Snowtouched

Chapter 12: Anameis

Kois didn't know how long it took for them to follow Anameis through the forest trails. She didn't try to guess. Her mind felt too clouded by pain, exhaustion, and hunger, and she followed on in the hope that wherever the orange nicheling was taking her, it would be a place to rest.

She couldn't ask questions even if it didn't hurt to talk and speak, because Anameis' mouth was full from carrying along one of the big, smelly fruits they'd investigated before the ape appeared. "Wait!" she'd said, as they were about to leave. "I can't leave one of those! Look how ripe they are!"

Laana had tried to tell her they were rotten, but Anameis had given her a look that said "which one of us lives here?" without needing to speak a word, and waved her tail at her. She pulled the fruit down by wrapping her good foreleg around it and pulling until she fell to the ground with it landing on top of her while she laughed and got back to her feet.

Now she was holding it in her crooked teeth, carrying it by the stem, and so was in no position to talk. Kois had thought of Anameis as loud before, but now she could appreciate how she moved silently, even with her hopping, three legged gait. Her paws fell lightly upon the ground, and she was careful to avoid twigs or anything else that might make a sound and give her presence away. Compared to her, Kois felt like a lumbering beast, just like the ape they'd left behind.

She had no will to stop, though, and kept going with the same silent but stubborn demeanour that that carried her this far into the jungle, for good or ill. Laana tried to walk beside her to give her something to lean against, but the trail was even narrower than before and they were forced to walk single file again, with Laana looking back again and again as if she feared Kois would vanish without her by her side. Sometimes she and Anameis would stop to let her catch up, as Kois was now walking on three legs, holding her right foreleg up so as not to put weight on the flesh torn by the ape's teeth. But she remained determined not to stop, pushing onward through fog and heat and pain. She'd worry about the rest later. Anameis knew where she was going, and that, for the moment, was all she needed.

The path rose steadily and then descended again, and in the distance Kois could hear running water. Had they returned to the river? She felt a dry ache in her throat, a yearning for fresh, cool water, and that thought was enough to spur her on. As Nikisha would, she thought, but she had little energy left to think any more of Nikisha, or anything beyond taking one more step.

She didn't see their destination at first. She walked on with her head held low and both Laana and Anameis ahead of her, even if she was taller than the pair of them. All she could see at first was a break in the grass before Anameis hopped ahead and dropped the fruit, yelling "Welcome home! Drop down wherever you want. It's what I do." As if to demonstrate she rolled over, kicking her three good paws in the air.

Laana crept forward first, letting Kois follow. They had caught wind of a few stronger hints of Anameis' scent close by. Territory markers, Kois surmised, though they were mercifully nowhere near the full spray's potency. She could see now that they had been led to another clearing, though smaller than before, about as long as Kois if she stretched out her tail. At one end a fallen tree had ripped open a hole in the ground, tearing it apart and creating a small den in the hollow its roots left behind. Beside it ran a stream, small enough that Kois could easily step over it, but water all the same - fast flowing, fresh water. She did not hesitate to step past Laana and drink her fill, ignoring the others as she swallowed.

When she was done she let herself lay down at last. She sprawled her body out, trying to shed the heat that kept weighing down upon her. Closing her eyes, she felt a dizzy, drifting sensation inside her skull, as if she was falling and turning in unseen space. Her paws brushed against stones, small grassy clumps, and debris left behind - fruit stems and splintered prey bones. She pushed them aside. "Thank you," she said. "You are very kind."

"Don't go spreading that about," Anameis said. Kois could hear her scratching again.

Then she felt pressure at her side - Laana, come to sit by her. "Kois, are you - no, let me get that." She began to lick at the wound on Kois' foreleg, teasing out the dirt. Kois felt fresh waves of pain as it began to bleed again, but let out an appreciating rumble in her throat.

Anameis moved as silently as always, so Kois' ear twitched in surprise and she opened her eyes when she spoke. "Ugh. That looks bad." She was leaning over Kois' side to get a better look. Laana bent her head, showing off her sharp antlers again in response to her coming too close. Anameis ignored her, but she did back off. "Wait here a while. I know what'll help." She didn't wait for Kois and Laana's approval, just turned and hopped back the way she came.

"Thank you," said Kois, and then, "...I think."

"What was that all about?" said Laana.

"Don't know. Don't care." There were many scenarios that might explain Anameis' sudden departure, but she put them out of her mind. There would be no sense in worrying now. She let her breathing go shallow again, to keep the pain tolerable. Speaking felt like claws tearing through her ribs.

"How are you?" Laana went back to cleaning the wound, licking it until the bleeding started to subside.

"Hot." Another moment or two, to catch her breath. "Hurts to talk."

"Oh," Laana said. She pulled away and sniffed at Kois' side, careful not to touch. "Your ribs... they must have been hurt when it hit you." She ran her claws through her ruff again and let her paw come to rest on her central gem. "What can I-"

"Stay here, please."

"Oh... of course." Laana didn't ask any more questions. Perhaps she didn't want to burden Kois with making her talk any more. Instead she settled beside her, tucking her paws into her ruff. She kept her ears perked and her eyes open for danger - she, too, must have had the same thoughts as Kois regarding Anameis' motivations, but she was not Kois, and could not put them out of her mind so easily. Her body felt stiff and tense by Kois' side, not like the morning before their journey, when she had fallen asleep beside her, Yuki nestled between them. There, with that memory rising, the worst of all of this struck Kois, that she could not carry on the search. Her memories of that peaceful moment dissolved into the last time she had seen Yuki, shivering by her feet yet reaching up to her gems. He'll make it. He's Yuki. And she had to keep in believing that.

She wanted to purr, to tell herself and Laana all could still be well, but it sent fresh waves of pain through her ribs. Instead she lifted her head, ignored the dizziness, and nuzzled Laana's ruff. Her fur was as soft and smooth as always, and it tickled her nose. Feeling Laana lean in to the touch, she gave her a lick, before settling back down to rest. Laana stayed alert, but Kois could feel her body relax with a small but perceptible loosening of previously tense muscles.

Kois closed her eyes again, and drifted off into a half asleep stage. Once again she felt herself falling, over and over, inside her head. With each pulse of blood through her body she began to doze off, too exhausted to care about pain.

She didn't know how long she stayed in that world between sleep and wakefulness, but it was still daylight when she felt Laana nudge her in the shoulder and opened her eyes to see her point her antlers at a rustle in the grass. But it was only Anameis returning, with what looked like a clump of dark green leaves dangling from her mouth. Laana stretched out to see what it was, and Anameis dropped it in front of Kois and nudged it closer with her nose. "Here you go! This'll fix you up!"

Laana sniffed at the thing. "What is it?" Kois took a sniff too - it wasn't rotten, at least, but quite sharp and mildly acidic in scent on top of the sweetness. From its smell and a closer look she could see that it was not a leaf bud but a fruit wrapped up in its stem. Inside its body was a warm yellow-orange, made up of many small repeating clusters.

"It's a healing fruit. Helps with the pain, fixes you up faster. How do you all keep going where you're from if you don't have these?"

"We don't have apes," said Kois.

"That's fair. Look, it's safe." Anameis sat down and pulled one of the leaves with her shrunken paw for Kois and Laana to see. "You're lucky the tribe hadn't taken this one! They're always looking for these." She stepped away to give them space and started batting a half chewed rabbil bone around the clearing.

Whatever this plant was, Kois recalled yet again that it had been a long time since morning, and took a bite. She chewed slowly, taking in the taste - she had never eaten anything like this before, with its sharp, tangy flavour, but it was surprisingly pleasant. The little clusters that formed the main body burst open between her teeth and released little seeds that kept getting stuck in there, but she did not mind and ate the whole thing, seeds and all, until she was left licking the juices from the central stem that was all that was left of it. As she ate she listened to Laana and Anameis speak, Laana putting a voice to same questions that were inside her own mind.

"There is a tribe here?" said Laana.

"Course there's a tribe, where did you think I came from?" Anameis crouched and pounced on the bones.

"Oh... where are they?" Laana reared up on her hind legs, looking for any other signs of life.

"Around. Not here, anyway. I could take you if you really wanted to go." Anameis stopped playing with the bone and lay down, her good paw stretched out and scuffing at the dirt. "You think I'm making them up? We're the Taimera Tribe. Over that direction." She pointed her head, facing the way she'd come. "They won't eat you. My promise."

"Thank you," said Kois, "but I think we've all travelled far enough today." She stretched back out. Perhaps she was imagining things, but the pounding sensation in her skull seemed to have subsided, the pain in her body growing a little more tolerable- not gone, but manageable. Even breathing felt easier. She dug her tongue into a crevasse in her teeth, working free another stuck pip.

Anameis, meanwhile, had already found a new topic to jump onto. "That's fair. You don't want to eat this?" She pushed the big, smelly fruit with her nose. Kois had forgotten about it - it had been lying there since they reached the den and Anameis left it there.

"But it smells-" Laana began.

"-just right!" interrupted Anameis. "If you don't want it, I'll eat it!" She took a big bite out of the fruit, chewing away and making satisfied noises while the thick juice ran down her jaw. She licked it away and took another bite. It was not, Kois had to admit, a pleasant sight, but she supposed she could not complain after all Anameis had done for them. "It doesn't taste like it smells!" She paused in her munching to lick a few stray fragments that had fallen into her ruff. "You sure you don't want some?"

"No, thank you," said Laana.

"Suit yourself." Another big bite. "You'ff know? Y'mind me of theff nifflings I'ff been seeing abouff." Anameis swallowed. "They your friends?"

Kois perked her ears, and Laana jumped to her feet. "There are other nichelings here?" Laana reared up again, trying to see over the tall grass as if they were all hidden in there. "Where are they? Why didn't you say?"

"Nobody's here! Nobody comes here!" Anameis laughed and rolled onto her back, kicking her hind legs in the air. "This is my den, remember? But I've seen a few strangers around Tamera's camp." She stopped moving and lay with her head on one side, against the ground. Her left eye, shrunken and usually staring off in a different direction to the other, was for once focused on Laana. "Come to think of it, some of them looked a little like you."

"Yuki..." Laana whispered. "Can you take us there? To your tribe?" She leaned over where Anameis lay, making the orange nicheling roll away and get back on her feet.

"Into Taimera camp? Can do that for you." Anameis shook the dirt from her back and tail. "You're wanting to go now?"

"Yes, of course, of course!" Laana took a deep breath and touched her antlers, closing her eyes for a moment. When she opened them her voice was calm again. "Oh but... Kois?"

"If I need to, I'll come along." Kois ran her claws through the dirt. She had no doubts; the news that Yuki and the explorers might not only be alive, but safe, sent a second wind through her body that diminished all pain even more than Anameis' fruit. If she must walk again, then she would do so.

"I don't know," Anameis' ears drooped. "You go out there, the apes are going to smell blood. They're good at that. But I've got scent markers all over the place here! They'll never smell you if you stay where you are." She scratched again. "I don't mind you here. I wouldn't have brought you if I did."

Kois looked at her claws and the deep furrows they tore in the ground. She thought back to a time before her own, when two nichelings fled burning lands to find shelter in the meadow. Perhaps this was her turn, and if so, she could not turn away Anameis' kindness. No matter what her motivations, thoughts, and habits might be, Kois understood she showed the same mercy that her home tribe had shown her parents, long ago. It was mercy that might be in short supply across the world. She bowed her head in gratitude. "Then I will take your advice. Laana, you should go with Anameis."

"Is it far?" said Laana.

"No," said Anameis, "but we should go now if you want to be back by dusk. And you're going to have to tell Ki-Roku who you are." Seeing the confused look on Laana's face, she went on. "Don't worry about him! He's far enough - never said a bad word about me, anyway." She patted her chest with her shrunken paw. "You coming?"

"One moment," said Laana, and Anameis let her have it without a word. Kois looked up as Laana approached her, she bent her head so that, once again, Laana could press the bridge of her muzzle between Kois' horns. Their scents intermingled, each taking away a small part of the other as they parted. "Doeli be with you," Laana murmured, in a voice that was for Kois' ears alone.

Kois purred. "And Yuki with you."