After sharing his breakfast apple, Jack settled under a shading alder by the river. Suddenly he was asleep, even as the rattie trio finished licking sweet juice off their paws. They left him, started up the brickwork drain under the mages' school.
"What's yer plan then, Steiffa?" piped Little'Ears, leading the way in the dark and the wet.
"Bring silvering...the potions...to all my friends who can use them — and our bravest ratties to visit ev'ry room in the school —" blurted Steiffa, immediately sorry for her audacity, for Little'Ears held a reputation for recklessness on home ground.
"Ev'ry little room, Steiffa! Ev'ry girl! Ev'ry boy! Then down the great drain, quick as water!" she piped, scurrying ahead.
"T'night, dis dangerous plan." muttered Cut'Tail, scurrying along in the rear.
Little'Ears giggled, veered left in the dark, lept the void where bricks long ago fell away.
"Tonight." confirmed Steiffa.
At the top of the great drain, old Matron gave Steiffa's plan unreserved approval, and at once sent the cleverest, quietest rats to visit every girl and boy. None had been removed from their proper rooms, Steiffa ascertained by lunchtime, when the children were brought together to the common hall, faces to the floor, forbidden to speak, and under guard.
She busied herself, and Little'Ears, at a single daylong task, visiting the healer's locked sunny rooms at the top of the school, again, again, and again. Caching those clinking vials, and paper packets, inside the school's walls and close by where they could be useful. For the coming night.
She yearned for Madame's return, and her wisdom in this one girl's plan. She longed for Drakon's company in this one most consequential adventure. If only his voice that had steadied her many a night adventuring in the school. Late in the day, her eyes wet, she allowed that much, her moment, and wept that she might never have her Drakon again. Then she stopped her tears. Madame still had not returned by day's end. Resolute, Steiffa thanked the rats, every one of the two dozen, as they started upon the night's serious task along the secret ways through the darkening school. Then ventured through the walls herself.
She soon caught up with Cut'Tail, trod on his stubby tail behind the loose stones of the west hall's cold hearth. One pair of boots stomped past. Then another.
Plainly jolly, he whispered over his back, "So long as they stomp so, this'll b'easy work, Girl. And she's there..."
Across the greying hall, Steiffa just saw Little'Ears' tail slip through the black gap under a door.
"Bite her if y'have to, Cut'Tail."
"If Uh'can catch her, Girl. Y'go on now." — And Cut'Tail shot from the stones, like a dart shot straight, crossed west hall directly on the heels of the second pair of stomping boots, and vanished under the next door over.
Starting up the backside stones of the hearth, Steiffa came suddenly whiskers to flicking tongue with a snake heading down. And two spiders. And a rat who thought himself charming.
"Niccce evening for an essscape, Sssteiffa." suggested the snake, edging down.
The bristly spiders, twin brothers not near as bristly when they hadn't eight legs each, hissed as one, "We don't like your great drain, Steiffa. We don't like the water."
"You should stay together." she replied, "Help each other down the great drain. There isn't so much water...not at high summer. We'll wait by the river for Madame to come for us."
Steiffa remembered the snake, Sela, roomed on the second floor with three other girls.
"Sela, where're the girls?"
"Cccyrra...Haeda...they were dresssing when I left. Didn't want the town to sssee them flying in their nightgownsss."
"Soldiers didn't think t'lock the windows?"
"Don't exxxpect the twinsss will fly out them."
"Sssaysss ssshe'll be coming. But ssshe wasss ssstill abed. Ssshe'sss afraid."
Esmond, the biggish rat, actually a biggish and rude'ish mageling boy, stuck his snout and whiskers in her face.
"Steiffa, Hullo —"
"I will bite!" she warned, scuttling up between the stones.
That silenced Esmond.
Climbing, she called down, "Join up with whoever y'meet, then down the great drain."
Her voice fading below, Sela slid her s's, offered to lead the way.
Strange stomp'stomping greeted Steiffa on the floor above. The pair of men seemingly dancing over the dim hallway between shut doors. They were not in a festive mood.
"Was a rat! Hate 'em!"
"Then stomp 'em! — Scare 'em back in dem walls!"
They danced left. Steiffa crossed right.
She met other students practicing their forms in the next wall. And a wisp of smoke seeping out a nailed window. All seemed to be advancing quite well, Steiffa allowed herself to believe, as she found the top floor hall.
She knew the big end window glowed too little for the soldiers' seeing much more than the lay of the hall, and furnishings not to be bumped. The little night glow, still, was unnerving to a rattie who could see in the dark. The two soldiers clomped, casually as unspeaking pals about for a walk. As they clomped past Steiffa's twitching snout and whiskers, she crossed behind their heels and through under Byell's door.
"Out." said the girl inside the dark room, immediately.
Byell wouldn't budge, it seemed. Not from Byell's barely seen splendid poster bed which Byell's prominent merchant parents put in Byell's private room. Byell, a thoroughly unlikeable high-nose Steiffa mused might prefer anyway the Scarlets' company to her common schoolmates'. The rattie queen might as well turn tail and skedaddle, and leave Byell to her cruel friends, but Steiffa thought it only fair that she tried.
Quickly she lept to the blanket edge, scurried up onto Byell's bed, scampered up the heights of the unlikeable girl's blanketed knees, and stated the fact of the situation straight in her dim face: "Byell, don't be stupid."
"The King's Scarlet Guard are protecting the school. And you're the stupid one, Steiffa. Running about the school, as if you're unstoppable. And when you end up stomped under someone's boot, oh'how pretty you'll be then!"
"SHUSHHH, Byell! They'll hear!"
"You shush! And get off my bed! Guard! GUARD!" — and Byell, safe to her mind in her blanket, she launched Steiffa off her knee.
"Stupid! Stupid, Byell!" — Steiffa rolled to the bed edge, caught the blanket, scurried down to the cool floor, just as Byell's own door to Byell's private room swept in.
The pair of shadows, huge men, filled Byell's own doorway.
"Why your noise?" said one.
"There's a stupid rat — AND A PLAIN ONE!"
Steiffa was glad she hadn't told Byell any more of her plan.
One shadow remained in Byell's doorway. Swinging his arms and seeming fully at ease, the other crossed to the girl in her indistinct poster bed.
He loomed there. And his whispering more menacing than a Scarlet addressing a stupid girl. "Where should I look for the stupid rat?"
Steiffa imagined his face. Knew he must be staring down at Byell in her blanket. The same staring as those soldiers at the circus, leering at the acrobat.
The leg of the blanket chest in the hall was easy enough to reach. Ready, however the guard shifting from foot to foot in Byell's doorway might react, the little rattie edged by the monstrous height of him, so near she smelled the sour oil of his boots. She crossed the floorboards behind him, ducked under the blanket chest, then managed her spectacularly shrill SQUEEEAK! It was the least, and the last, she would do for stupid Byell.
The fellow sprang high, like a cat. He stepped and side-stepped and backed from the doorway, as if some dreaded thing lurked there in the dark. He whimpered even, a most unsoldierlike whimper.
The other left Byell in that bed, tugging the blanket to her shoulders. He made the door in two strides. He shoved the frightened one through, into the hallway. And in front of...something gracefully violent and swiftly passing. Unlucky man, he cracked his noggin on the floor.
The other then stepped through, though his crumpled pal lay at his feet. He turned and turned that brick noggin of his, and clearly did not see. By his boot, and behind one leg of the blanket chest, Steiffa did see. The shadow — that was no student she recognized — padding for him at the run. She backed and backed, deep as she could beneath the blanket chest.
One THWAKK! knocked down that one, and most of him inside Byell's room, but for his great legs blocking the door.
Silent as a cat, the intruder stepped over her brutal work. Suddenly knocking boldly, and twice, upon the blanket chest over Steiffa's startled head, she addressed her directly — "Come out, come out, little girrrl."