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A Beautiful Friendship

David Weber

I

Climbs Quickly scurried up the nearest 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 grass-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, following the line of cross-branches deeper into the clearing.

His clan had not been too apprehensive when the first flying thing arrived and the two-legs emerged to create the clearing, for the clans whose territory had already been invaded had warned them of what to expect. The two-legs could be dangerous, and they kept changing things, but they weren't like death fangs or snow hunters, who all too often killed randomly or for pleasure, and scouts and hunters like Climbs Quickly had watched that first handful of two-legs from the cover of the frost-bright leaves, perched high in the trees. The newcomers had spread out carrying strange things—some that glittered or blinked flashing lights and others that stood on tall, skinny legs—which they moved from place to place and peered through, and then they'd driven stakes of some equally strange not-wood into the ground at intervals. The Bright Water memory singers had sung back through the songs from other clans and decided that the things they peered through were tools of some sort. Climbs Quickly couldn't argue their conclusion, yet the two-leg tools were as different from the hand axes and knives the People made as the substance from which they were made was unlike the flint, wood, and bone the People used.

All of which explained why the two-legs must be watched most carefully . . . and secretly. Small as the People were, they were quick and clever, and their axes and knives and use of fire let them accomplish things larger but less clever creatures could not. Yet the shortest two-leg stood more than two People-lengths in height. Even if their tools had been no better than the People's (and Climbs Quickly knew they were much, much better) their greater size would have made them far more effective. And if there was no sign that the two-legs intended to threaten the People, there was also no sign they did not, so no doubt it was fortunate they were so easy to spy upon.

Climbs Quickly slowed as he reached the final cross-branch. 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 the 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. The memory singers of every clan had sent their songs sweeping far and wide when the two-legs first appeared twelve season-turnings back. They'd sought any song of any other clan which might tell them something—anything–about these strange creatures and whence they had come . . . or at least why.

No one had been able to answer those questions, yet the memory singers of the Blue Mountain Dancing Clan and the Fire Runs Fast Clan had remembered a very old song—one which went back almost two hundred turnings. The song offered no clue to the two-legs' origins or purpose, but it did tell of the very first time the People had ever seen two-legs and how the long ago scout who'd brought it back to his singers had seen their egg-shaped silver thing come down out of the very sky in light and fire and a sound more terrible than any thunder.

That had been enough to send the People of that time scurrying into hiding, and they'd watched from the shadows and leaves—much as Climbs Quickly did now. The first scout to see the masters of that silver egg emerge from it had been joined by others, set to watch the fascinating creatures from a safe distance, but no one had approached the intruders. Perhaps they might have, had not a death fang attempted to eat one of the two-legs.

People didn't like death fangs. The huge creatures looked much like outsized People, but unlike People, they were far from clever. Not that something their size really needed to be clever. Death fangs were the biggest, strongest, most deadly hunters in all the world. Unlike People, they often killed for the sheer pleasure of it, and they feared nothing that lived . . . except the People. They never passed up the opportunity to eat a single scout or hunter if they happened across one stupid enough to be caught on the ground, but even death fangs avoided the heart of any clan's range. Individual size meant little when an entire clan swarmed down from the trees to attack.

Yet the death fang who attacked one of the two-legs had discovered something new to fear. None of the watching People had ever heard anything like the ear shattering "Craaack!" from the tubular thing the two-leg carried, but the charging death fang had suddenly somersaulted end-for-end, crashed to the ground, and lain still, with a bloody hole blown clear through it.

Once they got over their immediate shock, the watching scouts had taken a fierce delight in the death fang's fate, but anything that could kill a death fang with a single bark could certainly do the same to one of the People, and so the decision had been made to avoid the two-legs until the watchers learned more about them. Unfortunately, the scouts were still watching from hiding when, after perhaps a quarter turning, they dismantled the strange, square living places in which they had dwelt, went back into their egg, and disappeared once more into the sky.

All of that had been long, long ago, and Climbs Quickly regretted that no more had been learned of them before they left. He understood the need for caution, yet he wished the Blue Mountain Dancing scouts had been just a little less careful. Perhaps then the People might have been able to decide what the two-legs wanted—or what the People should do about them—between their first arrival and their reappearance.

Personally, Climbs Quickly thought those first two-legs had been scouts, as he himself was. Certainly it would have made sense for the two-legs to send scouts ahead; any clan did the same when expanding or changing its range. Yet if that was the case, why had the rest of their clan delayed so long before following them? And why did the two-legs spread themselves so thinly? The living place in the clearing he'd come to watch had required great labor by over a dozen two-legs to create, even with their clever tools, and it was large enough for a full clan. Yet its builders had simply gone away when they finished. It had stood completely empty for over ten days, and even now it housed only three of the two-legs, one of them—unless Climbs Quickly was mistaken—but a youngling. He sometimes wondered what had happened to the youngling's litter mates, but the important point was that the way in which the two-legs dispersed their living places must surely deprive them of any communication with their fellows.

That was one reason many of the watchers believed two-legs were unlike People in all ways, not just their size and shape and tools. It was the ability to communicate with their fellows which made People people, after all. Only unthinking creatures—like the death fangs, or the snow hunters, or those upon whom the People themselves preyed—lived sealed within themselves, so if the two-legs were not only mind-blind but chose to avoid even their own kind, they could not be people. But Climbs Quickly disagreed. He couldn't fully explain why, even to himself, yet he was convinced the two-legs were, in fact, people—of a sort, at least. They fascinated him, and he'd listened again and again to the song of the first two-legs and their egg, both in an effort to understand what it was they'd wanted and because even now that song carried overtones of something he thought he had tasted from the two-legs he spied upon.

Unfortunately, the song had been worn smooth by too many singers before Sings Truly first sang it for Bright Water Clan. That often happened to older songs or those which had been relayed for great distances, and this song was both ancient and from far away. Though its images remained clear and sharp, they had been subtly shaped and shadowed by all the singers who had come before Sings Truly. Climbs Quickly knew what the two-legs of the song had done, but he knew nothing about why they'd done it, and the interplay of so many singers' minds had blurred any mind glow the long ago watchers might havetasted.

Climbs Quickly had shared what he thought he'd picked up from "his" two-legs only with Sings Truly. It was his duty to report to the memory singers, of course, and so he had. But he'd implored Sings Truly to keep his suspicions only in her own song for now, for some of the other scouts would have laughed uproariously at them. Sings Truly hadn't laughed, but neither had she rushed to agree with him, and he knew she longed to travel in person to the Blue Mountain Dancing or Fire Runs Fast Clan's range to receive the original song from their senior singers. But that was out of the question. Singers were the core of any clan, the storehouse of memory and dispensers of wisdom. They were always female, and their loss could not be risked, whatever Sings Truly might want. Unless a clan was fortunate enough to have a surplus of singers, it must protect its potential supply of replacements by denying them more dangerous tasks. Climbs Quickly understood that, but he found its implications a bit harder to live with than the clan's other scouts and hunters did. There could be disadvantages to being a memory singer's brother when she chose to sulk over the freedoms her role denied her . . . and allowed him.

Climbs Quickly gave another soft chitter of laughter (it was safe enough; Sings Truly was too far away to taste his thoughts), then crept stealthily out to the last trunk. He climbed easily to its highest fork and settled down on the comfortable pad of leaves and branches. The cold days' ravages required a few repairs, but there was no hurry. It remained serviceable, and it would be many days yet before the slowly budding leaves could provide the needed materials, anyway.

In a way, he would be unhappy when the leaves did open. In their absence, bright sunlight spilled through the thin upper branches, pouring down with gentle warmth, and he stretched out on his belly with a sigh of pleasure. He folded his true-hands under his chin and settled himself for a long wait. Scouts learned early to be patient. If they needed help with that lesson, there were teachers enough—from falls to hungry death fangs—to drive it home. Climbs Quickly had never needed such instruction, which, even more than his relationship to Sings Truly, was why he was second only to Short Tail, Bright Water Clan's chief scout . . . and why he'd been chosen to keep watch on these two-legs since their arrival.

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