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

September 8, 2007

50. The Gobblers

There were four of them, big squirrels, well-fed. Their faces and fur were slashed and scarred and darkly stained with blood, their wore expressions of contorted rage and hate, and they had surrounded Patch between two cedar trees on the slope of a hill above a human highway. He felt a sick, sinking feeling in his gut. This was trouble, bad trouble, he knew it already. And there was no way out. He looked up to the sky, hoping: but neither Toro nor Karmerruk were there to help.

"Who are you?" the largest of them demanded, a squirrel almost as big and strong as Patch's friend Twitch.

"I'm just walking," Patch said, avoiding the question. "Is something wrong?"

"Who are you?" the big squirrel repeated angrily. "Are you of the Ramble or the Meadow?"

"Rat bite," hissed another of the squirrels, a relatively small one with a bloody socket where her left eye should have been. "I know my bites, that's no squirrel bite, that's a rat bite on his leg, he's of the Ramble, he's one of them!"

The four squirrels closed in towards Patch, murder in their eyes.

Patch said, slowly and distinctly, "I swear by the moon I am not of the Ramble."

A odd shivery feeling came from inside him and spread right to the edge of his skin, as it had the last and only other time he had ever sworn by the moon. For a moment he felt weak and sick, and the world around him blurred, all its shapes ran together into a single streaked mass of colours. When the world came back, the four squirrels had drawn away from him, a little awed.

"Then who are you?" the biggest squirrel asked, quietly this time.

"I am," Patch hesitated a moment, "Pale son of Shiny, of the Seeker clan, of the Meadow tribe."

"The Meadow, eh? What are you doing all alone?"

"I was," Patch improvised, "I was in the battle last night, I was pushed off a tree by one of the Ramble, I must have lost my senses, I just woke up. I'm coming back to the army. Which way is it?"

"He's lying," said the one-eyed female. "He's a spy. He's Northern tribe."

"I am not!" Patch said weakly. He hoped he wouldn't have to swear it by the moon. The aftereffects of that last oath had not been pleasant.

"Northern squirrels are red," another of them objected.

Patch realized none of them seemed to suspect he might be Treetops. That was lucky, in a way - but it was also awful confirmation that White's terrible tale had been true, that his whole tribe had been extinguished. He felt cold, as if he had dived into winter-frozen water. Cold and suddenly angry.

"Who are you?" he demanded. "Why should I answer to you?"

The squirrels looked at one another, a bit taken aback by Patch's temerity, until the largest said in a surprised voice, "Who do you think we are? We're Gobblers. We're here to find deserters."

"I'm no deserter."

"We'll see about that," the fourth squirrel said. "What is the name of your rat?"

Patch just looked at him. He didn't even understand the question.

Then the one-eyed female squawked, "Humans!"

And indeed a small family of humans, two large and two small, were advancing towards where the five squirrels stood. The Gobblers immediately scattered - but Patch, thinking fast, remained where he was. The humans left him unmolested and continued towards the nearby highway.

Patch followed, staying as close as he could. He glanced over his shoulder, and saw that the Gobblers were following. Their fangs were bared. He hurried to keep up - but even the little humans were moving too quickly for him. He tried to trot, but every step seared his leg with agony. The humans grew distant, and the Gobblers broke into a run.

They were almost upon him. Patch turned to face them, fangs bared, ready to die fighting -

- and the Gobblers looked past Patch, blanched, spun in place so quickly that the one-eyed female actually fell in her haste to put her head where her tail had been, and fled. All of them dashed to and up the nearest cedar tree, sprinting as if pursued by death itself.

Patch's heart convulsed. As he turned towards the highway, part of him already knew what he would see.

A big dog had pulled free from its human masters and was charging straight towards him, its eyes alight with the vicious thrill of the hunt.

Patch tried to run. His leg gave way beneath him, and he fell, and the dog was standing above him. Fangs glistened in its stinking, slavering mouth. Its leash dangled limply to the ground. There were no humans anywhere near. Patch closed his eyes. This was the end. He hoped it wouldn't hurt too much.

The dog roared so loudly that it took Patch a moment to decipher its words:

"Oh, thank you, thank you, little squirrel! Oh, you saved me, you saved me!"

After a long moment Patch dared to open his eyes. The dog licked him with its huge, oozing tongue. Patch recoiled, revolted. Disgust gave him strength enough to drag himself to his feet. He looked past the dog's huge toothy maw to its face, and his mouth fell open with amazed recognition.

"Beeflover!" he cried.

"Little squirrel!"

In the distance Patch saw humans racing towards him. Beeflover's humans, pursuing their unleashed dog.

He felt dizzy with surprise. There was too much going on. He felt almost as if blackblood poison was beginning to surge through his system once again. But he knew he had to think, and think quickly. Once the humans arrived and took Beeflover away, the Gobblers would return; and Patch had no strength left with which to run.

"Beeflover," he said, "can you carry me across the highway?"

Beeflover's eyes lit up. "The highway! Oh boy! Of course! Oh, that will be fun, little squirrel, let's go, let's go!"

Patch shut his eyes with terror as the dog's fangs dipped towards him, then closed and clamped onto his body with surprising delicacy - and then Patch was rising through the air, cradled between Beeflover's open jaws. Patch opened his eyes, saw the world roiling and tumbling around him, realized a dog was running while holding him in its mouth, and shut them again as tightly as possible. He tried not to breathe through his nose. Beeflover's breath was even worse than the choking air of the golden hills of the Kingdom of Madness.

Then Patch felt a violent yank, and he was falling. He tumbled to the ground, yowling with pain as his wounded leg made contact, and staggered back to his feet. Beeflover looked down at Patch, grinning hugely. Two humans stood above Beeflover, holding his leash and chastising him loudly.

"That was fun!" Beeflover shouted, before his humans dragged him away.

Patch looked around. He was very near the highway. There was another horse clop-clop-clopping towards him along the highway; shackled to a wooden box. He could barely walk, and Beeflover was gone, and the Gobblers were already back on the ground and resuming their pursuit. There was no way he could outrun them.

Patch waited. He had only one hope. The Gobblers came closer, and their faces shone with malevolent triumph -

- but as the horse passed, dragging the huge box on wheels behind, Patch used what felt like all the remaining strength in his three good legs to leap up to the flat stick of wood that ran between the box's enormous wheels. For a long and dizzying moment he scrabbled on the edge of this ledge; then, just as he thought he was about to slide off, his claws caught a knot in the wood, and he climbed all the way on.

Patch lay drained and near collapse as the horse clopped steadily onwards along the highway. The bemused Gobblers stopped and gaped. And as they dwindled and disappeared into the distance, despite his exhaustion, despite the terrors and horrors of the day gone by, Patch allowed himself a small triumphant smile.


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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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