Chapter 8: The Pilgrimage of the Mouse Knight
Of which there are 4 parts
Part IV: Their Darkest Hour
The hawk's beak descended and ripped Mouseknight's helmet off his head, flung it to the ground. For the second time in his life, Mouseknight felt helpless, eyes glazing over as his face became a mask of resignation.
"Kill him," screamed Bigfat, "and you die seconds after, punk!"
Gazing at Mousknight's insolent protector, Hawk replied, "Even together and unhurt, you are not even close to being my match, mouse. Still, I took the liberty of inviting my own servants to the fray."
Bigfat heard a noise behind him, and spun.
"Mike, look out!"
He executed his mouse-bounce maneuver on Mike. Unprepared, Mike felt his mass pushed abruptly aside - followed by something missing him by millimeters. But that something hit Bigfat, who made a sudden squeak like the air coming out of a tire.
"Oh, that smarts!" Bigfat exclaimed sadly. Two bleeding holes were left in his hindquarters.
The young rattlesnake recoiled to strike again, unhappy it missed its first target. Mike was still hazy from bee venom. He would never move in time; he hadn't even turned around.
The head flashed - and so did Bigfat. He had never moved so fast in all his life! Raising all his weight up he slammed his paw down on the snake's moving head as it passed him to get Mike. The snake ate dirt on that strike.
"You think you can just kill us whenever, eh!" Bigfat roared. His anger boiled. Desperation had given him berserker strength and speed. He was no longer afraid. He was enraged.
The snake pulled its head out of the earth and looked with horror at the angry, huge mouse as it stalked right toward him.
"You think you can bite me, you little snot! You think you can kill me ??!!" He stomped toward the snake and balled his paws. Panicking, the snake struck again hitting Bigfat in the gut. The heavy mouse recoiled in pain, bent over. The snake pulled back waiting for the mouse to die.
But the mouse straightened up and came onward!
"You can't even fit your mouth around me, you worthless piece of twine!" Bigfat bellowed. "Can't take me, rubber band! Snake ain't gettin' another rattle this year! Snake gonna die!" By this time, he had reached the astounded rattler, who just gazed at the insane mouse with fear in its eyes. To Bigfat, the role reversal was not lost - and he enjoyed every second of it. "You know what, chicken wire?" he said, looming over the terrified snake, "I need to put some weight back on. I think I'll eat you!" With that he grabbed hold of the snake's neck, biting into its spine with all his strength.
It snapped, and the snake died instantly with that amazed expression fixed on its face.
Hawk was not pleased. Mike had seen everything that went on and was torn between watching the great bird and watching Bigfat, who was slowly sinking to the ground.
"No matter," said Hawk. "Food destroys food. You are all insignificant." Mouseknight was unconscious. Resisting the pressure of his boiling anger, Mike held his energy back for the one moment when it would truly be needed. It looked like that would be now: as the hawk's beak came up to deliver a final blow to the Mouse Knight's unprotected head. Mike crouched to lunge, knowing the hawk was expecting it. He would perish, only buying the mouse an extra few seconds... if he wasn't already dead.
So be it, thought Mike. This was a commitment to the end, and we all knew it. This wouldn't be such a bad end.
Then something happened that the hawk had not expected. The sharp twang of a rubber band sounded - sending a sharp rock to blind Hawk's right eye.
Roaring in pain and fury, Hawk raised its wings to take off. Once free of the ground, the hated mouse could effortlessly be torn in half.
But suddenly there were bees stinging its head, its back! Ants biting its feet - hundreds of them! And mice. Mice coming from every blade of grass in the field, pouncing upon its wings to hold it down, biting with vicious ferocity.
The great bird came off the ground anyway, laughing at the assault.
The mice weren't enough weight, thought Mike, his heart racing. But maybe I am!
Squibble was loading another rock when he saw the dexterous rat leap in a single bound upon Hawk's massive neck. His teeth sank into feathers. Shrieking a deafening cry, the winged reaper still rose into the air! Rapidly leaving the ground and glaring terribly at the tiny mouse aiming its slingshot, Hawk raged at its foes... and forgot the little body in its grip for a precious second.
"You... you can do it Squib!" Bigfat breathed.
"Mousegod guide my aim!" Squibble whispered; he released his missile.
And struck the dead center of the hawk's last good eye.
The hawk banked sharply right, and its unlocked talons opened. Mouseknight fell. Mike fell off the back of the neck to grip with all his strength its underside, burrowing with his powerful teeth.
The Mouse Knight was falling too far. It was twenty feet or more.
"He cannot die today!" Bigfat exclaimed - and heaved himself up by sheer willpower. His eyes were watering, his mouth was open. He swayed for half a second, then lit out in the direction of the unconscious Mouseknight's fall.
Squibble felt the rush of wind as Bigfat raced past. His fur was ragged, ears pale and eyes dim, but the giant mouse raced like the wind. Squibble himself wouldn't have been faster in that moment. The little squire followed the huge fast mouse in a daze, not believing what was happening and feeling powerless under it all. He felt his head go light, like in a dream. Everything took on a psychedelic unreal quality.
Under this filter of events, Squibble saw the Mouse Knight land right on Bigfat, who was directly on target. Bigfat squeaked; the limp form of the small mouse in broken armor bounced off and hit the ground with a tiny thud.
Feeling numb, Squibble looked up and saw the outline of the hawk tilting crazily in the sky. He saw Mike's silhouette framed against the dawn as the rat bit deep into Hawk's neck - finally pierced through feathers into flesh. Then the only mouse left standing saw the hawk's head bend backward and the wings stopped. Two bodies fell from the sky, hundreds of feet... in slow motion... to vanish, finally, when they met the horizon.
Minutes might have passed by before he came back to reality and heard his name being called. At first he thought it was his mommy calling him for dinner. But it was Bigfat, hoarsely rasping his name.
"Squib. Hey... Squib..."
Squibble's voice shook as he looked around, fixing his wide eyes on the Mouse Knight's body, crumpled and bent awkwardly in an unnatural position. "Yeah... ?"
Bigfat was chuckling. "Did you see that? You saw that... Squib... I... I killed the snake." He coughed and gasped in pain. He looked really bad. His eyes were dropping shut, his mouth hung open, panting. His sides heaved as he drew his last breaths. His nose and lips were turning sickly pale. But he tried to smile. He knew the little mouse kid was scared half to death; that he would be alone in a cold world very soon.
"I killed the snake, Squib," he gasped. "That means I'm a Mouse Knight now! I'm a knight!"
Squibble thought, someone has to knight you to become a knight... but didn't say anything. He just slowly crawled over and lay on top of Bigfat, trying to keep him warm. Bigfat was struggling to breathe, slipping away. But he wouldn't stop talking, as always.
"I'm a Mouse Knight, kid! I beat you to it! I'm a knight. I'm a knight. I did it… I'm important... I'm somebody! Don't let anyone forget, Squib. I made it. I'm a knight... I'm... a... a... Knighhhh..."
And then he was gone.
Squibble broke out in tears.
"I won't let anyone forget you, Bigfat!" he promised. "Not ever. Ever!" Lying atop the corpse, he cried until his tears were gone. Then his head came up. Terror filled him as he realized he was alone.
He went to Mouseknight. Dried blood was all over his face. His eyes were swollen shut. His armor was destroyed. But he was breathing.
"Oh, please, Sire! Please get up!" the little mouse pleaded. "I don't know what to do without you! I don't know the way home! I want my momma!"
As Squibble broke into hysterics, the Mouse Knight's head came up painfully slowly. His eyes cracked open.
"Now, now Squib..." he croaked. "Can't have... anyone... seeing a brave squire... crying..."
"Master! You're alive!" Squibble chirped, and flung himself on the downed mouse.
"UUFF!" Mouseknight squeaked. "Not for much longer... if you do that again..."
"What must I do, Sire?" Squibble begged.
"Hold it together, Squibble," commanded the knight. He rose shakily to his feet and stood there on weak, uncertain limbs. His breath rasped in his lungs. He tasted dirt and blood in his mouth. "What happened to everyone?" he asked.
Squibble looked afraid, as if he was telling on someone.
"They died," he cried. Tears flowed again.
Pity and compassion filled the Mouse Knight's crusty eyes and he held Squibble close. He remembered his promise to Tree to care of her only son. Now it looked like he was going to fail. He didn't want to tell Squibble, but he lacked the strength for even one more mile. Things inside him felt... wrong... fire invaded his lungs every time he breathed. He thought of the great knights books he used to read. They never gave up, even when all seemed lost. And almost always, at one point, everything did seem lost.
"First, get me out of this armor, Squib..." he began.
"Your beautiful armor, Sire!" Squib said, horrified at the idea of his master being unprotected.
"Not any more, Squire," said the injured mouse. "It did its job, and now we still have one to do. I need you to be strong now, Squib. Strong. Like your mother told me you were. Are you?"
Squibble looked him right in the eye with the first serious expression Mouseknight had ever seen on the little one's face. It was dead serious.
"Yes I am," said the squire. "I will not fail you, Master."
Mouseknight nodded. "Okay."
The armor came off, mostly falling apart. It had taken seven or more full blows from the hawk, strikes from a cat, and many battles with bees and bugs. It had more than done its job. Mouseknight felt a pang of loss when it lay useless on the ground. He felt it was a close friend. He would have been dead many times over without it.
"Any swords left?" the knight said. They were light; maybe they could carry them.
"Everything was lost with Mike when he fell," Squibble said. "We have nothing."
Mouseknight looked toward the rising sun. "Sir Percival."
"What, Sire?" asked Squibble.
"Sir Percival searched for the Holy Grail, Squibble," Mouseknight managed a voice of strength. "The one thing that would save all of the Kingdom of Camelot. He searched for years and years. He lost everything that meant anything to him. He had given up hope when the peasants, hating the knight for his apparent failure, beat him near death and threw him into a river. He would have drowned had he not removed his armor. Once he had lost everything, he was free to see the Grail. Only then."
"Like you," said Squibble.
"No," said Mouseknight, looking at his young sidekick. "Like you."
"But... but I have you, Sire."
"Maybe not for much longer, Squibble," Mouseknight said, putting a shaky paw on the little squire. "I don't feel good. I feel sick."
"But... but I can't make it without you!" Squibble cried, feeling fear creep up his spine again.
The Mouse Knight forced Squibble's nose to his own. Squibble smelled blood, sweat, and confidence. "Yes," said Mouseknight, "you will make it without me... because you have to! You don't have much choice. You have to make it - either to the end of this foolish quest, or back to the city. I know I won't make it back. I'm going forward, even if I have to crawl."
"I will carry you, Master."
"Don't be absurd, Squibble. You can't carry another mouse for long. We're going to be tired, hungry, thirsty - and cold. I may die, Squib. If that happens, you say a few kind words, then leave me behind, you hear? Go back to your mom, or try to finish the quest if it seems right to you. Just don't stay near me. A dead mouse in a field attracts... bad things."
Squibble was clearly horrified beyond what he could handle. But he held up, barely, and nodded. Very weakly.
"Is the hawk still alive?" asked Mouseknight as he gathered himself together, licking Bigfat one last time.
"No..." whimpered Squibble. "Mike killed it."
Mouseknight looked up from Bigfat and smiled.
"Well, that made him the mightiest of us all then, didn't it?"
"Scout reporting, your majesty," the bee said, standing at attention before the Queen.
"I heard there was a great battle," she said. "Tell me the results."
"All perished that I saw, save one, my Liege."
"Which one?" she asked.
"The smallest young one, My Queen."
The Queen bowed her head. All the bees followed.
"Just like Nemo," she said. Then she raised her head and her eyes were filled with fire. "Tell the hive to swarm. Tell them to take on anything that flies in the air. I declare war in the name of Nemo. Protect the remaining mouse at all costs. We will not go into hibernation until he is safe. Day and night shall we rule the skies! I have spoken!"
Every bee in the hive saluted and immediately were launching like fighters, scrambling to take control of the air.
The ants did the same on the ground.
And the mice.
But none of them knew where the survivors were, for Squibble and Mouseknight had gone on.
Squibble and the Mouse Knight crawled onward (in the direction they hoped was correct) for a day and a night, always expecting resistance or predators... for two bright mice in a brown field during the day was asking for death. But no death came. The field and sky were silent. As if they were alone in all the world.
The Mouse Knight tried to cheer Squibble up, but he didn't have much strength. They were already traveling at half the speed the y had been at in leisurely times. Mouseknight limped. His breath was ragged. They found no food, or water, and soon would be finished. Squibble nervously joked that it couldn't get any worse.
Then it began to snow.
Food and water were available in such tiny amounts that it served only to keep them alive so they could suffer longer. Each day the knight grew slower and sicker. His nose was wet, he sneezed constantly. His legs shook - he had to rest more and more often. His tail and paws grayed, and he lost far too much weight far too quickly. Squibble was scared, but held on. His Sire wasn't dead. Yet.
Snow dusted the grounds so they went around drifts, freezing and miserable. They no longer had strength to speak or chat happily, and both felt weary and sad always. Squibble would sometimes reminisce about a funny thing Bigfat did, or talk about how strong Mike was, making Mouseknight smile and nod. Then, after a few days, he just smiled. Then there was no reaction at all.
At night it was dreadfully cold.
The Fields of Fate became a terrible, empty place. During the day there was no sun: it was hidden by gray clouds. Once it rained on them for hours, and it was frigid. Soaked to the bone, they could find not a single rock of shelter. They hadn't the energy to tunnel. They shivered violently and huddled close to each other for little warmth. That night the only sound Squibble could hear was the ragged phlegm-laden breaths of his dying master.
At day nine, Squibble was wondering why the hawks or snakes didn't just get it over with. He almost would prefer death to the constant torture and agony of cold and hunger. He suggested they make camp, but Mouseknight kept walking.
An hour later, he suggested it again, but the knight ignored him and kept walking.
"Master?" Squibble asked, waving his paw in front of the Mouse Knight's face. "Master!?"
The Mouse Knight's face looked like Bigfat's had after he had died. It frightened Squibble so deeply he stopped his Sire by force. The Mouse Knight fell over and remained still, his breath rattling in his chest.
You see, in the wild, mice learn not to show symptoms of illness; lest they be picked out by predators as weak - and targeted as a meal. Thus mice are almost dead by the time they show any kind of strange behavior at all. The Mouse Knight had simply followed his ancient instincts and tried to look normal. But no longer. He was on his last legs now, and those legs would no longer carry him.
"Oh, dear Master!" Squibble cried, gently laying atop his beloved Sire, as he had for Bigfat. The Mouse Knight's body shook with cold. His eyes were full of freezing water.
"S... Squib..." he whispered so quietly had Squibble not been a young mouse with good ears he wouldn't have heard it. He bent down to the mouth of his mentor to listen.
Mouseknight fought with all his will to get words out through his frozen teeth.
"Leave... me... and... go."
Squibble recoiled in shock. "I... I can't!" he whimpered.
"Must..." choked the knight.
Squibble's eyes teared up and the tears froze on his fur. He shook and cried. But Mouseknight said no more. He was barely breathing, and could not move. He held on to life with the last of his fiery spirit. A spirit so strong that it had inspired hundreds. Thousands. What would he do in my place? Squibble desperately thought.
After only a moment of thought he picked up his master and went on, carrying the crippled mouse on his bony, starving back.
Lit in blue translucence, an eerie shadow of light, the mouse had no eyes. No eyes at all, not even eyeballs. And Squibble could see right through him. The fields were so quiet. Squibble could hear his own breathing, and the Mouse Knight's desperate rattle, but not this mouse's.
This mouse was a ghost.
Squibble was so tired. And had seen so much. Yet he trembled before this new horror, when he'd thought for certain it could get no worse.
"What... what do you want?" Squibble whispered in fear.
The ghost opened its mouth; a lonely echo of howling wind came out before the words drifted out, as if coming from deep in a lost cave.
"This field..." it moaned, "is the Field of the Dead..."
Squibble jumped forward - lunging for the ghost with his teeth. Catching only air he fell through his target and landed on the other side. Turning with slow realization, he watched as the dead mouse floated over him.
"We can... never leave this lonely place..." the mouse's voice welled over Squibble in a cold wave of terror. "We are... damned. This field... is haunted... you... will never... leeeaaaavvvve..."
Squibble screamed with all his heart as though he were dying in terrible pain - and woke from his dream.
Panting and gasping, he sat there, seeing no blue light. No eerie translucent ghost.
He looked down at the Mouse Knight next to him. He was afraid to touch his body, for fear he had passed away. Squibble didn't remember falling asleep. He hadn't meant to. He hadn't meant to...
Gingerly he touched the body. Though it was cold, the Mouse Knight groaned.
Squibble's eyes lit up a tiny bit. He had seen sick mice. His family had died before him. One by one there were less little bodies when he slept as his brothers and sisters passed away in a situation just like this one. He remembered it well. At last, there had only been his mother, shivering with cold, trying to shelter him, starving as she gave him the last of the food. This mouse before him was sicker than any mouse he had ever seen, even some of those at the Kingdom who had died of similar illness. All of them would have been dead by now. All of them. Even in heated conditions with food and water, none would have lasted as long as the Mouse Knight had already.
"Oh, precious master," Squibble sobbed as he licked the ice off his master's eyes. "You are so strong."
Some time later (Squibble did not know when, for time had lost all meaning), while crawling on frozen feet, bearing his cold, heavy burden across the fields, he fell down. He fell, and would not rise. The Mouse Knight lay on top of him.
It was over.
He felt his body letting go. Then he smelled a familiar stench, and was sure he was dreaming. He wondered if in the spirit world it would be warm.
When he looked up in this dream, there stood Bigfat. And he was fat again! And looked happy.
"Actually, Squirt, it's warm and perfect. There's food of every kind. Everything I can imagine - then a thousand times more. It's awesome."
Squibble squinted and grimaced. Bigfat had never looked so... healthy. Never so powerful or strong.
"But it ain't for you yet, kid," said Bigfat. "You get up now, hear me? Get off your lazy ass and move those feet."
Squibble didn't move. Just stared at the apparition in the empty field.
"I said get up, punk!" Bigfat yelled. "You can't give up on your master like this! He still lives. You can't stop now, Squibble... you're so close."
Squibble felt tears running down his frozen face; he whispered, "We need help."
Bigfat cracked a broad, warm grin. "Well, if you'll just get off your tail, you'll see what the Mousegod set up for you, brave kid."
Squibble's eyes opened all the way.
"You're the Mousegod?!" He stammered.
Bigfat gave him a preposterous scoff. "That's not what I said, kid. I said the Mousegod sent you help. It's all in the contract. Holy quests get help. I'm it."
"You're the Mousegod!" said Squibble, astounded.
Bigfat shook his head. "You're hopeless, punk. Just... look." He pointed skyward.
Squibble strained his weak, aching neck to look skywards.
From the horizon behind him came a long line through the sky, circling once over his head, flowing like a pointed arrow into a field before him - then vanishing over the very next hill.
A line of bees.