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

September 23, 2007

65. The Battle of the North

The Battle of the North began just after the sun had set, beneath a sky still filled with light, a sky in which only a few stars were set. It began with the sudden charge of Redeye's entire army of Meadow squirrels. They were not divided into war-clans, as is customary with squirrel armies; rather, it was an all-out frontal attack across the length of the Ravine, as if the Meadow army was a single creature with hundreds of fangs and claws, seeking to overrun all of King Thorn's forces with a massed and overwhelming assault that very nearly succeeded.

Patch's war-clan was stationed atop of the tallest tree on the battlefront, and had been told to remain there, to give Patch the best possible chance of spotting Redeye and Sniffer. Patch saw immediately that there was no hope of success; in the fading darkness all the squirming hundreds of squirrels below looked identical.

"Down!" he shouted to Nighteye. "We have to go help!"

Nighteye hesitated. "We were ordered to stay with you until -"

"Then stay with me," Patch interrupted, and raced down the huge maple tree and into the fray.

Without realizing it he happened to leap from its trunk into a knot of snarling Meadow squirrels - and would have died a few breaths later if his war-clan had not followed him and fought with breathtaking ferocity. The subsequent melee of fangs and claws and blood and shrieking fury seemed endless while it was happening; when it was over, when the entire Meadow war-clan lay dead beneath the darkening sky along with Nighteye and two other of Patch's companions, it seemed to have lasted no more than a heartbeat.

For most, this first wave of battle was less devastating, but the general outcome was the same. Thorn's army repelled the Meadow charge, but at great cost to both sides. As the Meadow retreated, they left the air behind them filled with screams and panic-smells of wounded and dying squirrels. Patch heard the agonized hissing of at least one cat as well, and hoped it was not Zelina.

The wounded squirrels who could limped back to Thorn's court. Others were dragged there by their friends. Others died where they lay. Those still able-bodied waited, peering into the distant night, now lit only by the pale disc of the moon. Her silver light shone on a sudden explosion of motion, and a great cry of dismay and rage erupted from Thorn's army as the Meadow squirrels charged again - this time, accompanied by what seemed like all the rats in the world, so many that it looked as if the ground itself was moving towards them.

"Fall back!" Patch heard. Sharpclaw's voice. "Fall back or we are overrun!"

He, Quicknose, and the other two war-clan survivors backed away from the oncoming wave of flesh, almost to Thorn's oak: then battle was joined, and Patch lost all sense of place. There was nothing in the world but an unbroken sea of churning fur and flesh, an endless orgy of gouging and tearing and ripping with teeth. Quicknose fell beneath two Meadow squirrels, and Patch came to his aid too late; he clawed the eyes from one, and bit the throat from the other, but his friend lay dead in a widening pool of blood. Then there were more rats and squirrels, Patch didn't know if the latter were friend or foe, and the ground was so thick with blood it was like wading in mud. Patch fell, and rats ran over him as if he was one of the dead. He barely managed to pull himself free from the blood-thickened muck. There was a tree nearby, he could see it against the darkness, and he leapt for its trunk and managed to climb halfway up, tried to take stock of the situation while the battle swirled and raged below. Patch sniffed the air instinctively, and froze. Sniffer was near.

He looked around, but all he could see was dim and frantic motion, squirrels and rats, rats and squirrels - wait. There, just there, behind the battlefront, at the edge of his moonlit vision, the largest rat he had ever seen was talking to two squirrels. Lord Snout, Sniffer and Redeye. They stood complacently, as if victory was already assured, as the battle line raged past the tree on which Patch stood, ever closer to King Thorn's oak.

Patch dropped to the ground and charged. He was doomed; everything he knew would die tonight, friends, family, war-clan, tribe, kingdom, but maybe he could kill the worst of his enemies before he died. He knocked over two rats who got in his way and very nearly made it all the way before a thick cluster of rats first barred his path, and then surrounded him. Patch fought in a whirling frenzy, biting and clawing like he was rabid, trying to make his way to Snout, Sniffer, and Redeye - who respectively looked amused, amazed, and frightened as they watched - but they were too many, a half-dozen rats had leapt onto Patch and sank their teeth into his flesh, they were dragging him down, they were turning his head to expose his throat to a killing bite -

- and then another squirrel entered the fray, crashing into the rats, sending most of them tumbling away from Patch. It was Silver. But as Patch's mother tore apart the rats about to kill her son, Snout leapt on top of her, dug his claws into her sides, and bit her in the back of the neck. Silver fell heavily to her belly. She bucked and writhed, trying to free herself, but Snout was too big, too strong. Patch, dazed and bleeding, tried to come to her aid, but he was surrounded by more rats, a river of rats had streamed onto the battlefield from somewhere, they were all around him, there was no way out.

Then he shrieked, as new agony laced into his back; and gasped, as the ground fell suddenly away from him and a great wind beat at his fur. No, not wind. Wingbeats. He was rising above the battlefield, caught in Karmerruk's claws.

"No," he panted, "save Silver! Kill Snout! The big rat right next to me, you should have taken him! And Sniffer was there too, and Redeye!"

"Bloody moon and darkened sun!" Karmerruk cursed, wheeling around in a dizzyingly tight turn, and then stooping into a howling dive.

"Put me down, go back and get them!" Patch said.

Karmerruk didn't put Patch down - he actually dropped him onto a tall tree. Patch tumbled through its leaves, struck his head hard against a big branch, barely managed to catch hold of a smaller one, and dangled from it for a dizzying moment before he pulled himself to safety. That effort and the blow to the head were too much for him. The world swam gray around him, and then went dark.

When he came to, the screams and snarls of battle still continued below. Patch tottered to his paws. It took him a moment to realize he stood on the maple that King Thorn had used to store food. He looked down, ready to charge back into the fray - and saw that no hope remained. The war was all but over.

Beneath him the final battle raged around the base of Thorn's oak tree. Zelina and her cats were fighting desperately with their backs to its trunk. The King's territories had diminished to that single tree, and the rats were everywhere, and worst of all, they were growing in number, in the dim moonlight Patch could see more reinforcements streaking in from all directions. He groaned with despair.

Then Patch blinked and squinted at the ground. Something about the scene beneath him seemed wrong. Those reinforcements. He tried to focus his straining eyes on the creatures racing into the battle from all around. Rats were not so large, and did not move with such speed and liquid grace -

Patch gasped. Those weren't rat reinforcements. They were cats. And there were dozens of them, scores, more than a hundred, there was an entire host of cats racing into the battle, coming in ones and twos from north and south and east and west, leaping into the fray, tearing into Snout's rat army from behind and shredding it like dry leaves.

Patch watched Snout's army come apart in the face of this deadly and unexpected foe. First it unravelled slowly from the outside; then the whorls and eddies of chaos spun inwards to the front, where the rats were on the verge of overrunning what was left of King Thorn's army; and then, sudden as a lightning bolt, the rat army dissipated all at once, scattered in all directions like a dandelion in a hurricane, and fled to the four corners of the Center Kingdom.

It took Patch some time to realize that the Battle of the North was over.


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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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