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

July 23, 2007

8. To the Meadow

Returning to the Center Kingdom was relatively easy, now that Patch knew how to cross the wastelands. He was relieved when he once again felt grass beneath his paws. But he was also very worried, and he immediately dashed for the maple tree next to his own. He was too late. Tuft's drey was empty; he and Brighteyes had already taken their children to swear to the Meadow tribe.

Patch considered a moment, and then he took the sky-road to his own tree, and descended to the drey of his friend and neighbour Twitch. He half-expected to find that Twitch too had gone to the Meadow. But Twitch was in his drey, and Patch was very pleased to find that he was not alone, but was with Patch's oldest friend Sniffer.

"Patch!" Twitch cried out, excitedly jumping to his feet when he saw Patch at the drey entrance. "Sniffer is here! Sniffer found me food!"

And indeed a chestnut and two acorns sat on the floor of Twitch's drey. It made sense that Sniffer, of all the Treetops squirrels, had been able to find food. Sniffer had the sharpest nose in all of Treetops, probably in all the Center Kingdom. It was said he could smell a buried acorn from halfway up a tree.

"I brought it for you too, Patch," Sniffer said.

"Thank you," Patch said, "but I've eaten."

Sniffer gave him a sharp look.

"You found food too?" Twitch asked. "Where? How was it? Was it acorns? Was it chestnuts? Did humans bring it? Are the maples budding? Oh, I would love a nice fresh maple bud right now. I love nuts, you know I love nuts, but it's been only nuts all winter, I'd love a maple bud. Or a fresh grub, oh, a nice juicy grub. Or best of all, a tulip bulb, imagine, Patch, tulips! I just can't wait for spring. What kind of food did you find, Patch? Was it good? Is there more?"

Patch had to interrupt. It was difficult to get Twitch to stop talking about food once he had started. Patch said, harshly, "Jumper is dead."

Sniffer and Twitch stared at him.

"He was eaten by rats," Patch said. "And a squirrel named Redeye. In the mountains. I saw it all. And Redeye was in Silver's drey, I smelled him there. Sniffer, do you think you can follow his scent?"

"Dead?" Twitch asked, still trying to understand. Twitch was bigger and stronger and could run faster than any other squirrel in Treetops, but he had never been able to understand things particularly quickly. "Lord Jumper? Eaten by rats? In the mountains? You were in the mountains?"

"Yes," Patch said.

"This is serious," Sniffer said. "This is very serious."

Patch inclined his head in agreement.

"Did you say Redeye?" Twitch asked. "I know Redeye. He's of the Meadow. He's Gobbler clan. One of his eyes is red and he's called Redeye. Just like you have that white patch on your head and you're called Patch. And I twitch a lot and I'm called Twitch. And Sniffer –"

"Yes, thank you," Sniffer interrupted.

When Twitch wasn't talking about food, he often spent a lot of time restating the very obvious. But Twitch did have a very good memory for animals and their names. If Twitch said Redeye was a squirrel of the Meadow, then it was certainly so.

"I'll take you to Silver's drey so you can know his scent," Patch said. "And then we'll go to the Meadow. Maybe we can find him there."

"It's a long way to the Meadow," Sniffer objected. "It's cold. It might be night before we can get back."

"We can find a tree to stay in."

Sniffer looked dubious.

"Please, Sniffer," Patch said. "Silver is missing. Jumper is dead. This is serious. You said so yourself."

"Serious means dangerous," Sniffer muttered. "All right. Just … just let me go to my drey and get a little more food. Twitch can eat all this himself. Then I'll come back here and we can go to Silver's drey and to the Meadow."

"Thank you," Patch said, but Sniffer did not stay to hear his thanks. Sniffer's tail was already disappearing out the entrance to Twitch's drey. Sniffer did not usually move so quickly. Patch supposed he wanted to hurry to make sure they could get back before night.

"Tell me about the food in the mountains," Twitch said eagerly.

"Not now, Twitch," Patch said distractedly. "You should eat. It's a long way to the Meadow. You need your strength."

Patch was thinking about what might have happened to Silver, and at the same time, he was trying not to think about what might have happened.

Twitch looked at his chestnut and two acorns. Then he looked at Patch, and said, in a tense, strained voice, "Would you like some?"

"No, thank you," Patch said.

Twitch grinned with relief and fell to his dinner. By the time Sniffer got back there was nothing left of the three nuts but their shells.

They had a long way to go. In general, the Treetops tribe was spread across the western section of the Center Kingdom, the Meadow tribe was in the south, the Ramble tribe was in the center and the east, and the Northern tribe inhabited the kingdom's farthest northern reaches. There were exceptions, such as a colony of Meadow squirrels just north of the Great Sea, and those Treetops settlers who lived in the north; but Patch and his friends lived in the heart of Treetops territory. A journey to the green fields of the Meadow and back would occupy at least half a day. Much of the journey required ground travel rather than the sky-road, and that meant warily crossing concrete strips, avoiding dogs and humans, checking the skies for danger, and so forth.

But it was not while they were on the ground that danger struck. It struck instead when Patch, Sniffer and Twitch were in a dense cluster of cherry trees, travelling rapidly along the sky-road to the south. They did not hear a flutter of wings. They did not see a dark shadow streak along the ground towards them. The first they knew of the red-tailed hawk was when it seized Patch with talons sharp as broken glass and snatched him up from the cherry tree, carried him screaming into the sky to be killed and eaten.


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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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