Jack deflected blows from several of the castle guard. He stood beside one of the other boys that worked at Hans’ bakery. He was worried though as he saw Humpty and the wolf edge closer to him through the crowd of soldiers. Jack was having a difficult time keeping up. He was holding his own mainly by virtue of surprise and luck. The surprise was gone now—he hoped his luck would last.
Blocking a blow from the right side, Jack kicked his opponent and knocked him down. It was the first free moment he had since the battle had started, and he used it to look for Jill. He saw her… floating away with the witch.
“No!” Jack yelled out.
He blocked a blow from another soldier, and then pushed through to run after the tornado that was carrying Jill away. He found himself standing on the blackened ground the witch and Jill had been fighting on. He looked up as the wind opened a hole in the clouds above them and then closed after they crossed through. Someone moaned behind him.
“Conrad,” Jack said as he recognized the boy from Hans’s shop.
“I tried to stop her,” Conrad said.
Jack extended a hand to help him off the ground. Conrad’s uniform appeared singed on the front, but it looked like he was going to be okay.
“Do you know where the witch was taking her?” Jack asked.
“Up, I guess.” Conrad shrugged his shoulders. “You saw as much as I did. What do we do now?”
After Conrad spoke, the ground started to shake and tremble. Both of them slipped on the muddy ground, rain still falling around them. They turned to look across the graveyard and saw the soldiers and boys from the bakery struggling to keep their footing too. But peeking out over the east wing of the castle, green tendrils grew out and grabbed on to the edge of the castle.
More of the vines grew up toward the clouds, reaching out and beyond, searching for sunlight. Jack recognized the plant—they had grown beans on his farm at home the year before. The enormous beanstalk sprouted up and grew and grew until the stalk clutched onto the clouds and straightened into the sky. The shaking stopped.
“I guess we go up,” Jack said, coming to his feet.
“You’re not going anywhere,” the wolf growled.
Jack and Conrad turned to face the cursed animal. Jack remembered the wolf from the forest. First, it had been malnourished and gray, later it had been devilish and black. Now the wolf seemed somewhere in between. It seemed mostly gray now, but patches of its fur still seemed tainted by the Blackness. Where raindrops fell, the Blackness disappeared.
Jack and the wolf looked each other in the eye; Conrad seemed more like an observer than an extra fighter. The wolf feinted at Jack.
“No twitching this time, eh?” the wolf said in his gravelly voice. “That man in the woods teach you some things?”
“Do you always play with your food?” Another voice added with disdain.
Jack looked across in front of Conrad to see Humpty. The eggman stood perfectly balanced, holding his sword out in front of him. Though he didn’t look like Hunter at all, Humpty reminded Jack of his training in the woods.
“It’s more fun to play with your food,” the wolf told Humphrey. “Besides, this one’s mine. You can take the other boy.”
“Very well,” Humpty replied, and then lashed out impossibly quick at Conrad. Jack felt sorry for the other boy already.
With clanging in the background, Jack circled with the wolf. The slippery earth made both of them cautious, and they looked at each other warily. The wolf came forward and snapped with his jaws at Jack’s arm. Jack stepped to the side and slipped backwards. He caught his balance before falling completely back and held his sword out in front of him. He swung out and in front of him, making the wolf retreat.
Clang. Thud. “Ha!” Jack looked over to see Humpty holding two swords and Conrad on the ground. And that’s when it happened.
The wolf jumped out at him, mouth open, throat growling, teeth gleaming. Jack didn’t know the slightest thing about fighting an animal like the wolf. Hunter had only taught him how to fight other humans, but he remembered when Hunter had come and saved him and Jill from the wolf the first time.
Jack fell back and held his sword in front of him, pushing up on the flat side of the sword with his hand. The wolf came down and tried to bite forward at Jack’s face, but Jack was already kicking up and back with his feet. The wolf went flying, tail-over-head, smashing against one of the tombstones.
But there was no rest for Jack.
Humpty was coming at him before he came to his feet. Jack deflected the predictable overhead blow, and his sword snapped in half. Both of them looked at the sword in disbelief for a few moments. But Humpty’s look of surprise was replaced with an evil grin.
Jack backed up, lifted his hand, put two fingers under his mouth and blew. Nothing. He never could whistle. Looking to the gate he yelled as loudly as he could over the din of the rain.
“Betsy! Betsy, come here.”
Before the witch—and the wolf, and the magic, and all the fighting—the plan had been to wait for Jill to get the wings, and then rush in with Betsy to get Jill out of the graveyard. Now he just hoped the cow would rush in and get him out of there.
Humpty stepped forward slowly, chuckling to himself. Jack could tell he was being toyed with now. Apparently the eggman was taking the wolf’s advice. Humpty slashed forward carelessly, and Jack blocked it with his half-a-sword. Not wanting to play the game, he threw his sword at Humpty. The sword hit, and then bounced off the impenetrable eggshell. Jack turned and ran, and then slipped and fell. Why was I born clumsy? Jack thought. Humpty stepped closer and closer, and Jack backed up on the ground until he was finally backed up against a tombstone. There was no place for him to go.
Suddenly, more than a thousand pounds of cow piled into the eggman, and then stood on top of him. Humpty’s shell resisted Betsy’s full weight, but his humor didn’t.
“Get off me, you filthy, stinking…”
Jack couldn’t help but laugh. Coming to his feet, he put a foot on Humpty’s shell and then stepped from there up into a saddle Master Hans had provided for Betsy. He kicked the cow’s sides and she rode off. They came over to where Conrad struggled to get back to his feet, and Jack dismounted.
“Are you okay?”
“I think I’ll be alright,” Conrad said, but Jack could see dark blood contrasting with the red of the uniform.
“Yeah, he only got me in the arm and then knocked me down. I’ll be fine. We need to get out of here.”
“Right. Any idea how to get to the other side of the castle?” Jack asked.
“The other side?” Conrad looked at Jack like he was crazy.
“Yeah. Jill went up. We have to get to that beanstalk and go up too,” Jack said. “Do you know how to get there?”
Conrad nodded. “The easiest way would be to go out to the street and go around the outer walls of the castle.”
“Okay, here I’ll help you up,” Jack said.
As he supported Conrad’s weight and helped him up, Jack noticed that most of the shop boys had escaped. All that was left was castle guard. Many of them grinned, their teeth gleaming as they realized Jack and Conrad’s predicament.
“We need to hurry,” Jack said, shoving Conrad the rest of the way into the saddle. Without giving the boy time to get settled, Jack jumped up on Betsy and then dug into her sides with his feet. The cow reared up on her hind legs, landed on all fours, and bolted off toward the street, kicking up the graveyard mud with the rain pounding down around them.
The castle guard started running after them, and while Betsy was easily faster than any horse, some of the men had already thought to go to the graveyard gates and close them.
“Is their another way to that beanstalk?” Jack asked Conrad.
“There has to be a way through the castle,” he shouted over the sound of the rain.
Betsy changed directions and they started for the columned passageway on the east side of the graveyard. He had seen a door there earlier. The cow galloped along, dodging headstones and crossing the area between the fence and the passageway.
“There,” Jack said. He spurred Betsy on toward the door.
As they left the muddy ground, the sound of Betsy’s hooves changed from a thud to a clop. The cow reared on her back two legs and then fell against the door with her front two hooves. The door held.
“There you are,” Jack heard the wolf’s gravelly voice, and looked to his left to see the animal pacing forward. This time he seemed more cautious. “I see you brought the cow with you too.”
Betsy’s eyes grew wide when she saw the wolf, and she sidestepped away from him. But Jack was more worried about Humpty and the castle guards, who had caught up to them and were closing behind and to their right. In the distance, on the south side of the graveyard Jack noticed steps. He didn’t know where they went, but it was better than sitting still.
He turned Betsy to his right and she half leaped over the unfortunate guard standing in their way. They clopped down the passageway and then up the stairs. He heard the growl of the wolf, Humpty’s cries of “follow them!” and was too afraid to look back. They just rode. Hard.
Betsy was clumsy on the stairs, but she made it up. After one stairwell, it was flat before leading the opposite direction and another stairwell. About five stairwells up, Betsy was breathing and sweating harder than Jack had ever seen. But the wolf’s growl remained close behind, and Betsy wasn’t going to stop. Finally they came out of the last set of stairs.
All of Avelin lay before them. They had arrived at the top of the castle walls and had a perfect view of where they needed to go. Below them on their right were the streets, to their left was the castle, and behind them were the wolf, Humpty, and the soldiers from the graveyard. In front of them they could see the gigantic beanstalk sprouting from the eastern wing.
Another growl and voices ascended the stairwell—Betsy didn’t need to be told what to do. She galloped. Occasionally a surprised guard would notice them and then dive out of the way. Jack just hoped no one was coming for them from the front. He didn’t have a sword, and he knew Humpty had disarmed Conrad too.
Jack had no idea how the castle was mapped out, but the castle wall curved around in a great semicircle, and the gigantic beanstalk loomed closer and closer and closer. Eventually the wall ended, and another set of stairs led downward. Betsy was slower going downstairs than she had been going up, and the sound of the crowd behind them grew stronger.
“This is Snow White’s garden,” Conrad said as they left the stairwell.
About midway through the garden, the giant beanstalk hugged the castle wall. At the ground, bricks had come loose from their mortar and lay in piles. Between them and the beanstalk stood a fresh group of the castle guard. Jack spurred Betsy forward but angled off to the side before coming close to them.
“We need a sword,” Jack said back to Conrad. But that’s when he saw it.
The sword still gleamed, despite the rain, despite everything. The blade was wide at the handle and narrowed to its point. It jutted out from the large sloping rock in the middle of the garden, and to Jack, it seemed to be calling his name. He rode forward, urging Betsy up the rock and then grabbed the sword by the hilt, pulling it out in one fluid motion.
Stopping her momentum at the tip of the rock, Betsy reared up on her back two legs, nearly throwing Jack and Conrad off her back. She turned around while Jack held the sword high.
But instead of the group of soldiers mobbing them on the rock as he had expected, all commotion in the garden stopped. The jaw of nearly every soldier had dropped. Rain falling, many solemnly fell to their knees.
“What are they doing?” Jack asked Conrad.
“You just drew the sword of the kings of Avelin.”
“That makes you king, Jack,” Conrad said.
“What!? I just needed a sword.”
The moment was short-lived. “Get them!” Humpty yelled.
No one moved. “But…” one of the soldiers dared.
“I don’t care,” Humpty yelled again. “Get them. Kill them!”
The garden burst into action, except this time soldier really did fight against soldier. While many of the castle guard had been loyal to Humpty, it seemed many were still loyal to a true king of Avelin. Jack and Conrad rode down the sloping rock, batted back a few swords and then arrived at the beanstalk. The plant was easily large enough for Betsy to trot up it like a ramp. With all the fighting going on below, no one followed them.
They arrived at a large balcony and saw a large piece of parchment bound to a column inside the adjoining room. Jack’s name was written in large cursive.
The mirror said a few things the last time we spoke, but it was all very unclear. If one of Han’s boys is with you, leave him here. He’ll live, but he’s injured and won’t be much help to you later on. With the fairies’ help he should be able to keep anyone from following you. I left plenty of apples for all of you.
Be quick, Jack. Jill may need you now more than ever,