Shortly after the conclusion of the story of the King’s lettuces, Darzin himself found out about El-ahrairah’s deception. He began quietly scheming as to how he would get back at El-ahrairah, and when word of this reached the trickster himself, he warned all his people to be cautions, especially when they were out alone.
The opening undertones of the story mirror the feelings the rabbits are having in their real lives: tension, fear, and the threat of attack and assault.
One afternoon, while leading a group of rabbits back from a sojourn away from the warren, Rabscuttle became lost in a fog and was taken in by King Darzin, who forced Rabscuttle to sleep in a prison hole and do hard labor every day. El-ahrairah vowed to rescue his friends and set some does to dig a tunnel which would empty in Rabscuttle’s quarters. Soon they were able to rescue El-ahrairah’s companion right out from under the noses of his guards.
Rabscuttle’s imprisonment, torture, and forced labor mirrors the conditions the rabbits are afraid they will face should they be apprehended by the Efrafans.
This infuriated King Darzin, who began planning a war against El-ahrairah and his people. Darzin’s soldiers could not get into El-ahrairah’s warren, but they laid siege to the burrows and attacked any rabbit who went up to silflay. After many rabbits starved and died, El-ahrairah called out in desperation to Lord Frith and stated he would do anything to ensure his people’s survival—he would even drive a bargain with the Black Rabbit of Inlé, who is, in the rabbit world, death personified in rabbit form.
Darzin’s army’s siege of the burrow mirrors the real-life attack on Sandleford. Meanwhile, as he watches his people suffer, El-ahrairah declares that he would give anything to help them. Up to this point he has been a trickster more interested than his own exploits than anything else, but here he reveals himself to be, deep down, a selfless leader.
El-ahrairah formed a plan to seek out the Black Rabbit—in spite of his fear of the legendary spirit—and offer him his own life in return for the safety of his people. El-ahrairah knew that there would be no cheating the Black Rabbit—his trickery would have no power in its realm. The only way El-ahrairah would return from the Black Rabbit’s domain is if he were to fail.
As El-ahrairah considers setting out in search of the Black Rabbit, the rabbits listening to the story no doubt see his apprehension and fear in undertaking such a journey as a reflection of their own sense of dread and anxiety about approaching Efrafa.
That night, El-ahrairah’s Owsla attacked King Darzin’s forces to create a diversion during which El-ahrairah and Rabscuttle slipped out of the warren and began their “dark journey.” They at last came to a desolate, misty place. They hopped into the fog and soon came upon a huge rabbit hole—at the mouth of which stood the Black Rabbit itself.
As El-ahrairah sets out on his fearful journey, he is not alone—he has his closest companion with him. Similarly, the rabbits listening to the story take refuge in one another. The mist El-ahrairah and Rabscuttle pass through is reminiscent of the “mist” Fiver saw in a vision several chapters ago.
Pipkin becomes frightened of the story, and he and Fiver head off to eat some grass. Bigwig urges Dandelion to resume his story, and to not leave out a single detail.
Bigwig wants to hear every word in order to steel himself for what’s to come and to gather whatever useful advice the story has to offer.
El-ahrairah and Rabscuttle fled down the rabbit hole, but at the bottom encountered none other than the Black Rabbit. The Black Rabbit asked El-ahrairah why he had come, and El-ahrairah replied that he had come to give his life in exchange for the lives of his people. The Black rabbit told El-ahrairah he did not make bargains, and El-ahrairah immediately began thinking of ways to trick the Rabbit into taking his life.
Though El-ahrairah had steeled himself for the possibility that trickery would not work against the Black Rabbit, now that he is here, he falls back on the familiar and seeks to use the tools he has to do what he set out to do.
The Black Rabbit welcomed El-ahrairah as his guest and invited him to play a game of bobstones. El-ahrairah lost, and to pay his stakes, was forced to sacrifice his tail and whiskers to the Black Rabbit’s Owsla. El-ahrairah and Rabscuttle returned to their cold, stony burrow, and, despite his fear, El-ahrairah continued thinking of a trick which would serve him.
The Black Rabbit’s game turns violent—though he does not want to take El-ahrairah’s life, he seems to want to make him suffer as a way of reminding El-ahrairah who is in charge. Again, the mutilation and torture mirrors the violence that goes on in Efrafa.
The next evening, El-ahrairah went back to play another round with the Black Rabbit, but the Black Rabbit said he would rather tell stories than play bobstones. El-ahrairah said that if he could tell a story as good as the Black Rabbit’s, the Black Rabbit would have to accept his bargain. The Black Rabbit accepted these terms, and then told a horrible story of fear and darkness to which El-ahrairah could make no response. As payment, El-ahrairah offered up his ears. That night, Rabscuttle begged El-ahrairah to give up, but El-ahrairah continued scheming.
Despite being defeated twice by the Black Rabbit, El-ahrairah remains determined to find a way of saving his people. His bravery in the face of terror and mutilation is both a warning and a call to arms for the rabbits listening to the story: in Efrafa they will have to face terrible things, but are doing so for the good of their home and their people.
The next evening, the injured El-ahrairah dragged himself back towards the Black Rabbit’s burrow. A member of the Owsla urged him to return home and give up lest he contract one of the many horrible rabbit diseases which were bred in the tunnels of the Black Rabbit’s warren. Rather than leave, though, El-ahrairah crouched in a strange burrow and waited to become ill.
El-ahrairah, unable to defeat the Black Rabbit at his own game, decides to take things one step further and bring himself closer to death as a way to trick the Black Rabbit into taking his life and thus having to save his people.
When he again dragged himself from the hole and confronted the Black Rabbit, the Black Rabbit realized the depths of El-ahrairah’s desperation at last and agreed to save his people. Unbeknownst to El-ahrairah, at that moment, a strange but horrific confusion and terror befell King Darzin and his soldiers and drove them away from El-ahrairah’s warren forever.
The Black Rabbit finally relents—he doesn’t even take El-ahrairah’s life, but simply delivers unto him the salvation of his people. El-ahrairah will soon see that even this grace, though, comes at a cost.
El-ahrairah and Rabscuttle left the Black Rabbit’s warren and began to make their way home, but the journey was difficult and long. They did not return home for three months, but when they got there, they found that all of the rabbits were healthy and happy. Rabscuttle, not recognizing any of his friends, asked to see a fellow member of the Owsla, was told that the rabbit had died in “the fighting” long before he himself was born.
El-ahrairah and Rabscuttle return “home,” but find that their journey has taken years rather than months. Their faces have been forgotten to all those who occupy their warren—their people have survived and moved on without them.
El-ahrairah returned above ground, where he encountered Lord Frith, who had brought him new whiskers, ears, and a tail. Lord Frith adorned El-ahrairah with his new parts and told him that wisdom, sometimes, did not come easily. As Dandelion ends the story, Pipkin interrupts to announce that a fox is coming towards them all.
El-ahrairah has failed to trick the Black Rabbit—but the Black Rabbit chose to deliver his people anyway. Though he himself was unable to save them, a force greater than himself did. This foreshadows that while things may go wrong in Efrafa, forces beyond what the rabbits can see or understand may intervene on their behalf.