Epilogue III - Requiem for the Last Rat
Grayfoot was surprised to see the rat enter his tavern.
The rodent stood just inside the front door for several moments, apprehensively glancing about the large room while his eyes adjusted to the dimness. The tavern was empty except for a mole and a hedgehog who sat together chatting at a corner table. They too had looked up upon the rat's entrance, but at the barest hint of a nod from the ferret behind the bar, they returned to their private, muted conversation.
This seemed to relieve the rat, who made his way across to the counter and helped himself to a stool. Everything about his behavior suggested a secretive anxiety, a covert wariness that went far beyond the usual caution of a beast entering an unfamiliar establishment for the first time. Well, Grayfoot said to himself, if their positions had been reversed, he'd be paranoid too.
The ferret could tell from the newcomer's dress and manner that he was a woodland rat, which was after all the only kind one would expect to see in this part of Mossflower. Grayfoot got on well with woodland rats - at least, they'd never given him any trouble, and their patronage was as good as anybeast's. He would offer his best services to this one, however meagre those might be.
Grayfoot finished polishing the newly-washed tumbler in his paws and slid it into the tray with its fellows. "We don't get many rats in here nowadays," he remarked, his tone conversational.
The rat scowled. "That s'posed to be a joke?"
"Yes," Grayfoot replied mirthlessly, "but not a very funny one, I'm 'fraid."
The rat said nothing else for awhile after that, wordlessly looking the ferret barkeep up and down in appraisal, trying to decide whether to count him as enemy or ally.
"What brings you here?" Grayfoot prompted at last.
"Got nowhere else t'go," the rat replied morosely. Grayfoot gave a sage nod, mulling over the multiple levels of meaning in that simple statement.
"That's true enough. Y'know, officially, I'm supposed to report you."
The rat's eyes went wide, his whole body stiffened, and Grayfoot could almost hear the blood turning to ice in the rodent's veins.
"Are y'gonna?" he croaked from a dry throat. "Turn me in?"
"I might just not," Grayfoot answered coolly. "I'm not in the army anymore. I'm not bound to follow orders I don't happen to agree with."
That seemed to soothe the panicked rodent, if only a little. Beads of perspiration stood out on the fur of his brow. "You knew the badger, before he came to Mossflower?"
Grayfoot nodded. "I was one of his captains, up in the Northlands. Before I was made to retire."
"Why? Wasn't you any good?"
Grayfoot gritted his teeth, and his paw almost went for the scimitar he kept under the counter. Almost, but not quite. His seasons as an innkeeper had mellowed him since his fighting days, as had his wife and son, and he was not as quick to take mortal offense as he once was.
"Yeah, I was good," he growled. "One o' the best."
"So, what happened?" the rat asked, striving to sound more friendly.
"It was decided," Grayfoot adopted the tone of reciting an official mandate (which he was), "that I would serve a greater good by gettin' married, startin' a family, and coming down here to run a respectable tavern, as living proof to the folk of these parts that not all so-called vermin were bad sorts. So, here I am."
The rat glanced around. "Nice place you built fer yerself 'ere. Never been inside before, m'self."
"Used to be an old abandoned church on this lot. Burned down seasons ago. It was the perfect site fer a roadside waterin' hole. Speakin' of which, can I get you anything? You sound a little parched."
The rat held out his paws in a helpless gesture. "Can't pay you anything."
"Didn't expect you could. Not t'worry, this one's on me ... " Grayfoot poured a tall tankard of cool ale and set it before his thirsty patron. After a moment's embarrassed hesitation, the rat hoisted it and quaffed half the ale in one straight glug. Licking his foam-tipped whiskers, he sat staring at the tall tumbler.
"T'weren't ever no money in Mossflower 'fore that badger came. We'd barter bits o' goods, things we'd have that other beasts could use. But never any money."
"Things are changing," Grayfoot agreed. "But then, I guess I don't hafta tell you that, do I?"
The rat took another long draught from his tankard, imbibing the ale at a more leisurely pace now that his immediate thirst had been quenched. Grayfoot stood back and let the brew have its calming effect, leaving it up to the rat to resume the conversation if and when he wanted to.
"Slaves!" the rodent spat after a long silence. "They're roundin' us all up an' sendin' us off to be slaves!"
"Do tell," Grayfoot prompted.
"You musta heard all 'bout it yerself," said the rat. "It's that treaty the badger made with the searats - the one that's s'posed to bring peace to all th' lands. Searats had to free all their woodland galley slaves, an' in return the badger'd send all us land rats their way. It'd be one big rat nation, rulin' the seas an' part o' the coastlands. Us an' all other creatures livin' apart from each other, rats in one place an' everybeast else in another."
Grayfoot stood silently behind the bar, offering neither confirmation nor an opinion on the matter.
"Do I look like a searat to you?" the rat exploded. "I'm a woodsbeast, much as any mouse or mole, an' that's all I've ever known! Mossflower's my home. I ain't never caused nobeast any trouble ner hurt. What right's that big brute got t'turn honest creatures outta their family homes an' force 'em t'go someplace they don't wanna?"
He was nearly in tears of frustration now. "What do I know about searats an' their ships? Nothin', that's what! So what good would I be to 'em? Good fer one thing only, an' that's to be an oarslave in one o' their rowin' galleys, or forced labor on one o' their sea island compounds. That's where we're all endin' up - chained beasts o' burden, livin' in our own filth. I don't know what kinda opinion you got 'bout us rats, but I ain't never lived in my own filth, an' I don't plan on ever startin'! I'll die first!"
"It might just come to that," Grayfoot said solemnly.
The rat stared down at his drink. "Yeah ... I know ... "
The mole and hedgehog at the corner table had cut off their discussion at the rat's outburst and now sat gazing his way. They awaited only Grayfoot's cue to step forward and play their part in this drama.
The rat turned an imploring stare to the ferret. "You gotta help me!"
"I'm not in much of a position fer that, friend. But I do know a place you can go where you'll be safe: Redwall Abbey, half a day's march north of here."
The rat waved a dismissive claw. "Nah, that's no good. Some o' my friends tried to make it there, an' none got through. Them squirrel archers got all the approaches to th' Abbey cordoned off tight, an' they'll catch anybeast tryin' to sneak there through the forest. An' I'll be seen if I take the road. Redwall might's well be on the other side of the ocean fer all the chance I'd have of makin' it there wi'out gettin' captured."
Grayfoot could well appreciate this aspect of the rat's dilemma. The Gawtrybe squirrel archers who'd been reassigned from Salamandastron to help patrol Mossflower were not officially part of the badger's army, but they were his sworn allies, and they observed that alliance with fanatical dedication. So, when the orders had gone out to remove all rats from Mossflower country, those treebeasts had become the primary instrument for enforcing that edict, scouring these forestlands like a living net to root out even the most secluded pockets of ratdom for eviction. For most of a season they'd been carrying out this campaign with ruthless efficiency. Rats were now few and far between in this region, and any who remained were outlaws by sheer virtue of the fact that they happened to be rats.
A few had found sanctuary at Redwall - a situation resulting in no small amount of tension between the Gawtrybe and the Abbeydwellers - which was why the Gawtrybe were being especially vigilant against allowing anymore rats to reach that sanctuary. With those squirrels trolling these woods, it was whispered that the very trees had eyes and ears. It was hardly surprising that none of this rat's friends had made it through.
What was surprising was that he'd made it to Grayfoot's tavern himself. "You took a pretty big risk comin' here," the ferret said. "I had some Gawtrybe stationed right under my roof this past fall and winter, before they built that place of their own. They still stop by fer refreshment now an' then. You coulda run right smack into a whole patrol of 'em."
"Yeah, I know they come 'ere a lot," the rat nodded. "That's why I figgered they wouldn't be keepin' too close a watch on this place. I been layin' low in th' bushes since dawn, waitin' t'make sure there was none o' them red-furred devils about. Didn't think they'd likely be loiterin' around a tavern at mid-morning, not when they still got honest rats to harass, so I made my break an' got my tail in here fast as I could."
"I guess you weren't seen," Grayfoot mused. "Otherwise, you'd be in their custody by now."
"Y'gotta hide me!" the rat pleaded. "You got lotsa rooms upstairs, an' a place like this's gotta have a big cellar fer alla yer drinks. I c'n work fer my keep. Please, lemme stay here."
Grayfoot shook his head. "Sorry, no can do. It ain't that I don't sympathize, mind, but if the Gawtrybe catch me harboring a fugitive they'll take this tavern right away from me. I'd be lucky not to end up in chains an' shipped off to the searats myself. I got a family to support - I can't take that kinda chance."
The rat's face clouded over with anger. "Then what good are you?" he spat.
Grayfoot moved like brown lightning. In the blink of an eye his dagger was out of its sheath at his waist and quivering point-down in the countertop a whisker's breadth from the rodent's resting paw.
"I'm good fer not pinning yer ungrateful claw to my bar an' holdin' you here while I raise the alarm. I'm good fer lendin' you a sympathetic ear an' free use of a tankard of my best ale. An' I'm good fer offerin' you whatever advice I can safely afford to. Now, if I was you, I'd learn how to recognize a friend when you meet one, 'cos you got precious few of 'em these days."
The rat timidly withdrew his paws into his lap, while Grayfoot yanked free his blade and replaced it in its sheath. "Sorry," the shaken rat muttered, "but I'm at my wit's end, an' I don't know what I'm gonna do or where I'm gonna go ... "
"If you can't make it to Redwall," suggested Grayfoot, "try for the Western Plains. The Gawtrybe can't cover flatlands as easily as they can the forests, and as long as you steer clear of the badger's shrews, you should have a chance. I know some rats have gone that way. Mebbe you could meet up with 'em."
"I heard that too," said the rat. "But nobeast knows what's happened to any who've set out fer th' Plains ... "
"Not necessarily a bad sign. If the rats who went there have successfully hidden themselves, you'd not expect t' be hearin' back from 'em."
"Yeah, I guess ... " The rat shook his head as if he might be able to rouse himself from the nightmare in which he was mired. "How'd we ever get to this, mate? I mean, us rats've never been th' most noble or privileged of creatures, or the luckiest, or whatever you wanna say 'bout us. A few of us've caused goodbeasts strife down through the seasons, but most of us just wanna live an' let live, y'know? Nobeast deserves what we're goin' through now. How did this all come to happen?"
"Urthblood happened," Grayfoot responded simply.
"I mean, how'd you feel if'n it was ferrets gettin' rounded up an' shipped off, instead o' us rats?"
"I imagine I'd feel much the same way you feel now," Grayfoot admitted. He glanced at the smoked windows, and guessed it was close to noon. "If you want, you can stay here 'til nightfall, tho' I can't guarantee we won't get any Gawtrybe droppin' in before then, an' if that happens then I gotta give you to 'em. Your choice, friend."
"Better not - think I've pushed my luck far as it'll go. No use hangin' round askin' fer trouble. Uh, I don't suppose I could ask you to take a look outside t' see if'n the coast's clear?"
"That I can do fer you, an' more too." Grayfoot gave a wordless paw gesture to his two companions, who immediately sprang up from their seats in the corner. The hedgehog made a beeline for the front door and exited; a wedge of the late-morning brightness spilled into the dim interior, briefly dispelling some of the gloom before the door closed again.
The mole, meanwhile, bustled into a back room, emerging moments later with a heavy pack and a folded travel cloak, both of which he presented to the rat.
"The pack's got two canteens full of water, as well as enough nonperishable provisions to last you a fortnight, if y'don't get greedy," said Grayfoot. "The travel cloak's woven through with gray, green and brown - excellent camouflage fer both forest an' plains. If you think you're in danger of bein' discovered, just lie flat with that cloak over you, an' you'll vanish like a hare gone to ground."
The rat gazed in befuddlement at the generous offerings. "Wait a sec ... these were all made up 'fore I even came in here." He gave Grayfoot a searching gaze. "You've done this before, haven't you?"
"Ask me no questions, rat, an' I'll tell you no lies."
The knife edge of menace in the ferret's voice warned the rat not to press the matter. "Um, yeah, uh, thanks. Thanks much, matey. I'll not ferget yer kindness ... "
"Actshully, I'd rather you did. Especially if any Gawtrybe ask you 'bout where you got all that."
The hedgehog ambled back inside and gave the all-clear. When the rat departed, he was alone. Grayfoot had done all he could; the rodent was on his own from the moment he set his claws outside the tavern.
"Think he'll make it?" the hedgehog wondered aloud.
"I'd like to think so," said Grayfoot, absently picking at the wound his dagger had made in the bar; maybe some dark polish would help cover the gouge. "But it's none of our concern any longer."
"Oi reckern 'ee moight be 'ee last ratter uz'll see in 'ere," the mole mused.
"That he might," agreed Grayfoot. "The way things're goin', he might be the last free rat left in all of Mossflower." He picked up another glass and started polishing it. "One thing's fer sure - won't be the same 'round here without 'em."
(Author's Note: I originally wrote "Requiem for the Last Rat" back in 2001 as a stand-alone story. This was long after I'd finished writing The Crimson Badger but still well before I would start work on The Shrew War; in fact, one of my aims for TSW was to fill in all the history since the end of TCB that had been implied in "Requiem." When I reached the end of this present novel and realized that I'd almost succeeded in this goal, and that TSW was going to have a multi-part Epilogue, I decided to tack on this short fic as the concluding coda of the novel, as a glimpse of where Urthblood's treaty with Tratton would lead. If I ever get around to writing the third novel in the Urthblood Cycle, its main focus will be the Purge of the Rats, just as TCB focused on the conflict between Urthblood and Urthfist, and TSW focused on Snoga's spree of violence and how it wove into the larger conflict between Urthblood and Tratton.)