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

September 12, 2007

54. The King's Guard

The little red squirrel led Patch up and down steep ridges and muddy hills, past the mind-warping Labyrinth, along the expanse of the Northern Sea, then across a human highway and down into the Ravine. This circuitous course took almost the entire rest of the day, but the direct route passed through grassy fields that were Meadow territory. The Ravine was the central part of the Northern River, which began as a long pond surrounded by willow trees on the western edge of the Center Kingdom, and flowed to the Northern Sea in the Kingdom's northeast corner. Beyond the river, in the triangle demarcated by its waters and the Kingdom's northern and western edges, lay the territories of the North; steep and densely wooded hills almost as wild as the Ramble.

By the time they arrived, the sun was well on its way to setting. The trees of the Ravine were busy with squirrels, their fur mostly Southern gray not Northern red. They climbed up a sleep slope to a mighty oak tree, its trunk encircled by a dozen watchful squirrels. Other guards high above watched the sky-roads that led to the tree.

"The court guard," the red squirrel explained. "They watch the King's tree day and night so the Meadow won't ambush us again. Stay here."

"Here? Why?"

The red squirrel slowed her pace and eyed Patch suspiciously. "The password is secret. We don't know you're not a spy. Stay here."

Patch halted just beneath the King's tree's branches and watched the little red squirrel trot up to the court guard. Some of the guardian squirrels were red, some gray. All were very large and strong. And one of them looked very familiar -

"Twitch!" Patch shouted, and sprinted past the little red squirrel, ignoring her outraged cries. "Twitch, you're alive!"

Twitch stared as if Patch had grown a second head. "Who are you?" he asked wonderingly. "You look just like Patch. You sound just like him too."

"I am Patch! Twitch, it's me!"

Twitch shook his head sternly. "Oh, no. You can't be Patch. Patch is dead. A hawk took him away. I saw it."

"A hawk took me away," Patch agreed, "but I'm not dead. It's me, Twitch. It's really me."

The other guards watched in rapt silence.

"If you're Patch," Twitch said, his voice hopeful but suspicious, "if you're my best friend, then, then - then what's my favourite food?"

Patch burst out laughing.

"What?" Twitch demanded. "What's so funny?"

"Twitch, that's the worst question ever. Everyone who's ever known you more than a few heartbeats knows your favourite food is tulip bulbs."

Twitch's eyes widened, and then he charged forward, so excited that his attempt to sniff Patch closely instead turned into a head-butt that knocked Patch half-senseless to the ground. Patch had almost forgotten just how big and strong Twitch was.

"Patch!" Twitch bellowed, as Patch rolled groggily to his feet. "It's you, it's really you, you're not dead, you're alive!"

"A few more head-butts like that and I might not be," Patch said, dazed but laughing. "I thought you were dead, Twitch. I heard almost all the Treetops died in the war, or swore to the Meadow."

Twitch's smile faltered and dimmed into a grim expression Patch had never before seen on his friend's face. Patch realized he was not the only squirrel who had changed since their last meeting.

"It's true," Twitch said quietly. "Almost all of them are gone. Killed in battle or moon-sworn."

Patch swallowed, and forced himself to ask. "What about Silver?"

"Silver?" Twitch's ebullience returned with that one name. "Oh, she's wonderful! When there was no food, after you went away, I was so hungry, she came and brought me acorns!"

"Then she's alive?" Patch asked, hope bursting in his heart.

"Oh, yes! I mean, I think so. I mean, nobody told me she isn't. I think somebody would have told me, Patch, I really do."

"Silver was here two days ago," another guard squirrel said. His fur was streaked with white, but he moved with easy grace as he came over to Patch and sniffed him closely, as if inspecting him for some kind of taint.

"Where is she now?"

The old warrior looked suspicious. "I understand you're a friend of Twitch's, but why do you care about Silver?"

Patch said, outraged, "She's my mother!"

"Your mother?" The old squirrel took two steps back and looked at Patch carefully. "You're saying you're her son? The son who was taken away by a hawk?"

"That's what I just said!" Twitch said. "Didn't I say it, Patch? Didn't I just say you were taken away by a hawk? Sometimes I don't think anyone really listens to me."

Patch said to the old squirrel, "Who are you?"

"I am Sharpclaw son of Throatbiter, duke of the Strong clan, soldier of the Ramble tribe, and commander of the King's Guard."

"Fine. Where's my mother?"

Sharpclaw regarded Patch carefully. "Your mother, if that is what she truly is to you, is away on a mission. Beyond that I cannot speak further. But if all goes well she will return soon enough."

"Return from where?"

"I said I cannot say," Sharpclaw said sharply. "We're at war, young squirrel. I don't have time to gossip with you. Why are you here? What is your business with King Thorn?"

Patch hesitated. He hadn't really had any purpose beyond finding out what had happened to his friends and family. It was true Karmerruk had asked him to translate, but he didn't think this was a good time to claim he had been sent here by a hawk.

"Do you support the true King?" Sharpclaw asked.

"I guess."

"Then you will serve in his army."

"His army? But -"

"We're at war, boy," the old squirrel said angrily. "If you don't intend to fight, then get away from here now, for none of us will have any time for you, not even Twitch, no matter how old a friend you are. We don't have time for friendship. The final battle could be tomorrow. Join us or be gone from the North."

Patch looked around. He sighed. Then he said, "I don't want to go."

Sharpclaw smiled thinly. "Then I welcome you to the army of King Thorn. I think I know just the place for a wanderer like you. You can stay the night in that beech barracks over there. We'll get you to your post first thing in the morning."


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

Switch to

Go to the home page.

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.

Sign up for Jon's low-frequency mailing list:

Powered by Blogger.