Safety Is an Illusion
I strode up to the front step with pride, the setting sun at my back, coming back from my long pilgrimage a master and commander of an entire army of mice and rats. My chin was up high, my cape was flowing behind me. My shield bore my crest (a happy dancing mouse) and my tail was pointed straight up in victory.
Upon reaching the top step, I was alarmed that there were not scads of mice playing on the porch. Of course, there was still some sunlight left. Maybe they weren't awake yet, but that was unlikely. In fact, there were no rodents anywhere except one.
He was big and muscular looking - an amazingly healthy mouse. He was standing by the side of the door like a guard. He had a bow, and a spear. He wore the armor of a knight (and fine armor it was), and a cape of dark green. His chin was up and his sword was sheathed in his belt. I had never seen so handsome and fine looking a mouse. He seemed familiar somehow, but my master's family ran throughout this place. He had brought at least 20 of his brothers and sisters to the safe house when he came. This mouse was wearing his colors - dark forest green. Surely many more mice had become knights in my absence.
He snapped to attention perfectly and said in a charismatic voice, "Halt! Who goes there? Friend or foe?"
I removed my helm and answered his stance of attention.
"It is I, Squibble, second of the Mouse Knights and master of the slingshot, squire to the first Mouse Knight and Lord of the Hordes- Um, Lord of some other mice. Somewhere. Kinda."
He eyed me warily. He never shifted his stance, nor did his scent betray any fear.
"The Squibble?" he asked slowly.
I nodded. "MMM-Hmm," I said. "And eager to have a fine meal and a warm bed, if you please," and I tried to step by him to the little mouse door the kind human had built at the bottom of his own big door.
But he stepped in front of me!
"I'm sorry sire, but times are hard, and you're going to have to prove you are who you say."
"What!" I chirped. "Are you blind? I am Squibble! Any mouse will confirm it, pleeb! Now out of my way."
He actually grinned. "I'm afraid I cannot, Sir. I have been charged with guarding the house, and that is what I shall do. Prove your title and entrance shall be yours."
I was stunned. My very integrity was impugned! I drew my blade and stepped back.
"You shall have your proof, you arrogant rodent! And then some!" I said, challenging him to chivalric combat.
Casually he leaned his spear against the wall and took his bow from his back, setting it on the porch. He took his time with the quiver and arrows, as if I'd reconsider.
He smiled (something so familiar about that smile!) and drew his blade. It was also green. "So be it, good Sir. A duel for proof it is."
I attacked in a fury, moving with fine footwork, throwing several perfect shots at his chestplate in rapid succession, only to have each and every blow parried with ease. He paused when I did, instead of countering me. He was not even trying. I gaped, but only for one tenth of a second, then doubled my attack in earnest.
The challenge was brutal, but only to me. He parried every blow, sometimes just leaning to one side and letting my sword miss him by a millimeter. He playfully danced around me, reaching out and tapping my blade when I would slow down. He even dropped his shield. So I did the same, out of noble courtesy. Sword to sword and tail to tail we sparred, and I could not come near him. I tried kicks, twists, and lunges. I tried thrusts, sneak shots, and speed blows. I tried leaping over him, going under him, and to my failure, disarming him. Nothing worked. It didn't even come close to working. He worked me for minutes along the porch, back and forth, back and forth. I was heaving and gasping for air. He wasn't even breathing hard. I had never seen such amazing footwork in my life. This mouse was better than any swordsman I had ever met. He was faster than BJ, stronger than Stompy, and his moves...they were poetry in motion. They were unbelievable.
But he was still making me mad! By this time a few other mice had come outside and were watching the fight. They looked bad. Malnourished or something. I couldn't tell, as my attention was entirely upon the upstart I was facing.
"Come on then!" I shouted. "Don't go easy! You insult me, Sir!"
He appeared taken aback, and then shrugged.
Recognition dawned on me in a flash. My eyes were as wide as could be.
"Percival!" I whispered, holding perfectly still at the end of his blade.
He withdrew his sword and bowed low. "At your service, my brother."
The last time I had seen him he was a squirming little pinky. His eyes hadn't opened, and his only words had been squeaks. This godlike mouse before me was he. I could see it in his face, his body shape and his stance. He was my master's son, and a sword master beyond compare at the age of three months.
"No one has ever come close to beating me like that," I said. "That was amazing!"
He bowed deep. "I thank you, Sir. Coming from you, that is a serious compliment. Our teacher was one and the same."
I continued to marvel at him (he was twice the size of his father) as the other mice gathered around. "Is it really Squibble?" they said. "Has he come to save us?"
I looked around. It had not been my imagination. These mice looked scared. They were jittery and hesitant. Not the peaceful, happy mice I had known when I left. These mice were afraid of something. They were not fat or content. They had an edge about them, and all of them were armed. It reminded me of the city.
I returned my gaze to Percival. "What's going on here?" I asked. "You said something about hard times."
He nodded. "Yes, but it is better explained by my father or Nemo." He moved to the mouse door, and all the mice reverently parted before him. He made an "after you" gesture with his arm, picking up his spear, bow and arrows, and handing them to another Mouse Knight (also wearing armor). Going through the door, I heard him tell the other knight that he had the early evening watch, and to keep a sharp nose to the wind.
Once inside, I could smell fear. It was crowded inside, with all the cages and mice as I remembered, but there was a pall of anxiety over the house. Everyone heard something happening outside the front door, but no one knew what had happened. Now, as I came through with Percival, the crowds sighed relief. One in every three mice I could see bore weapons. One in four had weapons and some sort of armor. I saw many Mouse Knights. More than five times the number the house had when I left. I peered around in wonder. No cages lay on the ground anymore. They were all propped up on wood or cement blocks. Many were on strong shelves made of steel. Most of the mice seemed to be in their cages. On all the window sills were guardian mice, bearing missile weapons, gazing out at the field. Some of them were gazing at me too. They looked angry, though not at me.
As we walked, I had to know.
"What's happened to paradise, Percival? What happened to my home?"
A crowd had gathered behind us, but they stayed well back. Whispers of my name and Percival's reached my radar-dish ears. They spoke as if they were seeing a ghost. I had one of those trippy moments where I wondered if I wasn't in one of my weirdo dreams. It sure seemed like it.
Percival said, "We have been attacked." He looked at me. "Several times."
I stopped. "What!" I clenched my fists. "Who would dare?" Then a paralyzing thought embraced me against my will. "Not humans!??"
"No," he said. "Mice."
I stared. "Eh?" As if I hadn't heard him.
"Mice, snakes, other field creatures. Hawks, coyotes, feral cats. All coming from the field. Every one of them insane. Driven mad by some invisible force." He looked back over his shoulder as if he could see through the wall. "We fear a virus, but if so, no one here has caught it yet."
I shuddered. I was too late. "It's not a virus," I said.
His eyebrows went up. He was too well bred to ask, assuming I would go on. And I would have, but at that moment my master came running to greet me. He, too, was wearing armor and a sword. With him was BJ, and a very thin, stringy female mouse. She and BJ were armed and armored as well. A female knight?
"Master!" I cried, and threw myself into his arms. He accepted my affection whole heartedly, returning the gesture as our armor made a clank noise against each other. My heart lifted a little, only to sink when I heard him wheezing.
I pulled away and looked at him, worried. "Are you okay, master?" He looked tired, thin, and... stressed out. He looked worn and weary from something. Not the bright, healthy mouse I had left behind.
He smiled. "Yes, Squib. Just asthma. From the mycoplasma I had when we came here."
Everyone sat still a moment. There was so much to say. But in true Squibble form, I got the important stuff out right away. It had only been waiting at the tip of my tongue for four months.
"The evil black mouse is coming to get us!" I blurted. "I have to warn everyone!"
"We know," my master said.
"Fire and brimstone! Horsemen! Death and suffering! It's horrible...I'm doing my job! See, Mike!" I stared up at the ceiling, raising my arms. "See?! I'm doing my job! Helloooo!"
BJ looked at me and then at my master as if to say 'has he gone mad?' My master coughed (it sounded like a squeak) and put a hand on my shoulder. He gripped my armor tightly. "Squibble. We know."
"War on the humans...mice in labs...mice in pet stores!" I blathered on. "It's the end of the world unless we...huh? You know?" The other mice were looking at me as if I had grown a tail out of my head, except for Percival.
Master nodded. "Yes, we know. You told Nemo and I before you left."
I cocked my head sideways. "But that was a bunch of hogwash."
"Nah," he said.
"They're just dreams...?" I asked hesitantly.
He shook his head. "No."
I was confused. Seeing it, he led me off to the side, away from everyone else. Quite a crowd had gathered, and they all looked as though they thought maybe Squibble had baked his brains on his pilgrimage. I felt stupid. But I had to do my job....
I was looking down at the floor, a stupid, foolish mouse again, feeling small and unimportant (just like when I had left) as my master spoke to me.
"You warned us of this, Squibble," he said. "Nemo and I took you seriously. You spoke of this and more. Much more. This is just the beginning. But we can't tell everyone. It would only work against us."
I looked up. "How?" I said. "Don't they have a right to know?"
"That a demon is trying to kill them all?" he said, raising his eyebrows. "That powers beyond their control have targeted them for doom? They'd panic, my friend. And they have nowhere to go."
I nodded. That made sense.
"You didn't tell us everything," he went on, "but you told us enough. Since you left we have been training every willing mouse to fight, and blocking all the open holes from outside. These attacks against us have been largely unsuccessful. Though it seems the enemy does know something of tactical warfare. It's very, very good and tricky, whatever it is." He patted me on the shoulder. "We can get you caught up later. I'm so glad to see you back, Squib. I'm so glad you made it."
I was reeling from sensory overload. It was alot to take in all at once, and I had the feeling it was going to get alot worse. Still, I was glad to be back. This was my master here, standing right in front of me, as I had wished these last three months to see. I was home. I could hear the TV. I could smell food and treats. I breathed slowly and recovered my calm. It took a few minutes. My master casually groomed me while I got myself under control.
"Percival is big," I finally said. "And he's amazing."
"Yes," he said with pride. "He was a perfect student. Always eager to learn, and he learned so fast. I've never seen a smarter, faster mouse."
"Oh, I'm afraid not. He beat me, BJ, and Nemo by the time he was two months old. We had to knight him then."
I snapped up, mouth open.
"Yeah," my master said, smiling, "He beat us, and then asked us to keep teaching him. He wouldn't accept the title of King. So we kept teaching him. We're teaching him still, though he's fast coming to the end of our knowledge. Well, me and BJ. Maybe not Nemo. But Branch studies with Nemo more than Percival does."
Branch...oh, yes. Percival's brother. "What's he like?" I asked.
"He wants more than anything to be like that sapphire chinchilla," my master said. "He wants to do magic - real magic - mind you, the kind that left the world with Camelot - and be a wizard. He's a wonderful mouse. You'll meet him." He seemed to be holding back something. I could feel it.
"What-" I began to ask.
"How was your pilgrimage?" he interrupted. "Did you do what you set out to do?"
I had set out to destroy great evil. I remembered.
"No," I said. "Leaving was stupid. I shouldn't have gone like that. I left because..."
"Because you thought everyone hated you," he said.
"What!" I chirped. "Is everyone psychic but me!?"
"No," he grinned. "We figured it out when Scratchy went on a beating rampage and started kicking the hell out of a whole bunch of mice. He made them confess to their plot, pathetic as it was, and beg our forgiveness." I was speechless again. It was getting annoying. "You should have seen them," he said. "They didn't stand a chance. That little whirlwind went through them like melted cheese."
I turned then to look back at the crowd, all of them clearly talking about me. There, ten feet away and among them, was Scratchy. He was holding my backpack and my shield that I had left on the porch. He smiled timidly at me. The backpack was bigger than he was. He hadn't grown.
"How... how many mice were in on that... plot against me?" I asked carefully, not really wanting to hear the answer.
My master leaned in close and whispered, "One."
"No way," I said. "I heard a whole bunch of mice..."
"All bullied and manipulated by One-Ear," my master said. "As it turned out, he'd been working on it for weeks. They just went along with him out of sheer peer pressure." I shook my head, disbelieving, and he put an arm around me. "Squibble, it's easy to hate a mouse in a high place. Or one who's so good at things, or so smart," he rubbed my head. It felt great. "They envied you. It's a short step from respect to fear. He turned their respect to fear with his words. That did the rest. When the others saw how stupid it all was, they repented. They didn't know you, after all."
I was still looking at Scratchy. He would smile at me every ten seconds or so. He was obviously nervous, and put my things down. Especially the shield.
"What happened to One-Ear?" I asked.
"Nothing," my master said. "We sent him to the bottom of the totem pole by exposing his childish attempt at drama. Nobody listens to him anymore."
"Oh," I said.
"I knew you'd come back okay," he said, smiling. "I believed in you. Can't say I wasn't worried though. Letting you go was the hardest thing I've ever done."
"You knew how dangerous it would be," I said.
"Yes, I did." He was serious now.
"Why did you let me go?" I asked. "I nearly died several times!"
"Squib..." his mind was working overtime. I could see it. "I didn't want to. Nemo told me I had to. For the good of the future, he claimed. Still, I very nearly fought him on it. I almost challenged him for the right to make you stay."
"You would have challenged Nemo!?" I exclaimed. "He's a hundred times your weight!"
"Ah, been there done that," he said, and waved a paw. "Besides, this was my best friend, son, and squire we're talking about. I knew what hell you had set yourself up for. I myself was lost in the city once, remember?"
"Not for very long," I grumbled.
"In the end Nemo convinced me that he was right," my master pleaded his case. "He always is. He can see the future."
"That meeting I was listening to," I said, "it was about me. The heated argument." He nodded. "But you let me go."
"Squibble. Don't be stubborn. I didn't want to, aren't you listening? I had to, or you wouldn't..." he stopped himself.
I peered at my master. "What? Wouldn't become what? My future self? The all powerful hero Squibble?" I was upset now, the stress of my months in the city finally caught up with me. Plus, I was on a roll. "I'm not so sure being a hero is all that great," I said bitterly.
"Oh, you don't mean that," he said. "It's all you've ever wanted."
"The price is pretty stupid," I complained.
"The greater the hero the higher the price," he said. "In all the stories..."
"I don't care about the stories," I yelled. "You let me go and didn't come rescue me! You let me go!"
He looked at me hard for a few seconds.
"Squibble, you were a grown mouse. Maybe not inside, but you were a knight." His stare, as usual, went right through me. "If you hadn't gone, you'd have stayed that way the rest of your life. And we would have no champion. You know this. And so did we."
I sat in silence for a long time. He was right. I hated it, but he was. My feeling of abandonment was my own head trip.
"My pilgrimage was hard," I whined. "I didn't know life could get so hard."
My master looked back at the other mice, then back into the house. When his face turned back to me, it had that stressed out, tired look to it again. He took a deep breath.
"It's about to get harder, Squib."
I stared at him aghast. "What could possibly be harder than..."
He interrupted me again, which is unlike his noble, mannered self, and he seemed in a hurry to say something to me because it was difficult.
"It's your mom, Squibble. She's sick."