These are the first few pages of “In The Thicket”. Book description and character rundowns coming soon!

In The Thicket
Book One

By Mark Whittaker

Black Sun Rising

After the young Squirrel ascended the tall twisty oak and perched himself atop his usual branch, he noticed something quite peculiar.

“The Birds,” he uttered to himself, “they are not singing.”

This familiar Squirrel always climbs up the big tree when it is still dark in the pre-dawn. While some are just waking and others returning to their burrow, hole or knoll to turn in after a long night out, he makes his way to the top of the old oak. The Birds usually protest, but the Squirrel just ignores them as the sight of seeing a new day come is the most beautiful and even magical to him. Doesn’t matter if it is cold and rainy, he still sits at the top of the tall oak tree and watches the sky slowly turn from dark to light.

“You only get one sunrise a day,” he likes to say to himself. “Same goes for the sunset. Which I can’t wait for either!”

But on this day, something was different. As he climbed up, he noticed that no Bird popped their head out of their hollow or nest to tell him that he was intruding and going much too high for a wingless Groundwalker. It’s been tradition that when he perches himself at the top, the chirps and whistles of song and morning Birds begin, ushering in the coming of the sun. That day, though, they were silent. No whistles and no chirps. Not even a hoot from those pesky Owls. The young Squirrel began to get suspicious that something was not quite right.

“No song for the sun today,” he uttered under his breath. “And the air. It is quiet as well. So still and so…”

The Squirrel then took note that the air was absent of any kind of breeze. It felt as if he was stuck in some acrid cave, one that has been closed off for sometime, and was devoid of a living atmosphere. The day, he observed, felt dead.

How could this be, he thought. No song from the Birds and the air breathes a lifeless breath? It feels as if I am stuck on top of a tree in the belly of a long forgotten and sealed over mine. The sky is a peculiar dark as well. No hint of the sun. At all. But it should be arriving. Yes, the sun should be peeking out from over Elk Hill at this time…

The Squirrel began to rub his paws together, his eyes darting around with an ever increasing fear. He then noticed that he was very short of breath.

“What is to come?” he asked with a shudder. “I feel as if I had just climbed up into a tomb. No song, no air and no light.”

Overhead, a large shadow circled under a starless sky. Its black wings spread wide, hovering as if plotting to swoop down at any moment; waiting for the right moment to attack. Possibly, the Bird is circling to give signal, which is never a good thing.

“A Buzzard,” he twittered, finally noticing the shape of the Bird. “This cannot be. They come only in times of death. But who has died? Better yet, what is dying?”

The Buzzard continued to glide quietly and methodically over the Woodland in a perfect rotation. The Squirrel tried to avert his gaze from it by focusing on the coming of the dawn. The sky turned from black to an ash gray. No blue, just murk.

“It’s not raining though. Why is the sky a dark shroud of gray? This does not make sense. Something is frightfully wrong!”

Then, at the peak of the hill, came a form. What should have been the sun, was replaced by a black orb, lumbering itself over the horizon. It was an ominous and dreadful sight.

“No!”, cried the young Squirrel, frightened. “What is that? It…it can’t be! The sun is gone! The sun has…has been blacked out!”

The sun had, it seemed , somehow, turned to a black spot in the sky. Sure the sun goes away now and then, turning black for a moment, but then it always comes back. This was different. This sun rose from the horizon already shrouded in gloom. It slowly waxed upward to become fully clear and visible to the young Squirrel’s unbelieving eyes. Twitching and more frightened than he had ever been, he looked up to see the circling Bird had disappeared.

“What does this mean?” he stammered. “I have to warn the others.”

The Squirrel then scampered down the mighty oak tree only to hear protests from some of the winged inhabitants.

“Hey! You with the fur! What are you doing up here? This is our home!”

That stopped the Squirrel in mid dash.

“Are you serious?” he inquired to the protesting Birds. “Do you not see that the sun has been blacked out? That the sky is as dark as shade? Do you not feel the stillness, like death, hanging in the air? Let me ask you this my feather afflicted friend. Why, in this stage of dawn, are you not singing or gathering your worms for the daily feast?”

The Birds all stopped with their objections, realizing he had a good point. Quickly, their expressions turned from fluster to concern.

“The Squirrel is right,” said a Finch. “It’s true. We aren’t singing. And, worst of all, I’m not even hungry. The thought of worms and bugs nearly sickens me. What’s going on here?”

As the Birds began to debate and twitter with angst, the Squirrel continued his way down the tree till he was finally on the floor and began his harried leaps to Elk Hill.

***

The Elks had already been awake for some time and were staring off into the horizon, looking at the dense black disc looming in the sky. They said very little, as words failed to come. The eldest, Amaar, slowly made his way through the gathering mob of onlookers and tried his best to calm any ensuing distress.

“My children,” he bellowed from his speaking mound, “this is an event that is beyond our comprehension. At least to mine. The sun, it seems, has become shadow and for that we must try and carry on knowing that the Almighty is giving us a sign of some kind. If not, we will not perish with screams and tears. Let us hope this omen clears itself by tomorrow and we can carry on in our regular fashion.”

There were murmurs as Amaar left his mound, both supportive and questioning.

“He is crazy,” said one. “The sun is gone! This is a prophecy of horrible things to come. I bet by dusk, we will all be dead.”

“He is right,” said another. “This could just be a hiccup in the day’s normal offering. We all have bad days. Why not the sun? It has been created, just like us, and I’m sure it has just fallen ill and will feel better by the next dawn.”

The chatter continued throughout the hill as the elder returned to his assemblage and dwelling. One Elk though began his way down the slope towards the forest below.

His antlers not yet fully formed and bearing a large brown spot on his left side which had always given others a reason to tease, the young Elk broke from the pack and stealthily approached the border.

“This is not right,” he uttered to himself. “I feel a definite chill, even in the hush, which means something is about to happen or has happened. Something that we must certainly pay for. But what? What is going on here?”

By the time the young Elk made his way to the base of the Hill, he was met with a familiar face racing towards him.

“Oskar!” he cried. “I’m so glad to see you.”

“It’s always a pleasure to see you too Uwa,” huffed the young Squirrel out of breath, “but I was hoping under less grave circumstances.”

The two briefed each other under the menacing black sun that was easing its way toward, what should have been, the early morning sky.  Each one telling their own experience and thoughts on the matter. They both came up with the same conclusion.

“I have no idea what this means,” Oskar admitted.

“Me either,” Uwa stated with a slightly embarrassed glance, looking around to see if anyone was watching them. The Elks generally look down at friendship, much less communication, with small Rodents. “Still, it’s really weird.”

“And scary.”

“Yes,” nodded Uwa. “Very.”

The two of them were standing near the Porcupine clan territory, just off the base of Elk hill, and the prickly inhabitants were prattling about in confusion and worry. The Birds above were beginning to chirp, not in song, but rather fright. The Woodland was now becoming a noisy haven of occupants slowing growing in audible panic over the ever increasing black sun that continued to climb in the ashen sky. It was not a welcome din to ears so used to easeful morning melodies and breezes.