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

August 30, 2007

43. Home

In the blood and terror of the battle Patch had not noticed a faint change in the character of the light around them. Now he saw an intensifying glow in the tunnel's distant depths, like a fire that has found new fuel. A powerful wind began to blow from the tunnel, ruffling the fur on Patch's tail. A huge noise of clanking and clattering grew audible, and then louder, and then so loud neither squirrel nor rat nor cat could hear a thing as a chain of shining solid-walled cages the size of human houses shrieked out of the darkness, so close to the platform edge that this machine on rails was like a steel wall moving along the length of the platform. Light shone from the windows that lined the cages. The machine screeched and shuddered to a halt. Then dozens of human-sized doors slid open along the length of the platform, revealing the cages' painfully bright interior, lined with benches occupied by a few slumped humans.

"Hurry!" Zelina cried, and leaped into the nearest cage.

Despite the fact they were surrounded by an army of rats this option had not even occurred to Patch. But the other cats followed her, and Patch scrambled in behind them. Snout and Sniffer approached the open doors uncertainly, followed by their army – but the several humans within leapt to their feet and began to cry out. The rats hesitated at the threshold.

A strange two-note sound chimed, and the doors hissed shut, leaving the rats outside.

The cage began to rattle forward, and they all staggered a little. Patch almost lost his balance and had an awful memory of sliding about on top of the big automobile that had carried them to the island, but then the cage's motion stabilized; it still shook violently, and made awful grinding noises as it moved, but was steady enough that they could all remain standing. The humans in the cage approached Patch and the cats, speaking to one another excitedly, but did not come too near. The cage slowed, and Patch and the cats skidded forward a little, and then it stopped, and the doors opened again – but this platform looked different, and there were no rats on it. Another human walked into the cage and stopped dead, staring at Patch and the cats. Then the two-note chime sounded again, and the doors hissed shut, and the cage began to rattle forward.

Patch's leg began to hurt again where Snout had bitten him. The excitement of battle had doused the pain for a time, but now it began to throb like fire, and it hurt even worse when he had to use the strength of his legs to stay upright as the cage once more decelerated and stopped at a different platform.

"We should get out!" Alabast cried to Zelina. His pale body was streaked with blood and his muscles were rigid with strain.

Zelina stepped towards an open door and sniffed the air delicately. Like all the cats she was bleeding from several places, but none of her wounds seemed serious. "Not yet," she said. "I remember this. This was how I travelled to the palace, when I was a kitten. I was so frightened. Not yet."

Several stops later, when Patch was beginning to wonder how long he could stand with a badly bitten leg on the floor of this shaking, wobbling, accelerating and decelerating cage, she sniffed the air again, pricked up her ears, and, said, "Here!"

They emerged onto another platform, passed through another line of strange metal human-things, and climbed a long series of stairs. They passed two staring humans, but Patch was so tired and drained, and his leg hurt so much, that he barely noticed and did not care. All he could think about was how much he wanted to be under the sky again.

Finally there were no more stairs. Patch tottered wearily along behind the cats, along yet another a concrete walkway. His head hurt and he felt dizzy. He was only barely aware that above them the sky was streaked with dawn, and he nearly ran into Alabast before realizing that they had stopped at a particularly wide highway.

"By the moon," Zelina said softly. "The Great Avenue."

Patch looked up from his pain and exhaustion, along the endless silhouettes of mountains that loomed over the Great Avenue. It did not seem so different from any other wide highway – except it was divided, down the middle, by long strips of earth in which flowers and bushes grew. This living spine of the road was interrupted wherever a smaller highway intersected the Great Avenue, but it was still a welcome sight.

Patch sniffed the air. He smelled cat-blood, and concrete, and mountains, and automobiles. He smelled the flowers that grew in the center of the Great Avenue. But also, faintly, in the western breeze, Patch smelled a rich melange of earth, water, trees, and living scents. It was a smell he knew immediately, a scent he knew in his bones.

"The Center Kingdom!" Patch cried, his wounds and weariness momentarily forgotten. "I can smell it! We are near!"

"My palace is just there, up the Great Avenue," Zelina said. "I can see it. I can see my palace, Patch. We are home. We are home!"

They stared at each other in amazement.

It was Alabast who broke the silence. "What would you have us do, your majesty? We have brought you here, as you commanded. Shall we escort you now to your palace?"

Zelina looked at him and considered. "No. You have served me well and bravely. I have no further need of you now. But I would have you stay near the Great Avenue for seven days, and return to this spot each morning, in case I need command you again. Until then, go and rest and heal, all of you. I must return to my palace alone."

One at a time, the seven cats bowed their heads and loped away.

"Can't they help you fight the cats who exiled you?" Patch asked, perplexed.

Zelina looked at Patch silently for what felt like a long time.

Then she sighed and said, "It was no cat who exiled me."

"Then who –"

"It was my human attendant's male child," Zelina said. "One day when she was absent, he came to the palace, captured me, carried me away in an automobile, and took me to the wilderness where you found me. I don't know why. I cannot imagine why. Excepting the journey when I was a kitten, and the metal stairs outside the window, I had never been outside the palace before. I was so frightened when you found me, Patch. So frightened and in such despair. I knew there was no hope for me there. I knew I would die. I had heard many times the myth of the Queen of All Cats, and alone in that broken shell I took courage from telling myself I would die as she would die. I even told myself I was the Queen of All Cats."

"But you are," Patch said, confused.

"No, Patch. That was only a story I told myself, and even allowed myself to believe, to ease my dying. And then you came. And you said you would find your way back here. And I allowed myself to hope it might be possible. And by the moon, beyond all hope, here we are."

"You're not the Queen of All Cats?" Patch asked, still confused.

"There is no Queen of All Cats. The Queen of All Cats is a myth. A legend of a lonely cat who travels through the world, unknown and unloved, but is truly the queen of us all, and who will one day will return to lead us. She isn't real. She was never real. I was never a queen. It was just a story."

"But the other cats think you're a queen. I thought you were a queen. You seem like a queen. If everyone acts like it's real, then it's not just a story."

"There's a difference," Zelina said.

"What difference?"

Zelina paused. At length she said, "These are subtle questions, Patch. Day is coming, and soon the highways will be busy. We should both go home."

"I guess you're right," Patch agreed.

Despite his gladness at being almost home, Patch felt a painful twinge of sadness at the thought that he would no longer be travelling with Zelina.

"I owe you my life, Patch son of Silver," Zelina said.

"I owe you mine too."

They looked at each other.

"But I still think jumping onto the big death machine that crossed the bridge was the worst idea any animal has ever had," Patch said, and both of them laughed.

"You should come visit me in the Center Kingdom," Patch said. "Ask any squirrel, they'll know how to find me."

"I will," Zelina said. "Now that I have left my palace once I think I will leave it again. The world is not all frightening. Some of it is really quite wonderful."

"Good. Then I'll see you soon."

"I'll see you soon," Zelina agreed, "my friend."

They looked at each other a moment longer, breathing in one another's scent. Then, at the very same moment, they turned and went their separate ways. Patch was excited to be going home to the Center Kingdom. But he wished Zelina was coming with him.

It wasn't far to the Center Kingdom. But by the time Patch saw it, the leg bitten by Snout was hurting terribly. He knew, as he stood with only a single highway between himself and his home, that he should feel gladdened with triumph and excitement; but his whole leg hurt very badly, and he felt dizzy and sick as well, and all he could feel was his need to rest. Although there were few automobiles on the highway he was limping so slowly that he was barely able to scamper across. Shortly afterwards he was walking once again on the grassy earth of his home.

There was an elm tree near the edge of the Kingdom. Patch forced himself to climb its trunk. By the time he got to a flattish crook between two big branches, his head was pounding with pain, he was walking only on three legs, and he was so dizzy that the world wobbled around him with every step. And despite the rising sun he felt cold. But at least he was up a tree and safe.

Patch turned to the wound on his leg, planning to lick it clean. He was shocked by what he saw. His whole leg was red and swollen, and an awful black mucus was oozing from the wound.

This was no mere bite wound, Patch realized. Snout's bite had been poisonous.

Patch didn't know what to do. He wanted to run, to seek help, but he was too weak to move. Soon he was too weak even to stand. His headache grew steadily worse, and the world steadily colder and blurrier, until finally Patch collapsed into the crook of the elm tree.

He understood dimly that the poison was killing him; that he was home, but he was dying. The last thing he felt was the rough texture of elm-bark against his face. He had a sudden vivid memory of his mother Silver's scent.

Then the world went dark.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

eeek! Ooh, lots to comment on this chapter. :D Loved the bit on the train, the reactions of the humans are great - i'm surprised no-one was taking photos on their phones, that would have been the first thing i'd done. :D Aw, and that's sad that patch and zelina had to split up, i really hope we'll see her again. Her story was so sweet, it made me sad. And EEEEE patch better be okay or there will be SHOES. Pointy shoes. :D

August 31, 2007 at 1:08 AM  

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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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