Watership Down; Planet of the Rabbits
Chapter fifty-two: The Price for Victory — Chapter 52
Josie walked nervously around the Honeycomb, which had been converted to a mass infirmary, tending from one patient to another. Never before in her life, did she have to treat so many sick and injured animals simultaneously. In addition to those injured from the battle, Josie had found, to her utmost horror and disgust, that most of the Efrafans were horribly malnourished and some on the outbreak of scurvy, with extreme muscle atrophy from lack of exercise, overgrown teeth, failing immune systems and many infections caused by sores and old wounds inflicted by the Efrafan Owsla; it was like the time when the Hayward rabbits were discovered in California back in 2004, leading to a mass public protest for prosecution. Fighting the urge to have a fit, she had unpacked all the medical supplies she had brought from her vet infirmary and got to work, tending to these giant, anthropomorphised rabbits.
Although most of the battle injuries were easily treated with some stitches, bandages and disinfectants, as well as a few tourniquets for mild fractures (with the exception of Bluebell, who needed surgery), there were many others that required extended medical care. Carefully brewing a rich solution of vitamins and other important nutrients for a rabbit’s diet, she filled several mammal feeding bottles and carefully administered it to those suffering from extreme malnutrition and scurvy. To those suffering from diseases and infections, she also added some simple healing remedies to the solution, to help boost their failing immune system and help them recover, not wanting to risk administering any powerful vaccines or antibiotics just yet since she wasn’t sure if the metabolism of these future lagomorphs could take such medications.
While Hyzenthlay and her friends prepared fresh straw bedding for the injured to rest on, Josie got working on Bluebell, who was still barely conscious. Although she had managed to stitch up the wound and stop the bleeding, there wasn’t much she could do for the buck’s damaged heart, which was struggling to maintain a steady rhythm, threatening to fail at any moment. After she had finished treating the wound best she could and applied some shots to stimulate tissue healing and heart beating, she covered Bluebell with one of the blankets to keep him warm and turned back to Violet, who was watching her anxiously, “I’ve done everything I could for him; although he’s stable for now, I don’t know if he’ll recover.” Violet, looking extremely depressed at the news nuzzled close to Bluebell, as if hoping her body heat would further assist his recovery. Josie gently patted her between the ears, trying to reassure her, “Everything will be fine; when Alan returns, he’ll come up with some way to help Bluebell. Right now, we’ll let him rest.” As she wiped her bloodstained hands clean on a towel and glanced at her watch, she realised Hotdog was late; it had been nearly two hours since Hotdog had left to bring back Alan and the others.
After Hotdog had brought the group of Efrafans to the Down and helped Josie carry Bluebell into the Honeycomb, he had set off without delay to bring the rest of the group back safely, escorted by Campion. According to his estimates, it would have taken no more than half an hour at most for them to return. Fearing that something unexpected had occurred, Josie summoned Holly, who had assumed command in Hazel’s absence, to discuss the issue, “I am telling you, something has gone wrong; even if Hotdog had encountered any trouble on the way, he should have informed us by radio. Someone should go back there and find out what’s the delay.”
“Easier said than done I am afraid,” Holly replied grimly, “Even if we could return to Efrafa on foot, we would never be able to venture inside, now that the bridge is destroyed. The only other way onto that island is from the caverns at the foot of the cliffs. Attempting to swim across would mean almost certain death for any of us and without that hrududu of yours that can run on water, I don’t see how we could…” But Holly’s words instantly jogged Josie’s memory; although they didn’t have another floatplane, which would have been ideal for a thorough search and possible rescue, they still had Santon’s inflatable motorboat lying among their equipment, still pilled at the edge of the cove where they had first docked.
“Actually, I think there is a way; we have a boat big enough to carry three of us, plus the other seven still out there. I think we can make it.” Then suddenly she realised that she couldn’t leave; Bluebell needed to be watched around the clock, in case he needed to be placed in a recovery position or have CPR used on him to revive his failing heart, should it stall. Since Josie was the only one in the group who knew how to act in such an emergency, she couldn’t leave Bluebell; on the other hand, none of the rabbits were capable of assembling or piloting a motorboat by themselves, making it essential for a human to be part of the search party. As they sighed in disappointment, realising that they had no choice but to leave Alan and the others to fend for themselves, otherwise they’d be leaving Bluebell to die. Although it seemed mute, given that Bluebell’s chances of recovery were terribly slim anyway, none of them were willing to take away Violet’s last hope of seeing her mate live to see another day.
However, their chance presented itself in an instant, when Lucy, who had been listening to the conversation from the other side of the Honeycomb with Silverweed, interrupted, “I could take care of Bluebell while you’re gone; Mum and Dad used to teach me some first aid…” Although Josie remembered Alan saying that his wife had been a nurse and that they had both taught Lucy some basic first aid techniques, the veterinarian still had doubts; even if Lucy had the general idea of how to perform emergency CPR, what was the likelihood of an eight-year-old girl being able to act with accurate timing, among other important factors involved in keeping a casualty stable? In spite of her thoughts, Josie made up her mind, “Even if I stay here, I wouldn’t be able to be of any greater help to Bluebell, given that we don’t have any of the right equipment needed to keep him stable; on the other hand, Alan and the others might need help right now, help that we can offer. If I sedate Bluebell, he should be able to hold out for a couple of hours; most likely Lucy won’t have to do anything other than keep him and Violet company.”
After taking a few minutes to give Lucy instructions on what to do if Bluebell ‘started acting funny’ and also to make her promise not to leave his side until they returned, Josie along with Holly and Blackavar, who had volunteered to come help in the search, left the Honeycomb, leaving Groundsel and Blackberry in charge of the group. They headed back down to the cove, where Josie found to her utmost disappointment, that much of their equipment that they had foolishly left at the water’s edge, had been lost when the river had swollen up in the storm. However, some of the heaviest baggage, including the motorboat were still there. By torchlight, Josie unpacked the bundle of black-and-orange rubber fabric and the wooden components of the floor, and got to work pumping up the boat. Half an hour later, Santon’s motorboat sat ready in the water. After helping the two rabbits into lifejackets, they boarded and pushed off. Although Josie had assembled and fuelled the boat’s engine, she kept it powered down to conserve fuel, since the current carrying them downstream made it unnecessary for any further means of propulsion. Using the paddles for steering, she and her two companions made their way towards Efrafa, hoping that Hotdog’s delay in returning didn’t spell out that Alan and the rest of their group were in trouble.
As it turned out, Hotdog’s return hadn’t gone according to plan; after he had helped Josie transport Bluebell to the Honeycomb along with the other Efrafans, he had set off at once to return to Efrafa for Alan and the rest of the group. Leaving Groundsel in charge of the Efrafan survivors, Campion had also tagged along, intent on making sure that there weren’t any more survivors stranded among the ruins of his old warren. Although everything seemed to be going smoothly without any problems, Hotdog didn’t realise he had overlooked one little thing: when he had set off from Efrafa with the majority of the escapees, he had taxied the overloaded aircraft upstream to reach the Down; he had gone directly against the current. Unfortunately, although the aircraft had enough thrust to fight the current, the plane had burned up most of its fuel reserves in the process, much more than originally anticipated.
Suddenly, as they taxied downstream through the ghostly mist that filled the depths of the crevice, Hotdog saw a warning light blink on the control panel and felt the engines start to die down. Frowning, he tapped his flight instruments and cursed as he saw the fuel regulators read almost zero; their fuel was nearly depleted. Hastily powering down the engines to conserve what little was left in the tanks, he put on the radio headset and spoke into the microphone, hoping Alan could hear him, “Hey guys, I dunno if you can still hear me, I am coming back with Campion. But we have a little problem on our hands here: this old piece of junk has nearly drained its tanks and we might not have enough left to go back the way we came. I think our best bet would be to carry on downstream until we find another docking area and then make our way back on foot. If you’re hearing this, we should be with you in a couple of minutes…if we don’t bloody well miss you in this muck that is!”
Meanwhile, Woundwort sat patiently waiting at his hiding place for the right moment to strike. As he sat on a hidden ledge on the side of the cliffs overlooking the cove when the hrududu was supposed to return for the rest of his enemies, he suddenly heard it; the faint yet familiar alien sound of the hrududu’s heart approaching through the darkness. Kneeling low to avoid being spotted, he soon saw the hrududu’s luminous eyes shining through the thick mist, getting closer and closer. Soon, the hrududu would pass right beneath him…and he would have a little reception for it and anyone riding inside it. He sneered maliciously, “The Black Rabbit of Inle is coming for you outsiders!”
He positioned himself and got ready to pounce at the approaching hrududu, while its pilot and passenger were completely unaware that were heading straight into a deadly ambush…
Inside the semi-collapsed caverns under Buxton manor, Alan and his group slowly made their way towards the escape tunnel. They were all frightfully exhausted and sore from the battle and all the other hardships they had endured in the past few hours, yet they felt extremely cheerful. Pretty soon, their struggles would finally be over; they had won the battle and reclaimed their lives and freedom, so now they were ready to start life anew, the kind of life that Dr Drake had wanted to share with the lagomorphs of the future. Stopping inside Sven’s old bunker to catch their breath, Alan turned to his radio and was overjoyed to hear Hotdog’s voice, as the aircraft came within their radio interception, “Hey guys, I dunno if you can still hear me, I am coming back with Campion. But we have a little problem on our hands here: this old piece of junk has nearly drained its tanks and I we might not have enough left to go back the way we came. I think our best bet would be to carry on downstream until we find another docking area and then make our way back on foot. If you’re hearing this, we should be with you in a couple of minutes…if we don’t bloody well miss you in this muck that is!”
Alan sighed; it looked like they wouldn’t be making it back to the Down before daylight, letting Josie, Lucy and the others be out of their minds with worry of what could have happened to them. As they kept listening in, waiting for Hotdog to inform them that he had arrived, they heard something else, “I say, I can see one of your lookouts sitting on a ledge just above the cove…” Alan and the others frowned, “Lookout? What is he talking about? Holly said there weren’t any other Efrafans left on the island and we’re all accounted for. Who could it…” As they continued to listen in, they heard something that made the blood drain from their faces, “Damn, that guy is the size of a hippo and looks as if he’s about to jump…” In an instant Alan understood.
“Hotdog, get away from the cliffs! It’s a trap!” he shouted into his radio, only to remember the microphone was damaged so Hotdog couldn’t hear them. He turned to his companions, “Someone is waiting down there to ambush Hotdog; we have to warn him!” They hurried down the tunnel towards the cove, Alan still shouting into his non-transmitting radio, “Hotdog, it’s a trap! Get away from the cliffs! Hotdog!”
Woundwort was ready; the hrududu was nearly there, luckily moving slowly, make it all too easy for him to attack it. Just as the plane taxied beneath him, he suddenly gave a war roar and then jumped over the edge, aiming straight for the plane’s exposed wing…
Hotdog and Campion were nearly there. After taxiing through the seemingly endless mist for what seemed like hours, the cliffs of the Efrafan Island suddenly loomed into view in front of them like a wall. Taking the aircraft alongside the cliffs, they started looking for the cove where they were supposed to meet Alan and the others. Suddenly, Hotdog spotted the outline of a giant rabbit standing on a ledge just above the cove, like a lookout. Spotting them, the creature crouched low as if afraid of being seen. Hotdog rolled his eyes, “Scared shitless at the sight of an aircraft…charming.” How little did he know that the ‘scared, confused rabbit’ on the cliffs meant serious business!
Suddenly, as they neared the cliffs, Hotdog and Campion were both startled to the core as a loud, chilling roar echoed from above them like thunder. Before Hotdog could even inquire what kind of creature could roar like that or for Campion to recognise the all too familiar war roar of his former Chief, something heavy struck the plane’s starboard wing, causing the aircraft to start tilting on its side. As they both stared out the window in shock, thinking that the aircraft had struck the side of the cliffs, they saw, to their utmost horror, Woundwort hanging onto the wing using both teeth and claws to maintain his grip, his immense weight pulling the tip of the wing down so it barely touched the waterline; the aircraft was quickly losing its balance, threatening to capsize, “WHAT THE HELL?”
Quickly grabbing hold of the controls, Hotdog struggled to restart the engines and shake Woundwort off, but it was already too late. Like a massive lead weight, Woundwort’s 400 lbs body tilted the aircraft sideways, so that the water brushed the windows on the starboard side. Hotdog was still fighting desperately to regain control, but the water had already swamped the starboard engine, disabling the ignition system. More water started pouring into the cabin through an open side window, soaking them both and shorting out all the exposed electrics. Hotdog continued to fight with the controls while Campion struggled to balance the tilting craft by throwing his weight on the rising side, but it was no use; the aircraft had already taken on too much water to regain its balance and it rolled over underwater, taking Hotdog and Campion with it.
Alan and his group rushed through the tunnel towards the cove, hoping it wasn’t too late. As they stepped out of the cavern into the cove, a horrific sight met their eyes: The floatplane was only a few yards away, drifting towards them…upside down! Only the now overturned pontoons were still above water with the rest of the fuselage completely submerged. Bubbles rose all around, as the water continued to flood the rest of the fuselage, apparently having drowned Hotdog and Campion who were still trapped inside the cabin. And standing atop the floating pontoons, like a savage beast atop the mauled body of its latest victim, was General Woundwort himself, looking horribly mauled from the many injuries he had sustained during the battle and the destruction of Efrafa, but still very much alive and dangerous. Having succeeded in ‘defeating’ the hrududu, Woundwort was laughing maniacally in triumph.
Recovering from the shock of seeing Woundwort alive and from the deaths of Hotdog and Campion, Alan furiously pulled out his pistols and tried to fire at Woundwort to avenge his fallen friends, only to discover all his ammunition had been used up; all his guns were empty, completely useless when he needed them the most. During that moment of delay, Woundwort jumped from the capsized aircraft and landed in the shallow water of the cove before them, a triumphant gleam in his savage eye, his many ugly wounds making him look like a demon vomited out of hell. Behind him, the aircraft wreckage continued to drift downstream, taking Hotdog and Campion to their watery graves, “You may have won the battle outsiders, but not the war against me. Now, it’s finally time to finish my ancestor’s noble work.”
They all stared back at Woundwort with expressions of horror and hate. Fiver was trembling with fear beside Alan, Hawkbit and Dandelion were embracing each other in silent fear and Bigwig, Silver, Hazel and Alan were glaring at Woundwort, bracing for a fight. The former dictator of Efrafa slowly gained on them, a murderous look on his grotesque face, “It’s over for all of you; my new rule begins with your deaths and the enslavement of all your people. I am the bringer of doom, the right paw of the Black Rabbit of Inle himself! After tonight, nothing will ever defy my power again; you’re all going to become legend, a warning to all who’d continue fighting a war that has already been lost…”
“GROWAAAR!” Suddenly Bigwig sprang at Woundwort, “We’ll see who’s lost the battle, chum!” In an instant, the two warrior rabbits were engaged in single combat, each trying to tare the other to pieces. Seeing his chance, Alan pulled out his elephant shotgun and tried to shoot Woundwort in the back. Supporting it against his shoulder with only one arm, he aimed at Woundwort and fired; but the savege rabbit rolled out of the way in the nick of time and the bullet only struck the ground beside him. Alan recocked it and tried to fire again, only to discover he had used up his last bullet. So he did the only logical thing he could think off: grabbing the weapon by the muzzle, he swung the heavy barrel end at Woundwort’s turned head. But the savage rabbit, seemingly sensing his presence behind him, suddenly ducked low faster as lightning, so that Bigwig was inevitably caught in the path of the blow instead of him. The heavy bat end of the gun impacted hard with the captain of Owsla’s head, knocking him out. At that moment, Woundwort gave Bigwig a powerful shove and the mighty veteran fell into the river unconscious and was instantly carried away by the current.
Woundwort rounded on Alan, who was frozen in shock and self-hatred of what he had just done, an insane gleam of triumph in his demonic eye, “You see time traveller? The Thearah was right; you are the foretold instrument of destruction to El-ahrairah’s legacy whether you like it or not. You pledge your loyalty to these pathetic renegades, yet now you have just claimed your first victim in my name!” he sneered, gesturing in the direction of the water, where Bigwig’s body had disappeared. With a powerful blow, he struck Alan across his broken arm, knocking the still stunned man to the ground, howling in pain.
Suddenly, before Alan could regain the willpower to try and fight back, Woundwort suddenly gave a loud groan of pain, as he suddenly found himself pinned to the ground by non other than Silver. Although the Thearah’s nephew didn’t possess Bigwig’s steel-like muscles, he had a great load of fat tucked beneath his furry hide, which gave him the advantage of being able to pin an opponent down with his weight, even a fiercely strong brute like Woundwort. Having succeeded in temporarily gaining the upper hand, Silver started slashing and biting viciously at Woundwort’s neck. The savage rabbit screamed in pain as Silver ripped off a strip of torn skin from a shoulder wound, exposing the bloody flesh underneath, while Hazel and Fiver pulled the injured Alan away.
For a moment it looked as if Silver would win, as Woundwort continued to scream and struggle beneath the massive rabbit’s bulk. But then, as if fuelled by determination for revenge, Woundwort made a violent jerk, knocking Silver off him. The two resumed their fight, this time with Silver quickly losing, as Woundwort wrestled him to the ground. Struggling to restrain his stronger opponent, Silver turned and shouted over his shoulder, “Run! Never mind about me, just go! Get up top and seal up the tunnel! I can’t hold him much longer!” Seeing that Silver couldn’t be helped now, they all turned round and run back up the caverns, towards the generator room. Behind them, a loud cry followed by a loud thump indicated that Silver had being overpowered as well. They could hear the pattering of heavy paws behind them, as Woundwort abandoned Silver and gave chase after them. As they reached the other side of the chamber, they turned and saw Woundwort was catching up with them fast; soon he’d upon them and they would all be doomed.
“Everyone get up the tunnel as fast as you can. I’ve got an idea…” Alan said, taking out a flare from his backpack and striking it on the wall. The others looked at him, “What are you going to do?”
“Try and slow him down,” Alan replied, staring at all the kerosene spilled all over the chamber floor; there were at least 100 gallons of fuel down here, enough to start a blazing inferno. As he saw Woundwort appear at the edge of the tunnel on the far side of the chamber, he took aim and tossed the flare straight at the leaking generator fuel tank. The burning flare bounced off the chamber wall and landed straight onto the kerosene-covered floor. Alan didn’t wait to see what would happen; knowing he only had a second before the whole caverns would be engulfed in flames, he turned and followed his companions to the end of the secret passage and back into the ruined manor. As they sealed the trapdoor behind them, they got a glimpse of an inferno that had broken out in the caverns beneath them. The cracking sound of flames combined with the strong odour of smoke filled the air. As they all held their breaths, wondering if Woundwort had finally being killed, they heard something that made their hearts sink, “That was good thinking time traveller; pity that all fires must someday burn out. Enjoy life while you can, because I am coming for you and your little friends. Your lives are mine and there is no one to help you now.” Woundwort’s cold voice confirmed that their trap had failed; the racist rabbit must have suspected something and turned back at the last second, escaping the wrath of the flames. Alan turned to his four remaining companions and they all stared miserably at each other.
Woundwort had taken down Bigwig and Silver with extreme ease, Alan was injured and unable to fight with all his weapons useless and the rest of them were no match against that killer brute that was now trapped on the island with them, hunting them down one by one like pray. They all turned to look at Alan, who was pale as a ghost, his lip trembling. There was no mystery to that; it had been his blow that had allowed Woundwort to overpower the Owsla veteran. And Silver too, although he had given them their chance to escape, had fallen to Woundwort because Alan could do nothing to help him. Hazel put a comforting paw on Alan’s shoulder, “Brace up Alan; what happened to Bigwig wasn’t your fault…” Alan lost it.
“NOT MY BLOODY FAULT? IT WAS MY DAMNED GUN THAT STRUCK HIM DOWN, ALLOWING WOUNDWORT TO FINISH HIM OFF!” he bellowed, sinking to his knees in guilt and self-hatred, just like when Robbins had killed his wife. Fiver knelt down beside his friend, “Alan, you didn’t kill…” But Hawkbit found the perfect moment to shut his big mouth off, “But he struck him d…”he started, causing the other rabbits, including Dandelion, to bellow, “SHUT UP HAWKBIT!” Fiver gently spoke to Alan, “You were injured and weak, yet you were risking your life trying to help Bigwig fight the enemy. He would never hold a grudge against you for what happened; he and Silver both died the way any good soldier would want to go. Woundwort alone is the monster that did this to them.” Alan slowly raised his head to look into those deep bright eyes that were staring at him unblinking and with a pleading look. Slowly pulling himself together somewhat, he stood up.
“The bastard is right; the fire can’t keep him at bay for much longer; the path will soon be clear when it dies down, or he might even find another way up to us. I just hope it keeps him away long enough for me to get a final distress signal out on McEwen’s transmitter, so Josie and the others know what’s going on here.”
“And what about us?” asked Hawkbit sharply, his voice trembling with fear at their predicament, when Woundwort would catch up with them. With them trapped on the island, would the savage creature hunt them down, killing them off one by one? Who would be the unlucky one to be last to die? Hawkbit shuddered at the thought of ending up in that position; seeing Dandelion and so many of their other companions die in the previous timeline was enough to last him a lifetime, despite the fact that it hadn’t really happened anymore, much like a bad dream. Alan run his hands through his hair thinking, “We have to get off this island at all costs; we aren’t going to wait here hoping for help to get to us before Woundwort does. Once I send out that SOS, we’ll use the Cessna’s lifejackets to swim away from here. There has to be another way out of the canyon further downstream; all we have to do is stay afloat and drift until we find it.”
Powering up the improvised radio transmitter that McEwen had contrived out of all the junk they had ripped off Julio’s Cessna before their original escape, Alan started broadcasting the same message on all the frequencies, “Mayday, mayday, mayday! This is Alan transmitting from Efrafa; Hotdog and Campion are gone along with the aircraft. Woundwort is still alive and after us; it’s only me, Hazel, Fiver, Hawkbit and Dandelion still alive and we’re abandoning the island. If you can hear me Josie, follow the river downstream until you can find a suitable incline to climb up the cliffs; that’s where we’re going to try and reach.” He repeated the message three times on every frequency and even resorted to type it in Morse, hoping someone back at the Down who had a radio, would hear it.
“Can they hear us Alan?” Hazel asked as the man continued to seemingly talk to himself, as he fiddled with the improvised transmitter, “How should I know? We can’t receive a reply from the other end to confirm. And it doesn’t really matter anymore; the power is almost gone.” As he continued fiddling with the device, trying to keep it working, the little green light on the circuit board died out; the battery was dead. Sighing, Alan removed the now useless headset, “We’re finished here fellas; it’s time we took our chances and got the hell out of here. We have the four lifejackets from the Cessna and we also have the one from Max Pete. Now, we’ve lost the rope so we’ll have to use the parachute from McEwen’s chopper as well as that from Pete’s plane to glide down into the canyon, off this mausoleum of an island. Come on.”
After helping the four rabbits into the lifejackets from the Cessna and putting the last one on himself, Alan led the way out of the manor towards the edge of the cliffs at the southern end of the island, carrying the bundle of parachute canvas in his arms and his backpack with everything useful he could salvage from their equipment. Like everywhere else on this plateau-like island, the cliffs were completely vertical like walls all around, making it impossible to getting up or down them without special means. On the eastern side of the island, the reddish glow of a blazing inferno was rising from the depths of the canyon; the kerosene from the generator that had leaked into the river had ignited in the explosion, setting the entire cove ablaze. Alan lit a flare stick and planted it in the ground beside them, giving them enough light to work in the darkness of night, with only the moon and stars visible.
“You think it’s going to be big enough for the four of us to get down?” Hazel asked as they unfolded the canvas and placed it lengthwise on the ground. Alan shook his head, “I doubt it; however it’s our best and last bet. We’re going to have to chance it and hope for the best.”
Stretching out the parachute canvas from Pete’s plane on the grass, the group of five got to work to untangle the strings and checking it for tares. After a few minutes of hard work (mostly because Alan was working with only one good arm), the parachute was ready. Putting on John Harrison’s parachute, he turned to his four remaining companions, “All right, Hawkbit and Dandelion, you are the team on the first parachute; Hazel, Fiver and I will take the second. Remember: just let yourselves glide down and then start swimming and stick together; the lifejackets will help keep you afloat.”
All seemed to be going well, when suddenly, while he was helping Hawkbit and Dandelion secure the cords around their bodies, a terrified scream was heard from the direction of some nearby bushes. Abandoning their work, the group rushed in the direction of the scream and saw Fiver, struggling to get away from a deranged-looking Woundwort, who towered above him, looking ready to maul him to death and eat him. Quickly picking up his heavy backpack, Alan swung it in the air and threw it at Woundwort, hitting him square in the face. Catching sight of his other enemies, the savage rabbit took his attention off Fiver for a second, who jumped and ran behind Hazel. Alan felt his insides turn cold; Woundwort had found a way up much sooner than they had anticipated. Now they were standing face to face with a deadly opponent and with nothing left to fight back with.
It was no time to use the parachutes, as Woundwort was now standing only inches away from them, so they turned round and run back to the manor for cover, with the enemy in hot pursuit. Running as fast as they could, they mounted the weather-beaten porch steps of the manor and into the ruined hallway, sealing the decaying front doors behind them. Alan picked up the copper pipe McEwen had been using as a bolt and drew it through the handles, barring the doorway. A few seconds later, they heard a terrible banging noise on the other side of the doors, as Woundwort was attacking the obstacle, trying to force his way in. The steel doors were holding, but the thin copper pipe wedged across them was quickly starting to yield to Woundwort’s powerful attacks. Any moment now, it would give way and they would once again, have Woundwort on their tails.
“Everybody run! To the sewer tunnel!” Alan shouted and they all bolted, heading for the shower rooms in the basement. Alan paused for a moment, as he picked up the last nitro canister, placed it against the far wall of the hallway and planted his last flare beneath it, rigging it into a pipe bomb to welcome Woundwort as he came through the manor after them. But as they reached the stairs that led down to the basement, they saw the staff corridor completely engulfed in thick black smoke; the fire they had started down in the caverns had released all its smoke through the secret tunnel into the manor, making it impossible to reach the sewer hatch without danger of suffocation, “No, the smoke is too thick. Go back!” They rushed back the way the had come to the hallway, Alan rushing frantically to remove the flare away from the canister, before it could detonate and blast them all into oblivion. At that second, the pipe keeping the front doors bolted shut, snapped and the doors burst open, revealing a deadly-looking Woundwort, his insane red eye gleaming in the dark like that of a demon’s. Quickly picking up a brick, Alan flung it in the direction of Woundwort, hitting the savage rabbit directly in the eye; a weak spot. Woundwort bellowed in pain and crumpled to the ground, holding his paw against his sore eye, temporarily slowed down.
Taking his mind off the ticking time bomb threatening to kill them all, Alan signalled to the others to run upstairs to the upper floors, hoping to find some other route of retreat. Running up the rusted framework that was once the elegant staircase of Buxton manor, they retreated to the upper levels, which were in far worse condition than the ground floor, most of the wooden flooring having disappeared over time, leaving only ragged, rusted portions of steel frameworks that once supported the wooden flooring and ceiling, running along the corridors, that now didn’t have any floor to step on. Finding no escape route, they continued climbing upwards, until they reached the ruins at the very top of the structure, which was once the roof. That portion of the house had collapsed long ago, leaving only the eroded rusted framework that once held up the tiles of the rooftop. Now there were no tiles remaining to block out the view to the sky, except for an old piece of brass covering with the word SOS written on it in red; the one that McEwen had left there in hopes of being spotted by another aircraft that might have also been caught in the time warp.
Staring around, they saw there was no way forward, upward or backwards and Woundwort was still climbing up after them; this time they were cornered for good, with a deadly opponent only minutes behind them and a live bomb about to detonate right under their feet. “Well…” thought Alan with a slight feeling of consolation, as he gently held a terrified Fiver close, “…at least Woundwort will die with us and won’t be able to rebuild his empire, enslaving this world under his rule again.” Below them, they could hear the sound of growling and of creaking metal, as Woundwort was also making his way up the stairwell towards them, probably crushing the rusted framework under his massive weight. The five friends backed away towards the edge of the rooftop, with a 200ft drop right behind them: the side of the manor wall with the cliffs leading to the depths of the canyon right beneath it. Although there was the river running right at the bottom, making it a reasonably soft landing, the fall would still be extremely painful and dangerous if not deadly, without a parachute.
But just as Alan was about to suggest they take the risk of jumping over the edge and maybe they’d get lucky, they were all startled by a large shadow that moved across the light of the moon, followed by a cheerful voice calling from above them, one Alan believed he’d never hear again in his life, “Alan, is that you mate?” They all turned and saw their old balloon, repaired and reassembled, hovering right above them, piloted by non other than…
“Derek?! Is that you, you bloody old dodger?” Alan cried, feeling a great burst of relief and joy from seeing his childhood friend alive and well. Derek Shaw smiled down at them, looking dirty, unshaven and his clothes in rags, but very much alive, “Sorry I am late chaps; I had to wait for the wind to change so I could get back.” The rabbits were all cheering with joy, realising that they were saved by Derek’s unexpected, but perfectly timed arrival. Dropping a grapnel line to anchor the floating balloon to the framework of the ruined rooftop, Alan quickly helped his four companions into the basket: Hazel went first, followed by Fiver, Dandelion and finally Hawkbit pilled in.
But just as Alan released the grapnel line and was about to climb in himself, suddenly, with a terrible burst of pain, he felt a sharp pair of jaws slam shut on his left tibia. Turning round, he saw Woundwort had caught up with them and had lunged himself at Alan, struggling to climb over him and get into the balloon, to attack the others before they could escape. The four rabbits instantly grabbed mouthfuls of Alan’s clothing and tried to pull him onboard, just as Derek activated an improvised burner he had rigged under the balloon envelope (apparently they was no more hydrogen left to refill it, leaving only hot air as the solution) and causing the balloon to start rising again. Clutching the side of the basket with his healthy arm, Alan felt his feet leave the ground as the balloon soared into the air, Woundwort still firmly clinging to his leg using both teeth and claws that were cutting into his trouser leg and muscle, the rabbit’s intense weight giving him the feeling that he was about to be dismembered.
Not a second later, a loud explosion thundered from the interior of the ruined manor below followed by a massive burst of flame and smoke that flew through the hollow windows of the decaying structure, engulfing the entire central structure of Red Hand’s old headquarters. Then the manor started to collapse; the walls disintegrated and the floors caved onto each other, as the old building crumbled to the ground in pieces completely destroyed, just like the World Trade Centre in New York had done centuries ago. But non of the passengers of the balloon took any serious notice of it, as they all struggled to pull Alan into the basket with Woundwort, fuelled by determination for survival or perhaps revenge, still maintaining his grip on the man’s ankle.
“We are too heavy! We’re going back down!” Derek shouted as he dumped the last of the sandbags to lighten the load but to no avail. Looking behind him, Alan saw that they were floating downwards, straight towards the depths of the canyon; below them they could see the blazing inferno caused by the flaming kerosene floating on the water, like a hellish lake. In a few minutes, they would touch down right in the middle of the inferno and be burned alive. Using every ounce of his remaining strength, Alan continued to kick at Woundwort’s face trying to shake him off, bruising and bloodying him even more in the process. But the Efrafan dictator, either knew some mental trick to block out pain or had such a strong determination to get to his enemies, it cancelled out his physical pain altogether. Woundwort’s grotesque face curled into an ugly sneer, “Maybe we’ll die together, but I’ll welcome the Black Rabbit, knowing that you’ll never live to resurrect the human world outsiders.”
In an instant, Alan understood what had to be done; the harsh reality of Fiver’s vision about one of them having to pay the price for freedom, suddenly became obvious: McEwen hadn’t been the one who had to die, it was…him! Resigning himself to his fate, he looked down at Woundwort, “You want another life before you can go and rot in hell? Then take me!” With sickening satisfaction, he saw Woundwort’s eye widen in shock, as the evil brute realised what Alan meant to do and started struggling to climb up, “No, wait! Don’t!” Alan quickly turned his gaze back to Fiver, who was still clutching desperately onto Alan’s sleeve, trying to pull him up, “Farewell ma rusati. Please look after Lucy for me.” Then, before anyone else could register what Alan was about to do, the brave veteran suddenly released his grip on the basket, sending both himself and Woundwort plummeting straight into the inferno below. The balloon, relieved of some of its intense weight, instantly soared upwards again, narrowly escaping the flames that threatened to engulf it.
“NOOOOOOOOOOO!” They all screamed in horror (combined with Woundwort’s final scream of terror), staring over the side of the basket, towards the flaming water, which had become Alan and Woundwort’s fiery, yet watery grave. Derek was frozen in shock, pale as a ghost, at seeing his oldest and most closest friend plummet to his death. Hawkbit and Dandelion were staring over the edge, sobbing softly, while Hazel was struggling to restrain a distraught Fiver, who seemed about to jump over the side too. “Fiver, no! You can’t help him! Alan’s dead; his sacrifice saved us all. But he’s gone.” Fiver slowly sunk into his brother’s embrace, feeling so much sorrow, he felt as if his insides were been cut out with a sharp claw; Alan, whom he had come to love like a brother, had died just when he had won a war for them, when he could have started a new life with them. Fiver felt even more sorrow as he thought, how would he explain to Alan’s daughter that her last remaining parent had given his life to save theirs? Although the battle had finally been won and Woundwort had being defeated forever, Fiver felt anything but victorious.
Author’s notes: Disappointed? Well, don’t be…yet. The story isn’t over after all! By the way, the Hayward Rabbits from California is a true story (check the article online). Coming up next, Josie’s group arrives and rounds up the rest of the survivors and you’ll learn what happened to Alan and Woundwort… Enjoy and please review!