Quinn’s nightmare (Part 1)

(The History of The Furrow)

Quinn the porcupine looked behind his shoulder and spotted the shadow of the jackal that was following him. There must be more where that one came from, but fear did not cross Quinn’s heart. His quills could take down a jackal or two. However, it was not just his quills that gave him confidence. He was with his best friend, Furrer the badger. And together, they could face an army of jackals and win.

“Are they still behind us?” Furrer asked in a whisper.

“Yes, what now?”

“Charge.”

Furrer turned and growled. Quinn let out a screech that froze the shadow that was following them. They did not have to charge. The jackal turned and dashed away. Several other paws also padded along in the same direction. The forest was silent again.

“How many do you think were there?” Furrer asked.

“At least a dozen.”

Furrer let out a chuckle. “Cowards.”

The two friends continued on their path, traversing an open glade to ensure that the jackals were not after them and then walking through the stream to cover their scent. They stopped only when they reached a clump of thorny bushes.

“This is the part I hate,” said Furrer.

Quinn did not mind the thorns, and he was happy that the bushes beautifully hid the entrance to The Furrow. The jackals would never be able to find the entrance to their secret underground cave. They wriggled into the barely visible hole. The deeper they traveled, the tunnel got wider and wider.

“Hurry up, Quinn,” called Furrer. “We have to check the diggings. They should have finished the tunnel to the village, but I am not sure whether those hamsters understood the directions we gave. Are they a lot of fools or what?”

“They are not fools, Furrer. They have a better sense of direction than you or me.”

“Well, then they don’t show it often. It would have been much better had they continued as pets in the village instead of coming to the forest.”

Furrer was not unkind, Quinn told himself. He just had an inflated sense of self-importance that came from being the cleverest inhabitant of The Furrow. Quinn could forgive him that. If only he did not hurt their other friends with his sharp words.

Both of them hurried down the tunnel. They passed a group of meerkats and possums polishing the walls of two adjacent chambers. This is where they planned to store food. Once the larders were filled with roots and eggs and berries and leaves, they wouldn’t have to leave The Furrow for nights.

“We need a larger chamber which can hold everyone,” said Furrer, as they continued running downwards. “How else will we gather all the Furrowians to give orders?”

“Give orders?”

“Of course, we will be giving orders, you and I, won’t we?”

Quinn did not reply. He did not like the idea of giving orders or bossing over the animals. All he had wanted was a safe refuge for all of them until the jackals left the forest. But The Furrow they discovered was a big surprise, with underground caves and streams. It could be their home forever and may require some organization.

They reached the Upper-cave with a towering roof, shiny walls, and ornamental pillars. The pillars always fascinated Quinn. Who would have designed such marvelous structures? Have they changed since he first saw them?

A stream cut through this cave, and moles were arranging misshapen sticks and stones over it so that the smaller animals could cross over. On either side of the stream, everyone was quite busy bringing their colonies to order.

How lucky they were that the Upper-cave had so many chambers! Each of the animals had claimed their own colonies. The colonies of the voles, shrews, hamsters, mice, and rabbits lay on one side. This was the path that Furrer and Quinn took. On the other side of the stream were the ones belonging to the porcupines, badgers, ferrets, possums, meerkats, and moles.

Quinn had deliberately made this division. It was meant to remind everyone that the space of the smaller animals is to be respected by the bigger animals. There will be no hunting in The Furrow. All will be safe.

“Watch out, Quinn.”

Quinn jumped and looked at his foot. He was poised to step on Shrill the shrew. Shrill’s nostrils shivered as she evaded both Quinn and Furrer.

“I am so sorry, Shrill,” said Quinn. “We should have taken the other side of the stream.”

“It is all right. Just keep your eyes pasted on the ground. I would have been pasted on the ground now.”

“You should have screamed earlier,” said Furrer.

“We all should be more careful,” Quinn said.

Furrer stepped across the stream, where it was the narrowest, and proceeded down the other side. At the very end was a mound of soil and dirt. The animals have been digging a tunnel with hopes of reaching the village. If they become successful, they could obtain food without facing the jackals.

“You are here!” It was Pole the ferret. “I am having difficulty convincing these hamsters that we have to dig up and not down.”

“We are not going down, sire,” said a young hamster, who was as white as snow. “I think we have not reached the village yet, and it is too soon to dig upward.”

“Don’t call us sire, Tub,” said Quinn. “If you think you can find a better path, you do that. Don’t let Pole tell you otherwise.”

“What are you doing, Quinn?” muttered Furrer. “You know that Pole is our best guide for digging tunnels.”

“Yes, he is. But we never know where new wisdom might come from. There can be no harm in trying. Pole, I need your help elsewhere.”

“Going off to the Downer-cave, are you?” Furrer asked.

The Downer-cave. It always gave Quinn an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. What mysteries did that cave hold? It had a myriad of tunnels, some tricky, some dark and narrow, but some wide enough for the jackals. What if one of those tunnels opened up into the forest?

“Yes, Furrer. I have to set my mind at rest.”

“All right. You do that. I will see how the work on the colonies is progressing.”

Pole and Quinn turned back, crossed the stream, and bounded off into the glittering tunnel that led to the Downer-cave.

“You shouldn’t be this worried,” said Pole. “Those tunnels are a maze. The jackals will never be able to find their way through any of them.”

“But we have to know. It is not good to live in ignorance.”

“What about the traps? Have you forgotten what happened last time?”

Quinn could never forget that, and that was why he wasn’t going to ask for help from any other animals this time around. Five precious lives have already been lost while exploring the Downer-cave—one of them his own brother’s. This time it would be just him and Pole. There was no one as sure-footed as Pole. If anyone could cross the traps safely, it was Pole the ferret.

“We didn’t even manage to cross the Death’s Mouth.” Pole rambled on behind him.

“This time, we will,” said Quinn with quiet determination. “We will explore each tunnel meticulously; find out where they end, find out if they are large enough for jackals, account for all the traps within.”

The pillars of the Downer-cave were much more elaborate than the Upper-cave. Some had not yet reached the roof, and some struggled to touch the floor. A few had branches crisscrossing under the ceiling. What amused Quinn the most was a winding structure through which water from above the ground fell into the underground stream. There was a hole on the roof at this place. He will have to scout the forest to see where it led. But it did not worry him too much, as a jackal would never be able to fit into that hole. Even he wouldn’t be able to do it.

“Do you mind if I fill myself up at the stream? Can’t tell when I’ll get another chance! If I get lost or die in one of those tunnels, will you tell Furrer that he has my vote?”

Quinn chuckled but waited patiently as Pole went ahead to catch some fish. The ferret expertly caught two huge ones and gobbled them up at lightning speed.

Together, they entered the big mouth which led to all the tunnels of the Downer-cave. It was darker, and the air was damp. A swish of wings welcomed them. Quinn was not troubled by the bats; one poke from his quill was enough to keep them away, but they tried to explore whether Pole presented a good enough meal. When they realized the unappetizing nature of the two animals in their vicinity, they went back to sleep.

Quinn stepped carefully around to the tunnel that opened to his right side. It was the least dangerous. That meant there were no deep abysses or falls, but the mazes were mind-boggling.

“Maybe I should lead,” said Pole, yawning. “We will not see the end of these tunnels if you are so slow.”

It took all the skills that Pole could muster to lead them in and out of each tunnel. Most of the paths had dead ends, but they had to go a long way before finding these ends.

“Have we been through this tunnel before?” Quinn asked as they progressed through a tunnel that looked no different from the ones they had already examined.

“No.”

Something in Pole’s voice made Quinn’s heart beat faster. But then he felt it. A cool breeze was flowing into the tunnel. And when they turned a curve, he saw it—the light at the end of the tunnel. This was definitely bad news.

Quinn and Pole hurried to the opening. They emerged out of the tunnel to stand on a wet rock. The river flowed below them, and above the rocks, the greenery of the forest appeared washed in a recent rain.

“What do we do now?” asked Pole.

“Check out the other tunnels,” said Quinn grimly.

***

The next night they went into the tunnels on the left side. The progress was even slower because now they were faced with all the potholes and snares there. Each step had to be taken with care.

Quinn went ahead. They crossed the first two pits, secure in knowing that they had done so before. Quinn paused at the second one. He imagined he could hear his brother’s scream that had echoed through the tunnels as the latter stumbled into this pit.

“Come, mate,” said Pole. “No use lingering here.”

With a heavy heart, Quinn proceeded forward. He knew what lay ahead. The thunderous noise that welcomed them was warning enough. But even though he had seen it before, the sight still stunned Quinn.

The tunnel slowly opened up, letting in more air and moonlight. The walls thinned out before disappearing completely, exposing the surrounding tunnels to their view. In front of them, the path extended like a bridge—a stone bridge. And under them flowed a mighty underground river.

“I bet there are loads of fish in those waters,” said Pole sarcastically.

It was a cruel reminder of the last words spoken by the ferret who had fallen from that bridge into the river during their earlier exploration. There was no way of knowing whether the ferret had survived the fall, for he never returned to The Furrow.

The bridge was not that dangerous if one was careful enough. Quinn and Pole walked slowly on the slippery surface, ignoring the flecks of water that tapped their faces.

“The flow is stronger now,” Quinn observed. “It must be raining again.”

On the other side of the bridge, both friends found themselves dragging their feet. For, in front of them lay the abyss that Quinn had nicknamed the Death’s Mouth. They had lost three of their friends in that pit and had not dared cross it on their first try.

“Go ahead. You were the one who wanted to do this. Spare me.”

“We have to cross it, Pole.”

“Cross it? How in the world?”

“The same way the others did it.”

“The others didn’t do it. They fell into the pit. The jackals will never make it across.”

“As long as there is a way, they will try. And the path exists, even though it is on the adjacent wall.”

Quinn peered at the wall that had a long cut across it. It was just enough to offer a foothold. The jackals were not brave or daring, but they were stupid enough to try. And they would sacrifice enough of their own until some of them got across, if they knew it would lead them to food.

Quinn led the way. He walked on the groove, balancing his body away from the wall. It took a surprisingly short time to reach solid ground again.

Pole was right behind him. The ferret flashed a victorious grin as he approached Quinn. But the grin was quickly replaced by a look of terror as Pole lost his balance. Without a second thought, Quinn jumped and caught hold of a paw that was vanishing at the edge of the drop.

“I’m gonna dieeeeee,” Pole screamed.

Quinn pulled him back with all his might.

“Ow…” cried Pole as he was pulled to safety but on to the sharp quills on Quinn’s head.

“You mad porcupine. I am not coming with you anywhere. I am going back.”

“Calm down, Pole,” said Quinn. “Let me take that out.” He pulled out a quill from Pole’s stomach. “Going back is as dangerous as going ahead.”

“I will go back into known danger than go ahead into unknown ones.”

“I won’t force you. But I will find the end of this tunnel.”

“The end will be mine,” muttered Pole before following him.

The tunnel grew wider as they moved ahead. They clambered across shallow, water-logged ditches, Pole complaining all the while how wet and cold he was.

“Aha! We have come to a dead-end,” said Quinn.

“We have not. Look up and then down.”

Quinn did so, and to his disappointment, another tunnel continued to run over their heads. What he thought was a dead-end was another pit.

“Fancy climbing up?” Quinn asked.

“Why not? I am anyway going to die tonight.”

“It won’t be that difficult. Don’t look into the pit, but the wall is so rough. We can surely find some footholds. I will go first.”

He was right. It was as though someone had shaped tiny steps into the wall. He was able to climb up easily, and so was Pole. 

“The tunnel must have collapsed long ago,” said Quinn.

“You think The Furrow will collapse someday too? Into a deep, endless pit?”

“The Furrow will endure. Did you notice that for some time now, we have been ascending?”

“I remember only my fall.”

“This looks like a cave, and I can sense it has an opening. Look, there it is.”

Pole slumped on the floor and wept like a baby ferret. “I will never again enter those cursed tunnels.”

“We will return through the forest.”

“The Furrow is not as safe as we supposed it to be, is it?”

“We must keep this a secret. There is not one but two ways in. The jackals may never find it, but what if they do?”

“They will never be able to get in through this cave. They will all die on the way.”

“But we must close it anyway. I can block this mouth with a boulder. And the other tunnel. Its inner parts are narrow. We can fill it up with something. Will you keep this a secret till I decide what to do?”

“You can trust me, Quinn. You know that.”

(Continued in next post)

(Timeline: Years before the events of ‘The Hedgehog Trail’)

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