Gregor and the Code of Claw
The stunned silence in the arena was broken by Lizzie's squeal of joy, "Ripred! Ripred!" She pushed her way out of the crowd and threw her arms around his neck. "I thought you were dead."
"I told you, it takes a lot to kill me. More than a few bugs, anyway," said the rat.
"But they found your skeleton," said Lizzie.
"That must have been Cleaver's. I dove under his body as soon as we landed and then ran. The mites had to chew him up before they got to me so it bought me some time. Not a lot, but enough to get away. Funny, I always despised Cleaver, but I can't help thinking warmly of him now," said Ripred.
"How did this happen?" asked Lizzie, reaching up to lightly touch the new slash on his face.
"Oh, a rat cut me. It's nothing. Now up you go." He nudged Lizzie up onto a patch of fur on his back.
"I'll hurt you," she said.
"No. You'll remind me why I'm here," said Ripred, and locked eyes with Luxa.
"And why is that, Ripred?" Luxa said icily.
"I told you. To speak for the gnawers. Or did you think I spent years risking life and limb so that you could dictate our future?" asked the rat.
Now the creatures in the crowd found their tongues, and everyone was turning to their neighbor in either dismay or confusion. Most of the rats had long considered Ripred an enemy. And he'd been fighting with the humans and their allies for so long, even they'd begun to take his allegiance for granted. But taking Ripred for granted was a big mistake. Gregor had the feeling that he had always been working toward this moment. Maybe he hadn't expected to be dealing with Luxa, maybe he'd thought Solovet or Vikus would be there to negotiate with him. It didn't really matter who he was up against, as long as he stood for the rats.
Luxa raised her voice above the hubbub. "Is this true, gnawers? Does he speak for you?" The rats were clearly as amazed by Ripred's appearance as anyone else. They shifted around, whispering among themselves, trying to reach some kind of consensus.
Then a voice rose, clear and forceful, above the others. "Yes! I say he speaks for us!" Lapblood and her two children made their way out of the crowd. If Ripred had always been an object of suspicion, it was clear that Lapblood was trusted among her own kind. She had been chosen to find the plague cure and had had the influence to lead the dissenters against the Bane. A moment after her declaration, the rats united with her and began to call for Ripred to act as their representative.
Gregor could see the tension in Luxa's shoulders. It was hard enough to have to lay out the postwar plan in front of the entire Underland. But to do it with Ripred standing by to challenge her every move? Ripred? She was out of her league and she knew it. Who wouldn't be out of their league with Ripred?
To make matters worse, Nerissa suddenly cried out, "Oh, Luxa, see you the mark on his face?"
Luxa scrutinized the rat's face. "It is but another scar among many."
"But look! It forms an X! The mark borne by the peacemaker!" said Nerissa.
"Many of us have scars that cross!" York strode out of the crowd.
"Think of the words," said Nerissa. And the arena quieted to hear her recite the poem from the prophecy room in her quavering voice:
On soft feet, by none detected,
Dealing death, by most rejected,
Killed by claw, since resurrected,
Marked by X, two lines connected.
Finally, they intersected, two lines met, one unexpected.
"Do you not see?" insisted Nerissa. "It describes Ripred exactly. Slipping in undetected, deadly, hated, thought lost, but brought back to life. And the X! One half was given by a human. One half by a gnawer. Two lines intersecting. And now the human line and the gnawer line meet in the flesh as well. In Luxa and Ripred."
The arena went nuts but Luxa remained unmoved. She waited for the commotion to die down, then said, "Do you fancy yourself the peacemaker, Ripred?"
"Well, I don't like to blow my own horn, but it does make a lot of sense, what Nerissa's saying. And if I am, there's really nothing I can do about it one way or the other, is there?" said the rat.
Gregor could hear everyone murmuring to one another that this was true, that the prophecies were written in stone. But the rat was looking at Gregor, smirking and rolling his eyes ever so slightly as if to say, "See what I mean?"
While he had no way to prove it, Gregor was suddenly convinced that Ripred had given himself the second wound. It would be a small price to pay for being designated the peacemaker.
"Good. Then you should have no problem peacefully leading your fellow gnawers into the Uncharted Lands," said Luxa.
This surprised even Gregor, although in retrospect, maybe it shouldn't have. When she had started the war, Luxa had told Gregor, "We may as well get it over with. Have the war that will answer the question of who stays and who goes." But he had thought, with all that had happened during the war, that she might have changed her mind. Apparently not.
With her proposal, everything became ugly and hard.
"Yes, I do have a problem with that, Your Highness. So much so that I flatly refuse to do it," Ripred spat at her. "What do you say to that?"
"I say that you may go peacefully or by force; it is your choice!" said Luxa.
"If it is another war you are looking for, then believe me you shall have it!" growled Ripred. "But I wonder how you will fare, with your limping army and your broken city and me at your throat instead of your back!"
"I do not need you, Ripred. I have Gregor!" said Luxa.
"Do you? I wouldn't count on it. Even if he stays, I'll wager he finds your measures too harsh. Perhaps he will even remember past kindnesses and take my side instead!" retorted Ripred.
Gregor's mouth dropped open in disbelief. What were they talking about? What were they both doing? Could they actually be going back to war? And did they plan for him to join them?
"We will leave it to him to decide," Luxa said, and then turned to him. Everyone in the whole arena turned to him, wanting to know where he stood.
"You're really going to do it, aren't you? You're really going to go back to war?" Gregor said. He could feel something boiling up inside of him. "So, we'll just forget about what happened. The jungle, the Firelands, the Bane." His voice was rising and he could feel the rager side of him taking over. "Forget about everybody who's dead! Tick and Twitchtip and Hamnet and Thalia and Ares! And your parents, Luxa! And your pups, Ripred! Let's just forget about everybody who gave their lives so that you could have this moment where you could — could make things right again! So you could stop the killing! We were fighting for the same thing, remember? You two owe each other your lives! You owe me your lives! And now you stand there and ask me to choose between you? To help you kill each other?" Gregor yanked Sandwich's sword from his belt and swung it so violently that even Luxa and Ripred stepped back. "Well, guess what? The warrior's not fighting for either of you!"
And with that, Gregor took the sword blade between his hands and slammed it across his leg with such force that it snapped in two. He flung the pieces aside, one toward Luxa, the other toward Ripred. Fresh blood was running from his empty hands as he held them up. "There. The warrior's dead. I killed him."
"And so 'The Prophecy of Time' is fulfilled!" said Nerissa breathlessly.
Gregor shook his head. Would they never shut up about those prophecies? But he only said, "Whatever. Now what are you two going to do?"
"What, indeed, after such a display?" said Ripred to Luxa. "Although the boy does make a point about the perversity of starting a new war while the blood is still drying from the last one. Especially when the cutters are amassing at our borders." The crowd reacted, and Ripred circled around to make sure everyone could hear him. "Oh, didn't I mention that before? Now I'm not saying they're taking this opportunity to finish us all off, but you have to admit it'd be an excellent time. With them so strong, and us so. weak. Of course, if things were different between us ..."
"Yes, I see. We might deter them," Luxa said sharply.
"We have done it in the past," said Ripred.
"The past is gone. How do we know we can trust you now?" asked Luxa.
"Trust us? You just tried to banish us to the Uncharted Lands! I think if anyone needs a little reassurance, it's the gnawers!" answered Ripred. "So — I don't know, write up a treaty or something."
"No one trusts treaties. They go up in a flash," said Luxa.
"Then you decide, Luxa. Friends or enemies. Trust or no trust. Between you and me. Between our species. You decide how it is to be," Ripred said.
It was the moment of truth. Gregor could see Luxa's internal struggle playing out on her face. Flickers of Solovet's hardness interchanging with Vikus's desire for understanding. All of the old hatreds and sacrifices and debts and hopes swirling around inside her as she tried to decide the fate of the Underland. War or peace. Battle or compromise. Solovet or Vikus. It was the very decision that had destroyed Hamnet. Made him go mad, then flee, then die in battle.
Finally Luxa's expression solidified. "There will be no treaties," she announced. "They have always failed us in the past." Gregor's heart slammed somewhere down around his feet. But she had not finished.
"There will be no treaties!" Luxa repeated. "But I offer this." She stepped forward and raised her right hand to Ripred.
The crowd let out a gasp at what she was proposing. Even Ripred was initially taken aback. But he recovered quickly. "A bond?"
"A bond between all humans and gnawers. A vow to defend each other to the death. I offer it. Do you dare take it?" asked Luxa.
"Do I dare?" said Ripred. "Yes, I do." He lifted his paw up and pressed it against her hand.
After a moment, Luxa began:
Ripred the gnawer, I bond to you, Our life and death are one, we two. In dark, in flame, in war, in strife, I save you as I save my life.
To which Ripred replied:
Luxa the human, I bond to you, Our life and death are one, we two.
In dark, in flame, in war, in strife,
I save you as I save my life.
Then the rat dropped his paw and gave a big stretch. "Don't we get a feast now?"
"Let it be as he says," said Luxa. And the whole arena broke into cheers.
"Your grandpapa is going to be so proud of you," Gregor heard Ripred say to Luxa.
"And my grandmama is rolling in her grave," replied Luxa.
"She was always too hard to please," said Aurora. Luxa put her arms around her neck, and the bat enfolded her in her golden wings. "It was the best thing to do," Aurora said.
"If you think so, then I can survive it," answered Luxa.
"What about me? Don't I get a hug?" Ripred asked.
"Ugh, you are teeming with infection. Lizzie, get off of him before you catch something vile." Luxa lifted Lizzie off of Ripred's back. "You had best get to the hospital," she told Ripred. "And then I suppose we must meet to determine the specifics of this historic day."
Ripred sighed. "I suppose so. You and I seem to end up doing everything. Shall we say four members for each delegation ?"
"Why not?" Luxa said. "Four can be as stupid as ten. No need to crowd the room."
Ripred laughed. "You know, I think you and I are going to get on famously."
"And you, Overlander," said Luxa, turning to Gregor finally. "You are bleeding, too."
"Well... I did kill myself," Gregor said with a smile.
"I do not suppose we left you much choice," said Luxa. "Come, then. I will walk you two down to the hospital. I want the pleasure of telling Vikus what happened. I need one human to genuinely approve of what I just did."
"You've already got that," said Gregor. He collected the broken pieces of his sword and they headed for the hospital.
As they walked into Regalia, Luxa said, "You should have made that cut a little deeper, Ripred. It may leave no scar at all, and then where will our peacemaker be?"
Gregor laughed. Ripred hadn't fooled her one bit.
"I have no idea what you're suggesting," Ripred said loftily.
"Bet there aren't any cutters on the border, either," said Gregor.
"Well, there might be," said Ripred. "It's their border, too. And may I add that I think it's very ill mannered of you two to be doubting me. Particularly my new bond."
"I expect you will get used to it," said Luxa. The rat did not deign to reply.
Lizzie went with Ripred to be treated, but Gregor wanted to see Vikus first. The old man was sitting, propped up in bed. The right side of his body was impaired by the stroke. But his left eye brightened and his good hand reached out when Gregor and Luxa came in. Gregor clasped his hand with his bleeding one. "Hey, Vikus, how you doing?" Vikus couldn't really speak yet. "Look, I just wanted to return this to you." Gregor held up the pieces of Sandwich's sword and laid them on the bed. Vikus raised his eyebrow for an explanation. "Luxa and Ripred were recruiting me for a new war, this time against each other. So, I retired the warrior. Killed him off really."
Vikus's face was registering alarm.
"Do not worry," Luxa said. "Yes, Ripred is alive and leading the rats, but there is to be no war. Do you not wish to keep the sword, Gregor? For memories' sake?"
"No, thanks. I've got more memories than I can handle." Gregor removed Solovet's dagger from his belt and put it with the sword. "Besides, my mom won't even let me have a pocketknife," he said.
Vikus gave him half a smile. With great effort, he worked a word from himself. It was difficult to distinguish, but Gregor thought he knew what Vikus wanted to say. "Hope?" Gregor asked. The old man nodded and pointed at Gregor's chest. "I give you hope?" Vikus nodded. "Well... just wait until you hear what Luxa did." Gregor leaned down and kissed him on the cheek. "Take care, Vikus."
Gregor left so that Luxa could tell Vikus about what had happened in the arena. Besides, he was dripping blood everywhere. He found Ripred and Lizzie in a room. A team of doctors was trying to put the rat back together, putting his leg in a cast, cleaning and bandaging his mite-eaten flesh. For somebody who was so tough, Ripred was putting up an awful big fuss. But not as big as it would have been if Lizzie hadn't been comforting him.
By the time Howard had bandaged Gregor's hand, the meeting of the delegates was about to begin. Lizzie wanted to go to be near Ripred, so Gregor went, too, to keep an eye on her. It was held in a room with a large, round table. Gregor and Lizzie sat up against the wall, but four delegates of each species, humans, rats, bats, mice, spiders, cockroaches, and moles gathered around the table. There were twenty-eight in all, but it was soon clear that Ripred and Luxa planned on doing most of the talking. For a couple of characters who had just bonded, they sure didn't agree on much. Not land division, not restitution, not military control. Other voices chimed in and soon the conversation had moved away from the future and back to the past evils they had done to one another. Things looked like they might actually turn physical when Ripred jumped on the table and shouted, "Don't feel superior! Don't anyone in this room feel superior! We have all inflicted unspeakable evils upon one another! Let's admit that or we're just sliding backward!"
"Hey, like in the prophecy," interjected Gregor. "Time is turning back."
"Shut up!" Ripred spat at him. The rat climbed off of the table and no one knew where to pick up the conversation. Then Lizzie timidly spoke up. "I have an idea." She wasn't really supposed to talk, but everyone respected the code-breaker.
"I am sure we would all welcome it, Lizzie," said Heronian encouragingly.
"I think there are too many of you. I think each group should only get one delegate." Lizzie licked her lips. "And that that delegate should be chosen by the other species."
There was a long pause while everyone considered this. Of course, everyone liked the idea of choosing the others' delegates. But to let the others choose theirs ...
"We make no headway here. I believe we should give Lizzie's suggestion a try," said Luxa.
"Well, I'll just leave now, shall I?" said Ripred, giving Lizzie a wounded look.
"Oh, stop sulking! It is not as if I will be invited to stay," Luxa snapped.
"Well, I wouldn't vote for either of you," put in Gregor. They both glared at him but that only made him grin.
The delegates were chosen. The seven were Mareth, Nike, Temp, Heronian, Lapblood, Reflex, and a mole whose name no one could pronounce.
"Oh, look, all the reasonable delegates are left," said Gregor as he left with the rejects.
"All the weak ones, you mean," muttered a spider who Gregor didn't know.
Gregor looked into the room. "No," he said. "There's nobody weak in that room. Good luck, you guys." He took Lizzie's hand. "And good idea, Liz."
"It's kind of like the logic puzzle about the cheese. Only you turn it inside out. So there's one cheese and seven creatures have to share it. The trick is, you have to figure out who are the most likely to share," said Lizzie. Then she added sadly, "But now Ripred's mad at me."
"On the contrary," said Ripred, tugging on her braid. "Ripred's very cranky that no one voted for him, but very pleased that he can go to the feast now. Hop on," he said, and Lizzie scampered up onto his back. "It's ideal really. They will come up with a plan. No one will like it. Everyone will feel they have been treated unfairly, but will be happy that their neighbors feel the same. And that is the nature of compromise. Now let's go eat an awful lot."
Gregor and Luxa lingered in the hall as the others went to the feast.
"When must you go?" asked Luxa.
"My mom wants to go today. In a few hours, maybe," said Gregor. "My dad convinced her it was important for us to stay for the surrender. But she wants to get to Virginia as soon as possible." , They collected a basket of food from the kitchen, and Aurora carried them out of Regalia to Ares's old cave. Then she flew out around the lake, leaving them alone.
"We finally can have that picnic," said Luxa.
"Yeah," said Gregor. But neither of them could eat. They just sat with their arms around each other.
"Where is Virginia?" Luxa asked.
"A long way from New York. Hundreds and hundreds of miles," said Gregor.
"We shall never see each other again," said Luxa.
Gregor found himself wishing Sandwich had been able to cough up a few more prophecies about the warrior. "Probably not. Won't even be able to write."
"Will you be glad to be home?" asked Luxa.
"No," Gregor said. "I can't even imagine being back. Anyway, Virginia isn't my home. It's just a place I've visited."
"It will be easier for you. Here there will always be talk of you. In the Overland, who but your family even knows my name? And they will not want to dwell on your times here. It will be quite simple to forget me," said Luxa.
"Never," said Gregor. "I'll never get rid of you, no matter how hard I try." It was no longer an effort to say the words. "I love you."
"I love you, too," said Luxa.
And after that, there was nothing left to say.
Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. ...
In no time, horns were blowing from Regalia. Aurora fluttered in. "They are calling us back," she said.
Gregor had trouble believing it was really happening. The quick flight back. His family waiting on the docks, ready to go. His few possessions from the museum already neatly packed in a bag. There were hugs and good-byes but only Boots said, "See you soon," as she showered Temp with kisses.
Ripred made a point of giving Gregor some last-minute rager advice. "Watch yourself. That rager thing isn't going to magically disappear. It's part of you. There won't be anyone you can't take. And you've killed enough that you don't have to think twice to do it. Remember, it's a lot easier to lose your head than to keep it."
The words made Gregor's blood run cold. "I'll remember," he said. He'd better remember. Or who knows what he might do? "Run like the river, Ripred."
"Fly you high, Gregor the Overlander," said the rat, and then turned his attention to Lizzie, who was crying her eyes out.
Nike and Aurora flew his family and Luxa over the Waterway and dropped them at the stairway beneath Central Park. Gregor said good-bye to the bats, then held Luxa's hand while his dad pushed the rock aside. Cool night air rushed in.
"Come and look, just for a second," said Gregor. But Luxa would only climb up to where her head and shoulders were aboveground. It was a clear night. A few stars were visible and the moon was magnificent.
"This is where I will think of you," she said. "You know where I will be."
Gregor kissed Luxa good-bye and climbed out into the park. Then she backed down a few steps and they held each other's gaze until Gregor's dad slid the rock in place, parting them forever.