This is another story set in the world of White Mesa.
Sign looked down from the roof of the building as morning began to light the street below. There were a few spots in shadow from the trees, but he wasn’t concerned about them. Ferals would be in the open, straining their nearly-blind eyes in the early light, listening for movement and other sounds. They didn’t have the cunning to hide until a victim was close.
Plate looked at him anxiously. He looked like he hadn’t slept well, and Sign couldn’t blame him. Sign felt that he wouldn’t really sleep until they got back to the gang in Sissrow. Out here, it was only the two of them, and there were many dangers. Plus, the medicine woman was back with the gang, and Plate needed her to sing over his cuts on his shoulder.
Sign glanced down again, and nodded. “I think we’re okay,” he said, carefully making his way back to the tent. The roof surface crumbled and sagged in a number of places, and they had struggled to find a place where they could pitch the tent and be certain of a floor beneath them as they slept. Sign helped Plate pack the tent up, carefully separating the tent poles and wrapping them to protect them from bending. He had had to borrow one of the poles from Knife before they left home, since one of his had finally given way, and you couldn’t use a stick or other prop when you had to travel. No, when moving from place to place, you really wanted to be able to pack all of the poles together with your other gear, and only the legacy poles, made of bright white metal, came apart and went together like that.
They soon had finished their packing, and Sign dragged the pack across the roof to the edge, where the fyrescape was. He wasn’t about to carry it, when the extra weight could push his feet through the roof and plunge him — he shuddered as he thought of how far he might fall in the dark interior of the building. Plate pushed the pack over the short wall to him, and he was glad that the fyrescape didn’t creak any worse than it had the afternoon before, when they had climbed up this way. Sometimes these metal stairways collapsed, or separated from the building unexpectedly, and Sign remembered how his brother had screamed that day it had happened to him. Street had survived the fall, but had lain sick for a long time afterward and had never been able to hunt again. Now, he just made baskets or helped the women to clean hides that the hunters brought back to the camp.
Once Sign was half-way down, he gave a low hoot, and felt the stairs shudder as Plate climbed on to the fyrescape. It would be safer to wait until he was all the way down, unless there were enemies or vicious animals waiting down there. He glanced back and forth and assured himself that there were no ferals, at least.
Unburdened by the pack, Plate descended the stairs quickly, and Sign felt the metal shake and twist under the unaccustomed activity. Red flakes dropped on him from the upper parts of the fyrescape, and he tried to increase his speed, to be closer to the ground should the thing collapse.
Finally, he was on the firm ground, and Plate was soon next to him, rubbing his shoulder where the big cat had struck him.
“I told you, don’t rub that out here,” Sign grumbled at him. “You’ll get fected. Then, the medicine woman won’t be able to help you!”
“It hurts,” Plate grumbled back, but he brought his hand back down.
The two set off down the alley, angling for the broader street where the sun shone down more clearly, and where they could stick to the shadows of the trees and buildings while still seeing any ferals that might be basking in the sun. In the shadowy alley, they might come upon a feral unexpectedly, and that wouldn’t do at all.
Sign thought they would get home today. They had escorted Cymbal all the way to Burrwin and seen her joined to the gang leader there. He had given them a real mashetty, from the before time, and and some cloth that didn’t look too rotten. Burrwin had an old mall, and they could get stuff like that. Sign shifted the heavy pack on his back and smiled. Knife would be pleased at the gifts, and the cat skin belonged to Sign himself, since he and Plate had killed it on their own, separate from the mission.
“It’s a good thing that cat didn’t attack us before we dropped Cymbal off,” he commented to Plate, looking from side to side for danger.
“Yeah, we had a hard enough time killing it without a girl in the way,” the other replied, hefting his mashetty experimentally. This wasn’t a real one, like they had been given to take to Knife, but had been made from a sign that had been on a street corner. You could still see a little bit of the word that used to be there, white on green, but neither of the boys could read, even if the whole word had been there. Plate’s mashetty was sharpened along the side, the same as the “real” one, but he had also sharpened the point, like a knife, and had used that to pierce the cat’s chest and stop its attack while Sign hacked at its neck with his own mashetty. Maybe Plate would show him how he had done that, since the cat’s thick skin and muscles had prevented him from killing it quickly just hacking from behind.
There was a clatter in an alleyway that gave out onto the street, and they froze, Sign preparing to drop the pack if necessary. A skinny, rangy dog, ribs showing through its sparse coat, came out into the sunlight, nosing around under an old car, and they relaxed. The dog paused, leg half-raised by the back end of the car, and then decided that they were no threat, either, and finished its business before trotting off.
Soon, Sign could recognize some of the buildings, places he had scouted, or used as a hiding place. There was a tree where he had lain in wait for one of the Mortons, who had been separated from the rest of his warband. When he saw the Hunt building looming above the trees, he let out a whoop, both a password and a notice that a band was returning.
It turned out to be more than that, as a snarl erupted from the left side of the road, and a feral charged out from where it had been chewing on the corner of an old building. Without turning to see Plate’s reaction, Sign bolted forward, increasing to the fastest speed he could muster. He knew that a feral could be faster than a man, over a short distance, but he also knew that a feral needed to be locked on to its target for that to happen. He intended to get a good lead while it looked for them, although he knew that the light was now strong enough to make spotting them easy even for a feral.
He let out another whoop, this one a warning, and he heard several replies from several points ahead. The outliers were ready, and if he could get close enough, they would protect him from the feral. Plate huffed past him, whimpering slightly as blood began streaming down from the claw marks, the scabs re-opened by his exertion. There was another snarl behind him, and Sign knew the feral had sighted him and begun the pursuit.
The backpack jounced heavily across his shoulders as he ran, and he thought about what it would take for him to drop it. Not only did it contain the presents for Knife, and the irreplaceable tent, but it also held the cat skin, that would not only be useful, but would increase his status in the gang. Sign put his head down and ran harder, making his legs pump faster and faster until he began to catch up with Plate.
“Kai-yee!” a shout burst out just ahead, and Sign dove on to his face, dropping the pack and throwing his arms forward to catch himself on the the ground. There was a buzz above his head, and a strangled cry burst out from behind him. Rolling so as to look back, Sign saw the feral clutching and tugging at a crossbow bolt that transfixed its neck. It had been a woman, he saw, though it had been changed long enough that there was little enough left to attract him, naked as it was. It pulled and struggled with the bolt until suddenly it dropped to the ground, blood gushing from the great wound it had made with the bolt. Sign wasn’t surprised to see Hand-son coming forward, crossbow already cocked again and sliding a new bolt into the slot. Hand-son was one of their best shots, and while most would have shot for the creature’s chest, he knew that a neck hit would cause it to damage itself in this way.
Sign climbed to his feet, and picked up the pack, Hand-son pulling him by the shoulder supportively.
“That was a close one,” he grinned, glancing over to where Plate was getting to his feet as well. “Say, what happened to your shoulder, Plate? That thing didn’t get you, did it?” Hand-son shuddered appreciatively, for they all knew there was only one prescription for someone who had been clawed by a feral.
Sign shook his head. “We ran into a big cat,” he said, a trifle boastfully. “I’ll show you at the campfire.”
Hand-son whistled appreciatively. “Did you get Cymbal settled all right?”
“Yes, and the gang leader looks like a good guy. She’ll do great. He only has two others, right now, so she’ll have a lot of influence in how the gang is run.”
Hand-son smiled. “That’s nice. Knife will be glad to hear that.” He gave the low hoot that signaled the all-clear, and they turned away from the mangled corpse of the feral, walking slowly together towards the camp.
Many voices called greeting, and many hands were raised, as Sign and Plate walked into camp, Hand-son having returned to his place on the outskirts. When they got to Sign’s hut, Plate shook his hand and continued on to the medicine woman’s hut. He was looking a trifle pale, but Sign wasn’t sure if that was from the blood loss, or the fear at being chased by a feral. He unloaded the pack in the light outside of his hut, watching out of the corner of his eyes as people saw the mashetty, and saw him lay it to one side. Then came the cloth, and he smiled as he heard a couple of the women start to talk to each other in low tones. He couldn’t tell if they were Knife’s women, but even the other women might hope that their men could buy it from Knife, or that the gang leader would give it as a gift.
Finally, he pulled out the tawny, bloody cat skin. It was wrapped so that the head was inmost, the precious teeth protected from breaking, or from cutting anything else in the pack, the claws folded in, still dangling from the ends of the legs. Sign was proud of his skill at skinning, but this was a masterpiece, for they hadn’t seen a cat like this in all the time the tribe had lived in Sissrow. He slowly spread it out for everyone to see, noting the muttered comments from some of the hunters as they saw the cuts around the back of the thing’s neck, and mused about the difficulty of killing a thing like that.
A shadow fell across the skin, and he looked up. Knife stood there, taking in every detail. “Welcome back, brother,” the gang leader said, reaching out his hand to take Sign’s hand in a grip that lifted him to his feet.
“Thank you, Knife,” Sign replied. “Kreg, the leader in Burrwin, sends you this mashetty, and all of this cloth!” Knife smiled as he saw the loot.
“Did he send this skin, too?”
“No, Plate and I killed this cat after we had left Cymbal with Kreg. I will give you the right paw claws, if you want them.”
Knife smiled again. “That’s a nice gift, Sign,” he said. “Where’s Plate?”
“He was cut by the cat, so he’s with the medicine woman,” Sign sat back down to see to the skin, and to plan the next stage of curing the hide.
Knife nodded. “That was good work, Sign,” he said. “Hand told me that he’s tired of running the outskirts, and he’s going to work in the garden next season. Would you and Plate like to run with Hand-son in his place?”
Pride welled up in Sign as he nodded. He found he couldn’t think of what to say.
“You know,” Knife added, as he walked away, “Maraca will be lonely now that Cymbal is gone. Come to my hut when you’ve eaten and cleaned yourself, and you can talk with her.”