"In the beginning, Frith made the world. He made the streams and the hills and the trees and the wide grass that covered the hills and the valleys. All of the things that Frith made lived under his light, and hungered for the sight of Frith, and for the warm brilliance of Frith's gaze. The rivers flowed after him, the hills reached up towards him, and the trees and grasses grew upright, towards Frith.
"Frith made all the animals, too - the birds and the rabbits and the foxes and the cattle and the hedgehogs and the slugs under dead logs. And all of these things were made alike - for in the beginning, all the animals ate grass and leaves and were not enemies of each other. Yona the hedgehog was friend to the bugs of the leafmold and the owl was friend to the mouse and they both ate grain, and the fox was the friend of the rabbit and they both ate leaves and sprouts and all the green things of the earth.
"In those times, oh so long ago, the Prince of all rabbits was El-ahrairah, the cleverest, smartest, bravest of all rabbits. El-ahrairah had a thousand wives, and all of his wives had a thousand kits, and none but Lord Frith could count them all.
"And number them all Frith did, and Frith was displeased with his accounting. For there were so many rabbits that they covered the earth, and the grass became thin, and uncovered the ground, so that the soil washed away into the rivers, until the bright rivers became dark with dirt, and the waters cried out to Frith in despair.
"'El-ahrairah,' said Frith, 'you must counsel your people, and bring them within the bounds of the hills and the forest. For I have made a limit for you and your people, and you must abide by it.'
"But El-ahrairah considered the limit a foolish thing, and only to be obeyed by foolish and weak-hearted animals. 'For surely', said El-ahrairah, 'Lord Frith would not make rabbits so clever and so swift if he did not mean for us to find a way around or though or under any barrier.' And so El-ahrairah said nothing to his wives or to his offspring or to his companion Rabscuttle of what Frith had said.
"And so, unwarned, all the rabbits went on eating and mating and kindling, and they ate more and more of the grass, until Frith resolved to teach El-ahrairah a lesson.
"Now, what El-ahrairah had said was true in part - for Frith had made rabbits to be runners and scurries and tricksters and to respect no bounds. But Frith also loved the hills and the rivers and the grass, and he was displeased with the washing away of the hills and the fouling of the rivers. And so Frith called all the animals to him, and he gave them each gifts.
"Now remember that the gifts of Frith have ever been fearsome things; and this was true in those days as well. Frith gave the cow great hooves and sharp horns and massive strength, but made cows so that they were ever to live with men. And to the weasel Frith gave terrible teeth and an endless blood lust, and none of the other animals are friends to the weasel to this day. To the owl, Frith gave huge claws and silent wings and eyes that are weak and feeble in the light of day; and so the owl is shut away from the sight and warmth of Frith.
"In the same way, Frith gave the rabbits great strong feet and sharp ears, wise cunning and wits as fast as their feet, but the rabbit is prey to a thousand other types of animals. And so began the war between the people of El-ahrairah and the other animals."
Summer had shouldered in past spring, cast down the new growth's bright green crown, and worked its golden magic on the land. Now the longest of the days were past, but the day's heat still lasted long into the evening. It was the best of times, for rabbits, at least - plentiful flay to browse upon, weather that was no enemy, and of the enemies that there were - fox, weasel, hawk - none of them were under the press of winter's grip. The desperate days of late fall and winter were still so far away as to be unthinkable.
Or, so it seemed, to the handful of young does feeding together outside the warren called Efrafa.
They were four, all from that year's litters, and fast friends all the days of their short lives. A human, observing the quartet grazing under the cover of an elder bush, could scarcely have told one from the next, but Hyzenthlay, Sunfleck, Beehum, and Thethuthinnang knew each other by sight, by sound, and by the scent that marked each of them as individuals, and as fellow members of Efrafa, all in the same breath.
They knew the other members of their Mark as well - some better than others, but well enough to tell a strange rabbit in an instant.
So when Hyzenthlay saw a unfamiliar rabbit shuffle out of the closest hraka trench and resume feeding, she sat up immediately and asked, "Who is that?"
"That's old Cedar," Thethuthinnang said. "Isn't she ancient? She's grey like dry sand." The doe was old - the oldest rabbit that Hyzenthlay had ever seen. Her muzzle had gone entirely grey. The grizzled look put Hyzenthlay in mind of moss-covered tree bark.
She moved like a tree - slow and creaky. And it was from more than just age, Hyzenthlay saw. Blood still seeped from the grey-tipped fur over her near foreleg. A fresh wound - she's new to the Mark, then.
"Why'd they move her?" asked Sunfleck, echoing Hyzenthlay's thought. Usually it was only the yearlings who were moved from one Mark to the next, to keep the numbers even and to keep one set of burrows more crowded than the others.
"I heard it was because she started a fight. With the Owslafa."
"Her?" Hyzenthlay snorted. "Don't be silly. She's old. And a doe. Young bucks start fights with Owslafa."
"She did - kicked the captain of her Mark right across the burrow." Thethuthinnang spoke with surety.
"Really?" Sunfleck - two weeks younger than the other three, but always the most adventurous, sat up and looked across the clearing at the old doe. "Are you sure?"
"'Dry leaves and bluetit's chatter,'" said Beehum. "Of course she's not sure."
"I'm as sure as if I asked her," which Thethuthinnang said, a boast that she did not entirely believe herself. Thethuthinnang had a habit of sitting quietly and listening well, and she generally knew things before the rest of the young does. But she would have been the first to admit that she didn't understand everything she heard.
"Well, let's go ask her, then." And with that Sunfleck made her way across the clearing in a series of lazy, unhurried hops. To her own surprise, Hyzenthlay found herself following.
They came to a stop side by side, a long length away from the old doe. She cocked an ear at them, but did not stop her snuffling amongst the grass for tender roots. Hyzenthlay had spent the whole of her short life as one of dozens of young rabbits in a large warren, and had never felt so thoroughly ignored.
Sunfleck was typically unsuppressed.
"Hello. This is Hyzenthlay and I'm Sunfleck. Are you Cedar?"
The doe said, "Yes," and took another bite of grass.
"We heard that you kicked the Captain of the Mark across the burrow. Did you?"
The doe, still chewing, looked at Sunfleck, and then away. "Yearlings shouldn't listen to magpies."
"I didn't hear it from a magpie. Did you really whip a Captain of the Mark?"
The doe finished her mouthful and swallowed, then sighed and said, "Yes."
"I'll do that," declared Sunfleck. She hopped up right, playing at cuffing the air. "I'll tell those Owsla - this is my burrow and this is my cowslip. Baff!" Sunfleck went back down to all fours and stamped, bouncing all around Cedar and Hyzenthlay. "Back off! Just like that!"
"You're a flutter-head, Sunfleck," said Hyzenthlay, keeping one eye on Cedar. This kind of showing off had gotten Sunfleck cuffed more than once by older rabbits - Sunfleck and whoever was with her. If Cedar had fought one of the Owsla, she wouldn't take lightly a threat from a yearling - even in play. But Cedar kept on eating, even as Sunfleck bounced closer.
"Just wait until I'm grown. I'll do it!"
"No, you won't." Cedar sighed. She took another mouthful of food and was silent again, chewing.
"Yes, I will!"
"Kicking Owsla bucks is for old tired does, kit. Not for yearlings. And you won't. Come spring, you'll come into season, and then you won't be able to have enough to do with the bucks. They pick the fine ones for sentry duty, you know, and you'll be eyeing the Owsla bucks every hour you get."
At this display of willfulness, Cedar fell back to chewing and did not say anything else.
Hyzenthlay found a bit of sweet root and would have stayed by the older doe, but Sunfleck grew restless and bored. The third time she tried to provoke Hyzenthlay into chasing her around the meadow, Hyzenthlay let her.
"The beginning of the war between the rabbits and the Thousand Enemies was a horrible time. It is terrible still, but there are no words to say how much more heartbreaking it was in the beginning.
"Before, the rabbits had lived above ground, sleeping where they liked, eating when they wished. After the war began, the rabbits found themselves hunted and killed every hour of the day, and every hour of the night.
"If not for the tricks that El-ahrairah taught his people - to dig burrows underground, and to hide them well, to creep through thicket and thorn brush, safe from the eye of the hawk, to post lookouts, to connect the burrows together, to make a hundred openings and a hundred exits from each warren - if not for those tricks, and a thousand more besides, the rabbits would have perished.
"But they did not. And while they would have all been killed, if not for the cunning and bravery of their Prince, it was not all due to the merit of El-ahrairah that the rabbits were saved.
"They were not all killed, because there were so many rabbits that even the Thousand could not find them all. The wives of El-ahrairah were countless, and their children were countless, and though many died - carried off by owls, throats torn out by stoats, driven mad by the White Blindness that man spread among the rabbits - though many died, not all did.
"But many of the children of El-ahrairah did die.
"Not all of those who were lost were fully grown rabbits, although many were - plucked up by hawks, or killed by foxes. But many more were lost as young kittens - small and foolish and easy prey for kestrels, or left behind, still naked and blind, when a warren was abandoned in the panic of White Blindness.
"And then, most pitiful still, were the kittens that mothers bore, live and whole, only to die thereafter. Some were crushed in the press of the burrows, when too many rabbits secreted themselves in too few runs. Some were born to does who - distraught and in terror for their own lives - savaged the poor blind things. And some kittens were born to does whose hearts had gone to frost, and who turned away from their young, and abandoned them.
"Many of the children of El-ahrairah died. Many of the children of El-ahrairah's wives died. And all of the wives mourned. And some of them raged.
"And their anger was greatest when they found that El-ahrairah had been warned by Lord Frith, and had not heeded the warning.
"One of these was a doe named Inlehyroo - Little Bright Moon. Little Moon had lost children to foxes and owls and the traps of men; to White Blindness, to weasels, and to suffocation in over-crowded warrens, to the claws of hawks and to her own bitter heart. And when Little Moon discovered that El-ahrairah had been addressed by Lord Frith, and turned away, her anger was deep.
"She demanded an audience with El-ahrairah, and came before him and before Rabscuttle and before El-ahrairah's chief wives, came still swollen with milk from her last litter - a litter now dead and abandoned in a warren that the rabbits had fled.
"'You have done this to us, oh Prince. You have brought the fury of the Thousand on us. We should return to Frith, and place ourselves in his bounds, and cease this fleeing across the countryside.'
"'That is not the way of rabbits,' said El-ahrairah. 'We are not a people of boundaries, and no one may check us in our wandering. I grieve the loss of our children, but only Frith himself would be able to stop the Thousand now. We must flee, we must wander, we must use cunning and deceit, else we shall surely be lost.'
"'My children are dead, oh Prince,' cried Little Moon. 'They are already lost!'
"But El-ahrairah would not heed her, though his heart ached for the dead kittens as well. He knew that the loss of some kittens was to be preferred to the loss of all the rabbits in the world, and he feared that to accept Frith's bounds now would mean the end of all rabbits.
"Little Moon went away with her heart sad and dry, and aching with milk for her dead children. 'If the Prince will not heed me,' she thought, 'then I will go to Frithrah myself, and beg him to spare at least the kittens.'
"And so that night, beneath the dark sky, Little Moon slipped away from the warren, intent on finding Frithrah herself and demanding justice from him."
"My mother said it's true - she did kick the Mark Captain. Clawed a chunk of fur out of his belly." Beehum dropped this bit of gossip on the other three the next day, after silflay, when they were all resting underground. "My mother said that she was surprised that Cedar was still running - she said that Cedar was an old hlessi when she came to Efrafa, and that was when my mother was young."
A murmur of astonishment ran across the group. "She must be hrair years, then," Sunfleck said. "We should go and talk to her again, before she stops running."
For all that the old doe had seemed in good form the day before, Hyzenthlay was inclined to agree. Who knew what could overcome a rabbit that old?
"Tomorrow," Thethuthinnang said, yawning. "It's too hot to go wandering about."
And so the next day, after the Mark had come down from silflay, the four does went searching.
All of Efrafa was divided into Marks - sub-groups of the warren, all sharing a mark, or scar, so that they could be told one from the other. None of the Marks shared burrows, and this was one of the ways that Efrafa was most unlike an ordinary warren. The does did not know this - they had all been born in Efrafa to mothers who had spent their whole lives in the same Mark - but it was usually irrelevant.
What mattered now was that the Near Fore burrows were large, but not impossible for four kits to search in an afternoon. In less time than they had thought, Beehum came and found the other three.
"She's in the Rough burrow," Beehum reported. "Just her - and no surprise, with everyone else tramping through."
The Rough burrow lay very close to a main run, and had been started out on a bed of limerock. This gave the burrow its name, and kept the burrow just this side of uncomfortable - the floor was hard and uneven, and the main thoroughfare made resting difficult.
The four does made their way back down, Beehum in the lead. They found the old doe as Beehum had said, lying at her ease on the hard ground of the burrow. But Cedar did not look distressed or uncomfortable, merely as though she had chosen that spot from many others like it.
The young does stopped just inside the burrow, their tails and hindquarters still within the run proper. Cedar opened one eye and regarded them, but did not speak.
"Hello," Hyzenthlay said, and hopped forward to touch noses.
"Hello," Cedar said. They sat there for a moment, Cedar chewing a pellet slowly, and Hyzenthlay feeling more and more foolish as the silence went on. She looked over her shoulder, for if there was a time for Sunfleck's irresponsible impulsiveness, this was it. But Sunfleck only sat in the entrance to the burrow, as silent as Thethuthinnang and Beehum.
Hyzenthlay turned back to Cedar, who was still watching the young does. She is not angry, only quiet, Hyzenthlay thought, and the idea cheered her.
She would not be angry, if I were to ask a question. Hyzenthlay was about to say,What was it like, where you were born? when she became aware of a grown rabbit coming up the run behind her.
It was Oakthorn, one of the youngest sentries. When he brushed against Sunfleck, she spooked and flinched, stamping.
"Quiet," hissed Beehum. The sentry looked them over with a stern eye. Under his gaze, Sunfleck stilled.
"Move along there," said Oakthorn. "Unless you want your name reported to the captain."
A report was a good way to end up shifted, when the next Mark sorting came along - or so Sunfleck said. Hyzenthlay and the other does shuffled out of the sentry's way and started for the entrance to the run, when Cedar spoke.
"Let them be," she said.
"What's it to you? They're foolish kits," the sentry scoffed, "And they need to learn manners."
"You can chase them off, and they can dash about through the runs. Or you can leave them be, and let them listen to a story or two." Cedar gathered her feet under her. "Your choice."
Hyzenthlay had heard two of the sentries complaining earlier in the day, that the Captain expected them to keep the kits quiet, 'as if we could catch them if we tried.'
Oakthorn scowled and huffed, but Cedar did not turn away, and after muttering dire things about rude young rabbits, went off down the run, leaving the does with Cedar. The old doe, in her turn, settled down and went back to chewing pellets.
"So," said Sunfleck, finally, "will you?"
"Will I what?"
"Will you tell us a story?"
Cedar chewed a bit more without answering.
"Please," Beehum said. And then all four were clamoring together, pressing close and begging for a story. Cedar sat in silence, letting the sound wash over her, until she stood and stamped on the rough floor, once.
"All right," she said. "Settle." The young does fell silent. "There will be none of this asking for that tale or this. I tell the stories, and I will tell you the stories I fancy. Understood?"
All four flattened their ears and nodded. "Yes, Marli-rah. Please, tell us a story," said Sunfleck, speaking for them all.
Cedar looked from one to the next, then scratched at one ear before easing back against the wall of the burrow.
"Long ago, El-ahrairah and Rabscuttle made a bargain with a lendri and shared his burrow..."
"Little Moon left the warren in the darkest part of the night, long after Frith had left the sky. She had watched carefully when the sun set, noting the direction. If she was to find Frith, she would do better, she thought, to find him at the end of the day's journey, rather than at the beginning. In the morning, surely, Frith would be eager to be away, and would not stop and listen. In the evening, when it was time to feed and then rest, then she would make her case to Frith.
"But Little Moon had scarcely left the wood of El-ahrairah's warren when she realized that she was being followed.
"She went on a little further, then took a great leap up on the bank and waited for the one coming after. When the brushes below her rustled, she called out:
'Who are you, and why are you following me?' She could tell by the scent, then, that it was another rabbit, and from El-ahrairah's warren. She supposed it was one of El-ahrairah's Owsla, come to persuade her to return.
"But instead of coming up the bank to challenge her, the rabbit sat down and said, 'Are you Inlehyroo?'
'I am,' Inlehyroo said, for the half-seen stranger was polite and well-spoken. Fools make enemies before they must, and Little Moon was one of El-ahrairah's people. 'Who are you?'
"The shadow moved closer - and then Little Moon lowered her head and flexed her claws, for behind the shadow was another one - and then a third, each of them larger than the one before.
"'I am Thistledown. These are my companions. We heard you speak to the Prince. Are you traveling, then, to find Frith?'
"'I am,' Inlehyroo said again. 'Of what concern is it to you?'
"The second rabbit spoke then. 'We are rabbits, like yourself, who have grown weary of the death and the killing. Are you truly going to Frith, to ask him to stop the Thousand? For we would accompany you on the journey.'
"'I have no need of companions,' Inlehyroo said, though her heart had lightened at the thought of having other rabbits accompany her. 'And I do not mean to ask Frith to stop all the Thousand. Only to spare the kittens. It is not a thing for bucks to ask.'
"Thistledown stirred, as if to speak angrily, but the last and largest rabbit stepped forward. 'We are not does,' he said, 'but we have grieved the loss of kittens. We will go with you, to protect you on the way, so that you may ask this of Frith.'
"It was on the edge of Inlehyroo's tongue to say that she had no need of protection, but, as has been said, she was no fool. Four rabbits would be harder to surprise than a single rabbit alone, and a weasel would have to be blood-mad indeed to strike at four. An owl or a fox might still come upon them, but those were the risks any rabbit faced.
"'You may come with me,' Inlehyroo said, 'but I will pick the path, and I will speak with Frith.' The bucks looked at each other, and then the smaller one said:
"'It is agreed. This is Windsped, and the big dark-haired fellow is Blackcoat.'
"Inlehyroo knew all of them from the warren - Blackcoat was a brave fellow who had fought stoats and cats both, and Thistledown a small, quiet rabbit whose doe had died trying to defend her kittens from a fox. Windsped she did not recognize, until he came forward again, and Inlehyroo saw that he limped. Then she knew who he was - the rabbit with a twisted foot. 'Windsped' was a cruel name, for the buck was not fleet of foot and never would be.
"He was wise, though, and sharp of eye and ear. Blackcoat was without peer in his bravery and his strength. And despite his smaller size, Thistledown was swift and nearly as wise as Windsped.
"I will not tell you now of all the adventures they had on that journey, for you have heard them before - how Windsped outwitted the fox by pretending to read the fox's fortune in the water; of the hedgehog that Thistledown beat at bobstones, and so won them all a bed out of the rain, and of the great silver hawk that Blackcoat fought and defeated, although he carried those scars for the rest of his days.
"Nor can it be told how many days they were on that journey - they traveled for many days - through the thin new grass of spring through the thick tall brush of summer and into the dry weeds and grey days of autumn. Through it all, the bucks followed Inlehyroo's lead, and they all traveled to the west, towards the resting place of Frith.
"At full noon and in the deep of night they would stop and dig a scrape, and all lie together, chin on hip against shoulder under ear. Inlehyroo would wake from dreaming and find herself warm and in the company of fellow rabbits she loved well. And sometimes, she would wake, and not know where she was, or why they were traveling, only that they had traveled for so very long."
Hyzenthlay and her friends went to ask Cedar for stories every chance they had - and every chance they dared. Cedar - Marli-rah - they called her, the rabbit's word for grandmother - did not tolerate boisterous young rabbits or loud yearlings, and more than once Sunfleck cost them all an afternoon's storytelling. But when they came quietly and asked politely, Cedar would shift her haunch around to make room in the middle of the burrow, and tell them story after story.
She could make their blood freeze with terror, as she told them of the horrible sight El-ahrairah had seen when a hole had appeared in the sky. The four does would press against each other, hearts hammering, eyes wide and ears trembling. Then Cedar would shift her legs so that she lay on the other hip, and told another tale - the story of a great trick El-ahrairah had played on Prince Rainbow, so that the shades of the rainbow became all twisted about, and spots of yellow dotted the purple, and green was mixed in with red, and Prince Rainbow looked so foolish that Frith himself nearly fell from the sky, laughing.
They had first come to listen to Cedar's stories in high summer. They came back again through out the rest of the season, and then as autumn passed into winter, the stories kept on.
The four does came as often as they could, and many other of the young rabbits came as well. Cedar would tell stories to as many as would listen, although she would not tolerate an overpacked burrow. And she would not tell stories if one of the Owsla was there.
One day, when the days were still short, but winter was on the wane, Sunfleck said, "Marli-rah, tell us another story. A new one, one that we haven't heard before."
Sometimes Cedar would repeat a story, if it was hinted at properly. But she had never permitted them to demand. Hyzenthlay held her breath and waited for Cedar to say something cutting to Sunfleck. But instead Cedar looked at Sunfleck for a long time - so long that Hyzenthlay turned to look herself.
But all she saw was her old friend, lying sprawled on her side, at ease on the burrow floor. A flicker of motion in the run beyond caught Hyzenthlay's eye. It was Oakthorn, who paused at the mouth of the burrow and looked in. Cedar's eyes went from Sunfleck to Oakthorn and back to the young doe. After a moment, Oakthorn moved on down the run and left the does alone.
Hyzenthlay rubbed her chin on her paws. Something had happened, and she did not know what. Then Cedar cleared her throat and said, "Very well. A new story.
"In the beginning, Frith made the world. He made the streams and the hills and the trees and the wide grass that covered the hills and the valleys. All of the things that Frith made hungered for the sight of Frith..."
It was a long story, full of adventure and danger and clever rabbits, and Hyzenthlay did not notice when Sunfleck rose and slipped out.
She did notice, late in the night, when Sunfleck came back to the burrow they shared, and lay down beside Hyzenthlay.
"Where have you been?" Hyzenthlay asked, her breath barely stirring the hair on Sunfleck's ears.
"Out," said Sunfleck, and refused to say more.
But after that, Sunfleck did not come as often to listen to Cedar's tales. Instead, her friends found that she spent a great deal of time in the company of Oakthorn.
"-and she had gone on and on about how she was going to fight Owsla! Now look at her!" Thethuthinnang was practically quivering with outrage.
"I don't understand. What has happened?"
"Spring happened," said Cedar. All three young does jumped.
"What do you mean?" Beehum stepped forward. "What do you mean, 'spring'? Will she be like this for always, or will she change back when summer comes?"
Cedar looked from one to the next. She sighed, a great gusty humph. "No, she won't be like this for always. No, she won't change back. And it will happen to you, too. Until it does, there is no explaining it to you." With that, Cedar turned about and went down the run. When the young does would have followed, she turned her head and spoke over her shoulder. "No stories today, kits. I'm tired."
They watched her shuffle away. "We're not kits anymore," said Thethuthinnang. "We're grown, or nearly so."
I think that is part of it, Hyzenthlay thought, but did not say out loud.
Over the next few days, Hyzenthlay watched as Sunfleck spent all of her waking time around Oakthorn, and he kept company with Sunfleck at all hours when he was off-duty. They would lie with their chins atop each other's back, and groom each other's ears.
What is happening? Hyzenthlay wondered. And what is happening with me? For she had begun to feel oddly as well - not about any of the Owsla, thank Frith. But there was a young buck - from the year before Hyzenthlay and her friends - whose name was Blackavar. He had been one of the bucks who came to listen to Cedar's stories. Hyzenthlay had noticed him then - a dark-coated, friendly fellow, quick enough to jest, but not cruel like some of the bucks could be.
Now Hyzenthlay found her thoughts going to Blackavar more and more often. She lay down to sleep in the afternoon, and found herself restless, unable to doze, and thinking only of Blackavar.
Then the call came for silflay, and Hyzenthlay went up the run with the rest.
Outside, she looked around, searching the scattered rabbits for her friends. Blackavar was already feeding with another young buck across the meadow. Hyzenthlay started to go after him, then stopped herself. Instead, she went all along the boundaries of the sentries, looking for Cedar.
She found the old doe eating by herself by a rowen tree.
"Marli-rah," Hyzenthlay began, then stopped.
She had not come to see Cedar in three or four days. When Hyzenthlay looked at the old doe now, she saw how gaunt and hollow-hipped Cedar seemed. Bits of green dropped from the older doe's mouth as she ate. The old rabbit kept on chewing, green-tinged saliva dripping to the ground.
Hyzenthlay might have been a butterfly landing on a clump of hraka for all the notice Cedar took.
Finally, when Hyzenthlay was on the verge of creeping away, Cedar flicked an ear and said "What do you want?"
Blackavar, Hyzenthlay thought, but swallowed that thought down again. "I don't know," she said miserably.
The old doe snorted, hopped forward once, grunting, and attacked another clump of grass.
She is old, Hyzenthlay thought. She has seen this before. This has happened to her before.
"What will become of me? Of us?"
Cedar shrugged. "Frith will rise. You'll mate. Frith will set. There may be kittens, but -"
"Yes, kittens. It's how kittens happen."
Kittens and mating were something that older rabbits did. Bucks scuffling, does with short tempers pulling out their belly fur to make nests, small blind things that would grow up to be come real rabbits...they were in half the stories told in the Mark, but not something that Hyzenthlay had seen in her short year of life.
Hyzenthlay lifted her head and looked about. She could see the edge of the meadow, but not Blackavar. She came back down on all fours.
"Marli-rah," she said, more firmly than before. "Thank you."
She stayed with Cedar for the rest of the Mark's silflay. When the call came to go back underground, however, she left the old doe and went to find Blackavar, and go down with him.
"Inlehyroo and her three companions journeyed for a long time, as I have said. They faced all the dangers that any hlessi might brave - the elil, the wind, the misery of being apart from familiar friends and a well-known burrow. These things we all well know - we know them from our daily lives. And likewise, we know the lands they passed through - narrow stream and green pond; tall hill and wide meadow; thick of thorn and grove of nut-trees. The four rabbits passed woods and farms and more than once found themselves among the close-set houses of men. They risked the pounce of cat and the furious pursuit of hounds, and the gaze of men themselves. Oh, yes, and the four did their share of raiding and trickery as well. Many were the gardens they robbed and the lettuces they shared.
"Many, too, were the nights the four slept huddled tight beneath no more cover than a pair of grass stems - for the path to Frith's resting place lay thorough wild lands as well as the lands of men. There, Inlehyroo led her band past not only owls and foxes, but through the territory of wolves and bears and great aurochs. Day after day, they forged onward, passing Elil of such form and fierceness that you and I have never seen - terrible things that have only been told of in tales.
"And beyond these, they bore risks that no rabbits had seen before, nor that have been encountered since, in all the days that have passed. Not only did the beasts that pursued them become strange and unspeakable - and lo! How much harder is it to flee a hunter when you do not know that it is a weasel, and will not pursue for long; or a fox, and can not twist and turn as a rabbit can; or an owl, who can not follow through a thicket? For all of these tricks El-ahrairah had taught his people, and they had learned to use them well.
"But Inlehyroo and her companions went beyond the lands that El-ahrairah knew.
"As they went they fell into an order of march - either Inlehyroo or Thistledown first, then Windsped, moving along as quickly as he could, and Blackcoat at the rear. Sometimes, when things seemed particularly strange, and Inlehyroo and Thistledown hesitated over the path to take, Blackcoat would push his way forward and go on, calling over his shoulder that foxes would love to find four silly rabbits sitting in the open and chattering.
"Inlehyroo would be furious at this, but there was no denying that she and Thistledown would stop and argue the different merits of a path for a great long while. Sometimes Blackcoat chose poorly, and the four rabbits had to backtrack and take another way. But many times, the way Blackcoat took was smoother and faster and safer.
"Every day, towards evening, they would find a likely spot and dig a scrape or three to spend the night. They would not always agree on the merits a particular place, and Windsped and Thistledown would argue over which side of the slope the scrapes should go, until Inlehyroo gave up and dug the scape herself with Blackcoat's help.
"One day, when they had chosen a place that was better than many, and nearly finished the scrape, Windsped came down from his place as lookout and said, 'Come look at this.'
"He led them a little way to the side of their route and down a rise, and below they found a wide stretch of water, running slow. It was a far wider river than any of them had seen before, with banks that sloped gently down and a thick green smell to the water.
"The rabbits paused on the lee side of the hill and looked over the river. The reeds rustled quietly against each other, and the same breeze made fine ripples on the surface of the water. Upstream, a great-winged grey bird flew along the river, its neck folded up neatly and its beak reaching nearly as far forward as its legs did behind. The bird flew past the watching rabbits and circled down in a clumsy half-crash of a landing.
"The bank was lowest where the rabbits stood. There, the river's edge was bare of vegetation and churned up earth ran halfway up the easy slope before it became matted grass again.
"'It looks like a cattle crossing,' said Thistledown, 'but...' He bent his nose to sniff at the dirt. 'It doesn't smell quite like cows.'
"'They would be some cows to swim this river,' Blackcoat said. 'I'm thirsty.' He hopped down to the water's edge.
"One by one the rest followed to take their turn crouching on the trampled mud.
"For all of his bravado, Blackcoat drank cautiously - quick laps at the water's surface and long pauses to sit up on his hindquarters and sniff the air.
"'Something doesn't feel right,' Inlehyroo said.
"'Yes,' agreed Blackcoat. 'I'm going back up the bank, to keep watch.'
"The other three drank as fast as they dared. The colors of the western sky deepened, turning from rose to red-gold. Dusk began to settle in, and while the senses of rabbits are far better in darkness than are the eyes and ears of men, all four rabbits grew more apprehensive as the light failed.
"'Come along,' Inlehyroo said, and ran back up the embankment. Windsped hobbled after.
"Thistledown had been the last to come down to the water's edge, having sat on the bank, searching the breeze for the scent that was almost like the smell of cattle. By the time Thistledown had come down to drink, Blackcoat has nearly finished.
"Now Thistledown drank swiftly, lapping at the water and making tiny ripples. Uneasy at being alone, he looked out across the sheet of water as he drank. The sky's colors were poured out over the water, broken here and there by black specks, like soaring birds - ravens or herons - likewise reflected on the river.
"The black flecks grew larger as Thistledown watched, moving across the reflected clouds toward him. He stared, fascinated, as the flecks grew closer and closer still. The flecks spread and dragged ripples behind them in the yellow and scarlet clouds, and it was only then that Thistledown thought to look up at the sky, where there were no black birds flying.
"Then the water before Thistledown swirled and churned, and something made a sound like the hiss of a lendri, only the lendri would have to be larger than any hrududu, larger than any lendri that ever lived.
"Thistledown scrambled backwards away from the water's edge. But even as he did, great huge beasts heaved themselves from the water - two, four, then more than any rabbit could count. To the three on the rise, it was as though a herd of fat, thick-legged cattle lumbered out of the river, with feet broader than an rabbit is long, and thick muzzles wider than two of the great feet of the beasts.
"Thistledown was already springing away as the grey river-cattle came up onto the dug-up earth, but despite their bulk, the beasts were as swift as any weasel. Thistledown darted this way and that, trying to dodge the wide hooves. He had almost reached the ridge when one of the lead beasts struck him a glancing blow with a forefoot and sent the small buck tumbling head over heels.
"The other three were on the verge of panic, but Inlehyroo cried out, 'This way!' and led them down the bank to the edge of the reeds, where they paused and waited as the herd of river-cattle rumbled away. Then all three rabbits crept out in search of their missing companion.
"So when Thistledown woke, it was not to empty darkness, but to the tense whispers of his companions, pressed close about him and licking his face and forepaws. The four rabbits spent the night not in their scrapes - and lo! how fine and comfortable those shallow holes seemed now! - but huddled together in the open, close to Thistledown to keep him warm. Late in the night, just before dawn, they felt the earth shake as the river-cattle came back from the meadow and down the slope to slide into the water.
"In the morning, Thistledown felt better, although there was still something wrong with his side. It hurt him to walk, pained him worse to run, and even to lay and breath made his whole body ache. When Inlehyroo and Blackcoat would have urged him to remain where he was and rest further, Thistledown ended the argument by rising to his feet and making his way slowly to the west.
"The other three had no choice but to follow him."
As spring deepened, Sunfleck began to show signs of impending kindling. The young doe laid claim to a corner of a comfortable burrow, scowling furiously when some of the older bucks tried to retake the space. Once settled, she groomed her belly over and over, snipping off clumps that she used to make a nest.
Hyzenthlay, aware of the heaviness in her own gut that was the clump of growing kittens, watched and listened as Hedgerose, an older doe, instructed Sunfleck.
"Keep away from the Owsla and the other bucks and their squabbles, but don't let yourself get bullied, either. They'll give way before you, so long as you don't meddle in their business."
She also told Sunfleck where to find dry druff to line the burrow with, and what roots to search out. Sunfleck - who, as Cedar had said, was neither her old brash self nor as impulsive as she had been in the days of autumn - listened as carefully as Hyzenthlay.
The next night Hedgerose kindled, with Sunfleck, Hyzenthlay and Thethuthinnang waiting on the other side of the burrow. "That doesn't seem so bad," said Thethuthinnang, and the other two nodded.
Sunfleck said, "Surely it will be fine to be thin again, and not so wide, going through the runs."
Things were well enough for a few days after that - until a late storm blew up out of the west and drove all of Efrafa underground. Worse still, a wandering dog had been sighted the day before, and while no rabbit had been caught above ground, two of the Marks had missed silflay. Twelve hours later, a drenching and freezing rain covered the region, and no rabbit dared venture out. All of Efrafa was hungry and miserable.
The first day, the sentries let a few rabbits up at a time, but when Sunfleck made her way up the run, Oakthorn barred the way. "No expectant does," he said. "Captain's orders. Too dangerous."
"What does he know about it?" snapped Sunfleck, but wedged herself around and crept back down the run. Some of the others brought bits of grass and leaves down the run. Hyzenthlay herself brought an entire mouthful, as much as she could carry, but Sunfleck only sniffed it and turned away.
The rain lasted three days. Sunfleck kindled on the second.
When she was done, the new mother lay panting on her side. "I want to go out," she said, thickly.
"Not yet," said Hedgerose from her own nest. "You need to clean them. Clean them and make sure they nurse." When Sunfleck did not move, Hedgerose's voice sharpened. "Listen to me."
Across the burrow, Hyzenthlay and Thethuthinnang raised their heads.
"You must clean them, lick them well - that's it. That's a good girl." Sunfleck heaved herself up and twisted around to put her nose over the new kittens. Hyzenthlay and Thethuthinnang crept closer to look at the tiny things.
Suddenly, there was a sharp mew, abruptly cut off. Hedgerose leapt to her feet, shaking off her kittens. "No!" she cried, "Stop!" Sunfleck looked up at Raincloud, then dropped her head over her kittens again.
This time, Hyzenthlay saw the teeth.
"Stop! You mustn't do this!" Hedgerose pushed Sunfleck back, snarling, away from the kittens.
"Get away from me!" Sunfleck cried, and threw herself against the older doe, kicking and clawing. Hyzenthlay drew back in shock. Hedgerose outweighed Sunfleck by almost half again as much, but the younger doe pushed Hedgerose back the length of the burrow.
But Hedgerose was over her own nest now, and the handful of kittens huddled there. She shoved back against Sunfleck and the two rolled across the floor, scattering fur and dry leaves as they went. They landed against Hyzenthlay, biting and scratching.
"Get off! Stop!" cried Hyzenthlay, but the two does fought on, until Hedgerose had Sunfleck pinned against the far wall, the younger doe weeping and snuffling.
"Out. I just want out," Sunfleck cried. With a snort of disgust, Hedgerose backed up and went to her kittens, leaving Sunfleck in a heap.
"Come up, come away," Thethuthinnang murmured into Hyzenthlay's ear. Together, the two crept out of the burrow.
The next day, late in the evening, the rain broke. Before the Mark went up for silflay, a pair of sentries rounded up a group of yearling bucks and led them down to the kindling burrow. Hyzenthlay pressed herself against the wall of the run as the sentries came back up. Each of them carried one of the pitiful bodies, bound for the surface and the hraka trench.
"In the days after his near-trampling by the river-cattle, Thistledown grew a little better, but he never regained his full strength. Now Inlehyroo led the way every day, and they stopped often to rest. While Inlehyroo had not wanted the bucks to come with her, and had in fact resented them at first, now she would not think of leaving any of them behind. But the journey was wearying on her as well, and leading the little band brought her a sense of satisfaction that she did not find following another. She led them carefully and well, searching the breeze for any of the hunters, and skirting wide around dangerous ground.
"So it was Inlehyroo who found the field of colors first.
"She had been following the edge of a wood of mixed oak and aspen, when the trees abruptly quit and all before her was open land full of flowers.
"The air was loud with the hum of bees and the sky between ground and cloud shimmered with the bright wings of butterflies. They were all the sorts of flowers in the whole world - pale lilies in the shade of of tall nodding sunflowers; cowpea vines draped over rhododendrons; golden buttercups and scarlet lonely-hearts; bluebells to match the cloudless sky and lilacs like the edge of night and towering azealas of all colors and a thousand others. And above it all was the cloud of dancing butterflies.
"One by one the others came up beside Inlehyroo. 'What a wondrous sight,' said Thistledown. 'I am so pleased to see it.'
"'As are we all,' said Blackcoat, who did not like the little buck to talk of how ill he was. 'Come on then, there is surely more to see further in.'
"They had only gone a little way when all four rabbits stopped, certain that someone was approaching. 'Can you hear anything?' asked Inlehyroo.
"'It is like the footsteps of a cloud,' said Blackcoat, and then shook himself, for when had any rabbit heard a cloud walking? But their sense that someone approached grew stronger, until Windsped called out, 'Who is there?'
"A voice came out of the air, high and light and sharp. Like the sound of a bat, Inlehyroo thought, but sweeter. 'Who do you think I am?' asked the voice.
"'We do not know -' began Windsped. He stopped. 'Wait. I know.' He hopped forward and bowed. 'Prince Rainbow.'
"'Well done, little rabbit. But you are far from the lands that Lord Frith gave to El-ahrairah Why are you here, little rabbits?'
"'We go to find Frithrah, Prince Rainbow,' said Inlehyroo. 'Can you tell me, if this is the right path?'
"Prince Rainbow said, 'This way will lead you to Frith, little rabbits, but the way is dangerous and long. Are you certain you wish to go this way?'
"'Yes,' said all the rabbits at once. Inlehyroo went on alone. 'I - that is, we, we have a request to make of Frith. We must find him.'
"'If all of you must go, that is too bad, but if only one needs to ask this favor of Frith, I can take one of you swift and sure to Frith's resting place.'
"Inlehyroo looked at her companions and hesitated. This is not a thing for bucks, she had said, but that had been days and days before. In the time since, Inlehyroo had grown close to all three of her companions, and had heard their stories and learned their stories of the children they had lost.
"'Thank you, Prince Rainbow, but this is a question which belongs to all rabbits, not simply to myself.'
"'Very well, little rabbits. Take care and be wary on your journey, for you are traveling in my lands now, and things are not as they seem.'
"They took their leave of the Prince, and traveled on through the field of flowers.
"The field was wide - far wider than a rabbit could travel in one day, or in two days, or in four days. There were more kinds of flowers than any rabbit could name, and more kinds of butterflies, and even more kinds of birds, for there were many beautiful birds of many feathers living in the field. Some were tiny and darted back and forth, faster than any bee. Others were larger than herons, with tall tails marked with bright spots like the eyes of a huge rabbit. All of those things must have been seen and marveled at, for all the living things in Prince Rainbow's land were beautiful. Even the smallest things - the bright beetles and the snails with their tightly wound shells - were flecked and speckled and lovely.
"And besides, the four went slowly still, for Thistledown could only travel slowly. But at last they came to a bit of a rise, and looked out, and there on the horizon was a wood, with leaves of the thousand colors of autumn. Beyond it, hills rose tall and dark.
"'I will be sorry to leave this place,' said Blackcoat. 'It has been very pleasant, and not at all dangerous.'
"'Yes,' said Thistledown. 'I wonder what Prince Rainbow meant, when he told us to take care. For we have come to no harm here, and I feel that I have mended some as well.'
"'Well,' began Inlehyroo, but she broke off when a shadow passed over them. All the rabbits froze, then looked up.
"'Look out!' cried Windsped. All of them began to run, Thistledown the slowest of them all.
"The shadow passed them once more, then a third time. Glancing up as she ran, Inlehyroo saw a flash of jeweled skin and wings like a bat, but made of brilliant colors, and long and lean instead of a bat's thick lump.
"It is a flying snake, she thought. And then the fearsome thing spread its wings like a kestrel, and stooped.
"Thistledown cried out, terrified. Inlehyroo felt her heart seize, even as she began to turn to go back.
"But before she could reach him, a dark shape flashed by. Blackcoat, the swiftest of them all, had nearly reached the trees when Thistledown cried out. The snake missed its first strike, and came back to attack again. Even as it hovered over Thistledown, though, Blackcoat raced forward and launched himself at the winged snake.
"He knocked it aside, rolling end for end with it, trying to catch it with his back claws. It screeched at him like an owl, flinging its coils about him.
"'Run, Blackcoat!' cried Windsped. Blackcoat shrugged the snake, staggering to his feet. But before he could flee, the snake leapt upon the buck and bit down on Blackcoat's neck.
"Blackcoat gasped, kicking and pawing. The snake gripped him all the tighter, the jeweled wings beating at the flowers about them until petals showered down.
"Then Blackcoat was still.
"The snake shook Blackcoat's body once more, then released it to open its mouth at the other three rabbits and screech at them. All of them flinched back, and in that instant, the snake wrapped its coils about Blackcoat's body - bright jeweled scales against dark fur, and, beating its wings furiously, flew away.
"Inlehyroo and Windsped looked after the snake as it vanished from sight, while Thistledown lay in the dust and fallen petals and wept.
"'Come on. Get up." Inlehyroo forced herself to her feet. "Get up. There might be another." She cuffed Windsped until he got up as well, and together they urged Thistledown up. Together, they crept through the rest of the flowers and into the cover of the trees.
"Inlehyroo kept them going for a long time, well past the start of dusk. When they stopped, Thistledown was so worn out, he nearly fell asleep where he fell.
"Inlehyroo and Windsped sat up a bit longer, exhausted but unable to sleep. Finally, Windsped said, 'He would not have wanted to be alive, if it meant that he could not protect his friends. I do not think Blackcoat would have chosen otherwise.'
"It was a thin and musty sort of comfort, but Inlehyroo found herself more at ease. After a while, Windsped's breathing slowed into sleep, and Inlehyroo slipped into dreams soon thereafter.
At silflay the next morning, Hyzenthlay found the grass tasteless and sour. Ruined by the rain she thought, but her stomach was tight. She loped slowly from one clump of grass to the next. Blackavar tried to speak with her, and Beehum, but Hyzenthlay turned away from them both.
She woke in the afternoon as exhausted as she had been when she laid down. Restlessly, she went through the burrows of the Mark, passing by those she knew one after the other. In the end, she bedded down in a narrow burrow with rabbits she did not know.
In the night, Hyzenthlay dreamed that Cedar came in t the burrow and made her way slow and sure to Hyzenthlay's side. It seemed to the younger doe as though Cedar stood over her, looking down her nose. Hyzenthlay shrank within herself, afraid of Cedar's contempt.
Then Cedar nudged the rabbit who lay against the burrow wall, so that one rose, sleepy and stumbling, and made way for Cedar. The old doe stepped over Hyzenthlay and settled down with a grunt between Hyzenthlay and the wall. Twice she nudged the younger doe's shoulder, until Hyzenthlay shifted over and leaned against Cedar's warmth and bulk.
Cedar made a sound like the hum a mother would use to comfort kittens. Hyzenthlay let her eyes drift closed.
She woke when the sentry called the Mark up for silflay. The space beside the wall was empty and cold.
When she reached the surface, Hyzenthlay fell to eating immediately, relishing the grass that had seemed so stale the day before. It filled her mouth with sweet flavor and she could not get enough. She ate and chewed and ate again, doing little more than nodding at the other rabbits. As soon as she finished one mouthful, she reached for another.
None of it closed the emptiness in her belly.
The next afternoon, after silflay, Hyzenthlay searched thorough the Mark until she found Blackavar. The buck was with a group of his fellows, telling stories, but when Hyzenthlay approached, he looked up and followed her away.
In a quiet end of a burrow, Hyzenthlay lay down. Blackavar rested beside her. He licked her ear, then applied himself to carefully groom her, nose to tail.
Hyzenthlay sighed. "There will be no kittens."
Blackavar paused in his grooming of her, then went on, wordless. After a time, Hyzenthlay twisted about to look at him. "We can not go on like this."
"What else is there to do?" Blackavar nudged her with his nose. "The warren must be kept secret, and safe."
"We could leave."
Blackavar drew back. "What do you mean?"
"Leave. Go. Far away, and live elsewhere. Somewhere not Efrafa."
"It will be - it will be dangerous. There will be elil, and storms, and men. Any rabbit that left - you could die."
"My heart is dead here," said Hyzenthlay.
For a long time, Blackavar said nothing. Hyzenthlay could feel the tension in his body.
Finally he leaned forward and said, "Who shall we take with us?"
It was not, of course, so simple a thing to do as to say.
Hyzenthlay went to Thethuthinnang first, and then to the other does. Hyzenthlay did not know what she would have done, despite Blackavar's support, if Thethuthinnang had not agreed with her. Despite her brave words, she was ready to abandon the plan - as half formed as unborn kittens - at any hint of discouragement from Thethuthinnang. But, after a moment of astonishment, her friend simply said, "I'll go with you, of course." Hyzenthlay blinked, rubbed her nose on Thethuthinnang's flank, and said, "Who else?"
Beehum refused. Lying in the burrow she shared with two other new mothers, she was sympathetic but resolute.
"I have these to care for." She gave a quick swipe of her tongue along the row of tiny bodies nestled against her. "And there are a thousand dangers and more. Better to stay here, where it is safe and we are protected. I can not take the risk."
Eyes downcast, Hyzenthlay nodded. "Of course." Her belly felt tight and hollow.
Beehum said, "You should ask Lonium and Raincloud. They are sensible and would trek well."
Hyzenthlay thanked her and went on with a lighter heart.
After she had questioned and discussed the matter with half the Mark's young does, and had a list of hrair does who seemed interested, Hyzenthlay gathered up her courage and went to Cedar.
The old doe chased away a clutch of kittens, sitting to hear stories, and heard Hyzenthlay out.
"No," she said at the end. "I am too old. Trekking across the wilderness like a vagabond is for young does, not old grey hairs." She looked at Hyzenthlay with her faded eyes. "Have courage, kit, and do not despair, even when the way goes stony and cold. Do you remember?"
"I remember," promised Hyzenthlay.
Cedar snorted, but only said again, "Good luck."
The next day, at ni-Frith, they met the Council.
Silence fell across the Council burrow as Hyzenthlay and her does entered. Blackavar, after long discussion, waited back in the Mark. Hyzenthlay looked around at the grizzled faces of the Council members, and at the huge bulk of General Woundwort himself, and wished for Blackavar's presence. Or Cedar's.
The stillness dragged on. Finally, Snowdrop, one of the oldest, his face as wrinkled and grey as Cedar's, asked, "What is the request you have for the Council?"
"We request permission to leave."
They heard her out completely, she had to give them credit for that. But in the end, the answer was swift and without compromise.
"No," said Woundwort. He had barely glanced at them as Hyzenthlay had spoke, staring past her at the wall. When she had finally run out of words, he had taken only a few moments to look at each of the Council members before passing judgment.
"We will go as far away as you wish!"
"No," said Snowdrop. "Vagabonds attract elil."
"No," Woundwort said again. "Your foolishness puts the whole warren in danger."
She might have shouted then; she knew Sunfleck did. But even as she raised her voice, she could see the Council members close their ears.
Sentries pushed them from the chamber. "Move along, now," the sentries said.
Thethuthinnang stood up. "You go tell - ah!"
She fell back from the stinging cuff that the sentry dealt her across the nose. "Move along."
Back in the burrow, the does gathered around Hyzenthlay. "Is this it? Do we give up?" one asked.
"No," she said. "We try again tomorrow."
The next day, the Council refused to hear them. The day after that, the sentries refused to even take them to the Council chamber.
When Hyzenthlay approached the sentries again that afternoon, they were snarled at, and shoved back, and finally one cuffed Hyzenthlay into the wall.
She sat up, her head ringing, to find a doe staring at her malevolently. "Serves you right," said the doe, a two year old named Lemongrass. "Making as though you're better than the rest of us."
Hyzenthlay crept away and went to find a dark place to hide. When Blackavar came to her, she turned away and would not speak to him.
It was a day later when hunger drove her out to feed.
Chance put Lemongrass down in Hyzenthlay's path. When the other doe would have thumped a warning at her, Hyzenthlay said, "I don't want to make trouble."
Lemongrass looked over her shoulder at the sentry across the way, then went back down to all fours.
"What do you want, then?"
"I wondered - I wanted to know if you had seen..." She could not stand to see Thethuthinnang or any of the other does, not after she had failed them. "Have you seen a buck called Blackavar?"
Lemongrass shrugged. "He's about somewhere, moping. Deserves better than you, I'll tell you that."
"How about...have you seen the Marli-rah?" Lemongrass had been one of the dozens of rabbits who had come, at one time or another, to listen to the tales that Cedar had told Hyzenthlay and her friends.
"Old Cedar? Stopped running yesterday. Went up with the rest to silflay, lay down in the grass and didn't get up." Lemongrass spoke around a mouthful of leaves. "Not surprised. She was as old as the trees on the hillside, wasn't she?"
The sky was beautiful - blue darkening into slate, with clouds the color of ashes trimmed with goldenrod and strawberries. The wind died away and the sound of a single, exuberant stamp carried from the rest of the Mark beneath the elderbush.
"Yes, she was very old."
At the end of silflay, there was a commotion at the other end of the field. It ended as the Mark went down to feed, and Captain Chervil drove Blackavar back across the meadow to the Mark's burrows.
Hyzenthlay tried to go to him - 'poor fool, tried to escape, didn't make it' - but the Owsla pushed her back.
Hyzenthlay had come back from the Council with her request refused. Blackavar came back with his ears torn to shreds, and his spirit broken. "The Council was merciful," he said, over and over, in a hopeless voice.
When the judgment of the council came down, and ordered the rebellious does of the Mark dispersed, Hyzenthlay had no heart in her left to protest.
"At first, Inlehyroo thought the grey shadow that fell over the landscape after they left the land of Prince Rainbow to be only a trick of the mind. Even as they passed from Rainbow's land, the trees and flowers seemed lessened. Nothing shone with the same colors after Blackcoat's death.
"Everything seemed ashen and distant, and none f the sounds of the earth about Inlehyroo seemed as loud as they should be. As the rabbits pressed on, the gloom grew more oppressive.
"'The world is grey,' Windsped said, and Inlehyroo turned to him in surprise. 'Don't you think so?'
"'Yes,' said Inlehyroo, and 'No,' said Thistledown. This time, Windsped and Inlehyroo both stared.
"'We have left the lands of Prince Rainbow,' Thistledown said. 'But the world glows with a pale light. Do you not see it?'
"Inlehyroo and Windsped looked at each other and shook their heads. 'Very well,' said Inlehyroo after a moment, 'Let's go on.'
"The grey dusk deepened as the days went on, at least as Inlehyroo and Windsped saw it. They began to trip and stumble, for they could not see the path before them, and once Inlehyroo fell all the way down a washout and narrowly missed falling in the pool at the bottom of the pit. But the ground was very damp, and Inlehyroo blundered about for a little while, getting her feet quite wet, until Thistledown came to the edge of the gully and called down directions so that she could find a place to climb out.
"'You can see in all this?' Inlehyroo asked, when she was finally back up on firm ground.
"Thistledown looked at her as if to say, Can't you?, but he only nodded assent.
"Inlehyroo sat thinking on this, licking her paws dry as she did. The mud tasted of ashes and rotting lichen. Finally, when they were as clean as she could make them, Inlehyroo asked, 'Thistledown, will you lead us?'
"Windsped might have said something, but he bit it off and sat quietly. In the darkness, Inlehyroo and Windsped could scarcely see each other, but the faint sound of Thistledown's wheezing breath carried clearly.
"'Yes, I will,' said Thistledown. 'This way.'
"And so he led them deeper into the gloom.
"Always after, when Inlehyroo looked back over her life and the journey she had taken, she remembered the journey thorough the darkness as the worst of it all days. She and Windsped stumbled with very nearly every step, and the ground never grew any easier underfoot. They were thirsty, and the dry stone yielded only bitter water. They hungered, and the grass was old and stale. All about them, a grey mist pressed close. The air was thick and hurt their throats, and the cold sank deep into their bones.
"Worse than all of this, though, was how Thistledown kept urging them forward. Poor hurt Thistledown, whose breath came harder and harder as the hours passed - he kept on, through the gloom and the cold and the hard ground, as though the darkness were a clear day and the twisted ground, smooth packed earth.
"Inlehyroo and Windsped panted and struggled and scrambled to keep up, and still Thistledown called back to them - 'Come along. This way, just a little more.'
"We will never see the end of this darkness, Inlehyroo thought. We will be on this journey for ever.
"Just then, Windsped gave a grunt, as if in surprise. Inlehyroo gasped as well, for she too had stumbled and nearly fallen over Thistledown.
"'Oh,' said the little buck. 'It's you. There you are.'
"'Who?' asked Inlehyroo. The question fell into silence. The mist came closer. Then a pair of red eyes appeared. Behind them, Inlehyroo saw the darkness condense.
"'The Black Rabbit!' breathed Windsped.
"'It is I.' The voice of the Black Rabbit of Inle was deeper than the darkness between the stars and harder than the firmest stone. 'Thistledown, it is time.'
"'No!' cried Inlehyroo. She leapt forward, putting herself between Thistledown and the Black Rabbit. 'You shall not have him!'
"'Little Moon, that is not for you to say. I serve the Lord Frith as much as you, and I take only those whose time has come.'
"'You take everything - the old bucks, the young does, the kittens! You shall not take my friend!'
"'I take only those whose time has come.'
"'But the kittens!'
"The red eyes lowered, as if in sadness, and the Black Rabbit said, 'Yes. Even them.' Then the eyes rose again, and met Inlehyroo's. 'Bright Moon, rest easy. Your friend has already joined me.'
"And with that, the red eyes disappeared, and Bright Moon was left alone with Windsped and Thistledown's cooling body.
"Around them, the mist began to lift, and Inlehyroo saw the pale light that Thistledown had followed. She nosed Thistledown's body once more, then she and Windsped followed the dancing light."
Life in the new Mark was much as it had been in the old one, only flatter and grayer. In Right Fore they had been approaching dawn silflay, and every day had been another closer to spending sunrise outside. But Near Hind had passed morning silflay the week before, and it would be another month before their turn came again.
Hyzenthlay went up the run with the other members of the Mark and out into the night to silflay. She ate alone, speaking to no one, not even Thethuthinnang.
A rabbit's life in a warren is full of sound - the scramble of other rabbits passing in the runs, stories told at all hours, the simple presence of scores of other breathing bodies and beating hearts.
But for Hyzenthlay, her days passed in silence.
She came into season, and a sentry from the Mark paid her court. She let him mount her, and for a brief moment it felt like a bright day, with the wind in her face and the smell of green things heavy in the air. She felt her heart quicken, and it was as though the walls of the chamber echoed with her pulse.
But the buck had not left the chamber before the malaise took her again. She lay huddled against the wall, her eyes closed, for a long time after.
Before nightfall, Thethuthinnang came to her, and pressed her nose against Hyzenthlay's flank.
"Hyzenthlay, you must not do this. Come, get up, come with me." She pressed and licked at Hyzenthlay's ear until the other doe roused herself and followed.
Thethuthinnang took her not up the run to the open air - for it was not yet time for the Mark to silflay - but down a secondary run, stopping every few feet to be sure that Hyzenthlay still followed.
Deep down in the burrows, where the air was close and thick, Thethuthinnang brought Hyzenthlay to a group of young does, born early that spring. As old as my kittens might have been, thought Hyzenthlay. She would have turned away, but Thethuthinnang would not let her pass.
"Stay. Listen to them. They are telling stories, see?"
They were - full of mistakes and arguments and mixing pieces of one story with another. But the burrow was full of laughter and the voices of kittens. When Hyzenthlay and Thethuthinnang left, their hearts were lighter.
They came again the next day, and on the third, one of the does greeted them. "Hello," she said, and touched noses. Hyzenthlay closed her eyes and sighed. They stayed for a long time that day, listening to story after story.
But no matter how bright the chatter of callow does seemed in the darkness of the run, when Hyzenthlay went up the run for silflay, the sky was overcast and low. The early afternoon light was the color of wet fur and dead leaves - grey as night, grey as stone, grey as death.
The grass was bitter and tainted in Hyzenthlay's mouth. She dropped the mouthful she had taken, and spent the rest of silflay under a young oak, staring at nothing.
Hyzenthlay might have lived the rest of her days in that grey light - and she knew, even as the frost settled into her heart, that her days might not be long, with her spirit as low as it lay - if not for the hlessi officer.
She had thought him a bumbling oaf, at first. Some of the Owsla tried to pretend concern for the lower members of the Mark. Fewer still had enough natural sympathy to be convincing. Most were self-absorbed braggarts without the wits to fake a willing ear. At first, Hyzenthlay thought the new officer to be one of the later - a opportunist looking to cozen a doe or three into friendship, to make mating easier once they came into season.
Have courage, Cedar had said, but Cedar was dead. Hyzenthlay had no courage left.
Or so she thought, until the new officer leaned over and whispered into her ear, "I am a secret enemy of Efrafa."
Hyzenthlay felt her heart thudding inside her, shaking her whole body with its dreadful pace. She dug her claws into the burrow floor. The buck went on, telling her of his companions, of the bucks who had led them from their warren to a new place, a fine place, clean and roomy and free.
"When I give the word, you and your does must be ready to run. Can you do that?"
"I will be ready," she promised.
"The next day, the two companions came out of the mist.
"Windsped and Inlehyroo had been moving steadily on, through the endless grey twilight. As they went, their hearts had been as grey and cold as the midst. First to loose the brave Blackcoat, and then the death of Thistledown and the meeting with the Black Rabbit.
"I have lost my warren and my companions and I still have not yet met Lord Frith. Perhaps this is a fool's quest after all.
"And when the mist cleared, they saw that they were on the edge of a strange wood. It was like nothing that Little Moon had seen before.
"'They are - they are trees of stone!' marveled Windsped. `I have never heard of such a thing!'
"They went from trunk to trunk among the trees, amazed at the size of them, and how they were all alike.
"'We must be at the edge of the lands of Frith, now,' said Windsped. 'We have seen a serpent that flies, and seen cattle that live under the water, and now a forest of stone. Surely we have gone beyond the end of the world.'
"Inlehyroo had turned her head to agree when disaster struck.
"They had no warning - one instant the grove of stone trees was still and silent, and the bright sun made regular lines of shadows over the flat ground.
"Then there came a thunderous crack, and the shadows of the trees shifted, and twisted, and began to grow larger. Both rabbits froze.
"A limb of the closest stone tree smashed into the earth. Bits of flying stone pelted both rabbits. Then another fell, and a third - and then the grove was full of falling limbs.
"'Run!' cried Windsped, and Inlehyroo did. Ahead, she could see open ground, and the green promise of grass. But even as she glimpsed this sanctuary, she realized that Windsped had fallen behind. With his crippled paw, he could not keep her pace.
Inlehyroo stopped, her claws rasping against the hard ground, and darted back. 'Faster!' she cried to him. 'There is a meadow ahead!' "But the words were no more spoken than a stone tree fell down, and caught Windsped across the back. He screamed once - a high strangled sound- and kicked twice, and Inlehyroo was close enough to see the light pass out of his eyes.
`Run...' he said, and Inlehyroo did.
"She ran as far and as fast as she could - straight away through the falling stones, out past the edge of the bare ground and to the meadow beyond. When she felt the earth and grass under her paws she only ran faster.
"She ran until she could not run any further, and the grove of stone trees was far behind her. Then Inlehyroo's strength failed her, and she collapsed.
"The earth was cool against her cheek, and the grass fluttered with each breath. When she could sit up again, she looked back, but the stone trees and the body of Windsped were outside of her vision.
"'Oh, Frith! Oh, zorn!" Inlehyroo wailed.
"She cried out because she had lost the last of her companions, because she was afraid, and because she had still not reached the end of her journey.
"She did not expect answer, but one came.
"'Who is this who trespasses? Who has come beyond the end of the world?'
"Frith's voice was as huge as the world, and shimmered like sunlight on fresh water. Inlehyroo hid her face. She had found Frith's lodgings."
"Run!" Thlayli cried, and Hyzenthlay ran.
The rest of the does ran with her, and even if Hyzenthlay had dared to stop -
Owsla on their heels, breath hard and stinking like foxes
-even if her heart had permitted it, she knew that the others were running because she was leading the way. If she stopped, they would all stop - stop, or lose the way.
So she ran.
Her lungs dragged at the heavy air, pulling lungful after lungful out of the day and deep into her chest. Her feet were sure and swift, and the ground flashed past under her.
Her speed was such that when the stranger loomed out of the mist, she had scarcely time to dig her back paws into the dirt and scramble past him. The buck flinched back as fast as she did, stumbling on one leg as he did. When Hyzenthlay gathered her legs under her to flee, he cried out:
"Wait! Wait! Are you one of the Efrafa does? I'm Hazel - a friend of Thlayli!"
She hesitated, ready to leap away if the buck made a move towards her. But the buck did not approach her, only lowered his voice and half-pleaded, half-ordered, "We need to keep moving, the Owsla are sure to be right behind you. Go on, go! Straight ahead, to the river. Thlayli'll be right there. Go!"
His voice seemed to reach past her ears and touch her thudding heart. Hyzenthlay felt the terror of the run ease, and new strength fill her legs. When Hazel said again, "Go! Run!" she ran.
She darted past stranger after stranger - young, scarred bucks, they could have been Efrafa Owsla But they did not try to cuff her, only to beckon her onwards, and urge her forward. Reeds rose up before her and she shoved her way through them. Then she came to the edge of the bank, and a young buck. But when she looked closer, she realized he was not so young, only smaller than many.
Oh." She said, feeling very foolish. "It's you."
The buck looked at her kindly. "Yes, it's me. Why don't you come along now, and sit on this boat?"
Sit on the boat? She had no idea what he meant. Behind her, she could hear the scuffle of rabbits in the grass. Before her, the small buck hopped out over the sand, and up on a long piece of wood. It rang under his feet, as though it were a log, hollowed out by rain and bugs.
"Come on, then," said the buck, encouragingly.
Slowly, one small hop at a time, Hyzenthlay crept out onto the punt. It rocked under her feet.
Her head swam. First Thlayli - who was surely some cousin of Blackcoat - and then the smaller buck, who had Thistledown's farseeing eyes. Fiver, she thought, remembering Thlayli's descriptions of his companions. And the third - the lame buck must be Hazel. But in her mind she knew his true name, and it was Windsped.
With such companions, she might travel the length of the earth, and beyond.
Hyzenthlay stood on the queer punt, with the water rushing past and the punt rocking under her, and felt as though she stood on an earth-sunken stone. One by one, the other does scurried down after her - moving faster when Thlayli came through the grass and said, "All right, now. Time to go."
Tearing her eyes away from the stream - like a thick wind, she thought - it moves like the air, but there is enough to see it pass Hyzenthlay shifted about on the wooden crossbeam. The last of the strange bucks came across the sand in a rush, Thlayli a leap behind. He landed on the punt with a thud, sliding across the smooth wood until he fetched up against the nearest rabbit.
Then the world began moving.
Hyzenthlay dug her claws into the wood. The world - no, it was not the world, it was them, all of them, the punt and all the rabbits it contained. They had been caught by the swift-flowing stream, and it was bearing them away.
The brush at the edge of the sandpit rustled, then bent away as Woundwort forced his way through the willows. He stopped with his forepaws on the sand and stared at the escaping rabbits. For one long moment, Hyzenthlay felt him see her, truly, and see her escaping.
Hyzenthlay turned away and faced downstream, towards the future.
"Frith stood in the sky and looked down at Little Moon.
"Little Moon looked down at the earth - at the grains of sand, at the roots of the grass that pushed through the ground. The roots reached down, even as the blades stretched up. Was there something like the light of Frith, down deep beneath the earth, that called to the roots of grass and plants? Was that pull ever there, or did it come and go, even as the night followed the day?
"Brightness filled the air to one side of Inlehyroo, and with it came a fine, clear sound, like the cries of bats in the dusk. Without turning her head, Little Moon knew that it was Prince Rainbow standing beside her.
"On the other side, it was as though a cloud had moved across the sun, though Lord Frith shown as bright as he had before. Silence came with the shadow, a deep stillness as though the very insects that lived in leafmold and under old logs had stopped and laid down to sleep. And Little Moon knew that it was the Black Rabbit who stood at her other side.
"'You have done what you should not have done, little Inlehyroo. You have gone beyond the place I have set for your kind. A rabbit - especially a doe - needs other rabbits. And a warren is only a collection of empty burrows, without does and the kits they bear.'
"And Little Moon trembled, for she knew Lord Frith intended to punish her for her offense and her anger.
"But Lord Frith's next words took her by surprise.
"'You have found persuasive allies, though, Inlehyroo. Prince Rainbow spoke to me at length, of your devotion to your companions, and your courage and willingness to stay with them despite the dangers. These are admirable qualities in any beast, but especially in one of El-ahrairah's folk.
"'And the Black Rabbit has like wise held counsel with me, on the terms of your cause. He tells me that there are many dying kits, and that he labors long through the night and the day to collect them all. If your people, Inlehyroo, become more numerous still, the task may be beyond him.'
"Little Moon did not know what Frith meant, but her heart had gone to frost at the mention of the Black Rabbit. But a spark of anger grew inside her, anger at her fear and her helplessness. Slay me now, Frith-rah!, she wanted to cry - Slay me and be done - do not taunt me like you were one of the Thousand!
"But Frith did not kill her. Instead he said, 'Little Moon, you have come away from what a rabbit is. And I can not return you to your warren as you are.
"'This is the choice I give you. You may remain a rabbit - an ordinary doe, as you were, and I will return you to your warren. I will heal the rift between you and El-ahrairah, and you will be friends again. You will remember nothing of your journey.'
"Little Moon thought of how she missed the Prince of rabbits, and of her friends, and of her warren - the warm runs, the familiar burrow, the smell of other rabbits.
"Then she thought of Windsped, and brave Blackcoat, and little Thistledown. And she remembered what it had been like, to come out of the mist and into the valley of stone trees - the wonder of seeing something that she had never heard described before.
"'My Lord, what is the other choice?'
"'I will take you away from the earth, and give you a task - just as the Black Rabbit is not of the earth, and just as Prince Rainbow heeds my commands. You will travel across the sky, and look down on the earth below. You will watch at night, for that is when the rabbits come out and are most active.
"'You will watch the rabbits, and when you find a doe who is zorn at heart, or tharn for many days, so that all of her mother's heart has shriveled and dried, you will take her kits from her, still unborn. There will be no rabbits born dead or unwanted - nothing for the Black Rabbit to take - for you will have taken them up.'
"Now Little Moon began to tremble in earnest, for this gift that Frith offered was more terrible than his anger. For a moment, she pressed her face to her forepaws, her eyes shut.
"But beyond her eyelids, she could feel both the shadow and the bright colors draw closer.
"'Courage, Inlehyroo,' said the Black Rabbit of Inle in his cold, grinding voice.
"'You have a task to do,' said Prince Rainbow, whose very voice was all the shades of daylight and joy.
"Little Moon lifted her head and faced the sun squarely.
"'I have gone so far already, Lord Frith. I am not afraid to go farther still.'
"Frith gazed down at Little Moon, who stared back, although her vision was full of Frith's brightness. Then it seemed to Inlehyroo that it was not only Frith who was bright, but that she was bright as well - not a warm brightness, but a cold, pale shining.
"Then she saw that she was far, far above the earth, so far that the trees were like bitten-off grass and the cows in the fields were like ants and the herons in the streams were like midges. But Inlehyroo's gaze was still sharp and clear. She could look far, far across the world, and see the foxes in the thickets and the owls in the trees and the rabbits in the brush.
"And with her clear sight, Inlehyroo could see into the heart of each rabbit, and she could see the does that were with young and she could see the ones whose hearts had gone to frost - dry and cold and bitter, or tired and weary, or simply frightened and withered. And Inlehyroo opened her mouth and swallowed down each of those does, and then dropped them again from her mouth. But she kept the kits of the tharn does - they were like fine black pebbles in her mouth. Again she looked, and again she took the unborn kits of a distraught doe.
"When she moved on, the does remained as they were before - sorrowful or frightened or distraught - but the kits had left them, and would not be born. Instead they weighed on Inlehyroo's heart, and she held the unborn kittens close, until she released them, as if passing hraka, in a stream of bright lights across the night sky."
"...and so that is why the moon grows greater and smaller - for it is Inlehyroo, taking in the unwanted kittens, and then releasing them again. And in the dark of the moon, she has grown small, and come down from the sky, and is received with great honor in the warren of the Black Rabbit, for her courage and steadfastness."
There was a stirring throughout the burrow as Hyzenthlay's story came to an end. The kittens slept on, long since lulled to sleep by the doe's quiet voice. But the older rabbits blinked and shifted, as if drifting back to wakefulness, even though all of them had been listening.
It was the darkest time of winter, with the worst of the cold yet to come. But the burrow was warm with the press of bodies, and the long nights gave a storyteller many hours to share a tale.
Bigwig, resting on his side with his chin over Hyzenthlay's hip, turned his head so that he nuzzled at her flank. "That was a good story. I'm no doe-"
Despite himself, Hazel snorted, all but stamping the floor in amusement. Bigwig flattened his ears and went on - "and I don't know about these other fellows, but I'd be glad to think of Inlehyroo, looking out for us all."
"I agree with Bigwig," Fiver said.
Hyzenthlay settled down, leaning back against Bigwig. "It's just a story," she said. "We look out for each other, here in Watership Down." But there was satisfaction in her voice, and quiet pride. Received with great honor in the warren of the Black Rabbit, and Hazel thought it could be spoken of more than one doe.