Watership Down - Blueberry's Tale, Book 2, Chapter 24

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4 of Watership Down - Blueberry's Tale, Book 2


Chapter 24 - Living under the Shadow of the Black Rabbit

Halgrass found himself moving out of a hole within the copse, the whole clearing was surrounded by rabbits that lined up in a circle. There was a fallen tree trunk lying on the ground where he could see Darkclaw-Rah sitting there with Captain Ebony.

Captain Shadow smiled as he ran off ahead to join Darkclaw-Rah, sitting down on the trunk of the tree beside the Chief who was in the middle of the two Captains. Halgrass was pushed into the circle where the officers that brought him, closed off the route back out.

Halgrass moved about in the circle, looking about as he saw other rabbits staring back at him as he then saw an opening forming up on the other side where he began to walk towards it but stopped. Slowly a thin looking buck was being led into the clearing with a guard beside him.

Seeing the other buck sit down in the clearing, Halgrass did the same as both of them looked at each other before Darkclaw-Rah began to speak. "My brave owsla, you have all worked hard to be allowed to see this fight tonight, may you all enjoy yourselves."

Halgrass looked about as he heard the rabbits surrounding the area cheer as they all called at once. "Hooray for Darkclaw-Rah! Leader of the Shadows!" Moving his head back, Halgrass noticed that the other buck hadn't moved at all, still looking at the newcomer with determined eyes.

Darkclaw-Rah continued to speak. "As you can see. We have one who has lived here, won many battles but his work has fallen as of late. And we have the newcomer, the one that our own Captain Shadow was so easily able to fool the night before. Let's see if this newcomer is able to fight after working hard all day." Again another cheer rang up in the air as the rabbits nodded their heads at their Chief while some began to take sides on who would win the fight.

"This fight is to the death, please be aware that if you do not kill the other." Blackclaw-Rah said as he looked at Halgrass with a smile. "I will choose to throw you or one of your friends to be injured and left for one of the elil to take them away." There was a laugh rising up from around the circle as Halgrass felt his blood boiling, glaring back at Darkclaw-Rah but knew he be cut down before he even got near him. "So let the fight begin!" Darkclaw-Rah shouted to the approval to all.

Halgrass walked slowly forwards, making for the centre of the clearing, the overhead branches casting shadows from the moon-lit sky and stars shining down. Eventually he was only a few paces away from where the other buck had come to a stop and Halgrass blinked as he heard the other buck talk. "So, what's your name?" The other buck slowly moved about, which Halgrass followed every move slowly. "Halgrass, and you are?" He said under the cries of the other rabbits watching the fight.

"My name is Bluebottle, I hope you don't hold back just because I don't look as fit or as healthy as you." Bluebottle said as he lashed out quickly, barely missing Halgrass's eyes with his claws.

Halgrass had jumped back as he felt the wind brush past his face from the swipe and growled. "The thought never crossed my mind." Halgrass said as he lurched forwards, hitting Bluebottle hard on the side of the head and watched as the buck fell sideways before scrambling away.

Darkclaw-Rah smiled as he watched the fight unfold in front of him as he spoke. "So, who do you think will win? The newcomer or our current champion?" Darkclaw-Rah smiled as he saw Bluebottle swipe a paw across Halgrass's shoulder, cutting it.

Captain Ebony replied. "I think the newcomer will succeed, he has a lot of fire in his eyes." Captain Shadow nodded his head. "I agree, he could be dangerous, kept a close eye on..." Darkclaw-Rah nodded his head as he replied back. "Make it so then, I want to know more about these three. Here's what I want you to do..."

While the three talked to each other on the log, Halgrass had barely managed to get away from Bluebottle again, his shoulder was stinging as he was near to several rabbits now on the edge of the circle. A few of them cried out in joy as Bluebottle managed to get another hit on Halgrass's face to the dismay of Halgrass's supporters.

Falling back against one rabbit he heard the buck growl. "Come on, I have double shift on you, get back in there and fight, dammit!" Pushing Halgrass back towards Bluebottle who was waiting and head butted him, sending Halgrass flying backwards onto his back in front of a few large officers.

Bluebottle charged forward as he leapt into the air, ready to land right on top of Halgrass who was lying there, panting for breath. Halgrass though, was a experienced owsla officer and saw the danger coming towards him as he instinctively lifted up his rear legs, pulled them close to his body and as Bluebottle landed on him, Halgrass felt the air rush from his body but he kicked out hard and sent Bluebottle flying backwards, before landing on the ground with a sickening thud.

Halgrass slowly pulled himself up while feeling pain throughout his whole body and looked to where Bluebottle had landed awkwardly on his side. Taking deep breaths, he stood there and watched as Bluebottle tried to get up and move but he cried out in pain as he felt his right forepaw unable to hold any weight. Carefully he got up and stood on three paws as he looked at Halgrass who didn't do anything but stood there.

After a few moments, Bluebottle started to move again carefully as Darkclaw-Rah was about to shout out that they should continue to fight. Halgrass moved away leading Bluebottle again to the centre of the clear area while keeping an eye on the buck, noting the weakness that Bluebottle was frowning at as he hobbled carefully forwards.

"Well, what's the matter?" Bluebottle said with a slight hiss of annoyance in his voice. He hopped right up to Halgrass and whispered. "Don't I deserve an honourable owsla death then? Come on, don't back off now all because I am injured." To make the point clearer, Bluebottle suddenly bit onto Halgrass's ear and pulled, ripping it a bit as Halgrass pushed Bluebottle off and smacked the side of his head again with his claws, slashing the face to the cries of enjoyment from the watches.

Halgrass suddenly latched onto Bluebottle as he pushed the other buck back a few paces. "So, you're owsla then, lived here...?" Halgrass gruntled as he felt Bluebottle push back with a growl. "Caught, only one left from my lot, we had to move because man was building things too close to our warren."

Panting heavily, Halgrass shook his head as he looked at Bluebottle. "How long have you been here?" He ducked a swipe from Bluebottle and hopped to the side before ramming the other buck over onto this side with his head. Gasping, Bluebottle turned over as Halgrass came at him locking his front and back paws against Halgrass, trying to push the heavier buck away. "Seasons, too long... So tired..." The back legs dug into the underside of Halgrass who cried out and jumped back out of the way.

Bluebottle got up and growled at Halgrass. "Well, I like to talk and all but I rather get this out of the way. You either kill me or I am going to kill you, even if I end up failing my workload tomorrow...." Lurching forwards, Bluebottle bared his teeth as he hopped into the air at Halgrass, who moved to the side quickly turning his body around and with Bluebottle landing where he was just a instant before, Halgrass's back powerful legs slammed into the side of Bluebottle's head with a audioable crack.

Bluebottle landed onto the ground awkwardly and didn't move. Halgrass stood there, facing away from him as he looked directly at Darkclaw-Rah who smiled, nodding his head. "Make sure he's dead, rip his throat out." Halgrass didn't move as Darkclaw-Rah hopped down from the tree trunk and shouted. "If you don't do what I say, I order your friends to be killed immediately!"

Halgrass growled as he moved over to where Bluebottle was and stared at the dead form. Not wasting any time he bent down and pulled up again with blood dripping from his chin as he stared defiantly back at Darkclaw-Rah. "You happy now?" Sarcasm in his voice.

Nodding his head, Darkclaw-Rah nodded. "Very, looks like you've taken the top spot in the fights. You fight again tomorrow, more you win, the more your friends won't have to." Already unknown to Halgrass, several rabbits had moved into the clearing and came up alongside him as they started to push Halgrass away to get back into the warren.

***

The burrow that Bracken and Birch were sent to was just big enough for two rabbits but they had crowded in as best as they could. However, some time later, they were approached by another thin looking buck by the name of Straw. The guard that brought him smiled as he pushed Straw into their burrow with a grin. "Halgrass will be here later if he has survived, so try and make yourselves comfortable, won't you?"

Leaving the three rabbits alone, Straw shivered as he looked at the other two and spoke gently. "You're new aren't you?" He saw Bracken nod his head. "You could say that, we only arrived last night I think." He gave a pause and carried on. "So how long have you been here, er..?"

"Straw and I've been here for a while as you can tell by the way that I look..." He pressed his body against the wall of the burrow and carried on. "Well, from the way I look, we don't get that well fed here. We're not that important, you see."

Bracken frowned as he nodded his head with a gruff voice. "So I've gathered." Pausing he relaxed again and spoke. "My name's Bracken and this is my friend Birch and I think we may have Halgrass come back if he's coming back that is..."

Straw nodded his head. "I heard, I saw Bluebottle being taken away before I was told to leave his burrow. I hop.." He stopped and looked away. "Sorry, he's a friend of mine and well, he's been winning a lot lately but I don't think I want to see your friend killed either." Looking back at them. "This place will do that to you. By the time you realise it's grown on you and you have to fight to survive. Do not show any sign of weakness as the guards will play on that."

Birch didn't reply as Straw looked at him. "I see that you already gave them something, well just be careful, okay. Best to be on your guard and all." Birch just nodded his head as he looked to where Bracken was and he nodded as well, leaning to where Birch is and whispered. "Don't worry, me and Halgrass will take care of you but you got to pull yourself together, you're an owsla officer, remember. Me and Halgrass are depending on your help as well."

Pulling away, Bracken twisted his ears as he heard some movement outside of the burrow as Birch felt more confident about himself, thinking on making things better and becoming what he had worked so hard for when he was young. Bracken-Rah sniffed the air and he could tell the scent of his friend as well as blood. Turning his head, he looked to where Straw was and saw the buck wasn't looking that happy at all as Halgrass's head came into view.

"Halgrass!" Birch said excitedly, seeing his friend come back from the fight. One of the guards growled. "Quiet you..." Halgrass slowly moved into the burrow as the other three slowly made room for him as he laid down on the floor and sighed. Birch was about to say something else but Bracken shook his head and spoke quietly. "Later, let him rest first."

***

Eventually, Halgrass was ready to talk and he gave the bad news about what had happened to Bluebottle to Straw, who nodded and turned around to face the burrow wall and did not speak again for the time being as the others talked. Bracken shook his head as he looked at Halgrass. "This can't go on, we shouldn't be killing each other the way that they want us to. Who said that another rabbit would take control of another in such a way."

Birch spoke then. "Oh I don't know, think of the way that our owsla treated non-owsla rabbits in our old warren, it's basically the same but this place just takes it to a whole new level."

Bracken nodded his head. "Well, remind me whenever we get out of this place, if we ever do." He paused with a frown. "Not to get anyone to ever treat a non-owsla rabbit again in such a manner. We should all be equals."

Halgrass nodded his head as he looked at Birch and Bracken. "I agree, what I did today has made me ill, even for my rank." He felt his claws digging into the soil floor of the burrow as he frowned. "They see me now as a champion, I knew that my training would be used sometimes to fight another rabbit if it was to protect the warren or my Chief, but not in such a disgraceful, un-honourable way so that other rabbits would enjoy two ripping each other apart. I feel ashamed on what I did tonight."

Straw spoke again, breaking his silence. "You did what you had to do. Bluebottle died fighting on his feet, he didn't allow them to injure him so that they would leave him out to be killed by elil in such a disregard of honour." Straw turned to face the others and looked at them sullenly. "I miss my friend but you allowed him to go the way any owsla rabbit would've wanted to go and that's go down fighting." The buck slowly gave a small smile. "And from I can see, he gave as much as he got no doubt." Straw said, moving his head to lick at one of Halgrass's cut ear gently.

Halgrass felt a bit better on those words and decided to work hard and fight hard in the memory of Bluebottle. Slowly the group fell to the charms of sleep as the last one to succumb to sleep was Straw who stopped cleaning Halgrass's cuts and looked out of the burrow to see green eyes looking at him. Swallowing he nodded as he saw them disappear but he sighed softly, falling asleep himself.

The next day, Halgrass was woken up with the rest of them as the guards started to move rabbits to other parts of the warren to fix on repairing certain areas or to do what some owsla wanted them to do. Birch, Bracken, Halgrass and Straw were sent back to where they were working the day before and were just being sorted out in what work they were doing when Captain Ebony turned up and looked at Inlo. "I need Halgrass." Looking at the rabbit who had blinked, turning around to face the two. Inlo nodded his head as Halgrass moved away from the others as he followed Captain Ebony.

"Darkclaw-Rah would like to have a word with you." Captain Ebony said. "I think you impressed him the night before. Not many newcomers do that, but don't let it get to your head." The last part was spoken as a warning and Halgrass nodded his head, still wondering on what exactly Darkclaw-Rah wanted him for.

***

Bracken looked at Straw and muttered. "What was that about?" He turned to see Birch already heading into the burrow that he was working on the day before and the sound of scratching was made again from within. Straw shrugged as he hopped down the run until it ended and began to work again slowly. "Looks like your friend has impressed someone with the fight last night. Not many newcomers win you know, I've seen larger rabbits fall who underestimated us." Pulling a small stone from the wall he watched it fall to the ground and hopped back out of the way. "Some really shouldn't underestimate us in here, we do anything to survive, it's all we got left in what we can try and control."

Nodding his head, Bracken sighed as he helped Straw to move a stone to the end of the run slowly, pushing it as it rolled about. "Well, I don't think we're going to roll over and die just because we're new." He ended the conversation as he looked at Inlo as another two rabbits came down the run outside and took the stone moving it down the run as the two of them, moved back the way they came.

Halgrass looked at Straw. "So what's really with all this building?" Straw smiled as they reached back to the soiled wall and answered. "It's quite simple, they're building an army for someone, though the officers won't actually say why. That and the does are nearly ready for another batch again. These will be for their new officers no doubt for training purposes." He stopped in his digging and looked at Bracken. "Speaking of which, you have to make sure that Birch is okay. There's nothing worse than being picked on to be bullied by training owsla officers who can do whatever they want to train. A few have been killed when they couldn't fight back."

"Are you kidding me?!" Bracken said incredulously, looking at Straw now. "They actually do that. You're not allowed to fight back at all?" Straw shook his head. "Nope, you can defend yourself but you have to make sure that you don't harm them at all. Just one complaint from them will end up in you being harmed yourself and left for the elil. There's also worse though but I won't mention it."

Bracken stared at Straw for a moment and as Straw sighed, leant over to whisper something into his ear which made Bracken's ears lose all colour in his ears. After a short time he swallowed and nodded his head. "I have a word with Birch about it later."

***

Elsewhere in the warren, Halgrass was walking through the warren once again with Captain Ebony who stopped and turned around to go up the same run that Halgrass had gone up the night before. "Darkclaw-Rah is up outside, he wants to share silflay with you." Halgrass blinked as he shrugged, following the rabbit up above while two more walked behind him.

It had been over a day since Halgrass had seen Frith and as he moved out into the open, he had to close his eyes for a few moments to let them adjust to the light. Blinking, he could see Darkclaw-Rah sitting there in the clearing, munching on some grass as he beckoned them towards him.

Halgrass hopped forwards being flanked by the two rabbits and sat down a few paces from Darkclaw-Rah. "So, you did well last night, Halgrass." The chief said as he watched Captain Ebony move to his side. "Very impressive indeed. Please, eat something, you need to keep your strength up for tonight. A lot are putting their support on you now so best to keep their asset as healthy as can be."

Halgrass gave a frown but he leant down and started to nibble on the grass before chewing softly. "What of my friends?" He said with a flight gruff'ness in his throat. Captain Ebony was about to reprimand Halgrass, but Darkclaw-Rah stopped him with a look. "Your friends will not be harmed as long as you keep on winning, though I hope you show a bit more ruthlessness in your next fight. Talking to your opponent is not the best way to go about things, no indeed."

Halgrass looked surprised but Darkclaw-Rah carried on. "Oh please, Captain Shadow can tell when there's a conversation going on within a fight. So keep on winning and you may end up going places in this warren. Don't and well, some things will happen to your friends before they are caught, especially Birch. We've already decided that he will face the same fate he was so terrified the day he arrived."

The image of Birch that day, flashed into Halgrass's mind as he relented in his frown and nodded his head at Darkclaw-Rah. "Fine, I do whatever you say." Darkclaw-Rah smiled as he spoke. "Good, now eat and rest, you need all your strength for tonight. You're to leave your friends as well." He turned his head to face Captain Ebony. "After he has finished eating, take him down to Bluebottle's burrow. Our champion has to sleep in the champion burrow." Halgrass sat down in the grass as Darkclaw-Rah smiled. "You get one rest day when I decide. Tomorrow you be back at work, until I can think of what else you can do for me." Getting up, Darkclaw-Rah started to leave as Captain Ebony looked at Halgrass. "Well, done. It looks like your our Chief's new favourite. Halgrass on the other hand didn't know if that was such a good thing after all.