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Heart of Stone: Chapter Two

       Last updated: Saturday, February 13, 2021 19:02 EST



    ?Dad,? Stephanie said softly, staring through the window to where Cordelia drowsed, her dark hair still mussed, the battered and bandaged treecat in her lap, ?that 'cat?s going to make it, right??

    Although she tried hard not to, her voice choked up. She was honest enough to admit that feeding her grief and fear was the memory of how she?d felt when Lionheart had been the one injured while defending her.

    ?No promises,? Richard Harrington said, ?but the prognosis is good. Hey, kiddo, I?ve got a job for you. I cleaned up Cordelia?s injuries after the 'cat was stabilized, but I?d be happier if she saw a doctor who specializes in humans before she goes home. Cordelia looks like she?s waking up. Do you think you could convince her to leave my patient here while you take her to the hospital? Mack Kemper is off getting her a change of clothes and some supplies they?ll need for the convalescents. It would be nice if Cordelia was ready to go when he came back.?

    ?Absolutely,? Stephanie replied. ?Glad to.?

    ?I?ll call ahead to the hospital and warn them she?s coming,? Richard said. ?I know it would be best if Cordelia?s away from her 'cat as briefly as possible.?

    ?Yeah,? Stephanie agreed, remembering her eleven year-old self, arms wrapped so tightly around the injured Lionheart that the blood from their wounds had run together. ?You?ve got that right. I?ll go talk to her now.?

    Cordelia looked up when Lionheart bleeked greeting to Stephanie. ?Hi, Stephanie.?

    ?How?re you feeling??

    ?Sore. Amazed. Part of me still believes I?m weasel-chow and dreaming all of this from heaven or somewhere. I mean. . .? The young woman gestured toward the treecat in her lap. ?When I woke up, everything you and Karl told me came back, and I can?t believe it. I mean, he?s a wild. . . not animal but alien? And he?s sort of in love with me, and I?m in love with him and that?s just impossibly great, and super-incredibly weird all at once.?

    Stephanie grinned. ?I was only eleven when it happened to me, so I don?t think I ever thought about how weird it was, but you?re right. It?s weird. Lionheart and I are a unit. Anybody else, even Mom and Dad or my best friends, they?re one remove. Speaking of removes. . . Dad wants you to go to the hospital so they can look you over, especially your leg. Thing is, you?ll need to leave the 'cat here. He?s really fragile still.?

    ?Sure, that?s no problem,? Cordelia began gently setting ?her? treecat back on the nest of pillows that had been set up for him when she froze, panic visible in every line of her body. ?Or is it a problem? My heart?s racing all of a sudden.?

    Cordelia sagged back against the back of the sofa, still holding the 'cat, panting slightly. Moving stiffly within his bandages, the 'cat rose on his hindmost pair of legs, pressed his frontmost paws against Cordelia?s chest, and began emitting a loud, thrumming soothing purr. He rubbed his face against Cordelia?s, then hunkered down, still purring.

    Stephanie grinned ruefully. ?It?s a problem, sorta kinda. Earlier, when Karl and I told you about the bond, we didn?t get into the details. Short version. This bond isn?t just for real, and for life, it?s. . .? She scratched the nape of her neck, trying to find the words to explain something that she?d taken for granted for five years. Given that she was not quite sixteen, that meant about a third of her life, a strangely sobering thought.

    Stephanie started again. ?You and your 'cat really are a unit, and not in the symbolic way humans talk about for marriage. A married couple can live on different worlds, in different solar systems, heck, possibly in other galaxies or universes. You and your 'cat are going to always need to be on the same planet, within a limited number of kilometers from each other. If you?re not, the strain gets uncomfortable. While you?re getting to know each other, you?re going to need to stay closer, especially at times, like now, when you?re worried. Later, well, you?ll be able to be apart, just not too far apart.?

    Cordelia?s expression flickered through disbelief, lingered on a touch of dismay, then settled on bemused resignation. ?I believe you. I mean, I feel in my gut or heart o



    r something that you?re right, but wow. . . This could have a lot of complications. I wonder how Irina Kisaevna feels about Fisher being sort of the third partner in her marriage with Scott MacDallan. That?s kind of kinky.?

    Stephanie laughed. ?Not really. I mean, I?m not married or anything, but when I was dating Anders, Lionheart didn?t seem to feel jealous about that. The bond?s not competitive or anything?maybe because nothing can threaten it.?

    ?How would you feel if Lionheart got ?married??? Cordelia asked, genuinely curious.

    Stephanie thought before answering. ?I think I?d feel like I would if any good friend found someone special, but better, because I know how Lionheart feels about me. I know that nothing is going to change or weaken our bond. I think for me, his ?getting married? would mean I?d be getting extra friends and family. Love is one of those things that multiplies when shared, especially when you know you?re not going to lose the person you love.?

    Stephanie didn?t add how she?d felt when Anders started dating Jessica. Then she had wondered if she would lose not only her boyfriend, but one of her best friends as well. So far things were working out. In fact, if she was losing Jessica to anything, it was to the other girl?s newfound passion for becoming a doctor. That reminded her; they needed to get Cordelia to the hospital.

    ?So, Cordelia, what you started feeling when I asked you to leave your 'cat behind? That?s part of the bond, but intensified because the bond is new, and because you know that your 'cat is injured so you don?t want to leave him. Can you take a few deep breaths? Tell yourself that he?s perfectly safe here, safer than he would be if you carried him along to the hospital? I get the feeling that Lionheart is going to stay with your 'cat, so he won?t be alone. My dad will be here, too.?

    Cordelia closed her eyes and began to breathe deeply and rhythmically. Stephanie smiled when she realized that the breathing was falling into a cadence with the 'cat?s purr. This time, when Cordelia gently lifted the 'cat and set him on the pillows, the panic reaction was there but under control.

    Cordelia turned, locked eyes with the 'cat, then said slowly, ?I?m going away to see a doctor about this??she touched the bandages on her leg??and these.? She tapped various scrapes and scratches. ?I?ll be back. You get some rest.?

    She pressed a fingertip very gently against one of the few unwounded places on the 'cat?s head, encouraging him to lie down. Lionheart bleeked, curling up in the pillows near the other 'cat, thrumming the soothing purr. Stephanie remembered that Jessica had told her how Valiant and Fisher had done the same thing when the 'cat Karl had dubbed ?Survivor? was recovering from surgery. She saw how Cordelia relaxed, even if the lines of panic didn?t completely fade, and guessed that meant Cordelia?s 'cat was calming both himself and her.

    Having been on the receiving end of a treecat?s ministrations, she knew how effective they could be. ?Ready? Dad?s calling the hospital to let them know we?re coming, so we won?t be gone long.?

    ?Ready,? Cordelia replied firmly. ?After all, I have responsibilities to my new partner, and I won?t do either of us any good if I get sick.?

    ?Any idea what you?re going to call him?? Stephanie asked as she helped Cordelia to the Harrington?s air car. Like Karl, Cordelia had the musculature of the ?born-on-Sphinx,? but today she was relying on a counter-grav unit to take the weight off her injured leg and sculling along with a crutch.

    ?I?m not sure,? Cordelia said. ?I wish I knew what he called himself. I?m sure that treecats have their own names for themselves.?

    ?Me, too,? Stephanie agreed, ?and I bet they have their own names for us, too. I just hope mine isn?t ?Source of Celery.??

    Cordelia giggled. ?My sister Natalie claims that our dog, Barnaby, calls our family ?The Foodbringers,? but after today. . . Wow. Barnaby?s paid in advance for a lifetime of premium chow.? She shook her head in wonder. ?I bet Max never makes that joke again. Barnaby and my new treecat pal were the real heroes today.? She paused, bit thoughtfully into her lower lip, as she eased into the passenger side of the car. ?What about ?Hero? for a name? No. That?s not quite right. I?ll keep thinking about it though. He deserves a name, if for no other reason than to remind humans that he?s not just ?Cordelia?s Cat.??



    Like every member of Bright Water clan, Climbs Quickly knew the tragedy of Stone Shaper and Golden Touch. Stone Shaper had been among the finest flint shapers Bright Water had had in generations of memory songs, which was why his early names had vanish



    ed. He had been called by the same name as the craft he had perfected, and as a youngster, Climbs Quickly had loved to watch the older Person at work. Indeed, there had been a time when he had thought he, too, might become a shaper of stone.

    That had not been destined to happen, however, yet on the day he had officially been named a scout of Bright Water, Climbs Quickly had been awarded a knife of Stone Shaper?s making. He had treasured it for many turnings. But then, on the day he met Death Fang's Bane, that knife had been lost in his wild charge through the net-wood to reach her. He could not regret its loss, not when that day had brought so much joy into his life. Even so, he had grieved for it, because the gray death had meant it could never be replaced ? not by the true-hands which had made it with such loving skill. Yet now Climbs Quickly felt only joy at reconnecting with this hero of his youth.

    Stone Shaper had no mind-voice to tell Climbs Quickly what had happened, but the scent of needle-fangs had been heavy upon both him and the barker. It was not hard to deduce what must have happened, but the impressive wounds Stone Shaper had incurred in saving the young female two-leg and her barker made it impossible to tell just how harshly the turnings of isolation had treated the older Person. Yet the fact that Stone Shaper had fought so well testified that he had managed not only to survive, but to thrive.

    Back when Stone Shaper had chosen to leave Bright Water, Climbs Quickly had been among the many who had been puzzled and even a little hurt. The idea of choosing to live apart from the clan would?then?have never occurred to him. How could any person choose to be separated from the mind-glows, the heart warmth, of the People of his clan? And how could he take his own mind-glow away from them, like the last scrap of sunlight disappearing into the darkness?

    Sings Truly, at that time only a junior memory singer, but already wiser than her years, had sought out Climbs Quickly and tried to explain why Stone Shaper would have separated himself from his clan and his young.

    <It?s easy to forget,> she had explained, <because we can no longer hear what Stone Shaper says or share his memories, that he is still able to feel our reactions to his plight. However, there is every evidence that he can still taste our mind-glows.>

    <But I cannot help how I feel,> Climbs Quickly had protested. <I do feel sorry for how the gray death crippled him. I pity him the loss of his mate.>

    Sings Truly tugged Climb Quickly?s tail?hard. <Idiot brother-mine! How would you feel if you were subjected to pity, grief, and even indignation, and could not explain the landscape of your mind, when before all about you knew what you truly thought, not just what songs sang in your heart? He can no longer do that, no longer share that part of him which knows things, as well as that which feels . . . and we can no longer mind-speak him to share that part of ourselves with him. Moreover, I am proud that Bright Water clan is so loving, but I fear not all clans would think Stone Shaper made the right choice when he lived on after Golden Eye, especially as what many People would see as a cripple who would burden the clan. Perhaps it is best he not face the taste of disdain or aversion in their mind-glows.>

    His sister's wisdom had not satisfied him, then, yet Climbs Quickly had learned much from these seasons' turning of his bond with Death Fang?s Bane. He was accustomed, now, to having a friend?his best and dearest bondmate at that?be unable to use mind-speech or even to taste mind-glows. The same was true of Fisher, who had lived with Darkness Foe for many season?s turning, as well as Dirt Grubber who had now been over a season with Windswept or Keen Eyes who had recently bonded with Shining Sunlight. All of them had tasted much of the frustration Stone Shaper must have endured when those he loved could no longer mind-hear him, and they knew how bitter it could be. Yet they had also learned that even the mind-blind loved, and loved deeply. And they had also been forced to find ways to communicate with their two-legs despite their mind-blindness.

    They were, he realized now, the first People who had ever done that. The first who had ever had to find a way, other than the union of the People's mind-voices and mind-glows, to "speak" to another.

    We are a clan of sorts, Climbs Quickly thought with amazement. A new clan of People who are a bridge with the two-legs. And perhaps what we have learned trying to communicate with our two-legs will help us do the same with Stone Shaper! Hope



    for the other Person burned like a tiny flame inside him as he watched the other sleep, and he curled a bit closer to him. Welcome into our clan, Stone Shaper, he thought. You have come home to rejoin us at last.



    Cordelia was glad that Stephanie interpreted her reaction solely as being due to separation anxiety from ?her? new 'cat. Cordelia wished it was that simple, but the truth was that she had very bad memories about the hospital.

    The Plague that had wiped out part of her family, killed so many of her friends and neighbors, had stretched Sphinix?s medical system. Hospitals had been reserved for those in most grave danger of dying. Cordelia had been so young that, for her, hospitals were imprinted on her soul not as places for healing, but as where people went to die.

    ?What the heck?? Stephanie exclaimed as she led them in via the emergency room entrance. ?When Dad called, he was told to bring you around here, because things were pretty quiet.?

    Whatever Richard Harrington had been told a scant quarter-hour before, now the emergency room displayed organized chaos of the sort Cordelia imagined was reserved for battlefields: professionals reacting to a crisis with efficiency that didn?t hide their concern.

    Background to it all was a woman wailing while trying to trail after a gurney that was bearing off a young woman, somewhere in Stephanie and Cordelia?s general age-range, in the direction of a pair of doors marked ?Operating Room.?

    ?Know that girl?? Cordelia said softly.

    Stephanie shook her head. ?You??

    ?Uh-huh. Maybe vaguely familiar from one of my on-line classes, but. . .?

    A new voice, speaking with quiet authority cut in. ?Paschel Trendane. Her family are relatively new settlers. I think they?re steading near the Franchittis?s land while they wait for their own petition for a grant to come through.?

    Cordelia and Stephanie wheeled as one. Cordelia was astonished to see that the speaker was a young woman, probably a little younger than herself, wearing scrubs. A treecat peered placidly over her shoulder. Her appearance?thick, light-auburn hair, barely subdued by a braid, hazel-green eyes?was vaguely familiar, and Cordelia placed her as Stephanie spoke.

    ?Jessica!? Stephanie exclaimed, her tone alive with affection. ?I?m so glad you?re here! Jess, this is Cordelia Schardt-Cordova, who. . . No later, long story. Corde



    lia, this is Jessica Pheriss, another treecat adoptee. The 'cat is Valiant.?

    Cordelia held out her free hand. ?You?re the one who went into a forest fire to help rescue some stranded 'cats, and got adopted.?

    Jessica was speaking at the same time, ??Another??? Her ready grin faded as she took in the skin-coat bandaging where the near-weasels had mangled various parts of Cordelia?s epidermis, as well as the bulky wrappings around her ankle. ?Looks as if you signed on for Extreme Violence: the official Stephanie Harrington Treecat Recruitment Method. I recommend near-suffocation, myself. Much less painful, with the bonus that it leaves fewer scars.?

    ?Karl handled adoption easiest,? Stephanie added, laughing at Jessica?s teasing. ?He and Survivor. . . I still don?t know what brought them together like that, but whatever linked them, the bond has been terrific for them both.?

    Treecat/human bondings were far from usual, so Cordelia had seen news stories about all three of these. For the first time, it occurred to her that she and her Nameless Hero would likely come in for their share of attention as well. She winced. She?d always been the most introverted of her family??Zack Kemper would have loved the attention.

    Jessica saw the wince, and looked at Cordelia with concern. ?I was sent down here as escort when the word came that Stephanie was bringing someone in. I?m supposed to take you to one of the examination rooms, so you can get more comfortable while we wait.?

    She motioned for them to follow her.

    ?Do you work here?? Cordelia asked, swinging her sound leg and then the cane Dr. Harrington had given her as a stopgap.

    ?Volunteer. I?m shadowing various doctors. I want to go to med school. It?s never too early to build my vita, especially since I?m going to need a scholarship or two or three. No way my family can afford to put me through med school, especially since I?m going to need to go off-planet.?

    Cordelia nodded. Owning a barony was nice, but her own family was richer in land than in credits. There were lots of post-Plague families on Sphinx in the same situation. Recently, the Kemper boys had been thrilled when an off-planet biologist had offered to rent use-rights on some of their vacant land. It meant income that was all the more necessary as they prepared to move from the Schardt-Cordova home back into their deserted holding.

    The examining room was decorated with a lovely print of a lace willow transformed in spring. Stephanie pointed to it with evident pride. ?My mom?s art. She?s a botanist, but a really great painter, too. She started doing scientific drawings, but her art took on a life of its own.?

    As Jessica took Cordelia?s vital signs, Stephanie prattled on about the ?Old Man,? which was what her family called the specific lace willow that had served as the model. Cordelia guessed that underlying the cheerful commentary was Stephanie?s awareness that Cordelia was feeling very nervous.

    Being famous hasn?t made her self-centered. I like her. From how the newsies portray her, I never really thought I would, but I do like her.

    Jessica clearly felt the same way.

    You can judge a person by their friends. Even on this small sample, these are two people I?d like to know better. Cordelia felt surprised. Unlike Natalie and Dana, she?d never really missed having friends, maybe because she and Mack were close enough in age to be twins, and Zack only slightly younger.

    The doctor who came in a short time later was a tall, lean, long-jawed man with dark brown skin and eyes, that contrasted with hair so startlingly silver that Cordelia wondered if he bleached it. The bulge of a counter-grav unit under his outer tunic and relative lack of overt musculature identified him as a newer settler.

    ?I?m Thomas Flambeau,? the doctor said, holding out his hand. ?I?m sorry I?ve kept you waiting, but I was called to help with an emergency. I know Jessica, of course, but you young ladies??

    Stephanie offered her hand. ?Stephanie Harrington.?

    ?Cordelia Schardt-Cordova,? Cordelia said in turn. Gesturing to her various bandages she added, ?I?m the patient. Stephanie drove me over from her



    father?s clinic.?

    ?Looks as if Richard did well by you, but let?s take a look at the leg in particular. Jessica, would you like to work the scanner??

    Jessica beamed, then grew immediately serious. ?Yes, sir!?

    The examination that followed was facilitated because, after cutting away Cordelia?s damaged clothing, Richard Harrington had supplied her with a loose caftan in an astonishingly brilliant purple and gold pattern. Tests were run, readings taken, resulting in Dr. Flambeau deciding that he?d like to do some further treatment on the worst of Cordelia?s lacerated leg muscles.

    ?I?ll also give you a crutch, which will free-up your cane hand. You?ve had a bad break in that ankle, then walked on it. It?s going to take at least three weeks to heal, even with quick-heal?longer if you don?t go easy on it.?

    When Jessica and Valiant darted off to get the necessary equipment, Stephanie, possibly, Cordelia thought, by way of a distraction, asked Dr. Flambeau:

    ?Is the girl in emergency badly hurt??

    ?I can?t speak to specifics,? the doctor replied, ?but sadly yes. She apparently forgot about how serious a fall can be in Sphinx?s higher gravity.? His expression became rueful. ?I?ve had a few near-misses myself when I thought I could manage without my counter-grav unit for just a little. Apparently, she made the same mistake . . . but without the 'miss' part.?

    Jessica and Valiant returned then. Before long, Cordelia had undergone a session of nerve stimulation, had had her wounds freshly patched, and was feeling just a little lightheaded from the pain meds. When her com unit chimed as they were heading back to Stephanie?s car, she had to think about what the sound was. She read the text and smiled.

    ?Mack will be picking me and Barnaby up at your dad?s clinic. He?s bought me a change of clothes, so I can give your dad back this amazing caftan.? She frowned. ?Uh, do I need to have Mack pick up treecat kibble or something??

    Stephanie laughed. ?Not really. We?ll give you a list of recommended foods, as well as ones that treecats like but aren?t exac

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