Fish put his finger to his lips and Branch froze with her arms spread wide against the cliff face, her frightened eyes staring down into the abyss.
The sound of sliding pebbles came closer. Fish plucked Branch's shirtsleeve to signal for them to continue as silently as possible.
It was middlenighting and the Moon Goddess was hiding her face. The track was rough and littered with stones, which was to be expected; it had only been used twice by Ant's cluster after they'd been ambushed on the Old Chain path. Now others had discovered this new track; others who were stalking Fish and Branch for no good purpose.
Fish stretched his long leg over the rock fall, and then he leant back to help Branch, whose legs were shorter. Her nervous brown eyes held his green ones as he pulled her over the void. Behind them the noise of their pursuers sounded closer.
"We must hide," mouthed Fish.
Branch didn't bother to ask where. Her raised eyebrows said it for her. Above her curly head was sheer rock, while below her clothbound sandals the cliff fell away into a bottomless gorge. As far as she was concerned they were as exposed as two stink-flies on a muscat's carcass. All they could do was move faster and hope they reached the desert before their stalkers caught them. Or, she surmised without much enthusiasm, they could stand and fight. But as she was last and Fish could not change places with her, it was she who would have to fight in a space so small that her toes hung over the ledge. Fighting, she decided, was not an option.
"Perhaps it is Twig's cluster," she whispered for the twentieth time as they edged along the rock face.
Fish didn't bother to remind her that they'd lost Twig's cluster on the other side of the old chain-path. Or that had it been Twig's cluster, Twig would have signalled to them.
Rounding a boulder, he stopped short, holding his hand out to halt Branch. One more step and they would have plunged into the gorge exactly as the ledge in front of them had. There was no way over the landslide and to slide down such a steep slope into whatever was below, would mean their end-of-living.
Fish's eyes narrowed with desperation then he pointed above their heads. "We must reach that ledge."
Branch leant back in an attempt to see the ledge and would have toppled over if Fish hadn't grabbed her kilt and pulled her back.
"I can't climb that hi..." she started, but he was already cupping his hands for her foot.
She didn't believe there was a ledge. What she believed was that she would over-balance and fall to her past-living, but at his urgent whisper, "Leap as I heave," she put her foot into his hands and her hands against the rock face. As he heaved he felt her sturdy body spring and then she was above his head, her sandals scrambling as she pulled herself onto a space no wider than a one-horned ground hog's hollow.
Fish quickly dislodged a larger boulder to make it look as if they had gone down the landslide. Smaller boulders, stones and gravel followed. Then he stripped off the cloth from around his feet and stretching up felt for the dents and bumps in the cliff face. There were too few, and these barely big enough for his fingers and toes to find a surface to grasp. Suddenly, there came a shout and he sprang. Clawing his way up the perpendicular surface he prayed to the Moon Goddess for her help.
Branch squashed herself into the wall to take up the smallest space possible, yet there was still scarcely enough room for two. She clung to Fish's shoulders so that he would not over-balance as he pulled his legs up just in time.
Below them the hunters had discovered the rockslide. "They've gone down the landslide!"
"They'd be head-sick if they have!"
The loudest voice argued that he'd heard the noise of them descending. Another shouted that they'd reached the opposite side. But the other three voices disagreed.
Fish listened for the leader's voice but there wasn't one particular voice more commanding than the rest.
"Are they Rebels?" mouthed Branch.
It was common for nine-fingered Rebels to roam the Highland gravel pits and the Lowland charcoal hills, ambushing newly crossed-over Zoners or attacking Outcast couples crossing-back after their time in the Arid Zone.
The cluster groups and traders, who had once paid the Rebels' toll price to travel the Eastern Highway, had stopped using it after the Rebels began demanding half of what was in their carts. Now the only trade done between the Outcasts and their Eastern Zone families was done in secret.
The Rebel attacks frightened the weaker and smaller clusters, but other than fortifying their bases with extra metal, there was nothing they could do. The Megas continued to remove the forefingers of any Outcast they caught stealing in their city, and without ten perfect fingers the Outcasts could not enter Megalopolis. So unable to scavenge from the Mega's rubbish, the survival of the nine-fingered Rebels depended on their preying upon any Outcast cluster they could find. It was as simple as that.
An argument broke out amongst the Rebels. The insulting taunts were so colourful that Fish was unable to contain his curiosity. He peered over the ledge.
Are they Southerner? hand-signalled Branch.
He shook his head.
Southern Outcasts wore goggles resembling blind frog's eyes, hideous metal masks, knitted metal helmets covered in spikes or head-coverings of spotted margat fur stretched over a one-horned ground hog's skulls. They were also taller and more muscular than Eastern Outcasts. The four males below wore dung-coloured cloth draped over their shoulders and heads. Fish and Branch wore similar head-coverings to protect themselves from the Wasteland dust that could parch their throats and dry out their eyes so fast that without protection, they would become sightless within one sunning.
Branch breathed a sigh of relief. If the voices had belonged to Southern Outcasts then she and Fish would have been chased, mocked, jeered and tortured before being strung up upside down to die slowly. Even she would have suffered great pain before death. As unlike the Northern Zoners, the Southern Outcasts had no desire to steal Eastern Outcast females. A Southern Outcast male preferred a female who could wrestle, ride a bucking eight-wheeled vehicle, and guzzle fig wine as fast as he could.
Branch leant closer. "What's happening?"
"They're Rebels, and they are arguing as to whether they should go over the landslide after us."
Branch relaxed a little. Rebels might not kill them. Especially if they saw that she and Fish were only poorly clothed, unarmed Outcasts, unarmed except for Fish's Western Zoner stone-sling-shot. But then again, if they were hungry, the fact that she and Fish were carrying no food might infuriate them and they might push them off the track. Her newfound relief evaporated at the thought of being hurled down the landslide.
"If they didn't cross over, they must be here," announced a new voice. Fish drew back fast, hand signalling to Branch that Four-Fingered Gull was below.
"Or they could have hidden somewhere along the track," argued another.
"Then we are wasting our time," said a third. "There is only one full moon-nighting, and there are other pushed-over Zoners with full backpacks wandering the charcoal paths. Let us hunt for them instead."
"I want these two," growled Four-fingered Gull.
"Then search for them yourself!"
There was a burst of angry muttering, the sound of shuffling and a few blows, then the Rebels backed along the track.
Fish counted one hundred heartbeats before looking again. The track was empty. He smiled back at Branch. "They're gone, but I think it best if we rest here until sunning. What say you?"
Branch agreed. She hadn't slept since returning from scavenging in Megalopolis. Then there had been the long trek to accompany Bird and his stolen female to the beginning of the Highland Gravel Pits, followed by their return and ending in their hurried flight down the new track with the Rebels behind them.
"You sleep first," urged Fish. "I'll watch and make sure you don't roll off the ledge."
"What if you roll off the ledge?" she countered, annoyed that he had sensed how tired she was.
Fish stifled a yawn, "I am not sleepy. I also wish to consider what we must do now we are a cluster of two."
His words caused her even more annoyance. "I have been a cluster member longer than you, and I have the right to a voice. I will stay awake and we can discuss it."
Fish wanted to smile at such determined demands coming from so small and tired a female. But he knew that a smile would turn Branch's annoyance into anger, and a small ledge was no place to be angry on, so he spoke carefully.
"Then this is my voice. To enter Megalopolis, a cluster must contain at least four members. Even then the Western Outcast clusters will attack and steal anything of value that such a small cluster has scavenged. So we have two choices. One, to wait and see if any new Outcasts will join us, but that is unlikely, as who would choose a small cluster when one's survival depends on a larger cluster? And then," Fish touched his long brown hair where the white-blonde roots were beginning to grow through, "There's the problem of me."
He didn't elaborate, but Branch knew that no Zoner family would agree to their son or daughter joining a cluster that included such a dangerous element as a Mega Outcast. And no matter how Fish disguised himself--dying his hair and covering his narrow un-Zoner face with layers of cloth--he was a Mega Outcast.
Knowing that his next words would not please her, Fish continued slowly, "Or we could join Twig's cluster; that which was once Rock's cluster."
Branch frowned so hard that her eyebrows almost met in the centre. She disliked Twig with a passion. She hated the way he watched her out of the corner of his too small, too close together eyes. She thought his behaviour too bossy and arrogant towards his four cluster females and had no wish to join them. She was also sure that Twig would not welcome the older and more experienced Fish. Branch had not told Fish, but she had already decided that she would not join a cluster that did include him. He was her cluster brother and had saved her living more than once. She would not leave him.
"Did Twig invite us to join his cluster?"
Fish shook his head.
"Then hadn't we better wait until he does?"
Fish wound his long scarf around his head and neck and settled down to wait for the next sunning. Beneath the cloth, his narrow face--so different from Branch's flat-cheeked, snub-nosed one--turned serious as he thought of Twig. It was likely that the younger Outcast would not welcome him into his cluster; but he would welcome Branch. Twig had a great liking for Branch, although it was clear Branch had no similar liking for Twig. Fish sighed at the thought of losing his small stubborn companion, and he wondered how he would survive alone.
Living the last four seasons with Ant and Bird's cluster, he had forgotten how different and lonely he'd been back in his home zone. Now it flooded back. He was too tall, too thin; his straight blonde hair had to be dyed brown with wild purple-onion juice; and his sharp features had to be hidden for fear of him bringing calamity to his cluster. If Twig would not accept him, he would have to become a Rebel. But would a Rebel cluster accept him any more willingly? Or would he be forced to live out his remaining seasons scavenging through the rubbish piles of the Arid Zone like a tremble-squirrel or a wounded margat until he starved to death or was captured by Southerners?
As always when he was alone, he began thinking of Ari and wondering how fast she was learning the Eastern Zoner ways. If she were happy and if the Zoners treated her better than they had treated him? He wondered if she was still Mega thin; if Wing was training her to stoop so that her height wouldn't single her out, and if her silver-white hair was dyed with wild purple-onion juice as his had been since his birth.
His thoughts became more personal as he wondered if when Ari had learned enough to be pushed-over, would she demand to be returned to her Mega family? Or would she join the cluster he was in? If he had a cluster. And when she was of crossing-back age would she accept to be stolen by him? If so, how could he steal her? Stealing a female from one's own cluster was forbidden. So would he do as scarred-faced Weed had done? Would he join another cluster? Once again the question of which cluster would have him came up.
Reminded of Weed, his thoughts began to wander again. Weed, the wise future-teller, had done the unspeakable; so why couldn't he? Weed had chosen Sky as his stolen female. Sky, who had been entitled Shamrock before Northern Body Harvesters stole her and contaminated her. Sky, the untouchable and forgotten until Fish had demanded that their cluster save her, and who had joined their cluster, making her Weed's cluster sister and so unstealable by him; until he'd done the unthinkable and joined Rock's cluster.
Everyone missed Weed. They missed his kindnesses and his gentle, healing hands. They even missed his weird chanting and his foretelling of the future through the words of the golden-clawed Bear. But within two seasons Weed had stolen Sky and Ant's cluster had more things to worry about.
On the full moon nighting that Sky and Weed crossed-back into the Eastern Zone and Rock and Ant's clusters had accompanied them to the edge of the Highland Gravel Pits, the Moon Goddess's cream-coloured disc was scarred by a jagged, red streak much like the scar that disfigured Weed's left cheek. On the two clusters return journey everyone remarked upon the Moon Goddess's strange disfigurement, and all pondered on its meaning, but only Fish knew.
Minutes after leaving their quarry base a distraught Weed had dragged Fish behind a pyramid of metal out of sight of the rest of the cluster. Here he'd whispered that the golden-clawed Bear had spoken to him and had foretold a terrible happening. "He predicted that just as the moon's face is split in two, so will Sky and I be parted until the Punisher is punished." Weed's eyes were full of anguish. "Parted as if Sky was stolen again by the Body Harvesters."
"Did the Goddess tell you who the Punisher is?"
Weed clasped and reclasped his hands while shaking his head.
"Can't you ask the golden-clawed Bear?"
But Fish already knew that any second the distraught Weed would be rubbing his scar and staring at him with blank eyes, the golden-clawed Bear's future prediction forgotten as if he had never heard them.
"Ask who what?" demanded Weed. "What are we doing in here? Where is Sky?"
"You brought me here to tell me what your bear told you."
Weed looked alarmed. "What did it say? Nothing bad about our crossing-back?" Nothing bad about Sky and me!"
Not wishing to cause his friend grief over something that could not be explained, Fish, while making the sign of the Moon Goddess on his left palm, lied to Weed. "He said you must take care when passing through the Highland Gravel Pits."
"So we must," agreed Weed, relieved that it wasn't anything more sinister.
Regardless of the scarred faced moon, Weed and Sky crossed-back safely to much rejoicing in Weed's tent village, or so said the message carried back to Ant's cluster by an Eastern message-bird.
The next to leave was beautiful, black-eyed Spider who had agreed to be stolen by Rock. Once again the two clusters travelled to the edge of the gravel pits. This time the Moon Goddesses' face was round and golden as she smiled down upon the couple.
Fish mourned Spider's leaving. She was his best friend. He missed their lively conversations and their animated arguments as they'd crouched over the quarry's campfire. Spider had been the first female, other than his mother, to accept him. The first female close to his own age to say that she could see nothing wrong with his white hair and uncanny green eyes. Adding, a little tactlessly, that although Eastern Zoners knew that green eyes brought bad fortune and that his hair was truly ugly, now that she knew him better she found neither as repulsive as she thought she would. Nor, she'd insisted, could she see anything wrong with him being taller, thinner and sharper-featured than his brown-eyed, brown-haired double brothers. She'd added proudly that she was the tallest female in her home-zone and it had done her no harm.
Spider was also the first cluster female to touch him; to link arms with him, to lean close and whisper secrets in his ear, her warm breath touching his too white skin. Skin that should have made her shudder but hadn't. Fish loved her for that. Not in a female-stealing way but in a brotherly way. He believed that if his blood sister, Grass, had not lost her living in the Arid Zone, she would have resembled Spider.
After Spider and Rock's crossing-back, there was a gap of two seasons before Fish's double brothers, Ant and Bird reached their crossing-back age.
Ant went first, stealing Blade; a female closely resembling Lell, the beautiful Western female he'd fallen in love with eight seasons earlier. No one thought the finicky, arrogant Blade a good choice. For although her hair was thicker and darker than any other Eastern Outcast female's and her eyes were beautifully-shaped, they stared brazenly at other males, and her lips turned sulky when she did not get her own way.
"Her beauty does not reach her heart," Weed warned Ant.
But Ant saw only how much Blade favoured Lell, and he was sure that once in his home-zone he would change her sullen nature to one more closely resembling that of the happy, laughing Western Outcast. So he and Blade crossed over with the mastiff stolen from Megalopolis by Fish.
Bird's crossing-back preparation came next. First he asked Feather the eldest female in Twig's cluster if she agreed to be stolen by him. Feather could not believe her good fortune, as Bird was by far the most popular of the Outcast males of crossing-back age. Everyone agreed that Feather was the perfect match for handsome Bird. She was as garrulous as he was silent and as expansive as he was controlled. So Fish and Branch travelled to the pits for the fourth time in four seasons. Only this time, whilst returning through the middlenighting mist, they'd become parted from Twig's cluster, and wary of the Old Chain path had taken the new track.
Fish changed position. Hanging his cramped legs over the ledge, he studied the fading stars. The mighty silver city of Megalopolis was so far away that its metal walls were below the horizon, but its silver light shone above it like a false rising sun.
As the new sunning appeared, Fish visualised the clusters; tired after a nighting of cleaning the Inner Circle, or scavenging in the three outer circles, rushing to empty their carts onto the piles of rubbish that dotted the Arid Zone.
A cluster of three; Bird, Branch, and Fish had been refused entry into Megalopolis. Instead they were forced to live off their provisions until Bird stole Feather. Then there was only Branch and Fish.
Thinking of food made Fish realise how hungry he was, and how hungry Branch would be when she awoke. Food made him think of Wing and how hard she must have worked preparing for her double sons' crossing-back celebrations. How busy she must have been collecting tantenberries to mix into the stuffing of the one-horned ground hogs that Thorn would have trapped. How late into the nightings she would have baked the sweetmeats, tarts and sauces that would be talked about seasons to come. He wondered if Wing had taught Ari to bake such delicacies. His stomach rumbled and he shook his head to stop thinking of food and thought of Thorn instead.
Thorn's pol pouch must be empty after providing fig wine twice in two full moons. If he had been able to buy fig wine, that is. What with the Rebels laying in wait to steal it from those who brought it from the Western Zone border market through the Arid Zone to the Eastern Zone border market.
"Something has to be done about the Rebels," he muttered to the fading Moon Goddess. What, he wasn't sure. Many of the Rebels had only done exactly as he'd done every middlenighting. Steal a few extra pieces of a Mega's fruit and a few metal garden implements to exchange for one-horned ground hog meat. Just a few bits of this and that to stay alive in the Arid Zone.
Only the Rebels hadn't only stolen food. Many of them were caught kidnapping High Megas to have their Knowledge Chips removed, or caught when selling the chips to other not so High Megas who couldn't afford the more up-dated Knowledge Chips. But hadn't he also been party to just such a theft? Fortunately he had not been caught. Because if he had what would have become of him once the Megas discovered he was one of them?