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

August 19, 2007

33. Oaths of Freedom

The light was so dim, and the animal and blood-smells so thick, that Patch could not count the number of rats around the cages; but he knew it had to be dozens, and perhaps more, perhaps an entire rat army. The opening of his cage door no longer seemed like a brilliant victory. Rats could not climb like squirrels or cats, but given time they would find a way up and into the open cage. And if Patch tried to escape, or if he descended to open Zelina's cage, they would swarm him and eat him alive.

"Release me, squirrel," Talis said, "and I will protect you."

Patch looked up at the fox above him. Talis was crammed into his cage. He was as big as a small dog, and had a predator's sharp teeth. It would take a brave group of rats indeed to charge a fox, and rats were not known for their courage. But it would take a very stupid squirrel to release a fox that had already tried to kill and eat him.

"Swear by the moon that you will protect me," Patch said. "And that you will never attack a squirrel again."

"That's outrageous!" Talis cried out.

"Or a cat," Zelina suggested.

"Or a cat," Patch agreed.

"I will not swear that or anything else by the moon!" Talis said.

"Then the dogs will have you."

"Then the rats will have you."

"They will have me anyways if I let you go without a moon-oath," Patch said.

Talis frowned. Patch said nothing. It took considerable self-control to say nothing, as several rats had already clustered outside Zelina's cage, immediately beneath his, and were chittering as they probing at the wire mesh, trying to find a way up into Patch's open cage. Fortunately they were still mostly getting in one another's way, but Patch knew it was only a matter of time before they figured out how to reach him.

"You're a sharp bargainer, for a squirrel," Talis said.

"Thank you."

"I don't even know your names."

"My name is Patch son of Silver," Patch said, "and my friend is Zelina, Queen of All Cats."

Talis sighed, long and loud.

Then he declared, "I swear by the moon that I, Talis, shall protect Patch son of Silver and Zelina Queen of All Cats." His eyes shone and his body shuddered as he spoke, and all the animals in the cages, and even those rats surrounding the cages, and even the dogs across the room, fell silent and stopped moving. "And I swear by the moon that I will never again attack a squirrel or a cat."

It was Patch who broke the awed silence. "Then let's get you out of here."

He pushed his cage door open and climbed the wire mesh onto Talis's cage door. He had to brace himself with his hindlegs, and the pain from his wounded paw made him whimper, but with desperate strength Patch managed to open the device that sealed Talis's cage. Patch very nearly fell off the door when it swung open, but regained his grip and managed to scrambled up off it and onto the top of Talis's cage. His wounded hindleg ached like fire.

Talis burst out of the cage like water erupting from a fountain, and the air filled with the terrified squeals of rats as the fox began to maraud among them, killing with fangs and claws. If the rat army had worked together, they could have swarmed Talis and reduced him to a skeleton in heartbeats – but the first wave of assailants in such a swarm would have been killed by the fox before Talis was overwhelmed, and no rats were willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of their companions. Instead they fled into the walls, into the hidden crawlspaces and tunnels of the Kingdom Beneath.

As Patch released Zelina, a chorus of pleas began to rise from all the other caged animals: "Save us! Outside please! Free us, open our cages!"

Patch's leg hurt badly, and he knew that climbing onto all these cages and opening them would be a great strain, but he could not leave fellow squirrels here to be eaten by dogs. One at a time, slowly and painfully, he pried open the devices that held squirrels captive, and let them out into the room.

Rabbits thumped against the walls of their cages, saying "Outside please please please! Outside please please please!" Patch had never thought much of rabbits, who were neither very bright nor very eloquent. He felt sorry for these ones, but he did not have the strength to free them all.

To his surprise he saw Talis at a ground-level cage, playing dexterously with the device that shut in a rabbit. The cage opened, the rabbit bounced out with a cry of glee – and Talis promptly killed it and began to dine on its remains. Patch winced with sympathy. The other rabbits gasped with horror.

"I never swore not to attack rabbits," the fox said between bites.

"We should go," Zelina said. "The humans may return. The rats may return with a leader."

"She's right," said one of the just-released squirrels.

"Just a moment," Talis said through a mouthful of rabbit meat.

Then a deep, throbbing voice echoed from the room. It came from its other side, from the big cages, and it drowned out the dogs who had begun to snarl with dismay.

"Please," it said. "Please, if you have any mercy in your hearts, help me."


Anonymous Anonymous said...

ooh! OOH! Bring the big cat! There's nothing that could possibly go wrong with that idea! :D

these last few chapters were AWESOME, i absolutely loved them. This is so tense and cool, EEEEEEEE i can't wait to find out what happens next. *bounces* (sorry, bit hyper for a monday...)

August 20, 2007 at 2:11 AM  
Blogger Jon said...

Thanks. I'm quite fond of this sequence too.

August 20, 2007 at 9:14 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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