Authors: Hilary Wagner
ARN SNUCK BACK
into the horde just as the sun peeked over the horizon, turning the dark sky into a muggy orange haze. They lay next to Thicket and Stono, their hearts pounding with excitement and fear as they pretended to be asleep.
Carn was expected tonight at the feast. Cobweb and Montague said he was to be seated at Billycan’s side—his guest of honor. Billycan was intrigued by this alleged snake killer. He knew that if this rat could indeed kill snakes, he could easily kill rats—strong, oversized Nightshade rats.
Oleander and Carn whispered in the grass, their voices easily masked by Stono’s loud snoring. “I
be at the feast tonight,” whispered Carn. “Billycan will recognize my face and scent immediately. He will kill me on sight. I was the first soldier to betray him that fateful night in the Catacombs. My words incited a riot, which aided in the fall of the High Ministry. Trust me, he will joyfully rip me limb from limb.”
“You heard what Cobweb and Montague said. Their parents were healers. They know about herbs. They’ll find a way to mask you properly, both your appearance and your scent.” She gently reached for his paw and squeezed it. “Billycan will not unmask you. We’ll figure it all out.”
A grumpy Stono rolled over, giving them a bleary-eyed scowl. “What you two blathering about now?” he grunted. “I be sleeping and you two be droning in my ear like a pair of marsh bugs. Now hush up!” He rolled back over and began to snore, louder than before. Carn and Oleander covered their mouths with their paws, trying not to laugh.
Carn rolled onto his back and stared up at the brightening sky. Stono and Thicket were another problem altogether. If things did not go as planned, he’d have no way to protect them. They were good at heart, but with their primitive manner, their combative nature, they might be injured or worse.
If Carn tried to explain things to Stono and Thicket, to tell them about Billycan, the truth about who he was—
he was—he feared their reaction. Billycan was their knight in shining armor, an albino beacon of hope, the one who would lead them to a better life. Stono and Thicket cared for Carn now, but how would they feel about him if he spoke out against Billycan? Since the swamp rats didn’t lie, how could they decide who was telling the truth? The mysterious swamp rat who appeared out of nowhere or Billycan, who fed them, protected them, claiming everything he did was for their benefit? Would Stono and Thicket turn on Carn should he reveal the truth? He could not take the chance. He could only pray to the Saints that they and the rest of the horde would be spared.
Oleander saw the fear in Carn’s eyes. She felt it, too. The horde was her family. Most of them were different from her, to be sure, but that didn’t matter. She loved them all.
Crouching under the derelict car in the front yard of the manor, Carn, Oleander, and her father, Mannux, watched as the horde sat idly by the pond, having a breakfast of day-old minnows and root porridge, a lumpy pulp of flavorless mush.
Mannux was an old one—old for a rat without a Trillium life span, in any case. His brown fur had lightened to fawn; his grizzled whiskers and snout were completely white. In spite of his age, he was thickly built, muscular, with brutish, oversized paws—all four faded into whitewash like his muzzle, weathered and creased from a life under the hot southern sun.
Carn watched Thicket as she tossed a minnow into the air, catching it with her teeth. “If I’m gone too long, Thicket will come searching for me.”
“Not if we’re past the perimeter,” said Mannux in his gravelly voice. “She would never cross the plantation’s border. Even Thicket’s too smart for that. She will not risk getting eaten by a snake. We must go now, while the horde is busy with breakfast.”
“Father, wait,” said Oleander, “there is something I must tell you.” She looked awkwardly at her feet. “It’s about Cobweb and Montague. I’m afraid … I’ve broken our group’s trust.”
“Daughter,” said Mannux, “
have broken no trust. You would never do such a thing. You are a loyal child and a good rat.”
“But father, I—”
“You need not explain,” said Mannux. “I already know. Cobweb and Montague sought me out after your meeting at the pond. If anyone has broken a trust, I fear it’s been me. Those two boys … they’re brokenhearted, wondering why we kept them out of our circle all these years. They were only children when they joined the horde, yet we treated them like outcasts. They’ve been utterly alone in our world.
It’s unforgiveable.” He curled a paw under her chin and stared into his daughter’s eyes. “I should have listened to you. You are a far better judge of character than I. I’m sorry.”
“Papa, don’t be sorry,” said Oleander. “You only wanted to protect us.”
Mannux’s proud face fell. “Our group, our little splinter faction of intellects, we’re too smart for our own good, we are. We should have tried harder to help our clan—and those lonely boys. It’s time to make up for our mistakes—my mistakes. If ever there was a time to make things right, it’s now. Cobweb and Montague are going to meet us in the woods. They said we must find a black bug-bane bush.”
“What for?” asked Carn curiously.
“To camouflage your scent,” replied Mannux. “The bush’s stench could kill a black bear.”
“What about my face?” Carn asked nervously. “I was at Billycan’s beck and call for eleven years. He’ll recognize me straightaway.”
“Don’t you worry,” said Mannux. “Cobweb and Montague said they have just the thing for that.”
Billycan climbed out of the pit, his coat splashed with the boar’s blood, his claws caked thick with its flesh. He inhaled calmly, almost serenely, as his feet hit the grass. His lungs tingled as he blew out a deep breath, feeling much more like himself again.
For the moment his thoughts of the pending attack left him, replaced by visions of smoked carcass and sizzling fat. The thought of meat made all his senses prickle as he headed to the pond to wash away the blood. He dragged behind him an empty tortoise shell he’d found in the pit, licked clean by the boar. Stupid creature must have fallen in.
It was already late in the afternoon, the sun dropping, casting broad shadows through the swamp. To Carn, the day seemed to be slipping away too quickly, as if the Saints were eager to get him to Billycan’s side once more.
Cobweb and Montague went on their scheduled perimeter check, secretly meeting their new allies in the woods. Their parents had taught them which plants, berries, and roots healed, which ones came with lethal consequences, and which had valuable side effects.
The black, lacy bugbane was easy to find, much out of place against the drab greens and browns of the swamp. Carn sized up the bush. “So these black leaves, they’re supposed to disguise my scent?”
“Remarkably, no,” said Montague. “Look up top. See those long stems of ivory flowers? Those are the culprits. You’d think the leaves, black as oil, would be responsible for such a noxious scent, but it’s those little white beauties that emit the offensive odor.”
Cobweb disappeared into the sprawling bush, making the black leaves dance as he headed into the center of the plant. Once inside, he went for a core stem, pulling down a long stalk of white flowers. “There, you see?” he said, holding out the bell-shaped shoot. “Beautiful to the eyes, but lethal to the nostrils. Flies actually pollinate the flowers. I suppose bees have enough sense never to go near the vile things.”
Carn and Oleander sniffed the delicate blossoms. Oleander quickly covered her nose. “The smell of death!” she exclaimed. “It’s positively revolting!”
“We’re going to use only enough to mask Carn’s scent,” said Cobweb. “Granted, he won’t smell good, not by
stretch of the word, but not as bad as these reeking blossoms.”
“I don’t care what I smell like,” said Carn anxiously. “I just can’t be recognized.”
“Now we’ve got to find one other ingredient to complete our
ruse,” said Montague. “After that, Billycan won’t stand a chance of detecting you.”
“What other ingredient do we need?” asked Carn.
“Elephant ear,” said Montague.
“Yes,” said Cobweb. “It’s a plant.”
“What does it do?”
“Well, if you’re not careful, it may very well kill you.”
The elephant ear did the trick. It was odd vegetation for the rugged swamp—huge, billowy leaves bordered in green, with a burst of dazzling red radiating from their centers, a tropical beauty against the commonplace bushes. As stunning as the plant was, it was equally lethal, so much so that Cobweb instructed Carn to take just one small bite, chew it up, and then quickly spit it out. Swallowing could result in his throat completely constricting, strangling him.
Within moments of chewing, Carn’s snout, mouth, and tongue began to swell, rapidly distorting his features. His agreeable face warped into a globular nose, puffy gums, and an enlarged tongue that barely fit in his mouth, altering his speech into something so bumbling that Carn surmised even Stono would sound clever in comparison. “It burns,” he muttered nasally.
“Sorry for that,” said Montague. “You’ll have to get used to it.”
“Now listen closely,” said Cobweb. “Montague will sit to the left of Billycan, with you on Billycan’s right. I’ll sit next to my brother, with an extra dose of this under my seat.” He waved a leaf of the plant. “If the effects begin to wane, they’ll wear off quickly, so we all must stay alert. If we don’t pay attention, you’ll transform from Corn back into Carn right before his eyes.”
Carn began to shake. At that moment reality sank in: he would be sitting next to Billycan, able to smell him, hear his jarring voice, and feel the cold breath pushing out from his throat. “What if it doesn’t work?” He began to pant. “What if he sees through my disguise?”
“Carn, you must collect yourself,” said Mannux decisively. “Between your smell and that ridiculous mug, Billycan will never know who you really are. Trust me, to him you’ll just be another one of us—a lowly swamp rat.”
From the fringes of the plantation, the feast took on the appearance of a heathen ritual, the sizzling boar a sacrifice to the disciples’ pagan gods. The lawn around the manor was lined with crooked torches, gashing the darkness like flaming bayonets.
A swamp rat with tattered owl feathers dangling from its ears thumped steadily on an otter-skin drum dragged up from the manor’s cellar. Its primordial beat knitted its way through the network of cypresses, swiftly sending the other creatures of the swamp to their nests and burrows.
The horde flocked around the flaming razorback in a wide circle, barely able to contain their excitement, pushing each other playfully and giggling with childish delight. They eyed the funeral pyre hungrily, their mouths dripping with spittle, the thought of fat, fleshy pig almost too much to bear.
A young male, agitated by the boar’s smoky scent, came too close to the blaze. The horde laughed dizzily as the rat’s tail ignited, their teeth glinting like a pack of underworld hellhounds. The screaming rat flew to the pond, diving in rear-end first, quashing the flames that had swallowed his tail. The horde fell clumsily on each other, slap-happy with merriment.