Chapter 41: Digging In the Dark

The first light of dawn found Anameis huddled against a fine and misty rain. It had fallen all night, and now the haze it cast filtered what early morning light penetrated the trees into a pallid, lifeless glow. It settled onto her orange coat and ran in streams through her fur. Occasionally she would shake herself down, but whilst light, the rain was relentless, and as more settled she gave up the activity as futile. She was used to rainy mornings, or so she told herself. The rain, perhaps, but mornings less so. Her head swam with sleepiness. Somewhere behind her was the cave, cramped and hot, but at least with a dry nest and friends to curl up beside. Here there was only muggy rain, sickly dawn light, and Lurro.

If Relare's words weren't enough to convince her to come along, her second in command was. Anameis knew well enough when a request wasn't a request. As the slender nicheling cast his gaze across the assembled patrol members, Anameis crouched in the muddy ground. About five or six of them were lined up by the river bank, so that Lurro could look down upon them from further up the slope. Beside him, his sister Mimi paced back and forth, tail twitching. Anameis dug the claws of her good paw into the mud, the tufts of soft fur at her wrist becoming caked with the stuff.

Lurro sat down and curled his tail neatly around his paws, as Laana often would. "We are all here; let us begin," he said. "Kupri, Ellenre," Two nichelings stood up at his words. "You will patrol the northern boundaries. Taana and Meelmi-" and here two more stood to attention - "you will take the stand of vines to the south-east of the river."

They wasted no time in heading to their assigned posts, leaving Anameis with a single stranger. His leafy green pelt bristled with worry, his flattened tail and long ears low, his mouth open slightly in a nervous pant. Anameis crouched lower into the mud and focused on the commanding nichelings. I could take the other one, she thought, in an attempt to cheer herself up. Mimi was barely Anameis' size, certainly lighter, and her fangs would do nothing to Anameis' toxin-laden body. But at the very thought, Lurro turned his head ever so slightly in her direction, and their eyes met. She blinked, and averted her gaze.

"Norokir," Lurro went on, and the green nicheling by Anameis' side looked up, ears standing on end. "Relare informs me that you destroyed another plant yesterday. You will show me, and the newcomer will see how it is done."

"Yes, Lurro," Norokir said, scraping one of his broad digger's paws through the mud.

There was no further explanation, and Anameis didn't believe for one moment that she was expected, or allowed, to ask questions. I know where this is, she thought. Where the troublemakers get sent.

It was the smallest relief that Mimi did not accompany them into the jungle. Touching noses with her brother, the diminutive two-gem slunk off into the grass on matters of her own concern. Anameis tried not to wonder what.

Her tail dragged through the mud as she followed Lurro uphill and into the rainforest. Norokir walked by her side, but he didn't look at her, or anything other than the small black nicheling ahead. Occasionally Lurro would stop and sniff at the air, and though obviously he was scouting for danger ahead - something that to Anameis was practically instinct - he would then swivel one ear backwards and wait. A few tense heartbeats later, he set off again, saying nothing.

Though the rain dampened all scents, Anameis smelled the warning sweetness all the same. "Wait!" she cried out, before she could stop herself. Norokir crouched, ears held back again.

Lurro stopped.

Anameis looked over her shoulder. Even though Lurro's tail was turned toward her, the urge to avoid his glare was overwheming. "I smelled one of the plants in bloom."

Lurro's ear flicked. "Well done. But this one will not be a problem." He shouldered aside the grass ahead. The wet strands clung to Anameis' pelt as she followed.

A healthy wariness of the nicheling-devouring plants kept Anameis at a distance, but she had seen enough of them destroyed by her new tribemates' claws that they held less fear than before. But this plant had not been shredded, but uprooted from its very base. A gaping pit marked where it had once grown, smelling of sap and red earth. The plant itself lay intact where it had fallen on its side, and the sight made Anameis' ears flatten, unbidden.

Lurro circled the fallen plant. His gait was not wary - perhaps a little cautious, but fluid and calculating. "This is good work," he said at last, and Anameis heard a little sigh of relief escape Norokir's throat. "This is what I expect of you, rogue-born."

"Seen it," Anameis said. "We tore them apart all the time, in my tribe."

"You," Lurro said, flattening his ears ever so slightly, "are Taimeran."

Funny how you never cared about that before, Anameis thought, but only a narrowing of her mismatched eyes betrayed her ideas.

The rain continued to fall, slow and relentless, throughout the day. Even in the cloying heat, the dampness seemed to penetrate Anameis' bones. Lurro appeared unaffected. Even with mud covering his paws, he strode smoothly and held his head high, caring little for the unpleasant conditions. Once, Anameis might have been the same. But now she realised how much she had grown accustomed to fresh mountain air and colder temperatures. Even her coat had grown a little thicker in response to the altitude, that otherwise felt like the memory of a dream, something long gone and long forgotten, recalled only by its absence.

Fortunately she had not lost the instincts and reflexed gained from growing up in the rainforest. Lurro tasked her with finding another plant, which she quickly managed, locating one tucked away in the lee of a small rise. "Good work," he said. "Dig it up."

Anameis froze. She knew how to find the plants, but only to avoid them or so that someone stronger than her could tear them to pieces. Yet Lurro expected something, and fast.

"This way," said a voice at her side. Norokir had been silent all the way, before now. "Watch for the vine and don't touch it." That much she understood, but she kept back at first as Norokir began to dig around the plant's base, taking great care to heed his own advice.

Anameis would have been content to leave him to it, were it not for Lurro's gaze at her back. She took a deep breath and loped forward, her three-legged gait wary - between the small cliff and Norokir's swift digging, she had precious little space to avoid the vine. The image of it grabbing her paw and recoiling played again and again inside her mind, refusing to stop. Don't think about the vine. Don't think about the vine. She focused on the mud at her paws, and laid on her front to take the weight off her good foreleg, using it to scoop out the dirt from the hole.

Norokir, meanwhile, had exposed much of the main root, a big, gnarled taproot as wide as Anameis' own body. "Bite it," he said, noting that Anameis was having trouble with the digging. "If you cut it all the way through, it won't die, but it will take time to regrow."

Anameis might have protested that she knew exactly what she was doing, but her back and forelimbs ached, and no matter how hard she tried, the hole never grew any bigger. Mud, blended by the rain into a semi-liquid state, kept slumping back as quickly as she scooped it out. She looked back over her shoulder. Lurro's back was turned to the two of them as he kept watch for approaching danger, but she was under no impression that he had forgotten about them, or wouldn't hear everything they said.

She dove into the hole and began gnawing at the root. Immediately, bitter tasting sap filled her mouth, as her mismatched teeth ground at the plant's flesh. Her lungs gasped to take in the thick, humid air, and under her paws she felt the mud shift. But she pressed on. She could do something, down here. She still felt her sense of self pressed up against the back of her skull, but the physical action drowned out her thoughts, her world narrowed down to one task. Either she uprooted the plant or she didn't. Either the vine would snag her or it wouldn't. But now, she could act.

Exhaustion crept further into her body as the day wore on, but she paid it no heed. When had she last rested? When had she last eaten? It did not matter. The mist and the rain continued to blot out the sun and her sense of time. Lurro paced around on constant alert, never tiring.

Eventually, the plant began to tilt to one side, with Norokir attempting to push it in the direction of its own snare while Anameis continued to chew through the root. She was forced to dart in and out, catching her breath in the relatively clear surface air before jumping back in and chewing a little further each time.

At last, with a great creak, the plant began to tilt further, and she scrambled out of the hole just in time to watch Norokir give it one last push with his wide paws. For a moment it wobbled in place, and then it collapsed upon its side, rolling over and tearing up more of the earth in its wake. The snare-vine at its base twitched and coiled in a manner more akin to a dying snake than a plant, and its writhing send a shudder of dread down Anameis' spine as she half hopped, half backed away.

Her hand legs gave way and she sat on her haunches in a moment of relief and shock. She had done it! She had torn up a trailing vine plant! The enormity of the task was matched only by the pain and exhaustion throughout her body, from her strained back and mud-stained limbs to her aching jaws and the bitter taste clinging to her tongue. Yet she could have run forever now, and nothing could stop her...

"Good work," Lurro said.

The day did not end there. It seemed to Anameis that Lurro intended to fill every daylight moment, though they found no more plants to dig up. He showed her the borders of their territory, now clearly marked with scent and claws, as well as the trails he frequently patrolled. His tone was clipped as ever, his praise rare, but in the moments it came through, Anameis found herself craving it before she even realised. For all his quietly threatening demeanour, Lurro knew when to drop just enough encouragement to leave his underlings racing after the next few drops. She saw through it and yet, despite the sickened sensation in the depths of her gems, she followed.

In a small mercy the rain eased off as evening approached, and the sun began to shine again through the trees. It sank lower still before her day was done and she trudged back to the river to bathe in the dusky light. Still she had no plan, no idea of where Rara or Laana might be, none of the daring ideas she'd dreamed of coming up with the night before. Bet that was his plan, too, she thought, as she ducked under the slow-flowing water, working away the clinging red mud and the lingering taste of bitter sap. The harder she worked, the more her body ached, the less she could think...

At least she was alone now, or as alone as she could be within this broken reflection of her birth tribe. Norokir was washing in the river too, grooming his own coat, and a few berry gatherers waded to the cave mouth nearby, carrying their harvests, but at least there was no sign of Lurro. It was a few moments of relative solitude before facing the crowded cave, moments where she could feel the constant sensation of her skull being squeezed ease a little.

Her ears perked at a growl rumbling through the cave mouth, too deep for any Taimeran. Rearing up in the water, she caught sight of a grey shape emerging from the dark, flanked by Taimeran guards. The berry gatherers still filing inside pressed themselves to the far wall and shrank back. Beside Anameis, the waters stirred as Norokir drew closer. "The war beast," he said, in a voice filled with equal measures of fear and reverence.

Rara walked with a swaying gait, the poisons in her blood keeping her in check, and now Anameis could see that amongst the guards were two fanged nichelings, their teeth thrust forwards and ready to strike. Rara's head was lowered, her tail dragging through the water. Her pelt was dull and ragged, her gems drained of their brightness and her ruff hung in tangles from her throat. Yet her growl still thundered through the trees, her teeth bared and her claws flexing with every step.

Eventually she and her guards vanished into the same thicket that Anameis had used for a little solitude the previous day, and she looked away. "She's the one who tore up the plant before, isn't she?" Norokir said, as though he had been holding his tongue before out of respect for the warrior nicheling. "The one who freed the seer."

Anameis made a small noise in her throat. She'd already decided against correcting Norokir's assumption as to the identity of the "war beast". Aside from the fact that she was sure letting the Taimerans knew that an even bigger and stronger nicheling waited for them in the mountains, Rara herself surely wore the title with pride.

But her attention now was focused on the cave, her hope rising that a smaller, white nicheling would emerge. But as the moments dragged by, all was still and silent, save for the mists curling and rising in the evening heat. Anameis turned away and licked the rapidly drying hairs of her ruff back into place. "Laana," she said. "The seer was called Laana."

"The seer with the blue gems, I remember her." Norokir pawed at stones, unseen in the dark waters.

Anameis turned an ear, but only the chirp of insects sounded through the misty woods. "Where is she?"

Norokir avoided her eyes and licked down his fur. "No."

"No what?" Anameis hopped through the water, circling the green nicheling.

"I know what you want!" Norokir's ears were flat again, in stark contrast to his raised, reddish-brown mane. "He's listening! He's always listening!"

"Didn't ask for help getting her out." Anameis scratched an ear, sending water flying everywhere in an act of feigned nonchalance.

Norokir backed off from the watery spray. "It doesn't matter if you know or not."

"Then tell me! Aren't I supposed to be one of you now?" Anameis rounded back up on him, baring her jagged teeth. Although half again her size, he stumbled backwards, holding up one big paw to fend her off.

"She's in the deep caves!" Norokir touched his paw to the three purple gems set in his chest. "You won't get her out of there. Once you go into the deep caves, you see nothing, ever again." His great claws twitched as he pawed at his gems, frantic and shaking. "You think you can rescue her, but you can't. Forget about her. Nothing short of the gods is going to get your friend out of there."

Anameis got no more from Norokir after that. Following his concession, which was almost certainly a warning as much as it was information, he refused to speak of anything but the patrols.

It was a silent and subdued Anameis who followed him into the caves as darkness crept over the forest. Her tail, weighed down with water even after her attempt to dry it out, dragged across the cave floor, and her eyes were half-lidded with exhaustion. She ate a little fruit, not caring what it was - she didn't have to worry about avoiding poison. Perhaps, if nothing else, she could tell her friends what she had learnt. That cheered her up a little, enough for her to seek them out again in the dark.

She found them by smell, edging her way through the crowd to reach them. Perhaps out of curiosity, Norokir followed. As she drew closer, Anameis heard the end of a story being told, and though she did not know who it was, she recognised the tale. It was Zachi's Trials, the story of a ruthless tribe leader's attempts to banish anyone he considered weak, until his tribe were left on the verge of extinction for his obsessions. The tale was already coming to an end by the time she settled down beside Kirro and Iskome. They said nothing, because it would be terrible manners to interrupt a story, but both gently groomed her coat, easing a little of the tension within. I wish I could tell them, she thought, but she had no illusions Norokir would out her in an instant if he thought he could save his own pelt.

Eventually the speaker came to the end of their story, to the sound of appreciative noises all around. "Who is next?" another nicheling said, and Anameis realised this must be a circle or contest to see who could tell the best story. The absurdity of such a normal part of life, even in a place such as this, jarred her, yet in a comforting away. Even here, a tribe clung to normality and routine, for they too were a form of hope. "Kirro, don't you tell stories?" she said.

In the darkness, she heard Kirro's thin tail lash. "I'm not a seer."

"But you know the stories," Iskome said. "You don't have to be a seer to tell a story, you should know that. What will it be?"

Suggestions echoed from all directions, some Anameis knew well, others she had never heard of. But it was Norokir's voice that silenced the crowd. "I want to hear Tata and Eclipse."

"I know it," Kirro said, "but do you really want to hear it? You know how it goes."

"Tell it," Norokir said, "and you'll know what you're facing."

Anameis knew those words weren't directed at Kirro. She laid her head on her good paw, stretching out as much as she could in the cramped space. "I want to hear it. Anyone who doesn't, listen to someone else."

As the last rays of dusk faded from the cave, Kirro took a deep breath. "Then here I go..."