Chapter 31 - The Farmland
The journey through the small wood was non eventful as Bracken, Birch and Straw came out on the other side to the relief of hearing water running in the distance. Looking at each other, all of them smiled as they moved onwards. "I knew we find it eventually." Bracken said as they ran over the grass field which seemed to be more natural in look than the other fields they were in before.
Slowly they came to a stop as they looked out at the bank, slowly moving dowards towards then edge and where the river stood. Birch smiled as he looked at it and went running forward as Bracken and Straw came up behind him. All three came to a stop at the edge of the river and stared at a boat on their side, trapped in the bank on the opposite side as Bracken pondered for a moment and looked back to the way that they had come.
After a moment in thought, Bracken shrugged the idea out of his head and then looked at the other two. What Bracken didn't know was that they were on the same side of the river that his warren used to be but they were further down the river, that was all. Neither Bracken or Birch would ever find out this startling fact. "Okay, new plan, we're crossing this river. I don't want to be near a farm again for a while. And besides it may get whoever is following us to lose us if they get swept away like last time when we tried this."
Birch came to the edge of the bank and looked at the water. "It's moving slowly here, than what we tried back when.. You know, we could cross here." Bracken came up and looked at the river with a nod of his head. "Yes, this will do." Bracken turned his head to where Birch was and smiled. "Didn't think I be swimming again so soon, did you?"
Placing a paw into the water, Birch slowly slipped his body in as he gave a shiver. "It's cold..." He began to swim off as Bracken turned his head to where Straw is and looked at him. "You okay?"
Straw walked over to the edge of the bank and looked in the water before moving his head back towards Bracken again. "I haven't swam before." He slowly looked back at the water and gave a slight shiver as he moved his head up to see that Birch had reached the middle of the river, his head bobbing up and down before turning to face Bracken again. "It is safe, isn't it?"
Bracken looked to where the water is and nodded his head. "It's okay, Straw. You just get in and then kick out with your back legs to swim across. Use your front paws as well as though you are walking." Moving to where the edge of the bank is, Bracken turned his head around and nodded. "Just watch how I do it and follow me, okay?"
Straw nodded as he watched Bracken jump into the water as he swam over to where Birch was just getting out of the river, pulling himself up by his paws. Straw hopped about up and down the bank as he looked at the water and sat back down again.
Birch watched as Bracken came up onto the bank, panting. "Has Straw started over yet?" Bracken asked as he clambered up and then gave himself a shake, sending water droplets all over the place.
Shaking his head, Birch replied back. "No, he's walking up and down the bank. What's the matter with him?" Bracken turned around and sighed. "I don't think he's swam before. Why didn't he say, we could've found a bridge or something?"
Birch slowly made his way over to where the bank was again and called over. "Come on Straw, it's easy. You want to be caught again?" Seeing Straw shake his head, the buck made his way over to the edge of the bank and then placed a paw into the water before lifting it out again.
"Oh for Frith's..." Bracken said as he came over to the edge and called over. "Straw, get into that water right now, that's an order!" Birch looked at Bracken, shaking his head. "I don't think you're going to do it by shouting at him. Let me go back over and talk to him."
Bracken looked at Birch before taking a look at where Straw was with a thoughtful look. "Okay, but I don't know if you be able to help him though." Birch shrugged as he made his way back over to the river bank edge and was about to get back into it again as he stopped and looked at some bubbles in the water. "Hello, what's this?"
Suddenly Bracken and Birch jumped back as a small round brown furred head popped out of the water as it looked at the two rabbits. Bracken lowered his front as he growled before stopping as he saw the creature just laughed in a high pitched tone. "Well, I never, never saw long ears swim across a river before in all my life. Bless my long rudder and all, what you doing swimming across river, longears?"
Bracken backed away slowly from the edge of the river as he gave a brief look to where Straw was doing the same on the other side of the river as he muttered to Birch. "What is it?" Birch swallowed and spoke back to the creature in hedge speak. "We longears, need cross river escape from evil longears after us. Friend not want swim. You help?" Bracken blinked and turned his head to where Birch was. "Are you kidding me? What if he eats us like a stoat." Looking back at the head. "It does look like a stoat..."
Another loud laugh came from the head in the water as the otter ducked his head into the water before reappearing again. "Oh you longears are funny as always, no I don't eat rabbit. My cousins do though." Slowly with some alarm with Bracken and Birch the otter climbed out of the water and shook himself. "I only eat fish, so don't worry. Not that partial to fur to be honest." Lifting his head up he stared at the other side as he looked at Straw. "What's wrong with him? Scared?"
Bracken muttered. "He's not the only one." Birch coughed and looked at the otter. "Hang on, you can speak our language?" Bracken and Birch were staring at the otter who nodded his head. "Aye, used to be a warren near the river far from here but it was where I grew up at." He sniffed the air as his head kept on moving about which Bracken was keeping a close eye on. "Made some friends with a few young rabbits, taught me the language. Actually, they saved me once from a hunt, man was after me which I suppose I owe my life to all good rabbits. I won't harm you, got my honour." The otter looked proud as he looked at Birch. "So you want to go back over and talk to Straw, I can help if you want."
Bracken looked at the otter as he replied back. "Could we just have a moment?" He saw the otter nod as he hopped away, beckoning Birch with him as he stopped and whispered. "What on Frith are you doing? You're scared of stoats but you're talking to this thing as though it was a friend all your life."
Birch turned his head to look at the otter and moved his head back again. "It hasn't really harmed us and it could've got any one of us since we were near the water edge. Please, just trust me on this one, if he can help to get Straw to swim over the better. We don't know how far back the other two are."
Bracken didn't reply at once but he slowly nodded his head. "Okay, but I still don't trust him." Hopping back to where the otter is, Bracken spoke with a flat tone. "Just what are you anyways?"
The otter bowed his head as he replied back. "Tarka which in my language means otter, though we all respect the great Tarka who tricked man, made a fool of him and his dogs. It's a very big and important story." The otter paused as he looked back to where he couldn't see Straw anymore. "However, that's for another time. I think one of you should get back over there and find your friend."
Birch looked and groaned as he ran over to the edge of the bank and jumped into the river. The otter was about to follow but was blocked by Bracken. "If you so much as harm a hair on either of their bodies.." The otter nodded. "I understand but you have nothing to worry, truly." Without saying another word, the otter ran over to the water and jumped in without making a splash.
Birch kicked out in the water as he saw the otter pop his head out just beside him. "For a longear you swim quite well." Without saying another word, the otter had vanished under the water again as Birch continued to kick out.
Reaching the other side, he pulled himself out and looked about. "Straw, where are you?" Birch hopped about as he sniffed the ground and headed back up the slope until he saw where Straw was hiding. Moving into the long grass, Birch nuzzled Straw gently. "Straw, what's wrong?"
"You're... You're still alive. I would've thought he ate you or someth.. Hey, where's Bracken. Oh no, he got killed didn't he?" Straw gave a shudder as Birch shook his head. "Actually if you look outside of the bush you may be able to see him stewing over on the other side of the river."
Birch watched as Straw got up and slowly moved to where he could see properly and saw Bracken sitting on the other side of the river looking rather cross. Turning his head back to where Birch was now standing next to him. "He doesn't look happy, does he?"
"That would be because of me." The otter said as he lay there on the grass a few feet away from the two rabbits. "I don't think he trusts me, eh." The otter looked up at Birch, who nodded his head. "Birch." Straw who was in shock simply replied back as well. "Straw."
Bobbing his head, the otter churred softly. "Well, like I was saying I don't think your friend likes me Birch, then again I ain't surprised." The otter went to licking one of his webbed paws as he spoke. "I mean, I am one of the elil."
Straw nearly bolted but Birch stopped him as he looked at the otter. "You are? And you don't eat us, isn't that a bit weird?" Straw gulped as he muttered. "This isn't the time to question an elil about eating us, Birch..."
"I told you, I was saved by a rabbit once and I won't harm another as long as I live, besides I can get on with others, though I mainly eat fish and eel now." Looking at Straw the otter chrr'ed softly. "You're quite safe, so tell me Straw, why won't you swim?"
Straw looked uneasy but Birch nodded his head. "Trust me..." He said softly as he looked around, leaving Straw to talk to where the otter is. Straw replied back. "I haven't done it before and it looks scary. It's okay for you, I've seen how easy it looks and all."
"You think that, wouldn't you?" The otter replied back. "Listen, I will let you in on something. When I was little at a time when my mother wanted to know me, I didn't know how to swim at all. I was as scared as you when I came to the water for the first time." He looked down towards the river as he bobbed his head slightly.
"Hang on, what you mean your mother wanted to know you, doesn't she want to now?" Straw said as he looked at the otter. "What's your name anyways?" The otter thought for a moment and replied back. "I think my name is.." The otter paused for a moment and shook his head. "I don't have a name." He looked to where Straw was and grinned. "Why don't you name me?"
"Name you? Er..." Straw blinked on that and thought for a moment. "How about er, Watercress?" Straw pondered in his mind while thinking on other names but the otter smiled. "Watercress, I like it, okay I shall use that from now on."
Straw blinked. "Didn't the other rabbit give you a name?" Watercress shook his head. "No, I had to go and so did he as we heard the hunt getting closer again but that's another story for another time."
Birch came running back as he panted. "Yes and we have to move, I went back across the field and I have seen Captain shadow coming with two other rabbits up the farm road we were at this morning."
Watercress nodded and got up before pushing Straw with his head. "Right, I like you lot and if you say you're being chased by some other longears that want to do Watercress friends harm then I won't allow it. Come on, time for you to swim, friend."
Birch moved forwards behind Straw as he struggled, still scared to go into the water as the otter had him firmly in his teeth. Pulling on Straw's scruff Watercress slipped into the water with Straw as Birch looked into the water and then up at where Bracken was looking horrified.
With a splash, Straw came back up to the top, the rabbit kicking out as he spluttered a bit while Watercress came up a bit away from where the rabbit was and churred. "See, nothing to it, come on, swim this way." Turning around Watercress moved towards where Bracken was.
Birch watched as Straw followed Watercress across the river and jumped in himself as he swam across. Finally all three rabbits were on the other side as Watercresss looked at them from within the water. "Farewell, friends. Come see me again sometime and Straw." Watercress turned his head to look at the rabbit. "For a beginner, you swim very well." The otter turned around as Bracken hopped forward and coughed. "Er, Watercress... I'm sorry for doubting you."
Watercress turned his head back with a toothy grin. "Bracken, don't stop doing what you have been doing, not all of my kind will be friendly, in fact I don't think you get another otter to talk to you, they will kill you like any other elil. Now go, I shall keep these from crossing the river as best I can. Try and use the time to get as far away as possible."
Bracken nodded his head as he turned around to head off. Birch and Straw looked at the otter and nodded their heads. "We come and see you again, I promise." Birch said along with Straw as they turned around and followed Bracken up the bank and disappeared into a bush.
Captain Shadow continued to watch as Snowberry sniffed out the route as they moved along the dirt road before he muttered. "I thought they weren't heading towards the farmhouse." Tallow looked about and ducked his head as a bird flew out from the grass on the side of the road. "I don't think they know where they are going sir."
Snowberry stopped and stood up on his hind legs as he heard a dog bark up ahead. "Well, wherever they are we should get into that field." Snowberry turned and faced the fence as he sniffed it but pulled his head back. "Something isn't right about it, I wouldn't touch it at all."
Captain Shadow looked at the wires and shuddered. "I agree, no touching the fence." Captain Shadow didn't like the look of it, it looked like a snare to him as he slowly ducked under and crawled under it as the other two followed suit. Moving into the field where the sheep were grazing, they slowly continued to move through, following the scent left behind by their prey.
After moving back and forth, Tallow avoiding an angry sheep that tried to headbutt him away from a particular part of the field that it was grazing in, they finally made it unscathed to the other side of the field. Being as careful as they were on the last fence, they crawled under it and left the unruly sheep behind with Captain Shadow's blessings.
"I've never known such stupid tharn animals as sheep." Captain Shadow muttered under his breath as he and the others looked about with what they're surroundings now brought. Tallow nodded his head. "They're greedy as well, we weren't after their stupid grass." He turned his head back and shouted at the sheep. "We weren't interested in your grass. At least when we eat it, we don't kill it off completely, stupid sheep." Moving his head back again he hopped to where Snowberry was sniffing.
Captain Shadow could smell what Snowberry's nose was twitching. Hopping forwards, they carefully made their way down to the water and stopped as a head popped out, growling. "Oh, more longears, this really must be my lucky day." Watercress churred as he slowly crawled out of the water.
All three lowered this bodies as Captain Shadow looked at the otter. "What do you mean, more longears?" He felt himself backing away slightly but looked to either side of him and became that much bolder, lifting up his head. "Come on, speak now!"
Watercress growled as he showed his sharp teeth. "You're not nice at all are you? Not like the other rabbits that passed through here, they thought that I would help them cross the river." The otter flipped over as it played with his tail before turning his head to the other two. "Think their names were Bracken, Birch and Straw."
Snowberry snorted. "How come you can speak perfect lapine then?" He jumped back as the otter flipped himself back onto his paws quickly with a growl. "Best to know your prey so you can catch them, longears. Want to try me?"
Backing away, Snowberry didn't reply as Tallow hopped forward. "I will, you can tell us what happened to them now." Tallow growled back at the otter as he jumped back as Watercress took a bite where Tallow's nose used to be. "My, you're pretty brave for a stupid longears. Who says I am alone?"
Watercress grinned as he saw all of them look about quickly to make sure that they weren't surrounded and answered with a cold harsh voice, the male otter moving back to his old lonely mood that he had learnt to be mean and tough over the seasons. "Listen to me, Longears." Watercress started walking towards them. "Your friends are dead, they tried to cross my river so I killed them. They lie at the bottom ready for me and my family to eat later on. If you don't run away I shall kill you now and let you lie where they are." The otter turned to where Snowberry is. "You, go check where they're tracks are. You should see them end at the bank."
Moving away in a wide arc, Snowberry moved to the edge of the river bank and after sniffed for a moment before running back with a nod. "He's telling the truth." Captain Shadow looked at the otter for a moment and nodded his head. "Fine, we wanted them killed anyways." Backing away, he and the other two kept their eyes on the otter as they made their way to a bush and vanished from view.
Captain Shadow looked out of the bush and muttered. "He's still there, so what do we do?" He turned to the other two who shook their heads. "Well, they're gone aren't they? I've heard about otters before from another rabbit, they're very fast in the water, we wouldn't stand a chance in the water. They're just as good on land in killing something, we be up against a stoat or ferret. We're lucky that he's killed and not interested in us, we should head back." Snowberry replied.
Tallow growled. "As much as I hate to agree with Snowberry, sir. I like to find them myself and beat them up but if they have been killed then our mission is over. Our warren won't be known and well." He paused as he looked at Captain Shadow. "Sooner we get home, the sooner we can make Inlo's life a misery for wasting our time and I want to get him back for Dropwort being killed on his mistake."
Captain Shadow didn't reply for a while but slowly he nodded his head. "Okay, let's head back home, there's nothing for us to do now." Hopping out of the bush again he looked at the otter for one more time as he nodded to the other two as they made their way towards the fence and back to where the sheep where. Watercress watched them head off as he walked over to where the fence is and stared as he saw the rabbits move through the field.
Watercress stayed there all through the day and didn't see the rabbits again, once Frith was starting to go back down again, Watercress turned around and slinked back towards the water as he sniffed the evening air before churring at the water. "Hello, fishies... Guess who's back?" With a graceful movement, the otter slipped back into the river without making a sound.
It was early evening when Bracken, Birch and Straw found a safe place to stop for the night, far from the river now as all three of them were exhausted from their day's journey. Slipping into the bush, Birch yawned softly. "Well, that was a day that was. Who would've thought we make a friend with a elil creature."
Bracken chuckled as he looked out of the bush, flicking one of his ears to a insect that landed on it. "Yeah, well that's one thing that El-Ahrairah didn't do I think?" He looked at Straw who was already half asleep and grinned. "I think this day has been too much for him, he's not used to this, is he?"
Birch settled down next to Bracken with a grin. "What with the farm raid, the being chased out of a warren with ferrets, foxes, man and then some crazed out warren that has a tharn chief in control. Well, I suppose that and making friends with an otter would make many rabbit not used to it." Birch slowly nibbled on some long blades of grass as he continued to speak while chewing. "Well, to be honest I am trying to get used to it myself."
"Well, you're the one that gave Watercress a chance, I doubt I would've to be honest." Bracken looked out into the field that they had travelled through the early evening. "I wonder if he was successful in getting them off our backs..."
Birch looked out as well. "Well, I don't think Watercress would've been friendly to them, you know. And when elil says they caught someone who's a rabbit supposed to think that they didn't." Yawning again, Birch gave his nose a rub. "Well, I don't think we be seeing them again."
Neither of them spoke for a while as they day slowly grew darker, a faint rumble came from behind them but both rabbits at the time ignored it as they stared out to the evening sky. Eventually Bracken spoke quietly. "You know, Halgrass would've loved this evening, seeing Frith show off himself in such a beautiful way."
"I miss him also." Birch said quietly as he looked out to the world in front of him. "We lost so many of our friends during this, but we're alive and we got someone out of that warren, made a new friend and we're alive. Halgrass would've loved that, we're still living as we did back at our old warren. Taking risks."
Bracken nodded. "Yeah, you're right, get some rest, I wake you up in a bit." He watched as Birch settled down, falling asleep as Bracken looked out into the early night sky, with only his thoughts in his head.
The next day all three continued on their way through the fields as Frith slowly moved up into the sky. Captain Bracken was leadint the group as they crossed over another field, passing a hedge each time as they looked up into the sky, clouds floating about, sometimes blocking Frith's light.
Birch looked ahead and saw a small hill in the distance. "Maybe we find a warren there." Standing up onto his hind legs to have a look as the other two passed him. Bracken nodded his head. "Well, I hope it's better than the other place, I don't want to go through that again." Straw looked about as they came to a bush by the bottom of the hill and sniffed it. "Smells bad here." He said as he looked inside and backed out quickly, looking disgusted and stricken.
Bracken moved to look inside the bush as he turned his head around and hopped away from it. Birch made his way to take a look himself, but Bracken muttered. "I wouldn't, not if you don't want to see rabbit remains." Birch stopped in his tracks and stood up on his hind legs, sniffing about urgently. "I don't smell any elil nearby, so what killed it?"
Bracken looked about. "I don't know and that worries me." Looking about he shook his head. "Well, doesn't look like there is any rabbits here apart from what is in that bush so no warren."
Straw shuddered. "I think we should leave, see what is over this hill and move on, just in case." He looked about and was getting a bad feeling before moving up the hill itself. Bracken blinked. "Straw, hang on a moment will you." Moving to go up the hill to catch up with Straw as he turned his head to Birch. "Come on, before we lose him."
Straw was standing on the ground as they reached the top of the hill and they stared at another rabbit who was lying down in the middle of a railway track. Birch opened his mouth but closed it again as Bracken moved towards one of the wooden planks of wood and sniffed it. "What is it?" He looked to where Straw was and then the other rabbit. "And who's this?"
Straw looked at Bracken and shook his head. "I don't know, he's not talking sense, keeps going on about some dog." The buck lying on the tracks started to shiver as he shouted. "The dog! Run! Run away! The dog is coming!" Bracken looked at Birch who was staring at the buck. "What dog?" Bracken said at length but all he got was gibberish from the buck.
Straw shook his head slowly. "I don't think we're going to get anything from him, he's in complete zorn state, something must've happened. I mean, seen these cuts, it looks like he was in a fight."
Straw backed away as the buck got up from his lying position and looked at the rabbits in front of him now, the eyes staring out insanely as he growled. "You're those Watership Down rabbits, I won't go down without a fight. Efrafa will be strong forever!"
A low thunderous noise started to form in the distance as Straw moved to where Bracken was and stared wide eyed, muttering. "Did he just say Efrafa?" Birch who had a paw on the metal rail on the track hopped off and back away as he turned his head to where the buck was now growling at him. "Yes he did..." Birch looked at the buck as he spoke clearly. "Where is Efrafa? Tell us?!" He shouted over the insane ramblings of the buck.
The sound of the rumble got louder as the buck answered. "It's over that way, they shall find you with their patrols and imprison you." He went up onto his hind legs now as he growled. "You won't defeat us..." The eyes glazed over again as he muttered. "The dog, the dog... High hills, Watership Down must repay defeating us..."
Straw looked to where the loud noise was coming from as he shouted. "Down the hill!" His voice made the others turn around as Birch looked at the buck before the fast approaching object. "Come on, get off!" He didn't know why but he felt something was bad. The buck though was standing there muttering about a dog as Birch shrugged, turned around and ran down the hill until his powerful hind legs sent him overhead and he rolled down as the muttering rabbit vanished until the train.
All three lay there on the ground as the loud thunderous noise shook the ground as it slowly started to grow faint as Bracken got up, groaning slightly. "Okay, what on earth was that..."
Birch slowly got up as he shook his head. "Not sure but..." He stopped and frowned as he began to rub his paw on his ears, brushing a few twigs off his head. "Frith's messenger, perhaps."
Finally, Straw got up and started to move back up the hill as he climbed up slowly. "Well, whatever it was, we should see what happened to that rabbit at least." He paused and looked back down to where the others were. "I can't believe a place exists, it was rumoured about a warren like Efrafa but never would I thought of actually meeting a rabbit from that place."
Bracken watched as Straw climbed up the hill and saw him slip over the top before calling down to him. "He's gone, there's no sign of him whatsoever." Straw's head came up from over the edge. "Seriously, he's gone, come up here."
Bracken looked to where Birch was and both hopped up the hill again to there the strange tracks was placed as they looked up and down with a puzzled look. "Frith's messenger must've took him." Birch said as he sniffed the metal line again carefully."
Bracken was watching Straw as he hopped onto the track before stopping and looking about. "What are you doing? You don't want to be taken away do you?" Bracken noticed that Straw had ignored him and hopped over to the other side, leaving the tracks behind as he stood up on his hind legs.
Birch looked at Bracken before both ran over the tracks to the other side as they came up alongside Straw who was looking out ahead. Birch looked at Straw and asked. "What?" Straw continued to look out and spoke. "He said that they were beaten by another warren on a hill." He looked out over the clear day, the fields and spotted something faint in the distance. "I think it's there." His forepaw pointing ahead in the distance.
Bracken blinked. "There, it's going to take a while to get there, but Efrafa could be somewhere down there as well." The buck looked out into the vast fields as Birch smiled slightly. "Well, looks like another challenge Bracken. Think you're up to it?"
Straw looked from one to the other as Bracken nodded his head. "Up to it, why Birch my friend. I think it will be fun, though I think there's a few farms along the way." Birch nodded slowly as he spoke. "Well, we can't be a owsla rabbit anymore if we're scared of going to a farm. We have to face our fears."
Straw blinked at each one as he looked from one to the other. "What are you two on about?" He heard both laugh beside them as they started to hop away, down the other side of the iron road as they vanished from sight, leaving Straw looking very confused. Bracken called from down below. "Well, Straw... Are you coming or what?"
Straw flicked an ear and turned his head around so that he was looking behind him, blinking once he nodded his head. "Thanks Watercress.." Without saying another word, Straw headed down the hill out of sight.