'Well, the stories say it just… happens.'
'How does it happen?'
'I read somewhere that their tails become stuck together when they're in the nest, because of all the muck, and they get twisted up as-'
'Rats generally have six or seven babies, and they have quite short tails, and the parents keep the nests quite clean,' said Keith. 'Have the people who tell these stories ever seen rats?'
'I don't know. Maybe the rats just get crowded together and their tails get twisted up? There's a preserved rat king in a big jar of alcohol in the town museum.'
'A dead one?'
'Or very, very drunk. What do you think?' said Malicia. 'It's ten rats, like a sort of star, with a big knot of tail in the middle. Lots of others have been found, too. One had thirty-two rats! There's folklore about them.'
'But that rat-catcher said he made one,' said Keith firmly. 'He said he did it to get into the Guild. Do you know what a masterpiece is?'
'Oh course. It's anything really good'
'I mean a real masterpiece,' said Keith. 'I grew up in a big city, with guilds everywhere. That's how I know. A masterpiece is something that an apprentice makes at the end of his training to show the senior members of the Guild that he deserves to be a “master”. A full member. You understand? It might be a great symphony, or a beautiful piece of carving, or a batch of magnificent loaves – his “master piece”.'
'Very interesting. So?'
'So what sort of master piece would you have to make to become a master rat-catcher? To show that you could really control rats? Remember the sign over the door?' Malicia frowned the frown of someone faced with an inconvenient fact. 'Anyone could tie a bunch of rat tails together if they wanted to,' she said. 'I'm sure I could.'
'While they're alive? You'd have to trap them first, and then you've got slippery bits of string that are moving all the time and the other end keeps on biting you? Eight of them? Twenty of them? Thirty-two? Thirty-two angry rats?' Malicia looked around at the untidy shed. 'It works,' she said. 'Yes. It makes almost as good a story. Probably there were one or two real rat kings… all right, all right, maybe just one – and people heard about this and decided that since there was all this interest they'd try to make one. Yes. It's just like crop circles. No matter how many aliens own up to making them, there are always a few diehards who believe that humans go out with garden rollers in the middle of the night-'
'I just think that some people like to be cruel,' said Keith. 'How would a rat king hunt? They'd all pull in different
'Ah, well, some of the stories about rat kings say that they can control other rats,' said Malicia. 'With their minds, sort of. Get them to bring them food and go to different places and so on. You're right, rat kings can't move around easily. So they… learn how to see out of the eyes of other rats, and hear what they hear.'
'Just other rats?' said Keith. 'Well, one or two stories do say that they can do it to people,' said Malicia. 'How?' said Keith. 'Has it ever happened, really?'
'It couldn't, could it?' said Malicia. Yes. 'Yes what?' said Malicia. 'I didn't say anything. You just said “yes”,' said Keith. Silly little minds. Sooner or later there is always a way in. The cat is much better at resisting! You will OBEY me. Let the rats GO. 'I think we should let the rats go,' said Malicia. 'It's just too cruel, having them packed into those cages like that.'
'I was just thinking that,' said Keith. And forget about me. I am just a story. 'Personally, I think rat kings really are just a story,' said Malicia, walking over to the trapdoor and raising it. 'That rat-catcher was a stupid little man. He was just babbling.'
'I wonder if we should let the rats out,' Keith mused. 'They looked pretty hungry.'
'They can't be worse than the rat-catchers, can they?' said Malicia. 'Anyway, the piper will be here soon. He'd lead them all into the river, or something-'
'Into the river…' muttered Keith. 'That's what he does, yes. Everyone knows that.'
'But rats can-' Keith began. Obey me! Don't THINK! Follow the story! 'Rats can what?'
'Rats can… rats can…' Keith stammered. 'I can't remember. Something about rats and rivers. Probably not important.' Thick, deep darkness. And, somewhere in it, a little voice. 'I dropped Mr Bunnsy,' said Peaches. 'Good,' said Dangerous Beans. 'It was just a lie. Lies drag us down.'
'You said it was important!'
'It was a lie!' … endless, dripping darkness… 'And… I've lost the Rules, too.'
'So?' Dangerous Beans' voice was bitter. 'No-one bothered with them.'
'That's not true! People tried to. Mostly. And they were sorry when they didn't!'
'They were just another story, too. A silly story about rats who thought they weren't rats,' said Dangerous Beans. 'Why're you talking like this? This isn't like you!'
'You saw them run. They ran and squeaked and forgot how to talk. Underneath, we're just… rats.' … foul, stinking darkness… 'Yes, we are,' said Peaches. 'But what are we on top? That's what you used to say. Come on-please? Let's go back. You're not well.'
'It was all so clear to me…' Dangerous Beans mumbled. 'Lie down. You're tired. I've got a few matches left. You know you always feel better when you see a light…' Worried in her heart, and feeling lost and a long way from home, Peaches found a wall that was rough enough and dragged a match from her crude bag. The red head flared and cracked. She raised the match as high as she could. There were eyes everywhere. What's the worst part? she thought, her body rigid with fear. That I can see the eyes? Or that I'm going to know they're still there when the match goes out? 'And I've only got two more matches…' she mumbled to herself. The eyes withdrew into the shadows, noiselessly. How can rats be so still and so silent? she thought. 'There's something wrong,' said Dangerous Beans. 'Yes.'
'There's something here,' he said. 'I smelled it on that keekee they found in the trap. It's a kind of terror. I can smell it on you.'
'Yes,' said Peaches.
'Can you see what we should do?' said Dangerous Beans. 'Yes.' The eyes in front were gone, but Peaches could still see them on either side. 'What can we do?' said Dangerous Beans. Peaches swallowed. 'We could wish we had more matches,' she said. And, in the darkness behind their eyes, a voice said: And so, in your despair, you come, at last, tome… Light has a smell. In the dank, damp cellars the sharp sulphur stink of the match flew like a yellow bird, rising on drafts, plunging through cracks. It was a clean and bitter smell and it cut through the dull underground reek like a knife. It filled the nostrils of Sardines, who turned his head. 'Matches, boss!' he said. 'Head that way!' Darktan commanded. 'It's through the room of cages, boss,' Sardines warned. 'So?'
'Remember what happened last time, boss?' Darktan looked around at his squad. It wasn't everything he could have wished for. Rats were still trailing back from their hiding-places, and some rats-good, sensible rats-had run into traps and poisons in the panic. But he'd picked the best he could. There were a few of the experienced older ones, like Inbrine and Sardines, but most of them were young. Maybe that wasn't such a bad thing, he thought. It was the older rats who'd panicked most. They hadn't been so used to thinking. 'O-K,' he said. 'Now, we don't know what we're going to-' he began, and caught sight of Sardines. The rat was shaking his head slightly. Oh, yes. Leaders weren't allowed not to know. He stared at the young, worried faces, took a deep breath and started again. 'There's something new down here,' he said, and suddenly he knew what to say. 'Something that no-one's ever seen before. Something tough. Something strong.' The squad was almost cowering, except for Nourishing, who was staring at Darktan with shining eyes. 'Something fearful. Something new. Something sudden,' said Darktan, leaning forward. 'And it's you. All of you. Rats with brains. Rats who can think. Rats who don't turn and run. Rats who aren't afraid of dark or fire or noises or traps or poisons. Nothing can stop rats like you, right?' Now the words bubbled up. 'You heard about the Dark Wood in the Book? Well, we're in the Dark Wood now. There's something else down there. Something terrible. It hides behind your fear. It thinks it can stop you and it's wrong. We're going to find it and drag it out and we're gonna make it wish we'd never been born! And if we die… well,' and he saw them, as one rat, stare at the livid wound across his chest, 'death ain't so bad. Shall I tell you about the Bone Rat? He waits for those who break and run, who hide, who falter. But if you stare into his eyes he'll give you a nod and pass right on.' Now he could smell their excitement. In the world behind their eyes they were the bravest rats that there ever were. Now he had to lock that thought there. Without thinking, he touched the wound. It was healing badly, still leaking blood, and there was going to be a huge scar there for ever. He brought his hand up, with his own blood, and the idea came to him right out of his bones. He walked along the row, touching each rat just above the eyes, leaving a red mark. 'And afterwards,' he said quietly, 'people will say, “They went there, and they did it, and they came back out of the Dark Wood, and this is how they know their own”.' He looked across their heads to Sardines, who raised his hat. That broke the spell. The rats started to breathe again. But something of the magic was still there, lodged in the gleam of an eye and the twitch of a tail. 'Ready to die for the Clan, Sardines?' Darktan shouted. 'No, boss! Ready to kill!'
'Good,' said Darktan. 'Let's go. We love the Dark Wood! It belongs to us!' The smell of light drifted along the tunnels and reached the face of Maurice, who sniffed it up. Peaches! She was mad about light. It was more or less all Dangerous Beans could see. She always carried a few matches. Mad! Creatures that lived in darkness, carrying matches! Well, obviously not mad when you thought about it, but even so… The rats behind were pushing him in that direction. I'm being played with, he thought. Batted from paw to paw so Spider can hear me squeak. He heard in his head the voice of Spider: And so, in your despair, you come, at last, to me… And heard with his ears, far off and faint, the voice of Dangerous Beans. 'Who are you?' I am the Big Rat That Lives Underground. 'You are? Really. I have thought… a lot about you.' There was a hole in the wall here and, beyond it, the brilliance of a lighted match. Sensing the press of the rats behind him, Maurice sidled through.
There were big rats everywhere, on the floor, on boxes, clinging to the walls. And, in the centre, a circle of light from one half-burned match held aloft by a trembling Peaches. Dangerous Beans was standing a little in front of her, staring up at a stack of boxes and sacks. Peaches spun around. As she did so the flame of the match blew wide and flared. The nearest rats jerked away as it did so, bending like a wave. 'Maurice?' she said. The cat will not move, said the voice of Spider. Maurice tried to, and his paws wouldn't obey him. Be still, CAT. Or I shall command your lungs to stop. See, little rats? Even a cat obeys me! 'Yes. I see you have a power,' said Dangerous Beans, tiny in the circle of light. Clever rat. I have heard you talk to the others. You understand the truth. You know that by facing the dark we become strong. You know about the darkness in front of us and the darkness behind the eyes. You know that we co-operate or die. Will you… CO-OPERATE? 'Co-operate?' said Maurice. His nose wrinkled. 'Like these other rats I smell here? They smell… strong and stupid.' But the strong survive, said the voice of Spider. They dodge the rat-catchers and bite their way out of cages. And, like you, they are called to me. As for their minds… I can think for everyone. 'I, alas, am not strong,' said Dangerous Beans, carefully. You have an interesting mind. You, too, look forward to the domination of rats. 'Domination?' said Dangerous Beans. 'Do I?' You will have worked out that there is a race in this world which steals and kills and spreads disease and despoils what it cannot use, said the voice of Spider. 'Yes,' said Dangerous Beans. 'That's easy. It's called humanity.' Well done. See my fine rats? In a few hours the silly piper will come and play his silly pipe and, yes, my rats will scamper after him out of the town. Do you know how a piper kills rats? 'No.' He leads them into the river where… are you listening?… where they all drown! 'But rats are good swimmers,' said Dangerous Beans. Yes! Never trust a rat-catcher! They will leave themselves work for tomorrow. But humans like to believe stones! They would prefer to believe stories rather than the truth! But we, we are RATS! And my rats will swim, believe me. Big rats, different rats, rats who survive, rats with part of my mind in them. And they will spread from town to town and then there will be destruction such as people cannot imagine! We will pay them back a thousandfold for every trap! Humans have tortured and poisoned and killed and all of that is now given form in me and there will be REVENGE. 'Given form in you. Yes, I think I begin to understand,' said Dangerous Beans. There was a crackle and flare behind him. Peaches had lit the second match from the dying, flickering flame of the first one. The ring of rats, which had been creeping closer, swayed back again. Two more matches, said Spider. And then, one way or another, little rat, you belong to me. 'I want to see who I am talking to,' said Dangerous Beans, firmly. You are blind, little white rat. Through your pink eyes I see only mist. 'They see more than you think,' said Dangerous Beans. 'And if you are, as you say, the Big Rat… then show yourself to me. Smelling is believing.' There was a scrabbling, and Spider came out of the shadows. It looked to Maurice like a bundle of rats, rats scampering across the boxes but flowing, as if all the legs were being operated by one creature. As it crawled into the light, over the top of a sack, he saw that the tails were twisted together into one huge, ugly knot. And each rat was blind. As the voice of Spider thundered in his head, the eight rats reared and tugged at the knot. Then tell me the truth, white rat. Do you see me? Come closer! Yes, you see me, in your mist. You see me. Men made me for sport! Tie the rats' tails together and watch them struggle! But I did not struggle. Together we are strong! One mind is as strong as one mind and two minds are as strong as two minds, but three minds are four minds, and four minds are eight minds and eight minds… are one-one mind stronger than eight. My time is near. The stupid men let rats fight and the strong survive, and then they fight, and the strongest of the strong survive… and soon the cages will open, and men shall know the meaning of the word 'plague'! See the stupid cat? It wants to leap, but I hold it so easily. No mind can withstand me. Yet you… you are interesting. You have a mind like mine, that thinks for many rats, not just one rat. We want the same things. We have plans. We want the triumph of rats. Join us. Together we will be… STRONG. There was a long pause. It was, Maurice thought, too long. And then: 'Yes, your offer is… interesting,' said Dangerous Beans.