The Brisby family were woken early by the hum of activity within the settlement. The sleeping area was well insulated from the noise, but the mice were not sleeping well, and so the faint sounds from the distant workshops, meeting halls, and crowded passageways were enough to rouse the family from slumber. Opening the door to Justin’s study they were not greeted by the leader of the rats, but by a grinning Leander, the sentry who had first shown them into Thorn Valley. He explained that because of his behaviour yesterday, Justin was letting him give them the tour of the settlement in an effort to make amends and show he wasn’t such a bad individual after all.
Breakfast had been brought to the room for them, and they feasted hungrily. The food was simple but well prepared. As they ate and subsequently left Justin’s study, Leander spoke, saying that they had missed breakfast. Leander had not had the heart to rouse them (the mice got the impression that he knew there had been some discussion late into the night) and unfortunately the communal dining halls were now in use by the educators.
“You see,” Leander was saying as he walked the mice along the tunnels, “we had it all laid out ready when we first moved to the Valley, but as they say: ‘The best laid plans...’ It turned out that the rooms weren’t adequate, and anyway we need the storage space. Long story short: the educators use the halls between morning and evening meals for the young ones’ lessons. Lunch is not a communal affair for the time being.”
Leander carried on rambling as the group left the tunnels for an open space. They were once again in the entranceway, though this time they were a level down. It looked just as it had the day before, though the rats that wandered through the hall now seemed in less of a hurry. It must have been a big meeting last night. A rat was at work with a long hook, taking down lanterns, refilling them from a small cask that he carried, and then replacing them, relighting the little flames as necessary. The group slowed to a halt in the middle of the landing, their rat guide just reaching the crux of his tale.
“...and they always put these little seeds on the top that I can’t stand and they’re really difficult to pick off...” Leander was saying, miming something to emphasise his words.
“Er... Leander,” said Teresa. Their rat guide stopped in mid sentence and focussed on them again, grinning from ear to ear.
“Where are we going?” she finished. The other mice looked at him hopefully, nodding in agreement. Leander’s grin remained where it was, but his eyes darted around the hall.
“Well... I was going to suggest... Where did you want to go?”
“We don’t know.” Martin shrugged. “Show us the sights.”
Leander blew out a breath through pursed lips.
“There aren’t too many sights at the moment. We’re just trying to get everything to link up at the moment. It’s a bit rough and ready.” He looked away obviously thinking and after a moment apparently reached some internal decision. “Well, I could show you around the residential chambers. That’s back the way we just came and they carry on for about three levels down... and we still need more space. Above them, next level up, there are a few of the older rat’s chambers, they don’t like the stairs much, and the meeting area. I personally think that sounds terribly formal, it’s a good place to relax. Not that any of us have any time to relax around here.”
“Uh huh,” said Martin, clearly riveted. “So that side is where you live?”
“You could say that, yes...”
“So what about the other side?” Martin asked, jerking his head in the indicated direction.
“Well, that’s a little more tricky. We focussed a lot of the building effort on the residential aspect to begin with. Then it was food storage. That side of the settlement,” Leander waved his hand vaguely, “is the one undergoing the most work at the moment. Thinking about it, it may be easier if I show you... Follow me.”
He strode off across the walkways beckoning to the mice over his shoulder. As the mice followed him, they were able to look up to the entranceway’s ceiling, resplendent with its manifold lanterns. The sight still captivated them and they were still astounded by the sheer size of the hall. They could not help but become distracted. Leander seemed to be gently amused at their interest in their surroundings, and waited patiently by a doorway, not wishing to hurry them. When they eventually reached him, he ushered them through. It took the mice several moments to take in everything that they saw.
The room beyond was another hall. It wasn’t as large as the entranceway, but was bigger than the council hall. They had entered through one of many entrances. Along the wall behind them alone were several doorways as well as short flights of stairs that led up or down to the corresponding levels of the entranceway. On the opposite wall were four large archways, wider then the apparent standard of the tunnels seen so far. Within the room here were half a dozen stout pillars at regular intervals along the room’s length. As far as furniture went there was row upon row of tables, each having ten or so rat sized stools nearby. The occupants of these stools were producing the cacophony the filled the room to the rafters of its high ceiling. Young rats were spread throughout the entire hall, each table involved in its own activity. Not every table was occupied; in fact many were empty meaning each class had its own space. Some were reading, others writing with what appeared to be charcoal. Younger ones were being read to, while older children involved themselves in discussion with neighbours, furiously taking notes and tinkering with equipment that was unfamiliar to the mice. Some small slates had been propped up using simple frames and adult rats chalked up symbols that the mice recognised as numbers and letters (though Mrs. Brisby would have been able to tell you little else). There was a definite method to the apparent confusion, though it was hard for the mice to work it out. Older Rats supervised and moved between the tables, talking to the youngsters, helping, encouraging and occasionally scolding.
“Our industry extends beyond the mechanical,” Leander was saying, his voice easily rising over the din to reach the mice. “Education is second only to science and engineering within the council. We have to make sure the knowledge the first generation has is passed on. I would liken it to a production line, but that wouldn’t do justice to the enthusiasm and devotion of the educators and students.”
The Brisby mice were not sure about Leander’s ‘production line’ analogy, but before they could query it there was a sudden rise in the noise level. The rat winced slightly as there were shouts and cheers from the far end of the hall, obviously part of a lesson, but it made the din momentarily unbearable.
“Hopefully when they have the classrooms it will calm down a bit. Come on,” he said.
The group moved off again and, as they picked their way between tables, doing their best to avoid disturbing lessons, various young rats nevertheless spotted the arrivals and started calling out.
“Leander! Is it true? Did you fight an adder on your own?”
“I think you’re the bravest guardsman in the Valley, Leander!”
Leander smiled warmly and faced the mice he was escorting.
“Kids...” he said magnanimously, shrugging his shoulders. The calls continued, much to the annoyance of the rat educators.
“After Bracken, Brutus and Justin, that is...”
“...and after Kate, Nathan and my big sister!” put in another.
The grin faded from Leander’s face slightly but he kept walking.
“...and your brother!” came another slightly impish voice.
“Is that the mouse that beat you up?”
A muscle twitched beneath Leander’s eye.
“Okay! Get back to your lessons!” he called sternly to the various speakers, who turned away grinning.
As the various rats regained control of their lessons and the tour group neared the other side of the hall, a high-pitched squeal stopped them in their tracks.
“Connie!” called Leander kneeling down as young rat girl bounded up to him and threw her arms around his neck. Although she was probably younger than either Timothy or Cynthia, she was almost as tall as Martin. Leander hugged her back, though his ears went red as he heard Martin give a snort of laughter.
“Unkie Leander”, he said. Connie’s scowl of defence was fearsome.
“Unkie Leander was the bravest and bestest Guardsman in the Valley.”
Leander raised an eyebrow and smiled at Martin, who smirked and raised an eyebrow of his own. Connie went on,
“He told me how he beat off three weasels and a fox all at once. And he said he’s stronger that Brutus and Bracken together, and...”
Leander’s smile vanished and was replaced with alarm.
“Now now, Connie. Don’t be like that to our guests. They are very important. Mrs. Brisby saved the whole colony...”
Connie’s eyes grew wide with disbelief.
“Really? Are you the magic mouse from the stories?”
It was Mrs. Brisby’s turn to become embarrassed. She had not expected this and did not accept such attention as well as Cynthia or Martin. Leander clearly picked up on this, for he easily distracted the youngster for the sake of his guest.
“What is it you’re learning today, Connie?”
Connie’s eyes shone as she revelled in the telling.
“We’re being told a story! It’s about animals like us. They’ve got a big green castle, and...”
“It’s not green, it’s red,” said another young rat from the table nearby. “And it’s not a castle either it’s...”
“Now children, settle down.” Although the tones were gentle, they were instantly obeyed. The teacher was a thin, grey, female rat. She was smiling at the children’s enthusiasm, though the look darkened slightly when her gaze fell upon Leander.
“You’re a disruptive influence on my lessons, Leander. I don’t know what Connie sees in you.”
“Oh come on, Isabella,” replied Leander, releasing Connie and standing tall. The young rat girl returned to the table, “I can’t help it I get on with kids. It shows I have a sensitive side. I can’t wait till I’m a daddy.” He grinned lopsidedly. Isabella gave a mirthless laugh.
“That’s all we need. Little versions of you running around the valley. We wouldn’t cope. Especially if they share your lack of manners. You have not introduced me to your guests yet.”
“Oh,” said Leander. Temporarily wrong footed. “This is the Brisby family. Isabella here is one of our most talented educators.”
“It is an honour,” said Isabella inclining her head, though not before glancing disapprovingly at Leander. “Please don’t think me rude, but I must continue in my lesson. You are welcome to stay, by all means, as long as there are no interruptions.” The last words were directly solely at Leander.
“We were just leaving,” he soothed. “We need to continue with the tour. We have a lot to see yet.”
“I want stay!” Cynthia piped up. “Can I hear the story? Please, Mum?”
“I don’t think it’s up to me...” Mrs. Brisby looked to Isabella. “Will she be a nuisance?”
“Not at all...” replied Isabella smiling.
“You can sit here!” called Connie waving a hand and pointing to an empty stool, nearby.
“Great! See you later, Mum.” Cynthia hugged Mrs. Brisby and hurried over to the table and sat. Almost immediately she was chattering happily with the other children. The scene was almost comical to Mrs. Brisby, Cynthia being dwarfed by the other young rats, though that didn’t seem to bother any of them.
Isabella smiled at the child’s enthusiasm. And sat back down, finding her place in the book.
“Will she be okay?” asked Mrs. Brisby, not wanting to let her children out of her sight. Cynthia seemed happy enough, already she was enthralled with the story.
“She’ll be fine,” Leander assured the mouse. “Isabella will look after her”. The educator shot a sideways glance at the mention of her name, though didn’t stall in her story telling. Leander grinned back, then leaned in close to Mrs. Brisby and whispered, “Justin’s got it all sorted. He’ll explain later I’m sure.”
He straightened and swept the remainder of the group along, leading them through one of the four wide tunnels on the other wall.
“Down here is where we keep and prepare the food.” Leander was saying. The Brisby family found them selves in another cavernous room. The floor that they were standing on dropped away after a short distance making the main part of the room very tall. Ramps led down to what was obviously a storage area. The walls were almost obscured, as food was stacked high along each. Sacks, boxes and barrels were piled everywhere on gargantuan shelving units, though it wasn’t a random assortment. A few rats could be seen darting up and down ladders, gathering carefully chosen ingredients and then bearing them to where they needed to go. To the left and right were rats working at benches, cutting, mixing and preparing the various ingredients.
“Tonight’s dinner,” Leander explained. “What’s cooking, Andrew?” he called out. A dark brown rat that had been industriously cutting vegetables with a very large blade, looked up, wiping his hands on his apron. He was not smiling.
“Nothing, with all these interruptions!” Andrew barked and, without another word, went back to his chopping. Leander gave the Brisby family a strange look. “Chefs! They’re a funny lot. Temperamental.”
There was a loud chop as a cleaver was buried in the counter top.
“I heard that,” shouted Andrew, and then began to talk to another rat about some matter of food preparation.
“I think we better not hang around. With the rationing they’re not being given their chance to create!” Leander punctuated the words with flowing gestures of mockery. “They’re liable to try and use anything to spice up the meals, and I wouldn’t want to be responsible for Brisby pie.”
Teresa and Martin exchanged wry grins.
Mrs. Brisby, meanwhile, was watching one of the rats mixing up various woodland spices and grinding them with a pestle and mortar. She recognised each of the spices and a thought came to her.
“Excuse me?” she said very quietly. The rat looked at her but did not stop grinding. Mrs. Brisby continued awkwardly. “Sorry if you think this rude of me, but... have you put ground wild nutmeg in there? You’ll find it makes a nice difference.”
The rat stopped what he was doing.
“Of course I haven’t put wild nutmeg in it.” He shook his head. “That would...” he stopped and looked thoughtful for a moment. Then he reached over to a small bag and threw some of the contents into the bowl. Grinding furiously for a few seconds he stopped, took a pinch and dabbed it onto his tongue. His eyes grew wide.
“Well I’ll be darned. How did you know about that?”
“I’m used to using limited ingredients,” smiled Mrs. Brisby.
“Thanks for the tip... You’re not Mrs. Brisby?” The rat actually looked at her for the first time. Mrs. Brisby nodded.
“That’s two I owe you then,” he said smiling warmly and bowing his head. “Sorry, but I must get on.”
“Of course,” said Mrs. Brisby backing away, ears blushing red. Leander gave Mrs. Brisby the thumbs up as she returned to the group.
“You’ll have to get used to attention,” he explained. “You’re something of a legend around here ever since you saved the colony.”
Mrs. Brisby smiled uncomfortably.
“Where to next then?” asked Timothy. Leander pursed his lips.
“How’s about down a level to the gym? We’ll see if any of the Home Guard are practicing. This way.” Leander led them to a side door. As the mice filed through the doorway, Leander stuck his head back into the preparation area.
“Hey Andrew! You’re not doing those things with the little seeds on the top, are you?”
Andrew glared at Leander, putting down the ingredients he was holding.
“I’ll make whatever Patricia says I should make, and you’ll eat it and be grateful for it! Now get out of my kitchen!”
Leander grinned disappeared into the tunnel.
The tour took the mice down a couple of levels. All the way the tunnels were lit by the lanterns that were the standard. Timothy looked at them.
“How do these lanterns work, Leander? I would have thought open flames underground would be dangerous.”
“Not with these lanterns.” There was a trace of pride in Leander’s voice. “Our scientists have been looking at the problem for some time. We knew that when we moved here we wouldn’t have the luxury of electricity. We’d have to find a new source of light that was safe to use underground,” Leander stopped as the group parted to let a couple of robed rats pass by in the other direction. They stared at Mrs. Brisby and her children before remembering themselves and hurrying on. The rhythm of Leander’s speech was unbroken. “Well they found one. A nice clean fuel that we can make ourselves. I don’t know how it works, but I’m sure Arthur or one of his boys could tell you.”
“Arthur?” asked Teresa. Mrs. Brisby searched her memory. Had she met an Arthur?
“He’s head of the engineering and science in the valley,” Leander went on. “He’s more practical than most, but he’s bound to know who can tell you if he can’t do so himself. That’ll keep until later. Right now...”
Leander stopped by a door and pushed it open.
“... this is my neighbourhood.”
Inside was a long low room. The floor had some kind of woven straw mat. There were various pieces of wooden furniture, benches of different heights, wooden discs with painted rings, racks of mysterious equipment and the like, as well as several strong, healthy looking rats.
“Leander!” bellowed Bracken, beaming as he advanced on the newcomers. “And our guests,” he said, turning the smile on the mice. “There seems to be one missing though.” Bracken’s face became stern as he looked back to Leander.
“Don’t worry. I haven’t lost her,” he explained. “She’s joining in the story telling with the younger class.” Bracken seemed satisfied,
“Ah. Okay then. So what brings you here?”
“I was hoping for a demonstration of Home Guard combat training.” Leander peered over the other rat’s shoulder. “And by the looks of it, we’ve just arrived at the right time. Training up the new recruits?”
“That’s right,” said a light grey female rat holding a wooden staff. The movement of her lithe body betrayed a strength and power that belied her slight frame. “I’m Kate, weapons trainer, this is Alan, unarmed combat trainer,” she indicated the short, thickset brown rat who gave a casual salute in greeting. “We were about to check that these two young hopefuls have been practicing like they should.” She nodded at the last two rats. They were obviously younger than the others as they were thinner, their bodies not as well toned as the other Rat Home Guard. One was a sandy female, the other a dark pelted male. They both smiled sheepishly.
“I have the utmost faith in Raymond and Stephanie,” said Bracken.
“That’s only because you recommended them,” said Alan.
“Is that Mrs. Brisby?” asked Raymond.
Leander sensed Mrs. Brisby tense and cut in.
“Okay knock that off. She’s been getting that all morning, and she doesn’t need it from a grunt-in-training like yourself, Raymond. Concentrate on the test.”
Raymond gave a dismissive gesture.
“Who needs to concentrate? I’ve got this in the bag,” he said smoothly.
Kate gave a wry smile and swung her staff around to connect lightly with the back of Raymond’s legs. The confidence was wiped off the trainee’s face as he toppled backwards, but it was then Kate’s smile that disappeared as Raymond then curled up in midair and rolled smoothly back onto his feet.
“Hey that wasn’t...” his words were cut short as Alan pounced, wrapping stout arms around the young rat, holding him firm.
“You cocky little...” Alan’s words were similarly fated as with a deft twist Raymond wriggled free and darted around the bigger rat. Before Alan could turn, Raymond had given him a push that sent him staggering. Raymond dropped into a ready stance and grinned.
“Anyone else?” he cocked an eyebrow at the observers, just as a shadow loomed behind him. A massive arm was wrapped around his waist and the rat was hoisted off the ground and placed in an undignified position over Bracken’s shoulder. There he was held; the wind knocked out of him. Bracken grinned at the mice.
“Have to be firm with these youngsters! They think they know everything but you have to show them what real strength is from time to time. Isn’t that right?” he asked Raymond as he slapped him on the back. Raymond spluttered with anger.
“Hey that wasn’t fair!” yelled Raymond regaining his breath and struggling against Bracken’s grip. “Three against one? C’mon!”
Bracken’s grin widened. Raymond was dumped unceremoniously onto his tail. He yelped. “It wasn’t fair!” he whined again.
“Weasels don’t play fair,” said Bracken seriously. “You’re going to have to learn not to be so self-satisfied all the time. Stop all this showing off.” He looked up again. “Well. We promised a demonstration and I suppose that Stephanie might be the one to do it.”
The rat girl pointed to herself, eyebrows raised in disbelief.
“Hey!” said Kate, throwing the staff to Stephanie, who caught it deftly. “Show ‘em how it’s done, kiddo.”
“Give us a few seconds,” said Alan to the guests as the members of the Home Guard darted off, collecting and moving various pieces or equipment. During this activity Leander leaned into the mice.
“Bracken talks like that but all the Home Guard are show offs. He boasts more than anyone else in the valley. Even more than me! He and Brutus are always down here trying to prove who’s the strongest. They’re as bad as one another, each encouraging the other one.”
“What going on here?” asked Martin, enthralled as preparations were made.
“Stephanie’s weapon test. She has to hit all the targets as quickly as possible. It’s a tough exercise. Especially with those three judging.”
Stephanie was now standing in the middle of a circle of wooden frames. Each had a small, and rather battered, metal disc attached to a vertical post at about shoulder height for most rats. There were eight of these frames in all, and they were spaced at irregular intervals around the perimeter of the circle. The four other rats stood a little way back and looked on.
“Ready?” asked Bracken. Stephanie gave each of the frame’s positions one last look and then nodded. Alan and Kate both nodded. Satisfied, Bracken nodded as well. “Then... Go!”
Stephanie became a blur as she twirled the staff over her head. Immediately she stepped forward and hit the first frame with the end of the pole. With a dull thud it toppled over backwards. Stephanie had not waited to see the frame fall. With a swift back and forth movement, either end of the staff had struck two further discs, sending them toppling. The trainers looked on. Kate was watching every move the young rat made, Alan seemed to be counting under his breath. Bracken was watching closely too, arms folded, nodding along with Alan’s counting. Stephanie was oblivious, concentrating totally on her task. Now the movements became roundhouse sweeps, first to the left then to the right, sending frames flying sideways. Finally Stephanie hoisted the staff over her head. The pole rose and fell in a graceful arc to connect with the last frame behind the disc, knocking forward into the circle. Finally she twirled the staff and brought it to her side, standing to attention as she did so.
“Wow,” breathed Martin. All the mice were impressed. It certainly had been an extraordinary demonstration.
“Faster than last time,” said Alan as a matter of fact. Kate turned to Bracken and smiled. Bracken stuck out his lower lip and nodded.
“Not bad,” he said.
“Not bad?” said Raymond. “You’re never pleased with anything!”
“Well I’m not sure about knocking over the frames sideways, and that last one would have needed only a tap because she hit it on the wrong side,” he finished with a raise of his eyebrows. Kate sagged.
“Come on Bracken. You saw she hit it just as hard as any other. That would have been a good hit on an actual opponent. A short strike to the back of the head...” Kate brought her own fist around as if to strike Bracken. He caught the arm.
“See! And I would have stopped,” she said smiling at Bracken who returned the gesture.
“Knowing you, maybe not.”
Kate withdrew her arm and, reaching up, tapped Bracken on the forehead.
“Well I think she did it perfectly, whether you can think so or not.” She went over to Stephanie and immediately began discussing the exercise, miming the movements, going over each strike. Bracken turned to the mice again.
“Well there you go. That’s a little more exciting than we usually get. Though I suppose we could do one more demonstration.” Bracken reared up to his full, formidable height and smiled wide. “How about a spar, Leander?” The big rats eyes shone and Leander’s ears drooped as each of the mice looked at him expectantly.
“Well, er... You know I’d normally leap at the chance. But I have to continue with the tour and if we don’t leave now we won’t see it all before lunch time. You know how it is. Come along everyone!” Leander hurried to leave, herding the mice out too, though they all stopped at Martin’s voice.
“I’ll think I’ll hang around here, if that’s okay?”
“Are you sure Martin?” asked Mrs. Brisby.
Bracken put his arm around Martin. The mouse seemed tiny when next to the vast rat.
“Sure, he’ll have a whale of a time. As long as you don’t mind Mrs. Brisby?”
Mrs. Brisby was torn. On the one hand where could be safer from the mice than in the Home Guard’s own barracks. On the other, she was worried about accidents. She asked,
“It is safe, isn’t it?”
“Absolutely.” Bracken straightened. “I’ll be responsible for him. He won’t get up to any trouble.”
Mrs. Brisby nodded, at least partly satisfied. Leander broke in.
“Right-o! I’ll see you later Bracken!”
Bracken replied with lackadaisical wave and turned to the rest of the room with Martin.
“Okay, this is Martin out newest trainee. Let’s show him how we do things in the Home Guard. Alan! You up for a spar?”
“You’re going down this time big guy!”
Leander shut the door and smiled down at the remaining mice
“And then there were three,” he said to Mrs. Brisby, Teresa and Timothy. Well there’s not much else below us except the current construction projects. Damp, dark, nasty, I’ll spare you that.” Leander jerked a thumb upwards. “Above us are the council offices, but you might prefer to see the library.”
Timothy’s eyes lit up. “Can we?”
“Of course,” replied Mrs. Brisby smiling.
“Okay then! This way...” Leander took off, followed by the mice.
After a few turns in the corridors the tunnels became quite busy. The mice caught glimpses of rats they had seen in the council chamber. None of them paid them too much heed save for the occasional bow of the head or a surprised look. They all seemed too absorbed in discussion or reading papers that they carried. Leander was reeling off information again like he had done this before.
“This area is connected with the bureaucratic centre of the colony. The library is where we keep a lot of documents at the moment. We’re going to be sorting that out; have a dedicated council document library, but like I said we’re very short of storage at the moment.”
He was weaving through various corridors. They seemed less bare than the others, more finished. For one there was a definite flooring, a soft sort of material. Mrs. Brisby noticed that it was rougher than what she had seen in the rose bush, but it was along the same design.
“Here we are,” announced Leander heading for a large archway. Beyond was a room that although couldn’t match other’s for size, was the most impressive in terms of intricacy of design. It spanned three floors, with gigantic shelves built into the very supporting structures of the room. As well as these the room had many finely built wooden shelving units, each finished in a dark polish. This matched the banisters and railings that were fixed to each staircase, landing and raised walkway that worked to link the various levels and areas of the library together. Rats were wandering around, looking along shelves, reading and sorting books, making notes. Along the library wall were writing desks, at which rats (many in council robes) sat poring over chunky manuscripts. There was only the faintest whisper of noise. Timothy was amazed.
“Mum said you had a library, but I never imagined you would have so many books.”
“Where did they all come from?” asked Teresa. Leander was happy to explain.
“Some were produced from human volumes. Scribes laboriously copied out every last letter. Most are our own versions of books, maybe not exact duplicates, but they get the point across, sometimes better than in the originals.” Leander withdrew his chin and put on a voice. “‘The humans seem predisposed to waffle’ I remember Victoria saying. She’s the head scribe. Think of her as an editor. She must have read every single book in here.”
“So they’re all based on human books?” said Timothy.
“Oh no. There’re only a few at the moment, but there are original books written entirely by our own authors. My brother’s actually working on one.”
“Your brother?” asked Mrs. Brisby.
“Yes, my twin actually. He’s in the Home Guard as well. You may remember him. He was on duty with me that day you were in the council chamber.”
Mrs. Brisby gave a non-committal shrug. Leander carried on undeterred.
“Well, he’s an author as well. He’s trying to right an epic poem or story or something about the Rat’s of NIMH’s lives to date.”
“It’s a saga!” came a cry from a nearby book shelf.
“Chester?” said Leander, trying to peer around the obstructing shelf. From behind it stepped a rat who looked identical to Leander in every way. The only difference was that where Leander’s face seemed to wear a perpetual grin (when he wasn’t acting out a joke at any rate) the other’s expression was intense and sullen. He wore a dark shirt and tunic as well, similar to many of the rats.
“Chester, how are you?” smiled Leander.
“I’d be better if you weren’t here. You’ve no doubt come to try and upset my delicate, creative frame of mind.” He looked at the mice and said, “He revels in stopping me from working. He thinks it’s funny!” he finished incredulously. The rat seemed to be getting quite worked up.
“Don’t worry, Chester. I’m not here to annoy you. I’m showing the Brisby family around.”
“Oh, well...” Chester was the first rat that didn’t react to the Brisby name. He seemed the sort to be perpetually preoccupied with other things. “You can tell me what you think of this, then. I wrote it this morning.” He was rummaging through various scraps of paper that he had tucked into his belt. Leander glanced quickly at the mice and rolled his eyes. Chester retrieved a particular note and unravelled it. Holding it at arms length he scanned it first and then, making sure the group was listening, he read,
“The moonlight jossed without a glimely wobe,
And I dost think, ‘‘tis bregailed wi’ stode!’”
He lowered the paper and looked expectantly at the group. Leander had obviously been in a similar situation before because without a thought he said,
“That’s very good, Chester. And that took you all morning?”
“Yes, it’s all I’ve managed to do this week!” Chester seemed quite agitated as he went on, “Did you think it was moving?”
“Oh yes, very,” affirmed Leander, his expression turning grave to match the solemnity of the reading.
Chester seemed downcast as he said, “Well, it’s meant to be funny.”
“Ah, I meant it was moving in a funny way. It moved me to laughter!” finished Leander triumphantly, but Chester seemed beyond consolation.
“No. You’re right. It’s rubbish.” He tore at the paper as he ranted. “I haven’t managed to produce anything worthwhile since we came to the valley. I need to go and have a lie down!” Chester strode off without a backwards glance, hand squeezing his temples. The mice watched him go, not quite understanding what had just happened, though Leander was quite happy to proffer an explanation.
“My brother!” he said grinning and gesturing after the retreating Chester. “He’s a bit high strung at the moment. Creative block. He was doing fine when he was writing in the rosebush, but ever since he’s come here, he’s not been feeling right. Lovely chap once he settles down. Now let’s move along... There’s someone I want to find.”
They moved off again, climbing a flight of stairs to the upper levels of the library. As they reached the top of the staircase Leander called,
“There’s just the rat I wanted to see! Avery! Hey!”
The indicated rat was thin and wore long robes. As he turned the mice noticed the lines of age on his face, and the tufts of thick hair on his nose that resembled a moustache. He scowled at Leander, breaking off the conversation he was having with another younger rat.
“Ssshh! This is a library,” he advanced speaking in a harsh whisper. However, when he saw the mice he immediately brightened.
“Oh. Mrs. Jonathan Brisby and... some of her family at least! What a pleasant surprise.” He turned back to the other rat to whom he had been speaking. “You can take care of that now, Harold. Section E-F, third shelf.” He nodded and turned back to the mice. “Nicodemus talked of you often. He was very good friends with Jonathan.”
“Avery. I was wondering if you could show the kids the book.”
Avery chewed his bottom lip in thought, causing his moustache to bristle outwards.
“What book was that, old boy?”
“What book could the Brisby children possibly be interested in?”
“Well, there’s a whole host of fascinating works... Oh!” Avery’s face brightened with sudden comprehension. Leander imitated the expression, simultaneously throwing a strained look at mice. The old rat carried on, bustling off. “Yes, I know what you’re thinking of. I saw it only yesterday.”
Leander guided the mice around the shelves, following Avery as he ran his hands along the polished wood, peering closely at the books. At last he stopped on one.
“Ah, here it is!” He tugged a battered volume from the shelf and handed it to Timothy. The young mouse read the cover.
“Energy Transmission, Conversion and Utilisation”
“Your father’s contribution to our work,” Avery was saying. “He was a respected scientist. I’m told the book is apparently very good, though it goes beyond my realm of expertise.” Timothy and Teresa were only half listening. Teresa peered over her younger brother’s shoulder as he opened the book and looked at the page. It was hand written! Their father’s handwriting was arranged into neat columns. Avery smiled.
“Come on. I have something else to show you.”
He led them once again through the library, winding between shelves, down the staircase again to the lowest floor, and then to a quiet corner of the library. Here was a door. Avery took a key from his robes and placed it in the lock. As he opened the door, he unhooked a lantern from the wall nearby, and led the way in.
The mice entered a room was small and low, at least compared with others that they had seen. Stacks of papers, books and equipment were stored haphazardly in piles, save for a podium at the far end, on which rested a giant tome.
“This has become something of a storage room,” Avery was saying as he lit the room’s lanterns from the one her was holding. “Eventually it will be used to house the special collection of books.”
As the room was lit, Mrs. Brisby recognised Nicodemus’s record book on the podium, the one she had read from in the rosebush. She vaguely recognised some of the other items in room, those that had been in Nicodemus’ study. Then her gaze fell upon the miraculous device that Nicodemus had used to tell her the story of NIMH. It stood regally amongst the clutter, its ornamental frame gathering dust. Avery noticed Mrs. Brisby’s fascination and explained.
“Nicodemus’ Augur. We were certain to make sure it was kept well away from NIMH. It is a truly marvellous device, and only Nicodemus knew all it secrets. However, I fear we have damaged it. It had to be dismantled to bring it here. We took detailed notes and have meticulously checked every component but to no avail. It will not speak to us...”
Mrs. Brisby approached the Augur, but there were no visions amongst its workings now, no phenomenal lights. It looked just as it had, though now it was still and lifeless.
“Is this what you wanted to show us?” asked Timothy.
“Ah, no!” said Avery. He began to rummage again, the mice and Leander watching him bustle about the room.
“Yes, this is it...” he turned to the mice. “When we came to the valley we left the rosebush in a bit of a hurry. Most of the rooms were simply packed up and moved. Some had to stay behind and be collected later. I believe a lot of the electrical equipment is still there at the moment, as is a favourite quill of mine. It must be because I can’t find it anywhere here... Anyway, the point is a lot of the paperwork and books ended up in here, even though they were not technically ultimately bound for the library. This,” he put his hand on the stacked crates and patted them energetically, “was the contents of your father’s study. It was mixed up with Nicodemus’ effects, but we think we managed to untangle them.”
“Why are you telling us?” asked Timothy.
“Well, I thought you might be interested,” explained Avery before continuing slightly awkwardly. “And I rather hoped you might help in the sorting. If you want to that is. We’re stretched thin here as it is, trying to reorder the entire library, and I can think of no better individuals to look through your father’s work than members of his own family. Please don’t think me rude, but I thought I should ask. I didn’t want to upset anyone...”
Timothy wandered over to the stack of artefacts. He took up a paper that was lying on top. He compared the writing to that in the book. It was identical, the same neat, ordered writing. He began to look at other items, though it was such a hopeless tangle that he didn’t get far. He laughed quietly.
“It’s all Dad’s stuff,” he said quietly, turning to his mother. His eyes were bright with moisture. Mrs. Brisby stroked her son’s head.
Avery looked on, his smile withering.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I obviously didn’t think.”
“No, it’s not anything you’ve done,” said Mrs. Brisby.
Timothy added, “It’s just we never knew about any of this. Dad never mentioned it. All his work, all this, and we never knew.” He remembered the Owl’s words to him and his family, nodding in silent comprehension. “I’ll sort through it. Thank you, Avery.”
“Not at all, lad!” said the rat, brightening considerably as he saw that he had not caused offence. “You’d be doing me a favour. You can use this room, if that suits? Sorry it’s not much space. I’ll have a desk found for you.”
“Thank you. Is it okay if I hold onto this as well?” Timothy held up his father’s book.
“Certainly. If anyone needs it we’ll know where to find it. However I think our problems are far more practical at the moment.”
“Are you going to start now, Timothy?” asked Teresa.
“No,” said Timothy placing the papers and the book back on the pile. “I think it will keep until after lunch. I could probably do with some help.”
“I’m not sure I would be much help,” said Mrs. Brisby. Teresa tried to lighten the mood.
“Well I could do with some fresh air.”
“Splendid idea!” exclaimed Leander, making everyone in the room jump. I’ll show you around the valley exterior. That will bring us nicely to lunch, and the stroll will hone the appetite.”
Avery showed them to the Library’s main entrance and they said their farewells. Just as the Brisby family were making to depart two other mice walked out of the library. They were both members of the mice of NIMH, the one wearing the small spectacles lead the way, the other was non-descript and brown, though seemed quite nervous as he followed his companion. Mrs. Brisby and her children froze at the sight of them, though Leander slowly and with consummate subtlety edged closer to the mice, putting himself between the two groups. The even smiled at the other mice.
“Stave. Warren,” he said nodding at each in turn.
“Good morning,” said Stave, matching Leander’s smile, the lamp light catching his glasses, making them shine. “Warren and I have just been admiring your library, isn’t that right Warren?”
“It’s very impressive,” said Warren with a fretful grin, though he seemed unable or unwilling to meet anyone’s eyes.
“Splendid, well don’t let us keep you...” said Leander, signalling for the Brisby mice to begin moving. The groups parted, making their separate ways through the tunnels.
When they had rounded several corners in silence, Leander began to speak.
“I’m sorry, I should have warned you. We could possibly have met any of the mice today. Justin has given them the freedom of the colony. There was no other choice, the rest of the council would have questioned anything else. They are being watched though. That’s what Chester was doing there, I think. He was probably waiting for them somewhere nearby.”
“It’s quite all right,” said Mrs. Brisby quietly. It had been such a shock to see the mice, but she reminded herself that they were all safe. The mice were limited to what they could do in the colony with the rats everywhere. She forced herself to calm down.
“Will they be able to look at my Dad’s things?” asked Timothy.
“I doubt it,” said Leander with a shake of his head. “Avery locked the door and wouldn’t let them in without good reason. He’d be watching them anyway. I’ll check back later too, to make sure,” Leander noticed Mrs. Brisby’s bowed head. “Don’t worry about a thing,” he finished.
Mrs. Brisby smiled, trying to give the impression that she felt fine. They were now back in the entranceway. As they were crossing the landing, towards the central staircase, Mrs. Brisby’s hand went to her side and rubbed the bandages over her wound. Her body ached; she was still not totally recovered.
“I think I may need to rest,” she said, leaning on the balcony railing. “I’ll go back to Justin’s quarters.”
“We’ll come with you,” said Teresa. “Are you all right?”
“No, there’s no need for that. You go and enjoy the sunshine.”
“What’s the matter, Mum?” asked Timothy.
“It’s just me getting tired,” Mrs. Brisby dismissed it with a gesture.
“I’ll feel better if I come with you,” continued Teresa.
“Stop fussing and go,” smiled Mrs. Brisby. “I’ll be fine! You look after your brother,” she said to Teresa, which earned her a glower from Timothy. “I just need to sit down for a moment. I know the way back.”
“Are you sure?” asked Leander.
“This passage,” Mrs. Brisby indicated one nearby, “down the stairs; second left passage; third door on the right?”
“Second,” Leander corrected.
“Second, right.” Don’t worry,” she said to Teresa catching her daughter’s expression. “I’ll be fine. Enjoy the scenery.”
“Justin should be back by now,” said Leander, though he didn’t seem sure whether he should have said this.
“Be careful, Mum,” said Teresa.
Mrs. Brisby smiled as her children walked off down around the entranceway landing, guided by the towering Leander. They would be safe with him. Bracken was right. He was all right once you got to know him.
The mouse turned and made her way slowly along the corridors. There was still the nagging feeling that she should be keeping an eye on her children, but she reminded herself that Justin had apparently covered everything. He had been vague the night before, not revealing exactly what he had in mind, but she trusted his judgement above any other rat in the valley. Besides, she thought, the children would be enjoying themselves. The rats would be able to show them everything that they could want, things that she had never been able to give them. Since Jonathan had died, she felt guilty that although she may be able nurture them physically (something that in itself proved very difficult at times), she could never help them mentally mature as well as Jonathan or the rats could. Let them play, she thought. They would be well looked after.
The nagging thoughts did not disappear.
As she left the staircase she found her progress blocked by two rats. One was a petite female rat. Her fur was very fair and she wore long robes. Behind her loomed another rat, a broad shouldered male with dark fur. There was something in the gaze of the pair that made Mrs. Brisby feel uncomfortable.
“Mrs. Brisby?” asked the female. Her tones were not hostile, but they were by no means friendly. “I’m not mistaken am I? It is Mrs. Brisby, isn’t it?”
“It is,” replied Mrs. Brisby. How she wished Leander were here now.
“Well. Allow me to make introductions. Mrs. Brisby, I am Christine, and this is my son Hugo. I believe you may have heard of my late husband. Jenner.”
Mrs. Brisby’s blood ran cold. That explained the strange familiarity about the male rat. Jenner’s son! She tried in vain to stop her bottom lip trembling. The male rat seemed to notice, just the faintest hint of a smirk crossed his face. Christine continued.
“I believe I have a duty to say how sorry I am for my husband’s actions. He has bought great shame on our family.” Her son flinched at this, but no more. Christine continued, though the words had no inflection, she seemed to have difficulty in forming them. “Please, accept my apologies on his behalf. I hope that our families can...”
“What’s going on here?”
Another rat had rounded the spiralling staircase. He wore the type of dress that typified a member of the Home Guard and carried a short sword.
“Nothing, Richard,” said Hugo in oily tones. “Just catching up with Mrs. Brisby. We have some history.”
Christine shot her son an icy look as Richard replied.
“In dark corridors? I’m sure you can catch up properly at dinner,” said the guardsrat, eyeing the pair suspiciously. Christine ignored Richard and turned once again to the mouse, though she did not seem to be looking straight at her.
“My words were sincere, Mrs. Brisby. You have my apologies. Welcome to Thorn Valley.”
With another withering glare at Richard, Christine and Hugo climbed the staircase out of sight. Mrs. Brisby let out a deep breath and put her hand to her head.
“Were they bothering you Mrs. Brisby?” he said kindly.
“Oh no...” she trailed off. She didn’t know quite what to think of the meeting. Richard continued.
“Justin thinks that it may be a bad idea for you or your children to be alone in the colony at the moment.”
Sudden realisation dawned on Mrs. Brisby. The rat had been following her. She looked around at him and nodded. Richard smiled back.
“Did you want to return to your quarters?” he asked, though there was no time for a reply. Another rat called out as they approached down the corridor. She walked with the tentative gait of the aging, and wore a shawl and simple pinafore.
“Richard! Richard is that you?”
The guardsrat straightened and said warmly,
“Yes Mrs. Avery. How are you?”
“Fine, thank you dear. And who’s this?” Mrs. Avery peered at the mouse. She had kind, bright eyes.
“This is Mrs. Brisby.”
“Ah, Mrs. Brisby! How do you do? I have so wanted to meet you.”
There was something about the way the rat moved and spoke. Mrs. Brisby decided to voice her feelings.
“Forgive me if it is rude to ask, but... are you from NIMH as well?”
“No, no. That’s very observant. I’m just like you, dear. I lived around the farmyard, or I did until I met Avery. Have you met my husband?”
“Yes. Just now. Leander was just showing us around the library.”
“Ah yes, Leander.” Mrs. Avery looked to Richard. “There’s no need for you to stand there, dear. I’m sure you could be better off guarding elsewhere. Mrs. Brisby will be quite all right now.”
“I have orders from Justin...” Richard began.
“Oh, I’ll speak to Justin, don’t you worry, dear. You run along and play soldiers. I’ll make sure Mrs. Brisby stays out of harms way.”
“Right you are, Mrs. Avery,” smiled Richard and headed off down the corridor.
“Lovely boy, that one. So polite. Of course most of them are. Especially that Leander. Oh, he makes me laugh.” She caught sight of Mrs. Brisby’s fixed grin and puzzled expression.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Look at me nattering on, out here in the corridor. I remember when I was first shown around the rosebush. I looked just like that. I was stunned into silence.”
Mrs. Brisby found that hard to imagine, though she said nothing. Mrs. Avery continued.
“Would you like some apple juice? Fresh made from the valley. We can sit down and have a nice talk. It will be so good to have someone normal to talk to. Half the time I don’t know what they’re going on about around here. Even my Avery sometimes talks gibberish to me. This way dear, won’t take a minute.”
The old rat guided Mrs. Brisby along, and Mrs. Brisby went happily. She was so taken with the chatter of the fellow feral, and knowing her family were being watched by the Home Guard, that she forgot her anxiety over the children. For a time...