Chapter 3 - A Rope in the Mist
From his refuge in the timbers, Wainscot peered out across the quay at the ramshackle row of buildings lined up along its edge. Night and mist rendered the structures grey and indistinct.
He was waiting for the C’law. It had taken him some time to muster the courage for the dash across the exposed expanse of the pier towards his current hiding space, but he knew that his pursuers, confident in their numbers, would not hesitate. Like flame running over oily water, they would stream unchecked across the open space, and into his fragile sanctuary.
When he escaped from the Nest he had hoped that the C’law would not take the chase out into the open world; but almost as soon as he had begun to run again, he had heard them pattering from the hole behind him. They had not lingered over Scuffle, but had poured out into the night, seemingly unafraid of its dangers. They had run without any word, silent but for the rumble of their feet on the hard dirt. It had sounded as though every rat in the Nest had joined the hunt, though he had not risked slowing to look back.
His desperate flight had taken him along alleys, across wide roads all but empty in the night, and through the crumbling foundations of many buildings. A mist had risen while he had been running, but it had not been thick enough to mask his trail; although he had lost his pursuers several times, they had always found his scent again. He had rested for a precious few breaths when he could, flopping panting to the ground, but the knowledge that the C’law were close behind drove him back to his feet again and again.
While running, he had begun to pick up an unfamiliar scent. Faint at first, it had grown stronger by the heartbeat. It was an alien smell—a sharp tang seasoned with the stink of rot—and its very strangeness had spoken to him of unknown worlds that lay beyond the reach of the C’law. It was the smell of the sea, and in his ignorance Wainscot had rushed toward it as though it might offer some sanctuary.
And now he was trapped. Trapped between the teeth of the C’law and the unknown, unknowable vastness of the sea. One look told him that there was nowhere left to run; a huge, impassable… something… lay beyond the edge of the pier. It was water, he knew, but he had never imagined that water could be so… big. He had no experience of the sea—no perception of its depth or breadth or ferocity—but he knew that he could not cross it. His nose had led him to his death.
So he waited, hidden amongst the timber, unsure of what he would do when his pursuers arrived. He thought of Scuffle. Had she turned on the C’law? Had she sacrificed herself so that he might escape? If so, it had been in vain, for he was now out of running room.
He tried to keep alive a faint hope that Scuffle had survived. She was a tough, capable rat. She might have fought their pursuers. She might have escaped. He could not simply accept that she was dead. However, when he remembered the two C’law he had seen emerging from behind Chinhair, almost all of his hope died. He had recognised one of them—a formidable rat named Dayrunner, with a reputation for brutal enforcement of the council’s rule—and knew that there was little chance that the C’Law had shown Scuffle any mercy.
Wainscot was almost certain that he would never be able to ask Scuffle why she had not followed him through the exit hole, but for the present he did not care. All that mattered was that she was gone. Even if she were still alive - and he clung desperately to the small chance that she was - he would have to face his new life without her strong, cheerful presence by his side; no more good-natured ribbing, no more roughhousing, no more midnight raids on the clan foodstores, and no warm, comforting body nestled close to his through cold winter nights. He was alone, and it was almost enough to make him crawl out into the light, expose his throat, and wait for the C’law.
However, when the black tide of the pursuit finally appeared and fanned out across the pier toward him, Wainscot broke cover, and ran again.
He skittered away from the land, making his way out along the pier on a path that led nowhere. He felt slightly safer hugging the edge of the pier, and ran with his heaving left side actually overhanging the drop. Far below, the water lapped quietly under its covering blanket of mist.
The rushing C’law wave followed him onto the pier. There seemed to be hundreds of them. How could there be so many? Why were they so concerned about him, one insignificant little rat?
Wainscot passed between the edge of the pier and a large black bollard that loomed over him like an iron mushroom, streaked red and white with rust and seabird dung. A thick rope, frayed and black from use, ran up and away from the bollard, and disappeared into the mist.
Wainscot had no way of understanding what he was seeing, but the rope was a mooring line that tied a ship to the pier. He did not know what a ship was, nor did he have a word for it. All he saw was an avenue of escape.
A quick jump was all it took for Wainscot to cling onto the rope and scurry away from the pier. The rope was heavy and stretched iron-taught by the weight of the ship, which made for an easy climb. He scrambled up as quickly as he could, spurred on by the knowledge that the leading C’law were only a few tail-lengths behind.
Something appeared out of the murk ahead, and Wainscot’s heart fell—a large metal disk, pitted by rust, blocked his way. The rope passed through a hole in its centre. Wainscot could not know it, but Men had placed the tin disk there for the very purpose of stopping rats like him from boarding the ship. It was an impassable barrier. Once again, he was trapped.
He did not hesitate, instead launching himself toward the top of the disk. Astoundingly, his front claws hooked over the disk’s rim, and he pulled forward. The sharp edge of the metal sliced into the thin skin over his ribcage as he balanced precariously on the top, his back feet scrabbling uselessly for purchase. For a couple of remarkable heartbeats he maintained equilibrium, but then the disk began to rotate sideways, pivoting around the axis of the rope. He rode the accelerating arc down, horribly aware that it would drop him into the sea when it passed the horizontal.
The knife-edge of the disk cut deeper into his chest as he slid toward the sea. Then, just as he fell, one of his front claws hooked onto a pinhole rusted through the thin metal, and he swung down below the disk. Pain streaked down his foreleg from the outraged claw, but he maintained his fragile hold, dangling above the void.
Staring back down the rope he saw that the first of his pursuers had reached the disk—Dayrunner was amongst them. Lined up on the rope, they looked down at him, startled and uncertain, but Wainscot knew that it would only be a moment before one of them leapt at him to drag him down into the darkness. It would mean death for both of them, but many of the C’law would not hesitate to sacrifice themselves for the good of the clan.
Fuelled by panic, Wainscot swung his tail for momentum, twisting his body back up on itself. With the rasp of claws on metal, he pressed both back feet against the shipward side of the disk, preparing to jump. His only hope was that he could reach the bottom of the rope above him and hook his claws into it, but it was a slim hope at best. If he missed he would tumble into the cold sea below.
He pushed off with a spasm of energy.
And missed the cable by a tail’s width, his front claws brushing through the loose strands poking like whiskers from beneath the rope. Wainscot dropped into the gloom with a squeal.