In the British tradition of Redwall comes this first novel of a trilogy that is sure to capture fans both young and old. In the sewers of Deptford, there lurks a dark presence that fills the tunnels with fear. The rats worship it in the blackness and name it "Jupiter, Lord of All." Into this twilight realm wanders a small and frightened mouse-the unwitting trigger of a chain of events that hurtles the Deptford mice into a world of heroic adventure and terror.
About the Author
Robin Jarvis worked in television and advertising before becoming a full-time author and illustrator. His first book, The Dark Portal, was short-listed for the 1989 Smarties Book Prize in England. Mr. Jarvis currently lives in London.
Read an Excerpt
Prologue: The Grill
When a mouse is born he has to fight to survive. There are many enemies -- owls, foxes, and, of course, cats; but mice suffer far more at our hands. I have heard of a whole family of kind, gentle mice wiped out by eating poison -- four generations gone and only the baby left because it was too small to eat solids.
Mice are all descended from rural families, and they remember their traditions wherever they live. They honor the green spirits of the land as Man once did and every spring they hold a celebration for the awakening year, calling to the Green Mouse to ripen the wheat and see them safe.
In a borough of London called Deptford there lived a community of mice. An old empty house was their home, and in it they fashioned a comfortable life for themselves. People never disturbed them with traps, and because all the windows were boarded up they never even saw a cat.
So they dwelled there quite happily. In the winter they would visit the building next to theirs where a blind old lady lived, and eat from her pantry. She never minded; her nephews always brought cakes and chocolates so there was too much for her alone. The mice never took more than they needed anyway. There were also berries on the trees that hugged the house and some of the younger mice would venture outside to pick them. The only blight on their carefree existence was the sewers -- or rather the rats that lived in them. Cutthroats and pirates the lot of them. Thin and ugly, a rat would smack his lips at the thought of mouse for dinner. He would kill, peel, and, if he was a fussy eater, roast it. Not that the rats ever came out of the sewers -- they had enough muck and slime down there to keep them happy. No, what worried the mice was the Grill.
This fine example of Victorian ironwork was in the cellar of the empty house. Beyond it lay a passage that led straight to the sewers. It nagged on the mind of every mouse. The Grill, with its leaf pattern of iron, was all that divided them from the bitter cruelty of the ratfolk and their dark gods. All the mice in the Skirtings knew of the Grill. It was the gateway to the underworld, the barrier between life and death. Only whispering voices would discuss the sewers in case strange forces were awoken by their mention out loud. The mice knew that deep below ground, beyond the Grill, was a power which even the rats feared. No one dared to name it in the Skirtings-it was enough to still any conversation and bring a sudden, sober halt to merrymaking.
And yet the Grill seemed to draw mice to it. In one corner there was even a tiny hole edged with jagged rusty iron that a mouse could just squeeze through, if he was foolish enough to want to do so.
One such mouse was Albert Brown. He could never afterward understand what had compelled him to do such a crazy thing, but through the Grill he had gone.
Albert had a wife named Gwen and two children, Arthur and Audrey, so you see he had everything to live for. He was happy and his family was content. There was just no reason and he kicked himself for it. With a shudder he remembered the warnings that he had given his own children: "Beware the Grill!" He had never been brave or overtly curious, so why did the Grill call to him that spring morning, and what was the urge to explore that gripped him so?
Chapter One: The Altar of Jupiter
The sewers were dark, oppressive, and worst of all, smelly. Albert had gone quite a way before he shook himself and suddenly became aware of where he was. Quickly he stifled the yell that gurgled up from his stomach and raced out of his mouth. Then he sat down and took in the situation.
He was on a narrow ledge, in a wide, high tunnel. Below him ran the dark sewer water. Albert cursed the madness that had gripped him and sent him running into danger.
"Yet here I am," he thought ruefully, and wondered how far he had come. But he was unable even to recall how long ago he had left the Skirtings. Alone, in the darkness, Albert sat on the brick ledge trying to quell the panic that was bubbling up inside him. He pressed his paws into his stomach and breathed as deeply as he could.
"Got to get out! Got to get back!" he said, but his voice came out all choked and squeaky and echoed eerily around the tunnel. This frightened him more than anything: the rats lived down here. Around the next corner a band of them could be waiting for him, listening to his funny cries of alarm and laughing at his panic. They might have knives and sticks. What if they were already appointing one of them to be the mouse-peeler? What if...?
Albert breathed deeply again and wiped his forehead. The only thing to do was to remain calm: if he succumbed to fright then he would stay rooted to the spot and the rats would surely find him He stood up and set his jaw in determination. "If I stay calm and use my wits, then all I have to do is retrace my footsteps and return to the Grill," he told himself.
It was many hours later when Albert sat down on yet another ledge and wept. All this time he had tried to find his way out, but up till now he had been unable to recognize anything that could tell him he was on the right track. What hope had he of returning to his family? He sighed and wondered what time of day it was. Perhaps it was another day altogether? Then he remembered and hoped that it was not. The Great Spring Celebration was today, and he would miss it. He would miss the games, the dancing, and the presentations. Albert groaned. His own children, Arthur and Audrey, were to be presented this year; they had come of age and would receive their mousebrasses. Today was the most special day in their lives and he would miss it. Albert wept again.
Then in his sorrow he put his paw up to his own mousebrass hanging from a thread around his neck.
It was a small circle of brass that fit in the palm of his paw. Inside the golden, shining hoop three mouse tails met in the middle. It was a sign of life and an emblem of his family. Albert took new hope from tracing the pattern with his fingers -- it reminded him that there were brighter places than this dark sewer and he resolved to continue searching until he found home or death.
Along the ledge he walked, his pink feet scarcely making a sound. Carefully he went -- aware of the dangers, keeping close to the wall and the wet brick. Suddenly he heard a faint pit-a-pat from around the corner. Something was approaching.
Albert turned quickly and looked for a place to hide, but there was only the bare wall and no escape. His heart beating hard, he pressed himself against the bricks and tried to merge into the shadows. Albert held his breath and waited apprehensively.
From around the corner came a shadow -- it sprawled over the ledge, then flew into the darkness of the tunnel. Albert gasped in spite of himself when the shadow’s owner finally emerged. It was a mouse.
All his fears and worries melted and he was left with such relief that he hugged the stranger.
"Gerroff!" said the mouse, struggling. Albert stood back but continued to shake the other’s paw.
"Oh, you’ve no idea how glad I am to see another mouse," Albert said.
The stranger breathed a sigh of relief.
"Me too, though you gave me an 'orrid fright pouncing on me like that. I’m Piccadilly. Hiya." He took his paw from Albert’s and pushed back his bangs. "Who’re you?"
"Albert" was the reply. "How did you get here?"
Piccadilly then told him his story while Albert looked him over. He was a young mouse, a little older than Albert’s children because he already had his mousebrass. He was also gray, which was unusual in the Skirtings, and he had a cocky way of speaking. Albert put that down to Piccadilly’s lack of parents: they had been killed by an underground train.
Piccadilly had been involved in one of the food-hunting parties in the city when he had lost his comrades and, like Albert, strayed into the sewers.
"And here I am," he concluded. "Mind you, where that is I’m not sure."
Albert sighed. "Neither am I, unfortunately. We could be under Greenwich or Lewisham, or anywhere really...." His voice trailed off and he looked thoughtful.
"Anythin’ wrong, Alby?"
"Yes, and don’t call me Alby!" Albert scratched an ear and looked seriously at the young mouse. "Apart from the fact that I shall miss my children’s mousebrass presentations, as yet I’ve seen neither hide nor tooth of any rats down here, so it’s only a matter of time before we run smack bang into them."
Piccadilly laughed. "Rats! Slime stuffers! Are you afraid of them?" He paused to hold his sides. "Why, I’ll handle them for you, Grandpa. A few bits of well-chosen chat from me will get ’em runnin’."
Albert shook his head. "Around here the rats are different. They’re not the feckless bacon-rind chewers that you have in the city, Piccadilly. No, these are far worse. They will eat each other, let alone us. They have cruel yellow eyes and they are driven by a burning hatred of all other creatures."
"I’ll drive ’em!" Piccadilly scoffed. "Ain’t nothing different, Alby, rats is rats wherever!"
Albert closed his eyes and lowered his voice. "Jupiter," he whispered. "They have him."
The young mouse opened his mouth but nothing came out. "In the city we’ve heard rumors of Jupiter," he stammered at last. "The great god of the rats, lord of the rotting darkness...is he here?"
"Somewhere," Albert replied unhappily.
"Are the myths about him true then?" continued Piccadilly. "Does he have two great ugly heads, one with red eyes and the other with yellow?"
"No mouse has seen him," said Albert, "but I don’t think that the rats have either -- I’ve heard he lives in a dark hole and doesn’t come out. I’ll wager Morgan has seen him though."
"Oh, Morgan is his chief henchrat, and slyer than a bag of lies. He does most of Jupiter’s dirty work."
Piccadilly looked around him. The dark seemed to press in on him now. "So the rats are more cruel here then?"
Albert nodded. "Do you think we ought to find a way out?" he said.
They set off together, searching the tunnels and exploring deep into black places. Paw in paw, the two mice found comfort in each other’s company; but both were terribly afraid. All they could hear were steady drips and every so often a sploosh sound in the sewer. Sometimes they had to turn back when the smells got too bad and made their whiskers itch. Other times a tunnel would end abruptly and they had to retrace their steps back to the last turning point.
The sewer ledges were treacherous, the gloom hiding every kind of trap: holes, stones, and slimy moss. Albert and Piccadilly went forward very carefully and very slowly.
Way above them the new moon of May climbed the night sky and only the brightest stars could be seen above the orange glare of the city lights. Albert’s family was unable to sleep, worrying in their beds.
"Another dead end!" said Albert in exasperation. Piccadilly ran his paw over the wall that blocked their path and rubbed his eyes.
"Do you think we’ll ever get out?" he asked quietly.
The older mouse could see even in the murky darkness that Piccadilly’s eyes were wet and already he was sniffing a little. Albert took his paw and they sat down. "Of course we will! Why, I’ve known mice in worse pickles than this come out tail and all. Take Twit -- now there’s an example."
"Who’s Twit?" asked Piccadilly.
"A young friend of my children -- must be your age though -- got his brass you see: an ear of wheat against a sickle moon."
"He’s one of the country mice then?" said Piccadilly, brightening a little.
Talk of the outside and the chance of a story cheered his spirits. Albert was quite clever and tactful.
"Yes, a fieldmouse Twit is, and the smallest fellow to wear the brass that I’ve ever seen. In the dead of winter he came to the Skirtings to visit his cousin."
"In winter, with the snow an’ all?"
"Snow and all," said Albert. "A terrible journey he had and many unexpected happenings on the way." He paused for effect.
"Foxes, owls, and stoats he met. ‘Suave is Mr. Fox,’ Twit told us. You have to be careful of him --‘Old Brush Buttocks,’ he calls him."
Piccadilly laughed. "Twit’s an odd name," he mused.
Albert nodded. "Comes from having no cheese upstairs, if you understand me."
"And hasn’t he?"
"That’s a tricky one: first sight yes, but then no." Albert sucked his teeth for a while. "If I had an opinion and the right to tell it," he said eventually, "it would be that Twit is an innocent. He’s forever thinking of the good: he’s not simple -- no -- or else he’d never have made it from his field. No, I think it’s something which other animals sense and they leave him alone. In the nicest possible way Twit is...green, as green as a summer field, as green as..."
"The Green Mouse," Piccadilly said.
"Exactly! Now, that’s a better thing to think of. The Green Mouse in his coat of leaves and fruit."
"I think I would like to meet Twit," Piccadilly said. "If we ever get out of here, that is."
"Oh, he and Oswald are a pair indeed."
"Tell me about him?" Piccadilly asked.
"Another time," said Albert, getting to his feet; he had suddenly become aware of their position and how vulnerable they were. The darkness seemed to close around him.
"On your feet, lad. Time to go -- and let’s make this the last stretch, eh?" He pulled Piccadilly up. An uneasy fear was growing in him and he did not want the younger mouse to sense it.
They started off again. Piccadilly ran his paw along the bricks as they went. "I suppose it’s all a bit of an adventure really," he said. "Ought to make the most of it." Then he stopped and cried out.
"Alby! I think I’ve found something here. Come see, there’s a small opening in the brickwork."
Albert peered into the hole that Piccadilly had found. The air was still and strangely lacking in all smell. Albert twitched his whiskers and tried to catch a scent that would give them a clue to what lay beyond. There was nothing.
The hole was deeper and blacker than the darkness they were used to, but what choice did they have? At least it would be a change. They were bored with wandering around on sewer ledges; and they could always come back if this turned out to be yet another dead end.
The opening was just big enough for them to squeeze through. Once inside, they found that they were able to stand quite comfortably, although the pitch dark was unnerving and they often stumbled over unseen obstacles.
Strange thoughts came to Albert as he led the way, holding tightly to Piccadilly’s paw. He felt that they were crossing an abyss, descending into a deep black gulf. He was unable to make out the paw in front of his face, and in the raven darkness his imagination drew images before his eyes: visions of his wife Gwen, and Arthur and Audrey, forever beckoning yet always distant. Albert despaired and held his grief, nursing it in silence.
Following blindly, Piccadilly clung on to Albert’s paw. He had never experienced a darkness like this before, not even in the tunnels of the underground in the city. This was a total dumbfounding of the senses; he could see nothing, he could smell nothing, and even sound was muffled by the suffocating night. He tried not to think of the sense of taste, as he had not eaten for a very long time. The only thing left to him was touch and he was kept painfully aware of this every time his toes banged against stones and fumbled over rough plaster. The dark seemed to have become an enemy in its own right, a being which had swallowed him. Even now he felt he could be staggering down its throat.
Albert’s paw was the only real thing. The pain of the stones and the passage walls were confused, vague contacts that made him dizzy.
They had not spoken for a long time and Piccadilly wondered whether Albert had been replaced by some monster that was leading him to an unknown horror. This thought grew and turned into a panic. The panic seized him fully and became icy terror. He began to struggle from the paw which now seemed to be an iron claw dragging him to his doom.
Then he was free of it and alone. All alone.
The initial relief rapidly turned into fright as he felt the unknown engulf him, isolating him from all that was real. He could not contain his anxiety much longer. The panic was almost bursting him. He closed his eyes but found there the same darkness, as if it had seeped into his mind.
"Piccadilly?" Albert’s gentle voice floated out of nowhere and the fear fell away. "Where’s your paw? Come on, lad, I think I see a point of light ahead."
It was a dim, gray, rough shape where the passage came to an end, and they made for it gladly.
"Trust in the Green Mouse, Dilly-O. I knew we’d be all right."
At the end of the passage they peered out, blinking In front of them was a large chamber with numerous openings leading off into the darkness. Along a ledge nearby two candles burned. The mice remained in the tunnel until their eyes became accustomed to the light.
Between the candles was a figure, crouching in an attitude of subservient groveling. It was a rat.
He was a large, ugly, piebald creature with a ring through his ear and a permanent sneer on his face. He had small, red, beady eyes that flicked from side to side all the time.
The two mice pressed themselves further back inside the passage, their hearts pounding. The rat had a stump of a tail with a smelly old rag tied around the end. He swung it behind him with an ugly unbalanced motion.
It was Morgan -- the Cornish rat, Jupiter’s lieutenant.
Although Albert was dreadfully afraid, he strained to see what the rat was doing. It seemed as if Morgan was humbling himself before something. Looking beyond the orange tip of the candle flame, Albert could see an arched portal in the brick, and there, blazing in the shadows, were two fiery red eyes, impossibly large and equally evil. Albert put his paw to his mouth as the awful reality dawned. He and Piccadilly had marched into the heart of the rat empire. They were within whispering distance of the altar of Jupiter.
Albert hoped that no one would catch scent of Piccadilly and him, yet he dared not move for fear of making a noise. He remembered the "peeling" procedure and shivered. Piccadilly did not need to question the identity of those burning eyes: the powerful evil force that beat out of them was enough to tell him that this was Jupiter.
Morgan lifted his head and spoke into the shadows, his voice thin and cracked.
Albert strained his ears to catch the words but it was difficult. Jupiter’s voice was soft and menacing, it both soothed and repelled.
"And why has the digging been delayed?" he asked from the dark.
Morgan bowed again. "Lord!" he whimpered. "You know what the lads are like. ‘What for we doin’ this?’ they do say, an’ ‘Gimme a mouse.’ Fact is they’m bored, an’ right cheesed off. They want action -- an’ now." The rat looked up and squinted in the glare of the fiery eyes. "Quickly like -- grab’n’dash -- with a bit of skirmishin’ in the middle." He licked his long yellow teeth.
"My people must do all I ask of them," Jupiter said flatly. "Do they not love me?"
"Oh, in worshipful adoration, Your Lovely Darkness, more than they love themselves."
"Nevertheless, I have asked for one simple task to be undertaken and all I hear is incessant whining. I fear they have little affection for me." The voice rose a little and a sour tinge crept into it.
"Never, Your Magnificence! Why else would they bring you their tributes: the cheddar biscuits -- nearly a whole half-packet last week, and that bag of rancid bacon! It fair tore their hearts to part with it but they did. All for your love, Great One! For your greater glory, O voice in the deep."
Morgan wrung his hands together for the finishing touch and hung his head for extra emphasis.
"Love!" Jupiter spat with scorn. "They do these things from fear." The soft voice snapped, filling the large chamber. The eyes narrowed but lost none of their fire.
"I am Jupiter! I am the dark thought in their waking hours, I invade their dreams and bring horror! I am the essence of night, the terror around the corner, the echo behind! They fear me!"
Morgan threw himself on the floor. The candles flared and flames scorched the chamber roof.
Piccadilly shrank against the tunnel wall. This was their chance to escape, but fascinated by the scene before them, the two mice remained frozen.
Jupiter continued. "You do well to prostrate yourself before me," he told Morgan. "Perhaps you forget my power, and hope to blind me with the honeyed words that ooze from your deceitful tongue. Remember your place as my servant!" The candle flame suddenly spluttered and turned an infernal red so that Morgan appeared to be bathed in blood.
"O Master, spare me!" he squealed and buried his snout in his grimy claws. "They conspire and grumble, and I am caught in between. What can I do?"
The candle flames dwindled in size and returned to their normal color.
"Send two or three of the troublemakers to me. They shall serve me here in the void, on this side of the candles. Tell the other conspirators that I hear their grumblings -- my mind stands beside each one of my subjects."
Morgan rose and waited for permission to leave. Jupiter spoke again.
"Better still, bring them all before me. A demonstration of my unease should quell their mutinous hearts. I will give them the goal that they desire for their work. Leave me."
The rat bowed and scurried into one of the openings that led off from the altar chamber. The two eyes retreated into the black recess and disappeared. The voice, however, could still be heard faintly as Jupiter talked to himself and went over his plans.
Piccadilly tugged Albert’s elbow. "Let’s go now," he hissed, "while we can." But Albert was still looking beyond the candles, trying to pierce the shadows.
"What’s he up to?" he asked softly.
"I don’t care and you shouldn’t either," whispered Piccadilly. "It’s all rat stuff-nothing to do with us -- some mucky scheme or other -- sewer business."
"No, lad," said Albert, taking a step forward. "There’s some terrible evil here and it will affect us all -- rats, mice, and the world beyond." He looked at the young mouse yet did not see him, for his thoughts were far away. He felt an awful doom creeping up on him which he knew he would have to bear. He looked up quickly. "I must hear him. You stay here."
Piccadilly was horrified. The older mouse crept out into the altar chamber and passed the first candle until he was beneath the dark portal. His paw cupped his ear as he listened to the designs of Jupiter.
Piccadilly paced around inside the passage. Was this mouse insane? Any minute now a whole army of rats would come pouring into the chamber. He scratched his head and looked over at Albert. Albert could obviously hear the rat-god, and what he heard was clearly not good news.
The look of disbelief on Albert’s face turned to one of complete shock. Piccadilly tried to warn him but only a strangled squeak came out.
It was too late. Albert felt a terrible pain in his shoulders as they were gripped in sharp claws.
Morgan had him and would not let go.
"Ho, My Lord!" cried the rat. "See what I, Morgan, have found -- a spy!"
Piccadilly saw Albert swinging by his shoulders where Morgan still held him tightly.
"Alby!" he shouted, and ran from the tunnel.
"Another spy!" Morgan snarled.
Albert wriggled in the rat’s clutches as hundreds more gushed into the chamber. Above, he could hear Jupiter returning. He had no hope of escape. Morgan’s hot, foul breath was on his neck.
"Piccadilly! Don’t even try," he shouted. "Run as fast as you can" Albert twisted and tore at the mousebrass around his neck. "For Gwennie!" he called, and threw the charm to the young mouse.
"Don’t dither, lad!" he called, then turned his attention to Morgan. "I bet you don’t know what your lord has got in store for you! You’re all going to catch it hot!"
Piccadilly clung to the mousebrass, his heart pounding in his mouth and his feet like dead weights. The teaming force of rats rushed toward him, and Piccadilly ran.
"Don’t look back, Dilly-O. Tell Gwennie I love her!"
Jupiter’s voice suddenly boomed in the confusion. "Catch that mouse and bring him to me!" Cries and whoops came from the rats enjoying the chase. "Now," Jupiter commanded Morgan, "deliver your spy -- I shall peel him myself."
As Piccadilly ran blindly in the dark passage, over the tumult of the pursuing enemies, he heard Albert cry out -- then no more.
Sobbing as he fled, Piccadilly clenched the brass tightly to his thumping breast.
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