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Feather's Miscellany: Quill's Adventures In The Great Beyond

John Waddington-Feather brings us an extract from his book This time an extract from Quill’s Adventures in the Great Beyond at the point where he and Horatio, the tramp cat, cross the border of The Great Beyond and see the devastation which Mungo Brown and his army of Wasteland rats are causing by ill-planned urbanisation of the beautiful countryside. The scene was inspired by an oil-paining in Cliffe Castle Museum and Art Gallery of my hometown Keighley in about 1820. Where I lived was part of the estate of Eastwood House, a gentleman’s residence in Airedale. Parkland and farmland dominate the scene, but here and there the odd mill chimney is already appearing as the very first signs of the Industrial Revolution. By 1870 the hamlet of Keighley had become a dirty, smoke-ridden mill and engineering town of over 40,000 people. Slums appeared overnight and the rivers and streams around the town polluted – just as happened in the Great Beyond extract.
The Great Beyond novel is now on Kindle as will be the rest of the Quill Hedgehog series over the next few months.

Chapter 3

Quill had his first glimpse of the Great Beyond as they emerged clammy and wet from the clouds blanketing the Staying Hills. The mist had been particularly thick at the top and had made their going difficult. It wasn’t until they were well down the other side that the hedgehog saw the magnificent view before him. The distance took away his breath, for he could see right across the Great Beyond to the desolate region on the further side where Wasteland lay.
Most of what he saw was farmland, dotted here and there with cosy farmsteads and punctuated with quaint villages that nestled into well-tilled acres, so much at one with their surroundings they seemed to have grown from the very soil. Already lights were appearing at cottage windows as folk settled down to their evening meal.

Here and there, however, in stark contrast, were the beginnings of the industry the Wastelanders were introducing. Ugly collections of drab concrete houses, all alike, were stuck at the end of a wide concrete road that slashed across the Great Beyond like a wound. Other colonies of rats were encroaching on the farmland and were building high-rise tenements along branch routes off the arterial road. Not far from them, newly built factories were belching clouds of smoke into the evening air.

On a mound, in the middle of the Great Beyond stood Fitzworthy Castle. Mungo had turned back the clock and fortified it again. Its subterranean dungeons were full to bursting, and from its ramparts cannon poked their menacing mouths. Even more off-putting were the rats who policed its walls and lounged about armed to the teeth.

Its transformation from Horatio’s ancestral home to the vile place it had become was too much for Horatio. He took out his handkerchief and blew his nose hard, muttering something to the effect that he hoped the chilly mist hadn’t given him a cold.
Quill tactfully turned the other way. He took out a pocket telescope and looked more closely at the castle. A faint rumbling noise came from that direction, and he could see the rats raising the massive drawbridge for the night. Little flashes of light began to appear on the battlements, and Quill could just make out the figures of rat sentries taking up their posts.
Swinging his telescope lower, Quill saw the quarters where the garrison lived. The rat police were sitting down to their meal, and a fat cook ladled soup from a pot to the rats lined up before him.

As well as the police there were rat soldiers, all dressed in the same black uniforms with the Wasteland emblem of a death’s-head on their cap badges. They kicked and jostled other animals, who were clearing the tables and swabbing down the floor where the sentries had finished eating. These latter animals, prisoners, were manacled. There was no mistaking their sad condition, bullied and tormented as they were by the rats.

Quill looked a little closer at one of the animals. He was an otter. He had both hands manacled and had a large iron ball fastened to his leg on the end of a short chain. Unlike the other prisoners, he was arguing with his tormentors, but there was little he could do to defend himself against the brutal kicks the rats gave him.

“I say,” said Quill handing his telescope to Horatio, “who’s that fellow you can see through the window there, the window just below the right-hand turret?”

Quill handed him the telescope. It was some time before Horatio found the window, but when he did, he cried, “Why, that’s Frisk Otter! How the scoundrels are treating him! They wouldn’t dare to do that if he were free. He’d scatter them like ninepins.”

Horatio looked a little longer, then passed back the telescope with a groan. He sat down sadly on the grass beside the hedgehog and looked at the filthy mess the factories were making of the land and the scars the houses and the road had already inflicted on it. For the first time since he’d met him, Quill saw a mood of black despair settle on the cat. Horatio buried his face in his paws. “Oh, dear! Oh, dear! It’s no use. We’ll never get them out. Just look what they’ve done to everything.”

Quill put a friendly arm round the cat’s shoulders. He was deeply moved and tried to cheer Horatio. “Bear up, my friend,” he said. “At least we’re free, and there must be others who can help us. They can’t lock up the whole population in the castle. Remember your mighty ancestors. You are the leader that people here have been waiting for. And if your cause is doomed, at least let us go down fighting and not give up before we’ve started.”

At this, the cat raised his head. “You’re a good chap, Quill, and no mistake. You buck me up no end. Yes,” he said looking more determined, “I will remember my ancestors, and live up to the family motto, ‘Strive to the end!’ To the end our quest shall be. To splendid victory or honourable defeat!”
Quill took up Horatio’s heroic posture, placing one leg on a nearby rock and raising an arm in the air. “To splendid victory or honourable defeat!” he echoed, looking over the Great Beyond.

Suddenly, a shrill voice squeaked behind them, “What’s going on down there?”. It startled Quill and Horatio. They ducked behind the nearest rock and held their breaths. In the excitement of the moment they had not noticed three rats come up behind them in the mist, three border police.
They’d been patrolling the Staying Hills, but had missed Quill and Horatio in the mist. As the cat and hedgehog peered cautiously round the rock, they could just make out the dim figures of the rats, swinging their lanterns this way and that to locate the voices they had heard.

They looked a vicious trio in their high jackboots. All of them had pistols stuck in their belts and carried heavy cudgels, which they gripped tightly. Their whiskers quivered fearfully as they sniffed the air, trying to pinpoint the scent of Quill and Horatio, and their shifty eyes looked into the dusk for the slightest movement.

Horatio turned his own by now very baleful eyes first on one and then on the others. Quill could feel the cat’s fur stiffen with rage, and he gripped all the tighter the staff he carried. Quill felt inside his holdall for the little truncheon he had there, his blogging-stick. Both of them prepared to attack.

“You take the right one. I’ll take the others,” Horatio whispered. “And ‘it ‘im!” he added, quite forgetting his aitches in his excitement.

“On their ‘eads?” asked Quill, finding the defect catching.

“Yes, on their ‘eads, ‘ard!”

By now the rats had become very nervous, and one had drawn his pistol. They stuck close to each other, peering and sniffing into the gloom. The senior rat repeated his question nervously, “Is anybody there? Answer or we fire.”

There was no reply. The rats drew nearer and nearer the rock.
They were very close to it when Horatio lobbed a pebble over their heads to distract them. It fell noisily behind them, and they swung round at once, colliding with each other and clanging their lanterns together. One of the lanterns dropped to the ground and went out. In that instant, cat and hedgehog were upon them. They leapt over the rock and pounced.

“‘It ‘im!” shouted Horatio, felling his opponent before the rat realised he’d been nobbled.

“On ‘is ‘ead ‘ard!” yelled Quill, promptly giving another rat a crack on his topknot.

In a flash, all was done. The fight was over. It was as brief as that, and the two elated animals were left shaking hands over the prostrate figures of the Wasteland rats.

Panting with excitement and the glow of success, Quill said, “Now what do we do?”

Horatio was bending over his rats relieving them of their pistols and other weapons. “When they come round,” he said, “I’ll ask them a few questions, then we’ll let them go, having impressed them and given them the idea that there are many more of us coming over the frontier. It’ll give the other rats something to think about back at the castle.”

Gradually, the stars spinning before the rats began to fade away. A slight moan, followed by “Oh, my poor head!” were the first signs of life. They looked feeble without their weapons and were distinctly less brave. Quill even began to pity them as Horatio shook them roughly to hasten their return to consciousness. A frightened cry went up from them as they realised they’d no weapons.

“Oh, please don’t hurt us!” wailed the oldest rat. The younger ones merely opened an eye cautiously, paled visibly at what they saw, and lapsed into insensibility again with a weak groan. They soon snapped out of that, however, when Horatio grabbed them by the scruff of their necks and bellowed, “We’ll have no shamming here! Don’t waste my time. If you don’t answer my questions when I speak to you, I’ll . . .” ( I can’t repeat what he said but he said it with a wink at Quill.) He was no violent creature, but he knew what sort he was dealing with and the sham was dropped at once.

“Oh, pl-pl-please don’t, sir! I’m only a p-poor little rat. Th-th-the only son of a w-w-widowed mother, sir!” said one.
Quill was completely taken in by this and offered the rat his handkerchief to mop up the rat’s tears. But Horatio kept his scowl and demanded, “Who’s in charge of Fitzworthy Castle now?”

“President Mungo, sir, at present. He came back from his visit to Wasteland last week after making the new trade treaty there.”

“Trade treaty?” asked Horatio.

“Yes, sir,” said the young rat enthusiastically. “We’ve made a new trade treaty with the Great Beyond Republic and are going to build them a new capital city and many, many new factories . . .”

“So,” said Horatio, jotting all this down in his note-book, “he means to turn our land into another Wasteland, does he? Well, you can tell him from me he’s got another think coming.” He spoke very sternly to the rats, and after questioning them further about troop locations and other matters that would come in useful if an attack were mounted against the castle, he said, “You can tell your friends back at the castle they can look forward to a hot time from now on. Tell Mr. President Mungo Brown that he’s in for a most unpleasant run of trouble. Tell him Fitzworthy has come back to claim his own. And woe betide any rat who falls foul of him, for he will not rest till the castle is his again and every one of you rat folk are out, back in your own filthy land!”

The oldest rat began to look sullen, but the look soon disappeared when Horatio’s angry speech was delivered not two inches from his pale face. “You c-c-can rest assured, sir, th-th-that your sentiments w-w-will be expressed to the letter, sir,” he said, touching his cap. Then he said in a very small voice, “Now, if you p-p-please, sir. May we go?”

“Yes, and make it quick!” said Horatio, pointing down the hillside. The rats didn’t need a second bidding. They pattered off down the road to Fitzworthy Castle for all they were worth.
Horatio waited till they were out of earshot, then he turned to Quill laughing, “That’ll put the wind up them a bit,” he said. “But now I think it’s time we went to earth a while.

They’ll be scouring the countryside for us tomorrow as sure as eggs is eggs. It’ll keep them busy for a day or two, and meanwhile we’ll draw up a plan of campaign with a friend of mine they don’t seem to have caught yet, if the information those three gave me is correct.”

“Oh,” said Quill. “Who’s he?”

“An old friend who lives not far from here,” Horatio replied. “He’s a Woodlander, and he’s the wiliest, most cunning old rascal in the Great Beyond - the perfect ally for our new campaign.”

***
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