Out of the corner of his eye Tom saw Hawk Wolf pull the canvas from the wagon and quickly unroll it. Inside the canvas was a spear that Hawk grasped firmly in both hands as he hurried back to them. But Tom’s attention was focused primarily on the creature that was closing in rapidly with a leaping, bobbing gate. There was no disputing the species, although this giant rat had thicker, sturdier limbs and more narrow hips than its smaller ancestors.
Abandoning stealth, the enormous rat ran towards them, moving in short, quick leaps, almost like a gallop but with more vertical motion. Iris and Mother Rose stumbled backwards; the distance between them and the rat was diminishing quickly. Tom backed away from the rat, too, but he was mesmerized by the huge size of the animal, and he moved more slowly than the two women.
The rat swerved around Grandmother Valerian’s apple tree and stopped abruptly at the abandoned picnic laid out on the ground. It sniffed briefly at a partial loaf of bread, then turned and swallowed one of the larger remaining pieces of salted pork. By this time Mother Rose and Iris had turned and were running from the Wolf Clan Grove.
Tom might have followed the women, but Hawk suddenly stumbled and fell. The spear flew out of Hawk’s hand as he went down, hurtling through the air and landing within two yards of Tom’s foot. The movement caught the rat’s attention. Perceiving Tom as a threat, the animal crouched low and leapt at him.
No rational thought guided Tom’s reaction as he stooped quickly to grasp the spear. He was well aware that he had no training with a spear, or with any other weapon for that matter. He wondered for a moment what his life would have been like if he had not volunteered for Stepping Into the Future, whether he might have found happiness while keeping his secret from his family and friends. Then the rough wooden shaft was in his hands, and he was lifting the spear as a rodent the size of a large mastiff came down on him with its teeth bared.
Tom heard a scream, but it was not his own. The scream was not even human. He collapsed under the weight of the rat, exhaling sharply as he hit the ground. The rat fell onto Tom with less impact than he had expected, but the weight of the animal pressed down on him and he clenched his eyes shut in preparation for the pain of the beast’s sharp incisors. He felt the rat’s muscles tightening and rolling against his chest and abdomen. Then a warm fluid poured over his face.
He could hear Hawk Wolf shouting something. The man was very close now, and Tom could feel the rat on top of him begin to move left and right with a rocking motion.
Tom opened one eye, blinking against the blood flowing from the rat’s mouth. The animal was moving because Hawk was trying to roll it off Tom. Hawk’s lack of success was due to the fact that Tom still held tight to the spear that now impaled the animal. Tom released the spear, and Hawk pushed the giant rat off of him.
“You killed it,” said Hawk, stating the obvious with an amazed expression. He held out his hand to Tom, helping him to his feet.
Iris and Mother Rose had stopped running, but they were making their way back slowly, as if they were not entirely sure the rat was dead. Their caution was not unwarranted, for the beast jerked and stretched once more before a final breath bubbled through the blood in its throat.
“Tom killed it,” repeated Hawk. “He killed it by himself.”
Mother Rose took up one of the cloths from the ground, toppling a corked jug and a bowl of pastries into the grass. Using a corner of the large cloth, she wiped the blood from Tom’s face. Without diverting her attention from this, she said, “Iris, take one of the horses and fetch your cousin Bud. He’ll probably want to bring Storm Blacksnake with him.”
“Buddy’s working the south fields, on the other side of –“ She caught her mother’s sharp glance. “So….I should hurry if we’re going to do this before nightfall.” Turning quickly, Iris ran to the horses.
Hawk glanced from Iris to their clanmother. “I could go,” he suggested.
“We need you here.” Mother Rose looked at the dead rat. “That animal is a young female. There may still be others nearby.”
Tom said, “That one was yumungpth?” He grimaced and mumbled the end of the question as Mother Rose wiped the cloth across his mouth and beard. Tom could see that there was blood on the rag, and it was not his own. “It was young?” he repeated. Between Mother Rose’s wipings at his face, he saw Iris pull herself onto the back of a horse and ride east through the apple trees.
Mother Rose nodded. “And female, obviously. But it still counts as a kill. Hawk, pick up that spear. And be sharp with your eyes. Make the bird you were named for proud.”
Hawk pulled the bloody spear out of the rat. He reminded Mother Rose that there was a small spring not far north of the grove where they could clean Tom up more effectively. Mother Rose agreed they should go to the spring, cautioning both Hawk and Tom to watch for any sign of another rat. But if other monstrous sized rodents were hiding somewhere in the vicinity, they made no noise that Tom, Hawk or Mother Rose could hear. Nothing disturbed the silence around them except for distant birdsong and the sound of their own feet rustling through the grass or snapping an occasional twig.
The three made their way north through the trees until they came to a spring at the bottom of a hill. The surface of the water was no more than a yard across and nearly hidden by low shrubs growing around the perimeter. Hawk struck the ground several times with the shaft end of the spear as they approached.
In answer to Tom’s raised brow, Hawk said, “I’m letting the folk know we are here. We don’t want to frighten anyone.”
Tom looked around, noticing that they were a distance now from any apple trees. “There are Wolf Clan eldest here, too?” It seemed like a reasonable question. Tom supposed that the eldest, being ghosts, might be anywhere.
Mother Rose and Hawk both stared at Tom for a long moment as if they did not quite understand what he was asking. Then the clanmother said, “No, Tom, he means living folk. Surely you know we are surrounded by living creatures wherever we go. Hawk was letting the animals who live around the spring know we are here. Frogs and toads, mostly.”
“And water snakes,” added Hawk.
Mother Rose nodded. Cocking her head to one side, she looked closely at Tom and asked, “Does that seem odd to you?”
“It is not something the Ancient people would usually think to do,” Tom admitted. A frightening thought came to him. “Are other animals as large as the rats?”
Mother Rose and Hawk exchanged a look of confusion.
“The snakes and toads,” said Tom. “Are they larger now, like the rats?”
Mother Rose slowly shook her head. “That rat wasn’t large, Tom. Not for an adult. The females aren’t usually as large as the males, of course, but even so it was smaller than average.”
She dipped one corner of the bloody cloth into the spring water and washed Tom’s face. By the time she had cleaned him up, Tom realized that neither Mother Rose nor Hawk could answer his question because they had no way of comparing the size of animals to similar species that had lived in what they knew as the Ancient Time. Nor could Tom make any reasonable assessment unless, like the rats, a species had grown grossly out of proportion. Looking at the shrubs growing around the spring, at the grasses beyond this and at a four inch toad that hopped indignantly into the water when Hawk stepped too near, Tom saw nothing especially extraordinary; but he was as unfamiliar with the natural world as most Ancient people were in the latter 21st century.
For her part, Mother Rose was surprised to learn that rats had once been much smaller pests. She questioned Tom about other animals and birds as they walked with Hawk back to the corpse of the giant rat. There was little Tom could tell her, but from Mother Rose’s questions he learned that the Markins had odd beliefs about natural history. Mother Rose knew of dinosaurs, for example, and that they were extinct, but thought they had died out at the same time as the fall of the Ancient civilization.
The day was warm, and flies had congregated over the rat’s lethal wound by the time they returned. These were ordinary flies, no different than those Tom had known before.
“Are you quite sure, Tom?” Mother Rose seemed disappointed that there had been no tyrannosaurs roaming the plains of Missouri and Kansas in 2075.
Hawk said, “Maybe they still lived in other parts of the world and you just didn’t know about them.”
“I would have known!” laughed Tom. “If something unusual happened anywhere in the world, people knew about it.” He turned to Mother Rose. “Remember, we had far-seeing devices that could show us anything. Believe me when I say I would have known.”
Mother Rose said, “I want to believe you, Tom, but it is often difficult.” She raised her hand to silence his protest. “I don’t say you are lying. I know in my heart that you speak the truth, but the things you say are so fantastic.”
The three sat near the dead rat, and their conversation returned to that species. Hawk occasionally brushed at the gathering flies while Mother Rose spoke of the dangers and difficulties that rats had presented over the years. An animal that had once been a nuisance and a health hazard was now a dangerous predator. Worse, the rats were omnivores. Even a small pack of rats could devastate a field of wheat in a single night. Only the diligence of the strongest and bravest men kept the rats at a distance from Markin towns and their surrounding fields. A female rat entering the Wolf Clan’s apple grove was a bad sign. There were undoubtedly others, and those would have to be killed or driven away.
By the time Buddy Wolf and three of his companions galloped into the grove on horseback, Tom was beginning to understand what it meant to be a Rat Killer.