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

September 5, 2007

48. The Ramble

Patch's instinct, strangely, was not to flee in terror from the stench of slaughter; rather, he felt compelled to rush immediately into the Ramble, as if he was desperately needed. Instead of continuing the long way, around the water, he changed his course and trotted straight for the bridge that spanned the Narrow Sea.

A mere moon-cycle earlier, no squirrel in all the Center Kingdom would have dared that bridge no matter what the provocation. It was a human pathway. But in that time, Patch had travelled along human highways, stowed away in a human boat, escaped a locked steel cage, slept on metal staircases, perched on moving automobiles, and ridden with humans through underground tunnels. He saw no dogs nearby; and while the gross corpulence of humans still unnerved him, this was overwhelmed by his powerful urge to hurry. He crossed the wooden bridge as fast as he could on his pain-streaked leg, heedless of the dozen humans who stared amazed at Patch as he wove his way between them.

Once across he left the human trails and followed a dry watercourse up a hill, heading for the huge willow tree that had housed the court of King Thorn when Patch had last visited the Ramble. The thick reek of blood and battle was so intense that he had to breathe through his mouth, but he sensed no other signs of violence. The silence was absolute but for the skittering crows and a few clumsy humans, and the Ramble's dense tangle of close-grown trees, granite mounds, steep ravines, high grasses and thick underbrush was like an opaque wall.

Then Patch saw a group of crows squatting on a rock, clustered so close together they looked like a single squirming knot of black feathers. Trickling bloodstains were visible beneath their skeletal feet. The grass and bushes beyond them shuddered with spasmodic motion; there were animals moving within.

Patch hesitated a moment, then plunged into the grassy undergrowth, fighting his way through dense brush and fallen branches. He soon came upon five crows arrayed in a tight circle, eating something. As he passed closer he realized it was a dead squirrel. Beyond them, another three crows pecked at the corpse of a rat. The ground was damp with blood. The crows interrupted their feeding just long to glance up at Patch with black and shining eyes, and then returned to their carrion feast. Patch hesitated a moment, not knowing what to say or do, then pushed his way around and past the feeding crows, deeper into the thick grass, moving fast and blindly. He could hardly see more than a tail-length in any direction, but he passed a dozen squirrels and rats en route to the willow tree. All were dead and covered with crows.

Once at the willow tree, he climbed desperately, hardly noticing that his poisoned leg hurt like fire. His heartbeats felt like thunderclaps, and his head was buzzing with panic. When he climbed out onto the pale bark of the first branch, he looked down onto a field of carnage. Shifting clots of crows were visible as far as he could see, feeding on scores, no, hundreds of corpses. Other crows lined the branches of the Ramble's trees, waiting their turn, while their kin below gorged themselves on the dead until they could eat no further.

There was a crow perched only a tail-length away from Patch. It was even blacker than those Patch had seen in the Hidden Kingdom, so dark that it seemed more a bird-shaped piece of the night than a real animal.

"What happened here?" Patch asked desperately, in Bird. "When?"

It turned its head towards Patch, fixed him with its blank and glossy eyes, smiled and said nothing.

Patch took a step towards it. "Tell me what happened!"

The crow's dry cackle sounded like the splintering of dead bones. It spread its wings, stepped off the branch, and flew away.

"Help," a soft voice gasped from above, a squirrel's voice. "Oh, light of the moon, help me, they will eat me alive."


Anonymous Anonymous said...

eeeeeeeeeeeeeek, feckin crows. Brrr.

oooh, is creepy! very cool chapter (short tho, grr!), very atmospheric and sinister. The freaky crows are a great touch. And i love how patch is changing as a character, he's becoming some kind of super-brave megasquirrel. :D Can't wait to read more!!

September 6, 2007 at 1:07 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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