From somewhere below, a voice called out.
Z’Nia struggled to decipher a language she had previously heard only from a distance. After a moment, her brain made the necessary adjustments.
It is a command, she decided. The child's mother wants him to come down from here.
Part of her hoped he would obey. So far, none of the other humans had seen her. Once this child had turned his back, she could escape.
But another part of her asked, Escape to what?
To safety. That was Mother's voice in her head, advising her to be cautious, as always.
Z’Nia pushed the thought away. Today, she was not interested in being safe. Faced with the unique opportunity to see a human up close, she let her curiosity win out.
The child turned his gaze toward his mother, then back again to Z’Nia.
He will go now, she thought, surprised to feel dismayed.
But he didn't. Instead, he reached out to touch her.
Instinctively, Z’Nia pulled away. To be touched by a human, even one so small, was unthinkable. No Tazsmin would allow it.
Her lips peeled back, displaying teeth much sharper than her vegetarian diet required. For an instant, her blood burned with the need to strike at him.
Such a thing had never happened to her before. She gasped one hot breath, and then a second. It took a third one to stifle the snarl she felt growing deep in her throat.
What is wrong with me? she wondered. With effort, she dampened her instincts into submission.
Sharp teeth safely hidden, Z'Nia looked into the boy's eyes. She was surprised to see curiosity rather than fear, acceptance instead of distaste.
Yet we could not be more different, she thought.
Vaguely aware of his pale rounded face and small features, she felt mesmerized by his eyes. They were the deep blue of wild lupines, framed by dark lashes and set well apart below a smooth, flat brow. She could not look away.
In contrast, he would see- What?
Her mind called up the wavy image she had seen floating on a shallow lake. Large, dark eyes sheltered by the bony ridge of her forehead. Flat cheekbones flanking a nose that seemed slightly squashed. Skin, sun-browned and weathered to a leathery sheen.
No, we could not be more different, she thought again.
And yet he had reached out to her. She marveled at his bravery.
Z’Nia wanted to feel brave, too. For once in her life, she wanted to ignore her mother's warnings and be adventurous. Daring. Maybe even reckless.
Reminding herself that this human was far too small to pose a threat, she offered him a smile.
The boy's mother called again, “What are you doing? Come down here.”
This time, Z’Nia understood the words.
The boy looked at his mother but did not answer. Then he turned his attention back to Z’Nia. He reached out again. She felt a faint shiver as she let him place his hand on her much larger one. His fingers explored the rough texture of her palm.
“Do you grow trees like my grandpa?” he whispered.
Z’Nia didn't understand that word. But she did know about growing trees.
She sent a message into the boy's mind: I care for all the earth. Not only the trees, but the flowers, the grass, and all the animals. For lakes and rivers, too, and streams. For even the smallest puddle on the beach. I care for all of these.
His eyes widened.
Too late, she remembered that humans did not communicate with other species as the Tazsmin did. He would not have been expecting her to answer his question. Nor would he have any experience with mind-linking.
But he heard me, she realized.
The idea excited her. Could she continue the mind-link, even for a little while? What could she talk about with this tiny human cub?
He likes trees, she thought. Perhaps he would be interested in something that comes from a tree.
She carried a woven pouch slung across her shoulder. Now she reached inside it to find the perfectly formed pinecone she had collected that morning. She held it out to the child.
It is for you, she told him. A gift.
He reached for it. Then he stopped and rubbed curiously at the fine drops of rain dotting his skin. He looked up at the sky.
“James!” the mother called.
This was another word Z'Nia did not know. She decided it must be the boy's name. And she easily understood the rest of the mother's message.
“Come down here now,” his mother had said. “It's starting to rain.”
Over the years, Z'Nia had noticed that humans tended to avoid being outdoors during a rainstorm. She saw dark clouds mounding on the horizon. Probably, the family would leave now.
Her acute hearing brought the sound of footsteps on grass, then a scrabble of pebbles followed by a sharp cry. Pain. She concluded that the human female had been hurt.
The child paused, hand still outstretched, and glanced down into the hollow. Then he sighed and pulled his hand away.
“I'm sorry,” he said. “I have to leave now.”
Reluctantly, Z'Nia watched him go.