Alan had lost all sense of time or place by the time he woke up. His body still felt sore from his injuries, but he felt stronger. Then he remembered Bluebell. How was he doing? The warren sounded awfully quiet. Perhaps something had gone wrong?
Sitting up in a panic, he realised someone had removed his glasses. Then he became aware of his state of unwash - he was still wearing his shredded, blood-stained and sweat-reeking clothes from the battle of Efrafa. Spotting the duffel bag containing his wardrobe in a corner, he unpacked a change of clothes but still couldn't find his glasses anywhere. As he did up his shoes, he heard a soft feminine voice behind him, startling him.
"Looking for these?"
Turning, he saw Hyzenthlay lying beside his bed, his glasses resting on a box beside her, where Josie had left them. Alan felt himself blush with embarrassment; had she been watching him the whole time?
"Oh…eh…thanks," he said sheepishly as he took his glasses and put them on. The doe smiled at him, "It's good to have you back. We were wondering when you'd awake; Josie wasn't expecting you to wake up for at least another day."
"That long?" Alan asked surprised, "How long have I been out?"
"A whole day and night," said Hyzenthlay, "Thethuthinnang, Vilthuril, Nelthilta, Clover and I took turns watching over you."
"Watching over me? Why all the sudden concern?" Hyzenthlay looked at him as if he were a blithering idiot.
"Why? Frith above! You've given us back everything Woundwort had taken away from us; our freedom, our happiness, our very lives, we ought everything to you, Alan! The least we could do is be concerned about your well-being! You should see my friends; after so many seasons, they're finally happy and so full of life. I suspect they'll start mating fairly soon."
"I'm flattered, but I hardly deserve all that credit," said Alan humbly, thinking of those who had died in the Battle of Efrafa, "I was just one of the lucky ones to survive; the ones who gave their lives on the battlefield are the true heroes." Hyzenthlay however didn't see it that way.
"Alan, you've done us a favour we can't possibly repay. Not only did you save us from slavery but you also resurrected the true legacy of our forefathers; one that Woundwort had suppressed with his lies and cruelty. There isn't a single rabbit here who will ever forget that. Come, the others are waiting to see you."
He followed Hyzenthlay to Bluebell's burrow next door. The buck lay curled up on some straw bedding, finally awake, but still looking very tired. Violet sat by his side, surrounded by her kittens, which were resting on some goose-down. Bluebell sat admiring his newborn children crawling about the burrow floor. Josie, Hazel and Bigwig were there too, the former checking Bluebell's heartbeat with a stethoscope and taking down notes in her log. The buck's face formed into a wide grin as he saw Alan enter.
"Well, if it isn't the miracle-healer come to visit the resurrected. Please, don't be shy old chap, come in," said Bluebell in his usual comical tone. His body was healing nicely and so was his spirit. Violet nuzzled Alan gratefully, whispering in his ear, "Thank you. Thank you so much!" Alan hugged her back. He turned to Bluebell.
"How are you feeling?"
"Not too bad, considering I had my heart replaced," he said, gesturing down at the thick cocoon of bandages around his torso, which covered the stitched-up wound, where his late cousin's heart now resided. Josie, who had just finished checking Bluebell's vitals, turned to Alan.
"Heart rate and blood pressure are returning to normal. No sign of organ rejection. Your theory that Speedwell's tissue would be a match apparently was correct. At this rate, he'll make a full recovery within a few weeks."
"Good, I can't wait to get on my own four paws again," said Bluebell, who was already getting tired of this burrow, "I will have to, if I'm to risk publicly asking Bigwig exactly what is this I hear about something chummy going on between him and Hawkbit." Bigwig's face turned beetroot red under his fur. Unable to contain themselves any longer, Alan and the others roared with laughter, except for Bigwig who narrowed his eyes dangerously at Bluebell. He clearly didn't find this funny at all.
"I'm warning you Bluebell. If you ever talk about this to anyone, you'll wish you were dead!" Although he obviously didn't mean it literally, save for a sound beating perhaps, Violet seemed to take it a little too seriously and glared at the Captain of Owsla. Alan couldn't blame her; she'd almost lost Bluebell once already and the idea of losing him again, even for a joke, wasn't something she cared to hear.
"You keep your disciplinary ideas to yourself, Bigwig! When I take my children above ground for the first time, I expect their parli to be running alongside them," she said, turning to nuzzle Bluebell lovingly. Bigwig only grimaced in reply; the prospect of the entire warren taking the mickey out of him because of some stupid embarrassment he'd unintentionally brought upon himself was an Owsla Captain's worst nightmare, and Frith help any fool who didn't watch his lip, or who tried to tempt him with human alcohol again.
Josie placed a plastic bag containing, what looked like, a chunk of raw, bloody meat in front of Bluebell. "Souvenir for you. I didn't know what you wanted us to do with it…" Bluebell's happy face fell as he recognised his own old heart, now but a lump of mutilated dead flesh, which brought back memories of his late cousin.
"How I wish I could talk to him one last time, to tell him how sorry I was. The last time we actually talked to each other, he and Buckthorn told me they no longer regarded me as their cousin and I retorted along the same lines. Oh Frith, I was such an idiot…"
"Bluebell, you might find this hard to believe, but Speedwell has in fact forgiven you and asks your forgiveness in return," said Alan, "It was his request that his heart be transplanted into you, so you may have a chance to live and be with your family." Bluebell looked on the verge of tears. To have at last earned Speedwell's blessing for mating with Violet, even in death, gave him some sense of closure, finally ending the feud between the two cousins. He continued to stare at his old heart, thinking, before turning to Alan.
"I want this buried with Speedwell. His heart now beats inside me, so a part of him will continue to live on within me; I want him to also have a part of myself with him as a token of apology, forgiveness and brotherly love, which I threw away so long ago. Could you place this into Speedwell's body, where his own heart once was?" he asked, pushing the bag containing his dead heart towards Josie, who nodded, "I'll see to that." She picked up the bag and placed it in an icebox, until it could be stitched into Speedwell's body before they buried him that evening, along with the other casualties.
"Right, if you'll excuse me, I better go check on Silverweed. It's nearly his feeding time." At the mention of Silverweed, Alan remembered the buck's catatonic condition. He followed Josie outside.
"How's he doing?"
"Still no change. All his vitals seem stable; but he's not responsive to stimuli. His muscles don't even twitch when I prod them. The only similar condition I've ever seen is with brain-dead people." Alan's heart sank.
"May I see him?"
Josie led him into another burrow, where Silverweed lay on some straw bedding. Fiver sat by his side. In an act of gratitude for helping him bring Alan back, at this terrible price nonetheless, he had been first to volunteer to watch over the catatonic mystic. Strawberry also lay beside him, an icepack strapped onto his injured leg, which was mending nicely. He could already walk again, albeit with a limp, but it would take some time before he was fit to return to Owsla training.
Alan looked at Silverweed, who was awake and breathing, but staring vacantly at nothing. Although it was clear that nothing more could be done for him, it saddened them all to see their friend reduced to this state; physically alive, but doomed to probably spend the rest of his life as a vegetable. Alan turned to Josie, who was preparing a cocktail of vitamins and mashed barley for him.
"Isn't there something we could do for him?" The veterinarian shook her head sadly.
"There's nothing we can do other than feed him and exercise him daily. Since this isn't the result of a physical injury, there's no treatment I can think of. Perhaps someday he'll wake up on his own accord. Unless you prefer to euthanize him..." Alan sighed; it seemed Silverweed was beyond help, and they couldn't bring themselves to put him out of his misery. And currently, he had his own problems to worry about: now that Bluebell was all right, it was time to go after his daughter. And so, ten minutes later Alan had assembled with Derek, Hotdog, Hazel, Bigwig, Fiver, Holly and Campion, to brief them on their new mission.
"Maybe I should go alone," he suggested, "This is my fight and, this way, it won't give Robbins the opportunity to create more victims. While there's no risk of Lucy being harmed if I show up, given how he wants her so badly, anyone else is still fair game." However, just as he'd feared, his friends weren't the least keen on his plan of a solo mission.
"Alan, when will you get this straight?" said Fiver, "You're one of us now, and your problems are our problems. Robbins is our enemy as much as he's yours and we are morally obliged to help you defeat him."
"Don't waste your breath, chum," Bigwig cut in, "I, for one, am following you all the way to Inle if I have to, to cover your back. You can't expect to fight a fully fledged opponent in that condition!" At this point, Alan had to agree; although all of his injuries from the battle were mending nicely, his fractured arm would seriously impair his fighting abilities, if he had to engage Robbins in combat. Finally, he reluctantly agreed on a small group to join him on this mission, including Hazel, Bigwig, Fiver, Derek and Hotdog.
Holly would be in charge of the warren in Hazel's absence; Campion would be leading a patrol back to Efrafa, to retrieve the dead, so their former comrades could be laid to rest with decency. Then Josie stepped forward, "I want to come with you, Alan."
"I'm sorry, but that's impossible," said Alan firmly, "We only have two horses left; it will be quite a delay as it is, having to share them between the three of us, let alone four." However, Josie remained persistent.
"You promised me to help me find my son!" she said reproachfully, "I've already lost James and I'm not losing him too! If he came through the same way we did, then he might have made it to that other warren." Although Alan hated to disappoint her, he couldn't let her go anywhere near Robbins; the memory of his wife's murder still haunted him.
"Josie, I'm sorry, but it's simply too dangerous. Anyone close to me with Robbins around has a target literally painted on his forehead! I can't risk you getting hurt. Don't worry about your son; if he's at Cowslip's warren, we'll definitely find him." Unfortunately, this only seemed to make Josie even more determined to tag along.
"I can't wait any longer, Alan. I'll take my chances with Robbins." At this, Bigwig lost his temper.
"You disapprove of taking unnecessary risks, yet now you insist of putting your life on the line! Don't you realise that Robbins is liable to kill any of us on sight? Wasn't Speedwell enough? Stupid, fatheaded female…!" But Hazel cut him off before he could go too far and insult her. He turned to Josie.
"Josie, I've never asked you to obey an order before but I'm afraid this time I must insist. Until the threat of Robbins is taken care of, you're to stick close to the warren. Bluebell and Silverweed are still unwell and need your care. If your son's out there, then I've giving you my word, we'll bring him back safely." Although still indignant, Josie finally reluctantly agreed and left to return to caring for her patients...or so they thought.
Although she knew Alan was right about Robbins, having witnessed that maniac's wrath first-hand, she couldn't postpone the search for her son any longer; her husband was dead and her son was still out there somewhere, lost and alone, if he wasn't dead already… No, she decided, she would be accompanying them, danger or no danger. Doing some quick thinking, she hurried back to Bluebell and Violet's burrow. Strawberry was also there, eager for some more lively company than the comatose Silverweed.
"I need your help, guys. You said you owe me a big favour for saving your life, Bluebell. Well, I can't think of a better time to call in that favour." She told of her plight to Bluebell her plan, who nodded with a sly grin.
"I see. Well, don't worry, you've come to the right rabbit. Now, all we need is a willing accomplice to smuggle you out of the warren." Bluebell was of course in no condition to escort her to Cowslip's warren himself, and Josie couldn't hope to find her way there on her own, so they needed someone else. He turned to look at Strawberry, who, getting the hint, shook his head with a shudder.
"No, I'm sorry. I couldn't go back there again." After being Cowslip's slave all his life, coupled with the pain of losing Nildrohein, just when the couple had found a new life of freedom, he simply couldn't bear the thought of ever setting foot near that warren again. Then, Bluebell remembered just the rabbit for the job. He whispered something into Violet's ear, who went to get Hawkbit, who was staying behind with Dandelion, supposedly to help in expending the warren – or in Hawkbit's case, to just laze about all day, or flirting with any loose does.
"Perfect timing, Hawkbit old chap," said Bluebell, as Hawkbit entered, "I have a job for you and Dandelion: As soon as Campion's patrol has set off, you're to sneak Josie out of the warren, pick up Alan's trail and follow them to Cowslip's Warren." Hawkbit thought Bluebell had gone mad, "What in Frith's name are you on about, Bluebell? You heard Hazel's orders. Have you gone around the twist?"
"No," said Bluebell, a wide grin on his face, which made Hawkbit frown in anticipation; such a grin usually meant a prank that would leave the victim the laughing stock for the entire warren, "But you will end up going around the twist literally, when I tell everyone the story of Captain Bigwig's lover. I'm sure they'd love to hear exactly how dreamy old Biggie thinks you are…" he said, fighting back a snort. Hawkbit however didn't find it amusing.
"Shut it, Bluebell! By Frith, how much more of this hraka must I endure? Frith forbid, it was just Bigwig having taken leave of his senses after messing around with those…those human drink things. If you really think I have any feelings for that bullying oaf, you're off your rocker…!"
"Then I guess there's no harm in sharing a laugh with everyone," said Bluebell, raising an eyebrow.
He had just said the magic words. Hawkbit gulped nervously at the prospect; the entire warren would laugh at him and Bigwig till the end of time, not to mention his Captain's wrath. Satisfied he'd gotten the message, Bluebell continued.
"On the other hand, I'd hate to get my own friend into trouble with old Biggie," he said with mock-concern, "That is if you're up for the challenge, of course..."
"Are you blackmailing me, Bluebell?" snapped Hawkbit indignantly. Being ridiculed was one thing, but being forced to do something that would provoke Bigwig's, not to mention Hazel's, wrath, both of whom were still sore with him for falling asleep on guard duty and letting Robbins kidnap Lucy, sounded even worse. As if reading his mind, Bluebell urged him on.
"If I let my tongue slip, you and Bigwig will be laughed at, all the way to Inle; only, he might take it too personally and decide to deal with you himself." Hawkbit visibly recoiled, "On the other hand, save for a sound scolding on your part, as humans say, you'd both get off...scot-free," he said, struggling to remember one of the many human terms he'd picked up from Alan, "And I doubt Hazel will be too harsh on you. So, what do you say?" Hawkbit groaned in exasperation; there was no way out.
Their supplies and weapons loaded, Alan, Derek and Hotdog mounted their horses. Since they only had two horses left, Robbins having stolen the third, Derek and Hotdog would have to share, while Alan carried all of their equipment on his. With the Watership Owsla running alongside them, they headed north, towards Cowslip's Warren. They rode for hours.
It wasn't long before they found one of Lucy's shoes lying on the ground, indicating they were headed in the right direction. Since it was already well into the evening and it would be dark soon, making travelling too dangerous, they decided to stop halfway to Cowslip's warren and make camp for the night.
Setting up camp in a rocky outcrop, the humans lit a fire to keep the elil away, and then the group settled down to sleep in the grass around the fire. Unfortunately, none of them were aware of some unwelcome company lurking nearby, attracted by the light of their fire...
Not too far away, a dozen human mutants, driven out of their lair when Max Pete's fighter plane had annihilated it a couple of days ago, were wondering aimlessly through the woods, searching for fresh hunting grounds to claim as their new territory. Having picked up the smell of fire, which, even to their primitive intelligence, was a sign of more of their own kind being close by, they made their way towards the campsite. Spotting the group of sleeping rabbits and humans, they noiselessly circled the camp, preparing to strike their prey…
Hotdog and Derek were sitting awake by the fire, supposedly on night watch, playing poker. Since money was worthless to them now, instead, the pair had resorted to using their ammunition to fill the pot. Hotdog put down his pipe and checked his deck of cards.
"Give me two."
"Here's two; and I take one," Derek said, picking up another card, "Bet you ten." He placed a rifle cartridge in the pot. Hotdog grinned, "Game's getting good. Okay, mate, bet you ten and I'll raise you ten!" He placed two cartridges in the pot.
"If you're not careful, you'll blow us both to kingdom come!" Derek hissed, hastily picking up Hotdog's lit pipe, which the smuggler had accidentally placed on the open ammo box, and handing it back to him. Hotdog took another puff, "What's the matter, Deke? Nervous?"
"Nervous? Ha! I win again; three queens," Derek replied smugly, placing his cards forward. Hotdog groaned as Derek pocketed his winnings, "Big deal, so you finally win a hand only after I've beaten you a dozen times in a row." Derek merely chuckled as he reset the cards for another round. Suddenly, a rustling noise from close by caught them off-guard.
"Sounds like someone dragging a stick across a picket fence," said Hotdog, wondering what kind of animal could make such a noise. Derek frowned, realising the noise was getting closer. Picking up a lantern, he walked over to the edge of the camp for a better look.
Suddenly, a dozen massive forms of filthy, hairy humanoids emerged from the shadows, swarming them. Derek and Hotdog raised their weapons to fire, only to remember they'd foolishly removed all the ammo, to use in their card game. In another instant, the camp was under heavy attack...
Alan woke as if he'd been hit in the face. He could hear a commotion and the familiar odour of sweat, blood and putrid breath filled his nostrils. He opened his eyes just in time to see a dozen humanoids storm their camp, brandishing their spears and clubs. His mind sprang to his weapons' pack, only to remember he'd left it lying beside his horse ten yards away, and out of reach. Grabbing a torch from the fire, he struggled to keep the attackers at bay. He could see Derek and Hotdog also struggling, using their empty guns as clubs, as were the rabbits, but they were terribly outnumbered. Within seconds, the humanoids had them all pinioned.
Alan was knocked over onto his back and felt several strong hairy hands seize his arms and legs, immobilising him. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw another humanoid, carrying a massive bludgeoning stone, approaching for the kill. He was dinner.
He watched helplessly as his soon-to-be executioner raised the stone, thinking of the sheer irony of having come all this way, survived against so many impossible odds, only to end up as food for his own feral descendents! He looked up at the humanoid about to kill him, whose grotesque hairy face wore a triumphant smirk, spelling something along the lines of, "Can you run? I think not!"
Suddenly, a gunshot was heard from the trees and the would-be executioner crumpled to the ground dead. The other humanoids jumped to their feet, alarmed by this sudden and unseen deadly force, before another shot sounded and another humanoid fell dead. Left free for a split-second, Alan made a dash for his guns; in an instant, he, Derek and Hotdog had recovered their weapons and opened fire on the rest of the intruders, gunning them down. The few remaining humanoids turned and fled, their hideous shrieks and growls echoing in their ears.
Still shaken by the encounter, they turned to look in the direction from where the life-saving gunshots had come from. Josie emerged, clutching a smoking shotgun in her hands, flanked by Hawkbit and Dandelion. Although cross that she'd followed them, Alan couldn't help but mutter his prayers of thanks at her timely arrival. If it weren't for her, he and his companions would have all been slaughtered. Bigwig however, wasn't pleased.
"What in Frith's name are you doing here? I told you not to come!" Josie frowned.
"Should I point out to you, Bigwig that if I hadn't disobeyed your orders, those…those things would have gotten you all tonight!" she retorted coolly, staring at one of the dead humanoids at her feet. This was one of the things Alan really liked about her character; she wasn't the type to allow the male side to question her decisions. Unfortunately, this only seemed to infuriate Bigwig even further.
"I will not be spoken back to by…!" But Hazel, seeing the bad-tempered Captain of Owsla about to emerge from under Bigwig's skin, cut in, "That's enough, Bigwig." He then turned to face the newcomers.
"While I strongly disapprove of your disobeying orders and following us, I still have to give you credit; your unexpected arrival saved our lives tonight." Josie smiled at Hazel, glad of his acknowledgment. At that moment, two more newcomers appeared on the scene.
Strawberry, it seemed, had decided to follow Josie at the last minute, only to be caught in the act by Campion. After Strawberry had confessed about Josie having gone after Alan and the others, rather than turn him in to Holly, Campion had offered to help and they'd gone after them together, but kept falling behind because of Strawberry's injured leg.
"I had to come," Strawberry explained, "I have to face my own demons if I'm to ever put my past behind me." Bigwig was furious. He could except such insubordination for the likes of Hawkbit, Dandelion and even Strawberry, but never from Campion. He rounded on the rabbit in question.
"What were you thinking, Campion? I could expect such stupidity from those idiots," he said, turning to glare at Hawkbit, Dandelion and Strawberry, who cringed, "But I expected better from you!" Campion said nothing, standing firm. Hazel stared at each of the newcomers in turn, considering.
"I suppose there's no point arguing about this; it seems we're all going to Cowslip's warren together." Bigwig protested, "Are you sure that's wise, Hazel-rah? I can still order them back…"
"No, you can't do that," Josie interrupted him hotly, "I said I was coming with you and that's my final word. My son is out there and you have no right to stop me from seeking him out!" Alan sighed; it was clear Josie's mind was made up and nothing would persuade her otherwise. Finally, Hazel gave in and allowed her to tag along, under the condition that she wouldn't do anything reckless from now on. As for the troublesome trio, they were given a sound scolding by Bigwig for their disobedience (Hawkbit earned himself an extra cuff on the head when he protested that Bluebell had threatened to expose his and Bigwig's 'love affair'), before the incident was finally closed.
Luckily, there were no serious injuries from the attack. While putting the camp back into a little order, Josie turned to look at the body of one of the humanoids Alan was dragging out of the camp, "So these are our descendants? Dear God, for a moment I thought you were been attacked by apes, not humans. How did they become like this?"
"Remember what Drake said in his video log, about some of his people going insane after being poisoned by that serum meant for the elil and Hemlock then training them as war dogs, to use against El-ahrairah? Some of them apparently survived and evolved over again, albeit reverting to primitivism – Darwin's theory of evolution in reverse." Josie looked appalled at the thought; to hear it from Alan was one thing, but to actually see it for herself felt most unsettling.
"So that means we're the only ones left? The only intelligent humans on the entire Earth?"
"The ability to think is no longer Man's treasure alone," said Alan, "That's why it's going to be both species that will reshape the world. But that's something for a later date. Let's get some sleep; if we set off at first light, we should reach Cowslip's Warren by noon." As they settled down to sleep, he and Josie sharing a sleeping bag, Alan turned to whisper to her, "I love you, Josie." Josie didn't open her eyes but smiled as she whispered back.
"I love you too, Alan."
Not too far away, Robbins and Vervain had finally finished setting the last of the booby-traps: a dozen tiger-pits dug around the perimeter of the warren, with sharp wooden stakes planted at the bottom, waiting to skewer any unsuspecting victims that dared trespass here. The pits had been carefully covered up with a bed of twigs and weeds, making them completely undetectable. A couple of noose-snares had also been set up at the foot of trees around the warren, as a second line of defence. Primitive fortification, to say the least, but deadly enough to serve Robbins' purpose.
The pair had been working non-stop all day, fortifying their new hideout for when the Watershipers came looking for the girl – well, Vervain had been at least, forced to do most of the digging on his master's orders like a slave. Robbins finished inspecting the traps and turned to the exhausted Vervain, who was licking his aching, dirt-drenched paws clean.
"Everything's set. Too bad it isn't entirely efficient; even if we do get some, the rest might still make it through if they're a large group. All right, I'm going back to check on Cowslip. You stand watch here but make sure you stay out of sight; report back to me when you have sight of any arrivals. And don't muck this up or I'll skin you! Understood?" he barked at Vervain, who was yawning, fighting exhaustion, but at Robbins' stern tone instantly stood up straight.
"Y… yes, Robbins-rah."
Without another word, Robbins turned and left, leaving Vervain alone who, scared silly of the dark, crawled into a nearby hollow tree to hide and keep a sharp lookout for the Outsiders, who were expected to came calling fairly soon...
Meanwhile, back at the warren, Lucy had nearly finished cutting through her binds. After Robbins had left her, she had been left with only Cowslip for company, who sat by the entrance to the burrow, watching her out of the corner of his eye, making Lucy feel like an insect being tormented by the spider whose web she was caught in. Finally, tired of being stared at like an animal in a zoo, she'd worked up the courage to ask Cowslip for a story to kill the sheer boredom. Surprisingly enough, her guard had been most happy to oblige.
Cowslip told her the tale of his ancestor Greenweed, an estranged son of El-ahrairah and Laurel, who sought to restore rabbit dependence on humans as a solution to their harsh life of hunger, hardship and the elil. Although all intelligent humans had died off following Hemlock's purge, the humanoids had remained, evolving into packs of predators, but still maintaining some primitive breeding skills. Using that to his advantage, Greenweed and his people had managed to make a 'pact' with the humanoids: By accepting the flayrah the natives left for them, Greenweed would, in return, offer random 'sacrifices' to their custodians, in effect making them dependant on that last remnant of humankind – a practice passed on through his family, all the way to Cowslip.
Despite feeling rather sorry for Greenweed who had resorted to committing this atrocity against his own people out of sheer desperation, Lucy was appalled by Cowslip's boasting of his ancestor's 'noble' philosophy. But when she'd voiced her disapproval to Cowslip, the mad rabbit had instantly reverted back to his insane, faraway expression, saying he had no idea what she was talking about. At last, he'd drifted off to sleep. Lucy could now put her escape plan in motion: her pocketknife, which Robbins had overlooked, still hidden away in her pocket.
Working frantically, she finally managed to cut herself free. Robbins and that other rabbit Vervain still hadn't returned, so the coast was clear. Moving on tiptoe, Lucy crept out of the burrow, past the sleeping Cowslip and through the dark warren, towards the exit run. Fortunately, Cowslip, a sound sleeper, didn't notice anything. Overwhelmed with joy, she crawled out through the entrance run and into the meadow outside. The sweet night air felt cool and refreshing; at last, she was free!
Quickly reminding herself that it wouldn't be long before her kidnappers discovered her escape (she nearly pitied Cowslip, who would be in deep trouble when Robbins came back) and that she still had to find her way back to Watership Down, she set off at a run. Unfortunately, she completely lacked her father's wilderness survival skills and without a flashlight, she soon found herself lost in the dark. Thorns and brambles cut her bare feet, slowing her down.
Suddenly, she was always run over by a figure on horseback who appeared out of nowhere, coming after her. Robbins barely managed to halt his horse in time before he trampled her. Lucy turned and bolted through the trees, with Robbins in hot pursuit. She couldn't let him catch her now, not after she'd made it this far! If she could only make it to those thick trees ahead, where the horse couldn't venture through, she might have a chance... Unfortunately, that was not to be the case.
Suddenly, she felt a noose tighten around her ankle and next second, she found herself hoisted high up into the air upside-down; Robbins had chased her into one of his booby-traps, which had snagged her ankle, leaving her dangling from the top of a tree. Lucy groaned in frustration; one minute escape had seemed certain and now she was a prisoner…again.
Robbins rode up to her, chuckling nastily at the sight of her dangling helpless, "A little reception I prepared for any uninvited guests. It really does the trick, doesn't it?" Lucy tried to punch him in the face but Robbins stepped back, just beyond her reach, shaking his finger tauntingly at her, "Tut, tut… Feisty, aren't we?"
"Just you wait!" Lucy yelled, "My Daddy will come to rescue me and then you will be sorry!" Robbins only sneered nastily, "Foolish, gullible little girl. Don't you realise? Your father is dead! He abandoned you to go fight your furry friends' battle and the cowards left him to die, to save themselves. Your friends lied to you! And you know why? Because they don't care! You have no one left but me! Why won't you obey me and instead force me to punish you?"
Lucy was petrified by what she was hearing. So her daddy was really...dead? Had Hazel and the others actually left him to die and then lied to her, just to keep her in the dark? Pipkin had claimed he was just missing and presumed lost... So they had known all along? She was so shocked, so hurt at this apparent betrayal that she offered no resistance as Robbins proceeded to bind her hands, before getting her down and taking her back to the warren. It all seemed so meaningless now.
Ten minutes later, Lucy was back in her prison burrow, securely bound. As punishment, this time, Robbins had hogtied her wrists and ankles together, rendering her completely immobile. Also, suspecting she'd had some means of freeing herself on her, he'd frisked her and confiscated the pocketknife, leaving her no way of freeing herself again. Not that Lucy cared about escaping any more. Learning that her father was indeed dead and that her rabbit friends were responsible had completely crushed her spirit. Her hopes of rescue were all gone. Now, all she could do was lie there, crying, wishing she'd never seen this world that had taken her father away from her...
Having secured the girl, Robbins turned to confront Cowslip, who gulped in fear at his master's rage, "You useless lout! You almost let her escape!" Cowslip recoiled under Robbins' stern gaze, "M…my humble apologies, Robbins-rah. That ithe-brat is one cunning little wretch... It won't happen again." Robbins narrowed his eyes at him. This kind of sloppiness was something he wouldn't tolerate from anyone under his command.
"For your sake, Cowslip, it better not." He needn't add that the next display of slackness or incompetence would be met with a bullet in the head, "Now, Vervain and I spotted a campfire on the horizon. It seems we've got visitors coming, just as I thought. They should be here by tomorrow morning." Cowslip felt very uneasy.
"What if things don't go according to plan?" he asked, dreading the consequences if his master's insane counter-attack plan failed. Not only would he and Vervain both go down with him, but the Outsiders were likely to retaliate with torture and with death. His warren would offer them no safety, should the enemy breach the perimeter. But Robbins, thinking along the same lines, had it all worked out. He walked over to inspect the entrance to the Hall of Bones; the ceiling right above the entrance run was held up by a massive boulder wedged between the walls – the perfect set-up for another death trap, should their first line of defence fail.
Ordering Cowslip to start digging, Robbins set to work. The earth supporting the boulder was carefully cleared away, until it was no longer supporting the weight of the boulder. A stick, neatly sawn through at midsection, with a rigged trip-wire attached, was wedged beneath it, to hold it up. Anyone's foot tripping the wire would cause the damaged stick to give way, sending the boulder crashing down onto any unsuspecting intruders as they came storming in. In order to lure them in, Robbins had also had the good fortune of finding something he could use as bait.
Reaching into his jacket pocket, he took out a battered ELT unit, which had come off a motor glider or some other light aircraft – something left behind by the missing Jamie McEwen, who had incidentally passed this way not so long ago. Pulling its safety pin out, Robbins put out on the air a distress signal, normally used for tracking a downed plane, which anyone using even the most rudimentary of radio-tracking technology could pick up and follow here – only they would find nothing here but a bad death.
Taking it down into one of the empty burrows, he planted it someplace where it could be found, leaving it on and transmitting. Now, all he needed to find some secret place of refuge for himself and his little captive. Only one other place in the vicinity would offer them a good hiding spot.
"I'll move the girl to the church ruins in the graveyard. They won't find her there," he told Cowslip, "You stay here and be ready to give our visitors your usual routine greeting, just as you normally would…"
"Wait, you're leaving me alone?" interrupted Cowslip wearily, now looking truly scared. Joining forces with Robbins was one thing, but putting his own neck on the line wasn't part of the agreement! Robbins rolled his eyes in exasperation.
"All you have to do is stand aside and let them storm the warren, you fool; the trap will take care of everything else. Report to me when it's done." Without another word, he grabbed Alan's knife – his only remaining weapon – and hurried down to the burrow where his nemesis' daughter was being held.
"Wakie, wakie!" he said, shining his flashlight in her eyes to get her attention, "You and I are going for a little walk." Keeping her bound, he flung her over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. Leaving Cowslip to stand watch at his post, he carried her out of the warren, towards the graveyard, where they could both stay safely hidden until the worst was over.
Author's notes: Coming up next, the final encounter with Robbins… Enjoy and PLEASE REVIEW!