The Frozen Rat’s Paw was one of ten randomised titles that Chuck Wendig gave us to work on, just before going off on another tour. Whilst I’ve enjoyed the freedom of not having to work to his prompt for the last few months, I’ve also missed the discipline.
This one gives me a dilemma: is it the paw of a frozen rat, or a rat’s paw that has been frozen? Find out in this 1000 word story.
The Frozen Rat’s Paw
“Where are you, Carruthers?”
“Down here.” Carruthers’ voice echoed along the velvety dark tunnel.
Parkinson held the storm lantern above his head. Carruthers had said it wouldn’t be far, but his claustrophobia had returned. His main desire was to scram. That would leave Carruthers in the darkness, all alone, and that wouldn’t be cricket.
Parkinson lowered himself onto his haunches, found a convenient resting point, and sat down on an uneven rock. After a few minutes, his uneven perch started protests from his sacroiliac, so he put his knuckles on the floor to shift his seat.
Whatever he put his hand on was icy cold.
He closed his fingers round it, drawing it up into his pool of light.
He dropped it even quicker.
Wiping his hand on his breeches, he took a few steps down the tunnel, then turned. The anomaly of frozen body in warm cave seeped through his brain, making curiosity overcome his musophobia.
“Where are you, Parkinson?” Carruthers sounded a long way off.
“Up here. Just found a dead rat.”
“Another one? Bring it with you old chap.”
Another one? Parkinson delicately extended two fingers to snare the corpse’s foot. How many has the old bagger got already?
He managed to juggle both rat and lantern in one hand and make his way down the increasingly steep tunnel. It emerged into some sort of cavern, the dimensions of which were guesswork. He hurried over to Carruthers, illuminated from below by his lantern on a smooth rock about two feet above the rest of the cavern floor.
“Look here,” he said, as Parkinson approached. “Stylised rats surrounding a glowing star.”
“Here’s your latest specimen.” Parkinson handed the cold body over.
“Ah good. You study this, while I take a look…”
Parkinson turned to the rock, and agreed with his colleague’s assessment. “I wonder what the symbolism is. Why would any tribe come this deep to draw rats?”
“More usually bison hunts and mammoths around here, isn’t it?” Carruthers agreed. “Still, it must have been a significant event. It’s engraved, not painted. Must have taken a good amount of time. Look at the detail—whiskers, jewels…”
Carruthers pointed to the leading figures, the first in front of the central orb, which displayed rays coming from the lower half.
“Is it not the sun? Simple circle with rays?”
“Could be. There seem to be patterns on it, though.” Carruthers finished examining the rat, and laid it out alongside six others. “What interests me,” he returned, pointing at a trident-like mark at the bottom right hand corner, “is this. Is it a signature, a title, or a code?”
“Have you ever heard of tribes worshipping rats?”
“Never. They seem to be the most detested lifeforms on Earth.”
“Apart from snakes.”
“Oh, plenty of tribes, even the Ancient Egyptians, worshipped snakes.”
“First time you’ve found something focusing on rats, then?”
“How big is this cavern?” asked Parkinson, raising his lantern and failing to illuminate any walls.
“No idea. We may be right at the edge of a huge chamber, or even a cave network.”
“No echoes, though.”
“No.” Carruthers looked up. “No echoes. Hmm.”
Parkinson frowned. No echoes was unusual. It implied no surfaces to reflect sound waves. Yet they were definitely underground. And it was warm, not open to the external environment. He yawned. “Well, there’s not a great deal of air in here. I may just have a snooze.”
Carruthers stood up, alarmed. “No, no way. Remember the first rule, Parky. Alert at all times!”
Parkinson shook himself. “I may be tired, but I think there’s some sort of mist, maybe even a miasma, floating through the cavern. Look!”
His lantern gleamed on the edge of a tendril of mistlike substance that wafted over the line of rats.
“Is that coming from them, or going into them?” Carruthers asked.
“No idea.” They watched for several seconds. “Are the rats…”
“Thawing out?” Carruthers finished. Parkinson saw his Adam’s apple bounce three times, as Carruthers fought to control his reactions.
The rats were losing their frost-encrusted appearance and going darker in colour. The matted hair stuck out this way and that, as expected, save for the conviction in Parkinson’s mind that the hairs were starting to align themselves, turning from grey frost to grey sheen, in fact.
A foot twitched.
Parkinson leapt backwards, and tripped on Carruthers’ lantern.
“Careful, you fool!”
Too late. The lantern rolled over, and over, started down a slope, and fell off their ledge. They watched the glow disappear, dwindling, dwindling, never showing a wall of rock on the other side of the cliff.
“Good thing you stopped where you did,” Parkinson remarked.
Carruthers didn’t wasted time on his lantern. There was a spare in his pack, and he lit it from Parkinson’s.
“I hope you’ve still got your spare?” It was more of a demand than a question.
“Did that foot really move?” Parkinson needed verification.
“Imagination. Rigor mortis.” Carruthers listed a few more possible causes, finishing, “Was it the only one?”
“I think so.”
Carruthers stepped forward and picked up the rat that had moved. It was still stiff, but the fur was indeed sleek, almost shiny. “It’s not frozen anymore. But look…”
He held the paw that had moved next to the mark on the rock face, the trident mark.
“Oh my God,” Parkinson whispered.
“Exactly, although I doubt he’ll help. Why the mark of the rat’s paw, though?”
“It’s more than that, Carruthers. Hold it level, yes. Now, turn it so that the paw rests on the mark—“
The humming noise was just a reverberation through their feet at first. Then it grew to audible levels, vibrating in their very bones. The rats beside them stretched, yawned, rolled over onto their feet…
… and then stood upright.
Parkinson grabbed the lantern and ran. Carruthers grabbed his and followed, tripping on his own shadow as a gloriously round yellow light swelled into a sunlike beam behind him.
They reached the shade of the tunnel and stopped.
“Surely we should investigate?” Parkinson’s eyes were wide, sweat was pouring from his brow.
“You can if you want,” Carruthers replied. “Rats surrounding a sun-god or demon, or even a space ship? I’m off.”
Parkinson needed no further bidding. Nobody would believe them anyway.
© J M Pett 2018
See other adventures of Carruthers and his many and varied partners…
I wonder how many I need before I can publish a collection of them?