A Beautiful Friendship — Snippet 03




Climbs Quickly scurried up the nearest net-wood trunk, then paused at the first cross-branch to clean his sticky true-hands and hand-feet with fastidious care.


He hated crossing between trees now that the cold days were passing into those of mud. Not that he was particularly fond of snow, either, he admitted with a bleek of laughter, but at least it melted out of his fur — eventually — instead of forming gluey clots that dried hard as rock. Still, there were compensations to warming weather, and he sniffed appreciatively at the breeze that rustled the furled buds just beginning to fringe the all-but-bare branches. Under most circumstances, he would have climbed all the way to the top to luxuriate in the wind fingers ruffling his coat, but he had other things on his mind today.


He finished grooming himself, then rose on his rear legs in the angle of the cross-branch and trunk to scan his surroundings with sharp green eyes. None of the two-legs were in sight, but that meant little; two-legs were full of surprises. Climbs Quickly’s own Bright Water Clan had seen little of them until lately, but other clans had observed them for twelve full turnings of the seasons, and it was obvious they had tricks the People had never mastered. Among those was some way to keep watch from far away — so far, indeed, that the People could neither hear nor taste them, much less see them. Yet Climbs Quickly detected no sign that he was being watched, and he flowed smoothly to the adjacent trunk. Now that he was into the last cluster of net-wood, the pattern of its linked branches would at least let him keep his true-feet and hand-feet clear of the muck as he followed the line of cross-branches deeper into the clearing.


He slowed as he reached the final cross-branch, then stopped. He sat for long, still moments, cream and gray coat blending into invisibility against trunks and branches veiled in a fine spray of tight green buds, motionless but for a single true-hand which groomed his whiskers reflexively. He listened carefully, with ears and thoughts alike, and those ears pricked as he tasted the faint mind-glow that indicated the presence of two-legs. It wasn’t the clear, bright communication it would have been from one of People, for the two-legs appeared to be mind-blind, yet there was something . . . nice about it. Which was odd, for whatever else they were, the two-legs were very unlike the People. That much had been obvious from the very beginning.


<What are you listening for, Climbs Quickly?> a mind-voice asked, and he looked back over his shoulder.


Shadow Hider was well named, for more than one reason, he thought. The other scout was all but invisible against the net-wood bark, even to Climbs Quickly, who knew exactly where he was from his mind-glow. Climbs Quickly had no fear that Shadow Hider would betray their presence to the two-legs, but that was unlikely to make him any more pleasant as a companion.


<The two-leg mind-glow,> he replied to the question, and tasted Shadow Hider’s flicker of irritation at the tone of his own mind-voice. He’d made no attempt to hide the exaggerated patience of that tone, since Shadow Hider would have tasted the emotions behind it just as clearly.


<Why?> Shadow Hider asked bluntly. <We already know they are as mind-blind as the burrow runners or the bark-chewers, Climbs Quickly.>


Shadow Hider’s disdain for any creatures who were so completely deaf and dumb was obvious in his mind-glow, and Climbs Quickly suppressed a desire to cross back over to the junior scout’s position and cuff him sharply across the nose. He reminded himself that Shadow Hider was far younger than he, and that those who knew the least often thought they knew the most, but that made the other scout no less frustrating. And, of course, the People’s ability to taste one another’s emotions meant Shadow Hider knew exactly how Climbs Quickly felt, which made things no better.


<Yes, they appear to be mind-blind, Shadow Hider,> he replied after a moment. <But do not make the mistake of thinking that means they are no more clever than a burrow runner! Can you do the things the People have seen the two-legs do? Can you fly? Can you gnaw down an entire golden-leaf tree in an afternoon? Because if you cannot, perhaps you should remember that the two-legs can . . . which is why we have been sent to keep watch on them in the first place!>


He tasted Shadow Hider’s flare of anger clearly, but at least the younger scout was wise enough not to snap back at him. Which was the first wise thing Climbs Quickly had seen from him since they’d left Bright Water Clan’s central nest place this morning.


This is Broken Tooth’s idea, Climbs Quickly thought disgustedly. The clan’s senior elder had argued for some time now that Climbs Quickly was becoming too captivated by the two-legs. If it were left up to him, Shadow Hider would have this task, not someone he fears is more interested in what the two-legs are and where they came from — and why — than in simply keeping watch upon them!


Climbs Quickly had been the first scout to discover these two-legs’ presence, and he admitted that he found everything about them fascinating, which was one reason Broken Tooth questioned his fitness to keep continued watch upon them. Clearly the elder believed Climbs Quickly was too fascinated with what he regarded as “his” two-legs to be truly impartial in his observations of them. Fortunately the rest of the clan elders — especially Bright Claw, the clan’s senior hunter, and Short Tail, the senior scout — trusted Climbs Quickly’s judgment and continued to believe he was the better choice to continue keeping watch upon them. In fact, though none of them had actually said so, from the taste of their mind-glows Climbs Quickly felt fairly certain that they agreed the task required someone with far more imagination than Shadow Hider had ever revealed. Unfortunately, it did make sense for more than one of the clan’s scouts to have some experience with it, and Climbs Quickly was willing to admit that another perspective might prove valuable.


Even if it was Shadow Hider’s.


He waited a moment longer, to see if Shadow Hider had something more to say after all, then turned back to the cross-branch and the clearing. The bright ember of Shadow Hider’s anger faded with distance behind Climbs Quickly as he crept stealthily out to the last net-wood trunk, climbed easily to its highest fork, and settled down on the pad of leaves and branches. The cold days’ ravages required a few repairs, but there was no hurry. The pad remained serviceable and reasonably comfortable, and it would be many days yet before the slowly budding leaves could provide the needed materials, anyway.


<Come now!> he called to Shadow Hider, then curled himself neatly to one side of the pad and allowed himself to savor the sun’s gentle warmth.


In a way, he would be unhappy when the leaves did open and bright sunlight could no longer spill through the thin upper branches to caress his fur. His pad would have better concealment, which would undoubtedly make Shadow Hider happier, but if he had his way Shadow Hider wouldn’t be here by that time, anyway.


Claws scraped lightly on bark as Shadow Hider swarmed up the last few People’s lengths of trunk and joined him. The other scout looked around Climbs Quickly’s pad, as if trying to find something with which to take fault. Climbs Quickly tasted his annoyance when he couldn’t, but then Shadow Hider flirted his tail and settled down beside him.


<This is a good scouting post,> the younger scout acknowledged almost grudgingly after a few moments. <You have an even better view than I thought you did, Climbs Quickly. And the two-leg nesting place is larger than I had thought.>


<It is large,> Climbs Quickly agreed, reminding himself that size was one of the hardest things to judge from another scout’s reports. The memory singers could sing that report perfectly, showing another of the People everything the original scout had seen, but for some reason, estimates of size remained difficult to share without some reference point. The only true reference point the two-legs had left in this case, however, was the towering golden-leaf whose massive boughs shaded their nest place, and golden-leaf trees tend to make anything look small.