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

October 3, 2007

74. Croton

The human watched curiously as the rat led the two squirrels back to the underworld ravine. They turned left and followed the ravine for a considerable distance. Every time a train thundered past Patch found himself shivering at their sheer speed and immensity; every time he feared the ravaging wind of the train's slipstream might lift him off his feet and fling him like a leaf against the ravine wall. He didn't think he would ever be able to get used to trains if he lived here.

The rat kept to the shadows, while the squirrels stayed in the light from above as much as possible. They passed hordes of beetles and cockroaches, a few grubs and spiders, the shredded bodies of animals caught on the rails by a passing train, many human footprints, and countless rat-tracks. The smell of Rat was everywhere, but none were audible or visible except the one they followed.

"I shouldn't have done this," the rat said nervously. "It's dangerous. If the other rats come back -" He left the sentence incomplete.

"What other rats?" Patch asked.

"Usually this place is crawling with us, but Snout called them all to him, to fight some war. Most followed his summons. But there are still plenty here, don't be fooled, these walls are full of them. Deserters like us, who do what they like, not what they're commanded. They won't come after us. They're killers, savage, vicious, but they won't attack another rat unless they have to, and you two are too big to fight alone. They won't come after us. I don't think so. Probably not. They don't like coming into the light. Squirrel doesn't even taste good. But hurry. Let's hurry. Let's run."

The rat broke into a scamper, and Patch and White had to do the same to follow. Then, just as Patch's legs were beginning to grow weary, it slowed, sniffed the air, and halted.
"Here," it said, and crossed over the train rails. They followed it up the other side of the ravine to a dark hole in the wall just big enough for Patch.

"That goes to the Croton Road," the rat said, low-voiced. "Once you're there, turn left, and just keep going. The King Beneath lives in the first big chamber on the way."

"Are there rats in between?" White asked.

"No. You'll see why when you get there." The rat looked around furtively. "I should go. I shouldn't have come. Somebody might have seen me with you. They might stop me on the way back and ask why. What do I do then? What am I supposed to say? I shouldn't have left the human. You shouldn't have made me sorry for you."

"It'll be fine," Patch assured the rat, hoping he was right. "Thank you. We owe you a favour. I am Patch son of Silver, and this is White daughter of Streak. Remember that. Maybe one day we can help you."

"Maybe," the rat said doubtfully. It sighed. "I envy you your names. I wish I had a name."

White suggested, "Why don't you give yourself a name?"

The rat stared at her.

"That's a good idea," Patch agreed. "You and all your friends. Just name yourselves."

"We can't do that!" the rat said, shocked. "You can't just give yourself a name! Names have to come from somewhere!"

"All right," Patch said, "I'll give you a name. I name you ..." He thought for a moment, shrugged, and said, "Nervous. From now on you're Nervous the rat."

White choked down laughter. Fortunately the rat didn't notice.

"Nervous," the rat said thoughtfully. "Nervous. I like the sound of that. That's me all over. I'm Nervous. My name is Nervous. Pleased to meet you. I'm Nervous the rat." He looked at Patch with fervent eyes. "You mean it? I can keep it?"

"Of course," Patch said, a little bewildered by the question.

"Nervous. Oh, it's wonderful! Thank you, Patch. Thank you, White. I thank you. I, Nervous, thank you! I'm Nervous the rat!"

"You're welcome," White said feebly.

"But I should go now," Nervous said nervously, his joy in eponymy dampened by remembered fear. "There are other rats. They might see me. I should go."

He turned and ran.

"Goodbye, Nervous," Patch said thoughtfully. "I hope you like your name."

After a moment he shrugged, turned, and followed White into the little hole.

Patch didn't like this tiny tunnel at all. It was lightless and claustrophobically small, and it wound its erratic way up and down and side to side. In some places they had to force their way through freshly-fallen dirt and pebbles, and he was nervously aware that the whole thing could easily collapse. It was so small there was nowhere to turn around. It felt like being buried alive. At least there was air, but it smelled wet and stagnant. He closed his eyes and felt his way forward, guiltily glad that White was in the lead.

"Patch," White whispered. "I think I see something."

Patch stopped and opened his eyes. At first he saw no difference - but slowly, as his eyes adjusted, he began aware of a dim and distant glow. He couldn't see shapes, but he saw amorphous motion as White scurried ahead of him. The tunnel began to ramp downwards, towards the glow, and Patch was able to make out flickers of her white tail. Then White came to a sudden stop.

"What is it?" he asked.

"I think it's water. In a cave. Below us."

"Where's the light coming from?"

White paused. "It's hard to say. It's a long way down. I think, I think we have to jump into the water. And we won't be able to climb back up."

Patch winced. This was why Nervous had been so sure there would be no rats en route. This tunnel was one-way. He didn't say anything. There was nothing to say. It wasn't like they really had a choice.

"All right," White said. She took a deep breath, and stepped forward; she was gone; and there came a splash from below.

Patch advanced to the faint glowing hole in the tunnel floor. It was just big enough for a squirrel to dive through headfirst. The sides of the hole weren't dirt; they were brick, the hole was a missing brick in a human-made roof. That chilling scent from the tunnel of the Legless emanated from below, stronger than ever, and Patch. It was a little like the scent of the Legless themselves, but not the same; more alien, and more dreadful.

He could see ripples in water below. Something bobbed to the surface. The light was so dim he couldn't see what, but it was pale, it had to be White. Patch closed his eyes and jumped. The water was so cold that he surfaced gasping with shock.

"Are you okay?" White asked.

Patch looked towards her voice. She was only a squirrel-length away, but all he could see of her was a pale blob floating in darkness.

"I think so," he said.

"It's so cold! We have to get out!"

She was right. This icy water would suck the life from them if they stayed too long. Patch looked around, squinting into the shadow.

He couldn't see much, but he could see that the tunnel they were in was enormous, big enough that a half-dozen humans could have walked it side-to-side without stooping. The brick walls on either side curved and met in a smooth continuous arch high above the water. It was the walls themselves that glowed in patches; they were occupied by some kind of faintly luminous mold. This light was just enough to see that brick ledges ran along the walls on both sides, a squirrel-length above the water. Those ledges, rather than this deep river between them, must have been what Nervous had meant by the Croton Road.

"Maybe we can climb up the sides," Patch said.

They swam over to the sheer brick walls of the river - but they were too crumbly and slippery to climb; neither Patch nor White could get more than a few steps up without falling back into the water followed by a shower of brick dust. The attempts were exhausting, and the cold water was already beginning to tell.

"This isn't going to work," Patch said, growing increasingly worried. The water would kill them if they stayed in it too long.

"No," White said. "Let's swim. Maybe we'll find a better place."

They swam in what they hoped was the direction Nervous had given them. There was no current, as far as Patch could tell, but the water was fresh. The smooth rhythm of swimming loosened and warmed his muscles, and he began to breathe normally again.

The Croton Road continued in an absolutely straight line for what seemed to be forever. In places, tree-roots had fought their way through its brick ceiling and dangled in thick clusters from the air, soaking up the wet air. In others the ceiling was shrouded by massive curtains of spiderwebs. From time to time Patch felt other creatures moving in the water beneath him; each time he nervously swam away. Once, something long and slender surfaced right in front of them, and Patch almost screamed with horror. It was one of the Legless, and it glistened as if covered with slime, and it had no eyes at all, no features but two nose-holes and a huge mouth full of teeth like needles. He froze with panic. The thing submerged and did not come back.

"We have to get out of this water!" Patch said, his voice fraught with near-panic.

"Easy," White panted. "We'll find a way."

But he didn't see how. The walls were crumbling, but everywhere still sheer. His legs were growing tired, a faint cramp was beginning to flicker in his right hindleg, and he knew that once they slowed down, the water would slowly leech all the life from them. They would soon shiver and grow numb and slowly die.

"Wait," White whispered. "There's something."

Patch squinted. She was right. Something was floating in the water. They approached and discovered it was a hulk of rotting wood, human-carved planks joined together into a strange and angular shape. It was crawling with wood-beetles.

"Maybe we can climb on top of it," White suggested.

Patch tried. It wasn't easy, his strength was worryingly low. He managed briefly - but the wooden hulk was too unstable, it overturned and sent him pitching back into the water.

"No good," he panted. "The air's even colder than the water. We have to get out soon, or we'll freeze to death before we get dry!"


Patch had no answer.

"Wait," she said. "We'll push it!"


"We'll push it to the side, and then we'll use it to climb up. Like it's a stepping stone."

Patch gasped. "That's brilliant!"

"Only if it works."

They put their noses against the side of the wooden hulk and propelled it to the side of the river. Patch scrambled up to its top again, and as it again began to overturn, he took a running jump from the wooden hulk just before it toppled, leaped through the air with all his strength, and landed on the dry brick of the Croton Road.

White followed his example, and on the third try succeeded.

"We m-m-made it," she said, teeth chattering from the cold.

"Come on," Patch said. "We have to keep moving."

They trotted shivering along the Croton Road, towards the icy, bitter alien scent that they had followed when they first entered the underworld. That scent was growing so powerful that it almost drowned out the omnipresent stink of Rat.

They were not yet dry when they came unexpectedly upon the chamber of the King Beneath.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

augh, this is killing me having to wait to read new chapters, once this story is finished i'm printing the whole lot out and going into seclusion for a couple of days while i read through it all again. (really looking forward to seeing how it reads in one sitting, actually) :D

and CLIFFHANGER!!! *shoe*
i hope the king is an alligator. I would love to see patch beat an alligator. And was that an EEL in the water?? that's so cool. EEEEEEEL.

October 4, 2007 at 11:38 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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