Tenshio knelt beside Gilly. He reached inside her hood and pulled her scarf up over her nose and mouth. Under the hood, her eyes were very large.
“Now you will meet some of the tribe of the Kringmerk,” said Tenshio to her.
“Who are they?” came Gilly’s voice, made fuzzy by the scarf.
“You will see,” said Tenshio. “It does not take them long to come when anyone has stepped foot onto their territory.”
Gilly thought they were waves of snow at first. They came, low to the ground and swift, pushing through the snow drifts and half covered by them. She didn’t realize they were beasts until she saw the living color of their eyes, ice blue and brown; she didn’t realize they were dogs until they were sitting a few feet from her, panting, having arrived in a flurry of snow.
There were five of them, all the size of small ponies, clothed in thick silvery gray and white fur, with thick muffs of fur around their necks and chest. Their tails curled up and over their hind ends in plumes, their ears pointed forward; their teeth were long and sharp. In their white faces, the black ring around their eyes only emphasized the vivid blues, greens and amber colors within them.
They wore harnesses of leather and dyed wool. The leader’s harness was done in scarlet and gold, the others were in the colors of purple, blue, green and teal. Tassels hung where the straps of the harness met and crossed on their chests.
As soon as they stopped running, two of them began tussling with each other, ignoring the visitors, growling and yipping. The leader sat down before the travelers, flanked by the remaining two dogs, one male and one female. They tipped their heads and whined softly, their bright eyes roving curiously over the creatures before them.
“Well, well, well,” said the lead dog with a throaty chuckle. “What a top notch crew this is! All this heavenly authority will make me twitchy; I’d better watch my damn mouth. What in the hell could bring an Adlartok lord and a Mianersiwok down from their nests? Must be something to do with this niviarsok, the bright one. How she shines!” exclaimed the leader in a deep, rough voice.
Before Tenshio could reply, the dog twisted around and snarled out thickly. “Pidguyok! Angutiriyok! Cut the crap!”
With a whine, the two wrestling dogs fell apart and shook themselves free of the clotted snow.
“Yes, sir,” they said, grinning.
“He started it, sir,” added Pidguyok, a heavy set dog with a scar over his blue eye. He tipped his head toward his fellow.
“The hell I did, you impudent pup!” snapped Angutiriyok, equally powerful looking, with a grizzled muzzle and half an ear missing.
The lead dog cleared his throat and turned back to the travelers, expectantly.
“This child is a living human; we must take her further into the north,” answered Tenshio. “We ask assistance from the Issorartuyok and his contingent in passing over the southern wastes. We must reach the port city at the Haraumi.”
“Into the north?” repeated the Issorartuyok, in open wonder. “Why the hell take a living human into the heart of the wastes? You’ll have to tell me a better story than that, Watcher.” The Issorartuyok grinned, revealing the roots of yellowed, sharpened teeth. “We have a long and honored tradition of story-telling among my people; it’ll pay your way. Don’t be stingy, now.”
“As you wish,” answered Tenshio. “I will pay the price of passage; far be it from me to disrespect any tradition of your mighty tribe, honored Issorartuyok.”
“Such smooth talkers all you people are,” replied Aksarpok, his bright blue and brown eyes sparkling. “I always feel so damned high and mighty after talking to one of you guys; my mate’ll have a hell of a time putting me back in my place.”
The two dogs which had flanked Aksarpok peeled away from him and trotted through the snow to wait their turn to be harnessed. Pialayok and Okrarpok were swing dogs, responsible for turning the team and the sled. Lastly, Aksarpok paced to the head of the line and allowed himself to be attached to the head of the tug line.
Okrarpok, a limber, long legged swing dog with two bright, pale blue eyes, was unable to control himself; the anticipation of the run was too much. He let out a series of high, excited barks, which infected Pidguyok and threatened to turn the entire team into a chaos of over excited dogs.
Tenshio stepped back quickly, putting himself between the team and Gilly, who had been watching curiously.
Aksarpok swung around and snapped viciously in Okrarpok’s face. “Pull yourself together, man!” he snarled, his two front legs braced, his tail rigid.
“Yes, sir,” whined Okrarpok, crouching low, his tail between his legs. “I’m sorry, sir. I’m just so excited, sir.”
“Rookie,” said Pialayok, looking at her harness fellow in exasperation. Though she was trembling with the anticipation of the run, she knew better than to voice it.
“I’m so excited!” howled Pidguyok in a cracking falsetto. “And I just can’t hide it!” His eyes had a laughing gleam, his large feet danced rapidly in the snow. “I’m about to lose control and I think I like it!”
The dog team let out a loud, collective groan.
“Oh, for the love of god, don’t start singing that pamma nonsense!” cried Pialayok.
“You sing one more syllable and I’ll pull your tongue right out your throat,” growled Angutiriyok.
“Geez! ...and here I thought it was funny,” the younger dog protested, laughing. “If I didn't have a real well developed sense of self, I might be a little butt hurt right about now."