Chapter 35: High and Lows

It was a cold and early morning when the second expedition departed. Kois found sleep elusive that night, and no doubt so did Laana. Even Yuki rose early to see them off, under a sky streaked pink with the dawn. They lapped water at the riverbank, and Kois lifted her head, licking droplets from her whiskers. Beside her, Laana sat up and groomed her ruff.

"It will be a turn or two of the moon before we return," Laana said.

"I know," said Kois.

"Listen, before I leave..." Laana shuffled closer and lowered her voice. "Do you think the same as I do? That this is a terrible idea?"

Kois didn't ponder the question. She'd had plenty of time for that the previous day. "Yes."

"Oh, good," Laana said, and her spine, tense and arched, became a little more relaxed. "I don't know what I was thinking, that I could just meet Relare and solve everything... but I can't stop now. They're waiting for me." She turned her attention down the riverbank to her four companions and those other early risers come to see them off. It wouldn't be long now. Laana and Kois alike could feel the pull of a gathering, as though the tribe held a restless mind above and beyond the nichelings that made up its ranks. It was the same energy that drove them to the sea crossing, to gather together until, on one unanimous burst, they swam away, never to see home again.

Home was a concept still rebuilding itself in the tribe's thoughts and gems, for sure, but at least this time they would return. Kois wouldn't let herself think of any other possibility. "I will miss you." She dipped her head to Laana's level, offering her cheek for the smaller nicheling to nuzzle. Their scents blended together, remaining even when they parted.

Down the bank, Anameis wrapped her tail around Yuki's body, hiding him save for the top his head, which she licked. They parted too, Yuki pawing at his mane while Rara, Kirro and Iskome looked on. Laana brushed her tail across Kois' forepaws as she turned to join them.

"Keep them safe," Kois said to Rara.

Rara touched a hook-clawed paw to her rainbow of gems. "You have my word on Reko's memory."

Yuki came to sit by Kois' feet, where he was sheltered from the morning chill as he crouched between her claws. He laid his head over her paws as Laana looked back, then turned to join her companions. Silent as stone, Yuki and Kois watched them lope downhill as the sky turned from pink to blue and the grass rippled in the wind, never moving from their vigil until the five nichelings vanished into the trees far below.

It might have seemed like the stuff of stories for Kois to wait by the river each day for Laana's return, but she pushed the thought aside. The world did not cease its cycles for the sake of one nicheling, and neither did Kois. There were fruits to gather and rabbils to chase, territories to stake and patrol, and dens to dig out of the riverbank. Though there were no more stories in the evenings, there were still games to play and tales to tell of the day's exploration. One night, mindful of the time she'd promised to teach Kirro, Kois led the tribe in song: low howling tones she had not heard since her father sang them over the hills of her birth island, while her tail beat a slow rhythm upon the ground. The others didn't know the songs, but each one joined in with their own voice, fascinated by the stories of the old Yukirs.

Well, most of them. Vankirvan still scurried away whenever he saw her, but all Kois could give him was time. If she was honest, when she sat alone with her thoughts, she admitted more than a touch of suspicion for the strange nicheling in the first few days. But as they wore on without incident, she concluded that all he wanted was praise. He would fling himself into anything asked of him; he even joined in the riverbank digs, though his paws were ill suited for the task. Despite a few hisses of "war beast..." when she walked by, Kois found it in herself to drop him a kind word of thanks from time to time. He responded with bemusement, but she accepted it. It was, after all, better than fear.

In a few days the dens were complete. Nichelings, as a whole, are not a burrowing species, and any rabbil or stagmole can put them to shame. But in the mountains, nesting in the open and taking whatever the weather could fling at them would not do, and the wide, blind-ended holes cut into the mountainside offered refuge from wind and the harsher weather that awaited them in winter. There was room, too, for the tribe to grow, not that cubs were on anyone's mind right now. Give it a few seasons, perhaps, but with Laana and Rara gone, Kois' remaining tribemates were all barely into their third gem if that. They were, for now, happy to be.

As for Yuki, it came as no surprise to Kois when, days after Laana's departure, he approached her and said "We still haven't seen the snow! Why haven't we gone there?"

And she had no answer. Anyone could see the snow, upon the distant peaks, but none so far had ventured to their heights, and Kois always had a reason not to. The tribe needed her here. What if there was a bearyena? What about Laana? And no sooner did she try to tell them to Yuki than she realised there would always be a reason. There would never be a perfect moment to climb that mountain.

Kois looked up at the white capped peaks, and her voice took on the slightest hint of a playful whisper. "Well, you know, I've never climbed the cliff at the far end of the valley. Do you want to come with me?"

Laana would be terrified if she could see this, she thought with a twinge of guilt. But she silenced it, and with a word to Meana of their destination and to watch the tribe while they were gone, they set off that morning for the upper reaches. When she looked at Yuki now, Kois saw the same as Laana - still a one-gem, but a little bigger, a little wiser to the world after all he had seen. He was old enough to forage and hunt as long as she stayed nearby to fend off bluebirds. He was old enough to see his heritage.

Grass became stone under their paws, and by noon they arrived at the valley's rocky upper end. They were close, in fact, to the point where Laana had told Kois of Vankirvan's appearance - a day when Kois had almost, almost decided to climb the cliffs. Yuki followed her, splashing through the shallow, pebbly river and shaking himself off on the other side. Despite his protests, she licked the water from his fur; she had no idea if the cold bothered him, or if that was a ridiculous thought in the first place, but she owed it to Laana if nobody else to not let him freeze.

"That's enough, I'm not cold!" Yuki pulled away with a playful swat to Kois' nose, and scampered off amongst the boulders. Looking back over his shoulder, he beckoned for Kois to follow with a wave of his tail. Kois did so, but at the cliff base she paused again, to offer her thoughts to any old Yukirs or gods that might hear. I hope I'm doing right by him.

She'd always switched back and forth between two impressions of him, as divided as her own nature. Like an illusion where the viewer sees one picture or the other but never both at once, she saw either the snow deity of legend or the playful cub. And, just as the illusion viewer would inevitably go cross-eyed trying to see both pictures at once, Kois had unsuccessfully tried to overlap the two impressions. But as he leapt and scrambled up the cliff face, for a moment as fleeting as a dream fading from memory when morning comes, she saw both.

The climb was tougher than the one that brought them out of the rainforest, but much shorter, and with Yuki able to scout ahead for paths Kois could safely traverse, they made good time. The sun passed its zenith as they made the two-thirds mark, when Yuki peered his head over the ledge he was perched upon, over Kois' head. "I can smell it! Do you think it'll snow all the way down here in winter?"

"Yes, but that's a few turns of the moon away," Kois said. Yuki - her Yuki - had never seen winter in his short life. Kois' sense of time and the seasons had grown a little skewed from the journey, but she estimated that summer had reached and passed its peak. "But you're going to see it today, remember?"

Spurred on by those words, Yuki and Kois continued their climb, and shortly afterwards they crested the top of the cliff. Hauling themselves over the edge, they took deep breaths, and stood together under an azure sky.

A second valley awaited them, smaller and almost circular, like a bite taken out of the mountainside and left to hang above the larger valley. A round blue lake, smooth waters reflecting the cloudless sky, filled much of the valley floor and spilled out at one end to form the waterfall that fed the river that had led the tribe from jungle to mountain. Tufted grasses and low cushion-shaped plants dotted with tiny flowers blanketed the lakes shore, thinning out to reveal dark stone as the valley walls curved upward. Dark stone speckled with white on the northern faces - the snows of summer, at their lowest reach.

Yuki crept out of Kois' shadow, and for a moment Kois could only look upon the scene and think of all the ways it should have played out - but should was not is, so she took a deep breath of air that felt at once colder, thinner and more bracing than ever before, and licked her lips with a dry tongue. "Well, we found it. And I'm thirsty after that climb."

They drank from the lake, ripples radiating across the ice-smooth surface. Underneath the waves, the waters were so clear that Kois could see the stony bottom in detail - until a reflection coursed across it, blue against blue, and her heart jolted as Yuki darted for safety between her paws. For a tense moment they watched the bluebird wheel overhead. Both nichelings knew it wouldn't dare swoop down with Kois present, but it did little for the primal dread deep inside their gems. Instinct, not thought, pressed Yuki against Kois' chest and made him hide his face in the thick fur. She purred in low, calming tones, and eventually the bird vanished over the peaks in search of an easier meal.

"Maybe it's looking for the bluebird kingdom," Yuki said, as he ventured out from the shelter of Kois' body.

"Then it has a long journey. I see no clouds. Then again, I always wondered if the bluebird kingdom was really a mountain. Snow and clouds. They seem alike."

"Not this mountain?"

"Not this one, I'm sure." Kois bent down to let him touch noses with her. "Now come on. The snow is waiting."

The round valley in its entirety spanned perhaps fifty or so nicheling lengths, if nichelings were inclined to count so high. In a few moments the grass thinned out and the pair clawed their way up the valley walls. Now Kois could see the snow was a patch perhaps two or three nicheling lengths wide, clinging to the shadowed north facing slopes where it could outlast the summer. It was not the vast snowpack of her dreams, yet she breathed deep and slow as she approached, head dipped in reverence. Even Yuki ceased to bound around her feet, walking now by her side with his tail held high with curiosity. Shadows of the cliff fell upon them, and their breath turned to fog. The sharp smell of ice, new and old at once to them, filled the air.

Kois and Yuki took one look at each other, and without a word both laid a paw upon the snow. It was old snowfall, frozen and refrozen night after night, and their paws broke through an icy crust before sinking in to the soft lower layers. The sudden cold stung Kois' pawpads, but she stayed firm. She breathed in, feeling her chest slowly expand with fresh air, and just as deliberately exhaled, holding onto the sensation as her breath became fog. Only then did she and Yuki lift their paws, revealing two perfect impressions.

"It's like the caves - the Taimera's caves, I mean," Yuki said. "Now you can see we were- oh." His ears drooped. "You don't want to think of that, do you?"

"That doesn't matter."

"But you miss them, don't you?" Yuki reared up onto his hind paws, like a rabbil standing sentry at his burrow.

"Of course."

For a moment Kois thought that Yuki would bury himself in her ruff again, but he gazed up the valley wall. "Do you think there's more over there?"

Kois looked back as he looked ahead, over the way they came. It was a magnificent view, and for a moment it was all she could do to see her whole world laid out below, from the valley's broad sweep to the forest below and the peaks cutting through the sky to either side. It struck her there that she could chase Yuki's question her whole life until her gems grew dull forever, and there would still be mountains and valleys and snow she could never hope to set her paws upon. And whether that was sobering or beautiful, she could not tell.

But it was not long past noon, and there was time for a little more adventure. The valley wall rose a few more nicheling lengths above, steep and smooth, but by digging her claws into the cracks and pressing her body close to the rock, Kois hauled herself upwards, letting Yuki go ahead so she could break his fall if he stumbled. Muscles straining, she pulled herself over the edge.

Not a valley this time, but a plateau stretching from peak to peak, its windswept reaches scattered with hollows and black boulders. Here and there, away from the worst of the wind, there grew clusters of deep green grass, or patches of snow hidden from the sun. But away from these sheltered hideaways, bare and dusty stone lay open to the elements. Kois lifted a paw, feeling the ghost of the snow's chill on her skin. The round valley below had been her home in miniature, but at this point, she and Yuki had once more entered a new and different world.

Yuki crept forward again, reluctant to stray from the safety of her side, but drawn to this new land - this wild, lonely, beautiful land. "This is what it was like," he said, and Kois' heart leapt, quelled only slightly when he followed up with "wasn't it?"

He hopped ahead and she followed, he scampering a short way off and stopping to wait for her more leisurely pace. She drank in the world around her. Every blade of grass brushing against her side, every step upon bare, wind-worn stone, every twisted cry of the wind winding through the boulders - each was dear to her, and each stilled her thoughts and fears, leaving her with only this moment, the plateau and the cub bounding at her feet and no more.

Her ear swivelled. Before the conscious thought could rise in her mind, her body tensed, poised to fight. "Stop," she commanded, and Yuki froze still.

She caught the scent first, unfamiliar but musty, heavy, and carnivorous, and the wind blowing it in her direction gave her hope that whatever it was wouldn't smell her in turn. Keeping her body low to the ground to hide her outline, she scanned the plateau for the source of scent and sound - a clunk of stone being overturned. Perhaps nothing to fear. But then she saw it, ambling out from behind a rock a few nicheling lengths away. Twice her size if not more, covered in a thick, pelt dappled with black rosettes, it sniffed through the grass and turned over stones with a flick of its wide paws in search of food. It hadn't seen her, and she had never seen its like before, but she knew it nonetheless and her breath caught in her throat. "Back to the valley. Now."

Bad eyes or not, Yuki had seen it too. He stayed close to Kois as she slunk away. Not too fast - she mustn't make noise, mustn't draw its attention...

"What was that?" Yuki said, as they ducked into a hollow behind a boulder, out of sight and out of the wind.

"A balance bear." Kois chanced a peek from their hiding place. No sign of it now - but that didn't mean she'd thrown it off. She scraped her claws against the ground. "Let's keep going."

"A real balance bear?" Yuki looked over his shoulder.

"Yes. I don't think it saw us, but stay low. Many times they don't bother nichelings, but you can never tell." She had only stories, generations removed from any real sighting, stories retold and passed on. Stories of Yukirs fighting the bears, but only if they banded together...

"Can't you fight it?"

Kois flattened her ears. "Do you remember the ape?"

Now more shelter was in reach - another boulder and a thicket of tall grass growing in the lee, and Yuki bolted for it - and let out a squeal of alarm. The bear forgotten, Kois dashed ahead, a rush of dread lending strength to her limbs. It's not here. It's not that close.

And there was no balance bear behind the boulder, only Yuki stumbling away from the bearyena he had run onto, its paw lifted to strike and as startled by Kois' appearance as Kois herself.