Snowtouched

Chapter 40: Ki-Relare

Laana didn't listen to Anameis' cries. Why did Anameis ever think otherwise? She curled back into her tight little ball, ears pressed flat against her head to block out the sound of Rara's strained breathing. Kirro and Iskome were too busy worrying about her to bother Anameis, and that was the way she wanted it. She couldn't help. But she could wrap her tail around her face and let everything happen to someone else for a change.

Relare kept her word. Not long after Laana was escorted away - how long Anameis didn't know, but it was still daylight - another set of guards appeared. Anameis let Iskome handle the talking; she could act proper, not yell at the littlest thing and give the wrong answers. They were escorted back to the cave mouth and left to themselves - all but Rara. Too sick to move, she was left in the caverns to shake off the venom or succumb to it, and Anameis doubted she would be given the same leniency if she recovered. But nobody would answer her questions about that.

And nobody would tell her what happened to Laana.

Anameis was free - free to be a Taimeran, free to hide in the caves under Relare's watchful eyes. At first she paced, restless, her unease coursing through her body. When she settled down, her tail lashed and she ground her jagged teeth, until she could bear the silence no more and resumed her pacing. But there was nowhere to go in this sea of faces and all were watching, until she laid back down on the stone, ears flat, paws twitching.

Still she imagined eyes and ears turned upon her, and when her own ears swivelled to pick up half heard snatches of conversation, her thoughts turned the unheard words into comments on her presence. A pathetic rogue-born, who needed to get up and stop feeling sorry for herself. Easy, she thought in return. With a low growl - more a grunt, really, for she had only so much energy to spare - she pushed herself back onto her feet. The others could stare all they liked. She loped to the cave entrance, where a nicheling stood watch on the walkway to the outside.

"What do you want?" he said.

"I want to do something you'd rather I did outside," Anameis said, scratching an ear.

"Very well, but be quick, and don't go far." The guard stepped aside, letting her cross the walkway into the outside world.

It hadn't been a complete lie - it had been some time since Lurro's patrol found them in the forest. Anameis didn't remember Lurro as anything more than another face in the tribe, but she knew the type - always on the trail of anyone with an Ai- or Ki- to their name, snapping up leftover crumbs of respect. The sort of nicheling Vankirvan might have been, if he hadn't had the sense to get out. Or you, commented a stray thought, recalling her attachment to Kois. But if Kois was here, she'd have a plan. They'd be on their way home by now.

She'd have been bitten and dragged off like Rara, and you know it, commented the stray thoughts.

The rain had eased since her time inside, and now fell in a fine, hot mist that blanketed the river banks in a white haze. It was stifling as wrapping her tail around her nose, but away from the cave's confines, the pressure inside Anameis' head subsided. Ever since Lurro dragged her here, it had pushed her to the back of her mind, but now, in the pattering of raindrops on water, she felt her sense of self uncurl as she might stretch her body after a long sleep.

She finished what she had to do quickly, but lingered a little on the riverbank, listening to the soft rain. She'd always liked the sound of rain. It covered up anything that might disturb her and let her become lost in its gentle, repetitive rhythms. For a moment she entertained the thought of fleeing like Vankirvan, finding the mountains and saving her friends from afar.

She hopped a few tentative steps down the riverbank...

"Are you finished out there?"

The guard's voice cut through the velvet sounds. Anameis turned tail and loped back to the cave mouth, her thoughts dragged once more to the back of her skull.

Her friends would only have gotten into trouble if she ran, anyway.


Relare kneaded at the woven grasses that built up her nest. Even in the heat and humidity of a packed cave deep in the rainforest, they cracked and tore under her paws, brittle as a dead leaf in the dry season, until they were reduced to dust that clung to the soft fur at her wrists.

She did not take her eyes from the three released newcomers. The male in particular was easy to spot, as white was a rare colour in the forest. A pale coat, and one not brightly coloured to warn of toxins, drew predators as surely as the smell of fresh blood. The other two blended in better, but the rogue-born's jagged teeth and stunted stature made her easy to spot once you knew where to find her. As for the black digger with the ghost stripes, Relare was still committing her image to memory. She prided herself on knowing all her tribe by name, and remembering their fates as surely as the wall of paw-marked memories at her side.

This she owed them, the least she could do.

Each one of them watched her as surely as she watched them, and they waited with all the more expectations after the war-beast charged in. Relare had faint memories of the big grey nicheling from before - or did she? Vankirvan, before he fled, had jabbered on about an even bigger nicheling with a coat the colour of blood, a nicheling the size of a bearyena with the claws to match. He might have been lying - he said a lot in the dark caves - but Relare's own brother had told her, the night he banished the wanderers, of a nicheling both powerful and soft spoken, a nicheling who had never been seen in the caves but knew the seer and her child. A nicheling conspicuous by absence, then and now.

Laana would know, and maybe she would talk. But right now, all Relare wanted was to forget the seer until she knew her next move. Maybe that visionary power would come in useful. Laana had been given a gift any Taimeran would tear out their gems for, and she had squandered it. Had she seen the ape or the vine? Had she come here knowing the dark waited? Did she know, right now, what Relare would do even when Relare herself had no idea? No, better to leave her there, until the safest option presented itself...

The sweet scent of berries drifted to Relare's perch. Her stomach clenched at the delicious smell, but the remains of her last meal still sat uneasy.

A shadow rippled across the river, and a digging nicheling with a pelt the colour of fresh leaves shook himself off. Relare recognised him as Norokir, one of her patrol leaders, and if her memory served her correctly, he should have left while she was dealing with Laana. Why was he back so soon? Her stomach grew even more unsettled as his patrol partner failed to appear behind him. She stood up as he pushed his way to the back of the cave and climbed the terraced stone. Briefly they touched noses in greeting.

"Show me," Relare said.

Leaving Lurro to keep watch, she followed Norokir into the soft evening rainfall, not so much rain now as a fine mist that clung to her coat. Yet the day's heat still remained, as close and oppressive as the caves.

Past the river banks, the scents and tracks of other nichelings became scarce and the smell of hot water was all pervading. Relare and Norokir wove their way through stands of curling grass, caution in every step. But there were no trailing vines here. Norokir, leading the way, kept his ears low and his swimmer's tail tucked between his legs. The fog kept the two nichelings concealed, but also oblivious to danger, and so Relare's ears were not flattened. She watched and listened with a rabbil's attentiveness, but strode through the grass, every step an expression of the confidence she forced within herself.

She smelled the plant before she saw it. Even with the rain dampening the jungle's scents as the mist blurred her vision, the sweetness of a plant that had just fed drew upon her memories. She brushed aside the grass, and there stood the plant, still and silent. Its scent was the first clue to the scene that had played out not so long ago, until Relare saw the earth and leaves churned up at its base and the claw marks raked across the ground. Gathering all her fears and placing them aside, Relare touched her nose to the ribbed and veiny closed petals. From within, they exuded a slight warmth. "It was Lenelis, was it?"

"It was." Norokir held back.

"Then I am sorry. She was a masterful digger."

The patrols had been one of the first changes when Relare came into her blue gem and retreated her tribe into the caves. Deep inside she had received that gem, and as the weight of a tribe's sorrows fell upon her back, she remembered her father's words, long ago. "Nobody is ready to take lead of a tribe. If you are, then you must ask yourself why."

Relare never needed to ask. But as she waited in the dark, grief pressing in on her from all sides, many others paced within her thoughts. The seer and her tribe, the giant nicheling Roku spoke of who could tear apart deadly plants... If them, she thought, why not us?

Her ancestors had not been stupid. Stupid nichelings didn't last long in the jungle. They had learnt to pick their battles to survive, and battles became tradition and unspoken rule, as solid as resin hardened to amber. Over the generations, they convinced themselves that their quiet dignity in the face of danger set them apart. But then Relare emerged into the sun, a blue gem upon her chest, carrying with her the quiet dignity of Taimeran royalty, while inside she seethed.

It hadn't taken long to find others to rally around her cause. Not a nicheling in the tribe could say they had never lost someone and asked "why?" They clustered around her, one by one. Lurro, loyal and possessed of a fierce determination, had quickly taken up his position by her side, as had his sister Mimi who itched for fights and relished the chance to take out frustrations long since pushed away under the pressure to save face. There was no shortage of others eager to please, and so the patrols had grown, both from a need to know what lurked in the outside world and to release the pressure upon the cooped-up nichelings. Starting out as gatherings of hot-headed youngsters ready to shake off tradition, they had grown into a tightly disciplined force.

Of course there were many who wanted to go on patrol for the sake of a few more freedoms, but most of those met their end one way or another, further tightening the ranks. The Taimerans didn't have the raw strength to tear apart the carnivorous plants, but the ones who survived the patrols were those who watched and listened and dreamed in spite of such facts. But still, every once in a while, the vines claimed one of their number, as they always had.

"We saw the vine first," Norokir said, guessing correctly that Relare was waiting for a report. "We followed it here, tried to dig up the plant before it caught us" He gestured to the scrapes by the plant's base, where on close inspection Relare noticed a thick taproot partially exposed to the air. One of the patrol's first discoveries was that if you were careful not to trip the vine, you could dig deep and chew through the roots. They reached deep, and Relare suspected they would regrow over time, but if a regular patrol could remember their positions and take care of any new growth, the tribe could be safe. They could leave the caves. Everything would be normal again...

She sniffed at the roots. The rough surface scratched her nose, and she smelled fresh sap pouring from the freshly chewed flesh. The smell overwhelmed her and she backed away, gently shaking the dirt from her paws.

"Lenelis must have stepped on the vine... I didn't see what happened after that." Norokir backed away too, mirroring Relare with evident relief. "It opened up, and dragged her in, and..." He scuffed at the ground with his broad forepaws. "I tried to get her out! I tried and I could hear her calling and..."

He stopped as Relare laid her head over his shoulders, sitting by his side. She let him breathe as his voice trailed away to silence. "You did well, both of you. Your gems will shine."

"Ki-Relare, thank you." His mane brushed against her face.

"Now finish it."

"Ki-Relare?"

"Finish the digging. Would you leave her here, and not take this chance? The vine will not take you now. Dig it up and let it never take root again."

She stepped back to allow Norokir to continue his task, but he faltered, sniffing at the plant, unwilling to disturb his friend's body.

"Do I confuse you?" Relare said.

"No, not at all!" Norokir dove at the plant, his forequarters vanishing down the hole.

Relare left the way she had come. Norokir knew she would expect a report later, and that she would likely return to check he had carried out his task. It pained her to give such an order, but could he, in all honesty, let his loss be for nothing? There had been enough of that already.

One thing she knew - it was a deep blow to lose Lenelis, one of the tribe's strongest and bravest diggers. As for Norokir, suspicion arose in Relare that he was one of those attracted to the patrols by status, eager at first then lapsing as he grew accustomed to the outside world. Whatever he turned out to be, the jungle would know, and act accordingly.

But there were so few nichelings she could trust...

The rain eased and gave way to steam rising in the evening's warmth. Relare's mind was still for now, her attention focused on the path before her, ears listening for danger. But it was not danger that made her stop and listen, but a command from a nearby guard. Someone had been lingering outside the cave again. She peered through the grass, looking down upon the riverbank where a small orange nicheling let out a low grunt of frustration and hobbed toward the cave mouth.

She waited until the orange nicheling was out of sight before approaching the guard on silent paws. "That was the rogue born who left with the mountain seekers. Did you know her name?"

The guard, having clearly not heard her approach, scrambled to attention. "Ana... something? I remember but nobody knew her well, she lived out in the forest..." He averted his gaze, as though fearing this was a test he'd failed.

"None of us did," Relare said. "It is no matter. I only wish to talk to her." She left the guard to his duties and walked back into the cave's stifling embrace.

The jungle was hard on rogues, but the older ones had a knack for survival despite the odds. If Relare cast her thoughts back, she remembered half-heard rumours of a rogue-child and all the shame and gossip that generated, but she had just come into her second gem at the time and the problem of rogue males was a concern for the future - and Relare never, until recently, thought of the future. The child had kept her distance from the tribe, at first by the actions of her mother and later by her own choice. When she left with the mountain seekers, Relare gave the matter no thought.

But now Relare thought of the seasons she must have spent living in the wild, not to mention guiding the mountain seekers out of the jungle and back.

Old rogues knew how to survive. So did their children.

Inside, Relare quickly spotted the orange nicheling speaking with her friends, the black digger and the skinny white fisher. Once again the crowds parted to let Relare pass. "Forgive me," she said, addressing the rogue-born, "but I do not remember your name."

The mountain nichelings backed away into the crowds, but the rogue-born stayed. Startled by Relare's entrance, she nevertheless refused to face her, turning an ear in her direction as her only indication she was listening. Her shoulders were hunched, her tail tucked tight around her paws, her voice a growl. "What do you want?"

For a long, drawn out moment, all was silence.

If this had been any other nicheling, Relare would have spoken up in an instant, sharpness sliding into her voice though she never raised it from a whisper. She would summon her guards - and already a few nearby nichelings' claws twitched, ready to leap on the rogue-born for a morsel of Relare's favour. But Relare gave them no orders, and the scene stood, suspended, nobody willing to move until they knew what was going to happen next.

"I want to talk," Relare said.

The rogue-born flattened her ears. With her back still turned to Relare, she sent a clear message. I am not listening.

And Relare didn't have to ask why.

She could have walked away - or, more reasonably, could have an example made of the upstart, just like Laana. In truth, Relare was waiting to see what she would do with the same anticipation as her people. She could not let the ground grow shaky under her paws, the same paws she kneaded against the water-smoothed cave floor.

A thought bubbled up from the calm chaos of her mind. She's like Vankirvan. Perhaps she had bitten too deeply, and in Laana's case that was exactly what she meant to do. But this one, rogue born or not... like Vankirvan, this one was Taimeran.

She glanced back at the fading light. "I will make you a promise. By the time the sun sets, whatever you say, you will be here again with your friends."

There was no response, but the flattened ears raised again.

"Anameis..." said the black digger, from her position crouched by the fisher. So that was her name? Perhaps it was familiar, perhaps not.

"This is my word, Anameis."

Anameis turned her head ever so slightly, so that one eye - the smaller one - met Relare's. "Same word you gave Laana?"

"I acted within her words. These are mine."

Relare didn't miss the breathy growl that escaped Anameis' jaws, but nor did she miss the resigned air it carried. Anameis had seen enough of what happened to those who disobeyed orders. Frustrated or not, she only had so much fight to give. She accompanied Relare to her nest in sullen silence, and for now Relare's grip was safe again.

If Lurro was startled to see Anameis, he didn't show it. The slim fanged nicheling retreated as they approached. She gave him no orders, an implicit acknowledgement that he may stay, and he took up position at the terrace's edge, forepaws tucked to his chest. Not even a turned ear betrayed his interest, but Relare made no mistake - he would listen in on everything. She settled into her nest with Anameis facing her. The rogue-born was small enough that Relare could meet her eyes while seated.

Anameis was quick to seize the first words. "Where is Laana?"

Relare ignored her. "You were a Taimeran, before. I did not know you then. That was my mistake, and one I wish to rectify. I make it a point to know my people."

Anameis flicked an ear. "Not answering my question."

"You speak much of your life in the outdoors - the caves are no place for you," Relare said. Anameis drew breath, about to protest again, but Relare gave her no opening. "I am in need of nichelings who know their way around the forests. Nichelings who can find the trailing vines, who can report on the presence of predators. Nichelings who can tell my people when it is safe to emerge."

Anameis sat down. To her credit, she seemed to be listening in on what Relare had to say, even when she scratched behind an ear with a muddy hind-paw and nibbled the dirt from her toes. "So you do let them out for more than taking a-"

"You know what I ask of you. Do you accept?"

"This is one of those questions you'll only take one answer for, isn't it?"

"No."

Anameis glared, but Relare didn't take her eyes from the rogue-born's twisted face.

"The safer the forest is... the faster we can live again."

Anameis laid her ears back. She was still glaring, but inside those mismatched eyes Relare could see her thoughts, turning over, looking for an angle to exploit. "Yes. That's what you want, I don't need you to lie to me."

Relare broke eye contact for a heartbeat, to look upon the fading daylight. There was no sunset in the rain, just a slow draining of colour from the world. "You should return to your friends. At dawn, report to Lurro." She turned her head to indicate the fanged nicheling, still listening with feigned nonchalance.

Anameis had no more words, which Relare had to admit surprised her though she didn't let it show. She had been expecting a parting growl if nothing else, but Anameis had cycled out of defiance and back to resignation. She loped back down to the cave floor with no more than a dismissive swish of her tail to show for her thoughts.

Lurro flowed closer to her once the rogue-born was out of earshot. "She is already thinking of how to betray you," he said.

"I know," said Relare. In the end, they all were.