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Malaamig woke himself in the morning with a sneeze so violent it caused titters of laughter from some of the curtained bunks nearby. Diren, to one side of him in a bunk with Margaa, said in mock alarm, "Do you have a nose still attached, Malaamig?"
The scientist's words apparently translated to the dialect these northern people spoke and the titters of laughter swelled.
Kalitelm was less amused, and Malaamig was not surprised when the curtain to his bunk twitched aside and the short healer looked in on him and asked firmly, "How are you feeling?"
Malaamig didn't want to admit how awful he felt, but he knew too many Duurludirj warsailors with the same stature as the gentle-handed woman to take her image of frailty at face value. Medics from home were notoriously feisty, and though young, she seemed quite capable, and others treated her with easy respect. "Maybe a touch of a cold," he caged, wondering if he sounded as stuffed to her as he did to himself. "Or just an allergy to one of these fibers. It doesn't feel serious."
Kalitelm felt his forehead, peered into his face searchingly, and put her fingers to his wrist to measure his pulse. Malaamig tried to look healthy and must have been somewhat convincing. "I don't want you spending more than (something) in the pools at any time," she said reluctantly. "And don't let yourself get chilled getting (something). I want you to drink a lot, and eat (something)."
Malaamig politely agreed, though his head felt full of cotton and his thoughts felt slow; he didn't actually understand all of what she was ordering.
He heard Kalitelm give Diren the same scrutiny as Malaamig dressed himself in clothing that they had modified to his size behind the privacy the curtain afforded. Diren received the same advice, and Margaa was given leave to enjoy the pools for the first time, as well. She had blossomed under the fresh food and herbs that had been provided, and had developed a taste for the strong milk that seemed to be a staple for these northern people.
Malaamig went to the pools with Diren and Margaa, hoping that a soak would clear his head and he could find some more energy. It left his sinuses draining, but he found himself sniffling instead, which he wasn't convinced was an improvement, and he was more exhausted afterward. It was a considerable effort to take himself back to the house with the Scientists. Oddly, during the handful of days that they had been in the little northern village, he had been reluctant to leave the company of Diren and Margaa. He'd expected to be sick of them, after most of a long, brutal winter cooped up with them, but instead found himself longing for their familiar voices when he was separated from them too long.
Malaamig sneezed again, nearly unsettling the bowl of soup that served as his lunch. They didn't observe formal meals, as far as he could observe; they simply served food as it was available, to whomever was hungry then, cycling through a limited supply of serving utensils and washing up after themselves without ceremony or consideration of rank.
Obi picked up his head, wondering if the disturbance meant that he would get the end of a bowl of soup. He lay it back down with a long sigh when Malaamig insisted on finishing his own soup, cleaning up the ends of the nutritious liquid with a scrap of hearty bread.
The dogs had settled in easily, arguably better than he had. They were shameless about begging for scraps when he wasn't looking, and the northerners had accepted the canine presence as eagerly as their human visitors, grooming them and offering them pats and scratches without reservation. Obi, in particular, would often stay behind in the warm house when given the choice, warming his old bones by the fire, and Jem always stuck to his side.
"Do you feel up to a crowd of visitors?" Kalitelm asked them seriously, looking mostly at Margaa. "The Elders in Itrelir have decided how many people will go south, and we need to convene and talk about who we want to recommend that they send."
Malaamig, trying to surreptitiously wipe his running nose on the back of his sleeve before he had to sniff ignobly, felt his heart sink. He dreaded having to pack up and go back out into the cold for another long trip, but it went without saying that he would be one of those people. Margaa was still in no shape for such travel, and Diren wouldn't leave her. That left him, and he didn't want to admit how bone-weary he was. He had hoped for another few tendays of respite, but their window of opportunity was closing if they were going to make it to Tifanaro before Iremima set sail to intercept them.
Ivara, the tall, graceful Elder who didn't look like an elder to Malaamig's eyes, added, "If you are feeling well enough, we will have that meeting here, and we would value your input."
Margaa eagerly agreed to it and Diren nodded; both of them would be thrilled to witness such a culturally significant process, and he could practically see them preparing to take mental notes throughout. He tried to look less miserable than he felt when Kalitelm turned her gaze to him. Either the light in the little house was poor enough, or his scowl was familiar enough now that she accepted his silence as acceptance.
It didn't take long for Malaamig to regret agreeing to play host for the meeting. The house went from cozy to stuffy in moments, and escalated to sweltering even before everyone had fully settled. Gruff Reqem called them all to order, and explained briefly that the Elders at Itrelir had done an inventory of their supplies and decided that they had enough grain to see three snow-unicorns through Lichenwold, if their assumptions about the passage and the unmeasured distances were correct.
This led to a swirl of talk about who would travel with him, and he tried not to look too intimidating, and to time wiping his nose with conversation that drew attention away from where he sat with Diren and Margaa, dogs sprawled at their feet.
People seem to believe Tiren and Fala, a woman at Itrelir that Malaamig had not met, would be the best team. There seemed to be some concern about an old argument between the two, but Malaamig wasn't given enough information to figure out the cause, and it was dismissed by several people as something that could be overcome. Tiren and Dareg - another new name - was another combination frequently suggested. Fala and Dareg was brought up once, but only with laughter, and a phrase that Malaamig translated as 'too many tails on that yiirk.'
Birka's name came up several times; Malaamig liked the thoughtful young woman, and she seemed capable. She was taking neat notes on rough birchbark paper during the discussion, and he wondered how many of the northern people were literate; that could be a great advantage in traveling to the paper-happy Empire, and would give her an advantage over other Purists. Diren thought to mention that before Malaamig had to figure out how to clear his throat without sounding like a engine so that he could speak through the phlegm that was collecting there.
"We are all literate," Ivara said calmly, and that was an interesting surprise to Malaamig; most primitive cultures had entirely lost the ability to read and write. "Naturally some of us are more practiced than others, like Birka - " who blushed and looked pleased. "We will take that into account as we make our recommendation."
Someone called Favubu was also mentioned, and the young man, Anler, stood up with some minor encouragement and declared his interest also. Malaamig liked him, too; he preferred quiet companions, and he wasn't sure if he would get that from Fala and Dareg, the way the others spoke. Anler had come to ask them questions during their first tenday, as so many of the villagers had, focusing his curiosity on the medical discussions with Kalitelm about the wonders of the Empire's modern surgeries and pharmacies. He had seemed polite, and kind, without the clingy closeness that so many of the others they had met seemed to have.
The room was far too warm, and Malaamig could feel his energy draining alarmingly throughout the discussion. He sniffled as inconspicuously as possible, wiping his nose until it felt raw and then trying fruitlessly to dab at it. He spoke very little, which was no different than usual, but he wondered how hoarse he sounded, and he tried not meet Kalitelm's sharp eyes.
It was to no avail. "Choose three riders," the little healer said, as the conversation began to show repetitive divisiveness. She stood up with her arms folded, though standing was clearly a discomfort to her, and her expression was challenging.
A moment of silence met her declaration, and Ivara reminded her mildly, "There is only grain for three riders in total." Eyes swiveled between the short healer and Malaamig, who could feel his nose running into his beard and hoped it was not obvious there.
"I am fit -" he said gruffly, but it was everything he could do not to turn it into a cough. Swallowing eased the urge only a little.
"You are not," Kalitelm told him, and every fiber of her little body was clearly braced for a fight with him. "Your nose is running like snowy-drool, you can barely keep your eyes open after a soak in the pools and you would sleep all the hours a day given the chance."
Malaamig didn't answer, only attempted to look intimidating and strong while he tried not to cough outright.
Kalitelm's voice gentled. "You have traveled very far, and with very little, and spent a long winter in the cold and snow. No one is doubting your strength or your (something - Malaamig guessed will). But you are tired. Your body is exhausted, or it wouldn't be succumbing to a simple cold. I don't need the marvels of your Empire to know that you are simply worn out."
"You always take the fresh horse," Diren said unexpectedly. "You don't turn around and put the same horse back on the trail if you have any choice."
Malaamig swiveled his head to glare at him. "Whose side are you taking?" he asked, grumpy, and was chagrined to find that he couldn't wholly stop the cough that time, following it with a trumpeting sneeze that finalized the discussion.
Kalitelm turned back to the Elders. "Send three of our riders south. I won't let any of my patients go."
Her voice quavered just a little at the very last, and Malaamig wondered how much of her attitude was bluster. She seemed competent, but quite young, and he had a sudden squeeze of sympathy for her position, with all of the eyes of the village on her, expecting her to make difficult decisions, like quarantines.
"I like the symmetry," Margaa said unexpectedly. "Three explorers from the south, three riders from the north."
Malaamig didn't care for symmetry, but he did care that Kalitelm kept her chin high and called a halt to the meeting then, with the support of the Elders.
"We've got what we need to know about the candidates," Reqem said. "Get out, now."
Ivara, with a sideways look of amusement, was more diplomatic. "You've been helpful with your observations," she said generally. "The Elders will talk over your input before writing their recommendation. Any individuals who wish to supply a written testimony to be read in Itrelir at their discussion are welcome to."
There was a flurry of chatter and activity as the bulk of the village left, and the Elders who remained retreated to the far side of the little house and lowered their voice to discrete murmurs, leaving Malaamig in a slightly dazed bubble of peace.
"I'm sorry," Kalitelm said softly from his elbow, and he blinked to find that she was offering him a steaming cup. At first he suspected she was apologizing for the foul smell wafting from the drink that he knew wouldn't be optional, then realized she was sorry for keeping him from the trail south.
He opened his mouth to laugh, and ended up coughing instead. When he had recovered, he said hoarsely. "Honestly, little medic, at the moment I am only relieved." It was something that he never would have confessed to a guild Medic, but Kalitelm's sweet face disarmed his defenses. He found himself struck with the urge to put an arm around her shoulders and hug her, as he'd observed that these touch-happy northerners tended to do.
That alone told him that he was in no shape to travel, and he drank the vile potion without complaint, and let her bundle him, without protesting, back into bed.