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Malaamig was not sure he had ever seen a summer so beautiful, so irrepressibly cheerful. Gentle mountain winds kept the bugs away, and the sun shone every day after the rains of spring cleared, staying in the sky far, far longer than a sun ought to. Margaa explained with delight that it was an effect of the tilt of the world, that their summer days were longer than they were even in Affamarg. She noted the sunrise and sunset times every day in her books with interest, and did long, complex calculations in the margins.
As traveling partners, Malaamig decided, he could do worse than these two. They always made a concerted effort to draw him out respectfully, not treading too close to personal topics, but carefully pulling him into their conversations so he wouldn't feel left out. He could have done a lot worse on this entire trip.
"The winter nights will be this long, too" Diren said with only a little less cheer.
Malaamig wondered if that meant the winter nights would have no day whatsoever, as the peak summer days had no nights. He suspected so, but didn't ask outright.
They mapped acres and acres of the sub-mountain terrain to the south of the bay, roughly plotting out the contours of the craggy land, and taking estimates of the mountains they didn't even try to climb. "This is only a primary mapping mission," Diren insisted to Margaa repeatedly. "We can come back for the details. They'll send a survey crew, eventually." She would laugh and agree, and still look longingly at the instruments and the insurmountable heights.
As Iremima warned, the summer didn't last long. Autumn began to color the plants before they'd even gotten comfortable with the idea of summer.
Their perishable staples from home were long gone, but Malaamig had, as his initial journey implied, been able to restock game and forage without any trouble. Game was plentiful, or had been, until they reached this valley the previous day. This place was strangely empty of the shagbacks they were used to encountering, and almost completely free of trees.
The horses grazed eagerly at the grass, and Malaamig staked them out on long leads. He looked around, uneasy, but not quite able to put his finger on what bothered him. Maybe it was the silence - the gliders that liked to scold from the trees were absent from this valley. Malaamig shook off the irrational fear and went back to the camp.
The berries wouldn't keep, so he cooked them into every meal while the scientists exclaimed over their notes of the day.
"This whole valley!" Margaa was crowing, pointing out features on her careful maps. "You'd think a city was supposed to be here, as it were already cleared for one. Look at the drainage, the lay of the river. Oh! - it aches for a park by the waterfall we passed this morning. See how level it is here, and the view! It would be easy enough to build a port, put in a rail... I'm surprised there isn't a forest here."
Malaamig looked at her sharply at the idea, as it settled in to his head that there ought to be trees in this valley, and he couldn't find a good reason for there not to be.
"You think the Empire would want to settle up here?" Diren asked, as Malaamig dished them the concoction of meat and berries. It was not too sweet to be a real meal - these berries had a marvelous tartness to them that complimented the game and nearly tasteless roots.
Margaa glanced at her husband hopefully. "I think so," she said optimistically, putting the food to her mouth without really noticing it. "Why wouldn't they?"
"No surface coal," Diren said warningly. "And who knows if there are metal deposits. It might not be enough to open government coffers. It would be expensive to build up here - the building season is short and I can't imagine a rail coming through the mountains. They were even tight-fisted about the price of just this exploration. We had to cut it down to three people and four horses before they'd license it."
"You could set shifts to work through the nights," Margaa said coaxingly. "It doesn't get dark!"
Malaamig found a smile twitching at his mouth. She wanted desperately to come back for more. He could respect that desire; it had been a lovely, easy trip this far. It was likely that the winter would have her singing a different tune.
"It's so gorgeous, they may even set up a vacation resort here. Who wouldn't want to come just to see it? And imagine it covered in snow."
Diren rolled his eyes at her, but tolerantly. "How far do you think we'll get tomorrow?" he asked Malaamig.
"To those foothills, at least," Malaamig said gruffly. He didn't voice the idea that was nagging him, that suggested they pull up their campstakes and leave the valley immediately. It was a silly, foolish instinct. He forced himself to relax.
They had plenty of time for their task, there was no rush. They were surveying along the edges of the mountains, in a sweeping pattern aimed generally west, working from the very inner tip of the bay along the south, near the range and estimating distant landmarks as far as they could see. The maps they were creating were crude at best, with features estimated optically and distances based on stride-counters on the horses, averaged together. They stopped every few miles, to let the horses graze and to take measurements and update their maps. They would continue this way, even through the winter. By late spring, the plan was that they would arrive on the inner, westernmost edge of this new territory, to meet Iremima's ship once the ice would let her through. It was about 400 miles, from entrance to end of the bay, though probably closer to 700 miles following the base of the mountains the way they were, and they had been making 100 miles a month during the nicest days of summer.
Malaamig wondered how common this weather was - certainly the first trip had been much more dismal than the sunny brilliance of this summer. It may have been a function of their location, too - perhaps rain liked to sit by the marshy coast. Weather was one function of science that he took a keen interest in, as it affected his job so intimately. He picked a bone out of his stew and threw it to Issar, who wagged his curved tail in gratitude. The other three sat upright, hopeful to receive the same treatment, but settled back with resigned sighs when no more appeared.
They slept that night without even building a shelter, the night sky was clear and mild above them for the few hours it was dark, and though it hinted at frost, it didn't bring it.
Malaamig could not bring himself to hurry the scientists out of the valley the next day, and they spent another day, estimating heights of peaks without trees to block their measurements. He gathered plants he recognized, putting them away so they could finish the berries first.
It was with a sigh of relief on his part that they left the valley behind and returned to land he was more familiar with, with trees and animals as he'd grown to expect again.
The sigh of relief didn't last.
The first sign of trouble was listlessness. The gelding, Meina refused to eat, and Ajol only picked with disinterest at the grass. Then, the diarrhea began.
One reason that Malaamig preferred working with dogs was their size - and the size of the problems they manifested.
The illness puzzled them, and was swift and deadly in its attack: within half a day, two of the horses were dead, by the following morning, a third was gone, too, and only the mare Ajol remained. There was no fever, only violent colitis, and the deadly dehydration that came with it. Poison, was their best guess. Something in the grasses of the valley they had just left behind - something that kept the trees from growing and that the local game had learned to ignore. Malaamig growled at himself for missing it, for mistrusting his own instincts, and watched the dogs carefully for any similar signs.
"She's not going to last," Margaa said plaintively. Ajol's big head was limp in her lap, her legs splayed unnaturally as she lay on the ground. The smell of her bowels had dulled in their noses with continued exposure. The mare's mouth continued to work, spilling mucusy saliva over Margaa's pants. "What are we going to do without them?" She knew as well as Malaamig did that it wasn't a matter of if, anymore, only when. Ajol wouldn't take water, and was dangerously dehydrated. Even if they pulled her back from the brink of death for the moment, they would not be able to move her for days.
Malaamig was not good at being consoling, but he tried. "We already made arrangements with Iremima," he reminded her. "If we aren't at the beginning of the bay, she'll sweep the coast for us, looking for a fire, until the ice drives her south for the winter again. All we have to do is make it to the coast from here."
"And that's not so hard," Diren said, far better at sounding reassuring than Malaamig's attempt. "We've been taking the long, long windy way around. We don't have to do that, just cut straight across."
Ajol had finally stopped moving, and Margaa could not hide the tears in her eyes. "Should... should we try to salvage the meat?" she asked in a very small voice.
Malaamig shook his head. "Whatever poisoned them could poison us," he said flatly, and he watched her eyes widen in alarm. He had already thrown out everything he'd harvested from the valley, hating the waste, but fearing the results even more.
Margaa lowered her head. "It wasn't supposed to be like this," she said. It was as close as she ever came to complaining.
They pushed on.
Now, without a single horse between the three of them, the travel had slowed painfully, but Malaamig was not worried, yet. They had the entire winter to get to the coast, and traveling over the marshes that spanned between the sea and themselves would be even easier once freezing weather was here.
So, he still let the Scientists stop to sketch in their botanical notes and take readings from the mountains around them, humoring their flighty pauses to exclaim about plants and hares, as long as they continued to make the distance he estimated they needed to each day.
Heavy gray clouds gathered and hung low above them, drizzling with slow, steady determination, as if nature knew it had a glorious summer to atone for. After a tenday and a half, it had dampened even the enthusiasm of the Scientists. Malaamig recognized their growing exhaustion; they weren't used to the days-on-end foot treks that he was, and he didn't want to run them out of energy so soon in their long trip back to the coast, so he kept his eyes out for a good place to hunker down for a few days.
He knew the place instantly when he found it, a ravine so sheltered it still had a ledge of winter ice in it - perfect for stashing meat in for preservation. The river through the ravine was muddy, but plenty of fresh rain water was pooled in the rocks around it. The only thing more he could have asked for was a time crystal storage unit and a delivery of the daily paper.
"It's like a fragment of sky," Margaa said, when she saw it. Small blue flowers brightened the ground cover with exactly the color of the sky that they hadn't seen in two long tendays.
As if on cue, the clouds parted just enough to let a patch of that sky shine through like benediction.
"We'll camp here a few days, rest up, and do some hunting," Malaamig told them, and the relief on their faces was palpable.
It was the first place that they'd built anything resembling a permanent structure. A fallen tree became the ridgepole for an open-sided tent, which they put a stone fire pit into, carefully vented to the downwind side, and had a pleasant place out of the rain to sit and go through their supplies. The heaviest of their gear and instruments had been cached where the horses died, and Diren sighed with regret at their absence.
Malaamig took the dogs out hunting, and fed them all decadent, fall-fat meat, with late berries and tasty greens, while the Scientists caught up on their notes and organized their findings.
The planned two-day stop stretched to six before Malaamig knew they needed to finally move on. As they left, the cold drizzle just beginning to turn to flakes of snow, Margaa pressed something into Malaamig's hand. It was a tiny blue flower, dried flat. It was a surprise; Malaamig didn't expect little gifts from the Scientists, and Margaa seemed, despite her infatuation with Diren and their charting mission, basically practical. "It's a fragment of the sky," she said, much as she had when they arrived. "To remind us, later."
Her face had lost its city softness, and Malaamig saw understanding of their coming winter in her eyes. She knew as well as he did that it was only going to get harder from here. He half-smiled at her, and tucked the flower into a pocket near his chest. He suspected he would need this reminder often in the coming months, as they coped with more things that weren't supposed to be.