- thorns – sharp, pointed parts of a plant
- glossy – shiny and smooth
- oversized – larger than normal or usual
- puzzled – confused, uncertain, or bewildered
- substitute – a person or thing that takes the place of another
- abruptly – sudden and unexpected
- rustle – a soft, muffled sound made by the movement of something
- dimness – a lack of light, darkness or faintness
- splints – strips of wood, metal, or plastic used for support or immobilization of limbs
- cordial – friendly, warm, and polite.
Stop where you are,’ said the rat. ‘How did you get in here?’
‘I walked in,’ said Mrs Frisby, keeping her voice calm with an effort. ‘I found a branch with the thorns smoothed off. I pushed it back, and found…
‘I know,’ said the rat, rather rudely. ‘And now, walk out again. You aren’t allowed in here.’ He moved a few inches towards her, placing himself between her and the entrance. She noticed how powerful his muscles looked under his glossy coat. He would almost be a match for Dragon – almost, but not quite.
‘Go on,’ he repeated.
‘But I have a reason…’
‘I don’t care what you have. Go away. You’re small. I wouldn’t want to hurt you.’
‘Are you Justin?’ Mrs Frisby inched back as the rat inched forward.
‘I’m Brutus, Justin’s not here.’ That was reasonably obvious, Mrs Frisby thought. The rat named Brutus added: ‘You know Justin?’
‘No,’ said Mrs Frisby. ‘That is, not exactly.’
‘If you don’t know him, how do you know his name?’ Brutus sounded puzzled, and Mrs Frisby observed that although he was greatly oversized and muscular, and his eyes were bright enough, he looked very young.
‘It was told to me by a friend. Can I see him?’
‘Justin? No. He’s at a meeting. I’m taking his place. They’re all at a meeting but me.’
Bad luck, thought Mrs Frisby. He’s a substitute. She said:
‘Then I’ll wait for him.’
‘No,’ said Brutus. ‘You can’t stay here. I’ve got orders. Now go, or I’ll have to take you out myself.’ He moved forward again.
‘My name,’ said the mouse desperately, ‘is Mrs Jonathan Frisby. I want to see Nicodemus.’ It did not work.
‘I don’t care what your name is, and you can’t see Nicodemus, that’s sure.’ Brutus now looked puzzled and annoyed. ‘Move on, and be quick.’
‘All right,’ said Mrs Frisby. ‘You needn’t force me.
I’ll go.’ She turned slowly and walked back the way she had come. She felt like crying – after corning all this way, after flying to see the owl, to be turned back so abruptly at the end. She thought, as she walked into the darker part of the bush, maybe she could just wait for an hour or so, until the meeting (what kind of a meeting could it be?) was over and then go back, and perhaps the rat named Justin would be at the entrance then. But would Justin pay any more attention to her than Brutus had done? She had a feeling that he would.
But when she stopped she heard footsteps behind her. She looked back and saw Brutus was following her, so she started again, hurrying to keep out of his sight. After a while she paused again and listened. This time there was no sound. He must have gone back to his post. She sat down on the ground.
Then, ahead of her, in the direction of the place where she had entered the bush, she heard a rustle, a faint scraping noise. It was the branch she had pushed to get in. Someone else was moving it. Someone was coming in, walking along the narrow path towards her. It must be another rat. Suddenly she was terrified. What would he do, meeting her unexpectedly in this dimness?
She shrank to one side, as close as she could get to the wall of thorns, hoping that whoever it was might go on past, not seeing her.
Then he came around the curve, and she saw him. It was her old friend, Mr Ages, the white mouse.
He was moving extremely slowly, and she realized that he was limping badly. One of his legs was injured; it was wrapped up in splints and bandaged.
‘Mr Ages,’ she called softly, ‘it’s Mrs Frisby.’
‘Who?’ He peered into the shadow. ‘I can’t see you.’
‘Mrs Frisby.’ She moved into the middle of the path in front of him.
‘Why, so it is. Mrs Frisby. How do you do?’ He sounded cordial enough, but he was startled. ‘I didn’t know that you… How do you happen to be in here?’
‘It’s a long story.’
‘Then tell it to me while I rest. I’m supposed to be at a meeting, but I’m late already, and a few minutes more won’t matter. As you can see, I had a bad fall and broke my ankle.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that. I hope it doesn’t hurt.’
‘It is mending. But I can walk only slowly and need to rest frequently.’ He sat down with a sigh. ‘Now tell me what you’re doing in the rats’ bush.’
Mrs Frisby (who was wondering the same thing about him) told him as briefly as she could about Timothy, Jeremy, the owl, and Brutus. Mr Ages listened in silence, interrupting only once.
‘You went into the owl’s tree?’
‘Yes. But I was afraid.’
‘I should think so. That took courage.’
‘I had to do it.’
When she had finished her story, Mr Ages sat quietly for a minute, considering it.
‘Poor Timothy,’ he said at last. ‘I should have thought of that myself. But, of course, when I gave you the medicine, the weather had not yet turned warm. Then I fell and broke my leg, and I forgot all about it.’ He stood up.
‘I think,’ he said,’that you should come with me back to the entrance.’
‘But I can’t. Brutus will still be there.’
‘Mrs Frisby, having done all that you have done, you are not going to give up now. I’ll talk to Brutus.’
‘You know him?’
‘I have known him since he was born. He’s not very old, you know. I think he will do what I ask.’ From the way he said this, Mrs Frisby could tell he did not merely think it, he knew it. But how?
‘All right,’ she said doubtfully. I’ll try again. But I don’t understand. How do you know Brutus?’
‘We had better move along.’ They started back towards the entrance at Mr Ages’ slow, limping pace. ‘As to how I know Brutus – that’s a much longer story than yours, and I doubt that I’m the one to tell it to you. It is for Nicodemus to say.’
‘But I will tell you this: If we go in the entrance – as we will, if you are to ask for help – you must promise that you will never tell anyone anything at all about what you see and hear.’
‘I will promise,’ said Mrs Frisby. Again, she thought, she had no choice. ‘The owl told me that, too.’
When they approached the entrance again, Mrs Frisby saw that Brutus stood at his post as before, but that another rat had joined him. Two of them, she thought. I hope Mr Ages knows them both. The new rat saw them coming. He looked alert, dark grey in colour, and extraordinarily handsome, though not so huge as Brutus.
‘Mr Ages,’ he said. ‘How’s the leg?’
‘Better. But it will be a while before I can run again.’
‘Justin,’ said Brutus, staring at Mrs Frisby. ‘There she is. That’s the one I was telling you about.’
‘Is she now.’ Justin looked at her casually. He did not sound particularly alarmed.
‘Mrs Frisby,’ said Mr Ages formally, ‘may I present my friends Justin and Brutus?’
‘How do you do?’ Brutus sounded doubtful.
‘Mrs Frisby?’ said Justin. ‘Not Mrs Jonathan Frisby?’
‘She is Mrs Jonathan Frisby,’ said Mr Ages. ‘A widow, as you know.’
‘Madame,’ said Justin, bowing politely, ‘it is an honour to meet you.’
Brutus now looked astonished. ‘You both know her? Who is she?’
‘Brutus,’ said Mr Ages gently,’don’t you remember Mr Jonathan?’
Brutus wrinkled his brow. ‘Mr Jonathan? You mean the one Dragon…’
‘Yes,’ said Justin quickly. ‘And this is Mrs Jonathan.’
‘Oh,’ said Brutus. Then, to Mrs Frisby: ‘Why didn’t you tell me? I wouldn’t have chased you off.’
‘Well,’ said Mrs Frisby, ‘I did try. But it doesn’t matter.’
‘No,’ Mr Ages added. ‘Because on the way out she met me coming in. She needs to talk to Nicodemus – and quickly.’
Brutus looked doubtful again. ‘Nicodemus? But can she? I mean, how about the rules? What about the Plan?’
Mr Ages said: ‘That has been taken care of. She has promised secrecy, and she is to be trusted completely. That I, myself, guarantee. After all, consider who she is.’ As an afterthought he added, ‘… and who her children are.’
Who am I, then? Mrs Frisby asked herself in wonder. I suppose that, too, will have to come from Nicodemus.
Mr Ages said to Justin: ‘What about the meeting? It can’t be over already.’
‘It was temporarily adjourned,’ said Justin,’to wait for you. In fact, I came to find you.’
‘Then I suppose we had better go in.’
Justin led the way through the arched entrance, with Mrs Frisby and Mr Ages following. Brutus remained outside at his post.
Paul Hoets is a freelance maker who lives in South Korea. If you liked this article and would like to contribute to his empire of dirt, silicon and tech. education, buy him a coffee!