Derrick tried to place his booted foot as carefully and quietly into the snowy ground as possible, yet still the snow squeaked beneath him. How did she do it? How did she make so little noise? He took a deep breath – quietly – and continued his advance. He had a crick in his neck from bending it to study the ground. Fiaz turned out to have some use after all, aside from keeping Elise’s feet warm at night. Fiaz had actually proved invaluable in these tracking lessons.
Hastily, Derrick changed the bitter coloring of his thoughts to a more objective viewpoint. He was just tired of fighting with Elise. Now that Elise knew it wasn’t him who had been so rude to her friend back at home, you’d think, he grimaced, that she would warm up a little. After all, hadn’t he seen tears in her eyes when he had been hurt in the Kin’keska battle? She had seemed so warm, so human…. But she had remained completely aloof and stubborn as ever, and Gabriella refused to pair them with anyone else but each other for household chores, resulting in any number of spats.
And perhaps he was a tiny bit jealous that she had such a magnificent beast as Fiaz bowing to her whims; in fact, they probably all were a little jealous, including Gabriella. He found himself having to guard his thoughts fiercely, for every time he moved a muscle, Fiaz was in his head, chiding Derrick’s uncharitable thoughts of Elise, or Gabriella would smile knowingly, or even Andrew would mention to him aside now and again that he was “broadcasting” his thoughts, whatever that meant. As though he had control over his own thoughts. If people who could hear them would just stay out of his head and quit listening, everyone would be happy.
He didn’t think he’d ever get used to the telepathy thing – oh, all right, kyor’rishtan – it was a most startling experience to be going about your business, doing your own thing, hunting, practicing, eating, whatever, and suddenly someone’s voice was in your mind talking to you. Your mind, not your ears... there was a most distinct difference, but it was beyond him to explain it. It usually scared the wits out of him and at first he had often toyed with the idea that perhaps he truly was going insane. He thought of it as being deaf and suddenly hearing something loud, like a door slamming.
Derrick caught sight of a twig that seemed to have been laid carefully on the snow, as if to look natural. As he walked over – quietly – to inspect the twig, he knew that if it had occurred there naturally, it would be laden with last night’s snow and wet. He was right: the inside of the twig was a bright yellow wood color. It had recently been ripped from a bush. Derrick tossed the twig over his shoulder, reassured that he was on the right track. He continued on in the same direction, eyes searching for more clues.
This had been the hardest lesson yet, he had been out here for about a mark and a half, shivering, looking for which way the zary’andu had taken. Some clues were left to throw him off, decoys, though after following the zary’andu’s paths for half the winter, Derrick had become familiar with Fiaz’s methods. He still sometimes went down a false trail, but he had learned what clues made a trail a false or true: crumbled bark on the snow near a fallen tree, a part of a paw print, leaves on the ground from a coniferous tree, and other more obvious hints, though they had not been so obvious two months ago.
Derrick broke out of the tree cover to find a small, frozen stream. Looking around, he found Fiaz’s paw prints in the snow emerging from the tree cover rather obviously. That was unlike him, Derrick thought. He usually jumps across places where he would otherwise leave tracks. And naturally, there were no tracks on the other side of the stream, which meant that the beast walked either upstream or downstream to a place where he could jump off without leaving prints. Derrick sighed and began searching downstream, his breath puffing in front of him in the cold air.
Finally he found a spot on the ice that seemed to have an indentation, in the shape, perhaps, of a zary’andu’s back claw, left as he was jumping from the stream. Derrick looked around and found an area where Fiaz might have jumped to. The leaves there didn’t seem to be disturbed, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything. The moisture of last night’s snow would have weighed them down so that they wouldn’t have rustled around the way they might have had they been dry. Derrick arched his back and continued to look for traces of Fiaz’s passing. Just when he thought he was chasing a ghost’s trail again, he caught sight of something on a patch of white snow. He hoped it was something that was a clue, because his so-called waterproof boots were showing signs of moisture and his back was aching from being bent over for so long. He knelt down and with surprise, found that it was a black whisker.
“Huh,” he said aloud, not knowing what to think of it. And then that familiar voice erupted in his unsuspecting mind, causing him to jump.
-- Very well done. --
Derrick looked up. There was the zary’andu, lounging idly on a branch several feet above, the tip of his long tail lashing quietly against the tree, looking rather smug and self-satisfied.
“Missing something?” Derrick held up the whisker.
Fiaz stood up on the branch, the very picture of grace. Stretching, he yawned, bearing his formidable teeth. -- One cannot be perfect all of the time. --