Snowtouched

Chapter 27: Laana and the Gorge

In the morning, Kois reflected, the sole reason a rebellion did not lie at her paws was that the tribe had nowhere else to go. Though she ended her previous night with an assurance that anyone willing to leave may, and though more than a few bared teeth accompanied wishes to make their own way in the world, eventually they all came to the conclusion that they were safer together. Kois wanted, badly, for that to be the end of the matter, but she would not delude herself. She spent a long night answering questions and defending Yuki, and throughout it all her own thoughts and feelings were like stones at the bottom of a river, that she could see from the bank but not touch. Finally she sought out Yuki and Anameis, and fell into the nest with the snow-child curled up between her paws.

Her sleep was dreamless and fragmented, and when morning came her head felt heavy and stuffed with rabbil-fluff. The rains had come again in the night and dew clung to her pelt. She rose slowly, stretching each leg one by one to ward off the stiffness. Yuki still slept undisturbed by her paws. She backed out of the nest and touched her nose to him, but he slept on and she left him be.

All around, the tribe were waking up in the morning sun. Some watched her pass by with wary eyes, but her actions had afforded her the sort of wary respect that was the best many hybrids could hope for. That, she was used to. They might look at her as if she would burst into flames without warning, but they saved their anger. She smelled fresh rainwater where it collected overnight in the central hollow of a giant bromeliad, and felt a little life and energy return as she lapped up the cool waters.

A rank scent reached her nose as she licked away the last droplets from her lips. Her thoughts turned back to Donnu, and her stomach twisted with the thought that Laana had doomed him to a long death, and that was what gave her the final push to tell the truth. She surpassed a growl and found the twins' nest. Kuku was gone, but Donnu and Prinu lay curled up together, both sleeping. To Kois' relief no smell of decay emanated from the bites. She left them to their rest, grateful for the small load off her back even if so much more pressed down upon her. At least now she could look Kuku in the eye again.

Perhaps she should find Laana and let her know too. For all she had done, she didn't deserve that fear upon her. But the rotting stench still hung in the air. Kois stopped, a paw raised in curiosity, and sniffed. Not Anameis' scent markers - foul though her spray was, it kept predators at bay, and to Kois it was a paradoxically unpleasant sign of safety. No matter what else Laana brought upon them, Kois thanked Anameis and the whims of fate alike that they'd had the good fortune to not run into another ape.

Following the scent, she nosed aside a spray of fan-shaped leaves and saw what happened. The remains of the bearyena that the tribe had taken down last night lay rotting in the grass. Kois' hungry tribemates had descended upon it after she helped drag it back, devouring muscles and organs and leaving the corpse wide open. Sharp white ribs stabbed the air above a gutted body cavity crawling with black flies. Dark eyes bulged from the creature's face, as though caught by surprise at its fate. Its mouth hung open, frozen in a last gasp for air. This close up, the smell made Kois' eyes water. She blinked, and it spilled from her eyes and into her fur.

A trio of nichelings, gathered around the corpse, looked up at her approach. Iskome and Kuku, who each bore a digging paw, had been hollowing out the ground below the body, and Meana oversaw the pair. They froze in their work as if expecting her to comment. She gave them a nod of approval, understanding as they must that the smell of blood and rotting flesh attracted predators, and burying the remains would mask their presence. "Let me help you."

Sniffing down the trail of her thoughts, she knew she was postponing an inevitable confrontation with Laana, but the tribe's safety came first and they needed to see a steady-headed leader now more than ever. Her paws churned up great clumps of red earth, softened by the night's rain. In her exertion she remembered burying Reko - the same broken earth, the flies and the smell of blood and death everywhere. Had they stayed, they would have left the bones for a year, and unearthed her clean skull and laid it in the nest so that she could bless the place where life began in her death. Kois' lips pulled back a little, exposing a glimmer of teeth. Reko had been denied the death rites Laana begged Kois for, and Yuki denied a connection to his mother, for he should have been there for the final blessing...

She put the thought away and pushed herself back into this moment: the exertion of muscles, the parting of root-woven soil under her claws and its rich, rain-washed scent. Meana, though the least suited to digging among the four, kept by her side. "Are you...?"

"I will live," said Kois. Over the last few days she had taken the chance to connect with her tribemates, having known them only in passing before their journey. She had discovered that Meana was an insightful nicheling, with an understanding of others that exceeded her two-gem age. It was Meana who had been the first to calm the tribe in the wave of Kois' revelation, pointing out that no matter what brought them here, the jungle was the immediate danger, and no amount of fighting would fix a past lie. Without her, Kois might never have slept at all. The few words she managed could never convey her gratitude for another sensible nicheling among the tribe.

It was no ceremonial burial. They laid the bearyena in a hole scarcely big enough to contain its body, with enough red earth piled on top to mask its scent until the tribe left. Yet Kois stayed a little longer, after the others finished and left the scene. She ripped a broad leaf, so deep a green it was nearly black, from the shrub where it grew, and laid it over the broken mound that marked the predator's last rest. If the seas were punishing us for Laana's acts, she thought, then you were drawn into this as much as the rest of us. With that thought, she passed through the grasses and rejoined the tribe.

To her eyes, they had resigned themselves to their fate, going about their day as though it were any other. They wove nests and marked territory borders and left berries and freshly killed rabbils on the food pile that had come to mark the centre of their camp. She took a couple of berries for herself - the smell of rotten bearyena had spoiled her appetite for meat - and chewed thoughtfully. Even with a semblance of restored normality, a sombre air had descended upon the tribe. Everyone was slower, quieter, carrying out their duties with the listlessness of those who seek to keep up that appearance of everyday life as long as they can.

And still, there was no sign of Laana, and Kois knew what she was liable to do in her moments of grief. She dragged her claws over the ground. The urge to find Laana did not trouble her - she was still one of the tribe, and the tribe must be safe. But the memories of last night, long ago though they seemed, were fresh in her mind, even the warm sense-memory of Laana by her side. She wanted to find her and bring her back, but also to sit beside her and groom her pelt while Yuki and Anameis played nearby. Why should you not? she asked herself. You love her. But though she knew this, the thought twisted her stomach and made the berries sit heavily.

At that moment the other missing piece made itself known. Yuki was no longer sleeping in the nest, and he should be tussling with Anameis in a bout of early morning energy. But they had both vanished. "Kirro!"

The lanky white male had been resting nearby with his head on crossed forepaws, and he looked up at her voice. "What is it?"

"Did you see where Yuki and Anameis went?"

"Yuki said something about going to see Laana." Kirro looked over her shoulder at the thick, unbroken undergrowth that marked the boundary between the tribe's little circle of safety and the wilds beyond. "She's not far, is she? They'll be with her so..." His voice trailed off. Kois' expression must have tripped a glimmer of realisation as Kirro's normally half-lidded eyes opened in full. "They're not, are they?"

Kois rose to her paws, confirming Kirro's words without a single one of her own. "Find Meana. You and her are in charge until I return." Meana had already proven her worth, and Kirro's three gems would bring in any respect Meana's two might take away.

Kirro nodded and darted away into the camp in search of Meana. Shouldering aside leaf and stem, Kois turned back into the wild.


Anameis pressed her nose to the ground, sniffing and snorting through her crooked snout. Her tail waved in the air as she swung back and forth in search of Laana's scent. "C'mon," she said, pushing through the undergrowth. "She's been here. See how the stems are all broken and the dew's been rubbed off?"

Yuki narrowed his eyes to get a better look at what Anameis was talking about. Even with the trees blocking the sun's blinding rays, his eyesight was too blurry to see what she meant unless he came a nose away. "Was it just now?" He sniffed the green shoots Anameis pointed out, but though Laana's scent had rubbed off on them, the dew had washed most of it away. She may as well have passed by yesterday. Amidst all the other scents of the forest, his nose felt as unreliable as his eyes.

But Anameis could track anyone in the forest. She crept forward on soft paws, silent even with her hopping gait. Yuki followed on her tail, peering ahead in the hopes of a glimpse of white fur in the network of branch and leaf all around. Dew-spangled leaves clung to his sides as he passed them by, leaving his coat plastered with water and sticking up in clumpy spikes.

They had found Laana's hastily built and empty nest that morning, and Anameis' despairing "Oh no..." when Yuki told her she vanished sometimes still clung to the depths of his stomach.

"Maybe she's looking for bearyenas?" he'd suggested.

"No, it's not that." Anameis' ears drooped with her words.

But Yuki could no more cease asking questions than he could fly. "What about a way to the snows?"

"Maybe... but it's not going to solve anything."

Once again Anameis stopped and reared up as she so often did when traversing the jungle, scanning her surroundings for danger. She put Yuki in mind of a rabbil perched over its burrow on the lookout for enemies, and it struck him there that they were a long way from Kois or Rara or anyone else strong enough to free them from the vines. He sniffed the ground at his paws, and jumped in shock at a dark shape crossing his path. Just a root, he realised on second glance, but his heart still slammed into his chest with such force he thought it would smash through his gem. "Anameis, how far away are we?"

"Shh!" she hissed. "Listen!"

Yuki perked his ears, swivelling them to catch anything out of the ordinary. The hum and buzz of the jungle blended into a wall of noise, but behind that a persistent hiss sounded out, on the very edge of hearing. The call of a strange insect? And there as well, the rustle of a creature's frantic movements through the undergrowth.

"Laana!" he cried out. His fear forgotten, he ran off, ignoring Anameis' shouts It must be her! And then they'd be safe and together again, and they could go back. And as he ran he heard another voice speak to him. "He's going the right way." Was Anameis following? It must be her - she was by his side now, and ahead a flash of white paused and vanished - a tail disappearing into the forest?

He wriggled through gaps in roots and branches, taking advantage of his smaller size to gain ground. He scrambled under a big leathery leaf that barred his way, and there Laana was! She stood with her back turned to him, tail low, her whole body poised to flee. On Yuki's approach she flinched and scrambled to sit down, combing her ruff. "Yuki, what are you doing so far from the camp?"

Yuki tilted his head. "Well, what are you doing so far from the camp?" Surely Laana should know not to leave without another strong nicheling?

Leaves parted to reveal Anameis, quiet of paw but loud of voice. "As if you don't know and we don't know."

"Are you looking for the snow?" Yuki said. "I can help! That's why I'm here, isn't it?" He trotted up to Laana, who was still picking at knots in her fur. She didn't respond, so he nudged her foreleg, trying to nuzzle her chest where her gems sat.

A flash of green - not a leaf, but one of those gems, and he scuttled backward, staring. "What happened to your gems? Are you alright?"

Laana flinched back, her paw still touching her central gem, but she could do nothing to conceal the transformation. Anameis hopped forward and sniffed, though she kept a respectful distance. "What does that mean?"

"It means you're not a seer any more." Yuki licked a paw, and turned away. Laana's gems weren't missing, or broken, or anything else so horrible they sent a stab of fear through his whole body, and yet... "That's why, isn't it?"

When he looked back up, Laana was watching something in the distance. Though she held her head high, she looked thin and haggard, worn down from her trials. She held her tail between her legs, and did not speak. Yet her ears stood to attention, listening for faint sounds ahead. Yuki felt his legs fold beneath him, instinct compelling him to keep small and quiet lest whatever she heard come sniffing.

"I don't think I was for a long time... now listen!" In one quick motion Laana reared up. "Can you hear it? Can you hear the water?" Dropping to all fours, she took a few shaky steps deeper into the tangle of leaf and branch.

Yuki strained to hear...

"Yes. Yes, it is the way."

Anameis, or Laana? He could not tell. But if he listened hard, above the birds and insects, above his shallow breath and racing heart, there he found the rush of distant water. Had Laana found another river? Before he could ask, Laana dashed off again, her tail vanishing into the leaves before Yuki could get to his feet.

This time it was Anameis who ran after her first, yelling, while Yuki stood in shock, paws bound like roots to the earth, until he snapped back to his senses and ran, grass whipping at his face. She was going to get lost if he didn't find her, she was going to run into a plant and he couldn't save her... he tried to call out, but his breath came in short gasps as he forced himself to keep up. On and on he ran, up and up, and the sound of water grew ever louder. A roar such that he had never heard, the rush of rapids over stone...

A gap in the trees opened ahead, light pouring in to fill the space between. Laana stood motionless, and Yuki made one last dash to the water - but there was none. His paws touched upon bare rock, wet with spray. He looked up...

Never in his life had Yuki seen or imagined a waterfall. Rivers he knew, but where they came from might as well be magic, and even to his near-sighted eyes there could be no spectacle more magical than the cascade that plummeted before him. Columns and platforms of pale rock, reached beyond the tallest trees into misty, unseen heights. The roar that Laana had first heard was the sound of water thundering down the cliffs with such force that it dissolved into a foggy spray that coated leaf and stone alike with a slick dew that dazzled in the sunlight. Sunbeams penetrating the haze fractured into rainbows, hanging in the air as though Yuki could reach out and pluck them like ghostly berries. Following the falls downward, Yuki watched the water plunge into a ravine three or four nicheling lengths in depth and a little wider across. Down there the river twisted over a rock-strewn bed, splitting and recombining in fast-flowing streams of blue and white. Spray descended on Yuki's coat and coalesced into shimmering droplets clinging to his whiskers. He reached a paw to the rainbow lights as Anameis loped up behind him in the same silent awe.

"Look," Laana's voice was a soft murmur, nearly lost in the waterfall's thunder. "Isn't it wonderful? This is it, Yuki! We can follow it!"

Yuki stretched his paw out, trying to touch the rainbows, but found only mist. Puzzled, he licked the spray from his damp ruff, and a memory returned, of following the stream on their home island, the one that ran past Kois' favourite tree. He never found the source, but he learnt from that expedition that rivers flowed from high places to low and emptied themselves into the sea, as if they wished to be whole with the endless waters. "It can take us to the mountains! We can find the snow after all!"

"Exactly!" Laana's eyes sparkled with a vitality Yuki had not seen since before the storm. "Oh Yuki... everything will be fine now, you'll see." She nuzzled Yuki's side, sheltering him from the spray as she licked his coat clean of the dirt he'd picked up running through the jungle. Even the sight of her green gems could not stop Yuki from purring. He had done his duty and led the tribe closer to the snow, just as Kois said he would! He nuzzled Laana back, feeling the comforting rumble of her own purr.

"Yes. Sorry. A river isn't going to fix this."

Yuki peered out from Laana's embrace. Anameis sat a nicheling's length away, her tail lashing over the spray-slick rocks. "What do you mean?" he said. "This is what we came here for!"

Laana drew her paw around Yuki and pulled him closer. "Well, I didn't-"

"I mean what I said." Anameis got to her feet, glowering. "You really think you can go back to the camp now and have everything go back to normal? You think Kois is going to forgive you?"

Yuki felt Laana's heart pound by his side. He closed his eyes and buried his face in the soft fur of her ruff, but it was too late. "What do you know about Kois?" Laana snapped.

"I... I don't, but I... I don't like it!" Anameis' voice rose to a scream, and Yuki opened his eyes to see her loom over him, teeth bared in a jagged snarl in Laana's face. Her breath came in short pants, hissing through misshapen teeth. He could smell her rank scent, feel her coarse fur as she pressed Laana back.

Laana's claws, small though they were, dug into Yuki's skin with painful force. "This isn't about you!" she screamed. Yuki squirmed, trying to pull himself away from her grip, but he was pinned to her body, unable to break free. He let out a wordless squeal with what breath he could muster, and nobody listened. Laana kept sputtering out her arguments, over and over. "The river will take us to the snow, and-"

"I'm not talking about the snow! Can't you see that?" Foamy flecks gleamed on Anameis' lips as she pressed on, forcing Laana to scuttle back every few steps with Yuki still clasped to her body, struggling unheeded. "You're right this isn't about me! But I don't like it when someone messes with my trust!" She lunged and gave Laana a warning snap, her jaws closing in a whisker's length from her nose.

Laana shouted, Anameis shouted, the falls roared on, and Yuki could make out nothing more than noise and screaming as he scratched and struggled. At last Laana loosened her grip for an instant, and he pulled himself free, sprawling out over cold stone to catch his breath as the argument raged on overhead. Voices rang in his ears, wordless and senseless. He shook his head and opened his mouth. "Will you stop-"

Laana didn't see him, didn't notice he'd wriggled free from her paws in her panic and rage. She stumbled back under Anameis' onslaught, and her back paw kicked him in the face, knocking the breath from his mouth and sending him skidding over slippery rock.

Her scream of "Yuki!" was the only word in his ears as he was flung over the edge and into spray-laden air.

His paws lashed out, a jumble of noise still rattling in his ears. By sheer luck his claws latched onto the edge, scrabbling at the tiniest of cracks. Down below, the waterfall churned the river into white foam. Cold water settled upon his fur as he scrambled to pull himself back onto firm ground, but his claws slid backwards, dislodging clumps of moss as his weight dragged him down. Pain ran through his body, his shoulders stretched under his weight, his chest straining to breathe as he hung.

A shadow fell over him, teeth grasping him gently by the scruff, and his limbs went limp as he was lifted to safety, away from the noise and the pain, and laid back onto solid rock. Broad leaves and thick fur sheltered him from the waterfall's roar, and a warm tongue licked his sides as he caught his breath, drawing him back to the world and making the noise in his head fade again. "Thanks, La-"

He opened his eyes. She was shaded, cast into shadow by the light behind her, but there could be no mistaking that dumpy outline or those mismatched ears for Laana's.

"Anameis," he corrected himself. But hadn't Laana seen him fall, when she screamed his name?

Past Anameis, Laana sat at the gorge's edge, but she did not look up at them. Her back was turned to the pair, her whole body shaking. With her coat plastered to her body, she looked smaller and thinner than ever before, her head held so low that Yuki could only see the sharp tips of her antlers over hunched shoulders that stood out like blades from her body. Her tail curled tightly around her paws, and when she trembled, drops of water fell from her coat.

"Laana!" Yuki took a few hesitant steps closer. "It's fine, I'm over here!"

Slowly, Laana turned her head away from the gorge.

"Can we go back now? We should still tell everyone about this, shouldn't we?" Yuki padded closer, but stopped a nicheling's length away. The falls rumbled on. Anameis loped up, to stand protectively by his side. He nuzzled against her good leg.

Laana's distant voice sounded, once again, as though she were talking to someone far away and unseen, and Yuki and Anameis just happened to be witnesses to her words. "When I first came to the caves, they said I looked just like her." She lifted her nimble paw, and Yuki did not need to see it to know she was stroking her gems. "And then Reko said she didn't care who I looked like, because it didn't matter." A sad little laugh escaped her mouth. "Now what would she think of me, like this?"

"Pretty pissed off you nearly threw her son over a cliff? No offence, Yuki." Anameis licked Yuki's mane as he crouched by her side. "So you hate yourself now, do you? So you feel like dirt? Well so do I, so why don't we just be dirt together instead of being stupid?"

Laana trailed her paw down her antlers and turned away from the water, but hesitated to come closer. "What do you mean?"

"You know what I mean," Anameis growled. "You all know I'm rogue-born! So let's just go back and agree we're both messed up! Aren't you supposed to be the three-gem here?"

Yuki crouched, ears flat, like a rabbil trying to avoid notice. Once again he found himself stuck with the understanding that whatever passed between the two older nichelings lay outside his life experience, in the murky realms of adulthood. Anameis' shouts turned to cries, and he knew only one thing he could do. He sat up and nuzzled his cheeks against her gems, letting his scent mix with hers. She lay her shrunken paw over his shoulder, holding him close, but she had neither the strength or the inclination to grasp as tightly as Laana.

Laana closed her eyes, pawed at her head, and let out a sigh that had been a long time coming, a sigh full of pent up fear and exhaustion all let loose and cast off into the air. "You're right." She rose to her feet and shook herself down, and the spray framed her, for an instant, in fractured rainbows.

"Least some of them will still be happy to hear about the river." Anameis said. She hopped away from Yuki and draped her tail over Laana's back. Yuki followed, and reared up in front of the two. Without a word, Laana lifted her head, and Yuki laid his front paws on her central gem. "What was she like?" Anameis asked.

"Reko?" Laana stroked Yuki's little tuft of a mane, but her paws were soft and gentle again. Yuki perked his ears at the prospect of another story of his mother. "She was my sister. You know that, don't you? But she was more than that. I was a one-gem when we lost our parents... younger than Yuki. They were old. I don't remember them well. But I had Reko instead, and she was always there."

"Was she one of your seers?" asked Anameis.

"What? Oh no, no, no!" Laana's paw flew to her mouth, but she couldn't help a burst of laugher. "She couldn't break open clams, and you need to be able to read the clams if you want to be a seer. And she didn't want to be anyway! She wanted to explore, not sit in a cave all day."

"She fought bearyenas!" added Yuki, eager to join in. "She was really strong!"

"I think it was more that she didn't like anyone else telling her when to stop," Laana laughed again, soft and quiet, as she teased out a knot from Yuki's ruff. "You might say she made her own strength. She certainly did what she wanted! Rara was right. Reko really was everything she seemed to be. Not like me..."

Anameis prodded a clump of lurid green moss growing upon the cliffside. "Sounds like she wouldn't mind if you weren't a seer any more?"

"No, I don't think she'd mind that, at least." Laana squinted down her nose at her gems. "How strange. Now I even look a little like her."

Anameis stood up and waved her tail, weighted down with dew. "Come on then, let's-"

The sound of heavy paws on dead leaves made all three nichelings look up, to where a dark shape lumbered through the forest, a hint of movement in dappled shadow. Yuki pressed close to Laana's chest, a stab of panic rushing through his spine. "Bearyena!"

"Not exactly." Grass and leaves parted, and Kois emerged into the light. She seemed distracted for a moment, gazing past the trio and toward the waterfall, but quickly snapped back to the present. "So we are all running off to risk our lives again, are we?"

"I told Kirro!" Yuki protested (though he left out the part about not knowing Laana had gone so far). "And look!" He scampered out from Laana's side and stood by the waterfall, careful to keep away from the edge this time, but drawing Kois' eyes to their find. "It's from the mountains!"

Kois moved closer, stepping around Laana and Anameis to investigate the white water plummeting from above. Her movements slow and deliberate, her footsteps silent despite her great claws, she came to stand upon the edge, looking up past the canopy and following the falls into the sky. Mist settled upon her coat and picked out her muscular frame in sparkling, tiny dewdrops. "It's beautiful," she said. "Thank you, Yuki."

"Well, actually, Laana found it."

Kois looked back at Laana, who, seeing her attention, began combing her ruff in nervous agitation. "I thought it might help..."

"Yes. It will."

Laana padded up to Kois, tail low, but ears held high in hopefulness. "Then...?"

"No, Laana. Not now." In one fluid movement, Kois turned and walked away, back into the jungle. In silence, the others followed.

Yuki asked no more questions on the way back to the tribe's camp. Though his mind flooded and churned with questions with all the energy of the river below, he walked in solemn silence like a white shadow at his elders' heels. Like Laana, he had grasped, for the blink of an eye, a flicker of hope that died away at Kois' parting words. They still had the waterfall, and the promise of mountains. But he knew, with a deep and restless understanding, that Anameis had been right. There was no snow-capped mountain in all the world, no deity in nicheling skin, that could make the world go back to before.