Wainscot on the Heloise
Chapter 1 - Hider
He was a rat. A skulking, crawling, dirty rat. A thief and a sneak. Vermin.
These are not reflections on his character, but merely a description of what he was. Like his father, and his father’s father, he was a scurrier in hidden places and a chewer in the dark; one of the brotherhood of the scale-tailed who creep the shadowy fringes of Man’s world, leaving behind Morse-code clues to their existence. He skulked, and crawled, and sneaked and thieved because those are the ways of the rat. He was vermin, yes, but only in the eyes of Man, which, blind to all that was admirable in the rat, saw only the crawling and sneaking and thieving.
This particular bundle of ratty traits, both good and bad, was named Wainscot.
And although a rat from the tip of his pointed snout to the end of his hairless tail, Wainscot bore little resemblance to the sharp-toothed, yellow-eyed creatures that haunt the pages of gothic novels, and skitter the cobwebbed gloom of children’s nightmares. Small and thin, he appeared ill-used and underfed, and his coat, normally clean, was matted and damp.
He looked very much afraid, as his white-rimmed eyes flicked back and forth in search of something that was not there, and the fur of his flanks danced to the rapid rhythm of his breath.
He crouched, shivering with fatigue and fear, in a jumble of lumber stacked at the landward end of a weather-worn wooden pier that pointed, like an accusing finger, into a mist-shrouded sea.
Peering from a narrow opening, the cowering rat tried to pierce the gloom. Squinting, he strained to see if anything moved in the space between his refuge and the row of buildings that faced the pier, but the shifting blanket of mist did not give up its secrets willingly. The moon, full and fat, did its best to illuminate the night, but succeeded only in casting a ghostly glow through the fog, painting the scene in subtle variations of grey and white, but doing little to reveal what might be lurking in the darkness. Wainscot tested the air with his quivering nose. Nothing. The pitchy smell of the planks masked any telltale odours the damp air might have carried.
There – was that a flicker of movement? Had they caught up to him? Did he see a thickening of the shadows that might resolve itself into many dark bodies gliding close to the ground? Probably not – it was too soon - but it was only a matter of time.
He might have wriggled farther into the tangle of timber, but knew that there was no point. The pile offered no lasting refuge – only a postponement of the inevitable. They would find him, and when they did, they would drag him from his insufficient sanctuary to…
To what? To kill him? Wainscot knew that the penalty for his crime was death, but found it difficult to believe that they would carry out such an extreme sentence. They would not actually kill him, would they? He was still a member of the clan after all.
Yet in his heart he knew that they would. He knew it because they had not chased him so far, and so tirelessly, to mete out a lesser punishment; he knew it because they were the C’law, and the C’law were ruthless in their execution of the clan council’s will: and finally, he knew it because they had already killed Scuffle. The C’law, short for ‘Clanlaw’, though no rat used the longer name, were the clan’s army, its police, and it’s executioners. They always carried out their duties with unquestioning ferocity, and they had killed his sister. He was sure of it; or as sure as he could be without having actually seen her body. He felt a welling of grief at the thought of her. She had protected him his entire life, but at the end he had been unable to do the same for her. He knew that it was only by blind chance that it had been he who had hurtled through the exit hole first, and she who had been dragged back into the darkness, but that knowledge did nothing to ease his growing sense of guilt. With a conscious effort he forced down his turbulent emotions, squirreling them away for re-visiting at a safer time. He could not afford to let them hinder him now. He would need all of his wits about him if he hoped to live to see the fur-warming sun of the coming dawn.
He would mourn her later - if there were to be a later for him - but try as he might, he could not stop his thoughts from wandering back to the beginning of that day – a day that had started so peacefully, but had ended with the loss of everything he loved.