– Chapter Four –
Excitement spread through both Inner and Outer Circles, although the cause of the excitement in each case was quite different. On the platform, White Muzzle, as befitted his rank, was first to claim a gull, seizing the bird in his massive jaws and dragging its carcass closer to Red Coat and Fire Eyes. There, the King-rat and his princes proceeded to rip open the bird’s soft belly and then bury their muzzles deep in its exposed and spilling stomach. In similar fashion, some of the elders led by Long Snout claimed another of the gulls, while the last was snatched away and set upon by a group of lesser Rulers. Salivating freely, the remaining members of the Inner Circle waited eagerly, ready to pounce on the carcasses once the others had taken their fill. Later, the remnants of the carcasses would be carried through to the Inner Circle lair to be picked clean by the she-rats. The bones would be chewed on, and the feathers would be used to line the Rulers’ nests. Nothing would be wasted.
Events on the floor of the Common lair were no less exciting. As the Outer Circle rats looked on in anticipation, a band of Protectors closed in on the trembling Scavengers. At the head of the band were Jagged Fangs and Neck-Snapper, both skilled executioners. Once slain, three of the slaves would be claimed by the Protectors, whose lair numbered more than a hundred rats. The carcasses of the other slaves would be shared by the smaller lairs of the Hunters and Watchers.
Jagged Fangs was first to move. Jaws snapping, he leapt at the throat of the nearest slave. His victim struggled momentarily and then fell limp, blood gushing from its gaping neck. In the next instant, Neck-Snapper lunged towards another slave, but this time the intended victim was too quick. Side-stepping the attack, the slave sprang suddenly at the Protector’s eyes. A great shriek of pain erupted from Neck-Snapper. Just as unexpectedly, the slave sprang away from the line of Protectors, literally propelling its body into the startled crowd of Hunters and Watchers, and then flew past them towards the tunnel that led to the outside world.
Quick to recognise their route to salvation, the other slave-rats also leapt into the crowd. Desperately clawing and gouging any who blocked their way, they, too, broke free and sped towards the tunnel. In total uproar, almost two hundred Outer Circle warriors raced after them.
‘Wait!’ screamed Long Snout.
The power of his command seemed to bounce off the walls of the lair, overwhelming the din from the chase. The pursuit came to a sudden halt.
‘Fools!’ he roared, his muzzle still dripping blood. ‘By now, the Scavengers will have escaped to the outside world. It will be too light – and therefore too exposed – to hunt for them. We must wait until darkness.
‘One Eye,’ he turned to the Chief Hunter, ‘send your best warriors when darkness falls. Bring the slaves back to me!
‘Until then, more Watchers are needed above. Sharp Claws, make sure you send your best. I want reports of the slaves’ movements!’
With an angry snort, the Chamberlain returned to his carcass.
– o –