All the animals had gathered on either side of the stream to celebrate. There was plenty of food, now that the door to the village was open. Carrots, cabbages, apples, and chicken eggs were strewn on the floor as the Furrowians sat eating their feast.
“Someone has to tell the ferrets not to store fish,” said a meerkat. “They can catch it from the stream whenever they want. Look at us meerkats. Do you see us gathering fish?”
“Their chambers stink,” said a badger.
“But who will tell them?” asked a possum. “They will not listen to us.”
“What we need is a leader,” said a rabbit. “And Quinn is perfect for that role.”
“Why not Furrer?” asked the meerkat.
The debate went on for hours. Soon, the ferrets, hamsters, voles, and moles too joined the discussion. The mice remained in their chamber. They were still not sure that the bigger animals won’t pounce on them. In fact they did not quite like The Furrow. The jackals were not hunting them particularly. Why should they be hiding in The Furrow? They asked each other this question as they watched the other animals carry on a heated debate that slowly became physical. A possum snarled at a rabbit, and a ferret bit the tail of a hamster.
“This is a night to celebrate, not fight.” Quinn stepped in between the animals. “Moreover, it is not important to have a leader, as long as we can learn to live together.”
“We must have a show of paws,” shouted a meerkat.
“That will not be necessary, Gabby,” said Quinn.
But others took up the chant for a show of paws. Furrer, who had appeared with Pole, looked disinterested, and Quinn felt slightly uneasy. The animals decided to gather around on either side of the cave according to their choice of leader. The supporters of Furrer were to gather near the badger colony and those who supported Quinn near the porcupine colony.
At first, there was a commotion at the bridge, and several animals fell into the stream, coming out spluttering. Then there was confusion as to which colony belonged to the badgers and which one to the porcupines. In the end, all was settled, and the animals stopped moving.
Most of them were huddled in front of Quinn’s door.
Quinn shrugged and looked at Furrer with an apologetic smile. “This doesn’t mean anything. We don’t need a leader.”
“No, you are the rightful leader of The Furrow,” said Furrer. “Let us all eat and drink to that.”
Then the merriment started again, with a few grumbling but all extremely happy to have their stomachs full.
Quinn went to his colony, his mind now burdened with two things – one, the open passages, and two, the hidden conflict in The Furrow. What the Furrowians needed was unity. The selection of a leader could have waited. He did not quite understand the look on Furrer’s face. It was disappointment mingled with something else. What was it?
Quinn ushered his niece, Elda, into her chamber, where her mother was waiting. Poor child, he thought. I wish I hadn’t sent her father into that pit.
He could not save his brother, but he must save the rest of the Furrowians. He will keep the Furrowians united. And he will also close those secret openings in the Downer-cave.
That day he had been unable to sleep. It was the same for the following days. Hence, he was the first to be alerted when the commotion started.
“Jackals, jackals, run for your life,” came shouts from the Upper-cave.
Quinn rushed out of his bed, strewing hay all over the floor. He came face to face with a snarling jackal, whom he lashed hard with his quilled tail. A few tiny porcupines stood frozen between two jackals.
Quinn jumped in front of the younger porcupines and drove the jackals away. Outside the colony of the porcupines, his worst fears had come true. Furrowians were running helter-skelter. The gleeful jackals did not spare anyone they came across.
By this time, the other porcupines too had woken up. One of them ran to take charge of the little ones. The rest joined Quinn and rushed out of the colony, screeching out a war cry.
They did their best to snatch animals out of the very mouth of their enemies. Quinn gathered and led voles and shrews and hamsters back into their colonies, pleading with them to stay put. In the middle of his struggles, he caught sight of the badgers putting up a fight of their own. Furrer was not amongst them. He must be leading the fight from the Downer-cave. Of course, that is where all the jackals must be.
Quinn pushed past the chaotic animals and entered the glittering tunnel. He could hear screams coming from the Downer-cave. He ran faster. Animals must be trapped there, those who went there to catch the last fish of the day.
He came to a halt as the stream in the Downer-cave became visible. His blood froze in his veins as he saw that it was Elda who was screaming, and it was Furrer who stood threateningly over her.
“Furrer,” bellowed Quinn.
Elda streaked toward him. “He… he pushed mother,” she sobbed. “She fell down the…” Elda was unable to complete it, but Quinn understood. He looked unbelievingly at his friend.
“She shouldn’t have followed me,” said Furrer, pawing slightly on the floor, getting ready to attack.
Another moment and Quinn would have pounced on him. However, the commotion from the Upper-cave reached them in a sudden wave, as the jackals rushed in, followed by the ferocious porcupines. The badgers and ferrets were also behind them.
The jackals stumbled and tripped as they were being continuously attacked with the quills of the porcupines.
As they passed him, Furrer yelled. “Quinn and his porcupines betrayed us. They let the jackals in. Betrayers, betrayers, the porcupines betrayed us.”
In no time, the badgers and the ferrets stopped chasing the jackals and turned on the porcupines. The baffled porcupines formed a tight group and did the only thing they could—defend themselves. The jackals took this opportunity to escape into the dark tunnels of the Downer-cave.
Quills flew everywhere, and some stuck the rabbits and possums who had come down the glittering tunnel to see the jackals being chased away.
“STOP,” shouted Quinn. “We are leaving.”
He held Elda tightly to his side and walked right into the middle of his opponents.
A path opened up for him as the animals jumped sideways to get the farthest from him. He climbed the glittering tunnel without looking behind. He could feel Furrer’s eyes on him. He passed the colonies and reached the exit, stopping only as he stepped out into the fresh air of the forest.
“Where are you going? We didn’t do anything wrong,” said one of the porcupines who had followed him.
“All of us must leave. Make sure that no one is left behind.”
A couple of porcupines ran inside and came back with the kids. “Where will we go?” They asked.
“Today, we will sleep in the forest. Tomorrow, we must find a new home,” Quinn said with a sigh.
As they settled down under a tree far away from The Furrow’s mouth, Elda came closer to him. He knew that his niece had a strong heart. Since the day she lost her father, she had put on a brave face. But now, her mouth was trembling.
“Why did you spare him?” she asked.
“Attacking him would have meant attacking our other friends in The Furrow.”
“We have no friends in The Furrow,” she said, blinking her eyes rapidly to hide her tears.
Quinn did not respond.
“Furrer has to pay for this. You have to make him,” she said vehemently.
“He will, but not today.”
Quinn watched as Elda sat there with the fire of revenge burning in her eyes. That day he made a promise to himself – never to let his niece wander into The Furrow ever again. He has to take her far away and make her forget everything that has passed.
Furrer will pay for his sins. The laws of nature will ensure that. Quinn did not want anyone to suffer to make that happen. He will take his family far, far away.
Quinn woke up with a start. Years had passed since that fateful day, and Elda had grown up to be an elegant porcupine. But the desolate picture still remained afresh in his mind. What was the nightmare trying to tell him?
After all these years, it was for the first time that he had traveled to this forest and slept so close to The Furrow—at the old porcupine rocks. Maybe that triggered the nightmare.
“Quinn, Quinn,” someone was screaming his name. The voice came from the sky. It was a bird. No, it was several birds—swifts.
“Quinn, you are needed at The Furrow.” A bird fluttered in front of his face. “The jackals have returned, and the Furrowians need your help.”
(Timeline of Quinn’s Nightmare: His travels through the forest during The Hedgehog Returns.)
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