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

September 17, 2007

59. Silver's Tale

I remember I spent that whole winter day digging in snow and frozen dirt, looking for food for Tuft and Brighteyes. Their babies were hungry, and babies have to eat every day, Patch, or they weaken and die so fast, so terribly fast. But there wasn't any food. It was that day I realized this wasn't just a bad winter, it was much worse, it was famine, disaster. You were away somewhere, as usual. I meant to go find Jumper, but there was no need. He was waiting for me when I came back to my drey to warm up. Him and a little squirrel called Redeye.

How could we have known? We couldn't even imagine that we'd been betrayed by our own kind, that Redeye and Sniffer had been working with the rats all winter, stealing a little of our food every night so all our buried nuts were gone before spring. There are still some squirrels who don't believe it. But most are dead now. Brighteyes is dead, Patch. I saw her die in the Battle of the Meadow. I'm sorry. I don't know about Tuft or her babies. They're sworn to the Meadow now, but I still hope they're alive. I still hope.

Jumper said Redeye knew where there was food, he had come from the Meadow to help. Redeye wanted me to come with them. I would have died like Jumper. But something didn't smell right about Redeye. His eyes, he wouldn't look at us. And Jumper had waited outside my drey, but Redeye had gone right in without any invitation. Jumper was desperate, he was lord of a tribe suffering a deadly famine, he was ready to believe any offer of help. But my gut told me that Redeye would make things worse. I should have argued with Jumper. No: I should have killed Redeye then and there. But how could I have known? I just told them I couldn't go, I had to stay with my grandbabies.

Jumper was supposed to come back that night with food, but he didn't. I spent that night with Tuft and Brighteyes. It was so cold, you remember their drey wasn't a cave, it was twigs and bark. We were all so cold and hungry, her babies were crying all night, oh, Patch, I feel sick to my heart when I think of that night. When morning came and Jumper hadn't come I went and followed his trail. It wasn't hard. Redeye had that strange smell. I followed them to the edge of the Kingdom, and then their scent disappeared into a little hole under a tree root. It was just big enough for a squirrel. If I hadn't been so hungry, if it hadn't been for Brighteyes, I would never have gone into the underworld. But I did.

I don't know how to tell you what happened next. It was awful. There wasn't just one tunnel, there were so many of them, all of them stinking of Rat. The smell was awful. I'm not like Sniffer, it was hard for me to follow Jumper and Redeye. At first I could because most of the tunnels were too small for a squirrel. Then we went into a metal thing, a human thing like a hollow trunk, it was full of water that smelled like sickness, I could hardly breathe. Other hollow metal things connected to it, smaller, like branches. Sometimes the water was so deep I had to swim in it, even though it was half-mud, and full of dead things. There were insects everywhere, cockroaches, beetles, things hissing at me. I would have gone back but I lost their scent, I didn't know where I was or how I could get back. Oh, Patch, I thought I would die. I don't know how long I wandered. I think a whole day and night. I heard things moving down there, rats and other things, I don't know what. The air made me choke I couldn't find a way out. It was like living in a nightmare.

Then I found Jumper's scent again, his scent and that of squirrel blood. I followed it for a time, I lost it again, and then I smelled fresh air. I had thought I would never smell it again. When I saw daylight it was so bright it hurt my eyes. I almost ran out into the light, and if I had I would have died, because this metal branch ended high up a great cliff wall, the edge of a hole in the side of a mountain. Like someone had taken a bite out of the mountain. I smelled rats, and Redeye, and Jumper, and I heard voices far below. But by the time I could see again it was too late. Jumper was dead, they were eating him. Yes, Patch, I was there. I must have been too far above for you to scent me - or maybe by then I smelled more of the underworld than of myself.

Eventually I managed to climb out, across the cliff, and into the wastelands between the mountains. I almost died on the crossing back to the Center Kingdom, a death machine ran right over me, but I threw myself to the ground and survived. When I returned, Tuft and Brighteyes were gone, and I heard that you and Twitch and Sniffer had gone to King Thorn. I ran to chase you, but I never found them. After the hawk took you, Sniffer convinced Twitch to go back home. I don't know why he let Twitch live. It was Twitch who told us later that he'd seen Sniffer that winter, digging up nuts and talking to rats in the night, of course the big silly squirrel thought it was nothing at the time. But how could he have known? How could any of us have known?

I went to King Thorn and told him what I had seen. If I hadn't, Redeye would have come to King Thorn too, lured him away from the Ramble and betrayed him to the rats, as he did with Jumper. Thorn sent squirrels to capture Redeye. Redeye killed them and proclaimed himself King. You know what happened after that. Our tribe is fewer now in number than the branches on this tree. Redeye and the rats are killing the Meadow squirrels even as they rule them. Those two awful battles, in the Meadow and the Ramble, so many dead on both sides. You've seen how many crows have come, the way they watch us, only waiting for us to die and be devoured.

Three days ago King Thorn sent me out into the mountains again. To the squirrels of the Western Kingdom, by the waters. Their land is not far, but the mountains between are terrible, Patch, terrible, I don't know how you made your way back through them. I hope I never have to travel through them again. The Western Kingdom is still rich and peaceful. There are many squirrels there, they received me politely, but they know us only from legend. I do not think they will aid us. I do not think they believed me when I told them the rats would destroy them next, though I am sure it is true. I think they will leave us to our fate. I think my mission failed. I think -

Sharpclaw? What is it, what's wrong - is it Redeye, have they found his army? Oh, no. Oh, bloody moon and darkened sun. Yes, I will come, I will come right away. You were right, Patch. By the Great Sea, just where you fought the rats. That isn't far. They'll reach us tomorrow, if they don't attack tonight.

The crows, Patch. Look, to the west, to the setting sun, look into the light. The crows are coming.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

oh no, poor brighteyes! ohh, that's sad. Hope her badies are okay. *sniffle* I like the dramatic change o narrative here, is supercool! And that last line is brilliant. Gahh, crows. *hides*

September 18, 2007 at 1:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a shame about Brighteyes. I'm still waiting for the romantic part and was somewhat counting on her.

The Western Kingdom seems to be Riverside Park.

September 18, 2007 at 4:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh no no no, Patch must bring justice to albino squirrels everwhere by mating with White, She Who Purifies Blood.

September 18, 2007 at 5:36 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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