Chapter 34: The Tale of Lala and Yuki

The tribe of Yukir was born long ago. It was a time when Tata's first tricks and Doeli's first visions had become stories in their own right, yet still a time of wild magic when many things remained unknown.

In that time there was a tribe, small and nameless, who dwelt upon an island far away. This island was no burning desert or ape-filled jungle, and in time, a tribe of many, who lived upon the land for generations, might make a good home there. But this tribe were few in number and had travelled far. Perhaps they had arrived in a poor season. Perhaps they were simply unfamiliar with the land. But the hunting was sparse, the berries were few, and a tough, dark grass covered the hills and resisted their claws and teeth. Worse, while the tribe's food stores dwindled with each passing day, a sickness spread through their ranks, all the way to the tribe leader's mate and their young child Reme, and it seemed then that all was lost.

The tribe's leader was a nicheling named Jukar, and the fate of his people dulled his gems with despair. He wished for no more than to be with his mate and child, but she urged him to keep far from their den, so that the sickness would not spread further. Reluctantly, Jukar agreed, but vowed that he would return with a cure.

But he must be fooling himself, because what could he do? Even if he could halt the sickness, his tribe would starve in a matter of days. So wrapped up he was in his worries, as he walked through the few winding paths the tribe had managed to cut through the dark grass, he failed to see the stranger in his path until he stumbled over her paws.

At first he thought her another of the tribe, out looking for food, but swiftly he saw she was not of them. Her eyes were as red as autumn berries, her gems pink as flesh, and her coat a shining white of such brilliance Jukar had never seen before or after, the white of fresh snow in the cold sunlight.

"I do apologise!" said the stranger, and her voice was as warm as her pelt was cold. "I am looking for a place to rest. Might you have a den to spare?" And Jukar noticed that she was ready to bear a cub, any day now by his judgement.

At any other time, he would gladly offer his den to a stranger in need, especially one who must have travelled so far. "If only I could," he said, "but my tribe are very sick, and we have little food left. It would not be safe."

"If I could help," said the stranger, "might we have a deal?"

"If you could help, then nothing I could give would be enough!" said Jukar, certain now that the stranger must have come from afar in response to his pleas. "Be welcome." He touched his gems with one paw. "I am Jukar."

The stranger touched her own in response. "And I am Lala."

Jukar led her to his den, hopeful for the first time in days. But to his horror, he found when he arrived that the sickness had claimed his mate. Now only their child Reme was left, clinging to her mother's cold body.

(Laana paused in the telling for a moment. She gazed away at the rising moon, her thoughts elsewhere for a moment, before resuming.)

Jukar begged Lala to make good her promise. "I'm sorry," she said. "I cannot bring back life, only bring it forth. But I can save it, for a little while." And she lay before the crying cub and closed her eyes, one paw touching the cub's head. For one moment, swift as a songbird's wingbeat, Jukar could feel a wind colder than any he had ever known blow through the den, and the cub became calm and curled up by Lala's side. "For long enough," Lala said.

And that was the first sign of the snows.

Torn between sorrow and gratitude, Jukar kept his word, and granted Lala his den, and that is why the Yukirs have always laid their bones in the nest, to remember that life and death are one and the same. That night she bore two cubs - the male Kunar and the female Silala. No nicheling in the tribe had ever seen twins before. They knew of Doeli and Nivar, but only from stories such as I have told you. Astounded, even though the cubs did not bear her white coat, the tribe gathered around, full of questions. "Who are you? How did you cure us? Where did you come from?"

"I am called Lala, surely you know that?" she said, with a little purr of amusement. "How I cured you - well, there is magic in the world, if you know where to look. And where am I from - the mountains."

And that was the second sign of the snows.

Time passed. Lala taught the tribe how to dig for roots and shake nuts from the treetops, and so at last there was plenty to eat. She took in Reme alongside her own children, and loved her as her own. As the seasons passed she told stories of her homeland, of snow and caverns and the long winter, of clear skies full of stars and hunting rabbils over open meadows. It was not an easy land, she warned them, but it was a land of beauty, wild and free. And so the tribe declared that they wanted to see this land for themselves, and set their paws upon the snow.

With these stories and dreams, Reme grew to take her father's place as tribeleader, and she was as loved as Lala herself. None grieved more than she when Lala passed away after a long life. In memory of her beloved foster mother, she vowed that she would lead her tribe to the snow. And for a while there was peace within the tribe as they sought the frozen lands. Reme became nest-sister to Lala's child Silala, and between them they raised many children of their own.

But the peace could not last. For all Reme's dreams, in a lifetime of wandering neither she nor Silala found any trace of the mountains, and soon cracks began to appear in the previously united tribe. There were those who came together to speak against Lala and her children - those who tired of the endless journey, those who doubted Lala's tales, and the mates and children of those who did not survive the sickness and famine. Small at first, their numbers grew, until they were ready to strike. By now Reme and Silala grew older, and though they would soon bear cubs again, they would be their last. So in the night, the discontent of the tribe gathered and fell upon the nest-sisters as they slept.

They might have killed them there and then, had Silala's twin Kunar not been close by. With his help they escaped, but they were outnumbered and driven from their nests to hide in the dark grass, far from the tribe that cast them out.

Reme knew that she could not face them again. She had failed to keep her promise, and been badly hurt in the escape. Nor could Silala and Kunar deny their failures. They were the twin children of the snow, and yet had never set their paws upon it. So they built a nest for Reme, though the grasses were tough and cut their paws, and promised they would love her child as their own mother had loved them.

In the night Reme and Silala's children were born in the nest of dark grass. Reme was gone by dawn, but in her place was a cub with fur of soft grey just like her own. To her Silala and Kunar gave the name Rememe, to remember her mother.

(Laana halted again in the telling, eyes closed and paws tucked close to her chest, and she inhaled, deep and slow.)

But it was Silala's child who was the strangest, for her fur was white as fresh snow, and Silala and Kunar knew that this was Lala again, returned to fulfil her word. To this child, they gave the name Yuki.

The twins dared not return to the tribe, so Rememe and Yuki grew up together in the dark grass, hidden from danger. Sometimes Silais or Kunar would hear a rustle in the undergrowth and urge them to hide, but still they grew up as safe and loved as they could be. But soon age caught up to the twins as it does to all nichelings, and the time came for the children of Lala to lay their bones in the nest.

As Rememe said her farewells, she smelled the ghost of a memory, one that she knew and did not, And Yuki, by her side, said, "Do you remember the last time?"

"I do," said Rememe, and she remembered a tribe, and a promise, and at that moment both knew they could hide no more. They needed the tribe, and the tribe needed them.

And so Rememe and Yuki left the nest of their birth and followed the trails of the tribe they had known in other lives. They came upon them by a slice of land that arced into the sea. Here their journey had ended, for there was no island trail to lead them to new lands, and they had stopped here, sure as ever that they would never see the snows.

But when Rememe and Yuki showed themselves to the tribe, those nichelings who had driven their mothers away had not forgotten why, and they turned upon them, knowing who they were. Rememe tried to fight back, but Yuki called for peace. "Our mothers could not fulfil their promises," he said, "but that is why we are here."

The tribe were puzzled, but let them go free, for though many had plotted against Reme and Silala, many more had remained loyal to the nest-sisters. In Rememe, they saw a leader they thought lost. In Yuki, they saw an ancestor reborn. Though some did growl and snarl as they passed, Rememe and Yuki walked side by side through the grass and flowers, down the length of that long claw of land that carved up the ocean.

At the end, they looked upon the sea that gave no passage to mortal nichelings, where the nameless tribe had seen their dreams die. But Yuki breathed upon the water, and the waves grew still and became ice. And side by side, Rememe and Yuki led those who chose to follow to the horizon and beyond, where snow falls and cold winds blow.

And that was the third sign of the snows.

There are other stories of the tribe. There is the love that the two for one another, and its many forms across many lives. There are Tata's visitations, for he could not resist the chance for mischief and to chase the snow deity throughout the world. And there is the tribe itself - the lineage of the Black Roses, the ancestors lost in ice, the famine of Sabertooth Mountain and the glory of Nikisha. But this is the first of them; the beginning of the tribe of Yukir.