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Sandy wasn’t so sure. On one hand, Mr. Honey assured her it was a good idea. On the other hand, he’d had a lot of bad ideas.
She slid out of bed and padded softly across the hardwood floor. This house was new, so the door didn’t creak as she opened it, nor did the stairs as she crept down to the ground floor. As she donned her shoes and coat, she paused to look back up at her parents’ bedroom door, which was across from hers. The light was off, the only sound emanating from it the gentle hum of the fan. She was good to go.
It was a moonlit night, which was good, since she hadn’t thought to bring a flashlight. Her shoes made harsh clopping sounds as she strode down the stone path to the garden. It sounded much louder in the cool night air. She was glad for the coat. Otherwise, she’d be shivering in her nightgown, and that was no state for a young woman on her very first adventure to be in.
A humanoid shape was faintly visible in the shadow at the edge of the forest. As she drew closer, she recognized it as Radagast. So Mr. Honey had been telling the truth after all! She now regretted not bringing her teddy bear along.
“Good evening,” said the human-sized rat, bowing low. He was dressed in a sharp red jacket with a train conductor’s hat and dark blue pants with a matching red stripe running down the side of each leg. “And where is your charming friend?”
“He won’t be joining us,” she said, proud to hear herself speaking like an adult. “He’s indisposed.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said the rat, offering his arm. “We shall see if we can keep you company until you reach your destination.”
“I am sure that will be most suitable.” She took his arm, and he led her off into the trees, down a path she’d never known existed.
“Where exactly are we going?” she asked.
“Oh now, we mustn’t spoil the surprise,” he said with a smile.
After a few minutes, a light became visible through the trees. As they drew closer, she realized that it was a train station with a bright red ten-car train at the ready. He led her up the stairs onto the platform. “Where is everybody?” she asked.
“They’re not coming,” he answered.
“Because they don’t want to.”
“Are they scared?”
“No. Just lacking in imagination.”
He led her to one of the cars and lifted her gently so she could reach the step. “All aboard!” he shouted, stepping up behind her. She entered the car and took her seat just as the train began to move.
There was one other passenger in the car, a young boy in blue pajamas curled up in the front row. She judged him to be a year or two younger than she was. He lifted his head as she sat down by the window a few rows behind him. “Hello,” he said. “Going to the North Pole?”
“No,” she said, surprised. “Is that where we’re going?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “They said they’d show me the most wonderful place in the world. I just figured—“
“Disneyland!” she interjected, suddenly excited. “I think that’s the most wonderful place in the world.”
“But that’s south of here,” he said. “We’re going east. At least I think we are.”
“But the North Pole isn’t east of here, either,” she said.
“Maybe we’re not going straight there.”
Their argument was broken up by the entrance of another rat. He was dressed like Radagast, although he was shorter and rounder and was pushing a cart piled high with sweets and pastries. “Anything for you two?” he asked in a high-pitched, squeaky voice.
They loaded up on sweets and pastries. The rat poured them both hot cocoa. They chatted as the forest sped by outside the window. His name, she learned, was Benjamin. He’d been invited on this journey by his pet rat, who’d promised him the adventure of a lifetime in exchange for his freedom. Sandy had heard about this from the rats infesting her cellar. Her parents had forbidden her to go down there, but one lazy afternoon, the temptation had proven overwhelming. All she’d meant to do was slip down there with a flashlight and have a look around. It was her house, after all, and who were they to tell her where she could and couldn’t go?
The instant she started down the creaky wooden stairs, she knew she’d made a mistake. The smell wasn’t just musty, it was foul, as if something was rotting down here. Her mother was in the garden, and had only to step back inside for a glass of water to realize that her daughter was not where she’d left her. She was about to turn and head back into the kitchen when a voice from somewhere in the darkness whispered her name.
“What?” she almost shouted. “Who’s there?”
“I won’t hurt you,” said the voice. “I just want to talk to you.”
“Who are you?”
“Just someone who lives down here. Close the door and come down the steps. You won’t need your flashlight. Just hold onto the rail.”
Her instinct for self-preservation told her to run, but something else grabbed hold of her. Who was this creature, and what was he doing living under her house? Her parents certainly hadn’t given their permission, and neither would she, if given the authority to do so. This thing, whatever it was, deserved a stern talking to.
Trying desperately to look more confident than she felt, she closed the door and started slowly down the stairs. It was pitch-dark. She waved her hand in front of her face, but not even enough light to illuminate that peeked through the crack underneath the door. The stairs creaked so loudly that she was surprised that her mother didn’t hear the sound and rush inside. Eventually, she reached the bottom. It occurred to her that her mother and father had set mousetraps down here after the move-in. She prayed she didn’t step on one.
A light went on overhead. It was a lone lightbulb on a string, and when she looked around for the person who’d pulled the chain, all she saw was an old wooden chair underneath the light with a rat in front of it, facing her.
“Have a seat,” it said.
Somewhat nervously, she accepted. She was about to ask what it wanted of her when he answered her question for her.
“I want you to deliver a message for me,” it said.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“My name is not important.”
“Yes, it is.”
“Okay, fine, it’s Bertram,” the rat responded. “And I want you to tell my friend Melvin that…”
She discussed the problem with Mr. Honey that evening, and he said not to worry. He’d known his share of rats, and while they weren’t always friendly, they didn’t ask for favors unless they really needed something done. All she’d have to do was hop on a train, tell Melvin, and head back. How hard could it be? And in the process, she was getting to enjoy a cozy train ride with an interesting boy and all the comforts the courteous staff could provide. All in all, she thought as she drained the last of her cocoa, it was not a bad deal.
“We’re here,” said Benjamin, looking out the window. The look on his face unsettled her. She turned around and had a look for herself. It was not what she expected.
It wasn’t a labor camp—not exactly, anyway. But it didn’t look pleasant. Rabbits, gerbils, hamsters, and small rodents of every kind except rat lined the streets of the town. It wasn’t accurate to call them “small” rodents, as they were all human-sized, but the ones that Sandy was used to having contact with all fit into the palm of her hand. Just as she was starting to wonder where all the rats were, a carriage rolled into view—pulled, oddly enough, by horses. It stopped in front of an old-fashioned manor, and before Sandy could see what happened next, the train pulled up at the station. The platform was crowded with rodents—rats included, although Sandy couldn’t help but notice that the rats were so much better-dressed than the other species.
The door at the front of the compartment opened. Radagast entered, this time dressed in an elegant black suit with tails, a top hat, and a cane. “Come, children,” he said, the tone of his voice less oily, more commanding than it had been before. “He is eager to meet you.”
“Who?” they asked in unison.
“The Mayor,” he said with a smile.
Instead of taking their hands, he led them off the train and through the station to the street, where a coach awaited them. A hedgehog held the door open for them.
“Thank you, Orson,” said Radagast, dropping a coin into the hedgehog’s outstretched hand.
“Anytime, sir,” said the hedgehog in a heavy Cockney accent. “Where’ll it be tonight?”
“The Mayor’s house, obviously,” said Radagast as he climbed inside. The children climbed in after him. Sandy leaned over to the window to get a look at the city, but Radagast drew the curtains just as the coach began to move.
The ride was quick, but fun. Sandy had always wanted to ride in a carriage, and here she was, feeling the gentle rocking of the cabin and listening to the clop-clopping of the horses’ hooves on the cobblestones. She smiled at Benjamin, but he did not share her mirth. What was wrong with him?
The carriage stopped. Orson opened the door for them, and they got out, finding themselves in front of the most magnificent house Sandy had ever seen. Four stories high, with a black metal fence encircling its perimeter and gardens so vast Sandy swore she could get lost in them. The architecture was, like the rest of the village, old-fashioned, and if Sandy had any doubt remaining that she had stepped into the world of one of those storybooks her father always read her, it was hereby eliminated. She was already conjuring up images of sweeping staircases, towering grandfather clocks, and majestic chandeliers when the front door opened and she found herself in a front hall that contained all three. “May I take your coats?” said a bespectacled mole. “The mayor awaits you.”
Up the stairs they went to a heavy oak door. The mole knocked, entered, and a moment later reappeared to invite them inside.
The office was spacious, but tidy. A short, stout rat in a smart blue suit sat behind a desk, rising to greet them. “Be seated,” he said with a smile. “I am Mayor Wilfred Kensington. You may call me Wilf.”
Sandy and Benjamin climbed into the high-backed chairs and faced him. Although they knew how exciting this was, neither could think of anything to say. Sandy had been so swept up in the excitement of travelling to a faraway place that she hadn’t realized that there wasn’t much to say when she got there.
“Where do you get your lumber from?” asked Benjamin.
Sandy blinked. It was an odd question, to say the least. “From the forest,” the Mayor stammered.
“Do the animals out there mind?” asked Benjamin. “Are they normal size or…like you?”
“You’re a very curious young man,” said Wilf, amused. “You remind me of my son.”
“Is he as big as I am?”
“I don’t understand. Do animals become bigger when they’re brought here, then shrink when they leave? If so, why were all the rats on the train my size?”
“Animals from out of town who are brought here stay the same size,” said Radagast. “To grow to our size, you must learn to speak.”
“But what is this place?” asked Benjamin. “I’m here because my pet rat told me about it. But I don’t even know its name.”
“Arlenberg,” said Radagast. “The town is called Arlenberg.”
“An interesting name,” said Sandy. “How did you come by it?”
“That is quite a story,” said the Mayor. “Are you sure you’d like to hear it?”
Benjamin and Sandy nodded eagerly. It was the first time they’d agreed on anything.
* * * *
“Well,” said Benjamin once Wilf had finished. “That was quite a story.”
“I’m glad you enjoyed it,” said the Mayor.
“I didn’t say that,” said Benjamin.
What a brat, thought Sandy.
“Perhaps the young gentleman means to say that there is something he didn’t understand,” said Radagast. “Is there something we can help you with?”
“Yes,” said the boy. “I don’t understand why the moles, squirrels, and the like would even agree to this. You said you could teach them to stand up and walk so they could fight against the humans, but why would they agree to serve you?”
“A little thing called reciprocity,” said Radagast with a condescending smile. “Surely you don’t mean to tell me that you’ve never done something for your mother in return for, I don’t know, a cookie or a five-dollar bill?”
“I have,” said Benjamin. “But not like this.”
“I have a question,” said Sandy. “Did you mean what you said when you told me that someday the animals of the forest will rise up and make war on us humans?”
“Yes,” said Wilf plainly.
“Then why tell us?” asked Sandy. “Doesn’t that mean we’re prisoners?”
“No!” said the Mayor, rising. “My dear, Radagast and I have a confession to make. It’s true that we have been building this community for over a generation. But I was not being honest when I said that we bring children here every year on this night. You are the first.”
“Because you must spread the message.” He knelt in front of her. “You must let the humans know, when we take arms against them and destroy their lumber mills and barricade our forests so that none of them can harm us any more, we are only doing it because we must. You are not our enemies.”
“Because they will listen to you.”
“I don’t think they will.”
“Yes,” he said, standing up. “They will.”
“One more question.”
“Do you know a rat named Melvin?”
He blinked. “Yes. Yes, I do.”
“I was told by a rat named Bertram to tell him that there are five lights, not four. What could that mean?”
He stared at her a moment, then leaned forward, taking her hand. “My dear,” he said. “You are in grave danger.”
“Why? What’s wrong?”
“I thought we’d gotten rid of him, I really did,” said Radagast.
“Bertram is a very evil rat,” said the Mayor. “He could have grown to our size, but chose not to because it allows him to pass undetected amongst your people. You must never speak to him again. Wherever you met him, don’t go there again.”
“Okay. Mom doesn’t like me going into the cellar anyway.”
Wilf gave Radagast a long, hard look. “We will help you defend yourself,” he said. “But you must understand that conventional methods will do no good. The most dangerous rat alive cannot be killed by poison or traps.”
“What can I do?” she asked.
“You can listen to what we are about to tell you,” said the Mayor. “You must know why we fear Bertram. Once you know that, you will know how to protect yourself.”
“It all began with Murdoc,” said Radagast. “He’s the rat who first decided that open rebellion against the humans was the only way to fight them off.”
“He was my teacher,” said Wilf. “And my friend.”
“He was an inspiration to all of us,” said Radagast. “He told us that it is the natural order of things that snakes should catch mice and whales should eat krill. Mankind’s sin was forgetting its place in the order, nothing more.”
“But there were those who disagreed,” continued Wilf. “Bertram and his supporters. They believed humans are evil and must be wiped from the face of the Earth.”
“They used a signal to identify each other,” said Radagast. “Animals who learned to walk upright could find safe havens where they saw four lights, four signal fires, or one light flashing four times.”
“That’s just it!” exclaimed Sandy. “Bertram wanted me to find his friend Melvin and tell him there are five lights, not four.”
“That’s the signal,” said Wilf. “It’s just close enough that you won’t notice unless you’re looking for it, but he’s used it to assemble quite a network.”
“Let me deal with Melvin,” said Radagast. He was about to leave, then, remembering his manners, bid farewell to his new friends. He gave Benjamin a hearty handshake and Sandy a kiss on the hand. “Farewell, my dears. I hope we shall meet again.”
“Bertram will not do you any physical harm,” said Wilfred as Radagast left. “He doesn’t work that way. He will come to you while you sleep and whisper messages.”
“Whisper messages?” exclaimed Sandy. “What is he, some kind of sub-lim-i-nal messenger?”
“He has…ways of getting people to do what he wants,” said Wilf. “But don’t worry. You’re a very clever girl. He won’t get you.”
This was too much for Sandy. She broke down crying. Benjamin laid a not-too-comforting hand on her shoulder. “Don’t worry. I’m pretty sure we live near each other. I’ll protect you.”
“What are you going to do?” she sobbed. “If he comes to me when I’m sleeping—“
“He won’t,” said Wilf. “I spoke too soon. He only tries that on people who already know him. If you go home tonight and let him know that you do not wish to help, he will have to try a different tack.”
“How do I do that?”
“I am going to give you a message,” he said, sitting down behind his desk and drawing a piece of paper and an envelope out of his drawer. He dabbed his pen in ink and began to write. “Slide this under the cellar door. Do not go down there unless you absolutely cannot avoid it, and even then, make sure you have an adult accompany you.”
“I think I can handle that.” He sealed the envelope and handed it to her. “What did you write?” she asked.
“I don’t think that matters,” he said. “You are now under the protectorate of Wilfred Kensington, Mayor of Arlenberg. I will have Radagast check on you before long to make sure you are well. In the meantime, rest easy. No harm will come to you so long as you keep your wits about you. Farewell.”
“You should hold the letter up to the light,” said Benjamin as they boarded the train back home. “You might be able to see what he wrote.”
“I don’t think I need to,” she said. “I know what he wrote.”
“You can’t trust them, you know. They’re not our allies.”
“I know. But they are my friends.”
“I meant what I said when I said I’d check on you. We can be friends too, you know.”
She dozed off with her head against the window. He shook her awake as the train was pulling to a stop. “Is that your house?” he asked.
She peered through the trees. Normally, they obscured her view of anything beyond the forest, but she could just make out a light in her bedroom window.
“I turned it off,” she said. “Who could it be?”
“Maybe your parents found out you were missing and called the police and they’re waiting for you unless you come back.”
“I don’t think so.” She waved goodbye and rushed off the train, sprinting through the trees to the light that called to her like a beacon. Who was waiting for her, she had no idea. What mattered was that there was only one light.
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