“What’s wrong, mother?” Teresa asked again.
This seemed to bring Mrs. Brisby to her senses. She made a half turn toward Teresa, breathing in as if to speak, but did not remove her gaze from the one-eyed mouse. So it was she noticed when he shifted his gaze pointedly to the children and then back to Mrs. Brisby. Her bottom lip trembled. Just having this creature look at her children made her feel sick.
Mrs. Brisby’s head swivelled around to face Teresa.
“N-nothing...” she said lamely, her eyes still wide with fright.
“It didn’t seem like nothing! What were you...?” It was Teresa’s turn to look frightened as she noticed for the first time what her mother had been staring at. “Are those the mice?” she whispered.
“What?” snapped Martin as he picked up the thread of the conversation.
Mrs. Brisby was about to reply when a voice called from the other end of the hall cutting through all other conversation.
“Bracken! It’s about time, we have been waiting for you.”
The rat who had spoken was female and seemingly youthful like the majority of the rats. Her fur was a dark, delicate grey, but Mrs. Brisby was unable to miss the unwavering authority her voice carried.
“Gotta go,” grinned Bracken, not noticing Mrs. Brisby’s discomfort as the he hurried forward towards the speaker’s area. Justin, watching from where he sat, turned and caught sight of the Brisby family. His face broke into a wide grin. It was all Mrs. Brisby could do to return a wan smile. The rat seemed to notice that something was wrong, for the smile turned into a look of concern, his head cocking to one side. However both Justin and Mrs. Brisby’s attention was then drawn to the female rat who had spoken before.
“Now that the whole council is present...” she said looking pointedly at Bracken as he slipped into the last vacant alcove and sat in its seat. “...we can call this council meeting to order. We have with us some guests.”
Mrs. Brisby watched as Bracken quickly rose again from his seat and, darting across to the female rat, whispered something into her ear. He then hurriedly returned to his seat, looking sheepish, though immediately beginning a whispered conversation with Justin who leaned across from the next alcove. The dark grey rat continued, ignoring the others.
“It seems we have more visitors than we first thought.” Her questing eyes found Mrs. Brisby and her children. The little family of mice shifted uncomfortably as many of the other rats looked in their direction. Mrs. Brisby fiddled nervously with her cape, rearranging it to better hide the bandages; Martin stared defiantly back at the assembled creatures; Teresa comforted Cynthia who still clung to the hem of her older sister’s skirt; and Timothy was staring wide eyed at everything around him, still amazed at the Rats’ home. The rats themselves began whispering to neighbours, glancing at the Brisby family as they did so. Mrs. Brisby noticed some of the mice seemed to try and stifle surprise, some regarded her family coolly, but all the while the ragged mouse stared fixedly at them, almost unmoving, and Mrs. Brisby was now unable to meet his gaze.
“Keep order here!” called another, thin rat who was seated in the gallery above. Slowly the whispering died down. The female rat eyed the room before starting to speak again.
“For the benefit of our guests, I am Jocelyn and I will be the spokesrat for the Rats of Thorn Valley during this meeting. And for the benefit of those present I shall ask our guests to formally introduce themselves to this assembly.” She now addressed the group of strange mice that stood to her left. “Now... would you come forward, please?”
They moved, slightly hesitantly, into the space before the council. Mrs. Brisby watched them carefully. Aside from the mouse with the dead eye, who glided amongst the others, still watching her as if they were the only two in the hall, she recognised two of the others. The scarred mouse who had wielded a spear and the sword mouse with the sad eyes were both present, though they had discarded their weapons, returning the rats’ looks of interest with a watchful furtiveness. There were four others that Mrs. Brisby had not seen before, and it was one of those mice who stepped forward now, in front of his fellows. He had very dark fur. Any darker than it was and it would have been black. His garments made him look taller; his cape and long coat giving him a wiry, sleek appearance. She could not ignore the intensity of the mouse’s gaze as he looked around at the assembled rats, and her family, fixing them in his vision for a moment. There was a confidence that almost seemed to radiate from him. He stopped roughly in the middle of the hall’s floor, and waited for the rats to quiet down. He stood patiently, head held high, arms clasped behind his back, underneath his cape; smirking as if remembering a private joke. Mrs. Brisby and her children, the rats, every creature in the hall was tense, waiting to hear what this stranger had to say. Even the ragged mouse turned his attention away from Mrs. Brisby. Once all was silent he flashed a smile around the room.
“Cousins!” he called, pausing briefly for effect. “I am Fraus, the leader of this motley band. Some of you may remember me for I have come... from NIMH.” He lingered on the last sound as a ripple of activity went around the room. The rat on the high platform glared at those present, raising a gavel, but the voices died away before he had to use it. Fraus, still grinning, continued,
“I am one of the mice who tried to escape with you though, as you know, the fates deemed us to follow separate paths.” He paused again to hang his head before continuing.
“Now is not the time for our full tale, as I do not wish to labour over details. I will say that we escaped the ventilation shafts, though not without difficulty. I will also admit that we have not left NIMH totally in our past. We initially returned to NIMH to free recaptured comrades, another story entirely, and discovered that there were many more like us on similar experiments.”
His eyes roamed his silent audience, watching them as he went on,
“While in the labs once again we realised that NIMH were working to recover you, the lost Rats of NIMH! We decided to observe their search efforts, no small irony for as we watched them, they searched for us too, though apparently the fervour of their efforts was concentrated on you, the rats. We wished almost as much as NIMH to find you, though our goal was alliance, not recapture. There were many, many reports, many false directions taken. We had to be very patient, the wait was, as you may fathom, several years. All proved futile until there was one report from a farmer by the name of Fitzgibbon. The human scientists were terribly excited over his description of the rats’ behaviour, your behaviour, and quickly readied a truck. It was the signal we had been waiting for. My comrades and I stowed away on the vehicle knowing it would bear us here. The scientists and technicians were intent on your recapture, and we found it easy to conceal ourselves amongst their equipment, and disembark when they reached their destination totally unnoticed. We found a vantage point nearby and watched as the scientists worked on the rosebush. They pumped in their foul gas and we hoped that our cousins, so nearly regained, were not to be snatched from us at this final stage. Then we saw your ploy to fool them, a carefully orchestrated retreat. It was gratifying to see the NIMH scientists so well deceived. We tried to go after you, but you proved impossible to follow. You obviously knew the terrain, and had a head start. All we could do was wait for NIMH to finish its work.
“Eventually they were satisfied that they would find no trace of their lost test subjects and the scientists left, leaving your home in ruins. It was then a case of verifying that you were indeed the rats of NIMH. Once we were sure it was safe and the gas had dispersed we entered the rosebush and searched it more thoroughly than the humans ever could. We found the evidence we needed. You were the Rats of NIMH. It was a great joy, as for several years we had waited for this moment. Now we were close to completing our objective. We set about finding your new settlement, and it is this task that occupied much of the past month. We initially began by searching the surrounding area. This proved to be a futile pursuit and so we were disposed to asking the local creatures for information, using what few names we knew. Eventually we hit upon a name that we recognised from our past. Mr Ages! We went and talked with him, glad to find our old companion still alive.”
A chill ran down Mrs. Brisby’s spine as Fraus went on,
“Better yet, he knew where to find you. He pointed us in the correct direction, though declined to join us on our journey saying he had much work to finish. We travelled to Thorn Valley and of course, you know the ending of this tale.”
Fraus finished with his grin, looking around at the astonished rats, though they were silent. Martin looked doubtfully at Mrs. Brisby, obviously listening with his unwavering scepticism.
“He’s lying!” he hissed. Mrs. Brisby could only nod in reply, for Bracken broke the silence. Rising from his chair he addressed the Mice of NIMH,
“It seems much has happened and I will not ask you to recount your entire tale, but... could you tell us how you located our settlement here in Thorn Valley once you arrived in the general vicinity? If I remember correctly you presented yourself to the guard on duty at the main entrance. Without wishing to cause offence or seem like an interrogation, we must be careful that NIMH or indeed any other humans cannot use the same method you used to locate us. As Captain of the Guard I must always take the safety of the colony as my first priority and secrecy is our main concern here.”
“Entirely understandable,” replied Fraus. “As I said, NIMH dismantled your old settlement in the rosebush. Luckily your deception worked well. Very well. NIMH had no idea that they had failed to catch the Rats of NIMH, thinking they had just destroyed an admittedly very large colony of feral rats. I can assure you that they will not return to this area without new evidence.
“As for how we found your settlement here in the valley... There were so few clues that we had much trouble finding you. Your methods for keeping your settlement a secret are impressive indeed. However Spiro,” Fraus rested his right hand on the ragged mouse’s shoulder, “is an excellent tracker. And that is not to say that you left many tracks... indeed any signs that you lived here at all... but Spiro’s skills can almost be likened to a second sight!”
The skin around Spiro’s eyes wrinkled, the cheeks lifting, as if he were smiling beneath his scarf... or sneering. Bracken got the full effect and winced slightly, looking straight into the dead eye.
“I bet.” he said quietly, and then louder, “Thank you for your encouraging words.” He returned to his seat, seemingly satisfied. An older rat, sitting on the far left of the council alcoves, rose to speak. When he did so, it was in a deep voice, though it was cracking with age.
“I am Duncan of the council of Thorn Valley, and one of those who escaped from NIMH. You seem familiar, and I do recall your name, but I’m afraid that I do not recognise your companions, nor the name you just mentioned. I feel I would remember them had I met them before.” Mrs. Brisby noticed the old rat shot a quick glance at Spiro.
“Your memory has not faded; all but one of my companions will be strangers to you. Only I and Stave here,” Fraus was now beside a young, lean mouse, grey in colour, a small, pair of circular glasses settled carefully on his thin nose. “are members of the original mice who attempted to escape with you that fateful night. The others joined the band afterwards. Either they were born after the escape from NIMH, such as Deakon,” Fraus indicated the scarred mouse who Mrs. Brisby knew as the spear carrier, “or as with Spiro, joined our band direct from NIMH in a second liberation.”
“A second liberation?” asked Duncan. There was a general whisper at this. Fraus grinned.
“Yes!” Fraus’ voice took on a melancholy air. “It seems that NIMH’s cruelty extended beyond ourselves. We have gained many new companions from within their walls in a second breakout. Again the story of our own settlement will be better told another day. Now would seem an opportune time! Allow me to introduce my companions.”
The Brisby family watched as Fraus weaved between his companions, languid gestures of his right hand indicating who he was referring to. Mrs. Brisby and, though she did not know it at the time, Martin were careful to place a name to each mouse.
“You now know of Deakon,” he patted the mouse with the scarred nose, “and Stave could be thought of as our archivist and researcher for the diversity of his knowledge is second to none.” Fraus quickly moved on to a mouse with a drab, brown fur, who Mrs. Brisby noticed visibly twitched as Fraus lightly clapped his right hand onto the mouse’s back. “This is Warren, our healer, a mouse of great skill indeed.” He now moved to the only female member of the group. The young mouse girl stood with arms folded, blazing eyes challenging any who dared look in her direction. Fraus continued his patter, “my own daughter, Foxglove. She is very proficient with a bow... This...” Fraus walked to the dark furred mouse whose mournful gaze followed Fraus’ approach, “...is the redoubtable Malachi, my second in command.” Fraus now indicated the tattered creature. “And last but not least, as I have already mentioned, this is Spiro.” The skin surrounding his dead eye creased again in a ‘smile’.
Once again there was a pause as the audience assimilated this new information and waited to see if Fraus would continue. In the silence Mrs. Brisby saw Spiro’s head turn slowly around, his stare falling once again on her and her family. Nevertheless there was little chance to dwell on this as Bracken took to the floor once again.
“You have told us much, Fraus, and I will only ask this last question. Why have you come on such an arduous journey? Surely the time and effort invested in this search. The risk... what was the reasoning behind it?”
“To reforge links to the past...” Fraus said quickly, his right hand whirling energetically about, left still jammed into the small of his back, his travelling cloak billowing with the movement. “...To find our lost cousins. We are kindred spirits, all of us altered by NIMH and unable to return to the simple lives that we once knew. We believed there would be much to share between our two settlements. And...” again was the emotional pause in his oration, “We have come with a request. A request for aid! We were so few in those dark and early days, and even with those that were liberated later, our lives have been difficult. Any knowledge of medicine and food production that you could spare would be of invaluable help to us. It may help save our colony...”
He had punctuated this last part with sweeping gestures of his right hand, and now he kept it extended and turned, as if proffering it to each of the council members. As one the Brisby mice jumped at a shout from a councilrat.
“Of course,” said Duncan, rising from his seat again, smiling warmly. “Anything we can do to help; any knowledge that would be of use we will give freely. From the darkest intentions of NIMH will be born an unbreakable alliance of our settlements!”
There was a round respectful applause for the speech, some of the mice even joining in. The Brisby family did not applaud, Martin sending a warning glare at Cynthia. Fraus himself bowed.
“Indeed. This will be a day long remembered in the histories of our colonies. I wish to thank the council on behalf of the Mice of NIMH.”
There was another short round of applause. As it faded Fraus spoke.
“Now if you would permit me...” he did not wait for any answer. He whirled, his right arm once again joining the left, tucked behind his back, and looked across the hall, right at Mrs. Brisby. “I notice your other guests are mice! Might these be relatives of those lucky few who managed to escape NIMH? Could this be a daughter of Mr. Ages, though he did not mention one? Or maybe... Jonathan Brisby’s family?”
As Fraus spoke the name it seemed to Mrs. Brisby that the juxtaposition of Jonathan’s name and memory with these murderers was terrible. Martin seemed riled too, while the rest of the children, previously absorbed by the theatrics of the council chamber, now seemed afraid. Before any of them could speak Jocelyn rose to answer.
“The latter is correct.” she said to Fraus before holding her head high to address the entire hall, “May I present our next guests: Mrs. Jonathan Brisby and her children.”
The assembled rats saw their chance to continue their chatter regarding the Brisby family, the hall becoming filled with whispers once again. The Brisby family, unused to such attention, shifted uncomfortably, even Martin’s ears turned red.
“And where is Jonathan?” Fraus’ voice cut effectively through the hubbub. “We would like to meet our old cell mate.”
Again Mrs. Brisby felt that
unpleasant sensation. She wished, as she had countless time during the month
past, that Jonathan were beside her.
“Unfortunately he is no longer with us!” came Jocelyn’s voice, cutting through the background chatter as well as Fraus’ “He died helping us with the plan to build this settlement. He was a valuable ally and dear friend, his loss is a great tragedy to all who knew him.”
Never had there been a greater understatement to the knowledge of his family. Mrs. Brisby felt it was almost too much to bear. A hand worked its way into hers and squeezed gently. Looking down, Timothy smiled consolingly up at her.
“That is regrettable.” Fraus was saying as he turned again to Mrs. Brisby and the children. “May I extend my sympathies to Jonathan’s wife and heirs... I knew Jonathan only a short time, though his actions are far reaching indeed.”
There was an awkward silence. Mrs. Brisby had not the courage or the knowledge of how to address the gathering, and her children seemed equally at a loss. It was Jocelyn who spoke next.
“Thank you for your kind words of sympathy. May I reiterate it is fortuitous indeed that we can be of one allegiance once again.”
Fraus bowed once more and then, with the smooth actions of one practiced in such formal situations, herded his band back to sit on benches that were situated just to the side of the speaker’s area. It was clear to Mrs. Brisby that it was smaller than the Rats’ own furniture that she had seen in the rosebush and had obviously been brought there for the purpose. Jocelyn seemed about to rise again when a voice interjected from the balcony above. A thin, dark rat in a robe of office called down into the silence.
“To what do we owe the pleasure of once again welcoming Mrs. Jonathan Brisby to our council?”
The words had a barely concealed second edge and it gave Mrs. Brisby an unpleasant start. Unnoticed by her, Justin threw a disapproving glance at the young speaker.
“Augustus...” he hissed, glaring upwards.
Mrs. Brisby hesitated. She looked at the mice again; she couldn’t stop herself. There was the tiniest movement on the part of Spiro. A slow shake of the head.
“Is there a difficulty?” barked the rat again. “Perhaps if we throw it open to the floor?” the rat was grinning widely, though it was not a friendly expression.
Martin saw his chance and leaned towards his mother, ignoring the attention of dozens of rats upon him.
“Go on, Mum. Tell them,” urged Martin.
“Tell them about the mice,” from Teresa.
The words caught in Mrs. Brisby’s throat. She had not managed to speak in this situation before, in the rosebush. Friends had spoken for her there. There seemed to be only enemies here. “I...” she began. A glance across the hall and she saw the dead eye was still on her. “I... would like to speak... with your leader, Justin. In private.”
Her voice had seemed tiny and quiet in the huge hall. There was a sudden burst of muttering that spread throughout the entire assembly.
Mrs. Brisby was trembling. What had she said?
Behind her, Martin muttered, “Why didn’t you tell them?” He was looking straight at the mice, though only Spiro seemed to reciprocate the attention.
“Because...” began Mrs. Brisby, but her words were lost.
“Order! Keep order here!” called a voice raised above the rest. Mrs. Brisby recalled the voice chastising Jenner in a similar way the last time she was in the Rats’ council hall.
“You should not feel that there is any subject you may wish to discuss with Justin that you may not also bring before the entire council,” came the same voice that had spoken before.
“But...” the words refused to leave her throat.
“It is only proper etiquette in the Hall of Thorn Valley,” came a second voice from the stand to the left.
“Aye,” came another in support. Many rats were nodding their agreement to the sentiments.
Mrs. Brisby, bit her lip. Why was this happening? What should she do? Another voice joined the fray, though this brought with it a profound relief that Mrs. Brisby had not felt since they entered the Council chamber.
“Mrs. Brisby has no obligation to address the council as a whole, nor to answer to you directly, Augustus!” Justin was standing now, and making his way across the speaker’s floor towards Mrs. Brisby and her children. Now that he risen the family of mice could see that he was wearing a flowing cape, supposedly in deference to his office. He also now sported a sword at his side. He continued, “She owes us nothing and we still owe her much. Mrs. Brisby has done more than enough for the Rats of Thorn Valley to request a private audience and, as head of the council, I shall grant it to her.”
The first rat that had spoken, Augustus, sneered back, though he didn’t seem to want to argue with Justin. As the leader of the rats approached Mrs. Brisby he spread his arms wide, trying subtly to remove them from the hall. He leant in and whispered hurriedly,
“Quickly. Outside we can talk.” He then straightened, turned and addressed the hall at large, the Brisby family, not quite understanding, shuffled backwards, through the arched doorway into the antechamber. They listened as Justin spoke cheerfully.
“I bid our visitors welcome to Thorn Valley. Our home is your home,” Justin was backing out of the hall as he spoke. “Jocelyn... you have the floor.”
At this Justin bowed and simultaneously he closed the large wooden doors, Mrs. Brisby and the children crowded behind him, leaving the council starring in disbelief at their leader’s exit. In the balcony above Augustus turned to the rat next to him and smirked, before turning to stare at Jocelyn expectantly. There were various surprised murmurings from the assembly, some of non-comprehension. Fraus sat and watched, a subtle smile on his lips, a glint in his eyes. Of the council, Bracken put his face in one huge hand and Jocelyn herself shook the wide-eyed disbelief from her and tried to rally the meeting.
“Ahem... Please forgive Justin’s departure,” she said to the mice, who turned to look at her. All that is except one. “You may stay and watch the proceedings of the council meeting if you desire...”
She glared ferociously at the closed doors, cursing Justin for putting her in this embarrassing situation. Likewise Spiro had never drawn his gaze from the exact point where Mrs. Brisby had been before the great doors had closed.
Justin had his ear pressed to the outside of the door. He could hear Jocelyn’s voice clearly through the wood.
“...And so we move on to the issue of electricity production using the ‘stolen’ motors. Secretary of The Engineering Core Tristan has the floor.”
“Good old Jocelyn...” Justin turned to the huddle of mice who were watching him, waiting for the next move. “Right, quickly. Before anyone tries to follow or stop us.”
“Can you just walk out like that?” asked Teresa as Justin hurried then along.
“Not really,” Justin grinned strangely. “That’s why we have to move. Now...”
There was a suppressed urgency that the mice had no choice but to comply with. They hurried after Justin as he strode back out onto the entranceway, closing the ornate doors behind the family. The platforms were almost deserted now, and those that were present had little time to act. Then, without a word, he started off towards the left, heading for one of the halls’ side doors and the mice trailed after him. A couple of guards who were nearby nodded knowingly as Justin passed. The rat quickly made another turn, down a winding stairway. The family had little time to wonder or chatter. They barely had time to take in their surroundings. It was all they could do to keep up with their host.
“Why don’t you tell him? Tell him about the mice!” whispered Martin once they had fallen back a little. In reply Mrs. Brisby shook her head.
“No. Not yet... I...”
“If you don’t tell him I will,” said Martin. Mrs. Brisby scolded her son,
“You will do no such thing!” Then her voice softened. “Please... not yet. Don’t tell him yet. Promise me! I have to...”
“Come on!” called Justin his voice tense, but not unkind. He was waiting at the next landing, looking up at them. The family scampered towards him, not able to finish the conversation.
They left the stairs and began to walk along corridors, pleasantly lit with the same lanterns. There were also rough carpets, contrasting the bare boards of the Entranceway. Along each wall were doors and occasionally a passageway. Justin stopped them next to a door that looked very much like the rest and took a key from his tunic. Opening the door he ushered the mice into the room beyond and then, glancing around the corridor, followed them in, locking the door behind him. He stood motionless, as if the lock clicking had frozen him. Then he whirled and leant his back against the door, letting out a long breath.
“I am sorry,” he said. “We needed to be away from there before anyone tried to ask questions. Forgive me.”
The mice were only half listening to Justin. They were looking around the room they now found themselves in. Justin saw that they were not paying him much attention and grinned.
“Welcome to my study and quarters.”
It was a large room. About the size the whole family had used to live in back on the farm. It was lit, as was the standard now, with three of the little lanterns. The room had some furniture. Some simple stools, a desk, a large chest, some shelves on which were stored some books and other items. There were also the papers. The room was littered with them, effectively obscuring most of the floor. Reading them would surrender to the reader information about every aspect of life in the valley, from crop locations, tending rotas and harvest yields, to the output of the Rats’ workshop, what was being taught to the youngsters of the colony, even a list of new medicinal herbs needed for the infirmary. However the diverse subjects were mixed together and spread everywhere. There was a clear path from the door, to the desk, and then to another door on the left of the room, supposedly where Justin slept.
Justin hung his cloak by the door and turned, straightening his collar, to see the mice staring in disbelief at the administrative morass that was his study.
“Sorry about the mess,” he said, feebly rearranging some of the piles of papers in a vain effort to make the surroundings presentable. “I have to have to keep a record of what goes on. Comes with being in charge of it all. As you see I’m not much of an organiser. If I can’t keep my quarters tidy, what chance do I have of running a colony, eh?”
Cynthia giggled, and Mrs. Brisby tried to speak over it.
“Oh, no. Really, Justin. It’s fine,” she began, though she was not really concentrating on what was around her. She was still stunned from the recent events. How had the mice got here? Justin looked on the verge of inquiring into Mrs. Brisby’s unease when the children began to interrogate him instead. Timothy started.
“Why would you do that? Wander out of the meeting? Aren’t you meant to be the leader?”
“Well...” and Justin waved his hands meaninglessly in air, unknowingly imitating Jeremy’s idiosyncrasy very accurately. “I couldn’t stand the way they were speaking to you. After all you’ve done...”
“Yes,” said Mrs. Brisby, remembering the conclusion of the meeting. “Thank so much Justin. I... I didn’t know what to say...”
“Who was that anyway?” demanded Martin. His voice was so spiteful made Justin raise an eyebrow.
“That was Augustus. A contrary individual if there ever was one. He lives to stir up trouble.”
“I’m not sure I like him,” said Timothy quietly, almost to himself.
“I don’t blame you,” sighed Justin.
“What was his problem, anyway?” continued Martin, same petulant tone.
“He’s part of a new group of younger rats who have got it into their heads that they can run the place better than anyone else. They think we— and by ‘we’ I mean the original NIMH Rats— are obsessed with NIMH and discovery by the humans. I think they also resent the loss of the technology we had the Rosebush. They’re not used to this simple life. They never knew the hardships of setting up the colony, or even getting there in the first place. The thing is, it seems their views are quite popular amongst the other young ones, those who supported Jenner’s policies, though not his final actions. They’re beginning to argue that the technology that we ‘stole’ is their birthright. It’s not helped as Jenner did a lot more damage than he could ever hope or realise. What he did, when he murdered Nicodemus and Sullivan, it shook the entire colony. No one could believe that one of us could plot, betray and kill as he did. These were human traits, not ours, surely. The trust that was second nature to all of us has now vanished, and with it some of the faith in our plans for the future...” Justin’s hand went to his face as he tried to rub fatigue away.
“And there’s still the arguments over the old machinery, and whether we can use it. They’re still worried about our food stores, the harvest and the rations. And they’re still bickering over the water mill.” He looked through his fingers at the mice who, although listening, were obviously not fully comprehending. He smiled, though it wasn’t his usual effortless grin.
“Sorry. I’m rambling. It’s just so hard being stuck in the middle trying to please everyone. Trying to keep the peace. I don’t know how Nicodemus did it. Suffice to say although there are trouble makers, they’re not like Jenner. The worst you’ll get is a snide remark, and if anyone tries even that much, they’ll have to answer to me.”
Teresa gave her mother a fleeting but significant look, while Martin went for a more direct route.
“When did those mice arrive, Justin?”
“This morning. Why?” This seemed to jog Justin’s memory, for he became more concerned. “You seemed very... anxious over them...”
Mrs. Brisby drew an icy stare away from her elder son and replied,
“It was... The shock. The shock of seeing mice from NIMH. I suppose it reminded me of Jonathan.”
“But...” started Martin, but again he was silenced by one of Mrs. Brisby’s very potent maternal stares.
“Are you sure there’s nothing wrong?” asked Justin, putting his hands on his hips. He caught sight of the bandages around Mrs. Brisby’s waist for the first time. “How did that happen?”
“Oh it’s nothing. Just a scratch...” Mrs. Brisby cast around for a change of subject. Her gaze alighted on the scabbard that hung form Justin’s belt. “You never used to carry a sword Justin.”
A tight lipped smile from Justin was followed by a slow nod. He would wait until Mrs. Brisby wanted to talk. He said,
“I guess I have my own wounds. Some of the scars Jenner inflicted have not healed as readily as those on my arm.”
The two locked eyes, Mrs. Brisby grateful for the unspoken agreement. Martin, in typical fashion, broke the silence.
“I suppose I better show you where you are going to be staying,” said Justin, his tone light again. Cynthia gripped the hem of her mother’s cape.
“I won’t be with those mice will it?” she asked, her voice muffled by the red material.
“No.” said Justin, his voice low, eyes unfocussed. Then more clearly, “No, I wouldn’t hear of that. Their quarters will be on the other side of the settlement. We barely have enough rooms as it is. You can have my room.”
He crossed the room and pushed open the other door. The family moved to look inside. It led to a large and comfortable sleeping chamber. It was more lightly furnished than the study, the lanterns, another less ornate chest. Justin had opened this and retrieved extra bedding. There was enough for the entire family to make themselves very comfortable. Mrs. Brisby slowly shook her head.
“No. Thank you Justin, but... Where will you sleep? We couldn’t...” She stopped as Justin held up a hand, explaining,
“Mrs. Brisby, please. I won’t use it. I couldn’t sleep soundly without knowing that you are safe and comfortable. And the only place large enough for you and your family is here. Keep the room. My quarters will be yours as long as you stay.” He looked around the littered chambers. “You’ll probably keep it tidier than I did.” He grinned, “Good night Mrs. Brisby.”
Mrs. Brisby returned the smile, eternally grateful to Justin, who closed the door, leaving them in darkness.
The mice lay down to sleep, though it took its time in coming. Although physically exhausted their minds were troubled. As they waited for slumber they listened to door to Justin’s chambers opening and closing several times. There were various insistent but hushed voices from the other room. They could not hear what rats were discussing with Justin, but they guessed...
Justin looked across at Jocelyn from where he sat at his desk. The other rat stood, arms folded, face set. Her eyes blazed.
“I’ve never been so embarrassed! And while we had guests! You couldn’t pick a better time to start playing hero, could you?” Her voice was lowered, but the annoyance was conveyed clearly. Justin winced.
“Look Jocelyn. I’m sorry. You heard Augustus, I couldn’t let him lay into her like that.”
“Then why not register your objection formally instead of just running off? Why do you never seem to stick to procedures?” She waited for a reply with raised eyebrows.
“Neither did Augustus,” said Justin.
“True, and that is why he isn’t more influential than he is. That is all the more reason to follow the rules of council etiquette to the letter.”
Justin hung his head for a moment and then tried another line of discussion.
“The council was no place for Mrs. Brisby and her family,” he said, “I don’t think Bracken was right to bring them there.”
Jocelyn was silent for a moment, possibly signifying agreement. Then she went on.
“But what do you think certain parties would say when the leader of the Rats of NIMH departs in such a fashion from a full council meeting? What impression does that give?”
“I know, I know,” Justin’s hand went to his forehead as he spoke, “It’s just...” he sighed. “I was never any good at this. I couldn’t just stand there and wait for formality and procedures...”
“They are your duty now Justin.”
Justin looked into Jocelyn’s eyes. The fire had gone, but now it was a stony gaze he had to face.
“Jocelyn, you know I’m grateful to you. You take so much off my shoulders...”
“Stop trying to distract me from the issue with ‘thank yous’ and flattery! It doesn’t work!” Jocelyn was becoming exasperated; she often did in such conversation with Justin. They were not as irregular as she would like. “The other rats look up to you. They respect you. There is no one else in the valley who the others would see at the head of the council and who would also have the best intentions of the colony in mind. You’ve a good heart Justin, and that must make it difficult, I know... but that is why it is imperative you remain leader. You will have to realise that you must act the part or else the respect others have for you, as a leader, will vanish and the settlement will be worse off for it. There are greater things to think about than saving Mrs. Brisby a bit of embarrassment. I’m sure she would understand.”
Jocelyn turned to leave; Justin did not try to stop her. She had reached the door as she spoke again, though did not face him.
“Please. Think about it.” Then she was gone. Justin clenched a fist and then relaxed again, staring into space. Leaning on the desk he put his face in his hands.
“Nicodemus. Help me...”
As the Brisby family began to fall into troubled sleep, others were not quite so restful. In the dark places of the valley; those parts of the settlement that were still under construction, patrolled only irregularly, and lit with only the barest of illumination; whispered conversations were taking place.
“I thought you said she was dead!” said the first voice.
“It’s... It’s impossible! We saw her. Spiro drove her into the river. She was stabbed! The poison...” gabbled a second voice, though it was cut off supposedly by an unseen gesture. Then the first said very slowly and deliberately.
“Is this true?”
There was a rustle of fabric but no words. This seemed to satisfy the first speaker, who continued, still in the deliberate tones of one controlling strong emotion.
“Did you at least try to locate her body? A confirmation that you’d tied up this... loose end?”
A new voice spoke now. It was considerably calmer than the other.
“We looked but it was too near the farm. That damn cat...”
The first voice came again, though temper was now seeping in.
“I set you all a very simple task! Kill one mouse. That’s all. She’s even a feral animal! And yet you all managed to bungle it again!”
The third voice said, with resentment, “I apologise...”
There was no pretence at control now on the part of the first speaker.
“I will require more than mere apologies if my carefully laid plans fail because of this!”
There was heavy breathing, and then the first voice spoke again. When it did, it was once again in control.
“No... No, I should not berate you. You should not apologise. I took a calculated risk. It may pay off yet.”
Another new voice entered the discussion, reasoning with the others,
“What can she do? Like you said she is a lower creature. She cannot do anything to us.”
“But she can alert the Rats to our intentions,” pointed out the first voice, as if pointing out the obvious to a child. “I don’t know why she didn’t say anything in front of the council. I feel you may have had something to do with it, Spiro. I think she may have found you intimidating.”
There was another rustle, and the first speaker again took this as a satisfactory reply.
“At least the surprise was mutual. It will be necessary to make sure she continues to be silent about our previous encounters. I want you all to keep the pressure on her. We may be able to turn this to our advantage. After all, those are Jonathan Brisby’s children!”
There was a pause before the speaker managed to shake itself from his reverie and focus once again on the task at hand. “Be subtle! It is important that no evidence regarding our activities reach the Rats. You all have your orders, and you know what to do. Now go. Not you... I have something special in mind. Follow me...”
Martin crept from the bedchamber, closing the door as softly as possible. One of the lanterns was still burning above Justin’s desk and in the soft light Martin could see Justin slumped over the desktop, head resting on forearms in uneasy sleep. The young mouse moved as quickly and quietly as he could, taking care not to disturb anything.
“Justin?” he breathed.
The rat stirred and raised his head. He turned blinking eyes on Martin and seemed to require conscious effort to focus upon him.
“Martin!” Justin shook the last remnants of sleep from his head. “You’re still awake! Is anything wrong?”
“I wanted to talk.”
Justin sighed, and rubbed a hand over his face.
“By all means...” he said.
“Those mice. What do you think of them?”
“They seem sincere...” Justin looked straight at Martin. “This concerns them, does it?”
A nod from Martin.
“Will this leave this room?” asked Justin.
A shake of the head. “No.”
Justin regarded the young mouse, his lips pressed together. Then he said,
“I didn’t trust them. Well, I didn’t like the way that Fraus acted up to the crowd. He was too polished. And I can’t think of any creature more threatening in appearance than Spiro. What was he trying to prove? Was he trying to intimidate a room full of rats? Some of the others weren’t much better. Why do you ask?”
Martin checked over his shoulder, looking at the closed door to the sleeping quarters. Then he said slowly,
“They tried to kill my mother.”
Justin was incredulous, and did not take the simple comment in.
“What?” he managed.
“They attacked her. That one with the dead eye... Spiro. He stabbed her. He used some sort of poison...”
“Are you sure?” asked Justin, his voice toneless with gravity.
“My mother told me all about it.” Martin would have gone on, but for some reason he didn’t mention the Seer. He would rationalise later that he had not wanted to cloud the issue.
“Why didn’t she mention it?” Justin asked.
“She is afraid.”
“Yes. What they’ll do if they find out. They tried to kill her. They were behind the disappearance of Mr. Ages and now they’re in Thorn Valley!”
“Mr. Ages? Gone?”
“Yes.” Martin shook his head, then explained. “I forgot, you didn’t know. They... the mice... were waiting for her when she went to get Timothy’s medicine from Mr Ages. They did something with him!”
Justin shook his head.
“I can’t believe it,” he said, looking away.
“It’s true,” said Martin, emphatically.
“Do you have proof?”
“Proof?” It was Martin’s turn to be incredulous. “Why do I need proof? They attacked my mother. It’s as simple as that!”
“Are you sure she wasn’t mistaken?”
Martin cocked his head to one side.
“Could you possibly confuse Spiro with any other creature?”
Justin raised his eyebrows and nodded before sighing and placing a hand over his face.
“Well?” said Martin irritably after a moment, “what are you going to do about it?”
There was something in that tone that made Justin’s eyes open wide. When he spoke again it was in a low snarl.
“What would you have me do?”
Martin stepped back, taken by surprise by Justin’s sudden outburst. He tried to say something but no words would come out. Justin continued, gesticulating wildly.
“Should I charge in there and start cutting off heads? We’re not savages. I can’t just attack them.”
“Are you calling my mother a liar?”
“No I...” Justin was calm again and obviously regretting his outburst. “I just need evidence.”
“Why? Isn’t her word enough?” asked Martin in a high pitch that suggested he couldn’t understand why Justin wasn’t leading a pack of the Home Guard over there right this instant.
“It’s so complicated.” Justin hung his head. “I would like to believe your mother. I do believe her. But I can’t act upon it without catching them. They are guests at Thorn Valley. The political situation in council is such that I can’t do anything without bringing all the other Rats against me.”
“What do they have to do with it?”
“Not all the Rats in Thorn Valley are agreeing at the moment. It’s the same group I mentioned earlier. Some aren’t happy with visitors, some don’t want the mice of NIMH here. Some don’t want you here. If I acted in deference to you the council would have me dismissed, then the others would try to seize what power they could. These different groups would tear our settlement apart. I can’t allow that. To them, the mice haven’t done anything wrong. I mean, why did they attack her? What reason could they have?”
“Those mice attacked my mother,” hissed Martin in an attempt to keep himself from shouting. “Nothing else matters. If you don’t do anything I will!”
“I can’t let you do that,” Justin was deadly serious. “If you were to attack another guest I would have to treat you as I would any others who would upset the peace of Thorn Valley. Try to see it from another’s point of view!” he tried to reason with the young mouse.
“Damn your politics...”
“Damn your audacity,” said Justin, his temper flaring again. “You’re just like your father. He was stubborn. He would never listen...”
“How dare you!” Martin was unable or unwilling to control his voice now. “How dare you talk about my father like that!” Martin was beyond thought by this point, he merely acted. His fist connected with the side of Justin’s head. It caught the rat by surprise and nearly unseated him. Justin recovered, shaking his head. He looked into Martin’s furious stare and his own eyes blazed. He curled a fist, the muscles of his arm tightening, his jaw clenched... but he stopped himself, visibly forcing himself to relax, letting out a long breath, flexing his fingers. Martin seemed unsure of what he had just done, for he was now staring absently at his own fist.
“I’m sorry, Martin. It was wrong of me to say that. I should not have spoken about Jonathan like that.”
He returned his head to his hands, resting them on the desk. What to do? If he were to say the mice were untrustworthy, the other councillors would ask for proof. They wouldn’t agree to simply throwing their long lost cousins from the valley. However, if he acted the least he could expect is to be thrown from the council without hesitation. He knew who would gain from the imbalance that would result. It would doom them all. But he was sure that Martin would not knowingly lie about such a thing.
“I’m having enough trouble keeping the Rats united,” Justin tried to explain. “It seems that any new venture or policy that is raised immediately creates new divisions within the settlement without you asking me to cast what civilisation we have to the winds. I can’t allow it, though I will not allow them to attack your family again. There will be no bloodshed in Thorn Valley. Our legacy of violence died with Jenner.”
“How can you just let this go?” Martin was almost pleading now.
“I’m not. It’s just...” Justin now faced Martin properly. “Do you even know whether Spiro was acting alone? I don’t trust Fraus, but he doesn’t seem predisposed to violence. I need more information.”
“Mother was wrong about you,” Martin looked over Justin with contempt in his eyes. “You’re a coward.”
Martin twirled and stormed back to the sleeping quarters, not worrying about disturbing the papers now. Sheets flew into the air before the enraged mouse.
“Martin, I’ll place a guard on the mice...” Justin said, but Martin was not listening. As he had opened the door he had found his mother and siblings waiting for him. His mother was staring at him accusingly.
“You promised,” she said.
“I had to do something!” he replied. Mother and son, locked eyes, but in such a conflict there will only ever be one victor. Martin dropped his gaze to the floor, unable to meet Mrs. Brisby’s stare.
“How long were you there?” asked Justin.
“We heard most of it,” said Mrs. Brisby, suddenly weary. “I’m sorry we burdened this on you, but I am so relieved now. I don’t know what to do, Justin.” Mrs. Brisby’s eyes were glazed as she spoke now. She gathered her children to her. “I can’t protect my family from the mice. I’m scared of what they may do if we leave, but to stay would mean they are always nearby, always in the shadows, around the next corner. Justin, please...” she did not need to finish. Her children hugged themselves to their mother. She had done so much to save them, and now they did not have words to comfort her.
Justin’s jaw was set.
“They did attack you then?”
Mrs. Brisby bit her lower lip and nodded.
“Do you have any idea why?”
Mrs. Brisby hesitated. She had not thought about it. In a forest that holds so many dangers it was rarely worth doing so. Teresa spoke up instead.
“Maybe they were trying to find out how to get here?”
“But you couldn’t have told them,” said Justin, then thought for a second. “Mr. Ages could have... And why would they introduce themselves? Surely that puts them in the open? He closed his eyes for a moment and the, “They must have wanted to get inside the colony. But why?”
“What could be here for them?” asked Mrs. Brisby.
“The Stone?” breathed Timothy. Justin looked up at the young mouse.
“Would they have known about it?” he asked.
“What else do we have that the mice could want?” asked Martin. He too had clamed down now.
Mrs. Brisby stomach turned as she remembered Spiro in the council hall. “The children!” she breathed.
“What?” asked Justin.
“Spiro... something he did. They may be after the children. They know they’re Jonathan’s children...”
“Are you sure?” asked Justin.
“It could be any one of those,” pointed out Teresa.
“Right.” Justin seemed to think for a moment before continuing. “If you would tell me all you know about the mice, I’ll tell you the plan I have. And don’t worry,” Justin flashed his grin, “I’ll handle it.”
Much later, after descriptions, thoughts and ideas had been shared; after the Brisby family had returned to bed; after Justin had sat and thought his plan through, checking it for possible discovery from the council, he slipped from his quarters and made his way to the guard room. Bracken was on duty tonight. There was a long conference between the two friends. It wasn’t until the early hours of the morning that two trusted rats of the Home Guard were standing in the ‘atrium’. Both were equipped with packs of medical supplies and travelling capes. They also had weapons. Justin and Bracken watched them go, wishing them luck. It would take them two days, maybe three to carry out their orders. Mr. Ages home was a fair distance away, and they would have to search the surrounding area. Justin wasn’t sure what he wanted them to find.
He and Bracken stood in the valley as the sun began to bring light to another day. It was another crisp, dewy morning. Justin breathed the fresh, scented air. How he wished for a simpler life at times. Eventually he returned to the tunnels of Thorn Valley, Bracken following his leader. They would soon have to make their excuses to the other council members.