First thing Malley thinks when she hears the sound of a child, crying:
Is this a trap?
Has to wonder, given the state-of-the-world and the way-of-things because, no question, there are some out there who’ll trick and trip and snag the unwary anyway they can. That’s just being a sensible rat, isn’t it? That’s just being safe.
Quiet, and slow, Malley shuffles forth on soft paws, shoves her gleaming sword back over her shoulders (where it hangs loose and close to hand on a twist of waxed twine). Narrows her eye and takes a peek.
She’s only got the one eye, these days, on account of not being careful some years before, but that’s a different tale.
Malley looks out from a hiding place under a damp jumble of discarded planks and plastic sheeting.
In the shadow of the grey stone arches of the eastern bridge, a stretch of churned earth riverbank, smeared with muddy snow and frozen solid in the chill of a winter not ready to leave the stage.
The river surface, at the water’s edge, still showing white and solid; the ice so cold and firm you could walk on it, if you fancied, if you didn’t mind the dark depths beneath.
Malley hears that sound, like a baby, mewling in frustration and fear.
A sudden movement-
Just ahead, something grey and murky shifts and squirms, a few steps out upon the ice.
A bag of some kind, Malley reckons, and within the bag a shivering shape is moving, crawling, struggling. Malley hears it crying out again, trying to get free. Not a baby after all then, but something else in need of help.
Help the helpless, her old mam used to say, didn’t she?
Yes, her mam would be telling Malley now, ‘cos you don’t know if one day you will be the helpless one. Right?
Malley looks at the quivering bag on the icy river.
She looks back towards the tumble of planks and plastic that covers an entrance to her current home; safe, warm and secure.
Malley rubs the patch that covers her lost left eye.
“Right you are, mam,” she says, and she goes to find some string.
Doesn’t even have to be a trap to be treacherous, though, does it?
Malley gathers together several stretches of blue string and fine woven black twine, knots them all to a useful length and ties one end of it about her waist. The other end is fastened to a solid looking lump of old stone that’s half buried in the hard dirt of the river bank.
It’ll hold right enough, she tells herself.
A short tug on the line and really puts her weight into it. Nothing moves.
Deep breath—and a slight shiver of the shoulders—then Malley’s off and down and scamper sliding over slick mud and sharp sided rocks. Scrabble skidding to a halt at the place where earth meets ice.
The bag out there is still moving. Maybe not so much now, Malley reckons, and it could be that time is running short.
One last chance to change her mind, this is, and Malley fusses and frets at the very edge—checking the safety string is free running and the nearest knots are solid, watching the river and the bridge above for signs of trouble, putting that tentative first paw forward with all her balance on the back foot just to be certain. Just to be safe.
“If you wanted safe, you wouldn’t be here,” she says.
You could’ve stayed at home, right?
“Where’s the fun in that,” Malley says, and steps onto the ice.
One step, two step, three, through gritty slush that covers the surface of the ice. A handful of paces to go and Malley’s feet are already dead lumps on the end of her limbs. Not far now though, is it?
She doesn’t bother looking behind her. Doesn’t need to know how far she’s come. It’ll seem shorter on the way back, that’s a certain truth.
Malley’s closer to the bag now, near enough to watch the slow stretch and press of long limbs trapped by thick, damp cloth.
“Ahoy in there,” Malley shouts.
A keening howl and a violent flailing is the instant response, the bag shifting, the ice straining.
A sound—snap quick—like dead branches breaking, but this sound vibrates through Malley’s too-cold feet, and the entire plane of the ice trembles and slides and settles.
“Be still, you fool,” Malley tells the stupid creature she can’t see.
“Still and slow or you’ll kill us both.”
The wailing returns, long and low as Malley feels for the rope at her waist, just checking, then reaches over her shoulder and draws her sword.
“Careful now,” she says, “very calm and careful.”
The bag is sealed with yards of crumpled black sticky-tape; winter would be ending and she’d still be sawing her way through that lot.
Malley hums to herself as she gets hold of a handful of wet material.
She hopes the sound is soothing.
At least there’s no further violent struggle from the bag.
“No sudden moves,” she says, talking to herself and whatever lies within.
“I’ll cut neat, cut a way for you to get free, but you have to be. Very. Careful.”
Her sword is very sharp—she keeps it neat and ready for the fray—and Malley meets no trouble sliding the point in clean and easing the blade down and through folds of cloth.
Malley hisses as the bag and occupant begin to twist away.
“Steady,” she says, holding tighter, “not long now, I promise you. Just a few more-”
A howl as a soggy cat bursts out from the bag, and Malley is cast aside by flailing paws and claws as the bawling rowdy thing bounces and scrabbles and dashes for the shore.
Malley slams onto her back as a whole chunk of ice rears up and threatens to ditch her into the dark depths of the river.
The safety string has saved her, the black twine hooked over the rising edge, dangling her head down on a sloping wall of ice for a moment until things settle, slide back into place, regain an even keel.
Malley’s fur is damp in spots; her feet are even colder than before.
She hasn’t dropped her sword. So there’s that, isn’t there?
Once she can stand upright again, Malley returns the sword to its scabbard, makes sure it’s sitting right, takes a careful step forward.
The ice holds. For now.
On the bank of the river a jumbled ball of dark and damp is huddled, licking its claws.
At least it’s stopped crying.
It doesn’t take so long on the return trip.
A few worrying moments of pitch and yaw as the great slab of ice squirms beneath her; a living, creaking thing. Malley can do nothing but stand still and trust the knots and string and the weight of stone on the shore.
She keeps her breathing slow and light, as best she can.
Just a few more steps, and Malley’s scrambling up the bank and onto the relative safety of level ground.
The cat ignores her during all of this.
It’s not very old, Malley decides, perhaps a year or just over.
Not that Malley’s an expert or anything. She can tell it’s a girl cat though. About five times Malley’s size at least, and large enough to swallow her up in one terrifying bite.
Still ignored, Malley unfastens the string from around her waist, unhooks it from the rock, winds it all up for storage and sets the bundle to one side.
Malley checks her sword is at her side and close to hand, and then takes a step towards the beast.
A multi-coloured lump of a thing, this cat, looking at her from closer up.
There are stripes of copper and white, a spill of light brown across the spine and legs, spots of black and dark red.
Some of that could be muck from the flight off the river, Malley supposes.
Needs to get this done and get home to the warm, she does. No point hanging about.
The cat doesn’t look up.
Here goes anyway, Malley thinks.
“There’s some farms,” she says, using common-talk, best she can manage. Malley raises a hand and points. Keeps the other hand on the hilt of her sword. Polite warning, that is.
“Plenty of loose food scattered about down that way, on the wing and not. You shan’t go hungry. Keep yourself out of trouble, you’ll be fine.”
The cat stares at her with big pale green eyes.
“You’re not going to help me?”
“Rescued you, didn’t I,” Malley replies. “Some manfolk had you for a goner but I saw you right. Big world around us, kid, you’ll find a way.”
“I’m not a kid,” the cat says, stretches out its paws and claws, stands up in a fluid, silent movement. “I’m a kit. A kitten.”
“Right so,” Malley agrees, turns to leave. “You just run along then kitten. Good luck to you.”
“I read it on the silvers, so I did,” says the cat.
Malley stops, turns back. “What’s that?”
“The silver packings that held the food. Have you got any food?”
“You can read, then,” Malley says.
And doesn’t that put a different shine on things? Sort of occurrence that would have her old mam talking about the fates and the fortunes and the way the world turns just-so sometimes.
Reading’s a sign, right enough. An indicator of the Change.
The cat’s nodding. “And count. I sometimes understand the humans speaking too. On the corner box. Or in the gardens. I loved the gardens…”
The cat looks about her, as if seeing everything for the first time.
“You’re a rat,” she says.
“The name’s Malley, if you please. Malley Glass.”
Malley bows her head a little, but keeps her eyes fixed on the cat.
“What do they call you?”
The cat shrugs. “I don’t seem to know. Maybe they just called me cat. There was shouting and-”
“Lot of fish in this river,” Malley says. “We’ll call you Pike for now, shall we? You can pick up something better later on.”
Malley hoists her bundle of string over one shoulder. “Come along then, we have some miles to travel.”
“I thought you said-”
“You never mind that now,” Malley tells her. “Those who’ve been Changed should stick together, right? Because they won’t do so well with no-one else, will they?”
More of mam’s wisdom, that was.
Malley headed off along the bank, with the cat at her heels.
“What’s the Changed?”
“That’s a long story,” Malley begins. “There’s these creatures. Addlers they call themselves. Or is it Meddlers? Anyway, they live in an ancient land, right? Around the Brittle Sea, this is, under endless stars or so I’m told. Sometimes magic seeps across, doesn’t it? Because you can’t have that much power without it getting loose between the walls of Here and There. And, so, you see, that’s what changes-”
The cat has her big green eyes wide open.
Malley stops and sighs. It’s a complicated tale, right enough. Plenty of time for the details later, isn’t there?
“Also, what’s a brittle? A stars? And magic, and-”
“You stay close to me now,” Malley says and starts walking, with the big cat padding in her wake.
“I’ll explain as we go along.”