When we reached the entrance of the strange rabbit (who gave her name to be Elderberry), I finally felt the exhaustion of the entire trip pulling down my shoulders. I was so cold and hungry that once Elderberry pushed apart the heavy curtains and the warmth of the cave reached out I fell flat on my face in weakness. Happy promptly hopped off my back (looking suspiciously more energetic than when he got on...) and skipped back and forth, clearly happy to be indoors and dry for once.
The cave was small with wood panelling all along its walls. Sparsely decorated, I got the sense that Elderberry had very little time or resources for such luxuries as blankets or pillows. Either that or putting the wood panels in place was too taxing for her to even begin thinking about sewing.
"You can make yourselves comfortable wherever you please. I'm sorry for the lack of soft things to keep you warm, but it's better than being cold and wet outside, right?" Elderberry said a bit awkwardly. I didn't imagine that she had a lot of friends or time to socialize; she spoke a bit too quiet to hear right. She probably wasn't used to talking to others.
Once we had sat down, Elderberry pushed a basket of carrots toward us. "Both of you should eat lots of carrots. They're the only vegetable that grows here that travelers like you can eat."
"But what about the poison pears?" Happy questioned.
"Well, you see they aren't really poison. In your case, they can be as deadly as a lightning strike––"
"How does that work??" Happy anxiously fidgeted.
Elderberry sighed a moment out of slight frustration and continued, "The red pears aren't actual pears; they're fruits native to this region and this region alone. Their story goes back to when Cosmo the koala shaman was experimenting with creating different plants and fruits to help the inhabitants of the Marshlands. Basically, these were mess-ups that weren't very well cleaned up."
"What makes them so deadly, though?" I asked.
"Because they're so plentiful and travelers like you are so desperate for food, they can be all you eat. The truth of the matter is that they are extremely low in nutrients–– Mira, you could eat nothing but raw ice and still be better off. They melt instantly; they don't even fill you up! They don't have the slightest bit of sugar or any calories–– they're the worst thing you could ever eat."
"Wow, I was thinking they were really poisoned for a minute!" Happy relievedly exclaimed.
"I don't know, Happy. In my opinion, it would be better to eat a single poisoned fruit than waste away eating nothing but FAKE fruit." I replied.
"That's exactly what they are, Berry! Fake fruit! I should tell all the amphibians that so no one gets sick agai––" Elderberry stopped herself mid sentence.
The room was silent.
"Hey..." I cautiously pushed, "I never told you my name."
"Uhhh... Ummm... You go eat some carrots while I go light the fire drum, kay?" Elderberry said shakily and bounded into the next room.
Now that was peculiar.
But I'd ignore it for now...
The fire drum had been going for some time now, and Elderberry still hadn't returned. I didn't think anything of it; I was too busy sleeping for the most part.
It appeared that Elderberry had left the cave. I looked around at the few things inside her home: the fire drum was still lazily burning, there was a... banana tree? Strange, but interesting. A single hand carved chair sat opposite to the fire, and there were two books stacked by the wall. I went to look at them.
One appeared to be a story book. It had no title or author on the cover, but the inside was in incredibly beautiful calligraphy and it seemed to tell a sort of story. Something about a sea lion... I looked to the next book and flipped inside. Immediately I was met with a big "DON'T READ MY DIARY!" in big threatening letters on the cover page. I set it down; it would be rude to accept someone's help and then read their diary.
Halfway through the basket of carrots, the sounds of fire and newfound comfort had gently pushed me into a warm sleep.
I slept the whole night away without waking up. I hadn't ever felt so energized and well when I got up that I literally jumped off the floor!
But me and Happy couldn't stay with Elderberry forever. In the morning we ate a breakfast of water-sprinkled carrots and of course... water.
"Hey Elderberry, where do you find these carrots?" I asked. I wanted to know so me and Happy could travel through the rest of the Marshlands without going hungry.
"There are scattered mostly around the more humid regions. There's a big, big patch growing at the base of this hill–– but you don't need to go there, I already got some carrots tied together for you." She lifted a bundle of around 12 carrots tied together with a rather old-looking string. That reminded me...
"Oh, thank you so much! But before we go, I have a random question."
"Ask away," the mahogany rabbit allowed.
"Where do you get all your stuff? Me and Happy walked through the most of the Marshlands and we never EVER came upon anyone else, even a home! Are there any markets nearby?"
"Oh right, I should tell you!" Elderberry pulled out a faded, possibly outdated map from the bag slung around her side. If one could call it a map! It looked like it was drawn by a child using many thick layers of berry juice as a drawing tool.
One side was a simple, mostly blank blob marked SOUTHERN REGION with a small hill around the edge and a single, twisting path to the second blob marked NORTHERN REGION. This blob was peppered with more hills, gardens, markets-- and was that a castle at the top? "You should continue taking the marked path up until you reach the big rock. It isn't just any big rock, you'll know when you reach it, if you stay on the path. Behind that rock is the city of Honeygrass. Just ask anyone to find a market!"
"Oh my, thank you so much!" I said sincerely, with hope exploding out of my koala heart. I did not know what I would do without this kind rabbit's help!
"We really, really, really appreciate everything you've done for us!!" Called Happy, as we were walking out the cave door. It was cold and wet outside, but with newfound purpose it was made warmer.
"Oh, just one more thing!" Elderberry called, "My sister Cherimoya sells honey at the market, say hi if you get the chance!"
"We will!" me and Happy promised, not thinking about how vague a statement that was.
Soon the hill was far away, and soon enough, the cold fog evened out.
An hour or so into the trek, we came upon some very peculiar footprints in the soil. Yes, they were slightly washed out by the light rain, but they were an interruption in the otherwise water-smooth ground.
And from up close, they looked like lion paws accompanied by crocodile tracks.
*TO BE CONTINUED NEXT MONTH*