The Warren of Death
Alan turned to look at his companions, who were all staring curiously at that strange rabbit, Cowslip, perplexed by his most peculiar attitude. How could a rabbit, finding himself face to face with a talking human, look completely unconcerned? In spite of that, however, the appearance of this newcomer and the news that there was a warren nearby still felt like a great relief to them all.
None of them had had a decent meal since leaving Sandleford, and were utterly exhausted. They couldn’t make it much further without more food and rest, particularly in the case of the injured Violet and Pimpernel, if they were going to make it to Watership Down. Additionally, the rabbits needed more recruits, particularly does, if they were going to start a new warren. Violet was the only surviving doe; one doe against fourteen young bucks that would need mates if they were to continue their society. The threat of Efrafa made it clear that more recruits were necessary. This warren might just be the answer to all their problems…but not as far as Alan was concerned.
Cowslip, meanwhile, had retreated into the foliage, saying he would be waiting for them back at his warren, should they decide to accept his invitation. He strode through the heather and was gone in the thickets.
"Odd behaviour that Cowslip fellow, don't you think?” remarked Bigwig suspiciously, but none the less intrigued, “What has he got to gain by asking us to join him? And why in Frith's name doesn’t he show the least surprise that we have a talking human among us? Is he blind…?"
“We ought to have nothing to do with that Cowslip or his warren!” said Fiver forcefully, “That rabbit is evil, I could feel it in my bones…!” It seemed the little seer could sense the horrible truth beneath Cowslip’s deceiving, seemingly friendly nature of hospitality. The others however, who didn’t possess his sixth sense, or Alan’s knowledge of things to come, and thus, didn’t realise what they were up against, were astonished, and, in Bigwig’s case, indignant.
“What are you so afraid of, you squeamish little beetle? What do you suppose he’ll think of us if we don’t go in? He’ll think we’re cowards…!” Deciding it would be better to be safe than sorry, Alan finally stepped in, spilling the beans.
"Cowslip means us a lot more trouble than you realise,” he said grimly, explaining what he knew from the book, about Cowslip’s warren being a death-trap full of farmers’ snares, where rabbits lived resigned to an easy life of good food and protection from elil, like cattle, ultimately to be picked off one by one for slaughter.
“…Under Cowslip’s influence and the benefits of his ‘easy life’, they all live like idle-minded sheep. Whenever a rabbit goes missing, they never speak his name again. Those gone simply never existed. The rules are simple: live with dignity and a will to accept your fate," he finished by quoting Cowslip’s own words. As he had expected, the rabbits looked appalled.
“Frith of Inle!” gasped Holly, looking disgusted, “How could those cowardly wretches even live with themselves? Sacrifice the rabbit next to them so that they might live one day longer? Why, this is outrageous!” The others voiced their agreement with equal anger and disgust. Bigwig in particular, who had frozen at hearing of his would-be near-death encounter with the snare when he refused to listen to Fiver’s visions, and regretting his earlier outburst, knew just what to say about this.
"Well, in that case, nobody is going near that place. We aren’t close to starving yet and we can always find more does and recruits elsewhere. That madrabbit Cowslip and his cronies can keep their tharn life as they deserve!" The others nodded in agreement; given what Alan had just said, the most logical course of action would be to stay well clear of that horrible place. But there was still something else to consider – and, much to everyone’s surprise, the voice of protest came from Fiver.
"But what about all those rabbits under Cowslip’s control? They may be cowardly fools, but we can't just leave them to such a horrible fate!" Alan was amazed; in the book, Fiver wanted to stay as far from Cowslip’s warren as possible, but now, hearing of the sick atrocity Cowslip was committing against his own people, gave him the willpower to want to try and correct this injustice. The others, however, looked anything but keen; putting themselves at risk, when they knew of the danger, was damn foolish, to say the least. After all, what did they owe those rabbits, who were apparently content to living such a hollow life? Nothing whatsoever, so they might as well leave them to their fate. Only Alan had a different opinion.
"Fiver has a good point. In your story, some of them did actually join you and proved to be important for your new warren,” he said, having come up with a plan, “I think it is within our power to work this out for the benefit of both sides." Although sceptical at his confidence, the rabbits figured they might as well hear him out. He considered for a moment.
"We accept Cowslip's invitation, but play ignorant to the fact that his warren is a death trap. Derek, McEwen and I can search the warren and remove all the snares, right from under Cowslip's ugly nose; once that's done, we can try discreetly talking to some of his rabbits that may be willing to join us; we recruit as many as we possibly can, and then leave unnoticed. That won’t only work to our advantage if it pays off, but it will also deliver a devastating blow against Cowslip!”
“Cunning and trickery worthy of El-ahrairah himself,” Bigwig commented, looking utterly impressed, “That blighter won’t even know what hit him until we’ve ruined him! Good idea, chum!” Alan smiled.
“So, who’s in?” They all considered for a moment, weighing out the odds; despite the danger they were about to drag themselves into, with Alan’s help, it seemed more or less a fool-proof plan, worth the risk. Finally, they all nodded in agreement.
"All right, it's settled. Let's go and brief the others. And as for you…" Alan said, turning to Robbins, who still sat nearby, lost in his own thoughts, "We aren’t done yet. We will finish our little conversation later."
"I look forward to it," Robbins sneered nastily at Alan's retreating back, as he watched them go. This wasn’t good. He knew he couldn’t keep up pretences for much longer; it was only a matter of time before they worked out his true intentions. He had to act fast! To his good fortune, his chance had, ever so conveniently, presented itself in the form of Cowslip; and Johnson’s foolish little escapade was the perfect way for him to get close to someone who might help him to finally fulfil his mission…
By that time, it had started to pour down with rain, which was extremely heavy for common English spring rain, due to the shifted climate of this future age. Inside the ruined church, everyone was awake, unable to sleep from the water leaking down through the collapsed roof of their poor, makeshift shelter. After a brief reciting of their encounter with Cowslip and the dark secret of his warren, Alan outlined his plan to infiltrate the warren and take along any rabbits willing to join them.
"Remember," he explained, "Never wonder off alone. Keep well clear of the thickets or any other place around the warren that's likely to conceal a hidden trap. If you get snared and you’re alone, it’s all over. Above all, not a word to anyone in that place of who we really are until we’re ready to make our move. Are we clear?" They all nodded.
"Outstanding. Let's go."
They left the church and followed Cowslip's trail towards his warren, located on the far side of a nearby grassy meadow, surrounded by forest, where the village of Newtown Common - now long gone - once stood. The entrance to the warren was a large hole dug into the side of a little hill, resembling the opening to a mineshaft. As they approached, they saw Cowslip emerge, waiting to welcome them with open arms.
"Welcome, welcome, greetings all. I am so glad you’ve decided to accept my invitation. Please come in and share our happiness," said the sly rabbit joyfully, hurrying over to greet them, again showing no fear at the sight of Alan or his two companions. He reminded Alan of a domesticated rabbit, fully accustomed to the presence of humans. What humans?
The group were ushered below, into a large circular cavern. This was the biggest underground chamber Alan had ever seen; the roof towered several feet high, supported by a web of thick roots of trees growing on the hill above their heads, which formed the foundations of the warren below. Several side runs led away from the main chamber to other parts of the warren. A large pile of assorted flayrah lay in the centre, like a massive vegetarian buffet, big enough to feed a small army. But what really caught Alan’s eye wasn’t so much the ingenious architecture or the appetizing food, but the unique ‘décor’ of the warren.
The walls of the chamber, in contrast to Sandleford, which had been plain earth, were embedded with ‘mosaics’ of curious-looking stones, smooth and coloured, almost artificial. Upon closer inspection, he realised they were actually fragments of shattered brick, porcelain, concrete, glass and even mirrors, undoubtedly the remains of houses from centuries earlier, now collapsed and buried under lairs of sediment. Alan could see that all these bits of coloured stones formed crude murals, mostly scenes with rabbits that he couldn't fully understand, but fascinating nonetheless.
Looks like the artistic spirit has also survived this far into the future, just like language, by been passed on from one species to another, he thought, staring at all the different scenes depicted in the murals. It seemed to be a crude history-in-pictures, much like the cave paintings of Lascaux or the Bayeux Tapestry, recording some of the local history.
He could make out something that resembled a pair of rabbits standing in the rays of Frith, as if during a blessing; a group of rabbits feasting before a massive pile of flayrah like the one in the main chamber; and finally, what looked like, a rabbit bowing before a man on a horse. Unfortunately, there was so little detail and the image was so crudely made, he couldn't tell much of this future ‘man’, except that it was definitely human and that he knew how to ride a horse. Was this a representation of fact or just pure myth?
A dozen plumb rabbits sat comfortably around the chamber, not looking the least scared or even surprised that three humans had just entered their warren, barely acknowledging their guests’ arrival. Alan could see a dull, vague look in their eyes, almost as if they were in some sort of trance, without any conception of the world around them, further arousing his suspicions of Cowslip. His companions, on the other hand, couldn’t help but feel utterly fascinated by this palace of a warren.
"Plenty of does, good food, and fine shelter too, if we wanted to move in," Bigwig whispered to Holly, staring in awe at all these healthy, well-groomed rabbits. The rest of them were staring hungrily at the pile of flayrah, drawling; after nearly two days on the road without a proper meal, they had definitely worked up a ferocious appetite. This whole hospitable atmosphere was quickly sidetracking their attention, making them forget the reason they had come here in the first place.
"These rabbits must eat like El-ahrairah," Hazel whispered to Alan who nodded grimly, “Yes…like cows on a milking machine!” He was interrupted from commenting any further however as Cowslip spoke again, introducing them to his people.
"Friends, meet the latest additions to our warren," the oversized white rabbit announced in a sickly sweet voice, “Let’s make them feel welcome! Share your food and your burrows with them! Show them our grand hospitality!” Unable to resist the temptation any longer, the rabbits joined in the feast, stuffing themselves like pigs – all, with the exception of Fiver, who stood aside, completely uninterested in eating a single bite, looking troubled.
"There is something wrong about this place, right Fiver?" Alan asked his friend, who was shuddering violently, his eyes so wide, they seemed to grow larger than his head. He bent down and put a comforting arm around the young rabbit as Fiver huddled close to him like a frightened child, "Yes, there is something bad about this place. Something awfully bad…" But Alan calmed him.
"It's all right lad. Weknow what we're up against so we’re in control. Once they’re all asleep, I'll go out and remove those damned snares. Everything will be fine. But, meanwhile, I need you to be strong!" he whispered urgently, intent on not letting Cowslip noticing the buck’s distress and getting suspicious.
“I have faith in you Alan."
After Fiver had calmed down somewhat, Alan also helped himself to dinner. No point keeping up pretences if he followed Fiver’s example. The vegetables tasted raw and unwashed, with a touch of natural decay, indicating that, wherever they came from, they weren't treated with fertilisers or repellents. Nonetheless, they were wholesome and satisfying for his ferocious appetite.
As part of the plan, Alan tried to get to know their hosts better. Soon, he found myself chatting with a chubby, ginger-furred buck with deep blue eyes, and his mate, a pale brown doe of equal size, both of which looked vaguely familiar… Of course! They were Strawberry and Nildrohein, two more characters from the book, the former of which would ultimately desert Cowslip and join Hazel's band.
Strawberry had come to Cowslip's warren as a kitten with a band of wandering hlessil and had settled down here after his parents died. His mate, Nildrohein was Cowslip's daughter, who had developed a close friendship with Strawberry, a friendship that had eventually blossomed into love. Remembering from the story, after Nildrohein was killed by a snare, a distraught Strawberry had finally seen the error of his ways and abandoned his easy life in favour of Hazel. Alan made a mental note of talking privately to Strawberry later on. Perhaps, he could be the key to the task of recruiting others, hopefully, without having to watch his mate die this time round…
Later that night, after everyone was sound asleep, Alan got up and silently headed outside, lighting his way with his flashlight, to initiate the next phase of the plan. Making sure he was alone, with the precision of a Special Forces soldier searching for hidden mines, he began a thorough search of the perimeter for any signs of snares. But, to his utmost surprise, there was nothing; not a single trace of any kind of man-made trap, or any evidence that there was one at all, anywhere. After several futile searches, he gave up.
Alan felt puzzled; perhaps he had been wrong after all? Maybe, in this new world, Cowslip’s warren wasn’t a death trap at all? Then again, where did all that good food come from when no one seemed to work and why did elil stay away when there were a bunch of plumb rabbits living here? It seemed too perfect to be true.
By now, the first light of dawn had started to appear on the eastern horizon. Alan, now all drenched in mud from poking around in the wet bushes, was feeling utterly exhausted. Deciding it best to postpone his search till morning, he turned to make his way back to the warren. It was then that he noticed he wasn't completely alone after all; in the twilight, he noticed a small figure lying under a nearby tree, moaning.
Bending for a closer look, he realised it was Fiver, who had apparently sneaked out after lights out, his non-ceasing feeling of danger being too overwhelming for him to sleep inside. The small buck lay curled up in a ball, moaning in his slumber, probably having a nightmare. Alan bent down and gently shook his little friend awake. Fiver gasped as he realised there was a large figure crouching above him but then calmed down when he saw who it was.
"What are you doing out here, Fiver?" asked Alan kindly as he gently patted the runt rabbit, “You shouldn’t be sleeping out here all alone… What’s the matter?” Fiver looked scared, but it wasn’t from his premonition of some unseen danger shadowing them.
"Alan, I saw something terrible in my dreams. Alan…I think you’re in grave danger…"
"Me? In grave danger?” the man asked, suddenly feeling very alarmed. Despite being a level-minded academic and scientist – the likes of whom often paid little attention to the concept of the supernatural -, Alan knew all too well, in contrast to most of his companions, that Fiver's visions were not to be taken lightly. “What are you on about?"
As soon as he had calmed down, Fiver explained, "I saw you struck down by something that looked like…a bolt of lightning, before a deep black hole opened up in the ground and swallowed you up. It was terrible…" Alan held Fiver close, trying to calm him.
"It's all right lad, I am here and I am fine. Everything is fine." But Fiver shook his head, "No, Alan, there’s someone out there who won’t rest until he’s destroyed you."
In spite of his worrying thoughts, wondering who that unseen foe after his blood was, Alan was too tired to dwell on it just then. Carefully picking him his little friend, he carried him back down to the warren. Making himself comfortable on the straw bedding of the burrow he was sharing with Derek, Robbins and McEwen, he drifted off into an uneasy sleep, Fiver curled up snugly beside him, neither of them realising that Alan’s mysterious would-be killer lay sleeping only three feet away, dreaming of his own fiendish plans…
It was late the next morning when Alan awoke, Fiver’s vision from last night completely forgotten. Now that it was daylight, he realised, even though he was underground, there was surprisingly enough light to see his surroundings clearly, without the use of a flashlight. This peculiar phenomenon, he soon realised, was the sunlight being reflected off the murals that covered the walls of the burrows, spreading the sunlight throughout the warren.
Despite the 'elegance' of this place, it didn't take him long to realise how inconvenient the absence of common necessities could be. Although the warren provided food and shelter, it still lacked many things that made human life bearable; there was no bathroom, wardrobe, television, computer, coffee, soap, toothbrush, laundry facilities, or any of the luxuries Alan was accustomed to. Even the simplest of things like heating, artificial illumination, and even furniture, were entirely absent. His quarters consisted merely of an empty burrow, with some rough straw on the floor for bedding.
Realising how badly he smelt, and the filthy condition of his clothes, he got up and headed outside, where his companions were out on morning silflay. After he had washed at a nearby stream and even had a painful shave, using his knife as a razor and some mud for cream, he took Derek, Hazel, Bigwig, Holly and Fiver aside, out of earshot from Cowslip, for a private chat.
"There is nothing; no snares, no signs of hostile humans, or any danger whatsoever. I don't understand it…"
"Then perhaps you were mistaken about this place?" asked Bigwig, “I knew that theory of yours was a little too far-fetched to be true…” Alan was surprised; how come Bigwig, who had been firmly on his side to infiltrate this place last night, suddenly decided to dismiss his warning altogether? Then again, how could he explain the apparent fact that he had put them on alert for nothing? However, some of them still saw reason to be suspicious.
"That is strange,” said Hazel, “But I still don't trust Cowslip one bit. To be on the safe side, I suggest we stick to our plan and leave first chance we get…"
"Why in Frith's name should we do that?" snapped the mighty veteran incredulously, "If we were wrong, then maybe we should forget the plan altogether and settle down. I don't know about you, chaps, but I’m tired of wandering around like a lost hlessi. True, Cowslip does seem rather irresponsible when it comes to security, but that can be amended in good time. Otherwise, this place is like Frith's heaven and I see no reason why we should…"
"You're wrong Bigwig. This place is nothing but a vile death trap! We must go while we still can," said Fiver, looking utterly horrified at the idea of settling down here. Bigwig was beginning to get very frustrated, his short temper pushed to the limit.
"Oh no, not you too! Look, you and Alan may have been right about Sandleford, but that doesn't mean you’re right about everything. We have to get on with our lives, not continue wandering around aimlessly like a band of lost outcasts…!" Hazel, however, also shared his brother’s concerns.
"They have a point, Thlayli,” said Holly, “I’ve tried talking to Cowslip myself; he won't give me a straightforward answer to anything. He’s hiding something from us, and I am not sure I want to find out what it is…" Bigwig however, only seemed to lose what little patience he had left at his former Captain’s lack of support.
"Embleer Frith, I've heard enough of this nonsense! Cowslip has invited me to stay and, by Frith, I think I will. Now, if you duffers are too proud to face facts, then you’re free to continue on to whatever Frith-forsaken place Alan has promised you. But I have found my new home." With that, he turned and stormed off. Alan couldn’t believe what he had just heard.
"It appears Cowslip's influence is somehow much stronger that I expected; he’s quickly gaining control over all of us, despite our awareness of the danger…whatever it is," he said, as they stared at the rest of their companions out on the meadow, happily enjoying themselves, all sense of caution completely forgotten. With the exception of Hazel, Fiver, Holly, Derek and McEwen, the others seemed to have, almost magically, embraced life at Cowslip's warren overnight.
"So what are we going to do now? We can't just press on and leave our friends behind," Hazel said, "I don't care what Bigwig says; I don't trust that sweet-talking Cowslip one bit…"
"Then we must find a way to make them see the truth for themselves," Alan said, thinking hard, "And that means, we have to find out exactly what Cowslip is hiding from us, how he retains control over all the rabbits here, and of course, how to put a stop to it."
"But how? If Bigwig - who is the most vigilant rabbit alive - won’t back you up, you can bet your life the others won't either," replied Holly grimly. Although the former Captain of Owsla had also been utterly impressed by Cowslip's warren, he had made a personal vow to trust Alan's judgement in future, after what had happened to his home warren, "If you're so certain about Cowslip, wouldn’t it be a lot easier to just corner him and force the truth out of him?"
"I am afraid that would do more harm than good," said Alan, fearing that such a drastic solution would only enlarge the rift forming between them and their friends even more, "We need proof of his treachery. I’m sure every rabbit here knows exactly what's going on but are just too scared, or perhaps too brainwashed, to talk about it. Unless, of course, someone can be somehow tricked into talking…"
After leaving the others, Bigwig returned to his silflay, feeling bad-tempered. This newfound life was everything a sane rabbit could ever ask for and he wasn't about to give it up now. He knew how Fiver always had these crazy premonitions, but why should Alan be so stubborn as to endure that little runt’s every whim? Then again, given that fellow’s tragic past, I wouldn’t be surprised if he sees danger everywhere he goes, he thought with a chuckle as he made himself comfortable in the grass, his stomach full.
As he lay snoozing in the sun, he suddenly noticed Pimpernel was gone, probably having wondered off again in his semi-delirium and gotten lost. Cursing the others for not having someone watching him, he hurried out into the woods, sniffing around, trying to pick up his trail. Suddenly, he was caught off-guard by some familiar voices coming from the direction of the graveyard.
Making his way to the edge of the clearing, he spotted Robbins and Cowslip out among the tombstones alone, deep in chat. Suspicious at their curious motives, Bigwig took cover behind some nearby tombstones, carefully watching them, his ears straining to eavesdrop.
"…So much for hospitality,” Cowslip was saying in his insane, sing-song voice, “I offer them shelter and food and they repay it with betrayal. But no matter, those troublemakers will soon realise what it means to double-cross me…" Robbins smiled devilishly, impressed by Cowslip’s slyness.
Bigwig narrowed his eyes, as it dawned on him that Cowslip was indeed playing them false all along! And to make matters worse, it was Robbins who had betrayed them! He should have known that little weasel was up to no good!
"I see we both share the same desire," Robbins said, looking extremely pleased at having found a willing accomplice, "That’s why I have a preposition for you. Listen carefully…" He whispered something into Cowslip's ear, who grinned in satisfaction. Bigwig had already heard all he needed to hear. Suddenly, he sprang from his hiding spot, glaring at each of the two plotters in turn.
"Caught in the act! And to think, I was such a blind fool to trust you Cowslip!” he growled at the pudgy rabbit, who flinched in fear, “And you finally decided to show your true colours Robbins? Why are you doing this? Why sell us out?" he growled menacingly, staring at Robbins with narrowed eyes. The man, however, didn't flinch under Bigwig's stare, as he cautiously drew his stun gun from his back pocket.
“If it's any of your business, you dumb, thick-headed oaf, I have some unfinished business to settle with your friend Alan!" he sneered coldly, before suddenly lunging forward and zapping Bigwig in the throat with the Taser. The burly veteran’s eyes went wide, before he crumpled to the ground unconscious. Robbins gave him a nasty look, "Some nosy idiots never learn to mind their own business…" He turned back to Cowslip.
"I'll take care of him. I've been meaning to give this bullying, interfering oaf a lesson for a while now anyway. In the meantime, you start digging in front of those three stones," he said, pointing at the three headstones that bore his name and those of Alan and Derek. Taking out a length of cord from his pocket, he fashioned it into a hangman's noose and then brought it down towards Bigwig's neck…
Strawberry lay comfortably beside Nildrohein, as the happy couple lay snoozing in the sun. Suddenly, the tall form of Alan loomed into view above him, "Hi there. Sorry to disturb you, Strawberry, but I was just wondering if you could show me around. I really don't know my way around here…"
"Why, of course, I would be delighted to give you a tour. Come with me," said Strawberry excitingly as he turned to Nildrohein, "Excuse me love, I'll be back soon." In his excitement, he didn’t notice the man activate the open audition mode on a walkie-talkie tucked into his belt, which McEwen had given him, so that they could hear everything the ginger buck was saying from afar.
Strawberry led Alan out on the meadow, which was scattered with stone ruins, the remains of Newtown Common. Square stone or brick outlines, which were the foundations of old structures that had once stood, could been seen embedded in the ground everywhere. But the town itself was long gone, levelled and overrun by a blanket of sediment and vegetation, indicating the long passage of time.
Strawberry led Alan down a hole, which Alan recognised as the entrance to an old World War Two air raid shelter that had once stood in the town square. Preserved partially intact, the small underground room was littered with a collection of human trinkets, which lay scattered in piles: bottles, glasses, dishes, cutlery, watches, coins, bits of machinery, street signs, and other pieces of trash that Strawberry and his friends had dug up from the ruins, furnishing an elaborate museum of sorts.
“Nildrohein and I used to play here as kittens,” he told Alan, “We used to have so much fun digging up all these magical trinkets, although we’ve never been able to understand who made them or what they’re for…” he said, staring at his reflection in a cracked mirror that stood upright against the wall, playfully watching his reflection ‘imitate’ his movements, puzzled by the strange phenomenon. Alan, on the other hand, was more puzzled by how Strawberry still didn’t acknowledge him as being a human; it seemed Cowslip had somehow manipulated his people’s minds, rendering them somehow unable to even see a flesh-and-blood human standing before their very eyes, acting is if he were just another rabbit. But how was that done?
Turning back to the junk, he saw the possibility of finding something useful. Several sealed glass jars lying in a corner caught his eye. Forcing the lid off of one, he found a familiar white, dust-like powder inside; it was baking soda, probably from someone’s kitchen, all dried up into crumbling lumps, but otherwise well preserved all these centuries by being sealed in an airtight container. Although obviously now useless for its original purpose, it was still a highly reactive nitrate, which could useful in a number of other applications.
His first thought was finding the other necessary ingredients to make gunpowder. They had no firearms to defend themselves against the giant predators of this future world, not to mention the Efrafans. However, as he didn’t have any sulphur or charcoal handy, much less a gun to use it in, the idea would have to wait. With Strawberry’s back turned to him, Alan discreetly pocketed the jar of soda, along some other useful odds and ends he could find.
They resumed the tour. By now, Alan was quickly beginning to lose hope of Strawberry giving him a lead onto Cowslip's secret. Then the ginger buck led him to the edge of the woods, where another strange-looking rabbit stood atop a large stone, surrounded by a bunch of spectators.
"That’s Silverweed, our mystic,” said Strawberry, staring at the strange rabbit as if mesmerised by him for some reason, “He entertains us all with his beautiful rhymes." Although Alan wasn’t a particularly keen follower of poetry – with the possible exception of Burns or Coleridge, which his father used to read him as a boy –, reminding himself he still had a mission to do, he followed Strawberry over to the gathering for a closer look.
The slim, silvery-white rabbit-poet called Silverweed had a faraway look in his eyes, almost as if in a trance, staring blankly ahead as he chanted his strange poetry aloud to his spectators, much like a reverent at Sunday prayers. A glowing, glassy texture consumed the rabbit's wide eyes, the sight giving Alan the chills. Strawberry, on the other hand, seemed unconcerned as he eagerly joined in with the rest of his fellow rabbits – also glassy-eyed and in a trance-like state – as they recited the strange rabbit’s gibberish in a lifeless, robot-like monologue. What was he doing to them?
“…Rain runs like a rabbit on its own; snow falls like a soft and silent stone; wind blows with a low and sorry moan. And this is all we have, we, who sleep, and dream alone…”
At the sight of all these spectators standing hypnotised under the rabbit’s gaze, Alan froze, suddenly remembering from the story: Silverweed was a mystic, like Fiver, with telepathic, mind-penetrating powers… In an instant, the mystery came into light: these rabbits were all so idle and content, and utterly oblivious to his presence, because they were under Silverweed’s spell! This psychic mind-invader was manipulating their minds, telepathically suppressing their instinctual sense of fear and curiosity, and forcing them to embrace Cowslip's leadership. He had to warn the others!
He slowly started backing away, trying to keep a straight face so that Silverweed wouldn't notice. Unfortunately, the sinister mystic somehow seemed to sense Alan's uneasiness, as he suddenly snapped out of his trance and turned to stare at him directly in the eyes. Instantly, Alan felt a weird and highly unpleasant sensation inside his head, as the rabbit's supernatural sight penetrated his mind like a drill. Unlike Fiver's innocent touch, which only sensed emotions, Silverweed's was a violent invasion, much like a mind rape; the mystic was viewing his thoughts and memories like an open book! Alan quickly looked away to break the connection, but the damage was done.
"You… you're a time traveller! You’re here to steal my master's people! Master Cowslip! Help…!" Silverweed screamed at the top of his lungs. In an instant, Alan had lunged forward and clamped Silverweed's mouth shut with one hand, whilst holding him pinned against his chest with the other. The silvery white rabbit struggled violently but Alan held him firmly.
"Oh no, you don't! Shut up or I'll wring your bloody neck! You hear?" he hissed into Silverweed's ear, who continued to struggle, his shouts muffled by Alan’s hand. The threat proved pointless however, for the moment Silverweed’s concentration had been broken, the spectators had suddenly all snapped out of their trance, staring in utter terror at Alan, finally realising who – or rather what – he was.
“An ithe!” someone shouted, “Scatter!” In an instant, the terrified group of rabbits were fleeing in all directions, screaming bloody murder - all except Strawberry, who stood petrified with fear and confusion.
"What… You…you’re an ithe?" the orange buck muttered in disbelief, caught off-guard by the realisation that the stranger before him was in fact a human, looking ready to bolt as well. Alan, who was still struggling to restrain Silverweed, desperately tried to calm the frightened buck down with words, hoping he wouldn't run off until his backup – already alerted by the sound of the commotion over the walkie-talkie – arrived.
"It's all right, Strawberry. If you just let me explain…" But the ginger buck’s natural instincts, finally revived by Alan’s intervention, had won out, and he turned to flee. With his only chance of getting to the bottom of this about to be wasted, Alan knocked Silverweed unconscious with a rabbit punch, tossed him aside like a rag-doll and gave chase.
Despite being a rabbit - supposedly faster than a human - Strawberry’s chubbiness and lack of physical fitness after years of idleness, were an advantage to Alan, who soon caught up. Jumping on top of the ginger buck, he pinned him to the ground. But Strawberry was still quite big, much larger than the runty Silverweed, and could put up a pretty good struggle.
Alan was just about to lose his grip on him, when Derek, Hazel, Holly, McEwen and Fiver, who had been following them at a safe distance on Alan's instructions, suddenly sprang from the bushes and managed to restrain the panicked buck just in time, "You aren't going anywhere, you fat fur-ball, now don’t move!" Derek hissed, as they held him down. Hazel spoke softly, yet firmly.
"Strawberry, please listen! We don’t mean you any harm; we have come to get you and your friends out of this embleer place, so you may join us on our journey to our new home on the high hills." Although intrigued at the mention of a life of freedom, Strawberry was utterly lost at the realisation that these strange hlessil were in fact companions with this talking ithe, as he continued staring fearfully at Alan.
“You’re an ithe?” he said again, more perplexed than ever, like someone just woken up from a deep sleep, but no less fearful, “But…how can you talk…? How come I didn’t realise…? What was Silverweed blabbering about…?”
“He was under that little blighter’s control,” explained Alan, “All of them. He sensed that I was on to him and panicked, and I had to retaliate; that broke his concentration and brought them back to their senses. Not exactly a pleasant awakening, I’m afraid, when they saw me standing there…”
Hazel turned back to Strawberry, “Strawberry, what is going on here? Why would Cowslip have Silverweed brainwash you all, to keep you idle? What dirty secret is he hiding from us?” Although Alan figured Strawberry would try and lie to them, he hoped, in his confusion, the buck would accidentally let something slip. And indeed he did!
"I don't understand. How did you know about…?" He suddenly broke off, looking as if he had just swallowed his tongue. Alan and the others rounded on him, listening intently, "Keep talking; there is no Cowslip here to bully you around." But Strawberry still looked too frightened to speak and Alan realised it had to be hiding some forbidden information. However, encouraged by their offer of a chance for a better life, or perhaps because Silverweed's dark influence had finally lifted from his mind, he finally spilled the beans.
"At sundown, on every full Inle, ithel raid our warren – we never see them because we’re always asleep at the time, but we know they’re there. When we wake up, some of us have vanished and there is a supply of fresh flayrah left outside for us. Cowslip says that is that is the price we must pay for our good life and we should accept it with dignity. He strictly forbids us to talk about any of this to any newcomers, or even amongst ourselves. Those who defy him are always the first to go… He forces us to listen to Silverweed every day and we quickly lose our will to stand up to him…" He broke down sobbing in shame and self-pity.
“Their own minds stolen away by that rabbit, so they would forget their fear,” muttered Fiver grimly, as they finally caught onto the truth, “Sick…”
"Are you saying this place is bewitched?" asked Holly, "So this is why Bigwig and the others were so quick to accept Cowslip's hospitality, despite knowing there was danger… But how come we weren’t bewitched too?"
"That’s because it's not magic," Alan explained, "Silverweed is a telepath, who can tap into your mind. He doesn’t forcibly control you like a puppet; instead, he simply, gradually suppresses everyone’s thoughts of fear, much like a soothing drug, until they lose their will entirely. The others must have been exposed to him somehow…" At this, Holly gasped in realisation.
"By Frith, he's right! This morning, while you were still asleep, there was some sort of entertainment hosted by that rabbit Silverweed during silflay. Fiver refused to attend and run off; Hazel had to go after him. I was also away at the time, scouting the surrounding area. When I came back, Bigwig appeared much more content than when we first came - all of them seemed somehow idled in the head, as if mesmerised by the sight of a stunning doe. Our friends were all being manipulated by an unseen foe and we didn't even realise…!"
"No wonder Fiver couldn't stand being in that place,” Hazel put it, “He, of all rabbits, could sense Silverweed's dark presence lingering among us, threatening to consume us all." They all stared proudly at the little seer, who was beginning to look a little embarrassed at finding his far sight in the spotlight for the first time in his life.
Finally, it was all clear: the ‘humans’ Strawberry spoke of supplied Cowslip’s rabbits with food and defended their warren from any outside danger, literally breading them like cattle; on every full moon, they’d come and pick out the plumpest of their ‘livestock’ for food, not unlike like the Morlocks did the Eloi in the Time Machine. Cowslip was offering up his own people as sacrificial lambs for slaughter!
Suddenly, Alan remembered that tonight was the next full moon, time for another raid. They had to leave here before sundown, or they’d be caught in the attack! With a sense of utmost urgency, he turned back to his companions.
"There’s no time to lose. Strawberry, you go and get Nildrohein and as many of your friends as you can persuade to join us. Derek, you and McEwen go back to the warren and get as much food as you can carry. The rest of us are going to round up the others, starting with Bigwig. But first,” he said, gesturing at the unconscious Silverweed, “let's take care of him, before we fall victim to another of his little tricks!"
Using some duct tape from the crash-kit, they bound and gagged Silverweed, and even slapped another piece over his eyes so his mind-penetrating powers wouldn’t function. He would be able to free himself after a few hours of painful work and tell Cowslip what had happened - only they would be long gone by then. They moved him under some nearby bushes, hiding him from view, and returned to the warren.
The great assembly chamber was empty, most of Cowslip’s rabbits having fled or barricaded themselves in their burrows in fear, after Silverweed’s influence had lifted from their minds. Cowslip was nowhere to be seen. Strawberry had admitted Cowslip’s scheme to the whole group, earning cries of outrage and disgust from everyone. By the time he was done, there wasn’t a single rabbit not eager to see the last of this foul place as soon as possible. It was only then that they realised something was up.
"We’ve got a problem," said Derek as he returned with McEwen, their bags bulging with groceries they had snatched from the warren’s larder, "We can’t find Robbins anywhere; Bigwig is nowhere to be seen either." Alan frowned; how could they lose someone right from under their very noses?
"All right, I’ll go find them,” he said, “Hazel, you and Fiver come with me. The rest of you, wait for us here. The moment we come back, we hit the road. All right, let's move!" Leaving the others to try and persuade some of Cowslip’s rabbits to join them, the trio left the warren, in search of Robbins and Bigwig. Alan kept staring at the setting sun on the horizon, estimating how much time they had left before dark, which wasn’t long coming. Judging by its position, they probably had another half-hour at best.
It didn’t take them long to pick up Bigwig’s trail, heading back towards the graveyard; Cowslip and Robbins’ tracks were also found nearby, indicating Bigwig had been following them for some reason. What had happened to him? The answer was waiting only a few yards away, in the form of something hanging from a nearby tree, struggling frantically…something alive. The three of them gasped at the horrible sight.
It was Bigwig, hanging from a tree like a big piñata by a length of wire-cord tied in a noose around his neck. His enormous weight was causing the thin cord to squeeze his windpipe shut, almost cutting through his flesh, slowly strangling him to death. The mighty veteran was twitching and gagging in death convulsions, droplets of blood and saliva trickling out of his open mouth, his flapping tongue turning blue from asphyxia, as the last flicker of life faded from his bloodshot eyes.
Recovering from the shock of finding their friend in a hangman’s noose, Alan hurried over and, with a swing of his knife, cut the cord, letting Bigwig's limp form fall to the ground. They turned him over and quickly removed the remaining length of cord still tangled tightly around his neck, so he could breathe. Bigwig however didn't stir.
"No, no, no…!"
Alan desperately checked Bigwig for any signs of life. Although his neck hadn’t been broken, it seemed they were already too late; he had been strangled to death. Hazel and Fiver stood petrified, staring in silent horror at their brave comrade's lifeless body. But Alan wasn't giving up yet; pinching the buck's nostrils shut, he begun giving Bigwig mouth-to-mouth and heart massage, performing emergency CPR.
"What in Frith's name are you doing?" snapped Hazel incredulously, as they watched Alan furiously pounding Bigwig on the torso and blowing down his throat, seemingly desecrating their friend’s body.
"When someone's heart has stopped, sometimes you can restore its beating by doing this and bring him back,” Alan panted as he continued pounding furiously at Bigwig's heart and giving him rescue breathes at a steady pace, “Come on Bigwig old chap, breathe!" Unfortunately, Bigwig didn't respond. Exhausted, Alan gave up.
"We’ve lost him. I am so sorry Hazel. This is all my bloody fault; I shouldn't have brought you here," he muttered grimly, feeling utterly awful. First his wife and daughter, and now Bigwig's blood was on his hands too; if it hadn’t been for his stupid plan to infiltrate Cowslip’s warren, this would never have happened. He half-expected his friends to start yelling him for his foolishness; instead, Hazel placed a comforting paw on the man’s shoulder.
"There’s no point blaming yourself, Alan. We all volunteered at our own risk, even Bigwig… But, who would do this?” It was then that they realised something very suspicious was going on here.
Alan picked up the discarded cord and examined it, "This isn’t a native hunter’s snare; it's a strangulation cord used by assassins, and an illegal gadget too I might add. But where did it come from…?” The evidence that the murder weapon used on Bigwig was a 21st century gadget, and thus not the work of Cowslip’s custodians, made the identity of the culprit fairly obvious: Robbins!
“I should have known better than to let that lying scoundrel out of my sight!” At the realisation that Robbins had committed such a cruel and brutal act against a member of their own group, Alan’s grief gave way to fury, intent on seeing justice done. “He can’t have gone far. Come on, we are going to find him and take him down!" He spoke into his walkie-talkie, "Derek, McEwen, do you read me?"
“What the hell is keeping you?” came Derek's voice, “Tensions are mounting back here…" Alan turned up his volume so Derek could hear him, "Shut up, Deke, and listen! There has been some trouble. Robbins has killed Bigwig…"
"What the bloody hell are you on about?”
"Robbins double-crossed us! I want you and McEwen to keep a sharp lookout in case he comes back and make sure everyone stays within sight of each other while you’re at it. We’re going to search the graveyard, to see if we can find him." Ignoring Derek’s protests, they moved on, intent on catching up with Robbins, before he could get to someone else. However, in their haste, they didn’t notice the seemingly lifeless body they had left behind was actually still breathing; the CPR had succeeded in kindling the last spark of life within Bigwig’s heart before it could die out completely…
They approached the graveyard, vigilant and cautious, Alan kept muttering threats and curses under his breath, "Very well, Mr Robbins. You want to keep your secret so bad? Then you can take it with you to the grave when I’m finished with you!"
The graveyard appeared deserted. No sign of the murderer anywhere. However, there was something else. The three false graves had been exhumed; three armoured metal cases stood open beside each pit. Peering inside one, he saw something that nearly took his breath away.
Lying packed inside each case on some old straw bedding was a warhead-like device, divided into two adjacent sections: a pointed-tipped cobalt shell housing some sort of nuclear core and another, can-shaped component, resembling a detonator, attached to its base, fitted with a blinking control-pad in Cyrillic characters. Each of these scuba-tank-sized apparatuses bore no identification serial number of any kind; only a distinct crest engraved onto their lime-green shells: a red hand held in a stop gesture. They were staring at the three lost unobtainium warheads, Red Hand had smuggled into the country from occupied Kazakhstan centuries ago, having finally turned up in the most unexpected of hiding places – their own empty graves!
Alan stared thunderstruck at the devices, feeling his blood run cold at the sight of these weapons of mass destruction, sitting live and dangerous in their cases. After all, any layman who had lived through the Third World War knew of the destructive power of unobtainium, mined on the Moon during the Chinese space program of the early 2000s, and then used in their weapons program against every international treaty, reducing half of Asia, as well as most of the southern English coastline, to a wasteland.
“Alan, what are these?” asked Hazel, who, despite his ignorance of human weaponry, could tell they had walked into serious trouble. Sure enough, a ghostly pale turned to face him.
“We’re in deep trouble, Hazel…”
"I’d say that’s a slight exaggeration, Professor." They turned and saw Robbins standing with his back against a tree nearby, apparently expecting their arrival, a chilling sneer on his face. Beside him was Cowslip, his usually spotless white fur looking very dirty from, what appeared to have been, some heavy digging, but otherwise sharing Robbins’ triumphant sneer. No doubt the two of them had been busy. Alan glared at the two associates.
"What's the meaning of this, Robbins? And what the hell did you do to Bigwig?" The man, finally showing his true colours, laughed cruelly.
"That nosy oaf should have minded his own business. But let's take one question at a time, shall we?" he said in a sickly sweet voice, sinister as the Devil himself, "You’ve arrived just in time for the ribbon-cutting; a little ‘inheritance’ left behind by my old Red Hand friends, so to speak, waiting for the right person to come along and claim it.” He gestured at his deadly prize, “Behold the thermoelectric cores which form the heart of Black Inferno - the ultimate breakthrough in the history of all weaponry!"