"Uh'do not like the cage."
"Silly, Meeker," said Little'Ears, "it is our own good Quant who will keep you."
"Get y'inside, Meeker. Girl's needed at school. Morn's 'bout come." said Cut'tail.
Escaping the charmed circus cage was, in the end, no challenge at all: not with trusting Quant gone to his bed, and a trio of eager paws handily working this prime part of Steiffa's daring plan. Because the school rats were among the cleverest of all the rat race, she had only to teach them those most useful basics of mechanical advantage — the handiness of stick stuck in between door and cage, then twisted — and the three, Cut'tail, Meeker, and Little'Ears, swinging together on that stick for all of three heartbeats, freed her in one startling TWANG!
No one came running. Three ratties chittered, clearly relieved. Steiffa climbed to the opened cage door, teetered on the wire sill, twirled her long tail for balance against not tipping back inside. She tipped face first instead, landing safely among uncomplaining friends.
After hearing of her other friends' distress at the school, Steiffa could no longer have stayed away, safe in Quant's care, but a child thought too green, when she knew it in her soul that she could be most useful — and obviously. She knew the ancient school perhaps as no other could, from the great drain up to the garret, from great hall to smallest cellar room, and places in between perhaps only Madame also knew as well. Steiffa, the little rattie, could visit every frightened student, watch every soldier, and inform Madame of all she had seen.
A most noble foray, Steiffa, and well done, Madame might even say after, rather than scold her for trying it.
But Steiffa had yet to make good her escape. And morning already brightening. Surly Cut'tail paced the table edge, eying the floor below for cats.
"Bud why's it haveta be me in the cage?"
"You're closest to Steiffa's honey coat, Meeker."
"Bud...Uh'm a boy rat. And Uh'don't talk."
"I don't talk, Meeker. Because I'm stubborn that way. People bore quickly and go away. They won't trouble you. They won't know you're not me. Only Quant will know."
"And Quant is kind, Meeker." added Little'Ears, nuzzling his snout. "Quant will keep Meeker only well, that's right, Steiffa?"
"Only Well. He cares for all us creatures here. Quant will visit you every day. And it won't be long and we'll be back for you. But don't fret. You won't be lonely. Our old man is good company. He will bring you food and fresh water, every day, in these fine little bowls. See. Stand an' see."
Meeker stood on his hind legs, twitched his whiskers at what he saw through the wires of the cage. Little'ears stood with him, just as she probably always would, Steiffa observed.
"Meeker, see, apple!"
"Uh'don't like the cage. Stuck in a bucket when Uh'was liddle, y’know."
"My go." blurted Cut'tail. He was as ever a rat of only those most essential words.
"Get y'inside, Meeker. So's Quant's not gotta answer fer th' empty cage. Upple, there — see it? — an' in a bowl. Y'not haddit so good – n' not ever again! Geddin now...err chance the cats in runnin’ back home wivvus."
Seemingly convinced, Meeker sprang up the cage, but then for a long moment teetered on the door sill, twitching his whiskers.
Springing up beside him, Cut'tail said it pointedly — "Geddin."
And the young rat dropped inside in the deep straw.
Edging sideways on the cage, Cut'tail caught the wire door in his teeth, then sidled back, drawing it almost shut.
"It's almost shut." said Steiffa, as he dropped beside her on the table.
"Ulmost'll do, Girl. Cummon."
He went to Little'Ears. She swayed on hind legs, and peered through the wires. Inside, Meeker stared from the straw.
"He'll b'safe. Cummon. Morn's 'bout come, Girl. Cummon."
Steiffa followed her friends the way they had come up, leaping and clambering down the tent wall, where it hung close by the exhibits tables. Anticipating the moment, she stopped them the instant they reached the earth floor.
"Wait, friends. I'll change now. I'll get clothes. I'll walk us, as the girl I am, close to the school. And carry you both in my pocket."
But, with a shudder, Steiffa felt it immediately, that she could not regain her human shape.
Sensible Cut'tail, seeing the fact of it, plain as Steiffa’s sudden silence and interest staring at the ground, would not allow her to wallow in her fears — "Girl, y'have spyin' t'do, and – yer shape now – it'd do you best. Cummon."
Cut'tail led them. Silenced them just at the bottom corner of the sideshow tent. It was no cat. In the grey light of the yard, that girl, the thief, the acrobat, dressed as a sleepwalker in shapeless gown the same shade as the sky, stepped along the top of a windfallen log.
Cut'tail led them away. Through the long grass. Past the circus tents and wagons. To the corner of the lower town nearest the river. Watching and running, in turns, all the way. The watching and the running engrossed Steiffa, held her like a spell. Watching and running, and watching again. And she was glad of it, because the spell kept her from thinking on her being locked.
Smooth river pebbles paved these winding lower town lanes. Cut’tail kept Little’Ears and Steiffa edging the bottoms of the snoozing shops. The music of the river gurgled so near in the stillness before the new day. The great drain from the school where it found the river just there.
Steiffa had run these lanes enough times, and without trouble, and she felt sure of her speed in trying the shorter way. Breaking away from Cut’tail and Little’Ears, and their careful progress under the skirts of the sleeping shops, Steiffa darted as like shot from a bow, across the smooth pebbling – hardly an instant at all under that paling sky – and saw the dusty boots too late by the barrel.
"Gotcha!" — and the man balled her tight in his net and lifted her higher than the circus girl had.
Of course, she recognized the sharp little eyes, the bony cheeks, the grizzled face. The gaping smile all tilting teeth. Everybody knew Jack the ratter.
Only naturally, Steiffa cried out. As before, not in her little rattie voice.
"Y'talked." said Jack the ratter, breathing onion over her.
Far to the north, blazing like a star where the sun caught her, high above the wilderness still awaiting the morning, and gaining from the influence of the mountain of the Mother close by her feathered shoulder, Madame the falcon heard Steiffa’s small cry.
But Steiffa would have to await her return.
Somewhere below her in the wakening beechwood vast as a world, close as her leaping heart, Madame heard Drakon.
She heard him, offering up an ancient supplication, a promise of respect, an asking for guidance, repeated, as if he was dreaming it, and in passable Vagari. This, another prohibited jewel the talented mageling doubtless picked up while illicitly exploring the lock-rooms with another troublesome dear. Another subject Madame would discuss with him – This very moment, my boy.
Folding her wings, the falcon stooped from the sky, a thing obsessed, plunging for the trees and the ground rushing up to meet her. Following the music in her heart, she knew where he lay, beneath those green, rising trees.
Lifting neatly on a flurry of great wingbeats, she found a perch within the glade still in gloom.
They were at rest, stirring the instant she arrived. The bears in a huddle. And the boy under the she-bear’s great arm.
The boy saw beyond the falcon – “Madame!”
Her heart leapt for joy.
Madame noted the she-bear did not hold him down. Finding his feet, Drakon bounded over the snarl of roots, to meet her.
Grunting, Urksa, the she-bear, followed, but the first step only. Staying herself, and swinging her head, the she-bear then backed away.
It was acknowledgment enough, that she understood the danger she might catch, were she to challenge between mother and son.