The Circles - Book Eight - Chapter 22

The Circles - Book Eight - A Mordorian Bestiary
Chapter Twenty-two
The Grand Undertaking
Written by Angmar

Dance of the Rats by Ferdinand van Kessel

As he prepared for a meeting with his newly appointed lieutenants that afternoon, Murg went over the plans in his mind at least a hundred times. He was sure that he had taken into account everything that could possibly go wrong. All this thinking had given the small rodent a headache, and it was almost a relief when a flea bit his stomach and distracted him from his complicated ruminations. He scratched ferociously at his belly with his hind foot. "Did I remember the cheese?" he wondered, hoping his lieutenant would be pleased. "Yes, of course, I did," he answered himself as he took a deep whiff of the hard cheddar from Nurn. "Almonds? Yes, certainly, here they are. And the dates!"

The smell was intoxicating, and Murg's mouth began to water. In amongst the finer fare there was a collection of apple cores, peelings, and orange rinds which perfumed the chamber with a wonderful fruity flavor. He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, making little chirping sounds to show his pleasure. Forager rats had scoured the Third Level, sneaking food out of the storage rooms and bartering their contraband with rats on the other levels. Their efforts had been successful, for they had accumulated quite a pile of small bits of sausage, salt pork, chicken necks and gizzards, even a tiny piece of greasy mutton, and the treasure of the whole lot, a small chunk of partially eaten beef tongue. Most of the provender was in fairly good condition, although some had the whiff of taint about it, but the odor only whetted the rats' tastebuds. Murg wished there could have been more. It had been difficult enough for the forager rats to sneak into the storeroom and confiscate the food, and he appreciated their efforts. Murg surveyed the large mound of provender with satisfaction before turning to thank the two female rats who had volunteered to act as his servants.

When Murg presented his plan to King Gjak, he had not worked out every detail. He had thought that perhaps the King and his council would be far better suited than a lowly subject to undertake such a vast and comprehensive campaign. Murg had been amazed when King Gjak put him in charge of carrying out the monumental undertaking. Of course, the penalty for failure was grim: "And be it known that if you and your lieutenants fail, your heads and bodies will be ripped apart, your heads being displayed in my hall for all to see, and your bodies thrown into the latrine," the King had warned.

At any other time in his life, Murg would have been so frightened that he would have quietly stolen out of the Third Level and hidden somewhere in the vast reaches of Sauron's fortress. Though the King's words had filled him with dread, Murg had decided not to flee, and for some reason which he could not understand, he had begun to have more confidence in himself. Perhaps it was the Wraith Lord's influence, but for whatever reason, Murg had begun to feel that he was the only one who had even the slightest chance of seeing the project to its successful conclusion. Was he at last learning to be courageous, or was he simply being a fool?

For the first time in his life – the first time anyway since he had challenged the great Black Rat and failed – Murg had the ambition to strive for something bigger than himself. King Gjak had given him a month to fulfill his quest. He was to go to each of the rat leaders of the Tower and request their help. When Murg had first realized all that was involved, the immensity of it completely overwhelmed him. Barad-dûr was so vast that many of the rat clans had never had dealings with any of the others, and some did not even know that any rats other than themselves existed. The first thing he had to do was locate all these diverse clans and then send out deputies to their leaders to try to enlist their aid in what Murg had come to call the Grand Undertaking. Murg had been surprised when most agreed to cooperate. The clans might hate each other, but they hated the cats far more.

After days of constant labor and planning, that Grand Undertaking was about to be put into motion. As Murg prepared for the council with his chief lieutenants, he again rehearsed everything in his mind. "They will be ready," Murg took a deep breath as the first of his top lieutenants entered his planning chamber –an overturned crate with shreds of fine carpet for seats. "They will be ready," he repeated to himself, "and after we are finished, the accursed Cats of Barad-dûr will rue the day they were ever born!"


The slave masters, both men and orcs, who were in charge of supervising the vast numbers of thralls at Barad-dûr insisted upon doing everything by the clock. The Master demanded it, and they would do His will. Though they hated the cats of the fortress almost as much as they hated anything else, the masters were forced to see that the thralls fed the damn cats at precisely the same time every day. "We ought to be eating the wretched little blighters, not giving them food," was the common complaint amongst the orcs, but none voiced it out loud.

Far away to the west, the Sun had cast golden rays upon the land, but little of her light could reach the shadows which hovered about Barad-dûr. From the highest officer of the fortress to the most callous overseer with a well-used whip, all considered that the day had gone by in perfect order. It was time to relax a little, enjoy some wine or draught, and rest before the dawn brought the resumption of duties. The Mouth of Sauron was savoring thoughts of the feast that he would have with his underlings that evening, but even more than that he was relishing a night with his mistress, who would give his buttocks the whipping he so desperately craved. The Master had His own plans, which He would reveal to no one. Even in Barad-dûr, it was a peaceful time of day for everyone save the slaves and those unfortunates who were locked away in the deep, dank dungeons.

Celeg had come to enjoy the evening feeding as a pleasant interlude in his monotonous existence, and tarried in distributing the nightly ration to the cats on the Third Level. He smiled when he observed that one female cat had brought her kittens into the chamber for the first time. He tried to catch one of the kittens, but it arched its back and spat at him. The mother cat, frantic with worry, had been about to spring on him, but he backed away.

His tasks completed, Celeg had almost whistled as he left the room, until he considered that the orc guards would see that as an excuse to give him a whipping. Masking his face in the usual expression of emotionless subservience, he walked down the hall. The smoky torches in sconces on the wall did not provide the best of light, and Celeg did not notice the furtive movement in the shadows.

When the thrall walked by, Silver had frozen, not even his whiskers twitching. "By Mikbork, the Sacred Guardian of the Rat-folk, I thought he had me there, Beacon!" Silver whispered when he was sure that they had gone unnoticed.

"He didn't. Now let us get on with it!" hissed the silvery gray female rat beside him. "We don't have much time before they finish feeding. Get a move on it!" She picked up the small black pouch that she had been carrying. The two waited until the guards on duty had made their rounds up the hall and back down again. Then the rats raced through the corridor, keeping in the shadows. They were joined by dozens of other rats who poured out of the storeroom. When they were finished, all quickly scurried away into their rat holes.


"My lord, I am pleased to see that you are enjoying taking your meals with the rest of us occasionally." Aplomb rubbed up against Maganhard, trailing her glossy fur over his. "It means so much to your devoted subjects to see you mingling with them. It certainly does wonders for my morale," she purred, the sound a deep rumble in her throat.

"My love, I do not plan to make a habit of it," Maganhard replied as he caught the scent of something new in the hall. "I find that after a while, the victuals that the servants lavish upon us become tiresome. There is no substitute for the meat you have caught with your own teeth and claws." His eyes gleaming, he licked his lips. "Is there anything that can surpass the thrill of stalking your prey and then sinking your teeth into the little bastards' necks and shaking them? What sweet music it is to listen to their little bones crunch and shatter! Nothing can compare to fresh flesh, still warm and oozing with blood."

"Meat is meat." Aplomb looked pityingly at her lord.

"Have it your way." He flicked his tail disdainfully. "Now what is this wondrous smell?" Winding the air, he walked over to some dried particles on the floor.

"I do not know, my darling. I have never smelled its like before, but it does have a delightful scent," Aplomb answered as she cautiously approached the mysterious substance. "I suppose the servants must have left it here for our benefit." She raised her head and looked down the hall after the departing thrall. "Yes, that is it. It must be some new kind of herb that they knew we would like. But I wonder..." She raised up her head and sniffed the air, still suspicious. Mixed among the fragrant odor was the unmistakable stench of rat. "How dare they come to our eating hall," she thought, her ears flattening against her head. The devils were all over the fortress, though, urinating and defecating, leaving their marks every place they touched. In this sector of the fortress, the stench of rat was not all that unusual. She would not let anything disturb her today, for she was with her lord, her stomach was full, and there was some new mystery to explore.

"If the servants left it for us, it must be harmless. I suppose I will give it a taste." Maganhard's pink tongue darted out of his mouth and he licked the dried substance. "Mmmm... Whatever this herb is, it has a most unusual flavor. It is quite stimulating. Indeed, quite stimulating..." With a deep-throated purr, Maganhard flopped over on his side and started rolling over and over in the spilled herb. "I just... cannot believe... this sensation!" His voice had taken on that husky quality that it had when he was making love. He turned over on his back and kicked his legs up into the air. "This is the font of virility! I feel like a young tom again!"

"Maganhard, my love, you are behaving like a kitten!" Aplomb exclaimed, appalled by her mate's erratic behavior. "Have you forgotten your dignity as King? Your subjects will lose respect for you if they see you conduct yourself like this!" As she was chiding her mate, she took a deep breath and began to feel giddy from the scent which filled the chamber. The feeling was like nothing she had ever known, both calming and exhilarating. It would not hurt anything to have a small taste.

After she had licked the bewitching substance, Aplomb was no less beguiled than Maganhard. Always calm and in charge of every situation, she had become like a wild thing, possessed of a demon. She rolled over and over, her handsome coat flaked with spots of dried leaves and stems. She batted her paws at unseen adversaries, growling ferociously, her eyes dilated, her breath coming in harsh gasps. Curious about all the commotion, the other cats began entering the chamber, their keen noses swiftly catching wind of the bewitching aroma of the mysterious herb. Aplomb paid them little heed, however, for all she could think about were the intoxicating, all consuming, overpowering sensations that overwhelmed her senses. She could not get enough of this titillating new substance, and when she had consumed all of that closest to her, she felt the urge to lick the floor. Her tongue rasping over the cold stones, she inhaled the essence of the herb, her senses in a rapturous ecstasy.

She glanced at Maganhard, who was lying on his side, occasionally kicking his left leg spasmodically. His expression was dreamy as he purred softly. She realized that he was beyond all knowledge and reckoning. Into her besotted thoughts came the realization that every last cat in the chamber was drunken, besotted on the fragrant herb. "Let the world end right now," she purred blissfully. "I do not care!"


"It is time! Let the Grand Undertaking begin!" Murg squeaked, and the command was passed from one rat to another all down the vast ranks waiting in the endless tunnels and corridors in the old fortress' walls. Then row upon row, line upon line, roiling, simmering in an endless wave of seething bodies, the rats surged from their hiding places.

After years of subjugation to the merciless cruelty of the cats, the rats were boiling with vengeance. The bloodlust burning in their hearts, they fell upon the besotted cats without pity or mercy, their sharp teeth and digging claws going for the cats' eyes and throats. A low sound, almost of laughter, rumbled like distant thunder, swelling as it was magnified by thousands of Rattish voices. Those cats who were not too dazed to comprehend heard the terrifying sound, and, struggling to their feet, their eyes wide with fear, they rushed headlong down the corridor, seeking a way of escape. Thousands of rats fell upon those who could not get up in time or had been rendered oblivious to everything. Some of the cats died in their sleep, never knowing what had befallen them, their blood making the floors of the corridor slippery.

Aplomb was among the first to come to their senses. Panic stricken, she tried to awaken Maganhard, who lay drugged and senseless on the floor, occasionally twitching his mouth. "Wake up, my darling lord!" she pled, terror making her heart pound in her chest. A ridiculous expression on his face, Maganhard did not stir a muscle. A frantic Aplomb used her teeth to grip the loose skin on the back of his neck and attempted to drag him, but he was far too heavy to be carried like a kitten. Frustrated, she bit down on his neck with all her might and was relieved when at last he stirred.

"What is it?" he mumbled groggily, trying to push her away with a weak paw. "I just rutted the most beautiful female I have ever had in my life, and you have interrupted my sublime rapture! Go away!"

"Maganhard, behold the terror that has befallen us!" She took a quick glance over her shoulder, and her eyes widened in fear. Rushing down the passageway towards them was the immense army of rodents as thick as locusts upon the plain. Packed tightly together, the mass was so dense that many rats dashed across the backs of those in front of them, feverish to reach their prey. It was a hideous tableau from some nightmare as the flickering torches revealed the surging mass of rodents, their eyes gleaming red in the near darkness.

"By the White Cat of Queen Berúthiel! The little bastards have gone mad!" Maganhard yowled, frantically struggling to his feet.

"Berúthiel's Cat cannot help us now! Flee, my darling! Flee as fast as you can, for they will tear us apart!" Aplomb urged, her voice shrill with fear.

"They are possessed by ten thousand demons!" Maganhard gasped as he tried to keep up with her on his still wobbly legs. Once he slipped on the bloody stones and crashed to the floor. Two of the speedier rats grabbed each of his hind legs with their sharp teeth, hanging on tightly as they tried to hamstring him. Howling in pain, Maganhard jerked each hind leg violently and shook off his determined attackers.

Aplomb turned quickly, catching one of them with her paw and flinging it against the wall, where its broken body landed in a heap of blood and bones. Her head darted out like a snake, her teeth tearing into the other attacker's neck, ripping away flesh and tendon. With a snarl, she shook its mangled body and dropped it to the floor.

"Are you hurt, my darling!" she asked, terrified at what he might say. "Can you not run any faster?"

"No, I am not hurt," Maganhard lied, trying to force his injured legs to carry him. He could feel the blood streaming down his legs, leaving a trail of gore behind. "And, no," he hissed, "I cannot run any faster!"

The orc guards on the Third Level heard the commotion and rushed to see the cause. Their disbelieving minds could not comprehend the endless mass that seethed and churned through the hall towards them. Frozen in fear, they watched as the death-dealing avalanche of beasts rolled towards them. The terrified screams, growls and snarls of the cats mingled with the high-pitched squeals and shrieks of the rats, a cacophony of chaos.

Against such a horde, spears and swords were useless. "Ahhhh!" an orc screamed as dozens of panic-stricken cats flung themselves upon him, knocking him to the floor. The cats scrambled over his body and then the rats were upon him. The orc screamed as they went for his eyes, their claws tearing them out of the sockets. Dropping their swords and spears, the other guards bolted down the hall, cats clinging to their backs and shoulders. Herded like cattle, guards and slaves raced before the surging tide of beasts. Some were fortunate enough to flee into side rooms and barricade the doors, but others were swept along in the violent maelstrom of panicked cats and murderous rodents.

With King Gjak in the vanguard, the rats mercilessly drove their prey before them in an ever-increasing flood of wrath. Where corridors intersected, pandemonium reigned as guards and slaves crashed into their fellows and were trampled by cats and rats. Bodies began to pile up in heaps and the halls ran thick with mingled red and black blood, the stench of the vast volume of gore making the air foul to breathe. After the initial surprise, the surviving guards sounded the alarm bells, their shrill clanging echoing through the eerily quiet corridors.

Steadily, level by level, the cats were driven upward, roused out of their lairs by the vengeful rats. When the beleaguered cats had gained the next level, they were joined by more cats who were fleeing their own pursuers. Alarm bells rang frantically, and shrieking guards fled from the wave of furry terror which surged through the halls. Though the cats fell by the scores, the tide of rats never diminished, but only seemed to increase as more and more rats from every corner of the fortress joined in the chase. Orc guards who were not the brunt of the rats' revenge still were swept along as though they were flotsam in a stormy sea.

Aplomb panted rapidly, her tongue hanging out of her mouth, her sides heaving in and out like bellows. She had always prided herself on her strength and stealth, but she was no match for the rats. She was more afraid for Maganhard, though, than she was for herself, for he was limping badly. Several times she had to drive off rats who were crazed for his blood.

As she darted between the legs of a guard, she saw Maganhard stumble again. "My darling," her voice croaked, "there is a way out of this yet! I am sure of it!"

Maganhard forced himself to keep up with her still rapid pace. "I am with you, my love!" he gasped.

They struggled up another set of steps and down a corridor. Aplomb had never been to this part of Barad-dûr before, and her nostrils took in the mixed odors. Down a corridor to her right, she could smell the strong scent of orc. With Maganhard behind her, she raced down the hall until they came to a large chamber.

"This way, my love! I think it is a barracks hall!" She breathed a little easier until she heard screaming behind her, and then the sound of untold thousands of rats, their little feet scratching over the floor. They had only a little time before the rats would be upon them.

Perhaps Queen Berúthiel's Cat was really with them, for at last there might be a way of escape. In the middle of the chamber stood a massive well, high above the floor and rimmed with mighty stones. No rat, no matter how desperate, could ever gain its height. "Up here!" she hissed as she sprang, a mighty leap but still not quite enough to take her to the top of the casing. Her claws grated on the rock and she slid back to the floor. The rats were much closer now, their hideous squealings, squeakings, peepings and chirpings ringing in her ears. Too afraid of what she would see if she looked behind them, she sprang again, and this time she cleared the height and clambered on top. Below her she saw Maganhard, exhausted, his eyes glazed, his tongue lolling from the side of his mouth, saliva dripping from his lips. His body was covered with grievous wounds, and his hind legs would barely carry him.

"Jump, darling, jump! You can do it!"

"I do not think so, not this time!" he panted, his head too heavy even to look up at Aplomb on her perch. "I am all wrung out, and there is nothing left!"

"Nonsense!" she hissed as she jumped from the well and landed beside Maganhard. He lay there passively, waiting for death in the form of berserk rats to overtake him.

Then Aplomb did a strange thing. She lay down on her side. At first he did not understand, but then he realized that she was offering herself as a mounting block to give him the height necessary to reach the well top. "Maganhard, what are you waiting for? Jump!" she hissed as she lay flat on the floor. "Never give up!"

"My dignity would be sorely compromised, my love! If I must die, let it be nobly, as a king!" Maganhard growled, hiding his embarrassment. He was undisputed regent of the cats of the Third Level, but now, in the darkest of time, he found he was a puny weakling.

"Damn your nobility, my love! If I could, I would pick you up and carry you!" Aplomb exclaimed. "Look behind; the rats are upon us! Now, damn it, jump!"

As the rats swarmed closer, Maganhard looked back in fear. Though his strength was almost gone, he managed to drag himself upon the body of his mate. Unsteadily, he rose to his feet, and then looking up at the height above him, he leapt into the air. It was a mighty leap, borne of terror, but he managed to reach the top, where he collapsed. Aplomb was soon back on her feet and soared through the air like an arrow shot from the bow. Side by side, their hearts pounding, they waited for the black horde to swirl past the well.

Scarcely had the pair gained the top of the well stone than Aplomb pushed Maganhard aside. A shrieking orc, his body engulfed by a mass of biting, tearing rats, clambered up the side of the stone basin and flung himself over the edge. Far below them, the cats could hear the splash as the body hit the water.

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