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Kether had once stepped in an ant nest when he was very young, and had been swarmed by the vicious creatures for the intrusion. They had crawled up his pant legs, stinging and pinching, and, as fast as he could brush them away, more were there to take their places. The stings were mild, and what had at first been surprising - but not terribly frightening - had turned into a nightmare as the sheer numbers of them threatened to overwhelm his child-self.
Kativa and Tolnam had made fun of him for two weeks straight for his unceremonious return to their summer gather camp, sans pants, crying and brushing and scratching at the ones that had crept up into his shirt.
Walking into Itrelir made him brush at his legs again, a long-forgotten echo of that event making itchy, uncomfortable nerves twinge.
The villagers didn't exactly swarm - or at least, they left his pants alone (though one woman did grin at him rather suggestively and a brush to his rear did not seem entirely accidental). But there was a distressing press of them, chattering in an alarming cacophony after the increasingly quiet somberness of the traveling tribe. Snowies shook their big heads, stomped and called to the new herds with territorial and curious calls, adding to the surreal feel to the meeting.
They were not unexpected - riders had gone ahead to tell the news of the forest fire and the resultant homelessness of the Itadesh refugees. Their greeting was warm and friendly - for the most part, each of them could trace a distant or not-so-distant relation to the Itrelir people, and everyone had friends from other villages that they saw during the temporary summer gathers. He searched for familiar faces in the crowd, but didn't find any. A cup of warm tea was pressed into his hands by a child with big blue eyes beneath dark hair. She took it back when he had taken a deep swig, to hand it to Kativa; they would not have enough mugs to give each person their own.
Kativa hovered close to Kether, quiet outside of the usual greetings, and he was foolishly relieved that she was affected by the crush of new people as well. He bumped shoulders with her, and was rewarded by a flash of a faint smile.
"There are so many of them," she said in a quiet aside to him - there was enough noise to drown their conversation, and they fell back as soon as possible to begin unloading the snowies and breaking down the packs under the direction of a tall man wearing a green embroidered light parka. It had stopped raining, fortuitously, though the sky was still heavy with clouds.
"So this is Kativa," a familiar voice greeted him with interest. Kether turned to introduce him.
"This is Matelkem," he said to Kativa.
Kativa thrust her hand out to clasp forearms. "It is a good day for meetings," she said with a hint of her usual cheer.
Matelkem was dark-haired, as most villagers were, with warm brown eyes and rugged good looks. He was only a few years older than the two of them, and his leer at Kativa made hairs rise on the back of Kether's neck. Then he flashed a wink at Kether, and the ranger knew he was only being teased.
"Kether's told me a lot about you," he told Kativa, clasping her arm in return.
"Only good things, I hope," Kativa said with a slow smile of her own. "A friend of his is a friend of mine."
"A good friend?" Matelkem teased. "We'll be doubling up on bunks for a bit, and no one's claimed mine yet..."
Kether reminded himself about the teasing, and gave a deliberately lazy smile. Kativa glanced at him, clearly uncertain how seriously to take the man, and then cocked her head and said proudly, "You haven't earned that kind of question yet. Kether's word is good, but not that good."
Matelkem threw back his head and laughed. "You are as advertised," he said cheerily. "Come, I'll show you where we can put those packs."
The other Itadesh villagers were also receiving warm greetings - many of them were exchanging embraces with old friends and acquaintances, and Matelkem showed them, as promised, a large central area covered with a stitched-together tarp stretched to keep out snow or rain. "You've just beat the winter," he said conversationally, as they deposited the third load of goods in the make-shift shelter. "Our predictions say the slush will be real snow tomorrow. The next day at the least."
"It was not our chosen schedule," Kether said with some irony. "But it worked out."
He ran straight into Kativa, who had stopped mid-stride on their way back to get another load from the milling snowies and caught her shoulders to keep from knocking her right over. He smothered his immediate alarm, casting about to see what had startled her so, not letting go of her shoulders.
It didn't take any deductive skill to figure the cause of her freeze once Kether had looked. They were slightly above the thickest press of villagers, who were still going through greeting motions as the line of Itadesh people continued to spill into Itrelir. There, below them, Tolnam was greeting a girl. Even from the distance, she was aglow with joy at the meeting, and Tolnam was no less happy to be renewing the acquaintance. They were speaking to each other with that centered lack of awareness of anything around them, color in their cheeks, glances that didn't stay on one another's faces long.
They weren't the only ones to notice - Kether could pick out a handful of people who were also watching their oblivious interest in each other, elbowing each other cheerfully and smiling broadly in the couple's direction. An old woman nearby laughed, and nudged her companion to see Kativa's reaction.
"She's pretty," Kativa said achingly, ignoring them.
Kether couldn't exactly deny it - even from here, the girl shone with health - full cheeks smiled from under thick, curly hair. Jamelv, her name was, he remembered - she hadn't wanted much to do with him during the last summer gather, but apparently she had taken a shine to their mutual friend.
He remembered to let go of Kativa's shoulders, and they both nearly lost their balance. Kether wished they'd seen this on the other leg of the trip to unload the snowies - it was awkward having nothing to use his hands to do, and he craved a heavy pack or anything to keep him from looking as awkward as he was sure he was.
'Not as pretty as you,' someone quicker conversationally might have thought to say, or some other compliment to deflect her misery. But Kether knew that anything like that would be unwelcome from him, and do no good, and would only make him feel foolish. "We have snowies to unload," he reminded her gruffly.
He led the way, and she trailed behind with all of the energy and light bled out of her - he could hear it in the way she walked. They met Matelkem on their way to the snowies, carrying another load. "Your Tolnam sure has made a few enemies with his return," he said cheerfully, utterly unmindful of Kativa's sudden sulk. "Every man in Itrelir tries to get a bead on Jamelv's necklace, and he's just let them all know they've been courting in vain."
Kether scowled at him - he had told the young man about Kativa's crush on Tolnam, and he didn't like the sly look he was giving her, watching for her reaction. Couldn't he see that Kativa was stung by this development and not at all in the mood for teasing? It suddenly occurred to Kether that Matelkem was just the sort of man who wouldn't mind catching someone young and inexperienced on the rebound from a several-year crush. Kether caught himself with a sudden urge to hit that self-assured look off his face.
"We've work to do," he reminded them both, and he shouldered Matelkem to one side without his usual courtesy. Kativa trailed after him without responding to the Itrelir man, and a quick glance at her showed her chewing distractedly on her lower lip. Kether wasn't convinced she'd even heard Matelkem.
It was a long walk back to the snowies.
# # #
Kativa blew out a deep breath, disgusted with herself and exhausted. The sauna she'd taken after unloading the snowies had sapped all of her energy from her, and she retreated to find the bunk she would be sharing with Birka without even thoroughly drying her hair.
The sleeping house she was assigned to was much the same design as the houses she had grown up in. It was half-sunk into the ground, so a short flight of stairs took her down to the cool entrance where she hung her light summer parka and took off her boots. The hooks were mostly full already, and she had to squeeze her boots under the bench between other pairs. A shorter pair of stairs went back up into the house through a thick wooden door. Within, a warm, round room that was familiar - but not - greeted her. Where the Itadesh arches had been thick wood, here, they were concrete -- a recently refined substance that formed hard, stone-like columns in spokes around a central fire column. Kativa stopped herself from wondering if Itadesh would have burned so handily, if their houses had also been made from concrete.
Ringing the room were private bunks stacked three tall. Most of them were open - it was best not to leave the hide covering the bunks during the day or the furs would get stale - and empty. A few were closed over, and there were even snores from one or two.
A few people sat down around the firepit in the recessed round area in the center, chatting with each other in quite tones in respect for the occupants of the curtained bunks. They looked up at Kativa's entrance, and beckoned her over.
"Welcome," one of them said - a short, plump young woman who looked a handful of years older than Kativa. "I'm Ijemaq, a domestic, this is Vlaran, a fisher."
She pointed out the other people and named them, but Kativa's tired mind wouldn't hold their names or titles.
"I am Kativa," she said, and automatically started to add, "I am a ranger from..." before she remembered that there was no Itadesh any longer. "I'm a ranger."
Their looks of sympathy were jarring.
Kativa didn't like sympathy.
She didn't like the way some of them murmured together, and she wondered how much of her personal story they'd heard. Her head hurt.
"You must be tired," Ijemaq saved her. "We've got a bunk ready for you."
She rose gracefully and led Kativa to one of the open bunks on a second level, helping to untie the cord holding the hide door open. She had to reach up on tip-toe, while Kativa could manage her side without straining, being several hands taller.
"If you need anything, don't hesistate to ask," the Itrelir woman said warmly. "There is a stewpot always warm by the fire, and if Tobern hasn't eaten them all, there are baked breadroots."
Kativa shook her head, wishing only for peace and rest - and her own bunk, with the furs she'd tanned herself. "Thank you," she said automatically. "Your hospitality honors me."
Ijemaq smiled at her and then returned to the fire, much to Kativa's relief.
Kativa swung up into the bunk without bothering with the steps shaped into the concrete columns. The back wall of the bunk was cool to the touch - in the coldest months of winter it would be much chillier. They had prewarmed the furs with hot rocks from the fire, which had cooled enough that Kativa could remove them by hand to the shallow ledge of the bunk.
She removed her shirt and leggings, grateful for the privacy granted by the hide door because she had no desire to smile and give further proper honor for the hospitality. She wondered if she imagined the smirk that the Itrelir women had given her as she put her head down on the pillows, and wondered if she had more thoroughly embarrassed herself over Tolnam than she realized. Certainly she wouldn't have continued walking or ever returned to her task if Kether hadn't reminded her - staring at him greeting that girl like some jealous, stupid fool, out in front of everyone. She wished she had dried her hair more thoroughly... it was damp and uncomfortable, and she was strangely restless for being so tired. Outside of the bunk, the low murmur of hushed conversations seemed surreal and disturbing; she couldn't understand any of the words, and could only wonder sourly if the gossip was still about her.
The hide flap stirred, and Birka's face appeared in the opening. She must have saunaed, as well - she smelled of spices and clean - but her hair was sensibly dry, and neatly braided back from her face.
"Ah, Kativa," she said warmly, climbing up the few steps into the bunk. "Seems we both had an early night in mind."
Kativa muttered something unintelligible - not entirely sure herself what combination of polite responses it was. Birka shimmied out of her over-garments and snuggled down into the furs. "Delicious," she said cheerfully. "The herds are settled, all together," she said conversationally, arranging the pillows and clucking over Kativa's damp hair. "I expected Graysocks would get territorial, but their big alpha male put him right in his place, and I think they will all be fine."
Kativa made a non-committal noise and pulled the furs up to her nose. After a moment of silence, she had to ask, quietly, "Are they all talking about me?"
She thought Birka's silence was affirmation at first, but then the other woman made a noise of surprise, and laughed. "Why would anyone be talking about you? I haven't heard your name all day. Have you caused some mischief that hasn't made it to my ears?"
Flustered, Kativa explained, "I mean, because of Tolnam... because... I..." she stuttered off.
"That?" Birka's scoff might have been unkind coming from anyone else, but it was tempered by her warm voice, hushed in respect to the others who were sleeping and to keep the conversation private. "Oh, Kativa, no one really cares about that. You've got a silly crush on him, that's all. Who hasn't had an embarrassing crush at some point? You were only surprised, and stared a little. Don't let the women's laughing stay with you. They are shriveled old women who have nothing better to do than gossip because they haven't felt passion in a hundred years."
Kativa felt stung, and crushingly embarrassed. Of course no one cared about her stupid infatuation. It was just a 'silly crush.'
"Sweetie, don't cry!" Birka pulled her into a sisterly embrace, and Kativa was ashamed to find that she was, indeed, crying. "I know it seems like you'll never feel whole again, but this will pass. It will go away and you will find that your life and your heart are still there."
Birka's breath near her ear was a comfortable murmur, and for the first time since they'd left Itadesh, Kativa felt it all crashing down on her.
Her home was gone. Her hope with Tolnam was in ashes - it hadn't been so bad to think that he didn't want to be with her exclusively, until there was someone else he did want that with. Marda... she couldn't even think about losing Marda without feeling herself dissolve in pain. She was in a strange, unfamiliar place - even the furs smelled wrong - and nothing was ever going to be the way it had been again. Worst of all, she knew how stupid and selfish and juvenile she was being and she was disgusted with herself and her own foolishness. She could not help the tears that came, and even while she hated them, she knew to let them come.
It was comfortable being hugged by Birka - she had always been a little like an older sibling, tolerant of Kativa's child-worship of her age-mate Fala. She knew just the words to murmur, and was solid and warm. Kativa huddled into a small ball and silently cried her eyes out. When she was done, Birka pushed her hair back, and offered a corner of her shirt to wipe her face. "I'm such a mushroom," Kativa whispered, humiliated.
"Pssshhh," Birka said dismissively. "I did this two days ago when it all hit me - I had to hike up a ridge and hug a spruce tree so I wouldn't bawl all over someone random. All I got was sap all over my summer parka - I recommend this as a much better method."
Kativa giggled weakly. "We've all had to do this,"" Birka assured her. "And don't worry what people think of you and Tolnam. Everyone knows you've had a fire for him for years now - and it was bound to hit you hard that he had someone here to come to. You burn hot, Kativa - that's why you're always in such trouble. You will find another who will be a better match, wait and see. Tolnam was always a wet blanket compared to you."
"He is not," Kativa felt compelled to defend her lifetime friend."He is," Birka insisted. "And that insipid Jamelv is the perfect match for him. They'll make each other disgustingly and domestically happy for years before they bore each other to death."
Somehow, though it made her prickle in automatic defense, Birka's assessment also made her giggle again, and feel a snowy-weight better.
Birka settled back onto her own side of the bunk again, rearranging the pillow to be comfortable under her head. "Good night, Kativa."
"Gratuitous dreams," Kativa replied - a familiar mockery of the polite night-time wish.
Exhausted sleep came easily after that.