We finally worked our way around the wheatfield and reached the other side. A fallow green field on a gentle slope led to the top of a low hill, beyond which there was a huge open area of grass, completely flat and disappearing into the distance in all directions.
The country was called Flatland, and I guessed this was why.
And everywhere you looked there were rabbits. Hundreds of them.
They didn’t look exactly like the rabbits back home. They were about the same size—brown, black and a few white ones—with long, floppy ears, but they had elongated faces, and instead of a pom-pom tuft, a pinkish stub for a tail. They didn’t hop, either. More scurried about.
“Aw!” said Flossie. She walked up to the nearest one and picked it up.
She picked it up! I was stunned. If it was going to be this easy we’d have five daggers each by sundown.
Of course, it was not going to be that easy.
The rabbit turned it’s fluffy face to look at Flossie and then snarled at her, revealing not a cute Bugs Bunny overbite, but dozens of triangular fangs. I swear I heard the Jaw’s theme start to play.
Flossie screamed and threw the rabbit. She didn’t just drop it, she launched it. It flew through the air, the first of it’s kind to go airborne I’d be willing to bet. It landed on the grass with a ‘flump’ sound, rolled a couple of times, shook its head and scurried off.
After that, the other rabbits were wary of us and every time we took a step towards one it took a step further away. No matter, we had come prepared with weapons and we had picked up plenty of pebbles on the way. The time had come to see if we had what it took to defeat the rabbits of Flatland.
Short answer: no.
We quickly realised a few things. First, we had to spread out. A couple of near-misses (not the rabbits, each other) made it clear we were more of a danger to ourselves than to the rabbits. It also helped if we were sort of opposite each other so if one person’s shots drove the rabbits away, it would be towards someone else. Although, directly opposite wasn’t a good idea either.
The other thing that became readily apparent was that aiming at a living things was very different to aiming at a wooden post. Not just because they moved—the rabbits sort of ambled about but mainly stayed in the same place unless we got too close—but because the idea of snuffing out their existence made your heart hammer in your chest and sweat break out all over your body.
Still, we all gave it a go, sending stones whizzing across the meadow, hitting nothing but air and turf. All except for Claire. She just stood there with one arm hanging down, the other hand holding onto her elbow. I don’t think she was refusing to try, I think it was more that she was paralysed by indecision and couldn’t bring herself to get on with it, even though she was probably telling herself to do just that.
She looked miserable. And it was pissing me off.
“What?” She had caught me staring at her. “What do you want me to do?”
“Nothing,” I said. “What I said back in town, about nobody having to do anything they don’t want to, I mean it. This isn’t a democracy, you don’t have to follow the majority vote. Nobody’s going to bully you to go along. If you agree to do something, do it. If you don’t, don’t”
“And that’s fine, is it?” she said, angry as ever.
“If you’re happy with being a burden on others, then yes.” I nodded towards the others as they groaned and yelled at every near and not so near miss. “They won’t turn their backs on you or kick you out.”
Her eyes narrowed. “And what about you?”
“Same as you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, neither do I. If I don’t think it’s worth staying with you guys, I’ll leave. I don’t want to waste my days arguing over every little thing and carrying people who don’t even want to try.”
Claire’s mouth shrunk into her face. Her body trembled and I thought she might start crying. But she lowered herself to her knees and picked out some stones from the grass. She stood up again and loaded her sling, spun it and then whipped it down. Before the stone had even landed, she had reloaded and fired off another one. Then another, and another.
She wasn’t aiming—most of the time she was staring at me—but they came out fast and low, peppering the ground around the rabbits, sending them scurrying off.
When her hand was empty, she got down on her knees again and collected more stones. She got up and started firing again. Tears streaked down her face, but she kept at it, getting faster and faster.
Did I feel like a shit? Yes. Was I going to tell her to stop, that it was okay, she didn’t have to do it? No. If blackmail was the way to get her head in the game, so be it.
And then she hit one. Right in the side. It seemed to jump sideways and then fell over.
Claire dropped her sling and put both hands over her mouth, horrified. The others saw and cheered, thinking she’d be as delighted as them. I walked over to the body of the victim. It had brown fur apart from a black hole where the stone had hit it. As I reached down, it suddenly got back up, shook it’s whole body, and scampered away.
There wasn’t any blood. It wasn’t a wound, just a bruise. Claire’s gasp turned into sobbing and Flossie rushed over to console her, probably thinking she was upset to have failed, whereas I think it was probably more likely relief. But she had pushed herself to do what she knew had to be done, and after she recovered from the shock of hitting something, she was able to try again.
She would occasionally look over at me as she sent her shots across the meadow, but the expression was not so much resentment at what I was forcing her to do, as it was determination to prove me wrong. That she didn’t need to be carried, by me or the others.
It took a couple more hours before we finally bagged our first rabbit. The person who go it was, of course, Flossie. Still by far the worst of us, she managed to hit it right in the eye. A shot I’m a hundred percent certain she would never be able to make again. Why? Because the rabbit she had aimed at was a fat, black one about five metres in front of her. The one she hit was about twenty metres directly behind her.
I decided we should call it a day after that. The sun was fairly low in the sky but we had plenty of light. More of an issue was that we hadn’t brought any water with us, and it had been a warm afternoon. The others were happy to head back.
Dudley picked up our prize and held it up by its hind legs while the others tentatively took a closer look. Even Claire had come to accept this as something we had to get used to.
As we set off, I looked over my shoulder at the sun falling towards the horizon and got a strange prickly feeling on the back of my neck. It took me a few moments to understand the cause of it. The sun was setting in the east.