Gregor and the Code of Claw
So Gregor sat and waited as the seconds went by. Not with the urgent ticks he had heard so often since the war began, but with slow deliberate ones that had long silences between them.
The code team continued decrypting messages. They couldn't afford to be idle no matter what the circumstances. Boots, who didn't really know what was going on, fell asleep on a pile of blankets. Temp and Hazard resumed their discussion in whispers. But Gregor, Ripred, and Vikus seemed suspended in time as they waited for word of the ambush.
"Maybe they missed them," thought Gregor. "Or there was a fight and Solovet, Marcus, and Horatio were able to hold their own and escape." Why not? They were on bats and were excellent soldiers. But whenever Gregor sneaked a glance at Vikus's ashen face, he felt that this would not be the case. He wished he hadn't said that thing about not liking Solovet. He didn't, though. How could he after her involvement with the plague and her throwing him in the dungeon, and Ripred's warning that she would never let his family go? In a way if she died it would probably be easier for Ripred to get his family home. Of course, if what -they had said about Luxa being in power after the war was true, Gregor was sure she would send his family home, no matter what her grandmother said. Wouldn't she? He was glad he still had Ripred's promise as a backup.
Solovet. No, he could not pretend he liked her. Still, there had been moments along the way when she had treated him decently enough. When he'd landed in Regalia she'd been the first person to reach out and touch him, taking his hands in a gesture of welcome that had felt genuine. She had protected him by insisting he be trained, and now he knew that if she hadn't he would be dead. And she'd given him her own dagger. He fingered the hilt guiltily, thinking of how she was under attack without it. At least he had tried to go after her, despite his feelings for her. He hoped whoever broke the news to Luxa would mention that. Maybe she wouldn't hate him quite so much.
After a couple of hours, Heronian said quietly, "We have received word. All three humans and their fliers were killed in the ambush."
Ripred ran a paw over the diagonal scar on his face. "Well, I have this to remember her by."
So Solovet had given Ripred that scar. When? During a war between the humans and the rats? During a sparring match they'd had for fun? Gregor thought about how Solovet had left all kinds of scars, on rats, on her family, on the Underlanders' frail attempts at peace.
Ripred turned to Vikus. "That's the way she always said she wanted to go."
"Fighting." Vikus's lips formed the word but no sound came out.
"Yes, fighting. Not on some sickbed but with her sword in her hand," said Ripred.
Gregor tried to think of something consoling to say to Vikus, but he was never good at this stuff. Howard was, Luxa was, but all of the words he came up with seemed trite and empty. It was even more difficult because while he knew Vikus must have loved Solovet — they'd probably been married for, like, forty years or something — he also knew they had fought a lot. Their ideas on how to handle problems were totally different: Solovet calling for force, Vikus for working things out. When he discovered his wife's role in the plague, Vikus had been crushed. But he must have loved her, because he was utterly stricken now.
Hazard came over and kneeled next to Vikus, slipping his hand into his grandfather's. Vikus gave it a squeeze but didn't say anything.
"Sorry about your grandma, Hazard," Gregor said. He could manage that. "You okay?"
"Yes. In truth, I do not know how to feel. Solovet rarely spoke to me. I don't think she cared for me. Perhaps it was because she and my father hated each other so much," said Hazard with his usual frankness.
The words were simple and without malice, but their effect on Vikus was immediate and devastating. Solovet and Hamnet. All of the awful family history between his wife and his son — the tragedy at the Garden of Hesperides, Hamnet's mad flight from Regalia, the anger that passed between them in the jungle, losing Hamnet not once but twice.
Vikus made a strange sound in his throat. His hand went toward his cheek, then fell to his side. "Vikus? You all right there?" Ripred asked. Vikus tried to answer but the words that came out of his mouth were thick and garbled. "Doctor!" Ripred called at once. "Get a doctor in here!".
Ripred continued to talk to Vikus, pushing his nose right up into his face, urging him to stay calm. In less than a minute a doctor had flown in, taken one look at Vikus, dumped something down his throat, and had him loaded onto a bat.
Hazard hung on the doctor's sleeve. "What's wrong with my grandfather?"
"He is having an attack. We must get him back to Regalia," said the doctor.
"Is he going to be okay?" asked Gregor. His voice sounded almost as young as Hazard's. Half of Vikus's face had gone slack and Gregor realized he couldn't move it. It was scary to see him like that. Gregor didn't want Vikus to leave him. He didn't want to lose the one Underlander whom he knew had always had his best interest at heart.
"We will do all we can," said the doctor, and the bat took off.
"A stroke," said Ripred. "I'm surprised it didn't happen sooner. This last year has been murder on him."
"Was it what I said? About my father?" Hazard asked worriedly.
"Goodness, no. It would have happened with or without your words. Now you go back and, I don't know, see if you can't help with the code, okay?" said Ripred. Hazard obeyed. When he was out of earshot, Ripred whispered to Gregor, "Probably not the best time to have brought up all that business with Hamnet. But he would have been thinking about it, anyway."
"People recover from strokes, though. Right?" Gregor asked.
"Some do. With time," said Ripred. He didn't seem to want to continue the conversation.
The cave seemed very vacant without Solovet and Vikus. "Now what?" said Gregor.
"Now I need a human who can command. Mareth's back in Regalia...." said Ripred. He sent for Perdita. When she arrived, he got right to the point. "Solovet's dead. Vikus is disabled. You just became the acting head of your army."
Perdita looked shocked and then conflicted. "There are others with more seniority."
"I don't want them. I want you," said Ripred. "I need someone we can all trust." Ripred began to go over the battle plan with Perdita, leaving Gregor to deal with the double tragedy on his own. First Solovet, then Vikus. Although Vikus might recover. If he didn't...Gregor's thoughts turned to Luxa again. He slipped the photo of them in the museum from his pocket and tried to think of happier times, but it was no good. He kept visualizing her face at the moment he had told them to lock her in the dungeon. He couldn't stand that being the last thing between them. He got a strip of code and asked Lizzie for a marker. She was writing with a quill and ink. "The markers all dried out," she said. She dug a red one out of her backpack. "You might get a few more letters out of this one. If you get the tip wet."
Gregor spat in the cap of the marker, closed it, and let it sit a minute. He would have to make his note short. He thought about writing it in the Code of Claw, but if the rats intercepted it, they would know it was broken. He settled on using the marks from the Tree of Transmission. That would make it seem a little more private somehow. After a couple of minutes he opened the marker and tested it. The results were faint but legible. He wrote:
/ \ |// \ / \ / | | | /. | \ / // /|.|// | / | \. | / / | | \. / / / \. | | / | / \ . / | | //. | \ / / | | \ \ \.
"Go ahead," he thought. "Write it. You'll be dead before she even reads it. And anyway, it's true."
/. |\ / | / / | | \ \ \. | | | / | / / / /.
The last few words were too hard to read. Gregor nicked his index finger on his sword and wrote over them with a thin, smeary line of blood. There.
It wasn't much of a letter. He felt stingy using just thirteen words. But even if he'd had boxes of markers, what more would he have said? Maybe explained better why one of them had to live. So both of them could. So one of them would remember the other as they went through life. That it wasn't going to be him, so it had to be her. And he had to be able to think of her growing up and doing things and someday being happy if he was going to be brave enough for his last moments with the Bane. Luxa was smart. She'd figure out what he meant. He hoped.
Gregor rolled up the message and gave it to Lizzie to deliver to Luxa in Regalia.
"Why don't you give it to her yourself?" asked Lizzie.
"Because she's really mad at me right now," said Gregor. "She'll read it, though, if she thinks it's from you. Besides, you'll probably go back before I do." Lizzie agreed to take it. Gregor wondered if Lizzie would hate him, too, when she found out he'd been lying to her all along about the prophecy.
Gregor announced he was going to practice some more and went back into the tunnel. Then he just lay down on the stone floor with his head propped against a rock. He didn't feel like sword fighting, so he turned off his flashlight and clicked. His echolocation ability was improving by leaps and bounds. He could see so much — the jagged edges of the ceiling, individual pebbles on the floor, even small details in the rough surface of the walls. He experimented using different sounds — coughing, humming, whistling. In a quiet moment, he realized that even the sound of his own breathing could send images back to him. He felt comforted, because that meant as long as he was alive he would be able to see.
His heart rate slowed and he dozed, slipping in and out of sleep, alternating between dreams and images of the tunnel. Fear crept into his dreams. He was lying helplessly on his back, when a rat appeared over him, then another, then he was surrounded by their faces. Gregor shook his head to awaken only to find he hadn't truly been asleep. The rats were still looming over him, and they were real.
Without even attempting to rise, Gregor yanked his sword from his belt and sliced the air over his body to protect it. The rats fell back, giving him a chance to spring to his feet. By this time his dagger was out and he was about to start killing, when the voice reached his brain: "Stop, Overlander!"
Gregor hesitated. He knew the rat's voice. It was higher-pitched than Ripred's rough growl. Female. But not Twirltongue's silver tones that had so easily led him astray. Twitchtip? No, she was dead. And this voice didn't belong on his voyage across the Waterway, or in the impossible twists and turns of the rat's maze. It came with memories of jungle heat and sweat and the smell of sweet deadly blossoms. He clicked and tried to focus in on the speaker. "Lapblood?"
"Yes, it's me. Put away your sword. We're not here to fight you," said Lapblood.
Gregor clicked again. The small pack of rats was hanging back, none of them in attack position. He slowly slid his blades back in his belt. Rat or no rat, he didn't think Lapblood would lie to him. Not after what they had been through together. Besides, if the rats had been after his blood, they'd have taken him on the ground. "What are you doing here?"
"We've come to join with Ripred against the Bane," said Lapblood. "I'm supposed to meet him now for our battle orders."
"For real? How many of you are there?" said Gregor. Echolocation was great, but he wanted to use his eyes again. He snapped on his flashlight, causing the rats to squint in the sudden brightness. "Sorry." He pointed the beam to the floor.
"There are a dozen of us here in the tunnel. But hundreds wait in the caves below," said Lapblood.
"Hundreds?" Gregor said. He knew Ripred had a small band of rats loyal to him in the Dead Land, but where had hundreds come from?
"Did you think every rat wanted the Bane for their leader?" asked Lapblood. "That we would willingly live under his rule?"
"Pretty much," admitted Gregor. "I mean, except for Ripred, we haven't seen a whole lot of resistance from you guys."
"Well, you're wrong," retorted Lapblood. "Many of us have no use for that bloodthirsty, twisted creature or the connivance of those who guide him."
"That's good to hear," said Gregor. He noticed two smaller rats crouched at Lapblood's side. They were too big to be called pups, but they weren't fully grown, either. "Are they ...?" He didn't want to say the names in case he was wrong. "Who are they?"
"Flyfur and Sixclaw. My children," said Lapblood.
The children she had gone to the jungle to save by finding the cure to the plague. Mange's children, too, then, although he had never lived to see them again. He'd been ensnared and eaten by giant carnivorous plants. But his pups had lived. Gregor peered closely at them. They stared back, scared but tough. "You look a lot like your dad," he said, and was surprised by the emotion in his voice, by how moved and glad he was that they'd survived.
"And your mother?" asked Lapblood.
It seemed like an eternity since anyone had asked him that. People avoided the topic of his mother's health in general, as if bringing it up was just a painful reminder of her sickness. But Lapblood knew better. "She's okay, I think. I mean, she was real sick from the plague, but she got better. Only last time I saw her she had pneumonia and they evacuated her to the Fount. It turned out to be a good thing, because the hospital at Regalia was so packed, but I haven't had any news of her since. Ripred says he'll get her home for me. After the war. Since I can't. Ripred says he will." Gregor realized he was babbling and pulled himself together. "Thanks for asking."
Gregor had a sudden impulse to touch Lapblood, to place his hand on her head and feel that silky fur again. But he knew that would seem weird, if not downright threatening, to the other rats. So he just headed up the tunnel. "Come on. Ripred's up here."
Lapblood followed him while the rest of the rats remained deep in the tunnel. This was just as well. Gregor was afraid the arrival of even one rat might start a panic attack in Lizzie. But she took her cue from Ripred, and he was pleased to see Lapblood.
"Good. You made it. How many do we have?" he asked her right off.
"At least seven hundred. Perhaps as many as a thousand," said Lapblood.
Ripred raised his eyebrows, a bit impressed. "That many? You've been busy."
"Where do you want us?" asked Lapblood. Ripred quickly gave her a time, position, and instructions. She nodded, turned to Gregor, and said, "Thank you for what you did in the jungle."
Gregor had saved her life, but Lapblood had saved Boots. "You, too."
Lapblood touched her muzzle to his wrist, then she was gone.
"Just another good-bye," thought Gregor. Another last time. But it was nothing compared to the ones he would have to face in the next couple of days.
Ripred ordered them all to bed. Gregor's slumber was deep and dreamless. He was awakened by Ripred's nose nudging his shoulder. Gregor rubbed his eyes and looked around. No one else was up. "Over here," the rat whispered, and Gregor followed him to the far end of the cave. "This is the day," Ripred said.
"The day I die," Gregor thought. But he only said, "So soon?"
"Yes. We have to move fast. But there's something I want to say to you in private," said Ripred. "It's regarding a certain line in 'The Prophecy of Time.'"
The warrior's death. "Here it comes," thought Gregor. He braced himself for the good-bye, but the rat's next words were something entirely unexpected.
"The thing is ..." said Ripred. He glanced around to make sure everyone else was still sleeping. "The thing is, I don't believe in Sandwich's prophecies."