One of the most critical storylines at Torn World is the inevitable meeting of the sprawling southern Empire and the isolated northern community of snow-unicorn riders. We are releasing this story in weekly installments simultaneously here at our livejournal community and at our webpage. If you are just joining us, you can catch up on the story so far here, or get acquainted with the world here.
(Note that Pressure precedes this story, though it's not technically part of the storyline.)
Smokewater was beginning to feel more like home than Itrelir had. The landforms as Kativa and Birka approached the tiny village were familiar; the shape of that ridge, the dark patch of evergreens that arched along that slope, the outcrop of snow-covered rocks that loomed up through the forest just there and looked a little like a bear in the early evening twilight.
But something about the little fenced area for the snow-unicorns puzzled Birka at first, and she couldn't put her finger on it until Kativa pointed and exclaimed, "There's a new unicorn!"
Tikite's favored, fleet-footed mount, Grain, had distinctive rust-colored stripes along his flank, and his presence was momentous.
"Kalitelm has lifted the quarantine!" Kativa crowed, and Birka felt her chest tighten with excitement. If Tikite was here, that meant the Elders in Itrelir had made their decision about who would be sent south already.
They were greeted by Anler, who looked as nervous as she felt.
"Did they decide?" Kativa demanded of him, before Birka could.
"Tikite's being tight-lipped until you two got back and everyone could meet tonight," Anler said, with an indulgent smile for Kativa, who slid off Grayfeathers and bounced on her toes. "He only beat you by an hour or so."
Birka dismounted with only a little less haste, and they quickly stripped their mounts and gave them a cursory grooming, discussing the state of the circuit and the health of their unicorns. When the last task was completed, they paused a moment, exchanging excited glances, then Birka took Anler's hand and they all pelted towards the village with a complete lack of decorum.
# # #
The little house was crowded and sweltering, and Birka found it astonishing that the addition of just one person made it feel pressed even more full than it had been for their prior meeting on the topic.
Tikite was as masterful a storyteller as any furshirt, and he managed to convey the spirit and the content of the meeting that had been held in Itrelir quite convincingly. Birka could just imagine Favubu's speech, and she squirmed to hear the testimony for herself. Fala's evasive withdrawal from consideration drew murmurs from the audience, and she and Anler exchanged alarmed glances; that wasn't like their age-mate, and she was distracted from the next portion of the messenger's report. Was Fala ill? Or... Birka caught herself fingering the empty space in her necklace. It was unusual that Fala hadn't had a child by now, and she'd been wearing Tekura's bead when they left Itrelir...
She returned her attention to Tikite in time to catch a carefully neutral account of Dareg suggesting that women on the trail could complicate things. Some of the audience hissed in disapproval, but Reqem laughed out loud.
"Finally, the Elders retired to discuss things privately," Tikite continued, and he gave a little pause that was met with anticipatory silence. Birka found Anler's hand again, already reaching for her own. "Tiren, Birka, and Anler were selected--"
Tikite might have said more, but Birka and Anler were already being buffeted with congratulations and shouts of luck and rowdy punches in the shoulder. She kept a hold on Anler's hand somehow, and when the crowd allowed, swept him into a tight hug. "We're going south!" she kept saying, unable to find anything more coherent to say. Tiren worked his way through the clinging sea of people to exchange a whoop of triumph and a swift embrace with each of them.
The mood turned celebratory; someone began drumming and people joined in, clapping and stomping. There was little room for dancing, but the room took on a rhythm that was decidedly festive, and skins of wine and spirits appeared and changed hands freely.
After clasping anyone who wanted one into a tight hug, Birka was dizzy and excited, and it began to sink in that she would really be traveling south. She ducked through the crowd to find Malaamig, who was standing against a bunk looking like he wanted to crawl into it and hide. He startled when she automatically touched him, then smiled cautiously. He took only a cursory sip from the flask she offered, and she passed it along to someone else stomping nearby.
"I'm sorry you won't get to go with us," she said genuinely. It would have been useful to have his experience when they arrived at the strange lands south of Lichenwold, but more, she suspected he would be a good trail partner, and she would have like the chance to get to know him more.
He nodded, but Birka wasn't convinced that he understood her, or possibly he couldn't hear her over the low, festive roar of the room. Someone pulled her into a hug, and she let them, flashing Malaamig a smile as she was coaxed back into the swirl of the crowd.
# # #
It was much later, yawning hugely, that Birka finally left the house. She was eager to find her own bed... despite several offers for beads and invitations to other bunks. The little party going south wanted to leave immediately. They wanted as much of a chance at intercepting the boat coming north as possible, and that meant leaving early in the morning. She pulled her overcoat around her snugly, and left the music behind the heavy door to step out into the shocking cold and relative stillness of the night. Behind her, the house still thrummed with the dance beat, but it was muffled by the snow, and fell away as she walked to the next house over, where Kativa had already retired to the bunk they were sharing.
Anler was standing before the house, facing south and gazing up into the sky. A thin trickle of aurora flickered through the trees, and a far-off stream of Others twinkled brighter than the stars.
Birka wrapped her arms around him and they stood that way for a long moment.
"We're going on the adventure of a lifetime," she said finally.
"What do you think we'll find?" Anler asked.
"Cities," Birka suggested. "Vast fields of grain. Boats that can carry snowies. Trains and horses."
"Scientists and medics," Anler added thoughtfuly.
"Archives as big as six houses," Birka remembered from the scientists' stories. "Filled to the ceiling with books."
"Magic crystals that stop time," Tiren added drolly, and they turned to find him approaching with a figure at each arm. They giggled, then let go of Tiren when it was clear he wanted to stop. Shivering, the two women went immediately for the entrance of the house, leaving the three companions-to-be standing together alone in the dark as the door shut behind them. Birka smiled to think that this was only the first of very many days that they would be alone together.
"I can't imagine better travel partners," she said, and it was only after she said it that she felt a tinge of guilt and she wondered again why Fala had demurred.
"Me neither," Anler said swiftly, and Birka wondered if there had been the tiniest pause, and whether he thought about Fala, too.
"Hmm," Tiren said without agreeing. "I could," he teased. "But then, I have a very good imagination."
They all laughed, the snow-covered trees bouncing the sound of merriment back at them.
"We should get a good night's sleep," Anler said more seriously as the last echo of laughter faded. "It's a long trip ahead of us."
"And so much waiting for us south of Lichenwold," Birka added solemnly. "All the wonders of the Empire."
"We're bringing them wonders, too," Tiren reminded her. "They don't have anything like our snow-unicorns."
"We don't have anything that amazing," Anler scoffed. "They have science and cities!"
"I don't know," Tiren said, looking up at the night sky above them. "I like to think we may have a few surprises for them, too."
Birka smiled, drawing close to Tiren, and he put an arm around her shoulder. "I like the idea that we have something to offer them, too."
They stood like that for some time, gazing at the southern sky until Tiren yawned. "Nothing they have to offer me can beat my bunk for now," he said, giving each of them a squeeze. "Let's enjoy a decent mattress while we can."
They stomped into the house laughing, and shut the winter outside behind them for the night.
Chosen by Ellen Million
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