One evening in early autumn, the down was dotted with rabbits: some eating, others playing, and the rest merely enjoying the last of the sun's waning rays. Haystack, one of three rabbits brought back from Nuthanger Farm, nibbled grass beside the other hutch doe, Clover. They didn't stray far from the holes, still wary of life in the open. Although they were happy in their new home, they would never be quite like wild rabbits. They watched Clover's kittens frolicking in the fallen leaves. It was a point of pride with them that a box doe had born the warren's first litter. "Hyzenthlay and Vilthuril will both kindle soon," Haystack remarked.
"What about you?" the other asked. "Boxwood must be anxious to start a family of his own."
Haystack lowered her eyes, feeling dejected. "I'm afraid I can't think about anything now but poor Laurel." The buck had been captured and returned to the hutch on the night of the raid. "We have this wonderful life here while he sits alone in the box. He must wonder what's become of us all."
Clover too looked downcast at the mention of their old friend. Then an awful thought occurred to her." You're not thinking of going back for him."
"How could I?" Haystack answered despondently. "I'm only a doe."
"Why don't you ask Hazel-rah? He's the chief rabbit and will know what's best to be done."
Haystack hopped a few steps away to consider the idea. While she thought Hazel a very brave and wise leader, she knew the earlier escape from the farm had nearly cost him his life. She spotted him a short distance away combing his ears and approached him. "If you please, sir," she began nervously, "I wondered if I might be allowed to speak with you."
"Of course," Hazel agreed pleasantly.
The doe almost lost her nerve, but she remembered why she was there and gathered her courage. "It's about Laurel, sir."
"He's the buck that was caught by the Nuthanger farmer and returned to the box."
"Yes, I remember now."
Haystack hesitated. "I know how much he wanted to be here."
"Is Laurel your mate?"
"But you'd like to have him with us."
"We all would—the box rabbits, I mean."
"I see. Well, let me think on it. And now I believe I'll go down."
The next day, a thunderstorm kept all the rabbits underground during morning silflay. Most gathered in the damaged Honeycomb to wait it out. There was a hole in one end of the roof now, and the rain poured in, flowing down a special run away from the sleeping burrows. Spotting Haystack, Hazel recalled their conversation of the night before. He decided to bring it up to the others for their thoughts on the matter. "I've been reminded that a buck was captured and returned to the box during our escape from Nuthanger Farm. It does seem a shame to leave him behind."
Bigwig exploded. "Frithrah! Are you suggesting that we risk our lives by going back into that barn with those embleer cats and dog roaming about? Not to mention any elil we might meet along the way. Well, I'm not coming."
Silver added, "Nor I. We have more than enough bucks here already. There's no reason to go looking for more."
Hazel noted Haystack and Clover's forlorn expressions and continued. "We did promise to get him out and bring him here," he reminded them.
"I'll go," Groundsel volunteered quickly, anxious to prove his worth to his new companions, many of whom still distrusted him.
"And me," Blackavar offered. "I know what it's like to be held captive."
"I-I'll come as well." It was Boxwood, the other hutch buck.
Hazel sensed his fear and knew his presence would only add to the danger of the mission. "I think you should stay here. You don't understand our ways."
Boxwood looked relieved.
There was a pause. Finally, Blackberry spoke. "Well, if we're going to do this thing, I suppose I'd better go. Someone needs to know how to open the box when we get there."
"Quite right," agreed Hazel. "I'll be coming myself, of course."
His declaration was met with a flurry of protests of which Bigwig's was the loudest. "Don't be a fool! You were shot and nearly died the last time, and it's left you rather lame. You couldn't outrun a cat now, and we don't want to risk losing our chief rabbit."
Hazel saw the sense in his words and acquiesced. "But it will require at least one more."
"I'll go, Hazel-rah, if you think we must."
Everyone looked about, wondering who had spoken. "Oh, uh—Pipkin. That's very good of you, old chap, but not this time."
"What good would he be to anyone?" Groundsel whispered loudly to Thistle, another Efrafan buck. "A man couldn't see him, and a fox wouldn't want him."
"No!" Fiver, sitting beside the heavily pregnant Vilthuril, spoke vehemently, "Pipkin must go."
Hazel turned to his brother. "Are you sure?"
"He needs to come if they're to have any chance of success."
The Sandleford rabbits had learned to rely on Fiver's intuition and accepted it now without question. "That's good enough for me," Hazel declared. "I think they should leave tonight Fu Inlé—unless you feel differently, of course."
Fiver looked thoughtful. "No. I think it'll be alright."
"Then tonight it is."
The rain stopped by noon, and later the moon rose full and bright. The rabbits gathered outside the holes to see the little party off.
Groundsel spoke confidently, "There's no reason to worry. We'll be back before morning."
"I still think it's a fool's errand," Bigwig grumbled. "You're risking your lives to rescue one miserable buck and bring him back here."
"The same way you did for me," Blackavar reminded him.
"Yes, well … "
"I think it's time we were leaving," Blackberry prompted.
Pipkin pulled up alongside Groundsel, and the four made their way down the hill. The others watched until they disappeared from sight and went underground to await their return. Hazel had an idea to pass the time. "Dandelion, why don't you tell us a story?"
The buck thought a moment. "Do you know the one about the flying rabbit?"
The others merely stared blankly back at him. "A flying rabbit?" Hazel repeated doubtfully. "Well, I think we'd better hear that one."