Chapter 22: Patrol
A further scouting of the local area revealed drier ground that Anameis confirmed to be safe for now. She left marks while Kois and Laana returned to move the tribe. The sick nichelings needed prodding awake and accompanying through the journey. Short though the distance was, it stretched out into an arduous trek. They understood the need to get up and keep going, but stayed half asleep, collapsing against Kois and Laana's sides, and it was the best part of a day to coerce them into walking the distance. At last they curled up together in a heap at the end, where the others were already building nests and looking around nervously, rearing up on hindlegs as if an ape might burst through the grasses at any moment.
Kois' work was still not done. At the establishment of every new camp, she had taken it upon herself to check for danger, be it predators or more of the trailing vines. She had already decided she owed it to the tribe, and if she didn't make her patrol, restlessness descended upon her. So each day she picked a few of the stronger tribe members, and set out into the grass.
Rara, the grey nicheling with the unusual gems, trailed along with her regardless of whether Kois asked or not. Often, as was the case today, they brought along another. Today it was Meana. She only bore two gems (yellow, to match her sandy coat) but already she rivalled or surpassed many of the tribe's adults in size, and there was no doubt her third and final gem would soon emerge. Though she hadn't known Meana before the expedition set out, Kois found herself liking her - she possessed a combination of level headedness and ferocity in battle that Kois admired, and furthermore she had been the one to ensure Yuki made it safely to shore during the terrible storm.
Anameis' scent markers still hung in the air. Kois tried not to think too hard about them - they worked, and they smelled like dead, rotten flesh, and that was all. Together the three nichelings sniffed around the forest floor and reared up to scan the jungle understories. All three were big enough to clear the dense undergrowth, and though it didn't come naturally to Kois at first, she had found her heavy tail served as a balance, letting her sit up and check over the dense fronds for signs of danger. Her teeth bared in an involuntary snarl at the sight of a rounded, red flower bud ahead, big enough to engulf a nicheling. "Plant ahead," she said, letting the others follow her gaze. "Watch out for vines."
"Onto it." Meana gave a sharp nod and vanished into the tangled ferns, Rara by her side. Kois dropped back on all fours and followed. The three nichelings fanned out, though they kept within earshot of one another. Kois' hackles began to rise, the sensation spreading down her spine and shoulders. So far they had been lucky. Any plants they found they tore apart, but Kois always wondered how many they walked past on their journey so far, spared only by fortune. Only a slight downward turn of her small ears gave away her thoughts.
A low call to her left caught her attention. Rara had found the vine. Kois loped over, eyes on the ground. Here the colourful spiral tipped grass grew thick, perfect concealment for a trap. Rara had already cleared space, and Meana approached from the opposite direction.
"Watch your step!" Rara barked. "I know you're in the happy haze, but that's no excuse for me having to claw you out of that thing!"
"Happy?" Kois sniffed the ground. A dark green vine trailed across the ground by Rara's clawed forepaws. Kois' lips curled back again at the sight as Meana sniffed it too. The vine twitched, as though animated by deep instinct compelling it to seek out prey. Finding none when the three nichelings drew back, it lay still again, waiting, its dark green surface blending in with the shadows and dirt.
"You're looking slightly less like a stone than usual!" Rara laughed and gave Kois a friendly cuff on the shoulder. "In truth," she went on, drawing closer to Kois' ears, "I've seen how you look at Laana. But we have plants to find!"
"I see," said Kois. Another nicheling might have said "What do you mean?" or stared in wordless shock, but Kois knew Rara better than the other explorers, and she knew Rara was the sort to have her nose in everyone's concerns and a loud opinion on them all. If Rara knew something, the whole tribe knew it. Fighting would be no use.
"One of these days I'll manage to shock you, and then we'll see if you're not an elaborate rock, hah!" Rara clawed the grass away, following the vine's trail. It writhed like a dying snake at the movement all around it, and Kois could see how even nearby motion could let it grab a nicheling by the leg and drag them away.
"That is the way things are going, yes." She stalked off after Rara, Meana by her side. In truth she didn't mind the grey nicheling's teasing. It took her mind away from the plants.
"Don't blame you." Rara slashed aside another stand of curling grass. "I was quite fond of Reko myself, back when..." Her ears lowered. "Of course, she was fond of everyone!" Another of her raucous laughs rang out across the forest, but it was tinged with sadness.
"I didn't know Reko," said Meana, who had been walking in awkward silence, presumably looking for something to say.
"You and her would have gotten along well," said Kois, allowing herself a tiny purr. A flash of curiosity rose in her mind. Indeed, being far from home meant doing things differently. She was still grasping toward understanding, but if all changed anyway, what harm did it do? Even so, this was a side of Rara she hadn't known before.
But Rara was right - they had more pressing concerns. The plant grew ahead in the shade of a rotting fallen branch, draped with moss and scattered with tall mushrooms. Its vine snare grew from a small parting in the otherwise tightly sealed bud.
By now the three nichelings knew what to do. Keeping away from the vine, they clawed at the plant's fleshy base, ripping out chunks of green, bitter tasting flesh. Soon the plant's petals fell open under the onslaught, peeling back to reveal the interior. Kois shook her head and spat out the last shreds of plant flesh, trying to rid herself of the foul taste. She peered over the open petals, and their inside glistened with acid sap in the dappled light.
"I hate this part," she said. "I always think we'll find someone."
They'd been lucky so far. The tribe's travels had taken them through unclaimed territory ever since leaving the Taimeras, and they plants they destroyed had been empty. But something else grew inside this one. A sweet smell emanated from within, and with the petals splayed out on the ground, Kois could see its source. A spray of stalks radiated from the centre, each one tipped with a cluster of small white fruits. Leaving in over the sap-coated petals, she remembered how the day's events left her with little time to eat. Her stomach tightened and her mouth began to water at the delicious scent.
"Is that food?" Meana had severed the vine, and was now dragging it to dump it by the plant's side.
"I don't know if I'd eat it even if it was," Kois said, remembering where the appetising smell came from and backing off, ears flattened. "Anameis may know."
"You trust her with this?" Rara said.
"Should I not?" Kois licked down the thick fur around her shoulders. Rainwater and dew clung to the tall jungle grasses, leaving anyone who passed through brushed with dampness, and her coat had begin to clump into wet spikes. At least grooming took away the plant's taste.
"She didn't tell you about the plants the first time around," said Rara. She dragged her claws over the closest petal, leaving deep scores in the firm, slippery surface. "And then she didn't tell you about the swarms, and each time she doesn't tell you something, someone gets hurt. You ever think there's more to it?"
Kois' eyes narrowed. In truth she'd wondered about that ever since the morning's encounters. But she had been the one to confront Anameis, not Rara. "It was a lapse. Things that are obvious to her are not for us. I've told her to be more careful, and not to assume we know the same as she does."
"I hope so, for everyone's sake!" said Rara, claws raised. In the background, Meana continued to tug the vine's dead weight out of the grasses. "Wouldn't want to see you running off again and leaving a child to explain to everyone what's happening!"
Without thought, Kois' hackles rose and she bared her fangs. "You don't know what you're talking about. I did leave too fast, but I know Yuki."
"Do you?" A deep growl rose in Rara's throat. "You're the one who gave him his name. You told him who he was. And you brought him here! Did you ever wonder why he called himself Roku for so long?"
Kois growled in turn, claws digging into soft loamy earth. "I think about that every day."
For a moment the pair stayed locked in a stare, growling and lashing their tails. Neither wanted to fight, but nor would one back down from the other. The heavy, humid air around them felt even thicker than usual, charged with fierce energy.
"I've got the vine," said Meana. "Are there any others?"
Kois' ears twitched. Meana sat by the coiled vine, her ears flattened. A wave of shame passed over Kois as she realised she and Rara had left her there to wonder what was happening. "Yes," she said, turning away from Rara. "Let's finish what we came here to do."
"I hope you know what that is," said Rara, as they said off into the wet grass. "There's a lot of us looking up to you."
"Just remember," said Kois, "that you came along as well."
"I came along for Reko's memory," said Rara, and stalked off.
Kois stepped out into the clearing and shook herself down. She wished, as she had so many times before, that the dampness of the grass would take the edge off the oppressive heat, but it served only to add to its weight. In the days since washing up on shore, the temperature had become part of life, though it dulled her gems and shortened her patience. She scarcely remembered refreshing breezes ruffling her fur on a warm day, as they so often did on the meadows.
She settled in to her customary position beside Laana. The white nicheling has already woven a nest of jungle grasses, and the fresh scent of cut stems greeted Kois as she lay down, paws sprawled out in front of her. "They're all gone now," she said. Laana didn't need to ask what she meant. She still shuddered at even the aside mention of the plants. Her pale fur had started to grow back over the burnt spots, but her pelt was still patchy. She leaned against Kois' side, and Kois purred as she felt Laana's fluffy tail twine around hers.
Yet her attention wandered from Laana to Yuki. Rara, she concluded, had been right - it had been irresponsible of her to leave a child to tell the tribe where she had gone, and she owed him an apology. But right now he was busy chasing Anameis again, without a care for the morning's trouble. Kois watched as he jumped onto a fallen log and ran down its length, Anameis following with her tail high for balance. She tried to pounce on him as he called to her from the other end, but her three legged stance was unstable and the two of them crashed to the ground, laughing and play-wrestling.
"Yuki, be careful!" Laana called out to them.
"He'll be fine," Kois said. Rara was right, and she could say as she liked, but she couldn't change what Laana saw in the shells.
The tribe stuck to their camp for the next few days, unable to move while Kirro and Iskome recovered. Anameis had been true to her word at least, and no more black swarms plagued them. Left sheepish by another failure to warn her friends, she doubled her efforts to find danger, persuading Kois to let her come along on patrols. Kois granted the request, if only to stop her from her backup idea of laying extra scent markers. She remained satisfied that the orange nicheling had learnt her lesson - nobody so eager to please that she literally fell over her own paws could have sinister motives. Her instincts by the swamp turned out to be correct too - Anameis craved praise more than anything else, and a word of thanks motivated her more than bared teeth and sharp claws could hope.
But her optimism didn't spread to the rest of the tribe. Slight though it was, she could feel a rising tension in the air, frustration at their confinement in the absence of snow and mountains. Sometimes she would hear a snapped word, or see a brandished claw - nothing that broke out into real fights, but the longer they stayed, the tighter that tension grew. But there was no way to hasten recovery from the swamp sickness, so Kois weathered it all as she did rain on her back.
She continued her patrols to ease her own inner tension, and many of the tribe, even the non-fighters, were eager to follow, for the sake of something to do. Nonetheless, Rara continued to follow more often than not. A few days later, after a scuffle between Tanu and Kuku (the origins of which were quickly forgotten), Rara tagged along again. There had been no sign of plants or predators since the first day, but she needed the space and she suspected Rara felt the same. Long grass, wet with last night's rains, brushed against their sides and clung to their coats as they walked deeper into the forest. Presently Rara stopped, sniffing a spray of leaves. "You get that?"
Kois tried to catch whatever scent Rara had found, but smelled only the persistent jungle backdrop of earth, steam, and slow decay, scents that had become so ubiquitous as to be imperceptible. Even Anameis' markers barely registered any more, as long as she kept her distance. She moved closer to Rara and sniffed the grass. The rains washed away most of the trail in the night, but traces of a musty and familiar odour remained. "Bearyena."
"Trail's leading this way!" Rara stretched out and clawed the ground, leaving deep marks in the dirt. Despite herself, Kois felt her claws flex in anticipation. Nobody could miss Rara's eagerness for a fight as she stalked off into the grass with her tail high and her many-coloured gems shining bright.
But Kois held back. "It's an old trail. It'll be long gone by now."
Rara peered back over her thickly-furred shoulder. "Feeling bad for them again?"
"I can handle a bearyena if I need to." But her ears flattened, betraying her thoughts, and Rara's eyes narrowed.
"But you don't!" Rara whirled around to face her again, her ruff bristling and her claws shining with dew. "If you could bring yourself to kill them, we'd have a lot more food and a safer tribe. Did you think of that?"
Kois stifled a growl. "Maybe that is so," she said, "but an old trail is a waste of time." Privately, she wondered if Rara was trying to goad her into a test of strength. Perhaps the lack of any prey bigger than a skinny jungle rabbil wore on her spirit. Kois clenched her teeth and stood firm, tail high, but still. If Rara wanted a fight she was welcome to one, but nobody could say Kois landed the first blow.
"It's not as if-" Rara stopped. A rustle in the grass caught her attention, ears swivelling to catch the sound. Kois, too, turned toward the intruder, but the sound came from their camp's direction, and she and Rara relaxed when Meana pushed her way into view through the thick grasses.
For the blink of an eye Meana hesitated, clawed paw lifted and clearly wondering if she'd burst in on another fight, but as Kois and Rara let their guard down, so did she. "It's Tanu!"
"What happened?" Kois said, imagining a host of dangers her tribemate could have wandered into.
"No, I didn't mean that, nothing's wrong!" Meana lowered her paw and looked back in the direction she came. "It's his last gem! It just came through!"