Chapter 19: Far From the Sea
Kois stayed still. Deep within her thoughts she sized up Ki-Roku. Small, like all the Taimera nichelings she'd seen, and so quiet of footstep that she'd never known he was there until he stepped out before her - but how fast could she be before those fangs struck? She dropped the thought. "Ki-Roku, I assume? How pleasant to see you." Head dipped, she stepped out in front of her companions. "I am Kois."
Ki-Roku stood with one paw raised, long ears slightly flattened, body poised ready to run. The little green nicheling by his side - Vankirvan, Kirro had called him - looked up, waiting for him to do something. His eyes darted back and forth from his prince to the hulking beast before him. It had escaped Kois' notice until now that only two gems rested on his chest, marking him as Anameis' age. A nervous adolescent, hoping his elder would set the world to rights again. But Ki-Roku could only stare. Well, Kois was used to that, but when she moved forward she saw that his gaze fell at a point behind her. Laana, bedraggled and crouched over Yuki, ears flat, back hunched, but keeping her horns pointed at the yellow prince.
"You... lived..." His quiet voice hid among the droning insects and flowing water that filled the air. He licked his paw and set it on the ground, looking all around himself in a daze, as though he had woken from a dream to find himself in a place he had never seen before. "Vankirvan."
"Thank you for bringing me here. You can go now."
"...yes, Ki-Roku." Vankirvan stalked off into the long grass, fur bristling and his flat swimmer's tail held high.
Ki-Roku watched him leave. "Forgive me..." he said. "I... there was nothing, yet..." He shook his head as if trying to dislodge a swarm of biting insects.
Yuki had told Kois all about Ki-Roku whilst she lay in Anameis' den. A prince, he'd said, but not like the princes in stories. He liked stories, and songs and jokes and play, and good food, the latter of which there was always plenty to go around. But the jovial ruler of Yuki's stories was not here. Instead, someone small, confused, and lost sat before her, someone whose world had been broken, though she could not guess by what means. Kois lay down, stretching her paws out in front of her. "Ki-Roku. With all respect, I am here to ask you why your tribe left my friend to die." She crossed her paws, keeping a relaxed posture.
"Because..." Ki-Roku's ears swivelled. "Is it true, then? Laana, you were taken by..."
"The plant," Kois finished. She coiled her tail around Laana's shivering form. Over her shoulder, Kirro watched.
Ki-Roku's ears turned this way and that. He crouched and looked over his shoulder, pawing at the ground as if one of the vines might grow across his path. Finally, head held low and eyes looking up at the nichelings before him, he spoke. "Because you don't get out."
"And what does that mean?" said Kois.
A soft little paw touched her shoulder. "Because there's never been a nicheling like Kois," Laana said. "Is that right, Ki-Roku? I'm... here now because Kois saved me. But..." She shivered, and crouched protectively over Yuki. "Your tribe didn't know it was possible to escape!"
Silence fell over the riverbank. By her side, Kois felt Laana shuffle backwards, pulling a shaken and silent Yuki along with her. Her burst of bravado gone, she pressed against Kois' flank.
I don't understand, thought Kois. But a second thought sprang up before the first had a chance to fade. The others were all so small and light next to her. She wasn't thinking as they would.
You could fight an enemy, intimidate it, or run and hide. But what could you do to a plant? A plant cared nothing for how fast you could run, how well you could hide, how threatening you looked. There was no battle to win, unless your claws were strong enough to tear yourself free - and the Taimeras' claws were small, their paws soft and stealthy, to hide from the apes that roamed their forest. But they all bore gems that shone even in the jungle depths. Yuki had told Kois all about the food that grew here, such a bounty that even a stunted rogue born like Anameis, scavenging on the tribe's outskirts, could keep herself well fed and teach an outsider about all the fruits that grew in her rich homeland.
So you told stories and sang songs, and left marks on the cave walls for others to remember you by. Today you lived. Tomorrow, the trailing vines might take you. But then again, they might not. So you let yourself live, and you never spoke of the plants, because what more could you do?
"All you wanted to do was spare me from hoping," she said.
"And I am sorry." Ki-Roku's posture mirrored Laana's, as though they were reflections in water. "You fought an ape. There'll be stories about that for lifetimes. But they won't believe what you did today. They won't listen. They won't want to."
"Believe me," said Kois, tail swinging, "I wouldn't want to stay another night in this place." Because this is where you banish us, she thought, and I know how this ends, prince of prey.
"Anyone who wishes to stay..." Ki-Roku's eyes flickered up to Kirro - "...they may, but the rest of you..." His ears twitched again, and he returned to checking over his shoulder as though hidden eavesdroppers lurked in the grass.
"We'll meet before sunset," said Kois. "Well before sunset."
Ki-Roku exhaled in one long breath. He sat back up, paws neatly together, back straight, and his central blue gem shining like the sky between its orange fellows. "One more thing. I heard you were looking for the mountains. I don't know anything about those, but if you keep going into the hills, they say there are clouds and mist and cold rain." A shiver rippled down his body. "Nasty stuff - I'd never go. But it might be what you're looking for. I'll wish you good luck, if I can do nothing else."
"...Thank you," said Kois.
She bowed her head, and Ki-Roku returned the gesture before vanishing into the grasses from which he came. Kois pricked her ears, but his soft little paws carried him away with barely a sound.
"What happened?" said Yuki. "I don't understand what he did!"
"And I didn't expect it." Kois got to her feet, brushing leaves and twigs from her pelt.
"I had better explain on the way to the cave," said Laana. "And... oh goodness, I'll have to explain to them all, too..."
"I'll come with you, tell them too," said Kirro. His long tail lashed in the air.
"Well, we had better go if they want us out before sunset." Laana brushed a little dirt from her coat and patted down Yuki's mane. "Kois?"
The thought of parting ways with Laana left a ball of unease inside Kois' stomach, but she dug her claws into the ground. "I still haven't spoken to Anameis," she said. And after today, she needed to speak with her more than ever.
She could have torn Ki-Roku's throat out, and the thought crossed her mind more than once on the way to Anameis' den, as a small part of her asked why not? But she already knew.
Laana wouldn't leave Yuki, so she'd given Kois directions to Anameis' den, where Kois carried on alone, passing a fallen tree here and a flowering bush there that she remembered from the morning. Sometimes she picked up snatches of Laana's scent, worn into the trail from all the times she'd passed up and down its length. She kept close attention to the ground beneath her paws, clawing at anything unfamiliar until satisfied the plants growing across her path posed no threat. Fear held no grip over her mind, but her attention focused to a point, past and future coming together to a sharpened present.
She found Anameis gnawing at the stem of a half-eaten fruit. The orange nicheling didn't look away from her breakfast, but said, "Kois! Where'd the other two go?"
"You warned me about the plants."
"Did I? Must have..." The stem dropped from Anameis' mouth, her ears flattening. "Oh... oh no..."
"They're safe." Kois sat by Anameis, adopting the same relaxed posture as when facing Ki-Roku. "But they nearly weren't."
She told Anameis the full story, of how the plant snatched up Laana and her rescue. She half expected Anameis to protest when she told her of how she pulled Laana out and freed her from the vine, but the orange nicheling listened with wide eyes and said nothing, and in a way Kois had been expecting that, too. She kept quiet while Kois told her of her subsequent encounters with the Taimera nichelings, and finally Ki-Roku's story.
"So you're leaving now," she said when Kois finished her tale, listlessly pawing at a stone embedded in the dirt.
"Just leaving? If that were me, I'd-"
"But why?" Anameis jumped to her feet, fur bristling, tail lashing. "I know you're not supposed to talk about..." she pawed her gems- "...the plants... but you didn't even know that, and..." She hopped a few steps away, back turned to Kois. For a moment she was silent, then she sank to the ground, her tail slowly sweeping across the dirt. "Go on. I know you came here because I didn't warn you."
And this, too, Kois had anticipated, but she never pictured what she saw now, her friend and denmate from these past days waiting for the big hybrid to tear her apart. "You did more for us than anyone else in this forest. You said something." She rose to her feet and sat back by Anameis' side, but still the orange nicheling kept her head turned away. Kois' ear twitched. She'd never wanted to say what she knew was coming next, though the thought pressed on her mind all the way here. "Anameis, let me tell you something about the Yukirs. I'm sorry, it won't be easy for you."
Anameis' body lurched with a barking, humourless laugh. "They have those things in the mountains too?"
"No," said Kois, "but it is very cold, and sometimes it is hard to find food. My parents told me that when the winter came, that was when the tribe came together for warmth and their children were born. But you know sometimes children are born sick, and there is nothing that can be done about it."
One of Anameis' ears turned to listen to Kois' words, but she said nothing. A quiet moment passed, one that Kois took as a nonverbal cue to carry on. Anameis must already know where this story ended - no sense in walking away now.
"They would leave those children in the snow during the night," Kois said, "and if they lived, that meant they were part of the tribe. And if not, they returned to the snow, where we all come from in the end."
Anameis kept her ear turned in Kois' direction, and peered over her hunched shoulder. Her shrunken, lazy eye stared back, and Kois resisted the urge to turn away. Sick children, she'd said, not rogue children, because Yuki sometimes took the form of a rogue and his children were always blessings, but many saw no difference. She told nobody else this story - not Laana, not even Yuki, who judged whether or not to return those children to the tribe or the snows.
After an agonising silence, Anameis spoke. "Why did you tell me that?"
Kois' ears lay flat behind her horns. She could have told Anameis the Yukir's reasons - so that sickness would not spread in the dens, and precious food would not go to waste on those with no chance at life - but Anameis must have guessed those, and what comfort would they bring her? No, she deserved the reason it lurked in Kois' thoughts all the way to her den. "Because now, do you think I have any place in telling you what to do about the plants?"
Anameis looked away. Head held low, her shoulders began to shake, and Kois thought her about to cry out before she realised she was laughing again, hollow and humourless though it was. "So you're just as bad as us, is that what you're saying? I get it. Nice lesson. What's the real point of this? Just come to say goodbye?"
"Not if you don't want to," Kois said. "First, I was going to ask about the plants, but Ki-Roku cleared that up. Now I want to ask you something."
"I realise this must seem strange after what I just told you. It's your choice, but I came back to ask if you wanted to come with us."
"To the snow?" Anameis said, ears perking. She peeked back over her shoulder, shrunken eye staring off into the distance, at a spot far over Kois' head.
All Kois said was truth - after realising Anameis couldn't be part of a plot, all she could think of was opening up her makeshift tribe to the nicheling who opened her den to her. The idea lurked in the back of her mind ever since she told Anameis of the mountains, and listened to her wonder. "You don't have to," she said. "I know this is your home." But how could she leave without extending a paw?
"Kois, you know... of course I'll go!" Anameis barked in excitement and rolled onto her back, rocking from side to side as she kicked the air in joy. Kois purred at the sight, until Anameis fell still. "Wait. You mean this, right?"
"Of course I do."
Anameis rolled onto her front and shook dirt from her fur. She looked around the clearing, hopped to the tree roots and the torn hole they made in the ground, and stared - then turned and leaped at Kois with such force even she found herself digging her claws into the earth lest she bowl her over. Anameis' loud, broken purr filled the clearing as she nuzzled against Kois' chest, close to her gems. Kois draped a huge paw her over her shoulder and pulled her closer, as Laana so often did with Yuki.
"Now?" said Anameis. "I got nothing to wait for."
"Yes," said Kois.
Anameis didn't ask to stop and say any goodbyes. She led Kois straight to the river, where they found the explorers all gathered on the shore where Laana had been snatched up. Kois heard their voices before she was them milling around and waiting. A few of the bolder ones, led by Kuku, investigated the plant's remains just up the bank. Anameis hung back behind Kois' bulk as everyone looked up at their arrival.
"Kois, hey Kois!" Rara, who had been among the nichelings pawing at the split open plant, bounded down the bank to greet her with an energetic headbutt. "Good to see you!" Drawing closer, she whispered in Kois's ear, "Never could stand princes or princesses. Knew there was something no-good going on here!"
Kois pulled away, and it was then that Rara noticed Anameis by her side. "Heeeey, who is this?" She crouched to her level, being the only nicheling in the party who could come close to rivalling Kois in size. Anameis hopped backwards, ears slightly lowered. A few others had noticed her too, and stopped their talk to watch.
"This is Anameis. You know her. She's coming with us." There was no question in Kois' words, just a statement of what was and would be.
A few murmurs from the watchers, and Rara brightened up. "The one who saved Kois and Laana! Yes, I remember you! Well, anyone who can do that is a friend. Glad to have you along."
"I... suppose?" Anameis sniffed at Rara's face in greeting, and jumped when the bigger nicheling offered another friendly headbutt, before laughing and playfully swatting her on the nose with her shrunken paw. "Hey! Is that it?" The plant, its petals splayed over the grass, caught her attention, and she cautiously loped up to investigate, sniffing at the ground before her.
"It is!" called out Kuku. "You've got to tell us all about them!"
Slowly, whiskers twitching, Anameis touched her nose to the nearest petal. Tail held high and fur standing on end, she listened as Kuku showed her the vine where Kois tore it in two. He held it in his nimble paw for her to sniff at it, and she gradually relaxed.
"Don't worry about them," Rara said. "Couple of big ones like us, we can take on anything, remember?" She flashed a claw, and bared her teeth in a grin.
"It seems we will have to," said Kois.
"We're leaving then?" Rara said.
"In a moment, yes," said Kois. She scanned her eyes over the assembled nichelings. They all seemed calm to her eyes, as if the surprise of the plants wore off before her arrival and now they waited. Yet some of them looked away, tails twitching, as they noticed her gaze. She ignored it and found the nicheling she wanted sitting on the riverbank, tail curled around her paws, watching her reflection in the water.
Laana didn't move when Kois came to sit by her side. She held Yuki close to her chest, stroking the tufts that would one day grow into his mane. Even he kept quiet, though he looked up at Kois' approach. But his eyes focused on her no longer than a heartbeat, and he gazed off into the light filtering from the canopy far above.
"They'll be fine," Laana said, never taking her eyes from her reflection. "Some of them thought we were trying to stop them leaving, but they saw me, and... that thing over there." A shiver rippled down her back. "You don't have to worry. They'll listen to you."
Kois turned an ear back toward the waiting nichelings. As on the cliffs before the storm, she felt the rising tension of a group ready to get back on their paws, wherever the trail ahead may take them. She, like all nichelings, lived her life to no schedule tighter than the rise and fall of sun and moon, but their expedition would not wait much longer. Yet a moment would not hurt. "I'm not worried about them."
"Oh... no, you needn't..." Laana touched a paw to the river's surface. The slow current braided through her claws. Kois expected her to turn away and lean on her shoulder again, but she continued her vigil over the water. "It's not so bad. I should have seen it. But I haven't seen anything since I came here." Sparkling droplets fell, one by one, as she drew her paw up to her chest. "I am... so far from the sea, Kois. So far from the mountains. And I... I fear I might have-"
"No, he was right."
Kois looked down. Yuki wriggled out from Laana's gentle hold and walked a nicheling's length down the bank, stopping with a paw lifted. He gazed down the river, slowly turning his head this way and that as though something lurked in the forest depths, something only his eyes saw. "Ki-Roku, when he said there were mountains. It does get higher up there, and cold and open, like you can see the whole world... I know. I just know." He touched his chest, and though his tail was turned to Kois, she knew he held his paw over his single gem as he watched the river flow.
His tail swayed, and the moment broke. "Are we going now? We're all here!" Bounding back to them, he reared up and planted his forepaws on Kois' shoulder.
"Well... if Kois isn't waiting for anything...?" said Laana.
"No," said Kois. "Why don't you go and tell everyone we're ready?"
"I will!" And Yuki leapt off into the waiting group, leaving Kois and Laana alone by the shore for a brief moment.
"Do you think he's right?" said Laana.
If he was wrong, Kois thought, then so was I. "I know you were."
"Oh, yes..." Laana watched Yuki mingle with his friends, and chanced a look back up the bank, at the plant's remains. A flicker of fear passed across her face, and she turned back to the water.
"We'll be gone from here," said Kois. Laana deserved better words after her ordeal, but all Kois had was a moment amongst the trees and dappled light, and the smell of earth and hot water. She drew her tail around Laana as she had so many times before, and nuzzled her cheek. Her deep purr emanated once more from her throat. She had no more words than Laana herself, no more understanding. But she understood her thoughts and feelings, the crushing despair when Laana lay still and without breath, and the warm, fearful hope, rising to joy when she opened her eyes. Even now she sat by her side in a state of happy bewilderment. She purred deeper.
Kois had seen love before. Even if she didn't understand how, here was no sense in wondering why things were as they were. "I was scared, too."
Laana's nimble paw brushed over Kois' foreleg, holding it tight. "Don't go anywhere, Kois."