Snowtouched

Chapter 4: Clams and Bearyenas

Calm settled upon the cave as rays of early morning sun shone down its length and bathed the sleepers in golden light. A few of them stirred, ears twitching and tails flicking, but they remained asleep, not willing to leave their nests just yet.

Yuki stretched as he got to his feet, hopping down the cave slopes, sniffing the salty air. Silais was still asleep, and nobody else looked like they were going to get up either. They always complained it was too early when he tried to wake them, and he'd already learnt that tugging on ears didn't change anyone's mind.

Bounding around the sleeping seers, he realised that he couldn't see Laana. His aunt was usually more willing to rise early than the others, but today she had beaten him to it! Her scent was still around the cave, strong in her nest, so she couldn't have been gone long. Yuki looked back at the sun, framed in the cave mouth. Silais didn't like him leaving the cave at high tide, even though he was sure he could swim the distance, but right now the sea was out, and Silais had never said anything about that.

None of the seers stirred as he trotted down the cave's slope to the sandy entrance. Even at low tide the sand was damp, and if you tried to dig, the hole would fill with water as if it was all underground, but it would still take your weight if you kept moving.

Yuki squinted as he stepped out into the sun. Laana had told him his eyes weren't very good, something to do with his colour, although how would he know it if he couldn't see things any different to how he could? But he knew he had trouble for a while when he went out into bright places, so he tried to give himself some time to adjust. Even so, he couldn't resist hopping over the boulder fields, scrambling up and down the seaweed strewn rocks. He liked how climbing them made it easier to see the beach. It wasn't as good as being on the cliff, where it felt like you could see the whole world, but it was nearly as good.

There were rarely any other nichelings on the beach this early, so all Yuki could see at first was a flat expanse of gold sand. A dark line of seaweed marked the high tide point. Yuki loved to explore the debris along the tide line, even if he didn't know how to interpret the messages the seers could find in them (Silais said you needed antlers to do that, and he supposed that was why she had all those shells and pearls hanging from hers). He could still dig up shells and pebbles, and take his favourites back to the cave. Sometimes one of the seers would let him watch as they broke open a clam, and tell him what it meant.

He narrowed his eyes in an attempt to see better. There was a faint white shape, visible now he was more used to the bright sunlight, moving along the high tide line. Yuki's vision at that distance was too blurry to see who it was, but he jumped from the boulder anyway and tore off the beach to meet them.

It was Laana! She had seen him too, and with a cry of "Yuki!" she ran toward him. Yuki tried to run even faster to reach her, but then he realised she didn't sound so happy to see him, and slowed down. "Yuki!" she shouted again. "What are you doing?" She nearly collided with him, drawing him close with her more dextrous paw, and looking up at the sky whilst ignoring his struggles to break free.

"I'm looking for you!"

"Out in the open?" She pulled away, just enough to give him a shocked look. "There might have been a bluebird!"

"Oh." He was about to say that he'd looked and there weren't any, but it was not as if he actually had. He looked up anyway. "But I can't see any."

"That... that doesn't matter." Laana stepped back and touched her paw to the single gem set in Yuki's chest. It was pink, just like his eyes. "I'm glad you like to see me, but please, don't go out into the open again!"

"I won't." Yuki curled his tail around his paws. "Can I stay with you, then?"

"I suppose there is no getting you back to the cave now." Laana stood up and flicked her tail. "Very well, then."

"What are we going to do?" Yuki ran forward, then stopped when he remembered Laana's warning, ears lowered in apology as he waited for her to catch up to him. "Are we going to dig up clams? Can we find Kois? Why did you come out so early?"

"I think Kois would appreciate it if we let her sleep a little longer," said Laana. "And I like it out here, where it is quiet. I was looking for clams."

"I'll help you!" Yuki started sniffing at the sand, but all he could smell was salt. Undeterred, he started to dig. Just like in the cave, the hole filled with water as fast as he could scoop out the sand.

"I'm sure we can find one if we look hard enough," said Laana. "Why don't you come with me down the beach?"

They eventually came across a clam in the damp sand, as they walked together toward the far end of the beach. Yuki watched in fascination as his aunt worked to open its shell. Her paws were different - his were both small and round and good for running, and she had a paw like that too, but the other, her left, had longer, thinner digits that she used to work open the shell by levering it open.

"Will it have a pearl?" he asked.

Laana's ears perked in amusement. "Yuki, pearls are very rare. I've never found one, and Silais found two over her entire life."

"Well, maybe this one will have one!"

There was no pearl, but there was plenty of meat inside. Yuki sniffed at it, suddenly aware that his stomach was empty. "What does it mean?"

Laana looked up, out to sea. A few fluffy white clouds were making their way across the sky's zenith, on a backdrop of clear blue. "It seems," she said, "there will be plenty of berries soon, for those willing to go looking."

Yuki flopped down onto the sand, pawing at the shell's edge. "Does the sea always talk about berries?"

"Yuki, berries are very important! And that means a lot of other things too. If there will be lots of berries, that means it is likely to rain soon, too, so they can grow. And they mean more rabbils to hunt, because they eat the berries too. There are many things that can come from one."

Yuki still didn't see how berries could be all that interesting, but if Laana was right, then maybe that could lead to all sorts of things. Maybe they could chase a rabbil (he wasn't big enough to fight them yet, but he liked to practice pouncing) and it would lead him to a secret cave nobody had ever seen before! Or maybe...

He dislodged a half buried pebble from the sand, sitting up to get a better look at what he was doing. "Do they ever say anything about me?"

Yuki knew that his white coat and red eyes made him something different to the rest of the tribe. Laana said that his fur was like snow, even though Yuki had never seen snow, and couldn't imagine what it was like. Laana said it laid on the ground like sand, but it fell from the sky like rain. That all sounded like a funny story, and Laana had also admitted that nobody in the tribe, not even Silais, had ever seen snow, so he might have thought no more of it were it not for the reality of who he was. When he grew up he was going to lead the tribe to a land full of snow, because he had lived before, long ago, and done the same in that time of old stories. Silais said so too, and so did Kois, who knew more about snow than anyone, so it must be real.

Laana looked taken aback by his question, and he was about to apologise when she spoke. "I don't know if I can say. You know that Silais always said that would be for you to decide. Perhaps it is not for the sea to decide, either. What do you want?"

"I don't know."

"Don't you?"

He'd grown up with the stories, but he still liked to play in the rockpools and help Laana find clams, or go looking for secret caves behind the cliffs. Yuki was what he was supposed to but, but he wasn't there, not yet. But to a cub it was all a long way off anyway, something he would do when he came into all three of his gems and then, he would know exactly where to go and what to do.

And he didn't know what words to use for that, so he said "Can we find Kois?" Kois knew all about who he was supposed to be, and she was strong, and brave, and not afraid of anything. And she didn't talk a lot, but when she did, she was full of stories of who he was.

"Well..." Laana looked at the sky, and Yuki knew that meant she was checking the sun's position as she thought things over. "I suppose it can't hurt to go looking. But you still need to eat something first." She pushed the clam toward him with her left paw.

There was enough clam meat along the shore that Yuki found it rather boring after a while, but Laana was right - it had been a long time since he'd eaten, and his stomach felt tight and empty. They shared the clam - it was chewy, and tasted like the sea smelled ... before heading up the rocky path that separated Sunrise Cove from the mainland.

Yuki wondered if this was what climbing a mountain must be like, rising higher and higher, weaving past boulders and tufts of grass, amongst low trees bent into unnatural angles by constant wind. It didn't feel right - too much earth and salt, not enough ice. But it felt a little like his imagination told him it should.

Kois' favourite tree, the big one that gave nuts, was not like the stunted windblown things that grew atop the cliff. To reach it you had to cross a gentle meadow full of soft grass, listening out for the cold and clear trickle of the stream that curved by its roots. Kois said it was a place to sit and think, and although Yuki didn't know why that was more interesting than chasing rabbils or hiding in the grass to pounce on your friends, she was often found there.

"Kooo...is!" Yuki bounded forward, though the grass and into the earthy space under the boughs. But Kois was not there. He sniffed at the air as Laana followed. It smelled like Kois had been there recently, but she was gone now. "Hey! Are you hiding?" He pawed at one of the nuts that had fallen, trying to push it over, but it was nearly as big as his head and too heavy for him to move. Kois could crack their shells open just by biting them, and Laana could pry them open like a clamshell, but Yuki had never been able to get to the food inside. It didn't stop him from trying, though, distracting himself briefly from Kois' absence by gnawing at the shell in the hopes it would open.

"We must have missed her," said Laana.

Yuki broke away from trying to bite open the nutshell. "But can we still find her?"

"Yes, of course." Laana sniffed at the air, catching Kois' scent just as Yuki had. "I think she... Yuki. Stay still. Be quiet."

Laana's voice was suddenly low and calm in that way that meant that something was wrong, and she drew closer to him, her body pressing against his, her breathing shallow. Yuki looked up, a stab of fear running through his chest - but it couldn't be a bluebird, it wouldn't reach him with Laana by his side and the thick, twisted branches overhead. He narrowed his eyes. The light was easier on him than the open shore, filtered through canopy and grass alike, taking on an old and dappled hue, yet still everything was blurred to him unless it was a step or two away.

He heard it first, a threatening growl, a footstep in the grass, enough to alert Laana and make her fling herself in front of him, head bowed, sharp antlers pointed at bared teeth hidden in the grass. "Yuki, run!" But his feet would not let him, he was trapped where he stood, and the bearyena was in the shadows, ready to pounce now that his eyes had found it hidden in the grass...

The bearyena lunged, and Yuki squeezed his eyes shut, waiting for the claws... but all he felt was a thump, as though something had fallen to the ground before him, and he opened his eyes again. "Kois!" She was standing in front of them, tail lashing, claws digging into the earth, head lowered as she glared at the bearyena. Her ear flicked at Yuki's call, but she did not turn away.

Yuki jumped at the touch of a paw on his back, but it was only Laana, urging him to safety. The bearyena stood with one paw raised, pondering its next move, but Kois stood her ground. She was smaller, but not by much - if it came to a fight, it might be the bearyena coming out worse. She swung her tail, showing off the clubbed tip, and growled.

"Leave," she said.

Kois and the bearyena stood in their stalemate, staring one another down. Yuki tried to look away, but found himself unable to. He had never seen a bearyena this close before. Now its dark, hunched form was so close he could touch it with just a few more steps. It smelled like the earth after rain, and he could hear its rough, heavy breathing as it sized Kois up.

For a moment it seemed that either one would lunge at the other at a moment's notice. Kois swung her tail again, and Yuki closed his eyes, but all she did was slam the club into the ground with such a force that he felt it all through his body, a sound that shook the world. "Leave now." Kois' voice was slow and level, with the assurance that the next blow would not be to the ground.

The bearyena growled, a low rumble that likewise reverberated through the earth... and turned to leave. Its massive frame vanished into the grasses, becoming no more than a distant rustle. Kois didn't look away, but Yuki found his feet again, and bounded over to her. "You're amazing!"

Kois snapped out of her quiet fury, looking down as Yuki pawed at her side for attention. Immediately her expression softened, though her face always looked stern with her thickset jaw, heavy horns, and swept back ears. Yuki always knew the difference, so he didn't mind. "Yuki!" she said. "I'm sorry you had to be there. It won't come back."

"Why didn't you run?" That was Laana, coming up behind them. Yuki looked back over his shoulder, ears drooped as he remembered her earlier admonishment about the bluebirds.

"I'm sorry," he said, and shivered as the rush from the attack left his body. "I couldn't move, I tried." He closed his eyes and remembered the way his legs wouldn't carry him as he could do nothing but stare. Why couldn't he run? But then he thought of Kois, diving in, and his ears perked again. "But Kois saved us!"

"You should still be careful," said Kois.

Yuki pried a pebble loose from the ground and began batting it about. "Do you think I could fight bearyenas?"

"Just like your mother," said Laana.

The pebble bounced off, unseen, into the grass. Yuki turned around. Laana was sitting still and gazing upward again, her ears low and her voice wistful.

"If she fought bearyenas, I could do it!" said Yuki.

"That will be a long way away, and a lot of hard practice," said Kois.

"But could I do it? I could be strong, like you," Yuki swatted at a clump of grass ... "and smart like you!" He looked back at Laana. "You could teach me!"

"Perhaps," said Laana. "But... you need to keep yourself safe." She touched her paw to his gem again. "You can do that, can't you? I..."

"Yuki, would you like to come and chase some rabbils in the meadow?" Kois bent over, so that her face was closer to Yuki's. Her massive bulk shaded the light.

"Yes!" Yuki said.

Laana turned away, looking back out at the open meadows, away from the nut tree's shade. A gentle wind blew, rippling the tall grass like waves upon the sea and giving rise to a gentle whisper as the blades rustled in its wake. "Yes, you have fun doing that, won't you? Don't go getting yourself into trouble."

"He won't," said Kois.

Laana turned tail, quick and fluid, and vanished into the ever shifting grasses. Yuki could see them part as she passed through, and he sat and watched for a while, as the trail grew distant, until it dwindled away and his blurry eyesight lost track of her. Kois did the same, sat still as a boulder, and what she was thinking, Yuki couldn't say.

Eventually he spoke. "Do you think she'll be okay?"

"Yes," said Kois. "Eventually."

Yuki's tail curled around his paws. The idea of grief was one that he had carried with him throughout his short life. How could it not, with his mother gone before he could know her, and his first gem earned in the company of the seers? But Reko was no more than stories to him. Laana loved to talk about her and tell him how she had become a warrior when the seers would not take her, how she had fended off bearyenas twice her size to defend the tribe. And no matter how many times he heard the stories and imagined his mother's exploits, they remained just that. There was no room in his mind to understand, yet, how Laana really felt, only an understanding that she hurt and, once again, that he would not see her for the rest of the day.

"Really?" he said. If anyone did understand and know, it was Kois.

"It will take time, but yes." Kois bent down, so that her massive, horned head was close to his, and gave him a nudge with her snout. Even a gentle touch was nearly enough to knock Yuki over, but he knew that, and would dig his claws into the ground so she could safely touch him. He nuzzled her back, feeling velvety soft fur over a sturdy frame.

"What about the bearyena?"

"It won't hurt her. They don't like me, but they do listen to me."

"Why?"

"I don't think I ought to be telling you that just yet."

"Is it because you're really strong and they don't want to mess with you?"

"Yes."

That was enough to satisfy Yuki. Laana would come back, and some other day she would be sad again, but she would always come back. And one day, he would be Yuki proper, and lead her to the snows, and maybe then she could be happy all the time. But that was a long way off, and in his young mind, the future stretched on and on across the gentle rolling meadows of home, full of berries to gather and rabbils to hunt. So he stepped out with Kois into the sea of grass, listening for tiny paws scurrying through the blades, and let that future happen.