Life on Watership Down was anything but easy. No sooner had they arrived, than they realised the perilous task that still lay ahead of them. The Down, although safe, had no caves, holes or any other place that would provide adequate shelter. Finally, after an extensive search, they found a deserted burrow beneath an ancient beech tree on the edge of the northern peak, probably dug by passing hlessil long ago.
Violet, Clover and Haystack had examined the burrow and found it to be in good shape, without any traces of death or disease. Although currently too small to accommodate them all, with a little work it could easily be expended into a new warren. Then came the question of diggers.
Alan learned that, in rabbit culture, it was usually the does that did the digging, while bucks were either in the Owsla or advisors to the Chief Rabbit – but with only four does, one of which knew practically nothing about digging, the task would take forever. Hazel had suggested that they all pitch in, so that they could have their new warren finished as quickly as possible. However, this only led to a heated argument, with many of the traditional rabbits, including Bigwig, Dandelion, Hawkbit and Blackberry bluntly refusing to do ‘does’ work’, claiming it was an insult to their pride. Hazel wasn't pleased.
"Right now, your pride is not one of my top considerations," he snapped coldly, "We all have an obligation, if we’re to build a new home here. I won’t have you layabouts lazing around, while the rest of us slave away!"
"Is that so? Then make me, if you dare!" thundered an enraged Bigwig, who seemed ready to settle the argument with a rather nasty fight. Despite being significantly smaller than the mighty veteran, Hazel bravely stood his ground and faced Bigwig, as the two opponents sized each other out. Before any blows could be exchanged however, Bigwig and Hazel were both restrained by Alan and Fiver respectively.
"Stay out of this, Alan, before I give you a beating!" thundered the large rabbit dangerously, trying to get past the man, who firmly blocked his way, "Not a bloody chance, chap. Now get a hold of yourself!" He prayed the short-tempered Bigwig wouldn't lose his temper and strike him; the memory of Hazel ramming him in the stomach back at Sandleford was enough to last him a lifetime. Meanwhile, Fiver had managed to calm his brother down somewhat, enough to reason out with him.
"Fighting won't get us anywhere, Hazel. We have to pull ourselves together or else we’ll be finished before we even have a chance to get started." Hazel sighed, "You're right, Hrairoo; this foolishness won't do us any good. But we have to settle this soon; as long as we remain out in the open, we’re completely vulnerable to enemies…"
"Then I believe it’s time we took the first big step in officially establishing our new colony,” said Alan, stepping in, “We need to elect our leader - someone to make the key decisions round here." Hazel, he noted, looked visibly nervous at the prospect, remembering their little chat the other day. The big moment had finally come.
"Very well, then let's do it. So, who possesses all the traits of a true leader, including courage, strength, wisdom and kindness?" asked Dandelion, who was the expert in rabbit customs. With the exception of the modest Pipkin, Fiver and Hazel, all the bucks raised their paws in response. Alan rolled his eyes; it would be impossible to elect their new Chief this way.
"How about Bobstones?" suggested Bigwig, "Those willing to assume leadership can play against their competitors; he who wins against all competitors, will have proven his worth as a Chief," Aside from his fighting skills, Bigwig had a reputation for his skill as a Bobstone player - only second-best to Buckthorn - and was eager to use it to his advantage now. Holly, likewise, had expressed a right for him to assume leadership, as he technically held the highest rank of all the Sandleford survivors, making him the Threarah’s rightful successor. However, that wouldn’t do either, since none of the former Sandlefordians were keen on resuming their old way of life; ever since their departure from Sandleford, they were all hoping for an entirely fresh start. But how?
"I've got an idea," Alan said, "How about we turn this place into a democracy and elect a leader by voting? I believe that would work much better than Bobstones, dead ranks, or just simply arguing."
"Well, first, perhaps you could enlighten us a little on this…democracy of yours? That is certainly not a state I’ve ever heard of," said Blackberry. Alan wasn’t surprised; judging from his friends’ medieval ideology, where the weak always looked up to the strongest for leadership, it made sense that the very concept of a democracy had never been heard of in this world. Clearing his throat, he explained in simple terms.
"In a democracy, everyone is equal before the law; everyone has the right of opinion, and the leader is elected by majority.” As he had expected, the rabbits, particularly the outskirters, who had never been seen as equals by their superiors back at Sandleford, were more than keen on the idea of establishing such a state. Others however, including Blackberry, having enjoyed a respectful social position under the Threarah - a position which they would inevitably be losing for good now -, had reservations.
“You mean to say, you humans treat your...your rulers as an equals?” exclaimed Blackberry in astonishment, “Why, a Chief Rabbit is never suppose to be questioned – it’s his authority that keeps a warren from crumbling from anarchy and outside enemies. That’s precisely why Frith decreed that a Chief’s position is sacred, when he named El-ahrairah as the first Chief of his people...”
Although, deep down, Alan felt Blackberry had a fair point, considering how contemporary society was slowly turning human society into a divided and ravaged world of poverty, crime and political turmoil – perhaps it had also ultimately led to mankind’s fall? -, on the other hand, a monarch like the Threarah, whose selfishness and arrogance sparked social discrimination and corruption among his people, was hardly a model leader. Perhaps it was time to create an entirely new society, based on the good parts of both ideologies combined, where everyone could actually have a purpose...
"The ground rules are simple,” he explained, ignoring Blackberry’s conservative remarks, “First, those willing to run for chieftaincy can't vote for themselves. Second, the voters have the right to vote on only one candidate each. Third, no cheating to benefit any of the applicants; those violating this rule will be disqualified. And fourth,” he added as an afterthought, “The new Chief Rabbit, whoever that turns out to be, should bear in mind that, while he will obviously be entitled to the full authority and all the privileges of his position, if he misuses them to violate the rights of those under his leadership, then the people will be entitled by law to vote for his abdication. We’ll make this our first new stature law. Anyone have any objections?"
“If only the Threarah were here to see us now, he wouldn’t recognise his own people anymore,” commented Holly, shaking his head. Whether he approved of Alan’s new ideology or not, the man couldn’t tell, but one thing was certain: today would mark the beginning of a new era for all of them.
After everyone had understood and agreed on turning their new colony into a democratic state to elect their leader, the group of humans and rabbits decided to take some quiet time to deliberate as to who’d run for the chieftaincy of Watership Down before gathering for the voting.
While Bigwig assembled a patrol with McEwen to go scout the area for any signs of danger, hoping to burn off some steam from his earlier scrap with Hazel, Derek caught up with Alan, who had wondered off to have a smoke.
"Al, you have a golden opportunity here, man! Why don't you run for leader?" But Alan shook his head.
"Sorry Deke. Hazel asked me the same thing yesterday and I gave him – just like I am giving you now - the same answer: If I became the new leader of these rabbits, my influence would inevitably corrupt the traditions of their ancestors; it would be like stealing away their world through colonialism. No, the Chief Rabbit has to be a rabbit, not one of us."
"Have you gone daft?" persisted Derek, "Think of everything we can offer them! Hell, within a few years, we might actually see civilisation reborn through them. After all, they have human minds like us; what harm is there in offering them all the wonders of the human world to go along with it?" But Alan remained firm.
"I am afraid you’ve been spending too much time with your machines, Deke. Haven't you seen what becomes of animals, once you remove them from the wild? Domesticated, all their ties with their natural environment severed forever. These rabbits, although intelligent, still live in harmony with nature; if we attempt to...well, civilise them, we might as well be laying the seeds of destruction of this pristine new world. Although I agree onsharing some of our knowledge with them, to improve their lives, as well as ours, I have more sense than to repeat some of mankind’s worst mistakes."
Derek seemed to want to argue that, given the rabbits’ human-level intelligence, it might be inevitable in the long run, but never got a chance when, at that moment, McEwen and Bigwig came running, "You better come and see. We found something!" They followed them to a patch of trees not too far from the foot of the Down. Hanging from the branches was the deflated red envelope of a hot-air balloon, still wrapped in its netting. The basket, still attached to the end of the rigging, lay empty beside the wreck.
"Looks like we aren’t the only ones to jump forward in time," said Alan as they stared at the abandoned wreck. Of course, it made sense that more people had accidentally flown through the time warp, just like their plane and McEwen’s chopper. In this case, it seemed some balloonists, perhaps thrill-seeking tourists, had been blown into the warp, only to find themselves into the future on the other side. However, they were nowhere to be seen, dead or alive.
"What do you suppose happened to them?" asked Bigwig, puzzled by the absence of any bodies, "It doesn't look like the elil got them; there’s no blood, no signs of an attack…"
"Hm, see your point," Derek said, also noticing the strange absence of any survivors, as he examined the tangled wreck of rigging and nylon. Although the balloon needed a complete re-rigging, perhaps a few leaks to be patched, it can come down more-or-less intact; so, if these balloonists had made it down in one piece, then why would they leave the crash site? Unless something, or someone, had got them... McEwen, meanwhile, had completely different things in mind.
"Any chance of this thing being repaired? Perhaps we could use it to get away?" But Derek, who was already inspecting the burners and fuel tanks in the basket, thinking along the same lines, shook his head grimly, "Fuel tanks are empty – they must have been floating up there until they run out of propane. It doesn't look like anybody will be leaving here by balloon any time soon." Finding nothing useful to salvage from the balloon, they returned to the Down.
An hour later, the group all gathered to start the voting. The first stage was to take down the names of those willing to run for leadership. The does were forbidden, by rule, to run for Chief Rabbit; some like Fiver, Pipkin, Strawberry, Silver and Boxwood were too young or too modest to run for candidates; and others like Hawkbit and Dandelion lacked the experience, or, in Hawkbit’s case, the maturity; and the Owsla bucks, including Speedwell, Buckthorn, Acorn and Bluebell were bound by their code of honour, which forbid them from assuming a rank they weren’t entitled to, being non-officers under two surviving senior officers. This narrowed it down to four likely candidates: Bigwig and Holly, the two highest-ranking rabbits, Hazel, who had been urged into joining by Fiver, and Alan, who had eventually given in to Derek's insistence.
Before joining his fellow competitors however, he discreetly approached Pipkin and whispered softly into the buck's ear, "Pipkin, as a friend, please don't vote for me; vote for Hazel. He’s the right leader for us." Luckily, Pipkin nodded without argument. Alan addressed the crowd.
"Welcome to the voting ceremony. To submit your vote, each of you will simply raise your right paw, when the name of the candidate you support is called; the candidate with the most votes wins the election. If there are no objections, please start the voting."
With McEwen reading out the names aloud one-by-one, those in favour would take some time to make up their minds before raising their paw and submitting their vote, while Derek took down the figures. Hawkbit couldn’t resist and tried to add a second vote for Bigwig by discreetly raising both his paws, without Derek noticing. Although he hated the gruff Owsla veteran’s guts like the Black Rabbit, he hated the prospect of being made to dig like a doe even more. However, a stern look from the mighty veteran, who’d rather be snared than benefit from a cheat, even to fulfil his greatest ambition, stopped him. He turned away, sulking at the prospect of being saddled with a leader that would have them doing doe’s work from dawn until dusk.
Finally, all the votes were submitted and counted. The results were as follows: From Pipkin, Fiver, Boxwood, Haystack, Silver and Violet, Hazel had received six votes; from Hawkbit, Dandelion, Acorn, Speedwell and Buckthorn, Bigwig had received five votes; from Derek, Strawberry, Nildrohein and McEwen, Alan had received four votes; and, finally, from Clover, Blackberry and Bluebell, Holly had received three votes. Hazel was the winner.
After the figures were counted and confirmed, Alan addressed the crowd, "Let’s have a round of applause for Hazel-rah, the first Chief Rabbit of Watership Down!"
The colonists of Watership Down all cheered warmly, despite a few expressions of defeat on several faces - namely Bigwig's -, as a bewildered and utterly embarrassed Hazel accepted his new position with dignity. Bigwig was promoted to Captain of Owsla, replacing Holly, who agreed to take up the post as Hazel’s advisor, being the most senior rabbit. Now they could regard themselves as something more than just wondering refugees; now they had a leader; and with a leader they had a proper governed state, a homeland of their own.
Unbeknownst to any of them however, at that very moment, not too far away, someone else was planning on making sure the new colony on Watership Down would not last for long…
Close to the burnt-out ruins of Sandleford Warren, a haggard and battered man stood before the abandoned Cessna, still sitting stuck out on the marsh. Accompanying him was a familiar sneering rabbit and his two thickset rabbit henchmen. A still living and breathing Russell Robbins and the Efrafan Wide Patrol that had crossed paths with Alan earlier, now joined together as one group, had returned to the crash site, on a new mission.
After miraculously surviving the hawk attack with only marginal injuries, but having lost his prized egg in the process, Robbins had found himself wondering aimlessly. Eventually, he had run into the same Efrafan Patrol Alan had encountered earlier. Seeing an opportunity for revenge, Robbins had made a bargain with Captain Vervain, requesting an audition with his Chief, who could help him.
At first, the Efrafans were indignant because he was a human, with a good mind to take him back to Efrafa as their prisoner if not kill him outright, but Vervain, realising Robbins was presenting him with the best chance for extracting his own revenge against that other miserable human that had humiliated him, had agreed and granted him immunity from capture.
And so, Robbins had led his new associates back to Sandleford, to salvage the Cessna with the help of Vervain’s oaf-sized henchmen, and then make for Efrafa, to present himself to General Woundwort. Although obviously a risky business, considering Woundwort might decide to take him prisoner or kill him, Robbins wasn’t a man to swallow the bitter fruits of failure that easily, not while there was a single breath of life left in him. His nemesis had escaped him twice already; but there wouldn’t a third time.
"So this is your contraption that can fly?" scoffed Mallow, staring at the stricken plane, "Well, it doesn't look remotely capable of flying to me.” Beside his henchman, Vervain glared at Robbins.
“If this turns out to be a waste of my time, I will see to it that you feel the wrath of the General himself…!" Although he had grudgingly agreed to cooperate with the man, it annoyed him without end that a mere human was technically ordering them around. The evil man only smiled nastily, amused by Vervain’s hollow threats.
"As far as I understand it, my mean-tempered friend, you are bound to feel you master’s wrath yourself if you return empty-handed. If you wish to avoid that predicament, and get your revenge, I suggest you maintain your cooperation." Aside from being cunning and ruthless, Robbins was proud of his skills in manipulating - or otherwise blackmailing - others into doing his dirty bidding.
"You promised you’d ensure our master with absolute power; they better no fall short of our expectations," said Vervain in a slightly calmer, yet hateful, tone. As much as he hated Robbins ordering them around, he knew all too well that the man was right; his original mission to recapture a group of escapees from Efrafa had been futile and, adding the incident with Alan besting him, he knew his Chief wouldn’t appreciate such failure. As far as Woundwort was concerned, failure was a sign of weakness, punishable by demotion, or even death. Despite being a fanatical loyalist to his insane master, Vervain’s cowardice would use anything to his advantage, if it meant keeping him out of trouble and possibly impressing Woundwort.
Robbins, satisfied that the deal wasn’t over yet, smiled coldly at Vervain, "Captain Vervain, I’m a man of my word. You would help me and, in return, I guarantee you a national hero’s glory, when you present your Chief with a useful and powerful ally, who will lead him to absolute power – and a unique opportunity for both of us to extract revenge against my former companion." Vervain's eyes flashed at the mention of Alan.
"Revenge against that troublemaker has become my life's oath. Nobody humiliates me like that, let alone a lowly, stinking human. No offence," he added hastily to Robbins, "I will not rest until I have seen him and his little friends suffer and die!" Robbins smiled evilly.
"We both share the same desire, my friend. Have no fear; with me on your side, our revenge will soon be at hand!" But although Vervain was ecstatic, blinded by his insane thirst for revenge, the more level-minded Mallow and Avens still had serious doubts regarding Robbins’ trustworthiness.
"You still haven’t explained how exactly you intend to help the General lead Efrafa to utmost power and glory,” growled Mallow dangerously, “This better not be some trick to use us to infiltrating Efrafa, if you know what's good for you!" Although, like every Owsla Efrafan, he was expected to follow his superior’s judgement without question, unlike the cowardly, power-hungry Captain of Owslafa Vervain, who’d bargain with the Black Rabbit of Inle Himself if it suited his best interests, he had reason to suspect foul play. Robbins smiled maliciously.
"On the contrary, my dear fellow, I have a very special gift – or should I say, a token of good faith – for your Chief…in exchange for his alliance, of course.” Of course, he was referring to the three cores of Project Black Inferno, which had been left back at Cowslip’s warren, waiting to be picked up. Although Derek had destroyed the arming codes, those cores could still be used for an even better purpose – something which he only knew how and could now use to his advantage. “I, alone, hold the secret to the power of absolute ruler, Mallow. Surely the great General Woundwort wouldn't turn down such a golden opportunity?"
Although still sceptical, Mallow seemed impressed, yet refrained from answering as he turned away. Beside him, Avens asked, “So, what do we do now?”
"First, we try and get that damn plane out of there. If it still flies, then we shall soon be on our way to Efrafa, so that you may introduce me to your Chief. And then, we can start planning our revenge!” He turned to look at the southern horizon, where Watership Down was, muttering, “I hope Johnson and his little friends enjoy their newfound happiness while they still can, because I’m coming for them!"
Using the block-and-tackle Derek had made from the chopper wreckage, Robbins secured one of the pulleys around the landing gear of the stuck aircraft and the other end around a tree. With the rabbits pulling hard on the cable, which was strapped around their bodies with makeshift harnesses, like mules, and Robbins pushing on the tail, the plane slowly began to inch up the ramp of timber.
Before long, the plane was on level ground again, looking all muddy, battered and its paint chipped, but still airworthy. After clearing a crude runway in the field on the edge of the marshes, they were ready for take-off.
In the light of the sunset, Robbins and his new partners in crime soared skywards, heading towards Efrafa, where he hoped to secure his alliance with the most feared rabbit in this land and initiate his plans for revenge against Alan and his friends.