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

September 18, 2007

60. Understanding

Patch spent that night on a low branch of King Thorn's court. There were so many squirrels on the oak tree, and on the other trees nearby, that its branches sagged and creaked. The court was alive that night with furtive whispers and scurryings - until there was any noise in the distance, or any unexpected windblown scent; then every squirrel fell into grim silence, fearing that attack was imminent, that the third and final battle of this war had begun. Patch's heart pounded as if he was running for his life, rather than sitting motionless on a branch. His insides felt like they had been tied tightly together and squeezed. That night seemed endless, as if the sun had stopped its eternal dance around the world, and only the pale moon and sullen stars remained in the heavens.

He must have fallen asleep, because dawn seemed to come abruptly, as if the dark vault of the night had fallen suddenly from the sky to reveal an eastern sky streaked with dawn. The king's guard had already descended to the earth to scout the nearby territory. Patch saw Twitch among them. Other squirrels upon the oak murmured with surprise and relief. Redeye's armies of rats and rebel squirrels had not attacked. They might still invade at any moment - but that prospect was much easier to face now that a bright warm sun was crawling into the sky.

Patch shook himself to some semblance of wakefulness, and began to look for Silver. He found Nighteye instead.

"Follow me," his commander said. "We have work to do."

Patch blinked. "But - what work?"

"You're a soldier. You do whatever work I tell you." Nighteye hesitated a moment and then said, in a less belligerent tone, "The King is sending out all the scout squads to find and report on the enemy. Go over under that maple, there's food there. Hurry. We leave soon."

Indeed there were piles of food under the maple, acorns and nuts and bulbs and buds, collected by those too old, young, or crippled to fight in Thorn's army. Longtail was there, and greeted Patch like an old friend. Patch reluctantly nodded an acknowledgement but did not speak.

Nighteye led his war-clan southeast, across the Ravine, and to a hilltop above the grassy fields between the Great Sea and the Northern River. From that vantage point they saw those fields alive with motion, full to bursting with hundreds of scurrying squirrels. Patch guessed that Redeye's Meadow army, strengthened by the many moon-sworn Treetops squirrels, was roughly as numerous as the combined forces of the Northern tribe and those Ramble squirrels who had survived the war's first two battles, plus the scattered remains of the Treetops ... but the rats were on the enemy's side, and they were far more numerous than either squirrel army.

"They're coming," Longtail breathed, frightened, as Redeye's army began to advance, moving in long clustered chains of war-clans. From the treetop it looked almost as if they were giant furry ants rather than squirrels

Nighteye shook his head. "No. They're not coming towards us. They're going northeast. Why? Why not attack?"

All of Nighteye's war-clan looked at the chain of hills that led northeast to the Northern Sea, and at the dark carpet of crows that covered them. A few crows had come to King Thorn's court - and had quickly been driven away by angry squirrels - but the vast majority of the sun-darkening flock had settled on the territories that Redeye was now inexplicably invading. Why was Redeye turning his back on Thorn and marching to the Northern Sea? Why was he not engaging the true King in a third and final battle?

Patch contemplated this question while his war-clan returned to King Thorn's court. As the oak tree came into sight once more, it occurred to him that it wasn't Redeye who truly commanded the enemy army, but rather Lord Snout; he remembered what a clever rat had told him once, when he was trapped in a wall of cages in the Hidden Kingdom - and he gasped, as an answer struck him like a fallen tree.

Lord Snout didn't want Redeye to be King of the Squirrels. All he wanted was maximum death and desolation. He wanted Redeye's army to ravage every part of the Center Kingdom, before finally closing in on King Thorn's court like a leash choking a dog; and then, after the final battle, the rats would kill whatever squirrels remained, as they had done after the Battle of the Ramble. Lord Snout was not fighting to control the Center Kingdom through his puppet-king Redeye. He was fighting to destroy the very idea of the Center Kingdom; to slaughter every squirrel within its bounds. Lord Snout was not yet ready for the final battle, because this was not a war. This was a slow and methodical extermination.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

uh-oh, that's not a happy thought. Ace chapter, loved the description of the squirrel army all scurrying along together. That'd be something to see. :D Can't wait to read more!!

September 19, 2007 at 2:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great stuff...really like where this is going...Patch is an easy protagonist to root for.

If I can put on my editing hat for just a moment though...there were a lot (4 by my count) of "as if" statements in this chapter. Enough that, after the 2nd or 3rd, I got a little jarred out of the story by hearing that phrase. Just something that occurred to me, hope you don't think I'm picking nits.

September 19, 2007 at 10:02 AM  
Blogger Jon said...

Yes, the voice this story is told in is prone to a certain amount of repetition. (To say nothing of its inordinate fondness for semicolons.)

September 19, 2007 at 11:45 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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