The forest rose from a silver mist sparkling in the dawn sun. Instead of teeming with life it was silent under overcast skies. Faint spots of blue broke through the dark clouds as the air snapped with an unusual, eerie chill.
I clutched my tunic in a weak attempt to warm up, uncertain if the problem was indeed the weather or something more internal. The beauty of the valley was lost as my mind swirled, my teeth chattering as I fought to control raging emotions. Butterflies danced in my stomach as I made my way down the rock.
The quiet of the outside extended into the main gathering area. I found myself surrounded by somber rats strapping swords to their sides along with looping coils of ropes on their shoulders. Justin walked around supervising the group, his demeanor not betraying any fear he might be feeling.
The sword around his slim waist was worn but well taken care of, a favorite possession perhaps. I couldn’t help but wonder. Was that sword used in the infamous incident that made Jinnai’s life miserable by association?
“Are you all right?”
I found myself unable to be more excited at seeing Jinnai.
He held a long scabbard, hesitating in handing the weapon to me. I gulped hard as I glanced over the polished hilt and the untouched leather. Nausea tickled the back of my throat.
Why did I have to speak up? I berated myself as I looked up at Jinnai with apologetic eyes. Why couldn’t I just let the rats deal with this the way they wanted to? I had no right to speak up at all. I don’t even belong here!
“You don’t have to do this.” Jinnai read my face with accuracy. “Go with the others. Worry about hiding and sealing up the place. Leave the fighting to us, please.”
Worry rode on his voice. He didn’t want me getting involved any more than I wanted to. However none of this was about what we wanted. With one more swallow I reached out, taking the sword. Jinnai lowered his eyes disappointed yet both of us knowing it had to be.
I held the sword in nervous hands. It was heavier that it looked, the cool metal radiating through the leather. I tightened my palm around the scabbard, pushing in the shaped hide. The razor sharp edge pressed the surface, my fingers flinching at the realization as to what I held. My mind went blank. With one motion, I took the belt, fastening the buckle snugly. The weight hung strangely against my hip. There was no turning back now.
I found it ironic I was more daring and courageous as a rat than I ever was as a full-grown woman. Death was no longer something to be feared. It became a challenge that had to be overcome at all costs.
As I draped a coil of rope over my shoulder, I noticed Justin’s ensemble. His tunic was of thick leather, giving a soft squeaking as he walked. The snug collar encircled his neck and white woolen sleeves covered his arms. The Stone stood out from the dark leather; it’s gold and ruby brilliance glimmering with unearthly radiance.
Justin wasn’t concerned about wearing such a seemingly delicate artifact on our mission. The Stone was more than a piece of jewelry. Even though he had questioned whether its magic would protect them it was obvious that he was not going to take any chances without it.
“The plan is simple but by no means will that guarantee our victory.” Justin’s voice echoed in the hall. “It would have been safer for us to do this during the night while they slept but time is not on our side. These are experienced woodsmen. Even if we were to tie them up they would be able to get out of their bonds before daybreak.”
He took a deep breath and continued.
“This makes this mission even more perilous. We will be out in full view and the poachers will know exactly what we are doing to them. The only good I see is that we are worth more alive but only if we are extremely lucky. I highly doubt they’ve had their prey fight back to this extent.”
The rats hung onto every word.
“If any of you want to back out now, you are free to do so, nor do I blame you.”
Silence greeted the invitation.
Justin turned his entire body, motioning everyone’s attention to me. It was uncomfortable but my body straightened, my head held high. My mind was strangely lucid, focused on the mission before us. I could no longer be the cowering waif I was used to being, crying at every moment of faintest stress.
The wallflower withered as thorny brambles grew in its place.
“Eddie will be handling the horses,” I started, almost startled by the sound of my own voice. “Those horses will be proof to the rangers at the station that there is something wrong going on. It will be them that will hopefully lead them to us.”
A nervous murmuring slipped through the hall.
I continued. “Be aware of any traps that may be set around the perimeter. Most importantly though, beware the guns. When I last was there I noticed only a couple of rifles yet it only takes one to wipe out an entire group.”
My mind went blank as Justin took over, the fear and apprehension returning as what little courage I displayed dissipated. I leaned back on Jinnai who kept me from totally falling over. Twangs of remorse brewed as I scanned the sea of volunteers, still unsure what lied ahead. I entwined my fingers around Jinnai’s, squeezing tightly.
“This is the most dangerous mission the Rats of NIMH have ever faced,” Justin continued. “Some of us may not return when all this is over. You all know it is a risk I myself am willing to take. Nevertheless there is one thing we must remember. If we have nothing to die for, there is nothing for us to live for.”
With those words we began our exodus above ground, weapons and coils rustling and clanging. As the warm morning sun shone on my face I dreaded the reality of not returning. I glanced over at Jinnai who flashed a reserved smile. The same thought was going through his as well.
As we disappeared into the grass, we made our way towards the camp, the anticipation eating away at all of us.