The Near Fore does gathered to silflay at dusk. Their hunger satisfied, they hopped slowly, as if idly searching for an overlooked and tender leaf, until ten of them had gathered in a hollow within sight but out of earshot of Captain Vervain.
They did not seem to be waiting for anything in particular, but they were. A buck with very dark fur was drifting toward them. Nothing betrayed his purpose but the occasional twitch of his long ears in the does’ direction. As if by accident, Blackavar joined the does. Only then did they begin to speak.
“It’s Blackavar’s turn to choose the story,” Hyzenthlay said. “What would you like to hear?”
Before Blackavar could speak, a very young doe, Nelthilta, began hopping toward them. Unlike the others, she came quickly and directly, catching Vervain’s attention. The gathered rabbits fell silent until she joined them.
“Are you telling a story?” Nelthilta asked eagerly. “Can we have ‘Prince Rainbow’s Revenge?’”
She had spoken loudly enough for Vervain to hear her. His ears pricked up. Hyzenthlay glanced in his direction, then raised her own voice to match the young doe’s. “That story may be too frightening for you, Nelthilta.”
“No!” Nelthilta said. “I’m not scared of anything!”
Ignoring her interruption, Hyzenthlay said, “Perhaps ‘How El-ahrairah Discovered Carrots.’”
That was a story suitable for even the youngest and most timid kitten. It was not one that any adult rabbit would ever request. Vervain’s ears lowered, and he hopped away.
“But—” Nelthilta protested.
Thethuthinnang raised a paw, threatening to cuff her. Nelthilta subsided, but neither did she leave. The does and Blackavar looked at each other.
In a softer voice, Hyzenthlay said, “Blackavar?”
“My choice is for you to choose, Hyzenthlay,” Blackavar replied. He stared directly at Nelthilta as he said, “But not a kitten story. If you stay, you may hear something you don’t like.”
Before Nelthilta could make a retort, Hyzenthlay said, “No, I think Nelthilta will like this. You will too, Blackavar.”
The Story of the Doe Who Hid Her Kittens
The warren was safe from elil. The rabbits should have been happy. But they were not. The Owsla bullied the smaller, weaker rabbits, and never let them get a taste of the best silflay. The does were not allowed to choose their mates, and so they often took their embryos back into their bodies. The warren was safe, but it was sterile.
Many rabbits wanted a different life, but none were allowed to leave. None dared try to run, because the Owsla was faster. And none could plot to escape in secret, because Bittercress had a seer rabbit named Raspwort, who always knew if any rabbits so much as whispered of rebellion.
Yarrow was a doe in that warren. She wasn’t strong or fast, nor was she the mate of an Owsla member. She wasn’t a seer or a storyteller. There was nothing special about her at all. She was always the last to silflay, after everything good had already been eaten. She loved cowslips, but some stronger rabbit almost always snatched them away from her before she could manage more than a nibble. Her burrow was very small and she wasn’t allowed to dig it deeper.
When she conceived a litter with a junior member of the Owsla whom she hadn’t chosen, she decided that she didn’t want to bring kittens into a life like hers. She sat in her tiny burrow, with the uneven floor and the crumbling ceiling, and began to concentrate on taking back her embryos. One by one, they were absorbed back into her body.
But before she had finished, a rabbit hopped into her burrow. Yarrow was surprised. She had no friends in the warren, and nobody ever liked to come into her cramped, dusty burrow. But what startled her the most was that she didn’t recognize that rabbit. She knew everyone in her warren by sight, even if not by name, and hlessi knew to avoid it.
“What do you want?” Yarrow asked ungraciously.
“I came to suggest that you stop what you’re doing,” said the rabbit.
Yarrow was used to being ordered around. But this rabbit’s words truly did sound like a suggestion rather than a command.
“Why?” she asked. Then, a moment later, “How did you know?”
The rabbit didn’t reply to her second question, but only said, “If you stop, you’ll be glad you did. And one more suggestion— don’t tell anyone about your kittens. Raise them in secret. Raspwort won’t know.”
“Raspwort knows everything,” Yarrow replied.
The rabbit’s ears twitched, and a faint silvery light glimmered about them. “Raspwort won’t know about this.”
Before Yarrow could ask more questions, the rabbit hopped away, leaving Yarrow alone in her burrow.
She knew the stories of El-ahrairah and the starlight in his ears, of course. All rabbits do. But the light had only shimmered for the blink of an eye. She probably had blinked, and merely seen an after-image. Why would El-ahrairah visit her?
But whoever that rabbit had been, he had been kind to her. And when he had spoken, her heart knew to believe him. She stopped absorbing her embryos, and told no one. And soon after, she gave birth in her tiny burrow to a single doe kitten. Yarrow named her Stonecrop.
“I know how the story will end!” Nelthilta interrupted. “Stonecrop will grow up to be strong and brave, and she’ll save the warren all by herself!”
The listening rabbits scuffled in annoyance. Kittens learned not to interrupt stories by the time they were weaned. And this was Efrafa, where only the powerful and the foolhardy spoke so loud.
Thethuthinnang cuffed her. “Shush!”
Nelthilta fell silent, though her manner suggested that she had been cruelly and unfairly punished. But Hyzenthlay did not return to her story, but paused, listening. Waiting.
“Aren’t you—” Nelthilta began.
Vervain hopped up, ears pricked. “What are you all doing here, huddled like that? Whispering secrets?”
“Telling a story,” Hyzenthlay replied. “Would you like to stay and listen?”
Vervain looked from one nervous rabbit to the next. “Break it up. Get back in your burrows.”
The does and Blackavar left without a word. But there was a burrow, not much used because it was small and dusty, where they knew to meet. Soon enough, Blackavar and all but two of the does had gathered back together. Thrayonlosa had been unable to get past the captain of her Mark, and Nelthilta, once separated from the older does, had not known where to go.
Hyzenthlay waited for a while to see if Thrayonlosa would come. But when it became clear that she would not, Hyzenthlay continued her story.
The Story of the Doe Who Hid Her Kittens
Yarrow nursed her kittens in her dusty burrow. When the time came to wean them, she could not imagine how she could carry food back to them. Only the Owsla had the right to take flayrah underground. But Yarrow went in and out of her burrow, carrying mouthfuls of grass and cowslip leaves, and no one ever seemed to notice. What seemed just as strange to her was that she was always able to find delicacies like cowslip leaves, when always before she’d been forced to live on dry grass that the more powerful rabbits had disdained.
She told Stonecrop and Sorrel all the stories that does tell kittens, but she also told them of the warren, why they had never seen the sun, and of the rabbit with starlight in his ears. Stonecrop grew into a fierce, strong doe, with sharp claws and powerful hind legs. Sorrel was undersized and quiet, but he knew things Yarrow had never told him.
Months passed. Stonecrop grew big as a hare, wild and fierce and chafing at her confinement. Sorrel began to tell his mother and sister of conversations that Raspwort and Bittercress had in private.
Then Yarrow knew the time had come. Because of Sorrel, she knew which rabbits she could trust with a secret. She went from rabbit to rabbit, telling them of Stonecrop and Sorrel, and of how all the rabbits in the warren could have a better life.
For the first time in their lives, Stonecrop and Sorrel left their burrow. All the rabbits Yarrow had spoken to came with them, helping Stonecrop fight past the Owsla until they reached the grand burrow where Bittercress and Raspwort waited.
Stonecrop fought Bittercress for his place as Chief Rabbit. The fight was fierce and both were badly bitten and clawed, but finally Stonecrop prevailed and Bittercress was forced to run for his life. While his sister was fighting, Sorrel hopped up to Raspwort and spoke into his ear. No one could hear what he said, and Sorrel never revealed it. But Raspwort began to tremble, and then to cower, and finally fled in Bittercress’s footsteps. The worst of the Owsla followed after them, leaving no rabbits in the warren who wanted more than to live freely, as rabbits are meant to live.
With Stonecrop as Chief Rabbit, no rabbit was allowed to bully others. The remains of the Owsla were broken up, and the new Owsla simply protected the warren. Does and bucks chose their own mates. Does began having litters again. Rabbits were allowed to leave if they wanted to, but few wanted to. Sometimes hlessi came, and often they stayed.
Yarrow had no special place in the new warren. She was still neither strong nor fast, neither a storyteller nor a fighter. But no rabbit forgot who bore Stonecrop and Sorrel, who raised them in secret for months, or who came to them and persuaded them to join a rebellion that none had thought was possible. Whenever they saw Yarrow go out to silflay, they would save the choicest leaves and shoots for her. But even when no other rabbit could find a cowslip, Yarrow always could. She found so many that she often had more than enough to share. It was as if they grew just for her.
The listening rabbits sighed in wistful pleasure as Hyzenthlay finished her tale. After praising it and her, they quickly dispersed. It wouldn’t do for a member of the Owsla to find them gathered together. It would seem as if they were plotting something. Soon only Hyzenthlay and Thethuthinnang were left in the burrow.
“Will you keep your litter, Hyzenthlay?” Thethuthinnang asked quietly.
“I’ve already taken them back into my body,” Hyzenthlay replied. “I will never have a litter. Not here.”
Though Thethuthinnang had not spoken with reproach, Hyzenthlay added, as if she had been accused, “I’m not Yarrow. I’m not Stonecrop. I’m not Sorrel. It was only a story!”
Thethuthinnang was no seer herself. But any rabbit may, if only once in a lifetime, be touched at need by that other world which seers know.
“Was it?” Thethuthinnang asked. And for the briefest of moments, in that lightless burrow, a glimmer of reflected starlight touched her fur.