Chapter 6: Three Goodbyes

Though none had been sighted in long memory, there were tales told of nichelings in distant lands who grew wings and took to the sky, battling even the fearsome bluebirds among the clouds. Should any of these legends have flown over Laana and Kois' home island, they would have seen a gentle, green land, dotted with nut trees and tall grass. Flying onward, past Sunrise Cove and the wide sands they would have soared over the causeway. From above it was possible to see the way the sea lightened in colour, marking an underwater ridge that occasionally broke the waves in the form of tiny islands and sandbanks. Too small and devoid of fresh water, they were quite unlivable, but for a nicheling athletic and determined enough, they marked out a pathway to new lands. On the clearest of summer days, a watcher might catch a glimpse of such lands on the horizon - a faint smudge of purple-grey in the haze of distance, a far away land that could be anything.

There had, in the past, been two such crossings, but the second of these, the ones that Laana's ancestors had used generations ago, had since blown away in a storm, its sand banks washed away and its little islands shattered by the waves. The last to cross, in more recent memory, had been Kois' parents, seeking shelter. Now there was only one way to arrive or leave, and no nicheling could tell what may at the other end, only that the time had come.

Even after everything that had been said, there was no denying a certain interest toward the causeway. It had not been uncommon over the generations for a young nicheling or two to sit gazing out over the sea in speculation of the land beyond. Sometimes a whole group would come and watch and talk about how when they were grown, they would swim out and see what was on the other side, and then the seasons would pass, and they would be old, and there would be more youngsters watching the sea and talking about how they would leave soon…

But now, perhaps, a flying creature might have noticed the narrow trails through the tall grass, and the movement of nichelings as, once again, they came to look out over the sea and wonder.

Down there, on that island, there were three goodbyes.

Laana felt a cold wind blow from deep within the sea cave. Every day and night that wind blew in and out, regular as the tides, as if something bigger and fiercer than even a bearyena dwelt within. She had ventured into its depths once before, when she had first gone forth into the dark to receive the blessings of Doeli, first of the seers. Climb far away from the nests and the morning sun, and the light dwindled to nothing, leaving you all alone in a still and silent world, until your eyes began to see things that were not there in the dark.

But this time Laana had not come far. The depths were not of the everyday world, and though today was no ordinary morning, she hesitated in the half lit passage.

She looked back to the circle of light that was the entrance, to the nests behind her, all empty for the seers had already departed for the morning. Climbing over boulders bigger than herself, she hopped and clambered into the depths, and stopped. With her nimble paw she touched each of her gems in turn. The last time she had entered, her third and final barely emerged, they had been green, as was common in the nichelings of the meadow. When she emerged, days later, they were blue as the sea, and so they had always been since.

Laana turned back to the depths, where only traces of light remained to give shape to the passage ahead. The wind blew over her whiskers like the sea breeze on top of the cliffs, but far deeper, colder, and older. She needed a message.

So she sat where she was, and let the cave's breath wash over her, and tried not to think of the future.

As Laana pondered her situation, Yuki walked alongside Silais, watching her follow the tideline for the last time. It was another bright and clear day. The wind smelled of salt, and the damp sand shone in the sunlight. Sometimes Silais would dig up a clam with her big claws, and Yuki would help, digging as fast as he could to reach it before the hole filled with sandy water. On any other day it would have been exciting, even trailing old Silais, but on a day such as this, it all felt too much like waiting. So he would look back over his shoulder, narrowing his eyes to try and see a faint white shape emerging from the cave. He would pace in circles as Silais pored over the shattered shells, although he didn't dare go far - he could not see or hear any bluebirds, but no doubt Silais would have some words for him anyway. So he stayed close to her side, pacing, scratching imaginary itches, and waiting for any sign of what to do next.

It would not be so bad, he thought, if the sea had anything to say about the journey that lay ahead for him. At first he'd watched with full attention, hungry for predictions, as Silais cracked open the clams with her powerful jaws. He would stay close to her side as she divined their messages, trying to see for himself the meaning that she sought in the meat and broken shells. It had occurred to him that if the seers were of the line of Doeli, then so he must be too, so why shouldn't he be able to see them as well? But it was no use, and in any case the sea had nothing to say about fantastical journeys and distant lands, but berry harvests and good hunting. And so, one clam after another, the sea's omens became boredom, and his mind wandered, to imagine what adventures did lie ahead, and so he remembered that this was the last day he would ever walk by Silais' side along Sunrise Cove, and once again he felt that uneasy sensation he felt before, that feeling of deep longing and yearning for a place that he had yet to leave, but soon would.

He tried to forget about it, because Silais was now trying to drag aside a large, heavy strand of seaweed, and it was one of those huge things several nicheling lengths long, all covered in translucent pods and smelling of the deepest seas. Yuki had heard that down there were fish with teeth longer than his tail and great dead, white eyes, and that thought was enough to distract him from his pre-emptive homesickness for at least a moment. A myriad of sand fleas scattered in the sun as he helped the older seer pull it away. But as he looked back up, he saw a pale shape walking across the sands, and he knew that it must be Laana. There were others out today, looking for omens just like Silais, and perhaps one of them might have found news of his journey, but as she approached and he could see a little better, he knew it to be his aunt. From the way she walks on mismatched and elegant paws, to the simplistic strands of seaweed draped over her dark antlers, there was nobody he knew better.

Normally he would have bolted from Silais' side and run to Laanas, but he stayed where he was, and not out of fear of the bluebird. Nor, either, the solemnness that had fallen upon him when he had first seen the sign of the snows. This was no more than the final realisation that after this moment, he would never see Silais again.

Silais knew it too. She looked up, letting the heavy seaweed fall back to the sand, and Yuki felt a paw, its claws sharp but gentle, come to rest upon his back.

"You are ready?" said Silais.

"Yes." Laana stopped, her nimble paws raised, waiting for Yuki.

"The sea has nothing to say of your journey," said Silais. "Where you go, you go alone."

Yuki caught a brief flattening of Laana's ears, but he paid it little attention, and instead closed his eyes, resting his head against Silais' thick chest fur. It tickled him on the nose. For a moment, all was still and quiet, and to Yuki it was as if this would all stay the same, if he never opened his eyes again. But open them he must, when he heard Laana by his ear. "Yuki," she said, "are you ready to go?"

He looked up at Silais, standing over him. "Go on," she said, and bent down to give him a gentle nudge in his aunt's direction. He stumbled toward Laana, but still was unable to turn away from the elder seer.

Silais settled into a crouch, tucking her sharp claws into the fur of her chest. "You understand," she said, now that she was closer to his level, "that perhaps the sea does not speak for you, because you are not of the sea. You are of the snow. Perhaps different signs will guide you. Laana's clam was a message for us; the rest is all yours."

"Why yes!" said Laana. She placed her nimble paw over Yuki's shoulder, drawing him closer. "Who knows what you'll see?"

"But it takes time to know how to read the seas," Silias continued. "So don't fear if you don't understand right away… because I know your aunt didn't!" Laana's eyes widened at Silais' words, but she still managed a little purr of amusement.

Yuki finally found his voice, but his ears were low and his tail curled around his body, and no amount of adventure could change how he felt. "But I'll miss you."

"I know." Silais got to her feet and bent over the young nicheling to give him a lick on the head, flattening what little of a mane he had grown. "And I will miss you. But you are only doing what we have always done, and what we all knew would be done. I have no desire to see snow, but Kois was right. Now, you should join her. She must be waiting!"

Further inland, away from the gentle shore and the never-ceasing waves, deep in the tall grass, Kois rose from her nest in silence before the bones of her mother and father. There were no words to say, because all the words she had, she had already spoken, and if there were any words to ensure safe passage to the snow, they had long been lost in the time of her ancestors. But she could not stay silent, and it struck her that she should speak, even if it were only words that she had brought forth for this moment. So she turned away from the bones and to the nest that she had been born in, though it had been broken and rewoven that surely none of the original must remain. And with claws as curved and sharp as any predator's, she tore it apart. The dry weave broken under her paws, yellowed grass and sweet roots and rabbil fur scattered beneath her, and as she clawed and rent at her home, she spoke. "Yuki guide me. Annka shelter me. Nikisha bring me strength."

When the nest was destroyed beneath her paws, she took up a mouthful of dry old grass and laid it by her mother's skull. It was much like her own, broad and powerful in form, with curled horns spiralling outward. The same she did for the skull of her father. His was altogether different, narrow and long but no lesser in strength. Its surface was ridged, its jaws full of sharp teeth, and his horns had been bigger than any seen on the island before or since, great antlers that made the seers' look like twigs in comparison. She remembered the tribe shrinking back into the grass as he passed by, yet never in her memory had he harmed anything bigger than a rabbil. Struck back into silence, with no more ancestors to call upon, she reached out for other names, other stories that had made it to the tribe, until at the end she reached the name all tribes knew. "Doeli bring me insight. Mela forgive me. Meis feed my hunger. Tata stay away."

With no more words, she scattered the last remains of her nest, turning swiftly in place over where it had stood. With one slam of her clubbed tail, she sent all the old grass and dust into the air, to rise as a cloud and settle over the tall grass. And at last she turned away and vanished into that same grass, and left behind the bones of her past, so that in time they would return to the earth.

Kois was familiar with the hunting trails that wound their way through the island, intersecting and weaving together, forming a network through the thicker grasses that would otherwise hinder a nicheling's passing. Each one led to water, or shelter, or good hunting grounds. Those that the tribe used frequently became well worn and full of familiar scents, but as Kois moved on to the forgotten shore, they became narrow and overgrown. Even the grass grew taller and its stems toughened. Its deep, dark green blades covered even Kois from sight. In its midst she shouldered aside leaves and kept her ears perked forward, listening for the boom of waves on a rocky shore. But sound did not carry well here, and nor did scent, and all she could smell was the earthy, leafy surroundings, and all she could hear was the rustling of leaves. So Kois guided herself by memory, trusting the trail ahead. Even the sun did not seem to shine so brightly under the dense growth.

Yet there were signs of activity even here. Curious nichelings had followed the trail in the past few days, leaving broken stems and faint scents to mark their passage. Despite all Kois had heard, there was a sense that some invisible force had drawn them near, to investigate if not to make the jump for themselves, and maybe some would be curious enough to go further. And in time Kois could hear the sea ahead, and she was left overlooking the last vestiges of the land that had been home.

A spit of land trailed into pale blue-green water, vanishing under its gentle surface. Deep below the ridge continued, winding on until it resurfaced as a speck of land a short swim away, and then another, and another. They faded from view in time, but this was one of those clear days, when the sun was bright and the sky free from clouds, that she could see all the way to that faint purple-grey smudge on the horizon that meant new land. The wind blew in from the sea, carrying with it the smell of salt and ruffling the short grass and white flowers that grew over this last land. She stepped with care, unwilling to disturb this wild and yet peaceful place. Grass and flowers tickled her paws as she walked.

Ahead there grew a stand of berry bushes, stunted by wind but still bearing fruit. White shapes moved around, revealing themselves as she approached as Laana and Yuki. They had already been hard at work before Kois' arrival, as was evident from the pile of fruit that sat beside them, already as tall as Yuki himself. The little white nicheling leapt to his feet at Kois' approach, and as he ran to her she reached out one massive paw and drew him close to her. Laana was more subdued, looking up with her ears perked as Yuki disengaged from Kois' embrace.

"Is there only you?" Kois said, walking closer with Yuki staying by her side.

"So far," said Laana.

And it was true that the sun had only just passed its zenith, and there was time for others to gather, for nichelings move at their own pace. There would be others. In the meantime there was food to gather and eat; there would be nothing on the tiny islands out at sea except for the odd crabbit if they were lucky. Thus it was important that they eat their fill, and berries were a rare treat for Kois, who was not dextrous enough to pick them without clawing them half to pieces in the process. They were a little smaller than usual, like the bushes that bore them, but no less sweet.

And then there was little to do but wait. Kois would watch over the sea, or turn her attention to the tall grass, but watching would not make anyone arrive sooner or the next day come faster. So she curled up by the food pile, ears pricked for unusual sounds but eyes closed, and breathed in the smell of flowers and salt and cool, fresh air.

It was not so later in the day that the grass began to rustle again, and all three of them looked up. There were two other nichelings in the tall grass, and though Kois did not know them, Yuki burst forth with a shout of "Tanu! Meana!"

"Well hello!" Meana, a sandy coloured female, was the first to step out of the grass and meet Yuki with an affectionate headbutt. Tanu, a male whose pelt was the dusky colour of clouds at a sunset, held back, scratching at a spot on his chest, a sure sign that he was about to gain his third gem. He kept looking around, as scanning for predators or imagining that he was already beset on all sides by balance bears. But he was not too wary to accept a friendly nudge from Yuki.

"Is it only you?" said Meana. "Some of the others were talking about coming. But I didn't know how many of them would actually do it." She settled down near to Kois, curling her tail around sharp clawed feet. Like Tanu she bore only two gems, but they were bright with vitality, and from her size - already taller and doubtless heaver too than Laana - she was also close to her third. "But I know I'd always be regretting it if I didn't go, and Tanu..." she looked back at the pinkish adolescent, who had gone chasing after a rabbil's alarm call - "he's been having a hard enough time here."

"And I am glad to have you along," said Kois.

It turned out Meana and Tanu were accomplished hunters, and so the little tribe in the making feasted on rabbil meat as well as berries. Soon the hunting turned to play-fights and chases between the younger nichelings. Laana was not so inclined to partake in such things and made that quite clear as she watched from the sidelines, alert for any harm that might befall Yuki, though it was only play. Kois held back too, cautious that a careless blow from her tail or claws could shatter bone and gems, but she would happily sit still and watch, or let Yuki climb onto her back to get a better view of the world around him. His eyes were not good enough to let him see the distant land like she could, but she pointed a claw in its direction to show him where it was.

Another rustle in the grass, and Yuki nearly fell from his perch, digging claws in to Kois' fur to steady himself. He hopped down to greet the newcomers, one of which Kois did recognise this time as some nephew or great-nephew of Silais herself, Kirro. With his white coat and red-tinted antlers, he might have been one of the rare male seers, had his round paws been better able to grapple with clams. Alongside him was another female who Yuki knew as Iskome, whose pelt appeared black until bright sunlight revealed ghostly black stripes, barely a shade darker than their background. They both lay out on the grass close to where Kois and Laana rested, rolling over to relish the warm sun as Yuki came to talk with them about what they thought the new island would be like.

And there were others too, as the day wore on, more youngsters with two gems, or those who had only just gained their third, diggers and foragers and hunters and fishers, and by the time the sun began to set there were perhaps eight or nine of them all together. None of them had seen snow before, and none could imagine it, but they had all done something Kois would be grateful for. They had stepped out of their lives to see what lay over the water. For a moment she wondered if she had torn them from their homes for the sake of a story, but as they all gathered, eager to begin their journey, she could see that they had made their choice. Every few generations, a tribe would become restless, and its younger members would, despite trepidation, feel the sea's pull. It was something far older than her, older even than the stories of Yuki.

But none of them would swim out now. The night was for resting and gathering strength before the journey, and so as the sun vanished over the far horizon, the little band of explorers found a more sheltered hollow to spend the night, close enough that they could still hear the waves and smell the salt, but away from the wind that blew day and night from the sea. Here they curled up, and Laana came to settle by Kois' side, pressing against the much bigger nicheling's form. Kois responded by curling her tail around the seer's body, just as she had done when they were younger and Laana would jump at strange sounds in the grass.

Though none of them had ever undertaken such a journey, they knew one tradition, and that was to tell a story before embarking to bring hope and inspiration to the travellers. Naturally, there was plenty of debate about which one to tell.

"Do Tata and the Bluebird King!" said one nicheling, a little two-gem who had come along with his twin.

"No, that one's too scary!" said his double, glancing up at the sky.

"Meis and the Nut Trees?" said another.

"I want Zachi's Trials!"

("Goodness..." mumbled Laana, so only Kois could hear, "that one is far too unhappy...")

"Well I want Mela's Fortune!"

"Hey now," said Kirro, laid out in the grass with his paws stretched out in front of him. "I don't mind what you tell, but I think it should be one of his, you think?"

All eyes fell on Yuki, who was sitting between Kois' massive forepaws. He looked up at her, clearly uncertain if he wanted this much attention. And Kois, though she knew many stories of the old Yukirs, did not consider herself a storyteller by any stretch of the imagination.

"I think," she said, "that Laana found the clam, so she should choose the story."

"Me?" said Laana. "Oh well, if you think so." She looked away for a moment, in the direction of the sea. "Then I'll tell you the first story. The Tale of Tata's Paw..."