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The air was cold enough outside to make Birka's nosehairs feel stiff after the muggy warmth of the crowded house. She pulled her scarf closer around her face and smiled at herself; it was warmer than it had been just a tenday ago on the long trail, but the luxurious warmth of the hot springs was making her soft and spoiled.
She didn't realize she had stopped in the path until Tiren elbowed her aside in friendly fashion. This late in the winter, the paths became narrow and packed, with high walls of snow to either side that kept foot traffic to very specific places. It was thoughtless of her to linger in the way of others, and she fell into step with Tiren with a moment of chagrin.
"A journey to the cities in the south would make our last long browse look like an easy summer stroll," Tiren said thoughtfully, looking up at the snow-crusted branches overhead. The last sunrays of the short day were striking the tallest trees, and the little village was golden and orange in reflected light.
"And you know you still want to go," Birka said, grinning and pulling her scarf away from her mouth to speak.
Tiren laughed. "You know I do."
"The Elders will choose you for sure," Birka said confidently. "No one else knows Lichenwold like you do."
"Not for sure," Tiren said modestly.
"Unless they draw names on birchbark by random," Birka scoffed.
"They wouldn't do that," Tiren chuckled.
"Then it's for sure you'll go."
"They'll go over all the candidates very carefully; they'll want a team that works well together," Tiren said thoughtfully.
"Mm hmm," Birka said in agreement. "And they'll have a meeting in Itrelir, so that people can speak out. This party will be our first face to the Empire, so they'll be looking for rangers who can represent us well, as a whole."
"Dareg will want to go," Tiren surmised. "And Favubu. Reqem would have been an obvious choice if he weren't already too old for the trip, but don't ever tell him I said that."
"Fala should go," Birka added swiftly. "She never gets lost, and she's got better weather sense than almost anyone. If any ranger could find a safe trail, it's her."
Tiren looked away and made a non-committed conversational noise.
"She'd want to go, too," Birka pressed. "You two used to be a strong team." She let Tiren be silent for only a moment before suggesting, "This could be the perfect chance to ford that river you've let flood between you."
Tiren's look was mixed annoyance and fondness. "There's not such a flood as all that," he protested. "I just... didn't think she handled things with Dareg very well."
"You were disappointed in her because she lost her temper and because she shamed your friend," Birka said frankly. "She thought you chose Dareg instead of her, and all she's wanted from you is approval since we were children, so it was hard for her to take. A few years of not talking about it, and you've got an acre of water where there used to be friendship." Her voice was sharper than she meant it to be, and Tiren drew up, snow crunching under his boots. Birka stopped with him.
"You've given this some thought," he said in some surprise.
Birka smiled ruefully. "Not really," she confessed. "But the idea of going out on the trail with you and Fala again - and on this trail... it makes me want to fix things."
"The three of us haven't been out since you were barely adults."
Birka was encouraged by the thoughtfulness in his voice, and smiled at him as winningly as she could manage with her cold-stiff face. "We should change that," she said coaxingly. "You and me and Fala - we could find the trail through Lichenwold to the southern Empire with Malaamig. We could send a letter of support by messenger for the Elders to read when they make the decision about who goes." Birka had spent most of a winter as a child helping the archivists, and she kept her writing hand in practice when she had the chance.
"Do you think they'll allow letters out through the quarantine?" Tiren asked, and Birka recognized it for a change of subject and let him take it.
"They should," she said mildly. "If we hang them up for the sun and cold to sterilize rather than passing them hand-to-hand, they should be perfectly safe. The people at Itrelir will want to know all the amazing things we're learning about."
That drew the topic back to the wonders that the southerns talked about, and the marvelous things they carried. Birka let Tiren lead her to the hot springs as they chatted, but shook her head when he asked if she was interested in a soak in Blister Lake, the hottest of the improved pools.
"I thought I'd take a few of the snowies out to browse over the next ridge while it's still early enough to get them back tonight," she said. The snow-unicorns were quarantined at Smokewater as surely as the humans; if some disease that the strangers brought with them could skip to the big creatures, it would be devastating to bring to Itrelir. But the carefully fenced fields at Smokewater were very small, to minimize their impact on the fragile ecosystem of the little valley, so it was important to get the snowies out for browsing as often as they could. Besides, Birka was restless. All those blank places on the strangers' maps had lit a fire under her; she wanted to go to them, simply to see what was there.
Tiren gave her a squeeze around the shoulders, and Birka smiled as she hiked away. There was time, yet, to mend the rift between her age-mate and her friend. That could wait.
* * *
Anler was grooming Grayfeathers when Birka crunched up behind him in the snow. The snowy was too busy groaning in pleasure at the attention to pay her any mind, but Anler turned to glance at her. His nod was brief, and he immediately turned back to the rake he was combing through the thick fur.
"Did you hear about the maps?" Birka asked eagerly.
Anler's chuckle was muffled in knit snowy-fur. "Yes, Kativa was here with all the amazing news. Blathered on about a southern pass to Lichenwold and the Council of Elders at Itrelir and magic crystals for a while before Matelkem dragged her off somewhere else and gave me some peace."
"It is exciting," Birka felt obliged to point out in Kativa's defense. "We're talking about who they might send south."
Anler didn't take the hint for conversation, so she prompted, "Who do you think should go?"
"Tiren," Anler said immediately. Then, "Fala, I suppose? Though..." He didn't have to complete the thought.
"They would make it work again," Birka said firmly. "I know they could."
Anler shrugged one shoulder and fell silent again.
A little puzzled by Anler's oddly quiet mood, Birka picked up a second rake and tackled the snow-unicorn's forward shoulder, to the creature's delight.
"I was thinking I'd take a trio of snowies out over the ridge to browse in the next valley this afternoon," she said lightly after a moment of quiet work. Anler grunted unhelpfully in reply. He didn't seem angry, exactly, but he was definitely thinking hard about something. Birka cast back over their last few days at Itrelir, trying to figure out what it might be.
"I saw that Taiv was wearing your bead before we left Itelir," she remembered out loud. "Plenty of stallions have been after that mare; I bet you got a share of envy for that!" The tall young woman was notoriously selective.
That earned her an unappreciative scowl, though Birka couldn't fathom why. "Grayfeathers' coat is clear and Tiren's taking a turn in Blister Lake," she tried again. "Why don't you go join him and soak a smile onto that sour face before it freezes that way."
That did make Anler crack a slight smile, and he let Birka squeeze his shoulder fondly. "I will," he said apologetically, and they walked together to the covered lean-to where snow-unicorn tack and tools were hanging, Grayfeathers trailing them hopefully.
As Birka picked out the straps and supplies she would need for her short trip, Anler abruptly said, "I think I'd like to go south."
Birka looked at him with surprise that turned to delight. Anler usually chose the shorter routes, but he had enough experience on longer trails that she knew he'd be a valuable companion. "Oh, Anler! That would be marvelous! You and Fala and Tiren and I? Would the Elders let four of us go with Malaamig, do you think?" Impulsively, she hugged Anler, and his answering embrace was surprised and warm.
"I'd like that," he said when she let him go. He looked particularly handsome when he smiled, cheeks flushed with the cold. "Come soak with me and Tiren at Blister Lake," he suggested. "The snowies have enough fodder to last until tomorrow."
For a moment, Birka was tempted. "No," she said, after only a moment's consideration. "I want to be out in the wilderness for a while." She looked out across the little field at the forest, and the wooded ridge beyond. The blank places from the strangers' maps still sang their siren song in her mind. This little trip would be to land that had been explored before, many times, but there would be undisturbed snow in some places beyond the ridge. It would be a little like stepping foot in the white places on a map.
She realized she was smiling foolishly into the distance and glanced to find that Anler was watching her with a peculiar, contemplative expression. "I'll be back before full dark," she said cheerfully. "If you and Tiren haven't shriveled up in the meantime, I'll have a soak with you after an evening meal."
"We'll save you some heat," Anler said glibly, and he was in visibly higher spirits as he opened the gate to the snowy pen for Birka and the three snow-unicorns she whistled from the herd. She waved at him from Startle's shoulders, and guided the snowies out into the forest with a merry heart.