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Beginnings


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<The elders will not be happy to hear about this,> he observed.

<You are truly gifted with insight, little brother,> Laughs Brightly said dryly. <I cannot imagine what better neighbors the clan could desire!>

<Perhaps not,> Sharp Nose retorted. <I think, however, that it would not be amiss for us to warn Dances on Clouds to be cautious with snow hunters about.>

<Now that, Sharp Nose, is a very good idea, indeed,> Laughs Brightly agreed. <Of course, it would be far simpler if we could make her hear our mind-voices!>

<A Person cannot have everything.>

<Perhaps not, but that does not mean he cannot wish for it.>

Laughs Brightly's mind voice was very dry, and Sharp Nose sensed him turning his attention elsewhere. For a moment, Sharp Nose could not understand what his brother was doing, but then he realized, and his tail kinked in surprise. Laughs Brightly was questing for Dances on Clouds' mind-glow.

That was ridiculous at such a range, even for a scout . . . but not as ridiculous as the fact that Laughs Brightly had found what he sought.

<She comes from that direction,> he said, one true hand pointing upstream. <And she is already on the snow hunters' side of the lake builders' pond.>

<Then I think we should go to meet her,> Sharp Nose said, and leapt lightly from his net-wood branch to the next bridge over.

* * *

Honor waded across one of the canals the near-beavers had constructed in seasons past. It was well into the process of collapsing upon itself, but it was still too wide for her to simply jump over and it behooved her to be careful. The water came no higher than mid-calf, well below the tops of her boots, but the bottom's thick layer of mud was slippery and she held her S&W balanced across her shoulder to keep it out of the way while she concentrated on not losing her balance. Falling flat on her face would be as humiliating as it would unpleasant.

Not that anyone would be here to see it, she reminded herself. And if I manage to get home before Mom, I could probably be changed and clean by the time she—

Her head snapped up as a sound ripped through the whisper of breeze and rustle of leaves like a bandsaw through plyboard. It came like ripping canvas, and she'd never heard anything like it in her life. Yet somehow, she knew what it was. She felt what it was, and she hurled herself up the canal's sloping bank towards it.

* * *

<Sharp Nose!>

Laughs Brightly's mind voice was a scream of warning that came too late. His brother sprang onto the solid-looking net-wood branch . . . and half the branch collapsed into powder as he landed. The bark borers had eaten deep into it, riddling it with tunnels, and Sharp Nose's weight pulverized the surface under him. The claws which should have caught in the net-wood's bark found no purchase as the weakend, spongy wood disintegrated, and the younger treecat went tumbling into space.

His tail caught frantically at another branch as he plummeted past it, and for a moment Laughs Brightly thought he had saved himself. But it might have been better if he had simply let himself fall, for the bark borers had weakened that branch, as well. Sharp Nose's weight was just enough to break it loose from the main trunk, and it followed him down. He landed barely two People's lengths from the closer of the two snow hunter cubs, and the cub reared up in shock, squealing to its parents in alarm. And then the broken branch landed on top of him, and Laughs Brightly heard his own high-pitched squeal of pain as the impact fractured his mid-pelvis.

The adult snow hunters wheeled from their fishing as they heard their infant's panicked cry. The cub tumbled backward, away from Sharp Nose, but its parents were already lumbering out of the pond, headed for Laughs Brightly's brother. The instinct to defend their young would have been enough for that, but they were unlikely to pass up the opportunity to feed their cubs.

Laughs Brightly swarmed down the net-wood trunk, taking the time even in his frantic haste to be sure each branch would bear his weight. If he could reach Sharp Nose first, perhaps he could help him to safety in the net-wood. Perhaps—

<No, Laughs Brightly!> Sharp Nose cried. <I cannot use my hand-feet or climb! Do not come down!>

Laughs Brightly's mind-glow cried out in formless protest, but Sharp Nose was already moving, dragging his crippled body across the ground. He managed to reach a fallen gray-bark, downed by the lake builders and left to dry. It was more than half a Person's length in diameter, and he squirmed into the tangle of dry, dead branches and somehow found a space under the trunk just big enough to wedge himself into. Laughs Brightly could taste the lightning-like stabs of pain ripping through him as those broken bones shifted, but even through his anguish, Sharp Nose's voice came clearly.

<There is no reason we both should die,> he said as the first adult snow hunter began ripping a way through the gray bark's branches. <Stay where you are!>

Laughs Brightly knew his brother was right, but it didn't matter.

<No!> he shot back. <I will not leave you!>

<Do not!> Sharp Nose screamed. <Do not, Laughs Brightly!>

But it was too late. Laughs Brightly plummeted from the net-wood, snarling in desperate, hopeless fury, and landed squarely on the back of the snow hunter's neck.

* * *

Honor was still seventy-five meters away when the treecat hurled himself out of the picketwood. Even in the aftermath of the near-beavers' lumber harvesting there was more than enough underbrush to keep her from seeing clearly, but she didn't have to see. She knew what was happening. Somehow, someway, she knew.

Her heart leapt into her throat as the small, cream and gray defender landed squarely on the peak bear's neck. The huge creature was almost three meters long. It must weigh over five hundred kilos, and it howled its fury as the 'cat's razor-sharp claws slashed at it. But peak bears' hides were thick, their skins loose, riding on deep layers of fat no treecat's claws were long enough to penetrate. The 'cat could hurt and enrage the monstrous omnivore, but he couldn't possibly defeat it, and he knew it. Honor knew he knew it, because in that moment she shared that knowledge with him . . . just as she shared the knowledge that he would die trying.

The peak bear raged around in a circle, temporarily abandoning its quest to dig the other treecat—the injured treecat Honor knew was under the fallen red spruce—out of its futile burrow while it tried to reach the six-limbed fury ripping and tearing at its heavily furred pelt. Its mate galloped towards it with its species' clumsy-looking but deceptively fast gait, and Honor saw the gray flash of the attacking treecat as it somehow evaded the massive paws trying to rend it apart.

The peak bear squalled in as much frustration as pain and hurled itself down. It landed on its side, rolling, and Honor's heart tried to stop as she realized it was trying to crush the treecat under its enormous weight.

* * *

Laughs Brightly heard Sharp Nose's despairing protest, but it scarcely registered. His world had narrowed to a boil of blood-red fury as he tore into his enormous foe. There was no room or space for anything else, and he twisted and dodged even as he ripped at the snow hunter's hide. Somehow he slithered through the deadly net of the snow hunter's claws, using his own claws as if the enormous creature were a tree he was scaling. He was too close to it for it to reach, and he heard it squalling in pain and rage as he swarmed from the back of its neck, under its chin, down between the its forelegs, then back up around its shoulder as if he were scaling a fur-barked tree.

There was no time to think about what he was doing. It was all react, improvise, move or die. Yet even through the madness and the confusion, it was as if he were somewhere else, watching. He could actually see the snow hunter, recognize the moment it decided to roll and crush him, and somehow he flung himself clear in the instant before the creature crashed to earth.

* * *

Honor suddenly discovered her rifle was in her hands.

She couldn't remember how it had gotten there. Didn't remember snapping off the safety. Didn't remember bringing it to her shoulder. But somehow, there it was, and in t

hat instant she discovered something about herself. Something she had never suspected.

She was calm. A sense of panic, of horror, hovered about her, frantic with concern for the treecats, but it couldn't touch her. It was a part of her, but it was apart from her, as well. Her hands were steady, her breathing almost normal, and her flashing thoughts were clear, clean, and icy cold.

She didn't see the treecat break clear before the peak bear landed, but somehow she knew—knew with that same certainty, that same absolute assurance—that he'd done it. And the icy precision of her brain moved her aim point from the peak bear he'd attacked. Her rifle tracked with machine-like precision, finding the other peak bear, the one who'd seen where the treecat landed and lunged towards him.

* * *

Laughs Brightly cried out in pain as he landed.

He might have avoided the snow hunter's plunging weight, but he hadn't gotten away unscathed. One of the snow hunter's paws struck him a grazing blow, and he tasted anguish of his own as even that glancing blow broke ribs. It batted him out of the air, like a kitten playing with a green-needle pod, and he squalled again as he bounced off of an exposed boulder. He was badly hurt, his left forelimb numbed and useless—probably broken—but he clawed his way back to his feet and bared his fangs in a snarl of defiance . . . just in time to see the first snow hunter's mate open its jaws wide and lunge toward him.

* * *

CRAACKKKKK!

The S&W surged against Honor's shoulder. She had an ideal, broadside target, she knew exactly what a peak bear's anatomy looked like, the glowing dot of the Brownfield Holographics sight had settled midway between the creature's shoulders and mid-pelvis, and she knew even before she squeezed the trigger that the shot was flawlessly placed. The 19.5-gram slug exploded through the hurtling peak bear's lungs and heart in a perfect kill shot, and suddenly the charging monster spun halfway around. It went to the ground in a boneless, slithering slide that slammed into the boulder the flying treecat had already encountered.

The remaining peak bear heaved itself to its feet, howling in fury, put its head down, and turned upon its fresh enemy. Facing a charging peak bear on the ground was not the sort of situation many hunters were likely to survive, and the picket wood overhead was too dense for her counter-grav to carry her clear in time, but Honor's coldly, meticulously whirring mind measured speeds and angles with icy precision. There was no way to avoid the thing, and so she stood her ground, instead. The S&W swung back and the glowing dot settled on the oncoming creature. She found the sight picture, saw the lowered head, realized there was an excellent chance that even the mighty S&W's slug might ricochet from the immensely thick bone of a peak bear's skull. She started to squeeze the trigger anyway, but something stopped her—just for half a heartbeat. Something she'd seen, recognized without realizing what it was. Some tiny, preliminary muscle shift, perhaps. Something. And then the peak bear raised its head, roaring as its gaping maw closed in on her, and her right hand squeezed without any conscious command from her.

CRAACKKKKK!

The bullet just missed the peak bear's lower jaw. It struck two centimeters to the right of the exact center of its chest, and the creature's roar turned into a high, shocked squeal. It staggered, continuing to drive forward but no longer under control. Momentum carried it, not purpose, and Honor Harrington stepped smoothly to one side, pivoting to keep her target in her field of fire as five hundred kilos of mortally wounded peak bear staggered past her. It went down, twitching, struggling to get its legs back under it so it could rise and kill her with its own dying strength. It snarled, spraying blood as it started to come back upright . . . and she put a second shot through its right ear from a range of five meters to be sure it didn't.

* * *

<Laughs Brightly! Laughs Brightly!>

The mind voice trickled into his awareness. It took him what seemed a very long time to recognize it, to realize Sharp Nose was still alive. Then he realized that since he was hearing it, he must still be alive, as well, and neither of those things was possible. The last thing he remembered was the death fang Dances on Clouds had killed, still rolling forward, tumbling towards him. He had tried to leap clear, but there had been no time. It had felt as if a golden-leaf tree had fallen onto him, and then there had been only darkness.

Now he managed to open his eyes and discovered that he was wrapped in a thin but tough and incredibly warm blanket. It was a two-leg blanket, made of one of their magical substances, and he realized his left forelimb had been straightened and immobilized by the length of branch fastened to it with some of the sticky-sided stuff two-legs used to tie everything in the world together. And then he realized that the blanket in which he was wrapped lay in a two-leg's lap and looked up at the brown eyes of the two-leg to which it belonged.

* * *

“— coordinates,” Honor told the Sphinx Forestry Service ranger on the uni-link's display. “We're about a hundred and eighty meters north of the near-beaver dam below Jessica Falls on Rock Aspen Creek, and I need a ‘cat-certified vet out here bad. I've got one 'cat with a broken forelimb and ribs who's been unconscious for at least ten minutes, and another one with a smashed mid-pelvis. I think that one has some internal injuries, too, so please hurry. And I guess you'd better send someone along to collect the cubs, too.”

She realized her own voice sounded far too calm as she sat there between two dead adult peak bears with a pair of horribly injured treecats while a pair of orphaned peak bear cubs moaned disconsolately as they tried to understand what had happened.

“The vet's on her way,” Ranger McIntyre told her. She knew him vaguely and remembered him from her wilderness survival course. He'd always been friendly enough, but he was hardly someone she knew well, yet she'd been astonished by how happy she'd been to see him when he receipted her call.

“You ought to see her air car in the next fifteen minutes,” McIntyre continued. “But let me get this straight, Ms. Harrington. You're out there by yourself with two dead peak bears, is that right?”

“I know it's not peak bear season,” she replied a bit defensively. “But I didn't have much choice, you know. They were going to kill the 'cats, and then they decided they might as well kill me, too!”

“Oh, I understand that part,” he said. “What I don't understand is what you thought you were doing out there all alone in the first place. I don't suppose you happened to tell your parents where you were going, young lady?”

“Of course I did!” she said virtuously. “Sort of,” she added a bit more lamely when the ranger looked unimpressed. “I'd've been fine if the 'cats hadn't gotten into trouble!”

“I'm sure you would have,” McIntyre said in a voice which implied exactly the opposite. Then he inhaled deeply and shook his head. “Although, now that I think about it, I don't see why I should be particularly surprised by such a boneheaded, stubborn, impulsive antic—especially from you!”

Honor's eyes widened. She couldn't think of a single thing she'd done in her entire life—well, up until today—to deserve that resigned tone from Ranger McIntyre. She hugged the injured treecat in her lap very gently—the other 'cat was too badly hurt for her to risk moving any more than she'd had to after she'd used her bush knife to cut away the log under which he'd hidden himself and covered him with her jacket—and stared into the display in confusion.

“Oh, don't look so innocent at me, young lady!” McIntyre snorted. “This is a tradition in your family!”

Honor blinked, and then her eyes went wider than ever as she realized what he was talking about. But that was ridiculous! She hadn't been adopted by either treecat—she didn't want to be adopted by either treecat! She'd only been doing what needed to be done, and it was—

She made the mistake of looking down.

Two grass-green eyes looked back up at her, brighter and deeper and simultaneously darker than any sea she had ever seen. She fell into them, as if they had no bottom, no end. And as she fell, she felt something—someone—r

eaching back to her. It was as clear, as sharp, as any voice she had ever heard, and yet she couldn't hear it. It was there, and it wasn't there. Imagined, and yet more real than anything else she had ever experienced. It was nothing at all like Stephanie Harrington's description from her journal . . . yet it was simultaneously perfectly and exactly the same.

But I can't be adopted, a little voice in the back of her brain wailed. It'll mess up everything! All my plans. All my . . . .

That voice faded into silence, inconsequential beside that other voice, the one she heard without hearing. The dream was still there, the plans and hopes, the determination, but she was going to have to make a few changes, because now the dream had to include this, for it was unthinkable that it could not.

Ranger McIntyre was still saying something over the com, but she was no longer listening. She was listening to something else, and her hand was gentle as she touched the treecat's—her treecat's—silken, tufted ears as if they were what they had just become . . . the most precious thing in her universe.

* * *

<I thought you were certain you would never bond with a two-leg, Laughs Brightly,> Sharp Nose's mind voice was shadowed with pain and weaker than usual, yet amusement flickered in it. <Plans, I think you said you had?>

<One day you will be well again, Sharp Nose,> Laughs Brightly replied, <and on that day, you will pay for all of this.>

<It was not my idea!> Sharp Nose protested, his mind-glow as soft with unvoiced love for his brother as Laughs Brightly's was with love for him. <I told you you should not attack a snow hunter! You were the foolish one who would not take my advice! And it was not my fault the net-wood broke.>

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