(Please enjoy this short story from The Company of Souls. Happy Christmas, Holidays, and everything in-between!) –Ray Green
The Rat King never wins. There is power in his step, thunder in every motion, but he is never quite good enough. It must kill him inside, under that heavy mask. There is desperation in the garnets of his narrow eyes; it makes him dangerous, but nothing else.
Tonight and every night until the end of December, I will match him blow for blow, leap for leap, minding his tail and my form until he lies on his back in a puddle of blood. The audience will gasp and hold their applause. They will stare at the rapidly reddening stage and wonder, but then they will forget. They will put the reality of it from their minds, chalk it up to special effects, and watch with open mouths as I spirit Clara into my world.
We begin. A horde of rats swarms the stage while my gingerbread soldiers stalk them in the shadows of the wings. Sometimes I wonder about those rats, and about the children who lurk under their heads. I have never bothered to ask who they were, or where they came from. They probably wouldn’t remember either. None of us do. Not I, not the Rat King, not even Clara and her beautiful brown curls. She looks so sad sometimes. In the midst of the crescendos and swirls of false snow, her poor little body stands waiting for someone to find it.
Toy cannons are fired. A rat-child screams in pain. The audience sees it fall, notes the splatter of red, but spares only one collective whisper for its life. They are impressed. It all looks so real, so magnificent and detailed. All for their benefit. Here come the soldiers, here comes the battle. Excitement moves through the house like a wave. It crashes upon our shore and carries expectation to our feet. No ballet was ever so bold.
Through teeth and claws, muskets and fists, I see him. He is waiting for his cue. He paces the wings and whips his thick grey tail from side to side like an impatient lizard. His eyes glint red in the darkness, as if to say, “Tonight it will be different.”
I have never met him. They say he roams the corridors backstage when we are out of season. He carries his sword wherever he goes and keeps his head down like the rat that he is. They say he is quite handsome when he wants to be, but years of failure have done their worst. I am not one to talk; there is enough makeup on my face—on my neck and most of the rest of me beneath this wooden head—to invalidate anything I might say about good looks. There have been times when I have thought of reaching out to him; perhaps we have a few things in common, after all. But there is always rehearsing to be done, and the hatred in those jeweled eyes keeps me at bay.
Yes, I am a little afraid of him. Fear is not for the weak, although I do not claim to be otherwise. The first time we faced each other there was nothing to it but routine—nothing to be done but our jobs. But year after year Clara and I slew him, and year after year his frustration grew. Now I fight for something impossible, every night of December. I fight for my life, and so neither of us will ever win.
At last it is time. He steps onto the stage to booing and hisses. His rats scrape the sky with their claws and make way before him. He has made himself larger somehow; his back arches hideously; his limbs stretch like shadows towards my heart. His sword flashes in time to the music, and I parry as quickly as I can. It is not quite fast enough, and I feel the skin on my left forearm split under his blade.
He remains loyal to the music, but the choreography is his own. It fits into the time and maintains the illusion of having been rehearsed, but I cannot predict what he will do next. Our combat is real, and a few of the audience members have guessed it. They are shielding their eyes, and one man looks so pale I think he might faint.
“Distracted!” the Rat King hisses in my ear. Our blades are locked, and for a short moment I can see beneath his mask. Beneath the red of the Rat, his eyes look black. “Dead!”
The Rat King is mad. I can’t blame him for it; we’ve all been playing our roles for far too long. He gives a great growl and draws his sword down to free it from mine. I see the impact coming, but there is nothing I can do. He bites my flesh with steel, and through the white-hot pain I see a small shadow rise behind him.
Clara is always meant to save me. Whether she knows the real danger or not, she is always in time, and tonight is no different. One little slipper is hardly a weapon, but it distracts him. He turns, just the slightest bit, and his mask is skewed to one side. This…now…this is the time. I grit my teeth and thrust my sword straight through his heart.
There is a wet, uncomfortable sound. The audience gasps in ignorance. And then his head turns back to face me, and the dark eyes beneath the Rat’s head fill with despair. His body slides down my blade a few inches and rains red onto my uniform.
“Distracted,” he groans. His gaze locks with mine. “Dead.”
No more to build on there. His head droops. His arm twitches once and drops his sword. I have no time to think, no chance to run from the stage as I would like to do. The rats carry their King away, and we move on with the scene, because the land of dreams and candies is waiting.
During intermission I follow Clara into the wings. “He ought to be here,” she whispers. “He’s always dead for a while after. We’ll make sure he can’t come back this time.”
But he isn’t there. We find the pool of blood and the stained Rat’s head, but nothing more. He’s slunk back to wherever it is he hides—no doubt to lick his wounds and wait for tomorrow’s performance. He is a dangerous rat, and an even more dangerous man, but not dangerous enough. Not for me, for I am the Nutcracker Prince.