A Beautiful Friendship — Snippet 08

4

 

Climbs Quickly perched in his observation post once more. He was relieved to be on his own again — Broken Tooth had finally agreed, grudgingly, that Shadow Hider’s time could be more usefully employed elsewhere — but the sunlit sky of three days earlier had turned to dark, gray-black charcoal, and a stiff wind whipped in from the mountains to the west. It brought the tang of rock and snow, mingled with the bright sharpness of thunder, but it also blew across the two-legs’ clearing, and he slitted his eyes and flattened his ears, peering into it as it rippled his fur. There was rain, as well as thunder, on that wind, and he didn’t look forward to being soaked, while lightning could make his present perch dangerous. Yet he felt no temptation to seek cover, for other scents indicated his two-legs were up to something interesting in one of their transparent plant places.

 

Climbs Quickly cocked his head, lashing the tip of his prehensile tail as he considered. Broken Tooth was correct that he’d come to think of this clearing’s inhabitants as “his” two-legs, but there were many other two-legs on the planet, most with their own scouts keeping watch over them. Those scouts’ reports, like his own, were circulated among the memory singers of all the clans, and they included something he felt a burning desire to explore for himself.

 

One of the cleverest of the many clever things the two-legs had demonstrated to the People were their plant places, for the People weren’t only hunters. Like the snow hunters and the lake builders (but not the death fangs), they ate plants as well, and they required certain kinds of plants to remain strong and fit.

 

Unfortunately, some of the plants they needed couldn’t live in ice and snow, which made the cold days a time of hunger and death, when too many of the very old or very young died. Although there was usually prey of some sort, there was less of it, and it was harder to catch, and the lack of needed plants only made that normal hunger worse. But that was changing, for the eating of plants was yet another way in which two-legs and People were alike . . . and the two-legs had found an answer to the cold days, just as they had to so many other problems. Indeed, it often seemed to Climbs Quickly the two-legs could never be satisfied with a single answer to any challenge, and in this case, they had devised at least two.

 

The simpler answer was to make plants grow where they wanted during the warm days. But the more spectacular one (and the one that most intrigued Climbs Quickly) were their transparent plant places. The plant places’ sides and roofs, made of yet another material the People had no idea how to make, let the sun’s light and heat pass through, forming little pockets of the warm days even amid the deepest snow, and the two-legs made many of the plants they ate grow inside that warmth all turning long. Nor did they grow them only during the cold days. There were fresh plants growing in those plant places even now, for Climbs Quickly could smell them through the moving spaces the two-legs had opened along the upper sides of the plant places to let the breeze blow in.

 

The People had never considered making things grow in specific places. Instead, they’d gathered plants wherever they grew of their own accord, either to eat immediately or to store for future need. In some turnings, they were able to gather more than enough to see them through the cold days. In less prosperous turnings, hunger and starvation stalked the clans, yet that was the way it had always been and the way it would continue. Until, that was, the People heard their scouts’ reports of the two-leg plant places.

 

The People weren’t very good at it yet, but they, too, had begun growing plants in carefully tended and guarded patches at the hearts of their clans’ ranges. Their efforts had worked out poorly for the first few turnings, yet the two-legs’ success proved it was possible, and they’d continued watching the two-legs and the strange not-living things which tended their open plant places. Much of what they observed meant little or nothing, but other lessons were clearer, and the People had learned a great deal. They had no way to duplicate the enclosed, transparent plant places, yet this last turning Bright Water Clan had found itself facing the cold days with much more white-root, golden ear, and lace leaf than it had required to survive them. Indeed, there had been sufficient surplus for Bright Water to trade it to the neighboring High Crag Clan for additional supplies of flint, and Climbs Quickly wasn’t the only member of the clan who realized the People owed the two-legs great thanks (whether the two-legs ever knew it or not).

 

But what made his whiskers quiver with anticipation was something else the other scouts had reported. The two-legs grew many strange plants the People had never heard of — a single sharp-nosed tour of any of their outside plant places would prove that — yet most were like ones the People knew. But one wasn’t. Climbs Quickly had yet to personally encounter the plant the other scouts had christened cluster stalk, but he was eager to do so. Indeed, he knew he was a bit too eager, for the bright ecstasy of the scouts who’d sampled cluster stalk rang through the relayed songs of their clans’ memory singers with a clarity that was almost stunning.

 

It wasn’t simply the plant’s marvelous taste, either. Like the tiny, bitter-tasting, hard-to-find fruit of the purple thorn, cluster stalk sharpened the People’s mind-voices and deepened the texture of their memory songs. The People had known the virtue of purple thorn for hundreds upon hundreds of turnings — indeed, People who were denied its fruit had actually been known to lose their mind-voices entirely — yet there had never been enough of it, and it had always been almost impossible to find in sufficient quantities. But the cluster stalk was even better than purple thorn (if the reports were correct), and the two-legs seemed to grow it almost effortlessly.

 

And unless Climbs Quickly was mistaken, that scent blowing from the two-legs’ plant places matched the cluster stalk’s perfume embedded in the memory songs.

 

He crouched on his perch, watching the sky grow still darker and heavier, and made up his mind. It would be full dark soon, and the two-legs would retire to the light and warmth of their living places, especially on a night of rain such as this one promised to be. He didn’t blame them for that. Indeed, under other circumstances he would have been scurrying back to his own snugly-roofed nest’s water-shedding woven canopy. But not tonight.

 

No, tonight he would stay — rain or no — and when the two-legs retired, he would explore more closely than he’d ever yet dared approach their living place.

 

*     *     *

 

Stephanie Harrington pulled on her jacket, turned up its collar, and wiggled her toes in her boots as she gazed out of her bedroom’s deep-set window at a night sky crosshatched with livid streaks of lightning. The planet of Sphinx had officially entered Spring, but nights were still cold (though far, far warmer than they had been!), and she knew she’d be grateful for her thick, warm socks and jacket soon enough.

 

She opened the tall casement window quietly, although the sudden earthquake rumble of thunder would have drowned just about any sound she could have made. The window swung inward in its deep embrasure, and chill dampness hit her in the face as she latched it back. Then she leaned forward, bracing herself on the broad windowsill, and smiled as she sniffed the ozone-heavy wind.