"Are you sure you know how to fly this thing, Deke?" asked Sam nervously, watching Derek pilot his homemade, hybrid aircraft in a zigzag pattern, as they searched the surrounding countryside for Stonecrop. Although the engineer's latest masterpiece seemed to perform well up here in the air, it came as quite a shock to Sam that Derek was in fact on his first solo flight, with no more experience in flying than she had.
"The Wright brothers didn't know how to fly until they learned," he told her as-a-matter-of-factly, "In this day and age, everyone is his own instructor." Although technically a half-lie, given that Hotdog had been their pilot four years ago and was slated to fly this contraption once her trials were complete, Derek had wanted to be the first to get his prized baby off the ground, his only piloting experience being some practices on a computer simulator and whatever tips he'd picked up from Hotdog. Sam tried hard not to think about it; back in the 21st century, a rookie getting an untested plane off the ground alone, hoping to learn to fly it through trial and error, literally taking his life into his hands, would have been unthinkable.
Luckily, Derek seemed more or less comfortable flying, although he did tend to bounce the aircraft around quite a bit because of his rough, amateurish manoeuvres. With him at the controls, Sam surveyed the ground below them through a pair of binoculars, looking for her missing stepson. So far, no sign of him anywhere.
Passing over the Comical Field, they spotted the Owsla cadets out on their patrol, navigating their way through the clefts. Derek briefly wondered whether Sandwort would soon be among Bigwig's troops, following the cadets' upcoming evaluation. Like many of the Watershipers, he was another big fan of his, despite the young buck's occasional obnoxiousness and self-importance. He and Hotdog had staked quite a large wager on him making it into the Owsla, against several other bets, including Holly and Bigwig, who were betting their ears on Speedwell Jr.
Making their way further south, they flew over the Great Marsh, which, from up here, resembled a stretch of flat, brown wasteland that went on for miles in every direction. Derek sincerely hoped Stonecrop hadn't been foolish enough to venture out here, otherwise they might be looking for a dead rabbit. Suddenly, Sam spotted something on the ground.
"Over there! I see a flare!"
Grabbing the binoculars from Sam, Derek zoomed in to where she was pointing. Sure enough, he spotted the red glow of a signal flare that someone on the ground was waving around, apparently trying to signal them. Could it be Stonecrop? He felt his blood run cold as he suddenly realised it wasn't Stonecrop at all, but Lucy. And from what he could see, she and Pipkin were in trouble. What were they doing way out here? Putting his questions aside for later, Derek quickly got on his radio, sending out an alert. He knew he was supposed to retain radio silence, but this was an emergency.
"Derek calling Watership Base. This is a Mayday, I repeat, Mayday! Youngsters in distress! Send Owsla reinforcements over to the Great Marsh, on the double...!"
Meanwhile, back on Watership Down, Alan had called Josie over to his lab, to show her the contents of that mysterious ampoule he'd found in the safe. Drops of the unidentified amber liquid had been made into slides and placed under the microscope for examination. Josie studied the sample Alan had prepared.
"I don't know what to tell you," she said, "It looks like some sort of pathogen or bacterium..."
"Not only that, it is a pathogen," said Alan, "And one of the nastiest sorts too, by the looks of it: HIV."
"AIDS?" asked Josie, "But that's a virus, not a bacterium. It wouldn't be visible under such a simple light microscope, much less so big..." But studying the slide again, she realised Alan was right. This thing, excluding its impossibly enlarged size, which was that of a fully grown eukaryotic cell, had all the familiar characteristics of the HIV virus: a capsid core containing a viral, single-stranded RNA genome and a membrane lined with glycoprotein caps, for binding with host cells. But, looking more closely, Josie could make out several other structures within, never found inside viruses.
"Are those...mitochondria?" she gasped in amazement, noticing the familiar matrix-shaped structures that produced the chemical energy of every cell in all living organisms, but never in viruses, which always needed healthy host cells to bind to, in order to function, "But that's impossible..."
"Mitochondria, ribosomes, cytoplasm, it's got them all," muttered Alan in equal bewilderment at this peculiar discovery, "Or, more precisely, it's got the core and membranes of a common retrovirus, but the size and all the components of a living cell – in other words, an entirely autonomous pathogenic system, unlike anything ever seen in the history of biology...but of what origin?"
"I've never seen anything like this before either," agreed Josie, "Do you think it's man-made?"
"Possibly; either that or its nucleus and membranes originated naturally from somewhere and were then inserted artificially inside a host cell, to replicate, just like a vaccine or a biological weapon," said Alan, "Only problem is, it doesn't seem to replicate on its own. I've tried all the stimulants I have on the shelves. It's completely dormant."
Both Alan and Josie were completely baffled, wondering what Virusine had cooked up in their lab. What was this mysterious hybrid virus called ISV? Did it have anything to do with Dr Van Owen's mysterious disappearance seven hundred years ago? Their thoughts were interrupted, when Dandelion suddenly came running in.
"We have a problem," he said, "Bigwig says come at once!"
Alan and Josie didn't need telling twice; whenever Bigwig called someone to report to him promptly, it always meant some major alert. Abandoning their work, they hurryingly joined the rest of the Owsla over at the Honeycomb. Alan was surprised to find Forest and Acorn there, who were supposed to be out on patrol with the others, wearing grim expressions. Nearby, Hazel was trying to reassure a terribly worried Hyzenthlay. Bigwig told them what had happened.
"It seems Primrose decided to elope with Sandwort," he said gruffly, "According to our tip-off, those two young fools are apparently headed for the Great Marsh!" The news brought several whispers all around, realising the danger those two foolhardy young rabbits were putting themselves in.
"We tried to stop them, parli," explained Forest, "Sandwort was outright vicious about it. I've never seen him like this before. He even threatened us if we told anyone. But we couldn't just let him go ahead with this madness...!"
"And you did just the right thing, Forest," Fiver reassured his son, "Both of you." Beside him, Clover, who had come to find out what her oldest son had done this time, lowered her head in disappointment. As Sandwort's mother, she felt it was her responsibility to teach him good behaviour, at which she had apparently failed miserably.
"I'm so sorry about this, Hazel-rah, Hyzenthlay-rah," she apologized over and over to the Chief couple, "The trouble is, Sandwort has got no respect for me, his father, or any other rabbit come to think about it. He's just impossible." Acorn nuzzled his mother to comfort her. Beside her, Holly, after hearing of his eldest son's appalling behaviour, was furious.
"Sandwort is going to regret this, Hazel-rah!" he fumed, "I'm his father and I will see to it that he's taught a very unpleasant lesson in discipline, I swear it!"
"I'm going to beat the hraka out of that little miscreant when I get my paws on him!" growled Bigwig. He rounded on Hyzenthlay, "And you should have made sure to keep that insufferable daughter of yours in line!" Clearly, he wasn't at all pleased to hear that some headstrong young doe, out looking for a little adventure, had added more problems for his Owsla. Hyzenthlay looked very hurt. Seeing his Captain of Owsla's temper on edge, Hazel stepped in.
"That was uncalled for, Bigwig," he chastised him sharply. Hyzenthlay had always been a good and caring mother to their children and Bigwig had no right to hurt her feelings, "I assure you, Primrose will be in for some proper disciplinary lecturing, as will Sandwort. But, currently, we need to find them!"
"And it gets worse," said Silver, turning to look at their human friends, "Lucy and Pipkin have gone too..." Alan was on his feet in an instant.
"How did this happen?" he demanded angrily. After their terrible row that morning, he expected Lucy to be holed up somewhere, avoiding everyone until she cooled down, as she often did whenever she was upset. But he never expected her to run off, taking Pipkin with her. This sure is turning out to be the day of teenage rebellions and runaways, he thought. He would be having a very stiff word with those two when he found them. "And how come nobody noticed until now?"
"I saw them," piped up Strawberry, who had noticed Lucy and Pipkin slip away during afternoon silflay, but hadn't thought much about it until he'd realised they hadn't come back, "I thought they were on their Junior Owsla rounds, but then Little Threar told me there were no exercises scheduled for today..."
"And you didn't tell anyone, you idiot?" Alan chastised him, feeling his temper rising, "You're Owsla, for crying out loud! What were you using for brains?" Several rabbits gasped at this outburst. Strawberry's ears drooped in shame and hurt. Alan, realising he'd gone too far, calmed his nerves. Lucy was his responsibility after all and he had no right to implicate Strawberry in it.
"I'm terribly sorry, Strawberry. I didn't mean it."
At that moment, Hotdog, who had been on his shift monitoring the radio, hoping to pick up any transmissions from the convicts out there, came running in with an urgent message that had just come in.
"Deke just radioed in; he and Sam have spotted Lucy and Pipkin out on the Great Marsh. He says they're in trouble!" Alan felt the blood drain from his face. If something happened to Lucy, he'd never forgive himself.
"All right, we've wasted enough time arguing!" barked Bigwig, "Owsla, prepare to move out at once. We're on a rescue mission to the Great Marsh!"
Five minutes later, the Watership Owsla and the humans, armed and on horseback, were mobilising, making their way south towards the Great Marsh, in search of their runaway children, hoping they weren't too late...
Moments before the alert had gone on the air, Lucy and Pipkin had stopped to rest. So far, their search for Sam's letter was proving fruitless. As Lucy had feared, it was like looking for a needle in a haystack. At this rate, they'd never find it. But they couldn't just go back empty-handed, not after having come this far.
Lucy was helping the parched Pipkin drink some water from her canteen, when suddenly they were caught off-guard by a disturbance from somewhere close by. At that moment, a panicked and semi-hysteric Sandwort came bursting out of the foliage, running headlong into Lucy and Pipkin.
"What's going on Sandwort?" asked Lucy in surprise, "What are you doing out here?"
"Get out of my way, you fools!" screamed Sandwort, in a state of such hysterical panic, for an instant, they thought he'd gone completely insane, "Run for your lives!" Just then, the stoat that had been chasing him appeared on the scene, growling hungrily at the sight of all that walking fresh meat, saliva dripping from its yellow teeth. Pipkin gasped in terror.
Quickly getting over her fear, Lucy grabbed her crossbow and fired a bolt in the direction of the stoat. But, in her surprise and panic, her aim was sloppy, resulting in the bolt merely grazing the stoat on the side of the head, but not killing it. The angry eli, taking its attention off Sandwort, came charging at her instead. With no time to reload and with her radio lying on a stone and out of reach, Lucy would have been stoat chow in another instant; but, like her father, she always had one last trick up her sleeve and took out a signal flare – fire, mankind's oldest and most effective weapon against wild animals.
The red tip whooshed to life, giving off a bright red flame. The stoat momentarily drew back, its natural fear of fire keeping it at bay. But unfortunately, the elil of the future were much bolder than their 21st century counterparts. Its hunger quickly surpassing its fear, the bear-sized beast furiously swatted the burning flare with its massive paw, trying to knock it out of Lucy's hand. With ithe and elil caught in a deadly stand-off, Lucy frantically continued waving it in its dazzled face, trying to drive it off, but to no avail.
"Pipkin, Sandwort, get behind me now!" she shouted, placing herself between her friends and the threatening stoat. At least this way, if she couldn't win this, the others might still manage to get away while the stoat feasted on her dead body. Pipkin and Sandwort complied, the latter pathetically trying to shield himself behind Pipkin, sobbing and scared out of his wits, expecting to die. At that moment, the flare burned out. Lucy barely had enough time to strike another, before the stoat could pounce at them, but this time, their luck had run out.
Looking desperately over her shoulder, Lucy saw that they were being pushed back towards the edge of the quicksand. With her second flare about to burn out any second now and with only one more left in her pocket, unless she could think of something, pretty soon they would have to choose between drowning or being offered up on a stoat buffet. There was only one thing for it now.
"Pipkin, when I give the word, take Sandwort and run! I'll hold it off for as long as I can..." But, unlike the cowardly Sandwort, Pipkin, who was neither the bravest nor the strongest of the Watership rabbits, couldn't live with himself if he left Lucy at the mercy of the hungry stoat!
"What? No, I'm not leaving you behind...!"
"Don't argue with me now, Pipkin!" she cried desperately, knowing he wouldn't listen to her. After all, they were like brother and sister, and she, for one, knew she wouldn't leave Pipkin if he told her to run, or Sandwort for that matter, despite him having accidentally set that stoat on them in the first place. Unfortunately, she had let her guard down for a split second.
Taking advantage of her distraction, the stoat suddenly swiped at her again. Its massive paw, lined with razor-sharp claws, grazed her forearm, opening up a deep gash and knocking the flare out of her hand. It fell into a puddle in the mud and went out. Crying out in pain, cradling her bleeding arm, Lucy and her two companions watched helplessly as the stoat moved in for the kill.
The inevitable seemed imminent, when suddenly a new sound of hope filled their ears: the sound of an aircraft engine. Looking up, they saw Derek's bush plane approaching fast, no doubt having spotted Lucy's flare. Help had arrived!
Up in the air, Derek, who had seen his goddaughter and her friends cornered by that stoat, was making a rapid descent. From up here, it was impossible to get a good shot of that stoat and there was no way the reinforcements he'd radioed in for could get here in time. Glancing at his fuel gauges, he realised they weren't going to be able to make it back to Efrafa either. There was only one thing for it then – he and Sam would have to go in themselves. Most likely, he'd be wasting his brand-new plane, but there was no other way. Perhaps, if she didn't smash up on touchdown, they might be able to salvage her later. Sam suddenly realised he was going in to land – right in the middle of a quicksand-filled marshland!
"Deke, what on earth are you doing?" she shrieked, "Are you insane?"
"That's my goddaughter down there," retorted Derek sharply, "Hold on to your knickers, Sam! We're only going to get one shot at this..."
Taking the plane down, he levelled out just ten feet above the ground, flying straight towards the stoat at full speed, about to strafe it. He smiled, noticing Lucy, realising what he was going to do, duck for cover, pulling Pipkin and Sandwort to the ground with her. The force of the speeding plane's wake turbulence hit the unsuspecting stoat like a sweeping tsunami, sending it tumbling away like a rolling barrel of fur. Sam screamed as the plane went into a stall, before it hit the ground hard...
Lucy got to her feet again, her heart racing and her hair all over the place. For a girl who had endured the terrifying experience of being kidnapped and held prisoner for a whole year as a child, her first near-death experience had shaken her to the core. Pulling herself together, she saw the stoat had been swept into the quicksand and was sinking to a muddy grave. Its frantic struggles to escape its entrapment were futile. Pretty soon, its head disappeared beneath the blanket of mud and slime forever and it was gone. The danger was past. But she had no time to think about that now because, turning round, she saw Derek had been unable to pull up again in time, causing an irrecoverable stall.
The plane hit the ground hard, skidding across the marsh and going into a violent spin, before finally coming to a dead stop. By the sheerest luck, it had missed the quicksand, but touching down at full speed in deep mud hadn't been the best choice for a landing site either.
Terrified out of her wits, Lucy broke into a run, running towards the downed plane. For a moment, she expected it to burst into flame and explode, but it didn't. As she hurried over, the door burst open and Derek emerged, helping an utterly shaken Sam out. He turned to look in dismay at the plane he'd spent the last couple of years putting together, now all gone to waste. Although it hadn't been badly damaged, the undercarriage had burrowed deep into the mud, where it was stuck fast. It was several hundred yards to the nearest dry ground, too far for them to winch it out. They'd never be able to get it off the ground again. Cursing, he turned to Sam.
"Are you all right, Sam?"
"Yes, I think so, Deke," mumbled Sam, whose face was white as marble, silently thanking the Lord that she was still alive and vowing never to fly on another plane again. Derek stroked her back reassuringly. Then he spotted Lucy and her friends, hurrying over to meet them. He frowned, obviously not too happy to catch them wandering on their own out here.
"What the blazes are you kids doing here?" he demanded angrily, staring from one guilty face to another, "You'll be up the gum-tree when your Dad finds out...Cor blimey, Lucy, your arm!" He gasped, noticing the gash on his goddaughter's forearm. He turned to Sam.
"Under my seat, there's a first-aid kit. Hurry!"
Luckily, the wound was only superficial, so Derek only needed to clean it out and dress it. As for Pipkin and Sandwort, they'd come through unharmed, if not badly shaken from their close shave with the stoat. Sandwort was walking as if in a trance, his expression hollow and vacant from what looked like a bad case of shock – and as they soon found out, for good reason.
"What's the matter with you?" asked Lucy, "Lendri got your tongue?"
"Primrose..." he muttered, finally finding his voice again, as he suddenly remembered, "Oh, Frith, it's Primrose...!" Without a single word of explanation, he suddenly took off as fast as his legs could carry him, back from where he'd come from. Derek and the others stared dumbfounded after him.
"What's gotten into him then?" asked Derek, frowning after the fleeing Sandwort, who was supposed to be elsewhere, on patrol with the rest of the Owsla cadets, "How did you all end up out here together anyway? What do you think you were doing, besides trying to get yourselves killed? Huh, well...?"
Lucy however needn't bother explain herself, because her attention was suddenly elsewhere. Looking over her godfather's shoulder, at a cake of mud and peat splattered all over the windshield of the plane, which had been kicked up by the spinning prop, she noticed the outline of something smooth and square lying on there. Derek picked up a mud-caked envelope. Wiping some of the mud away from the top, his surprised expression turned into an ear-splitting grin as he read the name scribbled on the back. Beside him, Sam, also recognising it, burst into tears.
"Well, I'll be damned..."
Lucy felt her heart soar. She needn't ask if that was really Dr Drake's letter to her father, which she and Pipkin had nearly died over, found at long last. After all this trouble, and against all odds, their efforts had incredibly paid off! And that alone was worth any punishment that was bound to come from her little escapade any day. How easily they could have just missed it...
Elsewhere, unaware to everything that was going on, Stonecrop was wandering aimlessly, feeling hungry and utterly miserable. After fleeing from Watership Down the previous night, he had wondered around in the dark for hours and hours, crying his heart out at the thought of Sandwort's cruel words, until finally, exhausted, he'd fallen asleep under a tree.
He'd woken up famished, realising he'd wondered too far from the Down and was now hopelessly lost. Not that it really mattered anymore. He was never going back there again, that much he knew for certain. He simply couldn't bear to take anymore of this treatment. Sandwort was right; he didn't belong in this world, nor would he ever. It had been a big mistake coming here in the first place. He cursed them all; Sandwort, Primrose, every single one of those wretches for turning their backs on him, wishing he'd never met them. Never in his life had he felt so alone.
In an attempt to relieve his misery, he'd tried nibbling at some weeds and grass to satisfy his hunger. But, due to his ignorance of edible vegetation, the stuff he tried chewing was so bitter and rough-textured that he could barely swallow it. So, instead, he'd started walking, wondering how far he'd get before hunger or the elil, as his supposed fellow rabbits called them, put him out of his misery.
Passing through the Great Marsh, he was making his way across the mire, curious to see what was on the other side, when he suddenly heard a terrified feminine scream coming from somewhere close by, which sounded oddly familiar, followed by some desperate pleas for help.
"Help me! Please, somebody help me...!"
Forgetting any sense of caution, he hurried over to investigate. Tearing through the tall grass, he barely managed to stop himself in time, as he came to the edge of a large stretch of quicksand, now clearly visible because of the large muddy hole in the peat, where the victim he'd heard screaming had fallen through. With a twinge of horror, Stonecrop saw Primrose's head sink into the bog, muffling her desperate cries for help.
Stonecrop took a step forward to try and grab her, but feeling his paws start to sink into the quicksand, he backed away, realising it was no use. With Primrose buried and quickly suffocating to death down there, just out of his reach, Stonecrop felt despair kick in. Despite everything she'd done to him, he couldn't just leave her there to die! Looking desperately around, his mind working furiously for some solution, his eyes lit up as he spotted an old log that had been washed up nearby by some flash-flood during the previous winter.
Hurrying over, he nudged the log down to the quicksand, moving as fast as he could. How much longer could Primrose hold her breath? One minute? Two? Pushing one end of the log into the bog, he watched as it sank into the quicksand, leaving the other end securely snagged onto the edge and forming a crude stepping-stone, allowing him to reach out just far enough to get Primrose.
With the log sinking and slipping beneath him with every move he made, Stonecrop took a deep breath and, sticking his head down into the mud, managed to grab hold of Primrose's ears just beneath the surface. Pulling with all his might, he managed to get her head out of the quicksand so she could breathe. But as he tried pulling her out, he found she wouldn't move; it was as if something had snagged her hind legs, pulling her back down. What could it be? Suction? His own life on the line, Stonecrop struggled frantically to pull her out.
Just as the log was about to give way under the strain, which would send them both sinking to their deaths, her legs finally came free and he pulled her out onto safe, solid ground. Turning her over, he saw she'd passed out. Her soft, pale brown fur was all drenched in mud and slime and she wasn't moving. Stonecrop felt his insides twist up in horror. Was she dead? Pressing his ear against her mouth, he couldn't make out any breath. But then, her eyes suddenly fluttered open as she went into a violent coughing fit, spitting up all the mud she'd swallowed. By some miracle, she was still alive!
Primrose blinked in the sunlight, lost and confused. The last thing she could remember was sinking into the deathly blackness of the quicksand and feeling the mud pouring down her throat, drowning her. As she got her breath back, wondering how in Frith's name she wasn't in the Shadowlands by now, she looked up and noticed Stonecrop bending over her.
"Are you all right?"
"Stonecrop?" she gasped in surprise, realising it was him who had just pulled her out of the jaws of the Black Rabbit of Inle. The last rabbit she ever expected to see again, who had more than enough reasons to leave her to her fate, had actually saved her life! "How did you find me...? Stonecrop? Stonecrop, wait! Where are you going?"
Satisfied that she was unharmed and out of danger, Stonecrop had turned and was walking away without another word. Staggering weakly to get on her feet again, Primrose pattered after him, "Stonecrop, please answer me! Why won't you talk to me?" But Stonecrop just kept on walking without even glancing at Primrose, flatly ignoring her. "Stonecrop, I just want to talk to you, please..."
"And why would you want to talk to me, the disgraceful outcast?" asked Stonecrop, throwing back at her one of the many insults she'd repeatedly used at his expense over the past few months, making Primrose cringe, as she realised what this was all about. Her mother's warning from earlier that morning seemed to suddenly strike her in the face like a slap. She felt a wave of terrible shame and guilt sweep over her.
"Stonecrop, please, I'm so sorry..."
Unfortunately, that pretty much tore it and Stonecrop rounded on her, glaring at her with an expression of utmost hate and disgust. Memories of all the insults, the jeers, the mocking and all the personal attacks she and Sandwort had thrown at him over the past few months resurfaced. She had made his life a living hell and now she actually had the nerve to say she was sorry? The thought alone made him feel so angry, that it took every ounce of self-control he possessed not to strike her. Instead, he gave her a cold shoulder.
"Oh, so now you're sorry are you?" he sneered, clearly not buying it, "Suddenly, I'm no longer your father's disgraceful illegitimate son, who deserves to be driven out?" To make his point, he turned his face so that she could see the cut across his left eye, courtesy of Sandwort. "Well, apology not accepted! So stay away from me!" Primrose felt tears appear in her eyes.
"I swear to you, Stonecrop, I knew nothing of this...!" she protested through her tears of shame and hurt, which, incidentally, was the truth – she hadn't known anything about Sandwort driving Stonecrop out, nor had she put him up to it as the latter assumed. However, Stonecrop, either refusing to believe her, or simply too blinded by his anger, would hear none of it.
"Don't push it," he said coldly, "I've already saved your life once; next time, I won't even bother!" Primrose continued to plead with him.
"Stonecrop, please come back to Watership Down with me," she said, "Surely, you don't want to be a hlessi forever, do you? You'll die out there!"
"Well, at least I'll be dying with dignity and self-respect, unlike some other rabbits I could name," Stonecrop retorted, his mind made up, "You've made your bed, Primrose – now you can sleep in it!" Those words were too much for Primrose, who, realising too late her pride and arrogance had taken her beyond any hope of reconciliation, curled up into a ball of misery, crying her heart out.
"Then why didn't you just let me die and spare me this agony?" she choked through her tears, feeling so awful, so ashamed of herself, she wished Stonecrop had just felt her to the quicksand. Unfortunately, she knew it was the truth. She was a brat and now it had finally caught up with her. How she wished she had the power to go back in time, like her Uncle Alan, and undo everything she'd done... But now, it was too late.
Although Stonecrop was beginning to feel a little sorry for her, seeing her so miserable, it didn't make him feel any less forgiving. As far as he was concerned, not even a thousand apologies could undo the pain she'd caused him. Instead, he fixed her with a cold gaze.
"Because my mother, whom your family and friends branded a murderess – which I think is another unforgivable mistake, by the way –, always told me there's no satisfaction to be gained by watching your enemy die – only bitter revenge. And I'm not out here looking for revenge."
There was nothing more to be said. But before Stonecrop could turn and walk away, leaving Primrose to her well-earned misery, someone else – the last person either rabbit ever wanted to see again – appeared on the scene: Sandwort.
Realising what he had done and with the stoat now dead and gone, he had doubled back for Primrose as fast as he could. Of course, by that time, it was probably too late, but Sandwort wasn't about to shoulder the blame for abandoning another rabbit, and a doe for that matter, to die. His reputation was at stake here. Bursting out of the foliage, he stopped dead in his tracks, dumbstruck to find his idol doe safe and out of danger, but in the company of his sworn nemesis. Jealousy and spite flaring up inside him, he lunged at Stonecrop.
"You again! Touch my doe, will you? I'll kill you...!" But he never managed to lay a paw on him however, because someone else suddenly came to Stonecrop's rescue: Primrose.
With the ferociousness of a mother-doe defending her young, she cuffed Sandwort hard across the face and sending him staggering back with a bloodied cheek, worse than the one he'd given Stonecrop. Both Sandwort and Stonecrop were struck dumb with amazement at her spunk, and in Sandwort's case, shocked.
"How dare you! You left me to die, you miserable coward!" screeched Primrose, "And to think I was fool enough to ever look up to you!"
"Primrose, I swear, it was an accident...I mean, I would have come back for you..." muttered Sandwort, trying to explain himself, but only managing to come up with a mixture of lame excuses, which didn't justify his actions in the slightest. Repulsed, Primrose responded by cuffing him again.
"You abandoned me to save your own worthless neck! You're nothing but a pathetic cheek and a bully!" she yelled, any admiration she had ever felt for Sandwort now completely forgotten, "Stonecrop is hrair times the rabbit you are!" Poor Sandwort couldn't even find the words to retort, realising he had lost the doe of his dreams forever. Sure enough, Primrose glared at him.
"Get out of here, Sandwort!" she spat, "And if you ever come near me or Stonecrop again, I swear to Frith, I will claw your eyes out!" Cowering at the prospect of receiving another cuff on his already battered face, the battered and utterly humiliated Sandwort turned and scurried away.
Stonecrop and Primrose looked at each other, the former gaping like a fish out of water at the way Primrose had handled Sandwort. Despite their differences, it sure had been impressive! Primrose's face fell, remembering their earlier conversation, yet somehow managed to compose herself. What she had done to Stonecrop couldn't be undone and she would have to accept it with dignity. Finally, she spoke again.
"Stonecrop, I understand if you can never forgive me – Frith knows I deserve as much –, but if you would at least give me a chance to repay the favour you've done for me today, I'd be content..."
To her utmost surprise, rather than continue avoiding her gaze, Stonecrop looked at her intently; in fact he almost smiled. A few days ago, he would have given anything for the friendship of just one fellow rabbit and now the opportunity had finally presented itself. Perhaps there was still hope for him to find a place in this world after all? Remembering Silver's wise words, he sighed, realised there was only one thing for him to do.
"It's all right, forget it," he said, "I forgive you." Primrose was stunned.
"After everything I did to you, you're willing to just let it go?" she asked, "If anything, I deserve as much as that wretched Sandwort...!"
"Just forget it," said Stonecrop again, "You've already repaid the favour, by standing up for me against Sandwort – you're the only one who's done that since I came here, and for that, I accept your apology."
Primrose was overwhelmed. After all this, Stonecrop had still found it within his heart to give her another chance! She promised herself she'd set things right for the both of them, no matter what it took. Gratefully, she nuzzled him under the chin.
"Oh, Stonecrop, thank you! Thank you so much!" she cried, boring into the warmth of his thick fur. Stonecrop felt himself grow tense; he'd never experienced this kind of loving affection from anyone before, not even from Sam. This was like being wrapped in the wings of an angel, literally consuming him whole. Finally, Primrose pulled away, only then realising that she'd accidentally drenched him in mud – after all, she was still covered in it from her dip in the quicksand.
"Oh, I'm so sorry! Frith of Inle, you're a mess...!"
"Well, that makes two of us," said Stonecrop sheepishly, blushing red under his fur by getting so intimate with his first doe. He thought Primrose looked kind of cute drenched in all that mud, which didn't obscure her stunning beauty in the slightest, mesmerizing him. Eagerly, he reached over to return the nuzzling. Primrose giggled in embarrassment. Like him, she'd never gotten so intimate with any buck before and was finding the experience most exhilarating.
Suddenly, the tender moment was interrupted by the Watership Owsla, who appeared on the scene, looking worried sick and, at the sight of the two runaways, angry. Not a moment too soon, Derek and Sam, accompanied by Lucy and Pipkin also appeared, having followed Sandwort over to where he'd said Primrose was trapped. Primrose cringed at the sight of her father staring furiously back at her, while Lucy did the same with her father, whose face showed equal displeasure. Both of them were in for a lot of trouble.
"I'm very disappointed in you, Primrose," said Hazel sternly. Although, like Alan, he rarely yelled at his children, the anger in his voice always had the desired effect, "What were you thinking, sneaking off to go traipsing across the Great Marsh? Don't you realise you could have been killed?" Primrose lowered her head in silent remorse. Whether it was her foolishness by placing her trust in Sandwort or just her reckless desire to prove herself, it had still been a stupid, reckless mistake on her part.
"And I haven't even started with you," growled Bigwig, glaring daggers at Stonecrop, who visibly recoiled under the menacing gaze of the larger rabbit. As far as Bigwig was concerned, this young foreigner had gone too far and he would personally see to it that, this time, he was put in his proper place, "What do you mean by running off like that in the middle of the night, you brainless, thoughtless young buck? Do you have any idea how much trouble you caused my Owsla today?"
"Uncle Bigwig, please leave him alone! It's not his fault!" protested Primrose, stepping between Stonecrop and the angry adults. She turned to her father, "Parli, he saved my life today." The Watershipers looked at each other in surprise. Primrose told them how Sandwort had lured her out here to make advances on her, his shocking confession that he'd driven Stonecrop out to eliminate the rivalry, the stoat attack, and how he'd left her to drown in the quicksand to save himself in an act of sheer cowardice.
"It seems we have a lot to talk about back home, Primrose," said Hazel finally. Behind him, Bigwig and several others were muttering angrily to each other; they didn't like the sound of what Sandwort had done one bit and had every intention of giving him a taste of some very unpleasant medicine when they got back! Lucy, who had just seen Sandwort walk right past them with a battered face and wanting to be left alone, realised her friend was going to be in deep hraka when they got back, as she would be, noticing her father's disappointed expression.
"You're in big trouble, you two," said Alan to Lucy and Pipkin, who lowered their heads sadly, expecting some stiff punishment, "You broke every rule of common sense and safety in the book. Now, why did you do it?"
"I'm so sorry, Alan," mumbled Pipkin, fighting back tears, noticing the disappointed expressions Hazel and the others were giving him. They clearly weren't pleased with him at all, "I wanted to tell you, I really did, but Lucy wouldn't let me..."
"Well, a simple 'sorry' doesn't cut it, Pipkin!" barked Alan sternly, gesturing at Lucy's injured arm, "I've always trusted you to watch out for Lucy's safety and you let me down!" Pipkin looked like he was about to cry. However, this time Derek stepped in. He shoved the muddy envelope they'd found into his friend's face.
"Before you start chastising them again, I suggest you read this first," he said, "I imagine it's going to come as quite a surprise to everyone." Curious, Alan opened up the envelope, pulling out a neatly folded letter. Although it had been lying out on the wet marsh for nearly three months, the waterproof sellotape lining of the envelope had protected the paper from mouldering away. He frowned as he read the contents within. He glanced at Sam, who was staring back at him with her arms crossed.
"What's it say?" asked Hawkbit curiously, not liking the shocked look on Alan's face. "What's all this about...?" But Alan hurryingly tucked the letter away in his pocket without answering him. This conversation would be best continued somewhere more private. And he wasn't particularly looking forward to it.
"We're done here," he said stiffly, "Let's move out! Hey, Hotdog, I said come on!"
The Scot was examining the spot in the quicksand where Primrose had fallen in and, as they walked over for a closer look, they realised he'd found something. Using a stick, Hotdog fished out the end of a length of rope – what, Stonecrop realised, had snared Primrose's leg earlier, when he'd been trying to pull her out.
Alan examined the rope; it didn't look like something left behind by some passing humanoid hunter. It was made of nylon fibbers, of the type used by the colonists as mooring lines for their balloon, definitely 21st century technology. Could it be something they'd lost in the river long ago? Tugging on it, he realised there was something on the other end...something heavy.
Heaving together, the five humans pulled whatever was tangled on the other end out of the quicksand. Slowly, the thing emerged out of the muck. Alan's first thought was that it was some sort of awkward-shaped, black mouldy sack; only this was no sack, but rather something much, much worse.
"Frith of Inle...!"
The rabbits all gasped as they laid eyes on a decaying rabbit head, followed by a pair of broad shoulders and massive forepaws, which emerged from the black muck on the end of the rope. They'd discovered the mummified corpse of a long-dead rabbit, apparently another victim of the quicksand, or perhaps the river, which often flushed driftwood and other debris, including drowned animal bodies, out on the Marsh.
Primrose and Pipkin gasped and looked away in horror, the former trying not to picture herself like that; if it weren't for Stonecrop, they'd be pulling her corpse from the marsh now. Hawkbit and Strawberry lost control of their stomachs and retched. The rest of the rabbits all lowered their heads in silent respect for the unfortunate wretch, whoever he was. They pulled the massive body out of the mud and laid it down on the grass.
It wasn't a pretty sight to behold; the flesh was all swollen and mouldy from decay, yet the anaerobic environment of the bog had prevented it from becoming a skeleton over the years. Whoever it was, he was a massive rabbit, almost the size of a bear. Much of his jet-black fur had shed away from decomposition, exposing patches of shrivelled, semi-liquefied, putrid flesh underneath. The ears had shrivelled up like a pair of old wrinkled socks and the eyes were but a pair of hollowed-out sockets, yet enough facial features remained for Alan to recognise an old foe of his, whom he had watched die four years ago.
"My friends," he said grimly, "I believe we have finally found the remains of General Woundwort..."
Author's note: Surprised? Originally, this chapter was going to be longer, but I decided to cut it short. More things will be explained in the next chapter. Enjoy and please, please review!