A children's book for grown-ups by Jon Evans

July 25, 2007

10. A Bargain of Mice and Words

Patch squirmed and wriggled, fighting for freedom, trying to break free of the hawk's vicious talons. He had already been carried higher than the highest tree of the Center Kingdom; indeed he was higher than many of the mountains, and he knew a fall might well kill him; but he was small, and would not fall hard, and so escape from the hawk's claws meant at least a chance of survival, compared to the certainty of being eaten by the hawk if he did not escape. So he struggled with all his strength. But the hawk was too strong. All Patch managed to do was work the painful talons even deeper into his flesh.

Patch gave up and sagged limply. He was going to die. That was simply all there was to it. Every animal had a time to die, and this was his. He looked down at the Center Kingdom from high above. He had never seen it like this before, its beautiful green rectangle set amid the gray mountains. He committed the striking image to his memory book before remembering there was no point; soon he would be dead, and the dead have no memories at all. The trees of the Center Kingdom looked as small as blades of grass. He wondered which tree he had been taken from.

It occurred to Patch that it was very strange for a hawk to capture a squirrel from a tree. Even in winter, hawks usually avoided diving into trees, for fear of branches that might tear at their faces and feathers. Hawks usually preyed only on animals in open spaces. Patch had been extremely unlucky.

This realization made Patch so angry at the unfairness of the world that he shouted out to the hawk, in broken sound-only Bird, "Why take me from tree? Why not take squirrel on ground?"

The hawk was so surprised it nearly dropped him.

"You speak Bird?" the hawk asked, its voice rasping and imperious.

"Yes," Patch said.

"You speak Bird," the hawk repeated. It considered for a moment. "Well then, my furry little lunch, let us speak a moment before I dine."

The hawk changed course, headed for a conical turret atop one of the mountains, and swooped into a perfect landing on a small, circular, walled stone platform at the very top of the turret, a platform shaped a little like a bird's nest. It was only a few squirrel-lengths across, and its smooth vertical walls could not be climbed. There was no way for Patch to escape.

"What is your name, little squirrel?" the hawk asked, releasing Patch.

Patch stood to his full height, painfully, for he was bleeding from the talon wounds, and said for what he expected was the very last time in his life, "I am Patch son of Silver, of the Seeker clan, of the Treetops tribe, of the Center Kingdom. Who are you that asks?"

"I am Karmerruk," the hawk said proudly. "Now tell me, what have you done to Snout, that he wants you dead so badly?"

Patch stiffened with surprise.

"The rat," he said, amazed. "You serve the rat."

Then he cried out as Karmerruk's talons slashed his face.

"I serve no one and nothing," Karmerruk said, his voice low and very dangerous. "I am a Prince of the Air, and I live only for myself, my mate, and my nestlings. The rat serves me. He finds me mice, morsels which, I must say, I far prefer to squirrels. And from time to time, I deign to capture other creatures that Snout would like eaten. As I will soon eat you, insolent little squirrel."

"I'm sorry," Patch said, trembling. "I didn't mean to offend you."

"You're just a groundling, you couldn't have known any better," Karmerruk said dismissively. "But for a groundling you do speak Bird remarkably well. Answer me. Why does Snout want you dead?"

"Because I saw him kill Jumper."


"An important squirrel," Patch explained. "A lord. Snout and his rats and another squirrel killed him."

"And why would Snout do a thing like that?"

Patch racked his memory, and remembered: "He said he served the King Beneath."

Karmerruk looked silently at Patch for a long moment. Then he beat his wings twice, and used their lift to leap to the edge of the wall that surrounded Patch. Karmerruk turned his back to Patch, folded his wings and looked down at the ground.

"There is no King Beneath," Karmerruk said. "The King Beneath is a myth."

Patch did not dare speak.

"I hear such news of strange and terrible things below. This long winter, these terrible things, it must be a very difficult time to be a groundling. I think it will only get worse, little squirrel. I think I do you a kindness by eating you now."

"Excuse me if I don't agree," Patch said angrily.

Karmerruk paid no notice. "Perhaps I have indulged this Snout long enough. But he takes such care not to be found. Where did you see Snout and this other little squirrel, this traitor to his own kind? And what is the traitor's name?"

Patch did not answer.

Karmerruk turned back and looked down at Patch with a hawk's terrible unblinking eyes. "I asked you a question, little squirrel."

Patch swallowed, and said in a very small voice, "I won't tell you unless you let me go."

Karmerruk was speechless at Patch's temerity.

"You don't want to eat me," Patch said. "You don't like squirrel. You said so yourself. Let me go and I'll tell you what you want."

"You will tell me what I want without this impudent bargaining," Karmerruk said, leaping right down at Patch, who had to back away quickly to avoid being caught beneath the hawk's talons. "Your only choice is whether you speak in words or screams."

He advanced slowly towards Patch until the squirrel's back was to the stone wall.

Patch said, desperately, "I know where there are lots of mice. Families of them. Hundreds of them."

Karmerruk stopped his advance. "You lie."

"I'm not lying," Patch said. "I swear by the moon I'm not lying."

Something strange happened to Patch when he said those words. A odd shivery feeling came from inside him and spread right to the edge of his skin.

"You swear by the moon," Karmerruk said, impressed.


"And you offer me a bargain. If I let you live, you will answer all of my questions, and tell me where these mice are."


Karmerruk considered. "I think I like you, little squirrel. You have the heart of a hawk. So I will strike this bargain with you."

"Swear by the moon," Patch demanded.

Karmerruk's laugh was a croaking cackle that made Patch shiver uncontrollably. "Oh, I think not. The moon is more dangerous than you know. I will swear on the blood of my nestlings. That will have to be oath enough."

Patch, who didn't really have much choice in the matter, said, "All right."

Patch answered Karmerruk's questions. Then the hawk leapt up to the wall and disappeared over its edge. The time that passed before he returned felt like most of a day, but must have been much less.

"Your words were pure and true, little squirrel," Karmerruk said, as he fluttered back down into Patch's prison. "I found both pit and mice, and filled my belly with the latter. Now it is time to fulfil my own oath."

And Karmerruk reached out with his talons and once again seized Patch in their cruel grip. He beat his powerful wings and again carried Patch up into the sky. But he did not set a course for Patch's home. Instead he travelled due south, directly away from the Center Kingdom.

"No!" Patch cried out.

"I swore to let you live," Karmerruk said, and there was chilling laughter in his voice. "And so I will. But we can't have Snout knowing that, can we? Not before I find and dine on him. You will live, little squirrel. But a long way away from the home you once knew."


Anonymous Rakie said...

heee, i like the hawk! :D Great chapter, looking forward to the next one already. R x

July 26, 2007 at 12:56 AM  
Anonymous Iva said...

Hi! I found this story through Whatever, and I am totally hooked! It is already among my favorite tales of high adventure ;)

A million thanks for putting this up. I hope I will be able to buy the dead-tree form some day. I will gift it to my 6 yr old cousin. She will love it, though will probably have nightmares later, about Jumper being eaten alive...*shudder*

And you get my award for webpage design. You provide full posts as feeds but I still have to click through because I want to see those squirrels at the corners. They are so right for the story, dark, and yet sorta cutesy...

Btw, shouldn't that part in the third last para be "But he did not set a course for Patch's home."?

Now that I have caught up, time to go read the latest installment.

July 26, 2007 at 11:01 PM  
Blogger Jon said...

Iva - whoops! You're quite right about that third last para. Now fixed, thanks. (And thanks for the praise, of course!)

July 27, 2007 at 1:23 AM  

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Jon Evans is the award-winning author of the thrillers Invisible Armies, Dark Places (aka Trail of the Dead), and The Blood Price. See his web site rezendi.com.

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