The freak treelings

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A shuffling in the underbrush made her tense. Cat stopped, willed every muscle in her body to freeze, and waited. The sun sagged low in the sky, sitting at just the right place for the fat little fluff-balls to give the fat little things she was after the courage to emerge from their cracks in the rocks by the river's edge. They were nervous, and careful, but she was patient. Cat could wait all day; they could not. If they were going to keep their bulging little bellies dragging on the ground, they would have to come out soon to sink their teeth into some of the fresh green grass; they wanted the clover, she knew that, and they wouldn't be without it for long, not when their portion of the day, their time to come out and feed freely, was so brief. 

Cat took one careful breath in after another, breathing in through her nose and slowly out through her mouth. Her eyes locked onto the place in the brush along the water where she had seen movement. She watched, but she saw only leaves. No glint of an eye, or tawney patch of fur broke the picture she saw. 

A few minutes went by and she could feel her hands shaking; the longer she went without any sign of them the more tense she got, the more badly she wanted to see one. But they wouldn't just come out; the one that had moved, had it been the lookout? Or the last one to flee from the sound of her footsteps? She hoped it was the former. The scouts would watch her until she made the first move; one of the others, a young one, might decide she didn't look so threatening and poke its little head out to investigate on its own. 

Still nothing. 

She choked back a huff of impatience and took a few steps backward, moving at a glacial pace. Her feet knew where to plant themselves and she retreated without making a sound. She took herself just around a bend in the cracked pavement that followed the path of the water, and began to listen. She could feel her heart beating hard in her chest, thudding with anticipation. They wouldn't wait long if she was out of sight. They spent only a small time out in the open, and so they could not afford to waste their time hiding. They had to come out, and they had to come out soon. 

She watched the first one poke it's head out. It moved in small bursts of motion, rushing half of its body out into the open, stopping, waiting, twisting it's head around to look one way, twisting hard to look the other. Waiting. Then it took a few furious steps forward and stood there, stock-still. Cat could just barely see it from her place around the bend. 

When the second came out it did not hesitate, but loped on four ridiculously stocky legs out into the grass. It ran a stone’s throw out and began immediately to rake its head back and forth, gorging itself on the bright green grass. 

Cat raised a hand. The first bolt from her one-handed crossbow lanced through the sentry marmot’s stomach. It screamed a shrill cry and the second made to return to safety, dragging its round self across the grass, but it was too slow. The second bolt pinned it to the dirt.  

Cat broke both of the struggling animal’s necks right away, relieving them of their struggle. She produced a piece of hemp rope a couple feet long and tied them together, throwing them over her shoulders and moving along in quick strides the way she had been heading initially.  

She would eat well tonight.  

 

The river rushed by on her left, crashing over rocks and sclicing through the land in an unmolested stream. Cat stepped over the mangled remains of a paved path, careful to avoid the chasms between shards of concrete and asphalt through which towering weeds now sprouted. On her right were mounds of dirty red rubble. The walls of whatever building had been there at some time in the extreme past were still erect in some places, punctured with massive gashes where she assumed they had been hit with bombs, the bombs that had destroyed the rest of the building, that had torn such huge swaths of the path she now travelled. The way was pocked with dips from those same bombs, but their jagged edges had been smoothed with time and pockets of grass stole from whatever dismal image they might have made in times gone by. 

The land was scarred, and everyone knew it. They had been told too many times. 

She shook her head as she thought of the lessons, and tried to think of something else. Her mind turned to the churning of the river on her right; she narrowed her eyes and tried to lose herself in the endless wash of frothing water over the boulders that tried to stand in its way. She tripped on a raised chunk of pavement and had to throw her hands back to keep from falling. Then she opened her eyes, and watched the river instead, keeping her eyes forward and down, so that she could see where she stepped, but watching the foaming water in her periphery. 

The current carried the water up a massive boulder, running off the sides of its etched face in huge waves, and she liked the image. Then she realized that it was not a boulder, but a large section of what had once been a bridge stretching over the water, and grimaced. 

There were voices up ahead, and she stopped, leaving the path. She ducked into the brush along the riverside, the same haven used in life by the marmots slung over her shoulder. She crouched low like one of them, watching from the dark undergrowth as two figures came into view. She had no one to signal, no one to warn. She was silent, and unlike her prey, she would not come out until all danger had truly passed. 

It was hard to tell if the two approaching were men or women; both of their heads were shaved, clumsily, as they did it themselves without mirrors every morning, using whatever blade they possessed, usually nothing more than a large hunting knife. They pale heads were laced with small scars, but what drew Cat's attention were the bulging, pink lines on their foreheads. A line straight down, with two lines crossing perpendicular over it, the higher one shorter than the lower. It was a crude picture of a tree, she knew, cut deep into their foreheads. The figure on the left, she thought might be a man under his flowy shirt and trousers, was saying something to the other whose slight shoulders made Cat think it might be a woman, and the probably-woman was smiling. The man carried a sledgehammer draped over his shoulders, while the woman pushed a wheelbarrow that held a collection of crude cloth bags. 

Cat watched them pass by. 

"-the North. It's way more desolate up there. I almost feel bad for them. They've got nothing to clean up," the person on the right said. Close enough to hear them, she could tell that her initial judgment had been wrong. It was a woman with the hammer, and a shrill man's voice answered her. 

"I've heard they have more human problems to deal with," he said, his tone distasteful. 

The woman laughed. "I just don't see why anyone would fight against the Cleansing. It's just putting things back the way they're supposed to be." 

"I don't know. Some people are just stupid I guess." 

"That's why we need these," she said, hefting the hammer in her hands, like she was appraising it for purchase. "I'd like to use this on someone who resists." 

Cat watched them with wide eyes. She didn't know these two; more of the Followers were coming to the city every day. She didn't like it. 

They carried on about how much they'd like to break the skulls of those that didn't believe in their holy mission for a minute as they went past. Cat waited for them to be entirely out of view, out of earshot, before emerging from her hiding place. 

"Shouldn't have to hide," she mumbled to herself, and hated the way her voice shook. "Shouldn't have to hide in my own home." 

But she did.