Chapter 29: Upon the Mountain

Of the four nichelings who climbed the cliff, only Kirro returned to tell the tribe of what they found. By then dusk had fallen, and the tribe made camp by the waterfall. Laana paced for much of the night before finally settling, and despite Kirro's reassurance that Yuki was safe with Iskome and Tanu, even Kois lay awake long into the night.

In the morning Kirro led them up the cliff in twos and threes. Being used to scrambling up and down the paths to Sunrise Cove on his home island he made the best guide, but even that rough and jagged trail was an easy walk compared to the cliff face. If Kois ever doubted the mountains were near, she no longer did. But though progress was slow, most of the tribe got the hang of the climb, leaving her to bring up the rear and look out for stragglers.

They had not yet cleared the treetops when Kois noticed she was not the last after all. She had cleared a narrow ledge, and looking back she saw Anameis at the far end. Her usual three legged hop was unsteady, and she moved at a slow shuffle, shaking with each tiny step. Kois looked away into the tangle of trees in an attempt to not look like she was staring, but it was too late. "I'm going as fast as I can!" Anameis snapped.

"I know. I'll wait for you." Kois sat down. "Did you see how long I took?" She hadn't enjoyed crossing that ledge any more than Anameis, albeit for different reasons - her bulk left her unbalanced, the cliff face pushing back as she pressed against it and tried not to think of falling. A shiver rippled down her flanks at the memory.

Anameis kept inching along in silence. Kois didn't press her. She'd been so sullen since Laana's confession, sharing few words with Kois. I should be angry with her, Kois thought. Anameis never knew Reko, had no paw in the matter. But Kois couldn't bring herself to feel angry. Anameis must have thought she was joining into a better life, a tribe of her own, and then a rift shattered it all. Kois lay down, and waited, listening to Anameis' quick breathing.

Waving her tail for balance. Anameis finally scrambled onto the wider portion of the ledge where Kois sat. For a moment she said nothing and sprawled out onto her belly, breathing deeply, and then she spoke. "Thanks for waiting."

"Kirro says that's the worst of it." Kois looked up in the direction she'd seen the rest of the tribe head. "I hope so."

They stuck together on the way up. Anameis fell back into silence, but Kois didn't push her any further. Finally they reached the spot where Yuki and his friends breached the treetops the previous day, and Kois sat there for a while, savouring the first cool breeze in too long. Behind, Anameis jumped onto the ridge and let out a yelp of alarm.

"What is it?" Kois turned, but Anameis didn't appear to be hurt. Standing perfectly still, she gaped as she stared at the sea of green before her.

"I know you'll think I'm stupid, but I've never seen all the sky before!" Anameis being unable to sit still was nothing new, but now she was more animated than ever, walking around in circles, crouching, waving her tail, and jumping startled at the clatter of wings as a bird launched itself into the sky. Kois wanted to tell her there was nothing to fear, but she held back and let Anameis discover that for herself, concerned she might be insulted. For Kois, rising above the trees was a welcome return to a sort of normality, but Anameis had taken herself out of her world. The Taimeras never needed leave their bountiful forests. Whole generations might have lived under that green roof, never seeing more than glimpses of blue outside of their imaginations. To look upon this new world, Anameis must feel as Kois might have done if she'd found herself in the Bluebird King's cloudy domain, or - and she trembled at the memory - the gateway to the abyssal underworld between islands.

"Yes, it has been a long time since I saw it myself," Kois said, hoping it was a neutral enough comment. She stretched out on the ledge and let the breeze run over her body. "I had forgotten how it looked. Do you need to rest?"

"No, no, I like it!" Anameis hopped cautiously to the edge and held out her smaller paw as far as it would reach to feel the wind. "I just didn't know it was this big! Let's keep going!" She dipped into a play bow, tongue hanging from the side of her mouth. "I want to see more! And I want to find some berry bushes that haven't been picked clean."

Kois rode to her feet. "Then we had better get to the top before everyone gets hungry." She was no gatherer, but she had seen how quickly even a passing tribe could strip a bush clean.

"That's the thing. It wasn't one of us."

Kois paused mid-step. "What do you mean?"

"Well, I thought I'd find some last night, make myself useful..." Anameis sat up and scratched behind her ears with a hindleg. "But when I went to look someone had taken them all. And most of the scents were your lot, but a couple of times there was this other one?"

"Another tribe?" Kois said. Or a rogue, she thought, but she kept that to herself. That other nichelings should pass by, especially in such a rich land, came as no surprise. But Anameis had turned her head away to avoid Kois' gaze, ears held back. "Or do you mean we were followed?"

"Yes! No! I mean, I don't know! It was an old scent, maybe I'm imagining things!" Anameis' head jerked around as she scanned her surroundings, looking for a way out. "I was going to tell you! But you were worried about where Yuki went, and I-"

"I know." Kois lay down before her, to present a lower, unthreatening profile, and lifted her head to expose her gems. "Maybe you're right, maybe it was a wanderer or an old trail. But I understand I didn't leave the best impression when we left the Taimeras."

Anameis flopped onto her front and pawed at a mossy crevasse in the stone. "But why'd they follow you? Roku's too lazy to care about anything outside his territory, and Relare's not one to make plans at all I wouldn't worry about it. If you did have a Taimeran on your trail, you wouldn't know about it until they were on top of you!"

"That is not reassuring."

"You never saw me coming, did you?"

"No. But I'm glad you did."

Anameis made a quiet chuffing sound and looked away. She appeared lost in thought and about to speak, but before she could, a rustle from above made the two nichelings look up. "Are you doing alright down there?" It was Meana, crouching on the ledge above, upside down from Kois' point of view.

"We aren't fast, but we're making it."

Meana, being more familiar with the route, stayed behind to lead them the rest of the way. The shock of seeing the sky had knocked Anameis out of her sullenness, and once again she was full of questions about the mountains. With each step, Kois grew intensely aware that she drew closer to the stories she knew, and for the first time began to worry it would not be all that she or Anameis hoped. But she continued regardless. Whatever lay ahead, she had come too far to turn her back on it.

Finally, after climbing on past cliff faces, over ledges, and skirting curtains of greenery growing from sheltered alcoves, Kois, Anameis, and Meana crested the last ridge and found themselves at the top of the waterfall. Kois sniffed at the cool, fresh air, while Anameis hopped off into the shelter of the undergrowth. The same as Yuki before her, Kois was struck by the silence of this misty mountain wood. It washed over her, as refreshing as the wind. Yet with all eyes now on her, she felt the compulsion to speak. She looked around her moss draped surroundings at a tribe who had been waiting for her words, and her eyes fell on Yuki. He had looked up from his play when she appeared, and now their eyes met and it was difficult to know who wanted to ask the other where they should go next.

Anameis broke their stalemate, slinking back into the circle with pricked ears and twitching nose. "This is a mountain?" She reared up on her haunches, scanning her surroundings for danger. "Looks like this is where I stop being of any use to you. I don't know what's going to eat you up here." She dropped back to her feet and loped over to the river, where she slurped up the cold water without another word.

"Then we stay together and follow the river," Kois said, "and with any luck, nothing will." She had grown up on tales of balance bears and walrus deer, beasts she had never seen but had always been confident in her ability to fight. Her encounter with the ape might have knocked some of that confidence out of her, but the tribe didn't need to see that now. Besides, a more immediate worry lurked in her head. She had not spoken of the strangers' scent since Anameis told her about it on the cliffside, and she didn't want to alarm anyone with rumours of rogues. But she had to say something. "One more thing. We don't know this place, and we don't known who lives here, including other nichelings. If you find another tribe, don't give them a reason to fight us."

Thankfully her request was vague enough to get the point without making anyone ask questions, and Kois allowed herself a drink at long last, lapping up blessedly chilled river water and washing her scuffed paws. Anameis glanced at her from the corner of her eye as she approached, but said nothing.

The tribe followed the river upstream until nightfall, exploring the silent and misty world they had come across. At first their pace was slow, everything new and potentially dangerous. But they found no more carnivorous plants, and there was still familiar food in the form of rabbils and berries. By dusk they had left the cliff far behind, and rested that night under an overhang curtained with thick moss, all huddled together against the damp chill that wormed its way through their bodies.

Still Kois could not forget Anameis' warning. She patrolled the camp at dusk, unable to settle. Fog condensed on her coat into droplets of cold water. Her ears were pricked, her body tense, but she found neither scent nor sound of other nichelings. Perhaps it had only been a wanderer after all at the base of the cliff. She retired back to the nest, and slept uneasily until dawn.

The next few days were much the same. Emboldened by the safer, if not colder surroundings, the tribe pressed on into the fog. Though they encountered no more cliffs, the going was steep and the river's white, churning waters tumbled and splashed over jagged stones. Still Kois kept an eye and an ear out for strangers, but it seemed the cloud forest was untouched. Not even footprints remained to tell of anyone who might have gone before.

On the morning of the third day, she awoke to a change in the forest. They had made their camp the night before by a stretch of river strewn with miniature waterfalls and rapids that cut a deep, sheltered valley into the surrounding landscape. As they prepared to leave, Kois sat in a patch of sunshine streaming through the treetops, feeling its warmth on her back as she once enjoyed the dappled sunlight under her favourite tree back home. The fog had dispersed in the night, and no more dew settled upon her coat.

She made a quick headcount of the tribe, who lay about eating or catching a little more sleep before their departure. They were all waiting for her word again. If they did find the snow, and build their dens and never leave, would they still look to her? She was the strongest, and she knew the stories, but not everything...

She didn't realise she'd been looking for Yuki until her eyes fell upon him. He was sitting in silence by one of the strange trees that dominated this stretch of forest. Instead of leaves or bark, their skinny trunks were covered in overlapping deep green scales, like an armoured nicheling's back. Yuki was investigating, giving them a curious sniff before rearing up on his hind legs for a closer look. Kois walked over to him. "Hello, Yuki."

Yuki didn't startle, but he did blink and look around for a moment, his thoughts so far away that he had not noticed her approach. "Are we going now?"

"Soon." Kois sniffed the tree's scaly surface. It smelled of resin and prickled the soft leather of her nose.

"It's different, isn't it?" Yuki sat by her side. "I saw it last night, but I didn't... feel it until now. It's not all high up and open, like I think it should be, but it feels close. It's a different sort of cold here. It doesn't get inside you like it did yesterday." He stared off into the forest. With the mist cleared, only the trees obscured the view, and though they still blocked out the distance, a clear blue sky was plain to see above and beyond.

There followed a long and loaded silence, where Yuki sat perfectly still, eyes fixed upon a point in the distance that Kois could not see, and each waited for the other to speak.

Together they looked back at the tribe. Not far away, Laana and Meana shared a crop of small red berries. Though she spoke little and was spoken to even less, Laana seemed to have been grudgingly re-accepted back into the fold. But the sight of her still sent a stab of unease through Kois' chest. There were moments, still, when she imagined herself forgiving her friend, but then she remembered the storm, and the stolen stories, and the thought of a cub forced to swim over that oceanic abyss, and she turned away from her own thoughts in shame. They had found the mountains, but it should never have been like this.

But whatever Kois wanted, the reality was that she and her makeshift tribe had survived all the dangers of sea and forest, and now they were upon the mountain. And so they set out that morning through the sparse woods, following the blue sky above and the clear river below.

They had been climbing for much of the morning when Yuki, who walked by Kois' side, stopped. He reared up, listening to silence, and Kois stopped in her tracks. Behind her, the others came to a wary halt. Had Yuki smelled danger? But Kois could smell nothing but pine resin and hear nothing but the river rattling over jagged rocks. "What is it?" she said. But Yuki said nothing. For a few more heartbeats he was still, and then, without a word, he tore off up the hillside.

"Yuki!" Kois yelled, and he shouted something in reply, but his words were breathless and garbled over the sound of the river. She raced after him, the rest of the tribe on her heels after a moment of confusion. Yuki was a white blur against the loam and fallen tree scales he scattered in his wake. Catching up, Kois moved to block his way, and he stumbled at her feet and rolled onto his back. "What are you doing?" Behind her, Kois heard the tribe shouting their own questions, blending into a wall of noise.

"It's... up there," Yuki said, in between gasps for breath. "Can't you smell it?"

Kois looked up. The hillside rose steep ahead, blocking her view of what lay beyond, and they were too sheltered from the wind for her to pick up any scents apart from loamy earth and astringent tree-scales. Yuki got to his feet, not bothering to brush the dirt from his coat. He stayed still, but he stared up the hillside again, and paid Kois no more attention, but she could see his paws twitching, betraying a yearning to run again.

She gave him a quick nuzzle. "Then let's go together," she said. She let Yuki take the lead, and walked again by his side. He still said nothing, but seemed calmed by her gesture.

The going was steep, but though the cliffside and subsequent trek uphill left her muscles with a lingering soreness, Kois found it no trouble to dig in her claws and forge on beside the river. And so she and Yuki were, together, the first to step over the crest of that hillside and see the alpine meadows beyond.

The river had carved out a sheltered hollow, where trees grew away from the cold. Upon reaching the top, the trees gave way abruptly to scattered, low growing specimens, and onward to a windy, expansive mountainside. The river flowed on, glittering in unimpeded sunlight and carving a wide valley flanked by slopes of mint-green grass that rippled like water in the breeze. Here and there grew cushions of low-lying plants, scattered with soft lavender and yellow flowers. And far above rugged cliffs of bare rock, reaching up to touch a distant and cloudless sky, there grew peaks of grey-green, capped in fresh snow that fed the river now flowing by Kois' feet.

Behind them, the tribe gathered in silent awe at the lands ahead. Yuki, still by her side, spoke quietly, a question for her alone. "Do you like it?"

Kois nuzzled him again. "I do."