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

September 1, 2007

44. White

Patch howled with pain. Something was tearing at his left hindleg, his poisoned leg, the leg that already burned as if with fire. And there was nothing he could do about it. He was too weak to move, too powerless to do anything but suffer.

"I'm sorry," a gentle voice said. "I'm so sorry. I have to open it to let the poison drain. It's your only chance."

Then teeth ripped at his flesh again, and Patch screamed again, until his mind could withstand the pain no longer, and he passed once again into darkness.

The next time he woke there was food in front of him, a soft, moist maple bud so close that all he had to do was reach out a paw and sweep it into his mouth. But he couldn't move. His body would not follow any commands at all; he was paralyzed, frozen in place like a statue. His left hindleg was made of agony and his breath was fast and shallow.

"You're awake," the gentle voice said, and something hopped into the elm bark before him. Another squirrel. Patch tried to see who it was, but he could not even move or focus his eyes, all he could make out was the other squirrel's white paw as it gently nudged the maple bud into Patch's mouth. Patch couldn't even eat, but the bud slowly dissolved in his mouth, as his mind dissolved into darkness.

The next time he woke there were teeth ripping and slashing at his left hindleg again, and it hurt even worse than before, but he could not even scream. This time the merciful darkness did not come. The pain seemed like it would never end.

"I'm sorry," the gentle voice said. "I'm so sorry."

The next time he woke he was shaking uncontrollably, and the other squirrel had to work patiently for some time before it was able to nudge the maple bud into Patch's mouth. But his leg hurt a little less.

The next time he woke he was able to reach out feebly for the maple bud and flower petals before him and eat them himself as the gentle voice said, "Good, good."

The next time he woke he ate a whole acorn, which had been left beside him, and was able to rouse himself enough to look down at his wounded leg. It was still grossly swollen and painful, but it was no longer bleeding black ooze. The other squirrel was nowhere in sight, but he could smell her, his senses were returning too.

The next time he woke he smelled her nearby, and he was ravenously hungry, he had to devour both the acorns beside him before he was able to think of anything else. After eating he thought that if he had to, he might be able to stand, although the effort would surely be ruinously painful.

"You're better," said the gentle voice from above him. "You're going to live."

And a small female squirrel with pure white fur, pink eyes and a half-severed tail climbed down a branch and stood next to him into the wide crook of the elm tree in which Patch had lain for days.

"Who are you?" Patch asked, amazed.

"I am White daughter of Streak, of the Runner clan. Who are you that asks?"

"I am Patch son of Silver, of the Seeker clan, of the Treetops tribe," Patch said. "What is your tribe?"

After an uncomfortable moment White said, "I have none."

"Oh," Patch said. "Of course. I'm sorry."

In his fever he had asked a profoundly thoughtless question. Albino squirrels were believed tainted, cursed by the moon; they were cast out from their families and tribes as soon as they reached adulthood, and shunned for the rest of their lives. They were very rare. Patch had only seen one before in all his life, an older female, when exploring the territory of the Northern tribe, at the very edge of the Center Kingdom.

"What happened to your tail?" Patch asked, figuring he might as well get all of the awkward questions out of the way.

"I lost it in the war."

"The war? What war?"

White looked at him as if he was crazy. "I don't think you're well yet," she said. "You should rest. Sometimes the blackblood disease ruins your memories."

"My memory is fine," Patch objected.

"Do you remember being bitten?"

"Of course. By Lord Snout. In the underworld beneath the mountains. Then the cats saved me and we escaped in the human cages."

White winced. "You poor thing. You're delirious. You need to sleep."

"I am not delirious! But I should have remembered the war. The turtle, the Old One, told me there was war. He said Redeye is lord of the Meadow, and calls himself king. Is that true?"

"That is true," White admitted.

"And the war is not over?"

She hesitated. "I don't know. I haven't heard of any fighting since the Battle of the Meadow. King Thorn has retreated to the Ramble, and Redeye has stayed in the Meadow. They say both armies are readying for another battle, and both kings look to see what the Northern tribe will do."

"The Battle of the Meadow? What happened there? How were you in it?"

White sighed. "Both answers are sad and stupid … I heard that King Thorn was calling all squirrels to him. Even outcasts like me. I thought this was my one chance to be accepted. I joined his army. The other squirrels pushed me and bit me, and called me awful things, but I stayed. I thought if I proved myself in battle they would be my friends. It's so strange, when I think of it now. The more they tormented me, the more I wanted their friendship. When we went to the Meadow and found ourselves fighting an army of rats as well as squirrels, many of Thorn's army fled. But I stayed and fought. I killed three rats and a Meadow squirrel, and I escaped to the Ramble with my life. Many didn't. Some who did had the blackblood disease, like you. I learned how to help them. But the squirrels in my war-clan, especially the ones who had been cowards, they said I was the coward who had run away. They said it was my fault that half the war-clan died. They said I was a traitor and a spy for Redeye. They attacked me, I lost my tail, I barely escaped with my life. I wanted to go back to the North, but the journey is too dangerous. I came here, where neither the Meadow nor the Ramble tribe come. And when I found you dying, Patch son of Silver, I considered a long time before deciding to try to save you, because no other squirrel has ever done anything for me."

"I'm sorry," Patch said.

"So am I."

"What of my tribe? What of the Treetops?"

White looked at him sadly. "I came too late, didn't I? Your memories and mind have been ravaged."

"My memories and mind are fine," Patch said. "I've just been away from the Center Kingdom for some time now."

"Away from the Center Kingdom? No one goes away from the Center Kingdom. Where were you?"

"Everywhere," Patch said with feeling.

"How did you get there?"

"I was carried away by –" Patch stopped, realizing that the story of Karmerruk the hawk might not be a particularly good one with which to convince White of his sound mind and sanity. "It doesn't matter. When I left, it was still winter, and there was no war. What has happened to the Treetops?"

After a moment White said, in a voice scarcely more than a whisper, "If what you say is true, Patch son of Silver, if you truly did not know, then I am sorry to be the one who tells you. The Treetops are no more. So many were sworn to the Meadow in the winter, and so many who did not swear were killed, that only a handful of survivors remain, too few to be called a tribe."

Patch stared at her. "No more? That's crazy. That can't be right. Where did you hear this? Some chipmunk told you? No. I don't believe it."

"I'm sorry," White said.

"My tribe can't be gone," Patch said. He suddenly felt gravely tired, and very heavy, like he was made of stone. "You must be wrong."

"Sleep," White said. "Things will seem better when you're stronger."

But they both knew that wasn't true.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Caught up.

I can't wait for more.

September 2, 2007 at 5:48 PM  
Blogger Phayona said...

Its so sad...

November 3, 2009 at 12:20 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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