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

July 30, 2007

15. The Uninvited Guest

"My name is Shiver," the almost-normal squirrel said. "These are my brothers and sisters: Scream, Burner, Headfirst, Blindeye, and Gutbite."

"I see," Patch said faintly. "Why are you called Shiver?"

Shiver smiled but did not answer. "Did you come from the west? From the poison hills?"

"Yes," Patch said, "I was dropped –"

"Speak not to this shadow," one of the other squirrels growled. "No words, no treaties. Only claws and fangs and blood. Rend him, tear him, pluck out his eyes."

"He brings sorrow and starfall and shelterless night," another added.

Patch looked around and said uneasily, "I think I should go."

Shiver laughed. "Don't pay any mind to Gutbite and Blindeye. They won't hurt you. They don't really know what they're saying."

"What happened to them?" Patch asked.

One of the other squirrels howled loudly. Patch flinched and looked around nervously – it had been a scream of distress – but no danger was apparent.

"They were born like this," Shiver said, as if nothing had happened. "They're normal, for the Kingdom of Madness. It wasn't always like this. The stories say it had another name once. They say that one day a foul wind began to blow from the west, and the poison hills began to grow, and a bitter taint entered the water. And the babies born since have been mad, or twisted, or both. Or worse."

"You're not mad or twisted," Patch pointed out. In fact Shiver reminded him a little of Brighteyes.

"In the Kingdom of Madness, that makes me the maddest of all … Come with us. We know where there are flowers and grubs."

Patch's mouth watered. He hadn't eaten either since autumn.

"You will be safe with us," Shiver said. "I promise. If we meant you any harm, you would know it by now."

Patch supposed that was true. "All right."

The flowers were purple and of a kind that Patch did not recognize. They were delicious. The squirming white grubs beneath nearby flat rocks were even better. There was more than enough for all seven to eat, and Patch's belly was well satisfied when they finally departed for Shiver's family's tree.

"Are there no hawks here?" Patch asked, noting the lack of caution with which his companions moved along the ground, especially the one named Headfirst.

"There aren't many places where they can reach the ground, with all the vines," Shiver said. "But there are worse things than hawks. There are foxes."

"Foxes? What's a fox?"

"Have you no foxes in the Center Kingdom?"

"No," Patch said.

"Like a dog," Shiver said, "only very smart, and very vicious."

Patch didn't like the sound of that at all.

At length they reached a small stream, its muddy banks covered with the golden grass that had lived on the poison hills. Starlings and sparrows flittered above the river, flying in weird erratic patterns. Patch saw two sparrows actually collide in midair, something he had never heard of before. Shiver and her family crossed through the grass, plunged into the cold stream, and swam across without hesitation. Patch followed. Squirrels are strong swimmers; they can paddle with all four limbs, and use their tail as a rudder.

"What is this grass called?" Patch asked.

"Clubgrass," Shiver said. "Be careful. Foxes hide in it."

Patch was glad when they were through the clubgrass and out in the forest, and even gladder when they climbed into the sky-road. They continued along and above the stream until it widened into a pond. Shiver's tree was an old oak tree by the edge of the pond. It was tall and majestic, but it was covered with rotting bulbous growths.

"You can stay with us as long as you like," Shiver said to Patch.

"Thank you," Patch said.

Her sister Burner stared at him, and said nothing, but Patch could tell from her scent that she was full of rage. Headfirst went rampaging up and down the oak tree like he was trying to escape a climbing fox. Scream climbed up the top of the tree and when she reached the top began to howl. Gutbite gnawed inedible bark from a branch already scarred by his deprivations. Blindeye stared into the sky and muttered softly to himself.

"I suppose it's different from the Center Kingdom," Shiver said.

Patch said, "Where is the rest of your tribe?" He saw no other squirrels in the tree around him.

Shiver said, "We have no tribes. No clans. Only families."

"Oh. No other families live around here?"

Shiver smiled. "No."

"Maybe I should find a drey in one of these other trees."

"That isn't safe."

"Why not?"

"You can share my drey," Shiver said. "It's big enough for two."

And then her eyes widened and went white, and she groaned loudly, and her whole body began to shake so violently that Patch was afraid she would fall from the tree, and she began to bite frenziedly at the air around her.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

these squirrels freak me out, they're awesome. If i was a squirrel i'd want to be called Headfirst. :D (also, someone at work is sitting behind me and WON'T SHUT UP - can't they see i'm reading here??) Great chapter, i want to know what Patch will do now - i can't imagine he'll want too stay long in this place.

July 31, 2007 at 5:33 AM  
Blogger Jon said...

I know some people who should be called Headfirst.

July 31, 2007 at 3:42 PM  

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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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