A Beautiful Friendship — Snippet 13


And so, because they hadn’t tasted the mind-glow for themselves and because he couldn’t explain how he could have tasted it so strongly, he’d accepted his scolding as meekly as possible. The cluster stalk he’d brought home had muted that scolding to some extent, for it had proved just as marvelous as the songs from other clans had indicated. But not even that had been enough to deflect the one consequence he truly resented.


He had been relieved of his responsibility to watch over his two-legs, and Shadow Hider (who just happened to be a grandson of Broken Tooth) had been assigned to that task in his place. Broken Tooth hadn’t said so in so many words, but he obviously believed Shadow Hider would do a better job of following instructions than Climbs Quickly had. Climbs Quickly believed that, too, although he personally thought it had more to do with Shadow Hider’s natural lack of imagination and . . . timidity than his obedience to his grandsire.


And, truthfully, Climbs Quickly understood why the clan leaders insisted on such caution, however much he disliked it. The People had only to watch the two-legs cutting down trees with their whining tools that ate through the trunks of net-wood and golden-leaf trees large enough to hold whole clans of the People, or using the machines that gouged out the deep holes in which they planted their living places, to recognize the potential danger the two-legs represented. They need not decide to kill the People — or destroy a clan’s entire range — to accomplish the same end by accident, and so the People had decided long ago, even before Climbs Quickly’s birth, their only true safety lay in avoiding them entirely. The clans must stay undetected, observing without being observed, until they decided how best to respond to the strange creatures who so confidently and competently reshaped the world.


Unfortunately, Climbs Quickly had come to doubt the wisdom of that policy. Certainly caution was necessary, yet it seemed to him that many People — such as Broken Tooth and those like him in the other clans — had become too aware of the potential danger and too unaware of the possible advantages the two-legs represented. Perhaps without even realizing it, they had decided deep down inside that the time for the two-legs to learn of the People’s existence would never come, for only thus could the People be safe.


But though Climbs Quickly had too much respect for his clan’s leaders to say so, the hope that the two-legs would never discover the People was foolishness. There were more two-legs at every turning now, and their flying things and long-seeing things (and whatever the young two-leg had used to detect his own presence) were too clever for the People to hide forever. Even without his own encounter with the two-leg, the People would have been found sooner or later. And when that happened — or perhaps more accurately, now that it had happened — the People would have no choice but to decide how they would interact with the two-legs . . . assuming that the two-legs allowed the People to make that decision.


All that was perfectly clear to Climbs Quickly and he suspected it was equally clear to Sings Truly, Short Tail, and Bright Claw, the clan’s senior hunter. But Broken Tooth, Song Spinner, and Digger, who oversaw the clan’s plant places, rejected that conclusion. They saw how vast the world was, how many hiding places it offered, and believed they could avoid the two-legs forever, even now that the two-legs knew the People existed.


He sighed again, and then his whiskers twitched with wry amusement as he wondered if the young two-leg was having as many difficulties as he was getting its elders to accept its judgment. If so, should Climbs Quickly be grateful or unhappy? He knew from its mind-glow that the youngling had felt only wonder and delight, not anger or fear, when it saw him. Surely if its elders shared its feelings, the People had nothing to fear. Yet the fact that one two-leg — and one perhaps little removed from kittenhood — felt that way might very well mean no more to the rest of the two-legs than his feelings meant to Broken Tooth.


Climbs Quickly lay basking in the sunlight, considering all that had happened — and all that still threatened to happen — and understood the fear which motivated Broken Tooth and his supporters. Indeed, a part of him shared their fear. But another part knew events had already been set in motion. The two-legs knew of the People’s existence now. They would react to that, whatever the People did or didn’t do, and all Broken Tooth’s scolding could never prevent it.


Yet there was one thing Climbs Quickly hadn’t reported. Something he had yet to come to grips with himself, and something he feared might actually panic Bright Water’s leaders into abandoning their range and fleeing deep into the mountains. Perhaps that flight would even be the path of wisdom, he admitted. But it might also cast away a treasure such as the People had never before encountered. It was scarcely the place of a single scout to make choices affecting his entire clan, yet no one else could make this decision, for he alone knew that somehow, in a way he couldn’t begin to understand, he and the young two-leg now shared something.


He wasn’t certain what that “something” was, but even now, with his eyes closed and the two-legs’ clearing far away, he knew exactly where the youngling was. He could feel its mind-glow, like a far off fire or sunlight shining red through his closed eyelids. It was too distant for him to taste its emotions, yet he knew it wasn’t his imagination. He truly did know the direction to the two-leg, even more clearly than the direction to Sings Truly, who was no more than twenty or thirty People-lengths away at this very moment.


Climbs Quickly had no idea at all what that might mean, or where it might lead. But two things he did know. His connection, if such it was, to be young two-leg might — must — hold the key, for better or for worse, to whatever relationship People and two-legs might come to share. And until he decided what that connection meant in his own case, he dared not even suggest its existence to those who felt as Broken Tooth did.