Snowtouched

Chapter 38: In From The Rain

Laana and her small group made good time as they headed back down the mountain. Even without the setbacks that had plagued their outbound journey, the world seemed to pass swiftly. In two days they crossed the misty cloud forest and reached the cliff marking the boundary between mountain and jungle. Kirro led them down the cliff-face to the gorge and waterfall, and Laana did not look forward to that place again. The smells of earth and steam brought forth memories in quick succession.

She forced them away. The smells and the heat and the heavy, close air were indications of the danger ahead, not the past. The difference after their descent was palpable, not only in the air but in the demeanour of all five nichelings. More than once they backtracked or waited on Anameis' word. Only once, at least, did they find a deadly plant, which Rara made short work of. Laana made herself watch, while a succession of thoughts and memories left her with the uneasy sensation that she had no idea how she really felt.

But nobody was at their best in the jungle. Anameis was subdued one moment, normal the next. She took her duties as a guide as seriously as Laana had seen her take anything. Meanwhile Kirro and Iskome kept to one another's side and shared their fears between themselves, and a tiny pang of envy drove its way into Laana's gems, ashamed as she was of its presence. Only Rara appeared to enjoy the journey, and even she complained of the heat; like Kois, her bulk made her a creature of the cold, and a little of the sheen drained from her rainbow of gems.

But for all the occasional predator scents and half-heard dangers, their journey was as uneventful as the cloud forest. Only a few days later Anameis stopped at a snarl of great red roots, sniffed the ground, and announced they had reached Taimeran territory. Laana could make out no scents under the layers of earthy smells that permeated the forest floor, yet on close inspection her sharp eyes found their trails - small round paw marks in the dark soil. She combed her claws through her ruff and addressed Anameis. "How long ago were they here?"

"Half a day, at least," replied Anameis. "Scent's not too fresh, but its all buried and half washed away."

Rara let out a snort. "Don't know about you, but if we know they're here, I'm ready to let them know about us!"

"Thought we came here to talk?" said Kirro.

All eyes fell upon Laana, except for Anameis'. She sniffed around the tree's buttressed, ochre red roots, though she did turn an ear in what Laana now understood to be interest. Laana's own ears flattened a little. Every night she asked herself why she had come on this journey, what madness had convinced her that she could simply walk into Taimeran territory and talk to Relare as if that would solve all their problems. In the end she had convinced herself she was doing it for Kirro ans Iskome's sake after they expressed concern for their friends, and if asked would give that answer in an instant. But deeper down she knew duty bound her to return and seek her own redemption under the trees, and all the hows and whys were all incoherent half thoughts she had run out of time to dwell upon.

"We're not here to fight," she said. Rara was here as a bodyguard, not a warrior, and her presence might make the stealthy forest tribe nervous after Ki-Roku's demise at a predator's teeth and claws. "Rara, I need you to stay here and wait for us."

Rara's tail twitched in irritation, but she sat down in the grass. "Thought you might say that. Fine, then. How long?"

Laana glanced around and sniffed the air, but it was all for show. Not a piece of this forest stirred her memories, nor did she even know which direction to walk in. "Anameis?"

Anameis looked up from her investigation. "Not far. Wonder if I couldn't see the old den - no, we're not going in the right direction for that." She clambered over a tall root and flopped onto her belly before sitting up and idly scratching an ear. "Could easily be at the cave and back by nightfall."

"If all goes well..." Laana touched a paw to her gems, and the others too cast nervous glances at their chests.

Only one nicheling was left unfazed. Rara settled herself down with her forelegs stretched before her, the better to show off her sharp clawed paws. "Don't have to ask me what to do! You're not back by sundown, I come and get you. Right?"

"Exactly," Laana drew her paws beneath her and sat up with as commanding an air as she could muster. "Anameis, I will need you to guide the way. I wish I could give you a choice, but you're the only one who knows a safe path - Rara, you will have to follow our scents if you must. Kirro, Iskome - it's your choice to wait or follow." Curling her tail around her paws and sitting up straight, a rush of assurance she never anticipated ran through Laana's thoughts. She could not see what lay ahead any more, yet her companions expected guidance and so she gave it. Is this how it feels to be Kois? she thought. Strong, brave... not fearless, for there was much ahead to fear, even for one as brave as Kois. No, never fearless - confident.

"Do you think we came all this way to sit here?" Iskome said, her tail draped over Kirro's. "We'll be with you."

So as Rara settled down to wait, Anameis led the party further into the jungle, down narrow trails worn through fronds of curling grass. Once, their lurid red and purple spirals reminded Laana of shapes and lights in the dark, the bright flashes within the sea cave depths, but this was no time to look back at the seers. Anameis would stop periodically, look around, and after a drawn out wait signal that it was safe to continue. Laana herself kept her eyes fixed to the ground. In the dim, secondhand light of the forest floor, perhaps those shapes trailing across her path were harmless roots... perhaps.

"Are we going all the way to the cave?" Kirro said, after a short while.

"I had hoped we would find someone to talk to," Laana said. In the privacy of her own thoughts, she added and I'll decide from there.

But as the trail continued, they found no Taimerans, though the soft earth revealed footprints and here and there Laana caught scent of passers-by. It was not strange, Laana knew, to walk along a trail here and meet nobody - she had walked many times from the river cave and Anameis' den and back before without meeting another nicheling. And in such dense forests, two nichelings might be a tail's length from one another and pass by without knowing.

As they continued, rain began to fall, first a light scattering upon the leaves and swiftly progressing to a downpour. In more open ground it might have been a relief from the heat, but here it served only to turn the air even heavier and more humid until Laana gasped for breath. Their path led them along the base of a steep ridge flanked with tall grass and tangled ferns, and the rainwater gathered and poured along the trail until it churned up sticky red mud that clung to paws and legs and splashed upon their sides. Laana tried to shake her paws clean, but it was no use - her feet were so caked in the stuff that her normally plain coat appeared patterned with red. But she said nothing and followed Anameis. The weather did not slow her down, and Laana was determined to do the same.

"Shouldn't we wait for this rain to pass?" said Iskome.

"What, you're bothered by a little water?" Anameis hopped through a deep, murky puddle, splashing mud and water everywhere. Her coat soaked in rain, she looked as though she had just hauled herself out of the ocean.

"Yes, and I'm thinking of what Relare will think if we show up looking like this," Iskome said with a flick of her tail.

It did not escape Laana's notice that everyone was looking at her again. "I think Iskome is right," she said, looking at her paws sunk in the mud. "At the very least we should-"

With a rustle of grass and a blur of magenta, a nicheling leapt onto the path before them. Unbothered by the rain and mud, she barred their way, her vivid purple coat bristling with dark red stripes. She glared at them down a long muzzle split into the beginnings of a snarl and lifted a paw heavy with flat digger's claws, not yet ready to strike but threatening the possibility. Her tail, as thick and heavy as Anameis', was held high despite the weight of its waterlogged fur. "That's enough," she growled. "What is it you're wanting with Ki-Relare?"

Laana stumbled backwards and uphill in the face of this stranger and found herself blocked by Kirro and Iskome. Looking back, she spotted a second stranger - a slender, black furred male - shoulder his way through the grass behind them without a sound. He said nothing, but thrust forward sleek white fangs in warning.

"We-" Laana began, not sure if the hammering she heard was the rain or her heart, but the purple nicheling interrupted, her attention elsewhere.

"I know you," she said, addressing Anameis. "The rogue born runt. Thought you'd cleared off with those mountain chasers."

"These mountain chasers, I believe," said the black male.

"I know that! So why come back? Why come back now?" The purple nicheling loomed over Anameis. She was close to twice her size - big for a Taimera, if not a match for the likes of Rara or Kois - but Anameis met her challenge with a silent glare. Neither Kirro nor Iskome showed any signs of recognising the newcomers. Laana struggled to find her tongue.

"We are here to... to give our condolences to Ki-Relare," she said, at last recalling the words she'd practised. She pawed at the mud as she waited for a reply.

"You came all the way for that?"

"Your tribe showed us great kindness when we found ourselves lost in unfamiliar land," Laana said. "Why would we not?"

"They will go to the caves anyway," said the black Taimeran, with an edge to his voice that suggested it wouldn't be their decision. "Why waste time?"

"On your gems, then," grumbled the purple. "Come on. All of you. You want to see Ki-Relare, and she'll want to see you. Let's not take any longer than we need."

Pressed between the purple nicheling leading the way and black nicheling bringing up the rear, they carried on down the trail at a quicker pace than before. The Tamerans were all used to this weather, and strode confidently through the mud, but Laana and her companions kept slipping and falling until they were covered in the stuff, more like some ghastly demons of the earth than nichelings. Laana tried to wipe it from her gems, but it was no use - her paws and chest were so coated with the red sludge all she accomplished was moving it around. Their guides, or captors, would wait for them to find their feet whenever they fell, but said no more.

"Who are they?" Kirro whispered to Anameis.

"Don't know," Anameis replied. "Might have seen them around, don't remember their names." The purple nicheling turned an ear to listen, but confirmed or denied nothing.

Laana could only feel relief that Anameis didn't try any jokes. It'll all be fine when we meet Relare, she told herself over and over, a distraction from the rain and the dirt and the deep, deep dread within her chest. They were going where they planned to go. Nothing had changed.

Ahead came the pattering of rain on water, and the purple nicheling shouldered aside tall grass to reveal the river. Open banks sloped down to slow moving waters, while above the sky was a murky grey slice through the greenery. Their path took them along the bank, where here and there familiar sights tugged at Laana's memory - a shallow miniature pebble beach where the river turned a lazy corner, a fruit tree drooping low over the water, a tangle of tree roots reaching into the river to form an underwater maze where shimmering fish darted and hid. Rain or no rain, this was the Taimeran territory's heart, but not a single nicheling was present to watch them pass. It was the rain, Laana told herself, the rain and no more.

In her previous time with the Taimerans, Laana had learnt to listen for the faint sounds of voices and nichelings splashing through the shallow waters at the river cave's mouth. But the pelting of raindrops blanketed the sounds of the forest, and her first clue to their whereabouts were the swirls of water, milky white with limestone residue, that emanated from the cave's depths. Urged on by the Taimerans, she had no time to wonder what to say or do before they turned a shallow bend in the river and the cave mouth came into view, flanked by fern draped cliffs. "Wash yourself off," said the purple nicheling, already stepping into the water as she spoke.

Though the water offered no relief from the cloying heat, Laana wasted no time sluicing herself down until her coat was pristine, and neither did her companions. Even Anameis seemed eager to be rid of the mud. A fine sight we'll look now, half drowned, Laana thought. But she could not help the hint of relief she felt as she gazed into the cave depths, and not just for having washed.

Great Doeli, she thought in silent devotion as the Taimerans led her along the mossy rock path clinging to the side of the cave, I realise my gifts are no longer, and I accept that I am no more welcome at your side. But if you could spare one who came to atone and those by her side...

Within the cave, all was silent.

But not, as Laana soon saw, empty. Even before the light from the broken ceiling made its presence known, Laana smelled nichelings ahead, so many that their scents interwove into a great wall and none could be distinguished from the others. Deeper in they came into view under the filtered light, more nichelings than Laana had seen together in all her life. They sat huddled together on the cave floor where it widened out beside the river, some talking, a few young cubs playing at their feet, but mostly lying still, watching and waiting. Laana forced herself to hold her head high despite the water dripping from her sodden fur and pooling at her feet. What did they want? Nobody spoke, and her guides stood either side, waiting. She scanned the assembled nichelings for familiar faces - surely this must be the entire tribe? - but in the grey, rainy light, she recognised none until a ripple spread through the crowd, and they parted to make way for Ki-Relare.

In the time she had spent since hearing Vankirvan's story, Laana had struggled to reconcile his account with her memories of the blue nicheling. Over the days and nights that followed she imagined a much-changed Relare, a snarling, stricken beast far removed from the nicheling with whom she once shared fruit and stories. But walking toward her now on soft, silent paws, her luxurious tail draped behind her, was that very nicheling. Only the presence of a blue gem at the centre of her chest, flanked by two greens, spoke of what happened since their parting.

When she spoke, her voice was the same gentle whisper Laana remembered. "Laana?" she said, coming to a halt before her, though careful to stay out of the way of the puddle that spread around her and her companions. Her eyes flickered in brief puzzlement to the three green gems at Laana's chest, and she recalled with a pang the surprise their previous colour brought to her. "Is this you?"

Laana dipped her head, trying to ignore the rainwater dripping down her muzzle. "It is, Ki-Relare."

The blue nicheling tilted her head to one side. "I'm afraid I don't understand. Why come here again, of all places?"

Laana flinched as something brushed up against her side, but it was only Anameis. The Taimeran nichelings were drawing back around them, crowding the bedraggled travellers together. Anameis nearly fell over and steadied herself against Laana's side. But short of a few curious sniffs, nobody did any more than watch. Laana touched her nimble paw to her central gem, dredging up the speech she had prepared in her thoughts night after night. "I apologise for the intrusion... and the water. We received word of Ki-Roku. Your brother was kind to us in a hard time. If there is anything we can do in return, let us do so. If not, then at least let us give our respects."

Relare appeared to ponder Laana's words for a long while. Then, without a sound, she turned back in the direction she came with a slow wave of her tail. "Then come with me. You and your friends are welcome to our food and shelter. They will be safe here."

Laana lifted a paw in readiness to go and took one look back at Kirro, Iskome, and Anameis. Relare, for all her soft words, had spoken with the certainty that they were not a request. Laana had no time to speak, only to lower her ears slightly in a gesture she hoped would convey her apologies before moving on. Behind her, the multicoloured Taimeran crowd closed back in, and she saw no more of her companions. But they let her pass in Relare's wake, despite the water still dripping from her pelt and turning her into a sorry looking envoy.

Relare ascended the terraced stone slabs at the back of the cave, underneath the broken ceiling. A trickle of rainwater fell from the hole and ran through well worn channels before vanishing into the river. From here, Laana realised that it was not the back of the cave at all, but that it and the river disappeared into darker depths, into which the light did not penetrate. But following Relare as she climbed, she forgot about it as she recalled entering this cave for the first time. This was where Ki-Roku watched over his tribe, and where he played with Yuki before he and Laana were reunited.

Despite the rain, the top of the stack was dry, and Relare turned and settled in her nest. From here, she could watch over the entire cave. Laana noted with relief that her companions were unharmed, mingling, talking, and grooming with the Taimerans. "They will be safe," Relare repeated, seeing her trepidation. "Come, sit down. It has been a long time. A longer time than you'll ever know."

I think I do, Laana thought, but she obeyed and crouched down a respectable distance from Relare - and flinched again when she felt the other nicheling start licking the excess water from her ruff. "Please, you don't need to."

"No, I should. You have come a long way, if you found your mountains - and you did?"

"Yes, a long way. My apologies." Laana tried to ease the tensions out of her body. Normally Relare's gesture would be more than welcome, but now she waited for the crack in the stone, the cloud in the sky, the sign that not all was well...

For a short while they did not speak, Relare too busy grooming Laana's fur and Laana waiting for a sign that she was permitted to say anything. At last Relare finished and settled back down with her paws tucked beneath her chest and her tail wrapped around her body. "If you were so far away, how did you know of my brother's passing?"

And there it was, and Laana had no words but the truth. "A nicheling from your tribe found us."

"Vankirvan..." Relare pawed at a tuft of dried curl grass, its bright red tones now deep wine shades. Crossing her paws before her, she gazed down her long muzzle to the window of light that marked the cave exit. "I wondered what became of him."

"He is... well?" Laana said. Unprepared as she'd been, Relare's sorrowful voice cut through all the words and persuasions she had crafted in her mind. Was this a facade, a trick to fool her into letting her guard down? Or had Vankirvan been a liar all along? But Relare's dull eyes brought to Laana's memory the spark of the idea that led her to her side. Sorrow had always clung to Relare as surely as her scent, and from it had grown the quiet dignity of a nicheling who accepted her fate, but now cracks wound their way through that dignity. Now the weight of the world appeared upon her back, as plain to see as the blue gem at her chest. Here, where her people could not see, her eyes were closed, her ears flat, her tail curled tight around her body, and that wave of compassion once more rose within Laana's chest, the urge to nuzzle the stricken leader and purr gentle tones of reassurance, and had she been any other nicheling Laana might have done so there and then. But she stayed where she was, and let Relare talk.

"Do you know why my tribe are all here, in the cave? They are afraid. I am afraid. We never knew what it was to be afraid... we had all we needed, and there was danger, but what could we do about it but accept that the ape or the trailing vine must come for us some day?" She lifted her head, watching the rain trickle through the hole in the roof. Above, the downpour hammered the ground, creating a low rumble that permeated the high terraces. "Oh, listen to me, saying things you already know. But then you come to me, after my brother is gone, you who survived the vine. You who gave us all hope. That was the most dangerous thing of all, in the end."

Laana peered over the edge, watching the assembled tribe. Amongst them, Kirro, Iskome, and Anameis had settled down, talking amongst old friends, but for most of the Taimerans the novelty of their reappearance had worn off. Now a certain listlessness fell upon them. They lounged around, the odd flick of a tail or ear the only movement. Only a moment ago, as she mulled over Relare's words, she asked how hope could be dangerous, but without another word spoken she saw her answer. I did this. I did all of this. Great Doeli, what more must I do?

What you came here for, and no more, she reminded herself.

"Ki-Relare," she said, sitting back down by the blue's side, "if it may be my place to speak, that... that is also why we came here. Before we left, a long time ago... I lost my sister. And since then, I've been trying to make sense of it." She ran her claws through a tuft of dry grass, combing it out as she would a knot in her fur. "I... I don't know why these things happen to us when they do. I of all nichelings should have known of it! But I still feel that she should be there, and then I wake up, and... she is not."

"As do they all."

"How many-"

"Too many." Relare's green eyes met Laana's. "Except you. What are you offering? Your secret?"

"If you... yes! I mean no... I mean there isn't a secret! Oh no..." Laana pawed at her face. "But all it takes is a strong nicheling to tear up the plants. If you were in need of any help-"

"A strong nicheling? So you come to tell us what we all know now? Or do you find us ignorant that we did not know before? Tell me, can you split open the rock that we sit on? Does that take only a strong nicheling?"

"Ki-Relare, I am sorry, I-"

A long, quiet sigh escaped from Relare's mouth. "No, no... I see what you want. You want to offer us help, and we need it. Perhaps... perhaps we can make a deal, after all?" She rose to her feet and arched her back in a stretch, as a cat does when awakening. "Will you come with me and eat? You have come a long way, and I have held you long enough." Just as before, she walked away without waiting for Laana's answer.

Laana followed, hopping from shelf to shelf and onto the cave floor. Once again the nichelings parted to let her and Relare pass. What had she agreed to? And what would Meana, Kois, or (Tata forbid) Rara think of dashing off to dig up plants for the Taimerans? But Relare seemed willing to talk and furthermore to listen, and that was far more than Laana could have hoped.

There was still a food pile on the cave floor, though meagre though compared to Laana's last visit, beside the wall of paw-marks that Ki-Roku had called Memories. Was hers or Yuki's still there? She could not tell, for all the prints overlapped and blurred into one another, as tightly packed as the nichelings present. Together she and Relare shared a couple of fat, sweet berries, and Relare noticed her interest in the wall. "My brother is there, of course. Here." She touched her nose to the outline of a nimble paw in faded berry juice. "He was my twin, did you know that? Oh, I am sorry, I forget what I have told you and what I have not."

"Reko... my sister... she was like my mother, to me. It changes things. It changes things a lot."

"'My gems are the deep ocean, and I stand alone.'" Relare recited.

Laana did not know which song or story those words may originate from, but at once they touched the heart of her own gems. A few nearby nichelings - for there was always someone to overhear - dipped their heads, perhaps in respect, perhaps in the memory of their own losses. Though not a single nicheling present knew Reko, the notion occurred to Laana that, for the first time since her sister's death, she shared her grief and shared in others alike, and a deep sense of peace fell upon her.

At that moment a distant roar broke the silence, and every nicheling present jumped to their feet. Laana felt a press of bodies as they pushed backwards into the cave, stumbling over one another in a scramble for safety. The huddle pressed her to the cave wall, paws scrabbling over stone in a desperate attempt to keep her balance. Slow, drawn out moments passed, but all Laana heard was her own heartbeat, so loud surely whatever was out there must be able to hear. Slowly, the pressure eased, and she took a deep breath. "What was that?" she hissed at Relare.

The tribe's leader sat up straight, her tail held high against her back, but she had been taken by surprise as much as the rest of them, and clearly struggled to maintain her facade. "I... do not know," she said. "But here we are safe. Remember-"

A second roar, echoing closer, the sound of thrashing in the river outside... "That was closer!" Laana reared up, peering over the heads of the assembled nichelings. "Kirro? Iskome? Anameis?" But the others were lost in the crowd as they huddled together, waiting. Growls and snarls reverberated through the close, heavy air, mixed in with snatches of broken speech that became clearer the closer the intruder came.

"-off me! ..never... won't...."

The wall of nichelings parted again, and through the gap came the slim black nicheling who had escorted Laana and her companions earlier, and as soaking wet as they had been. Water dripped from a coat plastered to his already slender frame, and from the way he favoured his back leg he had clearly been in a fight. As he drew closer Laana could see blood running from his thigh, mingling with the rainwater and pooling at his feet. Yet he walked with confidence and purpose to sit before Relare and lower his head. "Ki-Relare, news."

"Lurro." Relare stood up and made her way to where he sat, avoiding the spreading, blood-tinted puddle. "What have you done?" In the distance, the thrashing continued. All around nichelings crouched, ears flattened and tails tucked low. Those who had not seen Lurro's entrance still smelled his blood, and the tension spread.

"After we brought the intruders here," Lurro said, "myself and Taisel returned to patrol. We followed their tracks and found another nicheling. I believe it was a trap - she was clearly a greater fighter than the others, until I bit her."

Laana's stomach fell. Rara - she was supposed to wait, not charge in! Relare said nothing. Her back was turned to her, and not even a twitch of her tail betrayed her thoughts. Laana crouched, belly pressed to the ground, struggling to speak. "Ki-Relare? I am sorry, we only brought her to defend us from the plants - she can help you!"

But still, for a dreadful moment, Relare remained silent. At last she peered over her shoulder, her face partially obscured by her ruff and framed by bone-white horns. Her eyes were narrowed, her ears pressed flat against her skull. "Laana, did you plan to tell me?" she whispered. "When?"