The Red Rat
Horace, formerly a knight of the kingdom of Whelm, dug his shovel into the muck. His feet sunk further into the muddy bed of the empty moat. He lifted a load of mud onto a large wheelbarrow, and immediately turned to dig out another. He worked methodically, without looking up.
Further down the moat were other ditch diggers. They spoke to one another, making jokes and gossiping. Occasionally one glanced at the big rat who labored by himself, but they were careful to keep their distance from him.
Horace was glad they did. He did not think he could stand either their pity or their abuse. He would certainly do something foolish. Something rash.
That’s why he was here after all.
When the sun had risen to its zenith, a clear trumpet sounded. It was the call to see the tournament today. The fur on Horace’s neck prickled. Oh, how he longed to be there -- beside the heralds. Guiltily, he thrust the feelings away. He did not deserve to be there. Horace kept digging. The other ditch mice left the drained moat, pushing their barrows up wooden ramps with many a good-natured curse. Comrades. Brothers of the shovel. Off to watch the tournament from the stands.
At least, Horace would not have to watch Whelm lose. It had been a year since any knight from the Kingdom of Whelm had won laurels in a tournament. The shame only added to his guilt.
Horace continued to work. It would be hard to shift the wheelbarrow, but that seemed only proper to Horace. It should be difficult. Everything should be difficult for him. He lifted another shovelful of muck. As he did, he caught sight of someone standing on the edge of the drawbridge, looking down at him.
Horace ignored the figure, continuing with his work. The gawker would move on soon, would go to see the tournament. He surely was just startled by Horace’s size.
“You there! Laddie!”
Horace ignored the words. The voice was old and somewhat squeaky. It was just a mad old mouse. Horace would not lose his temper with a mad old mouse. He kept digging the muck.
“Oy! Are you deaf as well as big as a house? I’m talking to you!”
Horace bent his head and kept to his work.
“I said, I’m talking to you!” continued the old mouse. “Haven’t I seen you before, laddie? Haven’t I seen you fight in the grand melee? What are you doing down there?”
Horace froze, holding a pile of muck suspended in the air. Surely, he’d been recognized many times before -- but no one had been so gauche as to comment upon his fallen state. He clenched his jaw.
Had he seen him fighting the grand melee? What a ridiculous question. Of course he had. There was hardly a citizen of the Walled Kingdoms, great or poor, let alone in the Kingdom of Whelm that had not seen Sir Horace, champion of a hundred tournament melees fight at one time or another. He was the greatest melee fighter in the history of the Kingdoms. He had been. Bitterly, he dumped the muck on his wheelbarrow, trying to hunch his shoulders against the old mouse’s attention. That was all over now. He was nothing.
“It is you, isn’t it?” said the old mouse, his voice loud and carrying. “Sir Humphrey or something. I saw you win a few times, didn’t I? Should be easy, of course, for a knight of your size to win. I suppose you’ve taken to digging moats as more of a challenge.” The elder cackled at his own joke.
Horace’s temper bubbled, simmering hot. He dug viciously into the ground, as though it was the mud he was angry with.
“Ah, wait,” said the old mouse. “I think I remember something now…”
Horace ground his teeth.
He remembered something, did he? Horace wished that he could forget that something.
The most prestigious part of any tournament was the joust. Horace had never been much good at it -- he was too large to ride the usual mounts. The second most important competition was the grand melee. Participants fought in smaller, qualifying melees to get to the grand melee. In the early rounds, the participants were divided into two sides, and it began with a glorious charge. Whichever side won would send some of their number on to the next match. But for the grand melee, it was every mouse for himself. Whichever warrior was left standing at the end won. That’s where Horace excelled. That’s where he was the best. And a year before, that was where he’d met his doom.
He could still recall, vividly, the sly smile of Sir Lanval of Whelm, a mouse of noble pedigree and a warrior of some renown. The smile of his best friend, as he pushed another pint of fortified ale into Horace’s paws. The smile that betrayed him.
Why, Lanval? Why did you do this to me?
Lanval did not do this to you, a voice in his heart answered. He betrayed you, yes. But this is your own work.
Horace realized he’d stopped digging, his shovel empty in his hands. He tried to return to work, but the memory was so strong, so insistent.
It had been the second day of the tournament -- all the smaller melees had been fought, and of course Horace and Lanval had both qualified. Then Lanval took him out to drink. Could he have guessed what his friend intended? Were there hints he missed that their friendly rivalry had become a deadly feud? Sometimes he thought he caught a spark of jealousy in Lanval, but..
Ah, it was useless. What mattered was that Horace had arrived for the grand melee deeply hungover -- just as Lanval had intended. Lanval had laughed when he saw his miserable friend. That had hurt, putting Horace in an even more foul mood. He’d taken it out in the fighting. Sir Horace battered smaller knights to the ground without effort. He’d forgone any grace in his style, relying on his brute strength.
In the end, the competition had come down to Horace and Sir Lanval. The crowd loved it, roaring their approval and their support for both warriors. Lanval wasn’t as big as Horace, but he was still a large and bulky mouse in his armor. His smile was cruel now, as he moved out of Sir Horace’s way, forcing Horace to stagger after him.
“You don’t seem so quick today, old friend,” Sir Lanval had mocked him. “Is aught amiss?”
“Why?” growled Horace, and then he did see the glint of jealousy there.
But what Lanval said was, “Your shadow may be long, but I’ll stand no more in it.”
Horace grunted, wounded by the words. Was that all their friendship had been? A shadow to stand in? He swung his flail, making another attack.
Sir Lanval had kept moving away, forcing Horace to turn as much as he could, making Horace dizzy and nauseous in the close heat of his helmet. All the while Lanval mocked and taunted his friend, saying he could not believe that Horace would be so stupid as to allow himself to get so drunk the night before the grand melee. Saying that Horace did not deserve the laurels he’d won in his hundred melees. He was just a big dumb rat, afterall. He would never have won if Lanval had not been on his side.
Finally, Sir Horace lost his balance, crashing to one knee. Sir Lanval had taken the opportunity to club him in the back of the head, sending the hero of a hundred melees crashing into the churned dirt of the field.
The roar from the crowd still rang in Sir Horace’s ears. He’d lost. Unfairly, he’d lost. Rage at the betrayal of his friend, his childhood companion, drove Horace back to his feet.
The trumpets had sounded, ending the grand melee -- calling everyone to drop their arms. A herald was calling over the chorus of the crowd, announcing the winner and champion: Sir Lanval of Whelm. In his fury, Sir Horace struck his old friend with all his might. The mouse knight was lifted fully up into the air, flying across half the field to land with a sickening crunch of flesh and armor. The crowd was silent, horrified.
Sir Lanval died on the spot. And Horace was disgraced, stripped of his lands, his wealth, and title by his queen before everyone.
Horace shook with anger at the memory, but his fury was all for himself. He was a knight of the Walled Kingdoms: a model of chivalry, of honor. And he’d murdered his friend. It had been no accident in the melee, no mistake in the training grounds. He’d known when he swung his flail that it would be a death blow. He’d meant to slay his friend, vindictively. From behind. If he died here, it was no more than he deserved.
And he would die here.
A knight was not a knight without his weapons, without arms and a helm. And those were not easy to come by on a ditch digger’s wages. Horace would never have a chance to redeem himself. He’d not the means to become a knight again. Only death would release him.
Horace looked up.
The old mouse was still peering down at him, both paws resting on an elaborately carved staff. His black eyes twinkled, as though with their own light. He stared unabashedly at Horace, the rat standing in the mud. It was as though he could see into the big rat’s mind -- had witnessed the intense memory with the fallen knight.
“I am no knight,” he said, his voice hoarse with disuse. “You must have seen someone else.”
“No, no, laddie,” said the old mouse, energetic once more. He capered about. “I’m very very sure it was you, laddie! You were very good. The best. The very best in all of Whelm.”
That made Horace’s heart ache. Since Lanval had fallen and he’d been disgraced, no knight of Whelm had won any tournament of note.
Horace shook his head again. It buzzed with memories and fury.
“You’re wrong,” croaked Horace, turning back to his mud, to his task, to his ruin and disgrace. No road back. If he’d been the best, he would never have slain Lanval. If he’d been the best, he would not be where he was now.
How Horace missed it though: the banners and the pennants, the cry of the horns, the cheering crowd. He missed his armor and his flail. He missed the feasts: the food and the wine. He missed the smiles of pretty courtiers. Guiltily, he pushed the memories away -- as though enjoying the past was another thing he no longer deserved.
As Horace dug into the muck once more, something heavy crashed down next to him. He was splashed with the mess. Angrily, turned to see the elderly mouse, who was still standing at the edge.
The mouse grinned at him.
“I’m sorry, laddie. Dropped my pack. How clumsy! Fetch it back up to me?”
Horace glared at him. Then, resigned, he lifted the bundle. It was heavy -- surprisingly so -- and wrapped in canvas. He staggered and stomped through the mud to one of the ramps. He thought of tossing the mouse down into the empty moat, of dropping this heavy pack on the insolent creature’s head. But he would not. He deserved this misery. Deserved to be treated so.
The mouse waited for him, standing by a large wagon on the drawbridge. Beyond him, Horace could hear the crowd and the trumpets. The first melees would begin soon.
In the wagon were various parcels and bundles, some wrapped in colorful cloth. The mouse was garbed in tattered grey rags, and closer to, Horace saw that the staff was carved in the likeness of a falcon or a merlin. His eyes really were deepest, darkest black. There was an odd dignity to this old mouse, and thoughts of tossing him into the moat vanished entirely.
Horace placed the pack on the back of the wagon -- surely, it was too heavy for this mouse to lift?
Horace did not say anything, turning back towards the ramp and his digging.
“Where are you going?” demanded the old mouse.
“What?” rasped Horace, slowing and turning around.
The mouse gestured with his stick to the cart. “You can’t leave your cart there!” he said, tone upbraiding. “It’s in the way!”
“My cart?” growled Horace. “It’s yours, old fool, not mine.”
The old mouse snorted impatiently. Using his stick, he tugged aside the canvas wrapping of the bundle Horace had recovered from the mud. Despite the fact that Horace had been sure that the wrapping was done up tight, it fell away at the old mouse’s touch. It revealed a helmet, that glittered with red enamel. A wrathful rat roared from the crest. It was overly large. Horace was sure it would fit him.
“Does this look like mine?” asked the old mouse, scoffing. “I could sleep inside that echoey thing.”
Horace took a closer look at the bundles. Now that he did, they seemed to be a full set of armor, the different pieces wrapped individually. Including a shield and a flail.
Horace turned back to the mouse.
“What is this?” he asked, voice rasping. “This cannot be.”
The capering mouse had settled. He looked serious now. His voice was no longer squeaky, but rather rich and sonorous.
“The Kingdom of Whelm lost two strong knights nearly a year past. Both died,” said the old mouse, emphasizing that unduly. “A terrible tragedy. The Kingdom has suffered since. They’ve no one who fares well in the tournaments. They’ve no champion to fight for them. If war comes to them, they will lose.”
Horace, feeling as though he were moving in a dream, took the canvas off the shield. It showed a golden rat crouching on a field of sable and gules.
It was the shield of an unnamed knight. A knight with no house. Or a knight whose name could not be spoken.
But a knight, all the same.
Horace looked back at the mouse… and found that he was gone. No sign of the grey robes or the twinkling black-eyed elder remained.
He glanced around -- how had the little fellow vanished?
No champion at Whelm.
Tears filled the big rat’s eyes, and he knelt on the drawbridge, holding the shield against his chest. Two knights died.
“Yes,” he whispered. “Sir Horace is gone -- never to return. But the Red Rat can still fight for Whelm.”
The trumpets sounded again, calling him to the tournament field, to fight for his honor, for redemption, and the memory of what he once was.