Now, Reader, the series of large sand heaps known as the Dunes was not a place that Thutter and his friends frequented much, but tonight the place was all abuzz with the most exciting hearsay that the Glade had heard in quite some time.
“I heard she saw ’em with her own two eyes,” said a young gull just as Thutter and company were arriving.
“She said they’re not far from the Hollow,” added another.
“Do ya suppose Ellyon found ’em?”
A collective gasp followed. As far as any creature knew, Ellyon was the fiercest living thing that had ever prowled the Refuge, and his presence in the region was the stuff of legend. None of the creatures of the Refuge presently living had ever seen Ellyon, but the mysterious creature was a bear, and, well, there’s nothing more ferocious than a bear—or his rumor even.
“Hey! Whatcha talkin’ ’bout? Who’s Ellyon gonna find?” asked Scruffy, upon hearing mention of the great animal’s name.
“I say there, mousey, where’ve you been all day?” asked a tall, thin crane who appeared to be taken aback by Scruffy’s ignorance on the matter. “Haven’t you heard the news?” he added.
“Uh, no, obviously not, birdie!” replied Scruffy with a scowl. “What news?”
“Theee news! The news about the visitors,” answered a young tern.
“Visitors? What visitors?” asked Scruffy.
“Why, the Solkreat, of course,” bellowed the crane.
“Hmm, sounds like somethin’ for the Council,” said Patch.
The mole hoped to bring an end to the discussion just by mentioning the Council, the decision-making body of the Glade. Made up mostly of the eldest members living within the Glade, the Council was powerful, and their word was law throughout the island-like habitat.
“Yeah, they heard,” snapped an older, well-traveled gull. “Ain’t doing nothin’, though. Just gonna wait. Don’t see much of a threat for now, they say.”
“Well, that settles it, then,” said Patch, who got what he was looking for. “The Council’s got it all under control.” The mole hoped they would just change the subject and move on to other news—and perhaps they might have done so had a certain oversized woodrat not shown up.
“Hey ya, folks! I hear there’s some news floatin’ ’round these parts,” said the rat as he ambled up to the small crowd.
“There’s visitors—visitors in the Woode, Plumpkin,” replied one of the gulls. “They’re Solkreat, we hear, and they’re out by the Hollow.”
“Solkreat, huh?” chuckled Plumpkin, who got his name from the unusual size of his belly. “’Round here? Now that is some news!”
As Plumpkin spoke, a large flock of seagulls landed on the beach side of the big Dunes, attracting the attention of the gathered fowl. Before they knew it, the three friends from the Glade found themselves alone in the company of the rather large grayish-brown woodrat whose exceptionally long tail and big, bulging eyes gave the hefty rodent a most curious and unsettling appearance, at least to one of the Glade-dwellers anyway.
“C’mon guys,” said Thutter, eyeing the rat suspiciously, “let’s just head for the Eddy. I’m hungry!”
The young shrew’s plan was tempting, for it is no secret that insectivores and rodents alike have to eat as much as their own body weight each day. And the banks of the Eddy did have the best eats in all the Glade.
Scruffy, however, wasn’t quite ready to leave just yet. “Hey, Plumpkin,” he said, turning toward the woodrat. “Ever seen one before?”
“What? Solkreat? You kiddin’? More times than I can remember, kid!”
“Well, what are they like?” asked Scruffy.
Cowering a bit behind the mouse, Thutter let his curiosity get the best of him. “Yeah, are they, uh, mean and ugly … like, the, uh… ooglie-wooglies?”
“Nah, kid, they’re nuttin’ like that,” said Plumpkin, his long, thick whiskers twitching. “They’re big and fleshy and don’t really have much fur except on top, way up high, you know? And they move around on two paws ’stead of four.”
As he spoke, the bulky rat wrapped his very long, hairy tail around the tiny shrew. Then, bending down so that their eyes were nearly level, he continued, “But they do have giant beady eyes, long powerful claws, and sharp pointed teeth. And some say that they like killing just for fun!”
Patch, deciding it was time to jump in, spoke up. “But we don’t have to worry ’bout that, Thutter, ’cause they’re not comin’ ’round here.”
“I say we go find them, then!”
“Find them? C’mon now, Scruffy, that’s just foolish talk.”
Turning his head, the mouse eyed the naysayer. “Oh yeah? Well, Patch, you’re just a tired old mole who’s afraid of everything.”
“That may well be, Scruff, but this old mole is smart enough to know that venturin’ into the Woode is trouble—let alone gettin’ anywhere near the Solkreat! And besides,” added Patch, “it’s against the Code.”
“Code-schmode!” mocked Scruffy. “You don’t really believe in that stuff, do you? I mean, c’mon, it’s not like we’re going to be cursed or something if we leave the Glade.”
“I wanna see one!”
Thutter’s announcement surprised everyone, even himself to some extent.
“C’mon, Tut-Tut,” said Patch, stepping close. “You don’t really want to go into the great Woode—where the ooglie-wooglies are—do you?”
Not letting Thutter answer, Scruffy stepped between his two friends, locked eyes with the mole, and spoke firmly. “He said he wanted to go, Patch! He wants to go find the Solkreat.” Then, turning his head, he found the eyes of his other friend, and added, “Right, Thutter?”
“Um, uh, well, I … uh …” Clearly Thutter had not thought through things carefully. “Well, uh, I-I don’t know. I mean, Mama and Papa … they’d—”
“They’d never have to know,” interrupted Scruffy. “We’ll be back long before sunrise. You’ll be snoring away in your leafy nest before you know it. It’ll be fun. It’ll be an a…a”
“Adventure?” finished the deep-voiced rat with a smirk.
“Yeah, that’s it,” replied Scruffy. Then, turning to the woodrat, he added, “And he’ll lead the way—won’t ya, Plumper?”
“Uh, it’s Plumpkin, there, hawk-bait! And I don’t know if I’m up to that kind of journey tonight.” The rat’s gravelly voice resonated in the night wind.
Seeing another opportunity to end the absurd conversation and plans that had so quickly spun out of control, Patch spoke up once more. “Plumpkin’s right. That is a long trip, and I’m not sure we can make it back by sunrise.”
Ignoring the mole once more, Scruffy took a step toward the much larger rat, saying, “Oh, I see how it is. You’re scared, aren’t ya?”
The silence that followed lasted only a second or two, but it felt like an eternity to each of the four critters. Eventually, Scruffy spoke again. “Well, hmmmph! And I thought you’d seen the Solkreat before. I thought a big old rat like you wouldn’t be scared a’ nuttin’.”
Plumpkin had a reputation to live up to and everyone knew it. The mouse had the woodrat right where he wanted him.
“Alright, I’ll take you, but on one condition!” announced Plumpkin. “I’m in charge and you follow my rules.”
The experienced woodrat was not a creature to be messed with, which is exactly why Scruffy wanted him by their side on the trek through the shadowy Woode. “Deal! We’ll follow you,” said the mouse, “Just lead the way!”
As Plumpkin eyed the much smaller rodent, Patch tried one last time to change Thutter’s mind. “C’mon, let’s just head to the Eddy,” he said, mostly in the little shrew’s direction.
Scruffy glared at the mole. “Listen, Patch, we’re goin’ on an adventure. Now, are ya comin’ or aren’t ya?”
The wise old insectivore knew that they shouldn’t leave the Glade. The ancient Code should not be broken. However, leaving young Thutter alone in the company of a reckless little beach mouse and a free-wheeling woodrat was simply not an option.