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Birka took the descent one careful step at a time, using the tentpole to test the footing ahead of her. The snow was actually more of a problem than the stability of the ground. In some places the wind had packed a crust that could support her weight; in other places she fell through to her waist.
After a time, she could no longer see her companions. The sides of the ravine blocked everything but the clear blue sky overhead. While they were riding, with the creaking of harness and the snorting of snowies and the voices of her companions, she hadn't appreciated how incredibly quiet this land was. Down here at the bottom of the ravine, her own breathing was the loudest sound. When she stopped walking, the thump of her heartbeat pounded hammer-loud in her ears, and she found herself wanting to hush it, as if that thumping alone would be enough to set off the slides that Tiren kept worrying about.
Thus far, however, it seemed fairly safe, no different from any other frozen stream except for the eerie silence. No birds flew in the sky; no tracks but her own marred the pristine surface of the snow. This was a land not made for people. They'd found no ruins here, no signs of habitation, and Birka wondered if the ancients had chosen not to build anything here because of the strange, forbidding nature of this place.
The ravine grew steeper and at last she saw signs of the water beneath the snow. Forcing its way from under the ice, it stepped down the hillside in a series of frozen cascades. Birka could see how the water had flowed over and through the lichen choking the ravine; last year's lichen growth was immobilized in the translucent ice, and she bent to look at the delicate, fingerlike patterns. The colors were brighter than the winter-faded lichen on the ridgetops.
Beautiful or not, the waterfall was interesting for only one reason at the moment: as a snow-unicorn staircase. Birka scrambled down the first cascade, and then looked back up. It could be done, she thought, if they were careful. The snow-unicorns were capable of athletic climbing despite their size. It would be dangerous, though, for the riders as well as their mounts. She hated to take such risks this early in their travels. But having to detour around the ravines was painfully slow, and so far the canyon showed no signs of leveling out as they'd hoped. They could easily spend days trying to go around it, wasting precious time and taking them far away from the direct southern route they'd hoped to pursue.
She slithered down the rest of the frozen icefalls to the river. The bottom of the ravine was a morass of snowdrifts over Birka's head and lichen growing to treelike heights, but once she managed to flounder through the mess, she found herself on blue-green river ice swept clean of snow. That was a relief; she'd worried that the river canyon would have filled up with snow like the ravines, and she couldn't imagine how they would have gotten the snowies through it. The ice seemed solid, although she knew it was usually along the edges of rivers and streams where the danger was greatest, and she scouted a safe path for the snowies before she allowed herself the luxury of standing in the middle of the expanse of ice and looking up and down the canyon.
The river was a narrow one, frequently interrupted with rockfalls that had partly blocked its course and made it twisting and wild, with waterfalls and rapids and jutting slabs of rock that thrust up from jumbled mounds of ice. This would have been a difficult crossing in the summer. She would not have liked to attempt it. Even in winter, it could be dangerous; when she stopped to listen, she could hear water gurgling under the ice. She jumped up and down, testing its solidity. The ice seemed strong and solid, but there was no way to be positive until the first snowy set hoof on it.
There was, however, nowhere on the other side that looked good for climbing out. She started up the river, then checked the angle of the sun and decided to climb back up and report her findings to the others.
Just as she started up the ravine, there was a muted scrabbling sound from above her, and Anler slithered down in a shower of snow. Relief broke across his face when she floundered to meet him. "You took so long we got worried. We drew sticks to see who'd go after you. Tiren thought you'd fallen in a hole or buried yourself in a snow-slide."
"Just Tiren, huh?" she teased, and squeezed his arm. "I'm all right. We should probably go up and make sure he doesn't fret himself into a frenzy."
The climb was considerably more work than the descent; they boosted each other over the hard parts. By the time they reached the top, Birka was sweating and starting to reconsider this plan.
"We can take the snowies down this way, but I doubt we can get them back up," she said after taking a grateful swig from the canteen Tiren handed to her.
Tiren glanced up at the sky. The sun was already low over the mountains. "I trust your judgment, ranger. Personally, I'd rather take our chances with the fast descent than lose days to a longer crossing."
It took the rest of the afternoon to get the snowies down the ravine. They unloaded the packs and led the unburdened animals one at a time, to avoid the dreadful possibility of one snow-unicorn losing its footing and taking out the others in a chain of disaster. Placid Grayfeathers was the first to descend, and as soon as they got her to the bottom, Anler mounted bareback. "I'll go look for a place to climb out while you two get the others."
Birka and Tiren coaxed the other two snowies down the ravine. The only difficult bit came when Startle decided to live up to her name at the sound of another distant rockslide, losing her footing and sliding nearly her own body length on her haunches. Birka was yanked off her feet at the end of the lead rope. Fortunately the snow cushioned both of their falls.
"Birka!" Tiren, on Startle's other side, had managed to keep his footing; he soothed Startle while Birka extricated herself from the snowbank where she had ingloriously landed.
Startle seemed to be unhurt, but was shaken and jumpy for the rest of the descent.
"I hope that wasn't Anler," Tiren murmured, glancing upstream, where Anler had gone and where the slide had been.
"I hope we don't end up cut off from each other." Birka was considerably less worried about being buried in a slide than Tiren seemed to be -- they made plenty of noise, and she thought they should be easy to avoid. Having to climb over a wall of rocks and snow blocking the river, though, would slow them down even more. The sun was gone now, the sky blazing red and salmon-pink above them.
Tiren was lowering last of their gear, sliding it down the waterfall on ropes, when Anler returned. "I found a great place upstream, an old rockslide that's just like a ramp. The snow is deep, but I think we can get the snowies up it without too much trouble."
"Let's go." Tiren looked up at the cliffs rearing above them against the sunset sky. "It's not safe down here, and it'll be a lot less safe in the dark."
The trip up the river was nervewracking, mostly because Tiren's dire warnings about rockslides made all of them jumpy, and that jumpiness transmitted itself to their mounts. Sunset gave way to the long blue winter twilight, and it was nearly dark by the time they reached the spot Anler had found. Fortunately he was right about the easy grade of the climb. Leading the snowies, they clambered out one by one, emerging at last onto the heights above the canyon. It was fully dark now, the snow gently luminous in the starlight. A stream of Others flickered high above them, casting no light. Low on the northern horizon, a greenish ribbon of aurora pulsed faintly.
Birka leaned against Startle's foreleg, trying to work up the energy to either climb back into the saddle, or start making camp. One of her shoulders ached; she hoped she hadn't pulled a muscle in all her clambering around. She couldn't help wondering if it was a bad sign that she was already this tired so early into the trip.
Since it was a clear night, they camped where they were, not bothering with a tent. Startle and Grayfeathers both needed to be milked; the warm, fresh milk was a welcome addition to their dinner, though Birka suspected -- based on experience from previous trips -- that they'd all be tired of it after relying on it as a staple food during their journey.
There was, of course, far more milk than they could use. As they'd done on previous nights, they laid the bags of fresh milk in the snow to freeze.
"We're going to have a lot of milk before this is over," Anler remarked. "Where are we going to put it all?"
"We should cut back to a single milking a day, if we can get away with it," Birka said. "Let's try a very light evening milking tomorrow, and then cut it out completely and see how they handle it."
"Good thinking," Tiren said. "They're going to be stressed enough on the journey; we should conserve their strength as much as possible ..."
He trailed off and gazed thoughtfully at the leather bags, dusted with ice crystals.
Birka punched his shoulder. "I know that look. That look means you have an idea."
"It's more of a question," Tiren said. "I wonder if the snowies would drink it?"
The idea seemed absurd -- adult snowies drinking milk? -- but they all agreed it was worth a try. Birka and Tiren mixed the evening's leftover milk into handfuls of grain to make a sort of mash. All the snowies lipped at it. Startle seemed to like it. The others were unsure.
"Try again tomorrow, maybe," Tiren said. "If we can get them to take it, then we won't have to haul the extra, but we won't waste it either. And it'll be a little extra food for them."
Once they got the snowies unpacked, Birka took the first watch. Despite her exhaustion, she was too wound up to sleep, and she relished a little bit of time to sit with the snowies and gaze at the distant hills, faintly visible against the sky, that were their destination.
Anler sat with her for a little while, too weary to make conversation; they simply took comfort in each other's presence before he wandered off to curl up in the furs next to Tiren.