Chapter 2: Snow in the Nest

Several months earlier:

The rains had come and gone, leaving behind lush grasses and laden berry bushes. Now a warm sun shone upon rolling hills, scattered with rabbils nibbling at the grass. They were too small and fast for Kois to chase down, so she ignored them and left them to run as she headed instead for her favourite spot. Down gentle grassy slopes she walked, dew brushing against her fur, toward the sound of a fast flowing stream. It curved through a wide valley, and at the point where it bent around to change course and flow to the sea, there grew a grove of nut trees. Kois settled beneath them, easing herself into the hollow she had made from months of relaxing in the shade. She was too big to sneak up on rabbils, and her claws too thick and sharp to pick berries without mangling them, but her thickset jaws were perfect for cracking open nuts.

None of them had fallen in the night, but that was easy to solve. Kois raised her heavy clubbed tail and slammed it into the nearest tree trunk, gently enough to not harm the tree, but strong enough to make a few nuts fall to the ground around her. Each one was big enough that even her oversized paws could only just cover it, and a warm brown in colour with a smooth shell. Kois picked them up in her strong jaws and felt a satisfying crack as she opened them up to get to the food inside.

She ate her fill and drank from the cold stream, and was ready to slam her tail into the trunk again to shake out some more nuts to take back to her tribemates when she heard the cries.

At first she thought it was the alarm call of a rabbil about to be pounced on, but it was too high pitched even for one of those tiny prey creatures. She stood still, straining to listen over the whisper of grass and the flowing stream. It was a high squeal, faint enough that she could barely hear it, but unmistakably the sound of something in distress.

Kois waded through the stream. She shivered at the sudden cold, but kept going. There was a faint bloody scent in the air now, leading her up to a small rise where the normally gentle hills became a small ridge, just taller than Kois herself. It formed a sheltered spot away from wind and rain. If a place like this ever smelled of blood, it was because someone had chased down a rabbil and taken it back to eat in peace. But the call was louder the closer Kois came, and now she could tell that it was not a rabbil but a nicheling cub. She understood little of cubs, but pressed on through the thick grass, mindful that a young nicheling left alone was easy prey for a bluebird, and everyone knew to stay close lest they be carried away.

Shouldering the tall grass aside, she found the nest. There was indeed a little white furred cub there, but it was not alone.

"Reko?" The mother, another pale coated nicheling like the seers by the sea, was curled up around the tiny creature. He was pawing at her, letting out the high pitched cries that had drawn Kois to the scene.

Kois padded closer, and nudged Reko with her broad snout. The mother nicheling's body was stiff and cold. Kois recoiled. She'd seen the scene before her, understood what must have happened, but she had held onto hope that maybe Reko was just exhausted, that everything was fine...

Reko had all the makings of a seer, from her plain white coat to her darker antlers, but she had neither the dextrous paws nor the strong jaws required to crack open clamshells, so she had taken up the role of a warrior in defiance. She'd fought off many bearyenas in her time, and once a rumour had gone around that she had even taken a swipe at a bluebird and taken a few feathers as trophies. Should have taken one with you, Kois thought, as she touched her nose to her fallen tribemate's.

The cub let out another squeak, trying to push closer to Reko's body and what warmth was left. Kois supposed she had little choice, and bent down to lift him out of the nest. She would find someone else to leave him with, someone who had a better idea what to do than her.

She stopped.

The cub was plain white, and that was not unusual in a tribe so full of seers of the sea, but his coat was not their creamy near-white but shone like snow, and where Reko's nose and claws were black, his were pale pink. His eyes were still closed, but Kois had no doubt they would be the same. She looked up at the sky, but there were only wispy clouds above, and a warm sun that shone down on a scene that belonged far away from here. For whilst the seers had their own stories of the sea and how its visions came to them long ago, so Kois' ancestors, the nichelings of the mountains, told their stories of Yuki of the snows.

It was a warm, sunny day, and Kois imagined that she would not see many of those any more.

Gently she lifted the tiny creature from the nest, brushed the tip of her heavy tail against Reko's body, and headed downhill to the sea.

A tribe may be close knit or full of drifters, strict or relaxed. It all depended on the land. The meadows of Kois' home tribe were peaceful enough that there was rarely any need for a leader to emerge. Apart from the seers, the inhabitants were free to gather their own food and spread out as they pleased. The seers did not share Kois' stories, but they were the closest to a leader that Kois had ever known in her life, so it was to them that she headed.

The sound of breaking waves grew louder as she climbed down the hillside, keeping a gentle but firm hold on the cub's scruff. A salt-scented breeze made lazy waves in the tall grass.

The shoreline was known to the tribe as Sunrise Cove, and it was the preserve of the seers. Kois could see a few of them scattered around the sand in the distance, combing the debris washed ashore or digging for clams in the shallows. From this far away, they looked as small as the cub in her jaws. He was quiet now, and she hoped it was just because he knew not to make a sound whilst being carried. Was that what cubs did? She kept her attention on the path instead. Sunrise Cove was a secluded bay surrounded by steep cliffs marked with sea caves, the extend of which only the seers knew for certain. The few paths that led to the sheltered sands were steep and rocky. Kois splayed her claws to stay steady as she descended. The winds that constantly rustled the grassy hills died away, the sound of surf growing louder, yet peaceful and calm in the suddenly still air. A few of the seers paused to watch her approach. Kois tried to see if Laana was amongst them, wondering what she would say to her friend. Did they already know what had happened? Did Laana?

But instead she spotted Silais at the far end of the beach, where the rockpools lay by the cliff base. She would know what to do, and when she looked up at Kois' approach, Kois thought that whatever she had found in the pools had already told her what was happening.

Silais was a powerfully built nicheling, who moved slowly on large claws. They were still barely half the size of Kois' own paws, but big enough to fend off a bearyena with ease. Though she lacked the dextrous paws that most seers used to open shells, her jaw was as heavy and strong as Kois', enough to make short work of any clam. Her antlers were large, their colour dulled with age, but still draped with translucent seaweed and even a few shells and pearls that she had found and earned throughout her life. She walked over the sands to greet Kois, crossing a field of fallen boulders from the cliffs above, now worn smooth by waves and wind, and coated with seaweed. "I see you have not brought a rabbil for me to eat."

Kois deposited the cub on the warm sand. "No."

"He has no horn buds." Silais sniffed at him. "And he does not seem as if he will grow to open shells. If he is not a seer, what is he?" She settled into a sitting position, her flat tail sweeping the sand aside.

Kois took a deep breath. "He is Yuki."

The old seer tilted her head. Kois had not known how she would take the news, and had been preparing how to explain the snow touched child and his significance. But it seemed that Silais had some inkling of the mountain tales, for she looked away from the tiny cub and into Kois' eyes, and said "And for this child, we must find the mountains?"

"If he can lead us there."

"Kois, the tribe has lived here for more generations than I can count - your own lineage aside. It is safe here, and there is plenty of food. How many of them will want to leave to chase ramfoxes in a blizzard?"

"It was not my intention to force anyone to leave, seer." Kois looked down at her claws. The cub - Yuki, for there was no question of calling him anything else now - tried to paw his way through the loose sand to find her again. She reached out a paw, feeling his soft fur as he nuzzled against it. "I would be willing to leave. Anyone else would be free to choose."

"I should hope they know what they are choosing, then. There are worse things than ramfoxes in the snow."

"I know." Kois twitched the tip of her clubbed tail as gently as she could, which still made a quiet thud in the sand.

Silais' yellow eyes narrowed. "Leaving all this aside, where is he from? I doubt you are his mother, the sea would have something to say about that."

"He is Reko's son." Kois stroked a claw over Yuki's back. "She is dead."

"Reko... I see. And his father?"

"Reko only knows now. She always did as she wanted."

Silais let out a snort of what might have been laughter. "That much is true. I suppose he will have to stay with us; we would be able to care for him."

Kois sighed in relief and nudged Yuki with her broad muzzle. "Thank you, seer."

"Of course, it will be up to him to decide if he will lead anyone away," said Silais, "and I for one have no intention of leaving this shore. You understand that not everyone else will be as happy as you to leave, too."

"I had already considered that."

Silais bent down to pick up Yuki, but before she could, Kois went on. "One more thing. Where is Laana?"

"She will be around the cove somewhere. You will find her."

"Thankyou." Kois watched in silence as Silais lifted Yuki by the scruff and turned to leave. She kept watching until they vanished out of sight, waiting for the time when she would have to break the news to her friend, and wishing she never had to do so.