Chapter 2: The Dragon
The little one and the others were dropped roughly into a ten gallon tank already occupied with more mice. Many of them looked haggard and thin. They hadn't eaten. Immediately, the other mice began introducing themselves. One mouse, bigger and older, just stood in the corner. That intrigued our hero, so he crawled over to the old mouse.
"Hi," said the little mouse.
"Goodbye," growled the older mouse, and for a while he said nothing more. So the little mouse groomed him, kept him company, and since nights were cold, he slept next to him. One day (in the middle of their night) the cage opened and one of them was taken out. It was one of the little one's brothers. Everyone watched him get lifted up by his tail and vanish. The little mouse was happy for his brother - he would get to see mom and dad first. "What are you smiling at?" said the old mouse.
"He gets to see mommy and daddy first," said the little mouse. "I wish it was me."
The old mouse shifted uncomfortably and snaffed in the little one's direction. "Is that what you think? You're quite naive."
The little mouse was taken aback. He put his nose close to the old one to listen more.
"Everyone is here to feed the monster." the old one said. "We are all doomed."
Scared at last, the little one shook and trembled. "How would you know?" he asked.
"I've survived it a few times," the old one said. "I can't walk any more, and my sight is going. My back hurts and I'm not quick as I used to be. I'm nearly a year old."
A year old! That was ancient! The little one stood in awe. Then he realized the meaning of what the old one had said. As it sunk in, he realized he didn't have a mom or dad any more. And just then everyone heard his brother scream, from far away. The shriek lasted just a few seconds, but was full of terror and pain. The entire cage stood still and everyone wore a face of horror. The little one began crying.
The old mouse felt for the little one, so much like himself in his earlier days. So he groomed the little one's fur, and tried to make him feel better.
"You thought life was wonderful and happy, and that everything would work out in the end, eh?" he asked as he groomed.
"Y-yeah... that was how the book stories ended..." the little one sobbed.
"In real life the big people are cruel and uncaring," the old mouse told him. "Life is unfair and a struggle. Everything is hard. Even if you get out, there is no food and bad weather. No one treats mice well."
"Someone has to!" the little mouse said in despair. "Life can't be that terrible all the time!"
"Ha ha ha!" the big mouse laughed. "Wanna bet?"
"Have you ever gotten out?"
"Many times," said the old mouse. "Every time, I wanted back in!"
"How terrible! I won't believe it - there has to be hope!"
"Well, believe it or not, one day they'll come for you - probably for me first... and I won't be able to fight back any more. I'm done for next time. That stupid monster - I should have killed him the first time, when he was smaller."
"He... he can be killed?" the little mouse said, barely understanding what killed meant.
"Yup. He has a weak spot right under his head - side of his neck. But his mouth tends to get in the way - and he has a big mouth."
"We can escape together..." the little one hoped out loud.
"I can't walk, little one. Where would I go?"
"I'll take care of you," the little one said. "We can go to the wild..."
"Oh, so you've heard that myth. No good. Forget it. The mice out there are twenty times faster than we are. We're normal mice... Just mice. We don't stand a chance."
"But you fought back - doesn't everyone? Sooner or later someone will kill the thing... won't they?"
The old one looked sideways at the youngster. "Probably not," he said quietly. "I'm the only one that ever fought back. And for that the evil owner tried to put me in a bowl of moving water to drown, but I bit him. He doesn't know what to do with me, but soon I will die. Everyone else is terrified. I was in the monster's lair one time with another mouse... I told him we could take the beast if we ganged up, but the other one was just paralyzed with fear. Couldn't move. I watched him get eaten. Horrible." The old mouse's face cringed. "Just awful."
The mind of the little one raced with fear trying to figure a way out of the hell he had landed in, when the cage top opened. A giant hand reached down for the older mouse.
"Don't give up, little one," he croaked as he was lifted by his tail. "No matter how bad it seems, don't give up - that's all we can do!"
Then he was gone.
A long time the mouse sat there, very sad. He kept listening for the scream but there wasn't one. Then he hoped that the old warrior mouse might have killed the monster - but there was little chance of that. So he sat in fear, which he decided was worse than anything. Anything at all. Even death.
After a few days the hand came back. The little mouse rushed up and jumped into it. Trembling and afraid, but determined that he could save one of his family, even for a little while - and his fear would at least be over; he hated it so! His life had gone from a happy wonder to a dread hopeless mess. He had made up his mind. This was the best thing he could do.
So into the lair of the monster he went. By his tail, cast roughly into the cold gravel. He tried hard not to hate humans. Not all of them could be bad. The old mouse had seen a lot, but couldn't have seen everything.
He was terribly afraid, though he didn't know of what - having no real concept of death. His sight was poor, as with most white mice. But he smelled death. He smelled and heard it sliding toward him.
His first sight of it came as it turned around a large rock. There was no mistaking it. Even missing the wings and the legs, it was a dragon. Plain as day... a real dragon. Its slitted eyes glittered as it saw him. And there in its side was a wound - a long gash ripped by sharp teeth. The old mouse had gotten one last blow in after all. He had fought with his life to save the little mouse, but lost in the end. Fear gripped the little mouse and he froze. Froze solid. He couldn't move.
"Don't give up," said the spirit of the old mouse.
The little mouse was shaken from his terror and something else took its place. Anger! Why should they suffer and die? Just mice?? That old mouse had more integrity and courage than any human or dragon the little mouse had met yet. He decided then that the dragon would not eat his family. The dragon would never eat another mouse ever again.
Then he remembered that dragons breathe fire. He moved aside with all his youthful speed, just in time. The dragon's head blurred past him - brushed his whiskers, spinning him in circles. It hurt, but he jumped straight up and chirped in alarm. Below him, the dragon turned its great head and coiled for another blow as the little one landed on his back.
Not pausing even for a half second, he jumped in panic for the only safe place in the lair: the dragon's head!
Teeth bared, claws reaching, he felt his searching jaws tighten on scales - then sink in, and he wrung and flailed his entire mouse body for all he was worth. Biting and tearing, digging into the side of the dragon's neck where the old warrior had marked his target for him. Time slowed to a standstill.
The dragon writhed and flung the mouse about the cage trying to dislodge him - he felt the cage walls smash into him - he felt the floor - his little bones ached and fire spread through his body - but he would not let go. He dug deeper every chance he got to widen his grip!
Then, after a lifetime of battle, it was over. He woke on his side, sure he was dead - but pain proved him wrong. And the dragon was next to him, sprawled out on his back, still breathing with a rasping sound like a rusty wheel.
The little mouse slowly crawled to his feet and stood there, stunned. His senses came back and he limped over to the head of the dragon. It was dying. He almost felt sorry for it.
"You are a most unusual mouse," said the dragon. "So very fast."
"Fear. So very afraid and angry," said the mouse.
"Brave," said the dragon. "So very brave. Never had a meal attack me first."
"Life was such a depressing surprise," said the mouse. "I expected it to be better."
The dragon heaved and blood ran past the mouse's feet, staining them red. "With a spirit like yours, it could be better," he said.
"I just did what the knights would have done," said the mouse. "I didn't know what else to do besides being afraid, and that never worked."
"What is a knight?" The dragon asked. The little mouse was surprised that the dragon didn't know. So he sat down by the monster and told him the story of Saint George. By the time he was done the dragon was almost gone.
"You are like Saint George," said the dragon. "You are a knight."
The little mouse looked down. "I can't be. It takes a knight or a king to make a knight."
"The first part of my name is King," said the dragon. "What is your name?"
"I don't have one," said the mouse. "I've heard legends that the only mice that have names are the ones loved by good people." The mouse paused, then looked at the giant's eye. "Are there good people, mister dragon?"
The dragon smiled weakly. "Yes, little mouse. They are very rare, but there are. Somewhere. You will have to find them. Only a knight could do that. Would you like to be a knight? Do you have it in you to do good deeds and never be afraid? I think you do."
The mouse nodded. He would so dearly love to be a knight! Was the dragon really a King?
Extending his tongue the dragon touched the little mouse on the head. "To the only mouse who ever beat a snake," it said. "I dub thee Mouseknight, until you have a proper name. And if anyone asks you who made you a knight, tell them it was KingSnake."
The mouse nodded, then remembered his family.
"What will happen to my family?" he asked.
"They will be flushed down the toilet," KingSnake said. "Unless you all escape. The cage roof is loose - the human doesn't think mice can lift it."
"We can't!" said the mouse.
"Not one by one. But in great numbers you are very strong. Once there were two mice in here... and one was a good fighter. I was afraid. Two might have taken me."
"You were afraid?" the mouse gasped.
"Oh yes, especially of that angry mouse... he didn't taste very good anyway... had he not made a hole in my armor, you might not have beaten me."
"He was my friend," the little one whispered.
"He is avenged, Mouseknight."
Then with a last rush of strength, the dragon whipped his tail into the air, and dislodged the roof, creating a way out. "Go now, Honorable Knight. Go and free your family. Good luck. All caged animals wish for freedom."
"Or a loving owner," the mouse said.
"That would be the only thing better," said the dragon, and then he died.
Then, after a drink of water, the mouse found that it could leap straight up - very high - and get out.