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Margaa didn't look well.
She still got out of the wraps in the dimness that barely qualified as morning, and she ate dutifully, but Malaamig found himself exchanging worried glances with Diren more and more frequently as the weeks crawled past. He took whatever of her survey tasks he could, and they let her sleep as much as possible. There wasn't much to be done - they had stalled to a stop on the surveying when it became clear that the snow was all wrong.
Malaamig had planned on a winter camp based on the ones he had experience with in the East; a snow-cave base, with daily, or even two-day journeys taken to survey the area in an easy radius. Every week or so, they would move bases, digging and shaping a new cave in sticky snow.
It hadn't worked so smoothly. "This snow is possessed," he said after hours of frustration, trying to mold snow that flowed like sand instead. It was impossible to sculpt without creating a heat source, and actively melting the stuff down into a moist, workable state. It had taken three days to build their first - and only - snow cave; an unworkable amount of time to continue with their plan.
It didn't even come down right - Malaamig was used to snowfalls like avalanches - a dump of moist snow in a single day, and then partly cloudy weeks. Here, it snowed comparatively slowly, and did so for two weeks without clearing. Then it did, stubbornly, and dropped the temperature into ranges that bit through even their thickest clothing. There was nothing to be done for a brutal, clear week, but gnaw at the food they'd stashed and feed the fire.
Worse, the snowshoes were useless. The sand-like snow offered no crust to walk on top of. At best, it would become wind-crusted, but even that was a tiny, fine crust that might suffer a step, maybe two, before crashing the walker through to their hips in cold white stuff. The snowshoes turned out to be a liability - it was easier to simply wade through the snow without them and not attempt to float on top. Surveying couldn't be done more than a mile a day, slowing their progress to a snail's crawl. Malaamig hadn't imagined that any progress could be worse than their summer attempts two years back.
They chose not to move the basecamp once it had been established at such length - much to the scientists' disappointment. Malaamig told them grimly that their survey wasn't as important as survival, and they reluctantly agreed. As slow as their survey progress went, it took several months before they ran out of work accessible from the base anyway.
"The snow has so little water," Diren explained, with a scientist's need to break everything into whys.
"Of course!" Margaa agreed. "Continentality," she added. "The ocean up here is frozen, so it won't contribute moisture to the air. We should have realized!"
Melting snow for water was another effort of futility. It took buckets of the stuff to melt down for a single bowl of soup, and most of the waking hours were spent making sure that the melt pot was constantly full. That was largely Margaa's job these days, as neither Diren nor Malaamig liked the lightness to her breathing that came from straying far in the snow, even on a broken trail.
Game, at least, was plentiful, and they never wanted for meat. Frozen, it remained safely preserved for long periods of time. Their kills attracted predators, and, armed with a bow and the dogs, Malaamig was able to provide them with several fine hides and armfulls of thick furs. He didn't have the methods to preserve them entirely, but scraping them clean of flesh and working them into suppleness by sheer willpower gave him something to do by touch when the pitiful daylight was gone, the tasks of the day were done and sleep was still elusive.
The smell became unremarkable, after a while; some mix of smoke from the constant fire, poorly tanned skins, dogs and sweat. They rarely bathed - both for the precious quality of water, and for the lack of space and warmth to do so. Once a week, even at the coldest, Malaamig made them all brave the cold air, wipe down with warm water, and change into a new set of clothing. It was useless trying to wash the old clothing, but it could at least be hung out in the cold air to gain some semblence of freshness. Their socks he did wash, knowing too well the danger of deadfoot, and he made them change them daily to avoid the rot. He was not entirely unprepared for cold, only for the quality of the cold here.
Eventually, the sun reappeared, for short periods, and then longer, and even though it had no strength to warm, it was like hope against the eyes. Diren found Malaamig poking at the frozen cache of meat one morning. The sun had not entirely shown itself, but was still managing to stain the sky from below the horizon.
"Getting low?" the scientist asked, emerging from the base cave and pulling his scarf over his face. The fire seemed to provide more heat these days, indicating that it was some measure warmer, but the air still felt as cold to the skin. Coming outside made the insides of nostrils feel stiff with frost within moments, but finally didn't bit down into lungs they way it had through the worst of it.
"Not dangerously," Malaamig answered, recovering the food with the stiff hide. "I wish we had more greens."
Diren frowned in the direction of the cave. "Me, as well," he agreed, and they both knew it wasn't for either of themselves.
"I think we should head up that pass," Malaamig said, pointing. "And look for a sheltered place where game is digging down to ground cover. Some of it must be edible, and even if it's not particularly palatable, stewing it with the meat may give Margaa some of what she needs."
"You found tracks?"
Malaamig nodded. "Saw a place over by the bluffs where a herd of something very, very large has gone through. Maybe shagbacks, by the size of their path. Not predators, I'd put money on it, and game needs green. They're getting it somewhere."
Diren agreed. "Today?"
Malaamig nodded, searching the sky. It was just becoming bright enough to see where clouds skirted the edges of the mountains, but they were thin and stretched. It must have been windy up high, but only the slightest breeze touched the ground. It was as good a day as any to make such a trek. "See that Margaa is set and I'll load the dogs."
The dogs came when he whistled. They were less bothered by the cold than their human companions, though he had to pull large balls of ice out of their paws frequently when they traveled any distance. He was considering trying to fashion hide boots for them - and trying to decide if they were well enough behaved not to try to chew them off when he wasn't watching.
He commanded one to guard, and gave the others light loads - just a few basic supplies; some coal for an emergency fire, a few waterflasks that would be frozen within the hour but would still be easier to melt down than the bulk of bringing a pot to melt snow, and some cooked meat. He took a small load himself, and took his secondary bow, frowning over the minute crack that had appeared in his primary weapon. The cold was hard on everything.
Diren returned with the faintly worried look that had become expected on his face. "She says she will sleep most of the time we are gone, and not to worry."
"Don't worry too much," Malaamig said, trying to be comforting. "The dark will make anyone want to hibernate."
Diren nodded distractedly, taking his own loaded pack. "I told her we'd be back by tomorrow night at the latest, in case we have game to dress."
Malaamig nodded, it was a good estimate, and the moons were nearly full, so there would be light enough to travel during the dark hours. He strode out to take point. They followed a broken path for some distance before leaving their customary area of travel, and he began to break trail. He was a head higher than Diren, who was tall, and far stronger, and one of the reasons he had won this mission was his size. He'd heard amusing rumors that he'd taken on a bear with no weapons, and won the wrestling match; they were the kind of rumors you didn't mind and encouraged, at least when you were in his kind of business.
They paused mid-day to rest a while and eat. The dogs waited politely to be unloaded before they flopped over onto their sides to steal a quick nap after a snack from the scraps. The sky had cleared further, and the sun, though it didn't touch them with warmth, closing ones eyes and letting it sing through was like a salve on a soul that had been restless for those dark weeks when it had gone unseen.
They pushed on quickly, as ceasing movement made the cold creep fingers of discomfort up under their clothing.
By mid-afternoon, they had slogged up the valley - Malaamig had developed a knack for the trailbreaking necessary in the strange snow, and had the effort down to a hip-swinging art. They followed the trail he had observed earlier, and it cut his work in half. Diren didn't offer to take point - he knew too well by now that he was not as suited for it, and even walking behind Malaamig in a pre-broken trail was effort enough.
Eyeing the terrain, Malaamig led them off the trail to a ridge to get a vantage point. The final steps of the climb were brutal - a panting, slogging push that had even the dogs lolling their tongues and straining, but the view was worth it.
At first, it was only the beauty that arrested them - to the south, close mountains in cold white dress spiked against the sky. Snow blanketed the landscape, and bare rock bluffs on the opposite wall of the valley were stark against it. The valley tracked north in a gentle curve, to the frozen ocean. Further, by some trick of the light and cold, perhaps, because they had been here before to survey and never seen them, there was an alien white line of far, far distant mountains - a north coast that they knew was there by the charts from the initial survey, but which shouldn't be visible from here. It was breathtaking.
Then Malaamig saw the herd animals that they had followed here, and let out a startled, impulsive, "Divine Mercy!" just as Diren grasped at his arm in equal surprise and demanded, "Is that smoke?"
Malaamig followed his pointing arm. At casual inspection, it might have been a stray, low cloud, but watching it for a moment, it flowed, upwards, like smoke. It wasn't the blue of coal smoke, but it was surely something generated from the ground. People? At this latitude, at this time of year? Was it possible? Some kind of old race from before the Upheaval that had survived the summer of snow and the die-out that followed? It seemed unlikely, and Malaamig frowned, trying to wrap his mind around the idea as Diren squeezed his arm harder through his coat and exclaimed, "By all that is Licensed!"
That took his attention back to his original object of surprise.
The herd was composed of creatures as large shagbacks, but possibly slimmer, with a taller profile. They were still shaggy, and they milled about at the base of the ridge in the same kind of cluster that shagbacks tended to. But they weren't the standard dark, unremarkable hair that Malaamig was expecting; they were a variety of colors, ranging from white, through several shades of gray, black, brown, cream, and even a slightly orange color. One of them looked almost blue, with splotches of darker gray mottling the thick fur. That was unusual, but not particularly remarkable, nor was their anatomical composition - heavier than any deer or horse he'd seen, but still roughly similar in shape. They were probably taller than he was at the shoulder, he'd have guessed, though there was little to mark them against in their landscape. What arrested them both so thoroughly was the single horn they each sported - a gleaming, twisted spiral. They weren't shagbacks by a long shot - they were unicorns.
Malaamig had never believed in unicorns. Certainly these weren't like the fragile, goat-like images that had been supplied with the fairy tales, but there was no doubt that they met the basic criteria. Magical creatures, they were supposed to be, protectors of the down-trodden and saviors from evils and ills - healers. Beside him, one of the dogs whined curiously and he put his mittened hand on her head without looking down at her.
"What do we do?" Diren asked hesitantly.
Malaamig opened his mouth to find that his surprise had turned into a dry laugh. "Go back and tell Margaa we found her unicorns."