Blackavar's Gift

by Loganberry 2002-3

Inspired by Richard Adams' wonderful novel, "Watership Down".

A/N: This story is set at around the time of the events recounted in "Tales From Watership Down", and a few months after "Watership Down" itself. If you haven't read both books, then you might not appreciate some of the references, so go out and buy them today. If you have got them, go out and buy more copies!

This story was previously published here under my now-defunct pseudonym of AndrewB.

Chapter ONE - Here Ends a Tale

"Hazel-rah! Wake up! Wake up! Come quickly!"

Hazel was dozing in his burrow, full of a particularly excellent feed of lettuces which had fallen from the back of a hrududu at the bottom of the Down, a rare treat in the bleakness of early March. He was alone, Hyzenthlay - somewhat to the rest of the warren's surprise - having persuaded him to let her go out on a Wide Patrol with Campion. But his visitor's urgent, almost desperate, tone woke him immediately.

"Why, Speedwell," said Hazel, "whatever is the matter? Calm down and tell me sensibly, there's a good chap."

But all that he heard in return were a few, gasping words.

"Oh, Hazel-rah, do come now, oh please!"

And with that, he dashed off into the twisting tunnels of the warren, so fast that Hazel had some difficulty keeping up with him. They went on for some time, and Hazel's damaged haunch was beginning to cause him some pain, but at last he saw that Speedwell had stopped outside Blackavar's burrow. Hazel felt a pang of foreboding, but nevertheless he turned to Speedwell and asked him plainly to explain.

"It's Blackavar," breathed the other, almost too low to be heard. "He's... he's..." - but he could say no more.

"Stopped running," finished Hazel, feeling a terrible fog of despair envelop him. "But... how? Rabbits don't die underground."

"I don't know," came the reply. "Blackberry's been in, and looked him over - there's not a mark on him, and no smell of disease anywhere."

"I suppose that's a blessing, at least. This is going to hit everyone very hard, you know, Speedwell."

The Watership warren had not been immune from death - one of the original band that set out from Sandleford, Acorn, had succumbed to a particularly severe spell of cold weather a few weeks before, and his loss had been felt keenly even by those, such as Bigwig, who had never had a great deal of time for him. But Blackavar's miraculous rescue from Efrafa, and subsequent rediscovery of his fine tracking skills, had been a source of pride and happiness for everyone at the warren, and he had come to be looked on as something of a lucky mascot. Having beaten such enormous odds to come out of Efrafa, his death after just a few months, as he was approaching his first spring as a truly free rabbit, would be a bitter blow indeed.

"All right," said Hazel, trying to retain the calm leadership expected of him despite his own bewilderment and misery, "you go back to the Honeycomb and tell everyone I want to talk to them at ni-Frith. That will give me a little while to see if I can find out what's happened."

When Speedwell had gone, Hazel cautiously entered the burrow. There could be no doubt whatever of the situation. Blackavar's cold, inert body was lying across the centre of the floor, still being gently nuzzled by his doe, Léaozen, who was crying softly. At Hazel's approach, she looked up and came over to him.

"Oh, Hazel-rah," she whimpered, "what am I to do? I went out to silflay this morning, and when I came back..." She trailed off.

Hazel was somewhat at a loss, and he cast about for the right thing to say. Eventually, he told Léaozen to go to a nearby empty burrow and sleep, while he sent for Blackberry.

"I'm sorry, Hazel-rah," said Blackberry when he arrived. "I should have stayed here, but I had to go outside and pass hraka."

"Well, never mind that now," cut in Hazel. "Poor old Blackavar - we shall miss him so. But it's an odd thing, isn't it, Blackberry? Frith didn't mean for rabbits to stop running in their warrens. What do you make of it?"

"I... I don't really know, to tell you the truth," answered Blackberry. "He smells quite normal, and there's not a scratch on his body anywhere. He doesn't have the White Blindness, I don't have to tell you that."

"Well, for the moment we shall just have to make do as best we can. And we shall certainly have to keep an eye on Léaozen, or she might wander off in her misery. We don't have that many does here since Flyairth left, and we can't afford to lose another one."

"But what's to be done with Blackavar?"

"I don't know. We can't leave him here, I know that much - the body will rot, and then we really shall have to worry about disease. Anyway, I should think it's getting on for ni-Frith now: we'd best get back to the others."

The two bucks went back in silence. The runs were deserted - ni-Frith meetings in the Honeycomb were a rare occurrence, and everyone knew that Hazel or Hyzenthlay only called them if there was news of considerable importance to report. As they came closer, they could begin to make out the low hum of conversation; the subdued tone told Hazel that rumours of some dreadful misfortune had already reached his rabbits.

Hazel was relieved to see Bigwig and Fiver waiting for him. He spoke to them quietly for a moment, and then they all three went to an open area at the far end of the Honeycomb, which had become established as the place for a speaker to hold court. Bigwig quietened the audience, and Hazel began. He decided that it would be best to be straightforward and direct.

"I've called this meeting because I have to give you all some very bad news. Some of you may have heard rumours already that Blackavar has stopped running. Well, I'm afraid it's true. It's a desperate thing for everyone, especially those of us who remember how Bigwig here brought him out of Efrafa, but we shall just have to try to manage."

The mood in the hall was very sombre. Almost to a rabbit they had greatly liked and admired Blackavar, and to be told that he was dead was a stunning blow. But Hazel had more to say.

"I know we shall all miss him dreadfully, but there's another thing too. Blackavar died here, underground" - at this, there was a gasp of astonishment - "and none of us can understand why. So we have to think about what to do with his body - we can't leave it here, obviously. But as well as that, we need to find out what happened to him, in case whatever it was is a danger to us too. Fiver, Bigwig, Blackberry and Vilthuril, I'd like to talk to you afterwards: the rest of you, please try not to let this get to you any more than you have to; the rest of us have to stay alive. And keep an eye on Léaozen - but don't pressurise her into joining us again until she's ready."

Hazel finished speaking, and Fiver took the floor.

"I know some of you are wondering why I didn't say anything," he said. "But the truth is that I have no control over my feelings. Those of you who were with us all those seasons ago will remember that they didn't come for the lendri or the crow, and nor did they for poor Blackavar. But I will say this: I'm sure that it wasn't elil that killed him, and I don't think there's any reason for us to fear for our own lives."

Fiver would say no more, and his brother ran through his joyless duty, as Chief Rabbit, to pay his respects to their lost friend. Rabbits do not ordinarily hold formal services on such occasions, but then Blackavar had been no ordinary rabbit. Holly, who had been one of Blackavar's closest friends, asked to say a few words about happier times they had shared on garden raids and in bob-stones games, and Bigwig, as close to overcome as Hazel had ever seen him, recounted the moment when he had resolved to take Blackavar with him out of Efrafa. At length, Hazel closed the meeting with the traditional rabbit tribute to a fallen comrade:

"My heart has joined the Thousand, for my friend stopped running today."