“Shouldn’t we all go in together?” asked Claire.
“No,” I said. “I’m going to have a quick look just to see what’s in there. If it’s okay, then I’ll come get the rest of you. If it isn’t, then I’ll be running when I come out. If I’m running, that’s your cue to also start running, got it?”
How brave, how selfless. I planned to investigate this dark, forbidding cave alone—had I suddenly found my true hero’s heart? No. I just didn’t want them stumbling around in there, attracting attention and getting in my way when I tried to get the hell out.
My intention was to literally stick my head in the cave entrance, see what was in there and see if it looked safe to investigate further, and then call the others over. Heroics would be kept to a minimum. And by minimum, I mean exactly zero.
“Remember, if I run out, don’t wait to see what’s behind me, don’t ask questions or make any noise at all—get in the water and head for the island. If they can swim, at least we’ll be able to defend ourselves better there than out in the open. Get there as fast as you can and prepare for battle. Okay?”
“What if you don’t come back?” asked Claire.
“Then good luck and I wish you all the best.”
I crept out from our hiding spot and tried to cross the open area as quickly and quietly as I could. The bushes in front of the cave did a good job of concealing the entrance so I hoped they also hid my approach from anyone inside. The hole seemed to have been made in a mound of earth not much taller than me. As I stepped past the bushes and through the entrance, I could feel the ground beneath my feet slope downwards. I had to duck a little to enter and I remained stooped as I walked down into the gloom unable to see much.
Once the tunnel levelled out, a long, straight passageway stretched out ahead of me with pools of light on the floor. There were no sounds, but the faint whiff of something cooking drifted towards me. It smelled like fish.
The ceiling was higher here and I could stand up straight. I took another few steps forward, my hands touching the walls on either side. They felt smooth but dusty. Then my right hand fell into empty space. I pulled it back and retreated, my heart racing. I waited for a moment, but nothing happened so I reached out to the edge of the wall. There was some kind of opening, but it was too dark to see where it led.
After my eyes adjusted to the near-darkness, I sensed a small room. Nobody appeared to be in there, or at least that was the impression I had. I got on my hands and knees and crawled halfway through the opening, feeling around. There was some grass and straw in a pile (bedding?). Then something sharp pricked me, making my hiss in pain.
I backed out. Whatever was in there, it was dangerous to explore without any light. In the passageway I examined my hand to find my finger was bleeding. I pulled a piece of glass out of the cut.
A high pitched laugh—a female giggle, it sounded like—came from further down. As I peered into the distance, looking for signs of someone approaching, I could make out an orange glow. I found myself moving towards it.
As I slowly walked towards the glow, I found three more openings, two on my left and one more on my right. They were also dark and seemed empty but I decided not to investigate. I quickly crossed one of the the pools of light. It was from a hole above that revealed the blue sky.
The passageway wasn’t that long, maybe fifty feet, and I wanted to see what was at then end. I admit the size of the female mouse had given me confidence in being able to handle myself in a one on one situation. Maybe even overconfidence. She might not be alone. There was a chance I was about to walk into a colony of mice holding their annual get together. And they might be one of those species where the males are a lot bigger than the females.
The sensible thing would be to go get the others, use the torches we’d made so we could see properly and deal with any problems together. I took a few more steps forward.
I could hear voices, squeaky and talking fast.
“That smells delicious, delicious. What a fine cook you’ve become, my darling”
I heard the giggle again.
“Oh, you. There’s no need for flattery, not after what I let you do last night. I can’t believe I agreed to such a thing, you old rascal.”
“We all need a hobby. Helps pass the time.”
“Sometimes I think you’re glad the others are gone. Gives you more time to get up to no good.” There was a loud sigh. “I do miss them.”
“Now, now, don’t be sad. Their replacements will be here soon, only a few more days. Then we’ll teach those cowardly humans a lesson for taking our boys from us. They will not be forgiven!”
I was close to the end of the tunnel now, my back pressed against the wall. The orange glow was coming from a fire pit which had a metal pot hanging over it. The female mouse was crouched next to it, stirring the pot. Beside her stood another mouse, but male. He was about the same size as her, maybe a little shorter, but broader. He looked old. He had a white beard and a walking stick he leaned on as he inspected the contents of the pot.
“Back, back,” said the female. “It isn’t ready yet.”
He backed off. “Well, I suppose I’ll go get things ready for later. Ha ha, I’ve thought up a new position for you, I can’t wait to try it out.” He started to move in my direction. I hurriedly backed off and ducked into one of the openings as he walked past the end of the tunnel to the other side of the room.
I switched sides and pressed my back against the tunnel wall in time to see the male mouse’s head peeking out from a trap door in the ground.
“Call me when it’s ready, my darling. I’m ravenous—for the food and for you.” He said it with a flourish that earned him more giggles and then he disappeared, leaving a tatty rug covering the ground where he’d been.
As I crept back down the tunnel, careful to make as little sound as possible, I thought over what I had heard. It seemed humans (from our group?) had been here and taken care of the other mice. These two had survived, somehow. Perhaps by hiding under the trap door. If there were only two of them left, we had a chance. I didn’t want to underestimate them. They might have abilities I wasn’t aware of, but I felt sure the five of us could defeat them if we hit them hard and fast.
I felt nervous but excited. As I neared the exit I started moving quicker, eager to get out of there and tell the others what I’d found. By the time I pushed past the bushes, I was running. I’d made it out alive!
The others saw me come out at full speed and immediately panicked, getting in each other’s way before stumbling into the water. I didn’t want to shout after them to stop in case it was heard from inside, so I chased them all the way back to the island.