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They descended the hillside in rising wind and thickening snow. Tiren was in the middle, with Anler on point and Birka bringing up the rear. Suddenly Anler let out a surprised yelp, and Tiren, acting on instinct, whistled the "stop" command. Startle and Bluebell both obeyed instantly.
Sometimes in the wilderness, survival can hinge upon recognizing a dangerous situation in the bare instant before it becomes a lethal one. And for that first vital instant, Tiren was simply confused. There was nothing wrong, nothing out of place except an odd hissing sound that he couldn't quite identify --
-- and then, in the next instant, he saw what was wrong, the whole situation snapping into place like the pieces of a child's wooden puzzle. He saw, and understood, and cold terror flooded through him, because they were caught in the middle of a nascent slide, the biggest one yet. The entire hillside around them was moving, crawling, an undertow of slipping snow and loose rock. Tiren and Birka were on the edge of it, but Anler, farther down the slope, was in the middle, barely able to keep his seat on Grayfeathers as the surprised snow-unicorn's feet began to slide in different directions.
And that was the instant Anler figured out what was happening, too -- that it wasn't just a soft place in the trail, it wasn't just Grayfeathers slipping on a patch of ice hidden under the snow. Anler looked up and met Tiren's eyes, and there was nothing on his face but raw panic.
"Go!" Tiren bellowed at Birka, because she was the farthest back, she had the best shot at getting out. He whistled Bluebell forward without even thinking about it, not knowing how he was going to help Anler, only that he had to try.
-- and then everything let go, and the land went out from under them like a blanket being yanked from under Bluebell's hooves. Bluebell squealed and her powerful legs drove them in a tremendous leap, a leap like he'd never seen a snowy make, as the world turned to chaos and noise and flying snow. For an instant they were in the middle of it, and then they were clear and through. Bluebell stumbled, and her hindquarters sagged sideways -- Tiren feared she'd broken a leg, but then she was back on her feet and staggering as snow and powdered rock pelted them.
Tiren guessed, later, that the only reason why Bluebell didn't run was because she couldn't figure out which way to go. They were deluged in a wave of snow and noise, and then Tiren raised his head -- he'd been hunkered down on the saddle, clinging with one hand and covering his head with the other -- and saw the snow settling all around them, mixing with snowflakes. He and Bluebell were covered with a powdery layer of snow and rock dust.
Bluebell was trembling violently. "Good girl," Tiren soothed her, "my good girl, best girl." He leaned forward to dig his fingers into her neck, scratching under her mane in the place she liked best, and looked over his shoulder.
A dark swath stretched behind him, where the hillside had been swept all but clean of snow. In the blizzard and the gathering dusk, he could see little else; he couldn't tell how big the slide had been, or how far down the mountainside it had gone.
And worst of all, he had no idea where Birka or Anler were -- or even if they'd survived.
Birka was on the ride of her life, although she didn't want to be.
When the slide began, Startle panicked, wheeled and fled. Birka knew it might have saved her life, but the question was what to do now. Startle's wind-whipped mane lashed her face, and Birka clung to the saddle for her life -- literally. Startle had stretched out into a ground-eating gallop, angling up the slope in a straight line away from the avalanche. At this speed, a fall might break Birka's neck, and that was if she didn't tumble under Startle's flying hooves.
Being on the back of a panicking snowy -- or, worse, in front of one -- was a fear all rangers shared. Snow-unicorns were much too strong to stop by force. Older rangers told the younger ones warning stories of panicked snowies plunging off cliffs or falling into rivers, even though such events were vanishingly rare.
Still, Birka had worked with Startle frequently, and had a good rapport with the young mare. Startle could be jumpy, but she was a smart animal who responded well to a firm hand. Birka whistled the "Stop!" command several times; when that didn't work, she snapped Startle's lead rope against the snowy's neck, trying to get her attention.
Startle soon dropped to a canter as the effort of running upslope, through the snow, began to wear her down. By now she appeared to have forgotten what she was afraid of, and at the sound of Birka's voice, talking gently to her, she slowed to a walk and finally to a stop, her sides heaving.
Birka looked over her shoulder. She wasn't entirely sure where she was. The snow had thickened, swirling around her. Aside from Startle's great, huffing breaths, she could hear nothing at all.
"Anler!" she shouted. "Tiren!"
The clouds and snow deadened her calls. Startle flicked an ear back, asking for commands.
Backtrack, fool, before the snow covers your trail. Birka wheeled Startle around and rode downslope, as fast as she dared.
She had to force herself to fight off a surge of guilty self-flagellation. She'd been so stupid -- no, they all had, fighting like children not even past their adulthood tests. If they'd been working together as a team, as they should have, would they have noticed the slide in time? Would they have found a better, safer route down from the mountains? At the very least, they would have communicated better when things started to go wrong. But it didn't matter now. What mattered was finding Tiren and Anler.
She couldn't have lost them both. She couldn't have.
Desperately she called their names as she rode down the slope, trying to hold Startle to a cautious speed in the gathering dusk, even as fear for her friends overwhelmed her. At the sound of a distant, answering "Haruu!", Birka felt hot tears of relief and gratitude sting her eyes.
They crossed the broad scar of the slide area and met in the middle, Tiren leaning out from Bluebell's back to grip Birka's arm. "Stars above, Birka," he said. His voice broke on her name.
"Where's Anler?" Birka asked, clasping his arm just as tightly.
"I don't know. I lost sight of him."
They descended the slide zone in the gathering darkness. The wind was blowing hard now, streaming the snowies' tails out to the side. Birka hunched in the hood of her parka; the wind was so cold that it felt like knives on her skin. Their shouts of Anler's name were swallowed by the wind and the oncoming night.
Bluebell and Startle suddenly perked up, bleating into the dusk. An answering squeal came from somewhere below and to the right. The snowies plunged forward, quickly reuniting themselves with their herdmate. Grayfeathers had clearly fallen and was plastered with snow, although she still had her saddle and at least some of her packs. Anler was not in the saddle.
"Anler!" Birka slid from her saddle and dropped into the snow.
"Birka?" The answering call, breathless though it was, fell like a song on her ears.
Anler was half-buried under snow and chunks of ice. He'd clearly been trying to dig himself out. Tiren and Birka, working together, hauled large chunks of ice off his legs.
"Can you stand?" Tiren asked. Anler staggered upright, leaning on him.
"Grayfeathers ... she fell. Legs went right out from under her. Is she all right?"
"As far as I can tell," Birka reported, feeling over the snowy's massive legs. When she turned her head to look at her companions, the wind lashed her face and she had to squint her eyes against the driven snow; it felt like sand raking her face. "We need to get under cover."
It was too dark to find anything decent. The best they could hope for was getting out of the slide area. Anler rode double with Tiren while Birka led Grayfeathers. They went straight down into the valley, and stopped as soon as Tiren judged they were far enough from the hillside not to be in immediate danger. Tiren and Birka dug a trench in the snow to provide limited shelter for the snowies. Anler, though limping heavily, helped unload the animals -- or attempted to. He kept falling down. Hypothermia, Birka thought, but there was nothing they could do until they had a shelter dug for him. Then an idea struck her and she coaxed Grayfeathers into lying down in the part of the trench they'd already dug, then settled Anler in the hollow behind the mare's front leg. Grayfeathers was mellow-natured, and it ought to be safe enough. Better than being out in the wind.
Among the items lost from Grayfeathers's cargo was the bundle of birch and willow twigs for fodder -- half their supply, since they'd been keeping Startle's load as light as possible. Birka, setting her jaw, portioned out feed for all three snowies from Bluebell's load. They'd have to put the snowies on half rations tomorrow -- and hope they found a way up into the mountains before they were out of food entirely.
In the confines of their tent, she and Tiren stripped off Anler's sodden clothing. He'd managed to get snow everywhere, and was soaked to the skin. There was no room for a fire, but in these close quarters, body heat was better anyway. They nestled under the furs in a tight tangle of limbs. Birka hadn't even realized she'd gotten so chilled herself until she finally stopped shaking.
"I'm sorry, Birka," Anler said quietly, through chattering teeth. "That's all I could think about, when I went down -- that I'd never get a chance to apologize to you."
"What are you apologizing to me for?" She felt like shaking him -- would have, perhaps, if she hadn't been caged by Tiren and too lethargic to move. "If anything, I'm the one who should be apologizing to you. Tiren's right, I should have been more clear in my intentions."
"While we're at it," Tiren said, "I'm not right; I wronged you, Birka. If we were back home, the Elders would have taken me to task for my behavior, and rightly so."
Anler laughed quietly. "Have we all been walking around feeling too guilty to even talk to each other?"
His laughter was contagious, along with the giddy relief that often comes on the heels of disaster. Birka began laughing, then Tiren joined them, and they all giggled helplessly in their fur-pile as the wind shrieked outside.
In the morning, they woke half-buried in snow and tangled up in each other. Birka was the first to wrestle free and poke her head outside, though she had to shove a load of snow off the tent in order to do so. She caught her breath at the sight that greeted her.
The clouds had finally lifted. The sky was clear, pale blue, the fresh snow dazzling under a newly risen sun. For the first time, she could see the mountains on the lower slopes of which they'd been traveling for days: crystal-sharp in the morning sunshine, rising to rake the sky.
Tiren's tousled head popped out beside hers, and for a moment he, too, gazed in wonder at the brilliant winter morning. Then he said, "Do you see what I see?"
He'd lifted his eyes to the mountains. Birka looked up, and opened her mouth to ask what he was talking about, when she did see. There was a deep notch between two peaks, almost directly above them. It was the pass at last, and not at all far away. The deep, rounded depression reminded her of a saddle with a ludicrously high cantle.
Grinning, she turned to Tiren and saw her own joy reflected in his eyes. "Want to see what's on the other side?"
He laughed and kissed her cheek. "I can't wait."
Groaning and thrashing signaled that Anler had woken as well. "What is everyone so excited about? I feel like one big bruise." Then he poked his head out of the tent and saw what they were looking at. A slow grin spread across his bruised face. "Wow," he whispered.
They ate and broke camp with a new kind of eagerness, not the soul-deadening urgency that had driven them for days, but excitement to finally see what was beyond the mountains. Rather than cutting the snowies' rations, they fed the animals well, using up most of their remaining fodder. The snowies would need their strength for what promised to be a steep climb.
As they mounted the pass, the land around them began to change, almost imperceptibly at first, then more quickly. Birka gasped in delight and pointed out the first spruce tree any of them had seen in two tendays. It was a tiny, shrubby thing, but it wasn't lichen. Climbing further, they began to pass through small stands of low, wind-sculpted willows and alders. They allowed the snowies to pause and browse, despite their own enthusiasm to see what was over the top of the pass.
At last the steep slope began to flatten out. The three riders halted their mounts, who stood puffing and blowing, and looked down on a land that none of their people had seen in untold generations.
It was beautiful and wild. Mountains nearly as high as the ones they'd crossed rose in three directions, with conifer forests carpeting their feet. In the valley directly before the travelers, a round alpine lake already showed some signs of melting: great dark avenues in the ice where water had risen to soak through the snow.
Nowhere, as far as the eye could see, was there any sign of human beings. No woodsmoke hung on the air or rose thread-thin from that distant forest.
But there were people here. They knew it because of Malaamig's party. They'd come through the worst of their journey, and now it was only a matter of finding the others who lived beyond the mountains.
Birka looked over at her companions, who were gazing down on the new land with wonder equivalent to her own, and her heart swelled with joy, pride, and love. They'd done it. They had crossed Lichenwold. And now a new land spread before them to explore, full of new people to meet and new sights to see.
She couldn't wait.