Snowtouched

Chapter 15: Memories

Laana listened to a hasty version of Yuki's story as they sat in their embrace, Yuki whispering the parts about taking on the name Roku. For all Laana cared, he could have called himself Tata, as long as he was safe. But they couldn't stay alone for long. One by one the other explorers crowded around them and flooded her with questions - where had she been, how she got here, and most urgently of all, what happened to Kois?

"We were lost," she said, keeping a paw around Yuki, "the same as you. It sounds like back luck we were separated... and good fortune to be reunited. Kois... she was hurt, but she's safe." She cast her gaze around the cave for Anameis, and saw her seated a way off where the river began its flow to the outside world. She sat in a crouch with her tail curled around her body, her paws tucked into her chest. Nobody else seemed to have noticed her. "Anameis helped us. She saved us from the ape. In truth, I don't know where we would be without her." She trembled at the memory of hot breath on her face.

Anameis looked up, aware of everyone's attention shifting toward her. "What? You were the ones trying to fight it."

Yuki peered out from Laana's embrace, narrowing his eyes as he always did when trying to see something far off. His nose twitched and he trotted away toward the orange nicheling, seeing, as always, a new friend before anything else. It was a wonder, Laana thought, that it hadn't landed him in trouble yet - a wonder still that everyone he'd met in his life was a friend. Everyone except me, a guilty memory put in. She silenced it. That had been long ago - never again would she wish him harm. Besides, if she was going to trust Anameis, that meant she was another friend to her nephew.

"I'm... Roku!" she could hear him saying. How long was he going to pretend? Was he scared?

It didn't matter - she had no intention of staying. Kois would leave as soon as she was well, and Laana would follow. She kept an eye on Yuki anyway, as he and Anameis sniffed one another in greeting. "You're that Little Roku I've been hearing about?" Anameis said.

"Yes! Who are you? I've never seen you before!"

"That's because I don't usually come here." Anameis shuffled in place, drawing her limbs even closer to her body. "Why'd I want to? All they do is eat and make marks on the wall. I can do that wherever I want!"

Laana tilted her head at Anameis' words. How did you make marks in a cave? You couldn't leave footprints in stone. She must mean scent markers, to say who lived here and ward off intruders, and once again she thought of home, and the sea cave, where generations of seers had lived in the light and passed into its depths.

"You look lost. Hungry?" Laana jumped at the speaker behind her. It was the black digger, whose name she fought to remember for a moment - Iskome, that was it.

"Oh..." Laana worked at unknotting a small tuft of fur in her ruff. In all the emotional rush of reuniting with Yuki and hearing his story, she had forgotten about herself and how long it had been since her last meal. Trying to think back to that morning on the shore felt like recalling a distant season. "Yes, I suppose I am." Now the tightness in her stomach, neglected for so long, made itself felt, and she longed for berries or meat. She sniffed, and caught wind of a sweet aroma above the all pervading smell of nichelings.

"They bring it in every day." Iskome moved off, waving her tail to indicate Laana should follow. "This place is so full of food, no wonder they let us stay."

No doubt the Taimera Tribe knew better than she about what was good to eat in the jungle. Laana gave the food piles a cautious sniff as Iskome led her to them. Her nose wrinkled at the rotten scent of the big smelly fruits Anameis had so happily eaten earlier - no matter how good they looked, Laana wouldn't be trying one of those any time soon - but why should she care when there were so many others to choose from? She recognised the pink berries, round and big enough to fit in a paw and so ubiquitous back home she had always known them as "berries" with no further description, but so many other scents, sweet and delicious, invited her in, with a medley of shapes and colours to match. Fresh, mild, sweet, strong, tangy - which one to choose? She was about to ask Iskome for a recommendation when a movement out of the corner of her eye drew her to a second pile. "Tanu, no!"

"What?" Tanu sat by a smaller pile, holding a berry in his paws with a pattern that Laana did know - bumpy, purple-black like a bruise, as sweet scented as any other berry but deadly to the stomach. What were they doing here - had Ki-Roku secretly meant to poison them? Where was Yuki? Why had she left him alone with these nichelings where he could eat one of those things at any moment? She'd told him about the poison berries, hadn't she? Of course she would, but what if she hadn't? Frantic, glancing about, she tried to find him in the crowd.

Tanu groaned as if he'd heard all this before, ignored her, and bit into the berry. "I c'n eat 'm," he mumbled through a mouthful.

"No, you-" Laana began.

"Relax, it can't hurt him." Iskome said, stretched out beside her with not a care. "They told us how it works - he's got poison in his fangs, so the poison in the berries can't hurt him."

"Oh..." Laana licked down a stray clump of fur on her ruff, avoiding Iskome and Tanu's eyes.

"You see all the ones with the bright coats?" Iskome went on. "They can eat them too. They said if you have a bright coat it means your body makes poison and keeps it inside you." She rolled over and stretched out her limbs. "I wish I had poison. I would look so good."

"I... see..." Laana said, though all these new things kept running around in her mind, making very little sense. No wonder the Taimera nichelings could get away with looking like flowers. Nothing would think of hurting them. Nervous, she looked around, mindful that she'd left Yuki with such a nicheling. She touched her gems and took in a slow breath - poisonous and normal nichelings alike were already intermingling with no harm done. There was nothing to fear.

She let Iskome tell her about the different fruits on offer, and picked a long, yellow one with a pleasant, mild aroma. Trying to bite into it she found its skin tough and unpalatable, but Iskome showed her how to peel it away to get to the soft white flesh inside. She liked the flavour - creamy, sweet, and bearing an aroma she could not name, like nothing at home. She and Kois must have been walking through food all day without knowing.

She looked up at the sunlight stream. Was it fading, should she go back? She should bring something for Kois - it wasn't fair she should be trapped in Anameis' smelly den (safe though it was) while Laana got to take her pick of so many delicious new foods.

"Laana!" Yuki came running toward her, rearing up to place his paws on her gems. She leaned in and gave his mane an affectionate lick, grooming the stray tufts that kept coming undone whenever he bounded about. "You should leave a mark!"

She tilted her head. "Leave a what now?"

"So everyone remembers you!" Yuki stumbled back, waving his paws in the air and dropping back on all fours. "It's like... I'll show you!" He grabbed a berry in his mouth, a plain old pink one half the size of his head, and trotted off, holding it high to keep it out of his paws' way while Laana followed.

She thought he wanted her to leave her scent behind, as Anameis hinted, and that left her puzzled - this was not her home, and it would be impolite to go around marking territory as if it were. She understood even less when her nephew led her to a cave wall that didn't smell of scent marks at all, but to her continued bemusement like old fruits. Yuki dropped the berry at his feet. "Look!" he said. "There's Ki-Roku and Ai-Relare! And we're all here too - there's Kirro and Meana and Kuku and here's me!" He jumped up at a patch of wall, rearing up on his hindlegs and wobbling to balance himself.

Laana looked back over her shoulder. Ki-Roku wasn't here - he was over by the pool, lapping up some water. She came closer to the wall, trying to decipher Yuki's meaning, and then she saw. What she had taken for veins of coloured stone or growth of moss turned out to be paw-marks set in berry juice, so many they were beyond counting, overlapping one another so that the newest were fresh scented and crisp, the oldest ghostly traces against the rock. "What's all this for?" She sniffed the mark Yuki had left behind. His own scent still remained behind the slightly fermented hints of old berries.

"Ai-Relare said they're memories."

"Well that doesn't make sense. Memories are in here." Laana touched a paw to her gems.

"But when you look at them," said Yuki, "you remember who made them."

"I think I see?" Laana tilted her head and, in a flash, thought of scent markers in a den, tracks on a path, things left behind to trigger a thought of the one who made them. The Taimera did the same - not to mark territory or to keep predators at bay, but to remember. Like Kois leaving her forebearers' bones in the nest, they spoke of who had lived here, long after their gems grew forever dull. Here was a place of magic, for inside the cave, away from wind and rain, their memories would last forever.

"You should make one!" Yuki rolled the berry toward Laana with his nose.

"Well, if everyone else did..." She took a bite, and the sweet flavours released brought back more memories of home. Letting the juices ooze from the flesh she pressed her nimble paw into them, wrinkling her nose at the stickiness.

"Put it next to mine!" Yuki reared up to show her. Finding a clear spot among the overlapping prints, she pressed her paw next to his mark, leaving it for a moment to let the juices stick, then pulled away to leave a fresh imprint.

"Is that it, did I do it properly?"

"Yes! Now everyone can remember you!" Yuki reared up to get a better look at her mark, while Laana licked away the juice stuck in her paw. It was no use - she would have to wash it off in the pool. Yuki followed her to the still water, where she cleaned herself off and lapped up a drink. It was pleasantly cool, with a slight mineral edge.

Yuki bounded over to where Ki-Roku sat nearby. "Laana left a memory!"

"You like our Memories, then?" Ki-Roku said.

"I must admit I couldn't make sense of it at first," Laana lifted her head from the water. "But I do now." If only Reko had been able to do the same, and leave something of herself too!

"Your friends left theirs too, I'm sure you - oh, my apologies!" Ki-Roku scrambled backward and dipped his head. "I had no idea, should I not be calling you Ki-Laana?"

"What have they been calling me now?" Laana said, confused but suspecting a good natured prank.

"You have blue gems!" Yuki sidled up to her to speak on her ear. "I didn't realise but that must make you a queen!"

"Don't be so silly, I'm not the queen of anywhere or anyone!" But as she looked around she took notice of all the other gems to be seen. Among the cave's nichelings were many colours - Yuki's pink, Anameis' orange, yellows and purples and the always ubiquitous greens, but not a single other blue gem save one - Ki-Roku's central stone, flanked by two oranges that must have been his natural colour. "Oh no!" She touched her own. "No, these mean I'm a seer. I'm sorry to have confused you."

"A seer?" Ki-Roku sat up and perked his long ears. "We've never had any of those!"

"She can open clams and tell the future!" Yuki said, "and she can read the sea and the tides and everything! She even told us to come here!"

Laana pawed her antlers - she'd lost the seaweed after cooling off in the river again and again during the hottest parts of the day - and peered into pool. Below she saw waters so still and clear she imagined she could reach her paws out and touch the billowing rock formations underneath as if nothing stood in her way. Not even a ripple marred the pool's perfect surface. "But this is not the sea," she said, "and it cannot speak to me."

"Laana!" Yuki said, with that gasp that meant he had an idea and nothing would make it budge. "You should tell them a story about it! You're so good at that!"

"A story!" Ki-Roku jumped to his feet. "Now there hasn't been a good storyteller in this tribe for a few seasons - and no new stories in many more!" He patted Yuki's head. "Good idea, Little Me! Let's hear a story!"

A few other nichelings looked up at the word story, and no wonder, for there was nothing like a story on a long evening, when the hunting is over and the fruit gathered and the signs read, and it was one of the duties of a seer to remember and tell them. But Laana was aware of time slipping away, and Kois waiting in the forest. "I would love to," she said, "but my friend is still waiting for me."

"But it's getting dark outside," Yuki said.

Sure enough the light faded, in such small increments with the passage of time that Laana had not noticed until Yuki brought it to her attention. The shafts of daylight that pierced the depths, the path to the outside world where the river flowed, both grew dimmer with every moment and marked evening's inevitable rise and the night to come. "I know. And Ki-Roku, I owe you so much, all the stories I know." Surely to leave now, after such fortune and courtesy, would be so unspeakably rude that blind Mela of fortune herself would cast unfavourable attention to the nicheling who did so. But Kois waited...

"I'll go," Anameis hopped over. "What's the message? "Everyone's alive, you can stop worrying?'"

"You would?" Laana said.

"But you'll miss the story!" protested Yuki.

"So I'll hear it another time. I told you, I'm not bothered by what goes on in here. I'll come back for you in the morning."

"Will you be safe?"

Anameis waved her tail. "You saw me, I can take care of myself!" She flashed her jumbled teeth with such impunity that Laana would have thought Tata himself had taken female form, if she hadn't already proven herself trustworthy.

"I... very well, then. Bring her some food, and tell her I'm sorry and I'll see her soon."

"You're worried about her, I get it. Sure you're not someone's mother?" Anameis stretched, first her good front leg, then each back leg, and shook her head, mismatched ears flapping around. "Be seeing you." She wasted no time hopping away toward the exit, and Laana watched until she was out of sight.

"My apologies," she said, when Anameis was gone. "You understand that my friend is waiting. But of course I would be happy to tell you a story - it is the least I can do."

"Who knows about tomorrow?" Ki-Roku laid back down with his paws stretched before him. All around him other nichelings gathered, both his own tribe and the explorers. Laana could guess that they had spent time enough to be comfortable around one another, for the way they sat and lay together. All eyes were on Laana, seated by the pool, and Yuki by her side.

"Which one are you going to tell?" Yuki said.

"One for our hosts," Laana said, "one I'm sure you haven't heard before. I'll tell you the story of the first Seer of the Sea - the story of Doeli."