Chapter 5: The Sign of the Snows

Yuki awoke the next morning from muddled dreams of chasing rabbils over snow, except that he had no idea what snow looked or felt like, so it was like white sand under his paws and not cold at all. His first thought was that it was rather quiet for once, eerily so, for even when everyone was asleep he could hear gentle breathing or the sound of dreamers turning over in their nests. He felt something nudge his sides, and woke properly, opening his eyes to find old Silais pushing him awake with a gentle shove of her broad muzzle.

There was, just as he thought, nobody else there. Yuki's surprise turned to understanding as he turned an ear and listened to the faint sounds of water lapping against cave walls, and realised he had slept through low tide. It had been a long day yesterday - he felt that he and Kois must have combed the whole island on their adventures after berries and rabbils. The sun had nearly set by the time she accompanied him to the cave. Even without the bearyena, it had been a tiring day. He let out a long yawn and stretched, one leg at a time, though it was hard to leave that nice warm nest with its rabbil fur lining and sweet smelling roots tucked into its weave.

"Yuki," Silais said, "I need to show you something very important. Can you come with me?"

He froze up for a second, fearing something terrible had happened - was Laana hurt? Had she not come back last night? It had been so late he'd forgotten to see if she was there - it was too dark, and he was too tired to do any more than sniff his way to the nest and fall asleep. But Silais must have seen his flattened ears and fluffed tail that gave away the stab of fear inside, for she continued: "No, it is not trouble. But it is something you need to see."

That cheered him up instantly, and in his mind he went over all the things it could be - what if someone had found a pearl, or something even rarer and more special than that? He wanted to ask Silais what it was or if any of his guesses were right, but the old seer was in no position to answer any of his questions, being that she had to lift him by his scruff to carry him over the tide-flooded cave entrance. Normally he'd have protested being carried about like a baby with no gems, but the excitement was all too much for him to care. He did wonder if he could swim the distance; it was shallow enough that the water came up to Silais' gems, but he knew she'd never let him. She held him high to keep him out of the water, and he curled his fluffy tail up to keep it dry. Even if he did want to try swimming, it did look all cold and murky down there.

Presently they emerged onto the boulder fields outside, and as usual it look a little longer for Yuki's eyes to adjust to the daylight than anyone else's, so he didn't protest too much at Silais continuing to carry him as she picked out the driest, least slippery and seaweed caked path to the sands. When she did let him go and take his steps onto soft, dry sand above the high tide mark, he could already see what she had been heading for.

They looked like nothing more than a collection of white blurs to Yuki's eyes, but he was used to that, and he could still tell that all the seers must be there, more than he could count, gathered around by the water to see something he couldn't, for their backs were all turned toward him. Silais walked slowly, and though Yuki longed to scamper ahead (surely the bluebird would not strike with so many of them here?) he kept her pace. A sense descended upon him that this was something bigger than he had dared hope for, something big and exciting but also better fitted for the world of adults who had all their gems. He suddenly felt very small, even when some of the seers turned to watch their approach and parted to let he and Silais through, and he caught the sound of nervous chatter between them, yet too faint to understand what any of them were saying. None of them had ever looked at him the way they did now. Even knowing who he was, he had always been just a cub to them. Now they stood back, ears slightly lowered, tails nervously folded around legs, and even though a part of him had waited for this moment since he was old enough to understand, he was not sure that he liked it.

The one seer who did not move still had her back to him, but he needed no more to recognise Laana. She was bent over something he could not see, but it was plain to him that it must be a clam. He broke free of the grip on his mind and body, running forward to meet her, and she looked over her shoulder with a shocked "Yuki!" that sounded so normal, as if today was any other day, that he ran to her and met her surprise with a quick nuzzle, heedless of everyone watching. But his attention was swiftly brought back to the present when he saw that she was, as he had guessed, looking at a clam, and though the meat inside meant nothing to him apart from a nice breakfast, his audience and Laana's solemn gaze told him all he needed to know.

"Yuki..." Laana sounded dazed, and her voice was a whisper. "It is the sign of the snows."

He looked up. Red eyes met blue. "Now?"

A part of him had known this must be what Laana had seen even before he left the cave, for he had been brought up to know that this day would come, and nothing else could explain why the seers had all gathered or why they glanced at one another as he walked past. But he had still thought that this day would come in some distant, nebulous future where he was big and grown, not in the long days of chasing rabbils through the meadow under a warm sun. Gripped by the possibility that he had grown in the night, he looked down at his chest, squinting to see if maybe a second gem had appeared, but though it shone bright and pink with vitality, there was still only one, as there always had been as long as he could remember.

"Oh, Yuki," his aunt said, snapping him out of speculation, "isn't it so exciting?"

"Yes," he said, because that seemed like the right answer, and he looked back over the crowd. It occurred to him that Kois should know about this, but there was no sign of her earth-red coat, only the seers and their plain white pelts. "Where's Kois?" She knew all the stories of Yuki, she would know what to do...

"That is enough staring." Silais' voice broke through the crowd, and she stepped between Yuki and Laana on one side and the other seers on the other, claws flexing in the sand, an unspoken sign to give them some space. "There are plenty of other clams to find, even when the tide is high."

The others seemed to understand, and alone or in twos and threes they broke off from the crowd, though they still talked amongst one another in those low voices that Yuki knew meant they didn't want him to hear. But soon they were all gone. Silais sat down beside him, and bent down to his level. "Are you well?" she said.

"Yes?" he said, aware that was all he seemed able to say at the moment. He wanted to say he wasn't sure, that he didn't want to go just now, that he was going to miss the meadows and the cove and Kois' tree... but Kois would be so happy, so that would make him happy too, and Laana had found the clam, and that was important, and... "It's important!"

"Hmmm," said Silais. Then, to Laana, "I will tell you what I told Kois. What you choose is up to you, but this tribe has lived for many generations upon this island. It may not be easy finding those who are willing to leave, and certainly not for the snow."

"I know what I saw, Silais. You can see it too!"

"I can, and I have." Silais sniffed at the open clam. "The sign is unmistakable, a new journey, to perilous lands. Unmistakable. The question is of who will be willing to follow you." She stood up and licked a stray tuft of fur on her shoulder, smoothing it down. "I suggest you spread the word as fast as you can. The last thing we want is rumour."

Yuki knew they couldn't tell anyone without telling Kois first of all, so she was their first destination. Silais had seen fit to remind them of all the dangerous beasts of the mountains - arctic ramfoxes, balance bears, even walrus deer would turn and fight when threatened. But Yuki wasn't afraid of those. They would have Kois with them, and there was nobody stronger in all the tribe, maybe not even in the whole world, so nothing could hurt them as long as she was by their side.

No, what felt strange was seeing the meadow, feeling warm sunlight on his back and the tall grass brushing at his sides as he parted it to walk through, and knowing that soon he would never see or feel them again. He and Laana stopped to eat some berries, for in the chaos of the morning they had not eaten at all that day. They were a little dry from all the hot sunshine, but Yuki liked that, because they made the flavour sweeter and sharper. He wondered if mountain berries tasted the same, or if this was something else he would soon leave behind, and he wasn't sure they tasted so good after that.

But then they found Kois, and when she heard the news she and Laana purred and nuzzled one another like a mated pair. And Yuki knew that she had been waiting for a day like this for many seasons, longer than he had been alive, and the sight of them together made him forget all his fears. He rushed up to them to tell Kois how excited he was too, and she responded with a friendly nudge, her broad snout touching the tuft on top of his head that would one day be a proper mane.

"So am I," she said, and though her voice was gentle and calm as it always was, he knew it must be true.

In time the news spread across the island whether they meant it or not, passed from one nicheling to the next, working its way through berry bushes, over streams and meadows, and lingering in the shade of the nut trees. Yuki could not help but be aware of how everyone turned to look as they passed by. His brilliant white coat had always made him stand out, but now, just as it had with the seers, everything had changed. Nichelings would look up from their berry picking and nest weaving duties, and stop him and his guardians to ask if the rumours were true.

And true to Silais' warning, few seemed as if they wanted to leave. "I think I am too old, island hopping is for the young!" one said. Or, "I have cubs... I could never leave now, or think of them leaving." And, "I've lived here all my life, and it sounds cold out there!" But those words could not slow Yuki down. Even seeing the familiar meadows and all the older nichelings he knew by name and greeted whenever he saw them, his mind swam with the reminder that he was indeed Yuki of the snowy mountains, and this was his day.

Nor could they stop Kois. Some of the words she heard were... she would not call them unkind, for she herself was not unkind, but they did not know the way of the old Yukirs. So she would choose to believe they meant no cruelty by wondering out loud why anyone would choose to live around that "nasty cold ground" they'd heard stories about. They were only doing as they always did, speaking of what they understood and what they didn't.

Throughout the day they travelled, and though Yuki exclaimed that they must have wandered from one end of the island to another, they stayed on their paws until nightfall. Yuki and Laana kept a wary eye out for bearyena as they returned to Sunrise Cove and the seclusion of their sea cave. Kois parted ways high up on the meadow as the first stars began to shine in a dusky sky, and soft winds blew over the tall grass. Once again she returned to her nest and its bones.

It had not been so long ago that she had laid before them and told them of Yuki's birth, and now she was here to tell them it was time to leave, to be led back to the snow by a child of only one gem. She settled back into the nest. The grass weave was still old and dry; summer had continued its gentle warmth, though the seers had not long ago foretold rain. Her great claws hung over the edge, her broad head resting atop them.

The skulls were still and silent. Just as Yuki before her, Kois felt struck at that moment with all the things she would leave behind. But just as Yuki, she had been raised on stories, and understood that this day may well come. And now it was here, there were few words on her tongue.

"It's time," she said.

And a breeze rustled the grass, and the stars continued to shine, and Kois slept in the sheltered hollow that was her nest, watched over and blessed by the bones of her mother and father.