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

September 15, 2007

57. Skirmish

Unless their advantage is overwhelming, or they are commanded by a strong leader, a rat's first instinct is always to flee. Most of them scattered like a cloud of flies when Patch and most of the Ramble squirrels erupted unexpectedly from beneath the bush. A few were too surprised to move, and Patch charged right into one of those stunned rats, bowling it over, tangling his own forelegs with its tail. His nose was pressed right up against its sour-smelling neck. For a moment he didn't know what to do.

The rat bit at him. Patch dodged without thinking, just in time; then, while the rat's head was extended in attack, he instinctively bit back. His sharp teeth passed through and met in the rat's fleshy neck, and his mouth filled with the sour, iron taste of blood. Gagging, Patch let go of the rat, and blood spurted onto his face. Both he and the rat backed away from one another, but the rat's motions were twitching and spastic. As blood poured from its neck, it fell over, convulsed sluggishly, and died.

Patch looked around. He had been so focused on his private battle that he had forgotten the rest of the world. Around him other squirrels were finishing off the rats who had been too surprised to run. Longtail hung back by the edge of the bush, looking around uncertainly, while Nighteye and three others pursued the escaping rats. Patch hesitated a moment. Then he chased after his commander.

The rats fled across the concrete trail that hugged the very edge of the Great Sea like skin on bone. The squirrels pursued them onto a little finger of land that extended into the water. From here a big metal pipe descended into the Great Sea, and another, smaller pipe ran directly underground, into the Kingdom Beneath. The fastest rat began to squeeze itself into that pipe, folding and twisting its body grotesquely, seeming to physically shrink into that opening hardly bigger than Patch's paw. But it took time to contort itself into that narrow space, and the half-dozen other rats had nowhere left to run. Rats can swim, but squirrels can swim faster.

Cornered, left with no other choice, the rats turned and fought; and when they fought, they were strong and fast and vicious. One moment Nighteye was chasing them like a hawk chased sparrows; the next, they were all over him like burrs, clawing and biting.

Patch didn't hesitate. He leapt straight into the melee, knocking two rats off of Nighteye, including the largest and filthiest in the group. He didn't really remember what happened next. The world turned into a tangle of mud and fangs and claws and rat-tails. Claws raked his back, and sharp teeth gashed his side, and he bit back and his mouth filled with blood again, and then suddenly all three of them were in the water, and Patch was half-stuck in thick mud as he clawed and bit desperately at a rat that seemed to be everywhere at once, then the rat was on top of him biting, then he was on top of the rat, ripping at its belly with his teeth, and then it was gone, leaving a feathered blood-trail in the water as it tried to swim away. It didn't get far before going limp and floating belly-up.

The other rat, the one that had bitten Patch, a big rat with darkly mottled fur and blood-streaked eyes, lay on the edge of the Great Sea with its throat torn out. Patch dimly realized he had done that. He looked up to Nighteye and the other squirrels. The battle was over; they too were surrounded by dead rats. Patch thrust his head all the way into the water, opened his mouth and tried to let the Great Sea wash away the taste of rat-blood. It didn't work. He didn't know it yet, but that taste wouldn't go away for days. Eventually he gave up, emerged from the water and rejoined Nighteye.

The war-clan commander looked at Patch thoughtfully. "You killed two."

"Three. There's another back there."

"I think they would have had me if you hadn't rushed them like that."

Patch shrugged.

"You would have been bit, that's for sure," Quicknose agreed. "Bit by - oh, no!" He ran over to Patch and sniffed his side closely. "Patch, you're bit!"

"It's nothing," Patch said, "just a scratch."

"Was it that one there?" Quicknose indicated the big and odd-looking rat with his tail. "Did that one bite you?"

"I think so."

"Oh, sun and moon and stars," Quicknose swore. He turned to Nighteye. "Did it bite you?"

Nighteye looked grim. "No. It was about to, but Patch got to it first."

"We have to get you back to the court right now," Quicknose said to Patch.


"That rat, see its fur, its eyes, the way it smells like it's already been dead for days? It carries the blackblood disease. You've been bit. We don't get you help, you'll be gone before the day is out. Even if we do..." Quicknose hesitated. "We have to get you back to the court, that's all there is to it. Some squirrels there know how to cure it. Sometimes. If you're strong and lucky. Some squirrels survive."

The other squirrels watched Patch with wide and silent eyes, as if he was already a ghost.

Patch said, "It's okay. I'm fine. I don't need a cure."

"You don't understand, you'll die, you'll fall asleep for a week and then you won't ever wake up -"

"I'm immune. I've had it before."

That stunned all the other squirrels into silence.

"You survived the blackblood disease?" Nighteye asked, awed.

Patch nodded.

"Patch, if this is one of your stories -"

"I don't tell stories," Patch said hotly. "I'm not a liar."

Nighteye looked at him. "You expect us to believe you were really carried away by a hawk? You really fought Lord Snout?"

"It was Snout who gave me the blackblood disease."

After a moment Nighteye said, "You know, I could I almost believe you. Whatever you are, you're no coward."

Patch gave him an angry look. "Do you think I care what you believe?"

Nighteye opened his mouth, then closed it again.

"We have to go back to tell the King," Longtail said.

Patch didn't know when he had joined the other squirrels; but he knew Longtail hadn't been there for the battle.

Nighteye nodded. "You and Patch go now, tell them. And Patch, you stay at court for the night. Just in case."

Patch nodded. Without another word he began to run northeast, towards King Thorn's oak tree. He didn't bother looking back to see if Longtail followed.


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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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