On my back interwound I opened my eyes and they met his. Around me a mass of my brothers and sisters slumped against one another as though asleep. I look down and my tail is still bonded with them but this silence is so new. My head feels clear for the first time and I'm alone with my thoughts, no interruptions or panicked pushes towards survival. It's like nothing I have experienced before... Silence and a lack of motion as this beings eyes loom over me as I lay here. Finally at rest...
"Hello there. Don't worry about your family here they're all asleep, not dead." The huge face lurching over me booms. He carefully arranges my nephew Barry to be some kind of pillow to prop me up as he delicately arranges the mass of my family in front of him.
"Looks like you're all tied up here by your tails. And I thought my family was complicated." He says laughing. There's some kind of slime on his head.
The creature looming over me begins reaching into his pockets and I thought my time had come. Especially seeing all my brethren around me unconscious. But he pulls a little piece of cheese out of his pocket and offers it my way and, my god, its good.
He smiles whilst I eat it. It's been a while since we had any real food around here. My belly is exposed to this giant as I fill it, staring him in the eyes but he looks gleeful and curious, not menacing.
"It seems here we have a Rat King and because you are the only rat currently able to understand me, that would make you the king of rats my little friend." He says as little bits of Lancashire cheese falls from my mouth into my chest hair whilst I chew. The snot on his head began to move and I think it talked. Wait actually it's a frog of some sort, I hear it tell the creature to help me more.
"Oh if I must" And the towering creature reaches towards me with a long pointed finer.
"ShazzULza or whatever." He says as the finger hits my engorged belly.
"Now you can free yourself from this bondage, these chains of yours. Think of where you want to go and you can walk into it, like entering a doorway. You'll no longer be trapped in this family of yours." He tells me in a deep voice.
I thought about the pocket he had reached into, the one where he produced the cheese. And the next thing you know I'm walking into a huge pocket of cheese. I didn't even know they made cheese pockets or even pockets this big but it was huge. I've never even felt my tail being disconnected from the rest of my family before... I was finally free to live my own life. I ran my hand down along it and felt how smooth the skin felt all the way to the tip, nothing in its way. Alone at last and then I delved into the cheese in this creatures robes, everything else faded away all but that glorious cheese.
A moments later I feel the cheese being tugged away from me, I bite hard onto a crusty edge and follow it upwards into the air as I realize the giant creature from before is removing the whole block from its pocket, me attached, and dangling as he moves it in front of his face. On top of its head sits a frog wearing a robe and on top of the frog sits another, very small frog. A weird kind of totem. I look to the creatures shoulder and think about it long enough to appear there.
Into the creatures ear I ask "What... Is happening?"
I see his jowls raise as he smiles, leaning his entire face to the right to try take a peak at me on his shoulder. The Stoic frog in some kind of robe silently watches the whole thing unfold from its vantage point.
"I'd really appreciate it if somebody could tell me what the hell is happening right now because this is wild." I quickly speak into the creatures ear.
I look down at my entangled family and moments later I am walking through a door next to them on the ground. The huge, bearded figure shrouded in a long robe stands over us as I try to wake them from their slumber.
"That won't work my friend. They will sleep until I wake them. You however are now awake in a different sense... How did you come to end up in this mess?" He asks.
I look up to him and try to remember back before the chaos.
"A great fire once tore through this land and wiped out the previous occupants. In the piles of their corpses my people thrived on their charred flesh until there were so many of us we lost our way. Fell into one another and became trapped by our own bodies, rolling endlessly with no real agency or control. All trying to survive with no coordination. Our tails and fur entangled and imprisoned us together in a waking nightmare." I tell him my story as I began to untangle the tails of my friends. It's a mess, like the innards of a man.
"Hmmm I imagine somebody must have left an oven on." The giant towering over me says, rubbing his chin.
"Well, would you like to join me and my friend Froglin on a little adventure? We're going far from here, to find some peace and quiet. There's all the cheese in the world out there waiting for us. Maybe you could learn a thing or two along the way." He asks me.
I'm struggling with tails and hair trying to part my cousin from my second cousin but it feels futile.
"Here let me help you." he says and taps his staff onto my bundle of rat family.
There's a puff of smoke and all the rats are untangled, awake. They stare at one another and at me for a second before running in different directions into the night. Leaving me alone and abandoned. It was like they didn't recognise me.
"Come join us. Family isn't always what you're born with, it's the people you meet on your journey through this life." He reaches out his hand outstretched in my direction and I look at it before appearing within it.
"Nice little trick I gave you huh?" He says smiling. The toad on his head stares at me silently. "Hop up to meet Froglin, he'll fill you in on the details".
End of part 1
I use my new powers to teleport up to the wizards head where a frog in a long purple robe, looking rather foolish may I say, greets me with a little nod.
The wizard begins walking again through the ruins of the village with me and Froglin on his head, humming to himself, not a care in the world. The whole experience is quite bizarre but what other options do I have? My family has fled and the village is desolate and ruined.
"My names Froglin, this big fella here came along and made me something more I guess. We're all in for some kind of big adventure I think. I'm not really sure. I don't really have anywhere else to go to be honest." The frog spoke, looking away from me, into the distance like he was a bit sad.
"There's nothing here but rubble and misery. Whatever is over that hill has to beat whatever existence I was living before now... So I'm guessing he's some kind of childs entertainer? A magician? A mystic cheese monger?" I ask Froglin, gesturing at the wizard beneath our feet.
"He say's he's a wizard and I think we're all wizards now. I guess this tiny frog on my head is my familiar. I don't really know anymore I'm just rolling with it." Froglin replies.
A might roar of laughter came from the wizard.
"Of course we're all wizards! A powerful trio of wizards not to be reckoned with. Nobody will sell us stale bread ever again! Not in this town anyway." He bellows
"How nice it is to have some friends, some students of the magical arts! Some tiny lads with mighty dreams. I'm pretty certain if we navigate this hill and follow the river for a few hours we will get to an old friend of mine who will supply us on our journey."
The moss covered valley caved into a green peat moss carpet that funnelled a river towards the ocean. We went against it, following it upstream as the water passed us on its own journey.
Froglin didn't speak much and seemed a little morose, but I was quite optimistic. I spent a lot of time on the wizards shoulder so I could speak into his ear all the questions I had.
"Ok so hold on a second, you're telling me there's thousands of DIFFERENT cheeses?" I asked him.
"Well yes there's all kinds. Lancashire cheese is white and crumbly with a strong taste. But not as strong as blue cheese which is soft and pungent. Then there's Red Leicester that's quite boring and Edam... The list goes on and on and not to mention goats cheese." The wizard explained to me.
"Wait you can make cheese out of a goats milk?" I was amazed.
"Hell I've seen a man make cheese out of a cat and dogs milk just for the fuck of it and it was horrible I tell you and that man was not me no matter what anyone says." He chuckled
I was starting to love this weird wizard man and his wild stories as we wandered further upstream. I'm not sure what Froglins problem is but he seems pretty content just being led along by this wise old wizard. I practice my new skills by phasing from one shoulder to the other of the wizard, asking him questions as he marches forwards towards (what I hope) is a nice cheese feast.
It was a couple of days before we crested a little hill and saw a lone building by the river. A one story stone square sitting on the banks with a path leading into a hole in the hills, some kind of cave.
"Finally!" The wizard exclaims. The sun was going down over the hills in the far distance casting an ever growing shadow over all we could see.
"This, my friends and fellows in wizardary, is the finest cheese monger this side of the ocean. They love me here, I come by all the time on my travels."
I cannot explain to you how excited I am to hear this. The wizard has been talking about cheese for days, all of its complexities and the numerous different possibilities available to whoever may seek it out. To me it was like discovering music for the first time, I never knew this world existed and he was about to show me.
I was on his shoulder as usual, Froglin was on his head in silent miserable contemplation (he's boring) and we began the walk towards what I've built up in my head as some kind of cheese heaven. As we approached I could smell it, that old socks smell but for some reason you want to eat it.
(Authors note - Do not eat the socks you find randomly in somebodies house, especially if they're alone and distant from other laundry).
"The cave there is where they mature the cheese. Sometimes it can spend years brooding in the dark, developing complex flavours as the moulds and bacteria do their magic. It's not as good as my own magic but there's a little magic in everything. And over there are the cows that produce the milk! The big titty bovine princesses that bring so much pleasure to this kingdom" The smiling wizard told me.
I was giddy to the point where my knees were making me bob up and down. As we approached the shop, I could see huge wheels of cheese in the window, a variety of colours and names I couldn't even pronounce, it was hypnotising. We entered the store and a young lady who was busy stacking shelves turned casually to face us.
"Hello! Welco..." She cuts herself off mid sentence when she sees the wizard. There was a brief moment of pause like she was mentally collecting herself.
"Oh erm I'm so sorry I wasn't expecting you! It's been so many years!" She says, her voice seemed different. She stops what she was doing and briskly walks behind the counter.
"Hello! My beautiful girl! How you have grown since I last saw you! I'm glad to see that you have taken on your fathers mantel running the family business! What beautiful cheeses I can see all around me." The wizard smiles and gestures to the shop with his arms.
"I bring new customers and new friends to your business. This little guy on my head is Froglin from the forests of the east! And this little fellow on my shoulder is the King of Rats from the old town of Primroseville! They're my students and I've told them many good things about your business." He continued.
"Oh it's a pleasure to meet you both!" She says, her eyes are wide like when you remember something regretful you said the night before whilst drunk.
"I'm very sorry but we were just about to erm close! You will need to come back tomorrow" She says looking awkward. I think I see some sweat run down her head.
"Now now! Tomorrow? A whole world of possibilities could happen before then! Who knows where we could be, where you could be?" The wizard says cheerfully
A child of about 6 in human years emerges from the back of the store.
"Mum check out this spider I found." The child says holding something in his hand before noticing us.
I wave from my vantage point on the wizard shoulder.
"Go back inside Henry" The shopkeeper hisses at the boy.
The Wizard kneels down to speak to Henry. "Hello child! A spider you say? How brave of you. How brave of you to catch such a beast in your hand. Spiders can be quite troublesome especially if there's say... thousands of them.." The wizard says before turning back to the shopkeeper.
"Well, since you've traveled so far, I'm sure I have enough time to serve you today." She says smiling, trembling.
"Perfect!" The wizard bellows. "Rat King, peruse the goods, let me know what you would like."
I leap excitedly from the wizards shoulder and begin running like a madman through the shelves. What misery it must be to be the size of the wizard, unable to run through streets made out of edible gold. Each turn I take, is like an alley of new smells and experiences. I take mental notes of the names of the cheeses that most appeal to me before phasing over to the window display to experience more.
The wizard is pondering the wheels with his hand on his chin, slowly contemplating his purchase. The shop keeper has moved her son behind her and watches us nervously from the other side of the counter. Even Froglin gets involved for once, hopping down to the window display.
"Excuse me lass how much is this thing here? It looks lovely." Froglin asks the shopkeeper pointing at a dead fly thats been caught in the corner of the window.
"Oh erm, you can have that for free, a sample if you will" She tells him sheepishly and he quickly devours the fly.
"That was lush." Froglin says rubbing his belly.
After we have made our selection, the store keeper helps move all our cheeses over to the counter. It was a huge mound beautiful triangles and rectangles, all different colours and hue's.
"Put this on my tab please!" The wizard said, throwing each piece of cheese into his pocket one at a time. I have no idea how he keeps so much cheese in there it truly is magical.
The store keeper pulls out a long scroll, around 3 feet long and scribbles something to the bottom of it.
"Condolences for your old man by the way, he was a fiery one! I will miss our banter over prices. How did he perish?" The wizard asks the shopkeep.
"... Well not long after you left last time we found him in the cave we use to age our cheeses... He must have caught some kind of rare fungal infection, he had collapsed on the floor coughing up blue spores and blood and... I think bits of Roquefort...." She looks at the ground, this is clearly a horrible memory for her.
"How sad. I have a salve for that... Shame I had already left. Oh well! Onwards we must be, many miles to cover!" The wizard is cheery again and picks Froglin up from the window as we exit the store. I look back as the door closes to see the lady staring off into the distance looking defeated.
After leaving the cheesemongers we continued on our journey, heading upstream and uphill. Most of the labor was done by the wizard as I sat upon his shoulder, constantly asking him questions about life and the past. I noticed that he often spoke in riddles and would never tell a straight answer about anything. Everything was a bit of a joke to him also, but I enjoyed this game trying to figure out this enigma of a man he was as we travelled. At night when we would rest, he would stare into the fire as though a deep sadness lived within it and if I caught him in this moment, he would snap out of it, as if in a daydream.
The cheese kept coming but I was craving something more now. I had perfected my own powers of wizardry and could easily teleport myself anywhere within a 100 yard radius as long as I could vision it within my mind. Froglin rarely spoke and spends more of his time staring at the sky looking sad, I think he needs a hobby. I often think back to the old town where I came from, which was weeks ago now, how it were ruins and decayed. I can't remember how it got that way, I was too busy being entangled with my family to focus on anything else. Sometimes you get so bogged down by your problems that you can't see beyond them, to see the bigger picture that's happening. But now I'm a powerful wizard rat, I sometimes teleport to the tree's branches when we camp and I watch the wizard from afar, knowing he can't see me. He never questions where I am or where I have been, but I watch him.
Something has felt off since the we got all the cheese. At the time, I was so high and distracted by its opulence that I just accepted everything that had happened. But as we walked on, I thought over the scenario more. Who paid for all of this? Why was that woman so scared?
The next day we continued our journey, the wizard always seemed to know where he was going but the final destination never seemed clear. He took us past long fields with drystone walls full of sheep heading northwards, telling me a story about a woman he used to know who's feet grew an inch every year until she had to buy clown shoes. I never know whats real with this guy. Soon we were by a lake and I spotted a hefty looking thing pondering the water.
"Is that your mum?" The wizard jests, pointing at the creature by the lake. It was the size of a badger but rodent like.
We strolled closer to it and it didn't move, it was oblivious to us, not threatened at all.
"Oh its one of them Capybara fellas" The wizard told me as we got closer
"I wonder what he's thinking about..."