THE SAMPLING: Rafferty Ferret: Ratbag

By Sherryl Jordan

Rafferty is an orphan, raised by monks. Misfortune strikes and he is outcast, and must fend for himself. He uses his cunning and charm to develop a trade for himself as the town’s ratcatcher… and rat liberator.

Rafferty Ferret: Ratbag is by renowned NZ fantasy author Sherryl Jordan. Check out last year’s interview with Jordan by Catherine Woulfe.

Chapter 3 – Rats! And Rafferty’s first valiant attempts to trap them

Rafferty crouched behind the pile of firewood, and waited in the deepening dark for his victims to appear. He had moved the pile of firewood out from the wall a little, so he would have a place to lie in wait; and he hid there now, his rat-catching net firmly in his hand. On the floor beside him was a large sack which would hold, eventually, all the rats he trapped. So he waited, his heart pounding in excitement.

For the first time in two years he felt that he was the master of his fate. His belly was full of food, he had been given a warm woollen tunic by one of the baker’s sons, and he had a purpose, a promising future, and a hope. He was even a man of means, for earlier that day Jeremias Baker had given him, as a down payment for his work, a shining penny, and with it Rafferty had purchased his net and sack – the first tools of his trade. Rafferty was, officially and optimistically, a rat-catcher.

Now, utterly silent, he peeped out from behind his pile of wood. Already it was dark in the bakery, but he had lit a small candle, the better to see his victims by. The candle stood in a bowl of sand on the floor, where its glow spread across the wooden boards. And along the floor Rafferty had placed tiny heaps of broken bread – the stale stuff Mother Mawt had given him, to use as bait. He had the plot all worked out. The thieving rats would see the easy pickings sitting there just a-waiting for them, and they’d stop in amazed gratitude and – all unsuspecting – begin their feast. And then Rafferty would leap out brandishing his net, and slam it down on top of them. One after another, he’d catch them, snatch them, zap and snap and trap them, and in his sack dispatch them. He had it all worked out, and he waited, struggling to keep still despite the anticipation pounding in his veins.

He didn’t have to wait long. Soon after it was dark outside, and the street was empty, and all was quiet, the rats crept out. Into the small circle of candlelight they came, but they seemed very cautious to Rafferty. They did not begin feasting immediately. They came slowly, whiskers quivering, beady eyes blinking in the unfamiliar light, their pointy little faces twitching with suspicion. Some ran straight back to their holes in the edges of the floorboards, but many crept to the piles of stale bread, and sniffed at them. One sidled stealthily up to the candle Rafferty had lit, sniffing it so closely that its whiskers smoked. It scuttled off, squeaking, and the others froze where they were, warned and wary. A few more ran back to their holes. But the bolder ones stayed, and slowly, tentatively, they crept to the bread and began eating.

Rafferty waited, his breath held. Four rats were feasting, stopping often, looking around, sometimes getting spooked and scuttling halfway back to their holes, then coming back again to the bait. Rafferty stayed still, gripping the net so tightly that his fist ached.

Five rats stopped to eat, then six. Others were coming out again, but they ignored the bait and ran up the table legs to the familiar place where loaves were put out ready for the morning. Rafferty almost ground his teeth in rage. Only eight rats were feasting on the floor, where he could catch them. The rest were all over the place, running suspiciously to and fro along the edges of the floor by the walls, staying close to their holes, or racing up the table legs to snatch a bite or two, then racing back down again to safety. Some were sitting up on their hind legs sniffing the air as if they could smell the danger, could smell Rafferty crouching there, waiting.

But Rafferty had waited long enough. Suddenly he leapt out, yelling, and went to slam his net down hard over two rats crouched over a pile of stale bread. But by the time the net hit the floor, the rats were long gone, vanished into their holes before Rafferty’s yell had even died on his lips. And before his yell had stopped echoing around the stone walls, all the other rats had fled, many with chunks of bread in their jaws, and vanished into their holes. Rats had fairly flown off the table, landed near their holes, and disappeared. In two heartbeats there wasn’t a rat in the bakery. Not any you could see, anyway.

Rafferty stood very still, panting, his net empty, the gnawed bait scattered across the floor. He looked all around, hardly able to believe his eyes. There wasn’t hide nor hair of a rat, not a whisker nor a squeak.

“Well,” he said to himself, scooping the stale bread into piles again, “that wasn’t what you’d call a spectacular success.”

Having sorted out the piles of bait, he picked up his net and went back to his hiding place. Settling down, he waited. And waited. And waited.

From somewhere far in the still night outside he heard a church bell chime nine times. Still he waited. The bell chimed ten-o’the-clock. Then eleven. At almost midnight the rats started creeping out again, more cautious than ever, trembling with fear, but hungry. Very hungry.

Rafferty watched and waited. Many of the rats made desperate dashes to the piles of stale bread on the floor, picked up chunks in their jaws, and fled to their holes again, where they could eat in safety. But a few of them stayed out, picking up bread between their front paws and sitting on their haunches to eat, all the time their red or black eyes flicking about the room, watchful and afraid. And this time, with the element of silence and surprise, Rafferty managed to slam his net down over an unsuspecting group – and caught two! Two hideous little rodents that leapt and squirmed and squeaked in his net, and he crouched on the floor by them as the rest fled, and shouted his triumph.

“Got you, thieving little vermin!” he said. The two rats went mad, racing from one end of the net to the other, then, finding themselves totally trapped, began jumping and baring their sharp little teeth and fighting one another, frantic to get out.

Rafferty crouched and studied them. Then he studied the piles of bait all around, and the holes in the walls and floor, where the other rats had fled. Trails of crumbs led to the holes, and he remembered how he had seen many of the rats carry the food back to their holes. And he thought. A long time he thought, while his two rats scratched and scrabbled in the net.

At last he went and picked up his sack, and began the difficult and dangerous task of transferring the two trapped rats into it. In the end, with bleeding fingers and scratched wrists, he managed to get both rodents into the sack, and tied the neck of it firmly with a piece of string. Then he sat behind the woodpile again, with the net in his hands. Two more hours he waited, dozing, but no rats came. His candle sputtered and went out. When the grey dawn crept in through the cracks in the window shutters, the thin shafts of light faintly showed the boy sound asleep, his rat-catching net still in his hand.

Mother Mawt and Jeremias Baker came, and as they pounded down the stairs, Rafferty jumped up, blinking sleep from his eyes. By the time they reached the bakery floor he was waiting, the sack held up high, his catch writhing in the bottom of it. In his other hand he held the net. He was pale and bleary-eyed, but he looked pleased with himself.

“Well lad, I see you have got something!” said the baker, coming over to him.

“Two,” said Rafferty, holding the sack out towards the baker.

“Only two!” scoffed Mother Mawt, peering at the sack from behind her husband. “If that’s all you’ve got, don’t expect us to keep you on. You were told to catch five, at least.” She added, squinting cautiously at the sack, “I hope they’re secure in there, Rafferty Ferret. I don’t feel fondly towards rats.”

The baker took the sack from Rafferty, carefully untied the string about the neck, and peered in. “God’s bones – since I was a weanling, I’ve never seen such enormous rats!” he said. Quickly he closed the sack again, and retied the top of it. “Very nice work, Rafferty my man,” he said, beaming. “Those two are more than enough, for the first night. I know I said you had to catch five this first time, but I had no idea you’d be so selective about it, and seize the powerful king and queen rats first, the ones that do all the fighting to defend their feeble little pack. A very crafty move. Sign of an expert rat-catcher, no doubt. The whole pack will go crackbrained now, and be easy to capture, without their cunning leaders. Nice work. I’m very grateful.”

“Grateful? You’re a goofy fool, that’s what you are!” burst out his wife. “He’s caught two rats, and somehow he’s fooled you into thinking that’s better than five! He ought to go, that’s what I say. Give him the elbow! Go on, you great gormless twit. Send him packing.”

Rafferty swallowed nervously, and stopped silently congratulating himself.

“Oh, I can’t do that, adorable sweetheart of mine,” the baker said, to his fuming wife. “He’s doing a fine job! No, we must keep him. For another night, at least. Who knows how many rats he’ll catch tonight, with their royal highnesses gone?” He turned to Rafferty. “You will stay another night, won’t you, please? We’d be mighty obliged if you would, you being the world’s greatest rat-catcher, and all.”

“Of course,” said Rafferty, trying to hide his astonishment at his good luck. He began to head for the door, before minds could be changed.

This is an excerpt from Chapter 3 of Rafferty Ferret – Ratbag by Sherryl Jordan, published by OneTree House, 2018

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Rafferty Ferret – Ratbag

by Sherryl Jordan

Published by OneTree House

RRP $21.99

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