2Toby was just one and a half millimeters tall, not exactly big for a boy of his age. Only his toes were sticking out of the hole in the bark where he was hiding.
Looking up through the enormous russet-colored leaves to the starry sky above, Toby felt there had never been a night as dark and shiny as this one. When there's no moon, the stars dance more brightly. Even if there is a sky in Heaven, he told himself, it couldn't possibly be as deep or as magical as this.
Toby began to calm down. Lying with his head resting on the moss, he could feel his hair wet with cold tears. He was tucked inside a hole in the black bark. His leg was injured, he had cuts on both shoulders, and his hair was matted with blood. His hands were stinging from being ripped by thorns, but the rest of his tiny body was numb with pain and exhaustion.
His life had ended a few hours earlier, so what was he still doing here? That's what people used to ask him, when he poked his nose in everywhere: "Still here, Toby?" Today, he kept whispering it to himself: "Still here?"
But he was definitely alive, and his misery was even vaster than the sky. He was staring at the sky in the same way he used to cling to his parents' hands in a crowd. If I close my eyes, he thought, I'll die. But his eyes stayed wide open, behind two lakes of muddy tears.
Then he heard them. And in a flash the fear was back. There were four of them: three adults and a teenager. The teenager was holding a torch to light their way.
"He can't be far. I'm sure he's not far."
"He must be caught. He has to pay too. Like his parents."
The eyes of the third man shone yellow in the night. He spat, then said, "We'll get him, you'll see, and we'll make him pay."
More than anything, Toby wanted to wake up from this nightmare; he wanted to run over to his parents' bed, and cry and cry....He would have given anything to go through to their bright kitchen together, still in his pajamas, where they'd make him a hot honey drink with cookies and say, "It's over now, Toby sweetheart. It's all right."
Instead, Toby was trembling at the bottom of a hole, trying to tuck in his sticky-out toes. Toby was only thirteen, but he was being hunted by the whole Tree, by his own people, and what he could hear was much worse than the cold, scary night.
What he could hear was a voice he loved, the voice of his oldest friend, Leo Blue.
Once, when he was four and a half, Leo had tried to steal Toby's lunch, and they'd ended up sharing everything ever since - good things and things that weren't so funny. Leo lived with his aunt. Both his parents had died. All he had left of his father, the famous explorer El Blue, was a wooden boomerang. But his misfortune had made Leo Blue very strong, deep down inside. This brought out the best in him, and the worst too. Toby preferred the best: Leo's intelligence and bravery. The boys became inseparable. There was a time when people even called them Tobyleo, as if it was just one name.
One day, when Toby and his parents were due to move house, down to the Low Branches, Tobyleo hid in a dry bud because they didn't want to be split up. It was two days and three nights before they were found. It was one of the rare occasions when Toby saw his father cry.
But tonight, Toby was curled up alone in his bark hole - was this really the same Leo Blue standing just a few paces away, brandishing his flare against the dark? Toby felt his heart exploding when his best friend shouted, "We'll get you! We'll get you, Toby!"
Leo's voice rang out from branch to branch. It brought back a vivid memory.
When he was tiny, Toby had had a tame greenfly called Lima. Toby used to climb on Lima's back, before he could even walk. One day, out of nowhere, the greenfly stopped playing - it bit Toby hard and shook him like a scrap of rag. The creature had gone crazy, and Toby's parents had to separate them. Toby could still remember that look in Lima's eyes, his pupils grown fat as a pond in the rain.
His mother had said to Toby, "Today it was Lima, but anyone could turn crazy one day."
"We'll get you, Toby!"
When he heard that wild cry again, Toby knew that Leo's eyes must be as terrifying as a crazy animal's. Like ponds swollen by the rain.
The small troop was getting nearer, tapping the bark with wooden spears to feel for cracks and hollows. They were looking for Toby. It was like the White Ant Hunt, when fathers and sons set out every spring to drive the pests to the Far Branches.
"I'll make him come out of his hole."
The voice was so close, Toby could almost feel the speaker's warm breath. He didn't dare move or shut his eyes. The beating spears were coming toward him through the flame-swept darkness.
A spear crashed down, landing only a finger's width away from his face. Toby was paralyzed with fear but kept his eyes glued to the patch of sky he could see in between the hunters' shadows. This time they had him. It was over.
Suddenly, night fell all around again.
"Hey! Leo! Did you let the torch go out?" an angry voice shouted.
"It fell. Sorry, the torch fell. . . ."
The group's only torch had gone out; the search would have to continue in the pitch black.
"We're not giving up now. We'll get him."
Another man had caught up with the first and was rummaging around the cracks in the bark. He was so near, Toby could feel the air moving. The second man must have been drinking, because he stank of alcohol and his movements were violent and clumsy.
"I'll catch him myself. I'm going to chop him up into little pieces. And then we'll tell the others we couldn't find him."
The other man laughed as he turned to his hunting companion.
"Doesn't change, does he? He killed forty white ants last spring!"From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Toby Alone by Timothee de Fombelle. Copyright © 2009 by Timothee de Fombelle. Excerpted by permission of Candlewick, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.