Ratcula – short story.
Another addition to my little ‘Mischief’ of tales, but one that draws on some of the more traditional elements of the horror genre, even if I have used a slight degree of poetic license with them … Hopefully the purists will appreciate a few of the liberties I’ve taken with such an iconic theme.
If you enjoy this story, please keep an eye out for my collection of Rat Tales later in the year …
It was fascinating to watch so many of you gripped by your own fear and panic, not knowing if or when you or any of your litter might be next. That was nearly 700 years ago, back when even I was young, barely a century past my time as a Ritten. Since then I’ve killed and turned more of your kind than you will ever know, but then, of course, I’ve had time on my side.
You see, I am immortal – an immortal rat to be precise. My mortal kin rarely live more than two or three of your years so imagine if you will how truly old that makes me.
Most humans find it difficult to believe me, most of you so unimaginative to have honestly believed the beasts and demons you fear were exclusively two-legged. Let me tell you, dear humans, we immortal monsters exist in every size, shape, and form.
I sometimes wonder if the ‘Old One’ of your kind that made me the way I am ever considered what being immortal would mean to a rat? I say ‘your’ kind, but that’s not strictly true, for indeed, he’s more akin to mine now – you may share the same number of legs, but we share the thirst, a thirst for the blood of all your kind.
The Master, the one the turned me, he lived across the great river and then way south across the land to Transylvania. I was little more than a Ritten the first time I saw him, with but the finest covering of wispy black hair and only the tiniest sight of teeth or claw to me. But having few of the weapons I would need to hunt and scavenge for food didn’t mean I didn’t have the hunger for it.
The Master’s manservant was skilled in the training of creatures in the art of hunting and killing my kind. He had more than a dozen ferrets for invading our tunnels and secret spaces or for digging and burrowing into the soft ground where we birthed our Rittens in the lowest reaches of the castle. They would pursue us into whatever recesses in the earth we could find before forcing us out for the dogs to rend us limb from limb.
And both had been doing their job well of late then. It had been by chance alone I had escaped their latest campaign to rid the castle of us, as if they ever could, but it had left me the only survivor of my litter and without food.
The whereabouts of the manservant’s or the Master’s food stores were unknown to me; I wasn’t to know the Master of the castle didn’t eat in the way mortal creatures do. I was still unskilled in the ways of scavenging with only my primordial hunting instinct to rely on. Over the coming weeks, I did as good a job as any of the ferrets at ridding the castle of its remaining population of mice and was soon as skilled a hunter as any of my older kin had been before the dogs got them. And that was to determine my fate – having hunted my little mammalian food source cousins to extinction I was facing starvation again. I still had to stay away from the manservant for fear of his dogs and ferrets nearby, just leaving the living quarters of the Master himself.
It was as well we were both nocturnal creatures for I never saw him during daylight hours when he would disappear for over twelve hours at a time, though he was almost as rare a sight even after the setting of the light from the sky.
I never saw his manservant bring him food nor the Master visit the kitchens so I assumed he must have food in his room. I looked about it as best I could, not having the means or intellect to open locked cabinets or pull open drawers. When I found nothing I gnawed holes in them, such was my hunger, but still I found nothing. I knew he must eat sometime so I decided I would follow him where he went that night before the light of the sky came back.
I was surprised when I found myself following him deep into the cold, damp bowels of the castle, deeper even than I had ventured for I had never thought there might be food there. Again I followed, more out of curiosity than hunger now as I could still not see or smell any food. The Master came to a door at the bottom of some stone steps, each one ground down into a hollow from what I now know to be the weight of his nightly pacing down them over the past thousand years, from long before the castle above had ever been built.
He had closed the door before I could follow him into that room. I searched for and found another entrance, a small narrow tunnel some way along the wall, no doubt dug by others of my kind. I entered it, wondering what I would find on the other side. There was no sign of the Master, just a large box. It was a grand box, thick solid oak, ornately decorated but still just a box, the sort you humans like to use to bury your dead.
Still being an ordinary mortal rat, I had no concept that that must be where the Master was. Perhaps there was food in the box though? There didn’t appear to be any opening or way of looking inside. It was good the box lay directly on the ground, meaning I could gnaw a hole in it. There was no food in the box, just the Master lying in it – The Master’s body was as cold as the stone floor on which his box lay.
Young though I was I knew the difference between a live and a dead body. My instincts told me this one had not had the warmth of life in it in a long time even though it was but an hour before I had seen the Master walk into the room.
All this was too much for my instinct-driven rat mind to understand fully and once again my hunger for food became my main focus. The other two-legs had held the Master in awe, and even the dogs and ferrets seemed to recoil in terror in his presence as did I for reasons I didn’t yet understand. Now though he was just a lifeless body, but one that hadn’t rotted and returned to the earth yet, one that could still sustain me for many days and nights. With no other food in sight, I resolved to eat of the Master’s dead body.
I opened my jaws the widest I could and plunged my teeth through the material of his clothing, my teeth sinking deep into his flesh beneath. The softness of the flesh surprised me given it was dead. And even though it was icy cold, blood flowed from it like it would from a live body.
Still being an ordinary mortal rat, I had neither intellect nor understanding, but my primitive instincts were screaming at me just how wrong this was, how wrong it all was. I suddenly became very afraid, again for reasons I still had no understanding. It was only my burning hunger that stopped me from scurrying away faster than if I were being chased by every last one of the manservant’s dogs and ferrets. Without warning the strangest feeling ran through my body as I swallowed that first morsel of cold dead flesh, the icy cold but still flowing blood wetting the sides of my throat. My stomach seemed to explode from the insides, making me completely forget my hunger.
The dead body I had just started to feast on leapt to its feet, sending the lid of the box hurtling upwards and across the stone dungeon-like room. I would have run, but an indescribable pain was coursing through every part of my body, totally paralysing me.
The Master reached down and grabbed me, his fingers and thumb firmly gripped about the entire girth of my body, his grip breaking my ribs, crushing my insides. It was not just his strength squeezing the breath from me, but his shortly trimmed nails had grown into claws, easily piercing deep beneath my fur and skin. He held me up at almost at arm’s length. It was impossible to believe, but the Master’s teeth were as long and sharp as any of my own kind, or any of the creatures of the woods. How this was made no sense to me; I knew the humans had neither teeth nor claws of the kind to defend or attack, or so I had been taught – but I was wrong – all my kind were wrong.
The Master fully bared his teeth to me.I could see the angry fire in his eyes blazing brighter than the burning logs in the log filled grates that warmed many of the castle rooms.
I knew at that moment my time had come, that I would surely die as the Master brought me towards his face before biting into my body. I was still in pain from the dead flesh and blood I had already swallowed from the Master’s body but the pain that followed, even after near on 700 years, the memory haunts me, my fur and whiskers bristling whenever I think of it.
The wailing squeal my crushed lungs produced grew in intensity till it turned into a roaring scream; were I human, its equivalent would have been that of an exploding volcano.
The Master tossed my limp and almost lifeless body to the stone ground. I felt the dark and nothingness of sleep overwhelming me, probably for the last time, I believed.
“Hello, little rat.” I heard a voice saying to me. It was the Master voice I heard. I was still alive, how could that be?
“You’ll be hungry I imagine. There’s food in the bowl for you.” I heard him add. I didn’t understand, or rather, I did understand.
We had heard the humans speak, of course, understood the tones and loudness of the sounds they made, even recognised a sort of meaning in a few of them. This was different – I truly understood the meaning of the Master’s words; he knew I was hungry and was telling me there was food immediately to hand in the wooden bowl that lay a few feet away to my side. I didn’t know how I knew that, but I knew.
And he was right. I was hungry, hungrier than I had ever been in my life. It was a different sort of hunger though – not the empty stomach kind but more like a cross between an insatiable thirst and a desperate need to breathe.
I turned towards the bowl, descending on it with a speed that surprised me. The smell of the food was overpowering, the unmistakable scent of fresh blood. I plunged my face into it, lapping it up as like it was last to be my last. I continued drinking the red nectar till it was gone, and even when there was no more to be had I licked at the rough wooden bowl, determined to devour every minuscule drop clinging in the grain of the wood.
“Feel better now?” The Master asked. Again I understood. But how to answer?
“You can’t speak, not as I do, little rat,” the Master answered, knowingly:
“But you don’t need words, not with me, not with anyone. Without human vocal chords to make proper sounds, the turning and the thirst has given you the gift of speaking with your mind, what the humans call telepathy, a gift they lost long before even I was first born.”
A whole new world of understanding had opened up to me. 700 hundred years later and I still have no words to describe what it was like awakening that night – not just being blind and waking up sighted but as one never having ever known that others could see.
I understood words, language, meaning. I could look about me and know what things were – a table, a door, a bookcase – things that had been obstacles or just something to scurry and hide behind till now. But I still had questions, many questions …
“What’s happened to me? How did this happen, what does it all mean?”
As the Master had said, I couldn’t make the sounds of language like he and the humans could, but I could articulate words in my mind, and I knew he understood. I had already deduced that the Master was not a normal human:
“I don’t know, not exactly. It was when you bit into me and swallowed some of my blood. It did something to you. Not enough to turn you, not completely, but something half-way between.”
“I still don’t understand? Turned? The thirst? Half-way?”
“By drinking of my blood you acquired my immortality and the thirst for fresh living blood to live but without the strength and speed or the telepathy that allows you to communicate. I sensed it in you when I picked you up. I was so angry with you; I was tempted to leave you as were. It would have been a miserable life, possessing the desperate thirst for blood but not the intelligence to understand it, not having the strength to overcome your natural enemies, having to feed off the smallest and vilest of creatures without knowing why.”
“But you did something to me? I do understand. And I feel strong, and … so much more,”
“Yes, I did. I would have been wrong to leave as you were. You weren’t to know what I was; you were just a hungry animal acting on instinct. Instead of biting you it would have been a mercy to have devoured you whole when I grabbed you up from the ground.”
“But you didn’t. Something when you bit me, it made me stronger, made me more – like you?”
“Yes. When I bit you, I only took a small amount of blood while allowing my saliva to enter your bloodstream. That’s what completed the turning, making you what you are now.”
We spoke for many hours after that, through the night almost to the rising of the sun, an event he explained I would never see again. But what did I care about sunlight? We rats possess poor eyesight, but since the ‘turning’ my eyesight was now as sharp as my teeth, ideal for a life lived only at night.
In the several years that followed, I would accompany the Master on his nightly jaunts to the surrounding towns and villages to feed. Many times I dined on the same human he had chosen, both of us taking only enough to satisfy our thirst. But I was a rat – a predator used to doing my own hunting and feeding, not some tame pet leeching off its owner. The Master understood, this and when he felt I was ready, left me to hunt my own food.
I had no wish to feed off other rats, though I would if I had to, but feeding with the Master had now given me a taste and thirst for human blood.
It was not to be as easy as I imagined; I had thought with my new awareness, and speed and strength far exceeding that of my mortal brethren, hunting would be easy.
My minuscule size made it impossible to approach and strike directly at the neck of a human the way the Master did. The human preference for wearing shoes or boots and thick clothing on their legs made it equally difficult to strike at ground level most of the time
The females of your kind were easier to feed on, leaving their lower legs and calves more exposed beneath their skirts. It was a pity not more of them were to be found or choose from in the late hunting hours. Fortunately, there was rarely any shortage of males after dark, many falling to the ground after a night in the taverns and alehouses. It was easy for me to sidle up beside one to take my fill from an exposed hand or about the neck. My smaller size made it easy for me to fully satisfy my thirst with a relatively small amount of blood. I had to be careful though – sink my teeth too deep and I would pass on the thirst, a mistake I made several times in those early years. It was not until over a century later I was to discover one of the abominations I had created during one of those early feeding hunts.
With the passing years, I became aware of another thirst, one every bit as strong as the one for blood. I yearned to see more of the world than the tiny one that existed within the walls of the castle and the surrounding countryside. The time was coming for us to go our separate ways …
I remember that first day in England when we docked into Plymouth Harbour. I had never dreamed such a place could exist.
It had also been my first time aboard a ship; my Master had brought me aboard to accompany him in his cabin. It was a strange and luxurious way for a rat to travel you might think while most of my kin were scurrying about in the bowls and darkest hidden recesses of the tall sail ship. He claimed it was partly from his guilt for having condemned me to an eternity of bloodthirst as the price of my immortality.
I didn’t understand his guilt and regret at the time. The greater intelligence that came with my transformation hadn’t yet fully manifested itself. I still had no real comprehension what it would mean to live much beyond my natural lifespan let alone the hundreds or possibly thousands of years to follow.
The journey to England was most exciting, exploring the ship and mixing with other albeit mortal rats. I was immediately aware of their deference. They sensed that I was something more and quite different …
We finally alighted from the ship later that night after his current manservant released us from the travelling casket aboard the ship.
I had protested the unnecessary cruelty of the previous one in his hunting of my kind. The Master agreed. We both enjoyed several days of fresh warm blood.
The Master bade me farewell, though not before saying we would meet again someday, and how he looked forward to hearing of my travels. He also warned me never to underestimate the humans’ capacity for cruelty and cunning. It was not a warning I needed. I still remembered all too well the dismembering and bloody deaths of my fellow Rittens
The Master was right; we were to meet again, each time exchanging tales no human could imagine of our lives down through the centuries, even though I was still yet to experience my first real adventure.
The master gently placed me upon the stone cobbled streets of Plymouth to begin that first adventure.
The presence of so many humans was already making me thirsty. But I had another thirst that needed satisfying too.
My sibling Rittens had all been bloodily rent by the claws and fangs of the human trained dogs and ferrets. The gift of self-awareness that came with the thirst had made me aware of another concept – revenge …
It was the year 1347, the year and time your kind refers to as the Plague and the Black Death