Chapter 32: Stories From Afar
The sun crept lower as Laana watched Yuki and Kois leave. It's better this way, she told herself. Better that a child not be involved. Though she had no idea what this newcomer wanted, her memories dragged her away from the hillside, all the way back to darkness, cloying heat, and vines binding her body. She breathed slow and deliberate, reminding herself that the memories of the trailing vine were just that. To an outsider, she appeared still and untroubled.
All three nichelings waited. Anameis reared up into her sentry posture, and Vankirvan drummed his tail on the ground and pawed at the leaf litter with intense focus.
"They're gone," Anameis said, snapping Laana from her focus. The orange nicheling dropped back to her three good legs and stuck her face in Vankirvan's. "Now what did you want? Roku sent you?"
Vankirvan recoiled, stepping away from his former tribemate. "Ki-Roku?" There was an edge of dark humour to his voice, backed up with a purr of amusement as though nobody else had gotten the joke. "Ki-Roku is dead!"
"I'm... sorry to hear that," Laana dipped her head, pressing her nose into the soft fur of her ruff. Let it not have been the vine...
Anameis tilted her head, but showed no surprise. "Nothing to do with us."
"I know that!" snapped Vankirvan. His paws scattered fallen tree-scales as he backed away, his bright green fur bristling and catching the fading, golden sunlight.
"Then why come all the way here?" Anameis scratched behind an ear. "I was enjoying being far away from you lot."
"Do you want to hear my story or not?" Vankirvan said. "It's all about your friend back there. The war beast."
"Kois had nothing to do with any of this!" Laana said.
"Oh, I know that," Vankirvan said, "but Ki-Relare doesn't see it that way." He pawed at his gems, and it was then that Laana saw what he kept covered. Both stones shone bright, but the surrounding fur was patchy and sparse, the skin beneath scratched with fading claw marks. Impolite though it must be, Laana closed her eyes and turned away as a wave of subtle nausea arose in her throat. She swallowed it down, but still she could not look. Claw marks, so close to his soul...
"Tell us what happened," she said.
"It was the day after you left." Laana heard Vankirvan settle back down as he spoke, and she forced her eyes open again. He sat at a crouch again, hiding his scarred collar. "Everyone had been talking about you all evening. Of course they all wanted to speak to me - how could they not? I was the one who saw the war beast, everyone-"
"Kois." Laana's ears were pressed flat. "Her name is Kois."
"And I was the one setting them straight! They were all talking as if you had a tame bearyena in your tribe! Anyway, the next day, Ki-Roku found me. Said he wanted to ask me more about what happened. We walked out of the cave, up the river, and then I knew where he was taking me."
"It was the plant, wasn't it?" said Anameis. The pause in her voice at the word plant was small, only audible if you knew to listen for it.
Vankirvan's nimble paws grabbed at the leaf litter. "I thought it wasn't real! But then I saw it, all opened up, and Ki-Roku was standing right next to it! Of course I wasn't so scared that I wouldn't go near it too! But Ki-Roku started asking me questions, about you, about the- Kois. Not bad questions. It was like he thought things could be better. And I didn't have anything to tell him! He was going to be so disappointed in me and I never disappointed Ki-Roku! And then..."
"You don't need to go into details," said Laana.
"Oh, there'll be plenty of those! Because that was when the ape showed up. Normally it wouldn't take me by surprise - or Ki-Roku, I suppose. But it did, and we ran, but... he wasn't fast enough. No, he was - but it was what came after that did it. I know all the hiding places, so I thought I could save him - there's a tree hollow not so far away, and it's too small for apes. I thought if we could make it there and get rid of the blood, it would lose interest. So I pushed him on up the hill - it had taken a bite out of his hind leg, but it didn't look so bad. We got to the hollow and I tried to help him clean it up. All I had to do was lick the blood away, but it..."
Vankirvan stopped for a while, his tail drumming over the ground and his claws sunk into the dirt. He kept his eyes averted from Laana and Anameis. After an agitated, prolonged silence, he spoke again. "Ki-Roku had the flowing blood. I didn't know! If I had, I'd have... I'd have done something else! I couldn't make it stop... kept cleaning it away and it all came back... I couldn't make it stop. That was it. He bled out while we were hiding.
"I waited with him - the ape lost interest eventually. I went back to the cave. I didn't know what I should do with him, but his sister needed to know. I found her outside, by the river where it flows from the cave, like she was waiting for something, and I remember what I said to her. 'Excuse me, Ki-Relare,' and she knew. I won't forget the look on her face."
"You had to tell Relare her brother was dead?" Anameis said. "She wasn't going to take that well!"
"She didn't." Vankirvan squeezed his eyes shut and drew his paws close to his body. "She had a lot of questions for me. And they weren't like Ki-Roku's."
Another laden silence fell over the three nichelings. Anameis' tail swept across the forest floor. Laana stayed still with nothing to say. This was Vankirvan and Anameis' world, and she was a guest within it. But a hint of guilt began to well up inside as she listened, like bubbles in the hot springs. Relare had acted out of grief...
"Well, I got out of the cave a few days later - at least, I think it was a few days later. It's deep. Deeper than you think. It was night, it was raining, and maybe someone had forgotten to guard it, but I sneaked out. I didn't know where to go, but I remembered the night you left, someone said you left with them." He fixed Anameis with a stare. "Well, what else did I have? I had to do you a favour! They asked me about you, while I was in there! I didn't tell them anything! I didn't know anything to tell them! But everyone knew you went to the mountains. So I did too - I followed your trail. You don't cover your tracks very well, by the way! I nearly caught up with you at the base of the cliffs, but then you vanished."
"So it was you I smelled there," said Anameis.
"Naturally I figured you'd climbed up it - eventually! But you'd better hope Ki-Relare doesn't do the same. Because I don't know what's changed back there, but I know who they blame for Ki-Roku's death. I came here to warn you!" He shuffled his paws and fluffed up his leaf-green fur. "You're welcome, by the way!"
Night had fallen. At the entrance to her den, Laana looked out over a strip of starry sky. Behind her, Anameis and Vankirvan slept in a heap, Anameis snoring and Vankirvan breathing softly. Laana had returned to the tribe with him in tow, all the while asking if it was the right decision. Nobody saw them arrive. When morning came, she would have to tell the tribe his story, but there was one story that could not wait until then.
Or perhaps it was she who could not wait, and she forced herself to conclude this as she turned an ear back to the two adolescents. She should be guarding them, but she wouldn't be long. They need never know she was gone. She slipped out into the cold mountain breeze, unable to contain herself any longer.
She let the sound of the river and the scents flowing through the air guide her in the dark. Stones rattled under her paws, but nobody heard or saw her pass by. At the upper reaches of the bank, she found what she sought. Kois was a hint of a shade darker than her surroundings, and Laana heard her shift position on her approach. She had been waiting at the entrance to her den, paws splayed out on the ground before her, a silent sentinel in the dark.
Waiting for me? Laana thought.
"I know it's you, Laana," Kois said. "You don't need to slink around."
"I... of course, of course." Laana sat down and groomed her ruff for a moment, keeping a respectful distance. "Is Yuki with you?"
"No, I left him with Meana."
Laana let out a quiet sigh of relief. "I know Vankirvan didn't want to speak with you, but I think you need to know this."
She relayed a quick version of his tale, from Ki-Roku's death, stumbling over the unspecified details of his confinement and onto his escape and message. Throughout it all, Kois listened as attentively as she would a story.
"War beast," she said, at the end. "I heard it already, but it's still a new one. I'm almost impressed."
"There was something else," Laana's tail lashed, pebbles clattering in its wake. "Vankirvan didn't say a lot about what happened to him in the cave. But the way he was acting... the scars I saw..." She turned her head away, unable to face Kois' eyes even in the dark. "I think she tried to claw out his gems."
There was no sound but the river, and Kois dragging her claws softly over the stones.
"And the point is, the point..." A shiver rippled down Laana's sides. She imagined herself running, saying no more, running as she had for so long. Not now. She stared firmly into the glint of starlight upon Kois' gems. "Relare did that, I'm sure. Ki-Roku was her twin. She was lost without him, and... I know now isn't the time. But I had to tell you because... I know why. All those things I did to you, Yuki, all of them, I did them because I was lost without Reko." She brushed her paw over the ice-smooth surface of her gems. "I listened to Vankirvan, and I realised that I understood her. I want to say I'm sorry, but I know I've said it too many times to mean anything, but... I'm like her, Kois. And I had to tell you."
For a moment, silence. Then she heard the sound of great paws crunching upon stone, and Laana saw the dark shape of Kois' body loom over her. As Laana crouched low, ears flat and tail curled around her paws, Kois sat beside her. With a rattle of bone on pebbles, her tail curled around the two of them, encircling them together. Yet Laana did not dare move, and hardly dared to breathe in the huge nicheling's shadow.
"To think," Kois said, "that I was afraid of Yuki finding out what I am."
"Does he know now?" Laana offered the question tentatively. Did Kois want to talk, or avoid what she said?
"No. I'm still hoping to wait for his second gem. We'll see how realistic that turns out to be." Kois' snort of almost-laughter became a misty cloud in the chilly air, tinged with moonlight. With another crunch of pebbles, Kois laid herself down by Laana's side, stretching her paws back out. "I know what you want me to say. You want me to tell you you're nothing like Relare. But I don't know that. You do. Though if you want my thoughts..." and here she lowered her head to give Laana the briefest of nuzzles to the shoulder, the closest touch they'd shared since that evening in the rainforest - "I think you know more about yourself than she knows herself."
"Kois..." Laana did not return the gesture, but lay down beside her all the same, head on her paws. Below her was cold stone, above her cold air, but Kois' bulk sheltered her from the wind. "If I could do it all again, I'd be more like you. You were always so kind to everyone back home, even when they said bad things about you, even when you lost..."
"No," Kois' voice was firm, but without malice. "My parents were the only link I had to my tribe. I thought some terrible things after they were gone. About them, the tribe, me... I had to choose to be kind. It's not easy. But it's all anyone deserves in the end."
"When does it stop hurting?"
They lay together in silence for a little longer, Kois inscrutable, Laana facing her own depths. The river flowed on before them, and the stars shone above. It was Kois who finally broke their introspection. "Go get some sleep. I'll need to tell the tribe all about this tomorrow, and you need to keep an eye on our guest."
"I think he's one of us now." Laana got to her feet, and shivered as the night winds, fresh from the snowfields above, ran over her body. "Do you know what we should do after that?"
"Well, whatever you decide..." Laana began to walk away, but stopped. She turned back to Kois, who remained still as a boulder by the river's edge. "Don't do it alone. I think you take on too much by yourself."
Kois reached her head up, and the two nichelings touched noses for a heartbeat. "I won't."