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

September 13, 2007

55. War-Clan

Nighteye frowned. "So you're the new recruit. Patch son of Silver."

Patch nodded.

"You know it's dangerous here. Death stalks us every night."

Patch didn't like the sound of that. He looked around, wondering where exactly death stalked. They stood high on a cypress tree just south of the Ravine. The squirrels who lived in the grassy fields further south were distant from their tribal brethren across the Great Sea, but they were still gray squirrels of the Meadow tribe; and from what Sharpclaw had said, Redeye and his army were on the march. But no Meadow squirrels were visible from their perch on the cypress. The only animals in sight were a few distant pigeons, a dozen humans chasing a ball across the fields, and the half-dozen other Ramble squirrels under Nighteye's command, scattered on the branches of the cypress.

"Did you fight in the Battle of the Meadow?" Nighteye asked. Nighteye was like a younger version of Sharpclaw; a big, strong squirrel with magnificent fur and a casual air of command.

"No," Patch said, "I wasn't -"

"Did you fight in the Battle of the Ramble?"

"No. I got to the Ramble the day after."

"The day after," Nighteye repeated. "Too late to help. Too late to fight."

"I was hardly able to -"

"Because you were carried away by a hawk," Nighteye said, disbelief dripping from every word, "and you had to journey across half the world back to the Center Kingdom, and you just happened to get back just in time to miss the battles."

Patch said, "That's what happened."

"And you just convinced this hawk to let you go."

"I speak Bird."

"You must speak it very well indeed to talk your way out of a hawk's claws."

Patch didn't know what to say.

"Your mother is a brave and daring squirrel," Nighteye said, "and for her sake I will take you into my war-clan. Perhaps we can make a squirrel out of you yet."

"Twitch says he's all right," another of Nighteye's squirrels said hesitantly. Patch had been introduced but had already forgotten their names. All of them were of the Ramble.

"Twitch. Yes. Twitch is your friend, isn't he?" Nighteye asked. Patch nodded. "Twitch is very strong and very brave. But he is not good at choosing his friends. Sniffer was Twitch's friend too, wasn't he? And your friend as well."

"What are you saying?" Patch demanded, angry now.

"I'm saying you were with Sniffer when you disappeared, and now you come back on the eve of a great battle and claim you want to join the army. If you weren't your mother's son, Patch, I would send you back to the South."

"I didn't even want to join the army!" Patch protested. "Sharpclaw said I had to!"

"Ah, so you say you're not a spy, just a coward."

"I am not! I - you wouldn't believe how many times I almost died coming back to the Center Kingdom!"

"You're quite right. I wouldn't." Nighteye looked to the setting sun. "Well, we'll see soon enough if you have any of your mother's blood. This is a scout squad, Patch. Our job is to find danger before it finds King Thorn. And we work both day and night. How do you feel about that? How do you feel about darkness and rats and owls?"

Patch stared Nighteye straight in the eye. "I've seen worse."

Nighteye glared back, his face stony with disgust and disbelief. Patch's gaze did not waver. A momentary flicker of doubt crossed Nighteye's face; but then his expression hardened, and he said, with contempt, "Fine bold words. We'll soon see if you have any heart to match them."

Despite Nighteye's ominous words, Patch did not find the first afternoon of scout duty to be particularly desperate or dangerous. The war-clan left the cypress and went south, moving fast, travelling as far as the edge of the Great Sea, spreading out and seeking traces of rats, or Redeye's army, or any squirrels. They found nothing but day-old scents and a few abandoned dreys; the Meadow squirrels who occupied these grassy plains seemed to have retreated further south.

They returned to the cypress before nightfall, divided into pairs, and spread themselves out along the nearby trees of the ravine, close enough to hear one another's call for help. One member of each pair had to be awake all night, listening for suspicious noises. If they heard anything, the whole war-clan would investigate. At the Battle of the Ramble, the Meadow squirrels had attacked by surprise, climbing trees in the dead of night and killing Ramble squirrels while they slept in their dreys. The battle was over almost before the Ramble knew it had begun. The job of the scout squads was to prevent that from happening again.

Patch soon decided that the worst thing about being a scout was not danger but tedium. It was so hard to stay awake when the sky was dark, the Center Kingdom was silent, and his whole body was crying for him to crawl into a drey and fall asleep. It helped that his night partner Longtail had suffered a broken nose in the Battle of the Meadow and now snored loudly, but Patch still caught himself nodding off on several occasions that first night. Fortunately, he was awake every time Nighteye came by to inspect his post. As far as Patch could tell Nighteye didn't sleep at all.

In the morning they went out back out to the Great Sea on another scouting run. Patch tried to be friendly to Longtail and the other members of the war-clan, but all of them treated him with silent disdain. When they spoke, it was invariably reminiscences of the Ramble, and of the two great battles, and Patch had nothing to add to the conversation. He soon gave up. It didn't matter. What mattered was his mother was alive, and he would see her soon. Things would be different when Silver came back.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

gah, i have the lurghy. *sniffle* But coming back to these chapters cheered me up, yay!! i'm so glad silver's still alive, that makes me happy. :D i love the way the other squirrels are reacting to patch, i'm looking forward to seeing their faces when the hawk turns back up. *giggles*

btw, about half way down the page, should that be 'had already forgotten their names' rather than 'gotten'? Sorry, nitpicking. :D

September 14, 2007 at 1:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This has taken on an almost Shakespearean tone, Jon. I found mysellf wondering if there were parallels that I'd missed to any of the Bard's histories. Whether or not, you've still put together something really powerful. I can't wait to tell my 9- and 6-year old granddaughters that Pops has been reading a story about squirrels for weeks now.

September 14, 2007 at 5:59 PM  
Blogger Jon said...

Rakie - good eye! Fixed, thanks.

Stephen - there aren't any deliberate Shakespearean riffs that I can think of offhand ... but for what it's worth, pretentious as it may sound, the story is kind of supposed to be a squirrel Odyssey and Iliad.

September 15, 2007 at 12:44 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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