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

October 7, 2007

78. The Princess

"Here," White said, "Eat this."

Something damp and floppy brushed against Patch's face. It had a rich, earthy scent, like a mushroom. He was so hungry he bit into it without asking what it was, and so weak he could barely break off a piece to chew. It was fibrous and tasteless, like eating spongy bark, but it was better than nothing. Patch ate until it was gone.

"What was that?" he asked.

"A fungus. It grows in the corners. I don't think it's poisonous."

White brought him some more. After devouring this second chunk of fungus Patch tried to stand up. He swayed but succeeded.

"I feel better," he said.

"So do I," Silver said softly, in the darkness.

Patch's eyes widened and his whole body stiffened with wonder and delight. "Silver! You're alive!"

"I'm alive. Only because you came to the underworld to save me," his mother said, as if she did not quite believe it. "From the very jaws of the King Beneath."

Patch wanted to run to her, but - "We're not safe yet. Is there any way out of here?"

"No," White said. "Only where we came from. That ... thing ... is still up there."

"We can just wait for it to leave," Silver suggested.

White hesitated. "I don't know. All these bones ... this chamber, the floor is brick, but the walls are old wood, rotted, and one of the long walls is full of little holes. The holes ... they don't smell right. I think something lives in them. Something bad."

The three of them were silent. Patch heard something thumping and snuffling around the chamber above. The little monster. It made hissing, rasping grunts as it moved. They didn't sound like random exhalations. They sounded like a kind of language. In fact, the more Patch listened to them, the more they sounded almost like Bird. It sounded almost like how Karmerruk might speak, if the hawk suffered some terrible damage to his throat. Patch listened more carefully. He twitched with surprise when a phrase emerged that was guttural but clearly understandable: "Come and be eaten."

"I don't think so!" he exclaimed in Bird, almost without thinking.

The noises above ceased for a moment.

"What are you?" Patch demanded. "Why do you speak Bird?"

"Bird?" A series of rattling moans emerged from the darkness. It took a moment for Patch to realize they were laughter. "Not Bird, fur-thing. Reptile. What am I? I am daughter-King. I am caiman."

"But we're speaking Bird," Patch said, beginning to wonder if he was dreaming or delirious.

"Birds our ancient cousins. My father's stories. Birds come to his father in the jungle." That word meant nothing to Patch. "Birds live in his jaws, clean his teeth, keep them sharp. Birds serve. Crows will serve. Creatures of night, like caiman. Black wings, black blood. My father, my King, will conquer, rule, kill, devour. All will be Kingdom Beneath. Come and be eaten, fur-thing."

"You can't be serious."

"Come and be eaten, stay and be eaten," the caiman hissed. "Many years rat and snake run from us into chamber of bones. Crawling things come and eat. Come and die quick in my jaws, fur-thing. Stay and die slow, eaten alive."

Patch switched back to Squirrel and said, "We have to get out of here."

"How?" White asked.

Patch didn't know. He began to rummage around the chamber. It was long and narrow, and difficult to navigate, thanks to the shifting field of bones that covered its floor. Not all of the skeletons were rats. He stumbled across a long limbless chain of vertebrae with a fanged skull on the end. One of the Legless. Maybe what the caiman had called "snake." The chamber walls, as White had said, were ancient human-carved wood, cracked and soft, covered with fungus... and one long wall was full of holes not quite big enough for Patch's paws, holes that led deep into the dirt beyond the rotting wood, holes that smelled acidly wrong.

That wrong smell seemed to be intensifying. And there was no way out except the narrow metal tunnel that led up to the caiman's waiting jaws.

"Crawling things come," hissed the reptilian daughter of the King Beneath. "Stay and die slow."

1 Comments:

Anonymous Rakie said...

don't like the sound of those crawling things... i have no idea what they are but i'm sure they're not nice things. *shudder* The caiman is awesome! i have a friend called caeman, he's very sweet.

and i love the thing about reptile language being so similar to bird, that's great (makes sense too). i was just thinking - if animal/bird languages rely at least partially on body language, how would being in complete darkness affect them? would it make it more difficult for the squirrels to talk to each other?

and curse this continued immediate peril, it's wrecking my nerves. Fun tho. :D

October 8, 2007 at 10:08 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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