Disclaimer: Watership Down and any and all characters who appear here or are mentioned are the original creations of Richard Adams, or whomever owns his estate now; they are not mine. Notes: written for norah, formerly known as makesmewannadie in the Yuletide NYR 2008 challenge.
As he jumped through the latest in a series of thorny hedge bushes El-ahrairah Realized that he had not seen the steady and familiar up and down features of the downs in quite some time.
His ears went erect and he sat up on his hind legs with the intent and wary look in his large, liquid brown eyes. This hyper-alert state came as second-nature to all rabbits; searching for danger on the wind, in the sounds and smells of the fields at night.
Far above his head the moon waxed and appeared to tilt on its side, shone down upon him..
With a snort that fluffed out his whiskers he realized that out here in the open he was very much exposed to whatever might be out there, friendly or hostile. He allowed his wary pose to relax and then sidled back to the protection of the bushes, careful to avoid snagging his fur on the sharp needles.
The earlier feeling of impending danger gradually subsided, but only to be replaced by another sensation not as easy to explain. Earlier that day he had had a chance encounter with a fox, a female, who had stopped in her pursuit of hare to speak with him.
He thought over that conversation now as he bent forward with his forepaws tucked underneath his body and began to contentedly nibble on the grass. She had not been threatening but as bits and pieces of what she had said came back to him, El-hrariah found his curiosity aroused.
Not far in terms of jumps there was a feeder stream that winded gradually along to the bank of a river. Not just any river, but one that almost every creature, whether predator or prey liked to come down to its banks and drink, It was even a preferred spot to bask in the warm sun when that daystar was high in the sky.
The fox had gone on to say that of late a pair of snakes had taken up residence there, one on the upper bank, the latter on the lower bank. However, neither snake was aware of the other's presence.
His hunger for sweet grass and clover satisfied El-hrairah looked up and regarded the sun's position in the sky, pondering how best to use this bit of information to his advantage. To his way of thinking, this would no doubt be the makings of a grand prank, but how best to go about it?
He straightened up and wriggled out of the protection of the bushes, and dashed off the expanse of the grass and then up a hill and then down toward the river bank, for he had thought of a trick, an excellent trick to play on the two snakes.
Upon reaching the river, El-hrairah received two surprises, the first was that the early spring thaw had flooded the riverbank, the second was that the snake that lived on both banks were very large indeed. The snake along the upper bank hauled his scaly, grey-black body out of the water and hissed at the rabbit. "What do you want," it asked.
"I would like to drink from the river, if you don't mind," replied El-ahrairah as he sat back on his haunches and apprised both the snake and the river with an eye as to the nature of the contest he would propose. "But I also would like to challenge you to a game."
"What kind of game," hissed the big snake, interested in spite of himself. It had been a very long time that he had enjoyed participating in games that did not involve solving riddles, so this might actually come as a welcome change.
"Tug of war."
"That hardly seems fair, but despite appearances to the contrary, I am a snake of my word and I agree to your contest. What are the terms?"
"I am a very strong rabbit," he told the snake, "I will get a grape vine. You will pull one end and I will pull the other."
"If I pull you out of the water then I win the contest. I you pull me in, then I lose. Agreed?"
"Just so we are clear on this from the outset," El-ahariarh added. "Regardless of the outcome of our little wager, neither of the participants will eat the other."
The snake thought this over, eyed the rabbit from hindquarters to forepaws and slowly nodded his wedge-shaped head. "Agreed."
Then turned around and dashed off down river to the lower bank, but not before stopping to make the same deal with the snake on the lower bank.
He told them he would stand on the spot where the two banks of the river met, and when he was ready he would cry out and the contest would begin. Both snakes were pleased with the arrangement. certain that with their combined strength and size they would easily best against this strange, and remarkably over-confident rabbit.
Neither of them had ever heard of El-hrairah and therefore could not know of his penchant for tricks and pranks, and perhaps it might not have made much of a difference if they had.
Presently he found a grape vine in a heap of other discards and castoffs from a farmer's vineyard and dragged it back to the riverbank. He carefully cast the vine across a wide bend in the river.
Both of the snakes caught an end in their mouths, and grimly hung on, determined to best not only this foolish rabbit, but each other in the contest.
El-harairah shouted to signal that the contest had begun and out of sight of either snake, he squatted down to watch the outcome.
The snakes began rearing back and digging in with their coils, muscles bunching underneath their scaly gray and black skin, and for a while neither could gain any ground.
He would tug and tug and he would nearly come out of the water, before he bit down hard on his end of the grape vine. "This rabbit is really strong," thought the upper bank snake.
"Stronger than he looks," remarked the lower bank snake as he was nearly yanked bodily from out of the river by a strong tug from down river.
As the contest and the day wore on and neither contestant could gain ground on the other El-hrairah began to laugh. The snakes hearing that laughter realized that they had been tricked and allowed their respective ends of the grape vine to drop out of their mouths. They swam out to the mid point of the river and met for the first time.
El-harairah, where are you!" the snakes cried. "How dare you trick us like this!"
"It was all in fun, and no one got hurt," protested El_hrairah."
"I have half a mind to eat this tricksy little rabbit right here and now. We participated in the contest in good faith, and he did not."
"Agreed," the lower bank snake added.
"I can explain."
"No doubt you can," the upper bank snake hissed. "However, I am no longer interested in your explanations, and that grape vine has left a funny taste in my mouth."
"For this, you will no longer be allowed to come to our river to drink."
After that, wandering in that part of the countryside El-ahrairah decided then and there to forgo playing any more tricks on snakes anymore and had to go far out of his way to find another favorite place to drink.