Chapter 3: A Blessing of Bones
Laana touched her nose to Reko's. She was still curled up in the nest as she had been when Kois had found her. Kois, looking on, felt that if she ignored the way Reko did not respond, she could pretend nothing had happened.
She hadn't told Laana about Yuki yet. It was enough that the young seer should have to learn about the loss of her sister.
Kois had found her at the beach shortly after parting ways with Silais, just as the old seer had said she would. She had been combing through the seaweed and debris left behind by last night's high tide. Kois wondered if she already knew, if the sea had already told her what happened. Laana had little to say when Kois told her. Kois was not a nicheling of graceful words, and Laana had done nothing but stare as she listened to the news.
Now it was high sun on another beautiful day, and Laana was face to face with her dead sister, and under the warm sun and pleasant breeze, Kois could only watch as her friend's world fell apart.
Laana nudged her sister, nuzzling up against her cheek. The corpse was stiff and moved as a whole, pushed from the nest by Laana's motions. She nudged it again, harder, not looking up at Kois, as if she was not there, and sat on her haunches. Staring down at her sister's remains, nearly as motionless herself, only the frantic rise and fall of her chest gave anything away.
"This?" She kept her eyes on the nest, as if she were talking not to Kois but to empty air, giving word to her thoughts. "This is what did it? After the bearyena and the bluebirds, this?"
Laana had been her mother's last cub, and Kois knew that she had left her with little more than a few hazy memories and a desire that she become the family's next seer. It had been Reko that the young Laana had always been trailing after. Kois curled her tail around her legs, remembering a day like this one, not so long ago. Laana twined her claws through the nest, making crisp sounds as the woven dry grass broke under her touch.
"Doeli," she said, speaking the name of the first seer, the ancient ancestor of her line. Her ears were flat against her head, her blue irises almost obscured by wide pupils. "Doeli return me to the sea, for... no. No, it is no use. She was never a seer. I can't do it. I can't give her back to the sea."
"I know." Reko had never been a seer, and never wanted to be. Letting the sea's currents carry her away into the deep, as the seers did, would not be right.
"What do you do?" Now Laana was looking up at Kois again, her eyes filled with a pleading expression.
Kois understood. "We would let her bones go back to the nest," she said. "We can bury her, if you think that would be right."
Even if neither Laana or Reko had Kois' blood, that seemed to brighten the seer up a little, enough that her ears perked up and she sat up straighter, rubbing at her antlers with her one nimble paw. "Yes," she said. "We should do that."
If she wanted to keep her mind from everything by making herself busy, Laana didn't say. Kois could not bring herself to mind. Neither of them were good diggers like the nichelings born with broad paws like a stagmole's, but Kois' claws were big enough to tear up the ground enough for this, and the dirt was soft enough to dig after last night's rain. It was easier than the last time she had to do this. The day wore on as they kept digging, and soon their pelts were caked in dirt. Even Laana, who was normally so meticulous about keeping her coat clean, didn't bother about it. They worked in silence, until they were close to done, when Laana looked up from pushing dirt aside and said: "What happened to it?"
She should have said something earlier, Kois thought, but what was there to say, when so much had happened to Laana already? "He is alive. Silais has him."
"I didn't think that Reko would want her child to be a seer." Laana brushed a little dirt from her body.
"He isn't. He is Yuki."
Laana had some understanding of the snow god's story, so it did not take long for Kois to recount the tale of how she had recognised Yuki and brought him to Silais in the hope she would understand. Laana listened quietly, as if she had been shaken so many times today that nothing else could faze her. She sat still, with her paws neatly tucked together and her tail curled around her feet. Only when Kois was finished did she speak. "Then we have to go."
"Silias didn't want anyone to go who didn't want to."
"I have nothing to stay here for."
"Nevertheless, the choice is his."
"I know." Laana crouched, peering into the hole. "Is it ready?"
The hole was deep and long enough to bury a nicheling of Reko's size by now, and Kois supposed that she could put things off no longer. The sun was already well into its downward path toward the horizon - soon it would be evening, and time to retire for the night. "Yes. Is there anything you want to do?"
"No." Laana pawed at the remnants of seaweed draped from her antlers. "I suppose I have done all I need." She padded over to Reko's body and sat down.
It took the two of them to lift Reko and nudge her into the hole. Kois tried to gently lower her, but her body was stiff and it was a difficult process, and she ended up dropping her and sending her crashing into the bottom, causing Kois and Laana to flinch back, ears flattened. Laana blurted out a string of apologies, and Kois reassured her that no harm had been done. They both took turns in pushing the dirt back into the hole, until Reko was gone and only a patch of churned earth remained to tell of what had happened.
Finally, as the sun approached the horizon and the light grew warm and red, Kois laid a scrap of dry nest grass over the spot, and sat back.
"I suppose I had better leave now." Laana looked worn out from the day's work, as if the enormity of everything was an invisible weight borne by her overworked body.
"Would you like me to come with you?" As peaceful as the island was, bearyenas preferred to roam at night.
Laana fell silent, contemplating Kois's offer. She looked up at the darkening sky, her gaze distant and unfocused. "No. no, I will be safe tonight."
Kois could not press the matter, so she got to her feet. "Then I will see you."
It seemed that Laana was a nicheling of even fewer words than Kois tonight. She walked away without another word, vanishing into the tall grass in the direction of the shore. Kois was left alone to listen to the wind in the grass and the chirp of insects. With nothing more to do, she loped away into the dusk-tinted fields, and left Reko to the earth.
Kois stopped at her favourite tree, where everything began, and cracked open a few more nuts. The hard day's work had left her with an appetite, not to mention plenty of dirt in her coat to wash away in the stream. She didn't mind the cold anymore.
It was dark by the time she returned to her home nest. Kois' eyes were better in the dark than many of her tribemate's, but she took care stepping through the grass and into the den that had been home for all of her life. Few other nichelings cared for it, although it was tucked under another ridged that kept away the wind. Kois knew the reason for this, but she did not care.
The twin skulls of her mother and father were the only bright points in the dark, as moonlight reflected from their curves. They had blessed the nest with their bones long ago, just like the old Yukirs their traced their lineage back to, and just as Reko had done today. Soon the earth would do its work and leave her bones bare, so they too could return to her nest. It was an old thing, a little of tradition and a little magic, if you believed in such things. I lived here, it said, and I will die here, and I will return to the land that gave me life.
"I'm back." Kois curled up, forming a tight ball with her clubbed tail wrapped around her body. The nest smelled of old, dry grass, a smell of warm summer days when the blades became dry and crunchy underfoot. The skulls watched, or at least to Kois, they seemed to watch. One was thickset and heavy, like Kois herself, the other narrow, ridged, and set with sharper teeth than most. She knew they could never answer, but it had become a personal tradition to speak with the skulls whenever something troubled her. She had often wondered if the old Yukirs did the same.
"Yuki came back, too."
It was a still night. There should have been a breeze rustling the grass, as if in reply, but there was not.
"I wonder what you would have thought of that. He's Reko's son, did you know? Maybe you do, now. Old Silais has him now. She doesn't want to leave. I cannot say I would blame her. Who would want to leave a place like this? But I know I'll be going. I'll miss you. She flexed the tip of her clubbed tail, and took a deep breath. "But I suppose you were always more there than here."
The stars rose and turned a little more overhead, as Kois pondered her next words.
"I think Laana will go, too. I hope she does."
The trail down to Sunrise Cove was deserted as dusk fell. The sands below were empty, with no sign of the seers who combed the shoreline for omens when the sun shone. Laana kept her ears perked for the sound of bearyenas, but true to her instincts, there was no sign of the giant predators tonight.
The sand below the tideline was coated in a silver sheen of moonlight. Laana's paws made crisp little footprints as she walked toward the sea. Waves crashed before her, forever and unchanging. They should be different, now. The world could not go on as it always had, not after today. Yet it did just that.
She washed herself in the cold water, sluicing down the dirt from her pelt and letting the sea carry it away.
Down the shore, the tide was low and the sea caves easy to reach. She scrambled across the fallen boulders and little rock pools that led toward the seer's cave. At high tide that meant wading through shallows, but at low tide she could walk inside with ease. The gaping mouth beckoned to her, calling her back to the place she had called home nearly all her life. In the dark it was an outline, a shade deeper than the cliffs surrounding it, tall and narrow. She walked into the dark, feeling soft, damp sand beneath her paws again. The sounds of the sea became muffled and dampened between the stone.
There was no light here apart from the faintest hints of the moon and stars and the last remnants of the sun, but Laana could find her way from feel and memory. The cave angled upwards, damp sand giving way to dry stone. It was here that the seers bound their nests, away from danger and close to the sea that brought them its messages. Up ahead she could smell other nichelings, the familiar scent of tribemates and fellow seers, mixed in with salt and seaweed. Her ears perked at the sound of voices. The faint sounds resolved themselves into words, enough for her to tell that someone was telling a story.
She stopped to listen to what she recognised as an old tale about Tata the trickster and the bluebird king. The seers would all be sitting together, listening to the story unfold and letting the darkness give form to their imaginations. They would talk together of the day's omens, and eat the clam meat they had gathered. The world had changed, and yet it stayed the same.
Silais would be there in her usual hollow, and he would be with her.
Laana felt a knot inside her stomach. She waited, listening to the story go on the teller spoke of how Tata tricked the bluebird king into carrying him off so that he could reach his domain in the clouds. It was one that she had heard many times before. The seers had told it to her when she was young.
She turned away from the hidden gathering and back to the cave mouth, where the night sky was a vertical slash filled with stars, set in the dark rock walls. The sound of waves grew louder, and cold night air ruffled through her fur as she stepped outside. Picking her way through the boulder field, she didn't think of where she was going, nor did she even know. Wherever she went, she couldn't go back in there. At least, not tonight.