No Kings Among Rats

Digital drawing. Eight rats arrayed in a circle with their tails tied in a pattern. The furthest rat is seen from the back. The rat in the foreground is facing forward and wears a small yellow crown. The other rats are seen in profile. They appear to be sitting atop a watery textured background, which glows where their tails meet.

“The waters are rising,” said the god of corners.  “Either your king will die.  Or you will.”

Her many tails rippled behind her, vanishing first.  The rainfall that soaked the rats scurrying about in preparation to save their king did not touch her gleaming black fur, or drip from her long silver whiskers.

Her head vanished last, lips still curled in a curious smile.  She had not gone.  She was only invisible. 

She would stay and watch. 

The rat called Hatcher, whose true name was now only spoken by his mate, turned away from the spot where his patron god had been standing, and joined the other rats in their work.

The trickster god of corners was right.  The waters were rising, and rising quickly.


Their colony was no different from any other.  Rats had always died and been expected to die, saving their king during times of danger.  Many a rat had drowned in service of king and colony.  But Hatcher had hatched a new plan.  And Hatcher had a history of hatching plans that worked well.  They were not all grand plans.  Most were small, or seemed so.  As in the time he taught the rats how to crack egg shells so that they could use the empty shells to collect extra water, at least during the same meal.

But it was with such small triumphs that he had built good will and good standing among his fellow rats.  Still, when he proposed what the colony might do to preserve itself past the great storm to come, many doubted him.  His mate, Leaper, with her calm yet persuasive manner, helped his cause.

And they had convinced their nervous king, Nail-biter, though he was called “Biter” when spoken of.

In fairness, most rats who were old enough to volunteer their lives for their king had heard of other colonies trying the trick, typically in desperation.

They too had reached a point of desperation.

Hatcher’s plan was for the colony’s strongest swimmers to tie their tails together in a particular pattern of his design.  Their very bodies would become a raft for the king to lie upon, and also their young, and their old, and all who could not swim.  Many would surely still drown if the waters were rough and crashing.  But not as many as would die if they only tried to save their king with one of their old ways.

The tying of tails always meant death for those who did so before.

Even with Leaper’s persuasion, it was not until the waters began to rise and flood the lower levels of their colony, did the king’s advisors urge and then beg him to turn to Hatcher’s plan.


If Hatcher had not practiced, or taught his fellow rats, even as their king and his advisors waffled and waited, they would not have been ready.

But as the waters rose, he had only to give the signal to the runners, and all those who had pledged themselves to his plan arrived and locked tails.

They would leave everything behind but their own selves.

The king was the last to board the raft made of rats.  His advisors declared that it was a sacrifice he had made to ensure that all of the rats he ruled went first.

But Hatcher heard murmurings among his fellows as he checked the knots in their tails, of how the king had changed his mind about braving the storm waters, deciding that his royal hovel would protect him, and that he would join his colony when the storm subsided.

But Hatcher did not blame the king, or any other rat, for fearing.   He too feared the storm.  But he suffered a second fear as well.  The fear of failing his colony.  If they died, it would be his doing.

Inside the colony walls, the waters were rising, but not rushing.  The raft held, and they swam strongly.

But once they were outside, they were battered by rain, swept along by wind, and assaulted by obstacles.

Hatcher found his head below water too many times, and he spent all his time above water gasping for breath.  One time, the trickster god appeared when he was underwater, swimming easily beside him, speaking, knowing he could hear but could not answer. 

“The waters are rushing,” she said.  And she vanished just before his head broke the water’s surface again.

Their escape was harrowing.  But they survived it.

The colony found a fragile shelter, and the storm subsided.


In the days that followed, they counted who among them did not survive.  And they found that this time, none were lost.  None at all.  Hatcher knew it was by chance that they did not lose at least a few.  But he accepted the praise of those who said it was because of his plan.  For another storm approached, and his fellow rats were still frightened.  There was no need to dampen the only hope they had.

But he also heard troubling words spoken in whispers.  Ill words about the king, and how all he could do when his colony faced death and destruction was to bite his nails. 

It was a shame, those whispers said, that a strong and clever rat was not their king.

Many gazes were cast his way as the words were spoken.  Hatcher pretended not to hear.

Unlike their king, Hatcher did not hide himself away, for there was work to be done.

Their scouts had found a solid place where they might take shelter for the whole season if need be.  But the place was far.  And the best way to travel there was to remake their raft.

Hatcher allowed himself a quiet moment with his mate.  Upon Leaper’s insistence, he then allowed a quiet moment with himself.

It was in that moment that the trickster god appeared, swishing her uncountable number of tails.

“Kingship,” she said, “is close.  All you need do, my dear Hatcher, is turn the corner.”

“I don’t want to be king,” Hatcher said.  “But if I were, I would at least pretend to be brave and walk among my colony, comforting the rats I rule.”

“As you are doing now?”

“We are preparing to make for shelter,” Hatcher said.  “I am tempted to ask you what is around the corner for my colony.”

“Then why not ask, and be prepared?”

“I am not a god.  I may not understand what I am seeing.  And in my ignorance, I may do something, decide upon a course that may doom my colony.”

“What if I show you anyway?” the god of corners said.

Hatcher twitched his whiskers.  “Then I will see.  I don’t have the power to stop a god.”

The trickster god, his patron god, smiled as she vanished.


So they tied their tails together again, as quickly as they could before the waters receded, or another storm struck them.

But alas, they could not outswim the next storm.

This time, Hatcher and Leaper were tied next to each other.  They had been on opposite sides before, so that if one died, they could hope that the other survived.  But this time, they decided they would stay together, however the waters may flow.

So when Hatcher went under the water again, Leaper was beside him.  Though their tails were tied, the waters wrenched them apart, from each other, and from their fellow rats.  And then it brought them together. 

Leaper clutched his paw, and he clutched hers.

She pointed ahead.  He could not see what she saw, as she could see what he what was seeing.  But he understood.  He saw his patron god floating before him, and Leaper was seeing hers, the god of far sight.  

That did not bode well.

The broiling waters pushed them above the surface, and they both breathed in before they were plunged below the waters again.

Again, they clutched each other.

And again, Hatcher saw his patron god.

But then he saw another appear, floating beside.  A rat with silver-gray fur and an uncountable number of glinting black eyes.  That was Leaper’s patron god.

He felt Leaper clutching him tighter, and he too held her closer.  Under the water, neither of them could speak, nor even squeak.  But he understood.  She was seeing both gods as well.

That truly did not bode well.

When the gods spoke, the sounds of their voices carried clearly through the tumultuous waters.

“I can see far, but I cannot see around corners,” the many-eyed god of far sight said.

“And I can see around corners, but I cannot see far,” said the many-tailed god of corners.  “Shall we join our powers, and show our juniors what we can see?”

Hatcher’s sight grew narrow.

“Do not worry,” said the god of corners.  “You will not drown today.” 

Hatcher’s sight went black.


He woke with a start from a nightmare of drowning.

Hatcher was safe.  All were.  Again, none were lost.

Again, all rats praised him, and they also spoke of it being a shame that a strong and clever rat was not their king.

No longer were their words spoken in whispers.

Many of the swimmers had almost drowned.  Some were still near death.  They had been battered and many would never swim again, a few might never walk.  But the colony they had saved worked to save them in return. 

For many weeks, Hatcher and Leaper recovered.  Leaper healed faster and would join him at his sickbed, bringing him news, playing games, taking meals, and sometimes just sitting together.  She even came to help the healers a bit with their nursing.

The healers brought news, but they softened it much before delivering it.

So it was not until it was done, that Hatcher and Leaper learned of the overthrow of their king.

Nail-biter had been deposed and cast out.

And one day, the rats who had done it, marched into the healing ward, gently but firmly moving aside the healers who protested.

The rats approached Hatcher, and they asked him to become their new king.

His first instinct was to refuse, and so he refused.

But the rats insisted.  They praised him and his strength, which they said they could see even when he lay on his side, bruised and broken.

“He has given you his answer,” Leaper said, moving to Hatcher’s side.  She raised herself up on her hind paws.

The rats then poured praise on her, proclaiming what a powerful queen she would be.

But their praised prompted Hatcher’s second instinct, to expand the rule of the colony beyond two monarchs, to share the power of rule.  He began to propose a way it might be done, but the rats who had come to crown him king would not hear of it.

They would not hear of anything but that Hatcher would be their next king.

When he again refused, they seemed to accept his answer. 

But when they left, Leaper fell back to all fours and turned to him with worry in her eyes.  “I fear they are not done with you, my love.”

Hatcher shared her fear.

He too had been angered by his king’s cowardice.  For it was that very cowardice that had kept the colony from making for shelter before it was too late.  Even all the king’s advisors had been in agreement, as they almost never were.  They goaded, then begged the king to move the colony when there was time.  He did not declare that they would stay.  Instead he gave no answer at all.  So they waited too long, and all that was left for them was certain death or the risk of Hatcher’s plan.  He would not have felt much pity, if any, upon hearing the king had been deposed.  But to be cast out, kept from shelter while storms still raged, was a cruel fate.


Once Hatcher had healed enough to walk among his fellows, he began to notice that even though they were now safe, sheltered and fed, warm and dry, and healed of body, they seemed troubled.

Though their king had done nothing for them, they worried at how they and their colony would survive without him. 

There were many leaders among the colony.  And all the king’s advisors had survived.  And yet, unease and uncertainty settled upon the colony, thicker and colder than the fogs that settled upon the earth each morning and night.

One night, Hatcher led his mate to a quiet corner, and with a heavy heart, he told her, “I will accept the crown.”

Leaper did not favor the choice.  But she understood it. 

“Whether as your mate, or your friend,” she said, “I will not leave your side, so long as you remain true to yourself and your colony.”


All was celebration.  And all was well.

Because Hatcher did not know what being a king was.  He acted as his colony’s leader.  He had already given Leaper his true name.  And she had given him hers.  But they did so again, making vows to each other, and declaring to all that they were bound together. 

And so, the colony gained a king and a queen.

In due time, the storms passed.  They returned to their home, finding it ruined, but not beyond repair.

While the work was heavy, Hatcher’s heart was light. 

But he often had to be warned not to put himself in harm’s way as he once might have.  For he was king now.  And in time, he remembered that, and avoided harm without being advised.

For many years, all was well, and little by little, Hatcher was shifted away from other burdens that he once bore, and he need not bear anymore.  For the king had advisors to help him think, and he had servants to help him care for his needs and desires, and he had an entire colony of workers to produce whatever the king believed the colony and he himself needed.

Leaper teased and then warned him against the erosion of his sharp mind, but she too was dazzled by the powers and luxuries of being queen.  A day came when she realized that she had not leapt in many a month, and did not miss it.  And Hatcher had not hatched a plan for even longer, and he did not miss it. 


As the years bore on, the king and queen let slip so many of their duties that when their advisors warned of war with a nearby colony one day, neither monarch knew what to do.  But there was one among their advisors, neither young nor old, who dared to declare what the king must do.  He dared to urge the king to reverse one of his own previous rulings.  To ensure the safety of their colony and their sovereign land, the king must cast out any rats from their rival colony—though all others may stay. 

Hatcher had been inclined to approve any idea or plan that his advisors brought to him.  But none had even suggested that he reverse any of his own rulings.  None dared to question the king in such a way.  And even if they had, Hatcher believed this old ruling, that all rats would be welcome in their colony, was a good one. 

The advisor rat, who was called Veil, bowed his head and begged his king’s forgiveness.  But he commented that he feared it would make the king appear weak.  Appearance mattered to the people, for it was all they had to judge their king. 

“They cannot all know you as closely as your friends and advisors do,” Veil said, before he bowed more deeply and left the king’s chamber.

Hatcher dismissed all others from his chamber as well, save for the queen.

“What is weak, my king, is the advice of that rat,” Leaper said.  

“I know it.  And yet there is some truth to it.” 

The queen breathed deeply and reared up on her hind paws.  “Truth or merit?  Truth is truth.  Even a king cannot change that.  But merit is a thing a king can change.”


“You must think on it.”

Thinking was something Hatcher had not truly done in a long while.

He began to waver, seeing wisdom in his advisor’s words and his mate’s words.  At last, he concluded that Veil was right.  Though Hatcher did not favor his own decision, his intention was to protect the rats he ruled.  He reversed his own ruling.  And his advisors sent out word that all rats from the rival colony were to leave, else they be cast out.

Leaper cast doubt on his decision.  Till the moment he declared it, she had entreated him not to cast any rat out, no matter their origin, unless they could find proof that a rat was a danger to the colony.  They were not even at war with their rival, not yet.  And perhaps, if peace could be negotiated, they would never go to war.  Even after he declared his ruling, she cast doubt upon it, urged him to reconsider.

Leaper cast more and more doubt upon his rulings.  When he sent an army to guard their borders, and even keep watch within their borders, in the name of protecting the rats whom he ruled, she doubted him. 

“You are hindering the rats you rule,” she warned.  “If you restrain them too tightly, you will strangle them to death.”

Hatcher grew weary of being ever at odds with his queen and mate.  But she would not see the reason in his rulings.

He said nothing of his sorrow to anyone, but one of his advisors dared to speak of noticing it.

“It pains me to see you in such sorrow, my liege,” said Veil, in a close whisper.  “I risk being cast out, but I must say what I must say for the good of my king and my colony.”  He paused, but Hatcher gave no reply.

“A king can trust no one to guide him in such a dire time.”  Veil leaned closer to his king’s ear.  “Not even me.” 

So Hatcher called upon his patron god.  But when the god of corners appeared, she heard his plea, then turned her back, and vanished, never to appear again.


One day, the queen handed the king a drink to help ease his troubled mind into sleep, as she had been doing for many nights.  But before he could take a sip, the doors of their chamber burst open.  The royal guards streamed in, followed by the advisor Veil. 

Veil bid the king not to drink his nightly tincture.  He summoned a royal taster to taste the drink first.  Trembling, the king allowed this. 

When the taster gasped and fell dead, the queen was horrified.  She claimed no knowledge of the poison.  She asked Hatcher to order everyone out of their chambers, so that they might speak alone, but the king ordered her to be taken away instead.  He spent a sleepless night surrounded by his royal guards.

When morning came, he learned that Leaper had escaped the castle and gone into hiding.

Veil, having gained his king’s trust, reported of fighting at the borders of their colonies.  Hatcher’s heart ached from his mate’s betrayal.  He almost could not bear the burdens of rule.  But he listened as Veil spoke of losses on their side, and how seeing their king would give their warriors heart.

Hatcher felt his own heart turn cold when he realized what his advisor had suggested.  His nerves had shattered.  He refused to go.  Even when he saw the look of disappointment and disdain upon his advisor’s face, he refused.  He refused to leave his chamber. 

So he was sitting in a bath a few days hence, when Veil, the only advisor allowed in his chambers, brought him a report of the last great skirmish at their borders. 

“All warriors were lost,” said Veil.  “Not a one survived.” 

Numbed by the news, Hatcher found himself slipping below the waters of his bath.  But when he tried to rise to the surface again, something held him in place. 

He struggled against the single paw that held him under the surface.  The years had weakened Hatcher, in spirit, in mind, and in body.  He tried but he could not pry himself free of Veil’s cruel paw. 

He was drowning, drowning…


Hatcher was drowning, but he was not alone.  Beside him, clutching him, was his love, Leaper.  They looked at each other.  They were alone.  No gods floated beside them.  They held on to each other as they swam with one paw each, up to the surface.  They came close and were plunged back under.  But they swam again, and would swim until they drowned, or until they lived.

At last they broke the surface. 

And at last they made it to safety once again.  So tired and injured were they that Hatcher and Leaper collapsed, their tails still tied together.

Hatcher woke with a start from a nightmare of drowning.

But he was safe.  All were.  Again, none were lost.  Not a one.

Leaper, Hatcher, and all the other injured swimmers were being tended to by those whom they kept safe during the storm.

Hatcher wept with joy and triumph.  As his battered body lay on a sickbed made of leaves and litter, he made gentle oaths to his colony and to his mate.  And he made stern oaths to himself.


Again, all rats praised him, and they also spoke of it being a shame that a strong and clever rat was not their king.

No longer were their words spoken in whispers.

Many of the swimmers had almost drowned.  They had been battered and many would never swim again, a few might never walk.  Some were still near death.  But the colony they had saved worked to save them in return. 

Leaper had not yet healed well enough to come visit him, but she had persuaded the rat who was assigned to her healing to have her carried to Hatcher.

And she had bid them to build a curtain around Hatcher’s sickbed so they might be alone. 

“Neither of you are well enough to do what lovers are wont to do,” the healer warned.  “Anyway, many would hear you, and you both seem shy about the matter.”  But he left them alone, granting that they had earned such favors from a grateful colony.

Hatcher remembered his oaths when he saw his mate.  His heart ached as if he had already lost her.

“Did you have a vision when we were in the water?” she asked him.

Before he could answer, he saw two more rats appear.  They did not pass through the curtain.  They manifested before his eyes, one standing beside him, the other standing beside Leaper.

Their patron gods.

“What did you see?” the god of corners asked.

Hatcher looked at Leaper when he answered.  “I became a king.  A terrible king.”

“All kings are terrible, are they not?” the god of far sight said.

“As are all gods,” said the god of corners.  She winked at her fellow, who blinked all his many eyes in unison.

“You abandoned me,” Hatcher said.

The trickster god’s many tails flickered behind her.  “Then you must have displeased me greatly.”

“I was unworthy of you,” Hatcher said.  The god of corners smiled, but then she tilted her head and seemed to realize that he was not talking to her. 

Hatcher could not keep the tears from spilling past his eyes.  “Now that you know what a lowly creature I am,” he said to Leaper, “how could you join yourself with a tyrant?”

Leaper gaped at him.  She strained as if she wished to go to him, but her injuries kept her sitting where her healer had set her.  She leaned back.  There was nothing but kindness in her eyes.  Hatcher could not fathom it. 

“We might have easily turned a corner where I was the one who became a tyrant,” she said, “and you were forced to flee from me.”

The trickster god held her many tails still.  “Now that you know what is to come,” she said, “you can turn that corner, and walk that path more wisely than you did before.”

“Or I can turn away from that corner.”

“Your king will be overthrown,” said the god of far sight.  “That is certain.  And the next one who takes his place will be as terrible as you were in your vision, worse perhaps.  You might be saving many by being a king who is forewarned of his worst mistakes.”

The god’s reasoning was sound, and even seemed wise.

But if Hatcher were to become king, as decent-hearted as he would try to be, he would be corrupted, first by good intentions, then by the need to constrain those whom he ruled, a need that would breed contempt within him, a contempt that festered into cruelty, a cruelty that ruined all his cleverness, turning it to death and devastation.

Hatcher’s reasoning too was sound.  He spoke in quiet words. “Why do there have to be kings at all?”

A silence followed.  And it widened.  And then it stopped. 

“Why indeed?” Leaper said.

Hatcher peered into the eyes of his mate, seeing in their sparkle what he felt in his own.  A leap of thought.  A hatching of an idea.  An idea sharp enough to cut through the thickest of skulls.

“Quick,” the god of corners said, leaning toward her fellow. “Let us flee before they decide they don’t need gods.”

The gods vanished. 

Hatcher and Leaper gazed at each other, and spoke of turning a corner onto a different path from the one in their vision.  A path that would be rough and grueling, and likely longer than their lives.  They spoke of it with joy and passion, only wincing when some movement of paw or neck distressed one of their injuries.

When the healer returned, having gathered a few rats to move Leaper’s bed beside her mate’s, he brought them dinner.  And he brought them news, delivering it with a smile.

“The waters are receding.”

Copyright © 2023  Nila L. Patel

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