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

September 2, 2007

45. Visitors Descend

When Patch woke he could stand and walk on three legs. He could not yet put weight on his left hindleg without provoking a wave of pain, but the leg's swelling was much reduced. Patch felt ravenous. White had left him a small heap of moist flower bulbs and gingko nuts, and he devoured them greedily, but they barely took the edge off his hunger.

As he was finishing, there was a flutter of wings behind him, and an amazed, familiar voice said in Bird: "Patch? Is that you?"

Patch turned to see his bluejay friend Toro.

"Patch!" Toro exclaimed. "It's been so long, I thought you were dead!"

"I nearly was," Patch said. "Many times. Toro, you don't know how good it is to see you."

"I'm glad to see you too. What happened to you?"

"Do you know a hawk named Karmerruk?" Patch asked.

Toro shivered. "Yes. He's what bluejays talk about when we want to scare one another."

"He caught me, but he didn't kill me, because … well, it's complicated. The point is, he took me far away, and it's taken me since then to come back. And now, my people are at war, my tribe is gone, I don't know what's happened to everyone."

"I have noticed squirrels behaving strangely," Toro said thoughtfully. "I've seen squirrels fighting, mostly in little groups, but there was a huge battle some days ago in the Great Meadow. There must have been hundreds and hundreds of squirrels fighting each other. It looked like the ground had fur. And there were rats fighting too, in the middle of the day! Nobody's ever seen anything like it. And now half the Kingdom is empty of squirrels."

"I suppose it's good for you."

"It was. There was so much food out there, some bluejays were getting so fat they were having trouble taking off. But not any more. There are crows all over the Kingdom now, masses of them, invading our trees and eating our food. Nobody's ever heard of that happening before either."

"Did they come from the east?" Patch asked, thinking of the trees crowded full of crows that he had witnessed in the Hidden Kingdom.

"They did. And they –"

"Get away from him!" a no-longer-gentle voice screeched in clumsy Bird, and a furry white blur launched itself up the elm tree and at Toro. The bluejay took to the air just in time to avoid White's charge.

"No, don't!" Patch cried out. "He's a friend!"

"A friend? He – Patch, you're not well. He's a bluejay! He was going to eat your food!"

"No, he wasn't. He really is a friend." Patch looked up to Toro, perched on a high branch, and switched to Bird. "It's okay, Toro, you can come back down."

After a moment Toro fluttered down and landed on a nearer branch, keeping his distance from White, who for her part remained equally suspicious of the bluejay.

"Who is she?" Toro asked.

"She's taking care of me. A rat bit me and I was poisoned. I'm not well yet. I owe her my life."

"I thought you looked weak and skinny. You should eat more. Want me to bring you an acorn?"

"That," Patch said, "would be wonderful."

"Coming right up." Toro flapped his wings and flew away.

White stared at Patch with amazement. "You speak Bird?"

"I do."

"You're friends with a bluejay?"

"I am."

After a moment she said, "Yesterday you said that you were in the underworld beneath the mountains when Lord Snout himself bit you, and you were saved by cats."

"That's exactly what happened."

"You don't smell mad. Or delirious."

"I'm not," Patch said. "I've just had rather a lot of things happen to me lately."

"I see. Including blackblood disease. Well, you won't have to go through that again. If you have it once, and you're one of the few that survives, you become immune."

"I'm glad to hear it," Patch said with feeling.

White smiled at him wistfully. Then she looked down to the ground below and asked, "Well, now you're home, what do you think you'll do?"

"I don't know. You say my tribe is gone … I don't know what to do."

"You can stay here as long as you want, if you like. My drey is a little higher up. There's plenty of space in it. I mean, just until you figure things out."

"That's very kind of you," Patch said. "But I do have my own drey. If no one else has taken it. And I need to find out what happened to my friends and family."

"Oh. Yes. Of course. I'm sorry to, I didn't mean, I know you don't want to share a drey with an albino half-tail, I didn't mean to offend you, I'm so stupid, I don't know what I was –"

"What do you mean?" Patch asked, bemused. "Offend me? I owe you my life. And after the things I've seen and done on my way home, believe me, I don't care about your fur or your tail. I'm an outcast too. I mean, if you're right, I don't even have a tribe to be outcast from. I'd like to stay. But I have to try to find my family and friends."

"Oh," White said, sounding relieved. She paused. "I understand. Well, not really. I've never had family. Or friends. But I can imagine."

Patch said, "You have a friend now."

She looked at him and smiled.

There was a fluttering of wings and Toro landed, keeping Patch between himself and White. He released the acorn he held in his claws. Patch caught it before it rolled off the elm tree and devoured it greedily. There was no conversation while he ate.

When Patch looked up from the meaty acorn, his belly now half-satisfied, Toro was staring silently at the sky, still as a statue. Perplexed, Patch turned to look at White – and she too was staring silently upwards; she too had gone still; and deep terror was etched into her face.

Patch lifted his head to see what they were looking at.

There was a red-tailed hawk perched on the branch directly above them.

"Patch son of Silver," Karmerruk said. "We meet again."

2 Comments:

Anonymous Rakie said...

gaaaaaaaahhhhh!! *falls over and dies*

that's quite the cliffhanger for a monday morning. :D Gah, as happy as i am to see Karmerruk back, i could have done without that. Aww, but White is so sweet, she's such a cute ickle girl-squirrel. :D Awesome chapter, post more please!!

September 3, 2007 at 1:22 AM  
Anonymous Steve Tiano said...

Well, there's different ways this can go, I'm sure I don't need to say. But since we’ll have to wait to read more, I can't resist speculating.

I mean, Karmerruk can now become something of a friend by dint of finding his way back; or all peace between them can be history , now that he dared to return; or Patch can wind up reassembling his tribe, small in numbers now, and be there king; or all the animals everywhere can sing Kombaya and be friends because Patch has won the respect of so many different ones (maybe not, huh).

Anyway, Jon, I worry that you have me wishing away today so's I can read the next installment.

By the way, I hope your northern California escape went well. It's one of my favorite places, and where my wife and I hope to wind up.

September 3, 2007 at 8:21 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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