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Startle called a challenge to the howl in the darkness ahead, and stomped. Birka clung to her saddle and whistled shrilly, giving the lead attached to the unicorn's nosering a reminder tweak. To her relief, Startle settled, and marched forward obediently without breaking into a charge, or shying back. Behind her, Birka heard Malaamig call commands to his dogs. She guessed without turning that he was keeping them back from Startle's big hooves, and she was glad for that. Snow-unicorns were placid, for the most part, but new creatures and new places could still unnerve them, and they were not always mindful of their own great strength.
They were coming into deeper snow as they crested a little ridge, wading almost shoulder-deep where the broken trail was not wide enough to accommodate the breadth of the unicorn. Then, suddenly, they were through, into an area that was tamped down by use, and Startle's steps were free again. There was another howl, closer now, and there were shadows within the darkness, snapping at Startle's forelocks. Another battle cry greeted them, from human lungs, even as the dogs behind Startle broke out of the trail and surged forward, and there was a swirl of yips and growls as a figure hurled out of the darkness wielding a spear.
Behind her, Malaamig roared, "Diren, no!" as Grayfeathers came to Startle's side, and the forward charge of the person faltered. Startle snorted, and put her horn towards the noisy charge and Grayfeathers blew out a trumpet of disgust at the dogs swirling at her feet. The figure - presumably Diren - had too much momentum to completely halt, but he drew his spear to one side as he scrambled to slow himself and it thunked on Startle's spiral horn without so much as budging her big head.
Birka unrolled the ladder by her saddle and scrambled down, calling reassurance to her mount as she went. She skipped the last few rungs, landing in a crouch on the snow. Diren, no more than a human-shaped shadow in the darkness, seemed frozen, his spear still on Startle's horn.
Hands spread, Birka straightened and approached cautiously. "My name is Birka," she said gently. A strange dog - no, two! - were swirling around with Jem and Obi, and she didn't want to alarm them. Behind her, Malaamig was cursing and trying to unroll Grayfeathers' ladder.
"Diren, it's me, Malaamig," he said, between epithets that Birka only identified by tone.
Diren replied, haltingly, and Birka couldn't pick any specific words out of his thick accent.
"Haruu!" Kativa called, still waiting on her unicorn where the trail was too narrow to dismount.
Birka whistled the snowy command for patience at her, and Startle lifted her head and gave a loud sigh. Diren staggered back, and said something else. Malaamig had untangled his ladder and scrambled down by then, and he and Diren exchanged a few more words. Their meeting seemed strangely cool to Birka - there were no embraces or more than the barest of touches between them. There was no sign of the third member of their party that Birka had been expecting.
Birka took the opportunity to lead Startle off to the side, allowing Kativa and Matelkem access to the cleared area, and they dismounted eagerly, peering around through the gloom curiously. They didn't identify the shelter for what it was until Malaamig moved aside a heavy curtain anchored in a bank of snow, and light spilled out. Strangely, it appeared to be a house constructed entirely from snow, laboriously packed into solid walls. Kativa crowded forward, then paused and turned back before Birka could remind her that they needed to see to the unicorns before anything else.
Attending to their mounts was slow work, in the dark, even after Malaamig brought a shallow lamp out to assist. It had started to snow, the minimal light from the moons completely blotted out. The snow-unicorns were more than ready to rest, and Birka settled for removing their saddles. "We'll groom and milk them in the morning," she said in the direction that she could hear Kativa and Matelkem working on Grayfeathers. Grayfeathers and Startle were both producing milk, but their miscarriages had been early, and their supply was low enough not to require twice-daily relief.
Birka waited at the door to the shelter until they were finished, knowing too well that they didn't want to let more heat out than they had to. She gazed overhead and was happy to see that the only Others in the sky beyond the clouds were very far away and barely moving. They wouldn't need to set a watch tonight.
Inside, the little shelter was crowded and smelled sharply of too many people, too many dogs... and sickness. Birka had to stop herself from holding her breath automatically, and they milled around for a while, trying to find comfortable places to settle. After the restless dogs stepped on feet too many times trying to investigate their returned packmates and the new, odd-smelling strangers, Malaamig gave a disgusted mutter and sent them all outside. The space felt larger for their lack, but still cozy and they all found places to sit and loosen their clothing. The smell was less intense, after only a few moments.
Diren proved to have strangely pale hair and a round, anxious face in the light of the little fire. He stiffened at their embraces of greeting, but didn't seem otherwise unfriendly; he smiled cautiously at Kativa's chatter of greeting and offered a token bowl of bland soup from a pot by the fire that was too small to feed them all.
The third member of the southern party slept through their noisy entrance, and Diren drew back a covering over her head to reveal a dusky-skinned woman with spiraled dark hair. He spoke seriously, mostly towards Malaamig, but Birka could catch enough words to understand that her condition had worsened. She bit a lip, wondering if coming had been a mistake. "Kalitelm gave me herbs that might help," she said evenly, when he paused. She pulled them out to demonstrate and added, "These should be eaten fresh, not boiled. Do your dogs give milk?"
They looked at her without understanding, and Kativa offered, "They're probably too small to produce enough for people. And can you imagine milking something so short?"
Birka gave her an indulgent half-smile as Matelkem laughed, amused at the idea. "Will one of you go get a flask of milk from Startle?" she asked. She was already breaking open the bag of trail rations she had brought in with her, pulling out a cup and pieces of bread to share. Diren took the bread with something like awe, the longing in his face showing that they had been without the staple for some time.
Kativa sprang to her feet willingly and picked her way carefully over their bags and around Malaamig as she pulled her coat tight around her again and dragged her hood up over her ears. "I'll be back," she sang. "Save me some bread!"
She returned so swiftly that Birka expected the flask to only be half-full, but Kativa had good hands and strong arms for milking; the flask brimmed with frothy warm milk. Birka poured some into the cup over the herbs that Kalitelm had given her and swirled them in, offering it to Diren and gesturing to the prone woman. Understanding dawned in his face and he carefully propped the woman up. She wasn't entirely asleep, but appeared to be in a kind of stupor, looking around without actually seeing any of them. Birka felt her forehead. "She's not all that feverish," she said encouragingly. Clearly the woman was not well, but Birka had felt hotter fevers that Kalitelm's herbs had brought down.
Diren spoke to her, encouraging her to drink. The woman's voice was blurred and Birka didn't understand her responses - she had gotten more used to Malaamig's way of speaking than she realized, and this one sounded slightly different. "Do you all come from the same place?" she asked Malaamig, as Diren coaxed the woman to take the cup.
Malaamig blinked at her, then shook his head. "There is a great Empire," he said.
Birka didn't understand the word, but the emphasis made it sound like an important concept - almost like a person. "An Empire is... many villages?"
"Cities," Matelkem reminded her.
"Many cities," Birka agreed.
Matelkem nodded. "Hundreds of cities."
Hundreds of cities; it boggled the mind. Itrelir had seemed big to Birka, but a city... a city had many times the people that Itrelir did. That there were hundreds of them...
"How do you feed them all?" Kativa asked, mouth half-full of bread.
Between their trail rations and the meat-heavy soup of the strangers, their own bellies would be full that night. Diren and Malaamig clearly relished the simple fare, and Birka guessed by their contributions that they had been without grains and greens for some time.
Diren answered hesitantly, and repeated himself more slowly when his words weren't understood. Between his explanations and Kativa's questions, Birka got an impression of wild fields that stretched for miles filled with grains that could be harvested by... machines?
"Machines like peat-rollers?" Kativa asked in confusion.
"Maybe like water-pumps?" Matelkem surmised, as they reached an impasse in communication and the southerners exchanged looks and shrugged their lack of understanding.
"How do they run them, if they don't have snow-unicorns?" Kativa wondered.
Diren opened his mouth to reply, but the woman leaning against him suddenly blinked and said in astonishment, "You're... strangers!"
Birka chuckled at the surprise in her voice and the others joined her, Diren looking positively giddy with relief.
The woman frowned thoughtfully. "This land was supposed to be uninhabited," she said. Birka knew 'land' and, unexpectedly, 'uninhabited,' and could guess the rest. She yawned then, but Birka thought her eyes looked focused, for all that they were beginning to drift shut.
"She'll sleep now," she guessed, familiar with some of the effects of Kalitelm's herb mixes. "It should be restful."
Diren lowered her back to her bed and fussed over her. Though neither of them wore necklaces, Birka suspected they were a couple, simply by the closeness that Malaamig didn't seem to share.
"We should rest, too," Matelkem said decisively, and he and Kativa set to work unpacking their sleeping furs and finding space on the floor to stretch out. Birka unrolled her own, giving Malaamig and the southerners as much space as she could in the close quarters. Diren settled next to the sleeping woman protectively, and in a few moments, there were only quiet noises in the snow shelter.
Birka dreamed of cities that night, of a sea made of people, and giant machines that were run by flocks of bright blue birds.