Chapter 20: The Name of the Snow
They walked on all day at a slow pace, cautiously sniffing out the way. Wary of the plants, everyone stayed alert, investigating the trails ahead of them for the trailing vines. For a while nobody cared about where they were headed, only that they left the Taimeras and their lands far behind. Gradually the smell of other nichelings and their well-worn paths faded into wild, unexplored forest, marked only by the trails left by grazing animals.
With the Taimeras at their back, the traveller's thoughts moved away from where from and onward to where to. Anameis proved her worth, recalling that in the west the jungle rose into hills, and perhaps that was the way to Ki-Roku's cloud forest and the mountains beyond. With a destination in mind, the explorers stayed together, united by their goal. But no matter which way they turned, the forest stood in their way. Thick leaves and roots and mats of undergrowth barred their path. The strongest of them - Kois, Meana, and Rara - tore away the obstacles, and Kuku and Iskome dug up any stubborn plants that grew in their way.
Yuki didn't know how far they walked on that first day. The jungle never changed, though they followed the sun all day on its downward course. He longed for the river so he could splash about, or the cool cave depths where everyone could escape the sticky heat. But he walked on in silence, close to Laana's side. The tribe needed him. He was their centre, their focus, the reason for their journey. The others followed on with the same grim silence, arguments forgotten in the wake of Laana's ordeal.
Yuki carried on, so intent on putting one paw in front of the other that he didn't know who called for them to stop and make camp, nor did he notice the fading light that heralded the end of day. He wanted to run forward to join in the nest building and food gathering, but Laana stopped him, pushed his chin up with her paw, and fretted at the state of his dulled gem.
"So are yours!" said Yuki. And so were everyone's. The tribe tore down grass and wove it into nests, and gathered fruit and roots, while others still searched for rabbils or danger. Even Anameis had vanished to lay down markers to keep the apes away (something Laana didn't like to talk about even if it did work). But wherever Yuki looked he saw gems drained of their vibrant colours and sparkling finishes. He squinted down his nose to see his own gem turned dusky pink, and nuzzled up against Laana's shoulder, trying to reassure her that all was well, and himself too.
She settled by his side, tail swishing over the ground. "Yuki," she said, keeping her voice quiet so nobody else would hear, "did you really see those things?"
Yuki lay down, curling a paw to his chest so it touched his gem. I don't know, he thought, but Laana shouldn't have to hear that after coming so far. When Ki-Roku spoke of high hills and forests in the clouds, something akin to a memory had stirred in Yuki's thoughts. But what if he was wrong? Kois wouldn't make a mistake, would she? "I think it's like I can remember them being there. If I think about it, I can imagine it! It's all high and open and it's like the world goes on forever all the way below. I just know it!" Seeing Laana's curious expression, he wagged his tail. "Is that how it feels for you? When you see something in the clams or the seaweed?"
"Yes!" Laana licked his tufted mane. "I suppose it is." And Yuki snuggled closer to her side.
Soon after, he was asleep, not waiting for the others to finish their nests. A dim awareness came over him of being lifted by his scruff into a soft pile of grasses with Laana and Kois, but it lasted only a moment before he lapsed back into sleep, safe and warm once again.
The next day fared the same. The band of nichelings continued their trail west, carving a slow path through the jungle. Sometimes they stopped to rest or hunt. Sometimes they found grazer's trails, but not a hint of a nicheling's scent upon them. Nonetheless they followed their meandering paths until they broke away from their distant goal, glad of a break from pushing and tearing through the undergrowth.
But everything felt different today, Yuki thought. The horrors of the previous day lay in the past, and though everyone kept an eye out for the vines, they didn't startle and paw at everything unfamiliar. Yuki started making a game of the journey, trying to count how many times they walked uphill and downhill to see if they were in the mountains yet, but you couldn't always tell which way you were going with all those trees and bushes and ferns in the way, their leaves and roots branching across your path and blocking your view wherever you stepped.
He finished the day with more energy, and helped to gather fresh grass and leaves while the older nichelings made camp. He wasn't so good at nest weaving - without Laana's clever paws, his attempts always ended up as haphazard grassy piles - but he liked finding new plants and discovering all the different smells and textures. There were leaves so big they could shelter him from the sun and rain, and flowers with stamens that tickled your nose when you sniffed them and left you dusted with pollen, making you sneeze. There were soft grasses and green shoots, and thick brambles studded with black thorns as long as his tail. He kept well away from those, because Laana would never stop worrying otherwise, but everything else invited exploration and investigation.
When Kois and Rara returned from their patrol to announce there were no dangerous plants nearby ("Not any more!" Rara clarified, baring her teeth) another layer of tension diffused. Nichelings who had previously sat in the dappled sunlight began to bat at one another's tails and chase each other around camp. Unable to resist joining in, Yuki crouched and pounced in the path of one of the twins, wagging his tail and stretching his forepaws out in a play-bow. "Catch me, Prinu!"
Prinu was the bolder of the twins, and by now he should have pounced back, swatting at Yuki's paws and daring him to give chase. But he hesitated with a paw in the air, looking over his shoulder. His brother, Donnu, crept up behind him. "I don't know..."
Yuki sat back up. "What's wrong?"
"Donnu was saying..." An unease expression passed over Prinu's mask patterned face, and Yuki might have taken him for his timid twin were Donnu not side by side with him. "It's different now, after the plant. No, not the plant!" He shuffled backward, Donnu following. "It's after what Laana said about you knowing the snow was there - it's different now, like it's real. And it wouldn't really be fair any more... Look at you! You're Yuki!"
"Aw, but I've always been Yuki!" He dropped into another play-bow, but Prinu backed off. Straightening up, Yuki watched the twins turn away and rejoin Kuku, who had been watching close by. He couldn't hear their conversation, but Kuku was showing them a big root he'd dug up, and no doubt was telling them all about it. Kuku wasn't a bad sort. Yuki knew that some of the others though he talked too much, he he knew how much the mushroom-spotted nicheling loved to share his discoveries and everything he knew about them, even if he suspected he made half of it up. He even liked to listen to his ideas about telling the future in nut shells ("the seers won't tell you this, but it's true!"). But he was also protective of the twins, who were his younger cousins, and Yuki didn't want to know what he'd have to say if he thought he'd been making them nervous, especially the already timid Donnu.
He squinted down at his gem, and lifted a paw to cover its smooth as ice surface. Nobody looked up from their running, exploring and playing to notice him. Even Kois and Laana, sitting with their tails twined, didn't pay him any attention. Yuki found himself struck with the realisation of what they must see when they did.
Without invitation, that image - or memory? - of snow-dusted peaks rose in his thoughts, and he imagined rocky slopes and gaping ravines, thick coats ruffling in wind sharp as claws, and frozen caverns suffused with blue light, in which the shadows of nichelings locked away for uncountable seasons made ghostly shapes deep within the ice - or were they just shadows of stone? For one drawn out instant a light headedness came over him, and he pictured all this from above, as though he cut through the sky on bluebird's wings, the wind parting in his wake. And then he was back on the ground, surrounded by scents of leaf mould and steam, and the snows were a memory belonging to someone he did not know.
Turning away from the scene, he sat and scratched behind his ears with a hind paw. He shook his head, and spotted a flash of orange out of the corner of his eye. Even with his blurry vision he couldn't mistake Anameis for anyone else. She sat watching him amongst a growth of skinny saplings, and immediately Yuki forgot about Prinu's actions as he ran to her side. She didn't know about him! "Anameis!" He pounced at her tail, which she'd been keeping curled up by her side, but it was too big a target to resist. He'd never seen such a fluffy tail in all his life!
"Little Roku!" She whipped her tail out of his reach and waved it in the air, making him rear up to swat at the fluffy tip. "Or is it just Roku now?"
"What are you doing here?" Yuki lost his balance and dropped back into the soft leaf litter with a quiet crunch.
"Nothing exciting. Sitting here, waiting for things."
Yuki turned in a circle, looking out for hidden dangers, but saw only other nichelings. He perked his ears, wondering if he could hear footsteps in the distance forest. "What sort of things?"
"Things like... you!" Anameis whirled around and pounced, knocking Yuki off his feet and bowling him over. Laughing, he held up his paws, flailing in the air. Around and around they rolled, leaves and bits of twig sticking to their fur as they snapped at one another, alternating between laughter and play-growls. "I got you! I got yooou!"
"No you don't!" Yuki swatted her on the nose, and wriggled out from her grip. Leaves and dirt scattered everywhere as he ran. "You can't catch me!"
"Yes I can!" Anameis grinned, baring her jagged teeth at him. They stuck out every which way, each at a different angle to the last, like the maw of a monster from the stories, but far more friendly. "You might have four legs, but mine are longer!" Roaring her challenge, she leapt, missing him by a hair when he ran off, still laughing. Through the leaf litter he scampered, taking advantage of his smaller size to wind through saplings. Anameis was an orange blur on his tail, but she couldn't catch him! Not when she had to weave and crash through the undergrowth, while he could-
Whomp! Not looking where he ran, Yuki collided with something soft, and... pink? With a cry of "Gyaargh!" Tanu spun around, fangs bared. "Hey, watch where you're going, you... Yuki?" His muted pink fur stood on end as Yuki picked himself up and shook his head. Bits of dirt and dead leaves fell from his fur.
"Hello Tanu!" Yuki brushed a few twigs from his ruff. Behind him, Anameis skidded to a stop.
Tanu made a few indistinct grumbling noises and scratched his chest, his attention pulled away from Yuki by the itch. Still wordlessly grouching to himself, he skulked off, still scratching, his pride dented.
"Sorry!" Yuki called after him.
"He seemed... not fun," Anameis said. "You hurt?"
"No. That's Tanu! He's my friend!"
"He's nicer when you get to know him!" Yuki stopped to give himself a full body shake, but his brilliant white fur was still covered in specks of dirt and leaf mould. He tried to paw it out, knowing Laana would do the same if she saw him like this. "I think he just misses home..."
"Really. Hey, what was that he called you?"
"Nothing!" The word came out of Yuki's mouth before he could stop it, and he stumbled backward. Anameis must have seen through it, like back home when Silais always knew when you'd eaten all the clams. He shuffled around, settling into a sitting position with his tail curled around his paws. "Yuki. He called me Yuki." He stared at the deep brown leaves scattered around his feet. "That's my name, not Roku."
"Really? What's with the Roku story, then? Thought Ki-Roku'd like you better if you were named after him? Because I'll tell you, you guessed right there!" There was a crunch of dead leaves as she came to sit by him.
Yuki peered up, puzzled. Why didn't she sound upset? He'd been telling a lie all this time, one he knew he'd have to own up to some day, but instead of angry she sounded intregued, even amused. She sat crouched, her good paw extended in a lazy but playful gesture, her fluffy tail pointing up in a relaxed curve. Her eyes, one big, one small, shone with curious light.
"I'm Yuki," he said, and the words felt as though they came from someone else's mouth. He waited for Anameis' reaction, but all she did was tilt her head, brow furrowed.
"You said. And what's the story behind that? Not a name everyone has."
"Didn't Kois tell you?"
"She said her tribe was called Yukir." Anameis scratched her chin with her small paw, and flopped onto her side. "Yuki, Yukir... you one of them?"
Yuki turned from her, his eyes falling on Kois sitting a few nicheling lengths away and Laana at her side. He squinted, just about able to make out Laana licking Kois' cheek through his blurred vision, and their tails intertwined behind them. Ever since the plant, they kept close to one another; Laana must have been so afraid, unable to leave Kois' side for a moment. At that instant he longed for Kois to see him sitting there, imagined her coming over and explaining everything in her soft voice.
"Hey! Rokuyuki!" Anameis drummed her tail, sending dead leaves flying everywhere. "Why are you looking over there all sad?"
Yuki dropped to a crouch, his body curled into a small ball. "Would you be scared if I told you?"
"Scared? No offence, Yukiroku, but you're scary as a rabbil. Come on! I thought we were friends!"
So Yuki recalled to Anameis the stories Kois passed down to him in the far away meadow. These were the tales he learnt at her paws, when being Yuki was something he never thought twice about, a fact of life that simply was. Anameis leaned forward to listen, keeping absolutely still but for the slow twitching of her tail. Fearing he'd shocked her into silence, he trailed away, but she urged him on. He told her snatches of old stories, lives both male and female, legends of snow and nests rich with twins, even ancient rivalries and alliances with Tata. At the last of these stories, Anameis shuffled and looked down at her shrunken paw, but for all else she never took her eyes from Yuki, no matter how absurd the tale sounded.
"That's all true?" she said, when he finished.
"I think so. But I don't remember any of it." Yuki looked at his paws again. "I think I know what snow is like, but I don't know anything else. Kois told me everything. But she doesn't make mistakes."
"I don't know," Anameis purred. "She asked me to come along with you!"
"That's not a mistake!" Yuki ran to her, headbutting her under the chin and purring in turn.
"So you didn't say who you were because it was a big secret?" Anameis tilted her head, letting Yuki rub against her throat, though he kept clear of her gems.
Yuki contemplated his paws again. Though dirt clung to them, an inevitable consequence of a day traversing forest trails, the pure white fur shone through regardless. "I think I was scared of what they'd do... I don't know why I said it, I just said I was Roku before I could think about it! I don't know if it was an idea, or something that happened, or..."
His voice trailed away, and he looked back over his shoulder at the tribe, still at play or starting to settle down. As he spoke with Anameis, the day settled also, and the light that reached the forest floor took on a deeper hue, tinting all it struck with gold. Kois and Laana lay together on the ground, their heads tilted to one another in silent union. At the sight of a long day coming to close, Yuki let out a wide yawn, feeling a deep weariness descend upon him. "They're all here because of me," he said. "What if one of them got hurt? Would that be my fault?"
Anameis' tail brushed aside the leaf litter with another wide sweep. "You wanted to be someone else. Nothing wrong with that."
Yuki let out a small laugh. "It was different. I've never met anyone before who didn't know who I was." Leaves crunched under his paws as he turned back to Anameis. "Are you upset I didn't tell you?"
"Yuki, I'm a lot of things, but I'm not upset. I can still be friends with you, right? Or are you going to freeze me solid?"
"No!" Yuki purred and headbutted her chin again, pressing his scent to hers. Stepping back, he held up a paw, waiting, because the seers said you should be polite. Understanding, Anameis lifted her chin, and Yuki pressed his paw against the leftmost of her gems, the one that would be her central when she came into her third. Her fur felt coarse, oily, and brittle, not silky like Laana's or thick like Kois', but her gems were smooth as ice, as gems always were. Under his paw, he felt her throat rumble with a quiet purr. "We're friends, remember?"