– Chapter Three –
Flanked by two rows of Protectors, the long procession of Rulers led by Long Snout crossed the Common lair and stepped up to the platform. Close to one hundred of them crowded its flat, smooth surface. Most kept to the edge of the circle, while the spacious nucleus was occupied by the elders, together with White Muzzle, the King-rat, and his immediate family.
Like his now hushed companions, Twisted Foot gazed in awe at this spectacle. The superior bearing and sheer majesty of the Rulers never failed to fascinate him. There were so many features which set them apart from his own kind. In stature, they were broader and much longer, with skinny tails that stretched the same distance as their bodies. In contrast to the uniform blackness of the Outer Circle, their coats were lighter in colour, varying in shade from the dull stone of the lesser Rulers to the rich earth that signified royalty. Their eyes, too, were very different: rounder and fuller, and always seeming to reflect the blood colour of a dying sun.
From the centre of the platform, Long Snout, ancient Chamberlain of the underworld, stood erect on his hindquarters and slowly surveyed the audience around him. Now pointing his muzzle to the roof and revealing his yellowing, but still fearsome, fangs, he emitted a long, piercing screech, which reverberated round the Common lair, reinforcing and accentuating the stillness therein.
‘Comrades of the Secret World!’ he began. ‘Countless Cycles ago, our forefathers came to this place on a Two-Legs vessel which had crossed many dark, cold waters from a land far away. Searching for a new home, they braved the icy water to reach the world above. There, they came upon the black Scavengers and their vile, warlike ways. Our forefathers were few and the Scavengers were many, but the Scavengers were defeated and enslaved.’
‘Not that story again,’ Fat One sighed to himself. His eyelids drooped heavily as he settled his bulk between Twisted Foot and Long Ears, resigned to what threatened to be yet another protracted Assembly.
‘Comrades of the Underworld!’ the Chamberlain continued. ‘Our forefathers drove the slaves to create this warm and secret place, this world of darkness and sanctuary. But much more was required. Our forefathers were ageing. They had need of many loyal warriors to protect them, to feed them and to keep watch on their enemies. Careful breeding with the she-rats of the Scavengers produced a race of strong, black-furred warriors. Thus evolved our present society: the Inner Circle of Rulers and the Outer Circle of Protectors, Hunters and Watchers.’
Long Snout paused to sniff the air. Eyes ablaze, he scoured the Outer Circle rats, compelling their attentiveness. His whole body stiffened suddenly when he spied Fat One, now fast asleep in the midst of the Watchers.
As the Chamberlain pushed through the others on the platform to obtain a closer view of this transgression, both Twisted Foot and Long Ears were desperately prodding Fat One with their snouts.
‘Wake up, you fool!’ cried Long Ears in his familiar, high-pitched squeal.
In the same moment, Neck-Snapper, a particularly sadistic young Protector, leapt snarling into the ranks of the Watchers.
‘Let me wake the fat idiot,’ he growled and then lunged towards Fat One.
Old Sharp Claws, the Chief Watcher, moved nimbly to block the path of the Protector.
‘Back!’ warned Sharp Claws through bared teeth. ‘I’ll deal with this!’
Neck-Snapper hesitated for some moments, snorted in disgust and retreated slowly to the ring of Protectors.
Sharp Claws then turned to glare at a thoroughly shaken and wide-awake Fat One. ‘Later!’ he hissed.
Fat One shivered. The punishment, he knew, would not be a violent one, but he would still pay dearly. Many long, freezing watches on the outside world would be a worse fate.
Satisfied that a penalty would be paid, and content that the incident itself had succeeded in rousing his audience, Long Snout returned to his place in the centre of the platform. His Inner Circle colleagues, on the other hand, had watched the episode with their usual disdain. Matters like this one were commonplace and irksome, serving only to interrupt the Assembly – and to delay the feast that lay ahead.
The Chamberlain resumed his oration.
‘Comrades of the Dark World! The society created by our forefathers has endured many hardships through many generations. Yet it has survived – and it has prospered. It has survived because we are a disciplined society and because we are ever-vigilant. Yes, discipline and vigilance: these are the rules which govern our every way.
‘Discipline and vigilance,’ he repeated slowly, this time directing the words at a very attentive Fat One.
‘Comrades, our secret world remains hidden from the marauding Two-Legs because our lives are disciplined. Our presence on the world above is controlled carefully, kept to only a few Hunters and slaves each time – and always when darkness covers the land. Our time here in the underworld is spent in comfort. We do not allow our numbers to overrun the lairs. Unlike the Scavengers, who couple incessantly, we mate only during the Cold Cycle. The Selection also rids us of the weak and useless among our broods, keeping our society strong and able.
‘In the same way,’ continued Long Snout, ‘our sources of food are managed carefully.’
His words acting like a trigger, the attention of the Outer Circle rats switched immediately to the heap of gulls sprawled between the Chamberlain and the handsome forms of White Muzzle and his two sons, Red Coat and Fire Eyes.
‘Yes, comrades, our Hunters plunder the nests of the white birds. But they do so sparingly. Because the kills are not excessive, the white birds remain on the world above, a constant source of tender young flesh for the Inner Circle.
‘So it is with the grey-furred swimmers who emerge from the waters during the Warm Cycle. Only the weakest and least defended of their young are carried off by the slaves. There is no alarm, no fear. The No-Legs always return to breed again.’
Long Snout paused now to regard the six Scavengers who had accompanied the hunting pack on its recent foray. Quivering, terror-stricken, surrounded by fierce Hunters, the slaves huddled together, seeking some solace from their closeness. They had been to the outside world, had learned its secret. They had sensed freedom there. Their fate was clear – and imminent.
‘Warriors of the Outer Circle!’ cried Long Snout. ‘Your source of food is also plentiful and controlled with care. The Scavengers are the slaves of our society. They carry for us and dig for us. They are also your sustenance. We allow them to breed freely and to infest their lair. They devour each other to still their hunger. But those who survive are strong and well-fed, their flesh well able to satisfy your own appetites.
‘However, we must never forget, comrades, that the Scavengers are warriors like us. There are many of them. They must be watched over constantly here in the dark world and on the world above. Remember, warriors, without vigilance there will be insurrection by the Scavengers! Without vigilance there will be discovery and destruction by the Two-Legs!’
Sensing that the Assembly had come to a close, many in the Outer Circle began to shift restlessly, eager for their share of slave meat.
‘Hold, comrades!’ screeched Long Snout, the sheer ferocity of his cry commanding renewed attention.
‘Recently, our Watchers have reported sightings of many Two-Legs – many more than usual – on the giant which steps over the waters and casts its shadow on our world. We sense danger. We fear the prying eyes of the Two-Legs. Until the danger passes, more Watchers will be posted on the outside world. Be vigilant, Watchers! Keep us informed of the Two-Legs’ movements.’
The Chamberlain paused, his eyes locking on Sharp Claws. The Chief Watcher bowed curtly, signifying his acknowledgement of this new command.
‘Now, comrades!’ Long Snout cried with a flourish. ‘The Assembly is over! Let the feasting begin!’
– o –