Chapter One

Keiko raised her small nose out of the lush grass and into the fresh, crisp, spring air. She took in the exciting aromas and sounds that hovered in the air as though caught in a spider web. Somewhere in the arching boughs of a maple tree, a squirrel was chattering away to a chipmunk on the ground below in a busy like manner. A stout mother robin was reprimanding her children for trying to learn to fly without her supervision. A beetle was ambling along the ground in hopes of finding a bit of food lying in his path.

Everything always smelled better in the morning, especially to a rat like Keiko. The dew sprinkled on the grass seemed to add an extra freshness to the air. All her usual favorite places like the stream, the blueberry bush and the knothole in the old oak tree all seemed to be waiting for the young creature to enjoy them.

Keiko pulled back and smiled. Her ears twitched with pleasure at the simplicity of a suburban spring morning and her eyes were bright with anticipation as she imagined all the possible activities she could do on a beautiful spring day like this one. She squeaked with delight at the feel of the dew on her tan fur and scampered through the tall grass, not going anywhere in particular but simply enjoying the few rays of sun that were just beginning to peak over the clouds.

The morning was a quiet one, without much commotion or hubbub. In fact, it was the young rat's favorite time of the day. She serenely closed her eyes, focusing on the peacefulness surrounding her. The sound of the thin stream, winding between rocks and weaving around fallen tree leaves and branches became pleasantly mesmerizing. The little rat found herself sinking lower into the grass and allowing herself to succumb to a pleasing rest.

The sound of another creature suddenly crinkling the grass just in front of her brought Keiko reluctantly out of her joyous trance. She shook herself to waken herself up a bit more, then blinked her button eyes. There was rabbit standing before her, staring at her with a look of what seemed surprise. He was a handsome animal, with gray fur evenly groomed about his face and his whiskers were sticking out in such a fashion it made the rabbit seem very proper. The rabbit wasn't saying anything, only staring at Keiko with the same look of surprise. Twitching her pink nose, Keiko decided to speak up.

"Um…good morning, sir." Although she normally used the term 'sir' when speaking to her elders, it seemed necessary to use the term in the presence of this rabbit.

The rabbit blinked his eyes, then suddenly seemed to collect himself. He had a deep and soothing, yet powerful voice.

"And good morning to you, fair lady."

Keiko blushed at his remark. She knew all too well that she wasn't fair at all, at least, not compared to her sister. But Keiko was raised a polite rat so she replied, "Thank you, good sir." The rat paused, unsure of what to say. She decided to make small talk. "I haven't seen you in these parts of the woods. May I enquire your business here?"

A shadow seemed to flicker over the rabbit's face, but as shadows often do, it vanished. "I'm just passing through to meet my cousin in another forest."

Keiko smiled at him but then her smile started to fade, as the rabbit didn't appear to want to add anything to his answer. She awkwardly tried to continue the conversation. "What is your name?"

The look the rabbit gave Keiko an odd look that made her feel very uncomfortable. She looked down at the grass and wished she hadn't asked. To her surprise the rabbit replied, "Just call me Bal."

Keiko blinked. "Okay…Bal…I'm going to go…pick…some berries."

Bal smirked and stuck his nose in the air before replying, "Alright then, young rat. There's a berry tree with low branches that grows a little deeper in the forest. The berries that grow there are said to be the best in the whole world." There was a glint in Bal's eye as he spoke this while looking down at Keiko. The handsome rabbit then turned around and hopped away until he was out of sight, without even saying goodbye.

Keiko's fur bristled in annoyance. What a stuck up, know it all rabbit, she thought bitterly. Now he's ruined my morning. Keiko turned to walk away when a thought struck her. How could Bal know about a tree that grew in their forest if he was just passing through and didn't live here? Perhaps he discovered it when he was traveling, Keiko thought, her ears flat against her head in puzzlement. But I wouldn't be surprised if he was lying.

Out of nowhere, she was tackled to the ground by a brown furry blur. Keiko let out a small squeak of fear that shattered the silence while she squirmed underneath her assailant. The creature pinning her to the ground suddenly burst out laughing.

"Ha, ha, Keiko! You didn't even see me coming! You should have seen the look on your face."

Keiko let out a sigh and crossly replied, all the while struggling, "Alright, alright, Marzipan. Just get off of me please."

The brown rat obliged but was still doubling over in peals of laughter. Keiko indignantly began thoroughly licking her paws and grooming her tan, ruffled fur.

"You certainly are a loving sister." She said glaring at Marzipan. Her sister's laughter subsided with a content sigh. Her white paws and belly were visible even in the high grass. Marzipan swatted at a cricket hopping by with a paw.

"I know I am." She said with a grin then with a flick of her tail bounded after the cricket. Keiko shook her head but couldn't help smiling at her sister's antics. Marzipan was only one week younger than she, but she certainly seemed a lot younger. The older rat, twitched her whiskers as her mind wandered to Bal and, according to him, the best berries in the world.

She turned to catch a glimpse of the forest which surrounded the field she was standing in, when Marzipan suddenly jumped in front of her line of sight. Keiko let out her breath in annoyance and found herself wishing she had woken a little earlier. Her sister merely giggled and gave Keiko a playful tug on her ear, eager for her sister to join in the fun. The older rat let out a sigh then couldn't help but grin along with Marzipan.

"Alright, alright." Keiko snapped good-naturedly. "That's enough from you. Now could you please help me gather some berries from that bush over there?" She indicated toward a small bush at the edge of the field, stubbornly refusing to look for the tree Bal mentioned.

Marzipan perked up her nose and sniffed the air, savoring the sweet fragrance of the berries lingering there.

"Sure thing, sis," the younger rat chirped then was off in a shot, bounding toward the lower branches of the berry tree. Keiko shook her head in amazement. Where on earth did her sister get so much energy? It definitely didn't run in the family, for Keiko herself could never run that fast, even if she tried, the tan rat thought as she followed her sister.

Marzipan had already picked one cluster of berries and had it stuffed in her mouth for safekeeping. Juice was dripping out of the corners of her mouth, making Keiko giggle at the comical sight. Marzipan started saying something, but there were too many berries in her mouth for what she said to be plausible. The younger rat spat the berries out of her mouth sullenly. "Yuck! These taste gross."

Keiko frowned at her sister's impolite reaction. The younger rat was always picky about what foods she ate, which was ridiculous to Keiko.

Marzipan was still putting on a dramatic act about the berries, making Keiko roll her eyes. "These berries smell fine," she replied curtly.

The younger rat scrunched up her nose in distaste. "They smell good but they taste terrible."

Keiko snorted then without hesitating, picked up a berry and popped it into her mouth. She chewed thoughtfully then swallowed. "Marzipan, these berries aren't the best that there are but they're fine. Just eat them."

Marzipan's ears flattened in annoyance and she stomped her foot for emphasis. "Why can't we just go into the forest and find the best berries in the world that your rabbit friend told you about?"

Instantly, Keiko felt herself stiffen. "How…you were listening to our conversation?"

The brown rat began licking her paws, trying to get the taste of the berries out of her mouth. "Yeah. Why is that so surprising?" She seemed oblivious to the glares Keiko was giving her.

"How many times have I told you not to listen to other people's conversations?" The tan rat scolded, twitching her whiskers in exasperation.

"I dunno. You asked me twelve times yesterday I think…then five times the day before…I'm guessing over one hundred."

Keiko frowned, no amusement shown on her face. "That was a rhetorical question. But that's not the point. The point is that you're not supposed to listen to other people's conversations without their knowledge.

Marzipan gave her sister a hurt look. "Alright, I won't do it again."

Keiko let out a sigh and shook her head sadly. "I'm never quite sure if I can ever take your word for it."

Marzipan stopped studying her paws for a moment. "I promise. I'll never do it again."

Keiko looked up at her sister and noticed that she looked slightly serious for once. "Well…we'll see if you'll keep your promise."

By now Marzipan had already lost interest in the conversation and was examining the bush with distaste. "Anyway, back to my main point. I'm going to go get some of those berries he was talking about." She stood up then glanced at Keiko. "Where did he say they were?"

Keiko snorted. "Don't go looking for them, Marzipan. He was lying. I don't know why he would, but he was."

Marzipan rolled her eyes then started trotting down the hill toward the forest. "You never know until you try! Come on!"

Suddenly Keiko felt very uneasy. "Wait…Marzipan," she called after her sister, taking a few paces after her. The rat in question merely kept walking, ignoring her sister.

That was when Keiko shouted, "STOP!"

Marzipan did, and glanced back at Keiko looking confused. It was rare that the older rat ever raised her voice. There was a silence between them, despite the cheerfulness of the morning.

"I'm sorry…just…don't," Keiko trailed off then began picking more berries from the bush quietly. The matter was closed and Marzipan knew it. She glanced one more time toward the forest then sullenly trudged back up the hill to help her sister gather the berries.

As the minutes passed, the open field became slowly awake with its usual inhabitants.

Egg the toad waddled by, nodding to the rats as he headed past them towards a dry pile of leaves where he could find some grubs. Chippeah, the chipmunk, Marzipan's closest friend, began to jump in and out of the tall grass with glee. A squirrel family leapt from tree to tree, chattering to each other with laughter. Even Begonia and Mayflower had emerged from wherever it was butterflies sleep and were flitting along in the field, searching for pollen to drink.

Chippeah eventually spotted Marzipan and hopped over to her. "Come on! Let's play tag!" he squeaked, jumping up and down Marzipan glanced at Keiko for approval, feeling uneasy after her outburst. Keiko sighed then nodded, feeling ashamed that she had raised her voice like that to her sister. I don't know why…but that Bal character and his story about his bush make me uneasy. She glanced at her sister tearing across the open field after Chippeah and chuckled despite herself.

Finally, Keiko had a reasonable amount of berries heaped into a nice pile. She surveyed her handiwork with satisfaction and shook the bits of leaves and branches off that had fallen on her fur. "Marzipan! We have to bring these berries to mom!" she called, glancing over at her sister.

The brown rat stood up on her hind legs in order to get a better view of her sister.

"Awww, Keiko...do we have to?" She asked, pouting in resentment. Chippeah poked his head out of the grass as well and joined Marzipan's protests.

Keiko smiled at the pair but shook her head. "I'm sorry, but if we want to make it to breakfast, we have to get these berries home now."

Marzipan acquiesced although she wasn't too happy about it. "Oh…well…all right," she grumbled, but she started headed toward her sister all the same.

Chippeah waved goodbye to his friend while squeaking, "Then I guess I'll see you later Marzipan!"

Together, the two rats managed gather all the berries either in their mouths or in their paws, so they wouldn't need to undergo two trips. The two sisters slowly trudged down the hill, being careful not to drop any piece of their load. Cotton the rabbit spotted the two rats struggling with their burden and he offered to help them carry it to their nest. His help was graciously accepted, and it wasn't before long that they arrived at their destination.

Cotton dropped his share of the berries, bid the rats farewell, then hopped away. Keiko stepped forward then sniffed the air, standing at the foot of a tree which was growing at the very edge of the forest. The little rat stuck her nose inside a large knothole at the base of the great oak tree, then motioned for Marzipan that it was okay. The sisters headed inside the great trunk, their eyes gradually accustomed to the welcome dark that the thick trunk provided for them. There were several tunnels, some leading upward into the wood, and others leading underground. Keiko disappeared into one leading deeper into the earth, with Marzipan not far behind. They trotted through various twists and turns of the tunnel for a while, then it opened up into a small room.

This was Keiko's favorite chamber in the whole system of burrows that the family called their home. Although it was small, it was quite cozy. Keiko's mother had lined the chamber with leaves and moss, making it a soft and enjoyable place to be. There were also bits and pieces of lint thrown into a pile in the middle of the room, forming several beds for the rat family.

Their mother was awake already and grooming the young ones with her pink tongue while they protested and squirmed. Keiko took after her mother, because her mother was once tan, but now that she was older her fur had been bleached to a pale white color. She glanced up when her daughters entered the room and smiled, bidding them good morning. Marzipan unceremoniously dropped her berries on the floor then bounded back out the entrance of the chamber, no doubt to play more games with Chippeah. Keiko smiled then turned to her mother who was still busy with the younger ones. The tan rat deposited her own berries and trotted over to her mother and the wailing infants.

"Mom, look what I gathered for breakfast!" Keiko's mother turned around and her black eyes fell upon the berries on the ground.

"Oh thank you Keiko! That will spare me the trouble of finding breakfast myself," she squeaked in delight. "There's so much to do in this den, and so little time!" Keiko ground her teeth together in contentment at her mother's praise, then started to assist in the grooming of her baby brothers and sisters.

"Say mom…" Keiko glanced at her mother in-between licks. "Have you ever met a rabbit named Bal?" Her mother paused as well and glanced at her daughter, her face puzzled.

"…Bal…? I don't believe I have…Is he new?" Keiko nodded then sat back on her haunches and began grooming herself, having finished her job.

"Yes…I haven't seen him around here before. He had a nice, smooth coat of gray fur and he seemed..." The rat found herself trailing off, unsure of how to describe the rabbit.

"Was he rude?" asked her mother who barely looked up from the struggling and unhappy infants she was grooming.

Keiko felt her ears twitch as she mused, "Well…he wasn't exactly rude…it was more the way he looked at me that made me angry…"

The white rat slowly lifted her face from her work and stared hard at her daughter. "The…way…he looked at you?" There was a tone in her voice that sounded odd, or misplaced.

Slightly puzzled, Keiko returned her mother's stare. "Yes…he looked at me like…well…I don't know…below him. I guess you could say condescendingly."

After hearing that statement, the look on her mother's face was…her expression was hard to make out. Was it shock? Fear? Amazement? Keiko couldn't tell but then the expression passed and the tan rat thought nothing more of it.

Keiko spent the majority of the day helping her mother tidy up the house, feed the pups and gather some more food to put in the storage tunnel. Rosie, Keiko's youngest sister, escaped a few times and Keiko had to chase her down. Keiko and her mother labored to crack the shells of nuts and peel the skin off berries in order to produce a fitting meal for the day. At one point, her mother had to stop working to nurse the little ones, and Keiko was left to work by herself. As she worked, the tan rat thought bitterly of how it wouldn't hurt Marzipan to stop playing with Chippeah and came help her and her mother. However, her younger sister did stop in to devour her share of the berries for breakfast before she shot right back out of the tunnel again.

Eventually, the day was over and it was time for the animals to retire to their safe homes for the night.

When Marzipan finally trotted through the small opening, her brown coat ruffled from roughhousing, the nuts for the evening meal were already laid out and just waiting to be consumed. Keiko let out a sigh and rushed over to assist her mother in grooming Marzi's untidy fur.

After that had been taken care of, the three could finally eat their long expected and enjoyable late afternoon meal. Keiko savored each bite of her share, enjoying the sweet taste the crunchy treat submitted. They ate in silence as the sun painted brilliant colors on the horizon and the stars awoke from their nap somewhere above them.

Keiko finished her meal with a satisfied sigh. She began to lick herself thoroughly again with her pink tongue, set on removing the bits of nut from her fur. As her sister and mother finished their meal as well, Keiko remembered something she had meant to ask her mother.

"How is Uncle Muggles? Was he able to find a new home?"

Keiko's mother's whiskers drooped slightly. "No, he wasn't able to." She paused reflective silence for a moment, and then continued. "It was odd, the way he lost his home. The head of that community said he had to leave because there wasn't enough room for him anymore…" She trailed off, her black eyes seeming focused on something far away. Keiko watched as her mother ran a paw absentmindedly through her brown fur and wondered why she was so perplexed. However, as usual, Marzipan was the one who broke the silence.

"I'd hate to brake up the conversation but can I go outside again?"

Her mother blinked then her eyes focused again as she stared at her daughter.

"Well…alright. But hurry back."

Keiko gazed in absolute astonishment at her mother. It was already getting dark and cold outside. Now was the time when all the dangerous creatures came out and all the others animals were beginning to sleep. And wasn't Marzipan just playing outside for the entire day? Keiko twitched her tail in confusion. What was going on? Marzipan was already heading for the door, being all too eager to play outside to notice her mother's odd acquiesce.

Keiko watched her mother for a moment then asked softly, "Is there something wrong, mother?"

The older rat suddenly tensed and responded in a strict tone, "Nothing, Keiko. Now go with your sister and keep her out of trouble."

Keiko had never heard her mother take that tone with her before. She was quite taken aback and paused for a moment. Then, seeing as how Marzipan was long gone, she hurried out the winding tunnel after her sister.

The thick blanket of night seemed comforting at the least when Keiko emerged from their tree trunk. It gave her a feeling a safety, seeing as how most animals couldn't see in the dark. However, there were many predators who could easily strike down an unknowing little rat in the dark. There were owls, snakes, foxes and other things that hid in the shadows.

Feeling uneasy, Keiko called out into the blackness, "Marzipan?" There was no answer save the constant chirping of the crickets. Being a rat, Keiko didn't need to rely on her sense of sight too much, so instead she turned to her sense of smell. Lifting her little nose to the air, the tan rat probed through the different air currents, trying to find the familiar one that belonged to Marzi.

Suddenly, Keiko was knocked over and pinned by an unknown assailant. For a terrible moment, she thought the paw of a fox was pinning her down and she squealed in terror. But with another sniff of the air, Keiko felt her rational sense return.

"Marzipan! That was not funny!" She yelled, now able to see her sister by the moonlight. The brown rat was rolling in the high grass, laughing her head off. After she had finished gasping for breath, Marzipan rolled her eyes. "Oh come, Keiko. That was the oldest trick in the book! I just stayed downwind from you so you couldn't smell me! Try using those big ears of yours sometime!" Scratching her head with her white paws, Marzipan grinned at her sister. "Come on! There's no one around now! Let's play! We have the whole field to ourselves!"

Keiko was not amused and did not share her sister's enthusiasm. She was glaring at Marzipan at her foolish behavior. She was practically screaming at her sister when she responded. "You should know better! It's nighttime! There are all kinds of things that would tear you to pieces in a second! Come back inside!"

The outburst made the crickets cease their bows, as though annoyed at someone interrupting their symphony. Marzipan was hurt when she looked at her sister, and the silence was unbearable. "…Geez, that's twice you've yelled at me today. I just wanted to have fun…" the brown rat's voice cracked was she first spoke, then became angry when she finished. Without saying anything else, Marizpan disappeared into the grass.

Keiko was a little surprised that she had yelled at her sister like that again, but her angry still didn't lessen. Great. Now Marzipan's run off and it's all going to be my fault. When I get my paws on her, she's in so much trouble. Where did that scoundrel go?

Keiko sniffed the grass, following the scent of her sister to find where she disappeared to. Because the grass was already parted, Keiko could see the trail as well as smell it. She's always in trouble, and I always have to get her out of it, Keiko thought bitterly. Why can't she just use her common sense? It's always-

Keiko stopped, her eyes wide at what she saw. The trail had ended in both ways. Keiko had lost Marzipan's scent in the grass, and the trail she had seen where her sister walked was gone. But at the moment, Keiko wasn't looking down at the grass. She was looking ahead of her, where, visible by the moon and starlight, Marzipan had vanished into the labyrinth of the forest.