Chapter 1: Prologue
Mrs. Brisby took in a deep breath-and exhaled. It was a wondrous thing to breathe with ease, without any trace of fear or anxiety.
The nightmare she had been living since Timothy first came down with a fever was finally over. And the most miraculous thing of all was that she, a simply field mouse, had woken herself up. But not without a little help.
One of her blessed helpers sat with her now. She and Justin shared a sun-warmed rock atop a hill. Down below the dawning sun cast a warm glow over the Fitzgibbon farm.
“NIMH will be here soon,” she reluctantly broke the peaceful silence.
“And they’ll find nothing but an old rose bush,” he replied, a small measure of pride warming his voice. The other rats had already left for Thorn Valley, Justin temporarily staying behind to tend to the Brisby family.
“How are you feeling, Mrs. Brisby?” Justin turned his upper body to her. Although his smile was still in place his eyes were worried.
“I’m fine,” she replied genially. “A little light-headed but I’ve certainly been through worse.”
She had hoped to get a chuckle out of the rat but he remained silent. Last night was a blur of memories, the farmer’s house, Nicodemus’ death, Jenner, the cave in that nearly killed her children.
That moment had been unbearable, her throat closing, her heart stopping and her entire body going cold. She had been determined to save her children or be buried with them.
And then the Stone was before her, beckoning and warm and Nicodemus’ words echoing in her ears: Courage of the heart is very rare. The Stone has a power when it’s there.
Touching the Stone had felt like dipping her hands in fire but the pain hadn’t repelled her. Instead she clutched it tight and a burning presence weighed down her bones. The presence had seemed to challenge her, she felt dared and mocked. But then peace flowed through her veins, acceptance, and something voiceless whispered what she needed to do. When her children were rescued the presence vanished and she was left drained, her consciousness slipping away.
When she awoke she was in her bed, her three children snuggled around her and Timothy safely in his own bed. She found Auntie Shrew in the kitchen, fixing tea before she went on to her own home. “The rat that carried you in here is waiting outside,” she said with a note of dislike in her tone.
And now Mrs. Brisby sat with her friend, ignoring the pang of grief that told her he would be gone soon.
“How are you hands?” he asked, eyes trailing to her paws that rested on her knees. She couldn’t hold back a wince, lifting her hands, palms up. The fur had been singed, the skin bright red, proof she had wielded the Stone’s power.
“They sting a little, but its fine,” she reassured, “I’ll have Teresa help me bandage them when she wakes up.”
Justin wordlessly took her hand, careful to avoid the burned flesh. “You are really something else, my lady.”
She smiled at him, feeling a blush rise. Justin was far kinder than she would’ve imagined considering his harsh origins. She would sincerely miss him.
“Thank you,” she replied, “Not just for what you said, but for everything. You saved my life; I wouldn’t be here without you.”
He returned her smile, “You don’t give yourself enough credit. You single-handedly saved the rats of NIMH last night, as well as the lives of your children.”
Mrs. Brisby’s eyes fell to the gray stone, “I wasn’t able to save Nicodemus.”
Justin told her not to blame herself for his death but guilt still plagued her. Nicodemus had been wise and kind; he had felt like a father to her even though she had only known him for a short time. She would always be grateful he gave her closure for Jonathan’s death. But he only died because he had helped her and she would always blame herself for that.
Justin’s soft sigh broke her from her thoughts, “I need to be going; they’ll need my help settling into Thorn Valley.”
Mrs. Brisby nodded, fearing a sob would escape her. “You will be safe won’t you?”
He winked, “Of course, you are looking at the new leader of Thorn Valley. You don’t have to worry about me, Mrs. Brisby.”
“Elizabeth,” the word fell off her tongue without her permission.
Justin, having stood up now halted, his hand still holding hers, “Pardon?”
“You should know my first name, it’s Elizabeth.”
“Elizabeth Brisby,” he tasted the name. “It suits you perfectly.”
“Just, I-” she couldn’t express her gratitude and fondness through words. “Do you think you’ll ever come back?”
His smile was apologetic, “Probably not, Mrs-Elizabeth. Thorn Valley is our new home; we no longer have a place in this farm.”
She wasn’t asking if he’d ever more back to the farm, she was asking if he would come back to see her.
“But I do hope I’ll see you again,” he added, his black eyes holding a tender light.
“I do as well,” she replied, “But just in case…”
Ignoring the twist in her gut she removed the now cool Stone from around her neck, offering it to Justin who looked both confused and interested.
“Keep it,” she urged. “I no longer need it, and it’s all you have left of Nicodemus and-and Jonathan.”
Justin’s throat moved as he silently swallowed, but he accepted the Stone with a formal nod.
“And,” she added, a shy smile rising. “It can be something to remember me by.”
“How could I forget you?” Justin asked. But before she could reply he pulled her into a gentle hug.
“You are my hero, Elizabeth Brisby,” he breathed in her ear, “And it was a blessing to know you.”
Chapter 2: Unfit in a Fit World
8 Years Later
Auntie Shrew’s age did little to calm her feisty spirit. She still held a fierce tongue that was louder than her creaking bones.
Whenever Elizabeth visited her old friend it gave her a sense of unease, an unease the shrew caught and addressed. “Still look as young as they day I met you.”
Auntie Shrew sat in the burrow of the farmer’s field that was her winter home. She sat at her table while Elizabeth brewed a kettle of tea.
“Thank you,” she acted as if the words were a compliment but they made her skin crawl. Despite the years that had passed she looked to have not aged a day since the rats of NIMH left. Her children had grown, though slower as she had excepted as they were Jonathon’s children. The four were the only who didn’t question her lack of gray fur and wrinkles, but the rest of the animals around the forest and farm did not let her forget her oddity.
Nor the oddity of her children.
“What is your secret?” Auntie asked, accepting a hot cup of tea.
“I’ve always been healthy,” Elizabeth replied, sitting across from her.
“Hmm,” Auntie squinted at her, her age making her vision blurry. “Where are the children?” she decided to change the topic.
“Outside,” Elizabeth answered with a sense of relief. “They don’t prefer the indoors much, not even Teresa who spends her days reading.”
“They’re becoming too big for your house,” Auntie commented. “They’ll soon be adults. Teresa’s old enough to start a family of her own.”
“I know,” Elizabeth sighed. Her children were growing up and getting ready to start the next stage of their life. But she couldn’t help feeling a wave of grief; she didn’t want to be left alone.
“However Martin won’t be finding a mate with that attitude of his,” Auntie snapped.
Elizabeth let out a soft chuckle, despite the years that had passed Auntie and Martin were always at each others’ throats. But she supposed the shrew had a point, her son was always getting on the wrong side of the other animals.
“He’ll learn,” Elizabeth assured Auntie.
The elderly shrew made a sound of disagreement before taking a sip of her cooling tea.
After a few more minutes of conversation the mouse and shrew finished their drinks and Elizabeth helped Auntie into bed for a nap.
Content she would be fine without her Elizabeth left the burrow to find her children. The first she found was her eldest. Teresa sat on a small rock next to the shrew’s home. She was reading one of Jonathon’s old books, even though she and her siblings had already read it many times.
Teresa looked up and smiled at her mother. She was a beautiful mouse, even though the dress she was wearing was more rags than cloth by now. She still wore the ribbon she had owned since she was eight, though her hair had grown since then, reaching past her shoulders.
“Hi, Mother,” Teresa greeted before gracefully sliding off the stone. “How’s Auntie Shrew?”
“She’s doing fine,” Elizabeth replied, “She’s sleeping now. Where are your brothers and sister?”
The sound of a sudden scuffle gave her the answer and the two mice hurried to the noise, moving through old corn stalks.
There was a small group of voles, shrews, a thrush and a couple of rabbits forming a haphazard circle.
Teresa, less mild-mannered than her mother, pushed through the crowd with Elizabeth behind her, reaching the front of the crowd Elizabeth let out a gasp. Martin was rolling across the ground, tussling with a young vole. Cynthia and Timothy stood on the sidelines while cheering their brother on.
“Martin!” she practically shrieked, racing to the two to break up the fight.
Seeing their mother hurrying into the fray the other three Brisby children quickly helped her separate Martin and the vole.
“What on earth do you think you’re doing?” Elizabeth demanded of her son. A trickle of blood slid down Martin’s chin and his fur was a mess of dust. The vole was in no better condition.
“He called me a freak!” Martin growled, shooting daggers at the vole.
“You are a freak!” the vole snarled. “My dad was born and grew old while you were still a baby!” He violently pulled himself out of Timothy and Cynthia’s grip. “You’re all freaks!”
The vole disappeared into the brown stalks of the field and the rest of the crowd followed, muttering agreements.
When the Brisby family were left alone Teresa scowled at Martin with annoyance, “Could you be any more petty, Martin?”
“Petty!?” he whirled around to face his sister. “He insulted us!”
“So? He was a complete stranger, what do you care what he says?”
“I’m not gonna let someone, stranger or not, think they can insult me.”
Teresa let out an exaggerated sigh and it was at that time Elizabeth turned to her two youngest.
“Are you two okay?”
Cynthia, fur naturally disheveled and her old blue ribbon dusty, waved her hand in an unimpressed manner, “Couldn’t be better, Mom.”
Timothy nodded, “We weren’t the ones fighting.”
Elizabeth gave the two a hard look, “Yes but you certainly didn’t try to stop the fighting either.”
Cynthia pursed her lips and looked away, not looking apologetic in the slightest.
“Sorry, Mom,” Timothy turned his eyes to the ground. “But I wasn’t about to do that vole any favors.”
While the girls were slim and Martin was bulky, Timothy was scrawny. His bout of pneumonia had taken its toll on him and he remained weaker than his siblings, and despite being a year older than Cynthia he wasn’t much taller than her.
Elizabeth released a soft breath and wrapped her cloak around herself. “Let’s just get home. It’s getting too cold.”
They had never moved back to their old place by the stone. While the new home wasn’t as close to food it was more isolated which was for the best. Ever since Elizabeth’s time with the rats of NIMH their neighbors didn’t look at them the same way. Only Auntie Shrew still talked to them, along with Jeremy and his family.
After dinner Elizabeth cleaned the dishes while her children were sprawled around the living room. Timothy and Teresa shared a book, Cynthia lying on the floor working on a map of the area around their house. Martin was staring out the window at the night-covered forest.
“Mom,” he spoke suddenly, looking over his shoulder.
Elizabeth looked up from the plate she was cleaning, “What is it, Martin?”
Her son’s expression already told her what he was going to say: “When are we going to Thorn Valley?”
Now all her children were looking at her, and Elizabeth felt a twisting in her gut. “You’ve already asked me this a hundred times before. It’s too long of a trip to walk, and Jeremy and his family already left for winter migration.”
“Okay but when Jeremy was here you always said it would be too much of a bother,” Timothy pointed out, looking over the couch he shared with Teresa.
“Even though he helped Mr. Ages move there a few years back,” Cynthia added, turning her attention away from her map. “And they don’t even like each other.”
Elizabeth swallowed, trying to think of an excuse that would satisfy them. Teresa firmly closed her book and came to her mother’s rescue: “You all act like we’d be welcomed with open arms.”
The three turned their eyes to her.
“Why wouldn’t we be after all Mom and Dad did for the rats?” Martin demanded, crossing his arms.
“Because we wouldn’t belong,” she said with bluntness. “We’re mice, not rats. Mr. Ages belongs because he came from NIMH. We have no idea what those rats had been through, and all we know is how to be common field mice.”
Martin opened his mouth to retort but Teresa wasn’t done. “Besides,” she continued, “We might be like them because we’re Father’s children…But what about Mother?”
The room fell silent and Elizabeth had to wonder if there were times her children pitied her. She quickly put the dishes away and told the four she would be turning in early and to not stay up too late.
Lying in bed Elizabeth accepted the fact that despite alls he had done in her life she was a coward. Teresa wanted to go to Thorn Valley as well, but she saw her mother’s fears and came to her defense. While Elizabeth believed her children could find a place there with time, she did not believe the same for herself.
She was nothing like the rats. If not for Jonathon being her husband they would not have helped her, she would not have even met them. Justin had been incredibly kind but he was the only one she truly knew, and while she didn’t go a day without missing him she was sure his life as a leader kept her from his own thoughts.
Elizabeth knew she would easily request Jeremy to take her children to Thorn Valley once he returned. But she selfishly wanted to keep them.
She already lost Jonathon.
She already came so close to losing her children as well.
She couldn’t bear to say goodbye.
Chapter 3: Burning Away
Teresa knew she was dreaming, walking through the forest she recognized as the one beside her house. She idly stepped through the cool grass, looking at the tall, tall pines and oaks around her. This forest was oddly quiet but it didn't bother her, it was a dream and crazier things could happen.
But then a shadow burst through the bushes, startling the mouse and sending her to the ground.
She blinked when the shadow stopped for just a second, long enough for her to see it was shaped like a rat, before vanishing.
Teresa had barely registered what had happened before the grass turned scorching hot. She let out a screech and jumped to her feet as the trees engulfed into fire. Ash rained from the sky as she slammed her eyes shut, willing herself to wake up and escape this fiery inferno.
Teresa's eyes popped open her fur damp with sweat, to Cynthia's off-key singing.
The youngest mouse was dancing and twirling through the room where the five slept. As Teresa sat up she watched her sister rummage through her chest for her knapsack.
Martin, on the bed next to Teresa, grumbled and burrowed further into his blankets.
"What are you doing?" Teresa asked her sister, rubbing the sleep from her crusty eyes.
Cynthia smiled at her, brown eyes already bright and excited, "We're going on a family hike!"
Forcing herself out of her warm bed Teresa walked to the kitchen while her sister threatened to jump on Martin. Her mother and Timothy were already in the kitchen, Elizabeth placing seeds and corn into a bag. Timothy stood next to her, handing her the food for the hike while looking half-asleep on his feet.
"Good morning," Elizabeth smiled up at her daughter. She was wide-awake but was much more mellow than Cynthia.
Teresa yawned, "Good morning. Cynthia said we're going on a family hike."
"It'll soon be too cold to spend time outside," Elizabeth explained, "This is our last chance to stretch our legs. We're going to walk a ways into the forest and have a picnic."
"Could I bring a book?" she asked, her voice sounding less groggy, she'd love to find a warm ray of sun to curl up and read.
Timothy rolled his eyes but didn't say anything while Elizabeth nodded. "But just one."
Teresa went to the bookshelf, already knowing what book she'd pick. It was her favorite, a fantasy about a mouse princess that her father had written when she was small. Apparently it was a story his mother had told him and hsi siblings when he was her age.
Teresa held the book to her chest, smiling fondly at the memory of her father reading to her.
A sudden yelp of pain from the bedroom startled her and she nearly dropped the book. Apparently Cynthia had lived up her threat.
Despite the sky being clear and the sun shining bright, the air was still cool. Cynthia led the group through the forest, not following any specific trail and not hesitating to climb over roots or even through bramble bushes. All the while she whistled a cheery tune.
Teresa walked side by side with Martin who was still grumbling under his breath. He, of course, didn't favor a nearly broken spine as a wake up call.
Her mother was in the back of the group with Timothy, the two talking quietly with each other. Teresa couldn't help but wonder if Timothy would be able to complete the hike. She felt guilty almost immediately after, her youngest brother may not be as strong as his siblings but he was determined. He'd finish the hike even if it exhausted him and there was no guarantee that that would happen. She was his sister and she needed to have more faith in him.
"Ah," Cynthia suddenly exclaimed from the other side of the bush. "I found it."
"Found what?" Martin asked as the rest of the family crawled through the bush. On the other side Cynthia was sitting on the stump of what was once an oak. "This is perfect for a picnic!" she stated happily, sitting on the edge of the stump with her legs crossed.
The four mice climbed up to join her, Teresa being surprised by how smooth the tan wood was. She saw her mother nod to Cynthia, "This is a perfect spot, sweetheart."
With those words of approval Martin immediately sat down while Teresa pulled out the picnic cloth she had packed along with her book and some seeds.
She and her mother set up the picnic, meanwhile Timothy busied himself counting the rings of the tree.
"Forty," he mumbled once he had finished. "This tree is forty years old," he stated, joining his family on the picnic cloth. All with the exception of Cynthia who was busy exploring an abandoned hole in the ground.
"Cynthia, get back up here," Teresa ordered.
The smaller mouse stuck her tongue out at her sister and Teresa rolled her eyes, Cynthia loved to remind them that she was the baby.
"Please, Cynthia," Elizabeth asked and her daughter obeyed. The four rarely disobeyed their mother.
As they dug into their meal of seeds and corn their conversations switched from topic to topic.
One topic being age: Martin, leaning back on his hands, looked up at the leafless, skeletal trees. "You think animals were ever surprised by how long trees can live?"
Elizabeth looked to her son sadly while Cynthia smacked her lips and answered, "I don't know maybe? But even if they were they'd eventually be happy they live so long. Animals love trees!"
"Yeah, they love long-living trees," Martin scowled at the stump, "But not long-living animals."
"Trees don't have a mouth like yours," Teresa pointed out. She smirked when her brother glared at her.
"Why are you so upset over what some vole said?" Timothy demanded. "We don't even know him."
While her brothers argued Teresa saw Cynthia sniffing the air from the corner of her eye but ignored it.
"Don't pretend to be Teresa, Timmy," Martin snapped. "Animals wanting to avoid us like the plague has to bother you."
"It does," Timothy's answer was soft-spoken, "But only because animals who used to be our friends think there's something wrong with us."
"There's nothing wrong with you!" their mother snapped so viciously it made the three jump. "You are your father's children," she continued in a much softer tone. "You're different but that in no way makes you wrong. You're all perfect just the way you are."
Teresa smiled lovingly at her mother. She knew it hadn't been easy raising her and her siblings all by herself...but Teresa thought she did an outstanding job. Especially considering her bossiness, Martin's stubbornness, Timothy's sickliness, and Cynthia's refusal to stay in place.
"You're pretty perfect too, Momma," Timothy said sweetly and Elizabeth smiled.
"And you're aging as slowly as us," Martin pointed out the obvious.
"Yes," Elizabeth's smile fell slightly. She ran her fingers through the brown fur that didn't have a strand of gray.
"Maybe Dad rubbed off on you," Martin suggested, but there was no conviction in his voice.
Her reply was soft, "Maybe."
But then Timothy spoke up: "Where's Cynthia?"
That question sent Teresa and her mother into a panic. The youngest mouse was no longer on the stump nor anywhere in sight.
"How did I not notice?" Elizabeth jumped to her feet, alarm sparking in her blue eyes.
"Don't worry, Mom," Martin tried to reassure her. "Cynthia's scrappy. We'll find her before anything gets to her."
Timothy had slowly stood up and was facing north, "I smell smoke."
Teresa lifted her nose to the sky and sure enough she could make out the scent of burning trees. "A forest fire..."
"CYNTHIA!" they all screeched, jumping off the stump and racing into the forest.
The air so hot sweat made Teresa's fur stand on end, and the air was thick with smoke.
The Brisby family interlocked their hands so they wouldn't be separated. And as they scurried through burning grass, calling for Cynthia, Teresa was hit with an incredible sense of deja-vu.
They had neared an old, fast-moving stream when they heard the shout. Teresa's blue eyes moved skyward and she spotted a sandy colored shape on a tree limb above. It was Cynthia looking like she had gotten her foot stuck in a knot. And fire was licking up the side of the tree.
By then the rest of the family had spotted her but Teresa didn't give them time to react. Dropping Martin's hand she scurried up the side of the trunk that wasn't ablaze. Her family called after her but none followed, they trusted her to save her sister.
Cynthia gave her an apologetic grin when Teresa reached her, "Maybe I didn't choose the best time to run off?"
Teresa didn't answer, focusing on pulling her sister's foot out of the knot. All the while she was painfully aware of the heat blistering her back and sweat trickling through her fur.
She let out a triumphant "ah-hah!" when Cynthia's foot pulled free and the mouse didn't need to be told to scurry past her sister and down the trunk.
Teresa had just turned around to fallow her when she heard a splitting noise followed by her mother's scream.
Then there was a bolt of pain and everything went black.
"TERESA!" Elizabeth screeched as she watched a flaming branch fall, hitting her daughter's back and knocking her into the rushing torrent below.
Timothy quickly wrapped his arms around his mother before she could jump in after her daughter. But he couldn't stop Martin.
The larger mouse dove into the water, swimming with the current to the brown shape that was his sister.
"Come on!" Cynthia had reached the ground and didn't pause to run after her older siblings, staying close to the bank. Elizabeth and Timothy galloped after.
Elizabeth watched with watering eyes as Martin reached his unconscious sister's side, grabbing her arm and trying to keep them both afloat.
Cynthia, spotting stepping stone in the river, hopped across them to the other side, the other two mice following after, safe from the raging inferno claiming the forest.
Chests heaving they continued to follow Martin and Teresa as the river's current slowed. Relief fueled Elizabeth's final steps as Martin finally made it to the shore, dragging the still unconscious Teresa with him. Martin dropped to his hands and knees gasping while Elizabeth held her daughter in her arms.
"Teresa," she sobbed. It felt like her heart had stopped. The fire of the fallen branch had burned her before the water extinguished the flames. It had burned a patch of fur on her flames. It had burned a patch of fur on her back, Elizabeth could feel the bald flesh.
"Teresa, open your eyes," she begged as her daughter failed to rise. She buried her face in Teresa's neck, "My baby."
For a moment that felt like eternity all she saw were tears, all she heard was roaring flames, and all she felt was her daughter's limp body.
Elizabeth pulled back, eyes wide, to see Teresa slowly blinking her eyes open. She coughed weakly, then gazed up at her, "I'm sorry."
Elizabeth Brisby had never felt more like a child. Her daughter who she nursed and raised had nearly died of fire and then drowning but she was more worried over how her mother took it. She pulled Teresa closer, her other children hurrying over to join the hug.
"I'm the one whose sorry," Cynthia spoke up. "I shouldn't have run off."
"That was a stupid thing to do," Martin's voice was hoarse. "But it was also a Cynthia thing to do."
Timothy suddenly pulled out of the group hug, "I hate to bring this up but..." he pointed to the burning forest. "That has probably reached our home."
Elizabeth and her children watched in a sort of shocked awe as the fire effortlessly destroyed the forest they had traveled through throughout their lives. No doubt reaching the stone they had gone through so much to keep, the licking flames reaching inside to burn their clothes and books and everything else they held dear.
Where had such an inferno ever come from?
Elizabeth took in a deep breath and with it came the resolve that had faced giant rats and cats, owls and machines. Fate had chosen the next step of her children's lives. And whether she played a role in that next step was no longer important.
She stood up, helping Teresa to her feet. "Are you four read to go?"
Confused eyes turned to her. "Go where?" Cynthia asked the question.
Elizabeth took another deep breath, "To Thorn Valley."
Chapter 4: The Beginning
The Brisbys had followed the river back to Fitzgibbon's farm. Humans in large red vehicles had arrived. With hoses they were blasting torrents of water at the forest fire, but Martin knew their home, that was at the edge of the burning forest, was long gone.
The five mice made their way to Auntie Shrew's the field currently full of the forest animals, having run from the flames. They reached the shrew's house to see that she was already outside.
"Brisby!" her shrill voice yelled out. She nearly knocked Elizabeth down with her embrace. Martin wasn't the only one who was surprised, he couldn't remember a time when the shrew had showed physical affection. "I thought you had all perished in the fire!"
The family took her inside, Elizabeth and her daughters calming her while Martin tried to keep still.
He had nearly cried out in excitement when his mother said they would be going to Thorn Valley. Martin felt like his skin was the only thing keeping him in one place, his mind running with thoughts. Thorn Valley was a place where he wouldn't be judged, where they would even admire his differences. Elizabeth had told them who Justin had sword fought with Jenner. Martin couldn't wait to show him his new skills.
But they were still trying to calm Auntie Shrew.
"You don't have to go find those rats," the shrew was insisting. Elizabeth had explained how they escaped the fire, though nearly losing Teresa in the progress. When the shrew had seen the burn mark on the young mouse she offered an old purple shawl which Teresa excepted. And even though both Auntie Shrew and Elizabeth informed her that her bald spot would need air for her fur to grow back. But still Teresa wrapped the shawl tightly around herself.
"You can stay with me," Auntie Shrew offered.
Martin bit his tongue before he could tell her to shut up. But Elizabeth grabbed Auntie Shrew's paws, "This place is too small for my children. They need a place to grow."
Auntie Shrew's eyes flashed, looking as if she would cry. But she instead lifted her chin, "I suppose there's no point in trying to dissuade you. You can be so stubborn when you want to be."
Elizabeth smiled warmly and kissed her temple. Teresa and Cynthia hurried over to wrap their arms around their aunt, eyes already streaming.
The hug Timothy and Martin gave her was awkward to say the least. Timothy had never been close with the shrew and Martin had always been antagonistic. So he was startled to feel his throat close up in grief at the thought of never seeing this shrew again.
Thorn Valley laid north by northeast from the Fitzgibbon farm. The river Teresa had fallen into separated their forest from the other, the latter being spared from the fire. And it was that forest the Brisby family would travel through.
Elizabeth at the edge of the forest, just before the shadow of the woods. Her blue eyes betrayed her uncertainty. Timothy and Teresa took her hands with understanding expressions.
Elizabeth looked over her shoulder at what was left of the old forest, the humans had managed to stop the fire. The inferno had left ashes and stumps in their wake. To her it was like an entire story being erased, but to Martin it was like breaking the chains that had been holding him back. But he stayed quiet and let his mother grieve.
A few moments later it was Cynthia who broke the silence: "Come on, Momma." She hugged Elizabeth's arm. "This is gonna be a great adventure!"
Her mother smiled at her, and nodded. Together the Brisby family stepped into the forest.
With the tall oaks, pines, and sycamores blocking out the sun's rays the air was chilly with the upcoming winter.
Martin and his family walked closely to share the body warmth. The grass rustling beneath them and the woods clicking and yipping noise. Martin kept his eyes open for any predators trying to stalk toward them.
"So are we looking for any particular landscape or..." Timothy's question trailed off.
"We're looking for Trout River," Elizabeth answered. "And then we follow it to the mountains where Thorn Valley hides."
"How do you know that?" Teresa asked.
"Justin and Nicodemus told me."
The eldest child let out a soft sigh, "I wish I could've met Nicodemus."
"He was very kind and wise," Elizabeth told her, "You would've liked him."
"At least we'll get to meet Justin," Cynthia added.
Elizabeth's smile grew fond, "Justin in one of a kind."
Martin saw his sisters hold back giggles while exchanging looks. He rolled his eyes behind their back. Of course their mother was fond of Justin, after all the help he was it was only natural. Females always over-exaggerating things.
A few hours later dusk fell along with the temperature. Elizabeth decided they would stop for the night, finding a sleeping space under a tree's root. The family curled together, steadily warming the space with their bodies.
"I can't wait to see Thorn Valley," Cynthia breathed into the evening air. "What do you think the rats are doing?"
"Probably sleeping in nice warm beds," was Timothy's dry reply.
"We'll be there soon enough," Elizabeth assured. Already she was closing her eyes and was the first to fall asleep.
Once she was no longer awake Teresa turned to her siblings, "We're not staying if they make Mother leave."
Her sudden order made Cynthia and Timothy blink in bemusement. But Martin's face was twisted into a scowl, "Why are you so sure they'll do that? You just keep insisting we'll be treated badly."
Teresa's eyes pulled away to look down at her hands, "I don't know it's just...it's been eight years since Mother has seen the rats. They could've changed they could've forgotten about father... Thorn Valley could not be what we hope it is."
Martin studied his sister, noticing that maybe the prejudices they had faced hurt her more than she let on. And now that they were about to be at their next step she feared life wouldn't let her walk.
"Of course we won't stay a place that wouldn't welcome all of us," Timothy spoke up. "We're a family and we'll stay together no matter what."
Martin and Teresa nodded in agreement while Cynthia nuzzled lovingly into his side, embarrassing him.
With muttered 'good nights' they followed their mother into sleep.
Martin was awoken at dawn by Timothy shaking his shoulder. He blinked his eyes open to see frost on his whiskers.
"Martin," Timothy breathed so as not to wake the girls. "It snowed last night."
He followed his younger brother out from under the root only to have his feet crunch in fluffy white snow. The forest had become a winter wonderland while they slept.
"It's pretty," Timothy stated, his arms around his torso as he leaned against his brother.
"But cold," Martin smirked.
"This probably won't make our travel any easier," Martin agreed, his ears flicking and already pink with cold. "We'll figure it out. Wanna look for some breakfast?" They had a few things from their picnic but he had no idea how long this trip would take. He wanted them to eat sparingly.
"Sure." Timothy pulled away and walked off to a snow covered bush a few feet away, leaving tracks behind him.
Martin turned to his left, sniffing the cold air. He caught the old musk of a squirrel, maybe one had an abandoned food storage nearby. But Martin hadn't even moved before he saw a clump of snow land in front of him.
His head shot up to see a blur of tawny feathers. Martin whirled around just in time to see a large barn owl descending on his unknowing brother.
Martin shot his paw out and screamed, "TIMOTHY!!! RUN!!!"
Chapter 5: Waterlogged
Timothy heard his brother's cries a second before a vice-like grip wrapped around his stomach and he lurched up, leaving his heart on the ground. His head shot up to see the snowy white chest of an owl.
Timothy barely had time to register his fear when Martin jumped and just managed to latch onto the owl's talon. But the extra weight did little to deter the owl as he flew up, away from the ground to soar below the branches.
"Hold on Timmy!" Martin bared his teeth, dragging himself onto the owl's foot. Timothy tried to slip out of the owl's grip but the bird only tightened it's grip, but that didn't stop Martin trying to pull the owl's talons away from his brother.
"Martin it's no use!" Timothy yelled through the rushing air. Why couldn't he have stayed with their mother and sisters? He kept insisting on being a hero and it would get them both killed. But still his brother's eyes blazed with determination and thought. He turned his head away from Timothy to look at the naked leg of the owl.
Before Timothy could ponder what was running through Martin's head the larger mouse shot forward and sunk his teeth into the owl's leg. The bird shrieked in pain as slivers of blood ran down it's skin. The owl swiveled it's head around to jab its beak at Martin. While his brother evaded the attack Martin dug his own teeth and claws into the owl's skin, gagging at the taste of blood.
But to his relief he felt the owl's grip loosen and he ripped his teeth away and let gravity do the rest. Wind screamed past his ears, whiskers smacking across his face and eyes tearing up. Martin, seeing his brother falling, jumped after him. Below Timothy saw a frozen river below and braced himself just before impact. Pain slammed his shoulders as he hit the ice-the awfully thin ice.
Martin landed beside him and the cracks moved across the ice, Timothy laid sprawled and completely still. "Don't move," he hissed to his brother.
Despite his bristling fur Martin stayed stock-still, eyes skyward. The barn owl flew in circles over their heads, Timothy could make out the red stream on it's leg and it looked to be debating whether to try and re-catch such viscous prey. Martin's fur settled when the owl flew away, vanishing into the trees.
The two boys' heads turned to see their mother and sisters dashing across the snow and slid to a halt at the river's icy banks. "Don't get any closer!" Timothy called out as Cynthia moved to step forward.
While the sandy mouse froze in place Elizabeth looked over the cracked ice, able to make out the rivulets of water sliding below. Meanwhile Teresa was studying their surroundings as if looking for something.
When her eyes fixed on something Timothy followed her gaze to see a few feet away a broken branch having fallen over the river to form a makeshift bridge. Teresa darted to the branch, hesitantly climbing onto it. Timothy could see the bark shimmering with frost and imagined it was hard to keep one's grip if his sister's slow crawl was anything to go by.
Martin was looked as his older sister as well, "What are you doing?"
She didn't answer, sitting on the middle of the branch and examining both it and the thin ice. She looked to her brothers, "How fast do you think this river is?"
Timothy carefully looked down at the ice, drops of water flowing out of the cracks with a force that told him the river was not slow moving. He told Teresa this.
"Can we use the branch as a boat?" Cynthia suddenly spoke up, beaming in excitement.
Eyes turned to the smallest mouse and Teresa hummed thoughtfully. "Possibly." She climbed off to land in the snow. "It would save us from walking."
"The ice'll break as soon as you push that branch onto the ice," Martin pointed out.
His sister sighed, chin resting on her palm, "I know."
With his eyes Timothy measured the distances, they were closer to the branch then they were to the shore. There was no way to get off the ice without breaking it, unless they wanted that owl to return. "Martin and I can handle getting a little wet."
The girls pushed against the end of the branch where it fell off the tree. In doing so the other end of the branch, thin and spindly, almost like spider legs, moved across the ice, a series of cracks formed, looking similar to a spider's web, the brothers braced themselves.
The girls pushed the thicker edge of the branch into the river and jumped on just as the ice shattered. The brothers shifted as the ice they sat on broke into a piece that was carried away by the river.
The forest around them moved past at a speed Timothy wished he could appreciate but he and Martin were far too busy trying to keep their balance on the thin block of ice. Elizabeth and her daughters were clutching the branch, the boys' mother reached out to them, as close to the edge as possible. "Reach for me!" she called out.
Martin looked to his brother, "We need to jump."
Timothy barely had time to register those words before Martin leaped, knocking Timothy off balance. He slid into the frigid waters, pressure tightening his lungs. Forcing his limbs to move he picked a direction and his head burst from the surface. He took in a breath, spotting Martin already climbing onto the branch. But a moment later a shard of ice smacked into the mouse's head, sending him back under water.
The world was mute as he tried to find the surface again, eyes shut against the freezing water. His lungs felt like they were shrinking, and despite how hard he moved his limbs they still started to freeze up.
Timothy's eyes popped open to see Martin and his brother dragging him onto the branch. He laid across the bark, coughing up lungfuls of water and desperately trying to suck in as much as air as possible His family surrounded him, Elizabeth wrapping her shawl around him while Martin and Teresa massaged feelings back into his limbs. Cynthia nuzzled into his side.
When Timothy finally stopped shivering he looked around at their surroundings, the branch easily pushing past the thin ice and the trees were unrecognizable. They had traveled a good distance thanks to the river.
He let out a soft side, pushing his nose into Cynthia's neck, "There's got to be an easier way to travel."
Chapter 6: Found
Cynthia sat at the front of the branch boat. Night had fallen hours ago and it would be dawn in a few hours. Besides herself Martin was the only one awake, sitting next to Timothy with his eyes on the river. Teresa was asleep with her head in her arms and back to the wind (Cynthia wondered if the burn on her back still hurt). And her mother was practically wrapped around Timothy, having not struggled an inch from his side since he was fished out of the river.
Elizabeth had always been over-protective of Timothy since his bout of pneumonia. Cynthia could understand it but she still found herself occasionally jealous of the attention. Though Martin had never tried to hide his dislike of their mother's fussing.
But it made Cynthia wonder how Elizabeth would react to Thorn Valley. According to what she had told her children the rats were adept at combat, Justin's sword fight with Jenner proved that. So they probably taught younger rats how to use things like swords. Cynthia knew Martin would insist on being taught, so Timothy probably would to (she even wanted to try it). But how would their mother react to that? Would she forbid Timothy, thinking it too dangerous and taxing? And if she did would Timmy disobey?
It was questions that would be answered in time and Cynthia was done waiting.
But luck was on her side when the river narrowed to a tiny stream, bringing the branch to a halt.
Martin shrugged at Cynthia, "Guess we're walking now." Frankly Cynthia was grateful to stretch her legs.
After waking the others up Elizabeth found her bearings rather quickly and led her children through a thin path. Cynthia almost asked how her mother knew what direction to take in an instant. Perhaps a part of her had always known this would happen and prepared for the journey. Or, Cynthia smirked, since Justin had told her the directions maybe she paid extra special attention. The young mouse was certainly looking forward to that reunion.
The group of five walked in a silence that matched the seemingly dead forest, clouds of frost slipped past their lips and the crunch of snow was the only sound. But at least they were light enough so their feet wouldn't sink into the fluffy stuff, that made the hike a little easier.
Cynthia's eyes roved around the forest, trying to memorize the trail. She wished she had the time to mark it, any memorable landscape she saw would be melted by spring. But at least she had the whole of Thorn Valley to explore and mark, they just had to get there.
And Cynthia was starting to dread that that was never going to happen.
"Are we there yet?" she couldn't help but moan.
Both Teresa and Martin groaned in annoyance. The former spoke, "We'll get there when we get-" her voice came to a stop as suddenly the thick, brittle foliage broke away. And then the Brisby family were staring up at a large formation of rocks that seemed to disappear into the gray sky.
"A mountain," Timothy breathed.
Teresa sighed, "We're gonna have to climb that aren't we?"
Elizabeth's lips pulled into a thin line, "I'm afraid so. But let's rest a moment before we start."
They finished the rest of their food in silence. Cynthia noticing Martin looked just as impatient as she.
Teresa examined the sky, "Should we wait until the sun comes up?"
Timothy shook his head, "I say we go ahead and start, it's going to take hours just to get to the top."
When the food was gone Elizabeth instructed Teresa to hold her tail and Martin to hold Teresa's and so on. With Timothy's tail wrapped around her wrist Cynthia followed her family onto the icy rocks, ignoring the pain the cold caused to her feet.
Progress was slow, Elizabeth's each step was careful and calculated, making sure she didn't slip. Cynthia tried to keep her impatience in check, her mind moving forward to Thorn Valley and imagining what it would be like. She knew she'd spend all her time exploring like Martin would spend all his time training. Knowing Teresa if they had a library that's where she would be found. And Timothy...maybe he would do all three?
Suddenly Timothy's foot slipped and he fell back, crashing into a startled Cynthia who tried to catch him, digging her heels into the rock. Martin, having heard Timothy's yelp, braced himself and managed to not be dragged after his siblings, saving the two from falling. Cynthia looked down to see they were farther up then she thought.
"Are you alright?" Elizabeth called back to her children, eyes wide with worry. Timothy and Cynthia nodded, straightening themselves up.
They only climbed a little more before being forced to a halt. They stood on a large rock and before them was a wall of rock too tall and steep to climb over. The mice looked around their surroundings, it appeared that there was no way to go any further. Elizabeth's nose twitched and she walked to the left, to the edge of the rock they stood on. Cynthia followed her gaze to see the bottom of the rock wall jutted out, making a incredibly small bridge that led to a more climbable pile of stone.
Teresa moved to her mother's side, "Think we can walk on that?"
Elizabeth stepped forward, "I'll try." But Teresa grabbed her arm, stopping her.
"Let one of us go, Mom," Martin insisted.
But she shook her head firmly, pulling her arm out of Teresa's paw. "I'm going. I won't let my children do something dangerous for my own safety." The children didn't try to stop her but they held their breath as she stepped onto the makeshift bridge. Her heels hung in the air and her paws and chest were pressed against the stone wall.
Elizabeth walked incredibly slow, the wind ruffling her fur and cape. She was almost to the other side when a piece of rock gave way. Elizabeth slipped and just managed to catch herself-but Cynthia still screamed, her heart nearly bursting in terror. The scream echoed in the air...then there was a rumble.
An avalanche of rocks came cascading down toward them. Elizabeth made a leap to the other side of the bridge but the rocks blocked Cynthia's view before she could see if she made it.
"MOVE!" Martin pushed his siblings away from the onslaught of rocks. Finding a small alcove he practically threw Cynthia into it, Teresa and Timothy crawling after her. Martin crawled in last, using his body as a shield. Several moments later and the rumbling finally stopped, the avalanche over.
Cynthia nearly ran over her brother as she scurried out of the alcove and back to where they left their mother. The stone wall had been covered in mounds and mounds of rocks, and Elizabeth was nowhere in sight.
Cynthia bit her tongue to keep from calling out to her, tears pricking her eyes. She whirled around to run to Teresa, sobbing into her shoulder as Teresa held her. "It's-it's all my fault!"
"No, it's not, Cynthia," Martin said, "We'll find Mom."
"She might have jumped to safety," Teresa spoke softly.
Martin stepped toward the rock pile, "Maybe we can climb this..."
"Shh!" Timothy suddenly spoke. They all turned to him to see his ears and head swiveling around.
"What is it?" Teresa breathed.
Martin's eyes narrowed, "Someone's coming."
Elizabeth felt bruised all over, having tumbled down the mountain a ways before coming to a halt along with the rock slide.
She forced herself into a sitting position, arms shaking slightly. She looked back up at the mountain, trying to make out the shapes of her children but to no avail. And she couldn't call out to them in fear of upsetting the unstable rocks. Legs slightly shaking Elizabeth stood up and started the climb up, but a voice suddenly shouted: "Who's there?"
The voice startled her and Elizabeth, startled, lost her footing and tumbled down, crashing into the owner of the voice.
They landed on the icy rocks with an oomph! Elizabeth looking up at the stranger with a panicked apology on her tongue, when suddenly she was looking into familiar black eyes.
She wrapped her arms around her old friend's neck before the exclamations left her mouth, a delighted cry escaping her as the rat returned her embrace.
"I can't believe it," he pulled away to get a better look at her, his slender hands holding her face. His expression was a kaleidoscope of different emotions.
"I missed you," she breathed, unable to keep the words in.
His smile was sincere and it warmed her heart. "I missed you too. What are you doing here?"
"I-" her words broke off as guilt made her suck in a sharp breath. "The children!" She crawled off Justin's lap and started her climb back up the mountain.
Justin rose to his feet, his brow furrowed, "What?"
Elizabeth kept climbing upward, ignoring how her paws would get scrapped by sharp edges of rock. "My children! We were climbing when we got separated. I need to find them!"
"Wait." Elizabeth jumped when Justin was suddenly to her left, moving quick and quiet to reach her side. "Why did you come?"
"There was a fire-" half her brain was trying to explain while the other half was picking up her pace. "We came to-we hoped to find a place in the Valley."
Justin's voice was soft and, almost enchanted? "You came here, to stay?"
Elizabeth turned to him with a beseeching expression, "Justin please! They might've gotten hurt I need to find them now!"
The rat shook himself then nodded, "Right, sorry. Climb onto my back, we'll move faster."
She was too distraught to argue, climbing on and digging her fingers into his shoulder, her face buried into the warm fur of his neck. Justin moved incredibly quickly despite the extra weight (though Elizabeth supposed she was a light weight), and with coordinated steps as if he had climbed among the mountain numerous times. And it wasn't long before Elizabeth's ears detected the sound of a scuffle, looking up she recognized the flat rock where she had been separated from her children. Justin was making his way up there before she could say anything.
The two reached the stone-made platform to see what was making the skirmish. Justin burst into laughter at the sight.
A very large and familiar looking black rat was fumbling around, the Brisby children clinging to his head, shoulders, and torso, three other rats stood a few feet away to watch with bemusement.
Elizabeth slid off Justin's back to scamper to the scene. "Martin! Children! Get off him!"
Immediately the mice jumped off the rat to run to their mother, tackling her into a hug.
"We were so worried!" Teresa gushed.
"We thought you had died!" Cynthia sobbed.
Elizabeth hugged them closer, relief making her bones weak as she murmured soothing words to them. After a few seconds Martin looked over his shoulder to glare at the rats with bristled fur. "We were about to come find you when these-" he stopped short when Justin walked to the black rat's side.
"Congratulations, Brutus," he teased. "You nearly got your ears shredded by the children of Jonathon Brisby."
The other three rats whispered to themselves while Brutus dusted himself off. "I wasn't trying to pick a fight," he grunted. "I just-naturally-wanted to know what four mice were doing on the mountain. And then they pounced."
Elizabeth pulled away from her children to walk to the two rats, "I'm so sorry, my children-"
"It's fine," both Justin and Brutus said in unison.
The black rat continued, "I'm sure I would've done the same if a giant stranger popped out of nowhere."
Cynthia suddenly walked over to stand next to her mother, "You're Justin." Her voice was in awe.
Said rat smiled at her, his eyes going over the Brisby family. "Right, and I didn't think I'd ever see you all again."
One of the rats Elizabeth didn't recognize stepped forward, "Are they coming to Thorn Valley."
She swallowed, "If you'll have us."
"Of course we will," Justin replied immediately, his enthusiasm making Brutus smirk.