The smell of baked biscuits hung in the air, scented with the tang of sharp berries. Mouse scampered around in the garden circling his great oak tree, picking a bouquet of herbs and flowers.
Owl sat up in the branches as he watched the activity below. “You needn’t fuss so over trivialities. The tea will commence regardless of whether the tables are dressed with flowers.
Mouse’s whiskers twitched as he looked up at Owl. “Everything should be proper, even you should know that.” Mouse ran to the tree, through a door over which swung a sign painted with a pair of bright red berries. Once inside, Mouse put the herbs and flowers into glass jars and clay pots before setting them onto the tables. A little bell chimed, and he ran to the kitchen, put on a clean white apron, and then pulled out a tray of piping-hot biscuits from the wood-fired oven. He set them on the tables, along with crocks of freshly churned butter and pots of sweetened cream and, of course, the tea.
The tea was his own blend of roasted chicory root, vanilla and cardamom, and a few other ingredients the identity of which Mouse refused to share. It was a blend that was the talk of the woods, and one that brought in visitors for leagues around. It was what had made his Twinberry Inn famous, and Mouse liked it that way.
Another little bell chimed, and then the visitors filed in. Mice and voles, hedgehogs and shrews–one by one they walked in, each taking a seat at a food-laden table. Mouse scampered between all of them, replacing empty teapots with piping hot full ones. He replenished baskets of biscuits and made sure there was always enough cream.
It was all going splendidly when the little windows set in the oak tree darkened, and a hush fell over the room. The smell of biscuits and tea was replaced by fur and dirt. Then a red and white snout tipped with a black nose pushed its way through the front door.
“Fox!” a mouse cried, and then panic erupted. Rodents scurried around the tables in a haphazard frenzy, voles squeaked in despair and hedgehogs fainted onto plates piled with berries and cream.
“We’re done for!” a shrew cried, and soon the crowd was cowering in a corner of the tree, as far from the door as was possible.
Mouse, who had watched the entire affair from the edge of the kitchen, wiped his clawed hands onto his apron and took a step forward.
“H-hello, friend F-fox. W-what can I do for you?”
The big black nose twitched as it sniffed the air, and then the fox said, “I’ve heard you serve the best tea in the forest. Is that true?”
Mouse looked at his guests, but they all just stared wide-eyed at him, and no one uttered a word. “Y-yes. It is.”
“Might I trouble you for a taste? I’ve had some fine tea in my time, and so I wondered how yours would compare.”
Mouse wrung his hands as he stared at the great snout in his front door. He thought about taking a brand from the fire and poking the snout to make the fox leave. But that might only make him angry, and the last thing Mouse wanted was an angry fox trying to get through his door.
He took a deep breath and said, “Of course,” and somberly turned towards the kitchen to fetch more tea.
The silence in the room pressed upon Mouse as he walked, teapot in hand, towards the snout in his door. He glanced back at the others, but they just cringed, as if his gaze was enough to condemn them all. Turning back to the fox, he crept as close as he dared and then, stretching out his arms, lifted the teapot and tilted it forward.
Rich, auburn liquid arced from the spout and splashed against the fox’s nose. A great pink tongue lolled out and lapped at the liquid. When the teapot was empty, Mouse cringed back and scurried away.
The fox licked at his nose and was quiet a moment. Then he said, “It’s very nice. Perhaps not the best tea I’ve ever tasted, but certainly the best that is to be found in this part of the woods. The hints of elderberry are, I think, a nice touch.” Then the snout backed out the door, the shadow lifted, and the fox was gone.
Mouse stared at the empty door as the teapot fell from his hands. Nearby, another hedgehog fainted and, somewhere from within the crowd, a shrew giggled in nervous fits of laughter.