Charles blew reveille as five identical toots of the horn. Toot-toot-toot-toot-toot. Ingrid just blasted the one time. Tooooooooot. But it was Willie blowing reveille this morning.
Her stupid, horrible brother Willie.
Tooooooot-too-too-toot! TOOOOOOOT. Toot-toot-toot-TOOT-TOOT-TOOT-too-too-to-t
Grumbles as the Hunters woke up. Then--
“I'll kill you, you son of a bitch!” Tilly yelled. Willie just laughed at her, then said: “Get out of my rack, Tills, or I'll be the one to kill you.”
Tilly couldn't see anything other than a Willie-shaped outline in front of the blinding-white rectangle of light that was the open door to the sleeping porch. That was enough. She grabbed the first thing her hand fell on – a half-full waterskin – and flung it. It didn't pop when it hit Willie smack in the face, more's the pity, but it did knock him back a step. “It's my rack until I'm done with it!” she shouted. The Hunters applauded.
Ten minutes later, rack abandoned, Willie sound asleep, her clothes on, face washed, teeth brushed, weapons in hand, Tilly was out the door, and she joined the other Hunters making their way to the lawn outside the Den for breakfast.
“What do we got today?” she asked in a cheerful voice, finding a stump to sit on. Charles and Hannah manned the big iron skillet over the fire, pushing breakfast back and forth with long wooden spatulas.
“Sausage, corn, peppers.”
“No potatoes?” Tilly's stomach grumbled unhappily.
But a few minutes later, when they dished breakfast out, and Tilly cracked a fresh chicken egg over her bowl, letting the residual heat cook it, she didn't really miss the potatoes at all. She would have eaten the potatoes if they'd been there, sure, but sausage and corn and peppers and egg was enough.
Though she'd still be hungry in an hour.
“Goddamn, I love sausage,” she announced to everyone. Snickers here and there. Charles didn't try to swallow his laughter, he just doubled over, chortling. Susan stared over at Tilly with wide, scandalized eyes. “I love the sausage I'm eating, you perverts,” she continued, which didn't really help. Not that she actually intended it to. This was just part of the game.
“And what's your favorite kind of sausage?” Charles asked, voice deceptively mild. Tilly refused to let him rope her into some passive-aggressive fight about the fact that she didn't want to have a thing to do with his sausage.
“Spicy!” She speared another chunk of meat, shiny with runny egg yolk, and chomped it between her teeth with a grin. Now Charles's face was grim. So Tilly kept going. “I love nothing more than a nice, big, spicy sausage, especially first thing in the morning. Really, it can't be big enough. There's nothing like waking up to a plump, juicy--”
“That's enough.” Ingrid's cold voice cut through the growing laughter, and Tilly stopped talking so quickly she nipped the tip of her tongue with her teeth. Ingrid walked slowly around the fire, around the Hunters now staring at their bowls uneasily. Tilly ignored her stinging tongue and kept eating, looking right up at Ingrid.
Ingrid would be scary enough, just as Chief Hunter. But five years ago she had been elected to the Council; though the five Councilors were supposed to be equal, there was no doubt that Ingrid was effectively Chief Councilor, too. She finished her circuit of the cooking fire and stood, as still and straight as though she had been carved from stone, staring right at Tilly.
Tilly loved her with a love that was as pure as it could be, made only stronger by the healthy amount of fear that Ingrid inspired. She dipped her head down, a shallow bow, an acknowledgment of Ingrid's power. If Ingrid asked her right now to jump off the wall into the ditch, Tilly would, without a moment's hesitation.
But Ingrid just cleared her throat and spoke to everyone. “I've been disappointed with the traps lately. Pull them and move them. I expect full traps next time we pull. Alpha, swing northeast after you're done setting your traps, I want Blocks F through H swept again. Echo, join them. Willie says he thinks he saw movement in that direction last night. Everyone else, standard drill.”
Nods of assent, and everyone resumed eating. “Now,” Ingrid growled. Everyone jumped up and hurried over to dump what was left of their breakfast into the lunch pail for later, and to rinse their bowls. Tilly stuck her fork into the four sausage chunks left in her bowl and shoved them all into her mouth, still smiling up at Ingrid. While the other Hunters picked up their weapons from the cook fire ring and jogged off, some casting glances at her over their shoulders as they passed, Tilly tipped her bowl up to her lips, drinking down the egg, scooping the corn and peppers down her gullet.
“I should have you switched,” Ingrid said, looking quite happy at the thought. Tilly rinsed out her bowl and ambled back, stretching. No big hurry.
“All right,” she agreed. “But only if you're the one who does it.” Ingrid stared at her in that way she had, not blinking, like Tilly was a puzzle she was trying to figure out.
“Did Charles tell you what he saw across the river yesterday?” Ingrid asked, as though she were only asking if Tilly had seen any clouds recently. Tilly slung her quiver over her back, tightening the chest strap until it was plenty snug.
“If he had, I wouldn't be here, I'd be across the river.” Bow over her shoulder, string to the front. Pouch tied around her waist, secured to her belt.
“Walk with me,” Ingrid said, and without waiting for an answer, she headed across the lawn toward the archery range. She moved briskly enough that Tilly, as tall as she was, had to pick up the pace to keep up.
The range was empty, of course. It seemed a true waste of space to Tilly, but only when it was empty. When the Hunters stood five in a line, firing arrows at the targets, the others rushing back and forth, retrieving arrows and shouting insults, the range was her favorite place in the whole city, as close to Outside as she could get.
Ingrid dragged her hand through her cropped silver hair, casting a judgmental eye on Tilly's dark braids. The ends were still an inch away from her shoulders, but that was too long for Ingrid.
“So what's up, boss?” Tilly asked, bouncing on her heels. What could Charles have seen? Something big, or Ingrid wouldn't bother getting Tilly well out of earshot of anyone else, even Hunters; making sure no one could overhear was tough to do, inside the wall.
“What do we need, more than anything?” Ingrid asked instead of answering the question. Tilly drew an arrow from her quiver, studied the fletching, and thought. This sounded suspiciously like a trick question. If she didn't think, Tilly would be inclined to answer “meat” or “metal” or maybe “cloth,” although she had popped a button on her trousers last night and couldn't hunt it down, so “buttons” was right up there, too.
Tilly placed the arrowhead against her lips and considered. Then she smiled.
It didn't seem that Ingrid's face changed at all. Tilly couldn't say that Ingrid smiled, or that her eyes twinkled, or anything else that mortals did when they felt emotion. But she knew she'd answered correctly all the same.
“Charles saw free folk across the river. Not our usual savages hiding in trees – he said they were clothed, and he thought at least two were armed. Machetes, he thought. Hunting along the riverbank. They didn't see him.”
“How many?” Tilly's fingers itched against the shaft of the bow. She needed to be off! Every second inside the wall was a torture, but she bit the inside of her cheek and made herself be patient.
“Charles wasn't sure. He thought ten, maybe fifteen.”
“What kind of piss-poor report is that? Can he not count or what?” Ingrid looked at her, just looked at her, a look that was both rebuke and comfort.
“Just assume fifteen, Tilly, and proceed from there.” Tilly nodded, looking anxiously toward the east station. “You'll go back to the Den for supplies before you leave?”
“Of course, boss.” Tilly grinned her crooked grin, knowing that if there were anyone in the city who wouldn't be beguiled by her crooked grin, it was Ingrid. Which was, of course, exactly why it worked.
“Good hunting.” Ingrid didn't waste any more time. She turned and marched off. Once she had given Tilly her mission, she was apparently confident enough to leave it at that, to not go on and on about nonsense Tilly was already well-aware of. It made Tilly feel ten feet tall.
She ran back to the Den, covering the ground in less than a minute. Her heart was beating in the familiar rhythm, a slow and steady thud that seemed to fill her up, from toes to scalp. The air sang in her ears. She carefully rearranged the arrows in her quiver, making room for six more. Then she strapped an extra knife to her belt, and secured a tomahawk to the clip attached the back of her quiver. Tilly rolled her shoulders, rotated forward and back, making sure the blade didn't cut into her back at all. She switched to her boots with the high ankles, then slipped another knife, this one a short-handled, narrow blade meant for throwing, into the right boot.
She filled her waterskin, then grabbed a spare and filled that, too. There was an empty sling hanging on a nail – hardly anyone hunted with a sling – and Tilly grabbed it, threading it over her belt, tying the ends together securely. An extra weapon never hurt.
Tilly wouldn't be bringing back rabbits or squirrels or fowl, she wouldn't be bringing back vegetable cuttings, and she wouldn't be bringing back artifacts from Before. So there was no reason to keep her pouch empty. She filled it with pemmican and hardtack, oatcakes sticky with honey and studded with dried fruit, a whole smoked duck, and a sack of flour. She didn't expect to be Outside long enough to need to bake flatbread, but it might come in useful as trade, if (when) she found Charles's free folk.
She thought about saying goodbye to Willie, but he probably would actually really kill her if she woke him up. Besides, saying goodbye implied she wouldn't be seeing him again soon. That wouldn't happen.
Tilly jogged to the east station. As she passed the library, a group of kids walking to school were coming her way. Tilly made a point of not knowing the names of the kids. This was something Silas and Ingrid encouraged; the Hunters were elite. They didn't need to pal around with gardeners and blacksmiths. But the tall, gawky kid, staring at the ground and scuffing his heels, walking several paces behind the rest, Tilly knew that kid. He was Peter's son.
“Chin up, Little Louis!” she called out, and grinned as he did just that, head snapping up so quickly she was afraid he'd break his neck. His eyes went wide at the sight of her, and she saw him blush. “Learn lots of important shit today, you hear? The city needs smart guys like you if we're gonna make it.” As she passed him by, Tilly reached out and gave him a friendly punch to the shoulder. His head swung around like it was on a ball bearing, just staring at her.
Tilly waited till she was around the corner before she laughed. It was a mean thing to do – make fun of some poor kid who'd had a crush on you since he was eight. But Tilly could be one mean son of an Outsider.