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Far Far Away

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On the third evening of his wandering, Silverweed finds a dead fox. The smell is quite terrible from some distance away - nothing like the soft haze of yew branches or the clean bite of silver in the grass - but he follows it anyway, one paw after another, until he comes to a small copse, and there, under a young, squat larch, is the body.

He has never seen a fox, but he knows it is one; he had once dreamed he was a man with a loud metal stick, and he had pointed it at a quicksilver flash of red in a bush, and it had smelled very strongly of smoke and rot and very faintly of blood and fox. He, or perhaps they, had picked it up by the still-warm tail, the white tip unstained, and looked it over and approved warmly, and then Silverweed had woken up, the power slipping past his whiskers like dusk, and lain still in his burrow, waiting for a poem - but none had ever come.

There is no smoke on this fox, and he comes closer, whiskers brushing over the stinking flank. It, too, is still warm, though not nearly so much as the other. There is more blood: its belly is ripped open, as if some other elil had come on it unaware - there is no scent of man at all, only rabbit and fox and death. The flies are beginning to come, as they come to the banks of the stream and the gaps in the hedge when the men are too slow.

Having followed death to reach the fox, he follows rabbit away from it, through the copse and over the bank of a small hill, into a sheltered hollow on the other side. There is a half-scrape there, like the ones the hlessil had made so many dreams ago, the ones who had shaken the walls of the warren and left death thin and hungry.

But the rabbit inside is not one of them. He sleeps through Silverweed coming in, nosing at him to indulge the curiosity that is as new to him as a half-furred kit, so deeply that he might be in a yew dream himself, if he were a poet. But the only death-smell on him is a lingering, distant stink of fox and old blood clinging deep about his hind feet. He's as big as Strawberry, if not bigger, but that is where the similarity begins and ends. There are scars all over him, wounds that have bled and healed, and no scent of flayrah; nothing to tie him to any warren that Silverweed has ever heard of awake or asleep.

Outside there is frost on the grass; inside it is not much warmer, the hole too shallow to be much protection at all, but Silverweed lies down beside the big buck anyway, shoulder to shoulder, and breathes out, his eyes falling closed, his heart slowing. It takes a while for the darkness to find him, so far away from home, but eventually it comes.

 

His dreams have been strange for hrair days, ever since Strawberry vanished and Nildro-hain came alone into Silverweed's dreams without her mate, ever since the hlessil who asked where, where left and took their stories with them, and today's are no exception.

He dreams not of the deaths of rabbits, beneath leaves and under streams, but of the deaths of warrens: he dreams his own Great Burrow falling down upon itself, crumbling and caving until the place where he had stood and recited so many times is solid earth. He dreams that the brick of the old well shudders and shatters in the ground, and that the image of El-ahrairah in the wall leaps forth into the burrow, the stones becoming a rabbit and outracing the wave of mud and stone that reclaims the warren.

He dreams of a warren he does not know, where the wave that sweeps burrow and tunnel is invisible and thick but no less choking, that leaves rabbits dead in their tracks but does not consume them or bury them under leaf or loam.

He dreams of a warren, bigger than the others, where the deadly wave is made of scarred rabbits that turn and clash and fight one another like a story from another time, a story he does not know how to belong to. In this wave of rabbits he sees one with ears so ragged they are almost missing, and he thinks of dock leaves and fleas and does not know why.

 

Silverweed is still there, lost in a sea of rabbit, when he's jostled rudely awake, then slapped viciously across the whiskers by a paw so heavy that blood starts to his nose, summoning him firmly back to the scrape in the hollow where he had fallen asleep.

"You're not Owsla," the big rabbit tells him, his body tense as if he means to box Silverweed again no matter what answer he gives.

"No," Silverweed agrees, because no matter how you look at it, that is certainly the truth, and he has never been one to lie, even when it might be more comfortable, or even to avoid the questions and answers that others do not like to think of. He snuffles through the blood and it bubbles curiously, like foam. Instead of a poem, a curious certainty is coming to him that he is awake, but still dreaming the third of his dreams.

"What's your mark?"

"You have enough for both of us."

Instead of hitting him again, the buck shoves him aside with one thick shoulder and leaves the scrape, moving a little awkwardly, a little stiffly, like a body left too long. Silverweed follows.

Aboveground it is fu Inlé, with high clouds blowing in a quick, cold dance, like brown leaves in the river. The big rabbit sits up on his hind legs, scenting the air, his long ears pricked high. Since Silverweed came, the wind has changed; even through his own blood, he can smell the dead fox in the copse up the path.

"You came from that way," the rabbit says to him.

"Yes," Silverweed answers.

"Not many rabbits would go near a homba for no reason," he says. "Especially a half-grown buck." He turns suddenly, looking Silverweed straight on. In the light he is even larger than he had felt underground, his scars thicker and more noticeable. "Where's your warren?" he snaps. "Who's your Chief Rabbit?"

Silverweed cocks his head in the direction of the warren, although he's not altogether sure, were they to set out at once, it would be there when they arrived, or if they would find only caved-in ruins and the pawprints of a dead rabbit. "There is no Chief Rabbit," he says, "just the man."

"A hutch?" His rage fades to disgust with fascinating speed.

While Silverweed has never heard the word before, the image it calls to mind is the choking suffocation of the wire, so he doesn't disagree. "You're going somewhere else," he says, instead, because that's clear enough: otherwise Silverweed would have dreamed of him, rather than of warrens that lie somewhere over hills he has never crossed and the one that lies behind him. He turns his head, listening, but still hears nothing, no whisper of the wind, no murmur of water over stone: only the short breath of the rabbit at his side and the open darkness of the night. "Take me with you."