Snowtouched

Chapter 30: Crayfish and Strangers

A ray of morning sun slipped into the den, falling upon the late risers still curled up in their nests. Yuki stirred and twitched an ear. Outside, the river ran down its stony bed, clattering away in its hurry to find the faraway shore. But deep within the den, its sounds were distant and its rushing part of another world. Yuki burrowed into the soft plant-down lining the nest. Kuku found them soon after the tribe arrived in the mountain meadows. They hadn't known the names for all the plants and animals - not even Kois could tell them - so they called them "rabbil flowers" for the downy tufts that helped their seeds blow away in the wind. Surrounded by their warmth, Yuki drifted back into sleep.

The den, too, they found on the first day. The river cut a deep channel zig-zagging across the valley floor, and here and there steep banks rose like miniature cliffsides along its shores. Someone - perhaps a long-gone tribe, or a bearyena or a pack of ramfoxes - had dug a few shallow scrapes into these banks. Whoever they had been, they were long-gone. No scents or claw-marks remained to tell their stories. But after a little digging to clear out fallen debris, the dens were perfect shelter from the cold winds that flowed down the valley at night.

As morning turned to noon, Yuki stretched out, paws splayed and spine taut. Sitting up, he scratched an itch behind his ears and groomed his ruff. He could still feel no sign of his second gem growing, but he checked every morning.

The den was full of empty nests; even Anameis had woken up before him. Yuki pawed idly at a root emerging from the hard packed dirt floor. Outside, the river glimmered, framed by the den's earth walls. He looked up, squinting as he stepped into sunlight, but no birds traced across the sky. A soft breeze, cool but not cold, ruffled his coat despite the sun. Not for the first time, he wondered if it was growing thicker.

Smooth stones crunched under his paws. The river deposited them as it coursed through the valley, laying them on its banks to form miniature pebble beaches. Everyone had left to hunt or explore, everyone but one. Laana pawed at the stream bed, turning stones, stopping to watch the water flow, and moving on when she failed to find whatever she sought. Yuki recalled how she would comb the beaches back home for clams and dig them out of the sand. She's trying to be a seer again, he thought.

There should be something he could do about that...

"Laana?" he said. She didn't look up, and her ears didn't move to show she heard. He moved closer, as she tried to push over a stone the size of his head. It gave way with a crunch and a cloud of silt, which the river swiftly carried away. She gazed into the space it had occupied, watching for something only she could see. "Laana, it's me!"

"Oh..." She didn't startle, but returned to herself as a dreamer awakens from sleep. Unfocused eyes gazed at the sky, and when she looked back down, she appeared to move in slow motion, as though underwater. "I'm so sorry. I didn't know you were there." She touched her nimble paw to her antlers, and stared off into the distance again.

"What did you find?" Yuki peered into the clear water, watching it swirl over a bed of pebbles. Cold water rushed past his paws as he drank, chasing away the thirst of a long night. Only when he needed to breathe did he stop, exhaling hard before going on. "Are there clams up here?"

"Oh, if there are, they haven't made themselves known!" Laana purred, a faint sound barely perceptible over the rattling river. "No, I think clams belong in the sea, and... this isn't the sea, you know that. But there's plenty of other things!"

That was true, Yuki thought, as he rubbed against Laana's flank to try to cheer her up with a purr of his own. Every day, the tribe went out to hunt and explore, and every day they found something new. "What things?"

Laana said nothing, but crouched low and stalked upstream, water swirling around her paws as she waded through the shallows. In one swift moment she found her quarry. Sprays of white water blossomed around her paws as she scrabbled amongst the stones, then she bent down to grab it - a crayfish, grey-green as the pebbled it hid amongst, flailing its legs and snapping its claws. With a crunch of Laana's sharp teeth, it fell still.

Yuki sniffed it as she laid it before him. It was a curious scent, fishy but missing the salt so ubiquitous to the shellfish he was used to. Laana showed him how to crack open the chitinous shell to reach the meat inside, although he had a little trouble with his round runner paws. They ate together, but Laana let him have the biggest share.

He'd done all he needed to do. He'd fulfilled the role Kois laid upon him, as he had done time and time again in the days of ancient stories. But Laana and Kois... they still didn't talk. Kois patrolled the valley all day, and Laana lost herself searching for something that wasn't there. All these things Yuki saw and understood, but once again, he didn't know the words.

"Where's Kois?" he said.

He didn't miss the subtle droop of Laana's ears. "Maybe anywhere." But she must have seen the look on Yuki's face, maybe even understood what he tried to say but couldn't, because she swiftly combed her ears and continued. "But maybe at the springs?"

And it was true that sometimes Kois frequented the springs, and they were Yuki's favourite place in the valley (well, one of them, next to whatever grabbed his attention at the moment) so he dropped into a play-bow. "Let's go there!"

"I don't see why not," said Laana, and without waiting for another word, Yuki tore off up the river bank - and stopped.

"Aren't you coming too?" He looked over his shoulder, and then up. "What if there's a bird?"

"A bird... of course!" Laana licked her paws clean and followed Yuki upstream.

The tribe discovered the springs when they found a river current that ran warm, and followed it to a tiny stream that flowed hot as blood. Some feared it as a sign from Tata, but Kois had heard old stories of hot mountain waters, and followed it to its source. Laana and Yuki did the same now, he bounding uphill, she following behind and keeping a cautious eye on the skies. The stream was thin, in places narrow as a nicheling's tail and visible as no more than a dark furrow through the grass, but here and there plumes of steam arose to be carried off in the wind. Rabbil-flower down blew across the wavering grass, and here and there grew stunted trees, some laden with nuts ready to fall.

The valley was laid out in a broad V-shape, side sweeping up to steep cliffs walls, and snowy peaks higher still. Against the northern wall, the hot water that fed the stream bubbled from deep underground and collected in pools laid out like overlapping round shelves carved from white stone. From pool to pool the milky water cascaded, until it trickled onto the ground to feed the burning stream. Steam billowed in great clouds over the water, obscuring the bathing nichelings. Yuki tried to sniff out their scents, but the smell of hot water was everywhere. He trotted up a shallow scree slope to get closer. "Hello?" The stones slid and crunched under his paws, and they too were warm underfoot with underground heat.

(He'd asked Kois, when they first found the springs, where the heat came from, because the caves back home were colder the deeper you went. That was true, Kois said, but there were places deep within the earth, beyond the seer's caves, where the rocks burned like underground suns. Since then, Yuki had treated the ground beneath his paws with a wary respect.)

Water sloshed in the pools and Meana draped her clawed paw over the edge. "Hey Yuki, Laana," she said (and Yuki looked back at Laana, now a ghostly shape within the steam). "Come for a dip?"

"Water's good," said Kirro, from a pool a little higher up. His head poked over the edge, the rest of his body trailing off into the water.

"He's right, stop standing there and get in!" Water sloshed again, and Anameis emerged from even higher up, splashing droplets into the air.

Yuki nosed at the stream bubbling over pebble-strewn ground, and lost himself in imagining splashing around in the buoyant pools, away from the cold wind. They'd scared him at first, but paddling through the springs was nothing like swimming over an endless cold abyss, aiming for a speck of sand amongst grey waves. But he remembered why he was here, and fluffed out his coat. "Have you seen Kois?"

Anameis' ears twitched at the name, but it was Meana who spoke. "I was with her this morning! We found hoofprints near the trees, and I think they're walrus deer!"

Yuki gaped. "Did you catch it?"

"No, we lost the trail. Didn't even see it. I came back here, but Kois said she was going to the west cliffs. Maybe she's still there?"

"All that way?" Laana curled her tail around her paws. "I don't know. It's a long way for maybe."

"Then I'll go!" Anameis hauled herself out of the pool, water dripping from every part of her body. She shivered in the mountain wind, jumped to the ground, and rolled in the scree, grunting. Yuki stepped back as she got to her feet and shook herself off, sending a spray of water in every direction. "Ugh. I like getting in those things, not getting out. You coming, Yuki?" Her fur stuck out everywhere in spiky clumps, giving her the appearance of quills.

Yuki looked back at Laana, but she'd already made up her mind. He couldn't push her any further. But if Kois could be persuaded to return... "Yes, let's go!"

They scampered off together without waiting for another word, but as they parted, Yuki thought he could hear Laana speak one more time. "Oh help me," she said, "what more can I do?" But the winds were loud in the mountains, and perhaps he imagined it all.

They walked on out of the steam, following the valley uphill through swaying grass and clumps of lavender flowers. A small bird sounded a sharp warning call to its fellows as they passed by, then calmed down as it realised the two nichelings were uninterested, "Why'd you come along?" said Yuki.

"I knew you'd go, even if Laana wouldn't. Someone's got to keep the bluebirds away." Anameis looked up, and Yuki followed suit. "Don't think they're hungry today, though. Don't see any, at least." She shivered. "You think it's always this cold here?"

"Kois says it gets a lot colder when the snow falls."

"Colder? Ugh!" Anameis stopped to lick down her ruff and scratch another itch. She set off again, still looking at the sky. "Is it like this where you're from?"

"Cold?"

"No, big."

Yuki fell silent for a moment, pondering her words. Even after many days, Anameis still hopped around cautiously. Her ears swivelled this way and that at the slightest new sound, and she rarely took her eyes away from the sky. "A little," he said. "It's not as cold, but it's open and full of grass, like this. But there's other places where it grows even taller than Kois, so you can hide in it! Nobody goes there much, that's why it grows so tall. I think you'd have liked it there. And then there's the beaches, and the seer's cave, and... Anameis?"

"What?"

"Do you miss your home?"

Anameis' tail, still weighted with dampness, swayed behind her. "No."

They walked on up and down the ridges carved out by the river's erratic path, but following an overall uphill trail across the length of the valley. As the afternoon wore on they found a bush laden with small red berries and stopped to eat. Yuki, still mostly full of crayfish meat, nibbled at his share. Kois and Laana had warned him to be careful of new plants, but the tribe had already encountered this species and found it safe, though they had still not settled on a name for them. Sometimes it took a while for a name to emerge that felt right, as though they were trying to recall the mountain's own memories. Whatever their name might be, the red berries were a little too tart for Yuki's tastes, unlike the sweet pink berries that grew in the sheltered parts of the valley, so he left the majority to Anameis. As cautious as she was in her new environment, she hadn't lost her taste for anything even remotely edible, and wolfed down her share in glee. As she ate, Yuki batted at a rabbil-flower tuft floating past on the wind. "Anameis," he said, "do you know what this is like?"

"Something that tastes good?" Anameis licked red juice and fragments of fruit pulp from her lips.

"It's like the end of a story," Yuki said. He swatted the fluff back into the air and watched it blow away. "But when you listen to a story, it ends and that's all of it. It doesn't carry on afterwards. But it's got to, hasn't it? Something always has to happen next."

Anameis swallowed another mouthful. "Suppose so. Back where I'm from, you don't think of that..."

The memory of Laana trapped inside the plant arose within Yuki's thoughts, and he dug his paws into the stony soil. "I always knew I'd take them here. I don't remember a time when I didn't know who I was." Perhaps there were a few early memories of falling asleep curled up by Laana's side, his gem freshly emerged and his world no more than the nest, but were they real, or something he imagined? "And now I've done it, and I don't know what to do any more. I at least thought I'd be older, but... you know that part." He brushed a little dirt from his ruff, paw tracing over his single gem.

Anameis had finished eating by now, and lay stretched out on her side, but her eyes were still focused upon him - or at least one of them was. "You know? You talk like you're older. You're not the same as when I met you."

"Is that a good thing?"

"Don't know." Anameis stood up and loped to his side. "Maybe I'm not the same as I was when I met you. That sky... it does things to you." She sat down and wrapped her tail around Yuki, who leaned in to her side in return. Her coat was still a little damp from the springs, but he didn't mind. He licked her ruff, close to her gem, and burrowed into her greasy fur. But his eyes stayed focused on the far away mountain peaks.

"Not going to go running away again?" Anameis said. From anyone else, it might have sounded guarded and tinged with mistrust, but Anameis spoke with a hint of sad humour, voicing both their thoughts.

"Not any more." Yuki could smell the icy winds from their slopes as they flowed down the valley, clean and frozen, devoid of predator or prey. They reminded him of the urge to run, to get away from all the words and fears surrounding him, to come walk upon untrodden ground where there was only ice and light. If he ran far enough, he could set the world right again. Upon the cliffs it had pulled at him with the strength of a migrating bird, unable to ignore the compulsion to take flight. But he had told nobody how it felt but Anameis. She wouldn't be afraid, and she wouldn't be disappointed.

"Maybe that's the good thing." She licked the top of his head, making his fledgeling mane stand on end.

They walked on again, and the ground became stony and rough. The soft grasses that blanketed the lower meadows thinned out, replaced by clusters of tough, spiky blades that could withstand the wind. Even the smallest of trees would not grow here. That cold, crisp scent, flowing from the mountain peaks like water, caressed the two nichelings as they scrambled over boulders and followed the river to its western reaches. At the far end, it plummeted into the valley from another waterfall at the western cliff, as if the valley had been gouged out from the landscape by a vast claw and the river merely followed the course cut for it. This waterfall marked the farthest point the tribe had explored. One day, they would surely climb over its cliffs and see what lay above amongst the mountain peaks, but with so much to discover in the valleys, what was the rush?

Yuki squinted, trying to pick out Kois' deep red shape amongst the brown cliffs. "Do you see her?"

"Don't know. I'm not used to things being so far away." Anameis jumped onto a boulder for a better view, waving her tail to keep balance. "They're all so small."

Yuki reared onto his hind legs. For a few moments they stood watch together, until with a cry of "There she is!" Anameis leapt to the ground and ran, Yuki in tow. Where? He couldn't see - all he could do was trust his friend. They ran through the river, splashing through rocky shallows under the mist thrown up by the falls. At the foot of the cliff they stopped, and there Yuki saw Kois, stalking in the shadows, oblivious to their presence. As he watched she jumped to the ground and sniffed at the stones under her paws, turning them over with careful deliberation. Like Laana on the river banks, her search occupied all her attention. She did not look up at the newcomers, nor did she even seem to see or hear them. Unable to find what she sought, she walked on, away from the two young nichelings.

"Hey, Kois!" Yuki darted forward to greet her, but she startled and whirled to face him, letting out a terrible snarl that exposed long teeth set in powerful jaws. Yuki yelped and stumbled back, fur bristling in shock. Kois' tail slammed into the ground, sending a warning tremor through the earth that nearly bowled him over. Only as he backed away did realisation dawn on Kois' face.

"Yuki! I'm sorry. I did not know it was you." She lowered her head nearly to the ground, to Yuki's level. Still shaking, tail fluffed to twice its normal size, he approached and gave her a friendly but cautious headbutt in greeting.

"What are you doing all the way out here?" Anameis said.

"The same as anyone else." Kois sat up, letting Yuki rub against her paws and mix their scents. "Seeing what is here. You shouldn't startle me."

Anameis nibbled at an itch on her shoulder. "If you're looking for strangers, maybe you should watch out for the ones right beside you!"

"I know." Kois purred deeply, trying to reassure Yuki. He pressed himself to her chest. "I frightened you. I could have done worse." She raked her claws through the pebbles. Yuki crouched in her shadow, listening to the swift pulse of her heart. "Now why are you here? This is a long way for you to come."

"Yuki... why are we here?" Anameis tilted her head.

"Because I..." Yuki backed away, looking up at Kois. Still the same softness under stern features... the same Kois. But the words chocked up in his throat...

"Laana!" Anameis blurted out.

"Yes!" Yuki said. "I need to ask you about-"

"No, it's Laana, over there!" Anameis said, and sure enough, when Yuki pulled away from Kois, he saw a white blur running across the stones. Though he couldn't make out any details at this distance, Kois and Anameis' reactions told him it could be nobody else. She ran through the river, taking a second to shake off her paws before resuming her frantic dash. Anameis hopped closer to meet her. "What's the rush?"

Laana skidded to a halt, tail lashing, eyes wide and dark. She tried to speak, but could only gasp breathlessly. Yuki ventured out from between Kois' paws, but it was Anameis who sat by Laana's side and draped her tail over her back, waiting for her to catch her breath.

"What is it?" Kois said. Yuki, meanwhile, gazed down the mountainside, eyes narrowed. They were all talking in those low, serious tones that three-gems used when everyone knew something was horribly wrong, but nobody would say it. The valley looked peaceful as always. But it was all a soft blur. He felt his tail begin to lash and twitch behind him. Nobody would tell him...

"There's a stranger stealing the food stores," Laana said, recovered enough to speak, "and I think it's a Taimeran."