the amazing maurice and his educated rodents Page 6


'Why?'

'To bath in, sir.'

'Hrumph.' Hamnpork didn't like that idea. A lot of the young rats were keen on taking baths. Darktan turned to the squad. 'Hamnpork wants that poison buried and widdled on and a marker on it right now!' Hamnpork heard a metallic sound beside him. He turned and saw that Darktan had drawn, from his web of tools, a long thin piece of metal. 'What the krckrck is that?' he said. Darktan swished the thing backwards and forwards. 'I got the stupid-looking kid to make this for me,' he said. And then Hamnpork realized what it was. 'That's a sword,' he said. 'You got the idea out of Mr Bunnsy Has An Adventure!'

'That's right.'

'I've never believed that stuff,' Hamnpork grumbled. 'But a spike is a spike,' said Darktan, calmly. 'I think we're close to the other rats. It'd be a good idea if most of us stay here… sir.' Hamnpork felt he was being given orders again, but Darktan was being polite. 'I suggest that a few of us go on ahead to sniff them out,' Darktan went on. 'Sardines would be useful, and I'll go, of course'

'And me,' said Hamnpork. He glared at Darktan, who said, 'Of course.'

CHAPTER 7

And because of Olly the Snake's trick with the road sign, Mr Bunnsy did not know that he had lost his way. He wasn't going to Howard the Stoat's tea party. He was heading into the Dark Wood. – From Mr Bunnsy Has An Adventure Malicia looked at the open trapdoor as if giving it marks out of ten. 'Quite well hidden,' she said. 'No wonder we didn't see it.'

'I'm not hurt much,' Keith called up from the darkness. 'Good,' said Malicia, still inspecting the trapdoor. 'How far down are you?'

'It's some sort of cellar. I'm OK because I landed on some sacks,'

'All right, all right, no need to go on about it, this wouldn't be an adventure if there weren't some minor hazards,' said the girl. 'Here's the top of a ladder. Why didn't you use it?'

'I was unable to on account of falling past,' said the voice of Keith. 'Shall I carry you down?' Malicia said to Maurice. 'Shall I scratch your eyes out?' Maurice responded. Malicia's brow wrinkled. She always looked annoyed when she didn't understand something. 'Was that sarcasm?' she said. 'That was a suggestion,' said Maurice. 'I don't do “picking up” by strangers. You go down. I'll follow.'

'But you haven't got the legs for ladders!'

'Do I make personal remarks about your legs?' Malicia descended into the dark. There was a metallic noise, and then the flare of a match. 'It's full of sacks!' she said. 'I know,' came the voice of Keith. 'I landed on them. I did say.'

'It's grain! And… and there's strings and strings of sausages! There's smoked meat! Bins of vegetables! It's full of food! Aargh! Get out of my hair! Get off! That cat just jumped onto my head!' Maurice leapt off her and onto some sacks. 'Hah!' said Malicia, rubbing her head. 'We were told that the rats had got it all. I see it all now. The rat-catchers get everywhere, they know all the sewers, all the cellars… and to think those thieves get paid out of our taxes!' Maurice looked around the cellar, lit by the flickering lantern in Malicia's hand. There was, indeed, a lot of food. Nets hanging from the ceiling were indeed stuffed with big, white, heavy cabbages. The aforesaid sausages did indeed loop from beam to beam. There were indeed jars and barrels and sacks and sacks. And, indeed, they all worried him. 'That's it, then,' said Malicia. 'What a hiding place! We're going to go right away to the town Watch, report what we've found, and then it's a big cream tea for all of us and possibly a medal and then-'

'I'm suspicious,' said Maurice. 'Why?'

'Because I'm a suspicious character! I wouldn't trust your rat-catchers if they told me the sky was blue. What have they been doing? Pinching the food and then saying, “It was the rats, honest”? And everyone believed them?'

'No, stupid. People have found gnawed bones and empty egg baskets, that sort of thing,' said Malicia. 'And rat droppings all over the place!'

'I suppose you could scratch the bones and I suppose rat-catchers could shovel up a lot of rat droppings…' Maurice conceded. 'And they're killing all the real rats so that there's more for them!' said Malicia triumphantly. 'Very clever!'

'Yeah, and that's a bit puzzling,' said Maurice, 'because we've met your rat-catchers and, frankly, if it was raining meatballs they wouldn't be able to find a fork.'

'I've been thinking about something,' said Keith, who had been humming to himself. 'Well, I'm glad someone has,' Malicia began. 'It's about wire netting,' said Keith. 'There was wire netting in the shed.'

'Is this important?'

'Why do rat-catchers need rolls of wire netting?'

'How should I know? Cages, maybe? Does it matter?'

'Why would rat-catchers put rats in cages? Dead rats don't run away, do they?' There was silence. Maurice could see that Malicia was not happy about that comment. It was an unnecessary complication. It spoiled the story. 'I may be stupid-looking,' Keith added, 'but I'm not stupid. I have time to think about things because I don't keep on talking all the time. I look at things. I listen. I try to learn. I-'

'I don't talk all the time!' Maurice let them argue and stalked away into the corner of the cellar. Or cellars. They seemed to go on a long way. He saw something streak across the floor in the shadows, and leapt before he could think. His stomach remembered that it had been a long time since the mouse, and it connected itself straight to his legs. 'All right,' he said, as the thing squirmed in his paws,'speak up or-' A small stick hit him very sharply. 'Do you mind?' said Sardines, struggling to get up. 'Dere's bno deed to be like dab!' muttered Maurice, trying to lick his smarting nose. 'I've got a rkrklk HAT on, right?' snapped Sardines. 'Do you ever bother to look?'

'All ride, all ride, sorwy… why're you here?' Sardines brushed himself off. 'Looking for you or stupid-looking kid,' he said. 'Hamnpork sent me! We're in trouble now! You just won't believe what we've found!'

'He wants me?' said Maurice. 'I thought he didn't like me!'

'Well, he said it's nasty and evil so you'd know what to do, boss,' said Sardines, picking up his hat. 'Look at that, will you? Your claw went right through it!'

'But I did ask you if you could talk, didn't I?' said Maurice. 'Yes, you did, but-'

'I always ask!'

'I know, so-'

'I'm very definite about asking, you know!'

'Yes, yes, you've made your point, I believe you,' said Sardines. 'I only complained about the hat!'

'I'd hate anyone to think I don't ask,' said Maurice. 'There's no need to go on and on about it,' said Sardines. 'Where's the kid?'

'Back there, talking to the girl,' said Maurice sulkily. 'What, the mad one?'

'That's her.'

'You'd better get them. This is seriously evil. There's a door at the other end of these cellars. I'm amazed you can't smell it from here!'

'I'd just like everyone to be clear that I asked, that's all…'

'Boss,' said Sardines,'this is serious!' Peaches and Darktan waited for the exploration party. They were with Toxie, another young male rat, who was good at reading and acted as a kind of assistant. Peaches had also brought Mr Bunnsy Has An Adventure. 'They've been gone a long time,' said Toxie. 'Darktan checks every step,' said Peaches. 'Something's wrong,' said Dangerous Beans. His nose wrinkled. A rat scurried down the tunnel and pushed frantically past them. Dangerous Beans sniffed the air. 'Fear,' he said. Three more rats scrambled past, knocking him over. 'What's happening?' said Peaches, as another rat spun her around in its effort to get past. It squeaked at her and rushed on. 'That was Finest,' she said. 'Why didn't she say anything?'

'More… fear,' said Dangerous Beans. 'They're… scared. Terrified…' Toxie tried to stop the next rat. It bit him, and ran on, chittering. 'We must go back,' said Peaches urgently. 'What've they found up there? Maybe it's a ferret!'

'Can't be!' said Toxie. 'Hamnpork killed a ferret once!' Three more rats ran past, trailing fear behind them. One of them squealed at Peaches, gibbered madly at Dangerous Beans and ran on. 'They… they've forgotten how to talk…' whispered Dangerous Beans. 'Something terrible must have frightened them!' said Peaches, snatching up her notes. 'They've never been that frightened!' said Toxie. 'Remember when that dog found us? We were all frightened but we talked and we trapped it and Hamnpork saw it off whimpering…' To her shock, Peaches saw that Dangerous Beans was crying. 'They've forgotten how to talk.' Half a dozen more rats pushed their way past, screeching. Peaches tried to stop one, but it just squeaked at her and dodged out of the way. That was Feedsfour!' she said, turning to Toxie. 'I was talking to her only an hour ago! She… Toxie?' Toxic's fur was bristling. His eyes were unfocused. His mouth was open, showing his teeth. He stared at her, or

right through her, and then turned and ran. She turned and put her paws around Dangerous Beans, as the fear swept over them. There were rats. From wall to wall, floor to ceiling, there were rats. The cages were crammed full of them; they clung to the wire in front, and to the ceilings. The netting strained with the weight. Glistening bodies boiled and tumbled, paws and noses thrusting through the holes. The air was solid with squeaking and rustling and chittering, and it stank. What was left of Hamnpork's exploration party were clustered in the middle of the room. Most of it had fled by now. If the smells in that room had been sounds, they would have been shouts and screams, thousands of them. They filled the long room with a strange kind of pressure. Even Maurice could feel it, as soon as Keith broke down the door. It was like a headache outside your head, trying to get in. It banged on the ears. Maurice was staying a little way behind. You didn't need to be very clever to see that this was a bad situation and one which might need some running away from at any time. He saw, between their legs, Darktan and Hamnpork and a few other Changelings. They were in the middle of the floor, looking up at the cages. He was amazed to see that even Hamnpork was trembling. But he was trembling with rage. 'Let them out!' he shouted up to Keith. 'Let them all out! Let them all out now!'

'Another talking rat?' said Malicia. 'Let them out!' Hamnpork screamed. 'All these foul cages…' said Malicia, staring. 'I did say about the wire netting,' said Keith. 'Look, you can see where it's been repaired… they gnawed through wire to escape!'

'I said let them out!' screamed Hamnpork. 'Let them out or I will kill you! Evil! Evil! Evil!'

'But they're just rats-' said Malicia. Hamnpork leapt and landed on the girl's dress. He swarmed up towards her neck. She froze. He hissed, 'There are rats eating one another in there! I will gnaw you, you evil-' Keith's hand grasped him firmly around the waist and pulled him off her neck. Screeching, hair bristling, Hamnpork sunk his teeth into Keith's finger. Malicia gasped. Even Maurice winced. Hamnpork drew his head back, blood dripping from his muzzle, and blinked in horror. Tears welled up in Keith's eyes. Very carefully, he put Hamnpork down on the floor. 'It's the smell,' he said, quietly. 'It upsets them.'

'I… I thought you said they were tame!' said Malicia, able to speak at last. She picked up a lump of wood that was leaning against the cages. Keith knocked it out of her hand. 'Never, ever threaten one of us!'

'He attacked you!'

'Look around! This is not a story! This is real! Do you understand? They're frightened out of their minds!'

'How dare you talk to me like that!' Malicia shouted. 'I rrkrkrk will!'

'One of us, eh? Was that a rat swearword? Do you even swear in Rat, rat boy?' Just like cats, Maurice thought. You stand face to face and scream at one another. His ears swivelled as he heard another sound, in the distance. Someone was coming down the ladder. Maurice knew from experience that this was no time to talk to humans. They always said things like 'What?' and 'That's not right!' or 'Where?'