Gregor and the Code of Claw
Gregor just stared at her as his options flipped through his head. Run. Fight. Laugh. Protest. Act offended. Lay his cards on the table. Do nothing.
Do nothing won out.
"I cannot afford to have you running off on any more picnics," said Solovet. "Come to see me in an hour. We will discuss your future then."
She walked off, leaving Gregor with the two formidable soldiers. He sized them up and determined it had been a good decision not to start a fight. They were tall with rippling muscles and hardened looks on their faces. Solovet's men through and through. Gregor had no idea if he would have stood a chance against them if they had all drawn their weapons. Maybe, if his rager side kicked in. When Gregor became what the Underlanders called a rager, he transformed into an accurate and deadly fighter. But he could never count on that happening. Better to be on good terms with his guards.
"Cookie?" said Gregor, holding out the package. They both shook their heads no. "Well, my sister will want some. She's probably with the mice. Come on. This way." Gregor gestured for them to follow him and started for the old nursery. He limped a lot, to show his knee was really badly injured and there was no way he could run. "Now what?" he thought. "How on earth am I going to lose these guys?"
He took his time getting up to the nursery, hoping for some brilliant plan to strike him like a lightning bolt. None did. He was just going to have to do his best with whatever circumstances he found.
The nursery was in an almost deserted wing of the palace. As far as he could tell from the glimpses he caught through doorways, most of the other rooms in the hall seemed to be used for storage.
A warm light shone out of the nursery door. He stepped inside and heard a pleased squeak. "Gre-go!" Boots ran over and flung her arms around his knees. He set the box down and lifted her up into his arms for a real hug.
"Hey, Boots," he said, pressing his face into her curly head. She smelled like an herbal bath and milk and her own sweet self. It was a comforting smell, and for a minute, he almost felt okay. Then he caught a glimpse of the stone turtle at the far end of the room, its face in a vicious snarl. "What's going on?"
"I helping Dulcie take care of the baby mouses," Boots said. She pointed over to the alcove where the nanny, Dulcet, had made a nest out of blankets. Dulcet sat among the blankets now with the six baby mice crawling around her.
Cartesian, the adult mouse Gregor had brought back from the Firelands, lay in the nest as well. Both of his front legs were in casts. He was still very weak. But he looked far better than he had when Gregor had first seen him, left for dead at the base of a cliff, surrounded by scores of mice who had not survived the fall. One of the baby mice climbed up on Cartesian's back. It must have hurt, but he made no move to stop it.
"Greetings, Gregor," said Dulcet. She raised her eyebrows slightly. "I see you have brought company."
Gregor looked behind him and saw that Horatio and Marcus were standing on guard at the doorway. "Yeah, these are my new bodyguards."
"Horatio, Marcus, would you mind very much standing outside of the door? I am afraid you may frighten the nibbler pups," said Dulcet.
"We have orders to attend the Overlander at all times," said Horatio doubtfully.
"I promise he shall be safe in my hands," said Dulcet with a laugh.
For a moment, Horatio's face lost its hard edge, and Gregor realized he had a soft spot for Dulcet. "Man," he thought. "Is it that easy for people to tell I like Luxanow?"
"I suppose we may risk standing outside of the door," conceded Horatio. "Come, Marcus."
"Thank you, Horatio," said Dulcet. Gregor examined her face for any sign that she returned Horatio's feelings. She didn't. Or else she was just a lot better at hiding it. He wondered briefly if he might be able to get her to distract the guards while he sneaked through the turtle shell, but then abandoned the idea. He didn't want to get Dulcet in trouble with Solovet. Somehow, he was going to have to get her out of the nursery before he made his escape. Boots got down and climbed into the nest. "I rock the babies." She picked up the nearest mouse pup and cradled it in her arms. It let her rock it for a bit, then wiggled free, placed its front paws on her shoulder, and played with one of her curls. Boots giggled. "Mouses like my hair."
Gregor squatted beside the nest and stroked one of the velvety pups. "Do you remember me?" he asked Cartesian. The mouse had been either so delirious or so heavily drugged in the Firelands that Gregor didn't think he'd made much of an impression. But he was wrong.
"You are the warrior," said Cartesian. "Yes, I remember you. Have you any word of our friends in the Firelands?"
"No, Mareth said they sent two divisions to help. Haven't heard back yet," said Gregor, not letting himself imagine what might be happening on that battlefield now. "Do you know these pups?"
"They are my sister's children," said Cartesian. "She felt they would fare better on the river than under the gnawers' control."
"She was right," said Gregor, remembering the mouse pups he had seen suffocating to death in the volcanic pit. "Did their mother —?"
"I do not know. I do not wish to speak of this before them," said Cartesian, indicating the pups with one of his casts. "They are beginning to understand English and they have enough fodder for nightmares already."
"I'm sorry," said Gregor, feeling bad he had even brought up the subject. "Hey, Boots, you want to give the babies a treat?"
Boots trotted over to the box with him and was delighted to find the cookies. She stuck one in her mouth right off. "Mmm," she said.
"Good, huh? Why don't you give one to everybody?" suggested Gregor. He piled cookies into her hands, careful not to remove the foil package from the box and reveal his travel supplies underneath.
"I have treats!" crowed Boots, spraying crumbs everywhere. She excitedly passed around the cookies to everyone in the nest.
The pups made happy smacking sounds as they munched away on the cookies. Gregor plastered a smile across his face as he watched the scene, but inside his mind was racing. "I've got to get out of here. Now!" he thought. Ares was probably flying around the Spout at this moment. But how could he get everybody out of the room? Suggest a visit somewhere in the palace? That would be weird because Cartesian couldn't travel far with those legs. Pretend to accidentally knock over a torch and start a fire? No, bad idea. That would only bring in more people. And if the fire got out of hand someone could get hurt. The babies might get scared and try to hide and — wait! That was it!
"Who wants to play a game?" asked Gregor, clapping his hands for attention. The pups did seem to understand that much, because they gathered around him, hopping up and down expectantly.
"Me! Me!" said Boots.
"What should we play, Boots?" asked Gregor. Boots could almost always be counted on to pick one game.
"Hide-and-seek! Hide-and-seek!" she squealed, and Gregor exhaled in relief.
"All right, great. Hide-and-seek. Do the mice know how to play?" he asked.
"Oh, yes," said Dulcet. "We have played many times in here. You will be hard-pressed to find a hiding spot they have not already discovered."
"That's no good. Maybe we could use some of the other rooms out in the hall," said Gregor.
"Yes, I had considered that, but with only myself to watch them I felt it too unmanageable," said Dulcet.
"Perhaps with you and Cartesian here, we could do it. I know they are becoming bored with this room."
"Sure, I'll help," said Gregor. "Wait, let me take this thing off." He removed his sword belt and set it on the box. It was hard, letting go of his weapon.
"Oh, and we have Horatio and Marcus!" said Dulcet. The guards were in the doorway the moment they heard their names. "We are to play hide-and-seek. Can you help us?"
The guards did not want to at first, but soon Dulcet had them positioned at either end of the hallway. That way, the others could play the game using six rooms, but no one could leave the area without going by them. Or so everyone but Gregor supposed.
Gregor and Dulcet did a quick check of the rooms, but there was nothing particularly dangerous in any of them. A couple held old furniture. Blankets, baskets, and coils of rope were stored in some of the others. One had once been a bathroom, but there was no water flowing through it now, so it was more like a stone playground. Lots of good safe places to hide.
Cartesian hobbled out in the hallway to watch. First Boots was "It," then a couple of the pups, then Dulcet. While the others hid, whoever was It sat by Cartesian. He was in charge of making sure no one peeked, and he helped the little ones count slowly to twenty. Gregor went into the nursery twice, hoping for a chance to escape, but both times a mouse pup hid in there as well. Time was running out. The game would end soon. Even if Ares had managed to slip out of the hospital unnoticed, they might be looking for him now.
Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick ...
"Okay," Gregor announced at the end of Dulcet's round. "My turn to be 'It.'"
He placed himself as close to the nursery as he could, to discourage anyone from hiding there, covered his eyes, and began to count to twenty. "One, two, three, four ..." Gregor could hear the scampering of mouse feet, Boots's sandals, giggles, and hushed squeaks. No one hid in the nursery. "...eighteen, nineteen, twenty. Ready or not, here I come!"
Gregor surveyed the hall. Horatio and Marcus were in their places, arms crossed, eyes trained on him. He looked in one room, then pretended to hear something from the nursery and crossed into it. The second he was out of his guards' sight lines, Gregor grabbed the box and sword belt and sprinted for the stone turtle. He shoved his hand in the thing's mouth and found the latch that popped open the shell. He lifted it, quickly climbed inside, and closed it quietly behind him. Afraid any light might be seen shining from the turtle, he went down the first flight of steps in total darkness. There were still no footsteps from above. He pulled out a flashlight from under the cookies and snapped it on. "Go," he thought. "Go as fast as you can." His feet flew down the stairs. He didn't even try to be quiet anymore. Once he'd turned up missing, there'd be confusion, and then Solovet would have that room turned inside out until she found the stairway. He wished he could have kept the secret longer, for Luxa's sake, but it was for her sake that he had needed to use it.
At the bottom of the stairs, he almost ran into the second turtle, the one with the awful leer. As he opened the shell, he could barely make out the shouts coming from several floors above his head. He leaned his head into the damp air over the Spout.
"Drop, Overlander," he heard Ares say in an urgent tone, and Gregor jumped into the void. Ares caught him instantly and took off at warp speed.
"Barely got out," said Gregor, putting his box behind him as he fastened on his sword. "You?"
"The doctors gave me fifteen minutes to exercise over the river. That has long passed," said Ares. "They will be after us."
"Oh, yeah," said Gregor. "No one saw me go through the turtle, but they saw me go into the room. They'll find the passage now."
"Maybe this is a good thing. If all who know the secret should perish in the Firelands, someone should know of it," said Ares. "It may provide a means of escape if the castle is under siege."
"That's true," said Gregor, thinking of his mom and Boots.
Gregor immediately organized himself. He secured one flashlight on his left forearm with duct tape and hooked the other to his belt. The tape, batteries, shoes, water bottles, and remaining cookies went into the pink backpack. He stuck the chess set in, too, although he couldn't think what use it might be. Then he tossed the box into the darkness and flattened himself on Ares's back to provide as little wind resistance as possible.
Ares took a completely new route back to the Firelands. They did not fly through the usual wide caverns but through a series of smaller, twisting tunnels. At one point Gregor had to dismount so they both could squeeze through a crack in a rock wall. Then they took off down a whole new set of tunnels.
"How did you find this way?" asked Gregor.
"With Henry. We spent many hours finding alternative paths. It was essential, since much of what we did was unsanctioned," said Ares.
Henry was Luxa's cousin and Ares's old bond. He had betrayed them all to the rats on Gregor's first trip to the Underland. Neither Luxa nor Ares spoke about him very often. At first, Gregor had supposed this was because they now hated him so much. Later, he'd understood it was because they still loved him so much, too. When Henry came up, their voices would become tight, their eyes pained. That was the hard part. Still caring. Not being able to simply write Henry off.
"So this route is pretty safe?" asked Gregor.
"No one will find us," said Ares. "Sleep if you can."
Although Gregor didn't think he would sleep with his mind so full, he stretched out, anyway. But he must have still been really tired because the next thing he knew, Ares was waking him. They were back on the cliff overlooking the jungle where they had said good-bye to their friends a couple of days ago. The trip must have taken six or seven hours. Ares was beat.
"I must sleep," said the bat. "But it will not be for long."
Ares went right out while Gregor kept watch. He cleaned the water bottles and filled them at the spring. Put on his new shoes and laced them up. Practiced making cuts in the air with Sandwich's sword. What a weapon! It was almost as if he had only to think of a motion and the sword was already there. At first he gave the sword all of the credit. Then he realized he had to give himself some credit as well. Although he was in no danger at the moment, the rager sensation was humming quietly deep inside him. He stopped practicing and it turned off. He started practicing and it came back to life. Could it be that he was finally getting a small amount of control over it? The idea gave him confidence but it was tempered by the memories of past failures. Still, if he could learn to turn that rager switch on and off ... that would be amazing.
Ares awoke after a couple of hours. He caught a fish that they ate quickly. They both drank their fill at the spring.
"Ready?" asked Gregor. He tried to feel as impervious as the knight back in the Cloisters. . "Yes," said Ares. "I am ready for whatever lies ahead. Shall we go back to the Queen?" This is what the previous prophecy had called the volcano that had been the death of the nibblers. It was the last place they had seen both the mice and their rat captors.
"Yeah, let's start there," said Gregor, taking his place on Ares. Ares retraced their path back to the volcano, flying through the tunnels still covered in deep layers of ash. When they came out at the Queen, she was quiet. The mice and the little bat Thalia, whom Ares had laid to rest in the pit where the mice had died, had all been buried under the lava flow. There was no trace of them at all.
It didn't take Ares long to hone in on a destination. He jetted across the large cavern and into a long, low tunnel. Gregor's ears began to catch sounds as well. Screams, shrieks, metal against stone. The air thickened with dust.
Gregor drew his sword, wanting to be prepared for what awaited him. But as they burst out of the tunnel, he gasped and almost lost his grip on his weapon.
Nothing in his experience had prepared him for the sight of a battle between the humans and the rats.