Chapter 13: The Tribe of Taimera
Anameis stopped and reared up onto her haunches, craning her neck to look over the curled fronds that surrounded her. Her ears swivelled and her nose twitched. Laana could hear nothing, but she let Anameis check anyway. Nonetheless she scuffed at the ground with her paw. Normally she would have praised her guide's caution, but knowing what she now did, she could not help but feel that Anameis was dragging things out.
Anameis herself had been frustratingly vague. "I said I saw them about. I didn't talk to any of them, why'd I do that?" she had said, when Laana pressed her for more details. Laana had to concede that she was telling the truth, now that she could tell Anameis' tribe must exist. The trails were wider here, so that the two of them could walk side by side. By her feet Laana saw nicheling tracks, many of them the same sort of small, light, circular paw-prints that Anameis herself left behind. It was these trails and scents that she studied intently every time Anameis stopped, but still she could find no sign of anyone she knew. They were all too old or faint or mixed in with a whole tribe's worth of nichelings to tell any one individual apart. All she knew for certain was that the path was slowly leading them downhill.
With the going so slow, Laana was left alone to her thoughts. She twined her claws through her antlers, trying to avoid the most damning. She already knew she had failed; she could not listen to them again and again. Anameis had given her another chance. So she forced her thoughts away from failure, but, fearing to hope, she began to recall the first time she had laid eyes on Yuki.
She couldn't face the seers the night after Reko's passing. So she had crouched out in the open, above the cliffs, trusting to the tall grass to keep her safe and hidden. Above her the stunted clifftop trees reached out, bent by the persistent sea winds. Their branches cut dark claws over the night sky, until the sun set and the world turned into a lightless place, one defined by sound and smell. Here Laana lay still, eventually drifting into sleep only to wake with the sky still dark and the memories of the previous day all too fresh in her mind. She kept still, feeling the windblown grass brush against her sides, and awaited the dawn, unable to sleep again.
In the first of the pre-dawn light, as the stars began to fade and a glow of pale light made its presence felt over the sea, she got to her feet and stretched, easing the stiffness from her body. In that moment, watching the glimmer of distant waves over an endless sea, she confronted for the first time in her life the notion that she would not live out her life on the island of her birth. The child had seen to that, him and Kois with her prophecies. She sat back down, curling her tail around her paws to keep them warm. Kois would know what to do, just like yesterday when Laana had not been able to speak the right words to return Reko to the sea.
A gleam of sunlight on the far-away horizon brought her attention back to here and now, Below, the tide had begun its morning recession, leaving wet sand that shone gold in the new day's light. She closed her eyes and turned her head away. She was the bearer of Doeli's gifts, given to her so that she could guide the tribe and warn them of the future, and yet the sea had said nothing to her about this. Why had it not warned her? She felt herself overcome, imagining alternate paths she could have taken if she had known better, fetching help for Reko so that she could live. Her head was heavy, her body pained with the lack of sleep, but she knew it would not come.
It was not long before it was light enough to travel without fear of bearyenas, even if those where the last thing on Laana's mind. She thought of Kois again - her calmness, her strength, her understanding. Her first instinct then was to find her friend and let her tell her what to do, while she buried her nose in the thick fur of her ruff. She stood up, facing away from the dawn and into the rolling hills inland. But though she pictured herself finding Kois by her nest and letting her take charge, she stayed where she was. They had been close friends all their lives, but they walked different paths, and told different stories. Kois had seen her tribe's oldest deity become flesh again. Had Doeli herself been reborn into the world, would Laana and the other seers have time for anything else? No. Laana's whiskers twitched. She wanted Kois' comfort and direction, wanted to press up against her big, strong form and close her eyes and pretend none of this was happening, and her wants were selfish.
She took a deep breath, inhaling fresh, cold, salt-tinged air. She bore Doeli's gifts. She should put them to use.
So she walked along the clifftop, stopping to nibble at a stunted berry bush. Eating felt like too much effort, but she supposed she should even if she could not enjoy the taste. Her path took her down a lonely stretch of coastline, where the trails were narrow and overgrown, and the tribe's scent a mere hint against the sea and the tough, windswept grass. She wanted to keep on walking, with no destination in mind and nothing to do but keep moving, to feel the exertion in her muscles, the ground under her paws, and the wind ruffling her coat.
But she knew where she was headed. A small, nameless bay opened up beneath the cliffs. The seers rarely used it, despite its sheltered location. It was too difficult to scramble up and down the steeper cliffs here for them to make a habit of it, and there were no caves to sleep in. Only one steep, rocky trail remained to show that on occasion, someone might come by, stay and watch the sea for a while, and then leave.
It was down this trail that Laana picked her way, head first. When she reached the sand, she left a lone trail of prints on an untouched shore. She listened to the crash of waves, breathing in air rich with the scent of seaweed. In this sheltered bay there was no wind to ruffle her fur and cut through her body. She was at once before the open ocean and sealed away in her own world. Here there was only the sound of breaking waves, and she let it take her with them, as if those waves could wash away her thoughts as they beat upon the sand, scouring them clean and leaving only seafoam behind. For a fleeting moment she felt that she had gone beyond, watching light dance upon the sea, breaking apart and reforming in endless, never repeating patterns.
She touched her paw to her gems, and let herself focus on their smooth surface and the soft fur they nestled within, and she was back upon the shore, no longer lost in the waves.
Laana knew Reko would not want to be returned to the sea, as the seers did with their dead. She remembered once, long ago, a well meaning sort of nicheling asking Reko if she was disappointed to not be born a seer like her little sister, and Reko had flashed her claws and laughed. Nobody ever asked her again. Maybe, then, this was the wrong place to be. But the sea went on forever. It covered the world, its depths were endless, and it was all Laana knew.
You are wasting time, she thought, as she sniffed at the sand in search of buried clams. You will need to go back eventually. But not now. She found a shell by scent and pulled it free from the wet sand.
Great sea, where all rivers flow, she thought as she pried it open. I don't know why you chose not to warn me. I don't know what you want of me. But If you can send me a message, then I will follow it with all my strength. The sea did not give what you asked for; it gave what it deemed you should hear. But whatever it had to say, she would listen. She let her focus shift from her questions to the shell in her paws - the gritty texture of sand caught in its ridges, the gleam of light and subtle interplay of golden shades on its surface. They brought her back to the world, grounding her in the familiar and giving her something to concentrate on.
Her claws levered the shell open, and she sat back to examine the contents. As always she studied them with a careful eye, taking her time and letting the meanings come to her. There was much to consider. The signs were many - she may find meaning in the colour and texture of the shell or its meat, the way water ran free when she opened it, even its scent and flavour. All of these she had learnt and memorised. She let herself slip into a calm trance, feeling the meaning out as she might sniff at a trail and study the footprints left behind to see who had passed by.
Redemption. Great heights. Flourishing greenery - a pool turned to grass, blue becoming green. The great bird- and that last one sent a stab of guilt through Laana's chest, shocking her out of her reading as she pawed at her antlers, trying to shake away the thought of a tiny white body gripped in talons, flying away and out of reach. "No!"
Her voice echoed back and forth from the cliffs, returning to her over and over again. She flattened her ears and crouched to the sand, trying to make herself small, wishing the waves would wash over her so nobody could see. As the pounding of her heart faded, as she touched her gems and reminded herself there was no bird now, that the message might not mean a real bird, she thought again of Reko's child. Not being carried away in talons... she shook her head again, wishing the thought would leave her alone, but curled up with his mother, where he should be, if things had been different.
She dug into the sand, watching water fill the holes she made. She hated the child, did she not? He had taken Reko away from her. How else could she feel?
But Reko, no matter how Laana felt, had wanted this child. She had been taken by surprise at first, but had soon become excited at the prospect of being a mother, and Laana was reminded that it was not only her who had lost something dear to her. Reko would never get to experience that now. Laana closed her eyes. Reko would never have wanted her to hate her child. What if Laana had been given a message, and warned her? Then surely Reko would have told her to love him in her place.
She wanted to burrow into the sand and sink into its cold depths. Reko would have trusted her, and in return Laana had hoped, deep down, that the bird would take her child so she would never have to deal with his existence. Now the sea had put that thought in her head - and it wouldn't go away - and Laana knew she did not have it in her to hate him. The shame burned deep within.
Very well then, she thought, and got to her feet. Immediately she noticed something that had been missing all day. After all the hard work of yesterday her antlers had been left bare, and she was missing the familiar seaweed drapes. She hadn't cared to notice before, but now the sea had shown her a clear and shining path she felt exposed, as though her pelt had begin to shed in great ugly clumps. She took some seaweed from the tideline, close to where she had dug up her clam, and wound the green strands around her tines. When she was done she turned and climbed the path out of the bay, leaving the clam for the birds to peck clean.
She retraced her steps back from the lonely overgrown tracks and to the familiar sights and sounds of home. Sunrise Cove's sands were peppered with white as the seers combed the sands and talked among themselves. Laana couldn't put the moment off any longer, no matter how much she yearned to turn back into the untrodden grasses. She walked across the sands in a straight line toward the sea cave, never looking away even when the others looked up and asked where she had been. "Not now," she said.
The tide was high and the cave mouth partially flooded, and she was forced to wade into its depths. With each step she lifted her paws from the cold, sandy water, trying to shake away the nasty, cold sensation. At least here the sights and sounds of the outside world were hidden away. She didn't have to imagine the tribe's eyes upon her, waiting to see what she would do.
But Silais' were. The old nicheling was waiting inside, where the water gave way to sand and then to the rocky slope where the seers built their nests. She was curled up inside one of them, yellow eyes watching Laana approach. Silais knew her charges, and she did not need the sea to tell her what they would do.
"Silais." Laana lowered her head. "I've returned."
"Come on in out of the water, then"
Laana waded out onto the damp sand and shook out each of her paws in turn. She licked them clean of salt and sand, aware she was putting off the moment, but at least she wouldn't have to feel cold and dirty when it came. Silais stayed where she was, curled up around something Laana couldn't see but didn't need to guess at.
Finally, she approached the nest. Silais uncurled herself a little, so Laana could see.
If it were not for Reko's memory and the sea's signs, she would have turned away, but for her sister's sake Laana forced herself to look. Her only experience with cubs was seeing one-gems race through the meadow - never had she seen a nicheling so small, like a rabbil snuggled up against the older seer's side. There was not a single gem on his chest, and his eyes were still closed tight. For a moment it was all Laana could do to look at him and tell herself this was the way things were now. They both needed Reko, and Reko was gone. With that thought she stroked the top of his head, feeling fur as soft as rabbil down under her paw. He stirred and lifted his head, nuzzling against her touch.
"Kois told you, did she?" said Silais.
"About Yuki? Yes, she did." I suppose that is his name now, she thought, as the tiny cub waved a paw in the air, trying to find her warmth again. She held out her paw and he turned, pink nose twitching. It wasn't the name Reko had chosen, but she supposed they would all have to defer to Kois' stories. "I suppose I will not be staying here, then."
"I know," said Silais.
After all, there was nothing you could keep from an old seer.
Anameis stopped again. Laana peered over her shoulder, but the trail carried away and out of sight, through another stand of purple fringed grass. She could hear something moving in the distance, but underneath the calling birds and droning insects that permeated the jungle soundscape, she couldn't tell who or what it might be. Anameis didn't look alarmed, and quickly dropped down onto her three good legs.
Perhaps it was another nicheling? The trails here were wide and well trodden. They smelled a little like home - not the home she knew, but the scents and trails of creatures past and present overlaid one another, like near-tangible memories. Not her home, but home to many others. Yet there were no open spaces or gathering spots. Walking these trails she thought of a rabbil's warren, its tunnels hemmed in not by earth but undergrowth and the forest canopy. Her curiosity was confirmed when Anameis waved her tail to signal Laana to follow and said: "Come on, it's only Vankirvan."
She ran forward, and Laana caught up as they rounded the corner to see a creature - but it couldn't possibly be a nicheling, Laana thought, in the fleeting moment before Anameis yelled "Vankirvan! Get out of your plants!"
The creature let out a yelp of surprise and turned, coat bristling, and Laana saw that he was a nicheling - there could be no denying the two green gems set in his chest, with room for a third. But if Laana had thought Anameis looked unusual, she was downright mundane compared to her tribemate. His fur was even greener than his gems, bright as a new leaf, and his muzzle was round and shorter than any Laana had seen, bristling with long whiskers that twitched in irritation at being interrupted. Clasped in his nimble paws was a deep pink berry, and a pile of the same stood beside him at the foot of a berry bush, such a normal sight that looked even stranger next to the green nicheling.
"Why did you-" he began, and then put down the berry, licking his paw and smoothing down his yellow mane. Spots of a similar colour were dappled over his back, like sunlight on a leaf. "Oh. It's you."
"Can't be rid of me." Anameis sniffed at the berry pile. "Seen Ki-Roku?"
"If you're planning to annoy him, he's probably in the cave." Vankirvan glared at Anameis as she plucked a berry from the pile. "My berries! Pick your own!"
"But you're so good at it!" Anameis waved her tail at Vankirvan's paws, and dropped the berry by Laana's feet. "Here. Don't worry about him."
"Oh, of course." Vankirvan turned his attention to Laana. "My apologies. Someone has taken it upon herself to annoy everyone." He tapped his gems, by way of greeting. "Vankirvan."
"Laana." She ignored both the fruit and whatever rivalry these two had, and sniffed the berry. It was the first familiar food she had found in the jungle, and once again she remembered how long it had been since morning. Even under the canopy she could feel the heat starting to fade, the light dwindling too and telling her that evening was on its way. She looked back over her shoulder. Anameis had told her they'd be back with Kois by dusk...
"Are you from the Meadow Tribe?" Vankirvan said. He'd turned his back on both of them, going back to his berry picking, but his ears were swivelled backwards in their direction.
"Meadow Tribe? No, I..." Laana stopped, her thoughts overtaking her words. Her home tribe had never had a name to call themselves by. They had only been "the tribe" - in generations they had never needed to introduce themselves to another, only the occasional wanderer. It would be like trying to name the sky. "Are there others here?" She darted to Vankirvan's side.
"Who like getting in my way? Sometimes. You're nearly as bad as Little Roku, he kept wandering under my paws too! What are you, his mother?" He looked over Laana again. "You look like him."
"Why would I be-" Laana stopped again. The name Roku had tugged at her memory ever since Anameis had mentioned it, and now she knew why. It was the name Reko had chosen for Yuki, before Kois' legends had overturned it. Had she ever told him that, on those long days when she told stories for him about his mother? She touched Vankirvan's shoulder. "He's here? Is he-"
"Hold on!" Anameis trotted up to them. "Nobody told me about any Rokus apart from Ki-Roku!"
"No, Little Roku!" Vankirvan said. "He looks just like her! Apart from the horns... and you don't have those funny red eyes!"
He spoke those last words to Laana, and had she been in any other situation, she would have thought that commenting on someone having red eyes was a strange thing for someone with a lurid green pelt. Instead she felt the grip of urgency - was this Little Roku really Yuki? And was he safe? What about the others? "Where is he? What happened to him?" Her claws tightened around Vankirvan's coarse fur.
"Do you normally grab onto people?" said Vankirvan.
Laana let go, and was about to apologise when they were both interrupted by Anameis pushing them apart with her twisted snout and reaching to grab another berry. Vankirvan shrieked and swatted her away, and she fell over laughing with her tail in the air. Laana rubbed her antlers, trying to calm her nerves. They were just two-gems playing. She'd been a two-gem not long ago... though great Doeli, she had never been this irresponsible, surely? "Please. Can you tell me where he is?"
"I don't know. He's been with Ki-Roku." Vankirvan glared at Anameis, who was slowly moving her snout into the bushes again in a parody of stealth, ears pricked in amusement. "Anameis!" He swatted her away again, waving his paws at her. "Go! Go go go! And leave my plants alone!"
"And that was Vankirvan," Anameis said, as she led Laana further down the trail. "He's my friend!"
Laana supposed that explained everything, but in truth she didn't care - all she wanted was to know where Yuki was. But Anameis knew no more, so Vankirvan's words were all they had to hold onto. She didn't want to hope, even if she had never seen another nicheling with red eyes. What were red eyes to a tribe with green fur? Bright poisonous coats, she thought, remembering the story of Tata and Eve's gifts. She'd always wondered what that meant.
Ahead she could smell water and damp earth, for Anameis had led her back to the river. It was a little wider here, but still small enough to swim across or cross over the algae-tinted stones strewn through its depths, and its bank were well trodden. Here there were nichelings, watching them pass, and whilst some had black or brown coats such as she had seen back home, others were bright like Vankirvan and Anameis - orange and green, but also blues and yellows and vivid magenta, like the ripest of berries. They looked up to watch at the two of them passing by, but none of them greeted her or her guide. They were curious, but nor alarmed, bodies stretched out and tails waving slowly as they went about their day. Instead they fished, or drank from the river, or sat around in small groups telling stories, playing with cubs, or dozing.
Anameis herself had stopped sniffing around and checking for danger every few steps, and was moving forward in silence, not bothering to talk with anyone else. Laana kept looking around for signs of a cave, like the one Vankirvan had talked about. She didn't understand how a cave could be here, with no sea to carve it out, but then she saw what he meant.
Ahead, in the low light, she could see the land rise up into a cliff, about five nichelings tall, exposing bare white stone at its sides with enough crags and footholds that a determined creature could climb it, if they knew how. Following the river with her eyes she now saw the cave, from which the waters flowed, milky with the tint of white stone that swirled and mingled upon its surface. Mossy stones made a walkway into the cave depths, through a mouth strewn with ferns and vines, draping greenery across its entrance. To Laana it was a distant reminder of home, but, as the beach had been for Kois, all the stranger for its familiarity.
Anameis moved slowly over the rocks, struggling to keep her balance, but she pressed on and didn't lean on Laana's side, even though she walked beside her in an attempt to help. "Here you go," she said.
"May we go inside?" said Laana. Peering inside the entrance she could see light in the distance - but how could that be? What could bring the sun inside a cave? She was still puzzling it out when she heard someone speak beside her.
"Who is this?"
It was a quiet voice, soft as clouds, and when Laana turned to see who was there (trying not to look too startled) she saw that it belonged to a tall nicheling with a coat blue as the sea on a clear day. Curled white horns framed a long face, and at her chest sat three shining green gems. Her pelt was perfectly groomed, smooth and elegant. Her paws made no sound as she walked even on slippery rocks, as surefooted as she was silent.
Laana waited for Anameis to introduce her, but the orange nicheling seemed to have lost all her bravado, and so Laana dripped her head, assuming this must be someone worthy of respect. "I am Laana, of the Meadow Tribe."
"I am Ai-Relare," said the blue nicheling, proving Laana's hunch right. Ai- denoted a relationship to a leader, and so she might be speaking to a relative of this Ki-Roku she was to meet - a mate, or sibling, or child. "But you... you are Laana." Ai-Relare gazed off into the cave depths, waving her tail at Laana to follow. It was as long and luxurious as Anameis', dappled with black spots and meticulously groomed. "Little Roku's aunt?" Her voice echoed in the cave entrance, raising it above a whisper. "You are?"
"Yes, yes I am!" It had to be him - she still did not let herself dare hope, but it must be him. Did Ai-Relare believe her? "He has white fur like me... one pink gem, red eyes..."
Ai-Relare waved her tail again. Anameis nudged Laana out of her frozen surprise and into the cave.
The sound of flowing water filled the tunnel as they walked on over smooth rocks. Laana's surroundings grew comfortably dim, reminiscent of home, but her first impressions had been right. There was indeed light ahead of her, in defiance of all sense, and now she could see where it came from. It flowed from a still lake within a cavernous space, and whilst normally she would have trusted the flow of air over her whiskers to tell her this, here she could see. A portion of the ceiling had caved in long ago, letting in shafts of light and greenery. Moss and ferns spilled into the cavern and down its walls, and even a few pink flowers bloomed within the cave. Terraced layers of stone, worn smooth by water over more years than anyone could count, led down to a wide, flat lake shore. Here there were nichelings too, talking and grooming over piles of fruit. Some were brightly patterned strangers, but others, she knew.
"Laana?" Kirro sniffed at a nearby berry pile he'd been eating from. "Did I eat something wrong or is that you?"
"It is Laana!" said Meana, who sat by him. And all around nichelings looked up, calling her name - Kirro, Meana, Tanu, the young twins...
And at last, she saw him. There on the highest terrace, ferns and flowers draped behind him, sat a golden nicheling speckled with black spots. He was a stranger, but Laana saw a flash of white - a cub playing and climbing on his back, just as he had with Kois. White fur, a pink gem at his chest, and shining red eyes.
She forced herself not to call out his name, but he had already seen her, and with a cry of "Laana!" he leapt from the golden nicheling's back and down the terraces, to where she waited by the lake.
Yuki... She curled her nimble paw around his body, drawing him close. Her nose touched his head, breathing in his scent, the way his soft tuft of a mane tickled, everything she had known and remembered. He nuzzled her gems, as reluctant to let go as she was of him, and gradually their little cries of happiness gave way to soft purring. She would never leave him again. Her baby was safe, alive, and she knew there was nothing she could do as long as she lived that would allow her to return the Taimera Tribe for bringing him back. "Anameis, Ai-Relare... thank you."
"Look." Yuki was still nestled in her fur. "There's no bluebirds this time!"
"No." Laana looked up at the cavern's ceiling, smooth and shaded with whites and greys, like clouds before the rain. "There are not." Her gaze settled back upon the golden nicheling that Yuki had been playing with. "Ki-Roku?"
"Yes, I am," he said.
"Thank you." Laana nuzzled Yuki's rabbil-soft fur. "All of you... thank you, so much."