Chapter 33: The New Expedition

Vankirvan sniffed around the den's entrance as morning sunlight poured inside. Laana waited outside, noting that while none of the nichelings drinking from the river or chasing fish had noticed the green newcomer, it wouldn't be that way for long. There was no sign of Kois at least, an absence for which Laana didn't know if she should be grateful or disappointed.

(She knew nothing would change, and yet the first thing she did when she stepped into the sun, when she was sure nobody was looking, was to peer down her snout and brush her fur from her gems, and though she knew nothing would change, she could not help the twinge of disappointment upon seeing their still green hue.)

"Come on! You're in my way!" Anameis, hunched behind Vankirvan under the den's low ceiling, could easily have stepped around him, but she chose to headbutt him in the rear and push him into the open. For the blink of an eye Vankirvan's hindlegs attempted to lurch past his forequarters, and he shrieked as he scrambled to regain his footing. He hopped forward, followed by a triumphant Anameis. Vankirvan ignored her and licked his paw, smoothing down his mane in a silent declaration that none of that past moment actually happened and should thus be disregarded.

A couple of the nichelings by the river looked up. Fortunately it was only Kirro and Iskome, he trailing his tail in the water in search of fish, she lapping it up by the bank. Laana inched closer to Vankirvan and Anameis, but all Kirro and Iskome did was trot up to them, tails raised in friendly greeting. "I haven't seen you before!" Iskome said, sniffing at Vankirvan as he froze up staring at her. He kept his body in a crouched posture, hiding the chunks of bare, scarred skin around his gems. "Wait. I have - did you..."

"I know you," Kirro said. "The berry gatherer."

"The best berry gatherer!" Vankirvan tapped his middle gem, though he took pains not to show it off too much. "Vankirvan."

With Kirro and Iskome around to introduce (or re-introduce) themselves, Vankirvan started to relax. Timid though he'd understandably been after his escape, it seemed nothing could keep his inflated sense of self importance down for long. It was an odd sight, to see him flip back and forth, as if not sure whether to be fearful or boastful, and compensating by jumping from one to the other in rapid sequence.

News quickly spread of the newcomer who had followed the tribe all the way from the Taimerans, though, and soon Vankirvan was surrounded by a crowd of curious nichelings. He tried to explain as much of his history as he could, still unsure if he should relish being the centre of attention or back away. But he kept his composure, all the way until a deep but soft voice spoke up. "It seems that I'm late again."

Vankirvan pressed his belly to the ground, hissing and baring his teeth. It might have looked threatening, if it didn't come from a nicheling a fraction of Kois' size. She didn't reply, but made a point of laying down, keeping her profile low and unthreatening.

"Everyone knows, then?" Kois said. Murmurs of agreement rose all around, though a few sounded more confused than certain. Nothing could stop a rumour once it took hold, and already debates had broken out. Even Yuki knew - he had been quick to arrive on Meana's heels. But Vankirvan had only spoken in snippets to the tribe, who had passed them on and broken them apart in the retelling.

Laana realised that she, Kois and Vankirvan sat in the middle of a semicircle of curious nichelings, all waiting for answers. She looked down to meet Vankirvan's eyes, wondering if he'd take this opportunity to tell the full story this time. But he looked away, and said only, "Tell them everything."

"I don't know how much you all know yet," Laana said. "Vankirvan came to us last night. He told myself and Anameis that Ki-Roku is dead, and his sister Relare has taken his place."

"What does this have to do with us?" Tanu said.

"Because it was an ape that killed Ki-Roku," Laana said, "but Relare blames us."

"More specifically, myself," Kois said.

"And you had nothing to do with it, and she's all the way back in the forest," Tanu said. "I still don't see what this has to do with us!"

"I'll tell you what it has to do with us!" roared Rara as she brandished a claw. "If Relare wants a fight, she's getting one!"

"Nobody is fighting anybody." Kois' voice was firm.

"Easy to say on the mountain!" Meana shot back. "I don't think we should go picking fights, that's just going to lead to trouble, but if-"

Her voice was drowned out by a tide of nichelings all trying to speak their mind at once, pushing and shouting, growling and flashing claws, or pleading for calm. Laana felt something press up to her chest in the chaos - Yuki, huddled between her forelegs, and she drew him closer. She should speak - she, who had heard all of Vankirvan's story, who had spent a sleepless night watching the stars wheel overhead. But no words would come, or perhaps they did and her voice was lost amongst the others. Somewhere behind her, Kois' tail thumped on the ground, a sound that should have silenced the entire tribe, but it was nothing but vibrations in the ground, below air choked with shouting.

"Will you be quiet!?"

Vankirvan's yowl cut through the noise, and perhaps it was the unfamiliarity of his voice that caused the tribe to fall silent and turn their attention his way. But instead of preening and purring, he sat upright, ruff bristling, calling attention to his gems.

Rara's lips curled away from her teeth in a silent snarl. Donnu and Prinu pressed close to Kuku's sides. Laana tried to block Yuki's view, but she knew it was no use - he crept out from her side, whiskers twitching, eyes wide and tail low.

Meana scratched at the spot where her own third gem would eventually emerge. When she spoke, Laana could imagine that it already had. "Then we do fight."

"Let's not get too hasty," Kois said. "We still don't know if there are any other Taimerans here. I'd suggest keeping up a patrol of the valley." She caught Laana's eye. "Anyone is welcome to join me."

"Relare never made plans," Anameis said, after an uncharacteristic silence, pawing at her ruff with her shrunken paw. "She wouldn't come all the way here." But there was no hiding her fervent attempts at reassurance within her words.

"Relare never did a lot of things," Vankirvan said.

In the uneasy silence that followed, Iskome nosed her way to the front. "We've been talking," she said, waving her tail to indicate Kirro behind her. "We don't think we're in any danger here, but... you remember, we were going to stay there." She turned away from Kois' gaze for a moment and flicked an ear, though Kois showed no disdain. "We had friends there, and we don't know what's happening to them now."

"Hard enough to leave them with the plants," Kirro said, "but they all chose to stay. Excepting the two of you."

"What we mean," Iskome continued, "is that even if our tribes never meet again... our friends chose to stay with the plants. But they didn't choose this." She turned away again, retreating to Kirro's side.

"And I can't help but feel responsible for it all," rumbled Kois.

Another wave of voices arose - quieter this time, a hushed debate rather than the previous squabble. Nevertheless, Laana closed her eyes and flattened her ears. Beside her Yuki crouched likewise, uncharacteristically silent and morose. Now, she thought. You can't wait any longer. She'd known what she had to do ever since listening to Vankirvan's story among the scale trees.

She sat upright, smoothing down her ruff. "I have to speak to Relare."

Once again, the tribe fell silent.

"No..." Kois' voice was a soft whisper.

"Yes," Laana said. "It's not your fault, or anyone else's, but if I hadn't made up the sign of the snows..." Her tail curled around her paws. You know what to say. Just like you said to Kois. "Relare is grieving. She's seeing danger that isn't there. I don't think rushing in with claws and teeth is going to help anyone. She doesn't need a war. She needs someone to offer peace. Someone who knows how she feels."

Another round of incredulous voices, and all eyes upon her again. Still Yuki did not speak, did not even look at her. And then...

"We're with you." Iskome stepped out again, Kirro in tow.

"I get it," Kirro said. "Never been good at much. But I couldn't threaten anyone. That's what you mean, isn't it?"

"We're a fisher and a digger," Iskome said. "About as far from war-beasts as you can get."

"Then I suppose I'm going too." Anameis hopped toward them. "Don't want to, but someone's got to stop you from running into apes and plants."

"And myself," Rara's coat bristled and her gems shone bright as she too strode forward. "Don't get me wrong. I don't think it's going to work, but if you're going back in there, you'll need someone to fight all those things for you!"

"As long as it's not nichelings," Laana said.

"Then let me go!" Kois stepped in, looking over the other volunteers.

Yuki finally spoke up, too. "And me!"

"No, no, no," Laana said. "I wish you could, but they'll see your presence as a threat, no doubt." She had enough reservations about Rara, as much as she appreciated the need for a bodyguard. "And Yuki... I wish I didn't have to leave you, but... no, your place is here, where the snow is." She gazed away at the white peaks. "I know I made up the sign of the snows, but..."

"But you are still Yuki, and the snow is still here." Kois sat down, resignation in every word and movement.

"I know," Yuki said, and he came to sit by Kois' massive paws. He looked so tiny by their side, and Laana forced herself to stay still, to keep her ears perked and her whiskers straight. If he or Kois knew the truth, that she felt her gems would shatter from grief at any moment, then they would never let her leave.

The first decision afterwards was that the new expedition, as Laana had taken to calling it in her thoughts, would set off when the sun rose tomorrow. She'd have slipped away in an instant otherwise, before she could- no, before someone else could convince her what a terrible idea it all was, because she already knew. Secretly in the darkest recesses of her gems, she'd hoped someone would. More than once she imagined Kois sitting by her side, encircling her with her heavy tail, and saying, "No, you don't need to do this. You've done enough." Selfish little thoughts, like imaging her gems blue again. But it wasn't just her decision, not after Iskome and Kirro and Anameis stepped in, not even after Rara. Laana was only part of everything, not its whole.

(That was what you learned in the caves, when, alone in the dark, without the sun to tell the days, you were taken apart and put back together inside yourself, and so many times she'd wondered how she forgot that.)

Kois spent the day on patrol again, and Laana debated with herself whether to follow, but though she chose not to, she took solace in seeing her depart with company. Meana, Kuku, even Anameis wanted to help, and Kois let them. But Laana didn't, not because she was afraid (she'd passed that state long ago) but because Yuki was still there.

She'd thought they'd find some way to make themselves useful - picking berries, finding new den sites, gathering rabbil-flower down. But they spent the day playing, chasing one another back and forth in the meadows. She didn't have the heart to even pretend to attack him, but played along whenever he pounced on her, falling to the ground with rather more drama than her normal sense of dignity would allow. The last time they'd played was... when? Certainly before all of this, on the beaches a lifetime ago, but even than her memories were of leading him across the tideline, telling him of all the omens she saw. He would hop around her paws, unable to contain his energy and match her sedate pace.

He was that Yuki again, and at the same time, he was not. Still single-gemmed, but he'd grown taller and stronger in a way that she couldn't solely attribute to his coat filling out in response to the cold mountain air. If he suspected that Laana wanted one more day in which they were like any other family, he never said so.

But he must know. She, after all, knew it all along.

It was rare for nichelings to gather at appointed times, but the rhythms of the day had fallen into a pattern after the tribe settled the valley. The day was for exploration, gathering, and hunting, while as night fell the tribe returned to the river bank that had become the centre of their world. Here was where they played and slept and shared stories of what they had seen in their adventures.

Even Laana, who still kept to the outskirts of the tribe most days, felt that pull to return as the shadows grew long. But the mood had grown a little more sombre now, even with Kois' assurance she had found no evidence of strange nichelings nearby. Everyone sat quietly, waiting for a future full of guesses and half seen fears. Even Yuki, once again, said nothing.

Her last night, Laana thought, before she faced her words. Her last night, and all she wished for was to sit by Kois' side again. The huge nicheling sat a tail or two away, watching over the tribe with her usual air of silent guardianship.

"Laana, may I ask something?" Kois said, snapping Laana away from her thoughts.

"Yes, anything."

"This is asking a lot of you, when you've given so much," Kois said (and in that moment Laana felt she would give anything more, to keep hearing those words), "but I'd like to request a story."

"Well," Laana said, noting that a more than a few nichelings were looking their way, even Yuki rousing from his sleepiness, "it is the start of a long journey. What shall it be?"

A few of the tribe looked ready to voice their suggestions, but Kois beat them all to it. "I'd like to hear his story," she said, and there could be no questioning whose story she meant. Her eyes were fixed upon Yuki.

"That one?" Laana's voice froze up for a moment. She'd never told it, but Yuki surely knew it already. Kois was no storyteller, but she'd told it to him anyway, back home. But it was not a story told by the seers. "I don't know, that... that isn't my story, Kois. It's yours. It's from the Yukirs."

"I'm giving it to you. You'll tell it better than I ever could."

And Laana would have protested further, but already she knew she would accept, for Kois, for Yuki eager to hear it from her, and for the tribe, curious at the prospect of a tale they'd never heard. "Very well," she said. "I'll tell it as best I can. The Tale of Lala and Yuki."