The family was reunited shortly afterwards in Justin’s quarters. Mrs. Brisby returned to find her children waiting for her before they started the meal (though Cynthia had sneaked a mouthful, telltale crumbs were evidence of that). Leander had excused himself, promising Justin would be back soon to see how they were doing. He had apparently returned with Teresa and Timothy, collected Cynthia and Martin on the way, and then gone via the food stores to collect lunch. While outside they had found some wild blackberries and exchanged some of these for the more savoury options of the Rat’s store, though the trade was made out of respect, not demanded by the rats.
The meal was accompanied by the children swapping stories of what they had been getting up to all morning. Cynthia had apparently become the centre of attention in the class, being able to tell stories of her own after Isabella had finished reading from the book. All the young rats wanted to hear almost anything that the Brisby child had to offer. Apparently the simple, free life of the woods was as amazing to the Rats as the valley settlement was to the Brisby family. Mrs. Brisby smiled as Cynthia relished telling the tale, imagining her daughter doing exactly the same just a few hours before.
Martin had observed much of the Home Guard’s training and spoke highly of the Rats’ expertise. The experience seemed to have awakened feelings of admiration in Martin; something Mrs. Brisby knew was not easily given. If that was all that his morning with the Rat Guard had achieved, to humble Martin’s somewhat volatile ego even slightly, then it was worthwhile.
Teresa spoke at length about the valley. They had all seen its splendour when they had arrived, but this was only a small piece of a wonderful tapestry. Leander had shown them the sparse and cunningly disguised rat crops; the concealed guard posts; the rally points should any members of the colony find themselves unable to return to the safety of the colony proper. He had also walked the children around the ‘safe area’. She explained there were predators in the valley, but this area was well protected by Home Guard sentries, effectively creating a cordon. Within the children from the colony could play with relative safety. Of course nothing was ever certain in the woods. The only problem with the stroll was that chill breeze had apparently picked up, spoiling the otherwise perfect day.
It was while Teresa spoke that Mrs. Brisby noticed that Timothy was being rather quiet. This in itself was not abnormal, Timothy had always been one to let others speak first, but he seemed preoccupied, and Mrs. Brisby wondered what was troubling him. Teresa’s voice drew Mrs. Brisby out of introspection.
“It’s a beautiful place,” the young mouse enthused. “We’ll have to show you.”
“I’d like that very much,” replied Mrs. Brisby.
“Can we go now?” asked Cynthia, obviously piqued that she had missed the outdoor excursion.
“Not until you have finished your lunch,” admonished Mrs. Brisby. Despite Cynthia’s head start she had been so involved in discussion that she had only half eaten what was before her.
“What about after lunch?” continued Cynthia, packing in another mouthful. A voice from the doorway answered.
“Actually we had something else in mind,” Justin strolled in, beaming and cheerful, much closer to the carefree rat that Mrs. Brisby remembered. She wondered what had caused the change as Justin went on. “We have to finish your tour,” he said sitting down at his desk with a bounce and pinching a blackberry from the spread. “There is still the piece de resistance.” As he took a bite from the blackberry his eyes widened. “Mmmm. That is good. Anyway, there is one more item. I’m not forcing you of course,” he grinned, “but it would be a shame to miss it.”
“What is it?” asked Cynthia, spraying crumbs.
“Ah, well, that would be telling,” replied Justin, taking a mouthful of his own.
“Go on,” asked Martin.
“Pleeease...?” from Cynthia.
Justin regarded the children with theatrical reluctance and then,
“Alright, you twisted my arm. It’s the industrial heart of the colony, our greatest achievement. It’s our most important step towards regaining out old style of life on the farm, but born from our own initiative. Without it, little of what you see around you would be possible.” Justin was bright eyed and smiling wide.
“What?” said Martin, nonplussed by Justin’s little monologue. Justin, still performing, waved his hands dismissively.
“It will all be clear when I show you. Hurry up and finish. And pass me another of those blackberries!”
Cynthia wasted no time finishing lunch after that. The group made their way once again to the entranceway, taking the stairs this time so that they were another level down. Leander was waiting on the landing with another rat that Mrs. Brisby recognised, and her children would know by reputation. Leander looked almost tiny by comparison. Justin handled introductions.
“Brutus!” he bellowed, striding up, arms thrown wide. The children muttered to one another. Their mother had indeed mentioned her first encounter with Brutus. “I asked Leander to bring a friend, I wasn’t expecting you!” finished Justin with a wide grin.
“Funny,” replied Brutus, his tone dry, but above all terribly weary. Mrs. Brisby guessed Justin and Leander could have that effect on most people.
“Cheer up, you know I’m joking!” said Justin.
“That, my fellow, is precisely the point!” replied Brutus.
Leander decided to pitch in,
“I wondered that! Why did you agree to hang around both me and Justin, if you’re always complaining that neither of us take anything seriously?”
“Why, to see the famous Brisby mice of course.” Brutus turned to the family.
“Mrs. Brisby,” he said inclining his head, the corner of his mouth turning up in a subtle grin.
“Brutus,” she replied. He had apologised profusely when she was last in the Rats’ company, though she was still intimidated by the enormous creature.
“And this must be Martin...” Brutus continued.
“Yes...” Justin interrupted the potential delay, “and Teresa, Cynthia and Timothy. Now come on... Let’s get on with the tour...”
What had happened to Justin? wondered Mrs. Brisby. The change was astounding. This was the most energetic and cheerful she could ever remember seeing him. There would be time to ask later. Right now they were being led from the entranceway, down one of the side passages. A few turns later and it had entered a long and very straight tunnel. Unlike others in the settlement that had definite floors, walls and ceilings this one was almost perfectly circular. Only a slight imperfection, creating a flat walking surface, spoiled its precision. At regular intervals there was wooden bracing, each sporting a complex chain and lever arrangement.
“What’re these?” asked Timothy, eyeing each as they passed.
“Safety measures,” responded Justin, not looking around. “If we ever need to collapse the tunnel.”
“Why would you want to do that?” gasped Mrs. Brisby. For those creatures that lived below the surface, collapsing a tunnel was perhaps the greatest fear and worst kind of danger.
“In case something goes wrong up ahead,” said Justin by way of explanation.
“What’s there?” asked Martin quickly, trying his old interrogation trick.
“You’ll find out in a moment,” answered Justin, obviously ready for such traps.
“Is this safe?” asked Mrs. Brisby, still not entirely reassured.
“Of course,” answered Justin. “Wait and see.”
It didn’t take much longer to reach the end of the tunnel. When they did they saw what Justin was talking about. The rats had apparently been very busy. Mrs. Brisby had not seen anything like it in the Rosebush.
The chamber was vast. As well as being simply the biggest yet it also extended several floors both up and down, maybe the entire depth of the settlement. Thick pillars supported a roof crammed full of stout rafters arranged in an intricate lattice framework. The group all stood upon a landing that joined with similar structures on other floors via a complex network of stairs, ramps and platforms. To their left the platforms on the floors both above and below were wide, creating an artificial floor and led to large doorways with further rooms beyond. The contents of these rooms were just visible; each seemed to be packed with benches, worktables and of course rats hard at work. However they spared only a cursory glance at this, their focus instead drawn to what occupied the back wall of the room to their right. Mrs. Brisby could make neither head nor tail of it, but the Brisby children, after a moment’s study, could see an underlying logic to the tangle of machinery and the elaborate, but no doubt sturdy, wooden scaffold it was mounted upon. They would never have seen anything like it in the forest, but it reminded them of toys their father had built for them; simple little things made from whatever was to hand, though this was a little more involved.
The system started near the top. Through square chutes high on the wall, streams of water poured onto water wheels mounted side by side. Only four of the eight wheels were slowly turning, the other water flues seemingly closed, but the momentum of the machinery was evidently great. As water fell from the wheels it was funnelled into stout pipes leading down to the lower levels.
The wooden cogs and gearing that the wheels turned became too complex for the children to follow. All around this vast structure were gantries and ladders that allowed for access to all the machinery. Rats were using them now, inspecting the workings with critical eyes, some even carrying out on the spot adjustments and maintenance.
The system of gears that the water wheels powered continued to the floor of the cavern and Cynthia wasted little time in darting forward to peer through the railings at what was underneath their platform.
“Wow!” she breathed, the other children following her.
The room below was littered with rats all labouring at benches or other more specialised equipment. It mostly seemed to be metalworking, the orange glow of fires illuminating the rats’ work, the sound of ringing metal and industry rising up to meet them. The brightest glow came from a structure near the centre of the room, a large cauldron, liquid bubbling inside. It was a strange mix of smoke and pungent odours that hung in the air, making their whiskers twitch.
“What is all this, Justin?” asked Mrs. Brisby, crossing to the railing herself as the children continued to mutter excitedly to one another. Justin was smiling as he followed. The surprise seemed to have its desired effect.
“As you know when we came to the valley we vowed to forsake stealing electricity. We had to find a way to support ourselves. This,” he gestured to the water wheels, “is our new source of power. We harness the water’s energy by using the water wheels, and use that to drive other machinery.”
“Where does the water come from?”
she asked shaking her head in wonderment.
“It comes from a mountain stream. We found an underground spring when we were mining out this place. We used that to create a hidden reservoir that directly feeds these wheels. We also diverted some other sources of water into it to support the supply, and they can be used to control it. We regulate the flow into here with gates, you can see the gearing there.”
Justin pointed to a rat on a high platform straining to turn a small wheel set into the wall. With a whoosh of flowing water and the creaking of machinery one of the closed gate began to rise, allowing new jet of water to shoot onto the stationary wheels. Slowly but with certainty, the wheel began to turn. Apparently satisfied the rat made further adjustments. One of the open water gates slowly shut, the water dwindling to a trickle and the massive wheel grinding to a halt. Rats began to crawl over the now motionless wheel, clutching tools and materials that they used to make fast repairs.
Mrs. Brisby saw all this, but did not fully understand the significance. She turned to look again at the machinery, impressed mostly at the scale of the construction. In the silence Teresa spoke,
“What are you doing with all this?” she asked, turning away from the railing briefly.
“Follow me and I’ll show you,” said Justin, beckoning. He led the group, guards and mice alike, down the ramps towards the bottom of the chamber, Cynthia constantly darting ahead, trying to peer over the railings at every opportunity. The other children showed slightly more restraint, though not much. Mrs. Brisby walked with bemused awe. It was all well beyond her comprehension, but it was impressive to think that the rats had done all this. How long before she even knew of their existence had they been working on this. A year? Two?
They stopped on the last platform before reaching the floor of the hall. It afforded a clear view of the bustle of activity.
“What’s going on?” asked Timothy watching the proceedings with a keen interest.
“Everything. Almost all you have seen in the valley settlement so far started its existence here. The paper, the furniture, clothes, furnishings and fittings. It’s all been created and constructed in this, the ‘machine house’ as we like to call it. The water reservoir that drives the machinery also supplies the colony with fresh water.” Justin began to point around the room as he spoke. “The water wheels work those fans to keep the air circulating. We’ve got more there... and there to supply the rest of the colony. As well as that the machinery works those bellows...”
He indicated the large cauldron seen before, though now details could be made out. The cauldron itself appeared to be made from clay, the surface smooth and glazed. At its base a set of bellows blew air onto the flames, the bellows being driven by the waterwheel system. Within the giant receptacle liquid bubbled and simmered. Piping snaked from the cauldron to nearby structures manned by rats who maintained a close vigil upon the cauldron’s contents. Justin continued,
“We have to keep that cauldron heated to the necessary temperature that allows us to create the fuel used in our lanterns. It’s then stored here until needed. Over here...” he now turned to the intricate mechanisms that had escaped identification before, “we’re even experimenting with mechanical looms for mass producing cloth and I think Arthur managed to persuade the council to let him keep one of the electric motors so he could play with it, though I don’t know where he’s hidden that.”
“Arthur’s the rat in charge?” asked Mrs. Brisby, latching onto something that she knew.
“That’s right. His official title is Chief Artisan, but I don’t think he likes that much. In fact,” Justin began to look about the vast hall, searching for the enigmatic Arthur, “he should be explaining all this. He gets a kick out of it. Let’s go and find him.”
The search was not long. Brutus and Leander stayed on the platforms, while Justin led the mice down to the hall floor, weaving between the various benches laden with half finished items, from door bracing, locks and hinges, to blades suitable for either the warrior or the chef.
Instead of the workshops that they had seen on their left as they had entered the chamber many floors above, the bottom two floors before them now were hollowed out, creating a large storage area containing huge racks, on which were stored various lengths and types of timber. There was also a large gate on the far wall, though what this led to was, for the moment at least, a mystery.
There were several rats working to place some planks that were piled on the floor or the warehouse into the racks. The wood was thick and heavy, and it took several rats to manoeuvre them into position. One rat, stocky of build and brown of fur, was not involved in the physical labour and instead standing by with a sheaf of paper, occasionally barking out orders. The mice were not certain, but they got the feeling that the rat might well be...
“Arthur!” called Justin. The rat looked up and immediately his shoulders slumped.
“Justin! Now’s not a good time, lad. We’re behind with this lot and we’ve got more on the way very soon. Can’t stand about chatting when there’s work to be done. Who have you got there?”
“This is Mrs. Jonathan Brisby and her family,” said Justin with appropriate reverence. Arthur nodded distractedly and rifled through his papers at a furious pace.
“Uh huh. Welcome to Thorn Valley. We’re all amazingly busy so don’t think me rude when I say I really must be getting on.”
“Come on Arthur...” continued Justin. “Surely you can spare a few moments...”
“I really can’t. Any minute now those doors will open,” he indicated the large gate behind him, “and several of my lads will bury this place in more materials because we haven’t shifted this lot.” He indicated the piles of timber strewn about on the floor. By now the children had taken in their surroundings had and formed questions that Cynthia was the first to voice.
“What’s through there?” asked Cynthia, pointing at the gate that Arthur had just mentioned.
“An elevator to our surface stockpile,” said Arthur automatically.
“An elevator?” she asked.
“Like the one in the Rosebush I told you about,” said Mrs. Brisby.
“How does it work?” asked Timothy.
“Yeah, Arthur?” said Justin. “Couldn’t you tell these keen young mice how your elevator works? They’re all very interested.”
“Well, it’s all down to levers and pulleys,” started Arthur. He began to help the other rats shift the planks onto the shelves, and seemed torn between lending himself solely to that task, and talking about the thing he loved most. As a compromise he talked distractedly as he worked. “We have a stockpile underground in the valley where materials can easily be left after collection from the forest and prepared for transport. It’s very well hidden and all that. Then we need a way to bring them down here for processing. So we have the elevator cage...” He broke off as a thud shook the vicinity and all eyes turned to the elevator gates. The next shipment had arrived.
“Oh...” the next word was incomprehensible as Arthur strained and finished heaving a plank into position by himself. The gates opened and more rats poured out and began to unload what was predominantly wood, though there were also various other forest materials. It was quite a random assortment and the mice wondered what on earth some of the items could be used for. Everything so far had been created from natural materials that could be found in the woods, but some of these items were quite obscure. What could the rats want with assorted nuts husks and bark peelings? Before they could ask, Arthur spoke again.
“Look,” Arthur turned to the tour party. “You’ll have to come back another time. Or please feel free to wander around as you want, I think Chloe is over by the furnace, she can answer some of your questions. Right now we’re very bus...”
He stopped at the sound of a crash behind him.
“No, no. Roland, you oaf!” cried Arthur as he dashed off to help.
Justin looked apologetically to the mice. “He’s not usually so abrupt. But he did say we could look around. Maybe you can talk at dinner, when he’s not so busy. Let’s go.”
As they wandered back into the machine house proper Teresa said,
“I thought he was all right, even though he was obviously busy.”
“He reminds me of someone though,” said Mrs. Brisby. Just then Arthur’s voice was heard shouting after them.
“And on no account touch anything.”
“Mr. Ages?” supplied Martin. As soon as he said that he wished he hadn’t. It reminded them all of the unpleasant circumstances that had brought them to Thorn Valley. Justin tried to salvage things.
“So... Would you like a look around here?”
“Can you tell us how this stuff works?” asked Martin, making the rat look thoughtful.
“I could identify them, maybe, and I can show you round though I’ll probably struggle to tell you exactly how it all works, but... lets see if we can find Chloe. She’s one of Arthur’s Artisans.”
“Artisans?” asked Mrs. Brisby.
“A senior engineer. They’re very skilled, but a bit...”
“What?” Mrs. Brisby was not filled with confidence at Justin’s hesitance to explain.
“Well, Chloe for instance is... excitable. Still she should be more than happy to help. Let’s see... Yes, there!”
The group crossed the machine house floor, making their way towards a little metal working furnace. As they approached they could feel the heat from its fiery innards. Working beside it, equipped with protective goggles, a heavy apron and gauntlets also, was a young female rat. She was holding something in the fire, watching it closely. Justin’s approach was a cautious one.
“Hey, Chloe!” he called.
The rat looked up and grinned. She raised a huge glove to wave, calling,
“Justin! Sorry... I mean... your Leadership.”
As she apologised both her hands went to her mouth. The tongs she had been using to work the object in the furnace slipped to the floor and a lump of red hot metal landed on the floor, spraying out sparks. Justin and the mice drew back.
“Oh bother! Oh goodness! I’m so sorry!” blurted Chloe, reaching for a hose and removing some string tightly bound about its end. Water gently spouted forth, dousing the red hot metal, which began hissing and releasing steam.
“I’m so clumsy!” lamented Chloe distractedly. “So, what can I do you guys for?”
“We were hoping to get a quick talk on what we do here,” said Justin, raising his hands to encompass the whole room. “Some details of what we’ve come up with in the valley. We’re giving the Brisby family the tour. Do you have a moment?”
“For the Brisbys I have ten! Wow! It’s an honour. I was a fan of your dad’s work. His book is great. Have you read it?”
“I will be,” said Timothy, any mention of his father’s work arresting his interest immediately.
“Great. It’s gets a bit complex in places but it’s totally logical. Stick with it. We used many of the principles in that book in the designs of this...” She pointed to the water wheels and the accompanying gears. “I’ll try and tell you all I can about this place. What would you like to know about?”
“Well...” began Teresa, looking around. “What sort of things have you got in here? What’s all this for?”
Justin was now watching the flow of water onto the lump of metal on the floor. He cocked an eyebrow saying, “Ah... Chloe.”
She didn’t hear him as she began to talk in earnest about the contents of the machine house.
“Well, we’ve got it all here. Everything we need to run the colony. Well not everything as we’re still working on some things, but it’s everything we’ve got at the moment.”
“Chloe...” said Justin again.
“I mean we’ve got our paper mill over there,” she began pointing about the room, the hose swaying with her movement, “just behind the fuel fermenting cauldron. It’s still experimental, but it’s looking good. Right here we’ve got the metal working furnace, and there’s another smaller one round the side and that’s where we bake any pottery we produce.
“Over there,” she was oblivious to Justin’s now insistent voice and pointed at a lone, well braced door in the workshop wall, “is where we keep the fuel for the lanterns. It has to be kept away in its own store. Apparently it’s quite dangerous until it’s diluted. The carpentry and fabric workshops are above us...”
“Chloe!” shouted Justin.
“Hmmm?” said the female rat, pausing in her oratory.
“The hose, Chloe,” said the rat nodding.
They all looked down, Cynthia starting to giggle. The hose Chloe was holding was still disgorging water. The metal had been cooled; no more steam was being produced. Now the water was pooling about the Artisan’s feet and spreading across the floor.
“Bother!” she said, retying the hose. She stepped from the large pool, shaking the water away. As she did so, an idea struck.
“Hey, would you guys like a demonstration of the undiluted lantern fuel? It’s good fun!”
The group exchanged worried glances. This Chloe obviously picked up on as she went on hurriedly.
“Only a little bit of course, but it’s still impressive. Come on I’ll show you.” She started towards the little door she had indicated earlier.
“How does this stuff work?” asked Timothy.
“Ah,” said Chloe, removing a key from her apron and opening the door. “Well, obviously it’s dangerous to have flames below the ground as they use oxygen. With all the illumination we need there wouldn’t be much left with conventional torches. Oxygen, that is. We could afford some normal flames,” she jabbed a thumb towards the furnace behind them and then began rummaging in the storeroom beyond. It was full of barrels of all shapes and sizes. She talked as she searched, “but all the lanterns wouldn’t be safe. Also we can’t use the technology we currently have here to generate electricity to power lighting. So our scientists have been working on a fuel for several years now, in fact your father was involved in the early theoretical stages. I don’t know all the nitty-gritty details, but the water used to dilute the fuel and make it safe actually works to help it burn. If the water is not present it takes oxygen from the air and that’s what gives it its kick. I’m not a chemist, but it’s something about alternative oxidisers and mixing reactants. It’s pretty neat but a pain to make. Still, we’ve had a lot of practice now and we’ve got it down to an art. Ah, here we go.”
Chloe held a small barrel of lantern fuel aloft.
“And that is...?” began Martin.
“Undiluted fuel. This way.” She went to a nearby, unoccupied workbench and placed down the fuel keg. Then, retrieving a metal bowl, she removed the stopper from the keg and began to pour a little of the fuel into the receptacle. She started to talk again as she worked,
“I did this yesterday for some of the other mice. Have you met them?” she did not see the changes in expressions that her comment caused. “They were very interested in this place. One was almost laughing. He must love machinery, and they were all terribly interested in this stuff. Anyway, let’s see if I can get this right this time. Okay...”
As she reached for a taper and began to try and light it the others exchanged further worried glances, though at exactly what part of her recent comments worried them more was uncertain. Chloe held the lighted taper above the bowl.
“Stand back, brace yourself, and watch closely.” At arms length, she released the taper. It fell into bowl and...
There was a lot of light and a whoosh of air. The group of mice and Justin cowered back and they all heard a muffled “Oh my!” from Chloe’s direction. When the smoke cleared they saw the Artisan covered in soot, eyes watering, her whiskers singed. Luckily the gauntlets and apron she still wore had saved her from further injury. Activity in the hall had stopped as the various workers turned towards the noise. On noticing Chloe’s involvement they all went back to their tasks.
“That happened last time,” she moaned, wincing as she touched her face.
“Better get some of Clerval’s stuff on that,” said Justin. The group had been far enough away to avoid any ill effects aside from the shock. Cynthia began to giggle, but stopped at a stern tap on the shoulder from Teresa.
“Yeah, I’ll go see him in the infirmary now,” said Chloe miserably.
“Do you need a hand getting there?” asked Justin.
“Oh no. I know the way.” She said confidently. None of the others found this surprising though Justin nodded to the guards who were still waiting on the gantry.
“Brutus or Leander could go with you.”
“No, I can go quicker by myself,” she said trying to shield her face with her hands. “Sorry. Bye now!”
She dashed off, weaving quickly between the workbenches and up the gantries, tripping only occasionally. The group watched the artisan leave through the access tunnel.
“That reminds me,” said Justin, “I must show you where the infirmary is. It’s quite useful to know. Just in case,” he added quickly, before breathing deeply. “Well, what do you think?”
“Looks dangerous,” said Cynthia, eying the little barrel of fuel. Justin replaced the stopper in the fuel keg and placed it back in the storeroom, locking it with his own key.
“Perhaps we should go before we cause more trouble,” said Mrs. Brisby.
“Do they invent stuff here as well?” asked Timothy.
“Yep,” said Justin beginning to lead them away. “Top floor of this place. It’s not as interesting as it sounds. It’s a lot of rats sitting around tinkering with things and occasionally reporting to the infirmary for minor cuts and burns.”
“Oh,” said Timothy sounding slightly disappointed. Justin tried to appease him.
“The problem is political again. They’ve got all these great ideas, but the council can’t allow them to be implemented. It would compromise the settlement. One of the techies was talking about some kind of balloon for flying in. Great... but everyone for miles around would see a little rat airship. We can’t allow that. It’s just another reason why Augustus shouldn’t be allowed power, though that’s why he’s popular with the scientific core. He is all for scientific advancement at the cost of secrecy.”
“Oh,” repeated Timothy, though the resignation in his voice suggested he understood.
“Buck up,” said Justin. “I’ll find us something to do until suppertime. That will be your first big meal in the valley, won’t it?”
The mice nodded.
“Great,” said Justin leading them up the steps to meet Brutus and Leander again. Together they all returned to one of the entrance tunnels. Justin was talking all the way his voice echoing along the tunnel.
“One good idea they haven’t perfected yet is a sentry post actually in the tree. You’ve got an underground tunnel that takes you amongst the roots, and then stairs are bored up through the trunk. At the top is a perfectly concealed watch post with a very good view of the surrounding area. Ingenious! Unfortunately they haven’t worked out a realistic way to do it without killing the tree...”
They left the machine house via another tunnel, lower than the other entrance tunnel. They were now in the part of the colony still under construction. Justin had progressed to talking about the plans for this section once it was complete. They had several hours to kill before dinner, and so their progress back towards the entranceway was unhurried.
Cynthia was dropping towards the back of the group, slipping into a daydream, not really listening to Justin’s explanations. So it was that no one noticed when a hand reached around a corner, clamping around Cynthia’s mouth, dragging her into the shadows.
“Woah! Stop struggling Cynthia! It was just a joke.”
Cynthia was released and she rounded on the speaker, scowling at a young, dark grey rat who, although similar in age, towered over the little mouse. It was one of the rats she had met in the dining hall during the class.
“That wasn’t funny, William!” Cynthia fumed. As she recovered, she noticed other children nearby. Leander’s niece Connie was there, as well as Edward, a studious young rat, and Tessa, actually the younger sister of the teacher Isabella. Having caught her breath Cynthia continued to berate the smirking William, “What would Brutus say is he knew his son was lingering about in shadowy tunnels assaulting guests?”
William pulled a face, but made no attempt to counter the argument. Cynthia sought conversation with the others asking, “what are you guys doing here anyway?”
“Schools finished for the day,” explained Connie, “we saw you being shown around the colony and thought we’d invite you to join our own tour.”
“It was a special invitation,” said William, Cynthia now pulling a face in response.
“You haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen the parts of the colony still being built,” Connie went on.
“Creepy isn’t the word for it,” Tessa put in, Edward nodding in confirmation.
Cynthia stopped a face-pulling contest with William, her interest piqued. However she felt maybe she should warn the others about where she was. And with the mice was it safe to go wandering...?
“I think she’s scared,” said William, putting his hands on his hips. Cynthia’s lips tightened, only making William smile wider. “I’ve found something really great, but you have to be pretty brave to get near it...” He raised an eyebrow. “Well? Are you in?”
The band of young rats and Cynthia picked their way carefully through the shadows, William leading the way, the others following nervously behind. Cynthia didn’t think this area seemed like a construction site, it seemed completely deserted. The lanterns were few and far between, meaning they travelled for the most part in darkness. The mouse’s ears swivelled towards any sound and her whiskers helped guide her.
“Down here!” whispered William, pointing to a rough staircase. “Not bad, huh?”
The others gave various half-hearted agreements as they descended the stairs. The walls were clammy; the air damp and cold. Every now and then, they felt the delicate brush of spider webs on the tips of their ears.
“Where are we going?” asked Tessa from the back with only the slightest waver in her voice.
“There’s something I found. I want to show you guys,” William replied. They couldn’t see his smile in the darkness.
They reached a lantern that hung by the central column of the staircase. It illuminated the barren earth about it with its soft glow. William, standing on tiptoe, reached up and unhooked it, turning back to the others, his face now under lit with yellow lantern light.
“It’s around this corner... what I found,” he whispered, obviously trying to emphasise the eerie atmosphere. “And, seeing as Cynthia is our guest, I think she should look first.”
Cynthia felt a tingle of ice up her spine. William had a reputation for mischief that even Cynthia respected, and she could not imagine what he had in store. The rat could see her hesitation.
“If little Cynthia is too frightened she can go back to her mummy,” William burbled as if to a baby. Cynthia bristled, doubly so when Edward snickered in the darkness.
“Don’t be mean,” Connie admonished, “I’ll go first.”
“No!” said Cynthia, stepping forward. “I’ll go. It can’t be that bad if William has come back.” She fixed the grinning William with a glare and descended a few steps before turning back. “Do I get the lantern?”
“Oh no,” said William, obviously enjoying this immensely.
“Then how...” Cynthia began.
“The glow from here is enough. Off you go...” William made a little shooing gesture.
Squaring her shoulders Cynthia put her hand on the central pillar and peered around into the gloom. Unable to see anything she took another few tentative steps. Unseen behind her the other children were gesticulating wildly, Connie vehemently shaking her head.
Cynthia stopped as the staircase ended, her progress blocked by a scarred wall of rock. Obviously the rats mining this section had been unable to continue. She wondered what was so frightening, though quickly realised as she lowered her gaze towards the floor. In the rock at her feet, was a skeletal form set into the rock’s surface. Its beak gaped at her, empty eye sockets staring back. Bony limbs spread as if it were sprawled upon the floor. Flickering shadows thrown by the lantern gave the fossil the appearance of twitching where it lay. To Cynthia’s already agitated imagination it was quite a frightening sight, especially when, with a faint giggle, the lantern light disappeared.
Cynthia stood for a moment in pitch blackness, a violent shudder running through her body. Listening intently she could hear the faint sounds of retreating footsteps and then only her own ragged breathing.
“Guys?” she whispered. There was no answer. Fear took hold and made her sprint up the steps, using all fours to stop herself from stumbling over. She couldn’t see any light up ahead. As soon as she reached a landing she darted off the staircase, wanting to get back to tunnels that she knew.
To her dismay, the area she found herself in was unfamiliar to her. It was still obviously one of the unfinished parts of the colony, because the lanterns were sparse, and evidence of building work littered the floor in the form of tools and equipment. She crept along, hugging the wall, unable to hear anything at all. The only indication that it was anything other than a forgotten passageway was a light she could see along the corridor. It was a thin glow from beneath a door. Maybe inside was someone that could help her, tell her how to get back to the main colony. She didn’t want to wander around in the gloom in hope of finding her way out. Sneaking closer Cynthia listened for any movement. Still unable to hear anything she put her ear to the door. All she could hear was a faint rustling beyond. Touching the door very lightly, she pushed it open the tiniest fraction. The perfectly constructed rat hinges didn’t produce any noise, so she pushed a little harder until she could see into the room.
Though her view was limited she could see the chamber had several bunk beds. They were smaller than the Rat’s beds in deference to those who would use them, one of whom was sitting with his back to Cynthia now. That ragged ear and sandy fur was unmistakeable. It was Spiro. His cloak was draped over one end of the bed, and his scarf was down, hanging loosely about his shoulders. He was hunched over, his head bowed so that she could not see his face. However she could see that he was replacing the bandages on his arms. Spread before him on the bed were rolls of cloth and a small cutting blade. He was holding his right arm before him wrapping a new bandage tightly about his wrist and working slowly and methodically up his arm. Cynthia grimaced as she became morbidly transfixed by Spiro’s arm. The flesh was ravaged, with patches of fur growing haphazardly between scar tissue. The wounds where old, but so numerous and deep they had obviously never been able to heal properly. It looked like he had been mauled, his arms bitten many times by small, sharp teeth. She was so engrossed in the mouse’s macabre flesh that it was a moment before she realised he was watching her. She looked up into Spiro’s bright eye as it stared straight back at her, the mouse peering over his own shoulder.
Cynthia ran. She didn’t care in what direction, she simply ran. Bounding along dark corridors she leapt over wooden beams, bundles of rope and other building materials. She was concentrating so much on these that after a moment she hit something soft, another creature. Slowly she looked up into the face of what she had collided with. Intense eyes looked down at her, and with a grin, Fraus said, “Ah. What a surprise! Little Cynthia Brisby.”
She backed away slowly. She could see others in the shadows. Again she turned and fled. Back along the corridor, she passed the door that was still ajar, as she had left it. Spiro had thankfully not emerged. Cynthia darted back and forth until she was totally unsure of which tunnel she was now in or where she was heading. As she rounded another corner, Cynthia’s breath caught in her throat as she felt herself being restrained by strong hands.
“No! Get off!” she squealed trying to struggle free.
“Cynthia! It’s me. It’s me! Calm down!”
Cynthia stopped at the familiar voice and met Leander’s eyes.
“Leander...” she breathed.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, kneeling down, hands on her shoulders.
“The mice... Spiro! They’re back there. They’re trying to get me!”
“Get you?” he asked. “What were you doing down there? That’s the way to their quarters...” he broke off at the sound of footsteps. Fraus appeared, Malachi in tow.
“Is the child alright?” he asked, apparently genuinely concerned. “She seemed frightened. I wondered if she were lost.”
“She’s fine now, thank you,” replied Leander, guiding Cynthia around until she was hidden behind him. The little mouse went willingly, clutching onto the rat’s cloak. “I’ll return her to her family,” he finished.
“Very well,” said Fraus. “While it is good to see a keen interest in exploration it may not be wise for her to wander off alone.” He still sounded sincere, but there was something in his manner that Leander didn’t like, though he couldn’t put a finger on it.
“Quite,” he said by way of reply. “Come on, Cynthia. This way. Sorry if she disturbed you, Fraus.” Leander and Cynthia retreated down the corridor. Fraus watched them go.
“Not at all,” he said very quietly and then turned to grin at his colleague.
“But they were doing something... They looked, well... dodgy!” insisted Cynthia.
“You want me to incarcerate all the Mice because you think they looked... dodgy?” Leander replied. The pair were moving quickly down one of the corridors. Cynthia was being herded in front of Leander, the rat glancing over his shoulder at every turn.
Cynthia nodded her head in an adamant manner.
“I have to point out... you were in fact snooping around their quarters,” Leander said.
“But...” Cynthia began.
“What did they do exactly?” Leander asked.
“Well they...” Leander raised an eyebrow as Cynthia was unable to complete the sentence.
“I mean...” she stumbled on, “they were going to get me... If you hadn’t showed up.”
Leander’s eyebrow climbed higher up his forehead and was joined by its counterpart. Cynthia, realising she was not in a winning position, pouted. “All right. They didn’t actually do anything... But I’m glad I ran into you...”
They rounded a corner and saw Connie, Edward, Tessa and William all standing, shuffling uncomfortably.
“Cynthia!” Connie smiled. Cynthia did not return the gesture.
“Thanks guys,” she mumbled.
“It was his idea,” said Edward, nodding towards William, who promptly put on a display of innocent shock. Connie tried to soothe the mouse.
“I didn’t know what he was going to do. When they told me I tried to stop him, but they all...”
“Enough!” commanded Leander. “I don’t care what was going on, but none of you are to go down to the construction sites. Especially...” Leander stopped himself as he realised he was touching on a subject that was still not be made common knowledge. “It is very dangerous down there. I can’t believe you’d abandon Cynthia like that.”
“It was just a joke...” mumbled William. Leander had to remind himself the young rat could not have known all the implications of his actions.
“I will of course be speaking to all your parents,” the guard said. There were various moans form the young rats, but Leander was not yet finished, “Now go and stay out of trouble. I’ve got better things to be doing than keeping you lot out of mischief.”
The four rats trudged off, Cynthia watching them go.
“Serves them right for doing that,” she said, satisfied that justice was done.
That is until Leander said, “I’ll have to tell your mother too.”
The door to Justin’s quarters opened; Justin, Brutus, Mrs. Brisby and three of her children turning anxiously to face the new arrivals.
“Cynthia!” Mrs. Brisby dashed forward to embrace her daughter.
“Mummy!” Cynthia returned the hug.
“Don’t ever run off like that again,” Mrs. Brisby scolded her daughter.
“I promise,” she mumbled, tugging on her mother’s red cape.
“She was down by the Mice of NIMH’s quarters,” said Leander, obviously uncertain about revealing the information. Mrs. Brisby was horrified, her jaw dropping, eyes growing wide. She stared in disbelief at her daughter, Leaner holding up a placating hand and speaking quickly. “There were no problems, they didn’t do anything. If anyone was up to mischief it was Cynthia and her friends.”
“I was not,” pouted Cynthia. “I saw the Mice! That scary one, the one that...”
“Hush Cynthia!” Mrs. Brisby looked around at the other rats present. Justin understood and explained. His voice was lowered as he knelt next to Mrs. Brisby, even though they apparently out of public view.
“There’s no need to worry about your secret Mrs. Brisby. Both Leander and Brutus can be trusted without question. I took the liberty of telling them what we know of the mice. There’s a core of rats that I can trust completely, most in the Home Guard. They are aware of the situation and have sworn to protect your family as they would their own.”
Mrs. Brisby nodded, looking at each of the rats with grateful eyes. It fell once again to Justin to lighten the mood, not wanting to dwell on such matters.
“Well,” he said straightening up. “There’s still the matter of what to do now. I’m afraid I’ll have to return to council duties soon, but these two will look after you.”
“Shall we see the outside now?” asked Cynthia.
Brutus breathed in through his teeth.
“It’s not nice out there. It’s clouded over and quite cold,” the big rat shrugged. “Spring weather. It will keep ‘til tomorrow I’m sure.”
Justin nodded and pondered for a moment. “How about the meeting room? Get a chance to introduce you to some of the other rats.”
Mrs. Brisby didn’t know if she had the energy to meet any new faces. Timothy too appeared to have other plans.
“I think I’ll make a start on Dad’s things,” he said.
“If you like,” said Justin.
“I’ll need all your help,” the young mouse said to his family. They all nodded, and Teresa spoke for them.
“Fine by us.”
“I want to make a start on that book,” Timothy continued, “I’m wondering if it contains any information on Dad’s work. Maybe it will help explain what the Stone is... How it works.”
Justin smiled and nodded. That was easier than he had thought. This next thing might not be so easy though. He said out loud,
“If you’re going to be looking into your father’s work, I think there is something you should have.” He turned to Leander and Brutus. “Could you wait outside, please?”
“Sure thing, Justin,” said Brutus understandingly, crossing to the door.
“There’s something I’ve got to mention to you about William,” Leander began saying to the other guard as the door shut.
Once the door was locked Justin
went to his desk and retrieved a key from behind a hidden panel. Then he
turned his attention to the large chest nearby. He unlocked it and removed
some items, placing them to one side. Then he drew out a smaller box. It was
simple, but sturdy, a gilded ‘N’ emblazoned on the front. He lowered it
reverently onto the desk and turned to face Mrs. Brisby.
“I was only holding it for you. It is yours to pass on to your children.” He gestured to the box and retreated to a respectful distance.
Mrs. Brisby looked at the jewel box, though it was the size of a small chest to her. She knew what it was. She had seen the box before. Inside was the Stone, the amulet that had been responsible for the miraculous events that saved her home and family. Many thought she had been responsible, but the Stone had guided her, enabled her to move her family’s house with its power. It scared her, and she had second thoughts about allowing her children to possess it. What might it do? Was it dangerous?
“Mrs. Brisby?” asked Justin, concerned.
“I’m fine...” she said with a weak smile. No it couldn’t be dangerous. It was their birthright and it had saved them once before. Jonathan had made it, and he could create nothing that would harm their children. Mrs. Brisby, in a world where so much was beyond her control and understanding, could be certain of that if nothing else.
She clambered onto Justin’s stool and, reaching out, opened the little box. Nestled amongst soft material the Stone shone red, as it had when Nicodemus had first presented it to her. Its crimson depths swirled with patterns. A trick of the light? Or something else? She reached out and picked up the gem. Her reflection stared up at her as it had when Nicodemus had proffered the Stone to her before. Justin was right. It was indeed time.
“Children,” she said. Martin, Teresa, Cynthia and Timothy gathered close, Mrs. Brisby turning to face them. “Your father made this. Nicodemus kept it until he could give it to me. Justin kept it until I could give it to you. It is the Stone. The Stone that moved our house and saved us all.” She held it out, gripping it by the delicate chain. Mrs. Brisby felt her eyes warm at the memories of those few days and what she had discovered about her dear Jonathan. Her hand trembled and the jewel caught the light again and seemed to glow red. The children looked upon it in wonderment. They had heard so much about the Stone, but had never seen it.
“It’s marvellous,” said Teresa.
“It’s pretty,” from Cynthia.
“The Stone!” breathed Timothy. Martin reached up to touch it, butterflies springing up in his stomach as his fingertips neared the amulet.
“So this is Dad’s magic Stone.”
Mrs. Brisby released her grip on the chain letting the Stone fall into her eldest son’s hands. The other children touched its golden mounting looking down at the crimson jewel.
“Who’ll look after it?” asked Justin.
The children all exchanged vacant expressions. Who indeed would carry the Stone?
“I think Timmy should have it,” said Cynthia, taking her brother by the arm. Teresa thought for a second, and then nodded in agreement. Martin looked doubtful for a moment, but then nodded too. “Yeah, Timothy should have it,” he said, smiling and extending the Stone out to Timothy.
The little grey mouse was stunned. “Me? Why me?”
“Because you’re the one who’s really interested in Dad’s work. You can’t wait to get down to the library and begin looking through all those books. You kinda... I dunno...” Martin hesitated obviously having trouble. Teresa decided to help him.
“I think he means, you’re going to need it when you start looking through Dad’s work. You’ll find something out that all the rest of us would miss, and you’ll need the Stone. Remember what the Owl said?”
Martin was obviously bothered at the interruption, but did not question the statement. Timothy still looked unsure. He held out his hand, his fingers hovering just beneath the Stone. It seemed to pulse with light as Martin lowered it into his brother’s hands. Bringing it close to him, Timothy looked at the gemstone. Teresa looped the chain over her brother’s head and Cynthia leant on Timothy’s shoulder.
“You’re the keeper of the Stone now, Timmy.” She grinned.
“Thank you,” was all Timothy could manage.
Mrs. Brisby and Justin looked on, the silence lingering a moment longer as the mouse smiled weakly, looking at her children holding the Stone. Timothy tucked the Stone into his vest and Martin spoke up,
“Right. We better help you sort out your room in the library. It should take us nicely to dinner time.” He smiled.
“Yeah!” cried Cynthia.
The family of mice went to the library, accompanied all the way by the ever watchful Brutus. Leander had other duties that he had to fill, but said he would see the Brisby family at the evening meal. Then, with a puerile joke about the condition of Brutus’ fur, he scampered off. Justin had apologised for his friend’s immature behaviour, saying he had council matters to deal with. He stayed in his study, making an even more childish remark as the others left, receiving a weary glare from Brutus.
At the library Avery greeted them again. He had obviously guessed why they were here, for he led them straight to the little room where Jonathan Brisby’s belongings were stored. Cynthia and Martin had been given descriptions of the library, but were still amazed at its design.
Once in the library’s antechamber, with Brutus on the door and Avery bustling off to attend to other matters, the mice began work on the mound of artefacts from the rosebush. Avery had been good to his word. An alcove in the room had been emptied of clutter and furnished with a small desk and chair (suitable for a young rat, or a mouse; appropriated from the store rooms of the education board), as well as lantern. There was even a small shelving unit and drawer. All in all, and considering the speed of its assembly, it was a well-appointed little study for Timothy.
The first task was to divide the randomly assorted pile into its constituent parts. It was done with an air of solemnity at first; though they all thought it was better they do it than anyone else. The Rats must have been in a great hurry for the various items had been packed with little care and some objects had not survived the journey unscathed. The majority seemed to be paper and notebooks that were piled of stacked on the shelf. Flicking through them, designs and diagrams as well as formulae and tables could be seen, but there was little time to begin an in depth analysis. There were occasional treasures to be found amongst the other more mundane items. A magnifying glass, a small case in which were stored a pair of what must have been Jonathan’s glasses, bottles of ink and quills, and a travelling cape cut for a mouse by its length were just some of the items they discovered. As the process went on it became obvious that Jonathan had everything necessary for life in the colony, even having clothes that resembled the type the rats wore, very different from the simple articles they had all seen him wear at home. He had worked hard to keep all this a secret.
By now Timothy’s workspace was taking shape. Papers and notebooks were awaiting inspection, anything that was thought to be immediately useful were near at hand on the desk top, while anything else was lined up on the shelves. The cape and other clothes were either folded neatly or hung on a spare lantern hook nearby. At last only a few broken or useless items (that may have been parts of a larger object) remained in the rough crates when Avery poked his head around the door.
“My,” he said, pushing the door open completely. Brutus was hovering just behind, looming in the doorway. “You have been busy. Looks much better, though if you aren’t in a state!”
The mice looked at one another for the first time noticing that they were all totally covered in dust. They all smiled, Cynthia giggling.
“Is it time to eat already?” asked Mrs. Brisby. They had all been so engrossed in their work that they had lost track of time, though it was difficult if not impossible to do so being underground all the time. Mrs. Brisby wondered how the Rats knew when it was time for meals and the like.
“Mm hmm,” Avery nodded. “And you better get cleaned up quick. The way some of these rats eat, anything will be gone as soon as it’s set upon the table!”
It was quite a different room that the mice entered when they arrived at the dining hall. The slates, papers, books, quills, all the education equipment had been removed. There were still tables packed with young rats, but this was only a small fraction. Every table was crowded with rats of all ages, every one tucking into platters of food that were laid out on the centre of each table. More food was being brought from the preparation areas; rats emerging from two of the four wide archways bearing heaped trays of food and drink. After setting these on the tables, these rats retreated, returning to the storerooms via the other two archways. It was a smooth system that kept food and drink plentiful for the meal. As they ate, the rats talked and laughed, the sound was quite different from the din of the morning school class, but a great deal louder. Avery had followed the mice and he now leant in towards them.
“I think someone is trying to get your attention.”
The Brisby mice followed the rat’s gaze. Across the hall Justin was standing at his table waving to them, trying to draw their eyes. Cynthia bobbed up and down as she waved back and the others acknowledged him in a more restrained fashion.
“I think you should go over there,” said Avery.
“Where will you sit?” Mrs. Brisby asked the rat.
“No doubt my wife has saved a seat for me,” he said. “Enjoy your meal.”
Farewells were said and the mice made for Justin’s table trying to ignore the glances and whispers that occurred in their wake. Reaching the table, Justin beamed at them.
“I saved you all a seat! I managed to persuade the council out of a formal celebratory meal. The Mice of NIMH didn’t want it, and I thought you would rather not have the attention.”
Mrs. Brisby nodded and of the children, only Cynthia looked a little disappointed.
“I did, however, manage to persuade them to use a few extra rations for the meal. The chefs cheered up no end when they realised they could add a bit of flair to the meals tonight.”
This seemed to immediately brighten Cynthia’s mood, especially as the family sat down and were told to help themselves. At the table were seated many members of the Home Guard, mostly apparently friends of Justin. The little mouse, dwarfed as she was next to Bracken, began to match the big rat bit for bite. Bowls were laid out to accept scraps, of which there were very few. Like everything in the colony, even the food was as efficient as it could possibly be. The Rats despised waste, though Cynthia made sure that there was none.
“That’s quite an appetite she has!” said Bracken, impressed and not a little amused. Justin smiled and then turned in his seat to face Mrs. Brisby and Timothy who sat next to her.
“So... Was it a successful afternoon?”
“Yes, very,” replied Timothy, being a little more civilised with his food. “I’m ready to start looking through my Dad’s notes.”
“Rather you than me!” said Justin, between mouthfuls. “I’m told Jonathan was looking into some pretty deep matters and he was quite secretive about it. He annoyed a lot of the scientific core by doing that, but he wouldn’t have had it any other way. Nicodemus was the only one he talked with in depth about his research. He wasn’t one for speaking with the scientists much either. Good luck with it.”
“Thanks,” said Timothy, toying with his food distractedly.
Justin now turned his attention to Teresa and Martin.
“So what do you think of the Valley so far?”
“It’s beautiful!” gushed Teresa, pausing in her meal. “I can see exactly why Nicodemus wanted to come here. It must be a wonderful sight in the summer!”
“Certainly impressive,” was Martin’s laconic summary. There was a pause for consumption during which Leander, who was picking disconsolately at a piece of food that was before him, spoke.
“It’s those little seed things,” he explained glumly to anyone who would listen. “You can’t get rid of them.”
“Do you want that then?” asked another rat next to him. Leander stared at the roll before passing it across to the neighbour, who dug in heartily. Timothy stood on his seat to reach across the table. As he did so something caught his older brother’s eye.
“Timothy!” hissed Martin nodding at his younger brother’s chest. Timothy looked down and saw that the Stone hung from his shirt. He quickly tucked it back, hoping no one had seen it. Luckily it seemed no one had.
“Heh, the Brisby children are putting us to shame!” said a laughing guardsrat. Others chuckled as they followed his gaze. Cynthia was demolishing mounds of food and bowl after bowl of apple juice.
“How’s the meal?” Justin asked her.
“Greaf!” mumbled Cynthia, trying to answer with her mouth full.
“Cynthia!” her mother admonished, though everyone around the table laughed.
“So are all the rats here?” asked Teresa, looking around at the assembled crowd.
“I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if the whole colony had turned out,” agreed Mrs. Brisby, craning her neck to try and peer over the surrounding diners. Almost at once she caught sight of a familiar, but not necessarily welcome, face.
One family seemed to be eating alone. Mrs. Brisby recognised Christine and Hugo from earlier, Jenner’s wife and son. There were two other rats with them on the table, two young girls though one was obviously little more than an infant. They ate quietly, talking amongst themselves, though no other rats seemed to try and engage them in conversation. For a brief moment, Mrs. Brisby felt a pang of sympathy for them. It passed as Hugo caught her eye and she looked away quickly, sitting down and resuming her meal.
“I wonder where the Mice of NIMH have got to?” asked Martin, turning back to his food and beginning to take a bite. However Justin’s reply stopped his hand mid way to his mouth.
“They’re sitting over there,” he said, his voice lowered.
Mrs. Brisby looked in the indicated direction. The seven mice were all there, and were even accompanied by a couple of rats who were talking animatedly with the mouse’s leader. Fraus himself picked at food with his right hand as he talked, the others ate more hungrily and so added to the conversation only irregularly. Spiro sat, arms folded, watching the others talk and feed. Does the creature not eat? Mrs. Brisby wondered. As if hearing her thoughts, she watched Spiro’s head turn slowly to face her. The mouse’s cheeks lifted. Was he smiling at her? She dropped the morsel she had been eating and sat back down, holding her head. However she looked up again at a groan from Cynthia. The little mouse was staring unfocussed about her.
“I feel funny,” she mumbled.
“What’s wrong Cynthia?” asked Mrs. Brisby urgently. Her mind went to Spiro. Her stomach twisted at possible meanings for his ‘smile’. Had he poisoned the food? Was that why he wasn’t eating it?
“Indigestion?” asked Leander lightly.
“Cynthia!” asked Mrs. Brisby urgently, leaving her seat to go to her child.
“Ah!” said Justin, sniffing at Cynthia’s drinking bowl.
“What is it?” asked Martin, looking a little concerned. Justin smiled awkwardly as he explained.
“It seems that instead of helping herself to the juice, Cynthia has been drinking the Valley Ale!” In support, Cynthia gave a loud hiccup. Mrs. Brisby let out a long sigh of relief at the simple explanation.
“Oh dear,” she said, stroking Cynthia’s head.
“Can I try some?” asked Timothy.
“No!” said Mrs. Brisby forcefully. Cynthia grinned lopsidedly and hiccupped again.
“Blimey!” said Leander. “She was drinking enough of that to put me under the table!”
“So she can out-drink you as well as out-brawl you, eh Leander?” called Bracken.
Amongst the laughs that followed another voice put in,
“Maybe we should have her for the Home Guard as well.”
“Funny, Brutus. Did Arthur fit that new sense of humour for you?” was all Leander could say in reply.
Conversation broke off as Cynthia, with a contented sigh, swayed and toppled backwards off her chair. Bracken caught her just before she hit the ground. He laughed.
“She’ll be right as rain come morning. The ale is good stuff, she’ll just need to sleep it off.”
“We’ll take her back to the room,” said Mrs. Brisby shaking her head.
“Aw, Mum!” said Martin, still pushing food into his mouth. “Can’t we stay a bit longer?”
“No.” she said, looking briefly at the other table of mice. “We’ll go. Thank you Justin.”
“I’ll come,” said Bracken, carrying the now gently snoring Cynthia.
“No, I’ll do it,” said Justin. “I haven’t had a proper rest in days, but right now I feel as if I could go to sleep on my nose.” Carefully Cynthia was transferred to his waiting arms.
“I wouldn’t want to be a bother,” said Mrs. Brisby.
“It’s no bother at all. Honestly,” Justin assured her with a grin.
As Mrs. Brisby and her children left with Justin, eyes watched them go. Someone had noticed the Stone at the meal, and someone hatched a plan.
On returning to the quarters the mice quickly realised they had been ready for sleep. The rat’s rations had been quite a feast to them. They collapsed gratefully onto their bedding, Cynthia being carefully set down by Justin, who then bid them goodnight and shut the door. Martin extinguished the lantern and with their bellies full they soon fell fast asleep. That is, until much later.
Timothy woke into darkness. He still lay amongst the bedding in his family’s room. It was warm and comfortable surrounded by the sound and smell of his sleeping family. He wondered what had woken him. He curled himself tighter, the warmth of the bedding enveloping him. Then there was a sound. A faint metallic click. Timothy’s eyes snapped open and he tried to orientate himself in the dark. The sound came again... from the door. His mind raced. The only parts of the door that were metal were the hinges and the lock. Was Justin entering to check on them or...? Someone was tampering with the lock! There was a metallic rasping and a deeper, but not louder, click and Timothy became aware of the well-oiled hinges of the door coming into use. The door was opening. He clasped his hands around the Stone that he still wore around his neck. What should he do? Should he reach out for the lantern, try to light it? Would taking action prompt the intruder to do the same? He realised he was holding his breath, terrified of making even the smallest sound. Timothy used his whiskers, he definitely felt movement in the air, though could still only smell the comfortable, warm scent of his sleeping family. The juxtaposition of something safe and good with the raw terror he was feeling made his stomach turn with nausea.
Something alerted him to the fact there was a light source, the faintest of illumination showing through the partially open door. He caught movement out of the corner of his eye, only a fleeting shadow but enough to draw his attention. Something was in the room.
Timothy realised his actions in the next few seconds would dictate the fate of himself and his family. Teresa had fallen asleep nearest the door. The interloper would find her first. What did they intend?
As if in answer, the Stone around Timothy’s neck glowed, flashing briefly in the darkness. The weak light caught something, outlining its shape in the dark. It was metallic, long and shiny. A blade! Timothy had caught its undulating edge in the darkness. Whoever was in the room was planning murder! There was another movement. The silence and darkness was oppressive, pressing in on Timothy, making him unable to think. Then he caught it. A ragged intake of breath, drawn out to try and quieten it. Timothy did the one thing he could, an animal reaction, though it was his only course. He screamed. It was an uncontrolled sound of terror in the darkness. There was a crash from across the room, quickly followed by a slam of the door. Then there was another cry, from the other room where Justin slept. Timothy could feel his family waking around him. Their confused voices came to him from the morass.
“Timothy? Timothy!? Where are you?”
“Where’s the light?”
There was the sound of flint being struck and a taper being lit. The room slowly faded into sight along with the warm illumination of the lantern.
“Who screamed?” asked Martin, shaking the taper to extinguish it.
“Timothy, what’s wrong?” said Mrs. Brisby, clambering nearer to her child.
“There was someone here, just now.” Timothy was staring in fear at the door, mumbling his words. “They had a sword. But... Justin! I heard a cry from the other room. Something might have happened to Justin!”
Martin grabbed the lantern and crossed to the door and flung it open. In the gloom of the next chamber they saw a shape lying on the floor. Martin raised the lantern and he clearly saw a rat was sprawled amongst the papers on the study floor.
“It is Justin!” cried Martin and rushed forward. The others followed too. Teresa blinked disbelievingly at the fallen Justin.
In answer there was a long groan from the rat. Martin tried to roll Justin onto his back, but needed the help of the others. Mrs. Brisby then tried to raise his head, but Justin yelped.
“Justin? Are you okay?” asked Mrs. Brisby.
“No,” he grunted and tried to move. “Ah, my head.”
“What happened?” asked Teresa. Justin spoke through gritted teeth.
“I heard a cry and that woke me up. But as soon as I was standing something hit me. Winded me. As I fell I caught my head on the bench.” His eyes widened looking around at the mice. “Are you all okay? Is anyone hurt? Who screamed?”
“It was me,” said Timothy. “Someone was in our room. They had a blade.”
“Who?” asked Justin rising to his
elbows, now ignoring the pain.
“I didn’t see them,” mumbled the young mouse.
“I have a feeling...” the last words were lost as Justin heaved himself up to his feet. He braced himself against the desk, his hand going to his head. “Stay here; lock the door.”
He handed Teresa a key and then made his way to the study’s exit, noticeably unsteady. When he was through the door Teresa locked it.
“What do you think he’ll do to the mice?” asked Cynthia. No one responded.
Justin staggered through the darkened corridors. Lanterns were extinguished at night to conserve their supply of fuel, though a few still burned. His mind raced as he half stumbled, half ran, though with each step his head cleared. How dare the mice try something like this! How dare they! Right under the noses of the rats, in the heart of their home. He didn’t care which one it was, but at least one of them was going to pay dearly for the infringement. He pictured one or two of the more likely suspects.
Down stairs, along more murky corridors. He neared the council-offices-to-be that were the Mice of NIMH’s quarters. He slowed his pace, expecting...
“Richard!” Justin replied to the sentry. He had made sure someone patrolled this particular area, the only exit, very closely at night. During the day the mice could wander freely; there were enough rats around, but at night he afforded them special attention. Justin did not waste time. “Did you see any of those mice come into, or out of that room?”
“Nothing Justin,” responded Richard. “No one’s moved!”
“You sure you saw no one?”
“And you are sure they were all in there come evening?”
“Absolutely. All seven accounted for.”
Justin was still unconvinced. He almost leapt forward, pushing himself off tunnel walls in his haste to get to the Mice of NIMH’s quarters. Halting before the door he began pounding ferociously on the wood.
“Come in,” came the voice from the room beyond, though Justin had barely waited for the reply. Wasting no time on subtlety he burst into the room where Fraus was waiting, fully dressed, ready to greet him. The mouse stood, as always, grinning, both arms clasped behind his back.
“Justin. Good evening. How can I help you?” he said.
Justin ignored the question, instead looking around the room. There were the bunks that the rats had installed for their visitors. A pile of equipment and discarded rags in the corner. The various members of the band were looking at him quizzically obviously disturbed from sleep. The mouse named Stave was sitting at a bench at the far end of the room, he appeared to have been reading from a book. Justin counted the mice. Six! He took in their faces. There was one very distinct face missing.
“Is something wrong?” asked Fraus, his expression one of concern. Justin dragged his attention back to the mouse.
“Where’s Spiro?” growled Justin.
Fraus said nothing, though Justin caught a movement out of the corner of his eye. Turning he saw that the rags were watching him. A dead eye was on him, a bright pinprick of light also, from the shadowed side of Spiro’s face. He also noticed that the mouse, as he sat almost unmoving in the dark corner of the room, was playing with a vicious knife. Its long, straight blade caught the light as it moved this way and that. Justin gritted his teeth, though he’s not sure whether it’s to suppress a sneerof contempt or ice along his spine.
“Is there anything else I can help you with?” smiled Fraus. Justin was about to reply when Brutus charged into the room, pausing to catch his breath.
“Justin!” he said. “We caught him!”
Hugo knelt in the centre of the small and otherwise empty chamber. It was a hastily cleared room in the unfinished lower levels of the colony. Although not meant for the purpose it was quite an adequate cell. The lantern highlighted his dark pelt, so much like Jenner’s... his father’s. His head rested on his chest, his arms held limp at his sides. As the door opened he raised his head. Justin and Brutus entered, their faces grim. Hugo dropped his gaze to the floor once again.
“I hope you can explain yourself, Hugo,” said Justin.
Hugo said nothing, did nothing. Justin continued to look down at the young rat with blazing eyes, the silence stretching on.
“We found this on him,” said Brutus, offering a blade to Justin. The leader of the rats looked at it. It was Jenner’s blade. Its undulating cutting edge was all too familiar.
“Your father’s sword,” said Justin, taking the weapon and hefting it. “Where did you get it?” asked Justin. Any sympathy he may have had for the boy was gone now. Hugo raised his head.
“I’ll never tell you... You killed him.”
Everything that had happened had taken its toll of the Leader of the Rat’s patience. Something inside Justin snapped.
“This is the blade that killed Sullivan! This is the blade that was responsible for the death of Nicodemus! Your father was responsible for two deaths that night! Now you were going to add to that total!”
“No!” cried Hugo, looking up defiantly at Justin. “No. I wasn’t planning murder. I’m not a killer!”
“Then what were you doing?” Such was Justin’s tone Brutus tensed ready to restrain his former captain if need be. Hugo struggled with the words.
“I... I wanted the Stone. My father talked of it often. I thought...” Hugo trailed off but locked eyes with Justin.
At that moment there was an excited chatter from outside. Brutus left, throwing a quick look at Justin. After a brief discussion, he returned.
“Justin. It’s Christine. She says she wants to speak to her son.”
Justin nodded and breathed deeply. As he turned to leave he said in calmer tones,
“You are under arrest and confined to this room, Hugo. I don’t know what will happen to you. That is for the entire council to decide.” He left, followed by Brutus. A moment later, Christine entered the cell. The young rat smiled up at his mother. Her face remained set. She waited for the door to be closed before she made her way over to her son.
“Mother... Please. Make them listen...” he began. His words were cut short as she landed a stinging slap on his face. He nearly toppled over sideways. When he looked up again his eyes were watering.
“But... I...” he mumbled in confusion.
“You’ve been a fool! What were you trying to do?”
“I...” This was totally unexpected. He didn’t know what to say. He started again, “I wanted vengeance. Father died because of them, because of the Stone. You remember how he spoke of it! It was their fault! The Stone must be destroyed. I thought you’d want this!”
“Want this?” she replied incredulously. “Want this!? Have you heard nothing of what I told you? Didn’t you think what your actions would lead to? What did you hope for?” She stopped briefly. When Christine addressed her son again, she too had tears in her eyes.
“Why didn’t you stop to think before acting...? There is not a day that passes by that I don’t wish for your father to hold me once again in his arms, but Jenner is gone, and with him went our standing in the colony. They all say we are forgiven, but even you can’t have missed their cold stares, the hushed words. We’re outcasts in our own home. We...” she broke off, her hand flying to her mouth to stifle the distress. Hugo’s stomach tightened as he watched his mother, usually so calm and so patient, break down like this. Even without her words he understood.
“I’ve let you down,” his voice was broken with emotion. He didn’t know what else to say. He winced as his mother explained, each word feeling like a blow to his chest.
“No. I had no chance of regaining acceptance within the colony. I stood by Jenner to the last and have resigned myself to my fate. I thought if I were to bear their anger, their spite, then my family would be spared. You have not only let me down! You’ve doomed you and your sisters to the same hell!” She was screaming now, all composure gone. “You can’t bring him back. You have only me and your sisters. When Jenner died, he left you to take care of us. I needed you to be responsible for them...” In a whisper, “Now you’ve failed them.”
Christine whirled around and knocked on the door. After a moment the guard outside began to ease it open, but with a hand she held it shut, changing her mind about leaving. She whispered for another moment in the cell and the door shut again. Dabbing her eyes with her wrist she turned around.
“What have I done?” Hugo mumbled to himself, full realisation flooding his mind. How could he have been so foolish? His stomach lurched again as he thought of the consequences his actions would have for his family.
At his mother’s gentle voice Hugo raised burning eyes to meet Christine’s. She put the ball of her hand to each of her eyes and was composed again, her words calm, almost without emotion. In a way it was more terrible than her unbridled rage.
“I am still your mother and you are still my son. I will do what I can for you.” She kissed her son’s forehead and then left quickly, without any hesitation. Hugo watched her go, his heart aching to be held by his mother. What had he done? He fell sideways... Thoughts of his father, his family, the shame. His body was wracked with silent sobs. What had he done?
Justin eventually returned to his quarters where the Brisby mice were waiting. He explained what had happened and that everything was now under control. Now that the one responsible had been caught it made returning to sleep easier. Time passed and slowly the colony settled back down into what remained of the night. However some would not feel the embrace of slumber for some time yet...
“I hear you were bothering the mice in the night!”
The voice made the Mrs. Brisby sit up as she was drifting between sleep and waking. Her children, exhausted by anxiety, had fallen back to sleep again quickly, and they stirred but did not seem to wake. She sat up silently, still partly in the throes of slumber, to listen to the words from the next room.
“Keep your voice down,” Justin hissed. “We have guests.”
“Explain yourself!” demanded the other, their voice only lowered slightly. Mrs. Brisby recognised it. It was the rat from the council chamber, Augustus.
“I wanted to check...” Justin started.
“...To see if they were unharmed, or to see if they were responsible?” cut in the other’s voice.
“If you would let me finish...?” asked Justin, followed by a silence. “I was checking that they had not had a similar experience. Some of our number may have reason to attack the mice.”
“What drivel!” sneered Augustus. “You were as good as accusing them. Good old Justin, as soon as there’s trouble you leapt straight to the wrong conclusion.”
“It could have been anyone who ran in there.”
“But you should not have been that individual. What did you think you were doing? What is the Home Guard there for? This cavalier attitude of yours will get us into serious trouble, Justin. Remember the colony succeeds or fails depending on your decisions. There are many who would support me in a vote of no confidence should I wish to tell them about your charging about the valley, threatening our guests.”
There was a pause before Justin said,
“You know it wasn’t like that.”
Augustus’ voice took on a conspiratorial whisper.
“Quite... but don’t think I am ignorant about how protective of that other mouse you are. Others have noticed it too. You think we owe her something.”
“She saved us from NIMH. We all owe her our lives!”
“That may be so, but now she is jeopardising our existence here by clouding your judgement, making you act like a feral. Look at you. Have you slept at all in the last few days?”
Justin said nothing as Augustus continued.
“You are a mess. You’re office is in disarray, and I know it was like this before Hugo was ever near here. He probably tidied. It is no way for our leader to act. Nicodemus would be appalled; the council is appalled; I am appalled. I will raise this at the next council meeting. Good night, Justin.”
There was the sound of footsteps and then the door closing. Then all was quiet.
In the darkness of the next room Mrs. Brisby hugged her knees, biting her lower lip. Now it seemed even the rats were against her. Slowly, she lowered her head so that it rested on her knees.
“Jonathan...” she whispered to herself.