Authors: Hilary Wagner
This was not at all what Carn had expected. It made him think about Billycan. What lurked behind those swirling eyes of red? Who was
Picking up the rough country dialect of the swamp rats didn’t require too much effort. Their drawl was thick, to be sure, their tongue crude, but Carn had little trouble understanding them. Their vocabulary was lacking, but their thoughts were well formed, not the mishmash of nonsensical words the bats had described.
As much as Carn wished to stay anonymous, after his first encounter with Thicket and Stono there was zero likelihood of that. Thicket had taken a shine to him, and unbelievably Stono was warming up, realizing Thicket had no romantic interest in the snake-killing Corn.
Since their meeting two days before, Thicket and Stono had quickly turned their twosome into a trio. Thicket was awed by his snake-killing prowess. She hoped Corn would impress Billycan, so he’d be allowed to go with them when they attacked Nightshade City.
Carn had yet to see his former commander up close. He’d managed to stay out of sight so far, but with Thicket and Stono so attached to him, his odds of staying undetected were slim.
On the upside, his new station should prove fruitful to the Council. Staying on the periphery as Telula suggested would surely put him at less risk, but he’d learn little information that Dresden’s colony didn’t already know.
Carn had been unable to meet with Telula as planned. Thicket stuck to him like glue. Even at night she’d get up often, making sure
all was safe, stirring at the slightest noise. After two days the Council must think him already dead. He’d try again tonight.
Carn sat tensely with Thicket and Stono. It was hotter than usual, and they were leaning against the back wall, taking advantage of the afternoon shade the manor provided. Carn’s heart suddenly jumped as the rickety screen door swung open. Clutching the damp ground, he dug his claws in, anchoring himself to the earth so that he couldn’t be ripped away upon discovery. Through the rusty screen he saw a rat—a gray. It was Montague, one of Billycan’s seconds. Cobweb tagged behind him. Carn’s whole body went limp with relief, exhausted as though he’d been running uphill.
Thicket turned to him. “What be wrong with you, Corn?” she demanded. “You sick?”
Carn reclaimed his wits. He had promised he would not be governed by fear, yet here he was gripping the ground in sheer terror. “The heat,” he panted. “Hot today.”
Thicket stared at him skeptically. “It always be hot, nothing new ’bout that.”
“Cooler in the woods, is all,” he said, trying to give a rational excuse. “More shade.”
Turning their gaze to the back of the manor, Cobweb and Montague spotted the rats they’d been searching for.
“Thicket, Stono, there you are,” said Montague. He spoke properly, like a Trillium rat. “Billycan wants to see you two.”
Grabbing Carn’s arm, Thicket pulled him to his feet. “This here be Corn,” said Thicket, shoving him in front of the seconds. “Just back from the woods, killed lots a snakes out there!”
Montague looked at him strangely—not suspiciously, just surprised to see a face he did not recognize. “Corn, you say? How long have you been gone? I don’t seem to recall your face.”
Carn wished he didn’t have to talk like an idiot, but knew his life was more valuable than his pride. “Don’t know for sure, been a long while now,” he said, “real long.”
Cobweb looked at Thicket. “Did you say he was killing
“Yep,” said Thicket proudly, “just like Billycan!”
Tapping his chin, Cobweb sized up Carn. “Billycan will want to know of this. Another rat who can take on the snakes. I’m sure he’ll be interested in speaking to you, Corn.”
“He can come with us right now,” said Thicket, pulling Carn toward the door.
“Now, Thicket,” said Montague, “you know no one can go inside without Billycan’s approval. You’ll fall into bad favor, and you wouldn’t want that, now, would you? I’m sure Billycan will be quite intrigued with Corn’s skill, but it will have to keep for now.”
Thicket jutted out her chin. Her expression turned into a sulk. “Fine,” she said, folding her arms.
Smiling, Cobweb patted Thicket’s shoulder. “Don’t pout, now,” he said softly. “We’ll be off to Nightshade in a matter of days, all of us getting a whole new life—a better one.”
Carn’s body stiffened at the news. Mere days! This changed everything.
“Off you go,” said Montague, motioning to the door. “He’s waiting for you in the parlor.”
Thicket and Stono bounded up the back stairs and into the manor. Carn stood uneasily with Montague and Cobweb, hoping they’d just move along and go about their business. It seemed nothing had gone as planned since he entered the horde. The two seconds immediately started questioning him.
“So, Corn,” said Cobweb, “how do you go about killing snakes? How do you do it?”
“Uh … first I stomp on ’em,” said Carn, thinking fast, “breaking some bones, and then I grab their skulls from the back, before they even sees me. Crack their jaws apart.”
“You’re brave,” said Cobweb. “Our whole family was killed by snakes, and much of the horde as well. I can’t think of more vicious creatures.”
“I’ll be sure to tell Billycan about your special ability,” said Montague. “You could be of real help to our cause. If you can kill snakes, you can surely kill rats. Billycan needs our help to reclaim his city, his kingdom that was stolen from him by treacherous Nightshade rats. Billycan says we can all live there, away from the snakes and this accursed heat. Well, we have our duties to attend to. Carry on, then.” The seconds walked off to do a check of the perimeter.
Relieved, Carn leaned against the manor. But he had to get to Telula tonight. He had to get word to Juniper that the attack on Nightshade was now only days away.
Billycan crouched on the stained settee in the front parlor of the manor. He was furiously writing on a piece of parchment, constantly dipping his feather pen into the pot, loading up more ink. A drop had trickled down the feather and onto his paw, staining his white fur black.
Staring at his blackened digits, he wondered for a moment what it would be like to be someone else, to start over with a completely new identity. The thought quickly passed. He had starting writing again when the heady reek of body odor hit his nostrils. Stono’s scent was particularly pungent.
Thicket and Stono had been standing in silence on the tattered parlor rug, waiting for Billycan to address them.
“Stono,” said Billycan, not looking up, “bathing is not a crime,
you know. You could bring down a herd of oxen with that rancid stench.” He finally looked up from his papers. “We’ll be leaving for Nightshade shortly. A truck is scheduled to be here in a matter of days. You’ll have your orders as soon as I’ve finished going over the last of the city’s blueprints. Stay out of trouble. I can’t risk one of you getting injured because of your continuous roughhousing. Do you understand me?”
“Yes sir,” answered Thicket.
“That’s all, you may go,” said Billycan, waving them away.
“Uh, sir,” said Thicket timidly, “we found a snake killer—just like you.”
Billycan cocked his head. “Did you say a snake killer?”
“Yep, a new rat, Corn. He kill the snakes, just like you.”
“New,” said Billycan guardedly. “What do you mean, new? How did you not know of him before?”
“Corn been out hunting all this time,” replied Thicket. “A few years, he say.”
“Well, Miss Thicket, why don’t either of you remember him if it has been only a few years?”
Thicket looked at Stono. They didn’t have an answer. They both shook their heads and shrugged.
Billycan rolled his eyes in frustration. “Oh, never mind,” he said, “you two can’t seem to remember yesterday, let alone last year. Regardless, Thicket, Billycan is glad to know about this rat. He may prove to be quite helpful. Now I’ve plans to work on, so off with you both.” He brandished his pen at Stono. “Oh, and Stono, you
bathe tonight. Billycan can see the fleas on your hide from here. I will not have you festering in front of me.”
Stono frowned resentfully, stomping his foot.
“Am I to have a problem with you, Stono?” asked Billycan with a flinty glare.
After a brief hesitation, Stono spoke. “No sir,” he grumbled.
“Good,” snapped Billycan. “Now get out.”
The swamp rats ambled out of the manor. From the corner of his eye, Billycan watched as a wolf spider slowly traveled up a leg of the settee. Suddenly he pounced on it, crushing it violently with his ink-blackened fist before it had a chance to flee.
With a flick of his wrist he flung the crippled spider to the ground, its broken legs twitching on the Oriental rug. He stared at it intently until the thing finally stopped moving. He found all creatures’ deaths quite fascinating.
Thicket had dragged Stono off by his ear to the plantation’s murky pond to get clean, or at least to get the stink off him, finally giving Carn some breathing room.
His stomach knotted, he had been unable to eat the last two days’ rations. He was now achingly hungry. He was watching a pair of grub worms squirming in the grass, seriously considering them, when he noticed a rat watching him, utterly transfixed—a female.
Their eyes locked. She was brown like the rest, but her coat was dark, like his. She was dainty, fine-boned. Gazing at him, she batted her eyes, tilting her head coyly. She edged nearer, flashing a surprisingly elegant smile.
“She’s flirting with me,” said Carn to himself, as though the world had ended. “Of all the times—she fancies me for a mate!”
Carn tried to ignore her, but she kept taking petite steps closer. “Oh, for Saints’ sake,” he muttered. In normal circumstances, Carn would never rebuff the advances of such a pretty girl, but given his
situation, not to mention the fact that she was a swamp rat, their union was plainly not in the cards.
Never did he think he’d be thankful to see Thicket proudly marching back to him with a clean, or at least less offensive, Stono on her arm. “See?” she said. “Don’t Stono look fine?”
“Real fine,” said Carn, turning his back on the still advancing female.
Breaking into a toothy grin, Stono pointed over Carn’s shoulder. “Thicket, look there,” he said spiritedly.
Thicket’s gaze locked on Carn. “Well, look at that,” she said slyly. “Looks like you got a new friend, Corn!” She and Stono laughed like hyenas. Thicket mischievously kicked Carn in the rump, knocking him down directly at the feet of the female.
Exasperated, Carn wiped the mud from his snout. “Just wonderful,” he grumbled under his breath. He slowly rose to his feet, realizing he couldn’t get out of talking to this rat. He noticed she was cleaner than the rest of the swamp rats. Her chocolate coat was shiny and dense, no patches of the mange or other ailments that ran rampant through the horde.
Thicket butted in between them. She pulled the female over to the side and whispered in her ear. The two giggled wildly. She promptly grabbed the female by the wrist and yanked her over to Carn.
“Corn, this be Oleander,” said Thicket, pushing the female in front of him, “my cousin.”
“Hey there, Corn,” said Oleander.
“Hey,” he mumbled coldly. He folded his arms and stared at the ground, not wanting to give her any suggestion he was interested.
“I hear you be a snake killer,” said Oleander.
“So what if I am?” he snapped.
“He be an ornery one,” said Oleander to Thicket.
“They all be ornery!” said Thicket. The girls laughed madly, jumping up and down.
Carn rolled his eyes. This was a complication he did not need—not now.
Stono grunted at Thicket. “Leave ’em be, Thicket. Corn don’t need help from you!”
Thicket grimaced at Stono, but surprisingly did as he asked. “Fine, then,” she said curtly.
Abruptly Stono grabbed Thicket around her waist and threw her over his shoulder, his improved hygiene making him boisterous. “Put me down, ya big oaf!” she protested. Stono ignored her, carrying her off toward a willow as she banged on his back and burst into more laughter.
Carn and Oleander stood in awkward silence. Before he could speak, Oleander grabbed him brusquely by the neck. He tried to wrench away from her tight grip, but she was strong like Thicket. He knew the swamp rats were primitive, but this type of forwardness was downright shocking.
“Oleander,” he barked, trying to jerk away, “let me go!”
They fell to the ground. “Quiet!” she whispered in his ear, her heavy drawl evaporating. “Do you want to get us both killed? Now listen closely. We don’t have much time!”
“What?” shouted Carn in disbelief. “What did you just say?”
“Keep your voice down,” she said. “I
you’re not a swamp rat. You must meet me by the ancient willow, just after dark.” The horde was beginning to observe their exchange. Using her feet, she rolled him on top of her, pretending to tussle with him in the grass.
“What ancient willow? Where?”
“It’s the largest tree you’ll find, just outside the front gate. You can’t miss it.”
Carn spun her back over. “Who are you?” he demanded.
“Did you already forget my name?” she asked with a subtle southern inflection. She laughed softly. “I’m Oleander.”
“I don’t understand,” whispered Carn.
“It’s all right,” she said calmly. “We’re not
as dim-witted as you think.” Her dark eyes flashed in the sunlight. “For now, that’s all you need to know. See you after nightfall, then.” Abruptly she sprang up and dashed out of view, hiding herself within the ranks of the horde.
Carn lay on the ground, utterly dumbstruck.
The sun had set. The horde had settled in a heap. Carn lay nervously next to Thicket and Stono, trying to figure out how to slip away without Thicket wanting to go with him.
Carn turned on his stomach and spied the corroded gates at the edge of the plantation’s gravel footpath. Like old bones, the gates hung open—skeletal creations, falling off their hinges, ruined relics of their former grandeur.
A mosquito stabbed Carn in the flank. He whipped around abruptly, flattening the insect with his fist. Blood burst from the insect’s belly and onto his palm.