The checkered wings of the young loon flapped hard against the warm evening wind as she flew just above the tree line in search of her target, a quiet pond nestled deep within the coastal woodland. The journey had felt like hours to the anxious bird who could barely wait to tell her friend the news, but in reality it had taken only minutes.
The instant she spotted the watering hole she began her initial descent. In a matter of seconds, she was raising her head and stretching out her legs. Her webbed feet broke the tepid plane first, her downy bottom following straightaway. Using her momentum, the loon glided skillfully toward the only other feathered visitor in the pond’s warm waters at present, a gangly old wood stork known as Leggs.
“They’re here, Leggs! They’re here!”
The stork, despite the loon’s abrasive yodeling, which shattered the peaceful quiet, remained focused on the task at hand, finding dinner in the shallow yet murky waters. As the loon neared, Legg’s, without looking up, replied coolly and quietly, “Who’s here, Topps? Watcha so excited about?”
Topps slowed to a stop just shy of her white-feathered friend. “The Solkreat! That’s who!”
Eyes still fixed on the waters below, Leggs remained unaffected by the loon’s excitement. “Oh, yeah? And where’d you see ‘em?”
“Why, they’re in the ‘Fuge!”
Just then, Leggs submerged his long, thick bill into the shallow water. He had hoped to snag one of the silvery minnows swimming by. When he didn’t, he stood upright once again and said, with a bit of attitude this time, “Well, of course you did, Topps. There’s lots of Solkreat in the ‘Fuge.”
“Yeah, but up pas’ the Sea Swamp—’long by the Hollow?”
Leggs froze. Though commonplace in much of the great Refuge, the mysterious Solkreat were rarely seen out near the Hollow.
After a deep breath, and a moment to consider the source, Leggs answered, “So, you saw some Solkreat, huh? Well, I’d think a traveler like you would’ve seen lots of the Big Animal ’round.”
“Oh, I have, Leggs. I have,” replied Topps, who immediately stretched her wings and ruffled her checkered feathers. With no intent to fly away, she folded them once more against her side and added, “But I’ve never seen one with a strange shiny thing around its neck.”
Leggs kept his long, skinny neck bent and eyes firmly fixed on the shallow bottom. “Shiny, huh?” he eventually muttered.
The stork had spoken mostly to himself and as if he were pondering some great truth, but the loon nodded vigorously upon hearing the words.
Certain her friend remained interested in her news, Topps continued, “It was flat on one end, you know? But the other end…well, it was different. It was kind of round, and it looked like…like—”
“Like what?” mumbled Leggs, still searching for food.
“Like a wheelie!”
Again, Leggs froze.
This time, however, the brief pause spurred him to action. Before Topps could say another word, Leggs spread his long white wings, flapped them feverishly, and took flight. He only hoped it wasn’t too late. The Glade must be warned.
But Leggs was hardly the only creature concerned about delivering the loon’s urgent news. Neither he nor Topps took notice of the slithering eavesdropper that quietly swam off through the nearby reeds. He too must relay the curious report: the magic hogseye had at long last returned to the Refuge.
The sun had all but disappeared over the vast woodland known as the Refuge, which meant it was time for the day-walkers to return to their dens and for the night-walkers to finally venture out of theirs. This was no less true for the would-be hero in our story, Reader, a young least shrew named Thutter McClutter. After quietly pushing away the soft leafy bedding of the nest he shared with his family, Thutter dropped a paw onto the burrow floor.
“Where ya goin’?”
The unexpected voice startled the young shrew. “None of your business, Nutter!” he snapped.
Nutter, the youngest of the current shrew brood, sat up and rubbed her tired eyes. “Can I come with?”
“Come with? What d’ya mean?”
“Well, you’re goin’ out in the Glade, aren’t ya?”
As his sister spoke, Thutter scanned the dark corners of the earthy den. He doubted they were alone. “You know you can’t leave the nest without Mama,” he replied.
Nutter’s chin dropped. “Thath not fair!” she said. “I never geth to go anywhere!”
Deciding that a reply would take way too much effort, Thutter turned to make his getaway up through the small hole that led to the Glade. A few steps, however, was all he would manage as a second voice echoed off the dirt walls and immediately stopped the young shrew in his tracks. “So, where ya headin’ in such a hurry?”
Thutter stared into the darkness of the burrow’s far end. “I-I don’t know yet, Mama,” he said, trying hard to see his mother in the blackness that filled the earthy nest. She was there somewhere, her velvety auburn coat blending with the shadows.
“Now, child, the Glade’s a pretty safe place,” replied Mama McClutter, “but I want to know where I can find you.”
“Yes, Mama. I’ll holler down before we head out. I promise,” said Thutter.
The last word had barely escaped Thutter’s lips when he turned and scampered over to the dirt hole in the ceiling. It was the only entrance to the McClutter nest from above, but, perhaps more importantly, the exit was Thutter’s only path to the Glade and his waiting friends.
Speaking of friends, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that young Thutter McClutter had only two of those these days. The first was a proud little rodent named Scruffy. Thutter met the sandy-haired beach mouse, whose black-tipped ears and tail made him somewhat unique among his kind, during the dark hours of a terrible storm. The two had huddled together under the shelter of a palmetto bush for quite some time on that night, becoming fast friends in the process.
The shrew’s other friend, a mole named Patch, who got his name from a small spot of white hair on his otherwise grey head, was a fellow insectivore. It was Scruffy who actually introduced Patch to Thutter, but nowadays the threesome enjoyed each other’s company equally. Most every night Patch and Scruffy made their way over to the cozy Knoll-of-the-Glade, home of the McClutters, to meet up with Thutter. This night would be no exception.
As Scruffy poked his head through a small opening in the hollowed-out log, which sat just above the McClutter hole, he called out, “Hey, Thutter, you in there?”
The mouse heard nothing in response, but a moment later, he spied a tiny, cone-shaped nose and a pair of glass-button eyes. They were peering out at him from a most inconspicuous breach in the log’s bottom. “There you are. It’s about time,” said Scruffy.
“Sorry, Scruff!” replied Thutter as he made his way out of the well-concealed hole. “You know my mother. She won’t let me out until it’s completely dark.”
Scruffy said nothing as he backed out of the log. Thutter, meanwhile, shook his cinnamon coat, freeing it of the moist dirt that he’d gathered on his way up. Following the mouse out of the log, he spied the only other critter that called him friend these days. “Hi ya, Patch!”
“Good evening, Thutter.” The shrew loved the old mole’s slow, Southern drawl, and the smile on his face said as much.
Before either one could say anything more, however, Scruffy spoke up. “Hey, listen, I hear there’s a crowd gatherin’ over at the Dunes. Seems somethin’ big has happened in the ’Fuge.”
Turning on his heels, the mouse didn’t wait for a reply. He headed straight for the trail that led down to the creek and over to the Dunes. Thutter looked over at his other friend. “What do ya say, Patch? You comin’?”
“I’m a comin’, Tut-Tut. I’m a comin’,” said the old mole.
And with that, Thutter and his two best friends headed off into the night without telling a single soul where they were headed.