Birka thought he was withdrawing, so she pulled away, but he caught her hand in his own. "Birka," he said, and raised his eyes to hers. Birka felt something small and hard in her hand. Her stomach rolled over. When she opened her hand, a bead lay nestled in the creases of her palm, shaped like a snail shell.
Oh, ancestors' last mistake, not here, not now! Birka had been knotted up with tension for days over their predicament and the snowies' declining health. Sex was the absolute last thing on her mind right now. "Anler," she said helplessly, holding her hand still with the bead in the palm. As she made no move towards her necklace, she could see his face shutting down, the barriers swinging into place. She couldn't think what to say, and finally she went with honesty, as cold as it was. "I'm so sorry," she tried at last, and put the bead back into his palm, folding his fingers over it. "This isn't the right time or place for me."
"No?" He cast a look over her unknotted necklace with its open center space. Then he rose and stalked off, across the fire from her.
"Anler," she called after him.
Tiren grunted and sat up. "What is going on over there? Can't a person sleep?"
"None of your business," she snapped, guilt flaring up into anger. Lack of privacy indeed. How long had it been since she'd had just a fingerwidth of the sun to herself?
Anler made a muffled sound and Tiren said, more softly, "What's going on?" He dragged himself out of his furs, bare-chested in the night's chill, and went to Anler.
Birka grabbed a curry-comb and a leather bucket, rose and went to check on the snowies. They greeted her with soft little whickers and bumps of their noses. "Sorry, I wish I had something more for you," she murmured. The snowies thought that the grain was a treat for them, and then they munched through their limited fodder and wanted to know where the rest of the meal was. Poor things.
She spent some time brushing out their tangled manes and tails. Occasionally she glanced up into the black pool of the sky. Clouds did not block Otherlight, but only the barest flickers of Other activity were visible tonight, little ghostly flashes in the pit-black night.
She'd hoped the familiar activity would calm her, but the more she thought about what had just happened, the angrier she got -- at both Anler and herself. Why hadn't she had the foresight to knot her necklace? Why hadn't he talked to her first? Why hadn't he offered her a bead a year ago, or five years, when they were both in a good position for it?
When chill and exhaustion finally won out over hurt and anger, she went back to wake Tiren for his watch, and found her two male companions under the furs, tangled up in each other with Anler's face buried in Tiren's shoulder. Both were sound asleep.
"Is everyone sharing everyone else's furs on this trip?" Birka demanded, prodding Tiren to wake him. "I thought you didn't even like sleeping with men," she accused a sleepy-eyed, blinking Anler, aware even as she said it that she was behaving as badly as Areluu or Fala at her worst -- fights on the trail could be deadly, dividing a traveling party when they needed each other most. It wasn't like her to fight with people; it never had been. And yet she couldn't stop herself. Her normally long temper was worn down to a nub.
"Nothing happened," Tiren reassured her, dragging himself out of the furs. "It was nothing but cuddling, Kika, I promise."
No one had used that nickname for her since she was a young child. Whether intentionally or not, it startled Birka from the muddle-headed worst of her anger, reminding her that she was acting like a child. She was still angry, but able to see how foolishly she was behaving.
"I'm sorry," she said to both of them, and wrapped herself in furs, lying down on the opposite side of the fire from Anler. Even her frustration with her traveling companions -- and, by extension, the entire male population of Itrelir and Itadesh-that-was -- wasn't enough to keep her from dropping into an exhausted sleep.