Snowtouched

Chapter 36: Thieves

Kois heard Yuki stumble back to her side, scrambling to hide behind her. Scents of hair and blood thickened the air. The ground rumbled under her paws at the bearyena's growl - or was it her own?

She never feared bearyenas, but her ears flattened and pointed backwards, listening for the balance bear stalking behind them. "Go," she growled, teeth bared and tail held high. "Go and I won't-"

"Thief!"

For a heartbeat, Kois did not realise it was the bearyena who spoke. The voice came as a growl, the word distorted through a mouth unused to the nicheling tongue, but nicheling tongue it was. A rustle in the grass brought her attention to the bearyena's feet, where a cub cowered in the grass, gazing up at her with fearful eyes.

"No." Kois stood firm, tail and hackled still raised, ears still pressed down and back. But she no longer showed her teeth. It was the sole concession to the wave of shock that ran through her body, washing through her limbs, forcing her to remain on her feet by force of will. Yuki wasn't supposed to know. Not yet. He wasn't supposed to know, and the balance bear was coming...

"No," she said again, this time struggling to remember the few bearyena words she knew but had not spoken for half a lifetime. "Danger, following. Run."

For a moment the bearyena mother hesitated, started at the sound of her own language coming from a nicheling, and a flash of hope glimmered within Kois' gems. The bearyena tilted her head, the cub at her feet pressed close but watching curiously. Grass brushed against Kois' sides as Yuki crept forward in turn. (He smelled of blood. He smelled of blood but she could run with him, she could get him out of here...)

"Kois?" he said.

"Liar!" With one word, the uneasy truce snapped. The bearyena lunged, catching Kois unaware. Stumbling backwards, she heard Yuki dart for cover. "Hide!" she gasped at him, the only word she could speak before jumping to block the bearyena from him. Her sides heaved as she bared her teeth again, breath forming thick clouds in the mountain air.

The bearyena barked a command to her child, and Kois had but a moment to see it vanish into the grass before the bearyena lunged again. This time Kois was ready. Together they reared up on their hind legs, claws slashing the air, jaws wide open and deep growls emanating from their throats. Strong forelegs wrapped around her sides, claws the mirror of her own dug into her back. As she stumbled backwards, her own claws sank into coarse hair, gasping for purchase as nicheling and bearyena alike struggled to force the other to the ground. In the face of red snapping jaws and white teeth and hot breath, her tail lashed wildly for balance.

"No!" she gasped, and in the moment she took to speak the bearyena snapped again. Kois whipped her head away, eyes closed, her world shrunk down to claws and teeth, and the bearyena words deserted her. "I don't want to hurt you!" she blurted out, in her own tongue.

The next snap was hairs away from her throat. Kois twisted away, teeth clenched at the hot, sharp sensation of her own flesh tearing under the bearyena's claws as she wrenched free, and with a howling roar she pushed all her strength into a lunge, no longer holding back. Staggering, the bearyena lost her grip, and the battlers came crashing to the ground. Kois' paws hit stone with a thud. Lips curled back, she let out a steady growl at the bearyena, now laid on her back. Steam rose from Kois' heaving sides, blood matting her shoulders. Of Yuki there was no sign, but she dared not look away.

I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry.

The bearyena rolled over, rising to her feet with her ears pressed back and her teeth gleaming in the stark sunlight...

And a sharp, clear squeal pierced the air.

Startled, Kois ceased her growl. The bearyena looked up. A cold stab of fear ran through Kois' chest, but it was the bearyena who let out a howl and ran, and in an instant Kois saw why. Not far away stood the balance bear, shadowed against the sky, gripping the bearyena cub in its teeth.

"Yuki?" Kois let herself look away from the scene, back to her own hidden child. His white coat was stark against the dark grasses, and he sat quiet as a rabbil. Smelling blood, Kois peered closer, and in her horror saw that what she had taken to be shadows cast by the grass were deep gashes running down his side. Bearyena claw marks.

Immediately she set upon licking away the worst of the blood. The sharp, metallic taste overwhelmed her tongue, leaving her unable to speak the words circling her thoughts. I brought you here. I wanted you to be Yuki. He looked up, blinking and in a daze. "What did you say to her?"

Another roar thundered through air and ground alike, and both nichelings looked up as the bearyena cub screamed again. In the distance its mother snarled at the balance bear, but it held her child aloft, fending her off with swipes of paws even bigger than her or Kois'.

Kois never stopped to think, or ask. "Wait a little longer," she said, and, giving Yuki one last lick, she leapt into battle again.

She closed the gap in three bounds. With all its focus on the bearyena, the balance bear never saw her coming. As she slammed into its side it roared, and hot breath clouded her face as it tried to turn and snap at her. But its jaws found only air, and her claws dug deep into its soft pelt, through thick underfur to the flesh below. Another roar - the mother, she must have attacked again, but Kois saw only thick, dappled fur as she struggled to hold on. Its prey forgotten, the bear lashed back and forth, trying to free itself from its assailants.

With one great shake the bear flung them off, and Kois skidded backwards through dirt and grass, grazing her paws on the harsh stone. Painting, each breath hissing through clenched teeth, she raised her tail in readiness for another fight, but the bear knew it was outnumbered and loped away, dark stains matting its throat and sides, one leg bearing no weight. A growl rose in Kois's throat, a growl that the bearyena matched. Together their snarls grew, from rumbles to a twin roar that rang across the boulder fields.

As the echoes died away they stood, for a moment, side by side. Neither spoke, but each chanced a look at the other. And then, the silence broken, the bearyena turned to attend to her cub, flung aside in the chaos and hiding again in the grass. Kois looked on long enough to see the cub wobble to its feet and follow its mother amongst the boulders, and no longer.

Yuki, meanwhile, hadn't moved. Kois swiftly located his white coat again amongst the grass. "They're gone," she said, and immediately set about licking the gashes at his side. Fur matted with drying blood pricked at her nose and tongue. "They're all gone." A great dizziness fell upon her, as though she were once again under the waves and the storm that was the battle a distant event from another world.

"What did you say to her?" His voice was subdued, his eyes focused on the horizon.

"That I didn't want to hurt her.," Kois said, before returning to her washing. She ignored her own wounds, where the bearyena's claws rent her shoulder. There would be time for those later.

"I didn't know you could talk to bearyenas." He kept watching the distant fields, as if he hadn't noticed the blood spilling from his sides and staining his pelt to match his gem and eyes. No cries of pain. No asking if they could go home. Just distantly pondering...

Anameis will know where to find a healing fruit, Kois thought, and then scolded herself - of course, she was gone. Kuku then, or Vankirvan. Someone will know. "Can you walk?

But Yuki wasn't gazing off into the distance any more. His eyes focused on her claws, caked with blood and dirt.

"You're a bearyena," he said.

"Come on. We need to go." Kois rose back to paws scuffed raw from battle, lifting one. She heard his words, felt them as a fresh sense of dread that washed through her body like a wave and ebbed away, leaving only slightly flattened ears to hint at the turmoil. Her own thoughts walked upon even more stubborn paws, turning away and insisting that if they carried on, tomorrow would be the same was yesterday, and all the days before that...

Yuki stayed crouched in the grass, ears pressed back and his gaze fixed on her. Afraid? No, a glare...

Kois exhaled, long and deep, and her body slumped. "I meant to tell you when you came into your second gem."

Yuki sniffed her claws, nose twitching rapidly. Kois' heart slammed against her chest. She was a lifetime away from the calm acknowledgement she'd given Anameis. "Part bearyena, yes. I'll tell you all about it, I'm sorry - can you walk?"

Yuki stumbled to his feet, still ignoring the wounds, as though caught up in the same pool of unreality that Kois now drifted through. "That's why you're so strong! And why you don't fight them! Isn't it?" His ears perked up again, and he was Yuki all over, not the Yuki of the stories but the Yuki she knew.

She lowered her head so that she could reach his level without laying down, fearing that if she did, she would not have the strength to get back up. "Are you afraid?"

"No."

"Then come on. We need to go home."

Perhaps, Kois dared to hope, he wasn't so badly hurt after all. She could worry about everything else another day, as long as he was safe. He swayed a little on his feet, but soon trotted by her side again - not bounding around as he normally would, but it let her relax a little. Still she kept her eyes and ears alert as they crossed the boulder field, for all the mountains must have heard that roar and it still echoed in her ears, but a sort of calm fell over the land once more, and they passed by undisturbed.

"I didn't know you could be part bearyena," Yuki said, nosing through the long grass. "Were all the Yukirs part bearyena? Is that why they were all so strong?"

"No. In my grandfather's grandfather's days there was a bearyena in our tribe, but the Yukirs lived long before then." All the words she'd imagined she'd say to him fled her mind, but they had been for another, distant world. And now that world lay shattered, it didn't matter any more.

"A bearyena joined your tribe? Why would it do that?"

"That's a long story. And a sad one, too."

Yuki pondered this in silence for a moment. "You could tell me when I get my second gem? Then you can tell me something then, like you wanted!"

"I think I'd like that."

A short walk later, they reached the edge of the small hanging valley, and peered down into the circular hollow and the blue eye that was its central lake. Still Kois smelled no predators, but the scent of blood still clung to the pair, and she didn't want to stay long with her outline cast against the sky. She descended first, digging her claws into the hillside while Yuki followed behind.

But he was panting and flattening his ears again by the time they reached the bottom, eyes glazing over like a rabbil in a predator's glare, and grudgingly she acknowledged they both needed a rest. So she sank down in the sheltered, soft grass, and he curled up beside her where she felt his heartbeat next to hers, fast and frantic.

"Kois?" he said.

"Yes?" She sniffed at his sides - a little more fresh blood, that she set about cleaning away.

"Why did she call you a thief?"

"I don't know... I think she saw me and thought I wanted to take her cub away." Kois curled her tail around Yuki and fought off the words that came to mind. I could have, if I wanted to. She wouldn't. The bearyena wouldn't listen. She'd tried.

She knew the story of her family line that she'd tell Yuki as promised - the story of how a warrior defeated a bearyena and only later traced her scent back to her den and found a tiny cub inside, too small to harm anyone. Such things happened sometimes, on those occasions that nichelings became strong or smart enough to turn the tides on their predators, but it didn't make them thieves. Her ancestor had no more been able to turn her back on the cub than Kois herself could have left Yuki by Reko's cold side, that morning in the meadow.

In that moment Kois imagined a world where a bearyena chanced upon him instead, and in a moment of kindness took Yuki for her own, and a shiver rippled down her body at the thought of him alive, but never knowing who he was, where he came from. And you've never been a bearyena, have you? said a part of her hidden in her deepest thoughts, a part she could give no name.

She turned to nuzzle Yuki where he lay, tucked by her shoulder, expecting a playful push back. But though his breath still came quickly, though she could feel his heart beat against her flank, he did not respond. "Yuki?" Another stab of fear shot through her body. "Yuki!"

But his eyes were closed, his head lolled aside, and he was silent.