Chapter 8: Any Port...
Kois awoke in the early dawn light. The first glimmer of day had yet to rise above the horizon, but a light wash of blue over the night sky told her it would soon arrive. All around her the little expedition slept on, heedless for the moment of the oncoming day.
By her side Laana lay curled up into a ball, her snout resting upon Kois' right paw and Yuki tucked into the hollow between them, and Kois wondered if this was how it was to be a seer, curled up together in their cave. She knew she would not fall back asleep before the dawn, but nor could she bring herself to move. Laana's body was warm, her coat soft and her breathing deep and slow and gentle, and to Kois merely being here and feeling her and Yuki's pelts as they lay together fed some hidden hunger she had not previously acknowledged, as if her skin itself had missed the presence of others.
Eventually, though, she could remain no longer, and she withdrew her paw with great care to avoid disturbing her companions. Laana's eyes flickered open as Kois sat up, and she too stretched and yawned. "Is it time?" Her eyes were still half lidded in the pre-dawn. Yuki slept on, curled up by the hollow of Laana's foreleg.
"Not yet," said Kois.
"I see." Laana looked up at the eastern sky's pale light. She yawned again, deep and long. "Well, I suppose I won't be sleeping much longer this morning. Let me find you some berries." She got to her feet and stretched each limb one by one, her toes splayed wide and her back arched. Yuki still had not woken, and even when she lifted him by the scruff he made only a few wordless murmurs. With care she deposited him by the other explorers, so that he would stay warm, and touched her nose to his in parting.
Kois would have protested that Laana do no such thing and get some more sleep, but she knew better. There lay, deep within the seer's soul, something of her sister Reko's stubborn streak.
The grass underfoot felt damp with a sprinkling of dew. The two nichelings walked together up the ridge, where a few berry bushes still bore fruit after yesterday's feast. Laana picked one, and nudged it toward Kois. Together they sat, watching the waves shimmer ahead as the sun rose at their backs. That distant land they sought lay hidden in the night's remnants still, deep within the last of the darkness and the mists of morning, yet Kois remembered where it might be found.
"Thank you for coming," she said.
Laana plucked another berry, adding it to the pile she had begun for when the others woke. "Oh, you know just as well as I do I would never be able to go back to sleep!"
"No. For agreeing to leave."
"Oh." Laana had that far away look in her eyes again, and even her voice seemed to trail off into another place. "What can I say..." Kois felt her lean into her side, twining her nimble paw against one of Kois' sturdy forelegs. "There is nothing left for me here. I couldn't stand to..." She said no more, and pressed her cheek to Kois' shoulder, in the way of leaving her scent behind.
Kois felt a purr rise in her throat, and for a moment tried to stifle it, but the seer seemed to take some comfort from the deep rumbling tone, and nuzzled against her. She let out a faint purr of her own in response, though difficult to hear against Kois' bass. Her pelt was as soft to the touch as Kois recalled from her waking moments, and her sharp little antlers rubbed against Kois' side, but the sensation was not unpleasant. It felt like a deep itch being scratched at long last.
"She would have come along too... Reko, I mean. She would have loved it."
"She would." Kois had trusted to memory in her journey here, and one of those memories returned to her now: Reko, only just come into her third gem, cutting through overgrown paths with quick slashes of her claws. Behind her Kois and Laana followed, their own second gems only just emerging, the skin around them still unbearably itchy. The grass threatened to swallow them up, but they kept pace with Reko until she led them out into the open. Still they stayed close to one another, looking up at the sky; neither of them had been old enough to lose their fear of the bluebirds, even though they were getting too big to be carried off. But there were no wings overhead, and Reko bounded forth, raising her clawed paw at the island chain stretching out to sea. "Look! There's a whole other island out there! Isn't that exciting!"
As if imagining the same memory, Laana stepped forward. "Imagine her now. Imagine what she'd think of me, swimming out there!" Her ears were perked forward, and when she looked back at Kois her three blue gems shone with such dazzling intensity that they might have been the gems of Eve herself. "Oh but... this isn't about me, is it? It's all about you. You're the one who brought us here." She walked back to where Kois sat, standing with her nimble paw lifted, a gesture that Kois understood to mean she was waiting for the other's word of confirmation.
"Yes," said Kois, "but it was you who found the clam, and all of it was Yuki's doing."
"And would we ever have known what it all meant without you?" Laana reared up on her hind-legs, reached out a paw, and gave Kois' central gem a playful tap. Immediately she recoiled, her ears flattened. "Oh no! I'm so sorry! Why did I do that?" She crouched in the grass, flattening her body to the ground in an effort to look smaller.
Kois tilted her head and made a wordless, perplexed sound in her throat. To touch a stranger's gems was a terrible breach, for it meant to touch the other's soul, but among close tribemates, be they friends or family, it was a display of affection. Even Yuki had done it, though he had to balance on his back legs to reach all the way.
Laana seemed to remember that and sat up again, though she avoided looking at Kois, instead fixing her gaze on a nearby berry bush. "Oh... yes... it was nothing." But she still stayed hunched over, her ears slightly flattened in embarrassment.
"Laana." Kois lifted a paw. "May I?"
Though Laana's posture still gave the impression of being scolded, she did sit up and lift her head in agreement, and so Kois touched her paw to the three blue gems embedded at her collar. She touched them lightly, as always, forever conscious of the oversized claws she held at her friend's throat. But she felt the softness of Laana's ruff against her pawpads, and nestled in the silky fur, her gems. Each was smooth and glassy, and slightly cold to the touch, as if water could be solid but without the harsh coldness of ice. Kois felt them shift a little as Laana breathed in and out. It was the only movement she made whilst she looked up, not quite meeting Kois' eyes. But her ears were no longer flattened, her posture no longer submissive, yet Kois, still mindful of her strength, did not allow the touch to persist for more than a moment before taking her paw away.
"You're right," she said, still holding her paw in the air, hanging onto its sense-memory of soft fur and smooth gems. "This is my day. And that's why I want to share it with you."
Laana leaned to one side, looking at a point behind Kois in the distance. "Then I hope you want to share with them, too."
The others had woken by now, and were walking up to the spit of land. It was to nobody's surprise that Yuki was in the lead, and he bounded over to meet them, giving Kois an affectionate headbutt in the foreleg. "Found you!"
"Yes, you did." Kois nudged him a little with her nose, enough to make him dig his claws into the dirt to avoid being bowled over. He made a high pitched call of amusement.
"And now you all need to eat!" said Laana, her attention now back to the berry bushes. "You especially, Yuki. It's a long swim, and there won't be any food on the way." She plucked a berry as big as her paw and laid it down for him to eat. "That goes for all of you!"
Perhaps it was Laana's time as a respected seer, but Kois had to admire her friend's much greater knack for rallying a crowd, which was far greater than she could have hoped for herself. The morning had hardly had a chance to begin before every berry bush, so it seemed, had been picked clean by hungry explorers. Laana and Yuki helped out for those with claws too big or clumsy to pick fruit themselves. Those whose skills were best suited to hunting found a few rabbils to share. But this was not yesterday's feast, but a last moment gathering. Even so, a couple of the young nichelings who had chosen to come along found time to speak with Kois.
"Thanks for telling us about this," said Kirro, whilst Kois lay in the grass, resting in anticipation of the journey ahead. "I've never been good at anything except fishing." He lay in the grass before her and stretched his forelegs out before him, and flexed his tail as he spoke. It was long and skinny, with a tuft at the end. Kois thought she could remember seeing him sometimes, lounging by the island's rivers and streams, dangling that tail like a lure for the silver fish that swam in their cold waters. "Could you teach me some of the stories you know? Or... do you have songs?" His normally calm voice suddenly rose in excitement.
Kois admitted, as she always had done, that Laana was the far superior storyteller, but it occurred to her that someone ought to remember the Yukir's stories beside her, and so she agreed to pass on what she knew when they found the snows. Later Meana found her too. "How hard is it to hunt walrus deer?" she asked, showing off her clawed paw. "And thankyou! I didn't know I needed to do this but now I can't wait to see what's out there!"
Kois was hardly in a position to answer that, as not even her ancestors had seen a walrus deer for many generations, but there was no time to wonder. She could feel the gathering anticipation and energy of the explorers, like a storm waiting to build. Their wandering and hunts had begin to gravitate toward the spit, from no one individual's motion but a growing understanding that this was where they ought to be. Kois could no more ignore the mounting restlessness than she could hunger or thirst. She joined Yuki and Laana, and together they walked to where the most adventurous of the expedition was already waiting.
The spit was a ridge of land that rose and fell, jutting out into the sea like a long claw. At its highest point, where Kois and Laana had shared berries in the dawn, it gave a full view of the causeway. As it reached the water it gradually declined and become narrower, until it was no more than a thin strip of grass, barely wide enough for two or three nichelings to walk abreast, flanked on both sides by sand. Here the grass was tough, not soft as it had been on the ridge. Its stems and leaves were low to the ground and sharp underfoot, strengthened by constant exposure to wind and salt. A few hardy flowers grew around it, but they too were small things. They grew nestled in the grass, and their bright yellow flowers were not even the size of a one-gem's paw. It felt as if the land was slowly giving up against the sea, but still holding with the last it could muster.
But even this hardy vegetation had to dwindle eventually, and Kois and her companions soon arrived at the end, where the grass vanished and there was nothing but sand for a nicheling's length, and then only turquoise sea.
A few of the explorers had already reached this point, among them Meana and Tanu, and the others were not far behind. Laana padded into the shallows and stretched her neck out, sniffing at the sea breeze. "Now Yuki," she said, "we all have to swim for that small island first. I know you can do it."
Yuki trotted out to his aunt's side in the shallows, letting the waves wash over his paws. His back was turned, so Kois could not see, but she knew he was squinting at the first island. From here it looked like a low mound of sand rising from the blue-green water, and even though they were closer than before, it appeared paradoxically further away. Thanks to their low vantage point, it perched close to the horizon, and their even more distant final target was out of sight.
"I'll stay with you." Meana splashed into the shallows by Yuki's side and thumped her flat, wide tail on the wet sand. "I'm not bad at swimming."
"Which I suppose means I have to as well," said Tanu, with a grimace on his fanged face as he looked over the distance between them and their first goal. But Yuki looked all the happier for their support, and gave both of them friendly headbutts (which Tanu clearly pretended not to like).
The stragglers had caught up by now, led by the black furred digger Iskome. "This is all of us," she said. "What do we do now, is there something you have to say?" She was looking up at Kois, and so, Kois realised, was everyone else.
Kois' tail swayed slowly. Now that they were all here, there was nothing to delay them. Maybe Iskome was right, and there was a speech that should be made at this time, a blessing for the journey ahead. But as she stepped into the shallows and felt cold water wash over her paws, and left behind deep footprints in the sand that marked the last her home island had to give, she knew there were none. The time for words had passed; now, there were only actions. "We swim."
And so she stepped into deeper water, feeling it engulf her stomach and chest and rise over her gems, but she did not mind the cold. Soon the sand was gone from beneath her paws, and she struck out across the water, the other explorers paddling in her wake.
Most nichelings can swim, although some better than others, and few make a habit of it unless specially adapted for the water. None of the explorers had fins to help propel them along, or even better gills to let them dive without worrying about air, but all of them were in high spirits and there were no strong currents to wash them off course, so they swam as well as they could toward the first island. Even Kois, who being so large and heavy had rarely ventured into the water before, soon found her rhythm. Beside her swam Laana, swifter and better practised from a life spent diving for deeper omens, yet staying close by her side. Behind them Meana and Tanu kept their promise, staying on either side of Yuki, and in their wake came all the others. Kois felt lighter in the water, propped up by its buoyancy, and though she was far from elegant the effort of paddling felt pleasant, like a long run and a good hunt through the meadow.
It was still not yet noon when Kois hauled herself onto the first of their waypoint islands, but her shadow was small upon the ground, telling her it was not far away. With a deep breath she pulled herself out of the sea, dripping water upon the sand. Her body's weight returned as she walked, hunched over, to what passed for the centre of the island. It was about three or four nicheling lengths at its widest point, and rose to a low mound where a few scraps of the same grass and small yellow flowers that had grown on the spit clung to existence.
Behind her came Laana, licking the seawater from her ruff as she stepped onto land with light paws. The seaweed draped from her antlers had washed away, but she paid it no mind and did not paw at where it would have hung as she might otherwise have done. Kois inclined her head downward in greeting, and Laana touched the bridge of her muzzle to Kois' forehead, in between her curled horns.
The others were not far behind. First came Yuki, flanked by Meana and Tanu. Yuki ran back to his guardians, whilst Tanu complained about all the water in his fur and Meana told him that if he hadn't wanted to get wet, he should have gone elsewhere. "Ready for the next one?" she said, as the rest of the explorers caught up.
"Oh no," said Laana. "This is a long journey; we need to pace ourselves and keep warm." Her words were met with frustration from the more adventurous nichelings, but relief from those who were not so bold and wanted a rest before moving on.
They spent a short while on that island, though it was scarcely big enough to hold them all, grooming the salt water from their coats and warming themselves in the sun. Kois felt an ache in her muscles, but just as the exertion of swimming, it felt good, an affirmation that she could meet the challenges ahead of her. By her side Laana ran her dextrous paw's digits through her ruff, picking at a few knots.
But they could not stay long, as they would have to reach their final island by nightfall and find shelter and fresh water, which there was none of here, so they were soon back in the sea. Another small island followed, and another and another, and each time they stopped again to rest and warm up before striking back out across the sea.
It was past noon, by their lengthening shadows, when they came to yet another crossing island, all huddled together on the sand, and saw that their home island, the only land they had known for all their lives, had vanished below the horizon, and that they had, without a doubt, entered an unknown world.