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Climbs Quickly lay on his back outside his nest, belly fur turned to the sun, and did his best to convince the rest of the clan he was asleep. He knew he wasn’t fooling anyone who cared to taste his mind-glow, but good manners required them to pretend he was.

Which was just as well, for blissful as it was, the comfort of the drowsy sunlight was far too little to distract him from the monumental changes in his life. Facing his clan leaders and admitting he’d let one of the two-legs actually see him—and even worse, see him in the very process of raiding their plant place—had been just as unpleasant as he’d feared it would.

People seldom physically attacked other People. Oh, there were squabbles enough, and occasional serious fights—usually, though not always, limited to younger scouts or hunters. And there were even rarer situations in which entire clans found themselves feuding with one another, or fighting for control of their ranges. No one was particularly proud of such situations, but the ability to hear one another’s thoughts and taste one another’s emotions didn’t necessarily make other People any easier to live with or fill a clan’s range with prey when it was needed. A clan’s leaders normally intervened before anything serious could happen within a clan, though, and it was rare indeed for one member of a clan to deliberately attack another unless there was something fundamentally wrong with the attacker.

Climbs Quickly himself could remember one occasion on which High Crag Clan had been forced to drive out one of its scouts, a rogue who had attacked other People. The exile had crossed into Bright Water’s range, killing prey not just to live but for the sheer joy of killing, and raided Bright Water’s storage places. He’d even attacked and seriously injured a Bright Water scout while attempting to steal a mother’s kittens . . . for purposes Climbs Quickly preferred not to consider too deeply. In the end, the clan’s scouts and hunters had been forced to hunt him down and kill him, a grim necessity none had welcomed.

So Climbs Quickly hadn’t expected any of the Bright Water leaders to actually assault him, and they hadn’t. But they had left him feeling as if they’d skinned him and hung his hide up to dry. It wasn’t even the things they’d said so much as the way they’d said them.

Climbs Quickly’s ears flicked, and he squirmed, trying to catch the sun more fully, as he recalled his time before Bright Water’s leaders. Sings Truly had been present as the clan’s second singer and the obvious heir to the first singer’s position when Song Spinner died or surrendered her authority. But even Sings Truly had been shocked by his clumsiness. She hadn’t scolded him the way Broken Tooth or Short Tail had, yet tasting his sister’s wordless reproach had been harder for Climbs Quickly to bear than all of Broken Tooth’s cutting irony.

He’d tried to explain, as clearly and un-defensively as possible, that he’d never meant to let the two-leg see him, and he’d suggested the possibility that somehow the two-leg had known he was there in the plant place even before seeing him, since it hadn’t been surprised to see him when he emerged from it. Some things about its reaction had been surprised, but there’d been far more excitement, almost delight. Indeed, he was virtually certain the two-leg’s surprise had been from seeing who (and what) he truly was, not because the two-leg hadn’t already known that someone was in the plant place.

Unfortunately his suspicion rested on things he’d tasted in two-leg’s mind-glow, and although none of the others actually said so, he knew they found it difficult to believe a two-leg’s mind-glow could tell one of the People so much. He even knew why they thought that way, for no other scout had ever come close enough to—or concentrated hard enough upon—a two-leg to realize how wonderfully, dreadfully powerful that mind-glow truly was.

<I believe that you believe the two-leg had some way of knowing you were there,> Short Tail had told him judiciously, his mind-voice grave, <yet I fail to see how it could have. You saw none of the strange lights or tool things the two-legs have used to detect other scouts, after all.>

<True,> Climbs Quickly had replied as honestly as possible. <Yet the two-legs are very clever. I saw none of the tool things I knew to look for, but does that prove the two-legs have no tool things we have not yet learned of?>

<You hunt for ground runners in the upper branches, little brother,> Broken Tooth had put in sternly. <You allowed the two-leg not simply to see you but to see you raiding its range! I do not doubt you tasted its mind-glow, but neither do I doubt that you tasted within that mind-glow that which was most important for you to taste.>

Much as Broken Tooth’s charge had angered Climbs Quickly, he’d been unable to counter it effectively. After all, the feelings of the mind-glow were always easier to misinterpret, even among the People, than thoughts which were formed into deliberate communication. So perhaps it was only reasonable for Broken Tooth, who’d never tasted a two-leg mind-glow, to assume it would be even more difficult to interpret those of a totally different creature. Climbs Quickly knew—didn’t think; knew—that the two-leg’s mind-glow had been so strong, so vibrant, that he literally could not have read its excitement and eagerness wrongly. Yet he could hardly blame the clan’s leaders for failing to accept that he’d interpreted those emotions accurately when they themselves had no experience at all with two-leg mind-glows. Nor could he fail to understand why they found it so difficult to accept the possibility that he could possibly have grasped, however imperfectly, what the two-leg was actually thinking.

Everyone knew there were messages within any mind-glow’s feelings, yet even the strongest of those messages were only hints, suggestions that were frustratingly difficult to follow even at the best of times. It was as if meanings . . . leaked over into them like stream water trickling through the gaps in a thick, natural dam of fallen leaves. They got through, but without the clarity of deliberately formed thoughts, and it normally took turnings for one person to learn to read those leaks from another person with anything like reliability. As far as Climbs Quickly knew, no one had ever been able to read those scraps of meaning the very first time they met another person. No wonder they found his report so hard to accept!

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.

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