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

September 14, 2007

56. Disbelief

"Hawk!" Nighteye cried, and all his war-clan fled into a big bush on the periphery of the Great Sea. Most of them hid in the bush's dense heart, but Patch stayed at the edge of his, looking up through the branches, trying to see if it was Karmerruk gliding through the cloud-patterned sky above. After a moment he decided this hawk was too small, and retreated deeper into safety.

"What's the matter?" one of the other squirrels sneered. "I thought you liked hawks. Why don't you go out there and talk to it? Why don't you go to ask it to find Redeye and Sniffer?"

"I don't know that hawk," Patch muttered.

The other squirrels laughed harshly.

"You better find the hawk you do know," Longtail said. "You better ask it to carry you away before the next battle comes. We're not going to let you run away from this one. If you try to run, you lying coward, I'll hamstring you myself and leave you for the rats."

The other squirrels grunted with general approval. Patch turned towards Longtail, hurt and betrayed; hadn't they shared a post last night, and hadn't Patch done his duty?

"I'm not a liar," he said quietly, knowing no one would believe him. "I'm not a coward. I've fought rats before. I fought Lord Snout myself."

At this the other squirrels began to shout with outraged disbelief.

"Lord Snout!" Longtail sputtered. "Next you'll be saying you killed the King Beneath all by your lonesome. You shut your mouth. You think if you make your lies bigger we'll start to believe you? We know what you really did. You found the biggest tree you could and you hid there while Redeye and the rats were killing us and killing your whole tribe. Now you're running to your mother because you finally realized nowhere else is safe any more."

"Maybe it wasn't a tree," another scout named Quicknose said venomously. "Maybe it was a deep dark hole. Maybe you met something down that hole. Maybe you made an agreement."

Patch didn't know what to say. He suddenly felt like he was surrounded by enemies, by rats, not by Ramble squirrels who were supposed to be on the same side.

"Easy," Nighteye rumbled. "He's Silver's son, he's Twitch's friend. He may be a liar and a coward, but I don't think he's an spy."

"I am not -" Patch began, his voice hollow, already knowing it was useless.

"Quiet," Nighteye said. "We've had enough lies from you for one day."

"He even smells like a rat," Quicknose said.

Longtail laughed. "He does! Smell him!"

Patch sniffed, almost involuntarily. Then he stood straight up and sniffed the air again, warily and carefully. There was barely the hint of a smell - but Patch had grown familiar enough with the scent of Rat to be certain of its presence, however faint.

He said, "There are rats near here."

"More stories -" Longtail began.

"No," Nighteye said in a forceful whisper. "No, look."

From their vantage point they could see, beneath this bush's lowest branches, a thin arc of the ground around them. There was something moving to the south. A group of somethings, gray and furry, with shining wormlike tails. More than a dozen rats venturing north from the direction of the Great Sea.

"Redeye's army," Longtail whispered. "We have to send word. I'm the fastest."

Nighteye shook his tail no. The movement was barely visible in the darkness. "That's no army. Look, there's nothing behind them. It's just one group. A scout squad, just like us. They're upwind. They don't know we're here." He paused. "But they'll find out soon enough. Everybody ready. We're going to charge."

"We have to warn the King!" Longtail said, his voice quiet but shrill.

"No," Nighteye said calmly. "What you have to do is follow my orders. And I order you all to charge when I say. Ready."

Patch swallowed. He suddenly felt a little sick. His heart thumped faster and faster as he squatted down to the dirt. Around him the others were doing the same. Patch could feel the hot blood pulsing through his body. His muscles felt loose and quivery and he wondered if he would have the strength to charge, if maybe the other squirrels were right, maybe he was a coward after all.

"Now!" Nighteye commanded - and Patch leapt forward like a dog breaking free of its leash.


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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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