The rat was old, its fur patchy and bones prominent. Its whiskers twitched as it looked around the corner, cautiously sniffing the air for predators. The alley seemed empty. Long stone walls, gutters, and roughly cobbled street gave way to the shadows.
Darting forward, it turned towards the smell of the garbage dump until an unfamiliar sound caused it to freeze, one paw held up, its ears and nose seeking out the disturbance. A sharp snap caused it to leap forward … too late. A powerful blow sent it tumbling through the air, too land on its back, legs fluttering as if still running.“You see that? Got it with one shot!” Chatter yelled exultantly. “Who is the sling master?” Mash rolled her eyes at him “Lucky shot!” “Your grandmother was a lucky shot,” he retorted as he ran to recover the smooth stone and admire his handiwork. He kept up a steady stream of dialogue as he moved, as if his legs were pumping his tongue – which is how he had earned his moniker. “Come on guys, admit it, I am the best shot in this gang! Heck, I’m the best shot on the island! Maybe even …” he said, flinging out his arms as if he had just won a race, “the world!”
Mash and Broom knelt and looked in admiration at the crumpled heap of fur while firing off a string of disparaging remarks “You have a better chance of killing something with your yakking than ever doing that again. Besides look how old she is, she was probably running at half speed.” Mash gave Broom a quick knuckle bump without looking away from the rat. “Good one bristle head.” “Maybe she even ran in front of the stone, ’cause she figured a quick death was better than listening to your bragging ‘Oh no, here comes Chatter, ahhhhhh!’” “Double knuckle bump for that one Mash,” they both snickered.
Off to one side, Piglio just smiled uneasily and rubbed his nose. Though the training was slowly making him lean and tough, he remembered being on the receiving end of enough fat jokes that he was uncomfortable poking fun at anyone.
Mash chortled and wiped a tear away, leaving a streak with a finger dirty enough to plant and grow seed on. Both laughed again at Chatter’s string of blustering protestations as he turned to the remaining member of their group.
Pointing at the large young man with the recovered rock, Chatter said, “Whattayasay Mount, wasn’t that a great shot?” The others turned their heads to see what Tyn – sometimes called The Mountain – would say. He was a recent arrival to Thracos but had become the defacto leader. In part because he was older, bigger, and meaner than anyone else they knew, which was a good thing on these streets. There were worse things prowling the night and many of them preyed on the young. Tyn had simply appeared one day when a couple of glimroot addicts had tried to grab Mash. Tyn had beaten their assailants so severely that even the crazed drug enhanced strength and resistance to pain, wasn’t enough to keep them from fleeing into the night, their dim phosphorescence fading into the distance. After that, Tyn had begun to systematically teach them how to survive and had provided the slings they all carried on their belts. All they really knew about him was that he claimed to have crossed The Wilds and he seemed tough enough for it to have been true.
Tyn looked down a little longer and finally said, “It was a good shot.” He reached down to give Chatter a rare knuckle bump and what might have been a smile – which would have given Chatter warning if he hadn’t been so busy congratulating himself. “Which reminds me…” The Mountain’s large open hand swung swiftly forward and slapped the back of Chatter’s head so hard that he did a full somersault and ended up on his back, staring up in a teary-eyed daze. “The name is Tyn, or The Mountain if you really must, but not ‘Big Boy, Shoulder Hocks, Mount’ or anything else – do I look like a damn horse to you?” Chatter looked up and managed to bite back the remark that came to his lips. Tyn looked at him for a second. “You’re learning. That’s good.” The others sat, still frozen by the loud thock sound of the hand striking Chatter’s head and the involuntary acrobatics. “I’ve told you more than once, I may not be able to catch you right away, but I never forget, so sooner or later payback will come.” He stood looking solemnly at Chatter’s face for a minute longer then reached down to help him up and said simply, “That really was a damn fine shot.”
Chatter’s face went through a range of conflicting emotions, anger, fear, and happiness at the praise. Piglio, Broom, and Mash all looked at each other uncomfortably for a minute. Tyn had made them stronger and better able to fend for themselves, but there was something dangerous smoldering in the gaze of the powerfully built young man. The small gang looked up at him and waited quietly.
Tyn looked at each and then motioned towards Mash with his head. “You take point.” Mash nodded and set off at a jog, giving Chatter a quick punch in the arm as she passed him. Piglio and Broom followed next, each running in the shadows along opposite walls of the alley. Chatter resisted the urge to rub the back of his head and leapt silently into the night, falling into a middle position a few lengths behind the others. They moved down the darkening street leaving the dead rat to be reclaimed by the night’s other hunters.
Tyn smiled grimly as he followed swiftly in the shadows. He kept his eyes on Chatter, who ran the lure position. He hadn’t wanted to smack Chatter, but Tyn felt he was barely in control of himself some days. He knew what was coming. Fear and regret weighed heavy on the Mountain and he felt a moment of uncertainty. Looking up at the stars as he ran, his hand reached into his pocket and fingered the sigil sitting there. He sighed. Even if he could outrun fear, pain, and regret, he would still be faced with the unyielding face of his duty. He turned back to his little band and followed them silently into the night.