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

October 5, 2007

76. Roots

Patch's every instinct screamed at him to turn and flee. And if he had, his story would have ended there. The King Beneath was just small enough to run along the Croton Road, and to fit into the smaller tunnels connected by the stone bridge; and although it lived in water, it could run with incredible speed, faster than a horse or a dog. It would have run him down and eaten him in the space of a few breaths.

But Patch did not run. His mother lay on that stone bridge behind that monster, lay poisoned and motionless but not dead, and he would not abandon her. Instead, as the King Beneath charged towards him with the speed of a diving hawk, Patch ran towards it; and in the moment it wavered with surprise, he jumped with all his might, leaped over its fanged and slavering maw, and landed on its stubby neck.

He almost skidded off and fell into the pool. The white scales of the King Beneath were slippery with water and harder than bark, and its enormous muscles squirmed beneath him as it sprinted forward. Patch kept moving, knowing that only momentum kept him upright. He sprinted down the length of the King Beneath, halfway along its curving tail, and leaped onto the stone bridge behind, only a few squirrel-lengths away from Lord Snout's stunned and aghast expression.

Patch didn't stop. He kept running, straight at Snout. His fangs were bare and he was snarling with rage. Snout went still for an instant, frozen by sheer astonishment. Then he scurried towards the edge of the bridge, ready to flee into the dark water - but he was too slow; his moment of surprise had lasted just too long. Patch charged headfirst into the huge rat, sending them both tumbling across the stone bridge. Snout's fangs tore into Patch's shoulder. Patch's teeth met in Snout's throat. Rat-blood spurted. Lord Snout shuddered a moment. Then he lay still.

Patch straightened and turned around, fully expecting to see the King Beneath's jaws closing in on him. But the monster was nowhere to be seen. Its charge had taken it past Patch into the small cross-tunnel; and while the King Beneath could run like the wind, and swim like a fish, and kill almost anything its jaws closed upon, one thing it could not do was move backwards much faster than a crawling slug. Instead of the fanged maw of the King Beneath, Patch saw only the tip of its tail laboriously retreating from that tunnel - and he saw White, greatly daring, racing past that flickering tail to join him on the bridge.

He also saw, in the dark water, another creature like the King Beneath, this one the size of a small dog.

"Hurry!" Patch cried.

He and White rushed to Silver's fallen form.

"Cure her," Patch said urgently.

"I can't!"

Patch stared at White. "You said you could save her!"

"I can - I think - but I will need you both, and it will take time!"

"We don't have any time!"

"I'm sorry, I can't," White repeated. "We have to get her out of here."

Patch nodded and looked nervously at the King Beneath, slowly emerging from the tunnel. "All right. Hurry."

But they couldn't hurry. They had enough strength to take Patch's mother's limbs gently in their jaws and push her along the stone bridge towards the other small tunnel, but the process was slow and laborious. They had only gotten Silver to the mouth of the tunnel when the King Beneath finally freed itself from the opposite tunnel and turned to face them. When it saw Snout's fallen form, its dark eyes fixed on Patch, and its throat began to hiss and rattle with murderous growls. The monster advanced across the stone bridge, moving slowly, stalking Patch carefully. This time there would be no mistakes.

"Get her out of here," Patch said grimly to White, and turned to face the King Beneath.

He knew he only had one chance. Patch waited for a moment. Then he ran straight at the white monster on the stone bridge.

The monster reared back, ready for another jump-over attempt; but this time Patch leaped before he reached the King Beneath, leaped and caught hold of the tangled roots that dangled almost onto the bridge. To his terror his momentum carried him swinging onwards, along the bridge, towards the King Beneath's open mouth. He hadn't expected that - the monster leaped up at him - and it snapped its jaws together just as Patch let go of the root and caught another with one paw. The King Beneath's teeth barely missed him as they crunched together.

The root Patch barely held began to spin crazily as it swung from side to side, slapping him into a thick cluster of roots. Patch grabbed blindly at that tangled cluster and hung on. He was no longer spinning, but he was still dizzy, the world still seemed to be whirling around him at a sickening speed. He caught a blurry glimpse of the monster beneath him. It was crouching to leap.

Patch closed his eyes and made himself race up this branch-thick tangle of roots without thinking, as if he was running up a tree. The King Beneath leaped again. This time its massive jaws snapped together on Patch's tail, cutting it in two. The monster fell back to the stone bridge, but landed awkwardly and slipped back into the pool of dark water beneath.

Patch howled with shock and pain. Blood fell in a red rivulet from the stump of his severed tail as he climbed the damp tangle of roots, and kept climbing until he reached the ceiling. At this height Patch was surrounded by a cloud of roots, he could barely make out anything when he squinted downwards, but he was sure he would have seen White or Silver if they were still visible on the bridge. White had at least dragged his mother out of the chamber of the King Beneath and into the small cross tunnel. It was something.

His tail, what was left of it, throbbed with agony, and without its full length his balance felt all wrong; Patch almost fell when he turned around and began to make his way back down for a better view. He couldn't hang on to these slippery roots forever, he had to try to ignore the mind-swallowing pain of his tail at least until he escaped.

The chamber appeared empty. The King Beneath and the smaller monster seemed to have departed. But Patch didn't trust his eyes. He watched very carefully as he descended towards the bridge, and as he emerged from the thick cloud of roots in the heart of the domed roof, he saw a tiny ripple in the water beside the bridge, and he knew that dark eyes were watching him carefully.

Patch hung on those roots for what felt like a long time. He knew that if he dropped to the bridge, the monster would take him. He could try to outwait it - but he knew that would never succeed. The King Beneath was ancient and cold-blooded. It would wait as long as it needed to catch its prey. These roots were slippery, Patch was bleeding badly from his tail, and his shoulder ached where Snout had bitten it, that foreleg was losing strength. He had to do something soon or he would fall involuntarily. But what?

He remembered when he had first leaped up into the roots, how his momentum had unexpectedly swung him towards the enemy. Patch began to rock his body back and forth, experimentally at first, to see if anything happened at all; and when it did, when the root he hung on began to move in wide curving arcs, he threw himself into it, swung himself with all his might up and down the length of the stone bridge. There was only one chance. Not yet - not yet - now.

Patch let go of the root and soared through the air. It felt like falling off a high branch. He curled himself into a ball just before he flew into the mouth of the cross tunnel where White had gone. The impact of landing rattled his bones and mind, and for a moment he lay there senseless; but then he heard showering water as something enormous surged out of the dark pool and onto the bridge, and sheer panic brought him to his feet and set him running.

This tunnel was circular, and made of metal corrugated in little hoops around the inside. There was a little water in it and Patch splashed loudly as he ran up its dark length. There was just enough light to see that it divided into two similar but smaller tunnels not far from the Croton Road. As he reached that junction, Patch heard something lumbering up the tunnel towards him with incredible speed; but his heart soared, and he actually smiled. The King Beneath was much too large for these smaller tunnels, and he could smell which direction White had gone. He pelted and skidded down the right-hand fork, which bent down and around, running parallel to the Croton Road, until suddenly he shot into a small chamber with a concrete floor.


Anonymous Kza said...


October 6, 2007 at 4:47 AM  
Anonymous Rakie said...

aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhh *grabs monitor and shakes it*

curse you, i have teeth marks in my hand from chewing it. that was nuts, it was so cool, eeeeek i can't believe Patch lost his TAIL, oh the poor ickle squirrel. that was the coolest chapter EVER, you do indeed rock.

I'd like to relax now please, could you maybe not have them in immediate peril for the next chapter or so? Pretty please? :D

October 6, 2007 at 11:46 AM  
Anonymous Rakie said...

ps. i'm bored so i made this:

October 6, 2007 at 2:35 PM  
Blogger Jon said...

Rakie: That's hilarious. But, um, re the immediate peril thing, you may have to wait a little longer.

October 7, 2007 at 12:02 AM  
Anonymous Kza said...


October 7, 2007 at 7:56 AM  
Anonymous Rakie said...

hee, thanks, glad you liked it!

October 8, 2007 at 10:09 AM  
Blogger Phayona said...

This book goes down as one of the best I have ever read. Jon you are the bomb!!! At least his tail matches his future wife. I cant wait for them to get married and give silver new grandbabies..

November 3, 2009 at 3:53 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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