Pranli prowled down the branch, watching. The stranger below her was unlike any human she’d ever seen before. He tramped through the trees, unconcerned with the noise his made. His outlandish outfit clattered and jingled with strange metal things attached everywhere imaginable.
Pausing to clean her face, she considered. Curiosity impelled her to follow this apparition, but what would be best for the pride? Report his incursion, and risk losing his trail, or follow and observe?
He made the decision easy for her. After looking around him a moment, he began to set up a camp. Once he was asleep, she could report it, and be back to follow before he woke.
She stretched out on the tree, rested her head in her hands, curled her tail around her, and settled in to enjoy the show. Whatever this strange human was up to, she was sure it would be worth watching. Humans were like that.
The stranger was adept enough in human ways of setting up a camp, and seemed to take care to disturb as little of his surroundings as possible. In a short time he had a small fire going, built with green sticks was burning smoke that would keep away the worst of the insects that plagued the furless creatures. The meal he cooked over his fire smelled surprisingly good. His camp held all the marks of the woods-wise traveler. Which was just one more puzzle, for never had a human traveled these woods alone and no woods-wise traveler would stomp through the jungle making all the noise this one did.
After he finished eating, Pranli gathered herself to be ready to leave as soon as he was asleep. He surprised her again, instead of curling up in his nest he pulled out one of his human things – a book, she thought it was called – and marked it up with a burnt stick from the fire. Hours she sat there, as he filled more and more of his “book” with these strange marks. It almost reminded her of the claw-glyphs the pride’s scouts used to leave messages for each other. But why would he leave a message to someone else in a thing he carried with him? Did he plan to leave the thing behind for others who followed him?
It was a relief when he finally went to sleep, and she could return to dump this problem in the laps of the Elders.
Dashing through the trees, Pranli reached Pride Home before the night was a quarter over. Her normally nocturnal pride mates were active throughout the home. In each great tree she could see someone’s tail hanging down below the leaf line, or the flick of an ear or a pair of eyes gleaming in the darkness. Elder Lowll was sprawled in his usual perch, his black fur making him a darker shadow in the night.
The elder took her report, then told her to wait. He stalked off, his graceful movements unmarred by the pain of ancient joints. With nothing else to do, Pranli decided it was a good time for a nap.
The moon had barely moved in the sky, when the elder woke her with quick shake. A few minutes later, she was racing back through the trees. The elders terrifying words echoing in her thoughts.
“The humans are moving against us,” he had said, “this one you have found, this human who travels alone and marks in his book what he sees. He is a human scout, come to learn our weaknesses.”
Shock and horror had held Pranli silent. Foolish hunters would frequently boast of how the pride would put the humans in their place if ever it came to war, but wise scouts had seen the human weapons, prowled the human cities, and knew the human strength. The hunters could kill 1000 humans each and still more would come to overwhelm them.
“What can we do, Elder?”
“You will go back to this human scout, reveal yourself to him.” Pranli gasped, but forced herself to remain silent. “You will befriend him, and learn his secrets. When you have learned all you can of the humans and their hunters, of their plans, you will kill him.”
The way the elder had said it, it sounded so simple. And she understood the necessity, but to reveal herself to this human was to break every rule of the scout code. Just the thought made her bristle. The journey back to the human’s camp was no longer than her journey from it, but it seemed to take lifetimes.
She reached the human’s camp without difficulty. The creature was still asleep. It made a hideous racket in its sleep. A horrible growling hiss that echoed through the trees. If this was a human scout, then they were even more pathetic than she thought. How did it expect to stay hidden and survive when it couldn’t be quiet?
Stay hidden. She hissed, clinging to a high branch. The scouts stayed hidden, for the safety of the pride. The elders expected her to reveal herself to this human – Elder Lowll said that by speaking with it, learning of it, she would be helping the pride in the coming war.
She sat, and began to clean her ears. What was best for the pride? Revealing herself to this human should be safe, if she was going to kill him anyway. If he died before he told anyone, had she truly revealed herself?
But killing him was revealing herself – his fellows would know he didn’t return. Would guess the pride had stopped him. That would send a message to his elders. If this was a time to act openly, it was work for the hunters, not a lone scout. Scouts gathered information.
Her tail flicked, annoying her. Irritation made it twitch uncontrollably. She grabbed for it. It jerked out of reach. Hissing under her breath, she used both hands to seize the thing and pinned it to the branch. Looking around automatically, she sighed relief that no one had seen her.
What had she been thinking? Information. Scouts gathered information. And she was supposed to get information from this human. Information that would help the pride in the coming war. Growling, she stood up and began to pace along the branch.
In the distance a wild dog howled. For a moment, for the first time in her memory, she envied the canids. Too stupid to think for themselves, they were simply blindly obedient to whoever could force them to submit. Blind obedience wasn’t the way of a cat. What was best for the pride?
Through the long hours tonight, she wrestled with her doubts. Did she trust the elders, and break the scouts code of secrecy; or did she find some other path? She found no answer. She didn’t know enough about humans to guess what the right answer might be. And when the first bird shook itself awake and began to sing to the fast approaching dawn, Pranli was still alert, still pacing, still undecided.
The sun, unseen beyond the jungle canopy, was still not fully over the horizon when she found… Not an answer, but maybe the path to one. Rolling onto her back, she used the bark of a branch to scratch an itch between her shoulder blades. And realized that no matter what she did, this human, the questions he brought would be an itch in her mind. She could never learn enough of him watching. Only by revealing herself, befriending him, learning his secrets directly, could she learned enough to answer the questions that had haunted her through the night.
It was a novel idea for a scout, but she felt her fur settle as she recognized the wisdom of the elders. They could not pick the best path for the pride without answers. Answers they were trusting her to bring.
She clambered swiftly down from the trees, landing lightly on the balls of her feet. She set herself where the human would see her when he woke up, and settled on her haunches. She would find the answers for the elders, so they would have the answers they needed. This, she knew, was best for the pride.
Little thing that’s been sitting in my files for a long time. Doubt I’ll ever do more with it…