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The village moved at the pace of a wounded animal, all strung out over the path, limited by the people on foot and the sturdy snowies pulling the laden summer skid. Kativa's last turn at scouting ahead on a home journey, two years previous, had been a trial. She'd spent the entire time knowing that the people were having small celebrations every night while she camped alone in the woods. Tedra had been with her last year, but spending time with Tedra was like talking to a tree, and involved about as much intelligent conversation. This year, though, she was looking forward to being away from the tension and the uncomfortable feeling that hung over the villagers. This year, she would be traveling with Tolnam. He had spent the entire summer at the Crescent Beach Gather, while she and Kether had ranged around Muddy River Gather, and this would be her first chance to really reconnect with him again. Author's Notes
"You've got some extra rations?"
Marda could no longer walk with the train and her joints were too painful and swollen to climb up into a snowy's saddle, so she traveled in one of the narrow sledges. It smelled of the fish she was packed with, but the short woman never complained.
Kativa, walking beside the sledge with her snowy at her heels, confirmed, "Yes, mentor Marda!"
Marda had been mentoring her for several years, hoping that Kativa's sensitivity to Otherweather would turn into a true gift at hearing it with a little attention. Kativa had been touched by the woman's care and attention during their pairing, and still felt disappointed that no gifts had developed for the old woman to train. No one in Itadesh but the one woman had those gifts now, though a few of the older children who hadn't yet graduated from their age-sets were being eyed hopefully.
"And your sling? You've got enough shot?"
Kativa squeezed Marda's hands gently; although the woman didn't bring attention to the fact, Kativa knew she was suffering from advanced stages of the joint ailments that people with her genetic condition often had. Marda was more than just below average height, she suffered from Amukiiron, which showed in her stubby limbs and the unusual twist to her joints that caused her pain and loss of mobility.
"I promise, I've got everything I need," Kativa insisted. She didn't mention that her age-set had graduated seven years ago - she had been treated by most of the village as an adult for that time, but some habits died hard.
"You're certainly eager to be gone," Marda said, with a wry smile, and Kativa didn't deny it.
The first leg of the fall journey home was rarely anything but rainy, but past the first foothills, the weather usually brightened. Kativa could remember the festive air that homecoming usually had; that last handful of days on the trail usually involved drumming at the evening fires and stories and jokes on the days ride. Laughter was rarer this year, and Kativa couldn't put her finger on it. The summer fish gather had not been as good as some years, but she could remember years that it had been worse. The weather was oppressive, to be sure, but even that didn't usually keep dancing and cheer from the evening fire.
"Kativa, dear..." Marda pursed her lips, hesitated, and finally said, "Don't pester Tolnam too much."
Kativa blushed. Two years older than she was, Tolnam was almost a head taller and much stronger. Where Kativa seemed to have gained only height since they were children together, Tolnam had been gifted with appropriate muscle, and was strong and capable. Kativa remained almost obsessively competitive with him, even now that they had graduated from their age-set, and she would have been the first to admit that she nursed an unrequited crush on him. Marda was not the first or only elder to suggest to her that Tolnam would have shown interest by now if he was going to, and to gently encourage her to turn her interests elsewhere.
"I promise I won't," she said sincerely. She considered this a chance to prove that she'd outgrown her childish crush. If part of her still secretly hoped that this was really her chance to prove to Tolnam that she was the one for him, she didn't breathe a word of it, and hardly dared to hope it.
"Are you ready to go?"
If Kativa hadn't already been blushing, she might have then; she hated that Tolnam had the power to do that, just with his voice.
"So ready!" she agreed. She dipped a kiss on Marda's wrinkled cheek, and sprang away from the sledge to the snowy walking obediently beside it. "I can't wait to see home again," she jabbered inanely. "Those wonderful round roofs and tall trees. The river!"
She swung up on the ladder that dangled from the snowy's saddle, and clambered up into it with grace born of practice. Tolnam watched her warily, and she flashed him a quick, reassuring smile as she whistled Stonefoot into a fast walk that would eat up the miles much faster than the awkward gait implied. She would show them both; she'd been an adult for a third of her life - it was high time she'd proved she really was one.
# # #
The morning dawned with a promise of drier weather. There was a brightness to the clouds that hadn't been there, the past several days, and the drizzle was sporadic at best. Kativa finally felt the squeeze of oppression that had been haunting her lift from her chest. Today, they would arrive home, and the idea held a certain thrill. Kativa rolled out of her fur roll with more vigor than usual, and stretched happily. After relieving herself, she returned to camp without lingering, though she would have been happy to hunt for some berries to augment her breakfast.
Tolnam was already packing when Kativa returned, and he tossed her a piece of dried fish with a grin. "I can't wait to sleep in a real bed," he sighed.
Kativa caught the fish, and with her mouth full of the chewy stuff, answered, "I can't wait to be dry again."
"Or warm," Tolnam returned. "I don't think I've really been warm in weeks."
Kativa laughed. "If I'd known the journey home was going to be this chilly, I would've brought my overcoat and boots." She turned her gray eyes to the thinning sky wistfully. It was an exaggeration; her coat and boots would have been drastic overkill for this weather, but the thought of their comforting weight and warmth was appealing.
Kativa saddled the snowies without pausing in her breakfast, adept at chewing on the strip of fish while her arms and hands were busy. Stonefoot was inclined to be snappy, and it took a firm rap on his nose to get him to stop reaching back to bite at her fingers once he'd been convinced to kneel. Tolnam's mount was more docile, and in exchange for a few scratches would have happily put on her own saddle if she had been possessed of opposable thumbs instead of cloven hooves.
She climbed up the short ladder and scrambled into the shoulder saddle. Then she could turn and look down at Tolnam's hair. He looked up, once she had settled in the saddle and the air above his head was free of drifting boot scrapings and clumps of underfur. "Settled?" he asked cheerfully.
"As much as I'll ever settle," she teased down at him. She reminded herself that she had promised Marda not to pester him and convinced herself it hadn't been flirtatious.
Tolnam clambered into his own saddle, and adjusted his pack on the hooks behind him. Brushing the clingy gray underfur from her hands, Kativa whistled the snowies back to their feet and held on. Her mount jolted to his feet in a singularly ungraceful movement, and surged into a seamless walk.
"Do you want to go by the falls?" Tolnam called from the back of his snowy.
Kativa paused, divided for a moment. The path ahead split, and both forks went to Itadesh, one through the low part of the pass, decidedly the faster route. The other route went up, and hugged the far ridge of the hill before a perilous downward scramble for the valley bottom on the other side. On the one hand, Kativa wanted to press home as quickly as possible, but on the other - "Yes," she called back. "I want to see the view."
They had camped at the base of a ridge, largely protected from the wind, in one of the last stands of deciduous trees before the altitude limited trees to the hardy spruces. The forest transformed as they worked up the ridge, darkening and thinning. Underbrush was rare, but the trees had needled branches nearly to the forest floor, making passage difficult away from the regular trail, and line of vision short.
The view from the falls, while not the most spectacular vista in the area, was a clear shot up the valley to the bluff where Itadesh nestled. In the fall, the tundra slopes above the spruce forest were ablaze in autumn colors. The mountains that dwarfed the high slopes were white year-round. It was a breath-taking sight, and heart-warming, with the barest glimpse of the dark round roofs of the village.
The morning haze was beginning to lift, and shots of blue sky tantalized the two rangers as they nudged their mounts through the trees. The rare leaved tree was a jeweled wonder of color, and the heavy dew left a sheen of glitter on every tree branch and every spruce needle as it melted in the golden bolts of sunlight that began to dissolve the clouds. Moisture misted from the spongy ground, leaving Kativa feeling a touch unreal, almost as if her mount's heavy feet weren't touching the ground; even the sound of his footfalls were muffled in the needle-mold on the forest floor. The falls traced down from a higher ridge to the south. Tolnam and Kativa dismounted, and led their snowies along the rocky bank to the west, towards the viewpoint. The falls were small at this time of year, and the roar of water was not quite deafening.
Around a curve in the waterway, the trees balked from the inhospitable ground, and the valley stretched itself out before the gaze of the two rangers.
The sense of non-reality lingered with Kativa, and at first she wouldn't believe what her eyes were showing. Tolnam said something under his breath; a curse, perhaps, or a prayer, but Kativa's ears were ringing in shock, and she didn't understand it.
The valley was there, as large as ever, but the landscape was alien. The trees marched down this side of the ridge towards the open space, as they always had, but then stopped abruptly, replaced by a blackened, flattened, wrinkled skin that traced the contours of the land as they had never before been exposed. A fire had swept the land, leaving only charred twigs of stately spruce trunks, destroying the forest that had softened the surface of the valley.
Kativa let her gaze swing upward, towards the location of Itadesh and its comforting round roofs and smoke-pipes. They surely must still be there, in the hollow before the slope to the foothills.
Without the familiar forest landmarks to direct her view, she was uncertain of the location, but though her mind balked and shied at the idea, Kativa was quite sure that her home was no longer part of this new landscape. Her knees seemed to contain no bones, and she tore her gaze away to find that her hands and legs were shaking as if she had run the entire length of the valley. She clasped her hands firmly together, and glanced at her companion. Tolnam had turned and was looking fixedly at the falls behind them; his face was devoid of color, and his lips were pressed so closely together that they almost disappeared from his face.
Neither spoke. Kativa sat down, mindless of the cold and discomfort of the rock, and clasped her arms around her knees to try to calm the shaking. It was more real to think of making herself stop shaking than to think of the ruin of the valley in front of her. She'd lost her snowy's leadline, but the beast was snatching at some greenery by the water, and not inclined to wander far. Kativa gritted her teeth and looked up again, gazing over the land with pain in her chest. Tolnam came and sat beside her after a moment, so close that their hips touched, and Kativa felt some support from the contact. She wanted to lean into him and hope that he would put his arm around her, but she was too proud, and even in the agony of the moment could not dispel her overwhelming desire to prove her independence.
After a long moment, her chest felt less tight, and Kativa began to consider speech again, and could think of her people, more than seven hundred of them, now homeless, with an early winter and only a modest fish harvest. 'We need to go back and tell them,' she said. Her voice was high, and not entirely steady, but it was more audible than she had feared.
Tolnam moved, murmuring something, and Kativa heard one of his joints pop. She wondered how long they had been sitting there, trying to comprehend the strange turn that their homecoming journey had taken. She wondered how she was going to tell her pregnant half-sister that she had no home to return to, how to tell Marda that her tired bones would have no sauna to refresh in.
She wondered how any of them would survive the cruel winter.
The second of the Torn World stories ever written - this one has been pared down considerably from the original version. I introduced too many people, with no point, and dithered around without anything happening for too long. But lo! There is plot!