Evening

           The shop light was on; she could see it from the end of the street. All of the shops around it were dark, locked up and shuttered for the night. Inside the dome there was no wind, so the shutters were designed for privacy rather than to keep the wind from blowing something into the shops, destroying whatever happened to be inside it.
           She wiggled the handle experimentally, sighing with relief when she found that the door was unlocked. She opened it and went in to find Kiuktuk waiting for her. His arms were folded across his chest and he looked unhappy.
           “Where have you been?” he demanded crossly.
           Nalai blinked; she was unsure as to how to answer that question or why he was asking it in the first place as he was the one who had sent her out into the tundra in the first place. “I’ve been gathering herbs,” she said slowly.
           “All day?”
           “Yes, sir. All day.”
            “And what do you have to show for it?”
           She opened her satchel and showed him the fruits of her labour. “I found a large crop of snow stars, but the willow root in the immediate area has been really picked over. I couldn’t find much.”
            Kiuktuk sighed as he took the satchel from her. “This isn’t nearly enough willow.”
           “I know.”
           “What am I supposed to do with this?” he continued, looking angry. “This is so little as to be completely useless. It would have been better if you hadn’t brought any back at all.”
           Nalai bowed her head submissively. “Kiuktuk, if I may speak?”
           “What could you say that could possibly make this any better?”
           “I’ve heard the other herb gatherers talking about the places they go to gather. I overheard them talking about a spot that should be rich in willow root. I didn’t go there because it’s really far away. I spent most of my time gathering snow stars which grow in large clusters nearby. If I had tried to go to this other spot I would have been trapped outside at night.”
            Kiuktuk shuddered involuntarily. Though their ancestors had been nomads, traveling and living out on the open snow fields, no one in their right mind wanted to be outside a dome at night without the protection of a thick hide tent. Ever since the domes had been constructed the only ones who were willing to take that kind of risk were the traders and even they preferred the safety of the domes if they were given the choice. It was dangerous outside, even in a large group.
            “If I send you back out there tomorrow could you find that spot?”
           Nalai nodded, feeling a tinge of regret for her lie. “I can. I can’t promise that there will be willow root there, but I can find the spot. If I’m lucky, there will be root there. At the very least there will be other useful herbs.”
           “And you know that how?”
           “The spot is down by the water. I know where it is as I have gone down there before. Do you remember that cave moss I brought back two summers ago that turned out to be highly valuable?”
           “Yes, I do, but I also remember that going down there was dangerous.”
           “Dangerous for a girl of only winters,” she reminded him. “I am now seventeen, almost eighteen. I can take care of myself much better than I could then. Besides, Iquiuk is bigger now and much better trained. If something should happen she can go for help. She knows what to do.”
           Iquiuk, hearing her name, looking up at her owner with her ears perked up.
           “I don’t know…” Kiuktuk said cautiously.
           “You need willow root. I might be able to find it,” Nalai said coaxingly. “The risk is to me and me alone.”
           “Is it? If I loose you I loose the best gatherer in Kuktaiqik. It will mean that I have to go out and gather herbs for myself until I can find and train a new gatherer. That will mean I have to close my shop for a day or two at a time and I will loose a great deal of business. Then, once I find a new gatherer there’s a high chance that I’ll have to train that person. No one in Kuktaiqik has your skill at gathering. You needed almost no training at all when you first came to work here. You may be at the bottom of our society here but you are far more valuable than anyone here really knows.”
           “I’m not really sure how to take that.”
           “You have worth to me. If you don’t take care of yourself I will be very angry with you, very angry indeed.”
           Nalai forced herself to smile despite the fact that Kiuktuk’s words were making her very uncomfortable. “I promise to be careful.”
           Kiuktuk shook his head. “You’re right, of course. I do need more willow root.” He nodded firmly. “I’ll wake you early so that you have more daylight to work with before you have to turn back.”
           “Thank you, Kiuktuk. I won’t fail you, I promise.”
           “I know you’ll do your very best. Let’s just hope its good enough.” He gestured behind him. “Off with you. Geioq should still have some food left upstairs.”
            “Thank you,” she said, whistling softly for Iquiuk to follow her.