The rabbits were huddled together in the honeycomb. It was cold for a summer night, and Fiver seemed to be more jumpy than usual.
“Something’s wrong,” he was whimpering, “There’s something unsettling about this night, it’s so cold,” He was right, the cold seemed to have invaded the burrow.
“Is there a draft?”
“No,” said Blackberry, “I’ve made sure of that.”
“Fiver, do you sense danger? Any elil?” Hazel was concerned. If Fiver sensed something, then they had better listen.
“N-no, it’s just….I don’t know, but not normal,” Fiver began to quiver.
“Little guy’s got quite a nervous tick, don’t he?” The new voice caused Fiver to shriek. Now he was lying on the floor, twitching pathetically, his eyes darting wildly.
All the rabbits stared at the newcomer. No one had heard this rabbit come in, but there he was, sitting next to Fiver looking as if he had been with the group all his life. He seemed black, but the tips of his hairs were silver, which made him look eerie and ghost-like in the dim light. The cold seemed to radiate from the spot where he sat. He looked for all the world like a normal rabbit, yet, not like a normal rabbit.
“The Black Rabbit of Inlé,” gasped Fiver.
“I’m not the Black Rabbit, hraka brain,” the strange rabbit said irritably.
“Who are you?” Bigwig growled, showing his teeth. He would have pinned the new rabbit to the ground had Hazel not stopped him with a paw on his shoulder.
“Calm down, fuzzy, I’m just a harmless hlessi. My name is Petra. And just ‘cause I’m a doe doesn’t give you the right to stare at me,” Hazel decided it wouldn’t be prudent to tell Petra he had mistaken her for a male.
“What are you doing in our warren?” he asked sharply.
“Ya call this a warren? Seriously, it’s pathetic. You don’t even have any does! You’ve got, like four males,”
“Look, Petra, what do you need?” Hazel tried not to get angry.
“Just a place to spend the night. It’s going to rain,” As if Petra could control the weather, rain began to pour down, sounding as if a herd of wild horses were trampling the burrow.
“There is no way I’m sleeping in that. I’ll fight you and drive you out if I have to,”
“There’s no need for that,” said Hazel, “You can stay for one night, but you must leave tomorrow,”
“My name is Hazel,”
“Ain’t that a doe’s name?”
“Bigwig, show Petra to her burrow,” said Hazel rather stiffly.
“Get up,” he said to the still twitching and terrified Fiver.
“There’s something unnatural about her, Hazel,”
“I see what you mean,”
“Why did you let her stay?” Bigwig had returned, looking angry.
“Well, we do need does,”
“Not her. She’s impudent and rude,”
“Bigwig,” said Hazel, “Is Hazel really a doe’s name?”
“Of course it’s not. What kind of name is Petra, anyhow?”
“I don’t know, but she’s certainly not a hlessi,”
“The Black Rabbit,” began Fiver.
“She’s not the Black Rabbit,” Bigwig rolled his eyes, “And I don’t see what you’re whimpering about, she seems perfectly harmless to me,”
“She is,” said Blackberry carefully, “And yet, not,”
“W-what’s that s-supposed to mean?” stuttered Pipkin.
“I mean,” Here Blackberry paused to think, “I mean that I don’t think she’ll harm any of us, but she has some sort of power, I suppose,”
“By Frith, who is she then?” asked Hawkbit, trying not to sound worried.
“Certainly not a harmless hlessi, that’s all I’m saying,”
“The Black Rabbit,”
“Yes, Fiver, we all know what you think, and she can’t possibly be the Black Rabbit,”
“Why can’t she?” Noone answered. “You don’t have anything to say do you, because there’s something unnatural about her, and you all feel it too!” Fiver began to moan and twitch. “I’m scared Hazel,”
“We all are, but that’s no need to carry on like that. We all need some sleep. She’ll be leaving tomorrow,”
The next morning, Hazel woke up early to silflay. There was a breeze which was unnaturally strong for a summer morning. The grass which should have been green was frosted with ice and hard underfoot. The frozen grass was too hard to bite.
“Lovely morning, ain’t it?” Hazel jumped nearly a foot in fright. Petra had seemed to appear out of nowhere.
“How did you get here?” Hazel nearly screamed.
“Sorry Hazelroo, did I surprise you?” snickered Petra.
“Yes,” said Hazel tersely.
“Terribly sorry,” Petra began to nibble at the frozen grass.
“It’s very cold,” said Hazel, trying to make conversation.
“It’s always cold in the Black Rabbit’s kingdom,” Petra stared up at the sky as the sun came up, weak and white.
This sent a chill through Hazel, causing him to shiver more than any cold winter ever had, because not only did it seem to chill his body, it chilled his soul.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“Petra, the hlessi,”
“Frith on a Hrududu! It’s freezing out here,” Bigwig had immerged from the tunnel. “It’s stifling in the burrow. I thought it would be a hot day,”
“It’s always cold were the Black Rabbit treads,” murmured Fiver, who had followed Bigwig.
“I ain’t the Black Rabbit, hrakaroo,” Petra insisted.
“It’s so cold that our hraka freezes,”
“Don’t be vulgar, Bigwig,” said Hazel placidly. Bigwig swore under his breath and wandered away.
“I’m going to try to find some grass that’s not frozen,” Soon he was back.
“The whole embleer hill is frozen!”
“It’s her! It’s Petra! She’s causing all this,” Fiver began to whimper.
“Don’t be silly, Fiver,” snapped Bigwig sharply.
“No,” said Petra, “He’s right. Death is cold,” The rabbits stared at her, aghast.
“But Inlé is so cold. How could I stay there? I wasn’t ready to die, but death came, and when the Black Rabbit calls, you gotta answer,” The rabbits nodded, spellbound.
“I went with the Black Rabbit, I followed him to Inlé, and for a while, I was happy. But there was always the chill of death around the place. So I rebelled. I tried to attack the Black Rabbit himself,” Here the rabbits gasped. “But he is death, and death cannot be conquered. Because of this attack, I was banished to wander the earth. That was thousands of years ago, and I still wander, neither dead, nor alive, and this icy chill is always around me. I wanted immortality, and now that I’ve found it, I want death. Ironic, ain’t it?” Petra laughed bitterly. “I’ve been part of many warrens, and out-lived ‘em all. I never had a mate, ‘cause I would die anyway. Besides, I don’t want more immortal rabbits,” she turned to address Fiver, “So there you are, hrakaroo, I’m not the Black Rabbit,” The rabbits stared at Petra. She had told this story matter-of-factly, as if she was telling them of a good place to silflay.
“You don’t seem phased at all by this,”
“I’m used to it,”
“You can stay with us for a while, if you want,” Offered Hazel. Petra smiled.
“I’ll stay for a while. Frithrah, that got sappy fast,” So Petra stayed with the rabbits of Watership Down. She stayed while Bigwig and Hazel, and all of the original party were taken by the Black Rabbit, and she stayed while the warren had to split because it was too large, and she stayed until the grass died, and the warren fell sick, and the foxes came, and the warren was empty.
So Petra wandered through the decades and centuries until the humans ran the earth bare, and she was left alone. Now no birds sang, and no grass grew, there was only dirt and air. There was no sun, but it wasn’t dark. It wasn’t light, either. All was completely silent.
It was the end of the world. And Petra lived there, at the end of the world, staring at the sky which slowly faded to black. Once, she thought she heard a voice, and once, she thought she saw a shadow and wondered if The Black Rabbit had come for her. But he never did, and she was alone.