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Birka woke when Malaamig rose to put wood on the fire, the light from the embers momentarily brighter as he blew on them. The angles of his face were harsh in the glow, haggard but handsome. He wore his beard in a neat braid, and Birka smiled to herself to think of the fashion catching on in Itrelir.
Kativa stirred and mumbled, then curled closer to Matelkem. Diren and Margaa didn't move.
Malaamig was quiet and contained in his motions and, if Birka had not been well-rested, she could have easily fallen back to sleep when he rose from the fire and left the house with the melting pot. Instead, she lay with her eyes open for a few moments, then crawled carefully out of her furs, picking her way over the crowded floor to follow him.
The sky was twilight blue; it was several hours before the sun would peek over the mountains, but already light enough to make out the pale bulk of the snowies and the dark forms of the dogs who were milling happily around Malaamig's tall figure. The cloud cover had cleared; only a trace of new snow powdered the ground.
The canines noticed her at once, and looked between Malaamig and Birka, clearly seeking permission from him. Between the depths of his hood and the dim light, Birka couldn't make out his features, but she quickly said, "Haruu, dogs! Come?" It wasn't quite the way that Malaamig had said it, and between that and - she suspected - not being their master, they still hesitated until the stranger said gruffly, "All clear. All right."
They swarmed at her then, and Birka had a moment of regret for her invitation. Though much, much smaller than the snowies, these were clearly predators. They moved fast, with compressed grace, and fixed bright eyes on her, sniffing at her with pointed interest; Birka could not help but feel that they were assessing how best to bring her down as prey. Then one of them fell over at her feet, rubbing its head in the snow, wagging its tail, and showing its belly. Hesitantly, with a glance at Malaamig for support, she knelt and rubbed the offered belly, which led to a host of groaning sounds that could only be pleasure. The other dogs, jealous of the attention, pressed in and demanded pats and rubs, angling their heads for the touches they most wanted.
Startle gave a pointed 'harumph,' and shuffled in to steal some of Birka's coveted attention; they had hobbled the snowies for the night, and the shrubbery they could reach was all munched down to the snow level. Grayfeather gave a demanding bleat, and Birka laughed, leaving the dogs to get the milking bag that had been propped near the entrance of the snow shelter.
She made a show of milking the placid snowy, stretching to clip the heavy bag on the saddle snaggles over her head. "We leave the saddles on overnight if we won't be making a basecamp," she explained. "They are heavy and difficult to wrangle on and off, and though the fur will tangle and mat if a saddle is left on too long, a day or two won't harm them."
"How much milk do they produce?" Malaamig asked, though she had to get him to repeat the question before she understood it.
"Perhaps 10 gallons in a day," Birka answered, indicating on the bag where that would be and demonstrating how to coax the precious liquid from Grayfeathers' teats. "It depends on how recently they've lost a foal."
He asked something about foals and Birka guessed at the meaning. "Grayfeathers has thrown two healthy colts," she said proudly; not every mare could say the same. "Startle had a filly a few springs ago that lived a year. They both lost foals to miscarriage this fall."
He made a noise of sympathy, as if that were not to be expected, and helped her haul the milk bag down from the snaggles; it was a task easier done with two sets of hands. She offered him a cup of the warm milk and he took it politely, not quite able to mask the brief expression of disgust before drinking it like a punishment. Birka laughed, which seemed to embarrass him, and drank from the same cup with much more relish. She showed him how to fold over the milkbag for travel; the bag was not proof of spilling, but it had stiffening to keep it upright when full, and would freeze soon enough at this time of year. In some ways, winter could be easier than summer, when the danger of spoilage counteracted the comfort of milder weather.
"How did you get here, with no unicorns to ride and milk?" she asked Malaamig, as they hung a second bag at Startle's saddle. Startle was less compliant, and it took a firm whistled reminder to keep her from sidling away.
"We came on a (something), with (something)," Malaamig answered, and it took hand gestures and explanations before Birka understood that his party had come on a boat - a boat big enough to carry something that was like, but not like a snow-unicorn. "Much smaller," Malaamig said, with a reserved little chuckle, and Birka thought they must be, to fit even one in a boat. If Birka listened sideways, his words made sense together. He chose odd words and spoke them strangely, but she was beginning to get used to the patterns of his speech.
"Horses," Birka said reverently, and she remembered them, vaguely, from the earliest records of the Upheaval. That led to a conversation about animals, and Malaamig drew shapes in the snow that it was just becoming light enough to see, some of them ridiculously shaped. She doubted the scale and accuracy of many of his drawings - tiny deer the size of weasels, and shagbacks like mountains, deer with wings, and long creatures with no legs or limbs. She was struck by the strength of her desire to see them for herself.
"Where are your horses?" she thought to ask. There was no sign of them here, and they did not have more gear than the three of them - and the dogs - could carry.
Malaamig frowned. "We came through a valley of only grass, and they grew sick and died."
Birka hissed in sympathy. "Mirthless Valley," she guessed at once. "It was poisoned in the Upheaval. We won't hunt nearby."
That led to drawing a map in the snow, trying to guess where their party had traveled, based on Birka's memory of where Itakith and Mirthless Valley were. They compared landmarks, and drew in the shape of the sound, and Malaamig traced the path of his boat through and outside the sound, then far, far to the south.
"How do you take a boat out so far on the sound?" Birka asked incredulously. A boat with even small snow-unicorns, over the sea monster-infested water, seemed ridiculous. A crude picture was added to the diagrams in the snow, with a tiny human for scale, showing an impossibly large structure with a squat shape, compared to a canoe, and Birka could not imagine it in her head. How could you even paddle it? He drew something above it and talked about wind and steam, but the tentative grasp Birka had on his way of speaking broke down, and she could not understand what he was drawing.
"I give up," she said at last, laughing, and she automatically clasped an arm around his shoulders companionably, having to reach to do so. He stiffened, as if he were not used to being touched, and drew away, suddenly awkward. Birka's instinct was to comfort him, put a hand on his arm or even hug him, but she recognized at the last moment that would be wrong gesture and hung back.
She was glad when a cheerful "Haruu!" behind them saved her from trying to decide what the right gesture would be.