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

September 9, 2007

51. The Ancient

Patch hoped the horse might carry him all the way to the North, but it turned around just past the Turtle Sea. He managed to scramble back onto the ground without incident. The sun was now hidden behind the mountains to the west; night was not far off. Patch limped slowly away from the concrete trail, seeking food and some kind of shelter.

He found and ate a few fallen gingko nuts. They only seemed to intensify his hunger, but he was too weak and tired to find a proper dinner. Instead he staggered uphill to a nearby bush and curled up on the dirt beneath its dense branches. It wasn't much of a drey, but it would have to do for tonight. He hoped his leg was better tomorrow. It hardly hurt any more; it seemed distant from him, like it was no longer really part of his body. He knew dimly that this was even more worrying than pain.

Everything was wrong. He had worked so hard and braved so many dangers to return to the Center Kingdom, and now he was in straits as desperate as any he had faced on his journey home. The Ramble was a sea of blood and mangled flesh and carrion crows, and King Thorn had fled to the North. He had failed Karmerruk, he no longer had any idea how he might find Zelina again, he was crippled by a poisoned leg that felt like it would never heal, and he was so hungry. Feeling not just exhausted but actually empty, hollow like a dead tree, Patch lay down and closed his eyes.

Then, what felt like only a moment later, he opened them again.

For a moment Patch lay very still. Then he sniffed the air carefully. There was a strange and electric smell in the air; a rich, feral scent he had encountered before, Patch was sure of it, though he did not know where or when. The mere presence of this scent seemed to restore a little of his strength and curiosity. He fought his way back to his feet, waddled over to the edge of the bush, and peeked his head out between the branches.

From the very middle of a concrete clearing, a colossal stone spire jutted into the sky like a single sharp tooth. It was human-carved on all sides with strange and spidery shapes. It looked as old as the earth itself. A confused series of images flooded Patch's mind as he looked at the spire, images that seemed to hang in the air before him: a golden-eyed creature with a tiger's body and the head of a man; a endless expanse of wrinkled sand littered with thousands of human skeletons; a full moon rising over a vast triangular edifice surrounded by a baying herd of dog-things. For a moment Patch thought he heard voices whispering in some hissing, incomprehensible language, and all his fur stood up on end.

The images dimmed and cleared, and Patch saw something like a dog standing beneath the stone spire, watching him with a leery grin full of sharp teeth. For a moment he thought it was Beeflover. But this dog - if it was a dog - was smaller, and its eyes were golden, and it was lean and wiry with muscle.

"Patch son of Silver," it said, in a low, amused voice. "We meet again."

Patch twitched with surprise. "Who are you? How do you know my name?"

"Oh, I know a lot of useless things," the dog-thing said airily. "Call me Coyote."

Patch shivered when he heard that name, though he did not know why.

"Isn't it beautiful?" Coyote asked, indicating the huge stone spire. "The stories it could tell, if stones could speak. It knows tales of ancient blood and sacrifice, of whole armies slaughtered so one human could try to cheat death. You should bring Zelina here. She would see some interesting things."

"You know Zelina? How is she? Where can I find her?"

"Oh, don't worry, she's fine. She'll find you when the time comes. But I didn't bring you here to gossip, Patch son of Silver."

"Bring me here?"

"Look at that," Coyote said. He motioned to the highway visible beyond the spire, where an automobile was crawling slowly along like a beetle on a branch. "They're so clever, those humans. Always making some new machine. Soulless hunks of metal. I don't like machines, Patch son of Silver. Sometimes I like to throw things into their gears. Like a stone, or a stream. Or a squirrel."

"I don't understand," Patch said nervously.

"Don't worry, I mean it metaphorically. But you know what I do like? I do like the Center Kingdom. Birds come here from so far away, do you know that? You must, you speak Bird so well, such a rare ability in a little furball like yourself. They come here from the four corners of the world, and to that little forest where the Old One lives, and they mingle, and after a season they return to their homes. The world is a terribly big place, little squirrel. Much bigger and much more terrible than you will ever understand."

"The Old One?" Patch asked, by now thoroughly bemused.

"Never mind. Come with me, Patch. I want to show you something. Let's stir things up a little. Let's play a little trick on the King Beneath and see how nimbly he can dance when there's a little breath of chaos in the air, shall we? Follow me."

Patch hesitated. "Where?"

"Not far. We'll get there by nightfall. I can promise you that. I know everything there is to know about nightfall."

"I can't. I'm sorry. My leg, I can't walk." Patch was relieved to have this excuse. He didn't want to spend any more time around Coyote than absolutely necessary. He seemed friendly, his amused smile never wavered, but there was something terrifying about him; something old and pitiless.

"Your leg, yes, your poor poisoned leg. Let's take a little look."

Coyote loped over towards the bush that sheltered Patch. Patch stiffened, but held his ground; there was clearly no point running away.

Up close, Coyote's wild scent was intoxicating, like breathing in someone else's dreams. Coyote lowered his head to Patch's wounded hindleg, and licked it once with his red and rasping tongue. It felt dry, like a stone dragged over Patch's skin. The leg immediately began to tingle with warmth.

"No more excuses," Coyote said. "Follow me."

He turned and walked towards the northwest. Patch took a tentative step forward. To his amazement his poisoned leg felt strong again, and painless. Confused, nervous, but also grateful, Patch followed the mysterious golden-eyed Coyote into the light of the setting sun.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

ooooh, intriguing! are there really coyotes in NY, or is that just part of (what i'm assuming is) a mad dream sequence? :D very cool chapter, as always!!

September 10, 2007 at 1:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great, I finally caught up and now I'm doomed to waiting. Great book. It's a lot of fun to research all those places, even if I never been to NY. So the powers of the net and google earth tell me this is about cleopatra's needle, "just past the turtle pond". An egyptian symbol and a great place to introduce Coyote, the trickster archetype of native american, egyptian and many other myths. The trickster likes to appear in our dreams to give us guidance, but hidden in riddles. I like the way the story shifts from the factual to the surreal, even if it's only for a dream, induced by fever (?)

Go on, please.
And thank you.

September 10, 2007 at 4:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Flood, thanks so much for that little explanation of where we are and the coyote as image. I was questioning the point of the name. And I'd've never thought to check the geography out via Google Earth—what a cool move!

September 10, 2007 at 4:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I caught up last Friday and am hating to wait for a new chapter. Jon, I wanted to mention that I have told my 5 year old son the whole story and he is waiting with me for the new chapters, has learnt all the names of the characters and we (being in Brazil and not knowing what some of the animals look like - bluejays, racoons) have collected photos in Google for each one of them. He's not in the least impressed by the cruelty, wars, bloodshed and all violence when it appears in the story. So what I'm saying is, one: your book would probably be a success among children, adolescents and adults, if you and your editors decided to publish; and two: oh, I do hope there is a happy end to this story!

September 10, 2007 at 5:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great stuff...I too was baffled by this location so I appreciate Flood's explanation.

I'm also a little baffled by this Coyote character. So far, we have been in the "real world" somewhat, but this coyote seems to be a little more fantastical...maybe he's just a hallucination...?

Also, I'm assuming he's the character that Patch had smelled previously but never saw?

September 10, 2007 at 7:06 AM  
Blogger Jon said...

And believe it or not, there are wild coyotes in Central Park! Well, there was one, at least, just last year, and no one is quite sure how he got there. See his Wikipedia entry for details.

Lucia: thanks! I get a real kick out of the idea of the book being read in Brazil.

As to whether it's a dream sequence - that is, of course, left deliberately ambiguous...

September 10, 2007 at 10:24 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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