Steiffa figured she might be dead, any instant now, and she was strangely calm about it. Their men's voices sounded a way off. Jack's, and the Scarlets. She swayed from one to the next, like a furry balled-up plaything in Jack's ratcatcher's net.
Drakon had read her once a papered moment from a soldier's storied life. She recalled the night. The school asleep and they two savouring the spoils of the night's adventuring. Candied pears. And the plain memoir Drakon wanted. And read to her from. That soldier recalling a peculiar distance experienced in his mind during some battle, and the man certain he would die the next instant. Resting her head on Drakon's shoulder, she had fallen asleep listening to his golden voice.
Steiffa's instant passed. The pair of Scarlets away and turning into another lane. Jack the ratter snickering over her in his net, his breath all last night's onion.
"S's'see, Ly'dy! Scarlies don't trouble 'emselves wiv ol' mad Jack! Where's we to, then, Ly'dy? Jack's yer man now, y'see's?"
The man's pungent breath restored her to life. The morning sun warmed her fur. The plan came to Steiffa all at once.
Madame would return, as she promised, and lead all the school to safety. But she would need Steiffa to gather together the children. And Jack...her ratter, this auspicious bright morning...should make an immediately useful ratter.
She found again her voice. "Jack. My man, you shall carry us now."
"All's t'getha in m'net, Ly'dy?"
"In your net, Jack. To the river, under the school."
"Uh'knows the place, Ly'dy."
"Put down your net then, Jack. Cut'Tail. Little'Ears. Plenty room for three in my man's net."
Neither Cut'Tail nor Little'Ears were too pleased, but Steiffa had only to reassure them with one of her rattie looks, and both her friends clambered inside Jack the ratter's ratcatching net, proffered on the dusty paving stones before their twitching whiskers as if the birch crook and stringy tatters were Steiffa's royal coach. She whispered them more little assurances, as they swayed above the lane. Her friends lay by her without a squeak the entire swaying way along the waking lanes, past townsfolk they for once could see eye to eye with, and then from the last of the shops and houses, and swiftly, before the sun much higher, to the riverbank and green woods below school hill. To the brickwork drain oozing through the tall reeds.
Poor Little'Ears tumbled herself out into the reeds the instant the ratter's conveyance touched the ground.
"Out, Girl!" squeaked Cut'Tail, paws and snout pushing Steiffa from behind.
However the Queen must make her show of this, and she did, unrushed.
"We are done with you. Jack, on your way now." said Her Majesty, after, composed, dismissing the fellow from high atop a sunny river stone, while Little'Ears nervously preened and preened herself inside the mouth of the drain.
Cut'Tail had circled through the rushes, behind the ratter, ready as an assassin near his heel.
Thinking suddenly of it, another of Madame's fitting cautionings, and the opportunity the rattie queen should not let slip by, Steiffa quickly added, "Do not let it come to our knowing that you have lapsed to your former and regrettable ways."
"Yer Jack's the reformed ratter, Uh'am, Ly'dy. Y'has m'word." He thumped a hand high up his chest, where his heart might be.
The morning sun found him under the riverside alders. Found him standing straight, old cap in hand, watery eyes up and seeing far away. One brilliant ray shone upon his rough face.
"Uh's got t'thinkin' Uh'can catch, carry all's Uh'catch. 'Ere, Ly'dy. Carry all t'yer grand wood. 'Ere. Untroubled n'whole."
"...Most commendable ambition, Jack. We will look in on you, then. Our eye on...appraising your new work —"
"Aye — y'won't find ol' Jack...lapsing, Ly'dy!"
"Good, Jack. We're going now —"
"Uh has m'rest 'bout now, and yer wood 'ere it'd do me a grand bed. Seein' if it be no offence t'you, Ly'dy. I does m'long night, walkin' town, takes m'breakfast n' bed where's uh'finds it."
"We wish you a good rest, Jack. Farewell —"
"Upple, Ly'dy?" And Jack pulled a fine deep red apple from a pocket of his tattered green coat.