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

July 22, 2007

7. Jumper

The opening in the wire fence that Snout had squeezed through was too small for Patch to do the same. But it was easy enough to climb up to the top of the fence. From there, Patch could see all of the hole in the side of the mountain. It was like some enormous creature had taken a big bite from the mountainside. Beneath the wire fence, a sheer-walled pit plunged deep into darkness. The pit was full of human things, metal and concrete shaped in the strange curves and straight lines that humans favoured but made animals feel queasy. The air was dusty and smelled awful. Patch shaded his eyes with his tail and squinted, but from the top of the fence, where the sun shone brightly, he could still not see into the darkness at the pit's bottom.

"I think we should go," Toro said.

"Not yet," Patch repeated. He watched the dust clouds in the pit, the way they moved. He didn't want to be upwind of the rats. They too had sharp noses. He ran along the top of the fence, as far downwind as he could, and then he took a deep breath and ran straight down the fence.

The lip of the pit was hard concrete, no good for downclimbing, but a wooden plank ran down into the shadows. Patch moved down this plank as quietly as he could; rats had sharp hearing, too. It was strange to walk on wood with such a perfectly straight surface. The pit was as deep as a medium-sized tree. About halfway down the plank he moved from sunlight into shadow, and his eyes began to adjust to his new surroundings.

The center of the pit was jumbled full of huge, geometric human things. Its bottom was crisscrossed by pipes and planks and girders. The floor and one wall of the pit were rocky earth rather than concrete. But it was in a corner between two concrete walls, towards the inside of the mountain, that he saw the unmistakable scuttling motion of a rat.

Patch crept closer, staying behind human things as much as possible. He reached a metal pipe that ran near the corner, and followed its length until the pipe ran into the concrete wall, just a half-dozen squirrel-lengths from the corner. He was still downwind, he thought, although it was difficult to read the wind down here. Patch stood as tall as he could and was just barely able to look over the pipe and see into the corner of the pit.

In that corner Patch saw something very strange. He saw a dozen large rats standing in a circle, all facing outwards, with all their tails knotted together in a big tangled lump in the middle of their circle. Standing on this lumpy knot of tails was Snout, the biggest rat of all. And next to this bizarre clump of rats, Patch saw, to his great surprise, another squirrel, small and with reddish fur.

"Patch son of Silver," the strange squirrel said, and Patch stiffened. "I've heard of him. He's of the Treetops. He talks to birds and goes off alone for days. I'm sure he doesn't know anything. He just came to the mountains for the food."

"That's not good enough," Snout said. "We will give him to Karmerruk."

"But –" the squirrel began.

"We will give him to Karmerruk."

The name meant nothing to Patch, but it seemed to frighten the squirrel.

"You said you would show me Jumper," the squirrel said hesitantly to Snout.

Patch stiffened.

"Oh, yes, Jumper," Snout said, and smiled, revealing jagged yellow teeth. Then, loudly, the rat commanded, "Bring him!"

There was a dark hole in the corner of the pit, near where the rats and the other squirrel stood. Patch saw motion in that hole. He saw a squirrel's head emerge. He watched, shocked, as Jumper, lord of the Treetops tribe, crawled painfully out of that hole, his motions slow and spastic, and fell clumsily to the ground. Jumper was bleeding in many places, and he pulled himself along with his forelegs alone; both his hind legs hung motionless from his body. Several rats followed Jumper out of the hole.

"Lord Jumper won't be jumping any more," Snout said, and laughed.

Jumper pulled himself up on his forelegs. Patch could see he was in great pain.

"Redeye," Jumper said in a ragged voice, to the squirrel who stood among the rats. "How can you have done this?"

The other squirrel looked uneasy, and didn't answer. Patch was glad to have his name. It was Redeye he had smelled in Silver's drey.

"He did it for me," Snout said. "He has sworn to serve me, as I have sworn to serve the King Beneath. The king in whose name you and all your kind will die and be devoured."

Snout stepped away from the knot of rat-tails on which he stood. The knot began to squirm like a nest of worms as the rats untied themselves from one another. As they were released the rats formed into a tight circle around Jumper. Snout joined the circle. So did Redeye. Patch knew what would happen next. He didn't want to watch. But it was too awful a thing to turn away from.

"No," Jumper begged them. "No, please. Not like this."

"Yes," Snout hissed. "Exactly like this."

And then they swarmed the crippled lord of the Treetops. Jumper howled three times before he fell silent beneath the frenzied mass of biting rats. Redeye seemed more rat than squirrel as he tore at Jumper's body with his sharp fangs. In scarcely more time than it takes to tell it there was nothing left of Jumper but scraps, bones, and a puddle of blood. Even then the rats began to gnaw on Jumper's bones and lick his blood. They would leave nothing of him at all.

Patch retreated silently to the wooden plank that led out of the pit. He felt colder than he had on the worst day of the winter. The squirrel Redeye had betrayed Jumper to rats, helped to kill him, helped to eat him. And Redeye's scent had been in Silver's drey. Patch climbed numbly into the sunlight, over the fence, back to the concrete, heedless of the passing humans and the death machines. They held scarcely any terror for him now; all he could think about was what he had seen in the pit below.

"What did you see?" Toro called out, from a tree. "What was down there?"

Patch said, "I have to go back to the Kingdom."


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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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