Chapter 8: The Pilgrimage of the Mouse Knight
Of which there are 4 parts
Part II: The Great Barrier
The party had traveled for a month to reach the edge of the city. They slept by day and walked at night, aided along the way by every rat or mouse they happened to encounter. The Mouse Knight's reputation preceded them no matter how far or fast they traveled. Everyone knew them, the living legends, the adventurers seeking salvation for their race. Many had prepared care packages of food or nest-material to sleep in. Fame mattered little to them, but they were cordial and friendly, following the natural way of their leader. The Mouse Knight noticed that although the rat network ran endlessly throughout the city, there were no other mouse nests anywhere near as large as the Kingdom. It seemed to be one of a kind.
They'd heard about other pet store breakouts since their departure from the Kingdom. Everyone was glad to hear of it. There were hardly ever any fatalities. It was all done in the stealth of night without anyone knowing. The Mouse Knight actually read in a discarded newspaper about the string of "rodent robberies," blamed on animal rights activists. He laughed and read it to his group. If only the humans knew.
From then on the Mouse Knight stopped to read every readable thing he could find along the way, for an hour just before dawn. There wasn't much, but sometimes there was a particular gem, like a classic paperback book thrown away, or a whole page from a magazine. He would politely ask Mike if he could carry it until they camped for the day, and Mike would always say yes, except once. There was an encyclopedia set abandoned in a trash can - 29 books, and as the Mouse Knight turned with his face lit up to ask, Mike immediately said, "No way." (as if it were even an option!) So they spent a few days and nights near the trashcans so the mouse could read the knowledge-full tomes (getting them out of the trash can was a task and a half). He delighted in reading them - they were everything he had ever wanted to know in one place. At last, before the mouse had even finished three books, the trash men came in their big truck, and the Mouse Knight watched with sad eyes as they took his precious treasure away. In that depressing moment of loss he decided that some day, he would read the entire set.
The very first day out the enormity o f their task had clearly dawned on them, and that feeling had only grown with each day forward. They held in their minds all the rumors and myths of their destination. Only Bigfat knew the way out of the city, it turned out; beyond that they would all be lost. So along the way they questioned everything and everyone, avoiding dogs and cats. Their journey had a powerful air of legend about it that they all felt with every step. It quickened them and gave them purpose. The Mouse Knight was not the leader because he was the fastest or the strongest, but because he was so sure in his quest. So sure it was right. His confidence was infectious, and soon everyone shared in his holy crusade.
The birds knew much; one particular bird who had been a pet for short time, named Margalo, told them the fastest way out of the city and a bit of what to expect beyond. Beyond the edge of the city, the little bird told them, was a great road. Crossing it would be hard because of the cars. She told them to go to a place where they could see far in both directions, like the top of a hill, then run across fast. After that, it was mostly wilderness, and yes, there were endless fields, and forests... and a few houses. But she didn't know if a kind human lived in any of them. The Mouse Knight thanked her and she curtsied politely. It seemed to the mouse that she liked mice, which pleased him.
Squibble was growing like a weed; Still smaller than the Mouse Knight, and so light that often Mike let the squire ride on his back for distances. They had taken a liking to one another, frequently playing or joking through their long nights.
"Hey," said Bigfat, "how about giving me a ride?"
"Not for all the cheese in Wisconsin," replied Mike.
"Hey man, I'm losing weight... I'll be thin soon!"
Mike stopped and looked Bigfat up and down, and that took some doing still. "Only four thousand tons to go, big guy. Call me when you reach 50 grams."
"Ouch... you know how to get a guy... I'll be thin. You'll see! I'll have all the women, like scrawny here." He thumbed at the Mouse Knight.
"I only want one woman," said the little mouse. "You can have the rest, Bigfat."
Bigfat puffed up enormously. "Mighty kind of ya, sir. Mighty kind."
So their journey went, measured by the moon cycles, for a month. Their legs and feet were worn and tired, but they always had shelter and food. By the time they went 30 days, they had tasted Thai food, Japanese, Brazilian, Mexican, Chinese, Indian, and many others. Squibble liked a particular soup from a Thai restaurant the best, and kept suggesting they go back for it.
"Probably had caffeine in it," Mike said.
"What's that!" Squibble demanded.
"Something addictive that makes you go fast," Mike answered.
"Yeah - I want some ffeine!" Squibble blurted.
Mouseknight chuckled. "That's not happening."
Bigfat enjoyed one establishment with a big yellow letter for a sign. He learned to identify it from a hundred feet even with a rodent's poor eyesight, when his nose wasn't helping him.
"Hey smarty," Bigfat said through his full mouth, "what's this here thingy I'm eating? What's that say?" He pointed to the box he was munching out of.
Mouseknight looked it over, grinning. "Says 'Happy Meal'," he told Bigfat.
"He heee!" Bigfat chortled. "Yes, indeedy! Yes, it is." He went back to devouring his dinner, definitely happy.
At last, Squibble had talked Bigfat into letting him have rides also. Bigfat protested loudly, but after a while began to offer them to Squibble without being asked, and seemed to like the company of the little guy. Squibble would groom Mike and Bigfat in return, both of which were huge jobs.
They caught rides on the b us, snuck into handbags or cars. Once, Bigfat wasn't fast enough, and was rapidly being left behind by the departing bus, so they all leapt off and tumbled to a dirty stop, narrowly missed by the mammoth tires. Huffing and puffing, Bigfat licked them all in gratitude. "Aww, you guys came back for me," he sobbed. "I thought I was gonna be all alone, an'... an I was scared." His eyes got big at the confession. He looked around to see if anyone had heard.
"No one gets left behind," Mouseknight said. "We all go or none do."
From that day forward, they were tight as brothers. There was nothing they would not risk or do for one another. Squibble, for his speed, was sent to steal food from dog or cat dishes when they were hard up. He was even given one of the swords just in case there was trouble. There never was. He was very fast and despite being overconfident, was ordered by the Mouse Knight: "No, Squib - you may not poke a cat in the nose while it's sleeping. It would chase you - and while you may be faster than it is, think of the rest of us slowpokes." So he was cautious. Bigfat would intimidate other animals into sharing their food, like the ducks at the pond that got fed every day much more than they could eat. The ducks had chased the Mouse Knight away when he had tried to take some crumbs left at the edge of the feeding area - and chased him maliciously for a good twenty feet! Bigfat got wind of it and lurked out there up to within a few feet of the ducks, behind a stone - and leapt out yelling at the top of his lungs and charged the biggest duck. Throwing himself into the duck's side, he toppled it over. Horrified, the rest of them ran for it. So he snorted and stamped and rattled his tail in the air at the duck while it stared at the biggest mouse it had ever seen and decided the mouse was insane. The duck left; Bigfat filled his arms and mouth with bread to bring back to the clan. Everyone was quick, though, and all of them rushed out to gather as much as they could. Bigfat was the hero of the hour - and how he loved it. He talked about it for days until Squibble, riding on his back, deprogrammed him by biting his ear every time he started in on the subject.
Every evening the Mouse Knight told his companions what he had read in books or papers or torn magazine pages. He showed them how to use the plastic swords, for this too he had read in books. Before long, they all practiced in the mornings and evenings for half an hour, except for Bigfat, who claimed that he needed no weapon, for he could outwrestle any rat, and cats feared him.
So through hardship and adventure they journeyed to the edge of the city, and at last came to the road.
They didn't really know what it was at first. It was dirty white, and huge; all the roads they had seen to that point were black and small. They were a few feet across it when Mouseknight felt the ground shake and saw the horizon growing black rapidly. He had forgotten Margalo's warning.
"Back! Everyone back!" he shouted, and bolted for the dirt.
Seconds after they tumbled into the safety of the grass, a car blazed by at speeds they had never even imagined. It was huge, and the wake of its passing threatened to dislodge them from their places.
"The Great Barrier of Moving Mountains," Mike whispered in awe. And after that they all sat and stared at the freeway in horror as car after car passed in rapid succession, wondering how they would ever cross it.
So they set out to follow Margalo's advice, and went uphill until they could go no further upward. It took four days. At last, they topped the crest and from there the path went downhill.
The problem, they immediately realized, is that birds could see for miles. Most mice and rats could only see a few feet. Margalo hadn't taken that into account. Squibble's eyes were the best of the bunch, and even he couldn't possibly see a car coming in time.
"Well, what do we do now?" Bigfat said.
In the early dusk they contemplated the situation. Squibble suggested they just follow the road to the end, but Mike told them it didn't end. It went on so far that any mouse, even Squibble running as fast as he could all night for their whole lives, could not reach the end of it.
"Also, the rumors are that the kind one lives on the other side of this part of the barrier. Any further and we might be off track," said Mouseknight.
"If we're not already," said Bigfat. "We don't even have the slightest clue where this guy lives, if he's there at all - you know, if we're off by even thirty feet we're never gonna..."
Mike interrupted the demoralizing sentence with a laugh. "Bigfat, you have no spirituality! We won't miss. We're on a mission from the Mousegod."
Bigfat crinkled his whiskered nose skeptically. "Yeah... right. Mousegod. Of course."
Mouseknight had been cleaning his ears and thinking the whole time.
"I think we should race as fast as we can..." he began.
"That's your plan?" blurted Bigfat. "Run for it?? Are you a loon!?... OW!!" Squibble bit his ear and shut him up, then sat back on his steed quite content with his control. Bigfat grumbled.
The Mouse Knight continued, "I think we should run for it, yes," he looked over his nose at Bigfat. "But in the deep night, when the sounds of the mountains are the most quiet. Also, look at the pattern of them - they only go in straight lines. They seldom ever cross over those dots - even when they do they light up on the side they're moving to first. We can make four runs, each time resting in the middle if we have to - Mike will hold us down against the wind, and that's as good as its going to get. We can't see far, but we can hear them coming a mile away."
Bigfat squinted at the leader. "Problem is, they travel a mile in a few seconds."
"Yeah, but we only have to go several feet... and only once." The Mouse Knight responded.
"It's risky," said Mike, "but we've come too far to go back now."
"How the heck did you get so smart for a mouse?" Bigfat demanded, tilting his head at Mouseknight.
Mouseknight shrugged. "Good genes, I guess. My great grandfather was a big time lab mouse I think."
"Really?" Squibble said, leaning forward. "Important enough to be named?"
"Well, yeah," said Mouseknight proudly. "His name was Algernon."
"Wowee." Squibble said.
Bigfat scoffed. "Yeah, wowee... OW!"
"No mockum the master!" Squibble warned, rattling his tail against Bigfat's side.
They decided to risk it. The quietest time on the great barrier was a few hours before dawn. So at that time, they went. Following the Mouse Knight, they ran as fast as they could onto the freeway.
The first revelation was that it was much bigger than they had thought, but it was too late to go back. Instead of several feet, it was possibly hundreds. And they were nearly run over discovering that not everyone signaled before changing lanes.
The mountain went right over them and they were thrown in terror for many feet, separated and confused. The rodents were cast roughly about - most of them into the center of traffic lanes. It was a miracle none of them had been struck. I t would mean certain death. The Mouse Knight gathered himself as fast as he could, picking up his bruised body from the cold pavement and chirped as loud as he could, "Get out of the lanes! Get to the middle! Quick!"
Squibble had to come to a screeching halt and retreated back to avoid the tires of another car, and was blown forward again. Mike had another car go right over him, but this time he clutched the grooves in the pavement for dear life and was not tossed. Bigfat, scared out of his wits, simply waddled as fast as his terrified legs would carry him, and got lucky. The Mouse Knight dashed what he hoped was the right direction diagonally across the lanes to help Squibble, the lightest one of them. Squibble crashed into his arms just as another car barreled over the two, and they were both yanked forward again like litter. Mouseknight balled up, holding Squibble tightly against his belly.
There was confusion and fear. None of them knew where the others were, of even if they were still alive. Several more cars raced by, each time blowing the small rodents off their course. With all their strength and speed, it was all they could do to run back to the big bumps separating the lanes each time they were hit by the wind. It seemed they would certainly die. The Mouse Knight was just about to yell for a retreat to anyone that was still alive when Mike appeared out of nowhere, with Bigfat on his back, running at top speed from bump to bump toward them.
"Jump!" he yelled.
The Mouse Knight threw Squibble first, who Mike caught in his teeth, and then leapt with all his might toward the savior rat. He landed hard on Mike's back and held on. Amazingly, Mike slowed down not a bit, but banked instantly for the far edge of the freeway and ran across the next lane.
"No Mike - go back!" shouted Mouseknight. "We can't make it! Too many cars!"
"Listen!" Mike panted in response, never slowing.
The only sound was the pitter patter of Mikes feet hitting cold rock. For a moment, there was dead silence. Mike pushed his burdened body as fast as it would allow and then commanded it to go faster. The mice hung on for dear life, dreading the sound that was sure to come with every step of the powerful friend under them.
And sure enough, the distant roar of oncoming doom began.
Mike was sweating and his breath was fire in his lungs. He couldn't even grit his teeth without crushing the tiny Squibble, who was scared to death and squeaking his head off. So he narrowed his eyes and used every ounce of willpower given to him by the Ratgod, which, as it turned out, had been a generous amount. Their speed doubled through focus and adrenaline, and the far side of the freeway rushed toward them even as the moving mountain's headlights caught them square in the middle of the lane.
There was only a fraction of a second - Mike had to decide whether to stop and brace, or to risk it and continue their momentum - possibly ending up under the tires. In that brief split-second, Mike felt that the Mouse Knight would have gone for it. And in that same flash, the Mouse Knight thought to Mike, 'Go, Mike! GO!'
Mike never broke stride - his tail was missed by the raging car by one half an inch.
They tumbled horribly end over end, and Mike's body tumbled on top of them. Squibble flew, released by Mike lest his jaw clamp shut in the fall, and caught a strand of grass that stopped him. Mouseknight flew at random and was relieved for all the world when he landed on hard earth and not in the middle of the freeway again. Bigfat managed to tumble right next to Mike, and landed within sight of the exhausted rat...
... All of them on the other side of the Great Barrier.
"Oh Dear Mousegod, I love you, man!" Bigfat licked Mike over and over, who was too tired to resist, and just lay on his side gasping air.
"Mike! Mike! Oh no!" Mouseknight exclaimed, and ran to his friend.
"He's okay," said Bigfat. "Just winded! Did you see that!!?? Incredible! Oh my my... I thought we were dead!"
The little Mouse Knight collapsed upon his brave friend and cherished the feel of his fur , the smell of his scent, the sound of his breathing. They had come so close. In that treasured moment, the world was perfect because they were all alive and together. Mike had carried all their gear, and the entire party through to safety.
Slowly they crawled away from the freeway and into the grasses on the other side. They found some discarded food and drank dew off the morning leaves. The forest they walked through would have been no more than knee high to a human, but to them it was a jungle of wonders. Within a few hours, they topped a crest and could smell for miles the fresh air and the beauty of wilderness. The sky was lightening to blues and purples. Dawn was coming soon and they would see another one, instead of laying as corpses beside the great barrier to rot in the sun. Thanks to Mike. All thanks to Mike.
"I've never been outside the city before," whispered Bigfat in awe of the silence and serenity.
"None of us have," said the Mouse Knight. "This is going to be unknown territory from now on. There will be less food, and different kinds. Sometimes no water and always... always we will be hunted. We are food here. Nothing more."
"Ha. Nothing changes," scoffed Mike.
"We must be cautious; travel only in the night by sneaking," continued the Knight. "Snakes, cats, and possibly even owls and hawks will be watching for us... And most of us are easy prey. I mean... I'm white!"
"You're a bird's Happy Meal, pal," said Bigfat. Everyone scowled at him, as he turned in time to stop Squibble from biting his ear. "Hey... hey I'm sorry, okay? But it's true - he's white! Well, except the armor... his head anyway!"
"He's right. We have to camouflage ourselves."
"Camo what?" asked Mike.
"A hawk or an owl, while moving, can see a brown field mouse in a brown field, at night, from 200 feet in the air! We are Happy Meals. Compared to native mice, we're slow, stupid, and glowing. We have to at least cover up. I'll wear my armor and helm. Mike, you and the rest will have to cover in mud."
"You are not serious," Bigfat exclaimed.
"Dead serious," replied Mouseknight. "It's that or die for sure. First night we're out. Toast."
"I'd like some toast," Squibble commented.
Bigfat grumbled, but rolled his massive bulk around in the dirt and mud until it covered every inch.
"Mice are such clean critters," he whined. "This is cruel and unmousey punishment."
But they all did it . Got really dirty and became as black as they could. Their fur matted, their faces unhappy, they went forward a few more yards where Mike dug out a tunnel and they curled up in the dark earth, sleeping like exhausted babies through the day.
For with the dusk, they would enter the Fields of Fate.