It wasn’t until early evening that Alan found himself nervously making his way back to where he had seen those strange rabbits, to determine, once and for all, if they were real or if it had just been his imagination playing tricks on him. After spending many hours trying to convince himself to go back, his curiosity had finally won out and he set off alone, telling his bewildered companions he was only going for a little stroll.
Many thoughts went through his head as he noiselessly made his way through the woods, towards where, he remembered, the warren was. Could those rabbits be the key to all this mystery? But, on the other hand, even if they were real, how exactly was he supposed to approach them? And how would they react when they saw him?
Being a zoologist, Alan knew rabbits to be timid, skittish creatures that instinctively ran from danger, rather that stand their ground against a stronger enemy - only these rabbits were almost the size of humans! To them, he would hardly register as a stronger enemy! What if they attacked him in self-defence? They seemed pretty capable of murder, considering their enlarged size, and the prospect of been viciously mauled to death by one of those monsters hadn't slipped his mind.
His knife drawn and clutched firmly in his hand, and his camera around his neck - some pictures, he figured, would be useful in convincing his companions, as well as himself, of what was lurking out there -, he made his way to the edge of the clearing, taking cover under the bushes, to survey the scene.
Most of the rabbits were gone, except for two, grazing alone. Alan immediately recognised the creamy brown one he had seen that morning - Hazel. The second smaller rabbit at his side had similar mousy-brown fur and reddish eyes, with a strange, faraway look in them. Remembering from the novel, he figured this had to be Hazel's younger brother Fiver, a runt rabbit with a sixth sense that gave him random premonitions of upcoming danger.
Very real, after all...
Eavesdropping, he could hear the two rabbits chatting in that strange language of theirs. Alan's jaw dropped in amazement, as he vaguely recognised some of the words; it was Lapine, the language of the rabbits Mr Adams had invented in his book, having somehow been developed into the native language of this strange land.
How I wish I had thought of bringing that book with me, Alan thought, remembering his copy of Watership Down, currently sitting on his daughter's bed back in London, a long way away, and no use to him when he needed it the most. His growing curiosity overwhelming his sense of caution, he silently crawled closer to them through the undergrowth, getting as close as he dared. Quietly, he slipped out his camera and activated the silent flash. Boy, if anyone back home ever saw this photo, it would raise more eyebrows than even the Cottingley Fairies!
He was just about to snap his third picture, when, suddenly, something diverted his attention. He was not the only one watching the two rabbits after all; staring through the binocular lens of his camera, he spotted a fox the size of a full-grown lioness crouching in the tall grass nearby, about to spring at the two unsuspecting rabbits. Before he could decide whether or not to break his cover and shout a warning, the hungry beast suddenly lunged at the nearest rabbit. A scream of pain and fear filled the air. Looking up, Alan saw it had snatched the smallest rabbit by the neck and was running off, clutching the terrified creature in a death grip between its jaws.
Not pausing to think, Alan dropped his camera and drew his knife. Although seemingly a near-impossible shot, the former marine knew his knife skills well and that was all he needed. Grasping it firmly by the tip of the blade, he took aim and flung it in the direction of the fleeing fox, just as it ran past him. The knife found its target dead-centre, the blade burying itself in the back of the creature's neck, severing the spinal cord; with a whine of pain, the killer beast crumpled to the ground lifeless.
Alan rushed over and quickly managed to pry the rabbit out of the fox's rigid jaws. For an instant, he thought the poor creature had been strangled to death, but then realised it was only in a state of shock, miraculously still breathing. Sure enough, the buck slowly opened its eyes, looking confused. At the sight of Alan, it gasped in fear and leapt to its feet, about to run. Not wanting to be given away just yet, Alan swiftly grabbed hold of the frightened young buck, desperately trying to calm him down. It wasn't easy; the rabbit was the size of a ten-year old child and could struggle pretty hard, and Alan feared he might hurt him if he tried any harder to restrain him.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa! I'm not going to hurt you! Calm down!" he called out to the terrified creature, which was screaming for help in Lapine, struggling frantically in his grip. Hearing him speak, the rabbit suddenly and unexpectedly stopped struggling, turning to stare at Alan in utter amazement - it was almost as if meeting a talking human was just as incredible from his perspective, as meeting a talking rabbit was to Alan. The impossible realities of two faraway worlds had just collided.
Feeling the young rabbit start to relax, Alan was about to loosen his grip on him, when he heard more rustling from the foliage behind him. He turned round, just in time to see the other rabbit appear on the scene and lunge at him, apparently trying to save his brother. Its ramming head found him in the stomach with such force he thought he was going to turn inside out. He was knocked violently backwards, his head impacting with a sharp blow against a nearby tree, and then everything went black…
Hazel and Fiver were out on evening silflay, enjoying the evening in peace and quiet at their favourite secluded spot on the edge of the warren. The two rabbits were natives of Sandleford, a warren located in the heart of the Great Meadows of Fenlo, their homeland. Unlike his brothers, Hazel hadn't made any attempt to join the Owsla – the warren’s army squadron -, instead dedicating himself to the care of his neglected youngest brother from the litter. Forced to fend for themselves since childhood, following the deaths of his parents and the rest of their siblings, the two brothers were inseparable, but living as lowly outskirters.
Their home, Sandleford Warren, ruled by an elderly short-tempered Chief rabbit called the Threarah, or Rowan-tree, was divided into three social classes: the Chief Rabbit, the Owsla and advisors, and the outskirters. The Owsla represented the Chief Rabbit and his noble advisors, doing patrols around the surrounding countryside for enemies or elil, or defending the warren from danger. In spite of the risks involved in their duties, being in the Owsla meant many privileges, including good food and a choice of the finest burrows for the soldiers and their families. As such, all the bucks had it as their greatest ambition in life to join the Owsla and rise to the highest rank possible, while the does focused on being good mothers and loyal mates.
Unfortunately, due to corruption and social discrimination, mostly from the Threarah’s own bias and ineffectiveness from his old age, only a handful of supposed loyalists were ever admitted into the Owsla. As a result, much of Sandleford's population consisted of outskirters, the lowest and most oppressed social class.
The outskirters, in direct contrast to the Owsla and the elite class, had little to no privileges. Although technically not living under a tyranny, they suffered great discrimination, and sometimes even abuse, from the corrupt higher classes. Since the Threarah rarely took the outskirters seriously, considering them a worthless liability, many of the Owsla officers, immune because of their military status, made a bad habit of targeting the weaker rabbits, bullying them away from the finest flayrah, among other things. Although, fortunately, major incidents rarely occurred, it still caused great distrust and animosity between Owsla rabbits and the outskirters.
Hazel and Fiver's lives were pretty dull; other than scavenging for flayrah that the Owsla offices hadn't taken for themselves, playing Bobstone matches, or trading stories with their friends, their daily life was but a monotonous routine. Neither of them had ever mated, since most of the does often chose Owsla rabbits, because of the privileges of their ranks. Hazel had considered leaving the warren many times and seeking a new future elsewhere, but there was nowhere else to go; Sandleford's only neighbouring warren, Thinial, had been destroyed long ago by a plague of White Blindness that had also killed many Sandlefordians, including much of Hazel and Fiver's family. Also, in light of the Thearah's warning that any immigrants, or 'deserters' as he called them, would be banished and never permitted to return, the idea of immigrating was impossible.
Fiver had moved slightly away from his brother, looking for some leftover coltsfoot, when his sense of smell suddenly picked up a strange scent in the air; it was almost like ithe, only combined with other unfamiliar scents. As he curiously sniffed the air for the source, he froze, his instinct telling him there was danger lurking nearby. Hazel, who was busy nibbling at a cowslip beside him, hadn't noticed anything.
Suddenly, Fiver spun round, just in time to see the homba springing at him. Before he could dodge or even scream, he felt the beast's jaws slam shut around his neck and lift him off the ground. The hungry eli quickly bolted from the boundaries of the warren and into the woods, its sharp teeth locked in a firm grip around its soon-to-be prey. The pain and the predicament of about to be eaten alive overcame him and he blacked out…
Fiver slowly opened his eyes. He was lying on the ground and his neck felt quite painful, but he was no longer in the homba’s mouth. What had happened? Was this what dying was all about? It certainly hadn’t been that bad… Suddenly, he was startled by someone, or something, gently caressing him over the head, and he picked up that strange scent again, this time very close. Looking up, confused, he gasped in renewed fear.
Crouching above him was an ithe with the strangest appearance Fiver had ever seen. Yet, strange appearance or not, it was still a human, the most dreaded kind of elil, well known to prey on rabbits. Panicking, he stood and was about to bolt for his life, but the human swiftly, but gently, grabbed him round the middle, pinning him to the ground. Fiver felt his insides turn to ice; was this ithe about to kill him?
"Hazel, help me!" he cried out, desperately struggling to escape the human's tight grasp, expecting to die. But his captor didn't reach up to grab him by the throat and strangle him as he had expected; instead, to Fiver's utmost amazement, the human spoke in Hedgerow Vernacular, an ancient language many rabbits still spoke as part of their ancient traditions.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa! I’m not going to hurt you! Calm down…!"
His astonishment winning over his fear, Fiver slowly turned to stare at his strange captor. The stranger looked nothing like an ordinary human; he was hardly bigger than the largest rabbit – far too small for his usual counterpart - and seemed to possess intelligence, including the ability of speech. What was going on here?
Before Fiver could build up the courage to try and talk back however, the man was suddenly sent flying off of him, slamming into a tree and falling unconscious. Hazel, not having seen the attacking homba snatch Fiver away, but having heard his brother's cries for help, had caught up and tackled the human from behind, thinking he was attacking Fiver.
"Keep away from my brother, embleer ithe! I'll give you something for your hunger!" snarled the creamy-furred buck in an icy voice, filled with burning hatred and rage, as he raised a paw to strike another blow over the human’s head. Fiver jumped to his feet.
"Hazel, no! Don't kill him, please. He didn't hurt me!" the young rabbit begged his brother, limping up to him. Hazel turned to his brother like a concerned mother, and started nuzzling him for injuries, "Hrair-roo, ma rusati, are you all right? Frith a mercy, I thought he had killed you…!"
"No, Hazel, you don't understand,” Fiver interrupted his brother again, “Hazel, he just saved my life!"
Hazel frowned suspiciously, "What in Frith's name are you on about? He is an ithe, Fiver! Ithel kill and eat rabbits, and you defend him? Are you mad?"
"Hazel, he…he spoke to me," Fiver stammered, realising just how foolish he must sound. Hazel looked more perplexed than ever, "Humans can't talk, Fiver, and well you know it! You must have imagined it... Come, let's get out of here, before this damned beast of Inle awakes…!" But Fiver remained stubborn.
"No, Hazel, they were ancient Hedgerow words from the time of Frith's Blessing. Hazel, he’s the same one I saw in my vision!"
But it wasn’t until he caught sight of the dead homba lying nearby, Alan's knife still jabbed in its neck, that Hazel’s distrust of humans momentarily evaporated, realising what had happened. It had indeed been this strange human that had saved his brother! And then there was that strange vision Fiver had had over a few days ago, which had been troubling them both, about some talking human dropping into their world… Cautiously, he approached to get a better look at the stranger, now lying unconscious on the ground, a small trickle of blood running from beneath his hair.
"Where do you suppose he comes from?" he asked, sniffing at the human’s strange coloured ‘skin’, – or more precisely, his clothes -, the curious ticking gadget on his wrist, which was Alan’s watch, and the gleaming, horn-rimmed spectacles sitting askew on his face, all of which were unlike anything Hazel had ever seen before. "Whoever he is, he’s definitely not of this world…" At that moment, another large rabbit with silvery white fur emerged from the bushes.
"What's all the commotion here? What in Frith's name…?!" he gasped as he spotted the unconscious human. It was Silver, the Threarah's nephew, a warm-hearted young Owsla scout, and a good friend of Hazel and Fiver's. Although a strong and daring buck, he was constantly ridiculed and shunned by his fellow officers because of his overweight that usually got him into trouble during exercises. As a result, he had more friends among the outskirters than among rabbits of his own high social class, much to his uncle’s disapproval.
Fiver, hardly registering Silver’s arrival, turned to his brother, "Hazel, he’s badly hurt. We must help him or the elil will get to him soon." Silver, wondering just what kind of Frith-forsaken madness his friends had caught, looked horrified.
"Have you gone around the twist you two?” he barked, “Get away from that ithe...!" But Fiver remained impassive.
"Silver, please, you are the biggest, can you help us carry him back to our burrow?" Silver, of course, wasn’t the least keen to oblige to such a crazy request.
"You better have a good explanation for this, Fiver! My uncle will be furious if he finds out…" But Hazel, feeling a tad bit guilty for what he had just done, and making up his own mind, stepped in.
"Silver, please, just do what Fiver says. This stranger just saved my brother from being eaten alive; and Fiver says he heard him speak…"
At this, Silver was stunned, also beginning to notice the human’s strange, alien appearance. He had never seen a creature like this before. Who was he? Where did he come from? Could this have something to do with the return of Prince Rainbow, currently watching them from above every night...? Shrugging it off, he stared at the human, sizing him out; he wasn’t much larger than the average Owsla rabbit, and probably no stronger either, hardly a threat at first glance…unless of course there was something more to him than what met the eye.
Sighing in exasperation at the foolishness of what they were about to do, Silver finally gave in and heaved Alan onto his broad shoulders. The three friends carried him to the safety of Hazel and Fiver's burrow. After promising he wouldn’t breathe a word to anyone, but urging the two siblings to be careful all the same, the fat rabbit left to return to his own burrow, leaving the two brothers alone with their unusual guest, hoping to get some answers in the morning…if this strange ithe hadn’t gone on a rampage when he woke and killed them both.
"Are you sure I didn't kill him?" asked Hazel hours later, staring at the still unresponsive Alan, still out cold on the straw bedding of the burrow. Night had fallen and the human still hadn't regained consciousness. Fiver placed his ear over the man’s mouth and listened, "No, I can hear him breathing. Frith of Inle, Hazel, I never thought you could hit so hard! You should be in the Owsla…"
"Tell that to Captain Holly. Fiver, are you sure we should be helping him?” asked Hazel with a frown, as Fiver tenderly licked at the cut on Alan's head, cleaning it out, "Perhaps we should take him out and leave him before he awakes, just to be on the safe side? I really don't trust having this…this creature around…”
“Hazel, are you willing to turn away the ‘creature’ that saved your brother's life, only because he is different from us?” asked Fiver stiffly. Hazel finally relented, reminding himself that it was only thanks to this stranger that his brother wasn’t in the lair of the Black Rabbit of Inle now, yet silently praying to Frith that his brother's peculiar motives, inspired by his far sight, wouldn't bring trouble upon them…
Back at the crash site, Derek and Robbins were preoccupied with their card game. "Bet you ten and I'll raise you ten," Derek said, placing a £10 banknote in the pot. "So what have you got?"
"Three queens," replied Robbins with a smug smile, "I win again." Having lost all his money save for his pay check in the game and feeling quite irritated about it, Derek gave up and turned to look at the setting sun. It had been hours and still no sign of Alan. What could be keeping him?
"It's getting dark. I wonder what's taking Alan so long? Perhaps we should go and look for him…?"
"Relax, he knows what he’s doing. Besides, we need to stay put, so we can light the signal fire, should help arrive," said Robbins, resetting the cards for another round. "Care for another round?" But Derek, staring towards the dark forest, could feel something was wrong. Alan had been strangely quiet all day, yet he wouldn’t tell them what had happened. What had he found out there…?
Alan slowly opened his eyes to complete darkness. He was no longer in the open air on the edge of the meadow; he was underground, judging by the strong smell of damp earth all around him. Fear instantly kicked in as the memory of the attack came back to him. Reaching into his pocket, he found his matchbox. Hurriedly striking a match, he realised he was in a gigantic rabbit’s burrow, big enough for him to crouch in. The floor beneath him was covered in rough dry straw, like some crude bedding of sorts.
His head felt like a smashed egg and his stomach as if he had been hit by a flying cannonball, making him dazed and nauseous. Putting his hand up to his forehead, he felt a bloody lump growing from just above his left eyebrow, from when he had hit the tree. Fortunately, the impact hadn't shattered his glasses, which were still hanging askew on his face. Feeling into his belt, he found his knife was missing, along with his camera, which, he then remembered, had been lost in the confusion with the fox. But his flashlight from the plane was still there.
Shakily, he got to his knees, flashlight in hand, frantically looking for a way out of this tomb, when suddenly a firm, yet non-threatening, voice spoke from the shadows behind him, catching him by surprise.
Turning, he found himself face to face with the creamy brown buck that had tackled him, which was staring back at Alan with a stern, cautious expression, his forepaws held upright, as if bracing for an imminent attack. The smaller rabbit was standing beside his brother, staring at Alan with a look of amazement and curiosity, yet he too, Alan could see, seemed rather uneasy in his presence, even more so of the burning match in Alan’s hand; an animal’s natural fear of fire. Alan, his stomach about to bottom out, forced himself to remain calm.
"Eh… Look here, fellas, I don’t want any trouble,” he stammered nervously, not knowing what to expect, “I was only trying to…" He was worried that probably the two rabbits didn't understand English, which could prove potentially problematic in explaining that he meant no harm. As he thought of trying what few Lapine words he knew, and hope to get the message across, Hazel, finally convinced of his guest's speaking abilities, cut him off.
"There is no need for explanations, stranger," he said in perfect English, with a hint of a foreign accent that Alan couldn't quite place (Lapine), his stern face forming into a thin smile, "Fiver told me how you risked yourself to save his life. I wanted to thank you and also to apologize for attacking you. I had no idea your intentions were innocent." His voice was kind all right, yet the buck remained rather cautious of Alan, not unlike a human being finding himself in the presence of a talking, intelligent animal.
“No harm done, pal, no harm at all,” said Alan sheepishly, nursing the blow on his head, relieved to know that he wasn't in any trouble…at least for now. He could tell the two rabbits were very friendly, but their enormous size, not to mention their talking abilities, still overwhelmed him. Hazel went on speaking, while still keeping a good three-foot distance between them, still unsure whether the talking human before them was dangerous or not.
"We brought you down here, to keep you out of the elil's way until you are better. Fiver didn't want to leave you out there unconscious..."
"You're the ithe I have been seeing in my visions,” piped up the runt rabbit excitedly, speaking for the first time, “You’re lost and confused. I want to help you, just like you helped me…" Alan raised his eyebrows; this seer rabbit knew he was stranded in this strange world of theirs?
"Sorry, where are my manners?” said Hazel, looking slightly taken aback as he stared back at his brother, whose presence he had completely forgotten about in the midst of his amazement of conversing with a talking human, “My name is Hazel and this is my brother Fiver."
"It's a pleasure to meet you both. My name is Alan." Normally, Alan would have offered his hand to shake, but decided against it, thinking these rabbits weren't familiar with that gesture. Careful not to startle them, seeing how they were still on edge with him, he lit the flashlight he had taken from the plane, to conserve his matches and placed it on a ledge on the burrow wall, so he could see his surroundings better. The two rabbits kept their eyes fixed on him, carefully watching his every move.
"It’s a pleasure to meet you too – Alan, did you say your name was? -, not to mention eternally grateful for your help, but we’d both like to know something. We can tell you're not one of the native humans that inhabit our land. Not to mention that you can speak our tongue... Just where in Frith’s name do you come from?"
Meanwhile, Alan, whose mind was also filled to bursting with his own questions, was slowly finding a pattern to all of this: So, in this alien land the characters of a fictional story were real. Could the plot be real as well, and currently unfolding all around him? Should he tell them? Trying to be as understandable as possible, he explained.
"I come from…another world, very different from yours. My companions and I were flying and encountered some…strange force that brought us here. I was trying to approach you, hoping you could tell me where I am…"
Hazel answered him immediately, "You're at Sandleford warren, in the Meadows of Fenlo. What's your warren called?"
"Well, I guess you can call it London," Alan replied, his fear of his hosts now entirely diminished, yet feeling a slight twinge of disappointment, realising that his new friends wouldn’t be of any help in helping him find his way home. The fact that the county of Hampshire was the ‘Meadows of Fenlo’ in this world and that Sandleford Park had become ‘Sandleford Warren’ didn't sound too promising, being the names of supposedly fictional locations in a storybook! Hazel and Fiver listened intently as Alan continued his story.
"When we landed – with one of us dead -, we discovered our world had simply…disappeared and replaced with yours, with the time zones and seasons all altered. Don't ask me how this happened, because I have no idea. All I know is that we’re stranded here, with no idea how to get back…"
"Time zones?" asked Hazel confused, completely unfamiliar with the alien terms. To explain better, Alan showed them his watch. Hazel and Fiver stared at it curiously, weary of the ticking noise, which sounded much like a heartbeat to them. Fiver sniffed at it, gently nudging it with his paw, thinking it was alive.
"What in Frith's name is that?"
"It's called a watch; a gadget we use to tell time. Twelve hours of day and twelve hours of night form a 24-hour cycle that mark off each of the 365 days of the year," Alan explained, pointing at the moving hands, "Don't you guys have a way to tell time round here? With the movement of the sun and the moon perhaps…?" Finally making some sense out of what Alan was talking about, Hazel explained.
"Well, yes, we know about uth-frith and ni-frith that of the day, uth-Inle and ni-Inle of the night, hrair days mark of a season, and finally the kes seasons that form a full cycle of seasons," he said, explaining his people’s crude calendar system. Although fairly straightforward, Alan realised he couldn’t expect much from them, since these rabbits apparently didn't even know how to keep any accurate track of the date, without the use of numbers beyond four, thus it would be pointless to inquire any further.
"You say you flew here?" asked Fiver in confusion. Then his eyes suddenly went wide with understanding, "That mysterious white bird the night patrol spotted two nights ago, that was you?" Alan nodded, starting to feel uneasy at the mention of others also being aware of his arrival. Although he seemed to have gained the trust of Hazel and Fiver, there was no telling how the rest of the warren - particularly the Chief Rabbit - would react to his presence here; he had already seen enough to convince him that humans didn’t seem to be very popular around here. They certainly wouldn’t welcome them here for tea!
"Someone else knows about me then?"
"Yes, a friend of ours, Silver, who helped us carry you down here. Don't worry," Hazel added, "He can be trusted to keep his silence." Alan breathed a sigh of relief; for the moment, his presence was safe. Then, he noticed that Fiver was suddenly staring directly at him, the runt rabbit’s large eyes locked with his like laser sightings; Alan realised that the seer was sensing the emotions his mind using his sixth sense and had apparently found something very interesting.
"This is strange. I can sense it in your heart that you know us from somewhere, although, I swear to Frith, we’ve never met before. But how is this done? My far sight never lies… I don't understand it…"
"I see you’ve discovered my little secret, Hrair-roo," said Alan, smiling at the surprised looks on the rabbits' faces, as he used Fiver's Lapine birth name, "I suppose there is no point avoiding it any longer. There is something else you should know; something that may sound crazy…” The rabbits looked at each other in suspicion, as Alan explained.
"Like Fiver said, although we have never actually met in person before, I have in fact known you chaps most of my life - through a ruddy storybook! Back in my world, you two are the characters of a grand tale…"
Over the next hour, Alan told his two new friends the story of Watership Down. He told them about Fiver's vision of Sandleford's destruction; their perilous journey to Watership Down; their problems in establishing a new warren; the infiltration of Efrafa; and the final battle to defend their new home. When he had finished, what he saw shocked him. He had, at the very least, expected his new friends not to believe him, if not mock him; instead, Hazel was staring at him with a serious expression, while Fiver stood petrified with surprise.
"Are you saying you know the future? Like a seer?" Alan nodded as the buck’s expression turned stony, realising what this meant, "When does it all start?" At this, Alan felt at a loss, realising he was inevitably playing a cat-and-mouse game with fate.
"I don't know. Judging by your age, I'd say in the non-so distant future…" Alan always preferred to deal with facts, rather than assumptions, so he decided to speak plain. “Besides, what exactly am I supposed to do? Go up to your Chief Rabbit and tell him that your warren is about to be destroyed? In the story, he didn't take your word for it and I doubt mine will make much of a difference. And it could turn out to be a false alarm anyway. Unless…"Alan suddenly came up with an idea to test his theory regarding the reality of the book's plot in this world. He turned to Fiver.
"I think there is a way to find out for certain if any of the written events are actually unfolding. Like I’ve just told you, you had a vision of Sandleford's destruction, which prompted you and your friends to leave. Now, if you actually do have that vision soon, then we’ll know that your future has literally been written out for us, and we can plan ahead. I say we wait and see...for the time being anyway."
"And if it does happen as you say?"
"One thing at a time, pal," said Alan, feeling rather stupid at the idea of attempting to change the history of a supposedly fictional-story-come-alive. The very thought was nothing short of insane! And that soon brought them to another very important question.
"What about our friends, our family? Shouldn’t we warn them?"
"No, not yet. Since some of them have seen me already, there is no point in trying to hide me from them. Explain to them – and them only - who I am and that I mean no harm, before someone gets cold feet and decides to blab to the Owsla. However, don't tell anyone what I’ve just told you about your foretold future just yet, especially about your warren being in danger. We will warn them in good time, as soon as we’ve tested my theory." Although sceptical, the two brothers reluctantly agreed to keep it between them for now.
Alan suddenly realised there was sunlight coming from the burrow entrance. "Morning," he said, "I’d better return to my camp, before my companions start scouting the area for me." He crawled towards the exit run, Hazel and Fiver following behind, to see him off. He stepped out into the early morning sunrise, almost blinded by the light, after having spent an entire night in a pitch-black burrow by torchlight. As he walked away, he turned to look at his two new friends who were still staring at him from the edge of the run.
"When will we meet again?" Fiver asked, looking rather sad at seeing Alan go. The professor smiled warmly at the runt rabbit’s warm-hearted nature. Then, he suddenly realised it would be unwise to try sneaking back here again or he might get caught. They would have to set up a secret meeting place, where there was no risk of being discovered.
"This evening, just before sundown, come meet me at my camp, on the edge of the marshes,” he said, “It should be safe there from any prying eyes or ears. Also, bring anyone else who knows about me with you."
"Wait, please…" Fiver said and Alan turned to look at him, "Thank you." The man nodded curtly, "My pleasure, lad." Even Hazel couldn't help but smile in gratitude, as they watched their new friend disappear into the woods. Perhaps there was indeed more to humans than what met the eye?
Meanwhile, back at the plane, Derek and Robbins had just returned from a sleepless, nightlong search of the surrounding woodland for their missing companion. Derek sat clutching his hair in desperation, while an irritated Robbins strode about, muttering possible scenarios explaining Alan’s disappearance.
“…How could he just disappear like that? Where did he go? Do open your eyes, man! Can’t you see? He’s lost! Another of those giant foxes from the forest must have got him and carried him off…”
"Another word from you, and, so help me, I'll wring your neck!" Derek snapped, horrified of Robbins’ suggestion of what might have happened to Alan, “If something’s happened to him because I let him go out there alone, I’ll never forgive myself…” At that moment, Alan appeared out of the foliage.
"Do calm your nerves, Deke! I am alive and kicking, thank you very much, and, boy, do I have one hell of a story to tell you both!" The two men jumped in surprise at his voice.
"Alan! You crazy son of a bitch, don't you scare me like that again!” the engineer chastised his friend, tossing Alan his knife and camera, which they had found on the edge of the meadow while searching for him, “Where the hell have you been? Back from your holiday? And what happened to your face...?"
"Shut up and listen. I have something to tell you that will probably send you around the bend: this place is inhabited by gigantic, humanoid rabbits that can speak English, and, what’s more, they’re none other that the characters from Watership Down come alive! How about that for a morning flash news, huh?" Derek and Robbins looked at each other. Had Alan finally flipped his marbles for real? Why was he acting like some giddy schoolboy?
"What are you blabbering about, doc?" said Robbins, "Have you taken one too many blows to the head, or have you been drinking again?" Derek cast a look of disgust at Robbins, having had enough of the man’s rudeness and snobbishness. But Alan only roared with laughter at the insult.
"Drinking, have I? Well, what if I told you that I have invited them over here, tonight...?"
"Bloody hell, Alan, do settle down, man!” said Derek, who, unlike Robbins, realised that this had something to do with Alan’s peculiar behaviour yesterday. And after seeing that gigantic fox his friend had left dead out on the meadow, he wanted some answers! “Now, tell us, what happened?"
Alan told them everything; how he had spotted these strange rabbits yesterday but had decided to keep quiet until he could find out more, returning to get a closer look, the fox attack, being accidentally attacked, and waking up in the burrow with the two talking rabbits who had befriended him.
"So we can add another big mystery to the puzzle: the world as we knew has apparently ceased to exist! Instead of finding help, we find…rabbits! The world has been transformed into a domain of talking rabbits!" said Alan, rolling his eyes. Derek, although sceptical about his friend's story, seemed to be thinking hard on it. The mystery of their situation was so far getting them nowhere; maybe Alan was actually on to something?
"Then perhaps these ‘giant, talking rabbits’ of yours could tell us where we are? Maybe they know something about that mysterious storm that brought us here?" Alan shook his head sadly.
"No, I have already asked them; they say they saw our plane coming in to land, but nothing of what we saw up there. What’s more, they don't even know about our world, anymore than we know about this insane place. It's just crazy, I’ll tell you that much…"
"Damn right its crazy, Professor,” sneered Robbins incredulously, “Giant, talking rabbits indeed! If someone doesn’t have a more urgent need of a psychiatrist’s prescription for a good anti-psychotic..." Derek held a warning finger up to Robbins's face.
"I’ve had just about enough of your tongue! So shut up, or you’ll find my fist ramming your teeth down your throat!" He turned back to his friend, "So what's the bottom line to all of this, Al?"
"Well…" Alan muttered, also at a loss with the absurdity of it all, "My deduction is that we have somehow slipped into…another dimension, let’s say, one parallel to our world. Just like in a sci-fi film, only very real. That’s the only reasonable explanation why everything has turned topsy-turvy. Either that or we are all somehow dreaming the same dream…"
"No, you and the grease-monkey here are dreaming!" Robbins said, unable to withhold his sarcasm. Derek's eyes flashed dangerously at the insult, looking as if he was about to lose his temper and come to blows with the journalist. But Alan raised a hand to calm his friend before turning to their acid-mouthed employer, "We shall see soon enough, Mr Robbins. We shall see…"
Meanwhile, Hazel and Fiver were being bombarded with endless questions by their friends that had arrived to see them shortly after Alan had left. Although Silver had done his best to keep quiet, in a place like Sandleford, word spread fast; several of their neighbours had already gotten wind of what had happened, and had come to find out more about this 'talking human', forming a large audience in the burrow.
"You had an ithe in here last night? Have you gone mad?" gasped a dark grey rabbit called Hawkbit, another outskirter neighbour of theirs, as Hazel patiently told them the events of last night, however taking Alan's advice and leaving out the part about the human knowing their future, including about Sandleford being doomed, intent on not starting a panic with a premature alert.
"That ithe could actually speak our tongue?" asked Silver, who had arrived first and foremost, accompanied by the mob of curious spectators, firing questions without end…or passing it off with a good laugh.
"You said he saved your life from a homba, Fiver? It sounds so very exciting…!" squealed a young, chubby dwarf rabbit called Pipkin, a family friend of Hazel and Fiver’s whose mother had raised after he was orphaned as a kitten, before she had died herself, with awe. But Fiver’s serious stare made the youngster droop his ears, as if being scolded.
“I am sorry Fiver, have I done something wrong?”
Fiver smiled at little Pipkin, “No, Hlao-roo, it is just that this is not a matter to be taken so lightly I am afraid…” The others, however, ignoring Fiver’s remark, continued to treat it like some wild joke.
“Frith above, Hazel! You could give me a run for my silflay with this story!" said a giddy, golden-furred rabbit with a dreamy expression, thinking his friends had come up with a story good enough to challenge his supposedly unbeatable reputation of storytelling, “Ithe befriends rabbits…” But Hazel remained serious, causing everyone to finally fall silent.
"This is no story, Dandelion. We actually met a human, unlike any human anyone has ever seen before. He’s not of our world; he and his two companions have stumbled here by accident and are stranded. And my brother and I promised to help him in any way we can. Tonight, we’re meeting him again. To dispel any further doubts, I suggest you all come along and see for yourselves." At this, the expressions of everyone present also turned serious, finally realising that Hazel wasn’t pulling their leg.
"Hold on a shake, Hazel,” said Silver, “You’re not serious about this, are you? How do we know that this…this talking ithe isn't dangerous? We don’t know one jot about who he is or where he comes from. What if he’s an enemy spy, out to infiltrate our warren?"
"We needn’t fear of such a thing, Silver," said Fiver reassuringly, "I could feel his emotions down to my bones all the time he was here; he is haunted by some dark past and seeks happiness again. There were no evil intentions in his heart whatsoever (“How very reassuring”, muttered Hawkbit, rolling his eyes). After he saved me yesterday, I’m willing to trust him."
"What about the Owsla and the Chief Rabbit?" persisted Silver, "We won’t be able to keep this secret for long. And I don't think my uncle will be very happy when he finds out. You know how much he distrusts strangers – and a human nonetheless -, and as for him saving your life Fiver, well, I’m afraid that would be of little impression to him…"
"That is exactly why I want your word – everybody’s - that you won't speak of this to anyone, least of all the Threarah and the Owsla," said Hazel sternly, staring back to the crowd, “Can we count on you all not to turn us in?”
Their friends started muttering to each other; although Hazel and Fiver's motives of trusting a human were beyond questionable, if not insane, the thought of doing something so exciting, and right under the bullying Owsla's noses nonetheless, actually sounded good to the outskirters. And the very idea of meeting a ‘talking human’ was a temptation too great to resist.
"All right, I guess you have it," said Silver finally, the others slowly also nodding in agreement, “I just hope you know what you are doing, Hazel…”
Unbeknownst to any of them however, two other unwelcome rabbits were also listening in, eavesdropping just outside the burrow entrance. These rabbits were thickset and wore mean expressions on the faces; they were Owsla officers, who had come on their usual visit to the outskirters' neighbourhood, hoping to find some victim to bully. Attracted by the sight of so many outskirters assembling in that burrow for no apparent reason, the evil duo was eavesdropping with interest.
"What is all this about, Toadflax? That oaf Silver was making sure that those who came were not being followed. Why could they possibly want to meet down there in secret? Could it be some conspiracy?"
"I don't know, Scabious. They are saying something about a friendly human whom they have met and talked to," muttered Toadflax, an officer in the Sandleford Owsla. He was a young recruit, born to a respected Owsla father who had recently passed away, letting his son take up his position in the Owsla. Although he was a superb runner and tracker, his aristocratic background made him feel superior to others beneath him, particularly the outskirters, who were frequent victims of his bullying behaviour.
His friend and Owsla comrade, Scabious, was of a similar background; arrogant and selfish, he too had no qualms about abusing his position to suit his own interests. Highly disliked among the outskirters, the pair wouldn't miss a chance to make trouble. Although they were both always careful never to push it too far and land themselves in trouble, their behaviour was a major concern for the outskirters.
"A talking human? Preposterous! It must be that wretched storyteller, Dandelion up to his usual fantasies again…" sneered Scabious. But Toadflax ignored him and kept listening. Being a highly ambitious soldier with the dream of rising to the rank of Captain someday, he made a habit of spying on the outskirters, hoping to find someone to turn in for a supposed crime and earn a reward promotion in return, so far without success. But this time, luck was finally in his favour.
"I think the Threarah would be interested in hearing about this. If Frith is smiling on us today, maybe we’ve finally got a chance for a promotion. I’m personally dying to have that old hypocrite Holly bumped down a few steps…" Captain Holly of Sandleford’s Owsla was Toadflax and Scabious' commanding officer, a brave but stern rabbit, who valued order and obedience. Unfortunately, Toadflax’s attempts to impress him enough to promote him to a high-ranking officer had so far been futile, earning the bullying youngster’s jealousy and spite in return. But the gullible, old coot the Threarah was another story.
Scabious seemed to be thinking along the same lines as he smiled nastily, "I think you are right, Toadflax. Come on, let's go before we are discovered." And they left, plotting on how they could best use this opportunity to their advantage…