I was in the saloon once more, sitting all alone at a table with the pile of gold coins I’d just won from a mysterious stranger who called himself the King. The gold coins made me feel rich, but I’d also won the King’s daughter from him, and I wasn’t about to let him get out of his promise that easily. So I scooped the coins into a canvas sack I found on the floor and hid it in a graveyard behind an old white church at the edge of town. Then I set out to find the King and claim his daughter from him.
I asked everyone in the town if they knew where the King lived, but not a soul would tell me. If they knew, they weren’t letting on. I had the feeling everyone was afraid of the King and wouldn’t tell me if they did know. Finally, I came to a tarpaper shack where Jack Frost lived. He didn’t know where the King lived either, but he let me stay in his shack for the night and said he’d do what he could to help me. It was the very least one Jack could do for another.
It was cold in that shack. Everything was frozen over and icicles hung from the ceiling. But Jack Frost gave me a blood-red stone that kept me warm when I held it, and I slept like a baby. While I was sleeping, Jack Frost went out and put a hard freeze on the world. The next morning, he gave me eggs and coffee and told me Sir John Barleycorn knew where the King lived. Jack Frost had frozen Sir John’s barrels of beer solid, and he would be hankering for some soon. Jack Frost let me keep the blood-red stone. He said it would melt the beer, and I could use it to leverage the King’s whereabouts from Sir John. I thanked Jack Frost and shook his cold blue hand. He winked and said that us Jacks had to stick together.
I struck out for Barleycorn Grange, which was a few miles east of there. It was a big house full of doors and windows and a stable of horses. I knocked on the door and a gentleman with a big belly and a jolly red nose answered. It was Sir John Barleycorn.
“Sorry, Jack,” he said. “If you’ve come for some beer, I fear it’s all frozen up.”
“Let me see,” I said. “I might be able to thaw it for you.”
So Sir John took me out back and showed me his barrels. I touched one with the blood-red stone and sure enough, the beer started flowing again. Sir John was pleased as Punch. I went and touched the stone to each one of his barrels to thaw them out.
“Thank you, Jack!” he said. “You can have all the beer you want.”
“There’s one thing I’d like even more than beer,” I said.
“Tell me where the King lives.”
“The King? King Marock? That’s something you don’t want to know. You just forget about that, you hear?”
“He promised me one of his daughters, and I aim to collect.”
Sir John tried to talk me out of it, but I held fast. Finally, when he saw I wouldn’t budge, he said, “I can’t tell you where the King lives. But I can tell you where his daughters bathe every evening. On the west side of the river, there’s a pool hidden in the willows. That’s where you’ll find them, as sure as the stars are far away. As sure as a goose has a secret name...”
Knock! Knock! Knock!
My dream evaporated in a puff of purple fantasy smoke, and I found myself in bed with Harriet in a darkened room. I shivered involuntarily because of my proximity to her undead body, despite the heavy tapestry covering us.
Knock! Knock! Knock!
Whoever was at the door was persistent. I had a feeling it wasn’t an encyclopaedia salesman.
Knock! Knock! Knock!
Tripping over my jeans as I struggled into them, I donned my clothes in record time and raced to the front door, still groggy from sleep. As I swung the great oaken door open, my hand automatically sprang up to shield my eyes from the sunlight. I wondered if I were becoming a vampire myself.
“Good day to you, Jack. I have come to guide you to Rootbarrow. Queen Pussywillow has granted you an audience.”
It was a man wearing an old-fashioned tweed suit, a stiff detachable collar and a bow tie. A silver watch chain dangled from his waistcoat. Of course I recognized him at once. It was the Rampant Hare, who had guided me on my first journey to the land of Hen. Sometimes he looked like an anthropomorphic hare, but sometimes—as he did now—like a man. Then he twitched his nose and darted his eyes—and I saw the hare in him.
“Can we wait until nightfall?” I asked. “So Harriet can come?”
The Rampant Hare started, as if I had said something shocking. “Bring a vampire to Rootbarrow? Good heavens, no! It’s bad enough to bring an earthly. Besides, the Queen does not like to be kept waiting. You seek the White Cup, do you not?”
I glanced back at the mahogany hall that led to our bedroom, and thought of Harriet sleeping there. I rubbed my neck absently where my still-raw bite mark was. Maybe it would be good to have a break from her. No doubt Harriet could look after herself.
I put on my porkpie hat with the feather in the band, and stepped outside into the bright sunshine. The sky was a vibrant shade of sapphire-blue and the clouds swirled playfully. No, I wasn’t a vampire. It was good to walk in daylight once more. I shut the oaken door and locked it with the silver key.
“Tantivy!” I said, and together we struck out for Rootbarrow. I had expected a long journey, but it was surprisingly near. We followed a footpath to an ancient stone bridge spanning a drowsy, moaning river. Crossing the bridge, we entered a field of towering yellow reeds, which creaked and swayed in the gentle summer breeze. Without the Rampant Hare to guide me, I would have quickly become lost in the reeds, but he navigated the mazy paths with ease. Within half an hour, we were standing outside a black wooden gate set into a wall made of some kind of smooth blue-grey stone. We had arrived at Rootbarrow, the city of the hares.
Above the gate was a watchtower, and standing in the watchtower was a hare wearing a green and gold livery. A watchhare. I assumed he would say “who goes there?” or something, but without a word, the watchhare opened the gate for us. We were expected.
The Rampant Hare led me through the gate and down a road of centuries-smoothed cobblestones. On one side of the road was a clutch of straw-roofed houses, reminding me of the straw house in “The Three Little Pigs”. On the other side of the road was an open-air market where hares wildly haggled over all manner of vegetable roots. I wish I could have lingered there to explore the market, but the Rampant Hare marched us onwards at a brisk pace. We had important business with the Queen. And anyway, I had the feeling an outsider would not be welcome among hares.
At the heart of Rootbarrow was a tall narrow hill, atop which loomed a towering castle hewn from the same blue-grey stone as the wall. A path wound up the hill to a black gate at the base of the castle. A hare clad in the same green and gold livery as the watchhare—a foothare?—was waiting for us there. He ushered us into the castle, to the court of the Queen.