A children's book for grown-ups by Jon Evans

October 2, 2007

73. Rats

"Hello," the lead rat said cheerfully. "Who are you? How did you get here?"

Patch and White twitched with surprise.

"We've killed rats before!" White cried. "Lots of them! We'll kill you too!"

"Goodness me!" the lead rat gasped, and all of them scurried quickly away and clustered around the human's feet, leaving fear-smells in their wake.

The two squirrels looked at one another. This was not exactly the vicious attack they had expected. It had to be some kind of trick. Rats were famously cunning. These rats were stalling for time, waiting for reinforcements.

"Let's get out of here," he said to White in a low voice.

She nodded. They began to sidle back towards the ravine, staying close to the wall free of ratholes, keeping maximum distance from the human and the rats.

"No go," the human said. "No go! Happy together. Happy together!"

"Shut up," one of the rats hissed, "let them go away, they're murderers, savage, vicious! They smell of blood, rat blood, they'll kill us all!"

Patch sniffed himself, a little taken aback, and had to admit he did still smell faintly of rat blood, despite his repeated immersions in water since the Battle of the North.

"Stay out of our way and we won't kill you," White said.

The rats backed farther away, until they were lined up against the opposite wall, ready to escape through its ratholes. They smelled of fear. Patch was by now thoroughly perplexed. Rats simply did not behave like this.

"No happy together," the human said sadly, as it watched the squirrels move away.

"They're rats!" Patch expostulated under his breath, feeling somehow guilty at having eaten the human's food and then made it sad. "They'll kill us and eat us if they get the chance! They want to kill every squirrel in the world!"

"We do not!" the rat leader objected.

"You do so! Don't you try and trick me."

"We're not tricking you. We're not like other rats. We don't serve the King Beneath."

This notion was so bemusing that Patch stopped in his tracks. "Of course you do. You're rats."

"Does every squirrel follow the same king?"

"Well, no - but - then what king do you serve?"

"We serve no king at all. We serve ourselves," the rat leader said. "We try to help other rats. We don't kill anything. We don't have to, our human brings us food. You call us killers? How many rats have you murdered, squirrel? How many of us?"

"Er," Patch said, suddenly feeling very awkward. "It was, well, I don't know really, but all of them were trying to kill me, it was never my idea." He thought of the rats he had pursued rather than allowed to escape. "I mean, not really. I mean, almost all of them. I mean, I thought all of you served the King Beneath. All the ones I ever fought did."

"A likely story," the rat leader sniffed. "A thin rationalization for bloodthirsty cruelty. Why are you down here in the Kingdom Beneath at all, squirrel? To kill more rats? You came down here to kill, didn't you, to murder more helpless rats and call it vengeance!"

"I did not!" Patch protested. "I came down here to save my mother's life! Because Lord Snout poisoned her with the blackblood disease and took her away!"

A silence fell over the chamber.

"Oh dear," the rat leader said. "Oh, goodness me. Lord Snout. The blackblood disease. I am sorry."

"Who are you?" Patch demanded.

"Who am I?" the rat leader repeated, perplexed. "Oh. Oh, I see. No, I don't have a name. We don't all have names like you squirrels. Only our lords."

"Oh. Well. What do you know about the blackblood disease?"

The rat leader paused, then said softly, "They try to infect squirrels with it. Then they are fed to the King Beneath. The King loves blackblood squirrels."

"How do you know so much about the King Beneath, if you don't serve him?" White asked suspiciously.

"I used to serve him. All of us did before we escaped."

"Why did you escape?"

The rats looked at one another uncertainly.

"There's something wrong with us," their leader said sadly. "We just don't like being ordered around. We don't even like bullying littler rats. I think we're sick, we have some kind of disease. He," he pointed, "thinks we were born this way. It doesn't matter. It's the way we are. So we ran away, all of us, separately. It's this human that brought us together. We're lucky to have him."

As if to punctuate the point, the human reached out and began gently stroking the lead rat's fur. Patch watched, amazed, as the rat arched its back with pleasure.

"I'm sorry about your mother, squirrel," the rat leader said. "I'm sorry I called you a killer."

"I'm sorry I thought you were like all the other rats," Patch said.

A silence fell.

"Happy together," the human said cheerfully.

"Do you know where they've taken her?" Patch asked the rats. "My mother?"

"Of course. To the chamber of the King Beneath."

"Where is that? Can you tell me?"

The rat leader looked at Patch and White for a long time.

Then he said, "I can show you the road."


Anonymous Anonymous said...

aww, i'm glad that there are some friendly longtails as well as mean bitey ones. Bless. :D And i love the idea of a human who can talk to rodents, i so wish i could do that. Very cool chapter, as always!!

October 3, 2007 at 12:53 PM  

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Jon Evans is the award-winning author of the thrillers Invisible Armies, Dark Places (aka Trail of the Dead), and The Blood Price. See his web site rezendi.com.

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