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

July 21, 2007

6. A Promise

When Patch finally found his way out of the seed-pod, Toro was gone, and there were rats all around him. Some hid beneath the huge black seed-pods, some scuttled in the shadows of the nearby mountain. Patch knew from their smells there were at least a dozen of them.

There was another smell too, mixed with that of the rats. The very same unsavory squirrel-smell he had detected in Silver's abandoned drey.

"What do you want?" Patch asked, from his perch atop the mound of seed-pods. He was concerned but not yet frightened. Rats and squirrels were neither friends nor enemies. Squirrels were bigger and stronger, but rats were far more numerous. There were legends of long-ago wars between the two species, but no squirrel Patch knew had ever been attacked by rats. Squirrels lived aboveground, in the sun; rats frequented the night and the dark underworld. Of course, squirrels found rats disgusting and disagreeable – but so did all other animals.

An unusually large rat climbed up to the top of a seed-pod. It was almost as big as Patch himself. Rats usually avoided light, but this one stood unafraid beneath the sun, and demanded: "Who are you?"

"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?"

"I am Snout," the rat replied. "Why are you here?"

"I came to look for food."

"This is our food. These mountains are ours."

"Your food?" Patch asked, bewildered. There was no ownership of food in the Center Kingdom, not until it had actually been eaten. "That's ridiculous. It's food. It belongs to whoever finds it first."

"Then you belong to us," Snout hissed. "Because we are the rats who will suck the marrow from your broken bones."

And from the shadows all around the heaped seed-pods, other rats arose, and began to climb towards Patch at the top of the pile.

Patch didn't hesitate. He sprinted downwards, running straight at one of the rats. His charge was so unexpected that the rat in question stopped and shrank away a little, just enough for Patch to scamper past him, towards the edge of the pile. Two more rats raced out from beneath the mountain, blocking any escape across the concrete. He was still surrounded, rats were scuttling towards him from all directions.

From the very edge of the pile of seed-pods, Patch jumped as high and as far as he could. For a moment, in midair, he was sure he wouldn't make it, he would fall to the concrete and be torn apart by the rats – but then his outstretched claws latched onto the bark of the little tree beside which the seed-pods had been heaped. Moments later he was on top of the tree, looking down at the milling figures of more than a dozen frustrated rats.

"Come on up!" Patch cried out cheerfully.

He wasn't as confident as he sounded. Rats weren't near as nimble as squirrels, but there were many of them, and this was a very small tree. If all the rats climbed up, Patch wasn't sure he would escape. But at least he was up a tree, his belly was full for the first time in days, and Toro was watching from the next tree over.

"I will find you, Patch son of Silver," the rat named Snout promised. "I will find you and eat your eyes from your skull."

Patch said nothing. He only watched as the rats scurried away. Most of them filed back towards the shadows at the base mountain. But Snout ran along the edge of the mountain, until he reached a huge hole in the mountain's side. Humans had blocked the hole with a wire fence much like those in the Center Kingdom. Snout squeezed himself through a hole in the fence and disappeared into shadow.

"Did you find food?" Toro asked.

"Yes," Patch said. "It was wonderful."

"I've never seen rats like that before."

"Neither have I."

"You should go back to the Kingdom. It's safe there."

Patch was afraid to stay in these terrible mountains for even a moment longer. He wanted to run back to the Center Kingdom, with his full belly and his wonderful story of adventure that no other squirrel would ever believe, and wait for spring to come. But he thought of his mother's empty drey, and the haunting squirrel-smell there – and the way that very same musty squirrel-smell had emanated from that biggest rat.

"Not yet," Patch said.


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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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