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

September 16, 2007

58. King Thorn

"Wait!" Longtail gasped, as they approached the great oak. "Wait, you don't know the password!"

Patch slowed. It was true, he didn't, and Twitch was no longer on duty. He allowed Longtail to match his pace, but he didn't look at the other squirrel.

"Those things I said, I was just joking," Longtail said, between deep breaths. His boast of being the fastest runner had clearly not been true. "We're partners, right, Patch? We're scout partners, we have to look out for one another."

Patch halted in front of the curious guards. "Just say the password," he said curtly.

Longtail said, "Jumper."

The guards nodded and stood aside to let them climb. As he ascended, Patch wondered who had chosen as password the name of Jumper, last lord of the Treetops, who Patch had seen devoured by rats and Redeye what felt like so very long ago.

The oak tree was crawling with scores of squirrels, some watching and guarding, others huddled on branches in little groups; the trunk was a highway of fur as squirrels raced up and down, carrying messages to and from King Thorn's court. This oak tree was, in a way, the center of the Center Kingdom. Patch had never smelled such a melange of squirrel-scents in one place before. But even amid this thick cloud of many scents, one stood out like a green leaf on a dead tree. The scent of Silver. His mother was here, now, on this oak.

Patch sprinted straight upwards, to the very top, shouldering past other squirrels who tried to bar his way, ignoring the shouts from all around, until he was at the very crown of the tree, where a half-dozen branches joined together to form a kind of platform; and there stood Silver, speaking to a big red squirrel and little squirrel with a scarred face, while a dozen others watched from the surrounding branches.

Silver stopped in mid-sentence and turned towards Patch. She stood very still for a moment, staring at her son. Her fur shone in the sunlight. She looked as if she was dreaming, or had just awakened from a dream.

"It's true," she said wonderingly. "You're really alive. Oh, Patch, oh, my son, you're alive!"

She rushed to him and they nuzzled closely, rubbing their necks and tails together, tasting one another's scent, until their reunion was interrupted by a dry cough.

"I hate to interrupt this touching encounter," said the little squirrel with a scarred face, "and I am delighted your son has somehow survived this war, but we still must attend to important matters of state."

Annoyed, Patch looked at this little squirrel and demanded, "Who are you?"

An awed hush fell over all the other squirrels in sight. Longtail, who had just made it up to the crown, emitted a horrified little whimper.

The little scarred squirrel looked too shocked to answer. It was the big red squirrel next to him who spoke. He sounded amused. "You didn't ask me, Patch son of Silver, but for your information, I am Stardancer son of Swimmer, baron of the Seeker clan, lord of the Northern tribe. My companion here is Thorn son of Shaker, baron of the Strong clan, lord of the Ramble tribe, and true King of the Center Kingdom."

Patch's mouth fell open. Surely this Stardancer was joking. This little squirrel with the fussy mannerisms and the expression of someone who had just eaten a bad grub couldn't really be King Thorn.

The little squirrel looked coldly at Patch. "This is a council of war, Patch son of Silver, and your presence is neither requested nor desired."

"Patch, I'm sorry, the King is right," Silver said. "We have business here. Redeye and the rats are coming. Go down two levels and wait for me here."

"I know," Patch said. "They're coming from the west. I'm in Nighteye's war-clan, we just fought a group of rats northwest of the Great Sea, that's why I came here to the oak. They were out in daylight, they must have been scouting for their army."

"We will take that under advisement," Thorn said haughtily. "Now descend."

Patch hesitated and looked at Silver.

Thorn said, and his disapproval now verged on anger, "I am your King, Patch son of Silver, and I have heard the news you bear and given you an order. Not many are favoured with my personal attention. Now begone!"

Silver nodded.

"All right, all right, I'm begone," Patch said, feeling somehow betrayed and disappointed. He pushed his way past Longtail and went back down where he had seen acorns piled in a trunk; but the squirrel there said the acorns were for the king's guards and the lords, and others had to forage for themselves.

Despite the burgeoning spring, food was in short supply near King Thorn's court, and the it was late afternoon by the time Patch finally returned to the oak tree with a full belly. His foul mood vanished almost immediately. Silver was waiting for him on the ground beneath its branches.

"I'm sorry, Patch," she said. "You don't know how happy I was to hear you were alive. And that was nothing compared to how happy I was to see you. I wanted to run away and spend all day talking to you, but I couldn't, there's a war on, I had to stay with the council."

"I understand." Patch wasn't at all upset with her; he was angry with King Thorn for not being the wise, mighty, magnificent and magnanimous squirrel that Patch had always envisioned.

"But we have time now. Come and tell me, where have you been? What happened to you?"

Patch curled up with his mother and began to tell her the story of all his many adventures. At first she listened with full attention, and gasped when he told her of Jumper's death. Once his story left the Center Kingdom, though, he soon sensed that she was listening to him with only one ear; so he raced ahead, telling her only the things that seemed important, rather than the full story he longed to recount.

"I've been thinking," he said, once his story was fully summarized. "The things I've seen, my friends, we could help King Thorn. Karmerruk said he wanted to help, if we could find him. And I bet Zelina would help too. She doesn't like rats, and she's the Queen of All Cats, I mean, sort of. Also, I was thinking Toro could find Redeye's army, and then King Thorn's army could go outside the Center Kingdom to sneak up on them, there's a little strip around the edge of the kingdom where humans go but not death machines."

Silver smiled faintly. "You've been very brave, Patch. It's amazing what you've been through. I'm so proud you've survived."

"I didn't just survive. I think I could really help. If we can find Karmerruk, that's a start, imagine if there was a hawk on our side!"

"Patch -"

"He wants to kill Lord Snout. If Snout shows his face aboveground, Karmerruk can just pick him up from the air, no matter how many rats are around him! And Redeye and Sniffer too!"

Silver sighed. "Patch, please. A hawk fighting on our side? We can't afford to waste our time on daydreams. We're at war. You've spent your whole life dreaming and wandering. And I love that about you, I've always admired it, but now you have to stop. It isn't safe to dream and wander any more. Longtail told me how brave you were this morning, how you killed three rats, I'm so proud of you. And you've always been so smart. But you have to be serious now, you have to stop chasing dreams. I'm sorry to talk to you like this, but we're fighting for survival here, all of us. If Redeye wins, the rats will kill us all. All of us, you understand? Redeye and the Meadow too. Every squirrel in the Center Kingdom. You have to be serious."

"But you don't understand," Patch said, "you didn't see Alabast fight, the cats fought a whole rat army and survived -"

"Patch. No. You can't go into the mountains looking for your friend the cat who thinks she's a queen. You certainly can't go looking for a hawk. As for going around the edge of the Kingdom, you'll never convince Thorn or Sharpclaw to do that, it's unheard of, it's wasteland, there are dogs and death machines. I should know. I just came back from the mountains."

"You did?" Patch asked, astonished. "What were you doing there? I didn't think anyone else had ever gone to the mountains."

"I've been to the mountains twice now," Silver said. "The first time was near the end of winter, before the hawk took you. I must have just missed you. You see, I was looking for Lord Jumper -"


Anonymous Rakie said...

yay, silver's alright! *does happy dance* Sounds like she's been having adventures of her own, i wonder what she was up to. Hmm. Hee, and patch's idea is brilliant, he should definitely get Zelina and all the others, that would be a fantastic battle. And they should go back for the tiger. *giggles* i would love to see that. :D

September 17, 2007 at 1:15 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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