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The southern explorers had amazing maps. The paper they were drawn on was nearly as exciting as the content of these maps, with smooth, unbroken surfaces and a silky, uniform white color. The ink was smear-proof and neat on the featureless surface.
"I wish we had the maps from Itadesh to compare these to," Birka said, peering over the shoulders of two others crowded around the map spread out in Diren's lap as he related their adventures in exploring. He had to stop often when he hit a word or phrase that wasn't understood, and Malaamig gruffly added his own periodic explanations when prodded.
"Or the maps from Itrelir," Tiren agreed from her elbow, craning to see. "Maybe we can get the next messenger to bring them."
The southern explorers had been settled in the smallest house with Kalitelm the evening they had returned from their camp, and been given as much privacy as the curiosity of the snow-unicorn riders could allow. The following day, Margaa's fever was declared much improved and the strangers well-rested, so Kalitelm began allowing visitors. Anyone who could fabricate a flimsy excuse to bring something by did so, and there were stacks of extra wood and buckets of water by the central fire in the crowded house. Kalitelm kept a wary eye on the strangers, to make sure they weren't overwhelmed, but Margaa seemed to be recovering well, and Diren was practically giddy to see people. Malaamig was nearly silent, and none of them seemed to like being touched, but all of them smiled and were happy to show off the tools and documents they'd brought with them.
The shape of their own coast was familiar, and easy to follow on the enlarged map of the northern territory the explorers had been traveling through. At one point, Kativa squealed, "That's the Folded City!" and pointed to a teeny sketch.
They found where Itakith was located on the northern map, just beyond where the explorers had been, and Mirthless Valley was marked with a hand, palm forward in warning. They could guess where Itrelir was by the peaks that were marked, and point to where Itadesh had been, close to the coast by the mouth of the sound. Their grim story of Itadesh's loss was met with sympathy, and Birka wondered what fire was like in a city, or if they had machines that could stop it, like the machines they described harvesting grain.
The largest scale maps were the most interesting to Birka; the territory they knew was the tiniest speck, mostly blank, at the northern edge of a land dotted with city symbols and trails. Roads, the scientists explained, and 'rail-lines,' which they explained as tracks for machines to follow - machines that could haul vast amounts of cargo and even houses. They even talked about cargo boxes that could slow time, but Birka had to wonder if that was just a kind of straight-faced joke, to see how much they would believe. Even Diren, the most gregarious of them, was reserved in his expressions. His hand gestures were small and subtle, and his laughter restrained.
Between the sprawling Empire and the mark for where they were now (a tiny squiggle for smoke, and a tiny little peak over a circle to represent their houses), a vast blankness spread, sparsely surrounded with mountain peaks bearing tiny notations where the southern visitors had measured them with viewing instruments. The blankness went to the edge of that map and Birka couldn't resist putting a finger in that space, to feel the silky smoothness of the paper, and to wonder what they all were wondering:
"Is there still a boundary between us?" Kativa asked out loud.
The southerners made puzzled noises, and Ivara, an elder, explained. "Long ago, the Ancients caused a great Upheaval that broke the world and created boundaries around us, separating us from all the other places in the world. The edges of our land were bound by shining blue cliffs of light that could not be approached."
The description of shining blue cliffs was met with blankness, but Kativa and another young ranger acted out the nausea and dizziness that proximity to the boundaries would cause, even falling to mime the unconsciousness that was inevitable if someone pushed too close. The southerns nodded their understanding grimly. Barriers, they called them, and borders, and they showed on the map of the Empire the light patterned line that indicated where these edges been, and dropped. A heavier line in the same pattern showed where they still prevented explorers from traveling. An odd triangle sat to the lower right of their map, completely blank inside, and at many other edges of the map, sharp edges bordered the known spaces. It looked like shards of broken ice, once Birka was looking for those lines.
It was ridiculous to think of traveling over the sea the way that the explorers had come... but the space between their territories was filled with vast unknown blankness. There was no way to know if the route over land was free of those deadly boundaries.
"What is this symbol?" Tiren asked Birka abruptly, startling her from her daydreaming. He was reverently holding the map of the larger Empire, and was frowning seriously at the northern edge, where the space dissolved into unknown territory from below.
She puzzled at it a moment, then shrugged one shoulder. "I don't know that symbol. It doesn't quite look like a tree."
Tiren elbowed through the crowd that had clustered around Diren and Malaamig, and put the map he was holding before the surprised scientist. "What is that?" he asked urgently, pointing. Ivara made a mild noise of disapproval at his rudeness and Kalitelm frowned protectively, but Reqem, the other elder in the room, only narrowed his eyes at the ranger suspiciously; Tiren wasn't rude or pushy by nature.
Diren looked at it thoughtfully and offered an explanation, but it wasn't a collection of syllables that made sense. He looked at Malaamig, who also attempted to explain, more slowly, but with no more luck. Tiren frowned, then picked a piece of lichen off of a log waiting by the fire, careful with the map he held in his other arm. "Like this?" he guessed. "Like this but really big?" He stretched the arm holding the lichen up to demonstrate.
"Lichenwold!" Kativa exclaimed. There was a murmur of interest and then growing excitement as understanding dawned in Diren and Malaamig, and they nodded in agreement.
Birka drew in her own breath sharply. If Lichenwold showed on the southern maps, that meant there was a clear path between their two lands!
Margaa offered a quiet observation with a chuckle from the bunk where Kalitelm insisted she remain, propped up on bundles of fur and blankets.
Diren was nodding so vigorously the viewing lenses he wore on his face to see the details of the map nearly shook off and said something too garbled with enthusiasm to follow.
"We could go south," Kativa said, not needing his translation. "We could travel through Lichenwold and get to the Empire!"
Birka looked hard at Tiren, and she wasn't the only one focusing on him; Tiren had been to Lichenwold as much as anyone, fascinated by its alien fauna and eerie structure. He had a lopsided grin, and was holding the map of the Empire in both hands again. "It would actually be easier, in winter," he said hopefully.
Malaamig inserted something, a rumble of strangely pronounced words, and when the others looked blank, Birka tried to interpret. "Your boat," she remembered the word. "Your boat is there, and we could get there before they came north to get you." Malaamig was nodding, and something remarkably like a smile was lighting his face. "They could bring food," Birka guessed further, remembering his stories of fields and fields of grain. "If we went south, we could catch the boat before it came north and they could bring food to feed everyone in the spring."
That caused a murmur of conversation even more excited, people standing, voices jumbling together until Reqem cleared his throat to remind them to settle, prompted by Kalitelm's frown of disapproval at the noise and energy in the room. Kativa's clear voice cut through, "But who will go?"
Ivara was sitting serenely, undisturbed by the growing agitation of the others. "The council of Elders at Itrelir would have to decide that," she said calmly. "It is their resources that would be used."
Birka frowned, considering the logistics. Snow-unicorns couldn't browse through Lichenwold's strange, barren valleys; they would have to carry any feed they needed, which meant cutting into the fast-dwindling stores of high-energy grains. Only a small party would be practical - four people, or perhaps only three, with a snow-unicorn apiece. Margaa couldn't travel yet, and Diren wouldn't go without her. Two northerners and Malaamig?
"I would go," she said swiftly.
"I'd go," Tiren agreed, meeting her eyes and smiling.
"I would, too!" another ranger echoed.
Kativa was strangely silent, chewing on her bottom lip.
"That's enough for now," Kalitelm said firmly, standing to her full short height to shoo everyone out. Birka went, obediently, and let the chatter of the others wash over her as they pulled on boots and overcoats in the tiny arctic entrance. A journey to the south through Lichenwold! What an adventure was waiting!