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

October 13, 2007

84. Through the Sky

"I fail to see why the whimsical desires of a ragamuffin squirrel should have anything whatsoever to do with my chosen course of action," the Prince of the Air said haughtily. "You presumed greatly on our acquaintance even in requesting my presence. I will have you know I came here only because the hunting is excellent."

Patch nodded. He had expected the hawk's reluctance. "Where do you live?"

Karmerruk's stare grew even harder. "What business is it of yours where I nest?"

"It's near the Center Kingdom, isn't it?" Patch asked. "Somewhere in the mountains. You have children, don't you? You mentioned your nestlings once."

"My personal life is none of your concern -"

"But the Center Kingdom is. You know what's going on there, don't you? You know the King Beneath is no myth."

Karmerruk beat his wings once, and dust flew, and Patch feared the Prince of the Air would fly away; but the hawk let his wings lapse back to his sides, and admitted, "I have seen the King Beneath."

"And you've seen the crows."

"I would have to be blind not to have seen them."

"If they win, they'll eat every mammal in the Center Kingdom, and then what will you do for food?"

Karmerruk shrugged. "There will still be pigeons and bluejays."

Daffa and Toro backed surreptitiously away from the hawk.

"Is that good enough for your nestlings?" Patch asked. "No mice? No chipmunks?"

The hawk thought a moment, then sighed. "I do like mice ... I see your point, groundling. What is it you want of me?"

"I want you to carry me to a particular place in the Hidden Kingdom."

"What particular place?"

Patch said, "Daffa knows where."

Daffa blinked with surprise, then wilted backwards as Karmerruk turned his penetrating gaze upon the pigeon.

"I don't know anything!" Daffa squawked nervously.

"Sure you do," Patch said. "You told me once you met a big cat that knew how to speak Bird. And you can go right back to that big cat any time you want."

"Oh, the big cat, yes, of course, I can take you there exactly," Daffa said, relieved.

"Big cat?" Karmerruk asked suspiciously. "Does this have anything to do with the Queen of All Cats?"

"No," Patch answered truthfully.

"Hmm." Karmerruk looked around as if seeking some excuse. "It's a long way to the Hidden Kingdom."

"That's why we need to leave as soon as possible."

The hawk considered for some time. Then he sighed, long and loudly, tilted his head towards the sky, and said as if musing about the weather, "I cannot help but to think, Patch son of Silver, in retrospect, my life would have been considerably simpler if I had just eaten you on first acquaintance."

Patch said nothing.

"All right. Let us fly."

"Stay here," Patch said to White and Silver. "He can't carry more than one of us. I'll be back as soon as I can."

"You still haven't explained what you're doing!" Silver exclaimed. "Where are you going?"

"I have an idea," Patch said vaguely. He didn't want to explain what he was doing. He had a notion that any such explanation might sound completely insane. "Don't worry. I won't be in any danger. I won't be long - oh!"

This last expostulation was one of pain and surprise, as Karmerruk's talons dug into his flesh and lifted him away from the ground. Patch winced with pain as he watched White and Silver dwindle from squirrels with alarmed expressions into pale blurs and dots, until finally they were invisible, all he could see were the trees of the Endless Empire like a field of grass beneath them, and the mountains and great waters to the south, and the clouds and setting sun in the sky around them. In his paws Patch carried the glass ball he had found half-buried in the dirt path above the Croton Road.

Daffa and Toro flew beside and behind Karmerruk. The strange and improvised flock of three birds and a squirrel made their way first above the human buildings, and then, as they grew from houses into mountains, between them. The journey was no more comfortable than the last time Patch had travelled by hawk, but in a strange way, the talons digging into his bleeding back made him feel safe; they were so sharp, and Karmerruk so strong, that he knew he ran no risk of falling. Patch watched the approaching Island of the Center Kingdom spread out below him as if it was no more than a single little patch of earth, lit by the rays of the falling sun. He committed the sight to memory. He wondered if perhaps he was the only squirrel ever to have seen the world like this more than once.

The rhythm of Karmerruk's wingbeats began to grow ragged, his movements more spasmodic and less smooth.

"You're too heavy," the hawk gasped. "I can't take you all the way to the Hidden Kingdom. I'll have to leave you in the Center Kingdom overnight, while I rest."

Patch winced. That wasn't part of his plan - but there seemed no choice. "All right." He thought a moment. "Can you take me to the middle of the western frontier?"


"Toro, can you meet me at my drey tomorrow? And bring Daffa. Keep an eye on him. He forgets things."

"It's true," Daffa admitted, ashamed. "In fact I've completely forgotten what I'm doing with the three of you. Have I gone mad?"

"Of course not," Patch assured him. "Just stay with Toro here and you'll be fine."

Daffa looked unconvinced, but didn't argue, as Toro led him south towards the bluejay's nest, and Karmerruk swooped down towards what had once been the territory of the Treetops tribe, when such a tribe had existed. The trees of the North were so covered with crows they seemed to have been infected by some awful blackening disease, but to Patch's relief, the trees near his drey seemed empty of crows - and of all other living things.

"Be careful," Karmerruk warned, as he deposited Patch on a particular oak tree. "The crows roost mostly in the North, but by night, when the King Beneath emerges, they fly all over the kingdom. They can see in the dark, not like owls, but well enough. I'll be back here at dawn. Good luck."

And the hawk flew away, leaving Patch on his home tree. He had not stood on it since the day he had first ventured into the mountains. So many things had changed since then that this sturdy oak now felt alien to Patch, so strange and foreign that he half-thought it was the wrong tree: but no, his drey was still there, in the hollowed-out stump of a big branch, just as he had left it. As the sun set behind the mountains he curled up in his own home. He felt safe: surely no crow could find and attack him here.

It occurred to Patch as he fell asleep that for a long time he had never expected to see his drey again, and despite his desperate mission, he smiled.

He did not sleep long. When darkness fell, the King Beneath rose, and the crows began to fly.


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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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