Snowtouched

Chapter 10: Nikisha's Lessons

And that was how Kois and Laana found themselves stranded on a tropical shore, far from anything they had ever known. The rest of the day and night they slept the exhausted sleep of those who had nothing more to give, not even the energy to seek shelter. They lay curled up together on the sand, and Kois' bulk sheltered Laana from the worst of the rain. At some time in the night the storm finally passed, but even this hardly roused them.

The next day dawned so clear and bright it was as if the storm had never been there, and the land and sky wished to deny any trace of it, but the they could not hide the debris washed up from the ocean depths and strewn across the tideline. When Kois patrolled the beach that morning, she did so with the fear of finding small corpses tangled in the driftwood and seaweed, and never had she been more relived to find nothing.

But Laana could not read the patterns left in the sands or hidden within clamshells, even though she decorated her antlers with seaweed from this same beach in the hopes it would help her understand what the sea had to say. Still they had been lucky, in some regards. They had the fortune to find a river nearby in the last stage of its journey to the sea, giving them fresh water, and even if Laana could not divine meaning from the clams she found on the beach, they made for good meals. Sometimes even a rabbil would venture out of the undergrowth. They were fast, lean creatures, not like the fat rabbils that Kois remembered from home, but not always fast enough.

A day and a night passed, and still there was no sign of other nichelings, and so Laana sat over an opened clam, Kois by her side as the river flowed through white sand before them. "We will find them, or they will find us," Kois had said to her. But immediately after saying it, she wondered who she was trying to reassure. There were no bodies, but nor were there footprints, or hastily dug out shelters, and how could there be? The storm would have washed away any traces. Kois would never say it out loud to Laana, but there were moments when she imagined herself dragging away a heap of driftwood to reveal a tiny body, and feeling relief to at least know of someone's fate.

Laana closed her eyes and leaned in against Kois' ruff and shoulder. Once again Kois felt Laana's antlers brush through the thick fur. A part of her wanted to protest that this shore was hot enough without another nicheling pressed against her side. But she had no heart to push away her only companion. Laana needed this, and so, Kois knew, did she.

She had never seen a place so alien. There was the sea, and the shoreline, and trees and greenery flanking the beach, but all those things were ever so slightly wrong, and it all added to the effect of a world that was not her own, but a few steps removed so that what she saw was more unnerving than it would otherwise have been. She had never seen white sand, or so much turquoise water rippling out to the horizon. The trees were strange, skinny things that did not drop nuts when she hit their trunks with her tail, and instead of proper branches they were smooth and topped with wide green fronds with tattered edges that slowly swayed in the sea breeze.

Even the forest undergrowth looked bizarre to her eyes. A few times she had tried to investigate it, sniffing at the edges and hoping for a familiar scent, but it was quite impassable, a wall of tangled greenery that presented a barrier to a creature of her size and hefty frame. The memories of overgrown trails leading to the causeway back home now seemed, in comparison, to be well trodden meadow paths, full of the welcoming scents of her tribemates. All the jungle smelled of was earth and rain and hot water. In such a foreign land, she could not bear to part with the last piece of home. Of course it was you who came for me, she thought, and closed her own eyes too. She had this, if nothing else.

"I... hurt them," Laana whispered. "I led them here, I made them come along..."

"Them I'm guilty too," said Kois, "because we spoke about this. You would never have known to leave if not for me."

"No, I... oh why can't I see anything?" Laana broke away, moving to sit by the riverside, tail curled around her paws as she gazed into the clear water. Her blue eyes were unfocused, as though staring at a distant target further away than the sand and water before her. "Oh Doeli... I should be able to see something." She brushed her nimble paw down the length of her other, runner's foreleg, and then raised it to touch her gems. "I should..." Her last statement was a whisper, and had Kois' ears not been angled in the right direction, she might not have picked it up at all.

Perhaps she was not meant to hear it. But Kois came to sit by Laana's side anyway, though she kept a respectful distance and did not allow their bodies to touch. From here she could see the water that Laana was trying to scry, but she had none of the seer's gifts and all she could see was their reflections, distorted by running water. Below that, a school of silvery fish, smaller than her claw and not worth the effort of catching, swam against the current. Their movements were so fast and sudden that to Kois' eyes they appeared to blink from one location to another.

Laana said nothing more, but Kois saw her reflection as she touched the seaweed draped from her antlers and ran her paw along the translucent strands.

"We shouldn't stay here," Kois said.

"I can't give up," said Laana.

"We wouldn't be. But if you can't find anything here, maybe we were wrong to stay and wait. We should try something that might work - like Nikisha would."

"Who is Nikisha? We didn't bring anyone called that, did we?" Laana had, for now, stopped worrying at her antlers or trying to read the river, and had turned her head to face Kois.

"One of my ancestors," Kois said. The name had come to her when she recalled calling out for strength during the crossing. She was not an ancestor Kois had felt the need to call for before, but these days, it seemed she needed her.

"You mean from the Yukir Tribe?"

"Yes. They were lost and starving, and many of them wanted to give up and vanish into the snow until their gems became dull. They would have stopped having cubs and let the tribe die out with them. But Nikisha was their leader, and she wouldn't let that happen. So she made them persevere, told them to find food and shelter even when they were too tired to go on. If they couldn't find it in one place, they had to look elsewhere. They were tired, and they hurt, but they lived. I never liked those stories when my parents told them. Now, I think I know why they did." They must have called out to Nikisha themselves in the past, Kois imagined, when they had crossed to the island that became their home and resting place. And if she could not call out for Yuki...

"I suppose you're right," said Laana, "but where else is there to go?"

Kois stood up and faced upriver. "In there."

The river flowed from deep within the jungle, and though it was impossible to see where it ultimately led, it cut a clear path through terrain otherwise too densely overgrown to pass. To Kois' eyes it was a gateway into an impenetrable world. The trees grew thick overhead, giving the impression of a green cave whose depths were as unknown and otherworldly as the see seer's cave back home, but she could still see its surface glimmer in what sunlight made it through the canopy, like a beacon leading her eyes further inside.

"What?" Laana jumped to her feet. "But the apes... whatever those are..."

In reply Kois slowly lifted her tail and slammed it into the sand. It was not a heavy impact, such as she might make to warn bearyenas away, but it still scattered the sand and made Laana jump again, and Kois could feel the impact reverberate through the ground and into her paws.

"Oh... well, I suppose there is that." Laana trotted around in a circle, a small release of tension, and came to stand by Kois' side. "Lead on, Ki-Kois."

"You don't need to call me that," said Kois. They both knew the old titles of respect - Ki, meaning an esteemed leader of a tribe, or greater - but only from stories. Back home, they had no need for them, as their tribe had little to fear or argue about, and so everyone had done as they needed. Even old Silais, who Kois had trusted as an authority, would have cuffed you over the head if you'd been so bold as to call her Ki-Silais. That would have implied that her word and judgement were final for all the tribe, and Silais would call herself "no more than an old seer who is good at what she does, thankyou" if you'd asked her how much weight she carried. "If you will call me Ki-Kois, then I will have to be fair and call you Ki-Laana."

"Is... that a joke?"

"You will know when I'm telling a joke," Kois said, with a purr. With that, she walked into the forest at a leisurely pace, swinging her tail. Laana walked by her side, keeping her ears perked forwards, on the alert for strange sounds.

Soon they were under the canopy, and the sea breeze was gone. Down here the air felt damp and heavy with the scent of the red earth under their paws. The dense undergrowth that permeated the forest thinned out by the river's banks, allowing easier passage into the forest's depths. Kois suspected other animals besides themselves used it for the same purpose. She sniffed at the ground, but the only familiar tracks and scents were those lithe jungle rabbils she'd seen before. There were none of the different kinds of tracks that gave away the presence of nichelings, although there were others she didn't know - some big, some small, all evidence of creatures gathering to drink or pass through the jungle.

If the going was easier by the riverside, the trees above made up for it. The deeper the two nichelings ventured, the taller they grew, twice or maybe three times the size of Kois' old nut tree. Their trunks were bare of leaf of branch until the top, where they blossomed out into wide canopies to grab as much of the sun as they could, leaving only scraps to filter down to the forest floor. In the half-lit gloom, Kois took the lead, her eyes being slightly better adapted to the dark than other nichelings'. There were smells everywhere, but few that either of them recognised over the clash of earth and rain and decaying leaves that filled the air so much that they felt like a physical presence weighing down upon them, as if they could open their mouths, take a bite out of it, and chew. Their ears twitched and swivelled at different sounds - insects chirping and hissing, or a distant bird calling to its fellows.

They had not gone far when Laana nudged Kois in the shoulder to get her attention and said "What is that?"

Kois peered into the gloom. The object that Laana had pointed out was plain to see, but from this distance she couldn't make sense of it. It was a tall, dappled thing, about the size of a larger nicheling but too rounded to be a boulder. It had never been in Kois' nature to be fearful, but caution, she did understand. She sniffed, thrusting her head out to get a little closer, but she could make out no more than an indistinct sweet smell against the forest's background scents, and whether it came from the object she couldn't be sure.

"I'm going to look," she said. The object was partially obscured by a fallen branch that lay jutting out into the river. The branch had been there some time, long enough to build up dirt and gravel where the river had deposited around it, and thick moss and mushrooms over its surface, as if it was a miniature world of its own. Kois had to wade through the river to get around it, but the water was shallow enough that it only came partway up her legs, and the cooling sensation was welcome in the humid jungle air.

As the object came into view she saw leaves as long as a nicheling's tail radiating from its base, and she understood. It was a giant blossom. Its petals were closed up into a red and green speckled bud, forming the tall and rounded shape that had puzzled her before. "It's a plant."

"Is it dangerous?" There was another splashing sound as Laana followed through the water.

"It's a plant," repeated Kois. She stepped closer, her paws sinking into the soft earth, and sniffed at it again. That sweet scent had been coming from the plant after all, and it was quite pleasant now that she was closer, like the tastiest berries. Perhaps there was food inside, but she could see no way of getting to it without tearing the petals apart. When she touched her nose to the plant's side she found that it was not soft and yielding as she had expected, but stiff - not quite a tree trunk, but not flower-delicate either. She lifted a paw to touch it, trying to fathom the thing out. Its texture was veiny, and she could feel that a good push or tear might open it up, if she put in the effort. "I don't think it can do anything, but it smells like food inside. So it's a plant."

Laana crept closer to the plant, sniffed at it, and jumped back at its unusual texture. "Well maybe," she said, "but I don't think I'd like to eat it. It looks like some of Tata's work to me."

Maybe it was food, but maybe Laana was right. They were rare, but in a few isolated spots of their home island there grew poison berry bushes in place of the ones Kois and Laana were used to. Their fruits were lumpy black and white things, easy to tell apart from the normal ones, but they smelled good to eat and sometimes a nicheling would take a bite because they hadn't been told not to touch them. Kois had seen, once before, the after-effects - a new two-gem, who thought she'd found something new and wonderful to feed the tribe, lying on the ground twitching and screaming in pain. Kois had left to find the bush the young nicheling had eaten from and torn it to pieces after that, ripping it from the ground all the way to the roots so it would never grow back.

The memory brought back a wave of fear - had she taught Yuki not to eat plants he didn't know? She must have done, sometime on their walks across the island that he always loved. Even if she hadn't, there were others who must know. Laana had told him to stay close to Meana. Meana would have gotten him to the shore and told him what to do, or Kirro or Iskome. Kois didn't know them, but she had to believe they were good, sensible nichelings like Laana who would care for him. There was no alternative.

"Yes," she said, focusing her attention back on the plant. They would need to eat eventually, but they'd had clams and rabbil that morning, so it could wait. She left the plant behind and walked on along the riverbank. The undergrowth seemed thinner around the plant's base, as if it had taken the goodness from the earth around it, but it soon grew back and Kois and Laana found themselves having to wade through shallow water, splashing over stones and fallen branches. Another unfamiliar bird call rang out, and Kois felt water spray over her side as Laana startled and scrambled backwards into the water.

"Sorry!" Laana waded back out of the water and licked a few stray hairs on her ruff, smoothing them back down. "Everything's so... different here."

"I know," said Kois, thinking of the shore, and the way everything made sense and yet didn't at the same time - all those wrong colours and plants and sounds. It was no different here. She looked up, to see the tree branches high above festooned in long, purple lianas draped in loops that hung still in the heavy air. Plants on the sky, as well as the ground, and in so many colours...

"I keep thinking about the stories," Laana went on. "About everything that could be here. I wish I was like you. You don't have to be afraid of anything."

Kois stood still and let the river run over her paws and trail around her legs. Her tail was held low, so that the bone club at the end likewise sank below the rippling surface. The further she walked into this hot and humid world, the more refreshing it felt. But now she lifted one paw, so that it broke the surface and she could feel the water flow through her claws and over her pawpads. When she raised her paw out of the stream, little droplets fell, caught the light, and splashed into the river, each one forming a miniature corona for an eye-blink before vanishing back into the whole. "I am afraid. You know how this place feels. There's not a sign of anyone here."

"Yes." Laana stared off into the distance. "I can't find words for it. It's as if the forest is alive - but dead at the same time. Oh, I sound ridiculous... but it feels that way, do you think? Maybe it is because nobody's here, but... I think there's something else. I feel like I'm digging for a clam-" she pawed at the riverbed, acting out her words - "and I can smell it down there, but I'm digging and digging and all I can find is sand." A crack and a splash rang out across the river as she uprooted and turned a stone, sending up a small water-cloud of river mud in its wake.

"It does," said Kois, though she supposed Laana's words would make more sense to another seer. "But I've seen that other place too, in the sea. You know the one I mean. It's real, and I've no wish to see it again soon."

Laana was struck into silence. Neither of them had talked about Kois drowning on the last stretch of their swim, and for the last few days it was as if it had never happened. Nor had Kois felt the need to talk - she had survived, when she could not speak with the same certainty about others. The water that flowed beneath her now was not the water that had tried to claim her, and it was no use acting as if it were. To speak of it now, it was as if something long forgotten had surfaced between the two of them. But Kois closed her eyes, she could feel the water rising and see dark shapes in the distance...

"I would be there now if not for you," she said. "So no, I'm not fearless. And you can't say you're not brave." She dipped her head, inviting Laana to press the bridge of her muzzle against her forehead again, so they could nuzzle without catching each other's horns. Laana seemed hesitant at first, but reciprocated.

"I don't want to be afraid." Her voice was a quiet sound by Kois' ears. "But... we go on?"

"Yes."

Laana pulled away and looked up at Kois, and for once her ears were perked and her gems were bright, though her posture was still hunched a little in wariness. "Like Nikisha?"

Kois purred, and walked on up the river. "Like Nikisha."