the amazing maurice and his educated rodents Page 10


'Shssh! They just learned words off old food tins and signs and things! They didn't know what the words meant, they just chose them because they liked the sounds!'

'Yes, but… Dangerous Beans? It sounds as if he makes you'

'It's his name. Don't make fun of it!'

'Sorry, I'm sure,' said Malicia, haughtily. The match flared. The candle flame grew. Malicia looked down at two rats. One was… well, just a small rat, although sleeker than most of the ones she'd seen. In fact most of the ones she'd seen had been dead, but even the living ones had always been… twitchy, nervy, sniffing the air all the time. This one just… watched. It stared right at her. The other rat was white, and even smaller. It was also watching her, although peering was a better word. It had pink eyes. Malicia had never been very interested in other people's feelings, since she'd always considered that her own were a lot more interesting, but there was something sad and worrying about that rat. It was dragging a small book, or at least what would be a small book to a human; it was about half the size of a rat. The cover was quite colourful, but Malicia couldn't make out what it was. 'Peaches and Dangerous Beans,' said Keith. 'This is Malicia. Her father is the mayor here.'

'Hello,' said Dangerous Beans. 'Mayor? Isn't that like government!' said Peaches. 'Maurice says governments are very dangerous criminals and steal money from people.'

'How did you teach them to speak?' said Malicia. 'They taught themselves,' said Keith. 'They're not trained animals, you know.'

'Well, my father does not steal from anyone. Who taught them that governments are very-?'

''Scuse me, 'scuse me,' said Maurice's voice hurriedly, from the drain gate. 'That's right, I'm down here. Can we get on with things?'

'We'd like you to gnaw at our ropes, please,' said Keith. 'I've got a bit of broken knife blade,' said Peaches. 'It's for sharpening the pencil. Would that be better?'

'Knife?' said Malicia. 'Pencil?'

'I did say they weren't ordinary rats,' said Keith. Nourishing had to run to keep up with Darktan. And Darktan was running because he had to run to keep up with Sardines. When it came to moving fast across a town, Sardines was champion of the world. They picked up more rats on the way. Nourishing couldn't help noticing that these were mostly the younger ones, who'd fled because of the terror but hadn't gone far. They fell in behind Darktan readily, almost grateful to be doing something with a purpose. Sardines danced on ahead. He just couldn't help it. And he liked drainpipes, roofs and gutters. You got no dogs up there, he said, and not many cats. No cat could have followed Sardines. The people of Bad Blintz had strung washing lines between the ancient houses and he leapt onto them, clinging upside down and moving as fast as he would on a flat surface. He went straight up walls, plunged through thatch, tap-danced around smoking chimneys, slid down tiles. Pigeons erupted from their roosts as he sped past, the other rats trailing behind him. Clouds rolled across the moon. Sardines reached the edge of a roof and leapt, landing on a wall just below. He ran along the top and disappeared in the crack between two planks. Nourishing followed him into a kind of loft. Hay was piled in parts of it, but a larger part was simply open to the ground floor below, and supported by several heavy beams that ran right across the building. Bright light shone up from below, and there was the buzz of human voices and – she shuddered – the barking of dogs. 'This is a big stables, boss,' said Sardines. 'The pit's under the beam over there. Come on…' They crept out on the ancient woodwork and peered over the edge. Far below was a wooden circle, like half a giant barrel. Nourishing realized that they were right over the pit; if she fell now, she'd land in the middle of it. Men were crowded around it. Dogs were tied up around the walls, barking at one another and at the universe in general in the mad, I'm-going-to-do-this-for-ever way of all dogs. And off to one side was a stack of boxes and sacks. The sacks were moving. 'Crtlk! How the krrp will we find Hamnpork in this lot?' Darktan said, his eyes gleaming in the light from below. 'Well, with old Hamnpork, boss, I reckon we'll know when he turns up,' said Sardines. 'Could you drop into the pit on a string?'

'I'm game for anything, guv,' said Sardines, loyally. 'Into a pit with a dog in it, sir?' said Nourishing. 'And won't the string cut you in half?'

'Ah, I've got something that helps there, boss,' said Sardines. He took off his thick coil of string and put it aside. There was another coil under it, glistening and light brown. He pulled at a piece of it, and it snapped back with a faint 'twang'. 'Bands of rubber,' he said. 'I pinched them off a desk when I was looking for more string. I've used 'em before, boss. Very handy for a long drop, boss.' Darktan took a step back on the boards. There was an old candle lantern there, lying on its side, the glass smashed, the candle eaten long ago. 'Good,' he said. 'Because I've got an idea. If you can drop down-' There was a roar from below. The rats looked over the beam again. The circle of heads had thickened around the lip of the pit. A man was talking in a loud voice. Occasionally there was a cheer. The black top hats of the rat-catchers moved through the crowd. Seen from above, they were sinister black blobs among the grey and brown caps. One of the rat-catchers emptied a sack into the pit, and the watchers saw the dark shapes of rats scurrying in a panic, as they tried to find, in that circle, a corner to hide in. The crowd opened slightly and a man walked to the edge of the pit, holding a terrier. There was some more shouting, a ripple of laughter, and the dog was dropped in with the rats. The Changelings stared down at the circle of death, and the cheering humans. After a minute or two Nourishing tore her gaze away. When she looked around she caught the expression on Darktan's face. Maybe it wasn't just the lamplight that made his eyes full of fire. She saw him look along the stable to the big doors at the far end. They had been barred shut. Then his head turned to the hay and straw piled up in the loft,

and in the cribs and mangers below. Darktan pulled a length of wood out of one of his belts. Nourishing smelled the sulphur in the red blob on the end. It was a match. Darktan turned and saw him staring at her. He nodded towards the piles of hay in the loft. 'My plan might not work,' he said. 'If it doesn't, you'll be in charge of the other plan.'

'Me?' said Nourishing. 'You. Because I won't be… around,' said Darktan. He held out the match. 'You know what to do,' he said, nodding to the nearest rack of hay. Nourishing swallowed. 'Yes. Yes, I think so. Er… when?'

'When the time comes. You'll know when,' said Darktan, and looked back down at the massacre. 'One way or the other, I want them to remember tonight,' he said quietly. 'They'll remember what they did. And they'll remember what we did. For as long as they… live.' Hamnpork lay in his sack. He could smell the other rats nearby, and the dogs, and the blood. Especially the blood. He could hear his own thoughts, but they were like a little chirp of insects against the thunderstorm of his senses. Bits of memory danced in front of his eyes. Cages. Panic. The white rat. Hamnpork. That was his own name. Odd. Never used to have names. Just used to smell other rats. Darkness. Darkness inside, behind the eyes. That bit was Hamnpork. Everything outside was everything else. Hamnpork. Me. Leader. The red-hot rage still boiled inside him but now it had a kind of shape, like the shape a canyon gives to a river in flood, narrowing it, forcing it to flow faster, giving it direction. Now he could hear voices. '… just slip him in, no-one'll notice…'

'… OK, I'll shake it up a bit first to get him angry…' The sack was jerked around. It didn't make Hamnpork any more angry than he was already. There wasn't any room for more anger. The sack swung as it was carried. The roar of humans grew louder, the smells grew stronger. There was a moment of silence, the sack was upturned, and Hamnpork slid out into a roar of noise and a pile of struggling rats. He snapped and clawed his way to the top as the rats scattered, and saw a growling dog being lowered into the pit. It snatched up a rat, shook it vigorously, and sent the limp body flying. The rats stampeded. 'Idiots!' screamed Hamnpork. 'Work together! You could strip this fleabag to the bone!' The crowd stopped shouting. The dog stared down its nose at Hamnpork. It was trying to think. The rat had spoken. Only humans spoke. And it didn't smell right. Rats stank of panic. This one didn't. The silence rang like a bell. Then Jacko grabbed the rat, shook him, not too hard, and tossed him down. He'd decided to do a sort of test; rats shouldn't be able to talk like humans, but this rat looked like a rat – and killing rats was OK – but talked like a human – and biting humans got you a serious thrashing. He had to find out for sure. If he got a wallop, this rat was a human. Hamnpork rolled, and managed to get upright, but there was a deep tooth wound in his side. The other rats were still in a boiling huddle as far away from the dog as possible, every rat trying to be the one at the bottom. Hamnpork spat blood. 'All right, then,' he snarled, advancing on the puzzled dog. 'Now you find out how a real rat dies!'

'Hamnpork!' He looked up. String uncoiled behind Sardines as he fell through the smoky air towards the frantic circle. He was right above Hamnpork, getting bigger and bigger… … and slower and slower… He came to a stop between the dog and the rat. For a moment he hung there. He raised his hat, politely, and said, 'Good evening!' Then he wrapped all four legs around Hamnpork. And now the rope of elastic bands, stretched to twanging point, finally sprang back. Too late, too late, Jacko snapped at empty air. The rats were accelerated upwards, out of the pit-and stopped, bouncing in mid air, just out of reach. The dog was still looking up when Darktan leapt off the other side of the beam. As the crowd stared in astonishment, he plummeted down towards the terrier.

Jacko's eyes narrowed. Rats disappearing into the air was one thing, but rats dropping right towards his mouth was something else. It was rat on a plate, it was rat on a stick. Darktan looked back as he fell. Up above, Nourishing was doing some frantic knotting and biting. Now Darktan was on the other end of Sardines' string. But Sardines had explained things very carefully. Darktan's weight alone wasn't heavy enough to pull the weight of two other rats back up to the beam… So, when Darktan saw Sardines and his struggling passenger had disappeared safely into the gloom of the roof- -he let go of the big old candle lamp he'd been holding for the extra weight and bit through the rope. The lamp landed heavily on Jacko and Darktan landed on the lamp, rolling down onto the floor. The crowd was silent. They'd been silent since Hamnpork had been propelled out of the pit. Around the top of the wall which, yes, was far too high for a rat to jump, Darktan saw faces. They were mostly red. The mouths were mostly open. The silence was the silence of red faces drawing breath ready to start shouting at any moment. Around Darktan the surviving rats were scrambling aimlessly for a foothold on the wall. Fools, he thought. Four or five of you together could make any dog wish you'd never been born. But you scrabble and panic and you get picked off one at a time… The slightly-stunned Jacko blinked and stared down at Darktan, a growl rising in his throat. 'Right, you kkrrkk,' said Darktan, loud enough for the watchers to hear. 'Now I'm going to show you how a rat can live.' He attacked. Jacko was not a bad dog, according to the way of dogs. He was a terrier and liked killing rats in any case, and killing lots of rats in the pit meant that he got well fed and called a good boy and wasn't kicked very often. Some rats did fight back and that wasn't much of a problem, because they were smaller than Jacko and he had a lot more teeth. Jacko wasn't that smart, but he was a lot smarter than a rat and, in any case, his nose and mouth did most of the thinking. And he was surprised, therefore, when his jaws snapped shut on this new rat and it wasn't there. Darktan didn't run like a rat should. He ducked like a fighter. He nipped Jacko under the chin and vanished. Jacko spun around. The rat still wasn't there. Jacko had spent his show business career biting rats that tried to run away. Rats that stayed really close were unfair! There was a roar from the watchers. Someone shouted, 'Ten dollars on the rat!' and someone else punched him in the ear. Another man started to climb into the pit. Someone smashed a beer bottle on that man's head. Dancing back and forth under the spinning, yapping Jacko, Darktan waited for his moment… … and saw it, and lunged, and bit hard. Jacko's eyes crossed. A piece of Jacko that was very private and of interest only to Jacko and any lady dogs he might happen to meet was suddenly a little ball of pain. He yelped. He snapped at the air. And then, in the uproar, he tried to climb out of the pit. His claws scraped desperately as he reared up against the greasy, smooth planking. Darktan jumped onto his tail, ran up his back, scampered to the tip of Jacko's nose, and leapt over the wall. He landed among legs. Men tried to stamp on him, but that meant other men would have to give them room. By the time they'd elbowed one another out of the way and stamped heavily on one another's boots, Darktan was gone. But there were other dogs. They were half-mad with excitement in any case, and now they pulled away from ropes and chains and set off after a running rat. They knew about chasing rats. Darktan knew about running. He sped across the floor like a comet, with a tail of snarling, barking dogs, headed for the shadows, spied a hole in the planking and dived through into the nice, safe, darkness- Click went the trap.