The Last Piece of The Puzzle
Alan stood frozen in shock as the identity of the culprit who had destroyed the last of the human race finally came to light: it had been Hemlock, the shunned fourth Brother of the first lagomorphs, who sought to eliminate a competing intelligent species – humans -, who threatened his rise to power. The burning of the library testified to the strength of his resolve: not only destroy mankind as a species, but also prevent any of his own kind from ever following in humanity’s footsteps, or learning the truth of his betrayal. In short, Hemlock had launched a war of extermination against his own creators – and had won it. Humans had vanished from history and rabbits had inherited the Earth.
He turned to look at his companions who were just as shocked and just as appalled as he was; not only had they learned that humans had been the leading force behind their beginnings, but also that it had been their own ancestors who had led humans to extinction, seizing control of the planet. But to what purpose?
"But why would Hemlock turn against his own creators?" asked Bluebell, looking puzzled, “There is no evidence that humans were ever cruel to rabbits... So why would he resort to such treachery?”
“Well, I suppose maybe because he was a proud, power-hungry, selfish rotter...” suggested Hawkbit in his usual cheap sarcasm. But, for once, Alan had to admit the simpleton with a big mouth might actually have a good point.
"I don't think Hemlock wanted his kind to exist in the shadow of mankind forever. Competing with a higher species would only be an obstacle in his path. Somehow, I think he managed to bury the truth and twist things around so that nobody would remember the existence of intelligent humans.”
“Yes, but how? El-ahrairah would never have permitted this!” retorted Dandelion reproachfully, staring at the carpet of human bones and ashes, scattered around the torched library, “Our Prince was always known for his kindness and friendship...” Alan realised the storyteller was right; it made no sense how Hemlock could have possibly turned all the lagomorphs against Drake and his people. Unless they were missing something here... There was only one way to find out.
“I suggest we take a closer look into El-ahrairah’s personal life,” said Alan, “If we can get a better picture of his childhood, and that of his siblings, then maybe we can figure out why rabbit-human relationships turned sour.”
After getting directions from HAL, the search party left the library, happy to leave that mausoleum behind them, and made their way back upstairs to Drake’s old living quarters. The scientist had his lodgings in the VIP section of the HAB: a mini-apartment, consisting of a bedroom, private bathroom and even a small sitting room, complete with a mini-bar. Being a member of the Royal Society sure had its privileges even after the world had gone to hell, Alan thought.
The apartment was a mess, not unlike Drake’s lousy housekeeping habits Alan had known. A foul smell coming from the mini-bar refrigerator testified to spoiled gourmet snacks which had gone bad after the power had failed. The sitting room was piled high with books, papers and computers, mostly scientific-related, including a few of Alan’s own papers on nutrient cycles and food webs.
Looks like that little weasel took the credit for my work after I disappeared, Alan thought with a frown as they began searching the apartment. A corkboard of pictures above the desk caught their eye. Looking at the faces in the photographs, Alan could recognise an older version of his former colleague posing for the camera, alongside the newborn Four Brothers lying in an incubator; another of him and several other survivors standing on a desolate Watership Down, presumably on the first day after returning to the surface, with the Four Brothers at his side; and him cradling a young, golden-furred rabbit with emerald eyes of around Pipkin’s age, much like a fatherly figure.
“Is that our Prince?” asked Fiver in amazement as the rabbits stared at the picture of a young El-ahrairah in Dr Drake’s arms, looking happy and content. It seemed they could scratch the scenario of the rabbits revolting against their human creators to escape their supposed cruelty. Then Alan spotted a home video camera sitting on a shelf.
Using the batteries from his flashlight to power it up, he and his companions saw a video recording appear on the small dusty screen. They could see El-ahrairah, now as an adult, lying on some straw bedding, speaking to the camera. The majestic rabbit looked haggard and drawn, his tortured face twisted with pain; the ghastly bullet wound in his side confirmed the Prince of Rabbits was on his deathbed.
In spite of the grim sight of the dying rabbit, El-ahrairah was still the most breathtaking sight Alan had ever seen. He was simply beautiful. Large and well-built as a lion, with smooth, golden-white fur, which seemed to gleam like silk in the sunlight. His deep blue eyes, sparkling like sapphires, had a stare capable of penetrating the soul itself; in contrast to Hemlock's blood-curdling stare, however, El-ahrairah's was one of kindness, love and compassion. It was obvious he was a fierce fighter, yet there didn't seem to be any brutality in his gentle demeanour. He was, from every aspect, a rabbit version of Jesus Christ, the born leader of his people – a leader whom, they would soon realise, had fallen victim to an enemy intent on taking him out of the picture.
"Greetings, my children. To whoever is seeing this, I’m talking to you at a time when my people are confronting their darkest hour. I am dying; but before the Black Rabbit of Inle takes me, I’m seizing this last opportunity to leave behind a final testament, in the hopes that it will be found someday by my descendants. This testament will serve as my final act against Hemlock and the evil he intends to bring upon our people and our human friends." They all fell silent, listening to El-ahrairah’s posthumous testament.
“During the time of the Old World, all animals, including rabbits, suffered endless cruelty at the hands of Man, unaware that their actions were invoking Frith’s anger. Finally, Frith punished Man by destroying his vile world of death and corruption; but then, he offered humans a chance for redemption when my mentor Cole breathed life and intelligence into us. This, he once confided in me, he did in the memory of his late friend Alan Johnson, whom he had so badly wronged…" At this, Alan was stunned.
"He created all this to atone for something he had done to me?” thought Alan, “But he’d never done me any injustice...or did he...?" Although puzzled by Drake’s peculiar motives, but feeling touched all the same that at least one person had remembered him in a more positive light than that of a madman and a killer, Alan quickly shrugged it off as they continued to listen to the rest of El-ahrairah’s message.
"...Humans and rabbits were finally blessed with a chance to build a new world and share it together in peace. But, unlike Rabscuttle, Laurel and myself, who believed in making a prosperous new beginning with humans at our side, Hemlock didn't. From the start, he believed in rabbit supremacy and saw humans as a threat to our future. In short, he sought to eliminate the last of Man altogether, making our kind the new dominant species on Earth."
"I refused to believe his hatred would ever go that far until it came out that Cole, under pressure from his own peers who feared us, secretly planned to create the elil, to use against us - making me the destined Prince With The Thousand Enemies. Unbeknownst to us, Cole was only fulfilling Frith’s will, as prophesised in the ancient scriptures: ““If you can’t find ways to control your people, I will find ways to control them…””
Turning to his friends, Alan saw them muttering furiously amongst themselves. Looking at this scientifically, Drake had acted wisely by introducing the elil into the new ecosystem, to keep the lagomorphs’ booming population from spreading out of control, following Adams’ book. Unfortunately, the realisation that the elil, which still plagued the world of rabbits to this day, were actually the creation of their own mentors, must have been a too-bitter a pill for El-ahrairah’s people to swallow - and giving Hemlock his opportunity to satisfy his own dark ambitions. Sure enough, El-ahrairah explained.
“...Hemlock swore revenge against humans for their 'betrayal' and began gathering followers. When my family and I ultimately chose to side with Cole, he decided I was an obstacle in his path that had to be eliminated. With the help of a traitor he had recruited as an assassin from amongst Cole's own people, today, he finally set his plans in motion. I fear my imminent death will turn the rest of my people against our mentors forever, playing right into Hemlock’s evil plan…"
Alan felt sickened. There was no doubt that El-ahrairah’s murder at the hands of Sven Shertok had all been part of Hemlock’s dirty little game – to seal the eternal animosity between lagomorphs and humans, and sending them on the warpath, with Hemlock in the lead, to avenge their fallen leader. Meanwhile, El-ahrairah had reached the end of his message.
"…This is the beginning of the end; the world of peace and prosperity I had so much hoped for will soon be lost to a hostile world, divided by animosity and fear. Although Cole promised me that he would do everything within his power to bring the truth of Hemlock’s treachery forward, I fear his efforts will be in vain... I have instructed my family to flee before it’s too late... Frith be with you all." With that, the playback ended and there was only silence.
Alan and his friends looked at each other. By arranging for El-ahrairah’s murder at the hands of a human, Hemlock had successfully poisoned the entire rabbit race against mankind; those who had stayed true to humans had no doubt been silenced, or otherwise branded as enemies and heretics, which also explained why meeting a talking human was such a taboo among rabbits. But whether they looked at this from a historical or a religious perspective, the fall of man was still the result of one madrabbit’s blood feud.
Alan checked his watch. They were already way behind their time, "We better get back. The others will be wandering what’s keeping us. It seems we have a lot to discuss…"
Meanwhile, another group of rabbits, in the servitude of Hemlock’s last living descendant, had arrived at Cowslip's warren on their own mission. Robbins had returned with his new allies to recover the atomic cores of Black Inferno, to turn Efrafa into the first rabbit nuclear power. Accompanying him were General Woundwort and a Wide Patrol, consisting of Vervain, Mallow and Avens and half a dozen slave diggers.
Cowslip was struck dumb at the sight of a living and breathing Robbins showing up on his doorstep, but then his madness kicked in again and he greeted him excitedly, as if he had never seen him being snatched away and supposedly eaten by that hawk only a few days ago.
"Well, this is a surprise. And I see you've brought some new friends with you too, Robbins. How delightful. Will you be staying with us? My home is open to weary travellers…" he said, reciting his usual welcoming routine. But he never got a chance to finish it, because Robbins fixed him with a deadly stare. Obviously, he wasn’t too happy on account of Cowslip running out on him and leaving him to the hawk, but, currently, he had some bigger fish to fry.
“What was left unfinished here, Cowslip, will be finished now,” he said, “Now then, where are Johnson and his little group of heroes? Are they still here?"
"Regretfully, it’s a bit late for sweet revenge," replied Cowslip with a sickening smile. "The fools went chasing after the humanoids, to save their little friends, and never came back. Nobody ever does." Although Robbins hadn’t expected Alan and his friends to linger here after realising Cowslip’s scheme, he had hoped maybe they would have postponed their departure for a few more days to gather supplies and recruits. Unfortunately, it seemed they had left in a hurry.
"Well, they wouldn't, would they?” he said, rolling his eyes at Cowslip’s naivety, “They had already gotten what they came here for."
"Yes," Cowslip muttered with an angry frown, "Stole our food, kidnapped two of my people and tried to turn the rest of them against me. After everything I did for them…"
"Then I presume you would like to be instrumental in their downfall, Cowslip?" interrupted General Woundwort, realising Cowslip's mutual thirst for revenge, and seizing the opportunity for a deal. While Robbins had returned to recover the cores, Woundwort had his own little prize to collect. Cowslip might not have any useful information to trade, but he did have something else that Woundwort could use as a potential instrument of war. The sly rabbit’s ears perked up.
"Why, that would be so delightful," he said in his sickly-sweet, sing-song voice, trying not to show how uneasy he felt in the presence of this sinister-looking rabbit, who could easily break every bone in his body if he wanted to. “Please do enlighten me...”
“Robbins tells me you have a powerful mystic in your servitude, do you not?” demanded Woundwort. Cowslip shot Robbins a reproachful glare for telling this oaf about Silverweed, which was his one and only prized rabbit – the key to control over his warren.
“Well, Cowslip, I’ve come to offer you a bargain: I require your mystic’s powers in order to gain the inside track on the same troublemakers who infiltrated your warren, so that I may plan the best course of action to destroy them!”
“You want Silverweed?” demanded Cowslip incredulously, “What have you to offer me in exchange for giving up my most valuable mystic and poet?”
“Revenge against the scum who deserted your warren in base betrayal and joined the outsiders,” said Woundwort, using a carefully thought out diplomatic approach. Cowslip’s nostrils flared angrily; as far as he was concerned, it had been Strawberry and Nildrohein who had told that stinking, talking ithe about Silverweed and his powers, ruining everything, not to mention putting Cowslip’s authority in serious jeopardy. An opportunity to have those two traitors punished, to set an example to the rest of his people before they got too bold and revolted, might actually save his position. Sure enough, Woundwort went on speaking.
“Give me Silverweed and I give you my word, on my soldier’s honour, that those deserters will be dealt with good and proper. Unless of course, you’d rather not trade Silverweed, and I, in turn, decide you’re attempting to hinder my efforts to destroy my enemies...” Cowslip swallowed nervously, Woundwort’s threat not going amiss. The last thing he wanted was to provoke this murderous brute’s wrath; and if it meant sacrificing Silverweed to protect his own welfare, then so be it.
Unbeknownst to the Efrafans or Cowslip however, someone was eavesdropping on their conversation. Having concealed himself behind some bushes nearby, Silverweed had overheard his master’s deal with Woundwort to trade him in exchange for having Strawberry and Nildrohein, now living somewhere out there free and happy, killed for their betrayal. In other words, Cowslip meant to sell him out!
Silverweed considered himself neither a brave nor a strong rabbit; he had persuaded Cowslip to take him under his wing as a youngster, protecting him from the humanoids, in exchange for using his mystic powers to keep the rest of the warren under control – something for which, contrary to what everyone believed, he wasn’t the least proud of. The only comforting thought every time a rabbit was taken was that, in their state of semi-idleness, maybe the end came fast and unexpected, sparing them the ordeal of living in fear. And now Cowslip planned to offer him, his most trusted ally, into slavery for his own selfish ends? The mystic rabbit felt utterly betrayed!
Silverweed didn’t need to look in this General Woundwort’s mind to know that life in the service of that monstrous rabbit would be anything but pleasant; but, worse still, he dreaded the thought of what Woundwort might do with his mystic powers. Under that evil warlord’s control, he might be forced to do things, horrible things beyond imagining, to those hlessil and their human protectors, which would make the blood already on his paws pale in comparison... And that would be too much for his already heavy conscience.
As the truth slowly sunk in, Silverweed cursed himself for what he was: the cowardly lackey of a sick and twisted Chief Rabbit, for whom he used his powers to send hrair innocent rabbits to their deaths, in exchange for immunity. But soon, the easy life he chose for himself, out of fear, would be over, just like with each and every rabbit he had sent to his death... Maybe this was Frith’s justice? Or was there still a chance to make amends?
By the time Cowslip and Woundwort reached Silverweed’s burrow, Silverweed was gone.