Red Road

by David Barr Kirtley

This story originally appeared in the July 2008 issue of Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show, and is also available in audio format. The illustration is by Nick Greenwood, and was colorized by David Barr Kirtley. Learn more about the story here.
 


 
    Benjamin had always thought of himself as a strong-willed young mouse, but he had to admit that he was starting to lose heart. Not that he ever regretted penning that pamphlet calling for the abolition of the monarchy, but now he did sometimes wish that he'd used a pseudonym.
     He'd been imprisoned in the dungeons beneath Kingsburrow for six months, which meant he still had fifty-four months to go on his sentence. His cell was tiny and dim. Its walls were angular and dirty, and the ceiling dipped so low that Benjamin couldn't even stand up straight. His tunic was in tatters, his fur was matted with grime, and his claws had grown long and jagged. He'd heard no news of his family, his friends, or the outside world. Twice a day, a gruff old mouse with gray whiskers would pass by and deposit a food tray on the floor outside the cell, and then Benjamin would reach between the iron bars to fumble for a tin cup of water and a hunk of moldy cheese.
     One evening, two royal guards -- tall mice who wore red livery and carried gilded poleaxes -- appeared outside the cell. One of them said, "You there, the king wants to see you."
     They opened the door, then led Benjamin down the passageway and up a steep spiral stair. Warm light seeped from above, and Benjamin was grateful for it, though when he finally reached the top step and emerged into a torchlit antechamber, the brightness made him squint.
     The guards hustled him along. In one hallway, Benjamin passed a dignified and well-groomed mouse who stopped and instructed the guards, "He can't go before the king looking like that. Clean him up." So Benjamin was taken to a parlor where the first female mice he'd seen in far too long doused him with cold water, brushed the tangles from his fur, and dressed him in a fresh tunic.
     Finally he was led to an elaborately decorated sitting room. In one corner stood Prince Francis, who wore a red doublet, a black cloak, and a sword and scabbard. Benjamin had never seen Francis up close before. It was true what mice said -- Francis, with his thick tawny fur and large, imposing ears, was the tallest and most handsome mouse in all of Kingsburrow. Benjamin felt a touch of apprehension, for mice also said that Francis was a master swordfighter, methodical and relentless.
     Francis said, "Do you know why you're here?"
     Something -- maybe just being clean for the first time in ages -- made Benjamin feel bold. He said, "To write a pamphlet?"
     Francis actually smiled at that, but one of the guards swung the butt end of a poleaxe into the back of Benjamin's leg, knocking him to one knee. The guard said, "Kneel, you. And show respect."
     Francis waved the guard back. "It's all right. Leave him."
     Benjamin stood up again. His leg throbbed, but he refused to show any pain. He looked around. "So where's the king?"
     Francis said sadly, "I am the king. My father is dead."
     Benjamin was stunned. He found it almost impossible to imagine that King Michael, the grim and cruel old mouse who'd reigned for as long as Benjamin could remember, was king no longer.
     Francis fixed an intense gaze on him and said, "Does that please you?"
     Benjamin stared right back and said nothing, though what he thought was: Yes. Your father was a tyrant.
     Francis turned away and began to pace. "What happened was this. My father had always had a passion for exploration. With the realm at peace and prosperous--"
     Benjamin snorted. Prosperous? This royal brat obviously knew nothing of the struggles of the common mouse.
     The guards bristled and looked to Francis, who hesitated a moment, then ignored the interruption and continued. "My father decided to journey far away to the west, farther than any mouse had ever been. He took with him a band of brave knights." Francis halted then, and stared at nothing. "My father was slain, along with all his knights save one. That one, Sir Timothy, made it back here. He was mad with fever and badly wounded -- he'd been ambushed by Westburrow rats as he returned, and had barely escaped. Before he died, he whispered to me of the beast that killed my father. It was some foreign monster, unlike any we've ever seen." Francis turned back to Benjamin and said, "I will not risk the lives of any more good mice on this matter. We are too few as it is, and winter will be upon us soon. But neither can I sit here while my father's killer remains alive and free. I intend to seek out this beast myself, and slay it."
     Benjamin suddenly knew why he'd been summoned here.
     And indeed, Francis explained, "I shall need a squire to assist me on my journey, and if I should fall I'll need a messenger to bear the news of my fate back to Kingsburrow. You, Benjamin, are a traitor and a seditionist. Your life I am willing to risk. But know that I also feel, from everything I've heard of you, that you are not truly wicked, and that you even possess a certain misguided nobility. I believe you might deserve and might welcome a chance to redeem yourself. If you agree to accompany me, I will pardon you, and you will be a free mouse again. If you refuse me, you may return to your cell to serve out the remainder of your sentence."
     Benjamin considered this. He'd be damned if he'd let the guards drag him back to that cell, and he had always wanted to see the wider world. But he didn't want to die at the hands of Westburrow rats or worse. The wilderness was crawling with all manner of grotesque monstrosities that Benjamin knew only from tales: Snakes. Spiders. Even the terrible owls, said to be the largest of all creatures. Benjamin especially didn't want to die for the sake of a royal fool like Francis. Still, Benjamin quickly made up his mind to accept. Being thrown back in the dungeon would accomplish nothing, but beyond the walls of Kingsburrow he might find opportunities for escape or subterfuge.
     He remarked, "A generous offer." Then he mustered all the sincerity he could and said, "Very well, I accept. Thank you, your majesty."
     Francis gave a wry grin, as though not totally convinced by this newfound graciousness, but he seemed satisfied. He said, "All right, then. I am pleased to hear it. We will depart on the morrow."

     That night Benjamin slept in a modest bed. The next morning, two guards escorted him to the throne room -- a massive chamber where rectangular mirrors hung on red walls, crystal chandeliers dangled from the ceiling, and two golden thrones sat on a carpeted dais. The room was crowded with mice, and their babble filled the air. Every noble mouse in Kingsburrow had come, and Benjamin regarded with bemused disdain their haughty demeanors, their perfumed ringlets of fur, their tight, uncomfortable velvet coats and absurdly long silk gowns.
     A side door opened, and Francis emerged and walked to the dais. He wore a crown, and his sword swung at his hip. The crowd fell silent. Francis stood before them and said, "Thank you all for coming. I have an announcement." He surveyed the assembled mice. "You know that my father, our king, perished in a far off land. Now I go to find the beast that slew him and destroy it. I ask that while I am away you heed the wise command of my sister, who shall rule in my place." Francis removed his crown and handed it to a page, who carried it to the front of the crowd and presented it to the princess, a plain-faced female mouse who wore a simple red dress.
     Francis drew his sword. He held it aloft and said, "I swear I shall not rest until I have avenged my father's death. I swear it on my sword. I swear it by Sherry, goddess of childbirth and cheese. I am Francis, son of Michael, and I have sworn."
     Benjamin found this whole oath business a bit absurd, though for the sake of appearance he applauded along with the crowd.
     Francis sheathed the sword, nodded once, said, "Goodbye," and withdrew through the side door. The guards urged Benjamin forward, and he followed after Francis through the door and down a series of corridors. Finally they arrived in the large earthen cavern that housed Kingsburrow's main gates -- two tall oak doors studded with iron.
     A group of guards, knights, and servants clustered around Francis. Two large rucksacks were brought forward. Francis shouldered one, and passed the other to Benjamin. Benjamin had expected to be burdened with the majority of their supplies, and was pleased to note that the two packs seemed equally laden.
     A servant handed him a sheathed dagger. He couldn't believe they were making the mistake of arming him. His heart raced, and he tried not to show any surprise or excitement as he took the weapon and strapped it to his belt.
     Several guards stepped forward and dragged open the giant doors. Behind the doors stood a portcullis, and the light of morning shone through it and cast a gridwork shadow on the floor. Then the guards turned a winch, and the portcullis creaked as it rose into the ceiling. Francis said some parting words to a few of his knights, then strode out through the gates, and Benjamin followed.
     Outside, the sky was clear and blue. A gentle breeze played over Benjamin's fur. He was standing on a hilltop that looked out over a rolling landscape of rich autumn colors. He and Francis followed a wide dirt road that wound down the hill and into the farm country. In the fields, mice toiled with hoes and scythes while in the distance gray smoke plumed from the chimneys of the peasant burrows.
     Francis and Benjamin hiked in silence. The farms disappeared behind them, and then there were only the great bushes and stones looming overhead, and the trees like giant towers. That afternoon they came to a place where the road divided, and they chose the branch that turned west. That way would lead them to the border of the realm -- a two week journey -- and beyond that lay the lands of the Westburrow rats, one enormous inbred family famous for their cruelty. Francis was obviously hoping to cross those lands without attracting the attention of the rats. Benjamin would rather not take the chance at all.
     When night fell, Francis chose a camp spot and built a small fire. He said, "I'll take the first watch. You get some sleep."
     Benjamin was sore and exhausted, and compared to the dungeon floor the soft ground looked almost as inviting as a bed. He collapsed into the grass, wrapped himself in a blanket, and slept.
     Hours later he was shaken awake by Francis. Benjamin groggily crawled over to a tree and sat with his back against it. Francis spread a blanket on the ground, lay down, and closed his eyes. Soon his breathing became soft and regular.
     Benjamin sat there for over an hour, fingering the hilt of the dagger and trying to work up the resolve to do what must be done. One thrust tonight would do more to bring down the monarchy than a million of his silly pamphlets, and he could make up any story he wanted about how Francis had died.
     He eased the dagger from its sheath, then crept across the grass. He paused and tried to steady his nerves. He had never wielded a knife before against anything besides cheese. His heart pounded. He felt dizzy. He wondered how much force it would take to puncture a mouse's flesh, and how much blood there would be.
     He told himself: Just a little closer. Just take one more step. You can do that.
     He took another step.
     Francis lashed out with one foot, and Benjamin's legs were swept out from under him, and his chest hit the ground. Strong hands grabbed his arm and twisted it behind his back, and the dagger was wrenched from his fingers. Then he was rolled over, and he felt the knife pressed against his neck. He stared up at Francis, who knelt over him.
     Francis said, "I understand why, because of what you believe, you felt you had to try. Don't try again." He tossed the dagger up and caught it by its blade, then offered it back to Benjamin hilt first. "You should hardly expect me to be off guard at your very first opportunity."
     Benjamin eyed the dagger. "You're letting me keep it?"
     "I would not leave you defenseless in the wild."
     Benjamin felt foolish. He snatched the dagger and slammed it into its sheath, then massaged his arm.
     Francis returned to his blanket and lay down again, with his back to Benjamin.
     Benjamin said, "So that's it? You're not afraid of me?"
     Francis yawned. "No." After a moment, he added, "You would never have gone through with it."

     Benjamin awoke before dawn to find that Francis was already packed and waiting. They continued on their way. Neither of them spoke.
     Soon the sun peeked up over the hills and warmed the earth. At mid-morning Francis called a halt, and settled down to rest on a bed of browning pine needles. Benjamin sat a good distance away. Francis chewed on a piece of cheese and said, "So tell me, why do you wish me dead? Wasn't it I who freed you from the dungeons?"
     Benjamin scowled and said nothing.
     Francis persisted. "Truly. I want to know."
     Finally Benjamin burst out, "Forgive me if I'm insufficiently grateful that you ended my unjust confinement after a mere six months. And you only released me so that I could risk my life helping you."
     Francis cocked his head thoughtfully. "Even granting, as you say, that you've been used poorly, is that really reason to kill me? Am I so bad?"
     Benjamin glared. "Shall I list for you the abuses of your royal house?"
     Francis looked away. He said, "My father was a strong ruler. Perhaps too strong. He was a hard mouse to love. No one knows that better than I. But I am not my father."
     "It's not about you," Benjamin said. "It's the principle."
     Francis turned back to him. "And what principle is that?"
     "No more kings. Freedom and equality for all mice."
     Francis frowned. "There will always be kings. Whether or not they're called kings. Whether chosen by blood or wealth or fame. Mice need kings."
     "You're wrong."
     Francis sighed. "So what should I have done? When I found myself born a prince? What would you do? If offered a title?"
     Benjamin answered at once, "Renounce it. Abolish the office, and let a more just order replace it."
     "Truly? That's what you'd do?"
     "Yes."
     Francis said, "Your father is a merchant. A prosperous one."
     "He is," Benjamin admitted.
     "So you're not exactly a common mouse yourself. You've enjoyed means and education far beyond the dreams of most mice. Is that just?"
     Benjamin was defensive. "No. But I can't help that. I could have used my position to increase my own wealth and gratify my own desires, as my peers have. Instead I've used the gifts I've received to try to do some good, to try to change things so that more mice get the opportunities I've had. What else could I do? Forswear my family's wealth to live amidst the destitute? What would that accomplish?"
     He suddenly felt uncertain. A hint of a smile played over Francis's lips. Benjamin said angrily, "It's not the same thing at all! You can't even compare the two. You, with your palaces and crowns and servants, and all your kneeling and silly oaths."
     Francis looked puzzled. "What do you have against oaths?"
     "It's pompous," Benjamin said. He knew he should guard his tongue, but he couldn't stop himself. "If you're going to do something, just do it. You don't have to put on a show for the whole world. Swearing to Sherry about this and that."
     Francis narrowed his eyes and observed, "You don't believe in Sherry."
     Benjamin sneered. "Of course not. Goddess of childbirth and cheese? The very notion is imbecilic. It's peasant superstition."
     Francis grinned. "Says the great champion of the common mouse."
     Benjamin stopped. He had no retort.
     Francis suddenly looked very serious. "Listen to me. When I swear an oath, I invite the court as a courtesy, and I invoke Sherry because what can it hurt? But I doubt that either the court or Sherry would raise much fuss if I chose to break my vow. But I would know. An oath is a promise to yourself, and I would swear my oaths whether or not I was the only mouse around for a hundred miles."
     Benjamin said nothing. He saw that Francis meant it.
     Francis stood. "Enough. Let's get moving."
     That night Benjamin took the first watch while Francis slumbered. As Benjamin sat there staring into the campfire, he understood that he would not try to harm Francis again. For two weeks they hiked west through the wilderness, and each night Benjamin kept watch as best he could and guarded over Francis. It wasn't just that Benjamin felt cowed by how easily he'd been overcome, and abashed at how lightly his actions had been excused. The damning fact was that he sort of liked Francis. Benjamin would never have expected this to be possible, but there it was. Francis was charming and clever, brave and sincere. If Francis had not been born into royalty, Benjamin imagined that the two of them might even have been friends. And Francis treated him as though they were friends -- friends and equals -- though Benjamin was nobody and Francis was king of all the realm. Benjamin hated himself for feeling awed by that title. He had thought himself above such petty sentimentality. But he supposed that he was only a mouse, and that all mice were subject to such feelings to some extent.
     One night at dusk, as they crossed a field of long grass, Francis suddenly stopped and said, "What's that?"
     Benjamin halted and looked around, but saw nothing. "Where?"
     Francis cocked his head. "Listen." Then a look of alarm crossed his face, and he said, "Get down." He crouched and grabbed Benjamin by the shirtfront and pulled him down too. Then Francis slid his sword from its scabbard with one smooth motion, and the sword made barely a whisper as it came free.
     Benjamin looked into the sky, which was blue and tan in the fading light. "What? What is it?"
     Francis said sternly, "Shhh!" He cocked his head again.
     Benjamin waited. A breeze rustled the grass overhead.
     Then Francis said, "Damn!," and leapt to his feet. He pulled Benjamin up, shoved him, and said, "Run! Now!"
     Benjamin ran. Everywhere blades of grass stood before him, and he pushed between them. The grass whipped at his face. Then a winged shadow fell over him.
     A huge scaly foot plucked him from the earth. Talons bit into his sides. Above him beat great dark wings that sent cold air gusting down over him. He twisted to stare up at his captor. It was the dread predator, bane of all mice, the death that comes from above. Benjamin knew its name from a hundred childhood tales. Owl.
     He was borne up into the trees. Then the owl dropped him, and he slammed onto a bed of withered grass -- a nest. He was too stunned and hurt to move. His tunic grew damp as blood oozed from his sides where the talons had gashed him.
     The owl landed, and stood over him. Its massive head was crowned with a set of demonic horns, and below them a pair of huge round eyes gazed out with cold malice. The owl spoke in a high, rasping voice, "I will catch your friend tooo." Then it stepped back, spread its wings, and swooped away.
     Benjamin managed to crawl as far as the edge of the nest, then he collapsed. He tugged his dagger from its sheath, but he was so weak he could barely lift the dagger, let alone fight. And what good would a dagger be? What good would any weapon be against that monster?
     In the dim light, the branches overhead reminded him of the iron bars of his cell back in Kingsburrow, and he felt an ache of longing. Why hadn't he stayed there, safe? He was no knight, to brave the wilds. And now it was hopeless. Soon he'd be dead.
     Some time later he heard an awful rustle of feathers. He turned to see the owl settle on the branch beside the nest. It said, "Your friend was tooo quick. I cannot find him."
     Benjamin held up the dagger. "Stay back."
     The owl laughed. "Foool. You cannot defeat me. I have consumed a hundred mice, and will consume a hundred more. Surrender your weapon and I will grant you the mercy of being swallowed whole. Else I will devour you in pieces."
     Benjamin's hand trembled violently. The owl stepped toward him.
     Then, from behind the owl, came Francis's voice, "Enough! Release him. I command you."
     Benjamin couldn't believe it. Francis had climbed the tree, and now stood on the branch with them. For a moment Benjamin dared to hope that Francis could somehow bargain with the owl.
     The owl's head rotated all the way around to face Francis. "And whoo are you?"
     Francis stepped forward. "I am Francis, son of Michael and king of this realm." He raised his sword so that its edge was aimed at the owl's throat. "I am your death, if you defy me."
     Benjamin felt a fresh rush of panic. Was Francis crazy?
     The owl said, "I have dined on the bones of a hundred mice. But never a king. Yoou will be a true delicacy, Francis, son of Michael."
     It fluttered toward him, its claws reaching for him. Francis leapt at it, his sword poised to strike. The owl panicked and tried to reverse course, and Francis thrust his sword straight into its looming right eye. The owl screeched and flopped backward, and Francis yanked the sword free and landed lightly on the branch and kept advancing.
     The owl shambled to its feet. Blood streamed from its ruined eye. Francis circled to the owl's right, so it couldn't see him, and it turned to try to keep him in view. It wiped blood from its face, then hunched forward to seek him with its good eye, and Francis stabbed that eye too, and the beast was blinded. Then Francis hacked at the owl -- at its thigh, its belly, its wings. The owl moaned and staggered away.
     Then, as it teetered at the edge of the branch, Francis leapt onto its chest. He grabbed its feathers with his left hand and with his right he rammed his sword straight up through the owl's throat, deep into its head. The owl toppled backward -- with Francis still clutching it -- and together they plunged over the side.
     Benjamin's pain gradually subsided. Then he climbed from the nest, walked along the branch, and scrambled down the tree's trunk.
     When he reached the ground, he found Francis waiting there, unharmed and resting against the great mass of the owl's corpse.
     Benjamin stared amazed. An owl was a thing out of nightmare, the most feared of monsters, and Francis had just slain one quickly and with pitiless efficiency. Benjamin had heard that Francis was a master swordfighter, but this was beyond anything Benjamin had imagined. He was even more abashed now to have ever thought of raising a weapon against Francis. When Francis had a sword in his hand, he was terrifying, unstoppable.
     Benjamin said, "I can't believe you did that -- climbed up there, fought that thing -- to save me."
     Francis said simply, "You're one of my subjects. It's my duty to protect you."
     Normally Benjamin would have bristled at being called anyone's subject, but now he was too tired, sore, and grateful to be alive to care. So all he said was, "Thank you."
     A few days later they crossed the border of the realm, and entered the lands of the Westburrow rats.

     One night, by the light of the campfire, Benjamin said, "Tell me of this beast that we go to slay. The one that ... killed your father. What did Sir Timothy say of it?"
     Francis looked grim, and for a moment Benjamin was afraid he wouldn't answer, but then Francis said softly, "When I met with Sir Timothy, he was delirious and near death, and much of what he told me was without sense. He spoke of a black and barren land where nothing would grow -- as if some demonic agency had leached all life from the soil. The very night my father's party entered that land they were set upon by a strange creature. Sir Timothy whispered that it was giant, with burning eyes and a voice like thunder. Clearly, these were the fancies of madness. Still, I do not doubt that it is some formidable foe, to defeat a band of knights."
     Benjamin said, "What if it defeats you?" He was surprised to feel so unhappy at the prospect.
     Francis said, "Then my wise sister will rule, and the realm will likely be better for it."
     These were brave, wry words, but beneath them Benjamin sensed something colder. Francis had no intention of being defeated. He meant to crush this beast, as he'd crushed every enemy he'd ever faced.
     A few days passed. One afternoon, as Francis was making camp for the night, Benjamin set off into the brush to gather firewood.
     As he returned, he heard Francis cry out. Then cruel, guttural laughter echoed through the forest. Benjamin threw down the twigs and drew his dagger.
     From the direction of the camp came an unfamiliar voice: "There are two rucksacks here. You three, search the area, find his friend."
     Benjamin ducked into a bush, then peered between the leaves as three tall black rats passed by. Their fur was greasy and patchy, and they wore odd bits of scavenged armor and carried rusty scimitars. Westburrow rats.
     Benjamin crept to the edge of the camp, and saw with horror that Francis had been captured. Two rats held Francis between them so that he dangled with his toes barely scraping the ground. Another four rats were rifling through the rucksacks.
     The rats must have taken Francis by surprise. But if he could just get his hands on his sword, he'd no doubt make short work of them. Where was the sword?
     There. It was being held by a rat who seemed to be the leader. He was huge, and his fur was brindled and shaggy. He paced by the spot where Francis hung, and Francis glanced at the sword. The leader said, "Oh, you want this?" He held it up. "What do you think you're going to do with this toy, little mouse?"
     Francis said dangerously, "Let me show you."
     The leader laughed. He inspected the sword. "Too small. Useless." He tried to break it over his knee, but the sword was the finest mouse steel, and refused to snap.
     The rats were all distracted. Benjamin thought he might be able to disrupt them and give Francis a chance to break loose.
     But why should Benjamin take the risk? All he had to do was slip away, and then he'd be free, and there'd be one fewer monarch in the world. He thought of all the months he'd spent rotting in the dungeon merely for speaking out, and the memory made him feel vengeful.
     Then he stared at Francis, hanging there. Benjamin couldn't just leave him. Francis would be killed, or maybe taken prisoner, which was worse. There were horrid rumors of what was done to mice who were dragged down into the depths of Westburrow, and none of those mice were ever seen again. And Francis had saved Benjamin from the owl ...
     Enough. Benjamin's mind was made up.
     He leapt from the brush, dashed up behind the rat leader, and plunged the dagger deep into the rat's lower back. The leader bellowed and dropped Francis's sword. Benjamin yanked the dagger loose.
     The rats stood shocked. Then Francis slammed the heel of his foot into the groin of the rat to his right. The rat shrieked and released Francis's right hand, which Francis then raked across the eyes of the rat to his left. That rat stumbled back, clutching its face, and Francis dropped to the ground in a crouch, then sprang forward and sprinted for his sword.
     The leader spun around. He gripped his wounded back with one hand while with the other he drew forth a heavy scimitar. "You are going to regret that, little mouse," he growled. "When we bring you back to Westburrow, I'll see that you get special attention."
     Benjamin backed away, and waved the dagger warningly. The leader advanced on him.
     Francis ducked a scimitar cut and leapt for his sword. Another rat jumped on him, and they went down together. Francis kicked, stretching out his hand to feel for his sword. His fingers brushed its pommel.
     Come on! Benjamin thought desperately. The leader loomed over him, backing him against a tree.
     Francis wrapped his fingers around the hilt of the sword.

     When the rats were dead, Francis said, "That was a brave thing you did. I owe you my life. From the first time I heard of your case, I sensed that there was great potential in you. When I met you, I knew my guess had been correct. I am proud to see that I was not mistaken." He raised his sword. "Kneel, Benjamin."
     Benjamin was full of awe. He knelt.
     Francis touched the flat of the blade to each of Benjamin's shoulders, and said, "Arise, Sir Benjamin."
     Benjamin rose, euphoric. He had never dreamed of anything like this ... well, maybe as a child, but that had been so long ago. He had given up on such dreams.
     Francis now spoke of secret gestures and mottoes that would allow Benjamin to prove his rank to the knights of Kingsburrow. Benjamin listened as best he could. But all he could think of was the throne room, and how upon his return all those rich and noble snobs would have to bow to him -- to him, who had been a condemned prisoner -- and call him "sir."
     He said, "Thank you, your majesty," and he meant it.
     Francis smiled. "You've earned it."
     Two weeks later, as evening fell, they came to the edge of a wasteland. Just as Sir Timothy had said, the ground seemed unnatural and accursed -- smooth, black, and hard as stone. Nothing grew there. Nothing lived there.
     Francis stepped onto the black earth. Then he turned to Benjamin and said, "From here I must go on alone. This is my battle. I ask that you wait for me here. If I have not returned by morning, you must make the long journey back to Kingsburrow and tell my sister that I am dead."
     Benjamin was startled to find himself blurt out, "I want to come with you. I want to help."
     "My friend," Francis said, "you've already saved my life once. You've done more than I ever could have asked. I cannot allow you to take any more risks on my account. Sherry willing, I will see you at dawn. If not, it has been my honor to know you. Remain here, and do as I have bid. Your king commands it."
     Before Benjamin could object again, Francis strode off into the wastes. Benjamin stared after him, then sat down in the grass.
     Night came on quickly, and thick pale mist rose up to shroud that gloomy, barren land. Benjamin felt anxious and uncertain. He wondered if he should go after Francis.
     He'd been ordered to stay here. But normally he would never bow to the will of a king. Then again, normally he would never risk his life to help a king either. He felt adrift. The ideologies that had guided him all his life now seemed as vague and insubstantial as the fog. The only thing he was certain of was that Francis was in danger.
     Benjamin stood. He took a deep breath, then stepped onto the black ground.
     He tried to follow in the direction that Francis had gone, but the mists were dense and swirling, and Benjamin soon lost his way. For a time he stumbled on aimlessly. Finally he halted, panting.
     Then he heard something -- a rumble, a growl, an endless, breathless roar. A beast with a voice like thunder. He ran toward the sound, which grew closer and louder. Out in the fog appeared two patches of light that he knew were the beast's burning eyes. They shone impossibly bright, and cast before them great white beams.
     A breeze parted the fog. Away across the plain, Francis stood with his feet planted and his sword held ready.
     Benjamin yelled, "Francis!"
     If Francis heard, he gave no sign. His gaze was fixed on the rapid approach of the monster. He called to it, "Hear me, fiend. I am Francis -- son of Michael, whom you slew. I have come to exact vengeance for my father. Look upon my sword and tremble, for I have never been defeated by mouse or beast. Now, face my wrath!" He charged, his sword held high as he screamed, "For Michael! Michael and Kingsburrow!"
     The beast drew nearer. It was gigantic, bigger than an owl, a hundred times bigger, bigger than anything Benjamin could have ever imagined. It bore down on Francis. Then the mists rolled in again and smothered Benjamin, and for a time he saw nothing. Finally, he spotted two blurry red lights that faded in the distance as the beast sped away.
     Benjamin dashed to where Francis had stood, but Francis was gone, vanished. Benjamin staggered in circles, seeking him.
     It wasn't until much later, when the fog melted to nothing, and the clouds blew away from the moon, and the moon shone down on the earth, that Benjamin slowly realized, with an uncomprehending horror, that the ground beneath his feet was red.

     Benjamin, desolate, dazed, wandered away, only vaguely aware of the soft squelching that his boots made each time he took a step, and of the bloody footprints he left behind him. He thought: Francis. Oh, Francis, why? You were a great mouse. You would have been a good king. I would have followed you.
     Finally he halted. A familiar object lay just before his toes, though his confused mind took a moment to grasp what he was seeing.
     A sword. Francis's sword, yet unbroken.
     From somewhere behind him there arose a low roar. He snatched up the sword, then whirled, terrified, clutching the hilt to his chest. His breath came fast and shallow.
     But he saw no blazing eyes, no beams of light. There was only the wind, picking up now, gusting across the plain.
     The monster was gone. But the fear remained, and would remain, he knew, for so long as that beast was out there. That ghastly and unnatural thing that could crush a mouse flat.
     Benjamin studied the sword -- the sword of Francis, that had vanquished the terrible owl, and brought ruin upon the vile rats of Westburrow. Then he knew what he must do. He could not let Francis's death be for nothing.
     Benjamin was the only mouse around for a hundred miles. He raised the sword above him and said, "Francis ... I ... I'll go back to Kingsburrow. I'll tell them what happened here, how heroic you were. I'll make them see. I will raise up such an army of mice as this world has never seen, and I will return here, and find some way to destroy that beast forever. I ... I am Sir Benjamin, knight of Kingsburrow ... and I have sworn."
 


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