AUTHOR'S NOTE: This A/U takes place in the world of Richard Adams' novel Watership Down, and is set a few months after the climactic battle at the end of the book.
Further Note: I use a good number of the Lapine words created by Adams for his novel. When possible I've made their meaning clear in context; I have also supplied a glossary at the end.
The people of Uruk cried out to wise Aruru, goddess of creation: "You made him, O Aruru, now make his equal. Send Gilgamesh a companion who will be as like him as his own reflection; one who will match him arm for arm, strength for strength, stormy heart for stormy heart. Let them contend with each other and leave us in peace!"
-- The Epic of Gilgamesh
When the stranger hobbled up the hill one morning in early spring, Burdock's only fear was that a fox would soon follow after, looking for the rest of its prey.
Ever since the terrible battle between General Woundwort's rabbits from Efrafa against Hazel-rah's small warren -- the battle that had seen the invincible Woundwort defeated by a dog summoned by the smaller, weaker Hazel-rah -- the two groups of rabbits had lived under an uneasy truce. Many Efrafans had taken at once to the new warren's easygoing way of living, so different from Woundwort's rigidly-controlled regime where might was right and punishment severe for attempts to leave.
Most of the ex-Efrafa rabbits were still getting used to being able to leave their burrows and eat outside any time they wanted, rather than at the rigid silflay times controlled by Woundwort's Owsla officers, or to leave droppings anywhere they went in natural lapine fashion rather than scattering their hraka in a single ditch. For the most part former Efrafans were content to live a natural rabbit's life, and to accept Hazel-rah's quiet authority as Chief in Watership.
But for Burdock and a few other former members of Woundwort's Owsla -- the Owslafa -- the new place and the new ways were a burden more than a blessing. In Efrafa, they had had power and prestige; here they were treated no better nor worse than other rabbits. The Marks they bore, the scars that identified the groups to which they belonged, were meaningless now, as were their skills at hiding hraka or punishing rabbits for breaking Woundwort's rules.
The former Owslafans also dared not mourn the disappearance of their former leader. General Woundwort, big and cruel and powerful, had been a rabbit who had fought the Enemies instead of running away from them and had made Efrafa proof against predations by man, fox, badger, hawk, and all the rest of The Thousand. That this had resulted in an overcrowded warren, fewer litters, vicious punishments for escape attempts and brutality was simply part of what had set the General apart from every other Chief Rabbit. The General's defeat by the smaller, weaker Hazel-rah was still a great shock for the Owslafans.
Captain Burdock had done his duty as a Mark Captain and obeyed his General; in his leisure time he had kept company with Vervain and a few other Owslafans. Burdock was no different in Watership, except that since Hazel-rah gave few or no orders there was nothing for him to do; for the most part he kept only his own company or the company of old Captain Cowslip from the Off Hind Mark, though he also associated with some of the bigger Watership bucks at dawn or evening silflay -- Buckthorn, Silver or battle-scarred Bigwig.
It was Frithle -- sunrise -- on one of the first warm days of spring. Most of the warren was up, eager to fill their bellies with the tender new green growth after the cold sparse dried grasses of winter. The kittens ran and played around their mothers, exulting in the freedom of the outside after their first cold months below ground.
Even the vacant Fiver was outside, as always being coaxed to take each mouthful by his doe Vilthuriel or one of his own kittens. Burdock, keeping company with Cowslip, Silver, and Buckthorn, watched this ritual with disgust. "That one's only good for the owls," he said.
"Maybe in Efrafa," growled Buckthorn.
Burdock snorted. "I know all about rank and privilege. If that moonstruck little runt wasn't Hazel-rah's brother he'd be eaten by now."
Silver stopped Buckthorn before the big rabbit could start a scuffle. "I was in the Owsla at our old warren," Silver said to Burdock, "and I was a nephew of the Chief Rabbit. I was teased about only being in the Owsla because of him. No one in this warren is treated better or worse because of their blood relations. Hazel was just another yearling in our old warren; it was what he could do and how he could think that made him a chief. And if it wasn't for Fiver we wouldn't be here, any of us -- we owed him long before Hazel became Hazel-rah. Our storyteller Dandelion could explain that."
Burdock shook his ears and lolloped a few steps away to investigate a patch of coltsfoot. Storytellers did not interest him -- and Dandelion preferred telling the stories about the trickster-hero El-ahrairah. Burdock had never enjoyed the El-ahrairah stories as much as he liked the Owslafa tales of fighting, does and jokes. Those too were nearly all gone now.
Cowslip limped after Burdock to keep him company, and for a while the former Owslafans nibbled in silence. "It's hard to understand, isn't it, Burdock?" the old rabbit said.
Burdock scratched one ear hard with his hind foot. "This warren -- confounds me, Cowslip. The General could crush Fiver with one paw, tear out Hazel-rah's throat without blinking!"
"And yet he was defeated by Hazel-rah, and this tiny group of bucks," Cowslip finished.
"That white bird that helped them -- that dog -- the thing on the river that carried them away on its back --" Burdock scrabbled at the dirt. "I don't understand any of it."
"A new way of doing things," Cowslip said, favouring his off hind leg as he lolloped over to the younger rabbit; it was a reminder that he'd survived a badger attack years before. "I've seen it happen before in a warren. I was an Owsla officer when young Woundwort arrived in Efrafa and started clawing his way toward the Chief Rabbit. He changed many things -- some good and some bad. He never had to Mark me, that's for certain -- I'd already gotten Marked by that embleer lendri. This place is full of new things too. Hazel-rah may be an even better Chief than the General -- he knows how to use new ideas from everyone."
Burdock grazed and said nothing more. Cowslip had taken to life in the new warren far better than he had. But he himself had only known life under the General until the newcomers had arrived to change everything, and a dark fierce part of himself bitterly mourned the loss of that life and chafed under Hazel-rah's peaceful command.
But the arrival of the small battered buck at the top of the hill, hobbling in an erratic line as if poisoned, drove all other thoughts out of Burdock's mind.
All the rabbits on the down stopped grazing and sat up as the dark-furred stranger made his way through them, every motion a hobbling hop; kittens stopped playing and dashed behind their mothers, and the bigger bucks thumped the ground in warning against any trouble. Everyone stared at him, with good reason.
"Some half-fed homba's looking for that," Burdock said.
"Poor chap," said Silver. "He looks worse than Bigwig."
Frith alone knew why this stranger wasn't dead in a ditch somewhere, or lining a fox's stomach. Burdock had seen dog's kills that looked more entire. The wanderer's russet-red coat was matted and twisted from one end to the other with jagged scars. Half of one ear was completely gone, ending in a ragged chewed end. Part of one cheek was missing, the whiskers gone from that side of the face, and part of one forepaw was missing; the tail was a stump. Silver was right; not even Bigwig had looked as mangled after the fight with General Woundwort that had scarred him for life, and the stranger's small size only emphasized the extent of his wounds.
The stranger did not stop to silflay; instead he snatched at tufts of grass or clover and ate them as he moved, bits of greenery dropping from the mutilated side of his mouth. He did not acknowledge the other rabbits or respond to the few who greeted him.
Bluebell, the warren comedian, hopped ahead of the wanderer. "Go get Bigwig! We've found a kitten of his!"
As two young bucks, members of Bigwig's Owsla, fell in beside the stranger to escort him to the Chief, Burdock followed along, curious to see how Hazel-rah would deal with him. Others, curious or suspicious, came along too.
Holly hopped out of Burdock's way and gave him an unfriendly glare. Burdock ignored the Watership buck; Holly had disliked Burdock from the beginning of the integration and never said why, and Burdock wasn't interested.
The small procession ended at the center of the warren beneath the single tree on the down, where the Chief Rabbit was at silflay with his Owsla Captain and a few others; they all looked up at the interruption. "Hazel-rah," one of the bucks said, "this wanderer has just appeared and--"
"Are you the Chief Rabbit here?" the stranger said abruptly, finally coming to a halt in front of Hazel-rah. His voice was low and quiet.
Hazel-rah sat up, as did the lop-earred and scarred Bigwig. Like Cowslip, Hazel-rah favored a lame hind leg. "I am," Hazel-rah said.
"I don't have a warren. I wish to live here." The stranger's blunt words in that low tone were those of a commander making a decision rather than a request of a Chief. General Woundwort would have had the stranger cuffed or clawed for such insolence to his face.
"What's your name?" asked Hazel-rah.
Every rabbit's ears went back. Kittens whimpered and cowered behind their mothers. Whispers went across the down like fire.
Burdock glared at the rufous stranger, wanting to fight more than ever. The buck's red-tinged coat was obviously the reason for the name that meant "Fox-fur" -- but what kind of doe would name her kitten after one of the Enemy?
Hazel-rah looked around the down and back at Hombathlay. "Come down with me," he said, and disappeared down the hole that led to his burrow. Hombathlay followed -- and with a muttered "Not going in there with that one alone," Bigwig took up the rear. The curious rabbits gradually broke up and returned to silflay or headed down into burrows to sleep.
Frith had moved across the sky two lengths when the Chief Rabbit and the stranger returned to the surface. A scowling Bigwig emerged and hopped off to silflay. The rabbits gathered at the small commotion and stared at the small mutilated buck who sat cleaning his damaged forepaw with a careless air. "This is Hombathlay," said Hazel-rah, whose eyes never left the newcomer. "He will be staying with us. Make him welcome."
Hombathlay moved away and began to graze without a backward look at his new Chief, his half-ear flicking back and forth across his back. After a long uneasy silence, the rest of the warren settled back to silflay; despite Hazel-rah's words, everyone gave the stranger a wide berth.
Not everyone. One rabbit approached Hombathlay. It was young Threar, the biggest of Fiver's kittens, nearly at yearling size. Whatever he said to Hombathlay was too low for Burdock to hear, but he saw Hombathlay deliberately turn his back on Threar and keep eating without a word in reply. Threar hopped over to face the antisocial newcomer once again. The stranger said nothing, but as Threar approached him Hombathlay lashed out with both forepaws. With a startled squeal Threar scuffled backwards, so fast he rolled over once.
That caught the attention of nearby rabbits, who reacted with anger and calls. Hombathlay resumed grazing as if nothing had happened.
Threar sat and stared at Hombathlay. "Cuff him back, you little fool, don't just stand there catching bluebottles!" Burdock shouted. Instead the little buck dashed back to his idiot sire and cowering littermates; Fiver didn't even seem to know that something had just happened.
And then Bigwig was there, confronting Hombathlay; the sight of the two severely-marred rabbits, one so small and one so big, would almost be comical at another time. "You mangy half-eaten hraka-faced--"
"Bigwig," Hazel-rah said sharply, and the bigger rabbit cut off his furious tirade. Now it was the Chief Rabbit who faced Hombathlay, who stared back with no change in his expression. "You've had a bad time of it, Hombathlay," Hazel-rah said. "I don't demand that you make friends with everyone here. But if you give a bad time to this warren you're out. If you don't want to be bothered at silflay I'm sure you'll have no objection to grazing on the outskirts."
"None," was Hombathlay's only reply, still in his quiet voice.
"Good. And if you find that you can't share a burrow without attacking others, there are a few scrapes on the side of this hill that should keep you from the cold, until you wish to make friends here."
In reply Hombathlay turned and headed out away from the central area beneath the tree. The other rabbits gave him a wide berth, glaring at him or herding their kittens away from him.
The only non-angry look came from Threar, who continued to stare at Hombathlay while Vilthuriel fussed over his scratched shoulder. Fiver at last roused himself enough to nuzzle Threar's ears, and only then did the youngster turn away from the stranger who had attacked him to attend to his sire.
"I'm beginning to think Hazel-rah would welcome that embleer farm cat into this warren," Burdock snapped, watching the russet- furred loner feed at the furthest edge of the down. "I don't understand any of this!" He dashed off in the opposite direction, almost wishing someone would try to stop him so he could fight. This place, this place!
He finally panted back to Cowslip, weary from his mad dash around the down, and settled back at his patch of coltsfoot. Cowslip kept feeding without saying another word.
Hombathlay did not go into the warren that night, but opted for one of the little scrapes dug into the side of the steep hill, separate from the network of burrows that converged into a central meeting place belowground.
The next few days were uneasy ones as Hombathlay showed himself at the edges of the group at silflay. He spent long hours by himself, lying in the sun. He was still thin and scrawny, even for a yearling; he did not seem to eat much, perhaps because of his damaged mouth. He did not speak. At night he disappeared into the hillside scrape; he made no attempt to enter the main burrows.
Gradually the word spread about Hombathlay's background, from the information he gave to Hazel-rah and Bigwig in their meeting: that he was the sole survivor of a ferret attack the previous autumn, an attack that had killed his mother and littermates; that he had spent the winter in a scrape recovering from his wounds; that he had traveled straight to the hill for no reason that he would give. Anything besides this was known only to Hombathlay.
Threar did not approach Hombathlay again, but often watched him. The black-furred and ragged-eared Blackavar also tried to speak to the outsider and was ignored, yet continued to approach Hombathlay despite his lack of success. Hombathlay did not lash out at Blackavar nor at anyone else; he stopped responding altogether.
The business of spring soon overtook the warren. Bigwig's small Owsla staged a raid on Nuthanger Farm and returned triumphant, the young bucks proud of their first foray into danger and their first taste of flayrah; Toadflax boasted for days about drawing the cat away from Scabious and Pimpernel as they'd savored the lettuces in the farm garden, and all of them looked forward to striking again when the carrots appeared.
Messengers between Efrafa and Watership carried the plans by Hazel-rah and Groundsel-rah for a new warren situated between the two existing warrens, for those who wanted to start a new life. Many older Efrafans were even more eager than the yearlings about the plan, for the simple luxury of being allowed to leave Efrafa was still new.
Spirits were high all over the down; playful scuffles and chases were the order of the day, and even the older rabbits felt the stirring blood enough to join in the reckless games.
Amid all this activity and high spirits Burdock sat silent and angry, or tore around the hill in a sudden burst of speed. He longed to go on the farm raid but was no longer an Owsla member. He was not chosen for messenger duty. The scuffling he'd grown up with, the deliberate harming of other rabbits encouraged among Owslafans to keep them strong and ruthless, was not allowed here. Mating season was a long time away, and Vervain was dead; Burdock could not simply approach one of the Watership bucks to suggest an Owslafa-style pairing, with the problem of overcrowding gone. He was on the verge of taunting Hombathlay in the hopes of starting a real fight.
Burdock was at silflay by himself one day, not far from where Hombathlay ate with his back to him, when he noticed Blackavar heading in their direction; the former Efrafan's dark fur and tattered ears were instantly recognizable. "Going to speak to him again?" Burdock asked. "It's no good, he might as well be a stone rabbit."
"I have to try," Blackavar said. "I know what it's like to stare the Black Rabbit in the face and wait for him to call your name."
Burdock snorted. "Who doesn't? If we all went tharn at the first taste of danger or death there'd be no rabbits at all in the world. Hombathlay survived a ferret attack -- why doesn't he act like it?"
"That's what I'd ask, if he'd only answer." Blackavar looked at the oblivious buck. "He's not acting like a survivor."
"You're wasting your time," Burdock said unsympathetically as the rag-earred buck approached the russet-coated outcast for the umpteenth time. "He's not--"
"Get away from him, you!"
Burdock took a step back.
Holly now stood between him and the other rabbits -- he must have run there -- and the unfriendliness on his face was now full-blown anger. "Get away from him, Burdock," he snapped. "Stop bothering him!"
Burdock shook his ears back, his blood rising, glad of a chance for a real scuffle. "I wasn't bothering him, Holly," he said angrily. "You can't bother Hombathlay, he might as well be a clump of grass as--"
"I mean Blackavar, and you know it, Captain Burdock!"
Blackavar sat up and looked back at the altercation. "Holly, what are you talking about?"
"I'm not Mark Captain any more, Holly. I wasn't bothering Blackavar." Anger twisted Burdock's answer into a sneer. "What does Blackavar have to do with anything?"
"You ripped his ears!" Holly snarled. "All he'd done was try to leave Efrafa, and your general ordered his ears shredded. And you were one of the ones who did it! I saw!"
Burdock blinked. So this was the reason for Holly's anger.
Hombathlay's half-ear lifted.
"You don't even remember!" Holly sneered. "What a good Efrafan you still are! Follow orders, obey the General, don't think and don't remember!"
Now that it had been brought to his attention, Burdock remembered. Holly was right; Efrafans, accustomed to obeying Woundwort blindly, forgot orders as soon as they carried them out. Yes, he had helped Vervain -- dead Vervain -- carry out Woundwort's order on the runaway, the threat to the warren. Holly had been in Efrafa at the time, the first emissary from Watership.
But that was the past. From the confused look on Blackavar's face, the rag-ear himself hadn't remembered which Owslafans had been ordered to do the deed.
"I did my duty," Burdock said coldly. "I did not act out of hatred. I did what my General ordered." Rage was rising. Was Holly bringing this up to start the war all over again?
"If Woundwort had ordered you to eat your own kittens or drink your mother's blood, you'd have done that too!" Holly snarled. "And forgotten it, afterwards, like a good Efrafan! You're no rabbit, Burdock -- you're a lendri wearing a rabbit-skin!"
And then Holly was tumbling over and over as a body slammed into him, tussling.
Burdock had not moved, nor had the stunned Blackavar; it was a small, russet-furred body that had attacked. When the rolling stopped Hombathlay was on top of Holly, half his size and scarred from ear to tail.
"Do you know me, Holly?" the red-furred rabbit said, his bitten cheek making his face hideous and unforgettable, his quiet voice more frightening than Bigwig's loudest bellow. "Do you know that I tore out a ferret's throat to save my life, and drank its blood? Am I a homba, then, if this one is a lendri?"
Holly's eyes were white at the edges. So were Blackavar's. So, too, were Burdock's.
"Leave us alone," Hombathlay said in his frightening quiet voice. "Leave us two alone. Perhaps we two belong together, even if I do not belong with the rest of you." He got off Holly, who tore back to the warren. Hombathlay continued feeding as if nothing had happened.
Burdock and Blackavar stared at the small scarred buck in stunned silence for a time. Then Blackavar turned and looked at Burdock. "I remember now," he said. "You were one of them." His ruined ears hung in tatters on either side of his head. "And you were one of my guards when I was shown to the Marks as a warning before I was to be put to death."
"Yes," Burdock said. And he hopped over to join Hombathlay, his overwhelming anger at Holly mixed with confusion and fear. He'd wanted to fight Hombathlay, and yet Hombathlay had attacked Holly before he could. He didn't want to fight any of the rabbits present, and yet he wanted to fight. If Blackavar cursed him and asked Hazel-rah to drive him out along with Hombathlay, it didn't matter any more. He didn't belong here, he never had.
"I do remember you, Captain Burdock," said Blackavar. "You didn't cuff me or taunt me or scratch my ears when you stood guard -- all you said was 'Tell them why you're here' when someone asked. You let me silflay."
Burdock sat up in disbelief and stared back at Blackavar. There was no anger or hate in the dark-furred buck's voice or face.
"The General and the Council ripped my ears," said Blackavar. "They used your teeth to do it. The Council are dead. The General is gone. Hoi, hoi, u embleer hrair. I am alive." He lolloped away to graze some more.
Burdock sat and stared after the departing buck. Then he shook his ears. It didn't matter. Soon Holly would tell Hazel-rah, and that would be it.
"Is it true?"
Burdock started, and turned to look at Hombathlay, who had just spoken.
"Did you tear that rabbit's ears?" Hombathlay asked. He looked straight at Burdock. His half-bitten face was ugly and lopsided, but both eyes were clear and dark.
"Yes. I was ordered to rip Blackavar's ears, and I did. The way the ferret ripped your ears."
There was a long silence. "Then I am not alone," Hombathlay said. "These rabbits are too stupid and peaceful. They will never understand what the taste of blood does to you. You do."
Burdock stared at the strange savage creature. The darkness inside him was made light; he was fiercely gladdened by this confrontation. "When you attacked Holly and made him retreat," he said, "it was like watching the General drive away a stoat."
"A stoat, a lendri, a homba. Are there no rabbits here at all?"
Burdock's insides convulsed at the joke -- a good rough soldier's joke. "When I am a rabbit," he said lightly, "my name is Burdock."
"And I am Hombathlay. Which means I am always a homba," Hombathlay's voice was cold.
"You came here at Frithle. When you are not Hombathlay, maybe you are Frithle."
Hombathlay's ears flattened at the pun. But there was humor in his eyes at being called "sunshine"; it was the first sign of life the stranger had shown since arriving in Watership. "Would that make me Frith?"
The Owsla who arrived just then to bring them to the Chief stopped, stunned at hearing both grim antisocial outsiders laugh -- the first time either had been heard to do so.
The scrape made for an uneasy bed -- the deeper a rabbit was below ground, the safer he felt -- but it was warm with both their bodies. Hombathlay was tense against Burdock; the outsider was clearly uneasy at the contact, another oddity. There was no guard outside; they were alone.
"Will Hazel-rah display us to all the Marks before exiling us, do you think?" Burdock asked lightly.
"Perhaps I will be eaten by a homba soon," said Hombathlay. "Will that make me even more a homba? Will the Black Rabbit even know who I am? Or will a Black Homba take me by mistake?"
Burdock tamped down a shudder at such cold and lifeless talk. Blackavar was right -- Hombathlay still felt dead. "A rabbit that tears out a throat is still a rabbit," he said firmly. "I know Woundwort is in the Black Rabbit's Owsla now. Maybe he is in charge of the men who kill foxes and ferrets."
"Men don't kill ferrets," Hombathlay said. "Men put ferrets down the holes."
Burdock stared as Hombathlay groomed his one remaining whole ear, seemingly untouched by what he'd just said, adding another piece to the puzzle. "Men with ferrets," he said. "Embleer Frith."
Hombathlay did not react to the horrific impiety either.
Burdock shook back his ears. "We're not eaten yet," he said. "Hazel-rah hasn't even driven us out yet."
"He's called a meeting. Holly hates you and I attacked Holly. You ripped Blackavar's ears."
"And you hit Threar."
"The youngster, your first day here."
Hombathlay hesitated. "The old rabbit, the one who looked exactly like me? The one who told me it was too late?"
Burdock stared at him. "I didn't hear what Threar said -- but he's barely more than a kitten, and his fur isn't your color."
For the first time, Hombathlay looked confused. "I saw an old rabbit with red fur, missing half an ear and a cheek, a paw -- he said he was sorry I'd lost everything because I was too late."
Burdock was silent a while. "There are no other rabbits here like that -- no old ones yet. Bigwig's missing a bit out of one ear, but not nearly as bad as Blackavar's or yours."
"Then it's nothing," Hombathlay said briskly. "A mistake."
"It's nothing, I said. You keep mentioning a 'general.' Who was he? Tell me about the General."
Confused, fearful, wanting to take his mind away from the touch of that other world inhabited by this warren -- one in which white birds and dogs danced when Hazel-rah spoke -- Burdock began to talk about Efrafa. It was comforting, peaceful, to say whatever he wished about Woundwort to a willing listener.
Meanwhile Hazel-rah presided over a meeting in the Honeycomb, the central belowground meeting-place.
"I say we drive Inle-roo away from here," said Bluebell.
"Have any of us acted any better during mating season?" Blackberry asked.
"This isn't mating season, Blackberry," Holly said. "This is a fight waiting to happen, a danger to the kittens." Many murmurs agreed.
"You approached Burdock and goaded him, Holly," Blackavar said. "He wasn't harming me. Maybe Hombathlay was trying to defend Burdock."
"Then never mind what Hombathlay did to me," Holly blustered, uncomfortable with the looks Hazel-rah and a grinning Bigwig were giving him at this new information, and perhaps at the idea of the small ragged stranger defending Burdock from Holly; Burdock was almost Bigwig's size and weight. "That foul little beast hit Threar for no reason, his first day here!"
"He hit me for no reason that we know right now, Hazel-rah," Threar responded where he sat beside Fiver. "I don't even think it was me he hit."
"Who was it, then?" Campion said scornfully. "Did he think you were a ferret?" Some other ex-Efrafans laughed. Fiver blinked.
"Maybe he did. I know he's not alive right now -- really alive, I mean. He saw the Black Rabbit, Hazel-rah."
Hazel-rah -- indeed, every rabbit -- looked at Threar. There wasn't another sound in the Honeycomb.
"You think he saw Inle-rah?" Bigwig's voice was a whisper.
"The way El-ahrairah did. That's why Hombathlay's ear and tail and whiskers are gone -- they were taken the way the Black Rabbit took El- ahrairah's with his terrible games. Now Hombathlay's in a scrape full of blood, and he's choking. There's another rabbit looking into the scrape. That rabbit has to help him get out, Hazel-rah!"
"Who is it, Threar?" Hazel-rah said. "Who has to help him? Is it me? Or Blackavar? Burdock?"
"I can't see him. But I know he's there. He's looking in. He has to help Hombathlay out of that scrape, and then Hombathlay will stop being dead."
"Well, I still wish he'd stop being dead somewhere else," said Dandelion, whose doe Vetch had just littered.
"Campion? Cowslip? Would there be a place for Hombathlay in Efrafa?" Hazel-rah asked the former Efrafan officers.
"Not Efrafa," Campion said. "Groundsel-rah would most likely do what all of you are clamoring for -- drive Hombathlay out as a disruptive influence."
"Don't look at me, Hazel-rah," the Owsla captain growled. "I'm done with fighting for good. I won't fight that little homba."
"If I may, Hazel-rah?"
It was Cowslip who'd spoken -- the small scrappy old Mark Captain from Efrafa, a far cry from the big effete Cowslip the Watership rabbits had encountered on their journey to the down. "The way I see it," the old buck continued, "we have two problems here. Hombathlay and Burdock."
Hazel-rah was surprised. "Burdock? He's quiet and angry all the time, but he hasn't caused any trouble. He's run around this hill as if the Cows were after him, but he hasn't bothered anyone."
"Burdock's just restless, edgy, feeling the spring," Campion said shortly, and glared at Holly. "He wouldn't even be mentioned right now if some of us would let the past stay the past..."
"Begging your pardon, Campion, but you were a kitten when Woundwort first came to Efrafa and Burdock not yet born. I was a full officer." Cowslip's voice was strong with self-confidence despite his age. Hazel-rah was far more respectful of the old buck than Woundwort had ever been. "I would think I know about the past remaining the past. This has nothing to do with it.
"Burdock is not a problem right now, Hazel-rah," Cowslip continued, "but he's been unhappy ever since he came here. He is a good officer and a fierce fighter. Yet here there is nothing for him to do but eat and make hraka and sleep. Now the spring has made him even more restless. If something isn't done, a buck of his size could wreak serious damage in a scuffle -- and with his Owslafa training from birth, Burdock might even kill someone by accident.
"Hombathlay is sullen and silent, except to lash out at anyone who comes near him. Except for Burdock, for some reason. Perhaps those two share that fierceness and need for confrontation."
"I see what you're saying, Cowslip," Hazel-rah said. "Campion, you said you wanted to start up the Wide Patrols again, didn't you? And we need to find a good spot for the new warren between here and Efrafa." Hazel-rah thought fast, as he always did with a new idea. The other rabbits in the Honeycomb picked up the Chief's thoughts.
"It's perfect," Blackberry said.
"Gives both of them something to do," Bigwig added.
"And it gets them away from us," said Holly.
"And if they eat each other, so much the better," Bluebell said in a very low voice.
Threar said nothing, but he did not look worried either.
Cowslip nodded approvingly. "They're both young bucks, full of fight. A Wide Patrol is just what they need. A few days of foraging, digging scrapes and watching out for Enemies will do them good. It's too safe here for the likes of them."
"The copse between us and Efrafa is full of hombas," Dandelion said. "Do you think a Wide Patrol is wise? And for only two?"
"I'd feel sorry for any hombas that came upon those two," the old rabbit said, and none could counter that.
"It's settled, then," Hazel-rah said. "Bigwig, go tell them both to start at moonrise tomorrow."
"You'll be glad to see the backs of us, no doubt," Burdock said to Bigwig. Hombathlay was already at the far edge of the warren, ignoring Hazel-rah as he looked down the slope toward the copse far below. The ground was silver with moonlight.
"You're not wrong," Bigwig said. "I don't think this warren is fierce enough for you two. You're a good sort, Burdock -- you weren't ever a bully the way Vervain and some of the other Mark Captains were. That's why I'm warning you to watch yourself around that little homba. I don't trust him."
"I'm bigger and stronger than he is," Burdock said.
"Woundwort was bigger and stronger than me," Bigwig retorted. "I was bigger and stronger than Fiver -- and because I ignored him, I was nearly killed."
"Fiver? The idiot?"
"Fiver walks in another world now, the one he used to visit now and then. Make no mistake, it was Fiver who saved us the day Woundwort came," Bigwig said seriously. "All I did was keep Woundwort from getting into the burrows until Hazel-rah could act on Fiver's plan." He cuffed his lop-ear, bitten through by the General during his last fight. "My wounds are easy to see. Fiver's are not.
"But I think Hombathlay has both kinds of wounds. He may act in a way that could call danger on you. Keep an eye on him."
"I will," Burdock said. He knew he should feel uneasy at being alone with Hombathlay for the next few days. Instead he felt more at ease than he had since following Cowslip to Watership. He made his way to where Hombathlay sat.
"I am without a warren again," the scarred buck said, looking down the hill.
Burdock cuffed Hombathlay good-naturedly, anticipation of the journey filling him. "Only for a few days, blood-drinker. I've been on Wide Patrols before, I'll show you what to do."
"Are you ready, Lendri?"
"Ready, Frithle," Burdock said, and without another exchanged word the two rabbits tore down the hill at top speed, the spring and the moonlight and their own savage natures adding speed to their descent from safety and peace into the lands below.
Their orders were simple; find a place with the right soil for burrowing, with the right kind of plants for silflay and concealment, with as little scent of Enemies as possible. The location must be somewhere between Watership and Efrafa. Return when such a site had been found, and report back. Try not to get eaten by hombas in the meantime.
Burdock's heart was lighter the farther they traveled from Watership. It felt good to be back on Wide Patrol again. In Efrafa it had always meant freedom and relief from the nonstop press of bodies and smells and sounds of the overcrowded burrows, the one chance to explore beyond the rigid limits of Mark silflay and dunging in a ditch that was everyday life. There were no such restrictions under Hazel-rah, but the same associations were there -- travel and freedom.
Despite his severely maimed body, Hombathlay kept up a good pace. He hobbled from his lamed front paw and was slower than Burdock, but could keep going when Burdock was ready to lie down and easily caught up to him every time. He ate more than he had at the warren, and faster, heedless of the bits that dropped from the maimed side of his mouth. Two days later both bucks had covered nearly half the distance by midmorning.
But Hombathlay took little note of danger signs -- the hraka of foxes, the shadows of hawks, holes that stank of weasels -- and it was Burdock who firmly hustled both of them into cover when he saw or smelled something dangerous. "Little fool!" he snapped after one very close call with an owl the next evening, cuffing Hombathlay's good ear. "Do you want to be the first one in my Mark to die of Enemies?"
"No one died of Enemies in Efrafa?" the red-furred buck asked quietly, not reacting to the cuff or the angry words. Burdock had thought the reappearance of danger would snap the tharn buck out of his stupor, but Hombathlay was still nearly as absent as Fiver. His voice was still the low quiet frightening one.
"None in my Mark," Burdock said proudly. "The General swore that none of the Thousand would get his warren. It wasn't until the new rabbits came that everything changed. A homba got Nuthatch on a Patrol, not far from here. Then the white bird came, and that thing on the iron road that killed a Patrol after Holly, and the thing on the river..." Burdock trailed off, shaking his ears violently. He did not understand Hazel-rah, or the strange things he commanded. "And the dog. The dog that killed so many. It killed Vervain. We were mates. Hoi, hoi, u embleer hrair."
Hombathlay was silent for a long time. "I thought you said Vervain was an Owslafa officer like yourself."
"He was. He was also my mate. And I was his mate."
Hombathlay shook his own damaged ears. "Was this an Efrafa thing, too?"
"Yes. There were so many of us in those burrows, so many. It was crowded all the time. Does weren't having litters, and they were so tharn it wasn't much fun mating them. We didn't need any more kittens, that was sure. So we mounted each other instead of the does, for sport. The does did that too, some of them, instead of reabsorbing their litters. It was like making hraka in a ditch instead of all over -- it was something only Efrafans did. It's what Owslafa did for each other. It helped them rely on each other on the Wide Patrols."
"Did the General mount other bucks?"
"He mated the best does, and if they reabsorbed the litters he'd claw them up. He wanted kittens, lots of them." Burdock looked at his fierce little companion. "In that warren up there, some Efrafans call you Rah-roo -- Little General. They say you're Woundwort's kitten."
"I'm nobody's kitten," Hombathlay said shortly; the quiet cold voice was painful to hear. "I'm a ferret's kitten, or a homba's. Rabbits fall over and die. I kill."
Burdock cuffed Hombathlay hard, angry. A rabbit who stared at death often took others with him. "Rabbits kill rabbits too. Rabbits on Wide Patrols kill rabbits. You're the nastiest, ugliest, meanest rabbit I've ever met, Sunshine -- but you're still a rabbit."
And Burdock liked nasty, ugly, mean Hombathlay more than he'd ever liked any other rabbit in his life. It stunned him, knowing this to be true. He respected old Cowslip; he'd admired the General greatly; he was casually cordial to Bigwig and Silver. But with Hombathlay, it was as if Burdock had looked into a river to drink and found a half-earred cheek-bitten runt looking back at him in the reflection.
Burdock leaned over and groomed Hombathlay roughly, trying to sort through his confusion. Hombathlay flinched back, and Burdock nipped him, continuing his attentions. Hombathlay only quivered when Burdock attended to the tattered half-ear, licking it gently as it twitched beneath his tongue. Something peaceful began to fill up inside Burdock, and it was mixed in with liking Hombathlay and looking at Fiver and watching Blackavar recognize him. The more he tended to his friend's ruined ear, the more peaceful and contented he himself felt.
Hombathlay trembled under Burdock's ministrations, but he did not bolt or fight.
Burdock continued his grooming, really touching the outsider for the first time. He nuzzled the scarred little body, nudging the bitten and maimed parts with a gentleness he had not believed himself capable of feeling. He wanted Hombathlay, wanted him to like him, to trust him. They were on Wide Patrol. It was something Patrollers did. Gently, carefully, Burdock nudged Hombathlay into position, nosed around to the rear of the small buck, and rose over him to mate.
He was tumbled aside at once, and Foxfur lashed out at him.
Fighting. Bucks fought when they mated does, they fought each other. Burdock was Efrafan -- there had been so many other reasons to fight bucks that the urge to tussle each other over does had been squelched.
But Hombathlay was not Efrafan, savage though he was -- he reacted with the instinct of sensing mating pheromones, and the presence of another buck nearby, at the same time. He squealed and lashed out at Burdock the way he had at Threar the first day.
Burdock countered, mating urge overwhelmed by the blood-red joy of fighting again.
Both rabbits tumbled and rolled and squalled in anger as they cuffed and clawed and bit at each other. They were well-matched; Hombathlay's speed and persistence versus Burdock's size and strength.
It was a good, blood-drawing spring scramble, and it shook the cobwebs out of Burdock's somber mood; he'd needed a good fight for a long time. For the first time since Efrafa he fought an opponent in deadly earnest who didn't care if permanent damage or death occurred. "Try and kill me, Ferret! Maybe I can kill a ferret too! Ferrets aren't dangerous!" Burdock shouted, exultant with bloodlust, remembering Woundwort's Enemy-like courage and strength.
Hombathlay tore free and dashed across the meadow, Burdock in hot pursuit. Let the embleer owl try to find them again! Owls aren't dangerous! Burdock squealed in rage.
Hombathlay sat up and stared at Burdock, frozen. Burdock plowed straight into the other buck and both tumbled over again, kicking and biting. Hombathlay squealed and lunged at Burdock's throat with his teeth, and Burdock only deflected him by kicking his belly and leaping free of his grip.
But Hombathlay wouldn't stop squealing. Now he convulsed on the ground, clawing and kicking at the air, teeth snapping open and shut. His squealing got louder. He sounded like a rabbit in a ferret's jaws.
Burdock's recognition of what was happening was swamped by his fear for the noise Hombathlay was making. He lunged at the buck again, snapping back and kicking him, trying to quiet him down before another Enemy found them in the open, making enough noise for a whole warren.
Hombathlay tore back to their scrape, stumbling and squealing all the way, now and again turning to lash out at Burdock again. He fell into the hole rather than running into it and lay, squealing and kicking.
Burdock panted up to the place of safety and stared at the convulsing rabbit, terrified by what he saw. He knew what it was. Hombathlay was re-enacting the ferret attack. Had Burdock triggered the reaction? Had Hombathlay felt attacked?
Suddenly fearful of the noise, Burdock dove down the hole and on top of the convulsing Hombathlay, setting his teeth in the other's fur. He scratched at the other buck to still and silence him as their bodies jerked together in the tiny scrape. Any moment Burdock expected a homba to seize his back feet and haul him out of the hole.
Hombathlay jerked hard, kicked hard once again, and was suddenly still and silent. Burdock smelled blood, a lot of blood.
Frightened, Burdock backed out of the hole and stared at the motionless back feet still sticking out of the scrape. A beetle started to crawl onto Hombathlay's unmoving hind legs, and Burdock angrily knocked it off; the insect scurried away in the other direction. He still smelled the blood -- and for all his brutal ways, he shuddered at the smell.
There was still no movement from the scrape.
"Frithle," Burdock whispered.
There was no sound from the scrape, no movement in the hind feet sticking out of the hole.
Burdock's ears went down and he huddled like a kitten.
Lendri, Holly had snarled at him. One of the Thousand. An Enemy. A rabbit-killer.
"My heart has joined the Thousand, for my friend stopped running today." It was what you said when death came to one close to you.
But what if you were the one who had made your friend stop running?
Burdock had been taken in to the warren, even though Blackavar's blood had been in his mouth. But he could not go back with this blood in his mouth. He would turn wanderer, would go deep into the copse. Perhaps a true homba would take pity on him and stop his pain forever.
A foot twitched.
Burdock leaped as if bee-stung and stared, his heart beating wildly.
Both hind feet twitched and flexed, and disappeared into the scrape.
"Frithle?" Burdock said.
The scarred, ugly little rabbit that backed out of the scrape was the best thing Burdock had ever seen. His half-ear and half-cheek and tail-stump and bitten paw smelled of blood. But there was no blood on Hombathlay. He shook the dirt from his ears. He looked at Burdock.
"Frithle," Burdock said again, quietly. He was afraid.
"Now they are all dead," Hombathlay said. His voice was deep and sad, and was not the frighteningly quiet voice of a dead rabbit. "Hoi, hoi, u embleer hrair." And the buck lowered his head to the grass to feed.
"I saw things other rabbits didn't," Hombathlay said. "From the time I was born, I could see things that would happen."
Burdock thought of Fiver. Maybe, now, he understood how a gift could make an idiot of a rabbit.
"I got cuffed a lot for 'bluebottle-gazing' from my mother and littermates. It got worse when the rest of the warren caught on. I wasn't a runt, but I was small and they enjoyed knocking me around." For the first time Hombathlay sounded angry. "I grew to hate them all for being so blind and for hurting me.
"Then I saw zorn coming. It was the ferrets, but I didn't know it yet. I tried to tell the others and they laughed at me. The Chief Rabbit nearly scratched my eyes out for trying to start a riot. My mother bit me and told me to be quiet. I was too afraid to convince them, or to run away. I almost believed them when they said I was mad.
"Then the ferrets came down the holes, killing everybody. Two of them tore my mother and started to eat her. I ran. I just -- ran. Away down the burrow, away from them. Everywhere was screaming and chattering ferrets and the smell of blood. I got out of the one hole that wasn't guarded by a man. There were men with guns, shooting the rabbits that got out. There was a ferret at the hole I got out. He did all this to me. I kicked him, and I tore out his throat while he still had my ear in his teeth. I tore away from him and ran for the woods. The men shot at me and missed. No one else got out. Zorn. All zorn."
Burdock shivered and kicked, physically re-enacting Hombathlay's ordeal himself. "Everyone thought you'd been raised away from a warren. You acted like you didn't know how to behave around other rabbits or a Chief Rabbit."
"I was raised in a warren," Hombathlay said calmly. "I learned how to treat other rabbits in that warren, and I don't believe in chiefs."
"You still see things?"
"Not since then. I don't want it any more. It doesn't help anyone."
"But..." Burdock thought. "You hit Threar, your first day in the warren. You said you saw an old red-furred rabbit telling you that you were too late."
Hombathlay was silent, feeding fiercely.
"You were treated badly at a warren, but you came to another warren. You despise chiefs, but you obeyed Hazel-rah. Something told you to come to Watership."
"It was a dream, a pain-dream," Hombathlay snapped, bits of chervil falling from his ruined mouth. "All winter I waited to die and I didn't. I ate my own hraka when I couldn't find flay. I ate snow. I ate a dead bird.
"I dreamed. I saw a hill far away, with one tree on it. I was a homba, running to the hill. There was another homba on the hill, and we ran into a rabbit burrow together.
"It was a stupid dream. That old rabbit told the truth -- and that was my last vision, ever. I'm too late. It's dead. It's over!"
Burdock's anger and fear and pain disappeared all at once. Seeing things wasn't all bluebottle-gazing or idiocy. "Your dream was wrong about me, Frithle -- I'm a lendri, not a homba. But I come from a crazy warren where lendris and hombas mate and run down rabbit burrows."
Hombathlay looked up from the ground.
Burdock cuffed the smaller buck in a rough friendly manner. "Who else but another Enemy would put up with you?" He lay down to chew his grass-pellets.
And peace filled Burdock as the smaller body lay down beside him, warm and hard and friendly. Burdock felt the hard nudge of Frithle's nose against his belly fur, and the hard bumping of his head as the smaller buck began to groom Burdock back, returning the favour. When Frithle's head nudged under Burdock's chin, he felt pleasure at the affectionate gesture. "Frithle," he said quietly, nudging behind the scarred ear. "Frithle. Frith-roo." He quelled the urge to mount his companion; he was still skittish, and there would be time on this Patrol, all the time in the world.
They lay together and chewed pellets as they watched the moon rise, the warmth between their bodies welcome in the spring chill. Frithle's nose stroked along one of Burdock's ears. "This place is full of Enemies. It's not good for a warren."
"We'll go farther tomorrow. And the next day. If not -- well, the bravest and roughest rabbits will just have to make a go of it."
"What Enemy will attack a warren guarded by a lendri and a ferret- killer?" Frithle said lightly. "Especially ones who mount each other?"
Burdock laughed. Now he understood why he'd been drawn to the outsider from the beginning. Frithle had just given him the solution to his restlessness and anger. A new warren in a perilous place would need a good tough Owsla, and he and Frithle were the ones to train the bucks. Hazel-rah and Bigwig and the rest would be happy to keep them far from that peaceful warren where they didn't belong.
His urge rose again. "Frithle, do you want me to teach you how to mount another buck?"
In reply Frithle cuffed Burdock in the rough friendly manner of a healthy rabbit, not in his brutal slashing way when he'd been Hombathlay. "Teach me how to mount a Lendri!"
That same night, not an hour later, Threar entered Fiver's burrow, nudging his sire under the chin to rouse his attention. "It's all right, Hrairoo," he said, accustomed to referring to his own father in the diminutive. "That new buck is all right now."
"Hombathlay," Fiver said after a short pause. "Yes. Burdock's helped him climb out of the scrape. I see it."
-- THE END --
Originally published in Second Variation on the Theme of B and D, Keynote Press, 1999.
(All terms are taken from Richard Adams' novel Watership Down)
Efrafa -- A warren rigidly ruled and controlled by General Woundwort
El-ahrairah (elil-hrair-rah) -- "Prince with the Thousand Enemies." El-ahrairah is the folk hero of rabbits; like most rabbit heroes he is a trickster who outwits his enemies rather than outfighting them. Several chapters in *Watership Down* are El-ahrairah tales.
Embleer -- Stinking, the smell of a fox. A swear word.
Flay -- Food, usually grass and wild plants
Frith -- The sun; the deity of rabbits. Burdock calls Hombathlay Frithle -- "sunrise" or "sunshine" -- as a pun on the sound of his name, a joke about his foul temperament, and perhaps even because Hombathlay first came to Watership at sunrise. Frithrah! (Lord Frith!) can be said either in pleasure or in anger.
Hoi, hoi, u embleer hrair -- "Hoi, hoi, the stinking Thousand" -- an expression of resignation or weary anger said after an attack by one of the Enemies; it is very similar to phrases like "It can't be helped" or "Such is the will of God."
Hrair -- A lot (more than four); a thousand; u hrair, "the Thousand," is the term for all rabbit enemies
Hraka -- Droppings; rabbit excrement
Homba -- A fox
Inle -- The moon; moonrise; darkness; death as personified by Inle-rah, the Black Rabbit of Inle.
Lendri -- A badger
Owsla -- A group of elite rabbits in a warren whose special duties include protection of the warren, finding food, or even storytelling; the Owslafa, or Efrafan Owsla, was as different from a regular warren Owsla as the Gestapo was different from the National Guard
tive to mark something extraordinary, such as flayrah
Roo -- A suffix denoting smallness. Fiver's name in Lapine is Hrairoo ("hrair-roo"), "Little Thousand," or the little one of a lot; Fiver was the runt of the litter. Bluebell called Hombathlay Inle-roo ("little Black Rabbit"); some former Efrafans called Hombathlay Rah-roo (Little Chief) because he reminded them of General Woundwort
Scrape -- A hastily-dug tunnel, not a true rabbit burrow; most often dug by bucks on their travels, as one-night bivouacs
Silf -- Outside
Silflay -- To go outside and graze; a verb. Also a noun, for the act of eating outside or the time for doing so.
Stop running -- The lapine euphemism for death; when rabbits say "He stopped running," they mean "He died."
Tharn -- The daze or stupor a rabbit goes into when faced with terror or death.
Thlay -- Fur. Thlayli ("fur-head") was a buck with a large tuft of hair between his ears; he was most often called Bigwig. Bigwig's doe's name was Hyzenthlay ("shine-dew-fur"), whose name translates to "fur shining like the dew." Hombathlay ("fox-fur") had a russet-brown coat like a fox's pelt.
Thousand, The -- See hrair
Threar -- Rowan tree.
Zorn -- Disaster; catastrophe; utter destruction