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

September 21, 2007

63. An Army of the Night

Later that day, Patch and Twitch lay half-collapsed and half-asleep on the ground beneath King Thorn's oak tree.

"There isn't any food left," Twitch said dolefully.

Patch nodded.

"Maybe if I go back to the maple there'll be food there. Maybe someone found some acorns!"

Patch sighed. "I don't think so. But we can dig for more worms." The ground around them was pockmarked by holes and little piles of earth where squirrels had done just that.

Twitch groaned. "I don't want to ever eat another worm again. I don't think they're really food, Patch. I want acorns. Or tulip bulbs. Oh, tulips. Maybe there are tulips in the Labyrinth!"

The Labyrinth, a walled garden where humans tortured plants and flowers into growing in straight lines and sharp corners so unnatural that it almost hurt the mind to see, was east of Thorn's court, on the very edge of the Center Kingdom.

"We can't go the Labyrinth, Twitch. We're surrounded."

"Maybe we can sneak through. It's quiet. They're not attacking."

Twitch was right about that much. There hadn't been any enemy incursions all day. Patch wondered if the enemy was massing for the final battle. If so, win or lose, this would likely be the last day alive for most of the squirrels around him, and for Patch and Twitch as well.

"Patch!" a voice shouted, and Nighteye pelted out of the bushes and towards them. "Patch, you are needed!"

Patch came to his feet, his every muscle taut with tension. "What is it?"

Nighteye looked at him for a long moment. It took Patch some time to recognize his commander's strange expression as awed deference. "It was all true, wasn't it? Everything you said."

"Yes. Why?"

"She's asking for you."

"Who is?"

Nighteye said, "The Queen of All Cats."

And a broad smile began to spread across Patch's face.

Twitch asked, "Who's that?"

"A friend of mine," Patch said. "Where is she?"

Nighteye led him through the bushes through what was left of King Thorn's territory, a half-dozen tree-lined ridges teeming with exhausted squirrels and watchful crows. From the crest of the final hill Patch looked down a gentle slope, across the Ravine, towards the trees where Redeye's army waited. He could see them moving in the branches and the shadows, and he could smell them in the wind. He smelled uncertainty among the enemy squirrels.

But most of all he saw and scented old friends. Standing on a concrete human bridge that spanned the Ravine were Zelina and seven other cats, all of them sleek and strong; and one of them, sleekest and strongest of all, his pale fur scored with countless battle-scars, was Alabast. Patch laughed with sheer delight and sprinted out across no-squirrel's-land and to the bridge.

"Patch, oh, thank the moon!" Zelina cried. "What's going on here? Those squirrels didn't want to let us past, and they stink of Rat."

"They're commanded by rats," Patch said. "Their king is moon-sworn to Lord Snout. We're fighting a war here. It's..." He tried to find the words to explain how awful and final their situation was, how every squirrel of the true Center Kingdom was doomed to imminent death.

"Oh, how dreadful. But it's so good to see you. You look..." She peered at him closely. "Oh, dear. Frankly, you look even worse than the first time I saw you. Is that blood on your face? Patch, really, can't you keep yourself clean?"

"I haven't had - Zelina, there's a war on! Snout wants to kill every squirrel in the Center Kingdom!"

"Yes, I heard." Zelina frowned as if he had reminded her of an inconvenient detail. And then, in a voice Patch had never heard from her before, a voice as smooth and cold as water-washed ice, she said, "And I am most displeased."

Patch blinked.

"Did he think I wouldn't hear of this? Did he think I wouldn't intervene? My personal friendship with you aside, I can't allow the rats to rule this kingdom. Or does he dare imagine his snivelling armies of rats and moon-sworn traitors can stand against me? If he actually tries to fight, I'll gut him myself."

Patch stared at Zelina, wondering if she had fallen back into the same delusional state in which he had met her.

"Milady," Alabast said, his voice very serious, "if these squirrels behind us are truly commanded by Lord Snout, then we are now surrounded by one of his armies. When he learns that you are here -"

"You said the messengers have been dispatched," Zelina interrupted.

"They have. But as your warlord and chief bodyguard, I must advise you to escape now, before Snout learns of your presence and battle is joined."

"We're not leaving," Zelina said fiercely.

Alabast smiled grimly. "So be it."

The big white cat turned to face the squirrels of the Meadow, who were watching from the distant branches with wide and worried eyes. And Patch blinked with amazement; for Alabast's motion revealed another white-furred creature, small and wide-eyed, huddled in the midst of Zelina's cats.

"White!" Patch cried. "Sun and moon and stars! What are you doing here?"

"She brought us here," Zelina said. "I wanted to see you, Patch, so we came to the Center Kingdom, and found your scent at her tree. She told us of the war, and where we would find you now if you were still alive, and very kindly offered to lead us here."

"I thought maybe it would help," White said quietly.

"It does," Patch said.

But in his silent heart he didn't think it helped enough. Zelina and seven warlike cats would be deadly in battle, could probably kill dozens of squirrels and scores of rats; but that wasn't near enough. King Thorn's forces were outnumbered by hundreds and hundreds. Maybe the cats could delay defeat long enough for Karmerruk to kill Redeye and Sniffer and Snout before all was lost - but even that hope seemed faint and desperate. Their enemy was too shrewd and too numerous.

"Alabast is right," he said to Zelina. "You should go while you can."

"Patch," Zelina said, "I do not shrink from blood and battle. I am the Queen of All Cats, and my duty is to slay my enemies or die in the attempt."

Patch hesitated, then asked, very quietly, "Are you really?"

Zelina smiled slightly and answered, in a similar near-whisper, "It seems so."

"Take us to your King," Alabast suggested. "We're exposed out here. And I'm sure Snout will attack the moment he learns of our arrival."

"When do you think that will be?" Patch asked.

Alabast glanced up at the high sun, and said, casually, "He'll come tonight. With every rat and squirrel he can muster. One way or another this will all be over by dawn."


Anonymous Rakie said...

i loved that line about the garden where humans torture plants. :D And i am stupidly happy to see zelina again, it apparently doesn't take much to cheer me up today. :D

September 24, 2007 at 1:13 AM  
Anonymous Steve Tiano said...

No, no, it's not stupid. I am really ... well, heartened by Zelina and Alabast's appearance. Let the battle be joined!

September 25, 2007 at 3:40 PM  

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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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