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Excerpt for The Hedgehog Trail by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

HEED, THE HEDGEHOG

THE POOR LITTLE THING

THE FEAST

GINGER, SNOW AND HICCUP

A REFUGE

THE FURROW

TO THE ROOTRIUM

THE TALE

THE PRISONER

THE PLOTTING SISTERS

THE TALE - RETOLD

THE ESCAPE

THE METHOD IN HIS MADNESS

HEED, THE FURROWIAN

OUT IN THE FOREST

BACK AGAIN

A WARNING

INTO THE DARKNESS

THE LIGHT IN THE DARK

A NEW HOME

HEED, THE HEDGEHOG



A hazelnut fell on Heed’s head with a thump. The sharp pain froze her for a moment, and her lush brown spikes stood up stiff and straight. Down came a shower of nuts; some with shell, some without it, some broken and some bitten. Most of them missed her, but a few bounced off her spikes.

Those troublesome squirrels, thought Heed, as she ran as fast as her little legs would carry her.

The squirrel tree, however, was spread over the meadow like a canopy, covering much of the path which she had to traverse. The last light of the day barely penetrated it. Heed stole a glance up at the tree. Several squirrels were running hither and thither all over the branches. Some of them stopped to shake their fists at her. Their rapid, high-pitched chirps did not make any sense to her. But she realised that she had to move faster. And she was right. More nuts flew in her direction.

Heed kept her eyes fixed on her favourite haunt which lay on the other side of the meadow. Red toadstools and white flowers dotted the green floor. The river ran nearby, meandering on its onward journey to unknown places.

It was here that Heed always curled up to sleep. She did have a home. Her family lived in a beautiful hole in the meadow, where she slept during the day. But at night, when a proper hedgehog should be out sniffing and snuffing for bugs and beetles, she liked to laze around on the grass, taking in the scent of the sweet-smelling flowers till her eyes would doze shut. She was sure that her mother would save her a leaf full of crunchy bugs and a heap of juicy fruits.

It was a pity that to reach her haunt, she always had to pass underneath the squirrel tree. But once she was outside the shade of the tree, a carpet of white flowers welcomed her. Heed slowed down to enjoy the brush of the soft and silky grass on her spikes. Soon she would be able to curl up peacefully.

But today the place did not look entirely peaceful. Heed spotted two hedgehogs rolling around in the grass in a confusion of spikes. The bigger of the two was dark brown from the tip of his spikes to the sole of his paw. One had to look very carefully to see his eyes and nose, for they blended perfectly with his brown face. The other one was a lighter shade of brown with big black eyes, which took up almost half of his face.

What are you two doing here?’ Heed asked, moving towards them. ‘You will destroy my flowers. Weren’t you going to the village, Timothy?’

The two hedgehogs stopped their mock fight.

We came looking for you Heed,’ said the dark brown hedgehog. ‘Won’t you come to the village with us?’

No Tim. I would rather spend my night here,’ Heed replied wishing her elder brother would go away with his friend. They were disturbing her tranquil spot by making all kinds of noises. The moths would never come now.

‘We are going to play Furrow in the rabbit hole. I will be the king, as always, and Rorky will be my faithful soldier. You can be a soldier too,’ said Timothy.

‘I am not playing.’

I will make you commander,’ said Timothy. There was a note of dissent from Rorky, but a stare from Timothy silenced him.

I don’t want to play Furrow,’ replied Heed. ‘It’s a dangerous game and father has told you not to play it. Further, it’s not polite to poke into other’s holes.’

There are no rabbits in there. Those that dug it up must have moved into the forest. It’s empty now. It is only a pretend game Heed. Father is afraid that I will go searching for the real Furrow. That is why he forbids me.’

‘We should indeed find the real Furrow one day,’ said Rorky, hopping up and down. ‘We can all go into the forest together. It will be fun.’

‘First, let us try and get her to the village. She won’t put her foot outside this meadow,’ said Timothy shaking his head.

‘I love it here. Why should I go anywhere else?’ countered Heed before curling up near her flowers.

‘How can you say that when you haven’t seen anything outside the meadow?’ asked Rorky.

‘She is afraid to leave. That is the reason,’ said Timothy, grinning mischievously.

I am not afraid.’

‘She thinks that the meadow is the safest place on earth,’ said Timothy to Rorky, ignoring his sister’s protests. ‘She thinks that no fox or owl would ever venture in here.’

And I am right,’ said Heed, uncurling and standing up to face Timothy. ‘There is nothing wrong with wanting to be safe. I am not afraid. I am just cleverer than you.’

Look, we can do something easier if you do not want to play Furrow. We can search for snake eggs or pick mushrooms from under Old Bubo’s rock, or we can take a dip in the stream.’

Heed rolled her eyes. ‘Are you mad? You call these easy? Poking around a snake’s burrow and drowning in the stream? As for Old Bubo, he will eat your head before you close your mouth over a mushroom. A hedgehog has no business going sniffing under an owl rock. Why can’t you play simpler games like hide and seek or pick-the-beetle or chase-the-toad?’

Timothy and Rorky exchanged looks of exasperation. ‘Come Rorky, Let’s go,’ said Timothy and both of them ran off on their way, leaving Heed with her flowers.

Finally, some silence, thought Heed, heaving a sigh of relief. The chirps from the squirrel tree had also died down. This was her heaven. She relaxed. There could be no other place in the whole world which was more beautiful or peaceful. Here there were no snakes, no owls and no foxes. She hoped that Timothy would not get into any trouble. The thought of going near Old Bubo’s rock, indeed.

THE POOR LITTLE THING



The moon had risen to its position of glory in the sky. Heed’s stomach began to grumble, but she felt too lazy to move away from her site of repose. The moths had come as usual, and now they were flittering from flower-to-flower, drinking their fill of nectar.

A moth settled on Heed’s nose and remained there until a gentle breeze shook its wings. It flew away to a more rewarding perch. The breeze brought with it the smell of rain. Heed preferred to be in her hole whenever it rained, but right then, it was so calm, she didn’t have the heart to move away from there. The only sounds were the murmur of the river and the occasional croaking of the toad that lived there.

Or were these the only sounds? Heed stood up. Something was moving in the meadow. She sniffed the air but did not find anything unusual. The sound had stopped. She scanned the sky. There was no wing in sight.

Heed hurried towards her hole. At this hour, she was not worried about nuts flying out of the squirrel tree. She had almost crossed the shadow of the tree when she heard the sound again, this time closer and straight ahead on the ground. Heed lay quite still, with her belly pressed to the ground, not even daring to curl up. The sound continued, like a whisper.

I must not be afraid,’ Heed said to herself, taking comfort in her voice. ‘There is no danger in the meadow.’

Taking a deep breath to steady her pounding heart, she crawled forwards. The wet mud stuck to her stomach, and something soft and skinny touched her nose. It was shivering uncontrollably. There was barely a hair on its body. Its eyes were closed, and its feet looked feeble. It was a baby squirrel.

A squirrel, Heed recoiled. She did not want to have anything to do with any of the squirrels. Not even one so tiny and helpless. They were a nuisance. They disturbed her sleep during the day with their never-ending chirps, and they threw nuts at her in the evening. The baby squirrel will just have to find its way back to its nest.

As Heed made to walk past the little thing, a feeble ‘chirp’ escaped it.

Heed looked up at the tree. She did not have any idea how the baby squirrel found its way to the floor. It did not look as if it could walk. Maybe it fell down. There was no way it was going to be able to climb up to its home.

Heed pondered for a moment, and then let out a long whistle. She did not know what she had wanted to accomplish by this; maybe she had hoped that one of the squirrels would hear her and look down or perhaps it was her parents she had wished to call.

***

Old Bubo, who had had a very unlucky night, had been flying high up in the sky when he had spotted two little hedgehogs scampering around a tree. He had swooped down with his claws open, but before he could snatch one of them, it had tumbled down a rabbit hole, followed by its screaming friend.

From there, things had gone from bad to worse. He had missed picking up a mouse from the roof of a house in the village. He'd seen a baby rabbit, but too late, for it hid in a clump of grass.

Old Bubo had flown to the river bank. He knew about a family of hedgehogs that stayed in the meadow. He never went after hedgehogs because they were a big nuisance to catch. They always turned themselves into little prickly balls. But if he was able to find a small one before it curled up, he could turn it on its back using his claws and get to the soft belly.

That was when he heard a long whistle. Where did it come from? The giant tree blocked his view. He flew slightly away from it to get a good look at the ground.

There it was, a bunch of spikes, shining in the dark. It was a small hedgehog standing with its head lifted to the sky and completely unprotected. Here was a piece of luck for him. Tonight he would treat his daughter with hedgehog meat. Snakes were her favourite dish, but a hedgehog would be a novelty for her

He perched on a branch of the squirrel tree, observing the very still hedgehog with his wicked orange eyes.

***

As soon as the whistle left her lips Heed realised that she had committed a grave mistake, for there was a swish of wings high above her head. For a moment, she stood dumbstruck; her paws wouldn’t let her run, and her body wouldn’t curl up into a ball.

She heard a voice in her head which sounded like her father’s - ‘If you see, hear, smell or feel an enemy, don’t think twice but curl into a ball or jump into a hole.’ With a massive thrust of will, Heed curled into a ball.

She had entirely forgotten about the squiggly thing lying next to her. She did not dare peek at the baby squirrel, but she could still hear the faint chirps. It lay quite unprotected. Only a miracle could save it now. Whatever was up there in the tree would surely gobble the thing in the wink of an eye.

There was a sudden beating of gold and black wings. With her heart in her mouth, Heed half rolled, half stumbled, uncurled and curled; nestling the baby squirrel safely against her belly. Immediately, cruel claws flung her to the trunk of the tree. Heed felt her spikes snap. She was again thrown at a rock behind the tree. She let out a shrill shriek as the rock jabbed her spine.

The fervent wish to run away to her hole shook her willpower, but she knew at the back of her mind that she wouldn’t last for even a second if she exposed her head.

***

Old Bubo continued his attempts for a long time. The spikes were beginning to hurt his claws; they were as sharp as they looked. He threw the hedgehog repeatedly against the rock and the tree, yet the stubborn thing held on. He tried poking it with his beak, but that only served to prick his face.

Old Bubo was growing blind with rage and hunger. The moon had begun its farewell journey to the other side of the river, and he was yet to take food for his daughter.

The air was rent by a loud croaking noise. Old Bubo left the adamant ball and took flight towards the river. Perhaps he'd have more luck with a juicy toad.

***

Heed ran. She ran faster than she had thought she could. She reached her hole full and alive with the baby squirrel still clinging to her chest.

THE FEAST



Heed tumbled down on the floor of her empty hole and groaned. The soft layer of mud, sprinkled with hay, felt warm and soothed her pain. She dragged herself to the further end where her grass bed was neatly made up. She laid the baby squirrel on it and bent down to inspect it. Was it smiling at her?

Heed sat down on the floor next to it and sharpened her ears. She could make out the gloomy tune of some lonesome cricket. But other than that the night air was silent. She did not want her parents or brother to come across the owl. But there was nothing she could do other than to wait and wish.

Some of her favourite beetles were arranged on a leaf at the foot of her bed. She proceeded to gobble up her food and drank from the leaf cup in which her mother had left cool water from the stream. Then she lay down on Timothy’s bed which was bigger than hers but much less soft. Timothy was responsible for making his bed, and he was not very good at it.

Her family trickled back into the hole just before sunrise; first, her mother, who looked like a bigger version of Heed, came in; then her father entered with his paws full of berries, he was followed by a dirty and panting Timothy.

All gathered around the bed as Heed related her adventure. In her version, the owl was as large as an eagle, with talons like swords and wings like fire. Timothy rolled around laughing, quite sure that his sister had seen a dream. Father Hedgehog and Mother Hedgehog smiled at her as she started bickering with her brother.

She is a good little hedgehog,’ her father told her mother in a low voice. ‘It was kind of her to bring this little guy to safety. But do you believe the whole owl story?’

No indeed,’ replied Mother Hedgehog. ‘My little Heed wouldn’t stand a chance against an owl.’

Timothy was the worst. He popped up behind her, screaming ‘Owl!’

Heed, now that you have fought off an owl, do you fancy being King of the Furrow?’ he asked sniggering all the while.

Stop badgering me, Tim. You can yourself be the king of your fairy tale Furrow. Leave me alone.’

Timothy, haven’t I told you not to play Furrow?’ said Father Hedgehog, who was standing behind him.

It is not as if I am going into the forest to find the Furrow,’ said Timothy.

‘That is enough.’

Father, Tim and Rorky always get into some rabbit hole and pretend it is the Furrow. I did tell him that he shouldn’t do it. But he wouldn’t listen to me.’

Timothy, the Furrow is the darkest place in the forest, where you will find the most dangerous creatures. You do know this. I will have to talk to Rorky’s father about it. You two are going out of bounds.’

‘Please father. It is just a game.’

‘No more such games or you will not get out of this hole ever again.’

Timothy was quiet for a while which was a great relief for Heed. She sat by the door thinking about the incidents of the night. Her back still pained from being thrown around, but luckily there was no injury. Or was it lucky? She would have preferred some sign which would have convinced her family of her bravery.

The moon had already set and the new day was being greeted by a smattering of rain. The smell of earth, mud and grass seeped into the hole and lulled Heed into slumber. She dreamt of hundreds of eyes in a dark, dank hole. They were watching her, but she did not know what to do except stare back at them.

‘Heed... Heed, you have got visitors.’

Heed jumped up. Her little hole looked full. For a moment she thought that she was still in the dream. But neither was her hole gloomy nor were the pairs of eyes that were watching her in the least threatening. Instead, one pair of them was teary and another pair glad. Several young pairs were plainly curious.

Heed watched as the squirrels streamed into her hole until there was no space left to be filled with bushy tails. The tallest amongst them walked towards Heed. He made to pat her on her shoulder but then eyed her spikes and thought better of it. ‘I must thank you for saving my little Chirpy’s life,’ he chirped. ‘If you had left him there, he would have died of cold.’ Mother Squirrel, who was still sobbing, let out a little scream at this thought and hugged her baby closer. ‘You must visit our nest tomorrow after the sun sets,’ Father Squirrel continued. ‘We will give you a grand dinner - I mean breakfast; for isn’t our dinner the same as your breakfast? It is funny, isn’t it? But good for us that you were up and about at night to save our little Chirpy.

Heed kept nodding her head with a dazed look in her eyes. She did not catch all the words from amongst the chirping noises that Father Squirrel was making in his excitement.

Timothy came up to her and whispered in her ears. ‘Are you going to climb the tree to go to their nest?’

What? No. I cannot,’ Heed spluttered.

Father Squirrel had walked away to express his thanks to Father Hedgehog.

I am going to come and watch you climb that tree,’ said Timothy. ‘It will be great fun. I will call Rorky too.’

The squirrels did not invite you,’ said Heed in the most pompous voice that she could muster.

Will you come to our house? We had always wanted to be friends with you,’ said one of the squirrels.

What? I... I thought you all hated me,’ said Heed.

Oh no. Whatever gave you that idea?’

You always threw nuts at me,’ said Heed, trying hard not to make it sound like a complaint.

We didn’t throw it at you; we threw it down for you. We always see you lying by the river all alone. No wonder you always run away when we give you the nuts. Have you never heard us calling out to you?’

Er... not really,’ said Heed a little embarrassed. All she ever heard was a confused mixture of chirps and whistles.

Let us start anew,’ said the young squirrel. ‘I am Tic. It is my brother you saved tonight. These are all my friends.’ He pointed to the group of squirrels standing behind him. His grey bushy tail wiggled along with his words. ‘We will have a lot of time to talk when you come to our nest tomorrow.’

I was thinking, maybe I cannot, I mean I may not come,’ said Heed, not quite meeting his eyes. ‘I don’t know if I’ll wake up on time. Since it is already dawn, and I haven’t yet gone to sleep...’

Don’t worry about that,’ said Tic, cheering up. ‘I will come down to wake you up.’

Oh, thanks.’

There was nothing left to say. No excuse was going to get her out of the invitation, and she was too proud to reveal the truth - that she was afraid to climb the tree.

The squirrels left soon afterwards, taking their time to say farewell to Heed individually. Mother Squirrel was still holding Chirpy close to her. But she freed one of her paws to squeeze one of Heed's while repeating the invitation. Tic rounded up the smaller squirrels who were inspecting each inch of the hole. Then he too reminded Heed of his promised wake-up call.

Why do you look so sad?’ Mother Hedgehog asked Heed as last of the squirrels left. She cuddled her little one the same way Mother Squirrel had cuddled Chirpy.

I don’t know to climb the tree, and the squirrels have invited me for breakfast tomorrow. How will I go?’

Her mother did not laugh. ‘It is easy my dear,’ she said. ‘You just have to put one paw after the other. It is a big tree with enough spaces for your little paws. Your father has climbed it many times. It is the climbing down that will be tricky. You will have to slide down and land on a soft spot. The squirrel tree has thick grass around it; even baby Chirpy was not harmed when he fell down, remember? It should be easy for you. Now get some sleep, the sun is high up in the sky.’ Heed snuggled into her bed, closed her eyes and immediately fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

***

Heed woke up early in the evening. The sun had not entirely set, and her parents were stirring around the hole. Timothy was still asleep. That was good. She did not want him to witness her climb. She quietly moved out of the hole, waving a goodbye to her parents.

The grass outside was slushy; it must have rained throughout the day. The clouds had parted, and the sun was bestowing its last rays of the day.

Heed took her regular route towards the squirrel tree. Excitement rather than fear made her heart beat faster.

The tree loomed before her, as glorious as ever. She felt dizzy as she looked up. There were no squirrels in sight, which was strange. Why was it so silent up there tonight?

Heed took a deep breath and chanted ‘one paw after the other; one paw after the other.’

If you go at this speed, you will reach up in time for lunch.’

Heed turned around and saw Timothy standing there, grinning. She felt foolish for thinking that he would miss the opportunity to have some fun. But Timothy’s presence was exactly what Heed needed. Now there was no question of turning back, or he will never let her forget it. She stopped thinking and started climbing, one paw after the other. She did not look up; she did not look down, she only thought about where to put her paws next. She reached the first branch before she knew it.

Way to go, sister,’ called out Timothy.

Heed grinned as her brother ran off on his adventure. It was very rare to get his approval. With renewed energy, she climbed up, up and up. She must have reached the third branch when she saw the first sign of a vanishing bushy tail.

Hello,’ she called out. ‘Can anyone tell me where Chirpy lives? And Tic?’

A shy face appeared behind a leaf.

Chirpy lives in that hollow,’ the squirrel said, pointing to a hole in the trunk behind Heed.

Thank you.’

Before Heed could call out a hello into the hole, Tic peeped out. Heed stepped back, almost losing her balance.

Woooo,’ she grabbed onto the trunk.

Be careful. It’s amazing to see you up the tree. I was just thinking of coming down to call you,’ said Tic.

Heed followed Tic into his nest. It was bigger than her hole and was made comfortable using husks, straws, feathers, cotton and leaves. The choicest of nuts of all shapes were arranged in the middle of the nest. And it looked like all the squirrels from the tree were in there. They greeted Heed as she approached. This time, she was able to make out the friendliness in their voices.

Father Squirrel and Mother Squirrel were already seated around the nuts. Chirpy was lying on some straw between them.

Heed sat alongside Tic and surveyed the nuts. Everyone waited for her to begin, while she waited for one of them to start. At last Father Squirrel asked her to try one of the walnuts. She picked one and picked another, put them in her mouth and thoroughly enjoyed them. The others soon joined her with gusto. Several more squirrels came in as the feast progressed - uninvited but not unwelcome. Mother Squirrel frequently went down the trunk and brought up more nuts. Only Chirpy was not able to eat anything; he still drank his mother’s milk

When everyone was wholly satiated, the leaves were folded away. The squirrels lay back and started chattering. By now Heed had gotten used to their sound, and she was able to make out the words from the chirps.

Do I hear rain outside?’ Tic asked.

It has been raining for a while. You have been too busy eating,’ replied Mother Squirrel.

Heed heard the howl of the wind. A part of her brain told her that it was time to go home, but she felt lazy and sluggish and too full of food. She did not want to move.

I would like to eat such nuts every day,’ said Heed. ‘But I have never seen them in the meadow.

You will find no nuts in the meadow, Heed,’ said Mother Squirrel. ‘It is either in the village or the forest that you will find them.’

In the forest? But isn’t the forest a dark and dangerous place?’

Not really. The forest is quite big. The deeper you go, the more dangerous it becomes. But here, past the village, the forest is not very dense. In those woods, you will find many trees filled with nuts. You must have seen them.’

No,’ admitted Heed. ‘I have never left this meadow.’

Never?’

Never,’ said Heed. Several pairs of eyes were now watching her

Then you must. The meadow is beautiful. But the world outside is much more beautiful.’

Mother always tells me that the meadow is the safest place in the world,’ said Heed, growing red in the face. ‘There are no foxes, snakes or owls here, or so it was until last night,’ she ended in a murmur.

Owls are known to visit these parts too. Old Bubo’s rock is quite nearby. You are so young. That is why you haven’t seen any till now,’ said Mother Squirrel, blissfully ignorant of the danger her Chirpy was in last night.

One ought to be cautious,’ said Father Squirrel. ‘But to be afraid of everything is such a loss of pleasure. There is much to see outside the meadow. You must visit the village where you will find all sorts of berries in the orchard, and I can show you where to find the nuts in the woodland.’

‘But you better stay away from the porcupines,’ commented Tic, rolling his eyes.

Heed had heard about the porcupines from Timothy and Rorky. Both the little hedgehogs were awed by the mysterious creatures who had made the woods their home.

Are they dangerous?’ Heed asked.

Not at all,’ replied Father Squirrel. ‘No one knows where they came from. They are not from these parts. That is why many are wary of them. But they are harmless and keep themselves to themselves. You cannot get friendly with a porcupine like you can with a hedgehog.’

Heed had many more questions to ask. But most of the tiny squirrels had started yawning, and Chirpy was already asleep. The night had just begun for her, but for the squirrels, it was time to rest after a busy day. They must have worked hard to arrange such a grand feast in such a short time.

The rain had changed its nature. Instead of the massive drops, it was now falling like thick sheets. The squirrels were not ready to listen to Heed’s farewells. They implored her to stay on, to spend the night in their nest. All the other guests were going to stay put till the rain stopped. There was enough space for everyone to sleep.

Mother will be so worried if she does not see me the whole night,’ she said, and the squirrels had to consent at last.

She thanked the squirrel family again and again for the scrumptious meal, bid farewell to the younger squirrels and stepped outside.

She almost lost her balance on the branch. It had gotten very slippery, and the rain was beating hard on her face. Heed hugged the trunk gingerly and slid right down, landing with a plop.

It was not the soft mushy grass that welcomed her on the ground, but the swiftly flowing river. Her beloved meadow was covered with dark water. Before she realised what was happening, the swelling river took her with it on its onward journey.

GINGER, SNOW AND HICCUP



The three hamsters were playing hide and seek. The seeker was the smallest of them, and he appeared to be on the verge of tears as he failed to find his sisters. Ginger, who was ginger brown in colour, was hiding in a heap of leaves. She had spotted her twin sister climbing into a hollow in a tree, but it was evident that their little brother had not.

Ginger… Snow… where are you both?’ he called. ‘I don’t like being alone. Please come back.’

His sisters did not move. They knew that if they came out, Hiccup would claim that he found them out on his own. That was a usual trick of his. They held their breath as Hiccup scampered here and there looking at every hiding place. It had been raining for the past couple of nights, which meant that the siblings had not been able to come out of their home to play. It also meant that the forest floor was swampy, making it difficult for Hiccup to run around.

A streak of mad laughter reverberated through the forest. Snow acted as quick as lightning; she jumped out of the hollow and pulled Hiccup in with her, they were soon followed by Ginger.

It is Mad Pole,’ she whispered.

They sat huddled and hidden in the hollow, waiting for something to happen. There were soft footsteps just below their tree. Hiccup started shivering, and Ginger laid an arm around him. After a few minutes, in which their heartbeats grew louder, and the footsteps grew fainter, Snow lost her patience.

He is bound by the law. He will not attack us. We should not be afraid of him,’ she said before peeking out of the hole. In the fading light, she saw a yellow figure slinking away among the trees.

He is gone. Let us get out of here.’

Are you sure?’ squeaked Hiccup. ‘Why was he laughing?’

He is Mad Pole. That is what he does,’ answered his sister.

All the ferrets, including his family, have disowned him due to his madness,’ said Ginger. ‘What makes you think he has enough head left to follow our laws? And if you were so sure, why did you hide?’

It is best to avoid the mad ferret,’ said Snow with her head held high. ‘That does not mean I am afraid of him. Come, let us continue to play.’

No. Let us go home before it gets completely dark,’ said Ginger. ‘Moley told me that there were owls in the forest.’

It is not yet dark. Let us play a little more by the stream. It is closer to home,’ suggested Snow.

***

The river was raging through the forest, muddy and brown. It was carrying a lot of things that it had found on the way. How tiring it must have been for the poor river. That must be the reason why it laid some of its burdens in the forest, or it may have been because of the enormous trees and the thick shrubs, which blocked its flow in many places. Stones and rocks, big and small were deposited here and there. A log got stuck between two trees. A ball made of mud, twigs and brown leaves was dropped not far from the bank of the river.

Mad Pole was sniffing at things washed ashore, not caring about the dangers of the flowing water. There was no trace of fish, which was his favourite food and he laughed in disappointment. He reached the muddy ball and poked his nose all around it. But it stank so much that even stinky Mad Pole rolled his eyes and left it alone. He slunk off to the next item, which was a grey leaf, shaped like the tail of a fish.

***

Heed dreamt that she was sleeping in her hole, warm and dry, with her stomach full of sweet berries. Timothy was poking her to wake her up. She did not want to wake up because she knew that it was raining outside and there was nothing much to do. The poking stopped.

Consciousness started seeping into her befuddled head. All was not right, she thought. What was that? What was that groaning noise?

Heed opened her eyes with a gigantic effort. Everything was dark. Of course, it was. She had to uncurl first to see where she was. Something was holding her tightly in a roll. She stretched with all her might and broke out of layers of dirt.

A green roof of tall trees, much bigger than the squirrel tree, welcomed her. She remembered falling into the river on her descent from Chirpy’s nest. The river was still near her. She scurried away from it as fast as she could. With an empty stomach and bleary eyes, she was not able to get too far. She stumbled over a large root and lay on the floor, defeated and dazed.

Heed remembered being carried away by the water. She had curled up as soon as the water had touched her. She even remembered falling down great heights. Heed had never seen waterfalls, so she had not realised what was happening to her. Every time she fell, she had thought that she was dying, and then everything had gone blank.

All the trees told her one thing: she was in the forest. Maybe she was in the woods near the village. If she could only find someone, she could ask them the way to her meadow.

How long was I in the water?’ she wondered aloud. ‘And how is it possible that I am still alive.’

Heed tried to shake off some of the dirt, but most of the slime still stuck to her spikes. She started walking, depending solely on her nose and ears, blindly stumbling over roots. The smells in the forest were strange to her, which proved to be lucky for a few bugs which crossed her path.

Hungry and tired, she ended up near a stream which was zigzagging towards the river. The water was clear enough to see the round pebbles at the bottom. Heed stepped down the slope that led to the stream. She was thirsty, but her mother was not nearby to give her a leaf cup full of water. She put her paws in the stream and took a sip. The water relieved her parched throat and filled her little stomach. She stepped further in, till the water was just below her nose. She cleaned her spikes and washed her face and felt quite refreshed.

Heed raised her head and stared directly into a pair of red eyes that stared back at her out of the thick bushes on the other side of the stream. She blinked, and the eyes were gone. She consoled herself that she had imagined it.

She wandered here and there trying to figure out some clue as to her location. She kept looking up the trees, to see whether there were any squirrels around; though she did see a few colourful birds, there were no squirrels. The birds did not answer her call but whispered among themselves and pointed to her with their wings.


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