Authors: Hilary Wagner
HEY RACED TOWARD THE POND
, but then made a wide circle so as not to be seen heading to the side of the manor. They sat against the side of the house, hidden by the pile of firewood where Carn and Telula had agreed to meet.
Carn examined the trees, looking for any sign of her. At last he spotted her, a shadowy, flapping blur against the darkening sky. She flew down onto a low branch of the nearest tree.
Carn took Oleander’s paw. “Telula,” he called in a whisper. “It’s Carn.”
Telula dived swiftly down from her perch and landed atop the firewood. She looked at him, wide-eyed. “Carn, you’re alive!” she whispered happily. “We all thought—”
“I know,” said Carn. “I’m sorry I worried you all, but I didn’t have a choice.”
“Everyone will be so relieved—” Spotting Oleander, Telula froze for a moment, distressed. “And who is this?” she asked guardedly.
“Don’t be alarmed,” answered Carn. “This is Oleander. She’s not like the others. She’s from a secret group within the horde, all smart like us.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Oleander said softly, staring up at the bat. “Carn speaks highly of your colony and how you’ve all been so obliging to his kind—well, my kind. I know you think the horde a coarse and violent sort, but they just don’t know any better. They’re good on the inside—truly.”
Telula felt embarrassed. How harshly she’d judged the swamp rats. “If you are a friend to Carn, then you are a friend to my colony. Our rat friends are numerous. We should have known there was more to the horde than what we saw from the trees … ignorance on our part, I’m afraid.”
“Oleander and her group want to be rid of Billycan, same as us,” said Carn, climbing up on the logs to get closer to the bat. “Telula, you have to warn Juniper. Billycan is planning an attack on Nightshade in two days. There will be a feast tomorrow night, and then he’s taking the horde to Nightshade.”
“Oleander, who is the leader of your group?” asked Telula. “Who is the elder in charge?”
“That would be my father, Mannux,” said Oleander.
“All right,” said Telula, thinking. “I’ll inform Juniper and Dresden of these new developments. My colony can get Juniper and the others into the manor, if Mannux and your group can keep Billycan occupied at the feast.”
“No problem there,” said Carn with a guilty cringe. “I’m … well … his guest of honor.”
“Carn!” scolded Telula. “What were you thinking?
Billycan looked out past the front gates of the manor. The moon had all but disappeared. A gluey fog had blown into the swamp, swallowing it entirely, as though heralding bad tidings. Except for the breeze whispering through the cypresses, the swamp was still—a welcoming calm. The horde slept in back, the sputtering of their snores too far away to hear.
Ears perked, Billycan watched anxiously as the light from the fire pit bounced with tall shadows. There it stood—the boar. Billycan observed from the parlor window as the mud-caked razorback scraped its great body against the ancient willow and then pushed its way through an opening in the rusted gate. The thing had been wandering for days, hopelessly separated from its clan. It had torn up large mats of earth, searching for roots, mushrooms, and insects—whatever it deemed digestible.
The boar was now perilously close to the horde. It would be only a matter of time before it sniffed them out through its muck-encrusted snout, plucking them off the ground, happily crushing them in its decaying teeth. The sooner it was killed, the better.
Billycan had commanded the horde to dig a hole, big enough for the razorback to fall into but small enough that it could not turn about or clamber its way to freedom. Once confined in the pit it would be an easy slaughter, one that Billycan looked forward to. Size was of no consequence to the white rat. A few lethal gashes to the jugular and the hog would be dead.
Billycan jumped up from the sill as the black boar neared the hole. Now inspecting the pit, it walked along its edge. “Go on, then, go on,” he said eagerly. “Fall, pig, fall!”
The razorback teetered on the edge. It spotted a fleshy root growing out from the pit’s wall and stuck its massive head into the hole. Kneeling down, it stretched for the root. “That’s it … that’s it,” coaxed Billycan. “Only one more inch, boar, one tiny inch and that juicy root will be yours and
will be mine!”
The boar pulled delicately at the root with the tips of its teeth. The root loosened from the wall, falling toward the boar.
“No!” yelled Billycan, banging on the window with his fist. The hog grabbed the root firmly and tugged it out with ease, returning quickly to safe ground. Billycan let out a baleful shriek. His stomach had been grumbling for days, and the thought of another gummy fish dinner sickened him. He needed meat. His entire body ached for it, and he had promised the horde a grand feast on the eve of their journey to Nightshade.
Montague rushed into the parlor. Billycan kicked the window frame and glared out into the swamp.
“Sir, are you all right?” asked Montague.
Still seething, Billycan slowly turned to Montague, his eyes churning odd shades of cherry and crimson. “They’ll eat anything, won’t they?” he asked dryly.
“The boars, the boars,” Billycan snapped impatiently. “They’ll eat anything, yes?”
“Yes sir, they’ll eat anything in sight, from weeds to weasels and everything in between.”
Billycan tapped his chin, thinking. “Has the horde had any deaths lately?”
“Well,” said Montague, a bit discomfited by the inquiry, “one of the old ones, Argus, he didn’t wake up about two days past, died in his sleep.”
Billycan’s sneer shifted into a grin. “Where is the body?”
Montague hesitated. “He … he is buried out by the pond.”
“Dig him up,” ordered Billycan. “Toss his body into the hole—tonight. He will make fine fodder for the boar. We will trap the hog quickly, using the dead one as bait.”
“But his family—they will protest. Sir, it’s … it’s not right,” said Montague. “It’s not proper. Even the horde will be troubled by such an act.”
Still perched on the sill, Billycan looked coolly at Montague, who squirmed uncomfortably under his gaze. “Never again dare tell me what you deem right or proper. It is but a body, nothing more and nothing less. The horde’s bellies grumble, as does mine.”
“But it seems so … reprehensible. Even the horde buries its dead in respect. Argus helped raise Cobweb and me. He was an elder. He—”
“Silence!” barked Billycan. “Argus was a doddering fool like the rest of the horde! He was no
He was simply old, a monumental difference!” Billycan bounded down from the sill and stormed toward Montague, baring slick, yellowed fangs. He shoved Montague hard in the chest, making him stumble backward. “Need Billycan remind you, young rat, what life has in store for you if the horde fails in Nightshade? You will die or be imprisoned forever!” Billycan’s piercing
voice dropped to a growl, his eyes now furrowed gashes of red. “Do you expect the horde to take over an entire city on empty bellies, weak and drained? Do you wish them dead?”
“No sir,” replied Montague. “You’ve just never made it clear
these rats took your city. What purpose does it serve us to destroy them, these Nightshade rats?”
purpose!” shouted Billycan. “I want those self-righteous rats eradicated! I want the horde to rip them limb from miserable limb! I want them tearing through the corridors of Nightshade in an all-out killing spree! I will not be humiliated, not again!” Billycan spat white froth, stomping in a twisted circle as he lurched about the parlor floor. “If you wish to save the precious carcass of your so-called elder, then you do so at the horde’s expense. They will be the ones to suffer from your selfish need for propriety. The choice is yours!”
Billycan pushed his snout into Montague’s. Montague recoiled, forced to inhale the white rat’s icy breath—a stench of rot and soot. Billycan seized him by the throat, digging his claws in, his voice now an eerie whisper. “Hear me now, rat. If you do not obey me, you will
go to Nightshade. You and Cobweb will be left here forever, belonging nowhere and to no one, orphans for all eternity.” Billycan suddenly jumped back up on the sill as though nothing had happened. He looked out the window. The boar was gone. “You are dismissed.”
Carn and Oleander started back toward the horde by way of the pond. The moon fought through the cumbersome fog, its light bouncing off the water, creating a pool of vaporous white.
Grabbing her arm, Carn abruptly forced Oleander to a stop. “What is it?” she asked.
He motioned across the pond. “Look there,” he whispered. “Who’s that by the water’s edge?”
Oleander squinted, trying to make out the two shadowy figures. She suddenly pushed Carn into the grass and out of sight. “It’s Montague and Cobweb.” She cautiously poked her head up. “I don’t think they saw us. What are they doing out here at this hour?”
Carn peered through the wet grass. “They’ve dug something up … there’s a pile of earth by them. They’re holding—something. I can’t make it out. It looks dead, whatever it is.”
Gasping in horror, Oleander put a paw over her mouth. She sat up in plain sight, suddenly not worried about being spotted. Shaking, she leaped up and made a mad dash for the water’s edge. Carn had no idea what was going on, but was not about to leave her on her own. He raced at her heels, finally catching up to her as she approached the two seconds.
She came upon Cobweb first, shoving him forcefully to the ground. He looked at her in dazed surprise. “What are you doing?” she demanded angrily. “You fiends, you monsters, how could you?”
Carn saw why she was so enraged. They had dug up a body. The shriveled corpse lay next to the hole. He remembered the family burying the elderly rat.
“Speak!” yelled Oleander, glaring at them furiously, “I’ll tell the entire horde right now if one of you doesn’t say something!”
Cobweb looked at her, incredulous. “Oleander,” he asked, “how are you talking like that? Why do you sound … like us?”
Oleander kicked the wet ground, spraying moist clumps of earth on Cobweb. “Because I
like you! We’re not all so simple,” she growled. “You self-righteous liars! My father told me our group could not trust you two, but I
you were good, honorable rats.
I was clearly a fool! Has Billycan changed you so much, or were you always this wicked?”
Montague’s ears drooped. He dropped to his knees, almost crumpling to the ground, his voice pure misery. “All this time there have been rats like ourselves—just like us—and you’ve said … nothing? We’ve been here since we were children. Why could we not be trusted? Was it because of the way we were found, the color of our fur? Why didn’t you accept us? Why?” Cobweb put his arm around his brother.
Oleander’s anger suddenly changed to shame. “I’m sorry,” she said feebly. “We never knew how you felt. We never thought you cared. If my father or the others had known, I know they would be ashamed. Papa says for our own safety we should never accept you into our group, but I think he’s wrong.” She looked down at Argus’s body, withered and stiff. “That doesn’t change this. What could you possibly be doing with him?”
“We were putting him back,” said Montague. “I swear it’s true. Billycan wanted bait for the boar. He said we’d be left here forever if we didn’t dig up Argus and throw him into the hole. He said it was only a body, and we wanted to believe he was right, making this disgraceful act seem reasonable, a means to an end—a new home, away from all this.”
“He wants the horde strong for the journey to Nightshade,” said Cobweb. “A boar feast will take care of that. We dug up Argus, but once we saw him—his face—we could not go through with it. We knew it was wrong.”
“Montague, Cobweb, you need to understand, Billycan does not keep his promises,” said Carn. “He’s suspicious and distrustful of even his closest allies. He’ll kill you and your brother as soon as you no longer serve his purpose. He doesn’t like to leave loose ends. Trust me, I know this firsthand. I’m from the same place as he.”
Montague, still on the ground, stared up at Carn, his eyes wide with confusion. “You
Billycan?” he asked. “You’re from Nightshade City and you’re like us, too?”
Carn walked toward Montague. If anyone understood him, his ache and torment, it was Carn. He, too, lost his parents long ago. He, too, served Billycan. He, too, had been given empty promises of a better life. He smiled and held his paw out to Montague, who cautiously took it. Carn pulled the mystified gray to his feet.
“Yes,” said Carn, “I’m very
like you in more ways than you know. You two can help us stop him once and for all.”
“Come on,” said Oleander. “I have an idea. A few days ago, I spotted a tortoise shell just on the other side of the pond. The tortoise itself was long gone, but the shell stank of decay—perfect for the pit.”
With the help of Carn and Oleander, the brothers carefully buried Argus once more. Then together they threw the tortoise shell into the pit and began to hatch a plan.