Chapter 39: The Bargain

Relare rounded upon Laana, pushing her to the wall, forcing her to scramble to stay on her feet. All around, nichelings stared, nobody daring to speak or move. Where where her friends? Were they too forced into silence, while she fought for her tongue under Relare's steady glare? The truth - she had to give her the truth. "Rara wasn't supposed to come here! She was just our guard, she-" and she flinched as Relare's hackles rose and she pushed her face closer - "she was supposed to wait on your border until we returned. I swear, Ki-Relare, no more than that!"

Relare swivelled her ears backwards. "Do you?"

Laana touched her nimble paw to her central gem, though their current colour had not been earned by telling the truth. It didn't matter now. "I do."

Relare kept her ears focused behind her, but averted her gaze. For a moment she appeared ready to back off, one paw lifted in hesitation, torn between suspicion and trust. The moment drew on, hung upon a balance fragile as a spider's web, and Relare raised her ears, slowly turning to match Laana's eyes again.

Another dreadful, sluggish growl rumbled through the cave. Closer than ever before, it echoed in the dark spaces, taking its time to die. A wave of nichelings pressed backwards, near climbing over themselves to get away from the sound. But when Relare strode forth, they parted to let her pass with the same fervour. She looked over her shoulder. "Come, then. Let me see if she is what you say."

Laana followed through the tunnel of nichelings, some crouched with their bellies pressed to the floor, others watching in the same wary silence as a rabbil alert for predators. She forced herself to maintain composure to match Relare's - head high, ears perked, tail proud and level in the face of the slurred snarls ahead. Relare was not a heavy nicheling, but she was long in the leg, and Laana struggled to see what awaited her as they approached the light, until Relare stood still and Laana could squeeze in beside her.

What she saw sent a stab of ice into her chest. It was Rara, but she swayed on unsteady legs, stumbling with each step as three Taimeran nichelings flanked and pushed her out of the water. One Laana recognised as the big purple female who had escorted her and her companions earlier. The others were of similar size and weight, none a match for Rara under normal circumstances yet quite able to urge her onward in her delirious state.

Even without the water dripping from her body, Rara made for a pitiful shadow of herself. Hauling herself out of the water, she stood in an uneasy crouch as a puddle slowly spread beneath her body. Her sides heaved in an effort to catch her breath, and the lustre drained from her gems, leaving each colour dulled and devoid of shine. Her ears were low and her tail trailed limp and lifeless in the water. Occasionally she trembled as a shuddering wave passed through her body. Only the guard nichelings at her sides kept her from collapse.

But then Rara's gaze flickered up to meet Relare's, and dull and glazed though they were, a little life flared inside their yellow depths. "You..." she growled, clawing at the cold stone ground before her in an attempt to drag herself closer to the Taimeran leader. Flecks of foam appeared at the corner of her mouth as she pulled herself forward, struggling to control her spasm-ridden limbs. "You... you... you!" Her last word was a scream, spraying froth at Relare, who flinched and shielded herself with her voluminous tail.

Laana stumbled backwards as the guard nichelings piled upon Rara, pulling her back, and at the same time a sudden weight pressed upon her, pinning her to the ground. Claws dug until her skin, hot breath ran past her ears. She struggled but could not break free from the nichelings who piled onto her, not the bystanders she had assumed but guards like those flanking Rara. Above her Relare loomed, haloed in sunlight that picked out the outline of her horns and shimmered through her ruff, leaving her face in shadow.

"I think," she said, her voice as gentle as a whisper as it ever was, "we must talk again."

Laana had no time to reply before the guards dragged her to her feet, sinking their teeth into the scruff of her neck and hauling her upright. They pushed and drove her away from the sun, ignoring her insistence that this was all a mistake, or her pleas for her friends and their safety as they dragged her deeper into the cave. In the chaos she cast around for a glimpse of her companions, but saw only nichelings struggling to get away, while others watched with a detachment that suggested they had seen all this play out before. As the light faded and the guards dragged her deeper into dark passaged filled with the echoes of running water, Vankirvan's story flashed through her memory. The light became no more than outlines in the dark and faint glimmers upon the water's surface, and then no more.

Unable to fight back or flee, Laana let her captors guide her. A deep, freezing chill set in, like the wind blowing from the snowfields back home. Her whiskers twitched in the dark, sensing the flow of air that they followed through a wide passage, until they turned away and crawled through a narrow, windy passage. Water dripped down the walls, leaving the floor cold and slippery underfoot. This, she thought, must be how ice felt.

Their journey was over quickly, but already Laana found herself lost underground and unable to fight back. Even if she could overpower her captors, where would she flee? At long last a suggestion of light ahead lent definition to the shadows, but the air ahead felt still and smelled stale. Her captors pushed her through a crevasse wide enough to let a single nicheling through, and she fell into an open space on the other side. Cold water fell from above and trickled over the floor beneath her. Stumbling to her feet as a nicheling growled a command at her to stay and wait, she looked up, following the water's path to a crack in the cavern ceiling, three or four nicheling-lengths above. Ferns and grasses spilled through the gap, letting only the faintest of light through. But after so long in the dark, Laana blinked in sudden brilliance as her eyes adjusted. She shivered in the chilly air, but did as she was told and waited.

At one point she reared up, sniffing the earthy jungle smells that descended into the cavern. But no nicheling could climb up the smooth cave walls, and even if they could, only the smallest of cubs stood a chance of squeezing through. She touched a paw to her gems again - and flicked an ear at the sound of strained breathing in the passage behind her. "Rara!" she gasped, darting to the crevasse, but a snarl from the guard posted outside forced her to scuttle backwards again.

But she had not mistaken Rara's growls as they rattled through the underground, and soon she appeared at the crevasse. The guards accompanying her snarled and bit, but in her daze she did not appear to understand what they wanted. Eventually she struggled her way through and collapsed onto her side, ribs heaving. Cold water pooled around her body, but she made no move to get away.

"Rara? It's me, Laana - what did they do? Did they bite you? Can we stop it?" Laana sniffed over Rara's body in search of a wound - perhaps she could clean it out - but the big nicheling smelled of no more than river water and limestone.

For a while Rara lay still and made no sound but her deep breaths. At last her eyes opened, and their yellow irises caught a glint of light from above. "Told you..." she murmured. "Princes, queens, gods... nothing but trouble..."

Lost for anything more to do, Laana licked Rara's ears and nibbled at the thicker fur of her ruff. Rara sank back into silence, and Laana counted her breaths. Each one was steady, but slow and rasping. Yet once more a state of detached calm fell upon Laana. She had reached a point where she could make no difference for herself or her companions. Ideas drifted in the far reaches of her thoughts, but for now she had been told to wait, and wait she did. She sat by Rara's side as chill water flowed between her claws, and let the world pass her by as though she were one shadow among many.

A distant scuffle accompanied by echoes, forced her back to the cavern, and she looked up, ears thrust forward. As the voices moved closer, they resolved into words - Anameis protesting all the way - and Laana got to her feet. But it was Kirro who appeared first at the crevasse, his normally half-lidded eyes widening at the sight of her. "Laana!" He wound his slim body through the crevasse with ease and leapt up to give Laana a quick sideways nuzzle, so as not to prod her with his antlers. Iskome quickly followed with the same greeting, and both nichelings turned their attention to Rara, nosing at her body in concern.

At last Anameis was pushed through to join them, clinging to the crevasse walls and growling all the way, until with one shove she was flung across the floor. Water splashed everywhere as she hunched up in a corner, glaring at the exit. Traces of a foul, rotten scent stuck to her coat, suggesting she had sprayed her assailants earlier, but much to Laana's relief she made no attempt to try again as she drew her tail around herself, curling up into a snarling ball of orange fur.

"She got bitten?" Kirro said, still sniffing over Rara.

"I think so," Laana said. But none alive of the Meadow tribe had seen the effects of a fanged nicheling's venom on another of their kind. She turned her attention to the only outlier. "Anameis? Will she make it?"

"What? Yes? I mean no? I mean... I don't know, what do you want?" Anameis shrank back and pulled her tail tighter around her body, her face half buried in the thick fur. Kirro, the closest to her, inched closer and sat by her side, but she didn't uncurl. Laana was a heartbeat away from joining her when Anameis peered over her tail. "Probably" she said, her voice quieter now. "She's big, isn't she?"

While Kirro settled down by Anameis' side, Iskome licked and nuzzled Rara, who for now was still breathing steady. "I'm just happy to see you. None of us saw what happened to either of you. Then they piled on us, and I think you know the rest."

Laana touched noses with her. "I'm glad to see all of you too," she said, "but not here. You didn't do anything."

Time slipped by. Rara remained stable, but said no more, and by Anameis' reckoning all they could do for her was wait. Together the remaining four nichelings managed to coax her to her feet long enough for her to drink where the water gathered in a bowl-shaped depression formed by the relentless dripping water, but she could handle no more than that and slumped back to her stomach after a few laps. The gloomy light masked the state of her gems, and far above the rain continued to fall, a soft, deceptively calming blanket wrapped around the world.

It was still daylight, from what little of it reached the cavern, when Relare arrived.

Her soft paws made no sound; Laana knew nothing of her approach until the guards posted outside the cavern stepped aside and she appeared framed between the two narrowly spaced walls. Behind her two fanged nichelings peered around her to watch, one at either side. One was Lurro, the other a tiny two-gem female crouched by Relare's paws, eyes glittering with eagerness and fangs bared in the half-light.

"Now we talk," said Relare.

"Ki-Relare." Laana dipped her head. "This is a mistake, and I am sorry, and-"

"First, Vankirvan leaves." Relare peered down her long snout at the imprisoned nichelings, one by one. Her voice was a chill mountain wind cutting through the warmth of the den. "And not a turn of the moon passes before you appear, bringing with you your war-beast. Now we talk."

"It is as I told you before. She was our guard!"

"Your guard, and your warrior?"

"No, she was only here to-"

"Can you prove it?" Relare raised a paw, and the tiny fanged nicheling at her side crept forward, shoulders rising and falling, as though stalking a rabbil in the undergrowth. "Can you tell me, after now, that she meant no harm?" The cavern amplified her soft voice, turning it quiet yet all encompassing at once. "Lurro, Mimi, be done."

The fanged nichelings bared their teeth...

"No!" Laana dove forward, clambering over Rara in a bid to put herself in their way. Slender white fangs flashed, and Laana swung her head upwards, her horns colliding with Lurro's jaw. The other, Mimi, hissed and darted to his side, while Laana stood firm, brandishing sharp antlers in their direction.

Once again that rush of clear-minded confidence passed through her. The cavern was her world, her life, everything she knew condensed to this one point. In a heartbeat either Lurro or Mimi might strike. But in this moment, from one breath to the next, Laana stood firm. "It was me," she said, fixing Relare with a stare. "I was the one who decided to come here. The others followed me because of my ideas. Let them go. Then we talk."

"What?" Anameis hissed, still curled up in a wary ball.

"Laana, wait," said Iskome.

But Laana did not move. The fanged nichelings shuffled their paws, eye still trained upon her but ears turned backwards in anticipation of a command.

"I accept," said Relare.

At once the fanged nichelings flowed to Laana's sides to escort her through the crevasse. They kept their teeth thrust forward, ready to bite in a heartbeat's notice, but they need not have bothered. Laana stepped into the blackness beyond without a struggle.

Behind her, Anameis leapt to her feet and hopped to the exit, only to be stopped by Mimi whirling around and baring her fangs in her face. "What..." Anameis sputtered, backing away. "You can't! What do we do?" But Laana didn't dare speak, and even if she did, what could she say that would make a difference? Head low, tail trailing in the water, she followed her captors into the dark, as Anameis' last cry echoed down the tunnel. "What are you trying to prove? Laana!"

They walked on as the echoes faded, through cold and darkness. At times Laana heard the river on its underground course, and at one point walked along what she guessed to be the grand galleries it carved out. But once again their path diverged, though the rush of flowing water followed. They walked along the banks of an underground stream that had carved out its own set of chambers and passages in its haste to join the river. The air following over her whiskers and the texture of their footsteps' echoes lend some shape to the blackness, but not enough for Laana to know how far they travelled, or in which direction. Neither Relare not her guards spoke. Theirs was a grim and silent procession into the heart of the earth.

With one last turn they followed another branch of the stream, one that carved its way deeper, forming a trench of icy water that Laana was forced to walk through until her paws grew numb and she struggled to stay on her feet. The two guards pushed and urged her onward as she stumbled and tripped, unable to feel the uneven ground beneath. Small though they both were, she flinched at their touch, imagining swift fangs in the dark. They wouldn't hurt her, she reminded herself. Relare accepted her deal. They wouldn't hurt her.

As she continued to stumble forward, a chill subterranean wind cut across her face. She strained forward to sniff out the open space that yawned before her, and startled as she felt a pebble come loose under her paws, splashing and clattering into the depths. The stream had become an underground waterfall, and they stood at the very top. She waited for her captors, but nobody moved. Laana tested her paws in the water, feeling for the edge. Might they want her to climb down?

And Lurro slammed into her side, sending her falling into unseen depths.

Laana felt her cry cut short as she hit stone and freezing water, knocking the breath from her chest. Over and over she fell, through a cascade of water, air, and stone, each flashing by in rapid succession as she rolled down the waterfall, unable to catch breath or footing. With a sharp crack and blossoming pain, her head hit the ground and she lay still, half submerged in the icy stream. Memories of vines wrapped tight around her chest flashed by as she struggled for breath, and phantom lights bloomed behind her eyelids, pulsing light and dark, red and black with the dull pain inside her head. She lashed her tail as the stream tugged upon it, and, relieved to find it still moved, lay still, breath heaving as though Lurro's venom ran through her blood.

Nobody called down for her. Any moment, she anticipated orders to get back on her feet and keep going, but as the moments slipped by, she was alone save for the sound of rushing water.

Slowly, she pushed herself upright, first her forequarters, then forcing her hind-legs, numb from the cold, to follow. She swayed - her balance was wrong, and not dizziness from the impact. Something wrong with her head - she touched her nimble paw to her antlers, as she always did to calm her nerves. Instead of smooth horn, she found a jagged, broken edge and the wetness of blood on her paws. The right horn had snapped in two, its major tine snapped off in the fall.

Blood - blood needed to be cleaned up, that was what she always told Yuki. With a near mechanical disposition she licked at what scuffs and cuts she could reach, and pawed away the blood pouring from her broken horn and matting the fur on her head. Strange, that there should be so much, yet no pain, as though the cavern was a dream she had yet to wake from. She curled up at the edge of the stream, tail curled around her body in an effort to make herself as small as possible. "Ki-Relare?"

There was no reply.

As the moments slipped by, she dared to venture away from the stream, creeping slowly over the cave floor. She counted out the paces, finding the cavern to be about four nicheling lengths in width and perhaps two or three times that in length. Perhaps more - the chamber's ceiling gradually sloped down to meet the water's surface, but not even a gilled nicheling would dare explore further in the tight darkness. The dimly lit chamber in which she had been held with her friends was another world now, one with a promise of the outside. Here there was no sun, no wind, no leaves. Was there even anyone standing guard at the top of the waterfall, and did there even need to be?

Pacing back and forth despite the pain that coursed through her body, her paws touched upon something small, smooth and round. At first she took it for a pebble, washed up by the stream, but the stream bed here was worn smooth by eons of water. She crouched down and stretched out a paw, batting blindly in the dark until she touched the glassy surface one more.

It was a nicheling's gem, torn away and discarded upon the cave floor.