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

September 22, 2007

64. Tension and Intention

As Zelina, Alabast, Thorn, Stardancer, Silver and Sharpclaw made battle plans high on the great oak, Patch rested beside Twitch on the ground below, and tried to ready himself for death. Many other squirrels around them were watching Patch sidelong, with hopeful, expectant expressions, as if because a few cats had come for him he might somehow singlehandedly save the Center Kingdom.

He could not look at them. As far as Patch could tell, there was no way to win. His one hope had been that he might somehow spot Redeye and Sniffer in the enemy army, and point them out to Karmerruk, who could kill them like a lightning bolt with wings. But that hope had been extinguished by the prospect of fighting at night. It was true the moon would be full, and perhaps its pale light would be enough for the hawk to see by, but it would not be enough for Patch. There was nothing left but to fight to the end, to the death, to the last squirrel.

"Did your friends bring any food?" Twitch asked hopefully.

Patch shook his head miserably.

Twitch sighed. "Well, I guess there'll be food tomorrow. I mean, if I'm still alive. I hope I am. I always hoped that when my time came, I wouldn't be hungry."

"If you get the chance, Twitch, you should get away."

"Get away?"

Patch looked sternly at his friend. "Yes. You're strong enough, no one will choose to fight you if they don't have to, maybe you can escape the battle. Go across the mountains to the Western Kingdom. It's better than dying here."

"Escape? Patch, I can't do that. I'd be the last one of my tribe! The last Treetops ever! I wouldn't have any friends, or anything! I'd rather it was my time."

Patch sighed and nodded sadly.

Twitch said, "I just wish I wasn't hungry."

Patch heard hisses and gasps from up above, and looked up to see White padding slowly down the oak trunk. Other squirrels drew away from her as if she carried the blackblood disease.

Patch bared his teeth angrily, and called out, "White! Down here!"

Her eyes lit up and she trotted down to the ground and joined Patch and Twitch. Squirrels all around broke into a low hubbub of discussion - how was it that Patch, their one hope of victory, friend to cats and hawks, could consort with this half-tail albino?

"This is Twitch, my oldest friend, the strongest and bravest squirrel in the Center Kingdom," Patch said. "This is White. She saved my life."

"Oh, good. I'd hate it if Patch was dead. Did you bring any food?"

White said, "No, I'm sorry."

"I've never met a white squirrel before," Twitch said, interested. "Is it true you're cursed by the moon?"

Patch froze, worried that White would be horribly offended, but she actually laughed, if incredulously. "Do you know, Twitch, you're the first squirrel to ever ask me that? Most others think they already know everything there is to know about me."

"Oh, not me," Twitch said, very seriously. "I hardly know anything at all."

"I think that makes you very wise. The answer is, I don't know, Twitch. I know I cannot stand direct sunlight, and have to spend the noon in shade. I know other squirrels think my presence is a curse to them. But I don't feel cursed by the moon. When I watch her in the sky, I feel like I'm seeing my true mother."

Twitch stared at her, stunned. "No one ever called me wise before."

Patch said, "Twitch, if you're bitten by a blackblood rat tomorrow, go to White before it's too late." Not that he thought either would survive; but it was better to pretend that he expected victory.

"When is too late?" Twitch asked.

"Before the day is out."

"Not necessarily," White said. "The blackblood-bitten sleep for days before they slip into death." She hesitated. "But few of them die in that way."

Patch looked at her.

"There's something I learned, Patch. The day after you left, I decided - I didn't want to be alone. I followed your trail. I went to the Ramble. There were crows there, eating the dead, but they didn't touch any of the blackblood squirrels. They left those squirrels for the rats."

"And the rats ate them?"

"No. They took them. They dragged them away."

Patch blinked. "Took them where?"

"I don't know exactly. The underworld. The Kingdom Beneath."

"Why?"

"I heard two rats talking. They said, they said the blackblood squirrels were food for the King Beneath. They said they made him stronger."

After a moment Patch said, breathlessly, "The King Beneath is a myth."

"Are you sure?"

Patch thought of the terrifying, alien scent that had seeped out of the black hole Coyote had shown him, and said nothing.

"I wish you'd stop talking about food," Twitch complained. "It just makes me hungrier."

Patch forced a chuckle. "What would you like to talk about?"

"I don't know." Twitch cast a longing eye towards the maple where the foodstores had been kept, when there had been food. "I just wish we could finish with all this waiting."

Patch said, "It won't be long now." The sun seemed to be falling unnaturally fast. It was already halfway towards the horizon.

"Look," Twitch said. "Here comes Silver."

Patch's mother joined them. Her expression was grim.

"What is it?" Patch asked.

"They're coming," she said. "I don't think they'll actually attack until night, but we can't take chances. White, you stay with me. Twitch, Patch, join your war-clans, to your positions. This is it. Battle is coming."

Twitch leapt eagerly to his feet. Patch stood up and stared at his mother. She approached him, and they nuzzled and drank in one another's scent, knowing it might well be the last time.

"You've been the kind of son that every mother dreams of, when she learns she is with child," Silver whispered. "So brave, so strong, so wise. Such wonderful friends. Our only hope comes from your friends. I hope we can sit down some day, Patch, and you can tell me all your adventures, every friend and every detail. I hope we find that time."

Patch's throat was too full to speak, and his eyes were full of tears, the world seemed to be shivering uncontrollably.

"May the moon shine on us all," Silver said; and then she was gone.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Rakie said...

ohhhhhh... that made me sad. Poor squizzels. *hugs* I really REALLY want this to end happily now! Very cool chapter, very well written, i cannot wait to see what happens next. *taps foot impatiently*

September 24, 2007 at 1:22 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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