And Thunder Strikes!
The Efrafan infiltration party consisting of Robbins, Vervain, Campion and Chervil crept into the dark, ruinous Buxton Hall. After hearing the sound of the outsiders’ voices die down, indicating they had all been drugged, they had approached the hideout but found it locked up pretty tight. So Robbins had led his infiltration party down through a secret passage leading into the ruins through the basement instead, once intended as an emergency escape route for his old faction in case of a police raid. Cautiously, they made their way towards the drawing room, where the firelight was coming from.
They paused at the doorway, listening carefully, in case someone was still awake; however, there wasn’t a sound to be heard, other than the steady breathing of the sleeping. Cautiously, Robbins peered inside at the sleeping group of humans and rabbits, all of them lying drugged and sound asleep. He grinned, "Lads, I believe we’re in business!"
The Efrafans strode into the room, checking each of the outsiders in turn, making sure they were all out, as not to expect any sudden resistance. Vervain smirked in satisfaction when he noticed the escapees they had been hunting down were also among the intruders, just as Campion had suspected. An added bonus to their triumph!
“Frith smiles on us!” he gloated sadistically, “Not only do we finally gain the upper paw against the outsiders, but now we’ve also captured our escaped does as well!” He turned to stare at the drugged Alan, lying fast asleep on the floor. His moment of revenge had finally arrived, “I say we rip this troublesome ithe’s throat out right here and take the rest of his gang back for the General to deal with!" Smirking, he clawed the unconscious Alan across the cheek, causing blood to spill. But Robbins stopped Vervain before he could do any further damage.
“Not yet, Vervain. An easy death is too good for him. Remember what I said? His greatest weakness is his love for his friends. We will use that to our advantage, to crush his spirit by killing them off one by one, with him powerless to help, until we have him begging us for death!" Vervain smiled evilly, admiring Robbins’ ruthlessness, as the two of them, along with Chervil, who was almost as cruel and sadistic a rabbit as Vervain, sneered at the cruel predicament they had in store for Alan and his friends. Campion, however, wasn't pleased at their attitude.
"All right, that's enough!" he barked, "As far as I’m concerned, taking hostages to use as leverage is pure cowardice – there’s no need to gloat over it!" Vervain looked at Campion with dislike.
"What's up your ear, Campion? Don’t forget, we’re here on the General's orders. And, what’s more, it’s none of your business how I deal with my enemies!" Campion narrowed his eyes, "While I’m Captain of Owsla, it’s very much my business! Even enemy prisoners are entitled to certain rights, Vervain, and you’re not to deprive them of them. Understand?" Vervain was furious.
"The lives of prisoners belong to the victors, who are entitled to handling them as they see fit! It’s the privilege of the strong and the worthy! Hasn’t the General taught you anything?” he sneered, “Your softness will rub off on you one of these days, Campion, mark my words!" Campion glared at him in warning.
"Treat anyone like that again and you'll face me! I will not tolerate your behaviour any further, Vervain! You think I don’t know what drove poor Hyzenthlay and her friends into running away and joining the outsiders? We’re Owsla, not savage brutes!" Vervain turned to glare evilly at the unconscious Hyzenthlay lying nearby. Ever since the breakout, he’d been feeling Woundwort’s displeasure, with his fellow officers whispering behind his back, causing him great embarrassment among his peers, particularly Campion. Once they’d dealt with the outsiders, he’d show her! He’d show them both!
“That troublemaker will soon be pleading for the Black Rabbit for making me look like a fool! You watch, Campion, I’ll make sure to break your slut of a doe once and for all before we kill her!” This threat only infuriated Campion even further as he rounded on Vervain.
“You stay away from her, Vervain, for your own good!”
Although growing nervous at the sight of a furious Campion advancing on him, Vervain still had enough cheek to retort, "You dare undermine my authority? As Head of the Owslafa, I’m entitled to administering punishments without your approval! When the General hears…"
"…That you're abusing your position for your own ends, you’ll be very sorry, Vervain,” Campion finished for him, not losing his cool, “You know Woundwort expects his instructions to be carried out specifically. I don't recall him giving you permission to torture or murder anyone as you please. Now, hold your tongue and let's get to work." Vervain fell silent, yet continued to glare at Campion with burning hatred. Before this business was over, he swore to himself, he’d make sure his nemesis was put in his place for good…
As part of their plan, the infiltrators each selected a hostage of their preference to use as leverage against the outsiders. Campion, always faithful to his duty, took Hyzenthlay, who was the ringleader of the wanted escapees. Although she had betrayed Efrafa - betrayed him -, and would be severely punished for high treason, Campion still hoped to use his influence to put in a good word for her on the Council when they tried her, and maybe she’d get off lightly. Perhaps that noble gesture would finally win her heart…
Vervain took Pipkin, intent on exacting his revenge on Alan through the dwarf rabbit; if anything could crush the spirit of this insufferable ithe that had beaten and humiliated him, it was killing this worthless midget the human had taken under his wing. Chervil tried to take Blackavar, eager to settle his own score with the deserter, but the dark-furred buck was strapped down onto a makeshift stretcher Alan and McEwen had built to move him, so he took Vilthuril instead.
Robbins took Fiver, remembering how close the young buck to both Alan and the rabbit leader Hazel. Any harm coming to this wretched psychic not only would deliver a shattering blow against the hearts of both enemy leaders, compromising the morale of their entire group, but also it would seriously damage Alan’s good standing with Hazel, who might ultimately hold him responsible for his brother’s demise.
As he flung the small rabbit over his shoulders, he happened to notice the schematics of Black Inferno lying beside the sleeping Derek, who had been studying them. Cursing, Robbins hastily picked up the documents and tossed them into the fire, burning them to ashes; he had come too far to let someone ruin his plans now.
"All right, we’re done here,” said Campion, “Let's move out!”
“What about the rest of the does, sir?” asked Chervil, gesturing at the rest of the Efrafan escapees they were leaving behind. Although their plan to destroy the outsiders’ warren took priority, they couldn’t just let them be. Being a veteran Owsla rabbit, trained by Woundwort himself, Chervil realised the potential threat of does – and their own nonetheless – in the hands of outsiders: breeding vessels for litters of future warriors that might someday be used against them. Robbins however had a solution for that too.
“That little contingency will be taken care of shortly,” he said, knowing just how to kill two birds with one stone, “We’ll just have to make a quick stop on the way back to acquire the...essentials for the job. Come on, we have no time to lose!” Campion, not liking the evil smile on his face, wanted to ask exactly what Robbins had in mind, but remembering his Chief’s orders to follow the man’s instructions without question on this raid, he held his tongue. He could take it up with Woundwort later, when they returned to Efrafa. They turned to leave the room, taking the hostages with them…all except Campion.
Picking up the rear, making sure everyone was accounted for, the Owsla Captain suddenly tripped over the first aid kit that was lying open on the floor in his path. He hissed in pain as a morphine syringe McEwen had left uncapped jabbed him in the thigh, injecting the anaesthetic into his bloodstream. Forcibly shaking off the syringe, relieved to see it apparently hadn’t done him any serious injury, he heaved Hyzenthlay over his shoulders and turned to follow his companions back to the secret passage. But he never got there. A sensation unlike anything he had ever felt before overcame him. His vision went foggy, his limbs weakening, making him want to fall asleep. Realising he had run afoul of some human weapon back there, he tried calling to his companions for help, but they were already out of earshot. Cursing himself for making such a foolish mistake, which would now land him in outsider captivity, he collapsed unconscious on the floor, no longer aware of anything, Hyzenthlay beside him.
Robbins hurryingly led the way out of the hideout, Chervil and Vervain in tow, taking the rest of the hostages with them. As they made their way back to Efrafa, they suddenly realised Campion wasn't with them anymore. Chervil was about to turn back for his Captain, but Vervain stopped him, "It’s too late now, we can’t risk going back in there.” Although they had no way of knowing what had happened to Campion, or whether he was already beyond help, Vervain wasn’t about to pass on this opportunity to get even with his nemesis, “That rabbit has been a thorn in my side for too long; if something has happened to him, well, that should teach him not to meddle in my affairs. We’ll just tell the General he was captured and killed by the outsiders. Let's go!"
Upon their return to Efrafa, Woundwort, outraged to hear that his best Owsla officer had been lost to the enemy, as Vervain claimed, hastened the assembling of the Owsla, preparing for the final strike on Watership Down. After placing the hostages under heavy guard, Robbins and the newly promoted Captain of Owsla Vervain were on the move again, leading an army of Woundwort's finest soldiers through the dark of night, back to the enemy warren, to destroy it. Meanwhile, Alan’s party slept soundly, completely unaware that three of their friends had been taken prisoner, or that their home was about to be seized…
Meanwhile, back on Watership Down, Hawkbit and Dandelion were on night patrol. Although it was way past nightfall, Speedwell's experience as an Owsla scout had taught him that night was the most favourable time for a surprise attack, and so had ordered them on watch till daybreak, much to their displeasure of losing their sleep. Frustrated by boredom and drowsiness, Hawkbit had left his post to join Dandelion, who was standing watch on the other side of the Down, in a game of Bobstones to pass the time. Every now and then, they’d stare in the direction of Efrafa, wondering how their friends were doing.
“Still no sign of them,” muttered Dandelion grimly, staring at the empty sky, “I wonder when they’re coming back...”
“Those fools are as good as dead if you ask me,” grumbled Hawkbit, in spite of himself, “I knew Alan’s idea of going into that place was insane!” At that moment, Nildrohein came running out of the Honeycomb, looking ecstatic.
"You’ve got to come! Violet is going into kindle. The warren's first litter has arrived!"
Feeling excited at this good news, the two sentries abandoned their posts and followed the doe back to the warren, to join in the celebration. In a time of war, the birth of a healthy litter was always a sign of good fortune. This was a big mistake; not five minutes passed before the shadows of the Efrafan Owsla emerged from the edge of the woods at the foot of the Down. Vervain and Robbins noiselessly led the troops up the hill to the beech hanger, seeing no sentry about to sound the alarm. It was perfect. Vervain called a halt.
"All right, the time has come to smash the outsiders’ stronghold once and for all, in the name of General Woundwort and of Efrafa!” he called with the air of utmost importance. This was his moment of glory, “Coltsfoot, Charlock and Bartsia, take the leeth side; Thorn, Thistle and Burdock, take the freth side; Mudrowf, Groundsel and Moneywort, take the theth side; Robbins, Chervil and Thunder, with me. We’ll close in from all sides and corner them inside. And remember the General’s orders: leave no survivors. Go!" The Efrafan Owsla surrounded the warren like a pack of wolves going for the kill. After securing every visible escape route, Vervain gave the order, "Robbins, now!"
Smiling evilly, the man presented his own nasty little surprise he had prepared for this mission: two ancient-looking hand grenades he had salvaged from Red Hand’s old armoury back at Efrafa. Clutching one in each hand, he pulled the safety pins out with his teeth. Then he tossed them down the entrance run into the Honeycomb.
Two loud explosions in rapid succession were heard, followed by the cries of pain from rabbits being killed or maimed by the shrapnel below. Then, another, much bigger explosion followed, which, unbeknownst to the Efrafans was the nitroglycerine canisters, which Derek had foolishly left stored below, detonating, initiating a catastrophic chain reaction. The beech tree was blown sky-high, as the entire warren blew up like an erupting volcano, before it tilted over and collapsed with a loud crash. As a few bloodied and utterly shocked survivors emerged from the ruins of the demolished Honeycomb, the Efrafans fell upon them…
Hawkbit, Dandelion and Speedwell, who had miraculously survived the catastrophe by being close to the back exit run, struggled to dig their way out of the collapsed warren, only to find themselves face-to-face with the waiting enemy. In an instant, a massacre had broken out, as the Efrafans slaughtered the Watershipers without mercy. Speedwell, despite having been badly injured in the explosion, managed to take down several Efrafans, but was horribly outnumbered and was soon overpowered and killed; Violet, her newborn litter, Strawberry, Acorn, Buckthorn, Clover and Nildrohein had all perished instantly in the blast.
Dandelion and Hawkbit barely managed to fight their way out, fleeing down the southern side of the Down, heading towards the canyon river. Both rabbits were bloodied and utterly shocked at this unexpected and violent attack. Suddenly, their whole world had gone to pieces all around them. Where had Robbins come from? Had he been planning this all along with the Efrafans? Soon, they found themselves cornered at the water's edge, the Efrafan Owsla closing in on them. With cold dread, the pair realised the enemy wasn’t here to capture them, but to kill them all outright! Dandelion turned to Hawkbit.
"That's it, chap, we’re done for!"
Vervain stood in front, smiling maliciously, "Surrender now outsiders and your lives may be spared." Although expecting to die anyway, the rabbits’ anger for the Efrafans' cruelty won out over their fear. Even if they were spared, they would be taken back to Efrafa as prisoners, a fate they knew was worse than death. Vervain was only toying with them and they wouldn’t give him the satisfaction by begging for mercy. Hawkbit glared defiantly at the sadistic Efrafan.
Vervain laughed cruelly, "Then the Black Rabbit can have you too. Robbins, finish them off!" The evil man tossed another grenade; it exploded in mid-air right over Dandelion’s head, before he could duck for cover, killing him instantly.
Hawkbit, his ears ringing and sporting several fresh injuries of his own, looked at his fallen friend in despair. Now he knew what it felt like being the last to die... As he turned to look hopelessly at the river behind him, contemplating taking his chances and swimming for it rather than be ripped to pieces by the Efrafans, suddenly he noticed something that had washed up onto the shore nearby; it was the dingy from Alan’s plane, which they had lost during the Enborne crossing back at Sandleford. Hawkbit seized his chance.
Casting the lifeless Dandelion, who couldn’t be helped, one last sad glance, he jumped into the dingy; a second before the Efrafans made it to the shore, he managed to nudge it loose from the sandbar and away he went. Soon, the strong current was carrying him downstream, out of reach from the enemy. He could hear Vervain cursing in frustration, accusing his officers of incompetence for letting the outsider escape. Robbins tried throwing another grenade but missed; it landed in the water, where it exploded harmlessly. Soon, he had left the seized Watership Down behind him, drifting down the river.
Despite having survived the attack, Hawkbit felt he might be better off dead. His new home was destroyed, so many of his friends had been brutally killed and there was little chance the rest of them had fared any better out there. As he clung to the drifting dingy, contemplating his fate, he was unaware that the current was carrying him straight towards Efrafa, to his remaining companions…
Alan weakly opened his eyes, confused, his mind a total blank. His head felt like someone had lit a bonfire inside his skull, as if experiencing one of his marathon hangovers from his days of solitude. As he wiped his bloodshot eyes, he felt something warm staining his cheek; a trickle of semi-dried blood coming from a deep claw scratch, unbeknownst to him a courtesy of Vervain, was running down his face. The last thing he could remember was helping himself to a drink of water from his canteen…and then nothing. What had happened?
Sitting up groggily, he noticed the empty canteen on the floor where McEwen had dropped it. Picking it up, he ran his finger through the neck opening, finding traces of some white, odourless powder from some sort of pill that had been dissolved into the water, now long evaporated. Sedatives! The water had been drugged! Then he realised Hyzenthley, Fiver, Vilthuril and Pipkin were gone and that there were some fresh sets of footprints on the dusty floor, which hadn’t been there last night… Sick realisation hit him as it dawned on him that someone had broken into their hideout last night!
Ignoring the throbbing pain in his temples, he got to his feet and hurried out the door, calling for his missing friends, "Fiver! Pipkin! Hyzenthlay! Vilthuril! Where are you?"
He rushed to the hallway but found the front door was still bolted shut, with no signs of forced entry. How had the intruders gotten in? And, more importantly, where had they taken his friends? Who was behind this sick cat-and-mouse game? Then he saw it; lying in the shadows under the stairs close to where, he remembered, was the entrance to the wine cellar were two unconscious rabbits, one of which he recognised as Hyzenthlay. There was no sign of the others.
Hurrying over, he pulled the two rabbits into a patch of sunlight in front of a broken window, to get a better look at them. Hyzenthley luckily appeared unharmed, only drugged, like the rest of them; her would-be kidnapper, also out cold, looked somewhat familiar. Suddenly, he remembered from the book; a well-built, brown-furred rabbit with green eyes… It was Captain Campion of the Efrafan Owsla!
Alan was furious. There was no further doubt what had happened; the Efrafans, no doubt also behind the doping of their water supply, had been here and taken a number of hostages, to force them into surrendering. That explained why their equipment had been left undisturbed back at the crash site. After waiting for them to pass out, those scoundrels must have broken in and picked off some easy prey without interruption, and had no doubt also given him that scratch on the cheek… But how on earth would rabbits know how to plan such an elaborate and cunning scheme as this? It seemed too sophisticated for them, almost as if it had been done by human intervention, just like their previous raid on the Honeycomb…
But there was no time to dwell on that now; what mattered was that three of their friends had been taken and were currently held prisoner by the enemy. Alan felt his stomach bottom out at the thought of what Woundwort might do to them. Maybe he’d torture them for information… Or perhaps they’d killed them already? A sharp voice snapped him out of his thoughts.
"What in Frith's name’s going on here?”
It was Bigwig, who had also regained consciousness and realised something was wrong. Alan turned to him urgently, "Wake up the others, fast!" Not wasting a second for explanations, the mighty veteran hurried back to the drawing room, yelling at the top of his lungs, "Everybody on your feet, now! There’s trouble!"
In contrast to a usual alert, when they’d all instantly rise at the call, a bunch of groaning and moody rabbits slowly dozed from their drug-endured slumber, wondering what had happened to them, "What's going on? Is it another one of Bigwig's Owsla training drills?" groaned Silver as he staggered to his feet, feeling the after-effects of the anaesthesia.
"Fiver, Pipkin, and Vilthuril have been taken,” said Alan, hurrying in after Bigwig, carrying the slowly stirring Hyzenthlay in his arms, “Someone took them while we were asleep. We’ve been set up…!" Loud swearing from the bucks and gasps of fear from the does were heard at the news. It seemed the Efrafans were back on their trail much faster than they thought.
"And look! The schematics have been burned!" said Derek, glancing into the remains of the fire, where the documents now lay in ashes, "So much for doing this the easy way… But how did those bastards know what they were? Who is doing this?" Nobody answered him, everyone feeling just at a loss at this madness as he was. Hazel, however, who seemed to have set his mind on getting back his brother no matter what it took, replied, "It doesn't matter how it happened; it's done. We have no choice but to go after them.” He turned back to Alan.
“You said one of them got left behind?" Alan nodded.
"Yes, I found him just outside with Hyzenthley lying on top of him…" explaining how he had found Campion anesthetised, with his would-be kidnapping victim alongside. He saw Hazel's face curl into a frown at those words, but shrugged it off, "It seems he had a bit of an accident," he added, showing them the spent morphine syringe he had found in the hallway, "His Patrol must have left him for dead."
They returned to the hallway where Campion still lay, heavily sedated, "He must know where they have taken Fiver and the others. Bring him inside and bind him securely. When he wakes, we can question him," said Hazel, hope written on his face. Bigwig however looked doubtful.
"Interrogate an Efrafan Owsla captain just like that? He won't tell you, not the truth anyway. I would die than betray my Chief to the enemy, let alone an Efrafan!" Alan realised Bigwig was right; although in their story Campion had made peace with Watership Down after Woundwort's downfall and, granted, he did have better principles than most of his fellow Efrafans, he was still fiercely loyal to Woundwort and well-known for his courage. It would be a long shot persuading him to help them, and attempting to force the truth out of him would probably do more harm than good. But they had to try.
They carried the unconscious Campion's back to the drawing room and bound his paws securely with duct-tape so he couldn’t escape. Hyzenthley, who had awoken by now, stared at the only rabbit under Woundwort’s command who had ever shown her any compassion, with pity, yet didn’t dare protest. While McEwen and Derek busied themselves administering antidotes all around, Alan got the Watership Owsla together.
"While we wait for our guest to awake, let's search the place. Maybe we can find some clue that can give us a useful lead, in case he refuses to cooperate” ("I'll make him cooperate if I have to!" Bigwig growled incredulously). Leaving Hazel and the does to keep an eye on Campion, they hurried out, split up into groups and starting searching the ruined house, top to bottom.
They searched every knot and cranny. But there was no sign as to how the kidnappers had broken in. Much less any trace of their missing friends. It was as if they had somehow vanished into thin air. Baffled, they returned to the hallway, where they met up with Bluebell, Silver and Holly, who had just finished searching the basement, also without success. But there was something else...
"This is strange," said Bigwig with a frown, sniffing at the tracks the kidnappers had left behind, "I must be going mad…Frith of Inle, I could swear this scent smells a lot like…"Before he could say it however, Hyzenthlay came running, "Campion is awake. You better come at once."
They hurried back to the drawing room, where they found Hazel having a stiff chat with Captain Campion, while the does kept a safe distance from their former dominator; although, like Hyzenthlay, they respected his kindness, he was still Woundwort’s most trusted officer and confidant. Campion, on the other hand, realising he was now a prisoner, sat facing the outsider Chief with a cold indifference, as if refusing to submit to the enemy. Hazel spoke calmly, yet firmly.
"...Let’s not play war games Campion. What your Chief is doing is wrong and will only bring death and destruction upon your people!" But Campion didn’t seem the least swayed by Hazel's words.
"Just who do you think you are to judge my Chief's leadership, outsider?" he retorted icily, distrust clearly written in his eyes, "He may be a firm ruler at times, but the well-being of his warren is his life! He would rather die before letting any harm come to our people!"
"Indeed?" Holly interjected coldly, "Does that include slavery and torture? You think we don't know of all the atrocities your master commits?" He gestured at the mauled Blackavar, still lying unconscious on his makeshift stretcher, "How can you justify such cruelty?" Although a slight twinge of shame did cross Campion's face, the stern Efrafan Captain of Owsla still remained indifferent. This was war and he couldn’t let himself be misled by the enemy’s brainwashing.
"How can you justify your own actions?” he demanded, “You’ve come to infiltrate my warren for recruits, in hopes of enlarging your own Owsla against us, so that you may steal the General’s land,” he retorted, giving Hyzenthlay and her friends a disappointed look, “Don’t deny it; your former companion told us everything…"
"Wait a minute," interrupted Derek, realising they were missing something here, "What do you mean our former companion told you? You mean to say there’s another human being aiding Woundwort? Who?" But Campion was spared from explaining when, at that moment, Silverweed, whom they’d forgotten all about since anaesthetizing him last night, having finally awoken without their noticing, spoke up. Although no longer hysteric, his face was a mask of pure terror - and for good reason too, as they were soon to find out.
"He’s back and coming after you…he intends to destroy our world…you must stop him…!" he mumbled in an almost indistinctive voice, not making any sense whatsoever. They all stared at him, thinking he was mad. Campion looked at Silverweed, finally recognising him.
“You’re that runaway mystic my Chief sought to acquire from Cowslip,” he said, wondering how that rabbit had ended up joining the outsiders and why. The Watershipers, on the other hand, looked at each other in surprise at the realisation that Silverweed had in fact deserted Cowslip, who was apparently also collaborating with Woundwort, to warn them about something. But what?
Alan held the buck firmly with both hands, trying to calm him down. If this crazy rabbit knew something about what was going on here, they’d get it out of him now.
"Easy now," he said, patting the mystic rabbit over the head to relieve his anxiety. Silverweed eventually calmed down somewhat, yet remained on edge, unsure about this human holding him, "Now then, tell us what’s going on. Who is back and out to kill us?" Finally, Silverweed managed to pull himself together enough to explain.
"Your traitorous companion who tried to kill you back at my master's warren; he’s formed an alliance with General Woundwort against you all…" Alan felt his insides twist up in shock as the biggest piece of the puzzle finally clicked into place; the strange amount of information the Efrafans seemed to have regarding them and Black Inferno, and all these curious human-like strategies they were using against them…It was all so obvious, yet none of them had realised it until now.
"Robbins is still alive?"
"What does that dead wanker have to do with anything? You aren't seriously telling us it's him who’s been causing us all this trouble?" said Derek, refusing to believe what he was hearing. As far as he was concerned, Robbins had died when the hawk got him and was history. What, were they supposed to take the word of this miscreant, who, for all they knew, was another enemy spy? “Al, this fellow’s flipped his marbles I think...” But Alan, desperate for some answers, figured they might as well hear Silverweed out. Gesturing at Derek to shut up, he turned back to the mystic, "Tell us."
"Some time after you left, he returned accompanied by Woundwort to retrieve those…hearts for that lost human weapon of his. Woundwort plans to use it against you and has enlisted Robbins to help him restore it. I have been trying to find you for days, to warn you…"
"And what exactly is it to you chum?" interrupted Bigwig scornfully, still distrusting of Silverweed, "I was under the impression you were Cowslip's lackey through and through…"
"I AM WEAK, ALL RIGHT?" Silverweed blurted out in anger, although it was mostly directed to himself rather than Bigwig, "Frith of Inle, I’m not proud of it! Cowslip was going to hand me over to Woundwort, in exchange for having Strawberry and Nildrohein killed for their desertion. So I ran off, hoping you’d take pity on me..." He broke down sobbing in shame and remorse. They all looked at him in pity. Silverweed was clearly not the evil mind-reader they thought he was; foreseeing the danger of Woundwort exploiting his mystic powers, he had ran away, hoping to redeem himself by warning them about the resurrected Robbins out to destroy them. Unfortunately, he had arrived too late. And now their troubles had gotten a lot worse.
There was no further doubt that Woundwort was indeed planning to launch Black Inferno, with the help of a vengeful Robbins - and ultimately doom this entire future world to annihilation. They had wasted so much time wondering how the Efrafans were always one step ahead of them, while Robbins had been working undetected from the sidelines, plotting their destruction – and Efrafa’s! If only they’d figured it out sooner…
"I guess it makes sense,” Alan reasoned, “Robbins must have convinced Woundwort we’re a threat, who agreed to help him restore Black Inferno, supposedly to use against us; a gullible, power-hungry megalomaniac like Woundwort couldn't possibly pass on such the opportunity for such a big military advantage, even if it meant bargaining with a human. Only Robbins apparently has much bigger plans in mind…”
“And if he succeeds, then we’ll all as good as dead,” McEwen finished for him, realising their grim predicament, “Things are much worse that we thought."
Meanwhile, Campion was listening to all of this in silence, not knowing what to make of it. Although, yes, he had suspected from the start that Robbins meant trouble, how was he supposed to take the word of a bunch of untrustworthy, rogue outsiders, not to mention humans, and his Chief’s sworn enemies nonetheless? No, this had to be some kind of trick, a cunning deception to make trouble for the General.
"You actually expect me to believe that my Chief is being manipulated by a double-agent? One thing you should know about General Woundwort is that nobody stands a chance in deceiving him. And you tell me Robbins has been plotting the destruction of our entire world right from under his nose? You’re bluffing, to poison me against my Chief!"
"Bluffing?" shouted Bigwig, looking scandalised, "Is it bluffing when that wretched bastard tried to strangle me to death? Or when he murdered Alan's family in cold blood for no reason? And your thugs attacking our warren and slaughtering two of our friends unprovoked?" Campion frowned at this accusation, knowing it was true, but said nothing, "And you,” Bigwig continued, “Kidnapping our friends to use as leverage? Your Chief claims to be a patriot of rabbithood, yet he kills or enslaves every rabbit in his path! What kind of honour do you call that, huh? Our friends, on the other hand, have risked their lives on our behalf and asked for nothing in return!" This was the final straw for Campion, who realised, to his utmost disgust, that these outsiders actually regarded these humans as their equals.
"You lot willingly submit to this riff-raff?" he spat, "Don't you realise these humans could mean the destruction of everything we hold dear - our homes, our families, our very freedom? You’re willing to share the land which Frith created for us with the reminder of a race of creatures that used us as slaves and food? If anyone should be judged, it should be you and your heresy! How could you sink so low…?"
The Watershipers all glared at Campion with furious, yet pitiful expressions, realising that, despite his somewhat kinder nature, his Efrafan ideology run too deep for him to see things from their perspective. Bigwig, his eyes narrowed to slits, utterly insulted, growled dangerously at Campion, "I'd watch your lip if I were you, my old son. My patience is on thin ice with you!"
“Your Chief is making a pact with the Devil, Campion, and your people will be the ones who’ll end up paying the price for his stupidity," said Alan grimly, but Campion refused to even look at him. Clearly, there was no way he was going to take the word of a human, or any of them for that matter.
“We’re getting nowhere with him, Hazel-rah,” said Bigwig, tired of all this pointless talking. He turned to the still-bound Campion with his claws unsheathed, “I say we get rid of him and figure this out on our own...!”
"That's enough, Bigwig!" shouted Hazel before Bigwig did something they might regret later. He turned to Campion, “Campion, do you or do you not believe us?" The Efrafan Captain shook his head firmly.
"No Hazel-rah, I don't. And, as the Chief of this rabble, I’d advise you to reconsider. If you really wish to avert a war, it isn’t too late. General Woundwort will have no reason to harm your friends if you help him eliminate this threat you’re rubbing shoulders with. If you surrender this human you call your friend to him..." At this, Bigwig lost his temper.
"You mean trade Alan for the hostages?" he spat in disgust, "If you think we’d sacrifice our friend, you’ve got another thing coming! Human or not, he’s still our friend and comrade!" Seeing that they were getting nowhere and with time quickly running out, Alan stepped in.
"Campion, if I were to give you proof that what we’ve been telling you is true, would you believe us then?" Campion stared coldly at the human, “What evidence could you possible have that would prove your ridiculous accusations, ithe?" he challenged Alan, who surprisingly smiled, remembering something that just might do the trick. He turned to Cowslip's mystic.
"Silverweed, do you think you could show Campion the secret in my head, so he can see the truth for himself?" Silverweed, realising where Alan was getting at, nodded and motioned to the man to go stand beside Campion.
"Touch my paw," he instructed, extended his left forepaw to Alan, who complied, "You too, Captain Campion. Now look at me directly in the eyes; try not to blink." Campion, suspicious at what this human and the mystic were doing, yet curious all the same, also complied, using both paws to grasp Silverweed’s other paw (his paws were still bound with duct-tape). Silverweed’s gaze met theirs, his eyes wide and unblinking. Then his pupils turned glassy, glowing like a pair of light-bulbs; instantly, Alan felt the same unpleasant sensation in his head - however, this time, instead of seeing glimpses of his own memories being beamed back at him, he was seeing Campion's, as Silverweed’s far sight created a two-way mental link between the two minds:
Campion as a kitten, being lectured by his patriotic father about the superiority of Efrafa and the solemn duty of every rabbit to General Woundwort to the death; Campion joining the Owsla training corps as an adolescent with Vervain, who had been his friend back then, eventually being promoted to Captain of Owsla for his craftiness and bravery, proud to be following in his father’s footsteps…
Campion’s father being reported dead in action during a scouting Patrol outside the borders, from hostile outsiders; the bitterness turning the young soldier’s heart cold and empty, fuelling his distrust of anything and anyone outside Efrafa, and sealing his unwavering loyalty to Woundwort, who was his mentor. Although, deep down, he could see the impact of his master’s tyranny in the eyes of the people he had sworn to protect, including Hyzenthlay, he always chose to take comfort in the thought that it was the only way to keep them truly safe from the supposed dangers he was made to believe existed outside Efrafa...
Vervain returning to Efrafa with Robbins, and their plan to destroy Alan and his friends; their visit to Cowslip’s warren and Silverweed’s desertion; he, Robbins, Vervain and Chervil breaking into the hideout with instructions to take hostages to use as leverage; Campion accidentally getting injected with the morphine syringe and being left behind by the spiteful Vervain…
Campion, too, could see Alan's memories, feel the man’s thoughts, flashing before his eyes: his unhappy childhood with his estranged brother and without his mother; the death of his father; Robbins shooting Mary and Lucy at Nuthanger Farm, turning him into a drunkard recluse, with no purpose of living…
His meeting the Sandleford rabbits and resolving to use his knowledge of their story to guide them towards their destiny; their adventures together and their care and devotion for each other; starting their new home on Watership Down; discovering the old HAB and learning the fate of the old world, the Four Brothers, and of Hemlock's betrayal; the Efrafans attacking the Honeycomb and the deaths of Boxwood and Haystack; their scouting mission to Efrafa, meeting Hyzenthlay and the escaped does; finding Silverweed trapped; awakening after being drugged, and discovering their friends had been taken; finding Campion, who had been left behind by his comrades, yet sparing his life in the hope that he might see past his hate and help them…
Then the connection broke. Alan and Campion collapsed, panting and shaking violently. Although Alan had been expecting to see some unpleasant things in Campion's head, what he had just seen shocked him. Campion’s entire life had been little more than a cruel lie; he lived only to serve his Chief and warren, and everything beyond that was his enemy… All the lessons of friendship and love handed down to El-ahrairah's descendents had no place among Woundwort's minions. Their captive knew only of fighting, pride, hatred, loss and pain. Happiness and friendship were among the many things he had been taught to suppress…
The effect on Campion however was amazing. What he had just seen in Alan's mind seemed to have unlocked something long since buried deep within his heart, waiting to be unleashed. Not only had this human been right all along, Campion realised, but now his eyes seemed to have suddenly opened, as if from an epiphany, to the reality he had chosen to ignore for so long: For the first time in his life, he saw he was but a mindless pawn, taught to blindly do his mad Chief’s bidding. He shuddered, remembering all those innocent rabbits he had helped kill or enslave at Woundwort’s pleasure, as guilt swept over him like a wave...
Alan was staring at the distraught Campion with pity, realising how bad the misled rabbit must feel now that Silverweed’s mystic’s powers had finally helped him see the error of his ways. His dark past, which the Efrafan had always chosen to ignore, now rested heavily on his conscience and there was no consolation anyone could offer...only a chance at redemption.
The brown rabbit slowly turned to face them, an expression of deep shame and remorse written on his face, "I was so…wrong," he muttered in self-hatred, lost for words. A simple apology wouldn’t fix the damage he had caused, not in the least. Hyzenthlay, feeling for her mentor’s misery and confusion, approached him.
“Campion, I was never allowed to tell you this as a slave, so I’m telling you now as a friend: it has been only your kind heart that has kept my friends – kept me - alive all these seasons in Efrafa. Hadn’t it been for you, I would have taken my own life long ago to escape Vervain’s cruelty. But there are still hrair other rabbits that Woundwort has deprived of their freedom who need your help - Hazel needs your help to give them the chance for freedom that Woundwort never allowed us. Listen to your heart’s true call, Campion, and not your Owsla code of discipline, and follow it.”
Campion felt tears appear in his eyes. Of all rabbits, Hyzenthlay had every reason to hate him for being Woundwort’s right-paw rabbit; yet, here she was, comforting him, offering him a second chance. Finally, he spoke again, "What do you want me to do?"
"Help us get into Efrafa. Our goal is to stop Black Inferno and save our friends; we mean no harm to your people or warren. If anything, we can help them escape the miserable life Woundwort has condemned them to," said Alan, pleased to see that Silverweed’s supernatural powers had done its miracle; they had found a useful ally in Campion, to use against the enemy. Although reluctant at the idea of helping intruders infiltrate Efrafa, which was high treason, Campion slowly nodded. True, these outsiders, wrongly targeted by Woundwort for their beliefs of freedom and unity, he thought, might be his people’s only chance of ever escaping his tyrant master’s cruelty. Like Hyzenthlay had said, the toughened Captain of Owsla still had a heart, in direct contrast to his Chief, who had nothing but a dark soul of madness and evil.
"There is something else you should know,” Campion said suddenly, as Alan cut him loose, “Woundwort plans to attack your warren again in your absence. I was supposed to lead the Owsla there myself last night…" The Watershipers all tensed up at the thought of their friends being attacked unawares by the Efrafan Owsla. Was it already too late? Alan turned to the others.
"All the more reason to get this show on the road at once. Come on!" Gathering up the patched-up envelope for the balloon, they left the hideout and returned to the crash site.
The men feverishly got to work, reassembling the repaired balloon, while Bigwig and the others stood watch for any Efrafan Patrols. Strangely, there was nobody about; the entire Efrafan Owsla was undoubtedly on their way to Watership Down, leaving Efrafa mostly unguarded. They had to hurry if they were going to beat them back and warn the others. Unfortunately, in their haste, nobody noticed a concealed grenade Robbins had planted on the curved bottom of one of the propane cylinders, rigged with a wire, waiting to be detonated when someone turned on the valve…
Working feverishly, they soon had the balloon fully reassembled and re-inflated, running on one burner, the second kept on reserve, to conserve their limited propane supply. Although much of it had been wasted trying to retain altitude during the crash landing, they was still enough left to get the exact same number of passengers that had come off the island.
They helped the does into the basket; Hyzenthlay wanted to stay behind, to help search for Vilthuril, but Hazel was able to talk her out of it; Nelthilta, utterly terrified at the idea of flying, had to be forcefully carried aboard, all the while screaming and whimpering; then Alan, with McEwen's help, carefully heaved the still-unconscious Blackavar onboard on his stretcher, followed by Thethuthinnang and Silverweed. Blackberry, who had the least Owsla expertise, took Vilthuril’s vacant seat. Then came the question for the pilot.
"McEwen, you should be the one to fly this thing back; you’re a more qualified pilot than either me or Derek," suggested Alan. The Major however shook his head, "I’m a chopper pilot; I’ve never flown a balloon in my life. Besides, I’ve had plenty of combat experience in the field. I’m needed here." Before Alan could argue, Derek spoke up.
"Look here, fellows, we can't waste precious time. For all we know, Woundwort might already be at the Down. I’ll settle this; I will pilot the balloon back. I’ll fly the does back to the Down, refuel, and then come back for the rest of you.” Although Alan would have preferred to have Derek here, because of his precious knowledge of the satellite’s guidance system, he finally agreed. He shook his friend’s hand.
"Good luck, mate. Remember, when you get back, get everyone down into the HAB as fast as you can; the Efrafans won’t be able to reach them down there." The engineer climbed onboard. It was obvious by now that he hadn’t been exaggerating when he had said the balloon couldn’t take all of them; even now, Alan could clearly see it was straining to stay aloft with the weight of seven, let alone all fourteen of them.
"You watch yourself, Al; I don't want to be digging my best mate's grave any time soon." Giving his friend the thumbs up, he fired up the burner to full. The balloon began to rise slowly and then floated away as it got caught in the breeze. They watched as it drifted over the canyon, carrying Derek, Hyzenthlay, Nelthilta, Thethuthinang, Blackavar, Blackberry, and Silverweed to safety. Then suddenly, without warning, it exploded before their eyes…
The does all gasped in amazement, watching the ground seemingly drop away beneath them, as the balloon soared skywards. In spite of their fear of flying, they could feel their excitement building, realising their prayers to Frith had finally been answered. They were free at last; after a lifetime of slavery and imprisonment, they were finally leaving Efrafa for good. Wherever their new friends were taking them, their lives had definitely taken a turn for the best…but not for long.
Suddenly, as they floated over the canyon, Derek saw the first burner dim and go out as it sucked up the last of the propane from its tank; calmly, he turned to fire up the second burner, unaware that the valve on the fuel tank he was turning was winding up a thin wire attached to the pin of the concealed grenade...
"What's wrong with this damn thing?” he muttered, the valve feeling strangely stiff, “Come on, you blasted little…!" He turned harder and finally felt the valve twist open, firing up the second burner.
They never knew what hit them. Suddenly, the grenade detonated, rupturing the propane tank, and causing the balloon to burst into flame. The flaming wreckage fell from the sky, landing in the canyon below, leaving the river to wash away the incinerated remains of Derek, Hyzenthlay, Nelthilta, Blackavar, Thethuthinang, Blackberry and Silverweed. They were all dead.
Not too far away, the explosion was seen by Robbins and Woundwort, who had been watching, waiting for the fireworks. Woundwort gave a triumphant smirk as he watched the burning balloon fall from the sky, "A fitting end for those filthy traitors. Now it’s just the Time Traveller and the outsider Chief left. And their lives are mine!”
Robbins also smiled in sadistic satisfaction; this latest string of deaths would no doubt deliver yet another catastrophic blow to Johnson’s heart. By the time he was done with him, that man’s spirit would be crushed good and proper, just as he had planned it. The next and final phase of his plan was to lure him and what few of his friends remained into Efrafa to save their captured friends, right into Woundwort’s waiting hands...
Meanwhile, the remainder of the Watershipers, consisting of Alan, Hazel, Bigwig, McEwen, Silver, Bluebell and Holly, and Campion, who had all been thrown to the ground by the blast, shakily got to their feet, staring in shock at what had just happened. There was no point searching for any survivors; nothing could have survived that blast, and even if they had, the fall would have most certainly finished the job. Bigwig came to his senses first and whirled on Campion, barring his teeth.
“You tricked us, you scum! I should kill you right here…!” But Hazel, who, despite his grief for Hyzenthlay, managed to retain enough self-control to demand, sharply and accusingly, “What happened, Campion? You knew something about this? Well?” To their utmost surprise, Campion looked just as shocked and just as distraught at these brutal deaths as everyone else.
“Hazel-rah, I swear to Frith, I knew nothing of this. I would never let something like this happen to Hyzenthlay, even if it meant betraying Woundwort himself. This was not part of the General’s plan…”
“Well, Woundwort is apparently above murdering his own people now, isn’t he?” retorted Bigwig incredulously, glaring at Campion. But Alan knew it was no use arguing whether it had been an accident or more of Robbins’ mischief; what mattered was that they were now stranded in hostile territory and could expect no help from the outside anymore. They were completely on their own.
“What do we do now, Hazel-rah?” asked Holly as fear and despair broke out amongst the remaining Watershipers, as they all turned to their Chief for a solution, which Hazel had non to give. Alan too felt at a loss, the thought of Derek burning through his heart like a red-hot knife. His oldest friend was dead – the last link to the life he had once known was gone. Forcibly pulling himself together, he stood up. They couldn’t give up now. Fiver, Pipkin and Vilthuril were still alive and needed their help. He turned to his remaining friends.
“We have no other choice,” he said, “We have to infiltrate Efrafa directly, to stop Black Inferno, and rescue our friends. Our only hope of getting out of this madness alive is to overthrow Woundwort…” The others all looked at him, thinking he had gone mad.
“And just how in Frith’s name are we supposed to do that?” demanded Silver, “If we go anywhere near that warren, the Owsla will kill the hostages in front of our eyes, and then kill us as well…!”
“Maybe not,” Alan said slowly, suddenly coming up with an idea, “Not if there is a way for us to go around them unnoticed and free the hostages right from under their noses. And I think I know just how to do it... Let’s go!” Although still sceptical, with nothing left to lose, the rabbits decided to go along with whatever crazy, last-ditch effort their human friend had in mind.
Hurrying back to Buxton Hall, Alan led them down to the wine cellar, where Campion had said the secret passage his Patrol had used to break in was. In his hand, he had the old schematics of the Buxton Estate they had found in the safe the night before. They all crowded inside the small room, lined with rotten, cobweb-lined racks, some still stacked with bottles of wine. Campion pointed at a large loose tile on the floor, which Alan realised, was a secret trapdoor.
"The tunnel leads outside, just beyond the boundaries near the Crixa,” he explained, “I overheard Woundwort telling Robbins that if you ultimately decide not to surrender, he’ll use it to send his Owsla in, and take you by force." The rabbits grew pale at these words; with this secret tunnel right under their feet, the hideout was no longer safe. They were on borrowed time, until Woundwort became fed up with Robbins’ little cat-and-mouse games and came in for the kill. Alan however, studying the schematic, had an epiphany.
“A crossroad... Of course!” he muttered under his breath, suddenly remembering something very important. He turned to Campion, “Campion, are there any other passages down there that lead into Efrafa?" The Efrafan Captain shook his head.
“No, the only way in or out of the warren is through the Crixa, which was always well guarded. Woundwort strictly forbids any unauthorized digging and the integrity of the warren is always carefully inspected for faults, which are promptly repaired. No, there’s no secret entrance, if that’s what you are hoping for…”
“Except perhaps for the secret river Hyzenthlay and her friends used to escape from the warren,” Alan said, studying the schematic. Campion frowned.
“What secret river?”
Alan showed them the outline of a tunnel on the plans, leading from the mansion to the mine, which was now Efrafa, joining the missile silo with Red Hand’s old headquarters. This had to be the escape passage Vilthuril had mentioned – and hopefully, their last card for regaining the upper hand. The Efrafan burst out laughing at the revelation.
“So that’s how Hyzenthlay and the others busted out,” he exclaimed, “Their escape had the entire Owsla baffled to no end! You should have seen the look on Vervain’s face...” However, nobody was in the mood for laughing, given that Hyzenthlay and the others were now gone and Vervain would be getting the last laugh after all. Or maybe not... Alan turned to Campion.
“All right, this is the plan: Campion, I need you to go back to Woundwort and tell him we agree to make terms in exchange for him releasing our friends. We’ll meet on the edge of Efrafa for the exchange.”
“Woundwort will never keep his end of the deal,” Campion warned him, “Most likely, he’ll have the entire Owsla waiting to ambush you...” But Alan smiled cunningly.
“That’s the beauty of it, because we won’t even be there,” he said, “While they’re busy mobilising, we can sneak in through the secret tunnel, free our friends, disarm the satellite, and then split, before they even know what's happening. Your job is to stall them for as long as possible, Campion, but don’t blow your cover until the last possible moment, should things get out of hand. Do you think you can do this?"
"I’ll try, but I can't guarantee anything,” said Campion, looking lost, “You’re asking me to betray a Chief whom I’ve served loyally for so long. I’ll literally be betraying Efrafa, even if it's for the greater good…" Alan, realising how hard it must feel to be in Campion’s position, torn between his loyalty to Woundwort and doing the right thing, turned and gently grabbed the Efrafan Captain by the shoulders.
"Campion, you’re not betraying Efrafa; Woundwort is, by leading you all down this dark path of slavery and misery. You can take that from someone who’s known of your destiny centuries before you were even born. Like Hyzenthlay said, this is your chance of saving your people from tyranny." Resigning himself to taking this big step, Campion finally nodded and wished them luck, before turning and leaving to return to Efrafa, without another word.
Alan took out his knife and drove it through the gap between the tile and floor, prying open the trapdoor, revealing the entrance a pitch-black hole. Some narrow stone steps led down into an eerie darkness below, which might as well be a tomb. It was time to fish or cut bait.
Pocketing their flashlights and the last few signal flares they had left from the chopper’s kit, which might come in handy should they run into any trouble down there, they prepared to move. For a backup weapon, Alan took the otherwise wasted bottle of strychnine he had found in the safe and filled a syringe, which he duct-taped to the end of a stick, improvising a makeshift dart-stick. Although crude weapons, to say the least, it was slightly more sophisticated than using teeth and claws.
"All right, let’s go.”
Brandishing his trusty knife, Alan, followed by McEwen, Hazel, Bigwig, Holly, Silver, and Bluebell descended down the steps and into the secret tunnel that would lead them to their friends…or their doom.