Gregor and the Code of Claw
Gregor knew he should rally at the words. Despite his wound, he should struggle to pull himself together, prepare to fight. At this very moment, the moles could be tunneling into the arena where the mouse refugees were recovering, or the nursery, or the very hospital room in which he lay. Behind them would come an army of rats to kill everyone inside the palace. He must be ready. So why wasn't he even trying to move?
He could blame the drug or the wound or sheer exhaustion, but an entirely new obstacle immobilized Gregor. Ever since he had been in the Underland, he had fought with the knowledge that he had been in the right. To keep the ants from destroying the plague cure, to stop the snakes in the jungle from killing himself and his friends, to free the mice from the rats. But he didn't feel right about what had just happened with the moles. Okay, a few hours ago he hadn't known who they were or what had happened to them. When he'd begun his spin attack, it was in self-defense. But now they were all dead. And if Vikus's story was accurate, the moles were the ones who had been in the right. Regalia was their land. The humans were invaders who had not even won in a fair fight. To make matters worse, the moles hadn't attacked Gregor at first. They had given him a chance to at least say where he stood. And he had stood with the humans. It was a terrible feeling, to be on the wrong side of what was right. Not with the rats — he still felt that after what he had witnessed in the Firelands he was right to try to protect the mice — but with the moles.... Of course, who knew what stories the rats might be able to produce to justify their own vicious behavior? The rats and the humans had been fighting so long; the list of atrocities on both sides was appalling. Gregor had felt above that somehow, until he had killed the moles.
When a nurse came in with pain medicine, Gregor couldn't swallow it fast enough. It was the ache in his heart that he most wanted to block out. But the oblivion provided by the drugs could last only so long. The next time he awoke, the floor of his room was covered with bandaged humans and bats on pallets. Even with his unique status as the warrior, Gregor was encouraged to move elsewhere in the palace if he could manage it. He was glad to get out of the hospital, where the moaning and blood were more than he could presently handle. Besides, he wanted to get back to the code room to see if they'd made any progress. He could tell by the number of wounded that things had been heating up. If they didn't break that code soon, they were all going to end up dead.
Using the walls for support, Gregor made his way down the halls toward the code room. Lizzie would certainly be there and, hopefully, Boots as well. He was grateful now that his mother had been moved to the Fount. She was just one less family member he needed to get out of Regalia.
His progress was slow. Every niche of the palace seemed packed with people. Not all of them were wounded soldiers. Whole families were camped out wherever they could find a spot. By bits of conversation he heard as he limped along, he found out that the rats had fought their way into the fields through the tunnels the diggers made. They were at the very walls of the city now. The people who lived in Regalia had all been ordered into the palace for their own protection. The Bane was even closer than Gregor had thought.
When he entered the code room, he found a small crowd eating a meal on the floor. Lizzie and Boots ran up and threw their arms around him.
"Hi, you! Hi, you, you, you!" said Boots. There was an apprehensive quality he had never heard before in her voice.
"You're staying, right? You're staying here now?" asked Lizzie, gripping his wrist tightly as if she was afraid he'd vanish on the spot.
"Sure, if you guys have got room for one more," said Gregor.
Then Luxa appeared in the arch to the rat room. She looked much better. Her skin had lost that hot red tone, and while she coughed occasionally, she seemed to breathe normally. Her violet eyes were tired but clear.
It was the first time he had seen her since he'd given her the picture. He'd thought he would feel uncomfortable, but all he felt was glad to be near her.
"You living here, too?" Gregor asked.
"I gave over my quarters to the injured. Ripred has been so kind as to offer Hazard and me the use of the rat room," Luxa said with a wry smile.
Aurora and Nike had moved into the code room as well and were sharing the bat quarters with Daedalus. And Temp was there, ever watchful of Boots.
"We are all here with the understanding that we must stay silently in our rooms or leave when the code team is working," said Luxa. "Ripred has made that very clear. But now we dine. Are you hungry?"
Gregor was. He sat down on the floor with the others and ate about a gallon of beef stew. Lately, he'd felt like some kind of predator, like a lion or something, that gorged itself and then didn't eat for a few days. The war had not been conducive to the three-meals-a-day schedule he'd been raised on.
Ares straggled in at some point. Gregor's hand locked on his bat's claw in their bond gesture, but they exchanged only a few words. Ares bolted down a couple of fish and went directly to sleep in the bat room.
Then Ripred came in and ordered everyone to bed for six hours of rest. The rat paid little attention to Gregor except to say, "We may need you on the field soon."
Luxa rose and reached down to help him to his feet. But once he was up, he didn't release her hands. In fact, he held on tighter.
"To bed!" said Ripred, bumping him in his sore hip with his nose.
"We will talk tomorrow," Luxa said.
The human room was spacious enough for two decent-sized beds. It also had a closet with a toilet and a basin with a faucet that provided cool water. Gregor found himself trying to approximate the bedtime routine they had at home. He and his sisters brushed their teeth, although they had to use their fingers. He made sure Boots peed one more time so she wouldn't wet the bed. Then he tucked his sisters in together.
"Tell a story about me," said Boots. She loved to hear about herself. He had a pretty big repertoire of Boots stories worked up. But he couldn't bring himself to tell some happy tale about Boots on the carousel, Boots at Halloween, Boots and the birthday cake. Everything was so awful. Reliving good memories required an emotional strength he lacked right now. What if he started crying or something? He'd scare her to death.
"Not tonight, Boots," said Gregor. "Tonight everyone has to go straight to sleep." He kissed them both on the foreheads.
"I'm glad you're here," Lizzie whispered.
"Me, too," said Gregor. He climbed into the second bed and shifted around to find the least uncomfortable position for his hip. It hurt, though. And he had eaten too much. And he was more worried than sleepy. He lay there for more than an hour before the sound of his sisters' breathing lulled him into a sort of doze.
"Gregor. Gregor," he heard his mom's voice calling his name, and sat straight up before he remembered his hip. His hand pressed on the wound, as if that would stop the throbbing, and he looked around. No, of course his mom wasn't here. And even if she were, her voice wouldn't sound like it had in his dream. Calm, and in control, and like a mother. Oh, how wonderful it would be to have a parent who was in charge again, who could protect him, who could tell him what to do. He knew his parents loved him and were doing their best. But the closest thing his family had to a parent at the moment was Gregor. He glanced over to check on his sisters and saw that Lizzie's half of the bed was empty. Now where could she be at this hour? Probably working on that code. Gregor was just about to go find her and make her get some sleep when he heard a voice.
"Better now?" It was Ripred.
Gregor had shut the curtains to the human room at bedtime but left about an inch open so the torchlight from the main room could shine in. He didn't want his sisters waking up in total darkness. Now he shifted around on his bed until he was able to see Ripred through the crack. The rat was curled up on his side on the floor. Huddled in the curve of his body was Lizzie.
"Yes. I feel better next to you. You're so warm," said his sister.
"Slow, deep breaths," said Ripred, and Gregor knew Lizzie must have been having another panic attack. But why hadn't she come to him? Why had she gone to Ripred? "Want to try a few more math problems?" the rat asked.
"No," said Lizzie. "Just want to sit here." . Gregor didn't know what was stranger: to see Lizzie, who jumped at her own shadow, snuggled up against a giant rat, or to see the untouchable Ripred, who seemed to loathe almost everyone, who always slept alone even when other rats were available, comforting his little sister.
"How did she die? The one who was like me?" Lizzie asked. What was she talking about now? How did who die? When had Ripred known someone like Lizzie before?
"Silksharp. At the Garden of Hesperides," said Ripred.
"I know about that. Gregor told me. The dike broke and there was a big flood. So she drowned?" asked Lizzie.
"I tried to get there." Ripred shook his head. "Too late."
"And your wife? And the other pups?" asked Lizzie.
"Lost them all. All gone. No chance to even say good-bye." There was a long pause, then the rat continued. "I went off alone for months. I wanted to die. I tried to. But it takes a lot to kill me."
Gregor's fingers dug into his blanket as he tried to incorporate what he had just heard into his idea of Ripred. Wife? Ripred had had a mate. Pups? He had been someone's dad. One of his pups, Silksharp, had been like Lizzie. And he had lost all of them when Hamnet had broken that dike. But Hamnet had been one of the few people who Ripred didn't loathe. When he had shown up in the jungle, why hadn't Ripred ripped his throat out? Because he knew Hamnet had not intended to break the dike? Because he had seen him trying to save the victims from the flood? Or did he simply think Hamnet had suffered enough?
"So you came back," said Lizzie.
"I couldn't stand it. The thought that they had died and nothing was to come of it," said Ripred.
Through the curtain, Gregor could see that Ripred's head had sunk down onto his front paws. His eyes were closed. Lizzie's hand reached up and she stroked his ears. "And that's when?" she said softly.
"Yes. That's when I decided it all had to change," Ripred whispered.
Lizzie wrapped her arms around Ripred's neck and pressed her head against his. In a few minutes, they had both fallen asleep.