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Courage of the Heart

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Mrs. Brisby climbed down from the stone perch where her home now lay, wiping the mud from her paws. It would take some time to clean up all the floors, but at least her children were safe, tucked in their beds, in the lee of the stone. She had barely been able to keep herself calm enough to wrap them in blankets and soothe their anxious questions. She shook with the aftershock of what she had done, what had happened here tonight. The amulet was still hanging around her neck, dulled down to just a pretty trinket. Fearing she might burst into relieved tears, she had left the house to see the rats for the final time, tucking a bundle under her arm. Mr. Ages was inside with the children, wheezing and exhausted, but perhaps a steadier influence to the children than she was right now. His grumpiness was a much better counter for the upset little ones than her vulnerability.

The rats hadn't wasted any time. Most of the broken equipment had been gathered up and moved away, and there was a steady stream of runners between the edge of the field and the provision boats. She saw Justin in the middle of it all, pointing at something with his right paw as he gave orders; the others seemed to accept them without fuss. He clutched at his left arm when he hopped down from a stone, and ducked his head to avoid a looped rope.

Mrs. Brisby made her way to him, feeling very small in the midst of all the rushing rats. "Justin!"

He smiled, but only wanly; loss was written on his face. "Oh, Mrs. Brisby. Is everything all right?"

"Oh, yes. The children are all asleep, or pretending to be." She sighed, and touched his arm. "I thought... Well, I brought some bandages. It didn't look like a bad cut, but I..."

Justin took her paw and brought it back down. "It's not. Barely a scratch, really. It's my shirt that you should feel sorry for."

She took a deep breath, willing her paws to be steady and her smile not to shiver around the edges. "Still. I'd like to bind it. And perhaps I can give that sleeve a stitch or two, at that. It's the least I can do."

He hadn't let go of her paw. It was sore from the burning amulet, but she didn't withdraw it. "Well, certainly, Mrs. Brisby. Since you insist."

After a glance around to make sure he wasn't needed, he led her up to a rock that jutted out of the mud. It was quite clean, and she spread out her bandages.

"Would you..." she started, but he was already sitting down so that she could reach his arm. For a rat, Justin had never struck her as very intimidating, even if he was bigger than her. They shared a brief smile before Mrs. Brisby looked at the wound. It didn't seem deep, and his thick brown fur had soaked up the blood. She decided it could use a good cleaning, however.

"I'm sorry about Nicodemus," she said softly, the work giving her a much-needed focus. "I haven't had a chance to say. I understand you were very fond of him."

"Very." He hissed and twitched in pain, but she didn't stop. "I don't know what we will be without his guidance. But we'll think of something. We always do. And at least The Plan is put in motion. He would have liked that." His voice dropped to barely above a whisper. "Poor old coot."

"Is it a long way to Thorn Valley?"

"Yes. Less so by the river, of course." Justin closed his paw around hers, making her hold still. "You should come and visit, when we have everything up and running."

She shooed his paw away in order to pick up the bandages and looked down, feeling bashful. "I'd like that. When Timothy is feeling better."

"You're always welcome, you and your children. I don't think there's a rat of NIMH alive who could forget the name of Jonathan Brisby, not to mention what you've done tonight."

She looked up at that. The darkest part of night was upon them, but in the light of the torches, she could see the wonder in his eyes. There hadn't been time for her to think about the amulet and what Nicodemus's words had meant; all she had wanted was to keep her children safe. There was nothing miraculous about that. She was their mother.

She could only nod her thanks and carefully finish the binding. He tested out the arm, hitting the air with an invisible sword a few times before he seemed satisfied.

Mrs. Brisby fidgeted. There were so many things she wanted to know, and time was short. "Justin? There's something Nicodemus said, about Jonathan."

He sat back, relaxing, and leaned his good arm on his thigh. "Yes?"

"I was just thinking. He said there was something in the, in the vaccinations that kept him from. Well. Ageing. I was wondering if..."

Suddenly, he laughed, low and pleased. "Mrs. Brisby, if you are about to ask how old I am, I can assure you, Mr. Ages only calls me a 'boy' because I let him. But don't you tell him I said so."

A breathy little giggle escaped her own throat. "Oh, very well. Not another word about it, I promise."

It felt good to laugh, even if he was a silly rat, and gone before dawn. Mrs. Brisby gathered her things in a bundle again, aware of how her burnt paws were starting to sting.

"That amulet of yours, it hasn't done anything since?" he asked, leaning down to find her eyes.

"I can't say I understand how it works at all." She tilted the stone up; all it did was glint in the torchlight. "Like that magic mirror of Nicodemus's. It works when it needs to."

"Oh, that." Justin grinned, exposing his long rat teeth, and shook his head. "I kept asking him to show me what it was that he was watching on that thing, but he refused. Went on about the right time and place, even when he told me he was keeping an eye on Jonathan's widow."

She drew her cape closer and hugged the bundle to her belly. There was something about his grin that reminded her of Jonathan, and she liked it. "Well, I'm rather glad we first met when I could see you too."

"I'll take that as a compliment." He snatched her paw, and kissed it, rather courteously, but his eyes glinted with sly laughter.

Silly, silly rat. She smiled, finding his playful mood contagious, even if it made her unsure where to look. "You may."

He smiled, and looked ready to say something terribly clever, but was interrupted by a call from the other rats. There were not many lingering now, as the packing was all but done.

"Justin!" called a rat with an orange shirt and a scarf, "All ready to sail!"

"Thorn Valley beckons." Justin got up and pulled Mrs. Brisby with him. "We must be long gone before NIMH arrives."

She looked down, hesitating, then up at him. "Keep safe."

Justin took a step down from the rock, but didn't let go of her paw. "We will. Till next we meet, Mrs. Brisby."

She opened her mouth, then closed it again, flustered.

His smile was slow and sly. "Mrs. Brisby?"

"Actually, it's... my name is... Oh, I meant...!" Her heart fluttered in her chest, and she pulled the amulet over her head before she could second-guess herself. She turned his paw over, and placed the amulet in it, closing his paw around the stone.

His eyes widened, and turned from the amulet to her.

"Nicodemus said... the stone will aid a courageous heart. I don't think I could find one more daring than yours."

He seemed hesitant. "He gave it to you. I-I couldn't..."

"And Jonathan intended it for me. I think he would approve." She took a wavering breath, and smiled at him. "I'm safe, and my home and children are safe. Thank you."

"You do me a tremendous honour, Mrs. Brisby."

Looking humbled, he leaned down so that she could hang the amulet around his neck. She brushed his ears even though he flattened them close, aware of the short reach of her arms. The stone's crimson colour seemed to brighten for a blink of an eye. He straightened, and already looked like he had always been wearing the amulet.

"Justin!" the rat with the scarf called again, gesturing wildly.

"I must go." Justin lingered a moment more, touching her arm, a soft stroke against her fur, but then pulled away with a smile. He jumped down onto the muddy ground, and the stone glinted as it moved.

"Take care now!" she called after him, waving her paw as the last of the rats departed towards the tall grass that grew around the riverbank. Behind it, awaited the last boats to Thorn Valley.

The night was dark, and the rats quick on their feet, but she thought she could still make out his paw, waving back.

"Take care of your heart," she whispered, and closed her paws over her own, as if to guard it against loss.