Chapter 31: Interloper
At Laana's words, Yuki glanced around as though a stranger might jump out from behind the nearest rock. Kois stayed still as the boulders surrounding her, as if the news were inevitable. But Anameis' ears flattened and her tail lashed from side to side, scattering stones with a clatter this way and that. "What Taimeran?" She pushed her face into Laana's. "Who was it? What did they want?"
"I don't know! Laana backed away from the agitated two-gem, legs scrambling for purchase over the pebble strewn ground. "I just saw them run off at a distance... Maybe it wasn't even a Taimeran?" She stumbled and righted herself, and licked some dust from her fur, turning to face away from the others.
"Calm down, both of you," Kois said. "Laana, tell us what happened. Anameis, let her speak."
Anameis sat still as she could, but her tail still twitched and she crouched low and nervous. Yuki came to sit by her - he must do something, and he had nothing else. He watched over the valley, still quiet, still peaceful. Laana licked a paw, and began to speak.
"It wasn't long after we left the springs," Laana said. "I couldn't do nothing, and when I saw a berry bush I thought I'd take a few back. So I took them back to the stores. You know what I mean."
Yuki did. Though the alpine meadows provided abundant food now, Kois had warned them it might not be so bountiful when winter fell. On her advice the tribe had taken to caching food in the holes dug by the river bank. It reminded Yuki of the Taimeras hoarding fruit in the hidden caves... and he shuffled closer to Anameis. She was still now, with not even a twitch of ears or tail. The only movement came from the wind, coursing over bare ground and tugging at her pelt.
"Well, I heard someone scratching around in there when I came closer," Laana went on, "but I didn't think anything of it. Someone was hungry and didn't want to hunt, again. But then I saw someone come out from the hole, and I didn't manage a good look at them, but they weren't one of ours. They had a bright green coat, like fresh leaves."
"Do you know who that is?" Kois looked at Anameis.
"How should I? Lots of them had green coats!"
"She's right." Yuki pressed closer to her side. Still though she was, her heart thundered deep inside.
Laana combed through her ruff. "I'm sorry. They saw me when they emerged - they ran off, and I followed, but I couldn't catch up."
"Which way did they go?" said Kois.
"To the treeline... I lost sight of them there, I tried to follow their scent, but I lost it... Kois, I'm so sorry..." Laana's ears flattened, she she looked away from the other nichelings, head low and shoulders slumped. Even her gems had lost a little of their lustre after her frantic chase and long run up the valley.
"It's all right," said Kois. "We'll find them."
"What if it's not a Taimeran?" Yuki said, in search of something, anything, to lift the mood. "It's a long way for them to come. What would they want?"
"Not me!" Anameis' ears shot straight upright. "What would they want me for?"
"It's probably a hungry wanderer with the same colours," Kois said, getting to her feet and gazing down over the valley. "But you know we talked about this before. I didn't leave the best impression when we left. If it is a Taimeran, I should go down there and see what they want. They're nothing I can't handle."
"Then let me come with you." Laana slipped over to where Kois stood, keeping her posture low and submissive.
"Yes, I'll need you to show me the way," Kois said, and though she stayed hunched over, Laana's ears perked up a little. "Anameis, take Yuki back to the dens and wait for us."
"No," Yuki said.
Laana looked back at him, over her shoulder. "You can't stay out-"
"No!" All his thoughts and feelings rushed into him, too hard and fast for him to understand the how and why, leaving him with only one word to protest. He sprang to his feet, breath and heart suddenly all too fast, head dizzy, whisperings at the edge of his hearing all over again, threatening to break through. Indignation, frustration... they were leaving him behind, refusing to tell him anything again, and he was baring his teeth before he realised it, tiny needle sharp fangs snarling in Kois and Laana's direction...
"Wait, aren't we all going there anyway?" Anameis said. "Let's just all go together and then decide what to do!"
And for that moment, the fog upon Yuki's head lifted.
Their journey back to the valley was a solemn one. Kois pressed Anameis for more information about the Taimeras, but she knew little of their inner workings after a lifetime spent on the outskirts. She had never known them to come into contact with another tribe until theirs, and although a few singular wanderers had come by in her lifetime, she didn't know any by name or remember their looks.
Their shadows grew longer as they approached the dens, but it was not yet evening and the tribe were still scattered, exploring and hunting through the valley. They would return later, but for now Kois and Laana had time to investigate without interruption. Kois took the lead, creeping forward with a low profile on the approach. Yuki peered through tall grass at the stony riverbank. The only nicheling down there was Kuku, but he was busy excavating another hole, and he paid them no heed. He must not know what had happened. Should they tell him, Yuki wondered? But Kois ignored him, and looked back at the others. "It's safe," she said.
The food was kept inside one of the narrower but deeper dens, so that it would be safe from wind, rain, or (so they had hoped) passing scavengers. Yuki sniffed around, following Kois' lead. She was right - if you knew to look for it, an unfamiliar scent lingered in the bow-shaped run, clinging to the freshly excavated earth. Anameis had scented it too, and she snorted around the entrance, ears flat against her skull. "Don't know who it is, but I think I've smelled it before..."
"Then it is a Taimeran?" Kois said.
Anameis looked at the ground. "Never said that."
But the implication had made itself felt. "Yuki, Anameis, stay here. If anyone asks... tell them we scented a wanderer." Kois gazed at the sky. "Laana, show me what direction they headed in. We should have enough daylight left to track them.
Yuki felt his tail begin to twitch...
"Yuki." Kois padded over to him and sat down, while Laana waited on the shore, poised to run. "I know you want to come with us too. But the truth is... this could be nothing. But whatever it is, I need you here so that nobody has to worry." They both looked over to Kuku, still buried to his tail, unaware of their presence. "It's important. Can you understand that?"
"Yes..." Yuki sat down, tail curled around his paws.
He watched the two adults leap across the river and vanish over the far bank. Nearby, Anameis snuffled around in the stones. The river's ceaseless rattling blended with Kuku's rhythmic digging as he tossed out sprays of earth behind him.
"I don't like being left behind," he said, trotting out to the river bank where the stones grew damp.
Anameis pawed at the pebbles in front of her. "Me neither."
"So..." Yuki looked back over his shoulder- "how long shall we wait until we follow them?"
Kuku kept on digging. He never saw them arrive, and he never saw them leave.
It was Anameis who hesitated at first, but only to roll around the den entrance to mask the intruder's scent with her own. "Kois said we were here to make sure nobody panics," she explained. "That's what I'm doing!"
"I don't know if she meant to lie to everyone," Yuki said, when they were on the other side of the bank, Anameis sniffing out the trail.
"Truth is, I already did," said Anameis. As they followed the trail, she told Yuki the story of the mysterious scent at the cliff base, and how Kois was the only other nicheling who knew. "I didn't think it mattered, because that was the only time I noticed. Seems like I was wrong."
"So that's why Kois keeps patrolling," Yuki said. "But why didn't she tell anyone?"
"I think she assumed the same. She's just a little more... dedicated."
The scattered, windswept trees they passed by on their way downhill became a forest, closing in around them in swathes of deep, dark green and a lingering smell of leaf mould. Yuki had never ventured back into the woods after the journey's end, and a small part of him feared the urge to turn back would rise again, compelling him to return to open ground and the smell of ice on the wind. But it didn't, and he followed Anameis as she snuffled her way across soft ground carpeted with fallen leaves and tree scales. The stranger's trail, fresh though it was, lay obscured by the forest's thick, resinous scents. Nevertheless, here and there he caught wind of it - a nicheling, but smelling faintly sweet, like berries left out in the sun. It tickled his memories of the rainforest tribe, sending him back to long days under hot, heavy air that smelled of steam.
He kept his ears pricked for a footstep in the undergrowth, the crackle of snapping twigs, anything that might give away the stranger's position - or Kois and Laana, who must still be searching these same woods. After a while it became a sort of game to imagine who might be hiding over the next ridge, or in the lengthening shadows that cut sharp lines on the forest floor.
For a fraction of a heartbeat, Yuki didn't quite notice. A faint voice in the distance, above the rustling wind - it could have been inside his head. But Anameis heard too - her ears shot straight up. "You heard that?"
Yuki made a small noise of agreement as he looked around. They had found themselves at the base of a shallow ridge, sliced lengthways by shadows. Nothing moved, but the voice sounded out again, hissing - "Anameis!" She turned in place to face it - and there Yuki saw him, a pair of ears above the crest of the ridge, the glint of eyes, and an untidy yellow scruff of a mane.
"What do you want?" Anameis demanded, tail held high.
There was a rustle as the stranger crouched lower, trying in futility to hide his profile. "Is anyone else with you?" he hissed., and at that point Yuki knew that shrill, nervous voice.
So did Anameis. "Vankirvan?"
Yuki pressed to her side, not sure if he felt her shaking, or if it was all himself. The last he'd seen of Vankirvan was when he'd tried to tell him about Laana trapped in the plant, and memories flooded back of the green nicheling pinning him down, telling him to forget her. But there was none of that Vankirvan here. He slunk over the ridge, whiskers trembling. "Is the war beast here?"
"War beast?" Yuki looked around, as if a bearyena might be hiding in the trees.
Vankirvan touched noses with Anameis, but it was a hurried gesture, a greeting for greeting's sake. "The nicheling who-"
"Forget that!" Anameis snapped. "What are you doing here? What's going on back... there?"
Vankirvan reared onto his hind legs, scanning his surroundings. With both paws, he clutched at the green gems set in his chest. "Listen, I've come a long way, I can't go talking to you in front of..." His words trailed off as he stared at a point in the distance, and he dropped back to all fours, flattening himself to the ground.
Yuki didn't need to turn around to know why. "I suppose I should not be surprised," said Kois. Her shadow loomed across the ground as she approached, Laana by her side. "Good evening." She dipped her head toward Vankirvan.
He returned the greeting with a hiss, though his ears lay flat against his head and his eyes were dark, dominated by widened pupils. "The war beast!"
"Ah," Kois said. "It appears I did make an impression."
Everyone's eyes fell upon her. The bony club at the end of her tail dragged through the leaf litter as she coiled it around her paws, hiding her oversized claws.
"What?" Yuki said. "Kois isn't a... a war beast! She's always trying to keep us safe, and..."
"And you have no idea what you're talking about!" snapped Laana in agreement. She held her tail high, showing off the bristling fur. "Come on, Kois. Let's take him back to-"
"Wait!" Anameis shuffled into the gap between Vankirvan and the other nichelings. "Something happened to the Taimerans after we left and he's come all this way to tell you! The least you can do is listen!"
Kois took a deep breath. "Then let him tell us. That's all I wanted to begin with."
Though Vankirvan maintained his submissive crouch, he drummed his flat swimmer's tail on the ground and bared his teeth. "I will not speak with the war beast! But..." He hesitated, and his tail went still. "I will speak with Anameis and you. The seer of the sea, wasn't it?"
Laana brushed her paw across her gems. "In a manner of speaking."
"What about me?" said Yuki.
"It's not a story for cubs!" snapped Vankirvan. "Now go! Go!"
"Come on, Yuki." Kois rose to her feet. "It seems we've both been spoken for."
"Don't worry about us," Anameis said, crouching to Vankirvan's level and matching his glare with a tongue-lolling grin that nevertheless showed off her many teeth. "I know Vanny; he knows I can bite his-"
"We'll be fine," said Laana.
Kois walked off in silence, back in the direction of the treeline and the alpine meadows beyond. Yuki hesitated, one paw lifted but reluctant to move any further until it became clear nobody would budge. He slunk after Kois, and when he caught up, he watched the golden evening sun gleam upon her claws and horns. But he asked no more questions on the way. Yet more things were happening without him, important talks that broke the world, and he could do nothing once again.