Next day the camp was already bustling when Marten woke up.
“Hello, sleepy head!” A dripping wet creature greeted him, having approached from nowhere, and ran away.
Marten nodded the greeting back, rubbing sleep out of his eyes, and wondered why there was someone in his house, what time it was, and where the roof had gone — in that very order.
But then it all came back to him. In sudden realisation, he started patting the ground and gave out a happy yawn when he found his briefcase just behind his back. He picked it up and, waiting for the drifted-apart pieces of his mind to come back together, absentmindedly busied his fingers with turning the discs on the lock.
The soaking creature that Marten now recognized as Rabbit appeared to be discussing with Owl how to collapse the tent. After a while both animals went into energetic nodding and Owl marched inside. With a proud kick she knocked off the center pole and the tent collapsed on her.
“She-knows-what-she-is-doing,” Rabbit said, hopping in front of Marten first on one foot and then on the other, shaking water out of his ears.
“Ahh,” he exclaimed having noticed the briefcase. “I hope you are not keeping anything important in there.”
Marten gulped, for only important things were in the case.
“If you would allow me to demonstrate,” Rabbit said with his paws stretched out. “Don’t worry, I won’t break it.”
Marten blinked in uncertainty and handed over the case.
Rabbit perched down on the grass and closed his eyes. He felt for the lock, exhaled, and rapidly started rotating the discs, all at once and in both directions. The lock was virtually impossible to crack, Marten had been assured, as the six discs on it had 36 positions each, with all the letters and numbers. The shop owner—and he seemed to know his numbers well—had explained that one would have to spend their whole lifetime going through all the gazillion million trillion billion combinations. Marten gulped at the familiar click, when a few seconds later the locks on the briefcase sprang open.
“Ha,” said Rabbit, looking at the winning code on the lock. In proud lettering, it spelled “BADGER.”
“The lock is noisy,” he said, returning the briefcase to Marten. “Noisier than noisy. It’s hysterical.” Despite not exactly remembering what it meant, Rabbit was quite certain that that was the right word for the occasion.
Owl emerged from under the collapsed tent dragging Bear’s bag behind her and grunting. She gave the animals a warm smile and, and disappeared back in.
“Let’s make sandwiches,” Rabbit said and motioned Marten towards the bag.
Marten nodded but turned away for a second. The code had to be changed. He tried to think of a new one, when it hit him. After pressing the reset button on the inside, he rotated the discs, threw a final glance at the “RABBIT“ spelled on the lock, and released the button. Smiling, he shuffled the digits. Now, even more than before, he was determined to keep his eyes on the case at all times. He tightly strapped it to his back.
Rabbit was sniffing at Bear’s bag, opening up the pockets and pulling out produce. There were tomatoes, cucumbers, sunflower seeds, hummus, and everything else that belongs to a hearty sandwich. Finally came the bread itself and a cutting and a spreading knife. Seemingly satisfied with the loot, he brought them to the picnic blanket.
After shyly admitting that he wasn’t sure which bits went where, Marten offered to do the cutting. Rabbit nodded with a smile and Marten proceeded to cut the vegetables in fine, perfectly even slices with a clockwork precision that gained him a compliment from Rabbit.
A good morning to Marten and Rabbit, Bear nodded upon return and, seeing the little bump that moved around under the tent, went to rescue Owl.
“This is the last of it,” Owl declared, emerging with Rabbit’s and her own bag, before Bear had even made halfway to the tent. Bear nodded, and went to help her fold it up.
With a move that looked something like up, to the left and then around, he dragged and pushed the fabric, tricking it to fold upon itself into an orderly rectangle that they rolled into a tidy roll.
Sitting high on branch, a creature observed them from afar.
She tossed a berry into her mouth and chewed it patiently. The sweetness of the wild raspberry followed the initial sourness and made for a very pleasant treat. She took a moment to appreciate the mix of tastes before gulping the the berry down and, flashing a short row of white, pointy teeth, gave out a long, silent yawn.
It will be another one of those sunny days, she thought and scratched her muzzle. The animals sure were taking their time. But she didn’t mind just sitting idly and watching them. In fact, she quite enjoyed it. If there was a reason for a red panda to be so infinitely patient, then it must be for occasions just like these.
She perked up, leaning on her paws and scanned the surroundings. Head cocked and gaze adrift, she listened intently at the forest. She could hear the faintest of breezes and the gurgle of a streamlet not far away. But apart from the bustling camp, that was it. Panda stayed that way for a moment longer and then, satisfied, relaxed. After a quick shuffle, she perched back down on the branch and returned her attention to the camp.
The group will be moving soon, she thought, lazily fishing in the pot for another of the berries she had gathered during the night while animals were so carelessly sleeping.
And the group did move soon, indeed. Bear had a fleeting sensation that something was amiss, but he couldn’t put his paw on it. He shrugged the thought away—whatever it was, it would come back to him eventually.
Panda waited until the animals were gone further away and then, carrying the pot in her mouth, swiftly climbed down the tree head-first. It was a quick and graceful descent. Making sure not to be in direct line of sight at any moment, she moved through the forest, effortlessly bobbing her head in sync with her steps to keep the pot level. The fact that the animals didn’t seem to be in a rush made the following very simple.
Every few hours when the animals stopped for a break, so did Panda. She climbed up to a branch high enough and lay flat, becoming practically invisible, just her eyes, peering from high up.
It was during one of these breaks that she heard the faint whistling of the pack-talk again.
An untrained ear would mistake the subtle, high-pitched whistle for wind. But Panda knew to look for the meaning braided into the sound.
She closed her eyes and listened. The wolves were closer now, their talk slow. The chat going from what they saw and smelled, to mockery of each other.
Inexperienced, sloppy, and chaotic, the pack was a mess and moving through the forest with the elegance of a baby moose. At least it had some brain to keep its distance, seemingly aware of the racket it was making. Panda sighed, and returned her attention to the animals who, to her delight, seemed not to notice any of that.
By the evening, the animals reached a river bank and not only set up a camp, but also started working on a raft. The sight gave Panda a nasty series of surprise hiccups.
Water had been always troublesome, especially in large quantities. And rivers had too much water in them for Panda’s taste. Ponds and lakes she could deal with. Rivers though were the troublemakers of the water bodies.
Shaking a little bit on each hiccup as silently as she could, she hicced and hupped and tried to think dry thoughts. Sand, she thought, nothing wrong with sand. Or woods, for that matter. At least it seemed that they wouldn’t be moving tonight.
Her hiccups went away as stars filled the sky. From Bear’s frantic movements around his bag, Panda figured that he must be looking for the pot. He rustled for a bit and then shrugged his shoulders, fishing another pot out of his backpack. Panda promised herself to sneak the pot back in later. Especially, if tomorrow was going to be a wet one.
Just like the previous day, Panda waited patiently for the camp to fall asleep. She idly watched animals and busied herself with a plan for a raft of her own, making a list of things she should procure from that massive stash of Bear’s. Huge and sturdy, the raft the animals had built looked more like a battleship.
The chatter at camp eventually died down. Panda still waited for the campfire to turn to glowing coals and only then started her descent.
She noticed movement below and froze in her step
It was the pack. Five of them and, indeed, younglings. She silently exhaled and eyed a branch a little bit lower to settle on that to watch.
The previous sloppiness of the pack was gone entirely. Like a gigantic, spread out caterpillar, it moved through the forest with admirable stealth. From the moonlight reflecting from their eyes Panda could guess their bolting gazes and was very glad to be up in a tree. The pack was in the feral mode. She wouldn’t have stood a chance on the ground.
In painstaking slowness it took them an eternity to get to the camp, and another one to move Owl to a blanket they had brought with them. Once there, four carefully lifted the blanket up and started carrying her away from the camp. As they got further, they picked up the pace still keeping the blanket—on which Owl was blissfully snoring—perfectly level. The blanket could have as well been magical.
Seeing that the four were in safe distance, the fifth of the pack came and dropped a note where Owl had been lying, and disappeared in the woods with the rest.
Panda waited a bit and then climbed the remaining tree and snuck to read the message. After reading it, she put it back and disappeared into the night.