Authors: Terence Blacker
. . . and loyalty, and sadness, of course. And somewhere in the cold, damp air was the sharp tang of fear.
But overpowering them all, singing through the brain of every rat — buck and doe, wild and fragile, twyning and ratling — was the scent that made us dizzy with pleasure.
In a harsh and dangerous world, where loss and death waited around every corner, it was the smell of love that gave each of us strength and hope to survive, even when a king was facing death.
Without strength, the sadness of loss would make citizens weak.
Without hope, the act of acclaiming his successor would lose its meaning.
Without love, the kingdom itself would die.
The multitude waited in silence.
On each side of the river that ran through the Great Hollow, there was a carpet of rich brown pelt, pulsing with life.
Dark eyes glittered from every crevice and ledge on the brick walls.
The high timbers that supported the vaulted roof writhed with expectation.
Only a series of steps on the far wall of the chamber, leading upward from the watercourse, was visible, unattended by those who waited. No rat, unless he were part of the Court of Governance, would lay a foot upon the Rock of State.
There was an order to our assembly. Each of the courts who conducted the work of the kingdom had taken its place according to rank and status.
Against a far wall, members of some of the junior courts had gathered. The Court of Entertainers was there, the Court of Tasting, the Court of Translation, the Court of Historians.
Beyond the river could be seen the Courts of Spies, of Correction, and of Prophecy, and behind them, taking up an unnecessary amount of space, were members of the Court of Warriors.
Then, in front of the Rock of State were two groups whose place had not been gained through strength and power but through weakness.
A mottling of white, gray, and brown betrayed the presence of those known as “fragiles.” Although every court in the kingdom brings some kind of skill or strength, it is for some citizens difficult to understand quite what the Court of Fragiles provides.
These lightly colored, slack-muscled rats have been raised among the enemy, bred in captivity for some kind of strange human sport. Quite how they return to the world below remains a mystery to us, but what is certain is that they are weaker and less able to fend for themselves than any rat should be.
Although some attend the Courts of Spies or of Translation, where their knowledge of the ways of humans is occasionally of some use, most fragiles do little real work. The rest of us accept that they are what they are. It is not really their fault that they have been infected with the most deadly disease that a human can bring: doubt.
The problem with the fragiles, it is generally agreed, is that, like the enemy, they think too much. As a result, they soon become in the kingdom what they have been in the human world: amusements for those who are more powerful than they are.
Standing in front of the Rock of State, given a respectful amount of space by all other citizens, was a group of thirty rats, none of whom had a name but who, together, were owners of a strange kind of power within the kingdom.
They were the Twyning. They tugged against one another, forever in motion, forever going nowhere. For almost all their lives, they had been united by an accident of nature that had occurred while they were still in the nest.
Their tails had become inextricably entangled. As they had grown, the knot of living tissue that was at their center melded and fused together so that, with adulthood, each of them was less an individual rat than a limb on a greater shared body, a spoke on a wheel of flesh.
A twyning confers its own special blessing on the kingdom. As it grows, it is fed and kept alive by citizens, and is respected by all, even by the Court of Governance and by the ultimate source of power among rats, the king. Many beings in one being, it stands for unity in the kingdom. It is a force of spirit, embodying the past, the future; the strong, the weak; life, death.
Each member of a twyning will have the gift of hearing. At times of great peril, it is they who will sense the glow before any other citizen.
Already, we could hear the sound of plaining, which only members of the Twyning can make. It starts with a throbbing pulse of rhythm created by the chattering of teeth. Soon, a clear, single note will be heard, then another and another, until every rat in that sacred circle is part of the plaining. The sound they make can thrill or chill the youngest or oldest heart.
Rats who are part of a twyning are nameless. They would never be asked to fight, nor to forage, nor to father or to mother, but in times of peace and war it is to them, to it, that courtiers, warriors, and even spies and historians will turn for wisdom and guidance.
The Twyning expresses life’s mystery. Unable to move in any one direction except at an awkward, complicated shuffle, it has its own kind of strength.
And above all, it shows the power of the kingdom.
For it is love that keeps the Twyning alive.
In a corner at the back of the hollow on that fateful night, Alpa, captain of the Tasting Court, glanced around her. Although she had been at two gatherings in the past, there was always a new worry.