The rumor had spread through the whole warren before it reached Hazel's ears. The Chief Rabbit could tell, because as he hopped through the new Honeycomb toward the run that went to Vilthuril’s burrow, ears turned toward him and conversations stilled. Rumors spread fast underground, Hazel knew, but he wished with all his might that someone had seen fit to inform him of what was going on before the whole burrow knew about it.
Clearly, it was too late for that. He turned into the run and moved downward, his lame leg dragging slightly so that his hop gave off a distinctive drag and thump. Before he’d even reached the mouth of the burrow, Fiver popped his head out. “Hazel, is that you?” he asked.
“Yes,” Hazel said. “Is she here?” Vilthuril’s litter were still young, and she had just begun to leave the kittens behind now and then so she could manage a quick silflay.
Fiver looked uncomfortable. “Hazel—” he started.
“She’s here.” Hazel said. “Did you know what she was going to do?”
“There’s no harm in it…”
“She can’t keep it, Fiver!” Hazel growled, scuffling angrily in the dirt. “Word’s already all over the warren.”
“It’s just a kit!” Fiver protested.
Hazel looked at him. “It’s a squirrel kit, Fiver. It doesn’t belong here.”
“But what about making friends, Hazel, like with your mouse and Kehaar and all…”
“And that’s worked so well with the embleer little hombil, has it?” Hazel usually tried to be more patient with Fiver, but squirrels were a subject on which he found it difficult to be polite. He knew he sounded like Bigwig in a strop, but really, there was a squirrel kit in the warren; would it be lendri babies next?
And the rabbits had tried, they really had. The first year, when they’d dug out the second set of burrows, they’d saved every cache they found and left them in neat offering piles for the squirrels. Their thanks had been a constant bombardment of nuts and twigs from the tree-tops, accompanied by chittering and tail-shaking. Hazel had befriended a mouse and a bird and ridden in a hrududu. But squirrels, as far as he was concerned, were impossible.
He pushed past Fiver and into the burrow. The burrow smelled of nursing doe and the warm, close smell of a litter of rabbit kits. He couldn’t pick out the foreign scent of squirrel, but he knew it was there.
“Vilthuril,” he said. He could sense Fiver at his back, tense and wary.
“Hazel-rah,” she replied quietly.
“You know you can’t keep it, don’t you?” he asked her desperately. “We’re rabbits.”
“She’s just a kit, Hazel-rah,” she said fiercely. “She was cold and alone and hurt and she’s just a kit.”
“What if it’s sick, though? We don’t know. Where’s its mother?”
Vilthuril made a snuffling noise. “She’s not sick. And she’s nursing fine, so she doesn’t need whatever no-good doe left her there.”
Hazel was taken aback. “You’re nursing it?”
Vilthuril sounded smug. “Once she warmed up she latched right on,” she said. “She’s still got a lame forepaw, but that’ll heal in time. She fell out of her drey, you know. Mad things, squirrels, living in trees like that.”
Hazel whiffed agreement. He felt less certain than he had when he’d headed down the run, fueled by ire and fresh rumors. “I just don’t know,” he said. “You know we’ve tried to work with the squirrels before. I’m not sure they can be befriended.”
Squirrels, of course, spoke the common hedgerow language of all animals, though with considerably more profanity than most. But despite the gifts of discovered caches and general friendliness (or at least indifference) on the part of the rabbits, the down’s squirrels were, quite frankly, pests. They pelted the rabbits with nuts when they went out to silflay. “Yah, groundlings!” they jeered, running down the tree trunks to shake their tails at their victims before racing back up. “Can’t climb tree, can’t jump-fly, yah!” and off they would go, chasing through the limbs and quarreling amongst themselves all the way.
One of Hazel’s favorite things about living on Watership Down was that there were so few trees, and therefore, so few squirrels.
Fiver spoke behind him. “Hazel, don’t you think we might ask Hyzenthlay-rah?” he said.
Hazel squirmed awkwardly around and nudged Fiver until they both emerged from the mouth of the burrow into the wider space of the run.
“I don’t claim to understand it myself,” Fiver admitted once they were outside. “But isn’t that why we have a doe as Chief Rabbit, so they can understand about kits and such things?”
Hazel thought for a moment. “Fiver, you’re brilliant,” he said. He would hand the problem over to Hyzenthlay, who after all felt much as he did about the squirrels. Perhaps Vilthuril would listen to another doe. “Hyzenthlay-rah can settle it.”
Thus settled in his mind, he hopped down the run to find one of the young bucks to send for Hyzenthlay. It was coming on evening, anyway, and he needed to silflay before it was full dark.
She found him out in the gathering dusk, nibbling on a bit of burnet. He twitched his ears in welcome as she approached him, and they grazed in silence for a moment or two.
"You've heard that Vilthuril's adopted an embleer squirrel kit, then," he said eventually. He knew that she could not have missed the rumor.
"Yes," she said, grimly. Hyzenthlay had suffered a blow from a well-aimed walnut the previous fall that had lamed her right front paw for several days, and she'd been the first one to call the squirrels "little hombil."
"Well, I tried to talk to her today but she's intent on keeping the blasted thing. And Fiver's backing her up! Will you talk to them?"
Hyzenthlay sat up and scratched behind one long ear with her hind foot. "I suppose so."
Hazel felt relieved. He nudged her with his nose, and she cuffed him lightly; he went down into the burrow that night with a lighter heart.
The next morning was chilly and bright. Hazel bounced out of the burrow feeling more like a kit than he had since his injury, and when Bigwig came up to silflay they chatted amiably together while they filled their bellies. When Bigwig groused about the squirrel kit—it was still the talk of the warren—Hazel told him that Hyzenthlay had said she would handle it.
"She's a good leader, Hazel," Bigwig said. "It's a bit odd, I'll grant you, a doe as Chief Rabbit, but it's good for the warren. The young does have someone to look to who understands them."
Hazel wholeheartedly agreed. They’d just gotten the warren to accept Hyzenthlay as Chief Rabbit that winter, and it hadn't been an easy transition, but he was glad of it. His own status as Chief Rabbit had never been something he had sought, and as the warren grew it had been good to have someone else to share the responsibility of leadership with.
Hazel and Bigwig hopped back toward the nearest burrow together, but as they approached, they found a crowd of rabbits all gathered around it. "Here now," said Bigwig sharply. "Scatter out, you lot. You'll attract elil, all clumped together like a lot of embleer starlings like this!"
The rabbits startled and some began to hop sheepishly off in various directions. As the crowd thinned (though not as much as Hazel would have liked) he could see that the source of the fascination was Vilthuril, who was talking with Hyzenthlay near the burrow mouth. Her kits hopped to and fro in the short grass, swiping at one another and falling over and generally acting like kits. And on her back sat the young squirrel, holding on to her fur with its paws. It was larger than Hazel had imagined—about of a size with the rabbit kits and already densely furred.
“Hazel-rah,” Hyzenthlay said, seeing him approach. “I hear you’ve met our newest addition already.”
By Hazel’s side, Bigwig exploded. “You can’t be serious, Hyzenthlay-rah!” he said. “It’s one thing to make friends, and quite another to invite in vermin!”
Hazel could hear his own sentiments of the day before echoed, and it wasn’t that he disagreed. But with his usual lack of subtlety, Bigwig was questioning Hyzenthlay's authority in front of a sizeable portion of the rabbits in the warren. He probably hadn't meant to, but there it was.
Hazel couldn’t let that challenge stand unanswered, not if the warren was to remain united. He felt a strong sense of irritation at Bigwig, who should know better than to act out like this when her leadership was still so new.
“Thlayli,” he said loudly, stepping in front of Bigwig and nudging him sharply as he passed, “Hyzenthlay-rah has made her decision. Vilthuril has taken the kit on as her responsibility. The warren will treat it as it would any kit until she chooses otherwise.”
“Frith preserve us,” he heard Bigwig mutter, beneath the rising tide of excited discussion.
Hazel glared at Hyzenthlay. This was not what he thought she had meant when she offered to take care of the situation. She gazed calmly back. He turned to Vilthuril. "It's your problem now, I suppose."
The young squirrel squeaked and fell off her back onto one of the rabbit kits, which thumped it with a hind leg and ran off, its adopted sibling in gleeful pursuit. Vilthuril looked after them indulgently. "She'll be fine, Hazel-rah," she said. "You'll see."
"Vilthuril," said Hazel. "It's the burrow I worry about, not the squirrel."
But contrary to Hazel’s expectations, the squirrel thrived, and as the days grew longer, the little kit’s presence didn’t cause the problems he’d expected. Vilthuril named her Flethoo, "little gooseberry," and she grew fat on warm, rich rabbit milk even as the other kits did. As she grew, the warren grew accustomed to seeing her racing through the tunnels with her siblings and hearing her loud squeaks and chitters mixed in with the quieter noises of rabbits.
One fine spring day Flethoo was running through the Honeycomb and leaping onto her siblings from behind the root-pillars when Hazel came in from silflay. He narrowly dodged the enthusiastic squirrel and bumped into Bluebell, who was sitting nearby with Holly, watching the kits play. “Oh, Hazel," said Bluebell brightly, "Just look at Flethoo! She's a cheeky one—teach us all to jump-fly in no time, I shouldn’t think!”
Holly snorted, and Bluebell said, "You'd cut a fine figure, master, leaping from tree to tree. I've always thought it would be grand, myself, to get up there like Kehaar does. I bet you could see all the way to Efrafa!"
Thethuthinnang said, “El-ahrairah flew once, you remember?”
“Dandelion, where’s Dandelion?” the cry went up. But when he was found and brought to the Honeycomb, he confessed that he didn’t know the tale Thethuthinnang spoke of either.
“Well, I’m no storyteller,” Thethuthinnang said when pressed. “But I will tell you this.”
A hush fell over the Honeycomb as everyone settled down to listen. Hazel looked for Vilthuril, but she and her brood had disappeared quietly while Thethuthinnang was talking.
Now, in the months and days after Frith made elil, when the burrowing of does had ceased to cover all the earth and the children of El-ahrairah were hunted everywhere by the Thousand, El-ahrairah grew despondent. He said to Rabscuttle, his favored companion and fellow rogue, "Rabscuttle, is there nowhere that is now safe for my people? Ferrets find our burrows, hawks and homba stalk our silflay; where in all this green earth that once teemed with rabbits may we now find rest?"
And Rabscuttle was silent, for El-ahrairah spoke truth. Fleet of foot the rabbits had perforce become, fast and always clever, but that was not enough against the might and cunning of the Thousand. Rabscuttle and El-ahrairah had been searching for days for a safe haven in which to start a new warren, and fear had been growing always in their minds as they searched. Perhaps nowhere would ever be safe again.
But El-ahrairah, in all his misery, was still the most cunning and resourceful of rabbits, so he thought and thought, while Rabscuttle slept in the shallow scrape they'd made for the night. He thought all that night, and when Rabscuttle awoke the next morning he said, "Rabscuttle, I am going to go out and find us a safe place for the new warren."
Rabscuttle said, "But Master, I thought that was what we had been doing all this time."
El-ahrairah hopped out of the scrape and passed hraka. "Too slowly," he said. "I am going to speed up the process." And he hopped down that hill and up the next, until he found a big white bird. "Big white bird," said El-ahrairah all unafraid, "Lend me your wings, that I may fly up and find a safe home for my people."
"Lend you my wings?" cried the bird. "Never. I need these wings to fly to the big water of my people, and to dive and catch many fish."
"And if I can get you all the fish in that pond over there," El-ahrairah said, looking at a nearby pond with bass leaping and splashing in the shadows, "Will you lend me your wings?"
"You cannot fish for me," said the bird. "You are only a rabbit."
"But if I can," said El-ahrairah. "What then?"
"Oh, well," said the bird, "If you can give me all the fish in the pond, I will gladly lend you my wings."
And El-ahrairah hopped off, back down that hill and down to the pond, where he poked his nose into the muddy places and wet his paws among the reeds until he found a frog. "Frog," he said, "will you lend me your big lungs and your powerful swimming legs? I want to swim underneath the water."
The frog looked at him. "Burrrrum," it said. "Rabbits should stay on land, not swim under the water."
"But I should very much like to," said El-ahrairah, "Will you lend me your legs and your ability to hold your breath for ever and ever?"
"No," said the frog. "I need them to escape the heron and the egret and the hungry pike. If I gave you my legs and my breath, I would be eaten up in an instant!"
"If I could give you the ability to climb high into the trees, would you help me then?"
"If you can give me the ability to climb into the trees, you can borrow my swimming legs and my diving lungs, then," laughed the frog, no doubt feeling quite secure in his offer.
"I shall hold you to it," said El-ahrairah, and loped over to the wood, where he found a squirrel chasing its own tail around and around a tree trunk.
"Squirrel," said El-ahrairah, "May I borrow your sharp claws and strong legs, to climb high into the trees?"
"No-no-no-no!" scolded the squirrel, shaking his tail. "I need my sharp claws and my climbing to escape from elil! They chase me even as they do you; would you have me helpless?"
"If I could keep you safe," said El-ahrairah, "Would you let me borrow them?"
"Oh no-no-no," said the squirrel. "Rabbits are all the time being hunted by the Thousand! You cannot keep anyone safe."
"If I could?" asked El-ahrairah.
The squirrel ran further down the trunk of his tree and peered closely at El-ahrairah. "You are a crazy rabbit," he said. "But I would do anything to be safe from the elil. You make me safe and I will lend you my climbing claws."
El-ahrairah's whiskers trembled in satisfaction, and he went from the wood down to a nearby stream, where he found a turtle dozing on a rock. "Turtle," El-ahrairah said. "Will you lend me your shell?"
"El-ahrairah, I would be eaten up in a moment, as slow as I am, without my shell. You must know this; of course I cannot lend you my shell."
"But if I made you as fleet as a rabbit, could you then?"
"You would make me fast like you?" said the turtle doubtfully. He craned his triangular neck to look at El-ahrairah's strong back legs, which Frith had blessed to be swift and agile. "I should like that very much."
"Done, then!" El-ahrairah said, and he gave the turtle his legs: "Until the shortest day of the year, you may have my speed and agility."
The turtle hopped very fast in circles and laughed out loud. "You may have my shell now!" he said, giving it to the rabbit. "I am as fast as anything!"
El-ahrairah took the turtle's shell and went slowly, slowly to the wood, where he traded the shell to the squirrel: "Until the shortest day of the year," for his climbing claws.
And then, agonizingly slowly, he went to the pond, where the frog climbed high into the trees with his new claws and strong legs to escape his enemies, and El-ahrairah took his capacious lungs and webbed feet—"Until the shortest day of the year,"—to the big white bird.
And the big white bird, who had almost forgotten the strange rabbit who had asked to borrow his wings, saw that he could use them to swim and catch the fish in the pond all unsuspecting.
"Only until the shortest day of the year," El-ahrairah said, handing them over and donning the great bird's wings in turn. "I shall return your wings then," and he launched himself into the air.
It took him a good long while to get the hang of it, but by ni-Frith the next day, El-ahrairah winged his way back and landed outside the scrape, where Rabscuttle was waiting.
"El-ahrairah!" said Rabscuttle. "Are those wings? What have you done! Has Lord Frith seen fit to give you another blessing?"
"No, no, Rabscuttle," El-ahrairah explained. "I have only borrowed them from the big white bird, and must give them back on the shortest day of the year. But that should be plenty of time to fly high and far enough to find a safe place for a new warren."
And he did. He flew high, and he flew far, and each day he circled back in the evening's waning light to silflay (slowly, still so achingly and terrifyingly slowly) with Rabscuttle, and tell him what he had seen, and settle awkwardly—feathers were not easy to manage underground—into that day's scrape to sleep, only to rise the next morning and start again.
Elil saw him, of course, hawks and eagles and others, but they gave him a wide berth, because who had ever heard of a rabbit with wings? It was probably some strange, poisonous creature, and none cared to risk trying to find out.
But El-ahrairah flew and he looked and he found nothing that would suit, and the days grew shorter and shorter and he again began to worry that perhaps there would be no safe place for his people. He knew he would have to return the wings to the big white bird soon, if he wanted to run swiftly again under the sun. And as fu-Inlé came closer and closer on the heels of ni-Frith, El-ahrairah grew desperate, and flew longer and farther each day.
At last, exhausted, he came upon a high hill lined with small copses of trees. He landed and looked and found good grass, and good soil for digging, and best of all, he did not even need the wings to see the land all about him. No elil could approach without rabbits seeing; no enemy could ambush them unwary. They would be safe there.
But only three days remained before the shortest day. El-ahrairah left Rabscuttle there on the high flat hill and winged back to the hill and the wood and the pond and the stream where he had left his speed and agility. He flew day and night and when he arrived, near dead with fatigue, he found all the animals waiting for him.
"My wings!" said the great white bird, "Oh, how I have missed flying!" and "My legs!" cried the frog, "Oh, how I have longed to swim!" and "My claws!" exclaimed the squirrel, running up and down a tree trunk for joy. "I will never stay on the ground again!" and "My home!" cried the turtle, "How I have missed my cozy shell!"
And El-ahrairah put on his fast strong legs, legs that can outrun the Thousand, and he lit out as fast as he could, running and running to his children, with the wind in his ears, to bring them to their new home.
Thethuthinnang finished, and the Honeycomb was silent, and then Thlayli said, in a wistful way not at all like him, "That really must have been something, to fly like that."
But Silver, who had been listening near the mouth of one of the runs, said, "No, no, don't you see, all the animals were glad to go back to the natural blessings that Lord Frith had given them. It is better to run, the way the children of El-ahrairah were born to do."
"And what of young Flethoo, then?" Hazel asked Thethuthinnang, in a low voice. "Should she not do what is natural to her, as well? It's not right, for a squirrel to live underground like a rabbit."
Thethuthinnang nosed him comfortingly. "Hazel-rah," she said, "She's just a baby. She'll grow up."
"And then what?" Hazel asked, thinking of the many failed attempts at befriending the Down's squirrels the year before. But the doe didn't reply, and Hazel knew that that would be all he would get out of her on the subject.
Flethoo did grow up.
Far from rejecting the warren, she became as much part of it as any of the kits. Some of the younger rabbits took to her, and as she grew and weaned, she could be found clinging to the backs of some of the larger yearlings as they chased around the meadow, or tumbling around in a ball of scuffle with her littermates, distinguished only by the fat bush of her tail flying out of the tangle of limbs and paws.
Sometimes her friends would bring her nuts and seeds that they found in their excursions around the downs. The morsels were too bitter for rabbits, but they were like flayrah to wee Flethoo, and the young rabbits challenged her to see how many she could stuff in her cheeks until Vilthuril came and told her to be careful or she'd pop, the way her face was bulging.
But she didn't climb, and she didn't jump from tree to tree, and the adult squirrels of the downs, far from being kind to her, seemed to redouble their taunts when she came near. "Can't jump-fly, can't hop-hop! Not-squirrel! Not-rabbit!" they shrieked at her, shaking their bushy tails, and she would run to the nearest burrow to escape their jeers.
And the days were growing shorter, and Vilthuril came to Hyzenthlay one day, where she was sitting on a sunny rock with Hazel, and said. "Hyzenthlay-rah, I'm worried about Flethoo."
Hyzenthlay and Hazel exchanged looks, but said nothing.
"She's restless and not eating right, and she's burying all her treats that her friends bring, but not like a proper squirrel; I keep finding them in the burrow, or tucked away in one of the runs. What should I do?"
"Vilthuril, you brought Flethoo into the warren against my best advice and Hazel's," Hyzenthlay said, and Hazel looked at her, startled, because he had not guessed that she had tried to dissuade the other doe. "Squirrels are not meant to live like rabbits, and Flethoo will be an adult come spring."
Vilthuril laid back her ears in misery, but said obstinately, "I would not have left her to die."
"I know," said Hazel, because he could see that now. "But good intentions don't always help." Especially with squirrels, he thought but wisely did not say.
Vilthuril looked to Hyzenthlay, but Hyzenthlay said nothing more, and eventually she turned and hopped slowly back down the run the way she had come.
Hyzenthlay looked sadly after her. "I was afraid it would come to this," she said.
"Then why did you let her keep Flethoo?" Hazel asked, honestly puzzled.
"Hazel, don't you see? If we had been the ones to order the kit out of the warren, it would have died, and Vilthuril and many who sympathize with her would have turned against our leadership. But if she dies now, or if she proves herself unable to live in the warren, it reinforces the wisdom of our earlier judgment. There are no secrets underground, Hazel," she said, quoting the old rabbit proverb. "You cannot think that the warren does not know how we both opposed this."
"I did not know," said Hazel. "I thought you supported her."
Hyzenthlay sneezed. "I had no other option, but I made my feelings clear beforehand. And now we will both be proved right."
And they were, but there was no satisfaction in it for either of them. Flethoo grew increasingly erratic, and though Vilthuril did her best to keep the caches of nuts confined to her burrow, and to give her young charge plenty of time to play outside, Hazel and Hyzenthlay heard increasing complaints from the rabbits that the squirrel was disturbing their rest with her constant chittering and that she was burying things where no-one should be digging. There were even reports, as the winter went on, that she was leaping on unsuspecting rabbits and attempting to scuffle with them.
Hazel spoke to her at last about her behavior, but it did no good, and on a late winter morning, after the frost had broken but before the new grasses appeared, he and Hyzenthlay went to talk to Vilthuril again.
This time, the doe did not argue. All she said was, "Give me until the meadowsweet blooms, Hyzenthlay-rah and Hazel-rah. I must get her ready."
The meadowsweet would bloom soon, before the summer came, and so they agreed.
And Vilthuril went to all the rabbits who had been Flethoo's friend before the winter came, and she asked them all if they would help her to gather nuts and seeds again in the summer and fall for the young squirrel, and she explained her plan. And they said that they would, and thus armed with promises, she went out into the woods with Flethoo.
Hazel knew all this because some of the young rabbits had asked him if it would be alright to help; everyone knew by now that Flethoo would be leaving the warren, and no rabbit wanted to cross the Chief Rabbits' commands by mistake. He knew, and he had said that they might help, but he did not know what would happen next.
Nothing happened that day. Flethoo and Vilthuril came back for evening silflay and went out again in the morning, and for several days they did this, and no rabbit had seen where they went except to know that they had gone in the direction of the farm. Most rabbits preferred to silflay elsewhere; there were too many men near the farm, and cats, and dogs and hrududu and other things rabbits did not like, and all remembered what had happened to Sandwort in the garden.
But on the fourth day, when the meadowsweet had begun to sprout, Hyzenthlay followed the doe and the squirrel after morning silflay, and the next day, she took Hazel with her.
"You won't believe it, Hazel-rah," she said. "Vilthuril has done it!" But she would not say what, exactly, Vilthuril had done, and by the time they reached the copse of trees near the farm, Hazel was quite cross with her. And when all they saw there was Vilthuril under a beech tree, looking up into the leaves with no Flethoo in sight, he was almost ready to turn around and go home to the burrow. But Hyzenthlay said, "Wait," and he did, for just a few moments more, and then he saw them.
Two grey squirrels raced along the branches, leaping and chittering, and Hazel would never have known what they were saying except that they were speaking the hedgerow language, not the language of squirrels, which rabbits do not know and cannot speak. "You jump-climb good!" the larger one was saying, "Go fast-fast to next tree!" and he leaped and caught a high branch, and the other squirrel followed him, and then Hazel knew that it was Flethoo, because she missed, and for a terrifying moment all her paws flailed for purchase, and she clung to the branch with only her forepaws, and Hazel closed his eyes and turned his nose into Hyzenthlay's side.
But he did not hear a thud, nor a crash, and by the time he dared to look again, Flethoo had hauled herself up onto the branch and crouched shivering there while the other squirrel chittered over her, "No-no-no, rabbit kit! Not jump up-up with back feet only! Reach out-out!" Flethoo listened, and stopped shivering and shook her tail, and when her teacher had turned his back, she did reach out… and boxed his tail, startling him so badly he nearly fell off the branch himself.
And then she chittered at him impishly and jumped over him and ran down the branch, further into the tree, and he growled and chased her out of sight.
Hazel and Hyzenthlay hopped out of the bushes where they had been watching, and Vilthuril tensed and turned to run, but then she saw them and relaxed. "Oh, it's you," she said. "I thought it might be the pfeffa from the farm."
"Does it come here?" Hyzethlay asked, nervous.
"Only sometimes," said Vilthuril. "Kitchit says he has seen it once or twice, but that it always comes up by the road, where we should see it in plenty of time."
"Kitchit?" asked Hazel.
"That is Flethoo's instructor, there," Vilthuril said, cocking an ear toward the tree where the squirrels had disappeared.
Hazel marveled. "In all our seasons on the downs, no squirrel save Flethoo has ever been convinced to so much as be civil to any rabbit. And you have got this … Kitkit …"
"Kitchit," Vilthuril said.
"Kitchit, teaching Flethoo to climb and jump! I guess now I know why you needed the promise of the autumn's nuts from her friends. I should have thought of that long ago."
Vilthuril twitched her nose at him. "Oh no, that would not have worked."
Hazel was bewildered. "But you have done it!"
"Ah, but I have something you do not," Vilthuril said, slyly.
"And that is?"
"A squirrel doe on the cusp of maturity," she said, looking at Hyzenthlay, who sneezed to hide her amusement.
"Ah," said Hazel, and traded understanding glances with the two does.
"You will not even need to wait until the meadowsweet blooms, the way those two were carrying on," Hyzenthlay observed.
"I know," Vilthuril said smugly.
And she did not.
The meadowsweet had not even begun to bud the day Vilthuril came home alone from the copse by the farm. And after that, as far as Hazel could tell, life at the warren went back to the way it had been before Flethoo came. The other squirrels still jeered and threw things (though Flethoo and Kitchit were never among them that Hazel could see) and the new kits tumbled in the spring sun with their mothers, and messengers came and went from Vlefain and Efrafa, where things were proceeding much the same.
Hazel had almost forgotten about Flethoo by the time the summer began to fade, but he was reminded when some of the rabbits began to go to the copse again with Vilthuril, the nuts and seeds of the promised tribute clamped in their mouths.
"That still looks damned odd to me," he said to Pipkin, who was munching on a patch of cress next to him and watching the rabbits carry. "Reminds me of Cowslip's warren a bit, though I know it's come in handy for us."
"We took the good and left the bad, Hazel-rah," Pipkin reminded him. "We got the idea for the Honeycomb from them, too."
"I know, Hlao-roo," Hazel said. "Do you want to go down there with them, though? I want to see if there are any late cowslips left in that patch near the copse."
And they hopped off down the hill.
There were cowslips in abundance still, past bloom but still savory and rich. Pipkin and Hazel munched contentedly for a while, ignoring Vilthuril and the other rabbits as, errand evidently complete, they returned to the warren. The early autumn sun was warm where it filtered through the fringe of the trees, and Hazel was just about to suggest to Pipkin that they head back to the warren to chew pellets when a shower of twigs and leaves came raining down from above them, along with an angry chittering and squirrel-accented hedgerow "Go 'way! No-no-no!"
Of course it was the squirrels, and when Hazel glared upward he saw Flethoo and the one who must be Kitchit far out on a branch. Flethoo had a large unopened nut in her paws and as Hazel watched, helpless, she flung it —over them, and into the grass beyond. A yowl rose up where the nut had landed—the yowl of an angry cat—and before they knew they were moving Hazel and Pipkin had bolted, fear more instinctive than thought driving them in opposite directions, away from the pfeffa and its sharp claws.
The sound of angry squirrels had faded in the distance long before Hazel slowed and halted, sure that he had outrun the pfeffa at last. His leg ached, and he was tired and far from the burrow. He limped up the hill, and as he came near the burrows, he met Pipkin, similarly exhausted and bedraggled.
"Hazel-rah, thank Frith you're all right!" Pipkin exclaimed. "I was afraid that cat would have had you for its lunch!"
"And it would have, too, if it hadn't been for the squirrels. That was Flethoo, did you see her?"
"Little Flethoo?!" Pipkin was shocked. "I would never have thought."
"Neither would I, Hlao-roo," said Hazel. "Neither would I."
Things changed on the downs, just a little bit, after that. Hazel joined the daily carrying of nuts and seeds, and toward the end of the autumn he saw not just Flethoo and Kitchit, but their litter when they came to collect.
Flethoo never returned to the warren. But the next spring, as Hazel was feeding in the meadow, an embassy of squirrels came to ask if the warren would trade nuts for occasional help with a lookout or two in the trees.
Spring followed spring. Squirrel kits and rabbit kits grew into adults and mated and had litters of their own, and they lived in harmony and prosperity together.
And soon no creature on the downs could recall that it had ever been otherwise.