The dark desk stood bathed in moonlight again.
Again, the light blinked on its inky surface.
The seat of the leather chair faced the room’s interior this time and the occupant’s slender fingers rested on the cold material of the colossal table. A fingernail clicked on the surface in tune with the light’s rhythm.
‘We have just received confirmation that the bait animal has made contact with the lost specimens. The bait’s location tracking device was disabled, but the remaining contacts are in place.’
The figure leaned back in his chair and shaped a steeple with his finger over his chest. There was a hint of smugness in his voice.
‘According to our projection the bait animal should begin its journey back soon if the planted information was relayed properly. Everything has been put into place to intercept whatever members of the lost specimens will return as well.’
‘It must be a lie! How do we even know she really came from there?’
Verilla’s voice shouted over the din in the Counsel Hall.
After the revelations in the Infirmary Justin had wasted no time in calling for an emergency meeting of the entire Counsel. Only five hours from the time the Valley’s visitor, Julia, had given her account, the round meeting chamber was a cacophony of shouts, both angry and frightened. The various political and social factions in the colony had divided themselves in the available alcoves lining the Counsel Hall’s debating floor. Verilla, of course, had chosen the alcove adjacent to the elevator entrance for herself and her cronies. That way, she could claim not to see the wigged Speaker rat in the pulpit above the elevator, who was tasked to keep the sessions civil and orderly with the use of his trusty gavel, whenever it suited her.
Justin had prepared his friends and their visitor as best he could for the heated debacle he knew was to ensue. In order to defuse any arguments of conspiracy he had suggested to his friends to sit with their usual associates, rather than gather in one group. Brutus and Philip sat in the alcove normally occupied by Counsel Members affiliated with the Guard. All Guard members were fiercely loyal to Justin and he felt it best to keep his personal friends surrounded by allies tonight. Mr. Ages, Martin, Cynthia, and Timothy were in the recess frequented by
medical staff and engineers, close to Arthur, Ratchet and Hands. Mrs. Brisby sat together with Teresa and the other teachers, all of whom considered the mice close and good friends. This way Justin felt sure that all his co-conspirators, for this was what they actually were, would have the moral support they needed to do what they had agreed upon.
Except for the alcove occupied by Verilla and her fellows only one other faction in the Counsel could be considered openly hostile towards Justin’s leadership. That gave them a ratio of two groups in open opposition and three in open support. The rest of the assembly was known to sway either way, depending on the issue. And tonight the issues were grave.
Justin was standing on the debating floor, draped in his voluminous robes. Strangely, today they appeared less cumbersome on him as he moved with a newfound confidence. Julia, on the other hand, wearing a simple grey Guard tunic cut for a female, was positioned slightly behind him, gazed with open fear at the chaotic proceedings. Verilla’s comment had the desired effect of vicious agreements from her cohorts, as well as a number of frightened undecided rats, who wished for Julia’s report to be fabrication. Individual comments were hard to discern as many tried to yell their opinions at once.
The sharp bang of the Speaker’s gavel and his shouts for order finally managed to calm the assembly enough for Justin to respond. He waved his paws wide, turning to try and address as many of the alcoves as he could.
‘She can read. She has also described NIMH in details only one who has been there would know.’
Now the hall echoed with murmurs rather than with shouts.
Undeterred, supported by the angry glares of her fellows around her, Verilla continued.
‘We have only your word on that. And what of it? The mouse animals that live with us now can read too. It proves nothing!’
Again, the Speaker called for order.
‘Except for Mrs. Brisby, no other wild mouse,’ Justin looked around, ‘or wild rat for that matter, has ever been able to learn how to read. Before NIMH we had been around written words for a long time, but never could we understand them.’
He pointed at Julia.
‘Her account fits with everything that has baffled our own doctors for so long, including the allergy affliction and Mrs. Brisby’s abilities. We have to accept the fact that what NIMH has
done to us can spread to others around us, who were never there. The truth is, she has been one of us since the day Jonathan married her.’
There was loud protest from the corner of those that felt a strong superiority towards outsiders, wild animals. Both Verilla’s alcove and the other one filled with Justin’s opponents sprang on the comment immediately, but not Verilla herself. She seethed quietly, yet for the moment could not conjure up a convincing retort. She was not one to simply shout, even thought subtlety was also not one her favorite tools. Her supporters were casting both spiteful glances and verbal jibes at the colony’s leader in particular and all wild creatures in general. Finally, as the commotion died down again, Verilla sneered.
‘I am not willing to accept such a wild theory, especially if it comes from someone who very well might be just another wild animal, seeking our wealth. You say she can read. And how do we know for sure?’
Now Justin turned a whimsical smile to his political detractor.
‘Oh, you don’t trust my word? Write something for her to read, then. That way nobody can claim we coached her. Please, make it legible, though.’
That caused a number of sniggers both from Justin’s supporters and a number of the undecided rats. The rats opposing him kept quiet mostly. They had become suspicious of the colony’s leader’s certainty. Verilla gestured to Alastair, a sleek grey-furred second generation rat dressed in an all-black tunic with ice-cold eyes to hand her a piece of parchment and pencil. Once proffered she quickly scribbled something and then handed it back to the younger rat to deliver it to the debating floor.
Giving Justin nothing but a cold stare Alastair handed the note directly to Julia, who shrank back somewhat from the open hostility of the grey-furred male. When she looked at the piece of paper her cheeks colored red in anger. Gazing towards Verilla outrage replaced her previous fear and she almost shouted.
‘I will not read this out loud.’
‘Ah,’ the older female cooed, ‘you cannot read it then?’
All across the Counsel Hall rat faces were exchanging confused glances. Verilla, for all her bluster, was good at sowing doubt.
Justin moved towards the white-furred female, reaching for the paper when his detractor called out. What had gotten Julia’s blood boiling so badly?
‘No coaching, Justin. That is what you said. Let her prove herself to us all.’
The brown rat halted as if stung. She was right. If he got too close to Julia, Verilla could claim deceit. He looked at the female imploringly. She shot back with her blue eyes. The anger was still visible in her face. But seeing Justin’s urgency she swallowed her pride and stepped forward, into the center of the room, chin held up high.
‘This paper in my hands,’ she began, ‘contains words I do not believe in. I will read them as proof of my equality to you all, nothing more. This note reads:
I am noting but a worthless wild animal.
I seek only to take what you have worked for so hard.
Cast me and others like me back into the wilderness.
We deserve nothing better.’
The pandemonium that now ensued was terrible. Every rat was on its feet. Even those that had no political vestment were outraged at what had transpired. Some made as if to run across the debating floor to Verilla’s alcove to start a fight. She backed deeper into the chamber recess, some of her younger supporters stepping in front, almost eager to come to blows. Thankfully, the fight never managed to begin.
On every column flanking the Counsel Hall alcoves huge Guard Sentries in long ceremonial robes and with shining halberds were stationed. While many considered the giant rats to be ornamental or forgot about them entirely, the colony Guards knew very well why they stationed them at their posts for every Counsel Meeting. Most of the time, disagreements were kept to shouts and accusations. But on days like today, when violence threatened to erupt, the sentries did their duty.
Each huge rat stepped forward toward the debating floor, banging the metal butt of their weapon onto the polished black marble in unison. The crack was deafening and everyone that had just readied themselves for a physical exchange stopped in their tracks. The sentries were amongst the biggest and strongest rats in the colony. Just barely smaller than Brutus their accusing glances were enough to give the Speaker’s continuous shouts for order the weight to compel the riled-up rodents to return to their places.
Justin gently took the paper from Julia and smiled his thanks at her. Then, he walked to the other alcove that housed rats that were discontent with his leadership, apart from Verilla’s group. He handed the note to an older bearded Counsel Member, who looked at it questioningly.
‘Could you verify that Julia has read the words accurately?’
The old rat blinked for a few moments, then looked at the text. Finally, he nodded and muttered grimly,
‘She has read the text word for word. She can read, without any doubt.’
Nodding to the other rat with a smile Justin stepped back into the middle of the floor.
‘She can read. She has been at NIMH. She has heard the humans talk about the truth behind what is beginning to ail us.’
Cecil, Verilla’s husband, a rat with a slight, seedy disposition dressed in a flamboyant burgundy tunic with sickly yellow-beige fur, snorted.
‘How can we be sure she heard them right?’
Justin decided to ignore Cecil’s comments. He knew that Verilla’s husband would follow suit with his spouse in all matters. Cecil was a scheming opportunist, usually acting behind the scenes, unless, of course, Verilla desired for him to make public statements.
‘Julia had no obligation to us,’ the leader of the colony continued.
‘She only heard from us from the humans. Yet when she escaped, she chose to seek us out, to warn us. If not for her decision, we would still be in the dark. Remember, it was the Owl who brought her.’
That argument had great sway with the rats. All considered the Great Owl to be a trusted ally; some thought the Owl to be magical in nature. Its decision to bring the stranger to Thorn Valley went a long way to add credibility to Julia’s tale.
‘If the humans spoke the truth,’ Justin continued, ‘then this allergy will not be stopped by any medical knowledge we posses. Is that right, Mr. Ages?’
The old white mouse rose from his seat and cautiously left his alcove. He had dreaded this moment. Mr. Ages was not comfortable in having to admit defeat. Martin had been right in his suspicions and he, the one who had told the younger mouse never to let emotions cloud scientific inquiry, had willfully ignored any explanation of the allergy that connected back to NIMH. Why had he done that? Now that he had to face that question himself he knew the answer immediately. He, Thomas Ages, had been scared. Now he had to admit his fallacy to the entire Counsel.
Once on the debating floor Mr. Ages, turning around as he spoke, addressed the colony representatives.
‘Friends, the newcomer’s account is scientifically reasonable. The medical staff and I have questioned her repeatedly and we have developed a clear theory as to the mechanism of this threat.’
A number of rats leaned forward in hopeful anticipation. Maybe there was hope yet.
‘I am sad to admit,’ Ages swallowed hard, ‘that if our theory proves true, there is nothing within our power to stop this ‘disease’ from spreading and, if the humans are correct, ultimately die from it.’
Now the shouting resumed. Questions were hurled at the doctor in such number that they all became a jumble of words. Justin waved his arms to appeal for calm. After a while the chamber quieted again, but the air was now filled with mutters and groans of trepidation.
In his own nervousness, the white mouse removed his glasses and polished them.
‘The humans must have built the disease right into the change caused by the serum. I won’t bother you with the details, but we may have carried this within us ever since we left NIMH.’
It was Philip who stood up from his seat. Known to be reasonable and calm, even by Justin’s detractors, he stepped to the edge of the Guards’ alcove so he would not have to raise his voice.
‘Then why would it be starting now, after all this time?’
This question had been agreed upon. The rodents, who had first listened to Julia’s account, had decided that the rest of the colony had to be made to understand just how dire their situation was.
‘It’s difficult to understand without knowing about medicine and genetics,” Mr. Ages ventured, ‘but the humans probably made us smart by changing our very deepest nature, our cells, our genes. And you can put things into genes that can have a sort of ‘timer’, like a countdown. This ‘disease’ is probably something like that, to keep us from making others like us until maybe the entire world would be smart like humans.’
The Guard Captain nodded and returned to his seat. Mr. Ages, not wanting to add anything, did the same.
One of the undecided rats, a lady, called out.
‘But why would they do that?’
It was a male member from her own group, who answered.
‘Because if everyone was as smart as them, they would no longer rule the world.’
Nods and mutters of agreement wafted through the hall. Even Verilla nodded to herself with a dire look. One of her hands reached to her neck, behind the veil of her hat. She carefully touched the spot where the fur had recently turned snow-white and sensitive to light. Verilla shuddered. No, this must be some sort of political game Justin was playing. She would not, could not face up to the terrible possibility of the interloper’s story being true. Yet her own uncertainty became more and more powerful, strong enough to keep her from openly voicing her opposition to the mouse doctor’s explanations.
‘What can we do then?’
Justin could not make out who had asked the all-important question, but addressed the Counsel as a whole.
‘Julia has already told us that the humans want us back. They do not want us to die. To make sure they have returned to the Farm, ready with some sort of cure.’
This news brought the ire back into Verilla’s bones.
‘Do you suggest we surrender to the humans?’
Gasps of terror followed the remark from all around.
Justin held his hands up high.
‘Of course not. I suggest we send a party to try and steal the cure from the humans.’
There were sounds of agreement, even hope, coming from all the different alcoves now. Verilla had to admit to her own dismay, that the idea had merit, but would give her rival great political clout should it succeed. Before she made up her mind whether to support the proposal or nor she wanted more details though.
‘The cure is kept by the NIMH people at the Farm?’
Julia deflated at the comment and Justin’s hands lowered to his sides as he answered.
‘No, according to Julia, the cure is not at the Farm. The humans are afraid of their work escaping again. It can only be found at the source,’ he paused, ‘at NIMH.’
Immediately the majority of the rats in the Hall leaned or stepped back in fear. NIMH had been the all-consuming specter in their existence. The idea to ever return there voluntarily would not have entered anyone’s mind, until now.
‘I propose,’ Justin spoke up again, ‘that one of us, who has been at NIMH and remembers it, should lead that expedition.’
This got an even more terrified response. Those belonging to the first generation to have escaped from NIMH were aging now. Most had large families, many had grandchildren.
Whoever would go back might never see his or her family again. Anguish was on the face of almost all of the assembled rodents.
Recognizing these fears, having anticipated them, Justin added.
‘Since I am the only one who remembers NIMH and doesn’t have a family, I volunteer to go.’
This raised shouts of protest, from supporters and opposition alike. Verilla, kept her peace though. She rubbed her chin with a thoughtful glance and, as Alastair got up from his seat to protest, put a hand on his arm and shook her head. The younger rat was surprised.
‘No,’ she said, ‘this may be an opportunity in disguise.’
Alastair sat down again while Cecil eyed his wife with a cocked brow.
The bearded rat from the second alcove containing opponents to Justin’s policies stood.
‘It does not behoove the Leader of the Counsel to abandon his post during a time of crisis.’
Oddly enough, the room remained quiet after the old rat’s remark. Verilla held her breath in anticipation.
Justin nodded to the elder.
‘I agree. A true leader should lead those under his care.’
The brown rat raised a hand to the button securing his tunic in place and opened it. The long, formal robes slid quietly to the floor, like a cast-off shell. What remained was Justin in his old blue Guard uniform.
‘I hereby resign my position as Head of the Counsel.’
Everyone was shocked. Then the clamor began again. Justin, now without his vestments, and the Speaker tried to retain a sense of order in the chamber. Verilla, all the while, folded her fingers in a steeple in front of her face and smiled. She noticed both her husband and Alastair staring at her, as did most of her supporters in the alcove. She mused quietly, but loud enough for her fellows to hear.
‘That will mean we will have to elect a new Head of the Counsel,’ her smile widened to a grin as she savored the political winds, ‘after our current one has so shamefully chosen to abandon us.’
Verilla’s cronies all smiled in turn. If they allowed Justin to leave and abandon his position, their grab for power and the creation of a purer colony would become that much easier.
In the meantime the tumult subsided into something close to stunned silence. Except for the mice and rats, which had been present in the Infirmary this morning, nobody had expected Justin’s abdication. Together with the other incredible news this seemed to cause a mental paralysis in the Counsel Hall. Once matters had quieted enough, Justin used that same numbness of the crowd to deliver his remaining points.
‘According to our statutes, at the resignation of the Head of the Counsel, until the time that formal elections have been set for, the role of acting Head of the Counsel falls to the current Captain of the Guard.’
Philip leaned back in his chair, arms folded across his chest and his face glowering. He hated this part. He hated politics. But Justin had convinced him earlier of the necessity of this move. Sometimes the things one did in the line of duty stank to high heaven. The now resigned Head of the Counsel picked up his formal robes off the floor and beckoned for Philip to approach.
Verilla’s face also became a mask of discontent. She had forgotten about that statute. That would mean Philip would be Head of the Counsel until she could organize new elections. This was bad. Philip was almost universally liked and unassuming. He would never have put himself up for political office. The current Captain’s dislike for politics was well-known. Justin had, with his resignation, forced Philip into a role he would have never actively sought. As she pondered this she became certain that this had been Justin’s plan all along. This way he had put a close friend in control of the colony, one who would never have agreed to it otherwise. And Philip would do his duty. If she moved too daringly in the meantime, he might just decide to actually run during the next election to keep the colony ‘safe’. That would be worse. She would have to bide her time and observe carefully.
Philip, with a deep sigh, rose to his feet and once more moved to the debating floor. Once there, Justin put the robes around his neck. They were a terrible fit. Philip was half a head taller than the brown rat and much wider in the chest. The length of the robes was no problem; their slender cut though was a different matter.
Justin addressed his Guard comrade.
‘Do you, Philip, accept for the interim the duties and role of acting Head of the Counsel?’
The grey Guard gritted his teeth and whispered, ‘You owe me big-time for this!’
Then he nodded and exclaimed, ‘I swear, with all my ability, to serve and protect this colony, to be Head of its elected Counsel, until removed from office by vote of no confidence or new election.’
Arthur, sitting with his fellow engineers, began to clap, but without enthusiasm. The noise was monotone and grim, just as his face. The others in the alcove joined in likewise, to be followed by the rest of the Hall’s occupants. It was a somber round of applause, muted and joyless. Only Verilla and her associates refrained. They were too busy plotting in their own minds.
Philip cleared his throat, started to speak, stumbled, and then started again.
‘As Head of the Counsel I move to equip an expedition to NIMH in the human city of Baltimore, with Justin as nominal leader.’
There was little emotional strength left in the Counsel members after the series of shocks they had received. After nobody made a move to second, it was Mrs. Brisby who stood up.
‘I second the motion.’
The speaker banged his gavel and called out, ‘By show of hands, all in favor?’
The vast majority of the rodents in the Hall raised their hands, including Verilla, but all did so slowly and with fearful caution.
‘The motion,’ the Speaker declared, ‘is carried by the Counsel. An expedition and its equipment are authorized.’
Every rat and mouse in the room had their eyes on Justin and Philip. Only one question remained and that was who would go? Would Philip appoint Guards to accompany Justin?
The newly-deposed Head of the Counsel waved a paw to the assembled.
‘Are there any volunteers willing to accompany me?’
This was their cue. First, Brutus stood up and joined the rats on the debating floor. This was greeted with murmurs from the crowd, but was not unexpected. Brutus’ loyalty to Justin was well-known.
Julia stepped up to Justin from behind and put a paw on his shoulder. A few more questioning tones were heard from the crowd, but still nothing resembling excitement.
Then, simultaneously, Mrs. Brisby, Cynthia, and Timothy stood up in their respective alcoves and walked to the center of the room, where they all arrived at the same time.
The final uproar of the Counsel Meeting ensued. Only Verilla leaned back in her chair, face still hidden behind folded fingers as she smiled to herself. Justin and three of the bothersome mice, all gone without her having to do anything. Sometimes patience was its own reward.
The next morning was a bit chillier than usual, despite an almost cloudless sky.
Justin had asked the expedition members to meet on the same Oak root where the crows had dropped off Teresa and her family not two days earlier. All of the Brisby family was already waiting on the root’s surface, Teresa’s children, Mr. Ages, and, to the old mouse’s chagrin, the Shrew. Kir, Flynn and Lynn where bustling around their Grandmother while she and Teresa exchanged goodbyes. Gregory, who had been appraised of the previous day’s proceedings, looked thoughtful and somewhat reserved. The revelations about the procedure that the humans at NIMH had performed on the father-in-law he had never met, Jonathan Bribsy, had shaken him in a number of ways. The Rats of NIMH could no long treat him as a lesser creature, knowing full well now that he had either already shared in the change or was well under way to being as intelligent as they were. But the fact of his equality was laced with fear, fear for the life of his family, his children. He looked at Teresa and their offspring and felt his heart ache. If this venture to NIMH, a place he had never seen, which terrified the Rats of Thorn Valley so, did not succeed, their lives might be forfeit.
‘We will try and hold things together until you come back.’
Teresa was fighting back tears as she embraced her mother.
Mrs. Brisby, teary-eyed as well, nodded.
‘If what Julia said is true, you, Martin, Mr. Ages and Gabriel will have your work cut out for you.’
The young mother shuddered at the thought.
‘At least they won’t threaten to throw us out again. They need us now.’
She stepped back to stand next to her mate while her children eagerly ran from Mrs. Brisby to Cynthia and Timothy, hugging, embracing, asking them to be back home soon. The three mice embarking on the journey were already kitted out for travel. Cynthia’s side-slung bag was bursting with medical supplies and food. Timothy wore a back-back that contained a number of metal odds and ends in addition to his rations and blankets, some of which even Mr. Ages
could not make sense off. The younger Brisby son picked up his smaller nephew and niece in turn, playing crow-ride with them a bit, while Cynthia simply fuzzed up each child’s hair and grinned. Martin stood a bit off to the side with Mr. Ages. He had his arms folded over his chest and tried to look collected. His mother, also carrying side-hung bag, approached him and touched his cheek gently. That broke the young doctor’s defenses. Tearing up he bent down to embrace his mother and choked out his own good bye.
‘Please take care of yourself, mom! We need you back, you hear?’
Elizabeth Brisby gently padded her oldest child on the back, as if he was just a kid again, and hushed. Then she took a step back and, smiling, wiped the tears from Martin’s eyes.
‘I will be back, soon. You just make sure that Ages doesn’t work himself into the ground.’
The old doctor, standing close, huffed at that, but it was simply to cover up his own uneasiness. When Mrs. Brisby came up to him and embraced him, he sniffled a bit too. The last one to be hugged was the Shrew, who, for a change, did not say anything but fussed over the brown’s mouse attire and cloak a bit when they pulled back. Then, the two old friends smiled and nodded at each other. Then, true to form, the Shrew looked up at the sky and put her hands to her hips.
‘Now where is that turkey?’
Mrs. Brisby could not suppress a chuckle.
‘Jeremy and his family are waiting for Brutus to give them the signal.’
At that the red-caped rodent turned to Cynthia.
‘Where are Brutus and Justin anyway?’
The younger female, busy fluffing up Kir’s cheeks, shrugged.
‘He wrote that we should meet here with all the equipment. You’re not surprised Justin is late,’ she grinned, ‘are you?’
Before Elizabeth could answer, the small latch in the root’s surface swung open and Brutus squeezed into view. The Guard was wearing his usual uniform and cape, but also carried an immense back-pack, which, unsurprisingly, did not seem to weigh him down. The huge rat appeared unusually cheerful this morning and nodded a greeting with a smile to the already waiting rodents. Behind the Guard, Julia, kitted out in the same light-colored uniform she had worn during the Counsel Meeting, but also shouldering a smaller back-pack, climbed up. She handed Brutus his beloved pole-axe, which he could not be persuaded to leave behind. Justin,
clad in his own Guard uniform, equipped with backpack and a quarterstaff, brought up the rear. He appeared to be even more cheerful than Brutus.
‘Good morning, everyone!’
The mice and shrew returned the greeting, although without the rat’s cheer.
Justin rubbed his paws together as he surveyed the group. He had replaced the normal button of his tunic with the Stone.
‘Is everyone about ready?’
Drawing themselves away from Teresa, her family, Ages and the Shrew, the three travelling mice approached the rats.
‘As ready as we’re going to get,’ sighed Timothy.
Justin simply smiled and nodded, then motioned to Brutus.
‘You have the single cloth?’
The Guard pulled the red frabric from a pocket and attached it to the lower end of his weapon. Cynthia, who sidled in between Brutus and their leader, cocked a curious brow.
‘So, we will be going via crow?’
The brown rat winked playfully at her.
‘Of course we will. It will be much faster this way.’
Cynthia nodded, yet remained thoughtful. The mouse wondered if Justin had taken Brutus’ fear of heights into account. She cast a glance at the slender brown rat, who was now busy talking to Julia. He did not look concerned about Brutus’ fears, or anything else for that matter. The expedition’s leader radiated eagerness, as if this was going to be an adventure rather than a mission of desperation. As she watched she saw Justin call out to Mr. Ages, who immediately shambled over and, after a small conversation with Justin and Julia, climbed down the ladder into the recesses of the Oak’s hollow root, followed by the white-furred rat.
Just as Brutus was about to raise the make-shift banner into the air, Justin waved a hand at him.
‘Not yet. First things first. Anyone else didn’t have breakfast?’
All eyes turned to the brown rat, who had just raised a big basket on a rope from the entrance to the colony. Following the wicker form filled with pieces of fresh bread were Julia and Mr. Ages, each carrying a pot filled with a steaming liquid. Justin grinned as he placed the basket on the ground.
‘I think a journey should not begin on a sad note. Hey kids, you like hot chocolate?’
Lynn and Flynn escaped from their parents with screeches of delight, nearly mugging the rat as he rummaged through the basket to hand each a cup. Their older brother Kir rushed in to pull them both back.
‘Guys! Give him some room, okay?’
Teresa, Gregory, Martin, and the Shrew walked up as well, their faces registering confusion. This was definitely an odd thing for Justin to do on the eve of such a grave endeavor. But the smell of the fresh bread and the chocolate took precedence over such thoughts. Everybody sat down in a circle around the big basket while Justin handed out various sized cups and loaves of fresh bread. Julia and Mr. Ages poured the freshly brewed concoction with comments of ‘Careful. It’s hot’. Then they joined the others in the meal.
The kids giggled and chewed with wild abandon, but the adults remained understandably subdued. Even Justin’s carefree cheerfulness could not rouse their spirits. Cynthia, normally the source of cheer in the family, was giving the brown rat suspicious glances as he ate and drank. As nice of a gesture as this was, she sensed there was more to this than just wanting to share one final meal amongst friends.
As if to prove her right, Justin suddenly stood up and raised his cup to the group. His smile turned a bit bitter.
‘I want to thank each and everyone of you for what you are doing today.’
He looked at everyone in the circle in turn.
‘I thank those of you who will go with me on this journey, and those who will have to stay here and face the problems to come in our absence. This will not be an easy time for any of us. But I know that if we hold true to each other, we will make it through this.’
The rat’s serious tone quieted down the children almost immediately. But when Justin smiled warmly again and raised his cup in a toast, even the two youngest emulated him, despite the fact that their cups had been drained empty, thrice actually.
‘A toast to all of us, and to our journey.’
All chorused and then drained their cups, not matter whether they had been empty or full. From the corner of her eye Cynthia thought she saw Justin give Brutus an odd look as the large Guard swallowed the rest of his beverage. Then the brown rat simply smiled to himself and sat down to finish his bread. After the meal had run its course Justin and Julia stowed the leftovers,
canisters and cups in the basket and lowered everything via the rope down to the floor of the root’s internal passageway.
Finished and rubbing his paws Justin and the female walked over to Mr. Ages.
‘Will you be okay lugging that heavy thing back to the kitchens?’
The white mouse pointed a finger over his shoulder at Martin.
‘The lad’s got strong arms. We’ll manage.’
Then Mr. Ages drew close to the brown rat and muttered.
‘I hope you know what you’re doing, Justin. Just be careful out there.’
Going down on one knee to look the old mouse in the eye the former Captain of the Guard and recently retired Head of the Counsel smiled.
‘I promise, you old goat. Now don’t go soft on me while I’m gone.’
Ages actually had to chuckle and shake his head at that.
Standing back up Justin looked at Julia.
‘Are you ready for this?’
The female had a look of determination on her face that contrasted starkly with the timidity she had shown when they had first seen her in the infirmary. She simply nodded at him and, with her hands on the straps of her back-pack, motioned her head towards Brutus, who was just getting up brushing crumbs off his tunic. Justin took the hint and called out.
‘Brutus! Can you signal the crows now?’
Turning to Justin the big rat gave him an ‘okay’ sign and picked up his halberd to swing the red ribbon end in wide arcs. As Brutus waved the red sheet on the end of his weapon widely, Cynthia, who had not stopped watching Justin, walked up to the Guard. She knew the large rat would never agree to aerial travel with his fear of heights. As she stood next to her friend and looked at him she felt it was strange to see Brutus so unconcerned about the prospect of flying as he signaled for the crows to make their approach. A few moments later the waiting rodents could already make out four dark spots in the sky, becoming larger every moment. The Guard lowered the pole and untied the cloth. Cynthia snuck in behind him and gently nudged him with an elbow.
Brutus looked down at her.
‘How come you’re not freaking out about having to fly?’
The big rat looked surreptitiously at Justin and then back at the mouse, almost grinning. He pulled his writing tablet from his back-pack and scribbled a quick message:
Justin didn’t think it through.
Too heavy for any crow.
Gonna have to walk.
Cynthia rubbed her chin doubtfully as Brutus wiped the chalk off the board and re-stowed it into his pack. She did not think Justin would have overlooked this matter, just as she was sure he had not forgotten about the large rodent’s fear of heights. Something else was at play here.
Soon, the crows circled downwards to land on the root’s surface. Jeremy, who was in the lead, was doing half-summersaults in the air on his approach. His wife and kids tried to remain more dignified, but nudged each other playfully before all had descended and arrived in a bustle of black feathers.
Jeremy shouted as he stalked towards the rodents, so excited he stumbled a bit. Mrs. Brisby walked up to greet him.
‘We agreed that I will carry you, Jules will carry your son, Janet your daughter, and my sweet,’ he cooed over to his wife, who rolled her eyes but smiled broadly, ‘will take care of the bags and such. We will be at the farm in no time.’
Patting Jeremy on the beak the brown mouse nodded gratefully, then her face furrowed and she turned her head towards the rats.
‘Justin, how are you going to get to the farm? You are too heavy to ride on crows.’
Brutus grinned broadly at Mrs. Brisby’s comment.
Justin appeared unperturbed. He casually strolled up to the crows and mouse while occasionally looking at the sky.
‘That will be no problem, my dear. The Owl has made arrangements for us.’
Jeremy’s whole family gasped. The Great Owl held even greater reverence for the birds of the local forest than it did for the Rats of NIMH. That awed silence turned to looks of terror on all the crows’ faces when two huge shadows descended from above.
Before the spooked crows could take to flight Justin held up his palms imperiously and spoke with a calm yet commanding voice.
‘Stay! They are here as friends.’
Oddly enough, that was enough to keep the jittery family of crows from bolting. Mrs. Brisby gave the brown rat a sidelong stare. She had never heard Justin speak with so much conviction, or power. Since that morning Brutus had come to take her and her children to meet with Justin in the infirmary, she had noticed a subtle change in the former leader of the colony. Something in his manner was more settled, certain. And it somehow transformed into an assurance that those around him were powerless to deny. It reminded her of another rat, who once had led the colony, very much so.
But those thoughts were soon scattered as the enormous shapes of two immense Gold Eagles settled themselves between the rodents and the crows on the middle of the root. Huge, black talons clicked against the bark and predatory ember eyes gazed at both rats and mice, ignoring the smaller black birds for now. All except Justin were stunned by the size, majesty, and incredible danger radiating from the predators. The larger of the two, a female, lowered her head.
‘Which one of you is Justin?’
Justin stepped forward with a calm welcoming smile.
‘I am. Thank you for your aid.’
Both eagles lowered their heads simultaneously in a bow, which took everyone by surprise, everyone except the brown rat standing fearlessly in front of them, who simply bowed respectfully in turn.
‘I am Kara,’ the female eagle said.
‘I am Orin,’ her mate replied, ‘we shall carry you to the farm of the humans, as the Owl asked of us.’
Once again Justin bowed his head in thanks.
The other rodents were still wide-eyed with shock. How the Great Owl had managed to summon these humongous Gold Eagles to transport them went beyond their comprehension. Justin turned to his friends, his face collected and serene.
Brutus, on the other hand, was shuddering with terror. His head was shaking widely as he pointed a finger at the two predator birds and then at himself he appeared ready to collapse with fear. Justin just walked up to the trembling rat and gently placed a hand on his shoulder. The
others stared at the weird scene in wonder, their own panic in the face of the eagles momentarily forgotten.
‘Calm down, my friend. You won’t even notice the ride.’
Still shaking his head, no understanding what Justin meant, Brutus suddenly blinked his eyes in surprise. He shook his head again, but not in protest. He looked as if he was trying to clear something from his vision. Then, the big rat began to sway slightly in place, his eyes drooping, until he slowly sank to the floor, and slept.
‘You drugged him, didn’t you?’
Justin turned on the young mouse with a smile.
‘Ages put it into his cup. It was the gentlest way to allow him to make the trip.’
Cynthia was aghast. She saw a similar look of disbelief on her mother’s face. Yet Timothy had a wry smile on his muzzle.
‘Neat trick, Justin. How are you going to pull that one on him on the way back?’
Justin just shrugged and walked next to Julia.
‘Will you be okay flying with them?’
The female rat, who was slightly trembling herself grasped Justin’s chest-fur in one hand as she stared at the two huge animals.
‘You better ride with me.’
Nodding with a grin Justin walked back towards the Gold Eagles. He looked at the larger female bird.
‘Can you carry my sleeping friend carefully?’
Kara gave him a sideways sneer.
‘I have carried foxes and never once dropped one. He will be safe.’
The brown rat offered another bow in reply and walked back to the rodent travelers and their awestruck family members.
‘Last chance to say our goodbyes again. Then we have to fly.’