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

July 29, 2007

14. Into Madness

Patch lived for two days on that maple tree on the edge of the green forest, eating its growing buds and using that strength to recover from his wounds. He saw no other animals there, nor any birds, and it was easy to understand why; the air was bad at the best of times, and when the wind blew from the west, Patch choked and grew ill. So when he had recovered some of his strength he advanced deeper into the forest.

His thoughts as he set off down the sky-road were dark and vengeful. For he had passed the days not only in recovery, but also in thought, and his thinking had led him to a dreadful conclusion. He had been betrayed.

How else, he asked himself, could Karmerruk have found him and snatched him up from that cherry tree? Yes, a hawk's eyes could have spied out the white patch on Patch's forehead – but how would Karmerruk have known where to look? Scarcely any time had passed between the death of Jumper and the taking of Patch. Was it mere ill-luck that Karmerruk had spotted Patch so soon? On top of the ill-luck of all the nuts of the Treetops tribe vanishing from the earth?

The more Patch pondered, the more he realized that both of these mysteries could be answered and explained with a single name.

Sniffer.

Sniffer who had disappeared alone before he and Twitch and Patch had set out to the Meadow. Sniffer who never grew hungry in winter, Sniffer who alone of the Treetops tribe had food enough to give to his friend Twitch, Sniffer who could find buried nuts from up a tree – and who could have, over the winter, led the squirrels of the Meadow tribe to all the missing Treetop nuts. Sniffer who could have led the rats to Jumper … and to Silver. The idea of a squirrel conspiring with rats against other squirrels would have been unthinkable – had Patch not seen Redeye among the rats.

Patch knew he ought not to brood on what had passed. He had come so unimaginably far from the Center Kingdom that he would surely never return to it again. He should try to be thankful that Karmerruk had spared his life, and try to find a new home here on this poisoned island. But all Patch could think about, as he ran along the sky-road, was about Patch, and his family, and his tribe betrayed by Sniffer, and about how much Patch would like a chance at revenge.

The island sky-road was remarkably dense. The trees here grew thickly together. Their lower branches were twisted and knobbled, their trunks were covered with misshapen growths, and their upper branches were clogged by an amazing quantity of choking vines. The vines hung in the treetops in such profusion that one could almost speak of a sky-field rather than a sky-road. Patch made good time through the branches and vines, fuelled by rage and bitterness.

He slowed and stopped when he smelled something in the still-sour air. Something very like squirrel...but not quite.

He squinted. There were a half-dozen creatures on the sky-road up ahead. They looked like squirrels, but their smell was somehow wrong. Patch approached them cautiously, from downwind. He was only one tree away when they noticed his presence and began to jump around in surprise, chittering with dismay.

"Night terrors!" one of them cried. "Stars and comets and a burning moon!"

Patch wasn't sure he had heard correctly.

"Name yourself, stranger, or taste blood and bile!" another threatened.

"I am Patch son of Silver, of the Seeker clan, of the Treetops tribe, of the Center Kingdom," Patch said. "Who are you that asks?"

His words caused consternation. Five of the six squirrels – or squirrel-things – began to jump around the tree, hooting and writhing as if they were on fire.

"Who are you that asks?" Patch demanded again.

"We are the rot that eats the leaves," one of them said. "We are the maggots in the open wound. We are the sickness of the dying child."

"Center Kingdom, Center Kingdom, Center Kingdom," another squealed, baring its teeth like a dog. "He is the prophet, the seer, the smeller of futures, the one sent to save and damn us all, the broken-legged dancer, the slave of the moon!"

"I am not!" Patch protested.

"Center Kingdom," another squirrel said. She smelled and sounded almost normal, and was the only one who had not begun jumping around in a frenzy after Patch introduced himself. "Are you truly of the Center Kingdom? Have you truly come across the waters?"

"Yes," Patch said, turning gratefully to this one. "What kingdom is this?"

"This," she said, "is the Kingdom of Madness."

1 Comments:

Anonymous Rakie said...

oh well, THAT'S reassuring. :D Hee, i don't have internet access at the weekends so i had three chapters to catch up on this morning, what a great way to start the week! Another awesome chapter, thoroughly enjoying this story!! Eeek, so what's with the mutant squirrels? That's so freaky. Looking forward to finding out what happens next - and definitely looking forward to seeing Patch's revenge. Hee, squirrel vengence. :D

July 30, 2007 at 1:34 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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