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Chapter 2  Rat-king

It’s a rat-king,” said Scuffle. There was no doubt in her voice. “They’ve had one in there for generations now. Old Lupu says they had it even when her dam was young, and that must have been many seasons ago.”

 

“A rat-king,” said Wainscot. They had been into the feed bins moments before, and had eaten well. Now they were settled in the safety of their nest for some comfortable, companionable after-breakfast conversation.

 

Scuffle was Wainscot’s sister, one of a litter of twelve. It had been a robust litter, and nine of the twelve had survived the early rigours of childhood, though Scuffle and Wainscot had very little contact with their other siblings. Now at the intersection of youth and adulthood, the two rats had almost reached their full weight. Both shared a common colouration – rich, deep brown, so dark that it was almost black along their backs and flanks, and fading to creamy chocolate on their bellies and under their chins – but there the similarity ended. Scuffle was a solid, well-muscled rat who demonstrated a remarkable ability to put on weight, but Wainscot hardly seemed to grow at all, and while Scuffle’s fur had the rich sheen of robust health, Wainscot’s was dull and lank. What set them apart from each other even more than their size or the relative glossiness of their fur, however, was the odd discoloured patch that ran along one side of Wainscot’s body. A streak of pure white began just behind his right eye and travelled the length of his body, tapering to a point at the base of his tail, and it was this strange abnormality – together with his scrawniness and general lack of fighting ability – that had firmly established Wainscot at the bottom of the rigidly maintained pecking-order of the young rats of the Nest. All of his would-be playmates, with the notable exception of the faithful Scuffle, had found his stripe endlessly amusing, and had devoted considerable energy and imagination to dreaming up cruel nicknames for him. They would also, but for the constant burly presence of Scuffle at his side, have mauled him mercilessly, just for the sport of it. But Wainscot’s sister was a fearsome adversary when roused, and nothing roused her more than an assault upon her brother. It was a foolish rat who persisted in troubling Wainscot when Scuffle was within earshot, and since she was never far from him, he was spared the worst of it.

 

 “A rat-king,” Wainscot said again, turning the word over in his mind, savouring it. Wainscot valued words, and this was one he had not heard before. “A rat-king. What’s a rat-king?” He hated admitting his ignorance, but the word was too good to keep without a proper meaning.

 

“It’s… um… it’s a thing of great wisdom,” she said. “The council rely on it. It guides them when they make important decisions. You know, the ones that affect the whole clan. It’s as wise as it is because it’s been around for so long. You know what Lupu’s always saying about age and wisdom - of course she would, being so old and all - not that she seems to have any great store of the stuff herself. Always going on about how the C'law of older times used to feed only on the milk of nursing brood-mothers, which made them stronger by keeping their ‘ratness’ pure, whatever that means. Mad stuff like that. She says that because of this the brood-mothers-”

 

“You don’t know, do you?” said Wainscot. 

 

“What?”

 

“You don’t know what a rat-king is.”

 

“Of course I do,” said Scuffle, her voice swollen with mock indignation. “Unlike some rats I could name, I don’t make things up. When I say something, it’s a fact, not a lie.”

 

“I don’t lie,” said Wainscot, “I weave,” for he was a storyteller, and loved to build tales from the stuff of his imagination. True, the council had not named him a clan storyteller – not yet, at any rate – but he had a natural gift, and if the rapt attention of his audiences was anything to go by, it was only a matter of time. “And don’t try to change the subject. Answer my question. What’s a rat-king?”

 

“I told you: it’s very old and very wise.”

 

“That’s what it is, but not what it is,” said Wainscot. “What does it look like?” 

 

“No one really knows.”

 

“You mean you don’t really know.”

 

“No one really knows, because they keep it hidden away in the back of the council chamber and no one sees it, even when they feed it. They just push food to it through a small hole.”

 

“Feed it? You mean it’s alive?” For some reason this made Wainscot uneasy. He had been picturing some sort of totem or talisman that inspired the council to wiser decisions, but the thought of a breathing, thinking… something… squatting in the darkness and dispensing wisdom was altogether more frightening.

 

“Well, I’m not sure if ‘alive’ is the right word, but it does eat.” 

 

“If it eats, then it’s alive.”

 

“Not necessarily. Fire eats wood. Water eats stone. Time eats everything. Are they alive?”

 

“Well, aren’t we the philosopher?” said Wainscot. “But I assume it isn’t made of fire or water.”

 

“Probably not,” said Scuffle. “But never mind what it isn’t, the Rat-king is old, and it is wise.”

 

“Really,” said Wainscot, the single word crisply conveying his disbelief. 

 

“Of course. Why else would the council go to it for advice.”

 

“I don’t know that they do.”

 

“Well there must be some reason why the Law says that it’s death for anyone but councilrats or C'law who enters the council chambers. What about that then?”

 

Wainscot looked at his sister for a moment. “And the only explanation you can think of is that they have some sort of mysterious beast tucked away in there, and that it secretly runs the clan for them? Sometimes you worry me.”

 

“We could find out.”

 

“How…” Wainscot began, but stopped when he saw the twinkle in Scuffle’s eye. “Oh no - definitely not.”

 

“The council will be inspecting the new run to the grain bins tonight.” 

 

“I said no.”

 

“You know how seldom they leave the chamber. We might not get a chance like this for some time, if ever. It’ll be perfectly safe: the the  will be empty.”

 

“But not unguarded. The C'law will be outside. They always are.” 

 

“I’m not afraid of the C'law. They’re just rats.”

 

As far as Wainscot knew,  every clan the world over had Clanlaw, and every rat lived in fear of them. He shook his head.

 

“Why not?” asked Scuffle.

 

“You said it yourself: the penalty is death.” 

 

“Only if we’re caught.”

 

In the end it was not any argument of Scuffle’s, but Wainscot’s very nature that convinced him. Had he been a mouse or a shrew he would have been perfectly content to let the council continue to govern his affairs as it always had, happy in his ignorance, but he was not a mouse or a shrew; he was a rat, and curiosity was as much a part of his make-up as his need to eat or mate, so when night fell he found himself slinking along toward the council chamber with his sister, quietly cursing his own stupidity.

 

He and his sister had never been in the council chamber, of course, but he knew that it was the largest single space in the Nest - that huge warren of passageways spreading out under the floorboards of a livestock warehouse in a city of the Men. That the Men called the city Halifax, Nova Scotia was unknown to the rats, but they did know that the city spread for unimaginable distances beyond the borders of their little world. They had all heard the stories about daring rats who had ventured out into the wider world, although how many of these were true Wainscot could only guess.

 

The council chamber, walled on all four sides by wooden joists supporting the warehouse floor above, was the heart of Wainscot and Scuffle’s clan, and the inner sanctum of its ruling council. The council, an august group of seven rats, each of whom had been selected by the existing members to replace a former councilrat who had died, were the lawmakers and leaders of the clan. 

 

As he and Scuffle manoeuvred their way toward the chamber, he thought about the darker stories that he had heard about the council. He knew that its members were selected by their fellow councilrats for their demonstrated wisdom and political cunning - or merely their ability to survive long enough to seem wise - and that once in place, each councilrat remained in the position until he – and they were always male - died. And since the councilrats spent almost all of their time together, discussing clan business, sleeping, and even eating in isolation from the bustling throng of lesser rats that populated the rest of the Nest, they almost always died within the chamber. Most, in all likelihood, succumbed to the ailments and infirmities that accompany old age, but dark rumours regularly drifted through the Nest – whispered quietly to avoid the always-listening ears of the C'law - that differences of opinion in the council sometimes ended in blood. No clan rat had ever seen a dead councilrat being removed from the chamber, which had led to even darker rumours about what exactly it was that the councilrats ate, late at night when their sessions ran long.

 

These disturbing tales – and the ever-vigilant C'law, with their promise of death - usually kept intruders far from the chamber.

 

“I must be an idiot,” Wainscot said quietly to himself as he pattered along behind Scuffle.

 

They skirted the C'law sentry at the chamber entrance without being seen. Scuffle was large, but could move in absolute silence when necessary, and she was particularly light on her feet as they scurried up the passage along one of the outer wall-joists of the chamber. Just over their heads, the boards squeaked and bowed downwards as something – Man or cow – walked across the floor above. Light and dust filtered down through the thin gaps between the floorboards.

 

“Here,” said Scuffle, pointing with her nose at a seam between two planks of the joist. She put her forepaws against one of the boards and pushed, using her full weight and thrusting with her hind legs. It bent inward, opening a narrow gap. 

 

“There,” she said, “You should be able to squeeze through. Just.”

 

“Me? Hang on a tick. You never said anything about me going in there alone.”

 

“Well obviously I can’t hold the wall for myself, and you don’t have the weight to do it. Anyway, I’m far too big to get through that crack. Don’t worry; I’ll be here to let you out after you’ve had a look around.”

 

“I’m not worried about getting out; I’m worried about being in there by myself.” 

 

“Mouse,” said Scuffle.

 

“Mouse yourself,” said Wainscot. “I don’t see you volunteering to go in.” 

 

“I told you-”

 

“Yes, yes.” The smaller rat crouched down, collecting his thoughts and steeling himself for what he now recognised as inevitable. He would be going into the chamber. Wanting to postpone it for a few moments more, he asked, “How did you discover that the board was loose?”

 

“Actually, I got the idea the other day when I was giving Chinhair a well-deserved drubbing. Remember? He tried to take a piece out of your bum, and I had to teach him a lesson. Well, I slammed him into the wall – we were in the Water Run, if you recall - and the plank shifted. In fact it moved enough for Chinhair to bolt through. Well that got me to thinking. So when you were asleep I came down here and did some investigating, and sure enough there is a way in; but only one. As soon as I saw the size of the gap I knew you were the rat for the job. You’re always telling your little tales of adventure and derring-do, so this should be your sort of thing entirely.”

 

Wainscot snorted, but did not respond. He was afraid, but a pinch of excitement now seasoned his trepidation. Scuffle had a point – none of the heroes of his stories would have shied away from such a tempting adventure. Still, this was the real world, where foolish decisions often led to dire consequences.

 

“So,” Scuffle looked a question at Wainscot, “are you ready? I’m getting tired of holding this.”

 

Wainscot snorted again, but took a breath and squeezed through. It was a tight fit, but he was a small rat. The gap closed with a faint creak behind him.

 

He tested the air with his nose, letting the myriad scents tell him what they could of the layout and contents of this secret domain of the council. There were the odours he expected - cattle waste; the sweat, tobacco, leather and damp wool of Man; the resinous smell of the building itself; and the fur, feces and urine of rat – but laying over these, like a pox-riddled blanket, was another that made him uneasy. It reminded him of the lingering stench of death, but there was something odd about it: something rat, and yet not rat. He did not recognise it, for he had not come across it before, but it was the smell of madness.

 

All he knew was that there was something in the chamber with him, and that it was simply… wrong.

 

Was it the Rat-king? 

 

“Can you see it?”

 

Scuffle’s whispered words squeezed through the hair-thin crack. Wainscot was so startled that he almost loosed a dribble of urine, which would have been his undoing. A single drop would have left a potent signature, and would have told the council who had been in the chambers as clearly as if he had been caught red-pawed.

 

“Shut up!” he whispered back. “Have you no sense?”

 

He heard Scuffle draw breath to reply, but she said nothing more.

 

Wainscot looked around. The entrance to the chamber lay some six or seven rat-lengths away, but there was no sign of the C'law guard. The floor was littered with the remnants of past meals; grain husks, insect carapaces, and the bones of small mammals and birds. Ominously, there were also rat bones scattered about. Ribs, long-bones, and skulls with staring hollow eyes and wicked chisel incisors, gleamed yellow in the dim light. Some, Wainscot noticed with a chill, bore signs of having been gnawed, lending weight to the dark rumours about the council.

 

Suppressing a shudder, he stepped further into the space. There was a shadowed opening at the rear, leading, he assumed, to a chamber within the chamber. He approached it cautiously.

 

The stink was strong from within.

 

He eased into the inner chamber. It was almost too dark to see, but he could make out something – a thickening of shadow - deep in the gloom. It looked like a nest, but was larger than a rat’s nest should be. His tail dragged across a loose piece of bone with a small rattle, and something in the nest stirred. Wainscot froze. His heartbeat and shallow breathing seemed unnaturally loud in the darkness. Whether it could hear him or not, whatever it was that lurked in the shadows continued to move, and after a moment Wainscot saw a dark shape slowly rise from the tangle of the nest. He had an impression of a large, uneven mass, lumpy and shifting, that seemed to be made up of the usual rat parts, but far too many of them. He saw the delicate petals of ears, a tracery of whiskers like cobwebs in the gloom, and the gleam of eyes – many eyes.

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Fascinated, despite his fear, Wainscot took another step forward. He was certain that he made no sound, but the eyes shifted, seeming to fix on him through the darkness. 

 

The thing screamed.

 

It was a hideous sound, raw with fury, pain and writhing madness, and it seemed as though it came from many throats. Starting low and gravely, it rose quickly in both pitch and volume until it filled Wainscot’s head and rasped painfully across his nerves.

 

Horrified, he scrambled out of the inner chamber and bolted to where Scuffle waited, scattering bones and detritus in his wake. She held the crack open for him. How she had the strength of will to stay at her post when every instinct must have been driving her to run, he could not guess, but he knew he would be grateful to her until the end of his days.

 

Together they ran back up the passage down which they had so recently crept in silence, but this time, spurred on by unreasoning fear, they made no effort to conceal their passing. Before their blind panic could take them too far, however, Scuffle managed to rein in enough of her scattered wits to slide to a halt and hiss, “Hold up Wainscot. Stop.” He stopped and stood nose-to-nose with her, his every muscle quivering with the need to keep running.

 

“What? What?” he said, his voice drawn taught. “Let’s go. Come on. We can’t… What about the C'law? We’ve got to leave.” The words tumbled out of him. His eyes darted back and forth in a frenzy, and every hair on his body stood erect.

 

“Think for a moment. Think,” said Scuffle, holding his eyes with hers. “We can’t just run blindly. They don’t know who we are. If we can make it to the nesting chambers we’ll be all right. The C'law haven’t even started to come after us yet.” But a sudden clatter of clawed feet behind them gave lie to her words.

 

Off again, they careened through the dark maze of the Nest. Passage followed passage, and the sound of pursuit grew behind them.

 

We still might make it, thought Wainscot, lucidity fighting its way through the fog of his panic. No one had seen them - no one but that many-eyed shape in the council chamber, and he doubted that it would be brought forward to identify him. They just had to remain unseen until they could lose themselves in the crowded anonymity of the nesting chambers.

 

Then a dark shape emerged from a side passage ahead, and he knew that all was lost. It was Chinhair, and he had seen them. Worse still, he had recognised Wainscot. Chinhair opened his mouth to speak, but before he could utter a sound he was thrust aside by the two large rats who emerged from the passage behind him. They were C'law, and Wainscot knew one of them – Dayrunner, a formidable customer with a reputation for brutal enforcement of the council’s rule.

 

Wainscot’s claws gouged curls from the wooden floor as he scrabbled to change direction and run down another side passage, Scuffle close on his heels.

 

As they angled away from the safety of the nesting chambers they headed into an unfamiliar part of the Nest. Wainscot knew that if they kept running they would eventually reach one of the many ratholes that exited onto the vast open space of the outdoor stock pens, and even in his frenetic rush to escape, he realised that their life in the Nest had come to an end. Whatever the future held for them, they would find it beyond the walls of the only world they had ever known. His heart sank at the thought, but because he was a rat, he also felt a pulse of excitement.

 

Wainscot could both hear and feel the weight of the pursuit, as the floor beneath him reverberated with the rhythm of the C'law's pounding feet. He could not tell if they were gaining, but knew that he could not maintain this frantic pace for much longer. Rats are sprinters, not long-distance runners, and his thighs burned with fatigue. If they did not find an exit from the Nest soon…

 

Then he was through a narrow hole and into the open air. 

 

He was out. In the world. In Man's world.

 

The fresh bite of the night air urged him to keep running, but he stopped and turned to wait for his sister.

 

Where was she? Wasn’t she right behind him?

 

He took a step back toward the hole, horribly aware of how exposed he was in the bright moonlight. His long shadow stretched away from him across the hard-packed earth, like an arrow identifying him to any predators that might be prowling the night. Before he could take a second step there was a resounding thump against the other side of the wall, as though a large body had slammed into it at speed.

 

Scuffle’s face appeared in the hole for a fleeting moment. Her eyes, wide and white-rimmed, held his for a heartbeat, and then she was gone, pulled back into the darkness. She screamed a high-pitched wail of pain or fear, and to Wainscot it was far more horrible than the shriek of the thing in the council chamber. Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the scream stopped.

 

Wainscot turned tail and fled into the night.

Chapter 1
Chapter 3
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