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

September 6, 2007

49. Taildancer

Patch looked up and saw faltering motion in the branches above, obscured by the long green curtains of the willow tree's leaves. He took a deep breath, gritted his teeth against the agony in his leg, and climbed up the willow's trunk. In the crook where a big branch met the trunk, two crows were pecking at an animal that lay twitching and gasping in the crook of a big branch. It was so covered in blood, its face and fur were so badly torn, that it took Patch a moment to recognize it as a squirrel.

"Get away from there!" he shouted in Bird, and charged at the crows. His bad leg buckled beneath him, and he almost fell, but the ferocity of his cry drove the black birds away; they leapt away from the willow and glided off to find other prey.

"Help me," the squirrel groaned. She was young, barely adult. "Oh, please, help."

Patch knew at a glance that her wounds were mortal. He saw bones and organs through the many rents in her fur.

"I'm sorry," he said.

"I don't want to die. This can't be my time. I'm too young."

Patch didn't say anything.

"Who are you?" she asked.

"I am Patch son of Silver, of the Seeker clan, of the Treetops tribe. Who are you that asks?"

"I am Taildancer daughter of Shine, of the Runner clan, of the Meadow Tribe."

"The Meadow tribe? But this is the Ramble - what happened here? When?"

"War," Taildancer said. "Last night. There was a battle. It was awful. We attacked the Ramble. I didn't want to. None of us wanted to. But they made us."


"King Redeye, and Sniffer, and the rats. We had to obey. They only give food to squirrels who fight. So many of the Meadow have starved."

Patch blinked with confusion. "Starved? But it's spring! There's food everywhere!"

"No," she said. "They take it all. We have to give whatever we find to the rats and the Gobblers, and they guard it, and we're only allowed to eat what they give us. They kill squirrels who keep food, or who bury nuts, sometimes just for going somewhere alone. Sometimes for no reason at all. It isn't just the rats. Other squirrels, Redeye's clan, the Gobblers, they spy on the rest of us, they tell the rats everything."

Patch stared at her in silent horror.

"They made us attack last night, in the dark," Taildancer said. Her voice was growing weaker. "There were owls. We surprised them, they were sleeping. We beat them, they ran away to the north. We thought the battle was over. We'd taken their trees. But then the rats came after every squirrel who was left. Meadow, Ramble, they didn't care. There were so many of them. I killed three but there were so many. All I could hear was screaming, everywhere below, I thought it would drive me mad. Then it was quiet for a little while. Then the sun rose, and the crows came, and the screaming started again. It's quiet now, though, isn't it, Patch son of Silver? It's peaceful."

"Yes," Patch whispered. "It's peaceful."

"I'm glad you found me. This is my time, isn't it? I'm glad I'm not alone."

Taildancer's one remaining eye closed and did not reopen. Patch stayed next to her for a long time, watching her motionless form. Then, wincing with the pain in his leg, he climbed to the very top of the mighty willow. Standing on a branch so slender it threatened to break beneath his weight, he looked around at the crow-laden trees of the Ramble, at the green Center Kingdom. He was high above the stink of blood and war, and the treetop air was clear and clean. He could smell the Great Sea to the north. He even caught the scent of King Thorn himself. That in itself was not surprising; the King had, after all, lived in this tree. What amazed Patch, what so surprised him that he nearly fell, was the faintest whiff, the thinnest hint, of another squirrel as well.

Patch sniffed the air again and again. He wondered if perhaps his mind was betraying his senses, mixing hope and reality into delusion. But in the end he could not deny what his nose was telling him. Either he had gone mad - or his mother Silver had stood on this very branch, not so very long ago.

The sun was halfway towards the horizon by the time Patch climbed painfully back down the great willow and began to make his way northeast through the blood-soaked hills of the Ramble. If King Thorn and Silver were still alive, they would be in the North. There was no other safe place left in all the Center Kingdom.

Patch limped numbly onwards, trying not to think about what he had just seen and smelled and heard, as the shadows lengthened around him. He wished he had stayed with White. He was so dazed, his mind so distant from the world, that he did not realize he was surrounded until it was too late.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

aaaaaaaaaaaahhh! bloody hell, that's like three cliffhangers in a row, you ARE trying to kill me. :D

aww, poor taildancer, that was well sad. *sniffle* I'm glad Silver is still alive, it's good to have a bit of happy. :D Very cool chapter, as always!!

September 7, 2007 at 1:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

great chapter!

September 7, 2007 at 9:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I gotta just wait a week between readings. This one chapter at a time stuff is killing me.

Great story Jon. In other news, I now utterly despise all of the publishers that panned this book, thereby forcing me to read it in this drawn out form. ;)


September 7, 2007 at 10:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great stuff, Jon...keep it up!

September 7, 2007 at 1:16 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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