Two more days passed. They were spent in relative peace, most of the Brisby family apparently trying to comprehend what the Great Owl had said to them, yet they talked about it little. What could be said? They resolved to ask Justin when they arrived at Thorn Valley to see if he could shed any further light on what happened in the Rosebush before their father’s death.
The Seer disappeared into the forest for long periods of time, returning nearer evening, loaded down with items and so, for the most part, returned to her laconic behaviour regarding what had been said. She would still tend to Mrs. Brisby, who grew stronger with each passing day, though she still seemed unsteady on her feet, and the bandages were to remain a little longer, or so it seemed.
On the morning of the third day the Brisby family was sitting in the main chamber finishing off a typically bland breakfast. Away from the farm the yield of the forest was plentiful but not particularly varied. Still the newly reunited family did not complain. On this particular occasion the Seer was sitting in the chamber also, though she worked on the ingredients gathered the previous days, grinding the plants down, mixing. She was apparently paying little attention to the mice nearby, despite their proximity in the now quite crowded room. It had not been meant for so many occupants. However she did not let the excited chatter from the mice disturb her.
“...and then,” Martin was saying, addressing the rest of the family, “the pigeon said: ‘I’m sorry I thought you said you were an otter!’”
Martin grinned as the family laughed at the punch line.
“Where did you hear that, Martin?” asked Teresa, still grinning.
“I came up with it myself. Glad you like it.”
Timothy let out another burst of laughter, and as he did so the pendant about his neck became untucked from his shirt, though it was Mrs. Brisby who noticed this first. She did not recall having seen it before.
“What is that around your neck, Timothy?”
Timothy, still grinning, turned to his mother and then lowered his gaze down at his chest. He began to fidget with the little stone. None of the mice noticed, but the Seer’s work became a fraction slower.
“A pendant...” he replied. “The Seer gave it to me. She said it would keep me well. I had forgotten I had been wearing it.”
“Does it work?” asked Mrs. Brisby. Timothy shrugged.
“I feel okay.”
The Seer harrumphed and half turned so that she could regard the family out of the corner of her eye.
“Have you been taking your medicine?” she asked pointedly.
“No,” replied Timothy looking confused. “I haven’t taken any medicine for almost a week!”
The Seer seemed satisfied that her point was made and went back to her work. Mrs. Brisby’s eyes grew wide in alarm at the thought that Timothy had been without his precious medicine. For an entire week as well! However, before she could voice her sentiments she was interrupted:
“How does it work?” asked Cynthia, gazing at the little stone.
The Seer put down her grinding stones and swivelled around so she was properly facing the mice. She was grinning again.
“Stones are very useful and precious things. They all have a power though some have more than others. Stones can even tell you very interesting things.”
“You mentioned that before,” said Timothy. “Is that the same power that the Owl mentioned?”
“Indeed it is, child.”
This was the first time the Seer had seemed willing to comment on the audience with the Owl. It had the effect of making all the others pay complete attention to her. It seemed that this was common behaviour for the frog. A flat refusal to discuss anything, and then a sudden about face had had everyone hanging on her every word. Timothy wondered if she was doing it deliberately as he asked his next question.
“But... How can you read a stone? Surely it can’t tell you much.”
“Yes it can. Of course it can... You can find out a lot from stones. Not just obvious things either. I’m talking about people! Stones can tell you a lot about people. You just have to know how to look. Just as you know how to read words, like the Rats, so others can read without them. And the message of a stone, unlike your books, will change. Like nature it is constantly shifting, never lying still. Trying to lock things away in books is silly. As soon as it is done, it may change.”
“But what about things that never change?”
“Why bother writing them in books if they never change.”
Timmy found it difficult to keep up with the Seer’s strange style of argument. She seemed to see his struggling.
“Perhaps I am not making myself clear. A demonstration may be useful. Follow me.”
The Seer rose and moved towards the last of the tunnel entrances.
“Come on,” called the Seer and disappeared into the gloom.
“Have you been down there yet?” asked Martin.
“No,” replied Cynthia.
“Has anyone,” said Mrs. Brisby.
There was a moment of silence as everyone waited for someone else to reply.
“Well,” said Martin rising, “let’s find out.” He strode into the tunnel followed closely by the rest of the Brisby family.
Just around a bend in the tunnel then Seer was waiting for them. A thick reed curtain like the one that had hung across the doorway to Mrs. Brisby’s sick room blocked the tunnel. The frog pulled it back and ushered the mice through into the room beyond.
It was a large chamber, far larger than what they thought of as the main chamber that they had just left. It had no windows but there was a hole in the ceiling. It was a large gap but roots and vines had gown across it so only a little daylight managed to get through. These thin shafts of light fell onto a roughly circular pool filled with water and bordered with rough rocks. More drops of moisture were falling from between tangle of vegetation overhead, apparently keeping the pool filled. However what dominated most of the room were stones. Rough shelves were lined up against the wall and on these were piles of stones, though the collection also spilled out onto the floor. Most looked identical to one another being just ordinary grey-brown stones, though some were of a vivid colour, a strange texture, or in some other way characteristic. It was impressive in a way, eerie in quite another. The hazy light from the skylight gave the room a melancholy, lonely air, contributing to the peculiar atmosphere.
“Wow,” breathed Cynthia. The rest of the family stood by looking equally impressed.
“This is my collection,” the Seer was saying as she replaced the curtain and shuffled into the room. “Each of these stones is unique and special in its own way, though the qualities may be very subtle. As the Owl said, each life uses a power and these stones can show that power. If you can read them correctly, you can find out a lot about someone.”
“Can you teach us?” asked Cynthia in her typically forward manner. The Seer smiled at the enthusiastic young mouse.
“I’m afraid I wouldn’t know where to start. I don’t know myself how I do what I do, but the point is I can. I am hoping that it will be a useful demonstration of what I have been trying to explain. Actions can often speak louder than words. Now...” she clapped her hands together, a surprisingly loud noise that echoed around the room. “Who’s first?”
The mice stood still, wondering exactly what the Seer had in mind and strangely reluctant to volunteer.
“Mrs. Brisby?” she asked hopefully. Mrs. Brisby returned a beseeching look. The Seer seemed to understand and quickly looked instead to the children.
“How about you,” she said, pointing to Martin. “The oldest and bravest no doubt. Come, there is no need to be shy.”
“I’m not shy,” protested Martin stepping forward with just the tiniest hint of hesitation. “What do I have to do?”
The Seer had begun to become very animated, her movements becoming more energetic. She reached out and grabbed Martin’s wrist and thrust it towards the shelves.
“Take your hand and pass it over the stones like this...”
The Seer waved her other webbed hand over the nearest stones releasing Martin as he imitated the movement.
“That’s it?” he asked. The Seer grinned a very wide grin indeed.
“Hmmm. If you do that until I tell you to stop.” She did not say more.
Martin rolled his eyes, shrugging as he did so. He began to wander along the shelves, holding out his hand towards the various stones stored there. The Seer gave him one last wide smile and then her expression became blank as she relaxed. Her eyes were half closed and only seemed to be paying vague attention to what Martin was doing. This continued for a short while and Martin began to feel a little silly. He obviously gave some indication that this was the case, as Cynthia giggled. He immediately shot her a furious look, Mrs. Brisby simultaneously laying a hand on her youngest daughter’s shoulder, though she was grinning herself. Martin turned back to scowling at the rows of rocks, becoming impatient and beginning to wave his hand widely back and forth. He was about to give voice to his irritation when the Seer called out.
“Ah, stop!” Her eyes now wide, her hand outstretched she was looking not at Martin but at the shelves. Martin froze and the others held their breath, waiting to see what was about to happen.
“Take a step back,” commanded the Seer, her eyes half closed again. Martin complied, looking over his shoulder at the frog with a confused expression. Oblivious the Seer continued to mumble.
“Move your hand... a little... stop!” she cried again and darted forward. Martin began to step aside, out of the Seer’s path but stopped at another outburst.
“Don’t move. Stay exactly where you are.”
Martin looked to his family but they too could only return the gaze, have similarly no idea what the Seer was going to do. They had never seen her in this kind of mood. Meanwhile, the Seer was scouring the shelves, looking at each stone in minute detail. Finally she let out something that sounded like a sigh.
“Ah. Here it is.”
She turned to Martin holding a stone aloft. It was a brilliant blue, though its surface was jagged and had sharp edges. The Seer had to be careful while holding it, balancing it delicately on her fingertips. Martin wore his most patient grin as he asked,
“And what is it?” He was trying to make a joke out of it; though it was obvious the object in the Seer’s hands intrigued him.
“From this stone I will be able to tell a great deal about you,” she said.
Martin let out a quick sigh and then,
The Seer set her jaw and once again
half closed her eyes. All was quiet and still for a moment.
“It is sturdy, such as yourself. Strong...” she paused.
“You needed the stone to tell you that?” asked Martin, standing taller so that his size was more obvious. The Seer appeared not to have heard him. She continued to speak the words coming slowly as if she was hearing another speak and was repeating the words.
“...though you can be impetuous. Unthinking at times...”
“Now hold on.” Martin said, suddenly feeling affronted.
“You always want to show what you can do. You worry others will think you are weak, or helpless if you do not act and demonstrate your skills.”
“But...” Martin seemed at a loss and was looking very uncomfortable before the frog who was unrelenting in her assessment.
“And it seems that despite this wish to be here, helping your family, there is someone you dearly wish to return to...”
The Seer opened her eyes slowly, with a self-satisfied grin. Martin was standing stock still, wide eyed, and looking embarrassed. The skin of his ears had gone bright red.
“I suppose I was quite close then?” she asked, pursing her lips. Despite the dim light there was the glint in her wide eyes. Martin gave a little nod of his head. The Seer nodded too as is satisfied and turned to the others:
Unbidden everyone glanced at Teresa. Teresa shook her head a little trying a very similar expression her mother had used.
“Come, come now...” said the Seer darting forward, again with surprising speed, and seizing Teresa’s hand. The frog seemed to be enjoying herself even if Teresa was unwilling.
“Just do exactly the same. Hold out your hand and move slowly past the stones. That’s it.”
Teresa started to move around the shelves very slowly, darting furtive glances at her family. The Seer had just settled into her meditative state when she called out.
“That’s enough. Stop!” Teresa halted, wondering what she had done wrong. The Seer approached and went straight to a particular stone. It was grey and looked like any other pebble that could be found in the forest. “Here,” she breathed.
Teresa looked at the pebble feeling a little disappointed, especially considering the specimen that had apparently applied to Martin.
“It doesn’t look terribly interesting,” she said awkwardly.
“This one is interesting,” reassured the Seer grinning like a mad thing at the stone she as holding. “It seems ordinary enough on the surface, but hides its secrets deep down. Not everything is so obvious with the stones.” She nodded sagely, almost as if she was agreeing with her own statement, and went on. “Again there is a strength there and bravery also. Though of course not as ready to show off as your brother.”
Martin folded his arms and scowled at the Seer, though she was paying him no attention whatsoever. She continued.
“Huh. You care for others deeply, selfish you are certainly not, and...” The Seer trailed off and fixed Teresa, who seemed very ill at ease, with a look and an almost imperceptible smile. “And... that is it!” the Seer finished. “I’m afraid that is all I can get from that one.” The Seer nodded curtly and replaced the stone back on the shelf, as she did so she leant in close to Teresa and whispered into her ear:
“Don’t worry yourself, dear. Everything will be fine.”
Teresa wasn’t exactly sure what the Seer was talking about, and wanted to ask but Cynthia was hopping on the spot.
“Me next. I want to go.”
“Excellent!” cried the Seer, spreading her arms. “Start at this end, child. You know what to do?”
“Mm hmm.” Cynthia skipped to the end of the row of shelves and began to slowly and deliberately move along them, the Seer standing out of the way exactly as she had before, the rest of the family looking on in respectful silence. Cynthia moved about the room for some time, all the while the Seer seemed to be concentrating harder, her brow creasing. Several times she called for Cynthia to stop, but then asked her to carry on after a brief pause. Cynthia grew more and more impatient. She was on her third sweep of the shelves when the Seer finally stopped her for the final time.
“I’m sorry child. My collection of stones is large, but by no means complete. I don’t think I have the stone that I can read for you. Again you have my apologies.” The Seer looked genuinely upset, but not as disappointed as Cynthia. The little mouse nodded.
“It’s okay,” she flashed a smile at the frog and went and stood with her family again, where her mother stroked her hair. The Seer looked now to the youngest of the Brisby children.
“Timothy?” she asked. Timothy nodded coolly and began to wander the shelves. He reached the opposite end of the shelving without interruption from the Seer, though when he turned around she called:
“Keep your hand higher this time.”
Timothy obeyed and raised his hand towards the higher shelves, slowly pacing back along them.
“Stop just there... Ah!” sighed the Seer gratefully. She opened her eyes. They grew wider very quickly, her mouth falling agape. Timothy had indeed stopped in front of the shelves as asked, but from one of the higher shelves there was a dull red glow. It pulsed, brighter then weaker, throwing shadows on the wall, and with each throb of luminosity, the glow seemed to get brighter. All the creatures in the room were standing watching, wide-eyed and open-mouthed.
“Oh my,” gasped the Seer, swallowing. “Timothy, come away please,” she said, trying to keep her voice level though never taking her eyes from the glow.
Timothy did not comply at once. He could only stare at the strange pulsing glow from the shelf. He could not see the stone itself from his position, only the strange light it gave off, the strange shadows it threw upon the wall.
“Timothy!” called Mrs. Brisby. Timmy glanced over his shoulder and then back at the shelf. He began to back away but as he did so the pulsing became faster and brighter. The little mouse took several hurried steps back and bumped into the Seer. She was staring, dumfounded like the rest though placed a clammy hand onto his shoulder. Timothy, like all the others, watched what happened next with a numb disbelief. From the shelf the stone began to float, rising from the shelf to hover just above its surface. It was a rough, irregular stone that was at the centre of the red aura. It looked like an angular, elongated egg as it hung in the air. Then it moved gently forwards, towards the lip of the shelf. It did not stop but instead continued down and across the room, making its way towards the unmoving creatures, bathing them all in the warm red glow. An arms length away it stopped and hovered in the air before Timmy.
“Wow!” Cynthia gasped.
Timothy, now that the stone was close enough to inspect, looked carefully, examining it. The surface of the stone was very irregular, and the cracks seemed to affect the shape of the glow that surrounded it. Also the stone was not opaque and there was a delicate swirl of detail at its core. Timothy peered through the strange aura radiating from it and into its crimson depths. Trying to make out the form at the centre of the miraculous stone. Unthinking he began to reach out, to touch it.
Mrs. Brisby darted forward and knocked Timothy’s hand down, away from the stone. Almost at once the stone fell to the ground with a dull click, losing its aura and the marvellous crimson light, returning the room to its original dreary illumination. It now just lay on the ground, motionless. Its surface looked like rough black quartz, its depths now hidden from view. The mice and the frog all stood staring at it not able to move. All that could be heard was Mrs. Brisby’s panting. She looked away from the stone, to her own hands that were tightly clenched, and then to Timothy.
“I’m sorry Timothy. It’s just...” she trailed off, looking again at her hands, opening them and fanning her fingers. She looked at the burn marks. Timothy smiled and, placing his own hand on his mother’s, nodded.
“What does it mean?” asked Teresa. The Seer did not answer immediately. She was still looking fixedly at the little lump of dark rock. When he did speak the words came broken and confused.
“I’m... I’m not sure. This has... never... Nothing ever like this!” she stopped leaning closer to the rock.
“You said you could read them,” Martin pointed out. No one missed the slightly gloating tone he used. The Seer faced him, her stare intense though Martin met it.
“Just as some words are unknown to you so some stones are unwilling to surrender their secrets.” She looked again at the floor where the stone lay.
“What’s wrong with it?” Timothy asked the Seer, receiving a quick glance from the frog.
“I... I don’t know. I’ll... have to think about it. Please.” She indicated the door and began to usher the family towards it, holding the curtain aside for them. Reluctantly they began to file out, the Seer stepping into the tunnel behind them. Before the Seer allowed the curtain to fall back across the entrance she turned and looked once more at the stone, where it lay on the floor. It pulsed once more, with a dull red light. The Seer’s own eyes glowed gold momentarily and then she retracted her head, letting the curtain fall.
The fourth day came and the Brisby family waited, as usual, in the main chamber of the Seer’s home. The mice had tried enquiring about what had happened in the stone chamber but the Seer had been even more reticent than usual to give them any information. Discussion between themselves had produced no useful insights and the members of the Brisby family had once again resigned themselves to wait until they reached Thorn Valley before they could find out any more.
They were ready for their journey and were waiting only for the arrival of the birds that the Owl had promised. Packing had taken no time at all as none of them had any belongings. The Seer had however provided them with a small parcel of various items. Mainly they were mixtures of the Seer’s own devising. Timothy had asked if there was any medicine in there for him, but the Seer had said that the pendant seemed to be working and he should be fine.
“After all,” the frog pointed out, “You have not taken your medicine for some time now and you are suffering no ill effects.”
She had also provided several concoctions for Mrs. Brisby that would work to both speed her recovery and to stop infection. Mrs. Brisby initially protested saying she had never felt better and that she was fully recovered, but the Seer insisted, pressing the parcel into her arms and leaning in close.
“There is medicine in there for the venom that was used on you. It may come in useful again.” The Seer moved in closer, dropping her voice to a whisper. “It also contains medicine for Timothy in case the pendant stops working,” she lowered her voice even more so that it was barely audible, “not that it ever started working.”
The Seer straightened, gave Mrs. Brisby a subtle wink, and quickly shuffled off before Mrs. Brisby could reply.
It was mid-afternoon, the sun high in the cloudless sky making for a dry heat, when the Seer waddled inside to tell them that their escorts had arrived. She had been out foraging in the pond when the birds had swooped down. They had apparently landed in the clearing where the Owl had addressed the mice several days before. Cynthia was nearly bouncing with excitement as they went out into the sunlight and began to walk around the pond.
“Are we really going to go to Thorn Valley?”
“Yes, dear,” replied Mrs. Brisby. She no longer needed support but Teresa kept close, walking by her mother’s side.
“And will we get to meet the Rats?”
“Of course,” was her mother’s patient reply.
“All of them?”
“Yes Cynthia!” Martin almost screamed the words. This was obviously the effect Cynthia had been wanting as she grinned and skipped ahead of the group.
“Now don’t start you two,” warned Mrs. Brisby.
Timothy looked out over the pond as they passed and saw the red dragonfly hovering close to the bank seemingly watching them. He cocked his head at it and gave a little wave. In response the insect began to weave back and forth in the air. Timothy grinned and made to tell Cynthia, however she was still embroiled in her Martin-baiting activities and when he looked back the dragonfly had gone.
The group turned away from the pond and made their way into the woods. It was shaded under the trees, pleasant away from the direct sunlight but still very warm. The group looked about, trying to catch a glimpse of the birds that would ferry them to Thorn Valley.
“Do you know where they are, Seer?” asked Teresa.
In response the Seer raised her eyes to the treetops. Teresa followed the gaze, as did her family, and saw immediately those that they had come to meet.
Jeremy wailed Mrs. Brisby’s name as he fluttered down to the ground, closely followed by two wood pigeons. He flopped down in front of Mrs. Brisby and her family.
“Jeremy! What ever is the matter?” asked Mrs. Brisby. She had not expected to see her friend the crow, and had certainly not expected to see him so distraught. He was gabbling as he tried to explain.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to break my promise, I tried to look after the kids...”
“Jeremy,” said Mrs. Brisby patiently, rolling her eyes at the sudden comprehension.
“I mean... I asked them. And they even said...” Jeremy carried on, apparently oblivious to anything else.
“And I did go looking... all over the place, and...
The crow broke off at Mrs. Brisby’s exclamation.
“Hmmm,” he whimpered, raising his eyebrows. Mrs. Brisby gave a weary sigh and then began,
“It’s fine. It wasn’t your fault. There’s no need to apologise. It should be the other way around. In fact...” she glared at the children. They looked back awkwardly, Martin seemingly angry, but he wilted under the stare from his mother.
“We’re sorry, Jeremy,” they all chorused. Jeremy smiled nervously, looking apologetically at the young mice who he now felt he had got into trouble.
“Aw, don’t worry about it. I’m just glad you’re okay. I was so worried. I didn’t know where to go. Then I thought the Great Owl helped you once maybe if I explain...” As usual Jeremy trailed off as he lost the thread of what he was saying and Mrs. Brisby, as usual, came to his rescue.
“I think we owe you a thanks for that too.”
“It was nothing,” the crow waved it away with a sweep of his wing. “Say, what are you doing here Mz. Briz? I thought you’d be in Thorn Valley by now.”
“That’s a long story, Jeremy. I’ll tell you some other time. Who’re your friends?”
“Oh! ‘Scuse me, pardon me!” Jeremy gestured towards the two wood pigeons who were standing patiently behind him. “Everyone this is Frederick, and this is Susan. And this is Mrs. Brisby and her children: Martin, Teresa, Cynthia and Timothy.”
“How do you do,” cooed Susan.
“Delighted!” from Frederick. “Er. Dashed rude of me to ask this I know, but when do you want to get going, what?”
Mrs. Brisby looked to the children. Timothy shrugged.
“No time like the present I suppose.”
Mrs. Brisby, Timothy and Cynthia rode on Jeremy’s back as he was the largest of all the birds. Teresa and Martin rode the smaller wood pigeons, respectively Frederick and Susan.
“Hold on ma’am,” said Frederick as he spread his wings. Jeremy was trying a few practice beats of his wings, testing to see if the presence of so many passengers would affect the movements. He seemed satisfied and winked at the three mice on his back.
“Be careful. All of you,” called the Seer. She seemed uncharacteristically sombre.
“Goodbye,” replied Mrs. Brisby.
“And thank you!” called Teresa.
The Seer nodded in response, as the birds prepared for flight. She leaned heavily on her staff as she whispered,
“And good luck...”
The three birds beat their wings forcefully making their small passengers hold on tighter. They took to the air; rising higher; weaving between the branches to come bursting through the canopy into the fresh, cool air and brilliant sunlight. The mice began to relax until they noticed that the birds did not stop. They kept climbing until they were quite a distance above the treetops. Reaching the pinnacle of their ascent they then angled their wings and swooped down again, exchanging height for speed, skimming just above the leaves. The hard work done the three birds now beat their wings again to gently rise higher as they continued to soar over the forest.
“Woo hoo!” cried Martin, punching his fist towards the azure sky, the breeze whipping his hair about his face and making his shirt billow out behind him. Teresa was also grinning though seemed to be concentrating on maintaining a good grip instead of enjoying the journey. On Jeremy’s back Mrs. Brisby sat with her eyes closed, hugging Cynthia who sat in front of her. Cynthia was gazing all around, trying to see everything all at once. Timothy was looking resolutely ahead, searching the landscape for any sign of Thorn Valley. It could not be too far as the first Mountains were getting nearer and nearer. The mighty peaks disappeared off to the left, and the terrain was so variable Timothy could not see anything that looked even remotely familiar. He leant forward and shouted to Jeremy, his voice barely audible as the air roared by, snatching the sound away.
“So how long will it take us to get to Thorn Valley?”
“Uh...” Jeremy hesitated, looking thoughtful. There was a cooing laugh from nearby and Susan began to fly beside Jeremy.
“Dear child. This is Thorn Valley. We are flying over it now. We are just trying to find the correct spot to leave you. The Owl was very specific.”
“Really!” cried Cynthia leaning over to try and see the Valley.
“Cynthia please!” pleaded Mrs. Brisby as she swayed with her daughter’s movement.
“I think that might be it, old gel!” came a voice from the other side. Frederick had drawn up beside Jeremy too. “Everybody ready? Tally ho!”
At that all three birds went into a steep dive.
“Oh my!” cried Mrs Brisby, though all of the children let out shrieks of excitement. The valley stretched out beneath them, glorious in the sunlight. The three lakes, a large one flanked on the left by the two small ones, glittered in the sun. The dives were taking straight towards the end of the largest lake that was furthest from the mountains. They went low, flying just above the surface of the shimmering water, travelling the length of the valley towards the huge peaks of rock in the distance. About halfway the birds yawed, heading toward the area of ground in between the larger and one of the smaller lakes. Here they landed amongst the maples and oaks, in the shadow of an old and particularly twisted tree. The mice climbed down to the ground, Mrs. Brisby with a grateful sigh.
“That was great!” exclaimed Martin. Cynthia nodded vigorously in agreement.
“Can we go again?”
“No!” Mrs. Brisby’s voice was nearly a shout. Frederick chuckled as he spoke.
“This is where the Owl said to drop you off. He also said that you would want to be heading north. What is it you are looking for?”
“Just some friends.”
“Friends? They must be very good friends for such a journey, what? Jeremy here said you lived on the southern border of the forest, near the farm.”
Mrs. Brisby’s quick glance at Jeremy revealed a crow looking very sheepish.
“They are very good friends. Thank
you so much for your help,” she replied, hoping it was enough. Apparently it
“Think nothing of it. The Owl has helped others enough, and any friend of his has our respect. Good luck finding your friends. Come on, Susan old gel. Better be off.”
“Don’t ‘old gel’ me!” retorted Susan. “Bye now!” she called to the mice as she and Frederick began to climb towards the branches overhead.
The family waved after them until they were out of sight. Then Mrs. Brisby turned to Jeremy who was still standing nearby.
“And what about you, Jeremy?”
“I’ll stay here and help you look Mz. Briz.”
Mrs. Brisby shook her head.
“I won’t hear of it Jeremy. By the sound of it you’ve already done so much. Please go home. We’ll be fine.”
“Are you sure?”
“Positive. We’ll be fine and Emma will be waiting for you. Go, please.”
“Okay. If you insist. Be careful okay. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!”
“Bye bye!” called Cynthia. The other children all called their various thanks and goodbyes as Jeremy flapped upwards. He tried to look back one last time and, as he did so, flew into a clump of leaves in his path. Bursting out of them again he flew off over the forest. The Brisby family was left alone in the middle of Thorn Valley. There was birdsong and the rustle of wind in the leaves, as well as the fresh smell of vegetation in the sun. It was truly a beautiful place. The family stood for a few moments looking out over lake.
“Well,” said Mrs. Brisby, “we better move on. North was it?”
They set off, meandering slowly through the forest. There was an apprehensive air amongst the mice. They had travelled so far to get to Thorn Valley and they were nearly at their journey’s end. It was an odd feeling, and for some reason they felt they should not rush. So they enjoyed the scenery.
To their right was the expanse of the long lake, to their left, one of the smaller ones. All around them were the magnificent trees of the valley. Fine specimens by any measure. The forest floor had many winding trails that weaved between the ferns and occasional bramble bush. Soon the smaller lake curved away and the ground on their left began to slope upwards. At one point it appeared as if rain had eroded the slope for it became a steep, dusty escarpment. The mice were wondering exactly how far they were meant to go in this direction when a harsh call startled them all.
They all looked to the ridge of the escarpment, to the origin of the shout. There were two large rats glaring down at them. Each was draped in a dark cloak and one was very conspicuously armed with a spear. As the Brisbys looked on the rats both leapt down the slope, taking huge bounds down the incline, kicking up little clouds of dust. As they came close it became easier to notice details. They both wore rough vests beneath their cloaks and both were armed. The one holding the spear was the shorter of the two, and looked younger (though they both seemed youthful), his movements quicker, sharper and all together more uneasy. The other was tall and slim, a sword visible at his belt. He looked more confident than his fellow. Both had similar dull brown fur. They came to a stop in front of the family, glaring down at them. Mrs. Brisby had unpleasant visions of her first visit to the domain of the rats.
“Who goes there?” the taller one finished.
None of the mice were sure how to answer. The children could only look at the powerful creatures in front of them with awe and fear, their eyes wide. There was no doubt that these were rats of NIMH.
The taller rat squinted at the group before him and then his eyes widened, his brow raised.
“Hang on. You’re Mrs. Brisby aren’t you?”
There was a profound relief on Mrs. Brisby’s part. She had worried how she would explain to these rats who she and her family were. However if this rat recognised her, knowing that she was related to Jonathan Brisby, then that should make everything so much easier.
“Yes. That’s right.” She nodded. “And this is my family. How did you know?”
The rat seemed to ponder this and then its eyes narrowed.
“I was on duty when you arrived at the great hall,” he said, “at the meeting...”
“Ah yes...” Mrs. Brisby’s eyes went to the floor. She didn’t really remember him; she could remember little of the huge creatures looming over her. She was about to reply but stopped as the rat, obviously ignoring her, turned and gave the other rat a look that lasted just slightly too long. The shorter one nodded slowly and darted off back into the woods. After watching his comrade go the other rat once again faced the mice.
“You better follow me,” he said curtly and started off without another word.
The mice glanced at one another and then set off at a run to keep up with the rat’s larger strides, his cape billowing with each of his powerful movements. He was leading them roughly in the direction they had been travelling. He glanced back every now and again, seemingly to check that they were still with him, but other than that gave no indication he was interested in them. As they travelled through the sunlit forest Cynthia nudged her mother.
“Mommy. Are all the rats this grumpy?” She spoke in a quiet little voice, with quick glances at the rat.
“Yeah,” said Martin appearing on Mrs. Brisby’s other side. “I wasn’t expecting this sort of greeting. He almost seems...”
“Silence!” called the rat over his shoulder, though the look was fleeting, and he quickly turned his gaze away again. “You’ll have plenty to talk about when you see Bracken.”
“Bracken?” asked Mrs. Brisby. She didn’t remember any Bracken from her last visit.
“Bracken?” the rat repeated in a mocking imitation. “Yes Bracken! He’s our leader. I’m taking you to him.”
Mrs. Brisby was taken aback by the rat’s manner and was slightly fearful of his reaction when Teresa started to say:
“I thought Justin was...”
“Justin! Hah!” interrupted the rat, almost spitting the words. He did not turn to face them when he spoke. “That idiot. He couldn’t lead frogs to water. No, Bracken is our leader now. He’s really knocked this place into shape...”
Teresa turned a worried face to her mother. Mrs. Brisby returned a similar look.
“What happened to Just...” she began.
“I ordered silence!”
Cynthia hugged herself close to her mother. Both Martin and Timothy were watching the rat, Timothy with a look of disbelief, Martin with contempt, his fists balled.
They moved on in silence for a short while. Eventually, and without warning the rat stopped in front of a thorny bush, behind which was a large outcropping of rock. The family stopped too, waiting to see what happened next.
“Wait here!” commanded the rat as if he were talking to simpletons, pointing to the ground as he did so just to make sure. He still did not do them the courtesy of facing them while he addressed them. As they watched he ran forward, along a thin track that disappeared into the bush.
“What’s going on?” said Timothy. He sounded heartbroken. “Why doesn’t he seem pleased to see us? Have we done something wrong?”
Mrs. Brisby stroked her son’s head.
“I don’t know. Maybe they just don’t like visitors.”
“Don’t they know who we are?” growled Martin. He was still staring furiously at the point where the rat had disappeared.
“Maybe it’s who we are that’s the problem,” stated Teresa. She shrugged as the others turned to her questioningly.
“A-hem,” came the ever so polite cough. The rat had returned and was watching them, the muscles of his face held tense and rigid.
“This way,” he ordered and ducked back into the run. The mice had no choice. Martin went first, the others squeezing in behind. Cynthia did not want to be separated from her mother.
The track was short and took them through the bush to the rocks on the other side. It was darker here, most of the sunlight blocked by the dense foliage but there was still plenty to make out the details. There was a deep fissure in the huge rock before them, very wide at the bottom, enough for the five of them to go in at once, shoulder to shoulder if they wanted to. It tapered as it went up, disappearing before the top of the stone. The rat was waiting for them just inside, making sure that his impatience showed.
“This way,” he beckoned. They followed him into the crack in the rock and it quickly turned into a wide tunnel, though not as wide as the entrance, which sloped gently down. The Brisby family kept close, unsure of their surroundings. Even Martin began to slow his pace so he could stay close to the others.
There were several sharp bends in the tunnel, throwing them into darkness as the all light from outside abandoned them. However the black out was fleeting. Ahead of them there was a faint glow and as they drew nearer the tunnel widened slightly. The light originated from a lantern seen hanging on one of the tunnel walls. It was a rough thing, a little flame inside a rough wooden frame. The mice did not notice this; instead they were watching what the light illuminated. Another rat standing guard, almost hidden in a niche in the tunnel wall opposite the lantern. They could not make out the details of his expression in the dim light, but he turned his face away from them as he passed. Martin bristled but kept moving. The family’s progress past the rat guard was slow and it obviously aggravated their guide as he called back up the tunnel.
“Come on!” The sound took on a strange echo in the confined space and they hurried on, thrown back into darkness again as the tunnel closed in about them. They could still hear the first rat moving along just ahead of them as they continued along the dark and winding passage. The noise of his movements changed and the mice found themselves in a rough chamber, slightly bigger than their home back at the brook. Three more lanterns provided inadequate illumination; each was hung next to a tunnel that led off into shadow. The rat was standing in the centre of the room. He made a lazy gesture, indicating their surroundings.
“This is the atrium, the first room of the settlement proper.” The five mice looked around. Mrs. Brisby had known that the settlement was not going to be quite as impressive as the Rats’ home in the Rosebush but she hadn’t thought they’d be reduced to this. However it was the children that she felt for at the moment. She could hardly bare the looks of disappointment on their faces as they looked around at the rough walls of the dank atrium.
“You don’t like it?” snapped the rat, obviously noticing their expressions too. Mrs. Brisby thought quickly for words to placate him.
“It’s very...” she began, but the rat interrupted again, his tone terse.
“We are still developing the settlement and this is the best we have at the moment. I’m sorry it doesn’t meet your exacting standards.” The last part of the sentence dripped with sarcasm.
“Oh I didn’t mean...” Mrs. Brisby began, still trying to come to terms with the situation.
“I’ll put you to the detainment centre,” the rat said breezily, ignoring the sudden looks of horror that appeared on the faces of the mice. “Until Bracken gives you the all clear...”
“Detainment centre?” breathed Martin. Timothy and Cynthia looked in dismay to their mother. Mrs. Brisby was at a complete loss. She really didn’t know what to say.
“Yes. Can’t be too careful,” continued the rat. He had turned away from them again. “Through there...” he finished, pointing to the middle of the three passageways.
The mice started off again, looking more uncomfortable than ever. Martin led the way again though now he was hardly paying attention to his surroundings or where he was going. His mind raced with thoughts of running back along the passage and out into the valley. But what about the rats? He couldn’t hope to get past them should they decide to try and stop him. Though where were they all? And what about his family? What to do? What had they got themselves into?
There were several further bends in the tunnel, then it began to get wider. It ended in an alcove lit on either side by little lanterns. Before them was a huge set of double doors made from rough, but sturdy looking wood. Surely this could not be the detention centre, thought Martin.
“Open it!” said the rat, though this time his voice sounded strange.
Curiosity took over and Martin placed his hands on the wood and pushed, throwing his weight behind them. The doors moved smoothly, Martin almost toppling forward with the unexpected ease. He straightened up and looked at the new surroundings. He blinked. The others had followed him in and now they all stared wide-eyed too. Cynthia did a double take as she looked around. As one they turned to their guide who had followed them in and was now looming behind them. It looked almost like a different rat. He was beaming from ear to ear and seemed to be quivering with suppressed laughter.
“I’m sorry...” He broke off as a spurt of laughter escaped his lips. “You should see your faces!” He now nearly doubled up, clutching his stomach he was laughing so hard. The mice turned back to the room that lay in front of them.
It was... magnificent. A massive underground chamber, larger than any that the mice had known, even Mrs. Brisby who had seen the halls of the Rosebush. However it was not the size that was impressive, it was the design and layout that astounded. The floor was missing for the most part. A landing ran around the edge of the room and was wide enough for several rats, trimmed with a sturdy carved banister. Through the gap in the centre of the room rose a massive spiralling staircase, extending for another floor upwards, to a mezzanine, and for many floors downwards. Four gantries extended from the perimeter landings to the spiral staircase, so that the stairs were at the centre of a kind of suspended crossroads. Huge pillars were scattered at regular intervals throughout the hall and they rose to join the high vaulted ceiling and its complex network of massive wooden crossbeams. Hanging from these timbers, the pillars and situated on wall sconces were dozens of the little wooden lanterns that, combined, provided a warm illumination.
Along each of the side walls there were at least five doorways leading off, another three on the distant far wall. There were stairs on either side where the small group were now huddled, leading up onto the mezzanine above. What little that the mice could see of the floors below suggested that they seemed very similar to this one, a landing running around the side, gantries leading to the staircase, and many little points of light that were the lanterns. The hall was indeed rougher than those back on the farm, but this was definitely the more impressive.
After the initial wonderment of the architecture came the similar shock at the number of occupants within the room. Dozens of rats of all shapes, colours, and ages were moving to and fro within the hall, going about their business. Some regarded the new comers with a distracted interest, some whispered and pointed, though all seemed too busy to take much notice. There was a tangible buzz of activity.
All the members of the Brisby family could just stand and look about them, trying to take in the scale of the hall. They could hardly believe it would be possible for such a place to exist, but it did. Timothy was the first to come out of the trance.
“What’s...” he trailed off but tried again. He turned back to the rat who had bought them in. “What’s going on?” The young mouse’s words were almost pleading.
The rat had calmed down enough now that he was standing straight again, though he was still chuckling, holding his fist to his mouth in an attempt to stifle his sniggering.
”Sorry,” he said, coughing the last of the laughter away. “I just thought: how often would I get to play that trick? I could hardly keep a straight face.” he strode forward cape billowing, his hand outstretched. “I’m Leander. A member of the Thorn Valley Home Guard and part-time jester.” He shook Timothy’s hand, Timothy seeming slightly reticent, as he continued, “And you are the great Mrs. Jonathan Brisby.”
It wasn’t a question, and there was a touch of awe in his voice. Mrs. Brisby was still feeling a little numb.
“Was that all a joke?”
“Mm hmm. Well except the bit where I said I was on guard duty. That’s how I recognised you. I thought as you know us you wouldn’t mind...”
“So that other room wasn’t the ‘atrium’?” she asked.
“Nope. That’s meant to be a mock settlement, made to look like a normal rat’s nest.”
“You wouldn’t happen to be a friend of Justin’s would you.”
“Yes, we’re very good friends.” Leander looked a little curious. “Why?”
“Just a guess...” finished Mrs. Brisby with a weary grin.
“Uh, could I have my hand back please?” asked Timothy. Leander looked down to where he was still gripping the mouse’s hand.
“That was a very cruel trick,” Teresa admonished. Leander looked apologetic, but before he could continue Cynthia had darted forward.
“You big meanie!” she cried and stamped down on the Rat’s foot. Hard. Leander yelped, staggering slightly, and Cynthia, perhaps not believing what she had done herself, darted back behind her mother.
“Okay...” said Leander through gritted teeth. “I suppose I deserved that. It was a rotten trick...”
Martin snorted in reply, but Leander missed it. He was glaring at two other large Rats who were passing nearby. They were sniggering as they saw Leander hopping about after being assaulted by the little mouse. Leander slowly faced the mice again and finished, “...Especially to when the recipients are the children of the Great Jonathan Brisby.”
“Did you know our father?” asked Martin. His clipped tone suggested he was not ready to start trusting Leander quite yet, though he was obviously interested in acquiring information. Leander seemed to pick up on this and seemed willing to try and make up for his practical joke.
“Not personally. I was born after NIMH, and didn’t know him well, but... Well almost any of the older rats would know him, and probably be able to tell you something,” he smiled warmly and looked to Cynthia. She buried her face in Mrs. Brisby’s cloak but shifted her head so she could peer out with one eye.
“Are you still going to put us in the detention centre?” she asked. Leander visibly sagged.
“No,” he soothed. Such a different tone to the one he had used outside. “What a first impression to give you, hey? You must think I’m a monster. How about a token of my apologies?”
He reached out towards Cynthia with a huge hand. She shied away, her face disappearing back into her mother’s cape. Leander continued to extend his hand till it was next to Cynthia’s exposed ears. He reached behind one, clicked his fingers and a delicate little flower appeared in it. He held it out to Cynthia. Slowly she peeped out from the folds of cloth. Her eyes fixed on the flower, then onto Leander, and back to the flower. She reached out for it and took it in her own hand, tiny compared to the rat’s massive paw.
“Thank you,” she said, though she still sounded very timid. Leander smiled, apparently pleased that he seemed to, in part at least, be forgiven.
“Now... Let’s see what we have for the other Brisby ladies.” He began to reach into his cloak but stopped at a shout from nearby.
“Uh oh,” said the rat, his hand freezing, his head turning around. Striding towards them was a huge rat, one hand running along the polished banister. He was heavily muscled and had a shiny grey pelt. His sleeveless maroon vest left his thick arms bare. Mrs. Brisby thought that this rat might even be bigger than Brutus. He smiled as he approached.
“Hello, what have you got here Leander?” his voice was deep and powerful but not unfriendly. Leander straightened as he addressed the other rat.
“Captain, this is Mrs. Jonathan Brisby and her family. And may I present to you,” he now addressed the mice, “Captain Bracken.”
Bracken smiled, “Mrs. Brisby, eh? It’s an honour to meet you. All of you.” The big rat actually bowed. Mrs. Brisby could feel her ears burning. She was not used to such attention. However Martin seemed to enjoy the behaviour of the Rats, his smile turning into a smug grin.
Cynthia poked her head around Mrs. Brisby.
“Are you the leader of the Rats?” she asked. Bracken looked confused for a moment.
“No. I’m not...” he stopped and narrowed his eyes at Leander. The other rat grinned back sheepishly holding his hands up in a placating manner. “What have you been telling them Leander?” Bracken rumbled.
“I couldn’t help it. I saw who it was...”
“Get back to your post,” shouted Bracken in a mock roar of fury, taking a playful swipe at his friend.
“Okay, okay,” Leander made for the doors that would take him back up to the surface. However when he reached them he stopped.
“Should they be presented to the council?” he asked. Bracken seemed to mull it over.
“Possibly,” he said after the pause. “I’ll take them, though. I’m going that way,” he turned to the mice and leaned towards them conspiratorially. “I’m late for the meeting.”
Leander nodded, saluted, and then hurried into the darkness of the tunnel.
“Strange fellow,” sighed Bracken to himself. He started and turned to the family. “Always take everything he says with a pinch of salt. He’s got a heart of gold, but he can’t help making a joke of everything. Doesn’t know when to call it a day.” Bracken straightened, squaring his shoulders. He was a formidable creature. “Right then. If you would all like to follow me.”
He began to lead them around the landing to the opposite side of the room they had entered. As they followed the Captain the mice continued to marvel at their surroundings.
“How did you build all this so quickly?” wondered Mrs. Brisby aloud.
“Isn’t it dangerous to have fire underground?” asked Timothy, staring at the little lanterns everywhere.
“Under normal circumstances: yes!” Bracken replied with a grin and a wink. “But we’ve had some tricks up our sleeves before we came here. We were quite busy for a long time before everyone else moved here. You’ll get a proper tour later. Right now we should hurry along.”
“Where is it we are going?” asked Martin.
“To the council chamber. Those big doors there. It’s just a quick hello. Don’t mind do you?”
“No, I suppose not,” said Martin though he didn’t sound sure. They reached the doors that Bracken had indicated. Unlike the first door they were intricately carved with patterns of trees and leaves, and seemed slightly out of place in the somewhat rough surroundings. Bracken was still talking so none of them could ask about them, and they had only the briefest moment to study the carvings.
“Don’t worry,” Bracken assured the mice, simultaneously pulling open the set of large double doors. Beyond was a small ante-chamber, a pillar in its centre, another set of double doors on the opposite side. They moved forward as the rat continued.
“It’s just a formality really, but I think you’ll be interested in this meeting... For a supposedly secret society we are getting a lot of visitors. We had another group arrive earlier this morning!”
“Who were they?” asked Martin. There was an edge to his voice. Bracken grinned, apparently not noticing Martin’s tone, but did not reply. He pulled open the next set of doors with a flourish, standing aside so that the Brisbys could see into the council chamber.
Beyond the doorway was another hall, rough like the rest of the settlement they had seen, similarly lit with the small lanterns, not as large but if possible even more magnificent than the entrance hall. This one was filled with rats sitting at benches arrayed on either side of the room that tiered slightly as the receded towards the walls. The rats chattered and whispered amongst themselves, the sounds of the voices greeted the mice as soon as the door was opened. Additionally there seemed to be more seating space in a high gallery that ran around the top edge of the room. All seats seemed to be pointed forward, facing the far end of the room. Here was a clear area of floor, presumably for speakers to address the gathering. The wall beyond that, opposite the main doors where the Brisby family were standing, was concave. Set into this wall were several alcoves, each with a lamp hung high over a stately looking chair. Various dignified looking rats were leafing through papers or waiting patiently in these seats. Of these chairs one was empty, however it was the occupant of the centre seat that caught Teresa’s attention.
“Look Mum! It’s Justin!”
When his mother did not reply Teresa glanced sideways.
Then she turned to face her mother properly, her stomach twisting with unease as she saw her mother’s face.
“What’s wrong?” she whispered urgently.
But Mrs. Brisby still did not reply. Her attention was directed towards a group of mice that were standing near to one side of the speaker’s floor. It would have been obvious that the creatures were not normal wood mice should Mrs. Brisby noticed them properly. However it was one mouse in particular that she was staring at in abject terror. His long and battered cloak, ragged clothes, and tattered ear. His scared face and that terrible, clouded dead eye. He was returning Mrs. Brisby’s gaze, the flesh around his eyes taught as if in surprise or tension. However unseen beneath his cloak, his hand was moving slowly, imperceptibly towards the knife at his side...