Author & Illustrator
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 mother was young, and that must have been many seasons ago.”
“A rat-king,” Wainscot repeated. They had been in the feed bins moments before, and were now settled in the safety of their nest for some comfortable after-breakfast conversation. Neither had any inkling that the day would take Scuffle to her probable death, and Wainscot well beyond the only world he had ever known.
Scuffle and Wainscot were from a litter of twelve. It had been a robust litter, and nine of the twelve had survived the early rigors of childhood, though Scuffle and Wainscot had very little contact with the others. Most rats naturally drifted away from the rest of their siblings. Wainscot and Scuffle staying together was an exception.
Now at the intersection of youth and adulthood, the two had almost reached their full weight. They shared a common colouration—a rich, deep brown, so dark that it was almost black along their backs and flanks, fading to creamy chocolate on their bellies and under their chins. However, Scuffle was a solid, well-muscled rat who demonstrated a remarkable ability to put on weight, while Wainscot hardly seemed to grow at all. 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. It was this strange abnormality—along with his scrawniness and general lack of fighting ability—that had firmly established Wainscot at the bottom of the rigidly maintained pecking order among the young rats of the Nest. All of his would-be playmates had found his stripe endlessly amusing, had devoted considerable energy and imagination to dreaming up cruel nicknames for him, and would, if not 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 affected 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?”
“It’s… um… it’s a thing of great wisdom,” Scuffle said. “The Council relies on it. It guides them when they make important decisions. 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 says that, though, being so old and all.” Scuffle laughed. “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.
“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.”
Wainscot was a storyteller—he loved to build tales from the stuff of his imagination. True, the Council had not named him a clan storyteller yet, but he had a natural gift, and if the rapt attention of his audiences was anything to go by then it was only a matter of time.
“And don’t try to change the subject,” he said. “Answer my question. What’s a rat-king?”
Scuffle rolled her eyes. “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.” Scuffle took a deep breath, and spoke slowly. “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 much more frightening.
“Well, I’m not sure if ‘alive’ is the right word,” Scuffle furrowed her brow, considering. “But, it does eat.”
“If it eats, then it’s alive,” said Wainscot firmly.
“Not necessarily. Fire eats wood. Water eats stone. Time eats everything. Are they alive?”
“Well, aren’t you 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 to enter the Council chambers.” Scuffle sniffed. “What about that?”
Wainscot looked at his sister for a moment. “And the only explanation of those rules that 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.” There was a hint of laughter in Scuffle’s voice.
“How…” Wainscot began, but stopped when he saw the twinkle in her eye. “Oh no. Definitely not.”
Scuffle continued, despite her brother’s apprehension. “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 chamber will be empty.”
“But not unguarded.” Wainscot thought that the reasons for not going anywhere near the Council’s chamber were painfully obvious, but Scuffle apparently needed to hear them. “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 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. However, he was not a mouse or a shrew; he was a rat, and curiosity was as much a part of his constitution as the need to eat or mate. So, when night fell he found himself slinking along toward the Council chamber with his sister, all the while quietly cursing his own stupidity.
He and Scuffle had never been in the Council chamber, of course, but he knew that it was the largest single space in the Nest. The Nest was a 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 that supported the warehouse floor above, was the inner sanctum of the ruling Council, and the heart of Wainscot and Scuffle’s clan. The Council, a group of seven rats who each 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—or their ability to survive long enough to seem wise—and political cunning, and that, once in place, each councilrat remained in the position until he died. Since the councilrats spent almost all of their time together, discussing clan business, sleeping, and even eating in isolation from the the rest of the Nest, they almost always died within the chamber. Most 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. The whisperers told stories about the Council—how the councilrats engaged various unnatural activities that were never quite described, and how differences of opinion sometimes ended in blood. No clan rat had ever seen a dead councilrat being removed from the chamber, which added fuel to the rumours, and led to speculation about what exactly it was that the councilrats ate, late at night when their sessions ran long. These disturbing tales, along with the ever-vigilant and deadly C’law, usually kept intruders far from the chamber.
“I must be an idiot,” Wainscot said quietly to himself as he pattered along behind Scuffle.
Carefully choosing their pathway through the many passageways around the chamber, they skirted the C’law sentry at the entrance without being seen. Scuffle was large, but she could move in absolute silence when necessary; 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 heavy 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 just be able to squeeze through.”
“Me?” Wainscot stared at her, his eyes wide. “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,” said Scuffle. She gave Wainscot what he could only assume was supposed to be a comforting lift of her brows. “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.” Fear made Wainscot’s response harsher than he intended. “I don’t see you volunteering to go in.”
“I told you –”
“Yes, yes.” Wainscot 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 that rascal Chinhair a thrashing,” said Scuffle. “Remember?”
Wainscot laughed. “If ever a rat deserved a good walloping, it’s Chinhair.”
Scuffle joined Wainscot in laughing at the memory. “He tried to take a piece out of your bum,” she said, “and I had to toss him around a little. 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.”
“That’s how he got away,” said Wainscot. “I remember.”
Scuffle nodded her head. “Well, that got me to thinking. So when you were asleep I came down here to do 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. He was still 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 tilted her head at Wainscot, “are you ready? I’m getting tired of holding this.”
Wainscot snorted again, but took a breath and squeezed through. 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 about the layout and contents of this secret domain of the Council. There were the odours he expected—cattle waste; Man’s sweat, tobacco, leather and damp wool; the resinous smell of the building itself; rat fur, feces and urine—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 suspected that it might be the stink of madness
All he knew with certainty was that there was something in the chamber with him, and that it was simply… wrong.
“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. 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 any 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. Rat bones were 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.
Shuddering, he stepped further into the space. There was a shadowed opening at the rear, leading 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. Wainscot’s tail dragged across a loose piece of bone with a small rattle, and something in the nest stirred. He froze, his heartbeat and shallow breathing seeming unnaturally loud in the darkness. Whether it could hear him or not, whatever it was that lurked in the shadows continued to move.
After a moment, Wainscot saw a dark shape slowly rise from the tangle of the nest. He stared in horror at a large 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.
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 barreling out of many throats at once. 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.
“Hold up, Wainscot,” she hissed. “Stop.”
He stopped and stood nose-to-nose with her, 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.”
A sudden clatter of clawed feet behind them proved her words wrong.
They took off again, careening 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, trying to clear the fog of panic from his mind. No one but the many-eyed shape in the Council chamber seen them. They just had to remain unseen until they could lose themselves in the crowded anonymity of the nesting chambers.
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.
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.
They angled away from the safety of the nesting chambers and 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 he was aware 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 he also felt a pulse of excitement. He was afraid of the unknown, and the dangers it might offer, but he was a rat, and rats are curious creatures, drawn to adventure.
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. If they did not find an exit from the Nest soon…
There—was that a flash of moonlight through a narrow opening a few strides ahead?
He threw himself through the small 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 high 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 in pain or fear—to Wainscot it was a far more horrible sound than the shriek of the thing in the Council chamber. Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the scream stopped.
Wainscot stood in place, shifting rapidly from foot to foot as warring instincts fought for control of his body. Love and duty were telling him to rush back through the hole to help his sister, but he could not move. Fear and common sense insisted that he should continue running away, because there was little he could do for Scuffle if he did go back. Still, he did not move.
There was a rustle of movement from inside the hole, and rat’s face appeared at the opening.
It was not Scuffle.
Wainscot turned tail and fled into the night.