by David Barr Kirtley
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 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 to Benjamin, "You there,
the king wants to see you."
The guards opened the cell 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 the
king's son, 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 asked Benjamin, "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, and Benjamin fell 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 Benjamin 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 loudly. 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 you should 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 large 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 his
crown, and his sword swung at his hip. The crowd fell silent. Francis stood before
the thrones and said loudly, "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 Benjamin 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 Benjamin a sheathed dagger. Benjamin 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, Francis and Benjamin 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.
Benjamin eased the dagger from its sheath, then stood and 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. Benjamin gasped. His legs were swept out from
under him, and his chest hit the ground. Strong hands grabbed his right arm --
which held his dagger -- and twisted the arm painfully behind his back, and the
dagger was wrenched from his fingers. Then he was rolled over, and he felt the
dagger 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." Francis pulled the dagger away from Benjamin's throat, then
tossed the dagger up, caught it by its blade, and offered it back to Benjamin hilt-first. Francis said, "You should hardly expect me to be off guard at your very first
Benjamin stared at the dagger. "You're letting me keep it?"
Francis said, "I would not leave you defenseless in the wild."
Benjamin felt foolish. He snatched the dagger and slammed it into its sheath. Then
he massaged his sore arm.
Francis stood. He returned to his blanket and lay down again, with his back to
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
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
"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."
Benjamin said, "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."
Francis studied him carefully and said, "Truly? That's what you'd do?"
Francis said, "Your father is a merchant. A prosperous one."
"He is," Benjamin admitted.
Francis concluded, "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?"
Benjamin 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
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 Benjamin 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 Francis and Benjamin 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. Francis scanned the sky. Then he slid his sword from its scabbard
with one smooth motion, and the sword made barely a whisper as it came free.
Benjamin was suddenly afraid. He 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 grabbed Benjamin by the
shoulder, pulled him 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.
Benjamin was borne up into the trees. Then the owl dropped him. Benjamin fell,
and 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
The owl landed, and stood over him. Its massive head was crowned with a set of
demonic horns. 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?
Benjamin stared upward. 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. The owl 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
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. The owl said, "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."
The owl fluttered toward Francis. Its claws reached for him. Francis leaped at it,
his sword poised to strike. The owl panicked and tried to reverse course. Francis
thrust his sword straight into the owl's 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 that it couldn't see him. It turned to try to keep him in view. It
used its wing to wipe blood from its face, then hunched forward to seek Francis
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 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 at the beast. 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 that Benjamin had imagined. Benjamin 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
A few days later they crossed the border of the realm, and entered the lands of the
One night, by the light of the campfire, Benjamin asked Francis, "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 that Francis 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?" Benjamin 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
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 dropped the twigs he'd collected 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. He peered between the leaves and saw three tall
black rats pass by. Their fur was greasy and patchy, and they wore odd bits of
scavenged armor and carried rusty scimitars. Westburrow rats. Benjamin was
He 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 Francis and
The rats must have taken Francis by surprise. But if Francis could just get his
hands on his sword, he'd no doubt make short work of the rats. Where was the
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 noticed and said, "Oh, you want this?" He
held the sword up. "What do you think you're going to do with this toy, little
Francis said dangerously, "Let me show you."
The leader laughed. He inspected the sword and concluded, "Too small. Useless."
He went to break it over his knee. He was burly and strong, 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. Benjamin hesitated.
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 pulled 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. 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. His pointed brown teeth were clenched in
a grotesque grimace. He said to Benjamin, "You are going to regret that, little
mouse. 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. He leapt for his sword. Another rat jumped on him,
and they went down together. Francis kicked. He stretched out his hand to feel for
his sword. His fingers brushed its pommel.
Come on! Benjamin thought desperately. The leader loomed over Benjamin, and
backed him against a tree.
Francis wrapped his fingers around the hilt of the sword.
When the rats were dead, Francis said to Benjamin, "That was a courageous 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." Francis raised his sword.
Benjamin was full of awe. He couldn't believe this was happening. He knelt.
Francis touched the flat of the blade lightly to each of Benjamin's shoulders, then
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, Francis and Benjamin came to the edge of a
wasteland. Just as Sir Timothy had said, the ground seemed unnatural and accursed
-- black, smooth, 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
Francis looked melancholy. "My friend, 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
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. Thick pale mist rose up to shroud that gloomy, barren land.
Benjamin felt anxious and uncertain. He wondered if he should go after Francis.
Benjamin had 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. Benjamin 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 now
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. Benjamin ran toward the sound, which grew closer and
louder. Out in the fog there appeared two patches of light that Benjamin knew were
the beast's burning eyes. Those eyes 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. Francis 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. For a time he saw nothing.
Finally, he spotted two blurry red lights that faded in the distance as the beast sped
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
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 Benjamin 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' sword, yet unbroken.
From somewhere behind Benjamin, there arose a low roar. Benjamin knelt quickly
and 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, Benjamin 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 had brought ruin upon the vile rats of Westburrow. Then
Benjamin knew what he must do. He could not let Francis' 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."