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"A stranger! What is he like, Birka?" Kativa's entrance to the pool was announced with her bright chatter as well as a crest of water that made Birka lift her chin to avoid a mouthful of sulfur and reach out to steady the bobbing lantern. Behind her, Luulan splashed into the dark water, exclaiming as the heat hit her chilled body.
The unexpected stranger was the topic on everyone's tongue that evening, and Birka exchanged an amused glance through the steam with Tiren, who was drifting beside her in the hot water. They had been fielding questions non-stop since they had released the stranger to Kalitelm's care.
He smiled, a flash of teeth just visible through the steam in the light of the lantern floating between them. "He talks funny," he said with practiced ease. "But you start to understand most of what he's saying after just a little bit, if you don't think about it too hard."
"What does he look like?" Kativa asked eagerly.
"Big," Birka supplied. "As tall as any man I've met, with broad shoulders, brown hair and dark eyes!"
"Mmm!" Luulan purred thoughtfully. "I like a tall man. Maybe I'll give him one of my months."
Birka's breath hissed between her teeth in a noise of disagreement. "I'm not sure you can," she admitted reluctantly. "I saw when he stood up from the springs - he's got a scar, from one thigh to the other, and... er... things might not work down there."
Luulan had no scruples against prying for more information. "Well, was the main event still there?"
Birka laughed at her forthrightness. "Yes," she said simply.
"And one of the accompaniments? You only need one, you know. There's a man from Itakith who lost one to a snowshoe boar, and let me tell you, he can perform just fine..." The raiser laughed richly and Kativa and Birka chuckled at her suggestive tone.
"I couldn't tell," Birka admitted. To be perfectly honest, the scar had shocked her, and the angry, waiting-for-pity expression that Malaamig wore made her choose not to look long.
"That might be why he wore no necklace," Kativa suggested.
Another light was drifting towards them out of the dark steam from further down the network of hot pools, and the conversation of the newcomers proved to be on the same topic.
"It could also be that our stranger's people don't wear necklaces," Ivara's voice countered as she drew close enough to join the conversation. "Kladeith gave us our tradition of marking ourselves with them, but that was after the world was split."
"How would they know about each other without necklaces?" Kativa asked, but it was respectful; Ivara was an Elder, and well-liked among the young rangers.
"Like when to court a woman," Matelkem's voice added suggestively from near Ivara. "That's hard enough with necklaces!"
Kativa giggled at that, and Birka smiled to herself. Matelkem had been flagrantly flirting with Kativa, and everyone was hopeful that he would finally draw her attention away from her age-mate Tolnam. Kativa had nursed a not-so-secret crush on her age-mate for years now, and the Elders were beginning to pressure her, with varying levels of subtlety, to accept a bead from someone else, and maybe have a baby. It would take someone obvious like Matelkem to catch her fancy - certainly she remained oblivious to the more subtle attention of her age-mate Kether.
There was a third figure with Ivara, but Birka couldn't make out who it was until he gave a humored grunt for Matelkem's droll words: Reqem, another Elder, but gruffer and harder to relate to than warm-hearted Ivara. The newcomers chose comfortable places to relax in the steaming water and the lanterns settled on the surface again.
"You've all heard about the quarantine of course," Ivara said more grimly. She was met with murmurs of agreement. "If one of this stranger's friends is sick, it could be something we haven't got any immunity to, and he may have already carried it to us."
"Last thing we need is to bring a plague to Itrelir," Reqem said flatly. "We didn't survive the fire of Itadesh just to kill off another village with carelessness." Trust Reqem to say what they were all thinking but didn't want to say.
"It's not such a bad thing," Luulan said cheerfully. "If you have to be quarantined, Smokewater is the best place to be stuck!" The tiny village did not have a stable population: each of the Northern villages shared it equally, and rangers and domestics alike rotated through to enjoy the luxury of the hot pools for a few tendays.
"How long will we be quarantined?" Birka asked gravely.
"Up to Kalitelm to say," Reqem said.
"Probably several tendays," Ivara added. "We'll be sending a group of rangers out with Malaamig tomorrow at first light to bring his two friends back here and Kalitelm may be able to tell more once she's seen them."
"I'll go!" Matelkelm and Kativa spoke at the same time, with matching eagerness, and Birka joined the others in chuckling at their youthful energy; she was only one age-set ahead of Kativa, but some days she felt old by comparison.
"Not me," Luulan said firmly, though as a domestic, no one had expected her to go. "I am going to enjoy every second of the hot pools away from babies that I can get."
"I'll go," Birka volunteered. She tended to get bored staying too long in any village, and if they were going to be further hampered by a quarantine, she had better get out while she could! She shifted in the water, ducked her head to melt off the frost that had accumulated, and then stood up, careful not to swamp the lanterns. The water wasn't deep here - just up to the bottom of her breasts.
"Too hot?" Kativa chirped at her.
"Yes," Birka said. "And I want a good night's sleep. Malaamig made it sound like his friends were several days walk back in the snow. Depending on the path he took, we may not be able to take the snow-unicorns back the same way, so it could be a lengthy journey."
Kativa, recognizing the subtle recommendation that Birka was giving her, sloshed to her own feet. "My bunk calls!" she said, and she caught the lantern that nearly capsized beside her.
Birka squeezed the water from her braid. "I'll share a bunk with you, Kativa," she said, "So Tiren doesn't wake me with his cold toes when he finally gets wrinkly enough to get out." With the loss of Itadesh, there weren't enough beds left for everyone to have their own, whether beads were exchanged or not.
Luulan stood as well. "I'm hot enough for a roll in the snow," she said cheerfully, and she waded with the two rangers to the sloped exit of the pool. While Birka and Kativa hastily dried and dressed in the frigid air, the raiser found a snowbank to quickly plunge into, squealing at the cold, before splashing back into the hot water. The sound of laughter and Luulan being welcomed back into the water (and scolded for rocking the lanterns) faded behind Birka and Kativa as they hiked up the slight ridge to the little Smokewater village. Birka paused at the top, blinking in the darkness. The sky was cloudy and the moons obscured, but some of the houses had lanterns at their doors, spilling pools of light from their sunken entrances and casting long shadows across the snow.
"It's all going to be different now, isn't it," Kativa said from her side, sounding uncharacteristically subdued.
"What's going to be different?" Birka asked.
"Everything! There are people in the world we never knew about! Big people, from across the mountains! There are new lands to see, and wild snowies and..." She trailed off, uncertain.
"It's like breaking trail," Birka said. "You get to go somewhere new, through snow that no one else has disturbed. You never know if you'll hit a patch of overflow, or slide down a hidden crevasse, or wade in circles by accident. But you might get somewhere, if you work hard enough, and find something wonderful and new."
Kativa made a little noise, muffled in her hood. Birka put an arm around her shoulders and squeezed. "It's a little terrifying," she agreed. "And really exciting at the same time."
"Yes," Kativa agreed simply. "It feels unreal."
"Come on," Birka said, giving her a warm little shake. "Let's go to bed. That's real enough. Tomorrow, we've got a lot of trail to break."
Together they tromped down into the village.