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One Promise Kept: Book 5

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Iplam has changed.

Now, in addition to the self-centered and petty bickering of the chickens and the humdrum dum-di-dum of craftspeople plying their trades, the metallic crashing and clashing of swords rings out across the clearing.

Tarrant Hightopp trips lightly down the steps of the manor house, temporarily abandoning the chaos of his workshop. He sits down on the last step and looks out across the field at the sight before him.

His wife – Alice, Lady Hightopp of Iplam and the White Queen’s Champion – wields a sword with precision and skill. Her student, however...

“Move your feet, Ursa!” Alice commands and the bear attempts to shuffle a bit faster across the packed dirt arena while meeting Alice’s attacks. “Stop focusing on defense” is the next instruction. “Keep your head up” is followed by “watch where I’m leading you!” and then “either attack or knock my sword away, little girl. You’re wasting your efforts!”

In the end, Alice is the one to tear the blade from her student’s paw.

The bear bows her head as Alice leans down and collects the dropped blade from the ground.

To her credit, Alice doesn’t sigh. She doesn’t even lose patience. In a low tone that Tarrant hears only because he is straining to do so, his wife returns the weapon to the young she-bear. “Your grip still isn’t strong enough, Ursa.”

The tawny-colored beast nods. “Maybe I should... I mean... My father’s expecting me to...”

“You will do him proud at the Games,” Alice assures her, rubbing the bear’s sloped shoulder. “We have nearly a fortnight left and you’ve come so far since you came.”

“But why can’t I manage a good attack?”

“Because you are hesitating,” Alice informs her bluntly.

“Maybe I’d fight better if I were angry...”

“No,” Tarrant’s wife replies in the flat tone of unequivocal certainty. “If you get angry you will lose, no matter what. Strategy, Ursalea. Strategy. Now, go find Tabien. And tell him if he hasn’t sharpened that sword he won’t be getting a sparring lesson today, either.”

The bear lopes off and Tarrant watches as Alice – his wife, a warrior without compare – wipes her hands on a grungy cloth. Not so long ago she had been despondent, defeated, desolate and without purpose. Now, with the first Festival of War Games looming just around the proverbial corner, she is the antithesis of all those things. She is Muchy again. Strong. Capable.

For an instant he nearly chokes on the mix of pride and resentment and sorrow and rage.

Alice looks up at that, of course. How could she not? He has been wretched at shielding her from his spikes in emotion and shifts in mood. And his heart line, despite being crippled, has compensated rather too well. He ought to try harder to protect her from the things he feels. To pretend for her.

But, his other Self argues, perhaps ye should prepare her instead.

He knows what that will mean if he does and it breaks his heart to contemplate it.

Summoning a smile, he watches as she strides toward him and the earthenware pitcher of cool water sitting in the shade beside him on the steps. He offers her a ladle-full and when she accepts it, their fingers brush.

“You rushed out of bed again,” she muses before sipping from the lip of the spoon.

“Much to do!” he says with as much joy as he can muster.

“I suppose there is. What are you working on now?”

“Something for Tam,” he answers as Alice pivots around and plops down next to him on the steps. He resists leaning away from her. Nothing would give him more pleasure than to pull her into his arms and kiss her breathless... but if he were to invite her that close she might notice...

“Are you all right?” she says, her dark gaze missing nothing. “You look pale.”

“Haberdashery can do that,” he replies.

“And are those wrinkles?” Alice reaches out a finger to trace the fine crevasses forming in his skin at the corners of his eyes and bracketing his mouth.

He captures her hand before she can confirm her suspicions and forces a grin. This is not the first time she has asked that particular question, nor is this the first time he White Lies in answer. “Laugh lines,” he tells her, kissing her dusty fingertips.

“Hm.” Alice turns her hand in his and grasps his fingers. “There’s gray in your hair,” she observes. “Will you tell me why?”

Why? Do you know how many unbirthdays I’ve had, my Alice?”

“Why do you feel so sad and then so angry sometimes? I don’t understand... Is it something I have done? These students of mine—?”

“No! No, my Alice. I’ve never been more proud of you, nor more proud to be your husband.”

She leans closer and embraces his face with her hands and he cannot shrink back from her without her Noticing so he holds still. “Tell me why you feel so old, Tarrant. Something is aging you. Some worry or stress.”

When he doesn’t answer, simply studies his knees in guilty silence, she presses, “Tam has asked. He noticed and, yes, your son is worried about you.”

“What did you tell him?”

“I told him you weren’t getting much sleep,” she replies with a blithely suggestive grin.

Tarrant barks out a giggle. “I suppose he wasn’t so curious after that.”

“Not particularly, no.”

He sighs happily, loving this moment; laughing with his wife.

“Tarrant...”

He shakes his head. “I’m fine, Raven.”

She sighs. “You’re not. Let me help. Please, Tarrant.”

He clenches his jaw. Oh, how he wants to tell her, to be rid of this burden. But oh, how he doesn’t. He does not think he is strong enough to weather the storm of her rage.

There is nothing that can be done. In fact, nothing must be done. He will not make her miserable with that knowledge.

Her grip is strong; he can feel the warmth of her life in her touch. He closes his eyes and revels even as he rages in silence.

“I can Feel that, you know,” she whispers.

“I know,” he replies on a breath. “I love you, Alice.”

“Your Alice.”

“My Alice.”

“And I love you. More than anything, Tarrant Hightopp.”

She leans forward and the kiss is brief but indescribably sweet. He feels waves of heat unfold within his chest. Love and lust and longing... and if only he had more Time!

He opens his eyes and sees the promise of sensual delights gleaming in her dark eyes and he would love to accept that invitation, except...

Except a lanky young man turns the corner of the house, heading for the small, makeshift arena. With a regret-filled sigh, Alice leans away and pulls her hands from his skin.

“The sword even looks sharp,” he murmurs. “Go and show him how to use it, Raven.”

Alice huffs out a puff of laughter and, with a conspiratorial wink, stands and addresses her approaching student.

“Tabien. How many times do I have to tell you not to hold your sword like a knock-kneed borogove at a croquet match?”

Chuckling, Tarrant moves back toward the house. He pauses at the door and looks over his shoulder at his wife as she demonstrates the proper sword grip. He had taught her that grip. Tarrant remembers daringly reaching out to position her fingers. He had even stood behind her, wrapped his arms around her, nudged her knees with his own, pressed his hips against hers... Teaching her to hold a sword had nearly been the death of him. There had been so many times when he had clung to control with only the most desperate of failing grips. There had been so many times when he had been sure his heart would break for good at the thought of the horrible path she would soon be walking.

If only he had known then what he knows now...

If only he had guessed the sacrifices that she would be required to make, the pain she would have to endure...

If only he could save her from what is coming!

If only things had been different!

If only... if only...!

If only he had more Time!

But, then again, he suspects that no amount of time with his Alice would ever be enough.

*~*~*~*

Alice wakes in a rush of awareness:

She is warm.

The bed is soft.

The room is gray with first light.

Her husband is wrapped around her... again.

Alice frowns in thought and sighs gently. Against her back, he shifts slightly. His arm tightens across her waist. His leg inches up her thigh. His sleepy exhalation is nearly a groan as he nuzzles into the curve of her neck.

Slowly, carefully, Alice turns toward him. The last thing she wants is for him to leap out of bed, jump into his trousers and dash from the room on the pretense of getting a kettle on and then spending a full day in his workshop. Again.

She places her right hand over his and leans back just enough to glimpse his face. The light is dim – dawn has just kissed the horizon good morning – so she counts twice, just to be sure, but concludes that yes... her husband’s face holds more wrinkles now than it had yesterday although they are still fine and easily hid behind a smile. And his skin is much paler now than it had been just a few weeks ago. She had thought perhaps his pallor had been due to the weakening sunlight of the season, but now she’s not so sure. And, yes, there are gray hairs – here and there – winding their way through his long, auburn locks.

What are you hiding from me? she wants to ask. What terrible secret is making you feel so old?

She notes the way he clings to her in his sleep and adds:


What horrible knowledge makes you feel so alone?

Alice closes her eyes and focuses on the heart line. But it tells her nothing new. In his sleep he does not suddenly bloom with rage or plummet into despair. She has lost count of the number of times she has asked him to confide in her, to trust her, to tell her what is wrong. Tarrant is purposefully keeping something from her.

She feels frustration – her own, not her husband’s – burn in her chest and gather in stinging pools in her eyes. Her husband has tried to shield her from his own overwhelming emotions and horrors before... for her Own Good, of course. Now, however, she wonders. With the exception of the night Valereth had died (Alice still knows little more than she’d been run through, presumably with the man’s cane sword), Tarrant has never kept a secret so long from her before. Not since they’d bound their hearts together with the Thrice a-Vow. In fact, she is not sure precisely how long he has been keeping it. Sometime, within the last month, it had slithered into their lives and begun tormenting him, tormenting her, tormenting them.

It had started sometime around the Champions’ Duel that Alice had fought against her former apprentice. Yes, what she had asked Tarrant to do in order to succeed in their plan to circumvent civil unrest had been unforgivable. For several weeks, she had assumed that the cause of his heartache had been just that: he had been struggling to forgive her for asking so much of him, struggling to forgive himself for acquiescing.

But then... earlier this week he had given her the most delightful hat: a Thinking Cap, he’d called it. He had filled it with his thoughts and memories and hopes and she had felt his love, eternal and enduring. They had come together – rather recklessly! – in his workroom. He had been a force of nature, moving over her like a storm that knows it will soon rage itself out. In fact, their lovemaking had been so sudden and overwhelming that they hadn’t even managed to remove their shirts...

Alice glances down at her husband as he frowns in his sleep. His left hand clutches the front of his nightshirt, as if he fears that in letting it go, it will blow away and leave him to some imaginary chill. The gesture reminds her of his most recent habit: time and time again, she has noticed him lift a hand to his chest, slide his fingers beneath his vest and press them against his heart line, massage it even. Why? Has something happened to it? Does it pain him? And, now that she thinks of it, how long has it been since she’d last seen Tarrant’s heart line? She reaches back through her memory and counts the days... weeks...

Startled, she blinks. It has been weeks since she has seen his heart line!

How could she have not missed that until now?

But she knows the answer to that: the Barterment, Tam’s apprenticeship, her duties at Marmoreal, the Festival of War Games... Their days have started early (dressing in near darkness) and ended late (sometimes neglecting to undress at all). Yes, both she and Tarrant have been very busy. Most especially her, and most especially here, at Iplam, since their return.

Alice sighs. Yes, the Barterment had gone well and many of Iplam’s craftspeople are already working on the custom orders they had received. There are still delivery methods to arrange, but life is slowing down for Tarrant, at least. Alice, as the White Queen’s Champion not in-residence... well. When she’d selected members from the White Guard to fulfill her duties to the queen in her absence (standing guard during the audiences the queen holds weekly and so forth), she had not expected... When Leif had gone to Causwick to oversee the earthworks and festival preparations, Alice had thought that perhaps she might be called upon to join him there just before the opening of the festival to ensure the Games proceed safely and as expected, but... she had hardly expected for her skills as an instructor to be sought after.

But they had been. Are.

The seven students she spends her mornings with had arrived in ones and twos. They had come to Iplam seeking instruction from the White Queen’s Champion and they have demanded much of her attention. Augur had been the first to arrive. And, when she had not sent him back to Crimson Harbor – when she had agreed to help him train for the Games that will be held in Causwick Callion before the first snow – Boreal’s daughter, a bear by the name of Ursalea, had come. And then two lads she had seen at the Maigh a few years back: Tabien Leatherway and Malik Goldbrung. Even Lord Hornsaver of Galandonland had permitted his young son – Sir Silveran – to seek out Alice. (She had completely forgotten that the unicorn lord had married some years ago until the nearly-grown colt had arrived with a contingent of guards bearing the Galandonland colors and had announced both himself and his intent to participate in the Games!) The most recent additions to her class of would-be combatants had been none other than Abler Masonmark and a lass named Corea Castlatch.

When Tarrant had called her to the front door to see the pair standing at the bottom of the stairs, she had felt the suspicion and hostility roll off of him in waves. She had placed a hand on his arm, had stopped him from throwing them off their land.

“You’ll sleep with the others in the stables and you’ll help with the harvest and whatever else the people here require in exchange for our hospitality,” Alice had said without preamble.

The two of them had agreed once they’d recovered from their shock at Alice’s directness.

And as she and Tarrant had watched Abler and Corea make their way toward the stables, he had sighed and agreed, “Aye, ’twill be better teh keep an eye on them here.”

Alice hadn’t liked having the young man who had once tried to kill her husband so near them, but she had bowed to the wisdom of the old adage: “Keep your friends close... and your enemies closer.”

She had whispered this, had kissed her husband, and had gone back inside to finish getting ready for a morning spent training Underland’s first War Games gladiators.

She still can’t believe that her life has become so... full. She is still a lady... and yet she is also a Champion. Alice lives a life that happily lies at the intersection between two very different ways of life. Some days she feels as if she has been too fortunate.

Today, however, is not one of them. Today, she wakes up to not only another fine Underlandian day, but the realization that she is allowing the momentum of her new life here – and it is a rather formidable force to reckon with – pull her away from her husband; she had been permitting that momentum to excuse her from fighting Tarrant for the right to know what is hurting him. It had been easy to do. It had been easy to focus on the issues that demand her attention rather than the ones that actively avoid it.

But no longer.

She reaches up and brushes her fingers through Tarrant’s long, subtly graying hair.

What is burning him from within? What is turning his beauty and vibrancy to ash?

She wants to ask, to know, and she will! Despite the fear that locks her throat and silences her voice, she resolves not to leave this bed until he has confessed his secret!

The force of her Determination thunders through her... and wakes him. He stirs. His lashes flutter and he stretches against her. He opens his eyes – the most beautiful green she has ever seen – and gazes into hers and, feeling invigorated with strength and purpose, she smiles for him. She wishes her strength into him... And for a moment he is nearly his former self. The wrinkles fade, his color returns...

But the moment is brief. The color of his irises darkens and muddies as his mind awakens, as whatever malicious thought that is harming him is remembered. Glimpsing that sickening shade of hopeless green before he lowers his gaze, Alice sighs with frustration and pulls him closer.

“Shall I write you a desk or raven you an idea, love?” she whispers.

He shakes his head, takes a deep breath, then lifts his face from her shoulder. “A cup of tea with my wife will suffice in a thrice.”

Laughing, Alice kisses him. “I love your iambic pentameter; nothing else matters.”

The last three words she conveys solemnly, gently combing her fingers through his hair. True, she will not let him leave this bed – not willingly – until he Talks to her, but she will ask once more first...

She winds a lock of gray-streaked auburn around her fingers and waits, breath held for him to respond to her encouragement. He hesitates. Alice impatiently nudges him through their heart line.

“Please. Tell me.”

His hand cups her face briefly before his fingers investigate her frown lines. “I would rather die than see you unhappy for even a moment, Alice. I’m a slurvish man, I know.”

The feeling of his heartache pulsing in her chest pushes tears from her eyes. “No more slurvish than I am controlling,” she answers, acknowledging the fault that endears him to her with her own imperfection.

“Nae,” he argues, leaning forward and pressing his mouth to hers.

She answers his kiss, defies her usual early morning, pre-tea stupor by wrapping an arm around him, hooking her knee around his. In the next moment, she is leaning over him in their bed, her hands tearing at her clothes. The urgency comes from nowhere... or from too many somewheres. She feels as if he is moving away from her... and yet he is here. The heart line aches, as it always does during his every waking moment and it frightens her. She wants to Feel something from him that is not resignation, unhappiness, misery, or anger!

“Alice,” he whispers. It almost sounds like a protest, but she tells herself she must have heard wrong. It is morning and, as usual, he is hard and she wants him now. She needs him to forget – to heal from – whatever causes these fine lines on his face and the fading color of his hair and the indistinct, aimless, ghostly heartache that makes her want to weep one instant and then, in the next, burns her with fury and terrifies her with desolate resignation...

Rather than fight buttons, Alice pulls her nightshirt off, up over her hand and tosses it aside.

She leans over his chest. “I need you,” she murmurs against his neck, her fingers working at the buttons on his shirt. Beneath her, his hips move helplessly, inflaming her further.

Yes, she wants this. She wants it fast and she wants to be overwhelmed and she wants her husband to be reborn from the ashes of their passion. She wants to see his eyes bright and his face unlined and flushed with health and his hair lustrous...

“Alice...!” he whispers urgently. “Alice... stop!

His hands find hers where they are struggling with the third button on his shirt. She freezes, leans back and gapes at him. He is holding her fingers tight enough to hurt her, but she doesn’t care.

“Stop?” she parrots, disbelieving.

He says nothing, simply shifts his gaze away. For a long moment, there is only silence in their room. Silence and the muffled sounds from the settlement beyond and below their window.

“Stop... please,” he finally whispers and her heart is immolated by the emotion he cannot hold back, the torrent that pours over her heart.

She shudders. “No.” He is still hard against her. In a moment of torn cloth he could be inside her and she wants that. She wants him.  “Tell me why.

Resolute, she twists her fingers out of his grip and grasps the sides of his shirt in her hands.

“Alice, stop, please!

Again, he traps her fingers.

“I want to see your heart line,” she declares. And, in a moment of insight, accuses, “Is that what you’re hiding from me?” Her mind races with all the horrors she can imagine. “Is it infected? Have you re-injured it? Show me.”

Alice! I would rather die than...!

With a sudden motion, Alice rotates her wrists, grips his hands and pushes them flat against the bed. She doesn’t ask for permission; she leans down, pinning him against the bed. He struggles briefly. He is bigger than her, heavier. He could probably manage to toss her off the bed and onto the floor, but she knows he won’t. Tarrant would never hurt her. Not to save himself. His half-hearted attempts to stop her last only as long as it takes for her to force the next button to yield to her teeth.

And he quiets but he is not calm. She nuzzles aside his shirt and he sobs.

“Please?” he begs. “Don’t look, Alice. Please.

“I must,” she apologizes. And then she lifts herself up to examine his Heart Mark.

And hears herself gasp even though she does not feel the breath rush down her aching throat.

She stares at the lines that meander over his shoulder, across his pale skin to form the dark red four-pointed star-shaped design over his heart. She shakes her head in disbelief.

“Your scar...” she mouths, horrified.

Tarrant’s scar – the scar from the wound he’d received from Abler Masonmark’s throwing knife in the tunnel between Crims and the Slough – has moved.

“This—is—impossible!” she gasps.

She releases his hands, places her own over his chest which shudders with silent sobs. She frames the flesh with her fingers, measures the distance her husband’s scar has traveled along his heart line, as if flowing on a river’s current...

It is impossible for Tarrant’s scar to have moved three whole inches. It is impossible for his scar to now be so frighteningly close to the Heart Mark... to his heart.

“Many things are possible in Underland,” he whispers. His voice sounds as broken as his heart Feels to her.

“Not this,” she informs him. “You were healed. This should be fading not moving and... what will happen when... is this moving toward your heart? WHY?!

“Alice,” he murmurs roughly, framing her face in his palms as her tears splatter against his skin. “Calm dauwn, luv.”

She refuses. “Is this what you’ve been hiding from me? Tell me why, TARRANT!

His fingers tighten against her jaw and cheeks. His expression hardens.

“The scar is moving,” he admits with almost clinical detachment. It would have been a factual statement had his anger not been the driving force behind the words. “When Masonmark threw that knife, he did so with Intent. He intended for it to strike me in the heart. He missed. But his Intent... Intent... matters.

His fingers trail down to her throat. “It matters,” he repeats, brushing his hands over her newest scar. “That’s why this one took so long to heal. That’s why mine is moving.”

She shakes her head. “No. No, that’s not true! If Intent mattered, then Oshtyer never would have recovered from the wound you gave him... after the Wooing Rites. He never should have been able to...” Yes, Tarrant had been quite clear on precisely where he had struck Oshtyer with one of his throwing knives. And yet the man had somehow – weeks after the fact – been fully interested in utilizing that part of his substandard anatomy to subjugate Alice. Only Jaspien’s intervention had stood in the man’s way, only the prince’s excellent timing and declaration that Alice be left alone the night before the Champions’ Duel had saved her. She does not doubt that – had Oshtyer managed to enter her room – she would have been too far gone with Hafflaffen poisoning to refuse him.

With visible reluctance, Tarrant explains, “He was healed, Alice. Before my Intent to castrate the booly-geber could—!” He pauses, takes a deep breath. “He was healed quickly and completely and then sent on his way.”

“And you weren’t,” Alice realizes. They had run for their lives all night, had struggled through Gummer Slough all morning, had plodded through the wasteland of the Callion to the castle where they’d had to make do with less-than-effective remedies...

Alice lifts her gaze to his, takes in the color of Worry and Defeat in his eyes. “What does this mean?”

He swallows. “We couldnae remove th’ Intent, which I believe was fer tha’ knife teh cleave mae heart.”

“But it’s just a scar,” she argues. “It’s just a scar! So it moves! It can’t hurt you! Not after so much time, after it has healed over!”

“My Alice...” His breath hitches and he pulls her close to him now. “No one can survive a scar this deep running through their heart.”

Alice stares even though she takes no note of what she sees before her.

Tarrant whispers, “Before I gave Tam my pocket watch, I checked the time. My time. I... don’t have much left to give you, Raven. I’m sorry.”

Despite being crushed against his chest, Alice shakes her head, smearing tears and snot against his skin and nightshirt. “No. No...”

His arms stir, tighten. “I’m sae sorry. I should have told ye sooner, but I... I’m a slurvish man.”

Yes, he had confessed as much earlier. He would rather die than see her unhappy.

Were you going to tell me? Or were you simply planning on dropping dead without warning?!” she fairly shouts against him, her hands curling into fists. The fabric of his nightshirt is the only thing that keeps her blunt nails from piercing the skin of her palms.

“Aye,” he admits. “I was slurvish enough teh want teh... teh... teh die,” he whispers on a thread of breath, “withou’ havin’ teh see ye mourn me, Alice.”

“Well, unfortunately, we don’t all get what we wish for!” she grits out, infuriated. “Unless, of course, your name is Abler Masonmark!”

Tarrant’s arms lock around her like bands of warm steel. She fights against him, trying to wedge her arms between them so that she can gain some leverage with which to free herself... so that she can find Abler Masonmark and... and...!

Her husband doesn’t let her.

“Hush, Alice! Stop! ’Tis usal naught teh be—”

“No use?” she echoes. “No use? That bastard wants you to die and you’re just going to let him keep on wishing you into the grave?!”

“Alice! No! The Intent was cast in the moment he threw the knife! ’Tis independent o’ th’ lad’s wishes nauw!” He presses a kiss to her hair, her forehead. She considers biting him in retaliation. “Ye cannae think tha’ boy knew what he was doin’ when he threw tha’ knife... Ye cannae think tha’ after watchin’ ye bleed out on th’ battlefield tha’ he still wants teh kill anyone.”

Alice growls incoherently.

“Ye’ve been trainin’ him these last twine weeks. Ye ken he’s a good lad at heart.”

“Bloody hell. I cannot believe I’m hearing this. From you! That rotten little, miserable excuse for a child has done this to you and you arent even angry with him?!

“I was,” he admits on a sigh. “You felt it even though I wanted to shield you from it...” Yes he had tried to shield her from that anger. He had not always succeeded, obviously. “I was bey-urious, Alice. You know I was.”

“I didn’t know why.”

“Not at the time, no. No, you didn’t.”

She lifts her head and glares at him through her tears. “How can you not be angry now?” she demands.

He gazes into her face. “I am,” he admits softly as he slowly releases the control he wields over his heart. “I didn’t want you to know, Alice. I didn’t want our last days together to be so...”

“These are not our last days, Tarrant Hightopp. We are going to Mirana today for a cure!”

He sighs. “There is none. Please, Alice. Please just put it out of your mind...”

“Out of my mind? Out of my mind?” It takes all of her strength to keep from screaming at him. “How can you be so... so... calm?

“Because,” he replies, loosening his arms and rubbing her back. “You know the truth now. And... it’s nice not to be so alone anymore. Even though I didn’t want to... burden you with this... it... I...”

“Shut up,” she tells him. She reaffirms her grasp on his nightshirt, leans back and tears the garment open. Buttons fly across the room and fall with a rattle-tinkle-and-spin. “Shut up and make love to me.”

He reaches for her, rolls her beneath him and presses his mouth to hers. She opens for him ferociously. It is not so much a kiss as a punishment.

“Shhh...” he murmurs, pulling away before she can bite him hard enough to make him bleed. His lips move to her jaw where they press whispery kisses. “We have time,” he tells her. “There’s time. We have now. An’ there’s nae rush, mae Alice. Mae Raven...”

Alice sobs under his caresses and despairs: she may be his Raven, but she hasn’t the slightest idea of how she’s going to survive a day without him. She never thought she would have to consider it. But now she must.

Tarrant is dying.

He is leaving her and their son, who is not yet fully grown, who is not ready to stand on his own. She knows from her research on the Thrice a-Vow that it is possible for one partner to survive the death of the other. Especially if there is a child...

But Alice remembers Lord Ascot’s soirée, the night Valereth had made his move... the night Tarrant had moved through Time and their heart lines had – briefly – shifted out of alignment. She remembers the sudden nothingness surrounding her heart and the overwhelming, paralyzing Fear and...

Alice does not want to live without her Hatter. She had not misspoken weeks ago when she had told him why she feels she must give her life to the queen despite her love for her husband: Tarrant Hightopp is her Underland.

And wherever he goes, she will follow. Even into death.

But that time is not now. Her husband will not die. It is not his time.

She will make sure of it!

 

Chapter Text

 

Mirana takes one look at Alice’s face and feels her smile curl up and crawl into a corner of her mind. She regards her friend’s expression, notes the lines of tension and misery that Alice struggles to hold behind her fury, and sighs.

Alice knows.

“You didn’t tell me.”

The office door closes behind Alice. The sound is as soft as the accusation had been.

“You knew yet you did not tell me.”

“I didn’t tell you,” Mirana admits.

“Why?

Mirana stands and moves around her desk. Yes, Alice is trembling with rage. Yes, her hands are fisted. Yes, she has every right and inclination to strike out. But Mirana has never feared her Champion, her friend. She will not start now.

“Because he doesn’t have much time left. Because there is no cure.”

Alice’s lips pull back into a snarl. “I don’t believe that! You once told me there was a rite for everything in Underland. You know how to save him. Just tell me what to do.”

“Alice...” Mirana whispers. She dares to reach out, to gather her Champion in her arms. Alice remains stiff, but she does not push Mirana away. “Alice, I’m so sorry.”

The admission of defeat seems to cut Alice’s knees out from under her. She sags against Mirana, who stumbles back a step under the sudden weight. Alice’s hands cling to the queen’s day dress, stressing the fabric.

Mirana pets Alice’s hair. “When... how did you discover the truth?”

“Yesterday morning,” Alice chokes out. “And I am married to him. He couldn’t hide it from me forever.”

“No, I don’t expect he could.”

“He wasn’t even going to tell me. He was just going to let me worry what was wrong until the moment he... the moment that bloody scar...!”

Mirana bites her lip. She had left that choice up to Tarrant. The evening she had announced the resolution of the negotiations with the rebels, Tarrant had come to see her in her office.

“Let’s call the others. I’m sure they have questions now that...”

Tarrant had nodded wearily and collapsed into an armchair. Mirana had sent for Mally and Chess and... the others. After the messenger had hopped off, Tarrant had confessed, “I don’t know how to tell her... How to explain... I’m dying and she... she will have to...”

“I know. I remember.”

“Why must it be this way?”

Mirana had sighed and rubbed his shoulder. This man had become a brother to her over the years. She would do nearly anything for him. But she would not – cannot – defy the Fates of Underland for him. “You know what will happen if we interfere.”

She had never seen Tarrant Hightopp cry as he had that evening in the armchair that had stoically endured his misery-wracked, shuddering sobs. She had cried as well. She had not wanted these events to come so soon. She had tried to forget about them, had told herself that there would be another way, that she had misunderstood the messages, the signs...

Unfortunately, she had not.

Chessur had already guessed: “The scar,” he had summarized with characteristic bluntness. “Of course I shalln’t breathe a word of this to Alice. And I will ask Krystoval to take the juveniles... away for a time.” Yes, Alice would surely think to move through Time, to go back, to save her husband... who must not be saved.

Chessur had acknowledged Mirana’s nod of agreement and then he’d gazed at Tarrant with sad eyes. “And just when we’d decided to be only partly civil to each other... I should have guessed you wouldn’t hold up your end of the bargain.”

Mally had been inconsolably shocked. “But... but... she said he... her husband had... and she would be... and no. No… no.”

And the others who – upon seeing their Champion’s newest scar across her throat – had known the Truth...

It had, easily, been the most miserable meeting Mirana had conducted since regaining the crown.

“I need your help,” Alice says, stepping back and rubbing her face briskly with both hands. “I need to contact Krystoval.”

Oh, what Mirana would give to not be the one to tell her friend what she must. “Alice, Krystoval and the other jabberwockies have gone.”

“Gone? Why?” But before Mirana can decide between a White Lie or a Half Truth, Alice sighs. “Oh. Yes. I see.” She rubs her eyes. “Brangeragin i’tall!”

Before Mirana can ask why the action seems to make sense to Alice when it shouldn’t make sense at all, her Champion rallies: “In that case, I need to see the Oraculum again. I need to be allowed in the alchemy library. I need to... to...”

“Alice...” Mirana does not want to destroy her Champion’s hopes... but how can she feed them, knowing what is around the corner? “The Oraculum will not help you now. And I have already searched the library myself.”

“Well, I need to look. I need to...”

“Of course you do.” The very strength of character that has always made Alice a remarkable warrior makes her just as stubborn now, in the face of imminent death and unavoidable pain. “But when you do not find the answers you seek, go home with your husband and son. Be with them.”

Alice shakes her head, tears welling in her eyes despite how she clenches her jaw, regulates her breathing, smooths her expression into relaxed blandness. “How can you give up so quickly? I thought you of all people would...”

Mirana has no answer to that. She had sought a cure, even knowing that it must not be used, she had looked. She had found nothing. Of course, she had had to search... her conscience would not have let her look herself in the mirror ever again had she not...

“If there is a cure,” Mirana says thickly, “only the Fates know it. I’m sorry Alice.”

“You’re sorry.” Alice nods. “Tarrant is sorry. Masonmark would probably be bloody sorry if Tarrant would let me tell that rotter what he’d done!”

She shakes her head and turns away, pacing toward the hearth. “So let’s all be sorry! Let’s just be sorry and continue on with life as if nothing will change! Let’s show Amallya how to make a tricorn! Let’s show Tam how to polish brass gears! Let’s have meetings and talk about Tarra’s latest bloody chair and let’s plan for another round of Wooing Rites that we both know aren’t necessary in the slightest and let’s be normal! Let's just pretend—pretend— pretend—!

“Yes!” Mirana nearly shouts, jumping in as Alice’s voice breaks and skips like a scratched record on the phonograph. “Yes, let’s be normal, Alice! That’s what Tarrant wants! Wouldn’t you if you were in his place?”

Alice stares at her. The tears continue to fall. Her chin, despite being clenched, trembles. And then Alice sinks to her knees.

“Please, Mirana. Let me see the Oraculum.”

Mirana sighs through her own tears. Faced with so proud a woman begging on her knees, how can she not relent? “All right, Alice. All right.”

She helps her Champion to her feet and, with an arm around her waist, escorts her to the Far South Tower, heart breaking even as she does so, for she knows what they will see.

And she knows it will make no difference at all.

Not in the end.

In fact, it will only make Tarrant’s death that much harder to endure. For all of them.

 

*~*~*~*

 

Perhaps he should have agreed to go with Alice to Marmoreal earlier than scheduled. Tarrant had been surprised – beyond surprised – when her mood had suddenly shifted after meeting with the queen yesterday afternoon. Suddenly, she had been confident. Happy. She had kissed him goodnight and then had opened up his nightshirt to kiss his heart line, his Heart Mark, his scar...

“Everything will be all right,” she had sighed in inexplicable and puzzling relief.

Tarrant muses over his wife’s sudden change in demeanor, leaning against the wall beside the window in his workshop and watches the scene out on the small arena. Her students battle each other and Tarrant listens as Alice reminds Argur to focus and Sir Silveran to keep his guard up and if Corea thinks that is an adequate block, she’s welcome to try it with Alice as her attacker!

Tarrant smiles at his wife’s spunk, her moxy, her Muchness, her Alice-ness.

“You’ll be needing that,” he informs her on a whisper that she cannot hear through the glass pane and across the yard to the small training field beyond. “Don’t lose it, Raven.”

She had frightened him two days ago. She had frightened him very badly when she had pinned him down and had tried to make war rather than love. She had screamed and raged and had refused to leave their room until lunchtime had come and gone. When Alice had finally seemed ready to emerge, he had prepared tea and something to eat... and she had sobbed at the sight of the table set and the teapot steaming... and the fury and misery had begun all over again. Luckily, Tam had been at the Paneshines’ again and had been spared the worst of it.

Tarrant had struggled to comfort his wife, to help her get it all out, to move on so that they might enjoy some peace together before...

Was I this wretchedly miserable? This inconsolable... then? He had asked himself that question as he had rocked Alice to sleep in his arms that night. He had thought back through the years to his own grief and loss and...

Yes, he admits, he had dealt with the loss of his clan just as badly. And now he understands why he had not been left alone in his misery. Now he knows why...

“Fa?”

Tarrant jerks upright at the sound of his son’s voice and the soft knock on his workshop door.

He drops his right hand – he’d been rubbing the scar again – and turns. “Tam, come in. I have something for you!”

His son carefully pushes open the door, then whistles as he takes in the workshop. “You cleaned!” he exclaims. “Look at this! The door even opens all the way!”

Tarrant giggles as his son demonstrates this wondrous feature again and again until the doorknob complains of dizziness.

“What’s the occasion?” his son demands, leaving the door open and kneeling to inspect the space under the tables.

Tarrant gently kicks him in the rear for his insubordination. “What makes you think I need an occasion to straighten up the workshop?”

“Um... maybe because you’ve never done it before?” Tam suggests with a smirk. It’s an Alice-smirk and seeing it on his son’s face almost wrenches a sob from the very depths of his being.

Oh, Alice... my wife, my love... thank you for our son...

“Fa?”

“Hm? Oh! Yes. Well, there is a first time for everything, or so I’ve been told.” He pauses, frowning briefly, before deciding that the saying sounds far too much like something Alice would say for it to have originated from any other source.

“Fa?” Tam says again, his brows drawn together in an emotion that isn’t so much wry and sarcastic as it is puzzled. “Are you all right?”

“What? Yes! Of course. I’m fine.” He claps his hands together and rubs his palms against each other. “Now,” Tarrant begins with renewed purpose and focus, “I asked you to come by after you finished your studies today because... Ah-ha! Here it is!”

With a flourish, Tarrant pulls his newest creation out from behind an umbrella stand that he keeps on his far worktable for ostrich and peacock plumes. He holds it out to his son, who blinks at it.

“Um...”

“Well?” Tarrant urges him. “Come, come! Try it on!”

“You made me a top hat?” Tam checks, slowly reaching out for it and lifting it to his head.

Tarrant gestures for Tam to spin in a circle and model it. “You’d do better to adjust your tone. That should have been a statement, not a question!”

Coming back around, Tam frowns. “But... I’m only thirteen and...”

Tarrant waves the question aside. “Yes, yes, I realize this is a bit earlier than planned, but I couldn’t resist. Especially considering the success I had with your Mam’s hat last week. So...” Tarrant takes a deep breath and instructs his son, “Ask yourself a question you would like me to answer.”

“Huh?”

“Go on! Go on!”

“Um... all right...” Tam gives him a look that clearly communicates his assessment of his Fa’s strange behavior. Tarrant allows that perhaps he is acting stranger than usual. Well, but, given the circumstances, he thinks it’s appropriate. It’s not every day a father gives his son an Answer To His Prayers top hat!

Tam gasps. “What...? How...? What kind of hat is this?” he sputters, taking it off and turning it upside down to peer inside.

Tarrant steps forward and regards the myriad of colored ribbons that he had used to line the inside of the hat. Like Alice’s Thinking Cap, each ribbon contains a different thought. Tarrant had spent days wondering what sort of questions his son might want to ask him in the future. Why, that mint green ribbon there contains very clear instructions on how to brew a pot of breakfast tea. And that dark brown ribbon explains about harvesting ginger without getting snapped at. And the cream-colored ribbon instructs him to follow his heart, but not blindly, when he meets someone Special...

This hat, Tarrant believes, is even more of an achievement than Alice’s had been. This hat, while not a Father Figure, per se, does contain whatever wisdom Tarrant has gathered over the years and whatever messages he would like to pass on to his son one day... All that is required is for Tam to think of a question or a problem and the ribbon which carries the appropriate response will whisper the answer into his mind.

“Do you like it?” Tarrant asks, trying not to show how nervous he feels. “It’s a new invention. I call it an Answer To Your Prayers.”

Tam snorts. “That’s a great name for it. And it works, too.”

“What did you ask?”

The question had been asked out of scientific inquiry... mostly. His son stammers. “Oh, um, well...”

“Never mind,” Tarrant interjects on a giggle. “Try another, just to be sure it’s working properly.”

“All right.” Just as Tam lifts the hat, he pauses and asks warily. “Do you want to know what question I’m going to ask?”

“I suppose I can live without knowing,” he replies. “Just let me know if the answer is a good fit for it.”

“That was a rhyme,” Tam points out and, grinning cheekily, places the hat back on his head and very clearly wonders about something of importance. And then he blushes.

Suddenly worried, Tarrant wracks his mind for which messages are blush-worthy...

“I think it’s working.”

“Are you sure?”

Tam nods and admits. “I asked if you liked it when I pointed out your rhymes.”

“And what did I... er, I mean, what did the hat tell you?”

“Er, that you... Um, how you feel about me.”

“Ah.” Tarrant grins at his son’s adolescent embarrassment. “I do, you know,” he whispers, sparing his son the mortification of hearing his father say I love you aloud, even with only the doorknob for a witness.

“Um, thanks, Fa. Me, too.”

“I know, Tam. I know.”

Tam nods and glances away before the moment can become emotional or – to his young mind – awkward. A motion beyond the unscreened window catches his gaze and he grins. Tarrant follows the direction of his son’s attention and watches as a sword flips through the air. Alice had just disarmed Sir Silveran... again.

“What was—” Tam begins to ask and then stops and tenses.

“Yes?” Tarrant asks, feeling his brows twitch with concern.

Frowning, Tam removes his top hat and muses. “That was... weird. I was about to ask why Mam was acting so strange the other day and the hat...”

“What did it tell you?” he forces himself to ask, although he suspects he knows the answer to that.

Tam says, “It told me it’s because she misses you, but not to worry because she still... loves me... a lot.” For a moment, his son stares into the inside of the top hat. Tarrant stares with him. Waits.

“Fa?”

“Yes, Tamial?”

“I hope that doesn’t mean your invention is broken.”

Tarrant summons a smile. He feels it stretch his lips just before his son looks up at him, his expression apprehensive.

“Well, perhaps there are still a few kinks... but I’m sure they’ll work themselves out soon enough,” he reassures him, the words he ought to say very nearly garroting him. The hat is working fine. The answer will make a great deal of sense very soon, I’m afraid...

Tam grins and offers him back the hat. “Does that mean you need to fix it?”

Tarrant accepts the top hat from his son. “I’ll keep an eye on it,” he replies. “When it’s ready, I’ll leave it on the worktable for you.”

Tam frowns. “Or you could just give it to me?”

Tarrant reminds himself at how very astute and Alice-y his son can be. “And deny you the opportunity to introduce yourselves properly? I think not!”

Tam rolls his eyes. “Right. Fine.” As Tarrant takes a moment to study the assortment of ribbons that make up the hat’s lining, Tam admits, “I haven’t done my chores yet, so...”

“Yes, it would be best to look after them.”

He lifts his gaze and watches his son cross the room toward the door. On the threshold, Tam pauses and, looking back, says, “Thanks for the hat, Fa. It’s really... great.”

“Ye’re welcome, Son.”

As he listens to Tam’s footsteps in the hall and then at the front door when he puts on his boots before heading outside to check on the chickens, Tarrant gently traces the brim of the hat with his fingers. And then he sets the hat squarely on the worktable, presses his fingers against the scar that now kisses the edge of his Heart Mark, takes a deep breath, and – marshaling himself – decides to see to the foodstuffs exchange even though he wouldn’t normally prepare quite so early for it. But, in the coming days, he doubts Alice will feel the inclination to organize it. And he doubts Tam will have the presence of mind to ask the hat for an explanation.

No, in the coming days, Tarrant expects Tamial will want to know Why.

Luckily, he had prepared that ribbon. Of course, he can’t be sure if it will respond when it is prompted to... But, then, again, that particular case is not the sort of situation that can be truly tested, only experienced... and endured.

 

Chapter Text

Tarrant awakens to the feel of his wife’s lips on his chest, over his heart, against his scar.


“Alice?” he whispers in the darkness, puzzled.


“Hush,” she mouths in not-quite silence. “I’m kissing it better.”


He giggles, gathers her in his arms, kisses her, caresses her, makes love to her, all before the sun has risen. They sleep again, wrapped in each other arms, beneath the bed covers and when Tarrant next wakes, it is to a very uncomfortable twinge in his chest.


His eyelids fly open and his gaze moves toward Alice. She is soundly asleep and even drooling a bit on her pillow (poor thing! But it has resigned itself to the soggy treatment by now, he is sure) and he lets out a sigh of relief.


Alice had not felt his alarm at that tiny spike of pain. Alice does not know...


She does not know that his time is nearly up.


He slides gingerly from the bed, pulls on his pajama trousers and shirt, and tip-toes out of the room. He pauses here and there to lean against the wall of the upstairs hallway to catch his breath and let the pains pass as the scar moves, bit by bit, into his heart. Tarrant stops at his son’s bedroom door and – careful not to rouse the door knob – pushes it open.


Tamial sleeps on his stomach, sprawled and drooling – just like his Mam – in the bedtime trousers Tarrant had made for him not too long ago.


“I wish I could have given you more...” he murmurs, thinking of the top hat sitting on the worktable downstairs. It seems like such a poor substitute now although, at the time he had conceived it, an Answer To Your Prayers had sounded like a brilliant idea.


Tarrant crosses his son’s room in silence and kneels beside the young man’s bed. His son...


He studies the sleeping face, the wild rose-blond curls, the skin and hands unstained by hatting chemicals and unscarred by garrotes and knife blades. Their son is the sum total of both himself and Alice... and yet he is perfect in all the ways they are not.


Tarrant’s heart strains painfully and he holds his breath. When the stabbing ache passes he lets out a sigh of thanks. He is not ready yet. But he knows he must hurry.


He leans forward and presses a kiss to his son’s temple. “May ye be blessed, Tamial Hightopp, Laird of Iplam. An’ look after yer Mam. I love ye.”


The words are a whisper and he doubts his son can hear them at all... or, if he does, he will think them only a whisper in a dream. Perhaps one that he will forget the instant he wakes. Such is life, Tarrant knows. And such is death.


He retreats back into the hall quietly and closes the door. On the way back to bed and his wife, Tarrant pauses a half dozen times as the scar more than kisses the edge of his heart: it begins to bisect the muscle itself. He is careful to close the bedroom door behind him but he is not careful when he crawls back into bed. He is selfish enough to want to hold his wife, to feel her hold onto him, as the end comes.


The End does not frighten him, for he knows he will be fine. He will go Beyond and he will wait for Alice to join him. Perhaps he will prepare tea. Perhaps she will arrive on a Saturday as she had once been so wont to do...


“Alice,” he whispers, pulling her into his arms.


“Hm?” she murmurs sleepily.


“I love you, Alice.”


His wife snuggles against his chest just as another shard of pain pierces his chest. He gasps and she pauses, looks up, frowns. “What is it? Tarrant?”


The pain subsides and he smiles, threading his fingers through her hair. Her question summons a swarm of words that get themselves all trussed up in a tangle before he can order them into formation.


Alice leans over him, braces herself on her elbow, and – with one dexterous hand – opens his nightshirt. Her hand smoothes over his chest in the gloaming of just-before-dawn and her gaze drops to his skin.


“I can feel it now,” he hears himself whisper.


“It’ll be all right,” she tells him, faith and determination shining in her eyes. “I... I saw the Oraculum. Everything will be fine. I promise.”


He smiles even as his heart stutters, stumbles, and recovers. “Yes. I know. We’ll be fine.”


Tarrant hisses as the next slice tears through him.


Alice frowns. “It hurts?”


“Only a little.”


“It shouldn’t. You’re fine. You are totally and completely fine, Tarrant. I saw... the future and we... Tam is...”


“Alice,” he says gently, petting her hair, her cheeks, her neck... her scar. “You saw in the Oraculum what you needed to see.”


She shakes her head. “No.”


“The path ahead of you will be difficult. I am sorry I cannot walk it with you.”


“No. No!  You listen to me Tarrant Hightopp! You do not die today. Not today!”


He pulls her close. She is stiff in his arms, still fighting for him. And he loves her more than ever for that. He buries his face in her short hair, inhales her scent. It still captivates him, even after all these years.


“Why...” he whispers, “is a raven like a writing desk?”


She gasps, sobs and he tenses with the next wave of heat. It lasts longer than the others, lingers before subsiding. His chest aches as his heart struggles against the scar and its Intent.


“Why, my Alice?” he prompts her when he has enough breath to do so.


She pulls back just far enough to look into his eyes. He does not like the sight of her tears. He would have preferred to see her smile at the end.


“Because they have a son,” she answers between deep, dragging breaths. “Because one cannot exist without the other.”


His hands spasm, clutching whatever happens to be within the grasp of his fingers: her nightshirt and her hair. “No, Alice. You mustn’t follow me. Not yet. Our son... Tam needs you to be strong.  Underland needs you to be strong...”


“You are my Underland,” she reminds him.


And there! She smiles. It is not a happy one as it must push its way through her tears, but it is a smile. He can feel the pain building once again and he does not know if his heart will be able to endure much longer. “Thank you for... my Alice...  Live, Alice. Tamial—!”


He might have said more, but then again, perhaps not. White-hot not-there-steel shears through him and Tarrant watches his wife’s face as his son’s name falls from his lips on an uninterrupted sigh. It is fitting, he thinks in this final moment as he feels himself falling away, that their son’s name would be his final utterance. For Tamial is tangible proof that the greatest riddle of all time had finally been solved: the riddle of a raven and a writing desk.

 

*~*~*~*

 

Alice waits. She struggles to do so patiently. She strives to do so silently. She waits for Tarrant to blink, to focus his green eyes on her as he takes his next breath...

He doesn’t. He doesn’t because he is... he is...

No!

The sob, abbreviated and bitten off as it had been sounds too loud in the silence of early morning. Surely, it would have woken Tarrant if he were... if he weren’t...

NO!

This is impossible!

Impossible because the Oraculum had promised... It had shown...

We have a Future!

Her thoughts revolve around this point, trying to puzzle out the why of this... mistake. This is a mistake! The Oraculum...!

Tarrant’s fingers stop gripping her hair and nightshirt. His hands stop pressing against her warmth. His arms stop pulling her closer. Her husband simply... stops.

Alice scrambles to catch his hands before they fall, her fingernails scratching at his skin and she tries to stop the inevitable.

No! I’m not letting go!

She does not speak these thoughts aloud because she fears what she will hear: she will hear nothing. No answer, no reply, no argument, no consolation. Nothing. She will hear nothing if she speaks aloud. She cannot bear the thought of enduring silence from him. Tarrant has never been this silent, this still.

She wraps her arms around him and hauls him into her lap, leans over him and presses her lips to his hair. Her grip is strong around his unresisting, unmoving, unbreathing form. She does not think about the lack of light in her husband’s eyes. She does not think about the breath that does not move his chest, about the heart that does not beat beneath his scarred Heart Mark.

He is tellingly silent.

But he can’t be.

This can’t be!

The Oraculum...!

Alice squeezes her eyes closed, inhales his scent, sobs.

The Oraculum had shown her precisely what she had needed to believe in order to let him go, in order to give him what he had needed, in order to not waste his final days with anger and futile searches for a cure...

A cure that Mirana had told her wasn’t possible. A cure that could have been possible if only Krystoval had offered her a single vial of its blood.

Her hot tears cool as they soak into her husband’s hair.

Why hadn’t she sought out the jabberwockies? Why hadn’t she begged Maevyn and Krystoval to let her Move through Time just once more? She could have gone back to that tunnel, pushed Tarrant out of the way of Masonmark’s knife... Or she could have thought to take a small jar of Pain Paste with her... Such a simple thing. Such a small thing yet so consequential! She could have saved him if only...!

She presses closer to him even though he does not hold her. He does not even press back; the gravity that had always drawn them together is gone.

A cure... She would have given anything for a cure, just as she would now give anything for a way to call him back to her, to Tam, to their life and to the future the Oraculum had promised!

Why had she allowed that wretched scrap of parchment to sway her? She should have been searching for a cure! She should have pressed Mirana harder... should have torn that library to pieces... should have noticed Tarrant was dying long before she had forced him to tell her... should have...!

Damn you all! All I needed was a single vial of Blood!

Why had that been denied her? Simply because she shouldn’t be mucking about with Time? No one in Underland bloody cares about the bastard! They certainly hadn’t noticed when Tarrant had killed him, now had they?

It doesn’t matter, she tells her husband, petting his hair with a shaking hand. Krystoval can’t stay away forever. The jabberwockies will be back or I’ll seek them out... it doesn’t matter...

Yes, one way or another, she will save him!

Her lips move, but no sound emerges: “Tarrant...”

There is little else she can think.

She has never felt so alone.

Alice shivers, shudders, quakes. She tries to stay silent: she does not want to hear her husband not answer her; she does not wish to awaken Tam. She does not want anyone to see Tarrant like this, to know... For if they know, if they see, then it will be True!

“I’m not letting you go,” she informs him in absolute silence. It’s a rash promise, but she doesn’t care. “I’ll find a way. There must be a way!” Even if she has to hide her husband’s body and hunt every corner of Underland for the jabberwockies...!

“I will find a way.”

She knows she will have to do it alone. She will have to leave Tam behind, for he must never know that his father is dead. No one must ever know...

Alice shivers... and then shivers again. Frowning, she clenches her fist as yet another chill races up her arm. The sensation disturbs her and she hates it for interrupting her thoughts, her plans... She must make a plan for bringing Tarrant back!

But the icy rush is insistent. Snarling, Alice pulls her left arm out from behind Tarrant’s shoulders and glares at her heart line...

Her heart line...

Another wintry wind rolls beneath her skin, up her arm and blusters against her heart. She watches as the dark blue lines that emerge from the tip of her finger lose their color, turn a rather uninspiring shade of gunmetal... and then ash gray.

She shivers again with yet another chilling sensation.

She watches as yet more color is leeched from her heart line. From the tip of her finger to her first knuckle, the bond that Tarrant has always fed with his blood grays beneath her skin.

It grays... dies ... because he has died and...

Alice suddenly understands.

It will take a will stronger than hers to fight the advancing chill, the Death crawling toward her heart. Perhaps, if she hadn’t needed Tarrant so much... if she had lived for her son more... Perhaps, then, she might be able to survive long enough to find Krystoval, to beg, plead, bargain, steal!

But she doubts she will get very far. Not now.

She shudders with yet another icy lick up her bond mark. The grayness advances an almost imperceptible amount.

Alice bites back another wave of misery; there is no hope. Perhaps she should give in. At least she will be with him, wherever he is...

Oh, but he will be horridly disappointed in her! Will he forgive her for leaving their son so easily? So quickly? Will she be able to forgive herself?

Alice pants out a breath. It’s either that or scream and she must remain silent!

She wraps her arms once more around her husband. She rocks him in her arms which are aching from the strain of holding him close, but she will not let go! She has promised him and promises matter here in Underland! They matter just as much as Intent! The Fates had punished her once for not keeping her Promise and she...!

Alice stops. Freezes. An idea rises through her grief and steals her very breath. A handful of words that Mirana had meant as a comfort – cold as it had been at the time – return to her, recross her mind.

“If there is a cure, only the Fates know it.”

Mirana had uttered those words, had given Alice the key to saving Tarrant. And even now, it is not too late! It cannot be too late! No one knows he is... and so long as no one knows, Events might be changed, altered, adjusted...!

“A cure...” Alice muses, still breathless, still in silence. One hot, half-mad thought chases another through her head. It is better than thinking about the chilling numbness creeping up her left hand. She does not look at her heart line again. She does not want to see ...

Alice fists her left hand in her husband’s hair and her right in his shirt. She looks up at the ceiling through her tears, away from his unblinking eyes and unshifting chest and unthrumming pulse. Day has broken and sunlight is pouring uninvited in through the bedroom window... like seawater gushing in through a cabin door on a sinking ship.

She is drowning, she realizes. There will be no journey for her: she does not have the strength to hunt the jabberwockies. She does not have the strength to beg. She knows that her heart line is turning to ash beneath her skin. She can feel Tarrant’s blood fading, drying, crumbling... And when this Death – his Death – finishes crawling up her arm and reaches her Heart Mark, the heart beneath it will stop beating. She had not lied when she had told Tarrant that a raven cannot exist without its writing desk.

But, one utterly mad thought hisses in her ear, there is a way. There is always a way. You know who to ask. You know what to do...

She closes her eyes and accepts the answer. The only answer that is left.

The Fates.

Yes. The Fates. Only the Fates would know how to save him. Only the Fates would have the power to grant her this boon. Only the Fates can help her now.

Alice wipes her face clean on her nightshirt sleeve and gently lays her husband back down, arranges him comfortably. She will be back for him. She will bring him back... somehow. This is not the end.

This is not The End.

Alice grasps his right hand with her left. She curls against his body – so cool, too cool, too still, too silent – and presses a kiss to his unsmiling cheek, to the corner of his slack lips.

“I love you,” she tells him, keeping her eyes tightly shut. “And I’m going to bring you home.”

He does not answer, but she tells herself he is smiling. He is waiting. Just as he has always waited for her. And again, she is late.

But she is not too late!

Alice takes a deep breath, gathers her frantic, crazed thoughts and speaks as steadily as possible: “Fates of Underland, heed me, for I seek to Court thee.”

Courting Fate...

When Mirana had first mentioned it that day the two of them had sat beside the training field watching Leif and Tarrant spar, Alice had never expected to ever think on it again. She had let the concept fall into the recesses of her mind, into her nearly-forgotten memories.

But she had not forgotten. Not truly. Although she had not remembered in time to stop Death from taking her husband.

Always late, Alice, she scolds herself.

Another deep breath and she steadies herself further. A part of her cannot believe that she is doing this, that she is daring this. She had never expected that she would wish to seek Them out!

But she seeks Them now. Krystoval has abandoned her. Mirana has turned away from her. There is no one left to seek! Not in the time she has left!

“Fates of Underland... Accept my Suit...” she bids Them, begs Them.

Alice holds her breath, not knowing what to expect, not knowing if she is even petitioning Them properly, not caring. If she fails, she will ride immediately to Marmoreal and demand to be shown the correct procedure. Mirana will tell her. Mirana will have to tell her. Alice will not give her a choice in the matter. Friend or no.

“Accept my Suit!” she cries.

“Rather impatient, aren’t we, dear?” an aged voice warbles. “It takes time to make the connection, you know. And we three are not as young as we used to be.”

With a silent gasp, Alice opens her eyes...

And finds herself in a long, wide, black marble hallway. It is dimly lit by a single torch but it is bright enough for Alice to make out three figures standing opposite her. To her left and to her right, the hallway stretches out into near darkness. She can see doors at either ends, but none along the wall of the corridor itself. Iplam is gone. Her home, her room, her bed, her husband are all gone!

Reflexively, Alice reaches for her sword and her right hand curls around the pommel. Startled, she glances down. She is dressed for battle. She takes note of the leather jerkin and the leg guards strapped to her thighs and shins. Even her hands are covered with leather. She spares a thought for her wedding ring – the one she never takes off unless she is fighting – and prays it will find its way back to her later. After all, there is nothing she can do about its absence now.

Alice inspects the borrowed protective gear and, as she regards the unfamiliar trappings, she notices... the heart line is not... she is not...

The chill has stopped.

She is not sure why that is the case and it makes her uneasy.

Alice warily appraises the trio of figures that had not been in her company moments ago, the hallway she had not been standing in, the sparring gear she had not been wearing... Finally, she returns her attention to the creatures sharing the hallway with her.

“You are the Fates of Underland?” she ventures.

“Obviously!” one asserts. Alice wills her eyes to adjust and, squinting, she manages to make out a large, up-right standing turtle with sad eyes.

“And you rather took your time in Courting us!” the next says impatiently. In the light of the torch, Alice sees an elderly sheep with a pair of knitting needles thrust through her wool atop her head.

The third contributes, “I suppose you rather didn’t like my method for bringing you here. But it was of my own invention!”

Alice gapes at the third figure – a knight with a wide, kind face and gentle eyes – and remembers...

“I know you. I know all of you.”

“Ah, so she does remember!” the turtle gasps, large saltwater tears rolling down his leathery cheeks.

“Yes, we had thought you would have forgotten,” the Sheep bleats accusingly.

“Uplandish minds... I realize not everyone can be a Mad March Hare, but I should like to invent a contraption to make your mind more reliable, Champion,” the Knight muses aloud. “Perhaps something utilizing a butterfly net?”

Alice regards them. “How is it possible – if you’re really the Fates – that I met you when I was a little girl in Underland?”

“Because we sought to meet you, of course!” the Sheep huffs.

“Ridiculous question,” the Knight mutters.

The turtle sniffles and steps forward with a slight bow. “I am the Mock Turtle,” he intones. “Do you recall my history?”

“Vaguely,” Alice replies, as a hazy memory of lobsters and whiting drifts through her mind. She then turns to the Sheep. “I recall rowing a boat for you...”

“Life is but a dream, dear,” the elderly ewe acknowledges.

“And you,” Alice continues, glancing at the Knight. “Always prepared...”

“It’s as well to be provided for everything,” he declares proudly.

Alice looks from the Mock Turtle to the Sheep to the Knight. “Past, Present, and Future?” she summarizes and the Mock Turtle applauds.

“Marvelous! This one’s quite quick about the wits!”

“Yes, I can see why we chose you,” the ewe agrees.

Alice frowns. “You... chose me?”

“Yes, through a means of my own invention, naturally,” the Knight answers.

“But,” Alice interrupts, “I chose you. Just now.”

“Not hardly!” the Sheep declares. “We needn’t accept a suitor simply because they offer!”

“And, by the way, your suit was hardly phrased properly,” the Mock Turtle informs her gravely. “Why, a proper Courting requires only the finest—!”

“Now, now,” the Knight interjects. “The lady here used a method of her own invention. We all agreed that was a quality to be praised!”

The Mock Turtle subsides unhappily at that.

“What is this place?” Alice interjects before the three of them can galumph off on some other tangent or other.

“The Hallowed Halls of Time,” the Sheep informs her.

“We would have invited you to have a seat in the parlor,” the Mock Turtle apologizes, “but I’m afraid it’s a bit of a mess.” He glares over the Sheep’s knitting needles at the Knight.

“You’ll be glad for the device when I’m done!” he assures the Mock Turtle who shakes his head sadly.

Alice clears her throat, drawing the attention of the Fates back to her. “I need your help.”

“What a happy coincidence!” the Knight declares, clapping his hands together with delight. “For that is the very thing we wish to discuss with you!”

Her heart leaps at the announcement. “Then you’ll do it? You’ll breathe life back into Tarrant?”

The Mock Turtle sighs. “Well, suppose we did. Do you think that scar would let him make much use of it?”

Before Alice can clarify her request, the Sheep says, “We need you to do something for us, Alice.”

She studies the ewe’s severe expression and sighs. Bloody hell. Of course nothing is ever simple. Of course she would have to pay for this favor despite all that she has already done for Underland and its citizens. “What is it you want from me?”

“Come, come!” the Knight admonishes her. “This will be a grand adventure!”

Alice sighs tiredly. “I should like to judge that for myself. What must I do?”

After a communicative glance between the three of them, the Mock Turtle says, “A very long time ago, we created the Oraculum...”

Alice grits her teeth at the mention of that misleading and willfully malicious document.

“To help us keep track of Persons of Interest,” the Sheep interjects.

The Knight puffs up his chest. “It was—”

“Of your own invention,” the Mock Turtle wearily concludes. “Yes. We know.”

“But rather than making us less busy, it made us more so.” The Sheep glares briefly at the Knight before clearing her throat and informing Alice, “We decided to give the Oraculum to an individual worthy of keeping it,” the Sheep declares, continuing the tale.

“Of all the ones to Court us, a duchess was deemed the most worthy,” the Knight contributes helpfully.

“The Duchess,” the Sheep amends.

The Mock Turtle sighs as if expressing the sum total of his long years of existence. “At the time, the Duchess had seemed like a very logical choice. She had a very nice manor house with a library. We had been sure the Oraculum would feel comfortable there.”

“Also, as a Duchess, she would be in a position to advise the queens of the Oraculum’s predictions,” the Sheep interjects with surprising lucidity.

“And,” the Knight announces despite an irritated glance from the ewe and a forlorn shake of the head by the turtle, “the Duchess’ home is squarely between the territories of the two queens! And everyone knows the best place to be is never at one end or the other but squarely In Between!”

“Unfortunately,” the ewe continues, “the Duchess did not follow our instructions.”

The turtle sobs, “She keeps the Oraculum locked up in a glass case, separate from its other papery fellows!”

“A travesty!” the Knight agrees most vehemently.

“She uses the Oraculum for her own personal gain,” the Sheep bleats rather aggressively. “Ingratiating herself with the Red Queen... Even sent her children to work for the woman! Turns them into whatever creature the queen requests!”

“As if a queen has the right to request specific creatures! What in Underland makes her think she is one of us?” the Knight blusters. “Although it is a rather ingenious application of ground pepper...”

The Mock Turtle sobs.

Alice attempts to make sense of the situation. “So... you want me to do what? All of this is in the past, is it not?”

“What is the past when we are Here? In the Hallowed Halls of Time?” the Sheep enigmatically muses.

The Mock Turtle is, thankfully, more direct. “Yes, yes, all in your past, Champion of the White Queen.”

“We want you to retrieve the Oraculum and deliver it to a more reliable keeper,” the Knight declares.

Alice frowns. “But... if all this is in the past... how could I possibly do that?”

“Tut tut!” The Knight wags a finger at her. “Have you not been paying attention? We are in the Hallowed Halls of Time!”

Alice is still not sure what that means. “And...?”

“And we will show you which door you need to use. Not to worry!” the Knight says brightly.

“But... if this is the Hall of Time—”

“The Hallowed Halls of Time,” the turtle corrects her shortly.

Alice bullies onward, “Then I could use it to Move back through Time and save Tarrant, couldn’t I?”

“I’m afraid not,” the Sheep bluntly answers.

“Yes,” the Knight agrees. “You see, there would be an extra you... where there is already a you. And that would be quite confusing for everyone! Especially you and especially since you have no memory of seeing another you at any point in your past.”

“But,” the Mock Turtle sighs dramatically, “several people do have memories of you, another you, at a time when you shouldn’t have been in Underland, which leads us to believe that it is you we send to fetch the Oraculum and find it a new home.”

“I... beg your pardon?”

The Sheep waves a hoof impatiently as if brushing aside a fly. “No pardons, please, Your Majesty.”

“Do you accept this task?” the Knight asks with such directness that Alice is taken aback.

“The task of... Moving through Time—”

“No, no!” the Mock Turtle huffs. “You haven’t been listening!”

“It’s the Uplandish mind,” the Knight whispers to the turtle over the knitting needles thrust through the sheep’s wool atop her head. “Dreadfully logical and distract-able!”

“You will Step back in Time,” the Sheep clarifies.

“How is that different from drinking jabberwocky blood?”

“It’s very different!” the Knight replies.

“Indeed. Stepping is quite different from Moving. Did you never learn that in your lessons, child?” the ewe inquires shrewdly.

Alice looks from one pair of eyes to the next and, finding no allies, sighs. “Lessons in Upland are quite different.”

“They do at least lessen day by day, do they not?” the turtle checks.

“Er... no. They begin and they end but they do not lessen. If anything, they grow more lengthy over time.”

“Well, then they can hardly be called lessons, can they?” he mutters.

Alice lifts a hand to rub her temples then stops as she recalls the rough leather covering her fingers. This is not going at all the way she’d expected! She had called out to the Fates for help. And now, in the midst of negotiations they are bickering over semantics!

“Ah... you’d best make up your mind soon, dear. Death waits for no one and Age is quick to catch up to you!” the ewe declares and Alice pauses. The Sheep gestures with a hoof toward Alice’s hand and she turns her attention toward it.

Alice pulls off the leather gauntlet on her left hand, afraid of what she will find. She has not felt any chills since arriving here, wherever Here is, but...

She looks down at her left hand and gasps. She then pulls off the gauntlet from her right hand... and gapes.

“What has happened?”

“You are only as young as you feel,” the Sheep answers simply.

Alice regards her hands which are now wrinkled and heavily-veined. Her skin has turned papery and has sunk down between the tendons. It hangs loosely around her too-large knuckles.

“Grief has struck down many in their prime,” the Knight comments with a sad smile.

“As we are in the Hallowed Halls of Time,” the Mock Turtle explains, “you have been a widow for a minute and also a millennium.”

“We can see which you prefer,” the Knight tells her with a nod to her gnarled hands.

Alice takes a calming breath and then inspects the heart line. Despite the age of her body, the heart line appears to be holding onto its remaining color.

“Champion Alice, dear, you’ll need to make a decision soon,” the Sheep tells her, deftly cutting through the brewing argument. “Age is not a fellow to be trifled with.”

“Shall I help you come up with a method to halt Death in its tracks?” the Knight offers.

“She only needs a strong will to live!” the Mock Turtle replies.

“Which she has not chosen,” the Sheep sighs. “The child doesn’t know what she wants!”

“Yes, I do!” Alice replies, jumping at the opening. “I want Tarrant back. I want my husband. Surely there must be a way to give him life again, make him healthy and whole and well and without that wretched scar through his heart!”

The three Fates frown at her.

“A purely nonsensical sort of thing to want,” the turtle observes.

“I’m afraid you’ll have to be more specific, dear.”

“Or perhaps start from form and work your way toward function?”

Alice sighs out an irritated breath. “My husband, Tarrant Hightopp—”

“Yes, the Mad Hatter, we know,” the Mock Turtle assures her rudely.

Biting back a growl, Alice grasps for patience. “He is... dead.

“Our condolences,” the Sheep murmurs.

“I wish to undo that,” Alice concludes, disregarding the ewe.

“Death?” the Knight clarifies. “You wish to undo Death?” His bushy, gray brows fly toward his frazzled, white hair.

“Yes. Surely, there must be a way?”

“Of course, there is: Life!”

“And where do I find him?” Alice asks.

The three Fates glance at each other, swapping puzzled expressions.

“Life simply is,” the Sheep finally says. “It’s Death that’s very conveniently Around the Corner.”

“Well, despite his location, I’d rather not invite him to this gathering, if you don’t mind,” the Mock Turtle sniffs and the Knight nods in agreement.

“Please,” Alice says. “If I complete this task for you – if I find the Oraculum and give it to a trustworthy keeper – will you save my husband’s life? Please? I just want to be with him again.”

The three Fates glance uneasily at each other. Finally, the Knight clears his throat and says, “If you Step into the Past for us... you will be with the Hatter again.”

Alice nods, relieved to finally have arrived at an understanding. “Fine. All right. I’ll do it. Just show me the way.”

As one, they gesture down the long corridor to Alice’s right. Alice follows the claw, hoof, and finger with her gaze until she finds herself facing a portal that looks more like a prison door than a portal that had been finely crafted to match the grandiose atmosphere of the hall.

“And where does this lead?” she asks.

When no one answers her – not the melancholy and short-tempered turtle nor the sometimes-stern-yet-often-compassionate sheep nor the overly-helpful and inventive knight – Alice looks back over her shoulder.

The hall is empty except for the single torch burning in its bracket on the wall, halfway between the doors. Alice is tempted to investigate the other portal, but she looks down at her hands. They are the hands of an old woman and she would rather not stand around and let Age catch up with her. Despite the condition of her body, she does not feel any excessive aches in her joints or weariness of sight. If she’s going to traipse across Underland looking to steal the Oraculum from the Duchess, then she’d better make sure she doesn’t linger here any longer than she already has!

Alice dons her gauntlets and strides toward the door that the Fates had indicated. Her sword is a comforting weight at her side and she briefly checks for... yes, she has her throwing knives and garrote and hunting knife. She is as ready for this adventure as she will ever be.

She tries not to dwell on the fact that she is alone – utterly alone for the first time in twenty years. She tries not to consider why the Fates had seen fit to arm her for battle. She tries not to think about the fact that if she fails, her son will pay the price, for she doesn’t believe the Fates will honor their bargain if she does not fulfill her end of it.

It’s a simple task, she tells herself, pausing in front of the horridly large, dark and solid, forbidding door. All Alice must do is locate the Duchess’ home, take the Oraculum, and deliver it to Absolem.

One simple series of tasks and she will have her husband back, her family back, her life back.

One simple task.

And with that thought firmly in mind, she reaches out and grasps the rusty handle on the door.

 

Chapter Text

 

Uilleam the Dodo Bird squints at the cell door. He tilts his head to the side, stares, sniffs. No, the situation has not changed since he’d last inspected it. Behind him, in the dank shadows of the prison cell, a buzzing snore resonates.


“How can you sleep at a time like this?” he laments, of half a mind to flap over there and give that blasted dormouse a good kick in her stuffy nose.


As expected, she doesn’t reply. Not coherently. She continues buzzing sleepy breaths through her well-stuffed nose. Uilleam sighs and slumps down on the hard-packed, earthen floor, careful not to touch the walls or door of the cell. Only a truly evil mind could create such a torture. All in all, he should have expected something like this... although expecting the expected is hardly a worthy task for his considerable intelligence. Which is probably how both he and his cellmate had ended up in this wretched place!


Uilleam, quite honestly, rather enjoys anticipating the unexpected. So, naturally, when the dormouse had wandered into the Red Queen’s Squimberry patch for a bit of a snack and a nap, and when Uilleam had gone looking for her to haul her back to Tulgey Wood, well... It seems quite the foregone conclusion that the both of them would be caught and sentenced to death. It had been so foregone that he had neglected to think much of it.  Unexpected things are so much more interesting to contemplate, you see.


He lets his mind wander over what he hardly expects to happen now: freedom would be an unexpected blessing, he decides. He would never expect the Red Knave to release him. He would never expect the Red Queen to grant him a pardon for wandering through her Squimberry patch.


In fact, as there isn’t much that could be considered more unexpected, he lets himself imagine the Red Queen’s pardon and the Knave escorting him out of this stinking prison. Perhaps song birds will trill an unlikely tune. The quadrille, perhaps? And a dance will make the Knave’s feet itch and he will stand on his head and pull off his boots and wag his toes in the sunshine...


“It’s a shame you’re sleeping,” he rumbles at the sleeping dormouse behind him. “I’ve had the most unexpected thought.”


Unexpected yet certainly better than their current situation. Unlikely yet certainly preferable to the ax they will both become intimate but brief acquaintances with in the morning.


“I don’t want to die, you know,” he announces. “My fascination with unexpected things does not stretch quite that far.”


A soft snore is the only reply he receives.


He huffs. “You could at least say something. A word of thanks perhaps. I should have let you get caught all on your own!”


The snores stop and, yawning, the dormouse accuses, “They never woulda found me if yah hadn’t led ’em right to me. Dodo.”


“My name,” he informs her for what must be more times than the Red Queen has severed heads in her considerably large collection, “is Uilleam.”


“Can’t spell it,” the dormouse tells him. “So I ain’t sayin’ it.”


“It’s hardly my fault you can’t spell anything that doesn’t start with a snore!”


“Ain’t mine, neither.” And with that, she rolls over on her bed (which is designated by the bits of straw she had managed to gather) and begins snoring. Again.


Uilleam shakes his great head. Truly, the only energy that mouse has ever expended has been spent procuring a place to rest her utterly useless self. “You have slept your life away,” he informs her.


He is not surprised when she doesn’t answer. Her agreement is predictable, expected.


He turns back to the door and imagines it opening. He imagines... expects...


… and blinks as something long, slender, and sharp slides between the door and the frame.


How... unexpected.


Uilleam blinks at the slender protrusion. It gleams in the near-darkness. Wiggles a bit from left to right causing crumbs of bricks and door to shower down onto the ground. Uilleam quickly shuffles backward.


“Mally!” he whispers. “Wake up! Something odd is happening!”


By the sound of her uninterrupted snores, she is not impressed. Uilleam, himself, is reserving his judgment until he sees what this strange object does...


It jerks down with such suddenness that a massive crack appears in the door and the portal crumbles.


Uilleam squawks and retreats quickly toward the back of the cell.


“Ouch! Gerroff me, yah big lug!”


“Mally! Oh, Mally! Thank goodness! You’re awake!”


“Of course I’m awake! Yah stepped on me!”


“So sorry, but you’d best not drift off again now or I’ll give you more of the same.”


With a sigh, Mally sits up, rubs her eyes and says, “All right. Fine. I’m awake. What’s the emergency?”


“The door seems to have... crumbled.”


“They tend to do that,” she observes, not looking impressed.


Uilleam had expected the sarcasm, or something similar from her. What he had not expected had been the sound of a voice that had been neither the Knave’s nor the Queen’s nor anything that sounds remotely like something a card soldier would be capable of uttering.


“What the—? Bloody—!”


Uilleam watches as a figure stirs in the gaping doorway.


“This...” Their unexpected rescuer reaches out and crumbles a bit more of the door between its fingers. Uilleam winces as the figure brings those fingers to its face and sniffs. “This is... marzipan?


“Yes,” he confirms. “Dreadful stuff!”


“Dreadful?! It’s one of the main ingredients in battenburg! You could have just eaten your way out of... whatever this place is!”


“Perhaps you could have!” he replies shortly. “Had I done so, I would have found it most disagreeable!”


“Doesn’t sit well?” the gloom-shrouded figure muses after a moment.


Uilleam nods and watches as the creature – their rescuer and marzipan-door destroyer – shivers once and then is still again. “And, to answer your other question,” he adds thoughtfully, “this place is the Red Queen’s prison. So you’d best leave off crumbling it or she’ll have your head.”


The gray figure – for Uilleam sees that the bipedal creature in the doorway is very Gray, indeed – snorts with derision. “I would very much like to see her try to take it,” the rescuer mutters.


“As would I!” Mally pipes up with unexpected enthusiasm.


Uilleam winces as the mouse marches over the assortment of crumbs toward the threshold.


“Springin’ us are ye?”


“I suppose I am,” the gray figure – a woman, Uilleam decides – says in a wry tone.


“Cheers!”


The figure nods and the action illuminates the face of the woman for a brief moment. But a moment is all the Dodo needs. Uilleam gapes. Here, at the rescue is none other than Alice! He had never expected Alice to come to the rescue! He hadn’t expected her to be quite so old, either!


“Alice!” he cries, shocked and thrilled.


On the threshold, the woman looks up, startled.


Now heedless of the crumbs of vile marzipan littering the floor, Uilleam clamors toward her. “Why, it’s been so long! You were quite the runner in the Caucus Race! Do you still have the thimble I gave you?”


“I...”


Uilleam raises his brows in expectation.


“I...”


He huffs softly. “Yes, yes. An eye and an eye; there are two of them on most creatures!”


A long moment of silence follows his declaration. The Dodo crosses his feathered arms and taps his clawed toes on the packed-dirt and increasingly marzipan-packed floor.


“I’m afraid you have the wrong Alice.”


Uilleam blinks, rears back, retorts, “I should think not!”


“Well, I know so. I don’t know anything about a Caucus Race or a thimble.”


“But you are an Alice,” he counters with a suspicious and evaluating glare.


“At the moment, I certainly seem to be. Now, Mister Dodo Bird—”


“Uilleam,” he supplies automatically.


“Uilleam,” she continues and his narrow chest puffs up with pride at the accomplishment – at last, someone in this wretched chamber has used his Proper Name! – and then she asks, “who else is here? Being held prisoner, I mean?”


“Oh, I couldn’t say,” he offers. “Although I think it would be rather unexpected to find very many. Beheadings are done every morning, after tea.”


“Ma— Miss Dormouse, would you please locate the exit for us?”


“An’ just how woul’ yah suggest I do that?” Mally replies in a rather confrontational tone.


“Sniff it out.”


“Oh, yes!” Uilleam contributes. “You’ll be searching for something that smells fishy. We are near the Crimson Sea, after all.”


“Humph!” Mally says, but begins sniffing along the corridor.


The new – yet clearly very old – Alice turns toward the next cell door and, as she had done with Uilleam and Mally’s cell, applies her sword to the lock mechanism which had been made from something twice as vile as the marzipan: sugar and spice and everything nice.


Uilleam shudders even as he watches the new Alice set to work on cracking open the door. The process is quite interesting to observe from this perspective. He watches as the Gray Lady wedges the blade into the crack between the door and frame – wiggling it a bit at times – and then with a heave, pulls downward and the portal gives with a telling shower of crumbs.


“Whose idea was it to construct a prison out of marzipan?” the new Alice asks as Uilleam peers around her at the empty cell she had just revealed.


“A baker’s perhaps,” Uilleam remarks.


“And are there many bakers?”


“Yes,” he replies as she sets to work on the next door. “But none of them are using marzipan at the moment as the Red Queen has declared it unfit for consumption. They all make squimberry tarts now.”


“Morning, noon, and night?”


“When else?” Uilleam replies, wondering if he has somehow neglected to notice another part of Day besides morning, noon, and night. Perhaps the sunset and sunrise are counted separately?


As another door crumbles to naught under the new Alice’s efforts, Uilleam muses, “Are you hoping to liberate all the cells?”


“Are you suggesting I shouldn’t?”


“What? Oh, no... Just curious.”


Marzipan crumbs shoot through the air and scatter along the floor as door after door is destroyed. Interestingly enough a wide variety of prisoners are revealed: monkeys and pigs, flamingos and hedgehogs, even several people who appear to be scruffi-fied members of the Red Queen’s own court! Uilleam has them all form a disorganized crowd in the hallway.


“Stay together, now! The new Alice is rescuing us!”


“The new Alice?” one former courtier demands. “That one looks rather old if you ask me.”


“We didn’t,” the new Alice replies in a flat tone. With a heave and a grunt, the last prison door crumbles and a white rabbit hops out into the corridor. “And who might you be, sir?” She addresses the quaking prisoner as a shiver visibly runs through her own body.


“Nivens McTwisp,” he wheezes nervously.


“A pleasure. Now, Miss Dormouse—”


“Call me Mally.”


“Mally, have you found the exit?”


“Of course I have! It’s th’ only fishy-smellin’ door in this place, innit?”


“Let us hope so,” the new Alice mutters.


Fascinated, Uilleam can’t keep from watching as Alice approaches a very solid-looking door. One of the few that had not been constructed from marzipan. This time, the Gray Lady does something rather unexpected: rather than raise her sword to the door, she leans down and consults the iron lock.


“She’ll not be able to bend its will,” a man mutters resentfully. “’Tis made of iron!”


But in the very next moment, the door swings open silently. The new Alice leans over the threshold and checks the hall beyond.


“Come along,” she whispers back at them. “And follow me quietly.”


Escaping, Uilleam muses, sounds so much more exciting and adventurous than it actually is. They creep through the halls of the Castle of Crims and he has to squash the urge to shout and throw his feathered hands in the air and dash for the nearest doorway. They move quickly and quietly when everything inside the dodo is ordering him to hurry up and get out now!


The new Alice pauses at each hallway intersection and conducts a thorough inspection before leading them around the corner. From the angle of light that enters through several windows along the way, Uilleam estimates that it is teatime just now... which might explain why the halls are so empty. The Red Queen, it is rumored, is very strict about observing teatime properly. He shares this theory with everyone, careful to keep his voice low.


Only once do they encounter an obstacle. At the castle gate, a pair of card soldiers are debating the purpose of the point at the end of their spears and show no signs of reaching a consensus anytime soon.


“Wait here,” the Gray Lady tells them and, sheathing her sword, strides out across the castle courtyard to where the pair of guards are arguing.


“Ho, there!” she calls. “What’s all this racket?”


The card soldiers snap to attention. Uilleam blinks at yet another unexpected turn of events. He can think of no reason for why the card soldiers would obey an Alice... except that, from her tone of voice, she expects them to heed her.


“Apologies, ma’am. We was just discussin’—”


“Yes, you were discussing the point on the end of your spear loudly enough to disturb the queen’s teatime! Is that something you want to do?”


“Oh! No, ma’am!”


“I wouldn’t think so. Now, hand me your spear Number Ten and I will answer your question.”


The card soldier on the right complies with the order.


The Gray Lady regards the weapon. “The point of the spear, gentlemen,” she says, “is in the shape of a heart. Did you notice?”


They shake their heads.


“Yes,” she continues. “An inverted heart. Now, why would a heart be on the end of a spear, Number Two?”


“Um... because the Red Queen likes hearts?”


“Precisely. And why is it inverted, Number Ten?”


“Er...”


The Gray Lady gives the card soldier a tap on the helmet with the tip of the spear. “Think, man! Why?”


The card soldier flounders.


The Gray Lady sighs and sets the spear tip against the card soldier’s middle. “Look down, lad. What shape do you see?”


He obeys, as does his counterpart. “Oh! It’s a heart! I can see it very clearly from this angle.”


“That’s quite clever,” Card Number Two says. “The enemies of the queen are seein’ her mark just before they get a poke in the belly.”


“Exactly,” Alice says. And then she pokes them.


It all happens so fast that Uilleam – even with his bird eyes – barely catches the flurry of motion. One instant the two card soldiers are looking down, contemplating the spearhead and the next instant, they’re both on their backs, out cold. The Gray Lady collects the second spear and waves for Uilleam to lead the others across the courtyard.


“Let’s go!” he announces. “Teatime’s nearly over!”


That
gets everyone moving and they dash for the front gates. Uilleam watches as the new Alice tosses the spears into the moat, sighing at the sight of several bobbing heads.


“After this, I expect the Red Queen will increase security,” the Gray Lady remarks with a forlorn sigh. “It will be harder than ever to escape that place.”


She looks so sad about that that Uilleam feels compelled to pat her on her slumped shoulder. He wishes he could think of something to say, but he finds himself rather confused by the statement. What does increased security matter now that all of them have escaped successfully?


They hurry across the draw bridge and along the road to the castle, through the twisting canyon and into the scraggly, wild forest beyond. At the first crossroads, the Gray Lady stops.


She seems to be preparing herself to make an announcement, but is interrupted.


“Whoever you are, you certainly seemed to know the castle very well,” a woman observes. “And you seemed rather chummy with the soldiers, as well!”


Uilleam takes offense at her suspicious tone on the Gray Lady’s behalf. Before he can do more than ruffle his feathers, a leather-covered hand rises and gestures for silence.


“I’ve been a guest of the Red Queen’s before,” the new Alice replies simply. She then glances around at the wilderness which frames the crossroads, sighs and says, “If I were you, I’d go to Marmoreal. To the White Queen.”


“Whatever for? She’s hardly a queen anymore.”


“Today she isn’t,” the Gray Lady admits. “But who knows what tomorrow will bring. Fairfarren, all.”


Once dismissed, the creatures and former courtiers hardly waste a moment in hurrying off. They scatter like card soldiers in a stiff wind. Uilleam watches them go. When he turns back around, the new Alice is still standing there and the dodo is a little surprised to see that the white rabbit and the dormouse – who is not sleeping! – have lingered behind as well.


“Oh! How can I ever thank you for getting me out of that wretched place?” McTwisp bleats with an expressive shudder.


Uilleam nods in agreement. “That rescue was quite unexpected and thoroughly welcome,” he contributes.


The Gray Lady considers them for a moment before musing, “I don’t suppose you could point me in the direction of the Duchess’ home?”


“No...” McTwisp replies, his ears drooping. “I’m afraid the way has rather a lot of directions and merely pointing won’t help in the slightest.”


“We coul’ take yah there, though,” Mally offers.


The new Alice nods. “I would appreciate that... but won’t it be dangerous for you?”


“No more so than standing around here waiting for the card soldiers to find us!” the white rabbit informs her.


The Gray Lady huffs out a short bark of laughter. “Very well, then. Show me the way, friends.”

 


 

 

*~*~*~*

 

 

Alice finds it supremely ironic that it had taken one look for the dodo – Uilleam – to declare her to be Alice when she had been surrounded by doubters upon her return on Griblig Day. She’d had to remind herself that although that day is in her past, it is actually in these creatures’ future... That realization had made her pause.


Uilleam had accused her of being Alice and she’d hesitated, deliberated, and finally decided that perhaps it would be best if everyone believed her to be another Alice.


An epiphany had slammed into her as she’d stood there stuttering at the very obviously impatient, blue dodo bird: Alice must not interfere with the coming events; whatever she does here, she must be sure that she does not change these creatures’ future; in order to complete this mission, she must do so anonymously!


And so she had made her decision and announced: “I’m afraid you have the wrong Alice.”


A shiver had rolled up her left arm in the wake of that declaration.


The Wrong Alice.


Perhaps I’m the one who instills doubt and suspicion in them! Perhaps she, herself, makes them hesitate to believe in her nineteen-year-old self’s destiny as the Right Alice!


The Fates hadn’t mentioned anything about that, but it had made perfect sense to Alice. Now, as she follows in Uilleam’s wake with Mally dozing on her shoulder, Alice considers the implications and consequences of what she’d done.


She had tried to open the door that the Fates had pointed out to her, but it had been stuck fast. Alice had used her sword then and chopped her way through it... only to have it crumble into bits of stale marzipan at her feet and reveal Uilleam and Mally within a small prison cell. When Alice had looked back over her shoulder, the Hallowed Halls of Time had vanished completely and she had stared down a long corridor lined with other marzipan-made doors.


So, the Fates had directed her to save Uilleam and Mally. Perhaps for this very reason: the dodo is leading her to the Duchess’ estate. Mally, thus far, seems rather useless, which is perplexing. Where is the hatpin-sword-swishing brave warrior that Alice had met that Griblig Day?


Perhaps that is something that will become clearer with time, she muses. What could have been more worrisome is the realization that she might have saved people from the Red Queen’s prison that shouldn’t have been rescued. But, no, Alice had recognized several of the White Queen’s future courtiers and then there had been McTwisp, who had quite obviously survived the Red Reign in the future that Alice knows. So, clearly, she had been meant to empty that prison of its occupants.


A shiver dances its way up her arm. They are coming more and more infrequently, but she doesn’t doubt that her time here is limited – soon the grayness will creep up her heart line to the Heart Mark. Alice tries not to let that distract her from her task, which she must do while keeping in mind the events she must not interfere with and the things she must – by necessity – do to ensure that future comes about.


It is all horridly confusing and Alice winces at the dull headache that throbs between her temples.


“My condolences,” Uilleam remarks.


Alice looks up and catches his sideways glance before he faces forward and along the wooded path once more. “Your condolences?” she echoes blankly.


“Yes, you’ve a Widow’s Peak,” he murmurs sympathetically.


Careful not to unseat Mally, Alice raises her right hand to her hairline. “No, I believe you’re mistaken, sir.”


“I’m not!” he responds tartly. “Only that sort of peakiness comes from a widow’s grief, Gray Lady.”


Alice says nothing as she supposes there is no way to argue with him. Nor is there any way she could explain that she had begun this endeavor with the aim of returning her husband to life and being a widow no longer.


“Did it happen when you got that scar?” Mally surprises her by asking rather directly. “Was there a battle? Was it the Knave?”

Uilleam and McTwisp eye Alice in what they no doubt believe to be a very circumspect manner. Alice swallows and lifts a hand to her neck.


Yes, the scar.


Oh, dear Underland!


Alice had completely forgotten about the scar on her neck!


She barely hears Nivens reprimand the dormouse: “Now, Mally, you mustn’t ask those sorts of questions as they remind one of very bad things!”


Alice does not respond; she is a bit busy fighting back the realization that... that...


She had been fated to come here. Suddenly, the odd comments that the Fates had made begin to make a terrible sort of sense:


“I can see why we chose you...”


Yes, they had chosen her, hadn’t they? Even though the choice hadn’t yet been made, it must be made because, according to the memories of Underlandians like Mally and Uilleam and Nivens, it had already been made!


“Several people do have memories of you, another you, at a time when you shouldn’t have been in Underland, which leads us to believe that it is you we send to fetch the Oraculum and find it a new home...”


Yes, it all makes sense now. Alice had been destined to come to this time, to interact with these creatures... Which means... if she were destined to do this, then she had also been destined to Court Fate... which she’d had no intention of doing until... until...!


“And you rather took your time in Courting us!”


Alice gasps, stumbles to a halt on the leaf-strewn dirt road and presses a hand to her eyes. She breathes deeply, but it doesn’t keep the dizziness at bay.


The Fates had been expecting her to contact Them, to Court Them. In fact, They had orchestrated it!


“I suppose you rather didn
t like my method for bringing you here. But it was of my own invention!”


A method of his own invention...!


“Gray Lady?” Uilleam whispers tentatively.


Gulping breaths, Alice holds up her other hand – thankfully, the heart line is still encased in the gauntlet and hidden under her tunic sleeve – and manages to gasp, “I just need a moment.”


“Here,” he says quietly, his feathery hands nudging against her thigh. “There’s an obliging tree stump here for you to rest upon.”


Alice weakly allows the dodo to herd to toward it.


Nivens barks, “Apologize to the Gray Lady, Mallymkun!”


“What for?”


“For that utterly thoughtless remark! Can’t you see it’s caused our rescuer a great deal of distress?”


“I only asked what you two were thinkin’!” the dormouse argues.


“Perhaps we had been,” Nivens replies, “but neither one of us would have uttered a word about it!”


“Which makes me braver than you,” the dormouse insists. “An’ I ain’t apologizing for it.”


“Nor should you,” Alice interjects, rallying herself from the terrible knowledge that the Fates had killed Tarrant, had waited for his death, had known that Alice would do anything for his sake, had expected that she would finally Court Them and They would have Their chance to send her into the past to right Their Wrong!

She will be angry later. She will be furious... no, bey-urious! Later.


Later, she will dwell on the fact that the moment she had told Tarrant her plan for turning the rebels away from warfare... The heartache she had felt from him when he had realized precisely how she would do that...


The scar, she realizes. Her left hand, still at her own throat, tightens a bit until she can feel her loose, wrinkled skin mold around the hardened leather. Tarrant had recognized this scar. He had known what it would mean. He had known he would die, that she would travel into the past as his widow...


Later, Alice!


She gives herself a sharp shake. Yes, later, she will damn the Fates and Their Plans. Later, she will rage against Them for hurting her husband so deeply, so unforgivably.


Later.


“My apologies for the delay,” she says, interrupting a hissed argument between her three guides. “Let us continue.”


“Are you quite sure?” Uilleam inquires solicitously, helping her stand.


Alice’s legs are a bit wobbly and her head is still spinning, but she nods. “Lead on, kind sir.”


With an uncertain glance toward McTwisp who shrugs once, he does.


“By the way,” Mally wonders aloud after a few minutes of silence, “how did yah get that door lock to open up for us? The iron one? Back at the prison?”


Alice smirks, relieved at the change of topic. “I gave it a password.”


“What’s that?”


“It’s a secret word that – when used – shows the lock that the speaker is a friend.” It had been almost too easy to explain the system to the door, set the password, and then use it. Iron locks, while quite strong, are not as bright as brass ones, obviously.


“Oooh...” Mally replies sounding thoroughly entertained. “So what was the password?”


“It’s five words, actually. Which makes it that much harder to guess: Downal wyth Bluddy Behg Hid.”


Nivens stumbles and has to scramble to keep from diving nose-first into the rotting leaves and gravel on the dusty road. “I beg you pardon!” he squeaks.


Uilleam gawks at her.


Mally cackles. “Oh! So yah are an Outlander! Although I ain’t never heard that turn o’ phrase before.”


“Haven’t you?”


“Nope.”


Alice blinks at her stunned compatriots. “Haven’t any of you?”


The dodo and the rabbit shake their heads.


“It’s the rallying cry of the Resistance!”


“The Resistance?” Uilleam parrots, clearly confused.


“Yes! The Resistance which seeks to return the crown to the White Queen once and for all!” Alice gapes at the lot of them. Is it possible that this is something else that she must address? Is it possible that there is no organized resistance against the Red Queen at this time? She considers informing them that Tarrant Hightopp is the leader... but forces herself to be quiet. If the Resistance hasn’t begun yet, then it will do no good at all to claim that it has a leader!


“A Resistance!” Mally sighs happily. “I like the sound o’ that!”


“Better than your own snores?” Uilleam asks wryly.


Mally considers her answer for a moment before declaring, “Aye. I like it e’en better than my own snores.”


“Callou, callay. Oh, joyous day,” the dodo intones.


“Have you ever held a sword, Mally?” Alice asks the dormouse.


Mally giggles. “How could I with ’em bein’ so great big an’ all and me being so... not!”


Alice smiles. “Then we shall have to find you one that is a proper size.”


The dormouse huffs. “I ain’t never gonna be a fighter. So just leave off, all right?” And with that, she curls back up on Alice’s shoulder and seems to fall asleep out of sheer spite.


Alice sighs.


“Oh, I wouldn’t mind her,” Nivens comments. “It’s just that her size is a touchy subject.”


Uilleam concurs. “It’s hard being so small. Good for survival, I expect, for hiding. But not good for much of anything grand.”


“That’s ridiculous,” Alice snaps. “How’s Mally supposed to believe in herself if no one shows her how?”


And in the wake of the guilty silence that follows, Alice sees yet another task before her: Mally’s muchness. Somehow, she will have to help Mally become the brave fighter Alice knows she is capable of being. In fact, it is necessary that Mally develop unshakable courage, for she will have to have the fortitude to poke out the Bandersnatch’s eye!


Things are so different now, she muses. The Underland that Alice is acquainted with is full of creatures that are stronger, braver, muchier.


“What’s the date today?” she asks suddenly.


“Merride,” Nivens replies.


Alice does a bit of mental calculation and... “How long has the Red Queen worn the crown?”


“Just since Horvendush Day last, although she’s been intolerable for much longer than that!” Uilleam supplies with a woeful shake of his great head.


“Horvendush Day... That was just a few days ago!” Alice muses, horrified and sickened. If today is Merride, then that means that this – everything she has witnessed – is only the beginning of the horrors that await Underland!


Her mind racing, Alice slows to a halt on the road.


“Gray Lady?” Nivens gently – but nervously – prompts her.


“I’ve changed my mind, sirs,” she answers, thinking of today’s date, thinking of the one person who needs help the most; the one person she cannot abandon without seeing first; the one person who needs to help Underland – who is destined to champion Mirana of Marmoreal and both inspire and encourage Alice to pick up the Vorpal Sword; the one person whom she can trust to retrieve the Oraculum should she fail her task; the one person who is hurting worse than anyone else in Underland today.


“I need to go to Iplam.” The sound of her own voice calls her back to the present. Alice blinks and looks from Uilleam to Nivens and then back again. “Take me to see the Hatter.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Of course, the White Rabbit refuses: “The... the Hatter?! But... but...! He’s gone mad! Completely ’round the bend!”

The dodo protests with surprising tact: “That is a rather unsettling and unexpected request, Gray Lady.”

“I know,” Alice answers them both. In silence, she expands on that simple statement with more truth than either Nivens or Uilleam could ever suspect her to know:

Yes, Tarrant Hightopp is mad. He’s also alone at Iplam, sitting in the ashes of his home, keeping company with the dead: his family and the unfortunate guests at the Maigh... the Maigh where he had nearly been betrothed to some lass out of necessity rather than love...

Alice isn’t sure if she is angry with the Fates for sending her to Underland four days too late to save them... or thankful that they had not forced her to face that choice: save Tarrant’s people or selfishly choose her own future with him... and their son.

Yes, if the Jabberwocky had not attacked that day, Tarrant would have performed the Thrice a-Vow with an Outlandish lass, would have had other children... He never would have married Alice. Tamial would not have been born... Unless, of course, Tarrant had later lost his wife... and that is a tragedy Alice would not wish on anyone.

He may not be Alice’s husband yet but she will not leave him alone with the ashes of his family. Not unless she has no other choice. It will be risky. She must not reveal her true identity or the fact that she has a heart line... She must not change the future by tinkering too much with the past... She fists her left hand and takes a moment to consider the heart line and its rate of decay. She has time. Time enough for this. For him.

“I know he’s mad,” she repeats calmly. “And I know my request is unusual. If you’d rather not accompany me, I understand and I thank you for your time and assistance.”

“Now, now,” Nivens mutters, “there’s no sense in thanking us for our time. No one has Time all to themselves, you know.”

“Quite,” Uilleam agrees. “And as we haven’t shown you to the Duchess’ house, we haven’t been of much assistance to you, either.”

“Yah don’ wanna be visitin’ th’Atter,” a sleepy voice informs her. “Woul’ bite ’is own hand if’n it tried tah feed ’im.”

With a sigh, Alice replies, “I won’t be swayed. If you won’t be coming with me, then I bid you all fairfarren.”

Nivens twitches and glances at Uilleam whose expression morphs into one of pure stubbornness. “In the spirit of the Unexpected, I shall accompany you,” the dodo declares.

“So will I!” Mally announces, not stirring from Alice’s shoulder.

Seeing Niven’s increasing distress, Alice muses, “There is something you could do for me if you’d rather not come to Iplam.”

“And what might that be?” he asks in a voice made reedy and thin with stress.

“Do you know Absolem, the Blue Caterpillar?”

“Absolem? Why, of course I do! He’s very well-known in these parts.”

Alice nods. “I would like you to invite him to accompany you to Mamoreal. I will meet you there as soon as possible.”

“And what should I tell him this is concerning? He doesn’t take kindly to abandoning his hookah!”

“Take the hookah to Mamoreal for him,” she answers, solving the dilemma quite neatly, she thinks. “And you may tell him that it concerns the Oraculum.”

“The...? I beg your pardon,” McTwisp worriedly interrupts. “Did you say an oraculum?”

“No. I said the Oraculum.” Alice notes his confusion. Apparently, the Duchess has not let the document’s existence become common knowledge. Which makes a great deal of sense: if she had, the Red Queen would have – no doubt – demanded it for herself. Alice consoles the uninformed White Rabbit, “You’re right not to know what it is... but you will. Find Absolem and take him to Mamoreal, McTwisp. Please.”

“Oh... all right.” He consents but continues to fret: “This is going to take quite a bit of cajoling, I can tell already!” He sighs and evaluates Alice with his large, pink eyes. “Are you sure that is what you want, Gray Lady?”

“Yes. Do that for me and we shall call our debt even, sir.”

“Very well, very well. Fairfarren, all. And don’t bother offering me any luck – you’ll need it all for yourselves.” With one last concerned glance, the White Rabbit hops off down the road and disappears around the bend.

Alice lets out a long breath, suffers another shiver which dances up her left arm, and then pivots to return the way she’d come.

“I find it very unexpected,” Uilleam muses, “that you seem to know your way to Iplam, but not to the Duchess’ house.”

Alice does not have a reply handy to that, so she merely grunts.

“It is also unexpected that no one seems to know who you are and yet you have met the Hatter.”

“I have heard of him,” she temporizes.

“Hm... And just why would you be seeking him out? If it’s a quest you’re on, I doubt he’ll be of any use to you, Mad with Grief as I imagine he must be.”

“He is!” Mally interjects. Alice doesn’t bother to check and see if the mouse’s eyes are even open as she speaks. “Saw ’im run ol’ McTwisp out of Iplam quicker than a strike from a hungry Jubjub! An’ all th’ rabbit wanted was tah deliver a message from th’ White... er, from Mirana o’ Mamoreal! She was checkin’ up on him, see?” Mally huffs at the memory. “O’ course, th’Atter threw me out next...”

“Which is why you went off to sulk in the Red Queen’s squimberry patch?”

“I don’ sulk!” Mally rebuts with an audible pout.

“I’m not surprised to hear you say that, Mallymkun,” he sighs out in disappointment.

A soft snore is Mally’s reply.

Uilleam shakes his head, his great beak thrusting to and fro with the motion. “Why must dormice always avoid confrontation? It would be much more unexpected for her to argue back.”

“Fearlessness is a habit not many take the time to learn,” Alice replies softly, suspecting that Mally can hear her perfectly well despite the buzzing snores she performs flawlessly. One of the mouse’s paws grips the collar of Alice’s jerkin a bit tighter and Alice knows she’s right.

She continues, “If our dear dormouse only had a sword – even one scaled to her size – she would be quite fearsome, don’t you think? Able to pluck out an eye easily enough – why, you’d never know she was crawling up your vest and neck until it was too late.”

“What a perfectly wretched idea!” Uilleam insists with a shudder.

“And the moral of the story,” Alice murmurs to him – as if Mally is not eavesdropping on the entire exchange, “is to never underestimate someone of small stature.”

Uilleam argues, “With her being so small, an under estimation would be a difficult thing to accomplish, indeed!”

Alice sighs but lets it go. Clearly, it takes quite a lot of convincing to persuade this dodo into admitting an error in logic.

The walk back to the crossroads seems longer than it had been on the outset. And when Alice remarks on this, Uilleam startles.

“But of course! The trees and the road hardly want us to arrive too quickly at the Crims Crossroads. Likely they expect us to change our mind and turn back.”

Alice huffs. “Brangergain i’tall! I’m going to Iplam, not Crims!”

Following that declaration, she shouldn’t be surprised to stride around the next bend and find the crossroads very conveniently laid out before her, but she is. And, eager as Underland seems to be to assist the three of them in escaping the Red Queen’s domain, the road to Iplam seems to soar beneath their feet. Alice is thankful for this as an ache begins to throb along her spine, in her hips and knees. Perhaps her body had not been as unaffected by the sudden Aging as she’d thought.

They stop to eat a few berries and woodland mushrooms (which do not make one grow or shrink) and Alice wishes longingly for a decent tea service. Still, she knows this road – she’s traveled it often in recent months; once a week, in fact – and expects they’ll arrive at Iplam by dawn. Sooner if the road continues to be so very helpful.

She considers the time – her time, that is, the time remaining to her – and hopes she will be able to fulfill the Fates’ request despite this side-trip. But, she acknowledges, the Fates had said that many citizens of Underland have memories of her... and both Tarrant and Mirana had seemed to believe that he would die, that he must die, so that Alice would be persuaded to do what she must. The thread of her logic is thin and barely makes any sense at all to her sleep-deprived and grief-addled mind. But something – some instinct – tells her that this is the path she must take. She must not leave Tarrant alone, not now. Not when he needs something to hold onto so that he might pull himself out of the ruins of tragedy.

“Och! Who gaes thar?!”

Alice leaps back as something whistles through the air at her knees.

The March Hare’s name is on the tip of her tongue but, luckily, Mally is faster.

“Thackery, yah mad lump!”

“Ar, Mally? Whot ye be doin’ a-way up thar?”

“Sleepin’ ’til yah started swingin’ tha’ blasted ladle!”

Alice squints in the darkness at the March Hare who squints back at her, his narrow shoulders quivering with his hare-ish pants. “A Gray Lady, aye? Mae condolences f’r yer loss.”

“Thank you,” Alice replies, trying not to focus too much on the reminder. “We’ve... I’ve— ” she corrects herself with a thought to Uilleam and Mally, “—come to see the Hatter.”

Thackery shakes his head, his scraggly, too-often tugged ears flapping weakly against each other. “Nae, nae, nae!” he insists. “’Tis busy countin’ ’is oyster shells!”

Alice lifts Mally from her shoulder and deposits her in the cup of Thackery’s wooden ladle.

“Seeing as how we can’t see much of anything due to it being long past sunset,” Alice explains, “we’re going to need some comfortable spots for sleeping. Uilleam, Thackery, if you’d assist our resident expert, Mallymkun?”

“Right!” the dormouse says with shocking authority. “Teh th’ north-east, men! Mah nose tells me there’s a nice bed o’ sleeping grass yonder!”

As the hare and the dodo jump to comply with her order, Alice marvels. It should have been harder to get them to obey a dormouse they seem to be in the habit of discounting. And, in fact, they should have hesitated to obey Alice, who is a stranger to them all.

“Assuming authority makes all the difference,” she muses to herself and then turns her attention back to the road and the clearing beyond. It’s dark, yes, and the moon is half-empty of illumination, but she can see a figure crouching in the midst of the burnt and blackened field. In the darkness, she can’t make out his hat or hair or shoulders... he is merely a black form huddled on the darker ground.

Alice does not try to make her steps silent. Of course, he already knows she is approaching. Tarrant Hightopp is no fool; he is crafty like a fox. With that in mind, she stops just beyond the reach of his long arms.

She pauses, watches him, and waits.

“Ge’off mae land,” he finally growls on a wisp of breath.

“You’ll have to throw me out, Hightopp,” she replies, wincing at the sound of his family name formed by her mouth and delivered with a voice made husky with age. It sounds horridly impersonal, but, she reminds herself, this man is not the Hatter – her friend. Nor is he Tarrant – her husband. This man is someone else. Someone she does not know well at all. Someone who has yet to break through his chrysalis and spread his wings. And she must be impersonal – for her own sake and the preservation of what is left of her heart. Also, Tarrant had never spoken to her of a Gray Lady who had bullied her way into Iplam days after his clan had been utterly decimated. It’s best not to make too strong an impression, she realizes, and, for that, distance is a useful ally.

In response to her announcement, Tarrant pauses in whatever it is he’s doing – counting oyster shells, perhaps – and trembles visibly in the dim light of the moon. “Ge’off mae land,” he repeats, his voice louder this time and warbling with the force of the fury that rocks his form.

Another shiver races up Alice’s left arm, reminds her that there is no time to waste in repeating useless phrases.

“No. You’re not to be alone.”

He laughs. It is a hollow, grating, frightening sound. “I am alone. Be gone, trespasser!

Alice sighs and debates crouching down beside him. In the end, she decides he’s still too volatile for her to risk putting herself at a disadvantage. The night wind stirs and Alice inhales deeply, silently, relishing his scent. He has not bathed in days: his sweat has cooled and turned stale, his clothes are smudged with ash and dust. He does not smell exactly like her husband... but the scent that she remembers – the essence of him – is there, beneath all that unpleasantness and pain.

Thinking of his future – of their future – Alice informs him, “You can’t stay here forever.”

He stands suddenly and Alice struggles not to gasp at the frightening figure he poses in the darkness. His hair is long and matted and his skin glows with pallor and his eyes burn from the pitch-black shadows beneath the brim of his hat...

Tarrant Hightopp takes a step toward her, his hands flexing into fists. He is Menace personified and Alice doesn’t doubt that the face of his infuriated madness alone had been more than enough to drive away McTwisp and Mally and Thackery (who had quite clearly been standing guard, either to protect Tarrant from interlopers or to protect interlopers from Tarrant). Yes, the face of his madness is frightening, but Alice has never been afraid of this man. She will not allow fear to infuse her in his presence now simply because they are strangers to each other!

Alice steps toward him and says in a very clear tone, “Downal wyth Bluddy Begh Hid.”

He twitches at that. His entire body stops, jerks once, and is still.

“You can’t stay here, like this, forever, Hightopp,” she repeats. And then, softly, insists, “Downal wyth Bluddy Begh Hid.”

He inhales sharply, his hands opening and then fisting once more.

Alice reaches for those hands, wraps her gloved fingers around his and tells him, “What happened here was not your fault.” He shivers at those words. Before he can rally an argument, Alice reminds him, “She – the Bloody Big Head – did this. And you will make her pay for it. One day, the White Queen will once again wear the crown and you will be the one who makes it possible. You, Hightopp.”

He shudders and although his breath is stale from days lacking in hygiene, Alice feels a thrill go through her at the sound of his gutteral murmur: “Downal wyth...”

“Downal wyth Bluddy Begh Hid. Say it, Hightopp. From start to finish.”

He swallows audibly. “Downal wyth Bluddy Behg Hid...”

Alice is not surprised by the sound of a hoarse sob erupting from his throat. He sinks to the ground and she follows him, sits with him. She rubs his shoulders and he clings to her – a stranger in a leather jerkin, armed from neck to knee with weapons – and weeps. She could be anyone, Alice knows. Tarrant would not care if she were the Bandersnatch. It is only thanks to the Fates that she – someone who knows him better than anyone else – could be here, now. If Thackery had been more insistent with him or Mally muchier or Uilleam able to see past the end of his proud beak, it would have been one or all of them here, holding Tarrant as he grieves.

But they are not here. Alice sighs into his matted hair and ignores both the aching of her joints and the chill that skitters up her left arm. She holds onto the man who is not her husband but who needs her. She manages to set aside her aches and pains and exhaustion, but the heartache... That is not so easily avoided.

 

*~*~*~*

 

Tarrant wakes with a gasp and a phrase of Outlandish burring from his chapped lips:

“Downal wyth Bluddy Begh Hid!”

“I agree wholeheartedly,” a voice Tarrant does not immediately recognize announces. “But first things first.”

He turns toward the sound of that voice and twitches back when he discovers an apple held out in front of his nose by a gnarled hand. He sits up, feeling more tired than he had the night before when this old woman had butted and blustered and bossed her way onto his land, had given him an enemy to hate, and had held onto him while he’d cried for all the things he hadn’t done. He hadn’t saved his family – not one of them. He hadn’t saved the fathers from the other clans or their daughters – one of whom would have become his wife. He hadn’t found a single body to bury, only shards of blackened bone; oyster shells, Thack had called them and Tarrant both wants and hates to admit that it is easier to think of them as such.

“If you don’t eat this blasted apple, after all the sweet talking I had to do to get the tree to give it to me, I’ll throw it at your chin, Hightopp.”

He takes the apple and his attention focuses on the thin scar spanning the front of her neck. An odd scar, to be sure... on an odd, old woman. A woman so deep within the gray grasp of Widow’s Peak that Tarrant cannot even begin to guess at the color of her hair or the hue of her eyes beneath her grief.

“Who are you?” he murmurs, mindful of keeping a safe distance between them. Last night he had felt as powerful as one of the Fates... but now he feels his body quaking with muscle spasms. He feels weak, drained. He contemplates the apple in his hand with a brief glance and sighs: he does not have enough energy to even eat the thing.

“Does it matter?” the old woman answers.

“Yes,” he decides. “I believe it does.”

Her dark eyes watch him from beneath the gray-tinged folds of her drooping eyelids. If he weren’t so... shattered, he would have been quite frustrated at continuing to be unable to guess her True age beneath the peakiness. Tiredly he acknowledges that he cannot even recall if he has ever seen her – or a younger version of her – before. But he knows one thing for sure: “Ye’re nae an Outlander.”

“An’ jus’ hauw can ye b’sae sure?” she burrs at him without blinking. “Mayhap I am.”

He shakes his head. “Ye’re a widow, aye. And tha’s Outlander-made leathers ye’re wearin’... But I d’nae ken whot ye are.”

The woman sighs. “I’m an Alice,” she says flatly.

“An Alice?”

“From Above. You’ve met Alices before, surely.”

“Only one,” he admits. “Although ’twas on twine occasions. An’ she was much... golden-er than ye are.”

“Younger, you mean,” the gray woman says with a wry twist of her bloodless, wrinkled lips. “Say what you mean, Hightopp. And mean what you say.”

He feels his brows twitch at the instruction, feeling as if he ought to mind this rather grandmotherly woman. “Are there many Alices?” he asks instead.

“A fair few. But I know the one you met.”

“She was rather... muchy for a creature that professed not to think,” he observes.

“The practice of thinking... well, one isn’t born with the skill fully developed, Hightopp.”

He considers that. “In which case, perhaps I was a bit too strict with her.”

“I’m sure you’ll get a chance to make that right.” The old woman’s dark eyes drop to the apple still sitting in the cradle of his dusty hand. “Eat.”

With a great sigh, he does. He takes in the fact that the small nest he’d taken to collapsing in when he can no longer force himself to search the field for his family’s remains had been slightly enlarged. He experiences a flash of memory as he sets his teeth against the freckled apple skin and takes a bite: last night he had curled himself around this wizened old Alice as if she’d been a teapot and he a tea cozy. He remembers waking periodically throughout the night, choking on his own tears and smelling leather and sweat and gray hair. She had smelled alive... but not too alive. If she had smelled young and new and innocent, it probably would have broken him. But as she is now, close to Death but not dead yet, she is a comfort rather than a reminder, a regret.

Tarrant watches her reach for a second apple with her right hand. Oddly, she does not pull off the glove on her left hand as proper etiquette dictates. “You’ve wretched table manners, you know,” he observes, gesturing with the bitten apple to her left hand. “Gloves come off at mealtime.”

“And were we sitting at a table, you’d be right to reprimand me,” she replies.

Ah, yes. But there are no tables. Not a one to be found in all of Iplam. Tarrant knows; he’d looked. In fact, there is nothing to be found here except more... oyster shells. He glances toward the charred wooden box that he’d scavenged from the wreckage of his parents’ house. The old woman follows his gaze. He doesn’t tell her what’s inside and she doesn’t inform him that those are not oyster shells... for which he is very thankful.

He forces himself to eat another bite of the apple, but it sticks fast, wedges itself between his tongue and roof of his mouth. Tarrant closes his eyes and despairs: he does not even know whose bones he has found. He does not know how many graves to dig. He cannot even remember their faces. Not properly. So many of the guests who had come to the Iplam Maigh had been acquaintances at best. And the lasses... The lasses...

“I cannae remember their faces,” he hears someone choke out.

The old woman is silent so the voice continues: “They came teh mayhap wed me... One would ha’been mae wife. An’ I cannae remember their faces. No’ a one o’ them.”

“They were not meant for you,” the old Alice says softly but with a strength of conviction that could have been a blade in and of itself.

He coughs around the bite of apple still sitting dry and unchewed in his mouth. “None are meant fer me,” he whispers, cringing around the crumbling heart in his chest. His family is dead; his employer has been banished; he had lost days of his life to the madness his Fa had warned him about... It is too late for him now, he knows; it is too late because he is too far gone and he has nothing to offer a wife.

There will be no Thrice a-Vow for Tarrant Hightopp. There will be no companionship. No children. No home.

“Eat that blasted apple and stop feeling sorry for yourself!” the old woman barks.

He startles, nearly dropping the fruit into the soft grass bedding Thackery had no doubt lined the nest with. Tarrant had never thanked him for it. In fact, until now, he hadn’t even noticed it. He supposes he’ll feel ashamed of himself later. For now, he simply feels numb. Empty. Echoingly vacant. In silence, he eats the apple in his hand with impatient, unsavoring bites and tosses the core away. And when he stands and picks up the wooden box, the old woman stands with him.

It takes less time to comb through the burnt and blackened field looking for bones than it had before. The Gray Alice pulls him out of his thoughts whenever he becomes lost in them; a gentle shove is all it takes or even just a sharp shout. Time and time again, he comes back to the here and now with a start and a shake of his head to the echo of “Hightopp!” circling the clearing.

Several times that day, the old woman leaves him alone where he sits, sifting through the dirt and ash with his bare fingers, and returns shortly with bread bowls of stew. He can taste that both had been made from Thackery’s recipes but he never sees his old friend. He spares a thought for Mally – he’d shouted at her until she’d run off, he recalls – but cannot bring himself to ask about her.

The day ends with a small grave and the box of not-oyster shells being laid to rest within it. Feeling more lost – more purposeless than ever before – Tarrant unashamedly leans on the old woman’s shoulder and lets the screams and tears and fury do what they will. She holds his wrists when he feels like thrashing and hitting something (even himself); she rocks him in her arms when he fears he’ll turn himself inside out with the overwhelming force of his grief and regret; she wipes his tears and snot away with a handkerchief and pats his back as he hollers and sobs and chokes.

It is a long, mad night.

And Tarrant Hightopp might not be very familiar with Alices in general, but just before exhaustion drags him away into sleep, he marvels at their courage and fortitude. And he wonders if this Gray Alice could be right: perhaps Alices do grow muchier over time.

He nearly smiles as a memory of a small, golden Alice informs him of the rudeness of making personal remarks. She had been rather muchy, he recalls, despite her later insistence on not thinking. And Tarrant hopes this old Alice is correct about him one day meeting that little Alice again: he thinks he would rather enjoy that.

 

*~*~*~*

 

Spending the night in a bed made by a Mad March Hare with the stars peeping through the cracks and crevasses overhead and the long arms of Tarrant Hightopp around her had been the most unique torture Alice has ever endured. More often than not, she had let her tears join his. He had not noticed in the dark: her tears had been shed in silence, his had not.

Waking up with his lanky-and-lithe limbs grasping at her had very nearly broken her wide open and spilled her heart out onto the ground. It would have fit neatly into the box with the charred and shattered bits of bones had Alice been willing to surrender it.

“Not yet,” she had muttered, rolling away from the last of the Hightopps and stalking off as fast as her aching joints had permitted. She had sweet-talked a gnarled apple tree lurking within the unburnt forest into surrendering two of its fruit and she had tried not to think of Tarrant’s face as seen in the light of day. (His skin had been so pale and stained. She had recognized those stains – she had wiped tears from those cheeks only the night before – and had known that in his Mad Grief, the chemicals of his trade had been concentrated in his tears and spilled onto his skin.) Alice had gathered up both apples and had tried not to think of the grayness of grief dulling his clothing and eyes. She had tried not to think about his hair, long and matted and unkempt and utterly devoid of natural color. It would have been white if not for the mercury he had spent years and years hoarding within his body, through touch and breath.

She had stayed by him, had searched the blackened earth for the bones of his kinsmen, his family. Oyster shells, he had muttered time and time again and she’d come to understand what Thackery had meant about counting them. At the end of the day, even thought they’d swept the field twice over, the collection in the box had been woefully small.

He had broken down again after they had closed the earth over that little box. He had broken open, poured out his anger and regrets in great bucketfuls of noise and tears, and she had held him. Alice had always wondered how her husband had dealt with this tragedy in the days following it. She had assumed that the familial bond between her husband and the White Queen had begun then: she had assumed that Mirana had been the one to offer him comfort, no matter how superficial or insignificant it may have been in the long run. Alice had even wondered if they had found some sort of escape with each other after that horrible tragedy. She had never thought – not once – that her husband and the queen had been... intimate (not with how nervous Mirana had been on her wedding night! and Alice clearly remembers Tarrant’s heartfelt and unrestricted passion... no, he had been no more experienced than she... although he had known what he was about!), but she had been a bit jealous that perhaps her friend had been there for the Hatter when she – Alice – could not.

But no. No, Tarrant and Mirana had not... grown closer to each other in that way, following this nightmare. Tarrant had led the queen away from the attack, and then he had turned right around, had come back here, and had run off anyone and everyone who had thought to help him.

Everyone except an old, grayed widow with more guts than sense of self-preservation.

Yes, now Alice knows how Tarrant had managed to survive the crushing desolation. She cannot decide if her presence here is ironic... or a blessing.

The grief, necessary though it had been, had changed him: Tarrant Hightopp now looks even more like a wild-man with his blaze of twig-twisted, orange hair and dirt smudged face and charcoal-stained fingers. Alice regards him now, in the darkness of midnight. Her heart aches for him. This man has lost so much and yet there is so much more he will be required to give. As he is now, Alice knows that will be impossible. This Tarrant Hightopp doesn’t have the strength to be a leader, a fighter, a man capable of killing time.

Alice considers the date. The Maigh – the Festival to Welcome Spring – is over. Summer is on its way and, in the coming autumn, Griblig Day and the Right Alice will arrive. At which time, Tarrant will have to be a hero, a champion, a mad hatter, the leader of the currently non-existent revolution.

She sighs and gently pets his forehead and snarled hair. For this specific task, she had removed her left gauntlet. It is too dark to see the heart line, but she can feel that her entire heart-line finger is numb. And the lack of sensation hasn’t restricted itself to that area alone: the feeling of nothingness has begun to crawl up her hand to her wrist. No, Alice does not have months to help Tarrant Hightopp. At most, she has days.

And she has spent two of them already.

“I’m sorry, Tarrant,” she whispers in the darkness as he breathes heavily and slowly. He is clearly very deep within the realm of sleep. “I’m so sorry, but you must be ready for what is coming. Your Alice will need you.”

Somehow, in the time remaining to her here, Alice must help this man discover his inner strength. She closes her eyes and considers the task the Fates had set her: she still has not liberated the Oraculum from its prison in the Duchess’ library and every day that she spends helping Tarrant is one day not spent in the accomplishment of her mission! How overwhelming it is that she must save him twice: from his grief and from the scar that stills his heart!

She lies down with him, cries as the scent of him reminds her of so much love and so much pain and so much... so much that is beyond words. She closes her eyes and tells herself not to think of her husband’s death.

“Think of his life,” she murmurs on a sigh.

The first light of dawn wakes her and, for a moment, she lets herself feel his warmth, smell his stale breath, taste the dust of Iplam from her wrinkled lips.

And then she moves.

She wrenches herself from his arms and shoves him away from her. She’s a little slow getting to her feet. Luckily, Tarrant is equally slow opening his eyes. By the time he does, Alice has the point of her sword against the tender skin of his throat.

“Downal wyth Bluddy Behg Hid,” she reminds him as he blinks up at her, confused and groggy. “They’re just words, Hightopp. What are you going to do to make them real?”

He opens his mouth, wheezes, clears his throat and tries to wrangle speech with his tongue once more. “I’ll fight?”

“Is that question or a statement?” she asks archly.

“I...”

“Can you not even take a sword from an old, gray woman, Hightopp?”

He continues staring up at her looking lost and guileless. She experiences an instant in which the inclination to toss the sword aside and gather him into her arms, soothe him as if he were Tamial just startled awake by a nightmare, nearly overpowers her. But no. No!

She tightens her grip around both the pommel of the sword and her emotions.

“Pathetic,” she spits at him.

His brows draw together in the most abject expression of betrayal she has ever seen.

Hardening her heart, locking away her soul, she asks him, “If you cannot bring me down, how will you manage to get to the Red Queen?”

He has no answer to that.

“Get up,” she sighs, lowering her sword and holding out her hand. He hesitates to take it and she shakes it insistently. “Take it, Hightopp. It’s time to see Mally and Thackery and Uilleam. Thank them for looking after us.”

For a moment, he doesn’t seem to understand her order. But then as it sinks into the silence around them, as it makes itself comprehensible, he nods wearily and finally takes her hand.

Once she has pulled him upright, she hesitates to release him. Tarrant startles when her grip tightens around his wrist. The leather of the gauntlets digs into his skin, Alice is sure, but he must understand!

“And after we thank them, you and I have much to do,” she tells him.

His too-orange brows twitch. “Whatever do you mean, madam?”

“I mean this,” she replies lifting the sword by the blade so that the pommel is staring him in his tear-stained and dirt-smudged face. “I mean revolution,” she continues to his wide-eyed stare. “I mean Downal wyth Bluddy Behg Hid.”

 

Chapter Text

 

“On your feet, Hightopp.”

Tarrant manages to pull in a breath and mutters, “Fifteen.”

The Gray Lady doesn’t comment on the fact that this is the ten-and-fifth time she has said those four words to him, in that precise order, and in that exact tone... today. The sun had barely risen when she had awakened him by the blade.

Tarrant rolls over onto his knees and, groaning, pushes himself up with the aid of the wooden stave that, miracle of miracles, he still clutches in his hands.

Tarrant sighs and tries his best – and fails wretchedly – not to marvel at how utterly useless he is at this. Once upon a time, he had known how to fight – had won a fair number of scraps with his cousins. But that had been a Long Time Ago. And, in the interim, it seems he has traded one skill for another: war-craft for haberdashery.

And he knows haberdashery will not downal that Bluddy Behg Hid.

He needs this, he knows. Who will depose that despicable monster if he does not? The Grey Lady had been very clear on this: “You saved the White Queen for naught, Hightopp? Finish the fight!”

Fight. Yes, yes. He must fight!

Yet Knowing that has not made it So. He grits his teeth and considers the silence that presses in on his ears like a scream.

Why dont you remember this, Hightopp? the Gray Alice doesn’t ask him.

Why arent you trying harder? she doesn’t demand.

He should try harder, he knows. However will the Bluddy Behg Hid be removed if no one fights her minions? And, in the current state of things, Tarrant doubts any will be brave enough – mad enough – to oppose her forces! Yes, this Alice is correct: Underland needs him; the White Queen needs him; the crown must be returned! And that will require force: for certain the loathsome, grasping, booly-lickering toadie herself will never relinquish the power that she had eradicated an entire clan of people to gain.

Yes, he must relearn this. He must fight!

And yet it all seems so pointless now; fighting will not bring his Mam back nor his Fa. His aunts and uncles and cousins – and the others whose faces he cannot recall – will also remain quite dead. Fighting now, after the worst has occurred... Tarrant tightens his grip on the stave. This lesson is too little, too bloody late.

Too late... and yet something in him whispers that this is only the beginning. But the beginning of what? He fears that Unknown looming in the dark and lonely days ahead. He suspects he will need these skills. The urgency and passion and stubbornness (which might very well be an Alice Trait, he concedes) with which the Gray Alice instructs him has confirmed that the ability she is attempting to hone in him is needful. Will be needful. She had not said as much, but she has not needed to.

One day, he will have to make a choice: freedom or servitude; courage or fear; life or death.

One day, his actions will decide that dilemma.

He shakes his head, turns away from his instructor and takes a deep breath. Tarrant Hightopp knows he is no warrior, not like this widowed, wrinkled and gray woman seems to be. He is a hatter and that is all he has ever wanted to be!

“I’ll not allow you to forfeit,” she warns him, lifting her staff into position.

He knows that tossing aside his own stave will not grant him a reprieve. The last time he had done that very thing, he had been knocked about the clearing until, desperate for a moment of peace, he had scrambled for it and picked it up again. The pleased smirk on his instructor’s wrinkled face had been maddening enough for for him to attempt an assault. He had welcomed the rage, let it infuse him; power his muscles and steel his joints. And then Tarrant had found himself flat on his back, contemplating the sky and his bruised tail bone.

“Madness will not save you,” she had sighed. “That way lies defeat. I promise you.”

But the Madness is the only strength he has left anymore.

Tarrant twists his hands against the wood grain of the glorified stick that this Uplander who wears Outlander-made leathers had fashioned. He is not sure if he is attempting to snap the stave or wring it into nothing.

“Your enemies will not fight themselves,” she reminds him.

He grits his teeth. He knows. And the fact that it is necessary that he remember how to fight crushes what few, charred crumbs of his heart that remain.

His self-appointed instructor does not ask him if he is rested, ready, resolved to do better.

She merely attacks again.

This time, he counters her assault neatly, strike after strike. He marvels that this whithered, stoop-shouldered, colorless creature can wield such power and skill. She drives him back... back... back...

“Watch your surroundings, Hightopp!” she orders.

She lunges forward.

He parries, ignores her warning, steps back and...!

“Omph!” he announces, staring up at the sky which blurs and swirls as he makes ineffectual gasping motions with his mouth, waiting for a kind breeze to re-inflate his lungs.

The Gray Alice sighs and taps the end of her stave against his booted foot, the heel of which had been caught in the rather vicious jaws of a bit of what must have been a rhododendron bush... this time the week prior.

She says nothing – no chastisements, no jeers, no instructions. She doesn’t have to. He knows what he’d done wrong. And Alices, it seems, do not particularly care for repeating themselves aloud. The soft tap on the sole of his boot is an unarticulated I told you so that speaks Loud and Clear. Echoes, even.

Not good enough...

Those three words whisper around the charred remains of his ancestral home, condemning him, damning him... And Tarrant Hightopp does not have the strength to deny their truth, not anymore. He rolls onto his side, clutching the stave and pressing the length of it squarely to his forehead, between his eyes, as if the pressure will beat back the clamoring cries of his own conscience.

It doesn’t.

Not good enough!

He should have done more... saved more people... fought the Jabberwock... He should have...!

“Stop,” a whisper commands and leather-clad hands rub the arm and shoulder not pressed into the blackened dirt. “Stop, Hightopp.”

He wishes he could. He wants to stop. He wants it all to Stop.

Please... Peace...

He begs but the plea is silent. Or ignored. Within his fevered mind, he cannot be certain he had not spoken aloud. The burning-stinging-sanding sensation of his eyes is rather distracting.

The Grey Lady pulls the stave from his grasp easily – when had he loosened his fingers around it? – and replaces it with herself. And he does not care that she had so easily disarmed him. She smells alive, feels warm, and her croaky voice soothes him with its unfamiliarity:

“Go on,” she invites. “Scream it out.”

He does, clutching the edges of her thick, leather armor.

And yet, with each sobbing cry and breathless shout, only more of the same seems to crowd in his throat, pushing and shoving and struggling. In cases like these, sleep is his only haven and, throat raw, he relinquishes his hold on the waking world and allows himself to fall away into darkness. If the Grey Lady will not permit him the Madness, then he must take refuge somewhere ... here ... in sleep.

Tarrant is not sure how long he sleeps – to his knowledge, he has never had access to his pocket watch in his dreams – but when he opens his eyes again he feels as if he had traveled to some far distant realm and returned... with no memory of the wonders he must have seen, the hats he might have itched to repair, the people he had gleefully riddled. Disappointment is inevitable.

“Yahr frownin’ already,” Mally accuses by way of greeting. “Sleepin’ always makes me feel better...”

“I notice you aren’t engaged in that very activity at the moment,” he replies, sitting up and taking in his surroundings. It’s dark now but it doesn’t quite feel like midnight yet. He sits where he had fallen that afternoon and wept against the Grey Lady’s jerkin. A small fire had been built nearby and a serving of dinner sits on a rock beside the flames. His stomach seems to have been left behind in his dream wanderings so he ignores the stew-filled half-loaf of bread in favor of speaking directly to the dormouse.

Her reply to his observation is a shrug. “Lately I ain’t been spending so much time with my eyes shut. Somethin’ th’ Grey Lady said a few days back... I reckon it woke me up.”

Tarrant huffs out a sarcasm-made laugh. “An’ what was that?” Perhaps it will inspire him. Underland knows he could certainly use something inspirational.

“She said fearlessness was a habit yah gotta learn.”

Tarrant blinks at her for a moment, noticing her confident pose, the pride that lifts her little dormouse nose into the air despite the lack of aromatic cheese in the vicinity... “You look to be a good student of it, Mally.”

Her tiny chest puffs up at the compliment.

“I, on the other hand...” he murmurs, belatedly wondering where the Grey Alice has gone. He glances around once more, but he and Mally seem to be alone. “Where is...?”

“Helpin’ Thackery clean ’is pots’n’pans seein’ as how this is th’ last o’ th’ pease porridge.”

He lifts his gaze to the bread bowl once more and feels a hollow throb in his gut. “Nine days old?” He checks out of habit rather than any real sense of apprehension.

“Naw. Mayhap five. I think I saw ’im brewing up this batch th’ first time I came... er...”

Tarrant sighs. Yes, he vaguely remembers the first time Mally had tried to talk to him after... after...

“I am sorry I... shouted.” Shouting, he suspects, had not been the whole of it nor the worst of it. He cannot remember what had happened clearly, but it’s likely there had been some unforgivable stomping and kicking as well. “So sorry, Mally,” he lisps.

“It’s all right,” she replies, her tone strong and true. “I fergive yah.”

He knows he doesn’t deserve it, but he nods anyway. It is one small weight removed from his shoulders. Relieving himself of it does not make him feel better. Nor does it make him less crushed by sorrow. But it does manage to remind him that he is strong enough – for the moment – to bear the other worries and woes.

“Hatter,” Mally muses into the silence, correctly enunciating his title for emphasis. It works. She has his undivided attention. “I’m considerin’ things that begin with th’ letter M...”

“Mice?”

“An’ men,” she continues.

Tarrant struggles to think of a third. His mind feels as if it is swimming in a wordless sea.

“An’ th’ Resistance,” she says when the silence becomes too noticeably full of fire cracklings.

He considers that very carefully for a moment. “Mally, that is not a word that begins with the letter M...”

“It does,” she insists. “’Afore there can be resistance, there must be mutiny, aye?” She leaps toward him and onto his knee. “Hatter... I’ve been thinkin’ about it... an’ the Resistance starts with lots of Ms... malice... mayhem... murder... mutiny...”

“And what does it end with?” he asks her, startled by the thought she has put into this singular issue. “More murder. Misforture.” Madness.

She shakes her head. “Miracles. It ends with a miracle,” Mally insists. “With a Mad ’Atter.”

He sighs. “It won’t. I can’t... I’m pathetically useless at fighting and—”

“Well, aye, yah’re a right sight painful tah watch,” she agrees with brutal honesty. “But yah jus’ got tah remember tah keep yahr balance... Like this!” She demonstrates by bending her knees, setting her jaw, and clenching her little paws into fists. “An’ yah gotta keep yahr guard up, like so!”

Tarrant feels tears sting his eyes as his little friend shows him the very posture his instructor had spent all day trying to teach him, evoke from him, inspire in him. Somehow, the very same lessons that had withered his will had lit a fire in this dormouse!

“Yah can’t give up!” she orders him, pointing rather rudely at his no doubt smudged nose. “We’ve got us a Resistance tah Manage. An’ that,” she declares proudly, “is an M word, too!”

“Those are all terrifyingly good points, Mally,” he rasps. Despite that, he doubts that he can be the warrior the Gray Lady is asking him to be. “But I’m just a hatter. And you’re just a mouse...”

Mally stomps on his kneecap with surprising force. “Shut it, you! I ain’t listenin’ tah people tellin’ me I’m too small tah do what I want! So I’ll thank yah tah keep yer judgin’ an’ opinionin’ tah yahrself!”

His apology sticks in his throat and he watches as Mally slides gracefully down his grimy pant leg to the ground.

“I ain’t lettin’ you let that Bloody Big Head win, Hatter!” she informs him. “I’ll fight ’er my-self! But yah’re lettin’er win o’er my dead body!”

Mally marches off, head and tail held high, and he lets her go. Marveling. How is it that one so small is better suited for the fight the Gray Alice is preparing him for? Tarrant closes his eyes and sighs, shamed.

The feeling becomes an unfortunately constant companion. It follows him in through slumber, stalks him in his shadows, stares at him across the clearing. Or perhaps that is merely the tired gaze of the Gray Lady.

This old Alice is stubborn, he must admit. She has developed the skill of Stubbornness into an art, distilled it into a heady brew, honed it into a blade that is razor sharp. The next day’s lesson brings a new resolve in her, a straighter spine and a stiffer upper lip.

“Pay attention, Hightopp,” she says by way of morning greeting. And then she pokes him and prods him like a wooden, jointed mannequin, positions him and shoves at him to judge his balance.

And then the Tests begin. Holding up her sword, she orders him to focus on the point of it. “Good. Now this blade’s your noon position. What’s at three o’clock?” she quizzes him.

“Afternoon tea?”

Her wrinkled mouth twitches at the corners and her dark eyes sparkle with humor. “If you answer correctly, I think we can manage that. Now, Hightopp: the three o’clock position. What do you see out of the corner of your eye?”

And so it goes. All day, they knock staves together. She tests his balance even as she periodically demands an inventory of the field, their onlookers, and his obstacles. Despite all his efforts and despite all her insistence that he fling rocks if he must to distract or delay his enemy, today his is no more skillful than he had been the day before. The thrice-times-fifth time he falls the Gray Alice calls a halt and, sighing tiredly, sets aside her weapons, tucks away the stern face of an instructor, and offers him her shoulder... which he leans on. Gratefully.

He does not shout or holler or sob this time. He is too tired for any of that.

“Is there a dormouse watching us from high tea?” he mutters, his eyes closed. “My nose itches.”

The peaky widow chuckles. “Very good, Hightopp. You’ve sniffed her out.”

It is such a small thing, but it is the high point of the day and he decides to quit while he’s ahead. Slumber is a welcome respite from the expectations of Reality. He crawls into the nest – sneezes twice as the scent of fresh bedding tickles his nose – and curls up. Without a thought for dinner, he sighs out a breath and escapes the heartache and muscle pain and disappointment for a few hours.

 

*~*~*~*

 

She has never felt so alone.

Alice shivers, hardly noticing the chill that skitters up her arm. Over the last four days, the sensation has become familiar. She no longer wastes her energies fisting her now-completely-numb left hand in response to Death encroaching upon her flesh, crawling up her arm, licking hungrily toward her heart.

There is no point in resisting. The Fates had been right: she does not have the strength required to fight this and win. To survive the death of her Thrice a-Vowed, she must thirst for Life much more than she thirsts for him. But she doesn’t.

You are my Underland.”

He is her home.

Her best friend.

Her everything.

There is no her without him.

Alice tilts her head back, gazes up through the budding tree branches and lets out a long breath. It does nothing to shift the hollowness that yawns wide and dark and frightening beneath her sternum. Since the moment her husband had sighed out his last breath in her arms, she has realized that one cannot live without a beating heart. But one can exist. As trees exist, as a river exists... with mindless purpose.

She surveys the forest around her and then, reluctantly, addresses the bend in the stream where the water pools deeply enough for a bath. A very cold bath, she amends, crouching and testing the water with the bare fingertips of her right hand. No, the water temperature has not improved since the last time she had forced herself to bathe. Her bones had ached from the chill for hours afterward. And yet, knowing that this will be the last time does not provide her comfort.

Pulling off her leather armor and tunic and breeches, she splashes into the stream. First she washes her clothing and hangs them from the branches of an obliging Tum Tum tree.

“If you would wave them a bit in the breeze?” Alice requests. “I’d appreciate it.”

The trees shifts and sighs and swishes its branches in the weak breeze with a bit more gusto than can be solely the result of the wind.

“Bugger all,” Alice sighs, regarding the chilly water and, before she can talk herself out of it, plunges beneath the surface. She comes up for air, gasping and grasping handfuls of sand, which she uses to hurriedly scrub her wrinkled, withered and weary body. She tries not to think about her age, her frailty.

Everything will be fine. Just get the Oraculum...

Yes. The Oraculum. That is the reason for her existence here, now. Her purpose.

Although she has no intention of checking, she finds herself studying the graying heart line on her arm. From the tip of her finger the gray lines twine up like dying ivy... up over the back of her hand... past her wrist... along her forearm... Four days without Tarrant’s living blood infusing the heart line has left a trail of ash-colored markings all the way up her arm. By the end of the day, it will advance to the point of her bony shoulder. And then it will begin its final descent... to her Heart Mark.

Tarrant is no closer to being the man he must become by Griblig Day than he had been upon her arrival here. She thinks of his half-hearted attacks and resigned defense, of his inability to summon the motivation to care about his surroundings or his opponent’s strategy...

“You’ve lost your muchness, Raven,” she mutters.

And she does not know how to give it back to him. Not without revealing the future she knows. Not without possibly changing that future.

She shivers at the thought. Dear Underland, what will she do if some action – or in action! – on her part results in changing the future? Suppose she returns to an empty house? Suppose something she does or says – or does not do or does not say – results in Tamial Hightopp never being born?

In her rush to save Tarrant, she had not fully considered the ramifications of her actions, of this task. There are so many mistakes she could make... So many things that could go irreparably wrong...

But you have been here already, she insists. Tarrant recognized the scar... And Mirana knew...

Yes, things are meant to be this way.

As bladder-weakeningly frightening as that thought is... it is true.

Alice closes her eyes and acknowledges her fear. She accepts the ache that throbs through her entire body at the thought of never again seeing her son, her husband, her home, her family...! She misses Tamial’s often-times wry and occasionally cocky grin. She misses her husband’s rhymes and giggles. She misses...

Soon, you’ll be home, she reminds herself. Yes, she will arrive before Tamial wakes up – he will never even know that she had left him, that his father had died. Tamial will awaken to a perfectly normal breakfast with buttered bread and milky tea with both his parents sitting beside him at the table and everything will be fine!

Alice draws a deep breath, fortifies herself, and ducks beneath the surface of the swirling water again. This time she applies the sand to her hair, scrubbing dried sweat and grime from her scalp. She keeps her eyes closed for this task and tries not to get any water in her ears. So intent is she on this seemingly simple enterprise that the factual statement from the creek bank startles her into nearly leaping out of her skin.

“Tha’s a heart line on yahr arm. Yahr a-Vowed.”

“Mally,” Alice replies, sighing with both relief and reproach. She should have sensed the dormouse’s gaze, benevolent though it is. In fact, her performance these days leaves a lot to be desired in many ways. She had never realized how totally Tarrant completes her until...

Careful to keep her chest – and the very distinct Heart Mark upon it – turned away from the mouse, she asks, “Why are you here? Is Hightopp—?”

“The same,” the mouse sighs. Yes, he has not been much of a friend to her since Horvendush Day. She had sent Mally to go make peace with him the night before while Alice had helped Thackery scrub out his cooking pots but Mally had stomped her way over to them far too soon and with far too fierce a frown for things to have gone very well. However, Alice is pleased to see that, despite Tarrant’s determination to be moodily melancholic and his lack of muchness, Mally has not washed her paws of him.

Shivering from the cold kiss of the breeze on her wet skin, Alice climbs out of the water and steps onto a grassy patch to allow her skin to dry in the sunlight. Above her head, her clothes are still swaying to and fro in the breeze. She reaches out and pats the trunk of the tree in thanks for its unwavering dedication in drying her poorly washed and battered garments.

“Yarh heart line’s grayin’,” Mally observes from a bit further down the bank.

Still keeping her back to the mouse, Alice nods. “Yes. I noticed.”

There’s a moment of silence but Alice knows it won’t last. This Mally – this furiously curious Mally – is a force to be reckoned with.

“It’s ’cause yahr a widow, ain’t it?” the mouse muses and Alice doesn’t deny it. “Was it an accident?”

It. Alice knows what the dormouse is referring to. Not the heart line but the events that had made her a widow. She draws in a deep breath and forces herself to stay standing: she locks her knees and leans a bit more heavily against the obliging Tum Tum tree. “It was Intentional... at the time it was done.”

A moment of uncomfortable silence follows. “Well. I hope yah ran the murderin’ rotter through!”

She has no reply to that, so she gives none. Alice merely looks up through the still-skeletal canopy at the dimming sky. Night will fall soon and the temperature will drop. Alice hopes the wind manages to dry her bare skin before then.

Behind her, she senses, Mally is still lingering, so there must be something else on her surprisingly active mind. Oh yes, this mouse is not the sleepy creature Alice vaguely recalls from the tea party she had attended as a child. This dormouse is as pouty as she is feisty and contrary and opinionated.

She waits for Mally to speak her mind. The wait isn’t a long one.

“’Ow come th’Atter gets tah be the one tah lead the Resistance? I coul’ do it!”

For a moment, Alice marvels at how far this mouse – her future friend – has come in only a few days. The creature who had hidden herself from difficulties behind her own closed eyelids is no more. This dormouse, Alice can believe, truly would pluck out the eye of a bandersnatch!

“I’ve no doubt whatsoever that you could, Mally,” Alice readily admits. “But the Hatter needs this. He needs a purpose. And he’ll need a lieutenant who’s always looking out for him.” The next words burn in Alice’s throat, but she forces herself to say them. She forces herself to relinquish her place at Tarrant’s side to the one who is meant to be there in the coming months. Oh, how it hurts to not only know but Admit that she has no place beside him here, now. “Can he count on you for that, Mallymkun? Will you look after him?”

“Humph!” she declares and Alice can nearly see her cross her small arms over her little chest. “He shouldn’t need any lookin’ afteh! What’ee needs is a good, hard kick in the scut!”

“I’ve tried that,” Alice reminds her.

“Well, you ain’t tried hard enough!”

Alice bites back a bark of laughter. “And what would you have me do, Mally?”

“Come afteh me!”

“I... beg your pardon?” she chokes out, glancing over her bare shoulder.

Mally’s very determined black eyes stare back. “Use one o’is hatpins, mayhap, an’ put it tah my throat! He’ll fight when he sees that!”

Horrified, Alice shakes her head. “No, Mally. Absolutely not.”

“But he’ll fight!” she insists with all the determination of someone who Knows they are Right!

“Yes,” Alice concedes. “He’ll fight. And then he’ll get angry with me for threatening you.”

“So we’ll tell ’im it was all fake!”

Alice blinks. “Mally. Listen to yourself. Please. Would you have Hightopp turn away from you for good?” After the tragedy this man has suffered, Alice doesn’t doubt him capable of holding a grudge against anyone who attempts to capitalize on his pain, manipulate his heart...

The dormouse stomps her foot. “What’s ’ee good fer now? Eh? Nuthin’!”

“Don’t!” Alice hisses. “Don’t you say that, Mallymkun. EVER.” The command doesn’t impress the dormouse. Her expression is still scrunched in obstinacy. Alice tries again, “You are making the same error of him that everyone else makes of you. How many times has Uilleam – or the others – told you that you’re too small to be of much use for anything, too small to mean much to anyone, too small to fight? How often has—!”

“Stop!” the mouse cries, tear springing to her eyes. “Stop it! I can do whatever I want! I can!”

“And so can Hightopp. He just needs... time.” Time that Alice doesn’t have.

Mally opens her mouth, pauses, seems to consider her words, and then says, “Yahr... yahr not stayin’ with him? Yah said... yah asked me tah look afteh him...”

“There are things I have to do,” Alice admits. “I can’t stay much longer.” She reaches out with her right hand and checks the state of her tunic and breeches.

Dry enough, she thinks and pulls them on. She dresses in her battle leathers and straps her sword to her hip, buckles her knife to her belt and slides her gauntlets on. She hates the fact that she must wear these wretched gloves but it would not do for Tarrant to see her heart line. After all, in the future, his first clue that the Grey Lady is actually his Alice, stepped backward in Time, is the wound she asks him to cut into her throat.

Alice closes her eyes, remembering the evening after she had told him her plan in the queen’s office. He had been so furious, so resigned, so frightened, so sad, so...

He had known. He had known that helping Alice – giving her this scar – would herald his own death. But knowing what she knows now... Alice realizes that even if she had not asked him to slice open her throat for all to see, that would not have saved him. Even then, Masonmark’s scar had already begun its slow, inevitable journey toward her husband’s heart.

All of this was Fated to be, she thinks... but finds no comfort in the thought.

“Will...” Alice clears her throat. “Will you look after him, Mally? Believe in him?”

The dormouse sighs. “Aye. I will, Grey Lady. Mayhap if I show him how, one day he’ll take a notion tah believe in his-self.”

“I expect he will.” He must!

Mally rides back to Iplam on Alice’s shoulder, unseen by Thackery and Uilleam who both greet Alice warmly – as if they hadn’t just spoken to her at lunch.

“Sommat smells edible, Thack!” Mally announces, startling the two fellows. The hare twitches and the dodo fluffs his feathers. Alice smirks as Mally orders herself a bowl of whatever Thackery had made with extra pepper. Thackery stumbles over his own hairy feet to comply and Uilleam gives the mouse a wide berth when she hops down from her perch.

Clearly, things in this quarter, with regards to Mally, have changed.

She glances through the veil made by the trees at the man curled up in the nest tucked beneath one of the few still-standing patches of wall in the field. The studs are little more than charcoal and only bits of paneling still cling to them. More than anything, she wants Tarrant away from this place. He cannot heal here. He can only remember... and regret.

“No change!” Thackery tells her, handing her a bowl, un-peppered.

“There will be,” she replies firmly. She remembers how strongly Tarrant had believed in her when she’d come to Underland. She remembers how his passion and persistence had won her over, had made her doubt her own weaknesses, had given her the Idea that perhaps she could be... no, perhaps she is the Right Alice after all. And when Absolem had helped her see that all of this was real... She had known right then that she would fight. That she had to fight. That she could fight.

Tarrant had done that for her.

And now she returns the favor.

“He’ll be the one to keep us all safe...” she tells the creatures who are listening attentively.

“Aye, he will. I believe it,” Mally concurs stubbornly and Alice could not feel more thankful for the show of support. True, Mally does not believe that Tarrant – as he is now – could protect much of anything. But she knows that she must first believe that he can if he is to have a hope of gaining the confidence to do so himself.

Dinner is a quiet affair and Tarrant sleeps through it. As usual. When she joins him in his nest, she takes in the way he clutches at his grubby jacket and curls his knees toward his chest for warmth. He is shivering, she sees. His eyes are tightly closed, as if he is holding onto Sleep by an effort of pure Will. He has lost weight and his hair is more tangled than ever. His face is dirty and his breath as stale as ever.

“We’ll get you to Marmoreal,” she promises him on a whisper. “Wash this place off of you. Pack your memories away for later.” Yes, he needs a respite. Whether he is willing to accept it or not.

She lies down with him and he seeks out her warmth only a moment after she has settled beside him. She grits her teeth and blinks furiously to keep the tears back as this man who has not yet grown into the hatter who will become her husband (but who is alive!) nuzzles her hair, sighs against her neck, clutches the trailing edge of her tunic like it is his only link to sanity...

Tarrant...

She has to force herself to not use the heart line to Call out to him.

I will finish this task for the Fates. I will find help for you at Marmoreal. And then I will bring you home.

“I promised not to ever let you go. And this will not be the end. I will not let it. You will be home again. I promise.”

It is only a whisper, but Alice senses that Underland does not care. A promise is a promise. And here is another one that Alice is now Bound to keep.

 

Chapter Text

 

The farewell comes as a shock.

“Where... where are you going?” Tarrant asks the Gray Lady. He ignores the unbitten apple in his hand and studies her profile.

“To Marmoreal,” she replies slowly, “eventually. I want you to take Thackery and Mally with you and meet me there.”

“At... Marmoreal?” he confirms.

“Yes.”

He lifts his gaze and studies the battle-torn field that is all that remains of his home.

“No,” she says and he startles at the feel of her gauntlet-encased left hand clutching his forearm. “This is not where you need to be now.”

He feels his brows draw together and a bubble of Stubborn expand within his chest.

“There is no more you can do for them here,” she says.

He blinks at her, studies her earnest expression.

“Do not let the Red Queen win. Do not allow her to destroy other homes...”

She says nothing about families and he feels that bubble of Stubborn harden... and then fade away like a misplaced sneeze.

“Go to Marmoreal with Mally and Thack,” she whispers. “Uilleam and I will meet you there.”

Preparations are made and feet are set onto the road and shoe leather squeaks-groans-grumbles and he moves through it all as if in a dream – and perhaps it is a dream! Yes, yes! Perhaps now he will make that long journey he has sensed doing in his other dreams! Although, those had been dreams had during slumber and this is a Waking Dream and that should make his adventures much easier to recall after the fact!

He muses about hat repairs and cups of tea and riddles and rhymes and his fevered imagination stumbles and stutters as he tries to picture the sights he has yet to see...

But of course: as he hasn’t seen them yet he can hardly picture them, can he? That’s putting the cutting of the plum pudding before the passing ’round, isn’t it? When did his mind begin thinking in such hopelessly backward ways?

He giggles and the sound seems to startle Thackery who trips and bangs into a tree. The sound echoes down the forest lane and calls Tarrant back to himself, back to this place – wherever he is – rather forcefully. Eyes narrowed, he surveys the forest, its trees, the dirt road and his own feet upon it. How had he...? How long had he...? And where are they going?

“Calm down, ’Atter,” Mally’s voice soothes him as gently as she can considering the amount of jostling his wild glancing about is causing for her on the brim of his hat. She reminds him firmly, “We’re on our way tah Marmoreal, followin’ the Gray Lady’s orders.”

Ah, yes. Tarrant vaguely remembers something about Marmoreal and meetings and... was there some other M-word involved?

“Marmoreal, yes, yes,” he agrees. “Marvel... meander...”

Although he has found himself on this road, following Thackery’s meandering lead, with a dormouse traveling via his hat, a cooking pan in one hand and the still-unbitten apple in the other, he still feels a bit... lost. Puzzlingly lost. Lopsidedly lost. Perhaps if he loses himself completely, the feeling will not seem so disconcerting?

Tarrant struggles to let his mind wander with his feet; walks are excellent exercise for the mind. In fact, he has thought of several riddles worth serious Investigation whilst walking. He strives for that normalcy but instead finds himself wondering why the Gray Lady and the dodo bird had insisted on traveling separately from himself, Mally and Thackery despite the fact that they are all bound for the same destination! In fact, now that he thinks about it, he can’t even hear the pair walking behind him... He blinks as the sun glints off of the small pot Thackery wears on his head, pauses in the middle of the Tulgey Wood road, and turns to look back.

Frowning, he complains, “I don’t see them.”

“Can’t see who?” Mally replies.

He glances up momentarily, as if he has the ability to see through the brim of his hat to the creature perched on the top of it. “The Gray Alice and the dodo bird,” he replies. “Do you think they’ve misplaced themselves already?” The road seems easy enough to follow to him but perhaps Gray Ladies and dodo birds see things differently... Or perhaps they had succeeded where he had failed in getting themselves lost, in losing themselves...

Mally snorts. “Lost? I wouldn’t think so! They ain’t followin’ us tah Marmoreal directly.”

“Aye!” Thackery agrees. “Ano’her road! E’erone’s gotteh make thar auwn path!”

“Thackery,” Tarrant objects, “this is the way to Marmoreal. If the Gray Lady isn’t taking this road, then she’s headed toward...” He twitches his chin to the side, feels his eyes narrow, decides to not think of whom lives in the place where the Other road leads. “They’re traveling in the wrong direction and...! Not acceptable! Risky! Bluddy dodo bird!”

He pivots smartly on his heel – causing the passenger on his hat to squeak with alarm – and begins to jog back the way they’d come but a pair of paws on his jacket tails and hairy hare feet digging into the rutted road stop him from getting very far, very quickly.

“Halt, thar, laddie!” the hare commands, not releasing Tarrant’s jacket hem. “Ye heard th’ auld bessom; best ge’ye teh th’ castle!”

“But they’ve taken the road to Crims! he argues, wincing even as he says the name of that cursed place.

“Calm down, ’Atter,” Mally announces. “They ain’t goin’ back there!”

“...back?” He glances up again – and again sees only hat brimage – as he allows Thackery’s insistent tugging to pull him a bit further down the empty, dirt road.

“Ar!” she declares. “She didn’ tell yah? The Gray Alice busted the dodo and I outta prison!”

Tarrant listens as Mally narrates the daring escape the Gray Alice had orchestrated from the Red Queen’s prison. (He had not even known that Mally had been arrested! In fact, she might have been beheaded and he might never have realized... Or perhaps he would have heard days – weeks! – after the fact and...!) Through the haze of frenetic guilt, he hears something about Pass Words and Palace Guards and Pokings and...!

He is glad he hadn’t been told any of this earlier. The Gray Alice’s familiarity with the Red Queen’s castle is unsettling. Had he known about this before he’d met the Gray Lady, he would have been quite suspicious of her. He would, very likely, not have trusted her. And he likes trusting her. He wants to believe she is worth the risk of his trust. Trustworthy.

But the Gray Alice seems to know quite a bit about Crims and its castle and its queen... One must, naturally wonder why...

Perhaps a bit of round-about will get him the answer to that question!

“If the Gray Alice and Uilleam are not planning to pay a visit to Crims, then where are they going?” he asks after the tale has been told and several rhymes made and ballads sung about the historic event: the end of the Red Queen’s marzipan prison.

“Tah see the Duchess,” Mally helpfully informs him. Or, rather, the information would have been helpful if Tarrant had possessed an inkling of how to interpret it.

“What a strange place to wish to visit...” he muses. “Do you suppose our Gray Alice wishes to learn how to escape the axe-man?” That is the skill for which the ugly duchess is most well-known for. Why, time and time again, she has managed to make herself scarce at the Red Queen’s court just when that Bluddy Behg Hid’s temper gets the better of her. Which is often. Or so he has heard.

“Do you suppose it’s a learnable skill?” he muses, successfully distracted from his woes. “The Gray Alice seems rather well-versed in many skills... Sword-play, Stubbornness...”

“Don’t know why she was wantin’ tah go there,” Mally muses to the universe in general. “Don’t know why she changed ’er mind about it when McTwisp told ’er the date, neither.”

“She... did not know the date?” he queries, puzzled that a woman so... Commanding of all in her presence would be so remiss as to neglect collecting something so utterly mundane as the date!

“Naw, but she knew you. Even knew where yah were, too. Odd, innit?”

“Quite,” he agrees, unsettled.

“An’ e’en odder... she’s still wantin’ tah see the Duchess. Fer a chat on self-preservation, yah think?”

Slowly, Tarrant shakes his head. “No... The Gray Lady seemed quite adept already at such things.”

“So what’s she takin’ her Stubbornness an’er Sword tah see the Duchess for?”

The dormouse’s tone is merely speculating – to pass the time, no doubt – but Tarrant feels a twinge of worry at the words. Yes, why would the Gray Alice be going to the Duchess’ house with those twine companions?

“Knave-speak!” Thackery suggests, swishing his ladle though the air wildly.

Tarrant’s mouth goes dry. He comes to a halt in the middle of the road again as, bit by bit, the most unbelievable picture begins to form:

A sword...

Battle leathers...

A visit to one of the Red Queen’s favorites...

Knave-speak, indeed! Why else would a woman in battle leathers, carrying a sword, be so determined to seek out the Duchess... who is also the sometimes-favorite-confidant of the Red Queen? The Red Queen whom had been so recently re-named Bluddy Behg Hid... The Gray Lady had destroyed the Red Queen’s prison, had freed its inmates, had been on her way to see the Duchess next when she had learned of the date... had stopped... had turned around and gone to Iplam to help him.

And she had helped him. Quite a bit, he sees now. She had even tried to help him help himself. She had endeavored to teach him to not only survive, but to fight for Just Cause.

Would she have asked him to accompany her to the Duchess’ house if he hadn’t been so irredeemably useless at battle skills?

Had that been the reason why, upon learning the date (which she ought to have known already!) she had sought him out? Had she been hoping she would have an ally against the Duchess? (And Tarrant doesn’t believe for one moment that the dodo bird will provide any measurable assistance at all in the event of a fight!) Before Tarrant manages to take one more step on the road, he has convinced himself that he has failed the Gray Lady... is failing her! She is taking her sword to the Duchess’ house to fight and she had tried to train Tarrant so that she might not face whatever dangers await her there alone but she is alone – utterly alone! – because Tarrant had not once managed to scrape together enough competence to be a fighter worthy of standing beside her... and... and...!

…and what if something happens to her?

Tarrant cannot bear the thought. Yes, her knowledge of the Bluddy Behg Hid is suspiciously accurate and, yes, she can probably fight her own battles but she is the only person who... she was with him when no one else... she had stayed even though he had tried to drive her away and she had given him a purpose despite his resistance to it and... could he one day be the one to bring down the Bluddy Behg Hid? He doesn’t know... but if he does it will be because of her, because of her Belief in him!

How can he let her go on alone in the face of all that she has done for him?

“Thackery!” he shouts, blinking himself into focusing on his surroundings again. Standing opposite him and in the process of reaching for Tarrant’s jacket sleeve, Thackery stumbles backward at the force of his announcement. “About-face, Thack! Back to the spur!”

Without waiting for the hare to obey, Tarrant pivots on his heel and resumes jogging back the way they’d come, his mind very clear and focused solely on the nearly forgotten trail that leads from the Marmoreal Road to the Duchess’ house.

“’Atter! What are ye doin’?” Mally cries, no doubt clutching the ribbon on his hat to keep herself from bouncing right off the brim.

“Goin’ teh th’ Dunchess’s house,” he growls. “Teh help th’ Gray Lady.”

“Help ’er do what?” the mouse shouts back.

In all honestly, he is not sure he knows what the Gray Alice is intending to do. He only knows that he must ensure that she is unharmed!

“She’ll b’ usin’ tha’ sword, aye?” Thackery summarizes.

“We don’t have a sword,” Tarrant assesses.

“We have hatpins,” Mally observes.

“An’ spoons!” Thackery contributes, beating the wooden ladle against the pot he’s still wearing on his head.

Tarrant feels his lips stretch into a wry grin. “Hatpins an’ spoons,” he summarizes. “Pots an’ pans...”

Well, the Gray Alice had told him just yesterday to fight with whatever is at hand. It looks like this day could very well bring about a practical application of that very theory!

 

*~*~*~*

 

“Hush!” the Gray Lady hisses, rather rudely pulling Uilleam off the road and behind a bit of accommodating shrubbery beside the gates of the Duchess’ house.

“Hush? Whatever for?” he muses and the peaky widow clamps a heavy, leather-clad hand over his beak. “Should we not announce ourselves,” he manages to mutter. “It’s the expected thing to do, you know.”

“I know,” she whispers. “Stay quiet.”

Uilleam gives himself a shake as she removes her grip from his beak. He blinks at her. Watches as her hands ghost over the various knives posted about her person. He clears his throat and summarizes, “This... is not to be a friendly visit, then?”

The Gray Alice snorts. “Well done, Uilleam.”

“I’ll preen later,” he declares. “For now, however, I would very much like to know what it is you’re planning to do here.”

She glances away from the grand estate for a moment and studies him. “If I tell you...”

“Yes?”

She smirks. “You’ll have to help me.”

He ruffles his feathers at the ultimatum. Rather unexpected, that! “Well. That hardly seems fair.”

She grunts softly and returns her attention to the house. He trails along behind her as she begins to circle the perimeter, staying low behind the hedgery and stone walls.

“Gray Lady,” he whispers, “are you quite sure it wouldn’t be more... prudent to introduce ourselves? I’ve heard tales of mome raths that she keeps as guard pigs and—”

The Gray Alice pauses and turns toward him. “Uilleam, I appreciate your guidance in bringing me here. But now, I ask that you either kindly shut up or continue on your way to Marmoreal without me.”

“Oh! Oh, oh! Well, I simply couldn’t do that!”

“Which one,” she mutters. “And you had better not say either.”

Well, with that look in her eyes, he wouldn’t dare! He swallows and very deliberately does not say another word as he picks his way through the winter debris of soggy sticks and mulched leaves to her side. He pointedly – and silently! – stares her in the eyes and she nods once before turning back to her survey of the estate’s exterior.

Uilleam – although he had known the way here – had never actually seen the Duchess’ house before now and he is rather surprised by its grandness. He studies the rows and columns of arched windows with their carved and whitewashed window sills, the wrought iron detailing that crawls like an unexpectedly well-ordered line of spiders up the nooks and corners up to the steep, shingled roof. The entire structure is gray, nearly as gray as the old Alice, and he can’t help but think the pair of them are well-matched.

“Bigger...” Uilleam startles to hear the Gray Alice’s mutter.

“Bigger than...?” he prompts very softly.

She sighs out an angry breath. “Bigger than I expected. Or remember... I was here once, long ago.” Her eyes narrow until her wrinkled eyelids seem to conceal them completely. “It seems she’s benefited quite comfortably from the Oraculum.”

“Oraculum?” he – despite being a dodo – parrots.

She nods.

“You’ve mentioned that before,” he notes. “But you neglected to say what it is, precisely.”

“I didn’t neglect,” she murmurs, once more moving along the hedgery, still studying the manor house and its many, many large windows. “But, if you’d like to see it, I’ll show it to you... after I’ve safely stolen it.”

Uilleam bites back a squawk. Steal?! Oh dear, oh dear! What has he gotten himself into now? Another highly unexpected situation, that’s what!

“Uilleam,” the Gray Lady hisses. He looks up and watches her shiver once, from left to right, and then her eyes harden with a strength of purpose he knows no dodo would dare refute. “Follow me.”

From watching her train the Hatter, Uilleam knows this old woman could pluck every blue feather from his body with ease should he defy her. He shudders and shuffles closer, choosing to keep his plumage. “This is most unexpected, Gray Lady,” he protests weakly. And while he rather enjoys contemplating unexpected things, he has very recently discovered that he does not actually enjoy their manifestations!

“I know,” she replies, a look of regret reforming the creases on her peaky face. “But Hightopp wasn’t ready and I can’t put this off any longer and...” She glances at Uilleam and confesses on a soft croak, “I don’t want to do this alone.”

His dodo’s heart may be small, but it swells with warmth at her admission. “Then I shall unexpectedly assist you, madam. Willingly.”

Her thin lips lift into a rare smile. “Thank you, Uilleam.”

“My pleasure.”

Her brows lift in doubt, but she merely turns back to the estate, examines the rear face of the great house and muses, “Now... thus far, I’ve only seen movement in the kitchen and in one room upstairs, so—”

Uilleam looks up and the Gray Alice abruptly quiets as the sound of red-painted metal armor clinking and clanking approach. She leans a bit over the top of the hedges and, unwilling to be left out, Uilleam does likewise. They watch as a dozen Red Knights gallop up the wide, curving drive to the Duchess’ house, inverted-heart-tipped spears in hand.

“Well! Rather unexpected!” he mutters and the old Alice places a hand on his narrow shoulder to remind him of the importance of silence. And it’s a good thing she had reminded him, otherwise he very likely would have screeched and fled at the sight of the Red Knave trotting onto the Duchess’ property on his Death Stallion. Uilleam flinches back as the Knave pauses at the front gate and, with a sweeping gesture, directs half of the soldiers off the property.

“Keep a lookout for the Bandersnatch. Her Majesty demands its capture this time,” the man growls in a tone that very clearly threatens Dire Things should the card soldiers fail their appointed task... again. Six of the Red Knights startle and pivot smartly before charging off, spears at the ready, down the forest road again.

The dodo bird feels himself quake in his hiding place as the Knave turns his dark gaze toward the manor house and, with a nudge from his knee, commands the Death Stallion to approach. The pair make their way toward the manor, looking as if they own the place.

And Uilleam is still glad for the Gray Lady’s hand on his shoulder when, a moment after the Red Knave and his hellish mount have disappeared around the front of the house, the Knave’s shout echoes through the clearing:

“Open this door, Duchess! You and I have business to discuss!”

“Oh, my. I don’t think his visit is very friendly, either,” Uilleam frets.

The Gray Alice merely smiles.

The sound of running footsteps from within the house moves along what must be a hall upstairs and then thunders down carpeted steps.

The Knave pounds impatiently on the door. “Open this door, or we shall turn it to splinters!”

The running footsteps hurtle along the first floor. “Cook! Cook!” the voice of an older woman shrieks with restrained panic. “Open the door!”

“Ain’t my job,” Uilleam hears the cook protest mightily through one of the open kitchen windows. When a door slams open – presumably the kitchen door – the cook says loudly, “Where’s ’at frog footman at, eh? Th’ one ye’re trainin’ up fer her Majesty?”

“Bother-of-a-nation,” the Duchess says in a tone that usually accompanies the ineffectual and nervous wringing of hands. “I sent him on yesterday!”

There’s the sound of something – perhaps a pepper mill – being slammed down. “Fine!” the cook barks, stomping toward the door just as the Knave promises his final threat: “This is your last warning, Duchess!”

The cook screams at her employer, “An’ I s’pose yah wan’ tea, too!”

“Yes, that would be acceptable!” the Duchess shrieks and then pounds back down the hall, past the front door and up the stairs to the second floor.

Beside him, the Gray Alice clamps her other hand over her mouth but he can hear her gigglish snorts escape through her nose. He raises his brows at her in inquiry and, seeing his expression, she murmurs, “Well, some things haven’t changed.”

The sound of the front door slamming open interrupts Uilleam’s response to that.

“Well?” the cook shouts at the Knave. “Are yah comin’ in ’r ain’t yah?”

“With such a warm welcome, how could I refuse” is the oil-slick response.

The Gray Alice shakes Uilleam’s shoulder. “Come on,” she murmurs, climbing over the low wall and – staying low – dashing for the wall beneath the open kitchen window. Uilleam, glances left, right, and above before scrambling after her. He races as fast as his spindly bird legs can carry him across the lawn and, in his haste, slams into the side of the house with a choked screech.

“Shhh,” the old Alice reminds him as the cook stomps up the stairs, shouting at the Knave, “We wasn’t expectin’ nobody so there ain’t any tea!”

“Now, I’m sure you’ll be able to brew up some, won’t you?” the Red Knave replies.

“Humph! Won’t be rushin’ on yer account!”

He chuckles darkly.

“Quickly, Uilleam. Through the window,” the Gray Alice commands, boosting him up without further warning.

“What—? Ack! Oomph!” he declares, landing in a bucket of potato peelings on the other side of the window sill. “Oh, spuds,” he swears, flopping out of the wooden tub and onto the quite-possibly-never scrubbed stone floor. He looks up as the Gray Alice hoists herself up into the open window and watches – horrified – as the air above her head suddenly swirls with an aqua-gray mist.

“Well, well, well. Now, what have we here?” A wide, toothy grin splits the air.

While Uilleam clutches his vest and wonders if he’s experiencing heart failure – they’ve been caught out! – the old Alice merely scowls up at the mist as she somersaults into the kitchen, clipping the bucket of peelings with her heel but, thankfully, the misstep does not have enough force to tip it over.

“Cheshire Cat,” she greets. “I was wondering if you were still allying yourself with these fumptwats.”

“Oh, language, madam!” he purrs, his glowing eyes and furry face appearing, a sure sign that the old Alice has intrigued him. “And how is it that you know of me, and yet I do not know of you?”

She smirks and arches a brow. “Perhaps you’ve become too complacent, Cat?”

“Hm...” the Cheshire Cat considers this as Uilleam tries – and fails – to decide if he ought to be panicking.

“Despite that,” the Cat continues, “I am not so unobservant as to have missed your declaration to steal the Duchess’ Oraculum.”

The Gray Alice straightens and glares back at the cat face still hovering in the air. “The Oraculum is the property of the Fates of Underland. Not the Duchess.”

“And yet you – who are most assuredly not one of the Fates – are determined to liberate it. How interesting...”

“Cheshire Cat, listen very carefully to what I am about to say,” she bids him and Uilleam intends to give her his full attention, but at that exact moment an upstairs door is banged open and the cook shouts, “The Knave of Hearts, Ilosovich Stayne, is ’ere ta see yah, Duchess!”

“Well let him in!” the Duchess screeches in reply.

“... by the Fates.” Uilleam turns back to his comrade in arms and hears only the last bit of what the old Alice had whispered to the smiling cat. “Times are changing and you’d be wise to remove yourself from politics, Cheshire Cat.”

“I never get involved in politics,” he purrs.

“Oh? Is that why you never told anyone that the Red Queen would send the Jabberwocky to Iplam? Is that why you left the Hightopps and their guests to their fate? Is that why you gave the Crown of Underland to that Bloody Big Head?”

“Just what are you suggesting, Widow Woman?”

“I think you already know what it is I’m suggesting, Chess. Why is the Knave here?” The question, Uilleam realizes, is rhetorical. The old Alice arches a brow at the Cat in a silent dare for him to deny it.

“Very well,” he drawls in a bored tone. “I do have my suspicions on that front, but I fail to see why I should permit you to take the Oraculum for yourself.”

“It is not for me,” the old Alice replies as Uilleam swings his beak toward the ceiling and the heavy footsteps of the cook thudding ever closer to the top of the stairs. “It is for the White Queen. Tell me, Cat, do you believe you will fare any better under the Red Queen’s rule?”

“It matters not to me,” he drawls. “Nor to anyone else with Evaporating Skills.”

The widow grins in triumph. “Then it shouldn’t matter who has the Oraculum, should it?”

The Cat gazes at her appraisingly.

Uilleam twitches with each stomping step as the cook marches down the stairs and toward the kitchen.

“Well argued, Widow,” the Cheshire Cat concludes, looking rather entertained. “But I still fail to see what is in it for me to let you get away with your planned theft.”

The old Alice leans in closer, her voice lowers until Uilleam can barely make out her words over the thundering racket that the ever-furious cook is making.

“I know what it is you want more than anything, Cheshire Cat. Chessur. Chess,” she mumbles into his smiling face. “And I promise the only way you will ever get it is by abandoning the Duchess.”

The Cat sits back, his body and tail finally appearing. With harsh skepticism, he demands, “And what is it you think I want, Widow Woman?”

The Gray Lady doesn’t hesitate. “A companion to equal you, who will never bore you, who will be your partner in all things. Yours and only yours.”

For a long moment, the pair stare at each other, frozen. Uilleam scrambles away from the kitchen door as the angry footsteps of the cook thunder closer. “Gray Lady...?” he whimpers, afraid of that fearsome woman and her terrifying pepper mill.

The Cheshire Cat moves first. Without blinking or otherwise removing his stare from the Gray Alice, he nods toward a side door. “Into the pantry.”

Uilleam has never – he is sure – moved so fast in his life! One moment, he is shaking in the middle of the filthy kitchen and the next he is slumped against the shelves in the dark pantry with the door cracked open to allow in a shaft of light and the Gray Alice’s hand once again on his shoulder. They listen – and the Cheshire Cat hovers, contemplating the Gray Lady – as the cook bangs together a tea set and then slams out of the room.

“You offer this to me freely, Widow Woman?” the Cheshire Cat says when the cook has gone. “I need only let you take the Oraculum and...”

“Not quite,” she replies bluntly. “You have a part to play in the coming events, but it is one that I think you will find very... rewarding.”

“Hm... I admit I am intrigued, Widow Woman,” the Cat replies. “But this is hardly the time or the place to discuss it, is it?”

“Perhaps not,” the Gray Lady allows. “But, should you reconsider our bargain, it would be a small matter to steal the Oraculum back from me, would it not?”

“An excellent point! Very well,” the Cat agrees. “As this appears to be a most interesting enterprise, I invite you to steal the Duchess’ prized scroll. If you can.”

And with that, he evaporates.

Uilleam lets out the breath he’d been holding but chokes on the very next one when the Gray Alice grabs his vest and hauls him to the pantry doorway. “Come,” she insists on a whisper. “The cook will be back soon.”

They scuttle across the kitchen to the door, which the old Alice eases open, peers out into the hallway beyond and then beckons Uilleam to follow. They scamper from doorway to doorway, ever ready to duck into a room at a moment’s notice and Uilleam decides that Mally would have been better suited for this task. Dodo birds, he realizes, do not scamper effectively.

He is on the verge of sharing this observation with the Gray Lady when they hear the cook’s heavy tread on the stairs. The old Alice pulls him behind a large, wilting potted plant along the side of the stairs and, crouching, they wait and watch as the cook – a frightful woman with a furious scowl pulling her face ever earth-ward, marches past, grumbling to herself. They wait until the kitchen door slams shut and then Uilleam once again struggles to keep up with the old Alice’s quick, decisive strides as she hurries quietly up the stairs.

“...don’t know what you are talking about, Sir Knave!” the Duchess announces loudly enough for her voice to carry along the hallway and down the stairs.

“...you know, Duchess.” Uilleam watches as the Gray Lady shivers again. He himself shudders at the threat in the Knave’s soft voice. The closer they move toward that voice (and the man speaking it) the more unsettled Uilleam becomes.

“I overheard you advise the queen to attack Iplam on Horvendush Day. Assured her of victory over her sister... and possession of the Vorpal Sword. What I want to know, my dear Duchess, is how you knew that would come to pass,” the Knave murmurs.

“I knew nothing!”

“Now, come, come, madam. Do not be coy – you play the emotion so poorly. Tell me; what witchcraft did you use to make those events come to pass?”

“There is no witchcraft!” the Duchess shrieks, her voice shrill with panic and denial.

The sound of a teacup being set down upon its saucer precedes a beat of absolute silence, and then:

“YOU WILL CONFESS YOUR METHODS!!” the Knave roars and Uilleam cringes against the wall of the hall. When the Gray Alice grabs his vest, he gladly allows her to pull him into a conveniently placed room and quietly shut the door behind him.

“It’s only a matter of time,” the widow murmurs.

Uilleam – shivering – nods. “Yes. I expect he’ll use that sword of his and search this place himself if she continues to be... unhelpful. Perhaps there is no secret to be had,” he mutters. “Certainly, one would expect her to divulge it when faced with... him.”

“Oh, there’s a secret,” the Gray Alice replies. “And she knows it’ll be her head if the Red Queen finds out about it.”

Startled, Uilleam glances away from the door as the old woman leaves him and ventures further into the room. Only then, when his focus has broadened beyond the threat down the hall, does he notice that they appear to be in a very well-kept library.

He trails after the old Alice. “What secret?”

“The Oraculum,” she replies, turning the corner among the book stacks and stopping before a pedestal with a glass case resting upon it.

The dodo cranes his neck to see over the edge and blinks at the rather plain-looking scroll within. “This is...?”

He watches as the Gray Alice removes a knife from her boot, slides the blade between the jaws of the lock and twists it viciously. The blade breaks and Uilleam flinches as the metal rebounds off of the glass with a musical clang!... then gapes as the bits of the broken lock bounce off of the widow’s boots and clatter to the floor. She lifts the case, and snatches the scroll from its velvet mat. Uilleam is too stunned to feel shocked at himself for watching her stuff the scroll inside her shirt – between the jerkin and tunic she wears underneath.

“You’ve done it,” he muses, disbelieving. “You’ve stolen the Oraculum...”

“And now we only have to get away with it,” she murmurs, glancing over her shoulder in the direction of the door.

Uilleam turns with her and shudders when he hears footsteps approaching – reluctant, mincing steps and a purposeful stride – along the hall toward their door.

“Which room, Duchess,” the Knave asks sweetly. “Show me this oracle of yours. This... Oraculum.”

“Blasted boggletogs,” the Gray Alice curses. Once again, Uilleam finds himself being dragged across a room, his feet and claws scrambling against the tiled floor and his knees knocking together.

He freely admits that this is far more adventuresome than he had expected. And he had, perhaps, erred when he had readily agreed to accompany the Gray Lady on her quest.

The Duchess’ voice is shrill with stress when she speaks: “Here! It is kept here, in the library.”

“Open the door,” the Knave insists.

The brass door handle rattles and Uilleam breathes out a heartfelt sigh as the old Alice pulls him behind a very full bookshelf. The door opens and the Duchess protests sharply as her footsteps falter. “I’ll ask you not to shove me about in my own home, Ilosovich Stayne!”

The sound of sword metal against scabbard leather manifests itself as an icy chill that skitters down the dodo bird’s spine.

“Show me... the Oraculum,” the Knave articulates, biting off his words two at a time.

Uilleam is jostled gently and he turns his attention to the peaky widow.

“Quietly,” she mouths to him and he nods vigorously.

He follows her on tiptoe as they maneuver through the rows of books and shelves and stacks and tables. The journey only takes a moment, but it feels like so very much longer, as if they are dragging Time by its second hand along with them. But then they are but a sprint from the door and...!

The footsteps stop.

The Duchess’ complaints stop.

All sound stops.

A beat of silence echoes in the room.

“Where is it?” the Knave growls.

And then Uilleam finds himself being shoved into the hall. He stumbles in the direction of the stairs, but a hand on his vest swings him around and into a neighboring room. He crouches with the old Alice in what appears to be a recital room.

In the neighboring room, the Duchess screeches and shrieks, “Well... the moral of the story... and, you see, it was... and...!”

Uilleam braces himself for what must be coming. The Red Knave is not known for his leniency... or his tolerance of what he believes are useless creatures.

And yet, the sounds of a sword being drawn and a rather unfortunately uglified and pointy-chinned Duchess begging for her life are not what he hears next.

“Oh, my. What happened here?”

Uilleam blinks at the sound of a very Cheshire-like drawl. It is muffled from its journey through the library, out the door, down the hall, and into the recital room where Uilleam huddles against the wall near the door with the Gray Lady.

“What does it look like, Cat?” the Knave growls.

“Why... it looks as if our Duchess’ prized scroll has been stolen!”

Beside him, the old Alice huffs out a soft laugh. “Smart Cat,” she mutters. She glances at Uilleam and seeing his no doubt befuddled look, elaborates, “He’s not letting on that he knows what the Oraculum actually is. Smart Cat.”

Setting aside the fact that he doesn’t know what the Oraculum is at all, that line of logic seems a bit convoluted to Uilleam’s way of thinking: surely, pretending to know less than one actually does is a very odd sort of way of being smart...

“My dear Duchess,” Chessur muses, “I don’t suppose this development could be at all related to the old Outlander woman I saw on the premises earlier today?”

“An Outlander woman!” the Duchess wails, as if the very thought is more terrifying than the Bandersntach.

“That very well may be,” the Knave declares, disgust evident in his tone. There’s the faint sound of metal against metal and Uilleam imagines the Knave has picked up the remains of the Gray Lady’s broken blade. “Inferior Outlandish craftsmanship,” the Knave announces and then the broken bits of blade are very audibly tossed aside. “Cat. In which direction did you see this Outlander slink off?”

“Towards Marmoreal, I believe.”

If Uilleam had possessed a voice suited for growling, he would have done so right then. “Traitor!” he hisses. “Should have expected...!”

A leather-gloved hand clamps down on his beak rather forcefully and Uilleam struggles for a moment before he realizes that the regular thuds he hears are not products of his blood-pounding temper but the commanding strides of the Red Knave.

Uilleam’s heartbeat picks up as the man approaches the door to the recital room and pauses.

There is a moment during which Uilleam doesn’t dare breathe, blink, think...

And then the Red Knave pivots and says very clearly, “You, Duchess, will have much to answer for, should I locate this... prized scroll of yours and determine it to be precisely what you claimed... Of course, if I discover you have lied...”

The Duchess, for once, does not appear to have an answer.

The Knave’s smirk is audible. “Good day to you then, Duchess.”

Uilleam listens with the old Alice as the Knave hurries along the hall and down the stairs. There are vague shouts in the yard and the unchoreographed, clanking symphony of red-painted armor.

“Bragergain i’tall,” the old Alice mutters.

“Really, Widow Woman?” Chessur muses, whooshing into being beside them. “And here I thought you might be a bit more appreciative of my interference.”

“You told the Knave who stole the Oraculum!” Uilleam hisses, clicking his beak in abject aggravation. “And you sent him to Marmoreal!”

“Well, I doubt he would have believed me if I had directed him anywhere else.”

“True,” the old Alice surprises Uilleam by agreeing. “But that doesn’t mean you haven’t made a rather large mess of things, Cat.”

The Cheshire Cat narrows his aqua eyes at her, which she ignores. She leans closer to the door and listens, her wrinkled and gray brows scrunched up in concentration. Uilleam listens as well. The yard is silent. There is faint banging coming from the direction of the kitchen and shrill sobs interspersed with mentions of morals and stories which float out from the library.

“Come on, Uilleam,” the Gray Lady says. “With the mood Stayne’s in... we’d better find Hightopp and the others before he does.”

 

Chapter Text

 

The road Stayne and the Red Knights take is not one that Alice recognizes. In all her years of traveling between Marmoreal and Crims and then from Iplam to both destinations, Alice had never noticed this path at all. And as she navigates it now, she wonders if this is – quite possibly – the last time it is ever used. It is grown over in places, losing itself in the foliage of the forest and she has to struggle to not only keep up with the group ahead but to stay silent and remain out of sight. Despite the fact that following in the wake of your enemy is a very safe position to be in, it is only safe so long as that enemy has neither reason nor inclination to pause and look back.

Even though she burns to outflank them, to hurry ahead of them to make sure Tarrant, Mally, and Thackery have made it to Marmoreal already, Alice holds herself in check; she is very careful that both she and Uilleam do not give Stayne a reason to glance over his shoulder.

With her left hand, which is annoyingly numb, Alice gestures for Uilleam to stay close. Although the Red Queen’s bulldog isn’t looking for a blue dodo bird, she doesn’t doubt the man will threaten to snap Uilleam’s neck should he get his blood-stained and black-leather-gloved hands on him. For a moment, the pang of helplessness she feels as she thinks of these silly, lovable creatures at the mercy of such a monster overwhelms her quiet and persistent panic.

When this is all over, she decides, she will thank Uilleam for going into that house with her. His presence had grounded her with unexpected efficacy. Yes, she had missed Tarrant. Yes, she had ached to have her husband beside her and her son in her arms. Yes, it had taken every ounce of her strength not to sit down on that disgusting kitchen floor and weep at the thought of all that is left before her on this path the Fates had set her upon. But she had not dwelt upon those thoughts; Uilleam had been there, someone to protect, to guide, to shelter. Someone who will remember this day and all that had occurred.

I am not alone, she had thought, had believed. And it had helped. Tremendously.

The Dodo Bird’s very existence had focused her, had strengthened her, had readied her for any confrontation... Of course, she had not expected to confront Chessur.

I should have remembered, she chastises herself as she dashes on tiptoe to the next Tum Tum tree. Her memories of Underland from her childhood – back when it had been a Wonderland to her young mind – are still hazy and vague. She had recalled the Duchess with her large head and snarling frown and pointy chin when the Fates had mentioned pigs. She had remembered an angry cook and a pepper mill and a small, grubby house in the woods. Alice feels one corner of her mouth turn up in wry – if dark – amusement. Even as a little girl, she had tried to save Underland. One baby at a time. She had failed, of course, but she had been unable to not try.

Perhaps... it has always been her destiny to come back here, to pick up the sword, to fall in love, to fight.

The thought is as comforting as it is frightening.

I was destined to do this, she hears herself say, admit, acknowledge.

Does that mean that Chessur had been destined to be so utterly selfish he had not even warned the Hightopp clan of the Red Queen’s plans?

Oh, Chessur...

Suddenly, so much of the cat’s efforts on her behalf – and on Tarrant’s behalf – make a great deal more sense. There, in the kitchen, Alice had realized what her future friend must have known about the Red Queen. Had known... but had said nothing about.

“I never get involved in politics.”

What utter rot!

“Later, Alice,” she mouths to herself. Yes, later, when Tarrant is safe and the Oraculum delivered, perhaps she will have a chance to speak with Chessur about his unforgivable indifference.

Later.

Alice moves quietly, quickly along the path, ducking behind the groaning trees. She flinches as Stayne hacks away at branches in his path. She pities the trees, but there is nothing she can do for them now. Not with one numb hand and a left arm that is losing strength and resiliency by the hour. Not with a dodo bird to keep out of trouble and a trio of “lunatics” to save from Stayne’s volatile temper and underhanded interrogation methods. There is only so much one old woman can do!

At least I have the Oraculum, she consoles herself. But the comfort that thought provides is cold. Stayne is still between her and Tarrant, hacking at the trees as he goes, threatening any and all into doing his bidding...

Alice wishes she still had full control over her left hand. If she had, she would have fisted it. Little by little, the Death crawling up her heart line is rendering her useless and weak. She does not have much time left. And soon she will have to leave her future husband and her future friends to their fate here. She will have to let them go on and fight without her.

She grits her teeth, damns her limitations, and presses on... in silence.

Well, perhaps not in Silence. The sounds of the Knave’s steed’s stamping hooves, the swish and thwack! of the Knave’s long sword, the rattle-clank of the loping Red Knights fill the forest. Alice sounds and Uilleam sounds, however, do not.

And then another – a completely different – noise erupts in the forest, shattering the macabre march on the fading road. A noise that makes the hairs on Alice’s arm stand on end. A noise – a cry, a call, an animal scream – she would know anywhere.

“The Bandersnatch!” Stayne hisses. “You two, come with me. You four, continue on. Delay anyone and everyone you find between here and Marmoreal!”

“Yes, sir!”

“Uilleam,” Alice hisses softly despite the crash and clatter going on up ahead as Stayne’s black stallion and two card soldiers dive off of the road and into the brush, clamoring in the direction of the Bandersnatch’s affronted roar.

“Yes, Gray Lady?”

Alice debates for a short moment: would it be wiser to give the Oraculum to Uilleam and send him on? Or should she – a trained fighter – keep it despite knowing that the Knave is searching for her?

With a sigh, she says, “Hurry on, now. Try to get around the card soldiers without being seen and warn Hightopp and the others that the Red Knights are coming.”

“I—! Wait! You are leaving?” he squawks.

“Yes. But I will find you again soon! Now hurry!”

Alice turns and crashes into the brambles of the forest, heading in the direction of the Bandersnatch. No doubt the dodo would have demanded to know why she is abandoning him now, and, in all honesty, Alice can’t be sure even she knows the answer to that. But she feels it. There is some purpose that is pulling her toward the Bandersnatch. Something she must do. Something she must make Right...

Be safe, Tarrant, she prays, pressing her left wrist against her jerkin and the roll of parchment hidden beneath it.

She dives through the forest, no longer careful of the noise she makes, for the Bandersnatch makes much more. His roars are more than offended now. The tenor of his cries becomes enraged... and then desperate, pleading.

When she spots a flash of straining and struggling not-quite-white fur ahead, she slows, places her right hand on the pommel of her sword and creeps forward. What she sees through the tangle of wild berry bushes is not pleasant: the Bandersnatch struggles against the ropes and nets thrown over his heaving form. The Knave, obviously pleased with the work of the card soldiers, slides his sword into its scabbard. Even from this distance she can see a smirk on his face. A smirk and...

Wait. What...?

“No eye patch,” she mutters, staring at the man’s eyes. Two eyes. But then she shakes her head. That detail is unimportant. What is important right now is working itself into a panicked frenzy in the middle of the forest, clawing at branches, last year’s autumn debris, unfortunately located bushes and saplings, and anything else his claws can reach. Despite his efforts, however, those terrible claws cannot reach the moorings of the ropes binding him to the ground.

“Excellent work,” Stayne announces. “The queen will be very pleased.”

The Red Knights – looking rather battered, mud-splattered, and sporting a very noticeable number of twigs and mulched leaves in the chinks of their armor – stand up a bit straighter upon hearing the man’s praise. Although Alice’s suspects what they truly feel is relief.

“Thank you, sir,” Card Number One says.

“Now, tire the beast out and then bind his legs so that he can walk and not galumph. I’ve something to take care of and will return shortly.” Stayne directs his gaze to the pair of card soldiers that had followed him from the road. “You two stay and assist.”

“Um, but sir... what do you mean by tire the Bandersnatch?”

The Knave sneers, “You each have spears, don’t you? Use your imaginations.”

Alice’s hand curls around the pommel of her sword as the Knave showily turns his mount back to the forest and the road they had had just left. She glares after him briefly, not regretting one bit each and every scar she carries on her hands from the garrote she had used on the man’s neck.

You are dead, Ilosovich Stayne. Less than four years from now, you are DEAD.

It is a pity she cannot kill him now, cannot save Tarrant from being interrogated by this man, cannot stop the Red Queen from getting her hands on the Oraculum...

Still, despite those dark times yet to come...

There is hope. It all works out.

And, as soon as she gets this blasted scroll to Absolem, it all will work out.

Soon, Raven. You’ll be home soon and everything will be fine.

“Use our spears?” one of the dimmer card soldiers mutters aloud. “What d’you suppose that means?”

The Bandersnatch growls and rolls its eyes, huffing with exasperation. Alice snorts out a silent laugh. Yes, she’d be exasperated, too, had she been the one to be captured by such a group of idiots. But, rather than simply sit back and allow them to come up with any... enterprising uses for the weapons they carry, Alice carefully watches as the Bandersnatch wriggles again, measures the amount of slack he’s got to work with, and then she acts.

“Oh, ho!” she calls, standing upright. “Looks like you boys have caught yourselves a Bandersnatch!”

The card soldiers startle and leap into formation with their spears held at the ready.

Alice smiles thinly and moves toward the beast as if she is eyeing up a prospective mount... which, admittedly, she is. Or will. In the future, anyway.

“He’s a beauty,” she tells the soldiers as they watch her circle around the back of the heaving creature. “Would you take a cask of Witzend wine for him? I’ve been looking for a new mount, you know. For the grandkids.”

As she speaks, she takes advantage of the Bandersnatch’s bulk, which blocks her from view of the Red Knights. She pauses beside each stake and gently kicks at it a bit, then leans her heel against it, loosening it within the ground.

“You don’t want no Bandersnatch for your grandkids, lady,” one of the card soldiers declares.

Alice laughs. “Oh, you don’t have any little ones of your own, now, do you?” she teases him with a knowing smirk. “Yes, I thought you looked to be a bachelor,” she concludes when the soldier stands up a bit taller to compensate for the blow to his pride.

Another card soldier turns to his fellow and proclaims, “Ain’t you asked that nice maid to marry you yet?”

“He ain’t got a ring!” a third Red Knight interjects. Alice continues to work at the moorings, wiggling them loose one at a time. Out of the corner of his jaundiced eye, the Bandersnatch watches her progress.

“I do have a ring!” the first card soldier protests.

“Well, then give us a look then,” yet another invites, nudging him with his armored elbow.

The first grumbles, “I don’t got it on me now. I’m working!”

Alice gives the stake she’s currently working a final kick and with a glance and a nod at the Bandersnatch, he erupts into motion. Alice ducks down, flattening herself against the ground and rolling away as he surges up from beneath the net and lets his massive tail fly through the air.

It’s an easy shot; all of the Red Knights are still clustered together in tight formation and all with their weapons only partially at the ready. The bulk of the Bandersnatch’s extremely frumious tail slams into them and they somersault back into the forest, smacking and clanging against the trees.

Yes, it’s an excellent shot, but Alice knows they won’t be down for long. It takes more than a hard slap to stop the Red Knights. The Bandersnatch turns toward her, snuffling his thanks. Alice knows neither of them have time for that, no matter how welcome.

“Get out of here!” she hisses, shooing him away with her arm as she lurches to her feet. “The Red Queen demands they capture you. You know they won’t stop. If they do, it’ll be their heads!”

“Grrrup!” he insists, shuffling a bit closer.

Alice crosses her arms. “Bloody brangergain, Sir Bandersnatch. Unless you want to find yourself working for the Red Queen, you’d better get galumphing!”

He shakes his head, turns to the side and nods for her to jump up on his shoulders.

“Blast and buttered toast,” she mutters. “If it’ll get you moving...” She takes a running leap (insofar as her aged, creaky knees can run) and pulls herself atop his dirty, matted fur. Her eyes water at the stench, but she says nothing to him about it. He knows he smells rather... rank. And, in the future, when he has his own troupe of grooms to see to his baths every day, his scent is musky rather than pungently ripe. She thinks of that future and tells herself it helps. Even though it really doesn’t.

He takes off just as the pile of armor-plated cards start clanking and clunking with purpose. Leaning over his ear, Alice whispers her destination...

… a dormouse, a hare, and a hatter on the road to Marmoreal.

 

*~*~*~*

 

Bends in roads are very dangerous places, Tarrant decides, raising his hands up in the air and smiling as best he can, which is Quite Well indeed considering the very long, very sharp, and very experienced sword being pointed at his chest.

Yes, as soon as possible, he will petition the White Queen to equip all twisting curves in the roads with warning signs.

Caution: Knave may be around the bend!

Or something similar. Perhaps a silhouette on a plain, pale background of some sort would be more universal and therefore useful to all of Underland’s citizens, even those unschooled in reading and such. And, really, after a warning like that, you’d have to be completely ’round the bend to... well, go around the bend!

Tarrant giggles.

“Is something funny, Hatter?” the Knave demands.

“Oh, yes,” Tarrant hears himself lisp even as Thackery hugs his right knee tighter. He can feel Mally’s weight as she stands (no doubt proudly) at attention on the brim of his hat. He wouldn’t be surprised to learn that she’s looking the blighter straight in his black-hearted eyes. “I do believe I’ve just thought up a rhyme,” he declares, sharing the news with All: the hare, the dormourse, the Knave, the Hell Steed, and the four card soldiers.

“A rhyme?” Thackery hiccups.

“Let’s hear it, then!” Mally invites.

“Yes, let’s,” the Knave drawls in a dark, dangerous tone. “But first, answer my question, Hightopp.”

Tarrant twitches at the sound of his family name. He does not like hearing it spoken by Ilosovich Stayne. He much prefers it said in the old, gray Alice’s scratchy voice, full of impatience or comfort or immovable strength...

“Was there a question?” he muses aloud, trying to stay calm. Suddenly, galumphing off to the Gray Alice’s assistance with only a pot, a pan and an assortment of hatpins does not seem like such a saganistute idea after all... “I do believe it has escaped me. Or... wait! Perhaps it has escaped you? Something has escaped, I’m fairly certain!”

“My patience,” the Knave growls, crowding forward and Tarrant resists glancing over the man’s shoulder at the Hell Steed smirking at them with his gleaming red eyes and slimy horse teeth.

“Have you seen,” Stayne repeats, “an old Outlandish woman?”

“Aye!” Thackery shouts.

The Knave startles and narrows his eyes at the hare who is still clinging to Tarrant’s leg.

“’Twas off teh th’ Witzend Washer Ways wi’er basket o’ wimples!”

Tarrant glances up from Thackery’s googling gaze to the Knave’s scowl. “What Thackery means,” he interjects with as much levity as he can, “is that he has seen at least one of the old Outlandish womenfolk before. Perhaps if you defined the perimeters of the question...?”

“Right!” Mally agrees from atop his hat. “We’ve all seen Outlanders o’ all ages. A bit hard not to with us three being from Witzend, yah see...”

Worried for Mally – the Knave could easily crush her with a single fist! – Tarrant giggles again. As it turns out, it is the Right thing to do for Mally... but a very Wrong thing for himself.

Tarrant chokes on his breath as Stayne’s gloved and horse-ish smelling hand reaches out and twists itself around Tarrant’s dirty and tattered bow tie. Tarrant feels the blade of the sword press against his stomach as the Knave pulls him closer. In order to better growl in Tarrant’s face, perhaps...

“Have. You. Seen,” the man repeats, biting off each word singularly and with extreme precision, “An. Old. Outlander. Woman. Today!”

For a moment, Tarrant panics. How can he tell the truth? And yet he knows he is a terrible liar! He prevaricates, “Was... was that a question?”

The sword point against his belly twists and he startles at the feel of sharp, cold steel against his skin – the bloody Knave had en-holed his vest and shirt!

“Yes, Hightopp. That was a question. Answer it.”

“Aye, aye! Ye ask a quest’n teh ge’an answer, lad!” Thackery coaches him... rather unhelpfully.

“An’ that ain’t all! E’ery riddle gets an answer, too!” Mally declares and Tarrant grabs onto her train of thought with both grubby hands.

“Do you know why a raven is like a writing desk?” he hears himself babble.

And then he sees rage coalesce in the Knave’s eyes. Tarrant realizes something Vital (very suddenly and with great clarity): he has pushed Stayne Too Far.

The Hell Steed stamps his foot. “Gut him,” the creature urges and Stayne looks on the verge of doing that very thing... and with great relish...

Tarrant forces himself to keep his eyes open, to glare back at the man. He will not meet his end in fear! He will not disgrace the Gray Lady further. True, he is not – nor will he ever be – a warrior brave enough or strong enough to fight the Bluddy Behg Hid’s minions... but he will not cower before them!

“I saw an old Outlandish woman!”

Tarrant startles, blinks. Stayne pauses, continues to stare at him, and Tarrant moves his tongue about within his very dry mouth to check – just to be sure! – but... no, no, his mouth is still very much closed. Which means someone else had just spoken and...!

The Knave slowly sets Tarrant back on his heels (for which his aching toes are very thankful) but still keeps his fist around Tarrant’s bow tie and his sword trained on his belly. He glances to the side and Tarrant finds himself doing the same thing... until he sees a very shaky dodo bird, his knees knocking together with fright.

“Did you now?” the Knave replies silkily. “Where did you last see her?”

Tarrant wiggles his brows at the dodo, trying to convince him to riddle or perhaps rhyme his way out of this mess – there’s no point in all of them dying here on this forgotten road! But the Red Knights encircle Uilleam and he squeaks with a rather embarrassing lack of dignity when they train their spears on him.

“Where did you last see her?” the Knave says again.

Uilleam wimbles with fascinating incoherence.

Tarrant nods a bit, encouraging him to draw out his answer. The Knave, however, glances quickly back at Tarrant who – somehow – manages to slap a vacant grin on his face just in time. He tells himself that Uilleam is here, which means the Gray Alice is near (a rhyme!) and surely she will be able to help them! With that thought, he feels his smile take a turn for the genuine.

“Dodo birds respond very well to lullabies,” he informs Stayne in a courteous tone.

Stayne growls at him then turns back to Uilleam. “Tell me where she was and when you saw her, Dodo, or you’ll have the pleasure of watching me gut the Hatter, here, before I do the same to you!”

Uilleam screeches, steps back, then screeches again when he pokes himself upon one of the spear tips. “At the Duchess’ house! I saw her just minutes – moments – ago on this road fleeing the Duchess’ house!”

Tarrant feels his smile slip from his face. He glances about the road, from tree to tree, but he does not see the Gray Alice anywhere. He shakes his leg, trying to dislodge Thackery, to urge him to run, to save himself, to find a nice lady-hare and have litters and litters of googly-eyed, twitching, leproids... but the blasted creature clings tighter.

“Thank you, Dodo,” Stayne replies in a tone doused in oil and slick with grease. He then looks back at the Hatter and his smile widens, becomes rather... toothy.

“I’m considering things that begin with the letter M,” Tarrant whispers.

Impossibly, Ilosovich Stayne’s grin widens. “As am I...”

Tarrant summons a smile – shaky though it is – as the Knave’s intent becomes clear, as he braces himself, readies himself for thrusting the sword through his gut...

“Merri’anglin’ mayhap?” yet another voice inserts into that threat-laden, final-breath-of-a-moment. a voice that makes Tarrant’s heart leap up into his throat despite the constriction of the neck tie still held in the Knave’s grasp.

Yet again, Stayne pauses. And, with comical hesitance, looks up and over Tarrant’s shoulder and toward the road that the Red Queen’s forces had already traveled. Tarrant is tempted to turn his head and confirm with his own eyes that the old Alice is there – really there and not a blessedly reassuring figment of his mad mind! – but, regrettably, he cannot.

The same, Gray-Alice voice continues, “Nae, tha’snae a merri’anglin’ ye’re after. Mayhap a manglin’?”

The Knave narrows his eyes and loosens his grip on Tarrant’s neck scarf. “You...?”

“Grabber-snatched th’ Oraculum? Oh, aye. I s’pose ye’re wantin’ teh clap yer peepers on i’?”

Tarrant’s ears strain as the sound of paper against something... perhaps leather?... hisses in the wake of the Gray Alice’s flawless Outlandish. And then he stumbles, arms flailing to keep from crashing down in a heap on top of Thackery, as the Knave not only releases him but shoves him out of the way.

“If’n I’m kennin’ yer bellyachin’ a-righ’ly... This be wha’ ye’re lookin’ fer?”

Tarrant turns his head – sighing happily as he is now able to indulge in the very simple action – and grins at the sight of his mentor, the Grayest of Gray Alices, standing in the middle of the road and speaking the most outlandish of Outlandish, holding up a scroll of rather papery and ordinary-looking parchment in her right hand.

But then Tarrant notes that she is, unfortunately, standing between the Knave and the Duchess’ house... which perhaps helps Tarrant as it implies that he and Thackery and Mally had not seen her on the road after all, which is true – they hadn’t! – but now she’ll have to duck and dodge the Knave to get free and clear and...

His brows twitch and he glances down at Thackery who stares back up at him with what is no doubt an equally worried expression: neither of them have tested the Gray Alice’s ducking and dodging skills for they have not had a single Tea Occasion since her arrival in Iplam.

Tarrant feels his fingers curl and uncurl again and again as he kneads this new worry.

“Give that document to me, Old Woman,” the Knave commands, holding out his left hand.

For a moment, no one moves... well not too much anyway. Uilleam is still shuddering in the circle of spear points and Thackery is still panting with panic and the Hell Steed is still smirking his stomach-lurching smile.

And then the Gray Alice lifts her chin. The dim, forest-filtered daylight illuminates the scar across her throat as she shoves the scroll back inside her leather jerkin.

“Come an’ ge’ it, Knave o’ th’ Bluddy Behg Hid!” she declares, drawing her sword.

Tarrant experiences a very strange sensation caused by his urge to cheer clashing violently with his fear for her. What can she – Alice-y though she may be – who is naught but an old, gray widow, do against Underland’s most fearsome and down-right dirtiest and dishonorable and ruthless fighter?

The Knave laughs. He throws back his head and laughs. The man doesn’t even deign to answer her challenge. With a nod and flick of his wrist, he directs the four card soldiers to... handle her.

Tarrant wracks his already disjointed mind for something – some way – to help her. He looks at his shoes, the road, the hare, his hands, the trees, the sky, his hat...

The Red Knights obey the silent command quickly, leaving Uilleam on the side of the road and advancing on the Gray Alice with uniform alacrity. The widow braces herself and places her left hand on the pommel of the sword as well, presumably to steady the blade further. The card soldiers close in, spears pointed rather inevitably at her very inadequate leather jerkin.

“Ye’ll wanteh be-well o’ thase wee sticks, lads,” the old Alice croaks, her dark eyes shifting from one to the other as they approach. “Ye wou’nae wanteh damage yer master’s precious Oraculum nauw, wou’ye?”

They falter, briefly. But that brief pause is Enough.

She erupts into motion, pivoting smartly and slicing the head cleanly off of the left-most spear then, twirling sharply, slams the flat side of her blade into the stunned car soldier’s helmet. The knight falls back against his fellow, who loses his grip on his spear and the old Alice swings her sword again, knocking the weapon into the woods.

That quickly, two are down and weaponless: one is Out and then other is shoving and struggling (unsuccessfully) to move his comrade’s bulk.

The old Alice smirks. “Com’on, lads. Le’s see ye do better than tha’.”

They try, Tarrant gives them that. But their efforts are in vain. Another blurrily-fast slash!  -pivot- thrust! -spin- smash! later and both are lying face-down on the side of the road. Tarrant blinks. Amazed. How had she...? And she hadn’t even killed a one of them and...!

The sound of the Knave gritting his teeth interrupts Tarrant’s disbelief and relief. And then the sound of the man’s footsteps as he advances on the Gray Alice stops Tarrant’s heart.

To her credit, the Gray Lady doesn’t back down. She holds her ground as she holds her blade: with confidence and determination.

“Mally...” he hears himself whimper. “Fez... pan... pot... hatpin... hat... hatter... help...”

“Yahr hat!” Mally hisses at him, stomping on the brim to get his attention. “Toss yahr hat, Hatter!”

Happy to obey, happy to be doing something to save the only person he can consider Family now, he carefully lifts his hat off his head. He notes that Mally has braced herself on the brim, one of the hatpins in her paw, and gestures toward the Knave, toward the old Alice, toward the Tum Tum tree branches hanging over the road above the pair. His brows twitch as he Understands.

“Oh, well-thought, Mally,” he praises her on a whispered lisp as he eyes the distance, the angle, the ambient light and direction of the wind... He takes into account the strength of his Will, determinedly Forgets the fact that his hand and his eye (neither the left nor the right!) have never managed very well at coordinating when it comes to long distances, and then...

“Hold on tightly!”

… he curls his arm in and, with a snap of his arm-elbow-wrist! sends the hat spinning up into the air. He mouths silent encouragements to it to go up and over and up a bit more and just a little to the left and...!

He sighs with relief when the hat is caught by the grabby branches of the Tum Tum tree and Mally gives herself a brief shake, looks around to orient herself, and then – hatpin held in her mouth – scurries from the hat and onto the thin branches.

The sound of steel striking steel startles him into returning his attention to the Knave and the old Alice. He knows he must be gaping like a mindless simpleton but he can’t seem to stop himself. The old Alice cuts the air with her sword, redirecting the Knave’s longer blade into the ground where she steps on it and slashes at the villain with her sword!

The Knave is stronger than her, though, and quickly pulls his weapon free. The Gray Lady doesn’t wait for him to begin his next attack. She is fast – very fast! – as she swings for his head, misses, and then arcs her blade toward the man’s knees.

The Hell Steed makes a sound of appreciation as the Knave jumps back awkwardly.

“You’re not going to let her get away with that, are you?” the black horse demands of his master.

“Most certainly not,” Stayne replies, tightening his grip on his sword and moving in once more.

Tarrant risks a glance up into the branches of the trees and, after a moment, spots Mally who is leaping from twiggy bough to wispy branch – risking life and tree limb! – to gain a position directly over the fighting.

He fists his hands, watches and flinches as the swords meet again, and wishes with all his might that he had been a better student of the warcraft that the Gray Alice had tried to teach him! He had been useless and blunderingly skill-less in Iplam and he knows he’s equally useless now. But that Truth will not be so for very much longer! He makes this decision even as he curls his fingers into a fist, growling out his frustration and fear.

“I’ll re-learn it all,” he promises on a soft rumble. “I’ll protect mae friends an’ th’ White Queen. She’ll wear th’ crown again. I swear it!”

“Swish and flick!” Thackery squeaks. “Should’a broke th’ wee sticks!”

Tarrant glances away from the fight as the old Alice nimbly sidesteps a thrust from Stayne’s noticeably longer long-sword and pushes him back with a well-placed jab of her own. He follows the hairy hare digit that Thackery points across the road and gasps as the one conscious Red Knight manages to wriggle out from under the weight of his still-unconscious comrade.

Tarrant berates himself for his useless idleness as the card soldier collects a discarded spear and rounds on the combatants. “Bluddy brangergain...!” Tarrant curses. Why hadn’t he taken the chance to step-stomp- jump! on the fallen spears and render them useless?

Yer heads got a use fer more than holdin up yer hat, lad!

Indeed it does.

Not that it matters now!

Or maybe it does...

Tarrant glances down and scoops up the uneaten apple he’d dropped. Collecting the pan he’d released when he’d rounded the bend and found the Knave standing opposite him with his sword drawn, Tarrant continues to ignore Thackery’s clingy-ness as he hefts the fruit, eyes the Red Knight, takes aim and...

Tarrant tosses the apple straight up in the air, swings the pan by its long handle and...

Thwack!

The sound of the apple being struck by the flat bottom of the pan sounds remarkably like Thackery’s name, Tarrant muses as the fruit rockets through the air and smacks (with satisfactory soundness!) the Red Knight in the side of his helmet.

“Excellent thwack-ery!” the hare approves, releasing Tarrant’s knee and applauding.

“Have I made you proud, old friend?” he replies, grinning.

“Blast it! Juice in the hinges! You’ll pay for that!” the Red Knight grumbles, turning his spear in their direction.

Gulping, Tarrant stumbles back a step before Thackery reattaches himself to his knee. He glances toward Alice but no help will be coming from that quarter in the next few seconds! She ducks another slashing attack by the Knave and refuses to circle him. And, considering the fact that a very hungry -looking Hell Steed is watching the proceedings from behind Stayne, Tarrant considers that a very wise strategy. His gaze flies up and finds Mally still racing-jumping-struggling amongst the boughs. He looks back at the Red Knight and clutches the cooking pan tighter in his hand.

The Red Knight lifts the spear, readies himself to strike.

The old Alice rolls away from the Knave’s plunging blade.

The branches above Stayne continue dipping and swaying.

And Uilleam – forgotten until this moment – startles, screeches, and streaks toward the center of the road. His panic distracts the Red Knight, who swings wildly with his spear, catches the dodo in the side with the pole of the spear and sends him hurtling toward a tree. The sound of his blue-feathered body striking the massive trunk is followed by the most hideous roar imaginable.

The Knave, just readying his next lunge, hesitates.

“Gothcha!” Mally cries and, gripping a rather supple-looking branch in one paw, she dives for the Knave’s face, hatpin held at the ready. With a very dormouse-ish battle cry, she swishes and flicks the Knave across his cheek and eye.

The man shrieks, grabs for his face...

And then Tarrant staggers back as the most frumious mass of nearly-white fur he has ever smelled charges into the road and butts the startled Red Knight through the air...

… and into the rather distracted and distressed Knave.

One of the trees sways deliberately into their path and with a sickening thump! the Knave strikes his head upon its rough bark-covered bulk.

But the Bandersnatch is not finished; he spins and roars again – this time at the riderless Hell Steed. The beast panics and, hooves scrambling for purchase, crashes into the woods with the Bansersnatch hot on his heels.

“Mally!” the old Alice shouts, tucking her sword under her arm and holding out a hand for the dormouse to leap onto, which she does.

“Did I ge’is eye?” Mally demands.

“You intended to, did you not?” the Gray Lady replies in a lecturing tone, glancing over her shoulder at the dormouse’s victim. “Intentions are powerful things,” the old Alice continues in a grave and thoughtful manner. “Yes, you got his eye. Well done, Mallymkun. Well done.”

Tarrant glances at the crumpled figure of the fearsome Ilosovich Stayne and winces at the sight of the deep, bloody scratches on the left side of the man’s face. Oh, goodness. Yes, that will most definitely steal his sight and leave a scar if he doesn’t get a bit of ointment on that immediately. Which he very likely won’t.

Tarrant smirks. “Congratulations, Mally!” he calls, “on your very first eyeball!”

She cackles with glee.

“Uilleam?” the Gray Alice croaks with concern.

Flinching – once again recalling the Dodo Bird’s surprising contribution to the melee – Tarrant gently pries Thackery off of his leg and rushes over to the creature twitching and moaning at the base of a rather stout Tum Tum.

The dodo tries to pick himself up, but crashes back into a pile of feathers and long neck and large beak. “My... leg...” he whines on a weak breath.

“Hightopp,” the old Alice says firmly. “Would you carry him? We must get to Marmoreal and the queen’s infirmary.”

“Mirana o’ Marmoreal ain’t the queen,” Mally reminds her.

“Let’s not waste time on semantics. The Red Knights will pull themselves together soon.”

Tarrant hands the sauce pan to Thackery and – as gently as he is able – gathers up the dodo. Despite his attempt to be careful, the bird blanches beneath his feathers and whimpers. The Gray Alice’s hands assist them and after a bit of tentative repositioning, Uilleam finally sighs.

“It’s bearable, Gray Lady, Master Hatter.”

“Then let’s be on our way.”

Thackery wastes no time in setting off down the road, conducting the path ahead with a wooden ladle and a saucepan, as if expecting the wind and the trees to suddenly strike up a rousing hero’s theme. Mally climbs up onto the old Alice’s shoulder and Tarrant smiles appreciatively as the old woman knocks his hat out of the tree branches with the tip of her sword. She carries it back to him and he holds still as she settles it upon his head.

“There. Now we’re all ready.”

“Thank you,” he lisps as they begin the remainder of their journey.

The widow arches a heavily fleshed, gray-haired brow at him. “Hm, yes, I do believe I’m owed that much. I distinctly remember telling you not to come with me today, Hightopp.”

He ducks his head. He can feel his brows tremble above his unfocused eyes. Her censure, mildly voiced though it had been, cuts him far more deeply than it should have. “Ye wen’teh see th’ Duchess. Ye took yer Stubbornness an’ yer Sword, Gray Lady. I thought... mayhap ye wou’be... an’ I cou’nae...”

“Hightopp.”

He looks up at the sound of his family name, surprised by the depth of emotion he hears in her tone. Her dark eyes are glistening and her wrinkled lips are pressed tightly together. He is not sure if she is now fighting a battle against laughter... or tears.

“Gray Lady?” he prompts warily.

She takes a deep breath and looks away. “Nice shot. With the apple.” She glances back at him, a smirk on her thin lips.

He giggles. “You did tell me to use whatever is at hand to fight.”

“That I did. Be it an apple and a saucepan or powder puff and a bottle of perfume,” she mumbles. “Whatever is at hand, Hightopp. Never forget it.”

“I won’t,” he promises. And he can’t help but feel a little be-pride-ish over the fact that he hadn’t forgotten it. Not today. Not when it had really Mattered!

The old Alice turns her gaze back toward him at that, her brows lifting in question. Perhaps she had heard the Pride in his tone. The Expectation, Determination, Declaration, Anticipation...

He offers her a shy smile. “I’ll do better – be better – at warcraft, Gray Lady. I’ll fight for the White Queen.”

For a long moment, she says nothing. She simply looks at him and Tarrant fears she is weighing him, measuring him, finding him lacking...

“Then all is as it should be,” she eventually answers. That and no more.

Tarrant glances periodically at her as they make their way down the road to Marmoreal, wondering and fretting why the Gray Lady hadn’t sounded nearly as happy about his acquiescence as he’d expected she would.

 

Chapter Text

 

“Access not granted,” the knight intones, barring Alice’s way on the wide, ever-blossoming-tree-lined path with his pearly spear.

For a moment, Alice is too shocked to reply. Yes, the White Queen’s life had been very recently threatened and her crown stolen and her power revoked. Yes, the White Guard had lost a good many of their fellows during the attack. Yes, it makes perfect sense for them to be wary of strangers, which Alice freely admits to being in this time and place...

But, this is perhaps the first time, in all her experience in Underland, that someone has taken sensible action.

It’s rather a shock.

“Not granted?!” Tarrant lisps, gesticulating gracefully with one hand and causing his tattered cuff to flutter in the air.

“Spoon!” Thackery declares, leveling his ladle on the White knight.

From Alice’s shoulder, Mally declares, I don’ need yahr permission tah set foot in Marmoreal!”

As her future friends and her will-be-husband protest, Alice grits her teeth as a shiver quakes through her. She barely feels it in her hand or up her forearm anymore, but when she does feel it on her upper arm, the sensation strengthens with terrible power. The chill erupts above her elbow and beneath her arm, shoots up to her shoulder, and then plummets down to her chest, where is burns ice-cold and then sinks into her heart... which aches very noticeably.

Yes, she is still dying and she knows she doesn’t have much time left.

“Oh, no. We’ll let you in, Madam Dormouse,” the second guard intones from within his rook-shaped helmet. “It’s only strangers we’ve been told to be wary of. And we don’t recognize you, Stranger,” he concludes, his attention very pointedly directed at Alice.

The first guard concurs, “You could be an assassin sent by the Red Queen!”

Unfortunately, despite her advanced age, Alice has to admit that she looks the part.

“But she’s an Alice! Mally insists with heartwarming loyalty and obstinacy.

Alice, however, can see that the declaration is not going to do any good. She glances at Uilleam whose eyes are bleary with pain. Oh, botheration! They don’t have time for this nonsense!

“You misunderstand,” she says, interrupting what she is sure will be another denial. Reaching out, Alice collects Tarrant’s hand – which is still held aloft in frozen disbelief – and wraps his rather filthy fingers around her own arm. Shivering with another rolling wave of cold, she grits out, “I’m Hightopp’s prisoner.”

“You are?” the guards ask at the same time Tarrant glances down at his fingers curls around her upper arm and muses, “You are?”

And then he gives himself a brief shake. “Yes, yes!” he declares with such authority that Alice feels her cooling heart swell with pride. “She came from inside the Castle of Crims, you know!”

The guard stutters, “Cr-Crims? Er, escaped or...?”

“Mally!” Tarrant hisses and, following a very meaningful twitch of his brows, the dormouse draws the borrowed hatpin she’d stuck in her belt and points it at Alice’s eye.

“We captured ’er!”

“And the very valuable information she knows,” Tarrant concludes with a decisive nod.

“Knows all thar is teh know!” Thackery inserts unexpectedly, googling and shuddering and glaring at the guards.

“Yah goin’tah le’us all in, now?” the spunky mouse challenges.

“We’ll keep aur eyes on th’ auld bessom,” Thackery announces. “Eyes, aye. All ten-an’-two o’em!”

The second guard glances back at his guard-mate, then, hesitantly points out, “Er... there’s only the three of you, with two eyes apiece...”

“Och, tha’ ye can see!” the hare rhymes, panting and twitching. The ladle, interestingly enough, remains steady in his furry grasp.

“Fates of Underland,” the knight grumbles, lowering his spear.

“Exactly!” the hare exclaims, leading the way down the pearly white drive.

Alice stumbles showily along, frowning mightily, playing up her role as well as allowing herself to express the occasional grimace as one shiver and then another rushes up her arm.

“Gray Lady, are you well?” Tarrant murmurs when they four are all beyond earshot of the guards.

“As can be expected,” she temporizes. “Don’t let go of my arm until Mirana tells you to.”

“Mirana o’ Marmoreal,” Mally corrects her sternly, the hatpin most considerately lowered away from her eye. “First yah say we’re off tah th’ queen’s infirmary an’ now yah’er callin’ her by ’er given name!”

“Indeed,” Tarrant muses in a thoughtful tone that Alice knows precedes a moment of his blindingly bright brilliance. “Precisely which is it you mean, Gray Lady?”

Before Alice can fumble for a reply, Thackery interjects, “Ask th’ Fates yerself if’n ye’re keen teh know! Oracles teh introduce!”

“Right you are, Thack,” Tarrant admits – perhaps reluctantly – a moment later. “We do have other priorities at the moment.”

“I think you’re enjoying this just a bit too much,” Alice redirects him. “You’re lucky the guards never asked why your prisoner is wearing a sword.”

“You’d hardly be much of a suspicious person if you weren’t,” he replies.

She rolls her eyes. Apparently, his Un-logic is an indefatigable aspect of his character.

Seeing the future White Queen of Underland is as simple as stumbling up the stairs, into the main hall, and delivering a bossy demand (this from Mallymkun) to see the once-was monarch. Uilleam is carried off to the infirmary by a pair of frog footmen and the throne room doors are swung open by Algernon and... It all happens so fast that, thankfully, only four additional shivers make her tremble in her will-be-husband’s grasp.

“Release her, Hatta,” Mirana says, smiling gently upon seeing them. “She is our guest here...”

“I’m afraid not. I am merely a messenger,” Alice differs gently as Tarrant’s warm hand slides away from her cloth-covered arm. She despairs for the loss of his touch as she weeps in silence for her son whose own existence now hangs in the balance of all she does here and now. Suddenly, the chill takes on new significance for her as she draws nearer to the conclusion of her appointed task. Has she done enough to ensure that the Underland she knows will be waiting there when she returns? Or has she done too much?

Terrifying as these thoughts are, there is no way for Alice to know for sure one way or another.

It is a cruel moment to be in. She wracks her brain for as many 24-year-old memories as she can... and hopes...

“A messenger. Hm... yes,” Mirana muses, her dark gaze examining Alice from the windblown wisps of gray hair on her head to the toes of her scuffed, leather boots. “Hatta... Dormouse, Hare... will you please excuse us? I sense there is something our... reluctant guest needs to say to me in private.”

“Gray Lady?” Mally squeaks before anyone else can protest.

“She’s right,” Alice concurs. “I will see you three again later.”

Looking rather unsure, Tarrant hesitates to go.

“I promise,” she adds. “And you know what a promise is worth.”

“I do,” he lisps and finally does as his preferred sovereign had bid him.

She watches her friends go, stands alone while the dormouse, hare, and the man who will father her child leave the room, wishing she could follow them, but knowing that she cannot. This is her task to complete. Just as what is coming will be theirs. Thus, the sound of the heavy doors closing behind them, echoing in the great, cavernous hall, is not a comfort to her. Hoping that she is doing the Right Thing, Alice takes a steadying breath and says to her hostess, “The Fates of Underland have sent me.”

The had-been and will-be-again queen smiles softly. “Yes. I know. They said they would send help.”

“You Courted them?” Alice muses, remembering the conversation on the edge of the croquet pitch so long ago.

“What else could I do after... what happened?”

The woman is clearly referring to the attack on Iplam Village, and is also clearly still mourning for those lost, so Alice does not badger her for a confirmation. “What else, indeed. And they have sent me.”

“Alice...” Mirana surmises. “Yes, they have sent you, Alice. You are the one who will save us.”

For a moment, she can do nothing but blink at the observation. “I... I’m sorry, no. I’m afraid I am not the right Alice for that task.”

“But... Fate... She assured me...”

“You are waiting for another Alice,” Alice hears herself say, biting back the twinge of curiosity that would have made her ask: She? The Sheep? Or is Fate completely different for you? Yes, its a head-spinning thought to contemplate that each and every individual in Underland has their own, personal Fate (although that makes a great deal of sense!) or perhaps it is the petitioner who makes Fate appear as it does?

As a shiver screams across her shoulder and down to her heart, Alice gives herself a brief shake. As she had told Mallymkun not so long ago, wasting time on semantics will hardly do anyone any good now.

“You are waiting for Alice, but the Right One. Here. I will show you.” With that, Alice removes the Oraculum from within her jerkin and unrolls it. The destruction of Hightopp Village makes her pause, for it is here, just as she’d suspected it would be. And it breaks her heart that the Duchess had allowed it to occur, all for the sake of securing her own position in the Red Queen’s Court. And it nearly brings her to her knees at the thought of Chessur’s blatant lack of assistance, of warning, of caring...

But, then again, perhaps she is judging Chessur too harshly. Perhaps, even had he looked, even had he acted, nothing could have been done. The Oraculum has been known to change, after all. And it has been known to show only that which must be seen in order for Underland to continue to exist as the Fates decree it to.

Alice gently unrolls the parchment and more events scroll past:

The delivery of the Oraculum, at the hands of an old, gray woman, to Marmoreal and Absolem.

The construction of a new prison in Salazen Grum, one that is horrible and dark and not made from edibles.

The enslavement of so many creatures.

The Bandersnatch being directed by Stayne to do the Red Queen’s bidding.

The morning beheadings... including that of a certain duchess and her cook.

So many dark, dark things are recorded in the coming days, and yet there is light. Tarrant is there, leading the Resistance against the Red Queen, marshaling rebels and foiling the Knave’s plans in secret. Mally is also there with him, standing proudly with a hatpin sword in her belt and not a sleepy yawn in sight.

And then Alice, The Alice, arrives.

“Here,” Alice shows the will-be White Queen. “The right Alice will come. On Griblig. And on Frabjous...”

“Yes, I see,” the future queen muses. “She will be my Champion.”

“She will protest,” Alice feels compelled to warn her. “But yes, eventually, she will. Once she sees this.” Alice indicates the Oraculum. “Once she understands...”

“Then I shall be patient.” Mirana smiles and relaxes. “Thank the Fates... and thank you, Gray Lady with the Impossible Scar.”

Alice twitches, raising her hand to her own throat before she can stop herself. “Not impossible, Your Majesty.”

“Isn’t it? I may not know much about Uplander physiology, but that is a mortal wound. Had it been left untreated for the length of time necessary to make that scar, surely you would have died. If not from the loss of blood, then from its inflicter’s Intent.”

The practiced gaze of a healer studies Alice very thoroughly and she must command herself to hold still and firm.

“Therefore you must have been healed quickly, which would have removed the Intent... and yet the scar remains.”

Again the White woman pauses. Alice waits, thinks, plots, says, “Perhaps I received this scar Above. Things are different there.”

“Did you?”

Even now, Alice cannot bring herself to lie to the woman who will claim the throne for which Alice will risk her life to keep secure. Mirana notices this and nods.

“There is only one conclusion to be had.”

“You must not share it with anyone. Please,” Alice says into the expectant silence.

Mirana’s hands lower a bit as the solemnity of her tone seems to weigh on both of them. “Ah... of course not, for it is too late to undo, is it not?”

Relieved, Alice merely nods. Perhaps it is not too late to undo the future, but Alice is too fearful of losing it to allow the risk: Tarrant must never suspect that she is, in fact, his Alice, not until she asks him to help her die, not until she shows him how he must kill her. In truth, she fears she has already left too strong an impression with him and frets that she has changed the future already: her husband had never mentioned an old widow who had mentored him in the wake of Horvendush Day. But surely he would now, wouldn’t he? His rush to “rescue” her seems to indicated that she matters to him, so wouldn’t that mean that he will miss her? Speak of her? Worry about her when she is gone?

But what is there to be done about all that now?

And then, thankfully, a very distracting, steely gleam enters Mirana’s dark eyes. “Oh! We have much to prepare! First, of course you must deliver this to Absolem, as has been foretold.” She indicates the Oraculum with an airy gesture. “I will have him brought here.”

“Was Nivens successful...?”

“Oh, yes!” Mirana assures her. “They arrived three days ago.”

“Botheration. I’m sure he’s in a mood.”

“Rather,” Mirana admits, her eyes narrowing with what Alice knows is curiosity and speculation. “Nivens will have to be sent up to London... for I believe that is where Alices are from, are they not?”

“This one is,” Alice allows, entirely truthfully.

“Hm, yes. And then we shall have to see about some armor for our Champion...”

With a shiver-aided start, Alice realizes that the armor she had donned on Frabjous Day had, indeed, been ready for her when she had arrived at Marmoreal. In fact, it had been waiting for her. And it had fit her perfectly.

Mind racing, Alice realizes it had fit her perfectly because...

“Use my measurements,” she says to her will-be friend. “We Alices are of similar size. It will fit her.”

Mirana nods. “Which is why it was you the Fates chose to send. Yes, I see now.”

So does Alice. So much more than she had ever thought possible.

 

*~*~*~*

 

“I’ve been expecting you.”

“And I’m late. Alices tend to be, I’m afraid.”

“You could have slipped away from that fitting over an hour ago.”

The Gray Lady sighs. “Well, I’m here now, Chessur.”

“Yes, I can see that.”

“And now you want the rest of it.”

“Naturally.”

Tarrant continues hesitating just around the corner of the night-darkened hallway. He had been waiting for the Gray Lady to finish her business with Mirana of Marmoreal. He had been hoping he would be able to ask her more about who she is, why she had come to help him, how she had known where to find him once she had known the date, why she had needed to be told the date in the first place... But none if it is as important or as driving as his need to simply see her once mere. He has felt, increasingly as the day had worn away into darkness, a sense of impending separation... as if she, too, will leave him. It scares him; the thought of being alone... again. So, when he had heard her purposeful gait echoing down the corridors, he had raced down hall after hall and followed her, found her... but now he finds he must wait. Apparently, she has an appointment with the Cheshire Cat.

“Tell me why I should help you now, Chessur? You lived in that house with her. The Oraculum was there for you to see, to know. The Oraculum foretold the attack on Iplam. You could have prevented it all.”

“The Jabberwocky, you mean? Yes, I suppose I could have.”

Tarrant blinks, chokes on something strong and sudden and surging in his gut. His ears fill with the rush of his own anger and confusion and betrayal and...!

“Yes, I could have saved Tarrant’s people,” the Cat continues, his drawling tone sounding as if it has traveled a very long distance before reaching his ears. “In fact, I made up my mind to do precisely that... do you want to know what the Oraculum showed me once I had?”

“Go on.”

“A battle. A march on Crims. Every Outlander in Underland would have drawn swords against the Red Queen, heedless and willfully ignorant of the Jabberwocky’s terrible power... and all would have perished. Is that what you would have preferred, Gray Widow? And Underland without a single Outlander, their young ones enslaved by the Red Queen?”

A long pause follows this. “... No. Of course not.”

“I’m not completely unfeeling, you know,” the Cat continues. “How would the eradication of so many benefit me? It wouldn’t, of course. What a waste it would have been. Not to mention the fact that my intervention would have been recorded in the Oraculum. I would have been found out eventually... and promptly hunted! Perhaps mere queens and knaves cannot trap a Cat with Evaporating Skills, but there are plenty of others who would have been happy to utilize their own unique gifts in tracking to locate me and take revenge upon the one they believe had led the Outlanders to their destruction. That would have been quite unpleasant for me.”

“...yes. I imagine it would have.”

“And so I did nothing.”

“And so you did nothing.”

Tarrant lifts his head and blinks at the wall opposite him. He takes great care in memorizing everything he can about it. At the moment, it seems to be the most important thing in the world.

“So, does that answer your question, Widow Woman?”

“It does, Cheshire Cat. And now I will tell you what you want to know.”

“My tasks?”

“Yes. First, when Alice arrives in Underland on Griblig, watch for her in the forest, near the Room of Doors, and lead her – once more – to the Hare and the Hatter.”

“The Hatter... are you... sure?

“Very.”

“All right then. What else?”

“On the eve of Frabjous Day, the Red Queen will schedule two executions. At sunset on the day before they are carried out, offer your assistance.”

“Help them escape, you mean.”

“Yes. Crouch it in an offer. Barter, if you like, but save his life.”

“Ah, a he is it?” When the Gray Lady does not reply, the Cat continues, “And I will do this at the cost of my own life?”

“No. You will not be harmed. In fact, you will have a splendid time doing it.”

“Spoken like someone who will be there personally,” he observes wryly.

“I won’t be.”

“Hm... If I do these things – show this Alice—”

“The Alice,” the Gray Lady corrects him.

“Yes, yes, the Alice. If I show her the way to wherever Tarrant and Thackery are and I help this fellow escape from prison on the eve of Frabjous Day...”

“If you do those things, Chessur, you will have what you want most in all the world.”

“And how can I trust you to speak the truth?”

There is a very long pause before she replies. “I suppose you can’t,” she finally says. “But tell me, Chessur, what do you have to lose if I am lying? You have seen the dangers of these tasks. I am sure you will prepare well for them.”

“Hm. Point taken, Widow Woman. I will do as you ask in exchange for this thing.” The Cat pauses and then presses, “It will make me happy, will it not?”

“Yes.”

It is only one word, but it rings.

It rings in Tarrant’s ears and it galls him that this... this... shukm-lickering... egg-brimni... booly-greizin’-grommer will receive any sort of guarantee of happiness after he...! After he had seen the warning in this Oraculum that the Gray Alice had stolen and yet he had done nothing! NOTHING!

“Hm... I’d best be going... And you’d best be attending to Tarrant. I think he’s about to erupt.”

Tarrant doesn’t know how the Gray Lady locates him so swiftly. She is around the corner and bracing his shoulders with her leather-encased hands so fast that a helpful gesture from a slurvish, shukm-slackush toadie must have directed her to him.

Ye don’ want teh b’ thinkin’bout that, nauw, lad.

No, no he doesn’t.

He opens his eyes and tries to fight the mercury rising within him, but he can feel it burning his skin as his rage ekes out from his reddened gaze.

“Gray Lady?” he grits out through the haze.

“Yes. That’s it. Focus on me. Take another breath. That’s good, Hightopp. Now another...”

She coaches him as she had coached him in Iplam. The Gray Lady has always strived to help make him better, to help him be better, and he takes comfort in that. He wants to make her proud. For this old woman – for whom he would make a Hightopp tartan if only the memory of how it is done no longer had the power to eviscerate him – yes, for her, he fights the madness.

“Breathe in again... Good. Very good, Hightopp. Now let it out slowly... There’s a lad...”

“Chessur knew,” he hears himself accuse in a voice he does not recognize as his own; it is too deep, too dark... it is Blackness itself.

“And chose the path that led to fewer deaths.”

“Chose the path that saved his own skin!! Should have... another WAY!!”

She doesn’t argue with him. The old widow curls an arm around his shoulders and ushers him around the corner and into her apartment. She kicks the door shut and sits him down in an arm chair. He trembles – shivers, shudders, quakes! – against the cushions.

“Be angry,” she permits him. “You’ve that right.”

“I want justice!” he hisses.

“And you know how to get it, don’t you?” she tells him, her dark gaze burning into his and he must admit that she is right. He does know how to get revenge. She has shown him what he must do, what it will require from him. And, for the first time, he is not overwhelmed by it.

She continues, “Do not waste your ire on that cat, Hightopp. Save it and store it and use it against the ones who chose to wrong you and your people.”

“Our people,” he corrects her, not forgetting that she is both an Uplander and an Alice.

Her expression softens at that and he feels himself relax along with her. “Aye,” she breathes. “Our... people.”

She had been about to say something else, he is sure. He’s of a mind to ask her about it, but then her gloved fingers lift and touch the scar on her throat and the question dries up into nothing.

He watches, still breathing heavily as his anger and madness subsides, as the Gray Lady turns away and address her attention to a tea set, of all things. Moments later, she holds a cup out to him. From the flavor and thickness of the steam, as well as the shade and the subtle swirling of the beverage itself, he knows that it is Throeston Blend and that it has been fixed to his preference perfectly.

“How did you know?” he murmurs, accepting the cup out of awe rather than any genuine thirstiness.

“I know you,” she answers.

“You also know the future,” he says, remembering her promises to... that... Tarrant gives himself a slight shake and watches her expression, waits for her reaction.

“I know the task I was given,” she finally corrects him. “I was sent to deliver the Oraculum to a worthy keeper... and, I believe, to prepare all of you as best as I am able. Do not ask me about the future, Hightopp. You know what is coming. You must be ready.”

“Ready...?” His mind whirls at the implications. “So... you... you cannot stay?”

“No. I’m sorry, Hightopp. This path you must make on your own.”

“On my own,” he echoes, gulping down a rush of... something that explodes up from his heart. He drops his gaze to the cup in his trembling hands.

“It will not always be so,” she whispers, drawing his gaze again. “She... He will come. The one who will slay the Jabberwocky... and save you.”

“Who? This... this Oraculum that... Iplam... it shows...?” he queries, knowing he shouldn’t ask, chastising himself for his weakness, wishing she would answer faster, hoping her words will be a comfort and not another curse to bear.

“’Twas brillig,” the Gray Alice tells him on a husky whisper. “And the slithy toves did gyre and gimble on the wabe. All mimsy were the borogoves, and the mome raths outgrabe.”

Tarrant stares, enthralled, as she speaks, as the words seem to fill the room like treacle in a well.

“The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame, jaws that bite and claws that catch! Beware the Jabberwock, my son, and the frumious Bandersnatch!”

He shivers, despite himself. There is Power in her words. He can feel the Truth of a Prophecy throb against his skin. No faded sketch on a mere roll of parchment can compare to this: these are words from the Fates themselves, he knows. He feels.

The Gray Alice leans forward. “He took his Vorpal Sword in hand; the Vorpal blade went snicker-snack! He left it dead, and with its head, he went galumphing back!”

“What...” Tarrant manages to stutter long moments after the firelight from the hearth has warmed the chill in his veins. “What is that?”

“It’s about Alice. The Champion of the White Queen. The slayer of the Jabberwocky.”

“Alice.”

“The Alice.”

“The Alice...” he says slowly, “will come?”

“Will return,” she corrects him urgently. And then she smiles and breathes on a chuckle, “The very same one whom you so offended so long ago.”

He frowns into his teacup, unsure of what to think of that, of what he ought to feel... The sensation currently churning in his chest feels very much like... anticipation. “Alice...”

Yes, he remembers her. Golden hair in need of cutting and odd Uplandish ideas and huffs of affront and contrary pouts and sunny smiles and...

“Alice?” he seeks to confirm, unable to say more than her name, unable to describe her properly. The Gray Lady, however, seems to understand precisely whom he means.

She nods. “Will you wait? Will you gather those loyal to the White Queen, keep them as safe as you can? Wait for your chance to lead the rebellion against Iracebeth? Will you do whatever you must, whatever you can, to help Alice? Even if that means you must become skilled at lying, at hiding, and at fighting? Even if that means surrendering your life? Even if that means escaping certain death to stand on the battlefield and at the Champion’s side?”

“I will,” he hears himself vow. “I will do all of that. Even wait. I’ll go and actually Kill Time if I must!”

She smiles thinly. “He’ll not thank you for that.”

“No, I don’t suppose he will,” Tarrant replies. “But we haven’t been on very good terms since... Well. It’s been a long time.”

The Gray Lady has no answer to that. She reaches into the pouch tied to her belt and pulls out a small glass bottle with a cork stopper.

“What’s this?” he asks when she holds it out to him, obviously intending for him to take it.

“Pishsalver,” she says as he complies and cradles the bottle in the hand not supporting his teacup and saucer. When he looks up with a frown, she continues, “Smaller things are easier to hide. Save it for when the one whom you protect desperately needs it.”

“This is good-bye, isn’t it?” he asks, curling his fingers around the tiny container.

She doesn’t answer that question, but another that he hadn’t asked. “You hair wants cutting.”

Tarrant frowns mightily, fighting tears, as he considers both that fact and the distant memory it stirs. “I suppose that is true.”

He hadn’t yet managed to get the tangles and knots out of it completely when he had at last cleaned up. Cutting it all off would be easier than trying to deal with it properly. But more than that, he decides, cutting it will prove to this old woman (who has done so much for him!) that he is earnest about his declaration to be the warrior she wants him to be. (But no, that’s not right. She does not want him to be a warrior. He had noticed that earlier today in her lack of enthusiasm and her sad silence on the road to Marmoreal. She does not want him to fight, but she knows he must!) And fight, he will. He will protect those he can. He will lead the Resistance, launch a rebellion, wait for and then guide the Alice...!

Tarrant places the tiny bottle of Pishsalver in his vest pocket and sets his teacup aside. He doffs his top hat, sets it on the low table between them, and then draws a pair of sewing shears from his jacket pocket. Offering them to her, offering her this proof of his intent to take up the mantle she is telling him he must don, he says, “If you are willing to oblige me, Gray Lady.”

She stares at the small pair of scissors as they gleam golden in the light of the fire. Swallowing thickly, she sets her teacup down and takes a deep breath. Despite that, a long moment passes before she speaks.

“Do not,” she rasps, her dark eyes shimmering with moisture, “be too hard on Chessur for what he did not do.” She looks up, meets his gaze, and he stares as a pair of fat tears spill onto her cheeks and tumble over her wrinkled skin and roll down to her sagging chin. “For I am no better.”

And then she reaches out and takes the scissors from his grasp.

Tarrant thinks about that as she pulls a sheet from the bed and drapes it around his shoulders. He thinks about her task – this thing she is doing for the Fates of Underland – and its importance. He cannot fathom the breadth of her bravery or the depth of her duty, and so he says, simply, “I’m ready.”

“Not yet,” she argues softly. “But I know you will be.”

He listens as she pulls her gloves off. There are no mirrors in the room, so he cannot see her hands as she works, gently parting his long, orange-stained hair and cutting out the snarls. “I’ll leave it a bit longer on the top, shall I? For your hat.”

“Yes,” he lisps, and then great locks of hair begin falling around him, rolling down the sheet over his chest to pool in his lap. The night deepens and the fire crackles-cackles-cracks in the unworded farewells they exchange: He has given her his promise to be the fighter she has tried to help him to become, and she has given him the means to succeed at it.

He presses the palm of his hand against the little bottle in his pocket. “I don’t want this to be good-bye.”

“Neither do I, Hightopp. But it must be.” She pauses, as she has been doing from time to time, and Tarrant is not quite sure why she does that, but he thinks it might have something to do with the shivers he had felt from her today, had often seen at Iplam and had blamed on the wind. But there is no wind here, in the castle, and he knows it is too late to ask her why she shivers.

“All things must end,” she whispers.

Despite it being true, the truth gives him no comfort now.

“Life, death... sleep,” she murmurs.

“Sleep?”

“Yes. Mallymkun has awakened. Have you noticed?”

“Of course!” Of course he had noticed! She had opened her eyes and gathered her wits and strength long before he had!

“I think she’ll need a sword to go with those opened eyes. It would be nice if it came from you.”

“From me?” he checks.

“Yes. Believe in her, Hightopp. Consider it practice for believing in Alice.”

“I already believe.”

“Not enough. Believe in yourself, in Mally, in Mirana of Marmoreal, and then believe in Alice. In that order.” Tarrant mulls that over as the scissors continue snipping softly and slowly, as his hair continues to tumble to the sheet-draped floor and a soft, motion-made breeze whispers against the bare nape of his neck.

He sighs. “I don’t like farewells very much.”

She huffs a humored breath. “Then I would strongly recommend avoiding them in the future.”

“Saganistute advice, Gray Lady.”

“Wise beyond my years,” she mumbles wryly.

He supposes she is. He supposes she would have to be. He considers her Widow’s Peak, which conceals her true age, and the inexplicable scar across her neck and this task she has spoken of...

“Perhaps, when you return to the place from whence you’ve come,” he ventures, “things will be different. But better! And you will have no reason to be gray.”

Her hands pause at that. For a very long minute, she makes no sound or motion whatsoever.

“Thank you,” she breathes in the instant before he would have turned to look at her. And then with three more snips from the scissors, she produces a comb. Tarrant closes his eyes as her warm hands move through his now-short hair. Only his mother and aunts and grandmothers had ever touched him like this. And he knows with soul-quaking sorrow that he will miss them. He will miss all of them. And he will miss this lady as well. He will miss her too much.

He bites his tongue rather than ask her not to go. She had already given him her answer and he knows this mysterious woman well enough to know that no amount of begging will sway her. She would stay... if only she were able. He knows. She would lead the Resistance herself and spare him this haircut if only she could. But she can’t and she hasn’t. They both know he must be the one to do these things.

“Will you...?” he begins, stops, wishes this moment would never end.

“Will I...?”

“Stay... for a little while yet?” he finally dares.

“I think I can do that,” she answers, stepping away and pulling on her leather gloves. He wants to ask her why she always wears those things but merely accepts the scissors when she returns them to him, merely watches as she gathers up the corners of the sheet and his mercury-stained hair cradled within it.

“Is there a looking glass?” he asks.

“Through there,” she says, nodding toward the bedroom.

He glances toward the open door, but doesn’t move toward it.

“It’s late,” she says, as she sets the sheet beside the front door. “Sleep, Hightopp.”

And when she places a hand on his arm and guides him into the next room, he goes willingly. She permits him to take the side of the bed that is closest to the mirror, which he promptly – and without a single glance toward its reflective surface – presents his back to as he curls around her smaller, wrinkled and leather-armored frame.

He will not remember her, he decides. The pain of doing so will be far, far too great for him to manage. Nor will he permit himself to remember the ones he has lost. Not yet. No, for now he must remain focused. Memories... will only distract him. So he will shut them away. It will be better that way. He will remember Alice. He will wait for Alice and he will fight and lead and...

“I’ll not forget all you have taught me,” he promises on a strangled breath. “And I will make you proud, Gray Lady.”

Tarrant Hightopp closes his eyes when her gloved hand wraps around his wrist and holds on tightly. No, she does not say the words, but – oddly enough – he has the sense that she already is.

Now all he must do is earn that respect. And that, he Believes, he can do.

 

*~*~*~*

 

Uilleam supposes he shouldn’t have been so surprised, really. It’s the oldest story in the history of the world. The war veteran receives succor from a lovely, young nurse and falls madly in love with her. And he cannot deny that he is, rather unexpectedly, a war veteran of a sort, nor that he is desperately in love with the lovely dodo hen who had tended to his injuries in the infirmary. Othenia, she had said her name was, and although Uilleam has not found any suitably flattering words that rhyme with it, he is not concerned. He will finish a sonnet to her, in her honor, with or without rhyming. Such is his adoration. Even the cane that he must use is not as hated as he would have expected, for she had been the one to give it to him.

“Fashioned it myself,” she had chirped shyly, endearing herself even more to him. “And I think you’d suit it fine, Mister Uilleam.”

He had been too tongue-tied to thank her and had fumbled, dropping the precious cane, when she had given it to him.

And then she had rewarded his clumsiness with a gentle look and a touch of her beak to his.

How... unexpected.

But welcome!

So much so that he has been unable to sleep all night re-remembering the moment. In fact, he is still sitting on the terrace when dawn breaks the dome of night and shoos away the stars and a strange man with short, orange hair and a singed top hat strides onto the croquet pitch accompanied by the captain of the Marmoreal Guard. He blinks as the man lifts and then wields his sword with a purpose and skill and efficiency that a long-haired Hatter had never managed.

Perhaps this is an unexpected side-effect of receiving a haircut?

What an interesting thought to contemplate!

But not quite as interesting as thinking of lovely, kind, wonderful Othenia...

Uilleam has every intention of spending the remainder of the morning thinking of nothing but her as his hip finishes healing: “This time tomorrow, you’ll be right as a river bend,” Othenia had said. “You’re quite fortunate it was an accidental injury; those heal much faster than the non-accidental sort.”

So, enjoying the fact that his hip is pain-free and mostly healed – if a bit stiff and unresponsive, but truly that can only be blamed on the hours it had taken for the Hatter to carry him to Marmoreal – Uilleam lingers on the padded bench, turns his thoughts away from the rather impressive sparring match on the field, sighs out the name of his true love and...

… then something else unexpected happens. The Dormouse, Mallymkun, rushes out onto the terrace waving something hatpin-sized and hatpin-shaped but considerably sharper!

He wobbles out of her way as she screams her thanks to the Hatter, who grins and nods without breaking his concentration.

“He’s actually doing well with that,” she observes after a moment, and since Uilleam is the only other being present, he feels compelled to answer:

“Yes. Unexpectedly well.”

“What do you suppose caused it? The haircut?”

“I surmised the very same thing,” he admits.

“Strange,” she remarks, sheathing her new sword and hooking it to the belt at her waist. “I ain’t never seen a haircut do that before.”

“Neither have I,” he sighs happily. Good and interesting unexpected things do happen sometimes. Not just hardly ever or rarely. They happen sometimes. It’s a comforting thought for the dodo.

And another unexpected thing: “The Hatter gave you that... sword?”

“He did!” she declares with much pride. “Found it in my room with a note just for me!”

Uilleam blinks. It is unexpected but true, then, that the Hatter believes that this little dormouse can do great things. Uilleam rolls this concept around in his mind before deciding on an appropriate response.

“Congratulations, Mallymkun,” he intones.

“Thanks, Uilleam.”

His happy sigh is silent, but real.

For a long moment, Uilleam finds himself enjoying a moment of silence with his old friend as they watch the Hatter embark on this new enterprise of warcraft. It is frightening, this change, but also exhilarating and wondrous. It’s not until Mally speaks up, gesturing toward the orchard beyond the field that Uilleam realizes quite a bit of time has passed between them.

“Did yah see that?”

“See what?” he replies.

She squints her liquid dark eyes. “I think it was the Gray Lady...”

And without another word, she races off to investigate.

“Oh, not again!” Uilleam moans, thinking of Squimberry patches and Royal Decrees and morning beheadings. He hobbles after her as fast as he is able on his new cane, negotiating the terrace steps carefully and shuffling along the orchard path with much flailing and flapping of his left wing. He glimpses her tail as she disappears through the castle gate and, with a nod to the guards on duty, he follows her.

Uilleam grumbles as he pushes his way through brambles and bushes in pursuit and, as a reward for his efforts, nearly gets skewered through the ankle by the brand new sword that is in the possession of the very object of his rescue mission!

“Shhh!” Mally hisses, pointing to a clearing beyond and the two figures occupying it. Uilleam follows her gesture and startles.

“Sir Bandersnatch,” the Gray Alice greets the beast with surprising warmth. “You were waiting for me after all, weren’t you?”

He huffs in affirmative and shuffles closer.

“And I’m late. My apologies, friend.”

Uilleam gapes as the beast sighs expressively.

The Gray Lady joins the fearsome creature in that gesture and, reluctantly, she says, “Leading the Red Knights on a merry chase is all well and good, but it will not help the White Queen’s Champion, when she arrives.”

“Grrrb?”

“Yes,” she says, answering his trilled inquiry. “Alice – another Alice, the Right one – will come to slay the Jabberwocky. And she will need your help.”

“Grrrt. Grrrrl!”

“What must you do?” The Gray Widow smiles gently. Then she leans forward and, despite the frumious stench, whispers into his small, twitching ear. Uilleam glances at Mally, who glances at him and shrugs helplessly; she can’t hear the old Alice’s words, either.

“Do you think you can do all of that?”

He nods once with a gruff bark of assurance and, amazingly, the Gray Lady scratches him behind his grubby ear.

“Thank you and farifarren, friend of Alice,” the Gray Lady bids the Bandersnatch.

Uilleam hears Mally snort in disbelief and he agrees; imagining the Bandersnatch as the friend of anything that is not on the menu is quite difficult to do!

And then it doesn’t matter if bandersnatches do have or even can have friends; the Gray Lady lifts her face to the sky, closing her eyes. Her lips move but her whisper is too soft for Uilleam to hear.

A moment later, a beam of the purest sunlight descends upon the old woman’s form, sparkling and shining with heavenly brilliance. Uilleam has to raise his feathered hand to block the power of that light, to spare his eyes.

And then, when the glow diminishes and he dares to peek out into the clearing once more, he sees in the place where she had been standing... no one.

The Bandersnatch snuffles at the ground, turns his small, yellowed eyes toward the heavens, whines once, and then – with a great, huffing sigh – ambles off into the wilds.

“Where d’yah suppose she went?” Mally asks, awed.

Uilleam turns his face upward as well, and replies, “I expect she went... to a most unexpected place, my friend.” Unexpected... and very far away.

 

Chapter Text

“Alice...” Absolem had sighed with something that might have been contempt except that Alice has, over the years, come to know him well enough to realize it is merely exasperation twisting his mouth into an expressive grimace and stiffening his posture. “I shall continue to be tormented by stupid girls, I see.”

“Yes, you shall,” she had replied, biting back a smile. Despite his cantankerous tone, it had felt wonderful to hear the sound of his voice again. “As the most absolute creature in all of Underland, I, abiding by the will of the Fates, do hereby deliver the Oraculum into your keeping.”

“Hm...” he had mused and, had he had his hookah at hand, he would have puffed mighty rings of smoke in the interim before his next words: “Very interesting.” High praise, indeed, Alice had known, watching him study the contents of the scroll which she had placed on Mirana’s office desk for his convenience.

“And I see I’m to tolerate yet another of your kind here, on Griblig Day,” he had muttered without any real heat. “At a secret location. No doubt I will have told only a hint of it to each of these creatures here so that they must escort this Alice to it together.”

“A perfect plan,” Alice had said. “The location will remain safe then, even in the event that one or two are captured or careless.”

“Or a spy for the Red Queen,” he had ruthlessly added and Alice had appreciated that ruthlessness, that realism. It is a skill she has employed often herself.

At the caterpillar’s insistence, the meeting had been brief and Alice had submitted to the Royal Steel Smith for measurements. She had half-expected to find Tarrant there, with a measuring tape in hand and broad grin expressing the pleasure that also lights his unfocused green eyes, but no, there had been no Mad Hatter to greet her in the workshop. And she had known that the chance of her seeing that smile again that evening would be small. In the throne room, he had hesitated, visibly fretted; he had likely sensed the End drawing nearer: the End of Alice’s time here; the end of his luxury of time to grieve... and soon all the rest will Begin.

Alice watches Tarrant Hightopp nimbly sidestep a lunge from the captain of the White Guard and counter the armored soldier’s next thrust with a heartfelt parry. Of course she had not wanted this for him. She had wanted to save him from the sacrifices and the pain that are ahead of him. But what she wants is only a useless ghost of a dream here. Out of necessity, she had made him promise to fight and to win. Perhaps those promises will be enough – a guarantee – to ensure his safe passage through time until her younger self arrives.

As her future husband attacks the captain of the guard with much improved skill, Alice finds herself both envying and pitying the younger Alice who will arrive in half a year’s time. She envies her for having a future with this man to look forward to, to savor and enjoy and live. And yet she pities her for all the hardships, the pain, the mistakes she will make and the moment when she will eventually lose him. Alice knows she can change none of that.

She had been tempted – so tempted! – the night before, when Tarrant had confessed his desire to prove himself, to make her proud of him, to tell him that she has always been proud of him, but she hadn’t. Couldn’t. It will be that need – in part – that drives him to succeed in his role as Leader of the Resistance. It will be that ambition that will endear him – to a certain extent – to her younger self.

Alice wishes she could have stayed with him, but when the weak light of the creeping dawn had spilled in through the window, she had crept out of bed. She had dared to press one kiss to his temple as he had slept peacefully – rather than fiercely or fearfully! – upon the bed. The bed... which will become their bed in the apartment which had been given to the Gray Lady but which Tarrant will claim for himself and then, years later, open to her, his young wife, his Alice...

No, Tarrant will never tell his Alice about the Gray Lady. Perhaps because the memory is too fraught with emotion; perhaps because it would be too difficult to explain their friendship and the context that had brought it about; perhaps because he remembers what she had tried to teach him and honors her memory daily by the very fact that he had chosen to live there, in the very rooms where they had said their good-byes. And, perhaps, for him, that is more than enough. Any words beyond those actions would be... unnecessary.

Shivering with the almost-constant, icy decay of her heart line, Alice watches him from the depths of the orchard, heart aching and breaths wheezing with unshed tears. She is still unsure if the task that the Fates had set her is a blessing... or a torment. And when she at last turns away, it is with both satisfaction and regret.

Leaving the castle is easier than entering it had been, in the end. She merely waits for the guards to be distracted by a group of courtiers making their whispering way through the gardens and slips out beyond the gate. The exertion is brief, but it makes her weakened heart pound and stutter. When she had checked earlier, she had confirmed that her heart line is now completely gray and the Heart Mark has begun to crumble and blur. It had happened much faster than she’d expected and can only assume that as her task has drawn to an end so has her reason to Fight against Death.

It won’t be long, now, she knows. She must leave very soon if she is to receive her reward from the Fates and return home to her husband and her son, but there is one more thing she would like to do – one more thing she, perhaps, must do – before she departs...

And there!

Through the trees, Alice sees a flash of murky grayish white, the matted coat of a large and terrible beast. She steps off the trail and heads for him until she finds herself in a small clearing, facing the Bandersnatch.

The meeting is brief, but necessary.

Mindful of spies, she instructs her future ally in the softest of voices, “Ally yourself with the Red Queen so that when Alice arrives, you will be able to help her. And allow yourself to be entrusted with guardianship over the Vorpal Sword. Alice will need it, when the time comes.” Eyes watering from his pungent smell, Alice leans back and asks, “Do you think you can do all of that?”

And when he assures her that he can, Alice has no reason to linger. She tells herself that there is no need to fight the overwhelming urge to see her future lover once more; she will have him in her arms again soon. Very soon. All that she must do is let go of this Underland, where she no longer has a place, where she does not belong.

This is the moment, then. The instant she had acquiesced to the Fates’ request for. She can only pray that she has put her friends and future husband on the path that will lead to peace, to the White Queen, and – she selfishly and desperately hopes – to the birth and life of Tamial Hightopp.

Her heart struggles and aches in counterpoint to the chill beneath her skin as she turns her gaze upward, closes her eyes, and whispers the fateful words, “Fates of Underland, I Court Thee...”

And after a moment of windless silence, of Stopped Time, They Accept.

 

*~*~*~*

 

Alice opens her eyes and lets out a sigh of relief at the sight that greets her:

The Mock Turtle, the Sheep, and the Knight.

All three stand to the side of the single torch in the long, black hall that Alice suspects is both Nowhere and Everywhere. For, truly, where else could she possibly hide from Death? The chill that had begun to harden her heart is gone, numb, and the relief is such that, had there been a chair present, Alice would have damned her pride and collapsed into it.

“Well done, Your Majesty,” the Sheep congratulates her.

“I couldn’t have done better myself!” the Knight proclaims, applauding vigorously.

The Mock Turtle sniffles and weeps, his beaky mouth curved up at the ends in a bitter-sweet smile. “You followed our instructions to the letter!”

“Instructions?” Alice queries. “The collection of the Oraculum from the Duchess and delivery of it to Absolem?”

“As well as others,” the ewe warbles.

The Knight takes it upon himself to begin a tallying of Alice’s accomplishments:

“You awakened Mallymkun!”

“Sent the Bandersnatch to his post!”

“Tempted the Cheshire Cat into just enough politicking!”

“Modeled for the Champion’s armor!”

“Informed everyone that the Right Alice would slay the Red Queen’s Jabberwocky!”

“You prepared the Hatter for his destiny: the training, the prophecy, the Pishsalver, and, most importantly, the haircut.”

“Very true,” the Knight points out. “One cannot be a ragamuffin on the battlefield and expect to win.”

“In short,” the Sheep summarizes, “you completed your task perfectly.”

“Yes, yes,” the Knight quickly agrees. “I don’t think any additional prophetic dreams will be necessary to keep things on course. We can allow the March Hares a rest.”

The Mock Turtle turns to Alice and says with rare gentleness, “You brought all things to bear on the future you lived, precisely.” He sniffles. “Right down to Tamial, the next Hightopp, the next Master of Time.”

“I’m glad,” Alice sighs, beyond relieved.

“Time isn’t,” the Knight remarks. “But that’s another matter.”

“And you are weary,” the Mock Turtle observes, his droopy-lidded eyes still glistening with tears.

She nods. “I’m ready to go home.”

“That we can do, dear. If you’ll but follow that door there—” The Sheep points down the long, black hall to the door opposite the one that Alice had used at the inception of her quest. “—it will lead you back to your home—”

“Your room—”

“And your very bed, night clothes and Hightopp-fashioned hatpin wedding ring,” the Knight assures her.

Alice smiles. “And into my husband’s arms...”

She is of half a mind to simply rush to the door – as fast as her exhaustion will allow – and throw herself across the threshold, but she pauses, turns her full attention toward the Fates, intends to express her thanks. It would only be polite to do so! (It amazes her, in an abstract sort of way, that she no longer wishes to scream-blame-accuse them of killing her husband. Not when she is this close to having him back! Her rage at their blatant manipulation subsides in the face of this miracle which will make everything Right again!)

She smiles at the Fates...

… and pauses.

Looking from one guilty, uncomfortable expression to another, Alice hears herself croak out, “What?”

“Er...” the Knight says.

“Well, dearie...”

“Oh! Tell her!” the Mock Turtle moans.

Although Death had been halted in his tracks and Alice no longer endures the chill of his Advance, she shudders as a cold fear dances through her body, prickling her skin and stopping her breath. “Tell me what?” she mouths, her voice as soft as a snowfall without wind.

“Death...” the Sheep begins.

“... is rather beyond us to undo,” the Knight admits. “We are Fate and our domain is over the living.”

“Oh, we can snip a thread,” the Sheep admits.

“But once gone, it’s Gone For Good!” the Mock Turtle sniffles. “The dead no longer have a fate, you see.”

“Yes, it’s quite beyond us to call someone back,” the Knight concludes. “A problem I have bent my mind upon time and time again, I assure you!” His rush to explain does nothing to calm Alice, who fears her very next breath will shatter her, destroy her. “But there it is,” the white-haired, be-armored man-Fate says. “There’s not a thing we can do to put Tarrant Hightopp’s soul back into his body.”

“The scar, now that it has accomplished its Intent... that can be removed,” the Sheep offers but the comfort of the words is cold because...

“But you cannot make his heart beat again,” Alice concludes.

The Mock Turtle slowly shakes his head. “Nor breathe life back into his lungs.”

“Only the one who restores his soul to his body can accomplish those things,” the Sheep explains. “And we have no influence over those in Death’s domain.”

“We are so very sorry,” the Mock Turtle murmurs on a wet sob.

“But we thank you most sincerely for your assistance!” the Knight cheers.

Alice is unaware of her actions until she feels her right hand reach for and grasp the pommel of her sword. “This... is not acceptable,” she growls, recovering from her shock and riding the high, hot tide of betrayal. “You killed him so that I might Court you!”

“Well, we could hardly send you a message, could we?” the Knight protests.

“We tried, you know,” the turtle sighs out. “But you’ve never been able to properly decode March Hare mumblings.”

“And I’m afraid Uplander minds don’t take well to Prophetic Dreams,” the Sheep explains.

Alice goggles at them. “That does not change the fact that you three destroyed my life to right your own mistake!”

“Er...”

“Well...”

“Oh...!”

The Knight glances at the Sheep who shares a chagrined look with him. “I suppose we did do that,” the Knight admits.

“Leave me out of this!” the Mock Turtle cries. “I wanted no part of this misery to begin with!”

“And yet that is your very area of specialization,” the Sheep argues.

“Regrets! I am the embodiment of Regrets, you wool-minded, knitting-needle-capped bleater!”

The Knight hurries to circumvent the brewing argument from escalating. “A mere slip of the tongue! Let’s focus now, everyone!”

“Indeed,” Alice growls. She lunges with speed that her aged body should not permit and pulls the Knight away from the relative safety of his companions. She locks one arm around him and presses the hunting knife they had equipped her with against the underside of his chin.

“Tell me,” she croaks in the infinite and shocked silence of the black, Hallowed Halls of Time, “how to save my husband’s life.”

The Sheep and the Mock Turtle stare at her and at the embodiment of the Future, a hostage in her arms. She half expects them to vanish the knife from her grasp and simply kill her, but they do not.

Quickly, she presses her advantage. “You said,” she grits out, “that you could not save him, but you did not say that I could not. Tell me what I must do.”

“Only the impossible,” the Sheep says stiffly.

The Mock Turtle shakes his head. “Dreadfully difficult.”

“That has never stopped me before and it will not now.”

“Well, you’ll accomplish nothing by Killing the Future,” the ewe informs her haughtily.

Alice must admit – although she does so with reluctance – that the Sheep is correct. She lowers the knife from the Knight’s throat and spins him around. “You have investigated nearly all there is to investigate,” she says to him. “All of you created and keep Underland—” This she directs to all three.

“Technically, there are not three of us.”

“Nor is there one of us or a hundred of us.”

“Fate is very fickle that way.”

Alice refuses to allow the riddles they speak to distract her from her goal. “One or a thousand,” she says, dismissing their number as irrelevant, “you know how it can be done. Tell me.”

When no one rushes to comply, she reminds them, “I have done you a service!”

“And services demand payment,” the Knight acknowledges with a sage nod.

“But what a waste of a request!” the Mock Turtle despairs.

“Yes,” the Sheep agrees kindly. “You’ll do better to ask for your own kingdom, Your Majesty. Or an auspicious future for your son and his descendants. Those things we can guarantee. This... other thing...”

“You will fail!” the Mock Turtle chokes out, bawling.

“And our debt to you will not be paid,” the Knight explains, eyeing the knife that she still holds with what can only be curiosity in his eyes.

“Then you’d best give me as much assistance as possible with this,” Alice replies, “to ensure that I do not fail.”

The Mock Turtle sniffles.

The Sheep sighs.

The Knight declares, “She’s rather stubborn, isn’t she?”

“Quite,” the ewe agrees. “Very well, Champion of the White Queen, wife of Tarrant Hightopp, Lady of Iplam, Alice Kingsleigh of London. If this is your request, then we will oblige.”

“And when I succeed,” Alice deliberately expresses, her suspicion of them manifesting into a bitter taste on the back of her tongue, “I will be in my husband’s arms and he will be alive and well. We will have our family, our son, and our future will be before us.”

“Just as the Past will forever be behind you,” the Mock Turtle agrees.

“And the Present your omniscient shadow,” the Sheep concurs.

Having received their word and unable to detect any notes of trickery or miscommunication, Alice sheathes her knife.

The Knight smiles and does not make her ask yet again for the information she seeks. “All – and everything – you must do is as simple as following the light at the end of the tunnel, and then closing your eyes and ears to the Beyond...”

“You may call out to the Hatter, but you must not hear his answer...”

“And you may wander as far and as wide as you like, for as all roads in life lead to Death, all roads in death lead to Life...”

“But in death you will join him should you see or hear or touch or smell or taste anything in that realm.”

“Do you understand, Your Majesty?” the Sheep challenges. “This is impossible.”

Alice replies, “I may call but must not hear. I may walk but must not feel or see. I may open my mouth but must not taste. I may breathe but must not smell. Yes, I understand.”

“And,” the Mock Turtle informs her sadly, “despite all that, he may chose to not return with you. The choice must be his, you know, and his family is there with him, welcoming him and healing him. Should he return with you, he will recall none of that.”

“They will be lost to him again,” the Sheep elaborates.

Alice pauses. She considers that for a long moment. And then, closing her eyes briefly, she swallows down her regret, clears her throat and speaks. “He will choose me,” Alice asserts with quiet confidence. Tarrant had promised her that: he had sworn that he would always choose he-and-she over all else. “What dangers will I face? And Tarrant? What dangers are there for him?”

“Only two,” the Knight replies. “The one previously mentioned – if you perceive the Beyond, you will be bound there. And one other – you may call, but anyone may hear you... and answer. There is no way for you to prevent another soul from following you back to Life and into your husband’s body.”

“Tarrant himself will have to fight off the innumerable others who thirst for life,” the Mock Turtle bluntly states and Alice shivers.

The Sheep checks once more, “Are you sure of this path, dear? Death is seductive to many of those in its realm and hungry souls that do exist will be ruthless in their pursuit of you. He is happy there, at peace. In Calling him, you will be asking more of him than you will ever know...”

Her half-hardened heart aches at the thought of asking him to fight yet again. But she knows that, should she change her mind and return without him, she will die and Tamial will be alone, and Tarrant will be utterly disappointed in her for failing their son.

This time, unlike over the duration of her assignment in the past, she has a choice. This time, it will be only herself she can blame if things go horribly wrong: if Tarrant does not choose her or if he cannot fight off the souls hungering for life again. She may awaken in her bed, with her husband’s body in her arms and the soul of a stranger behind his eyes. But if she returns without trying, if she gives up on him – on them – now...

She has a choice. A terrible choice. And the choice must be hers.

She makes it:

“I am sure. I will fetch him from Beyond.”

The Sheep shakes her head in silence.

The Mock Turtle weeps anew.

The Knight steps toward her, curves a gentle arm around her shoulder and turns her toward the torch on the black marble wall. “Then into the tunnel you go, Champion.”

“The tunnel?” she checks, looking from him to the flame upon the torch.

“Yes,” he reminds her kindly, “the light at the end of the tunnel we mentioned. Here it is.”

“But it is only a light...” Alice protests weakly. “There is no tunnel.”

“Hence the impossibility!” the Sheep asserts.

Alice looks away from her as the Knight clucks his tongue at his woolly companion in censure. “Now, now, the Uplander mind is not a thing to be underestimated!” He turns to Alice and, expression eager, he says, “I know you will find a way, as you so often have done before, to save those you love. Show us your Uplander Logic, Champion, and solve this conundrum for me once and for all, for it has vexed me so!”

She turns away from his encouragement, unsure if she ought to be wary of it or soothed by it, and gazes at the flame. The light. The light at the end of the tunnel. She sighs. It is a riddle, of course. Which means she must solve it.

Very well.

There is a light at the end of a tunnel; that is given. And if the light is here, and it is at the end of the tunnel, then that means...

She steps forward, away from the Knight.

“It is as simple – and impossible – as passing through the light at the end of the tunnel,” she muses, staring at the burning flame. The flame dances at her in reply. But no... the flame is not shaking and sliding and shivering... She is.

“Impossible...” Alice murmurs. Yes, six impossible things, she suddenly – desperately! – thinks. Alice strides forward, very much afraid, toward the fire and the heat it radiates and the marble wall and the tunnel that she Believes lies beyond. The Knight, the Sheep, and the Mock Turtle fade from her awareness, until only the flame remains. “Six impossible things. Count them, Alice.”

She takes a deep, rattling breath. “One, I am the White Queen’s Champion, and Champion of all of Underland.”

She fists her hands and glares into the light. It brightens – whitens – little by little until a strange glow begins to encircle the flame.

“Two, I will be loved by a man who admires my muchness.”

The white light pulses brighter, reaching further and she leans toward it slightly but does not step forward. Not yet.

“Three, our hearts will speak to each other.”

Her eyes water as the intensity of the glow grows. She swallows thickly, but there is no moisture to be had in her sticky-yet-dry throat and mouth.

“Four, we will fight the technologies of Upland – Progress itself – and win.”

She can not longer ignore the heat from the flame now, only it is no longer a single torch. It is a wall of pure white, seething energy.

“Five,” she rasps, barely hearing her own voice. “We will Stop Time.”

The roar of the light is all she can hear. The brightness of it is all she can see. It surrounds her. And she knows what she must do now. The last impossible thing – the one she must believe in at all costs!

“Six!” she shouts on a breathless scream. “I will enter the land of Death to bring my husband back to Life!”

And then Alice closes her eyes... and takes a step forward.

The heat licks up her foot, her shin, her knee and it is so absolute that she is only marginally aware of her own scream of agony.

Tarrant!

She completes that step and lurches forward, takes another. The fire, the light, the energy is all around her, burning her, blistering her skin and eating away at her flesh. She feels it on her tongue and she breathes it in through her nose.

Tarrant!

It licks at her ears and eyelids and hands and fingertips and she wants it all to stop! this is too much she cannot bear this any longer! what must she do to make it stop, stop, stop! do not turn back! no turning back! the pain is EVERYWHERE and there is no escaping it will NOTHING STOP THIS AGONY PLEASE!?

TARRANT!

Perhaps she screams his name. Perhaps she does not scream at all.

Suddenly, her wish is granted and there is only silence, darkness, numbness...

For a moment, she pants, catches her breath with air she cannot smell and cannot feel rushing down her throat. She breathes or, at least, she thinks she does. She has the barest notion of her chest expanding and then contracting again, but she cannot be sure. Perhaps she is dead. Perhaps she is not.

There is only one way, now, to know for sure.

Feeling weak, lost, uncertain and helpless, Alice strangles back her fear and takes her first step into what lies Beyond.

 

*~*~*~*

 

Love.

Love is a place and it is Here.

He breathes in Peace and exhales Happiness.

The warmth of his Fa and his Mam, his aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents and every Hightopp who ever lived and died, embraces him. Welcomes him.

He is home.

He only wishes he could share it all with Alice.

They like her, his wife. His family whispers into his mind: She is good to ye and to Underland, they say. We love her as our daughter.

Do ye forgive me for not saving ye? he eventually asks them, when his awe has turned to wonderment and then acceptance: he is with them again – he has found those he had lost so many years ago!

And they reply, Ye could not save us and we have forgiven the ones who hurt us.

He understands; it would be a waste, indeed, to pollute this beauty with such rancid and fetid emotions as hate and hostility.

And they whisper, Come with us, son...

And he wants to. But he feels something dragging him back, something that makes it more difficult than it ought to be to follow that beacon of infinity.

Thrice a-Vowed , his Mam murmurs and he feels her warmth against him. She will come soon and ye twine will travel to our Iplam here.

Then I will wait, he decides.

’Tis dangerous, his Fa warns.

And Tarrant replies, rhymes, Danger is no stranger to me.

Aye, I know.

We will wait with ye , the voices of his cousins insist and he feels the ancestors he has never met in life surround him in a protective circle. And they Share. They Share all that the Hightopps had lived. The memories are not his, but he shares in the triumphs and joys that they reveal. And as one recollection after another tickles his mind and his being – whatever he is here! – Tarrant comes to realize that he has no notion or feeling of time passing here.

Of course, a saganistute voice answers his wordless wondering. That sort of thing is for the living.

So there is no way to know how much time has passed for the ones left behind?

Ye could check...

But we do not advise it.

Aye, should ye find them in pain or sorrow, ye will not be able to soothe them.

’Tis best to let them heal.

And join us when it is their time to do so.

The thought of Alice, in pain and enduring it for the sake of Underland and their son, disturbs him and his worry ripples out into the Everything. His family replies with waves of reassurance.

Pain be naught but a transitory thing, lad, a voice that sounds very much like his Inner Self counsels him and Tarrant is unsure if he should thank that contributor, or if the words had truly come from himself and he is still mad here...

Not mad, my son, his Mam insists gently in that mam-ish way of hers that he had sometimes heard from Alice when she had spoken to their son. Never mad.

Aye, his Fa tells him. Ye had no need of my warnings.

Ye’re of the wily Hightopps.

And those given to passion.

Genius often seems a mite strange, e’en to the thinker.

The praise is unexpected and makes him feel oddly off balance, makes him long for home and Alice-smiles and Alice-whispers. “Perhaps I’m mad,” he would have said. “All the best people are,” she would have answered.

And she’ll say so again, someone Tarrant does not know very well (yet) replies.

And then, without warning, an awareness swims through the moment, touching and moving through everyone, although Tarrant – still new and unsure here – does not feel it himself and he asks, What is it?

A Call.

Do ye hear it?

Tarrant concentrates, stretches his being further than he has tried since arriving here, reaches out into the Great Beyond and listens...

“... like a writing desk?”

He gasps, moves closer to that voice, that latter half of so familiar a riddle. A riddle that their son is the consummate solution to.

Silence resonates and then the voice – a woman’s voice, an Alice voice – comes again:

“Have I made a rhyme?”

ALICE!! He rushes toward her, his family following, guarding him.

Take care, lad.

Aye, if ye can hear the Call, then so can the others.

The others? he spares a thought to ask.

As one, the ancestors reply: Those that thirst for life.

His Mam says, She is Calling ye back to Life, my son.

But ye do not have to follow, his Fa continues. If ye do, ye’ll remember naught of this place or us.

We can protect her from the others until she departs.

We’ll not let anyone claim yer body and yer name, yer home and yer son, lad.

Yer Alice has our protection until she finds the end of the path.

Wont be long now...

Ye could stay, his Fa invites gently.

Tarrant does not slow his rush toward her, his wife and her Call. For a moment, he can barely comprehend that she is truly Here, that she has come for him, that she can do the very thing that she seems to be doing...

Son? his Fa asks, awaits his answer.

Of course I’ll follow her, Fa. She’s my Alice.

Then we will help ye.

But heed us well: ye must not try to touch or speak to her. She is yet of the living and, as such, she must know nothing of this place or here she must remain.

And leave young Tamial Hightopp alone.

And none of us want that, lad.

Tarrant struggles to understand. A half-formed, dark and disturbing notion whispers to him... a thought that he does not want to have, to contemplate. Hesitantly, he dares only: Alice...?

Mayhap it would be better if ye didnt look now, lad.

Aye, she’s come through the light at the end of the tunnel...

But he ignores the vague warnings and his own unease. Suddenly, he is There, only a breath away from his wife... and he knows she is his wife because he can see her mouth move and hear her voice Call, “Have you any idea why a raven is like a writing desk?”

Oh, he does! He does! And he struggles not to answer, to maintain the silence his family had counseled him to keep. And only when his overwhelming emotions manage to fizzle and burn and abate does he notice...

He notices ...!

Alice, his Alice, looks nothing like the woman he had wed, in a ceremony for just the twine of them, on a blanket in the restored fields of Iplam. She moves through the Beyond, following a path that is of her own making, and yet she does not seem to feel her own progress. He studies her form and for a moment, he doesn’t understand why she is treading through the realm of Death with no clothing whatsoever. Nor does he understand why her skin is shiny and smooth, her head bald of hair and her eyelids fused shut and her ears... He gawks at the small, twisted bumps of flesh. They look more like blisters than anything else and... He glances down her left arm and stares at the remains of her heart line. It is a twisted, muted, dark line along her too-smooth skin, looking like so much spilled wax from a gray, tapered candle...

She came through the light, lad.

The light, Tarrant thinks.

And then he Understands.

Alice, his Alice, has done the impossible. She has ensured that she cannot hear, see, or feel the Beyond... by passing through light, through fire and flame, and allowing it to burn away her nerves, to melt her very flesh over her eardrums and eyes...

“I’m considering things that begin with the letter M,” she says in her perfectly preserved Alice-voice.

The sound of it, so pure and true, coming from this ruined and mutilated body, makes him want to weep.

Hush, my son. She will heal when her journey is finished.

How much longer? he asks his Mam.

Soon, his Fa replies. But the others are coming.

Draw your sword, Tarrant, son of the Clan Hightopp, Laird of Iplam, an ancient voice commands and, unthinking and uncaring of the fact that he is dead and composed of only spirit, Tarrant obeys... and finds himself clutching a frightfully bright claymore. The last time he had held one of these, he had stood upon a battlefield, next to a young woman who had already won his heart and had been destined to win Underland back for the White Queen.

And then the enemy arrives.

The others, he discovers, are Many.

His family pulls close to him, to Alice as she continues, one mindless step at a time, to move through the realm she cannot yet know. Tarrant is beside her, around her, behind her, beneath her, above her, swinging his blade with precision that comes from the clarity of his mind, the sharpness of his intent, the sureness of his purpose:

These booly-gebbing, ghoulish fiends would follow his Alice back to Iplam, back to their house, back to their bed and into his body and—!

Focus now, lad.

He does.

The Hightopps pull in close against the desperate, seething rabble and Tarrant is reminded of that battlefield again, of the Hightopp colors he had clothed himself in as he’d taken up the mantle that the Gray Lady – his Alice, his widow – had offered him so long ago. The spirits of his clan become those colors now, weaving themselves into a tight defense as they speed around him in the windless silence.

We can keep the hordes back.

But beware, lad. If one of these creatures knows yer Alice...

It will be up to me, he acknowledges grimly, not letting down his guard. His Alice has made enemies, he knows. He waits. They will hear her Call and they will come...

“What is impossible for two champions of Underland to accomplish together?” she asks and her voice rings out like the pealing of silver bells.

Nothing, my Alice, he wishes he could say. There is nothing we cannot accomplish together.

Tamial is proof of that. The new Hightopp Village is proof of that. The continuing peace in Underland is proof of that.

And when he awakes beside her in their bed in Iplam, both of them healthy and whole and alive...

Yes, there is nothing they cannot do, no enemy they cannot defeat... together.

Brace yourself, lad!

We cannot stop this one!

Stang!

And another! Orgal!

Tarrant moves as swiftly as he can, careful not to touch her, to jar her, to awaken Alice to this world of which she must not become a citizen. Not yet!

The claymore slashes and gleams as a pair of dark shapes approach, retreat, circle.

Move aside, Hightopp. Your time with Alice is over.

Never, Knave. ’Tis ye who have no place here! Be gone!

Tarrant keeps his attention on Stayne and also on the silent, cunning figure that he somehow knows is the former Viscount Valereth even though the creature has yet to speak. He keeps his sword at the ready, focuses on each of his adversaries as they move this way and that, testing his defense.

Soon, son. Very soon now.

But it may not be soon enough. He needs Alice’s help to keep both of these villains back and they know it!

You cant stop both of us, Stayne remarks. I promise I’ll not harm your spawn nor your piddly little village. I’ll be a good husband to your lovely wife, even if I must do so from within your wretched body. You know Valereth over there won’t make the same vow.

True or not, Tarrant growls, not taking his attention off of Valereth despite his reply to Stayne, I’ll not let either of you cross over!

Still mad, Stayne responds with a sigh.

“All the best people are,” Alice says at precisely that moment, causing an eerie chill to shimmer through Tarrant.

Stayne draws his long-sword.

Valereth presents a rapier.

Tarrant renews his grip on the claymore...

Hold steady, lad!

Two more!

Two?! Tarrant despairs. How-ever will he defend his Alice against four ghouls when he fears he cannot manage these two?

They come as twin streaks of black... They come, but they do not approach either he or Alice. They slam into the poised forms of Stayne and Valereth, knocking them back through the swirling tartan of the Hightopp Clan and into a very far and wide Great Beyond.

Scum! the first creature shrieks after the Knave, and Tarrant gapes. He knows that screech. It had threatened to take off his head at least once...!

Iracebeth of Crims, he marvels even as the second creature coalesces slowly on his right. Why...?

True, she admits with such haughty authority that Tarrant can almost feel the cold weight of irons locked around his wrists and ankles and his bruised knees throbbing against the stone steps of her royal dais. I hold no love for either you or that Alice, but I have even less for that wretch!

And with that, she speeds away. Presumably in pursuit of her prey.

Tarrant turns swiftly to the man now eyeing his wife and Tarrant’s claymore appraisingly.

I can’t say I’m not tempted, the once-was Lord Oshtyer admits, but the two of you avenged me. Consider this a token of my... appreciation.

We shall, Tarrant replies as the creature spins and soars off.

Nearly there, son, his Mam assures him.

Don’t lower that claymore!

Aye! Thrice more!

What? Why? Who else had Alice angered enough to prompt this kind of attack?

He tries not to panic and waits for what is coming...

And come it does, but it is not an attack.

Tarrant, a woman’s voice calls to him and he finds himself lowering his weapon.

Madam Kingsleigh!

Oh, honestly. How often do I have to tell you to call me Helen?

Too many, I’m sure, he admits with delight. He turns to yet another familiar presence. Lord Ascot!

Hello, again, lad. Done rather well for yourselves, haven’t you?

Before Tarrant can fight back the emotion that clogs his throat at the man’s obvious pride, a third being moves forward.

A pleasure to finally meet you, Lord Hightopp. Charles Kingsleigh.

The pleasure is mine, sir. He reaches out to clasp the man’s hand. I’m sorry I never had the chance to ask you personally for your blessing... for Alice and myself...

The man chuckles warmly. Oh, gracious, Topps. I gave it to you the moment you made up a seat for my little girl at your tea table.

And to that, Tarrant has no answer. Nothing except, It is an honor to meet you. I regret, very deeply, that I will not recall doing so upon my return with Alice...

Ah, but that is what dreams are for! The specter grins and winks. Oh, what marvelous dreams the living may have... and who knows what will come to you in one of them!

Tarrant is in unabashed awe of the man. Your daughter has your masterful logic, sir. And your know-how, Lord Ascot. And your muchness, madam.

I should think so! Ascot agrees happily.

And we could not be more proud of her for that, Helen says.

Nor could we possibly love her more, Charles adds.

Should I dream your words one night, madam, sirs, I will tell her you said so, he promises.

You do that, she remarks kindly. Now off with you. It’s time.

Tarrant startles. Mam? Fa?

One more step, luvie, his Mam says.

We’ll be here when ye’re ready to join us, his Fa says.

We love ye.

Ye’ve made us proud.

Long live the Clan Hightopp, the ancient voices intone.

And then Alice takes that one more step and the world before her parts, like a curtain of water, revealing a room and a bed – a scene – that he recognizes. There is no time for farewells, but, then again, once upon a time, an old Gray Lady had advised him to avoid them as much as possible.

So he does.

He steps with her, follows her home, and knows that he will be forgiven his abrupt departure. Still, he will apologize – later, much later! – when he returns to the Beyond, after all of his and Alice’s journeys have been ventured... and gained.

 

Chapter Text

 

Alice opens her eyes and squints against the glow of the dawn-light seeping into the room through the window. For a minute, she is oddly disoriented – Where is she? How had she gotten here? Why does she feel so... light? – and then her arms throb, ache, and twinge.

Her gaze passes over familiar bedroom walls and a mussed bed to the warm body lying rather heavily across her lap.

Tarrant.

She blinks at his not-so-pale, not-so-stained face and not-so-short, not-so-orange hair. She studies the fine wrinkles at the corners of his eyes and mouth and the gray hairs at his temples and...

“Tarrant!” she rasps, watching one of her own youthful-and-familiarly-scarred hands reach for his chest and press against his Heart Mark. His perfect Heart Mark.

The scar is gone. Gone as if it had never been. The Fates had kept their word about this, at least!

A sob of joy catches in her throat.

“Tarrant! Wake up! You’re home!”

But he does not wake. He stares up at nothing and does not breathe. Within his chest, his heart does not beat.

A flash of panic explodes through Alice, streaks down her heart line – which is far from numb and crumbly now! – and she feels Tarrant’s heart thump once beneath her hand in response. Once, and then... nothing.

No.

NO!!

“Tarrant!” she hisses, mindful of their son who is still sleeping down the hall.

He does not answer, does not blink, does not twitch at that tone of voice which has always made him jerk in response. It is her Widow’s Voice, Alice realizes tangently, the tone she had used on him when she had been old and gray and his self-appointed mentor.

He does not recognize it now.

“You will come back to me,” she informs him. She refuses to believe that he had chosen to remain Beyond. He would never... never... ! Not knowing what else to do or how else to elicit a heartbeat from him, Alice Pushes him through the heart line. She Sends him her fear and love and need and NOW and—!

His heart thumps again beneath her hand. Thumps once and only once.

“Brangergain...!” She lays him down against the pillows and scrambles upright. “Why can’t things be bloody simple for once?” she grits out, crouching over him.

He doesn’t answer.

“Live!” she commands, and it is a Command for she is a queen, is she not? At least, in the eyes of the Fates? Surely that must count for something! She presses her hand against his Heart Mark and – with everything in her that could possibly produce a Royal Decree – Orders his heart to beat.

Sluggishly, it does, but only in response to her regular and intentional manipulation of the heart line.

“Not enough,” she mutters, struggling to stay calm, to think. She has nearly succeeded. Nearly. But she is forgetting something, missing something. What had the Fates told her? They could not make his heart beat again nor could they... what?

“Breathe life into him,” she hears herself gasp.

She leans over him, presses her mouth to his slack lips even as she concentrates all her love for him into rhythmic pulses against his heart. She seals her lips against his and gives him the very breath from her own lungs.

It rushes out almost immediately through his nose and blows against her cheek.

“Bugger—!”

She steadies herself to try again. With her free hand, Alice reaches up and pinches his nose closed.

I love you, she Sends with yet another Push, another Jolt, another Shock.

She inhales deeply.

I need you, she Presses.

And she exhales all the breath she can manage into his mouth.

Come back to me, she Commands.

Beneath her hand, his chest rises just the smallest amount to accommodate the breath she had forced into his body.

Tarrant, please!

Please!

PLEASE!

And then he’s shuddering, twitching, coughing beneath her. His hands flail a bit, as if he has forgotten how to use them, before clutching at hers and pulling them just the slightest bit away – enough so that his nose is free and only her fingertips brush his chest. Alice coughs as well, as the gusts of unexpectedly expelled air puff into her mouth, and she leans back of her own volition, her gaze wide and desperate and seeking and...

Had she done it?

“Al—lice?” he wheezes thinly.

She clamps her jaw shut and stares in frantic silence at his fluttering eyelids, his roving and confused gaze, his gasping mouth. Recalling the Fates’ warnings – remembering that this venture of hers may have failed, that it may not be her husband who has returned to her but another spirit from Beyond – Alice holds back her words of welcome and searches for something she can say, some question she could ask... the answer to which would prove that he is hers...

His brows twitch as he looks from her to his Heart Mark and his eyes widen when he sees it.

“The scar... Alice... my Alice, what have you done?”

“Everything,” she replies, her temper momentarily overcoming her hesitance and fear. “Everything the Fates asked. Everything you didn’t tell me I would have to do, you slurvish man.”

“I...” His voice dies away as he takes in her expression: she doesn’t doubt she looks as furious and frightened as she feels. “Aye, I am. An’ aye, ye did,” he admits solemnly. “I remember ye... Gray Lady.”

She dares to think, if only briefly: perhaps everything truly is fine and her husband is truly lying in their bed, looking up at her with grave understanding...

“I remember what ye did fer mae,” he whispers, not moving. “I have always remembered.”

She knows. She knows he has despite his never having spoken of that time or of his mentor, for he had passed on those very lessons to her when she had asked for his help so long ago, when she had asked him to train her, to test her, to push her, to show her if she could be a Champion. And she recalls how – before Frabjous Day – he had hidden her with the aid of Pishsalver and an empty teapot, had recited the prophecy to her on the road to Iplam, had successfully tossed her to safety on his hat, had surrendered himself to capture, had lied to the Red Queen, had fought the Knave with little more than a perfume bottle and a powder puff, had stepped forward to protect her on the battlefield when she had needed help most...

“Other things...” he muses softly and uncertainly, “I cannot... Alice, where was I until you... before I opened my eyes just now?”

Honestly, she does not know more than the name of the place. She had heeded the Fates’ warnings and invited the light to cauterize her senses before she had entered Beyond. “What do you remember?” she replies on a thread of sound, still terrified to hope but helplessly wishing-wanting-needing for it to be true that her husband has indeed come back to her!

“Dying,” he replies, shuddering. “I remember dying and, before that, your tears.” He lifts a hand to her dry cheeks. “I remember whispering to Tam...” He blinks, focuses, and then frowns thoughtfully. “He won’t be needing that Answer to His Prayers, after all.”

“T—Tarrant?” she stutters, unable to stop the momentum of her growing belief that it is truly him!

He startles, surprised at her hesitance. “Alice, are you expecting someone else?”

“Are you someone else?”

He whispers, “To my knowledge... I’m precisely whom you see afore ye.”

Iambic pentameter, she nearly informs him.

“Raven?” he worriedly prompts her.

Shivering, she reaches for his hands. “Why,” she rasps, “have you never had you hair cut short... again?”

He studies her face, his expression only concerned and not cunning, not conniving or cheating. “I suppose... because there was never another need for it.”

She waits, hovering over him, searching his face, needing just a bit more, just to be sure.

And he seems to understand: “My Alice, my wife, my Champion... my mentor and Gray Lady...”

Her fingers curl tightly around his hands.

He smiles, not seeming to mind the dig of her short nails into his skin. “You saved Underland... and me. Again.”

“You are my Underland,” she corrects him, and the tears follow the declaration. She gives in, for she does not have the strength to continue resisting her desire to believe, and presses her cheek against his, inhales his scent and sobs at the feel of his warmth.

“Hush, my Alice. Shush...” he breathes and brushes kisses against her ear and temple and cheek and jaw.

“You’re really you,” she chokes out, babbles madly, “the right you, the proper you and not some other you and I almost couldn’t believe... Although I did believe, at first, and then they told me they wouldn’t... couldn’t... and I had to fetch you back myself and there were so many things that could have gone wrong and now! Now that you’re here I still... I almost don’t dare think that I’m truly seeing you again, that you’re really you, that you came back with me, that I could bring you back and—!”

“Raven,” he murmurs, wrapping his long, warm arms around her. “Where else would I be, were I given the merest possibility of choosing, than here? With you? In our home?”

His words echo through her memory and into the past, into a night when she had sworn not to let her own madness hurt him again, when she had offered to go and leave him in peace... and when he had promptly welcomed her home.

She presses herself more firmly against him, as if she could burrow into him. She seeks that connection, that tangible and corporeal proof that she is not—

“Is this a dream?” she croaks. Is it truly possible that she had watched him die, had bartered with the Fates for his life, had stepped back in Time to complete her task, and then had gone into the land of Death and Called him back to Life again?

Had she really done the Impossible?

“You could pinch me,” he offers, holding her tighter.

“No, I couldn’t,” she replies. And then she kisses him. It is messy and rough and not at all practiced as the kisses of long-wedded couples more often than not are. She doesn’t care. He rolls her beneath him, tucks her down into the bed and covers her with his body and she revels in his heat and the smoothness of his skin and the stirring of his breath and the fact that he is here and living and she has succeeded and their reward is nothing more and nothing less than—

“The future,” she pants against his lips, wrapping her legs around his hips and crossing her ankles – locking her feet together – against the small of his back. “We have...”

“Yes. And we have our answer, Raven,” he murmurs against her skin. “We have the answer to our riddle.”

She sighs out more tears and tangles her fingers in his hair. “Tamial.” Somehow, hearing this confirmation from her husband, makes her success more real than anything the Fates could have said to reassure her.

“Our son... who will likely be waking soon,” Tarrant reminds her.

She sniffs back another round of tears and smiles. Leaning back, she looks into his eyes and says, “Not unless we’re quiet.”

Catching her meaning, he giggles and his brows wiggle. “An excellent point, my Alice. As always.”

Always. She very much likes the sound of that word.

She reaches for him and with every brush of his lips and every caress of his hands against her skin, her fears and doubts – such stalwart companions over the time spent in the past – begin to fade.

“I have questions, Alice,” he warns her as she shrugs out of her nightshirt. She pushes his sleeping trousers away and squirms out of her own. It is hard for her to comprehend that it has been days since she has made love with him and yet it has been only hours – and a sojourn in Death – for him.

“Ask them,” she invites as she opens herself to him.

He tickles the swell of her breasts with butterfly kisses. “They will wait,” he declares as he gently sheathes himself within her.

She clutches his sides – normally ticklish but never while they are like this, together, one! – and urges him to move. He covers her completely – his chest against hers and his lips pressed to her mouth and his hands cradling her face – and only then does he withdraw and then lever his hips forward again. He is alive and real and he is himself and she Knows this now more than ever before because he does not make love to her as she had – mistakenly – hoped he would.

They do not make love.

They make Life.

There is warmth and feeling and presence and here-and-now and there is no lust in his expression, no grasping for pleasure or test of wills to see how long she can last or how much he can give her. They move together because they can, because they fear, because they need, because they are.

They seek each other – make the path back to the state of being wherein they are Bound together; their heart lines (both healed and whole) blaze with heat – and find one another.

Alice does not come. She cries.

“I missed you,” she whispers and he kisses her chin.

He does not find his release. He meets her gaze.

“You will never be forced to do so again.”

“A promise...” she warns him gently as his hips press against hers one last time.

“I know,” he says, simply.

She holds onto him for as long as she can, until exhaustion will no longer be ignored. They do not sleep, but clutch each other in the nest of their bed, bathed in the sunlight of a new day.

As she lies in his arms, she thinks of all the questions she could ask: Does he forgive her for all that the Gray Lady did, didn’t, and could not do? Had he ever wanted to tell her about that time but simply couldn’t? Will he understand that she is – and cannot be anything other than – a Champion...?

“Yes,” he lisps, his breath stirring her hair, “you saved me, Alice.”

It does not occur to her to question his impeccable timing. Perhaps he had read her questions through the heart line. Or perhaps he had used that unique sense of his to anticipate her needs.

She asks instead, “Did you ever suspect that I was... that I would... that the Gray Lady and I were one and the same? Before I asked you to give me this scar?”

“I never wanted to,” he answers bluntly, his eyes nearly uniformly focused on the thin line spanning the front of her throat. “I put it out of my mind completely.” And by the tone of his voice, Alice knows that he had done so intentionally. “The thought of you, my widow... The thought that I would ever be forced to leave you... alone... It was too much to bear.”

“Did you ever consider... telling me? About the Gray Lady?”

“Aye, nearly,” he admits. “Once, or mayhap twice. For th’ most part, I let mae-self forget that time. ’Twas for the best. The memories were tae... much.” He shifts then and pins her with a piercing, blue-green gaze even as she draws in a breath to reply. “An’ I know ye, Alice. If I’d’a told ye, ye would ha’asked mae th’ ver’ questions I was mae-self afraid teh answer.”

And she knows he’s right. She would have been Curious and she would have wanted to know more, either out of genuine interest or out of mindless jealousy. He had been right to allow himself to forget about the Gray Lady for as long as he could.

“You... cared for her... me. That me. Deeply,” she whispers, studying his expression. “And I left you.”

His lips curve into a sad smile. “And now I understand why.”

She frowns. “Why did you think I...?” The flash of doubt in his gaze and the unsure pulse against her heart are enough of an answer. “Tarrant Hightopp, didn’t you know how proud I was of you? How badly I wanted to stay?”

“I did,” he confesses. “But while the Truth rings clear, Doubt often speaks louder and... over time – we hadn’t been on the best of terms even then, Time and I – it became harder and harder to believe...”

“No,” she answers his unfinished explanation. “No, that’s not why I left. I never, not for one instant, felt disappointed in you. I never thought that you were... lacking in any way, Tarrant. Never. I knew you needed time and I worried that I might not be able to give that to you...”

He frowns and Alice realizes, suddenly, that for all that her husband does know about the Gray Lady, there is one thing she had kept from him. One thing that Mally must never have mentioned.

“I didn’t have much time, when I Stepped into the past,” she explains, her gaze drawn to the rich, deep blue mark on her skin that originates from her heart-line finger and ends fantastically over her heart. Alice shoulders aside her reluctance to admit her weakness, her failure, and says honestly, “From the moment you... died, I didn’t have much time.”

She closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. “I know... you asked me to live... for Tamial, but I... I’m sorry. I couldn’t... want that enough. I needed you more than I wanted... And, little by little, the heart line began turning to ash. I had only those five days... I’m sorry.”

When she looks into his eyes, he seems torn between sorrow and... something very much like pride but softer, better, muchier.

“I shouldnae ha’asked ye teh look afteh auwr ladling f’r me, Alice,” he admits. “But I’m slurvish enough teh be glad tha’ ye need me...”

“You silly... man,” she replies on a teary huff. “I have always needed you.”

“I know,” he whispers and the words carry a Thank You that Alice never would have asked for... or needed. “You came for me,” he says, not out of awe or amazement – for he Knows that of course she would do precisely that! – but as evidence of that claim.

She then answers the questions he has not yet asked and tells him of the Fates; she confirms the bargain she had made with them. She would have stopped there – she would have let him disregard her earlier babblings and think that she had simply traded her services for his soul – but he can sense that she is holding back.

“Tell me,” he commands as absolutely as any king of Underland might.

And so she does. She tells him, watching his irises shift and deepen in color with the telling, of the limits to the Fates’ powers and the memories he would lose should he choose to leave Beyond. And she apologizes for that: “You must have met your family again, your clan... and now you cannot remember having done so at all. I’m so sorry.”

“I choose us, my Alice,” he answers simply and with finality. “Now tell me of this epic rescue.”

She tells him of the riddle she had solved, of the torch on the black wall and how it had really been the light at the end of the tunnel through which she had had to pass. She does not tell him of the flame or the pain, for truly he does not need to know any of that! But she does tell him of the nothingness she had ventured into and the risks she had taken, the strength and sacrifices she had demanded of him, the fear that it would all be for naught, that she would return without him and...

“Alice,” he whispers, tears swimming in his cobalt eyes, “have you any idea why is a raven like a writing desk?”

It is the perfect thing for him to say here, now, in the wake of all the heartache and fear, the hardship and strife.

She returns his teary smile with one of her own.

“Yes,” she answers simply, confidently, absolutely. She kisses away the tears that spill onto his cheeks, noticing his diminishing pallor; soon he will look himself again. “Do you know why a raven is like a writing desk?” she invites softly.

His lips move against her cheek and he murmurs in a low, vibrating tone, “I haven’t the slightest idea, my Alice.”

His response is contrary to what she had expected. For a moment – the briefest of moments – Alice does not understand why he would say such a thing...

And then she does.

It is not the correct answer; it is not the answer they had found together.

It is their first answer, back when they – when the two of them had first become a They – had been new and just Thrice a-Vowed. It is the answer they had shared back when a whole, wide, wondrous future had stretched out before them.

Just as it does now.

 

*~*~*~*

 

Tamial Hightopp, apprentice to Marmoreal’s Time Keeper and future Master of Time, groans as a beam of cheerful sunlight stabs him squarely in his right eye. He rolls over in bed, grumbling several choice words that would get him into a great deal of trouble – guaranteed! – should they be overheard by a grown-up.

“Bloody... hate mornings,” he informs his pillow on a mumble.

The pillow, being very familiar with this particular statement, does not respond. Which is just as well, Tam figures, as nothing short of stuffing the morning into a closet for a couple of hours has any chance of improving the situation.

He closes his eyes and remembers a time – had it really only been a few months ago? – when he had rolled out of bed without a single grumble once the sun had risen? He sighs heavily. His Mam has said, time and time again, that what he’s going through is – unfortunately – perfectly normal. And he trusts his Mam to know all about Normal. Far more than he’d trust his Fa. No, Tamial would trust his Fa for instructions on how to avoid Normal entirely.

“Shoulda asked th’ hat that,” he moans to himself.

Yes, he should have. The other day, when his Fa had offered him his very first and very own Hightopp top hat, Tam should have thought to ask it about this rotten fellow called Normal and how to kick his stinky, little scut.

Tam snorts, imagining that. “M’be he squeaks,” he speculates, trying on and discarding a variety of scut-kicking scenarios.

“Talking nonsense again!” the doorknob accuses. “Like father like son, no doubt! The next thing I have to look forward to, I suppose, is you waking me up in the middle of the night to wander the halls and mutter about blessings and lairds or some other such twaddle.”

Tam rolls over and glares blearily at the mechanism. “My Fa doesn’t talk nonsense or twaddle and neither do I!” he huffs. “It’s not our fault you’re too dim to get what we say.”

The doorknob scoffs. “Dim am I? Well, I may not be well-polished brass – although I could be if someone would have half a care for me! – but even I know that there is nothing for me to get, as you so eloquently put it.” The fixture sniffs condescendingly. “I am a doorknob. The only thing I get is a bit of slamming about from time to time.”

“You could always ask to be moved to a guest room door,” Tam informs it indifferently.

“Or I could ask you to move to a guest room.”

“All my stuff’s in here,” he argues. “And besides, this is my house. I’m not a guest.”

“Neither am I!”

“Humph. Well, just as soon as I have you turned ’round the right way—”

“In a rush to get that done, aren’t you, lad?” it snarks.

“Bugger all...” Tam grumbles, presenting his back to the door.

The doorknob threatens, “I’ll tell your parents you used such foul language while wholly cognizant!”

In response, Tam grimaces in concentration and lets loose an abrupt, squeaky fart.

“That had better not be one of your more frumious gas leakages, young man!”

But Tam can already smell that it is. He makes a face at the stench and rolls out of bed; he knows when to beat a hasty retreat. Out of spite, he closes the door behind him, leaving the doorknob to cough and gasp and gag, and pads down the hallway, following his growling stomach on a direct route to the kitchen. As he passes his parents’ room, he very deliberately starts reciting the proper names of the gears and gizmos in the average pocket watch under his breath. Just in case. If there are any, er, noises coming from that room, he doesn’t want to hear them!

The recitation does the trick and Tam listens rather happily to the sound of his own voice until he’s halfway down the stairs, at which point he is in Safe Territory.

His stomach demands that he head straight for the kitchen, but at the sight of his Fa’s open workroom door, he dares to make a brief stop. His innards growl with discontentment, but he can’t help it; he is Curious as to whether the top hat his Fa had made for him is ready yet. Although Tam hadn’t said as much at the time, he thinks he’d looked rather dashing in it!

He pokes his had into the room and frowns. It is even more spotless and tidy than he remembers. It is also completely empty of hats. Top hats included. He frowns at the worktable, confused. His Fa said he would leave it here, right here for when Tam is ready to introduce himself properly, but there is nothing on the polished wood surface.

With a sigh, he relents to the insistence of his adolescent empty stomach. Still frowning, he meanders down the hall. It’s not until he’s standing in the kitchen doorway with one hand splayed on the portal holding it open, that he realizes the room is already occupied.

His father sits, still in his pajamas with a bathrobe thrown over his shoulders – a rare sight indeed on a non-rest day! – gesticulating rather wildly and extravagantly as his Mam perches on his knees (and she is also still in her nightclothes and robe!), doing her best to trap his wildly fluttering hands and fingers.

“Now, now, Alice. You won this Batten jam quite fairly as I recall!” he whispers on a giggle.

“And you’re fairly late in delivering it,” she counters, biting her lip and muffling her laughter as she chases after him. “Botheration! Hold still and stop your squirming! Take it like a laird of Iplam, Hightopp.”

“Hightopp?” he echoes in an oddly playful yet dangerous tone.

His Mam arches her pale brows. “That’s what I said, isn’t it?”

“Indeed it was.” His voice lowers even further. “An’ jus’ b’cause ye ken hauw teh knock me on mae tail d’snae mean I’ll b’lettin’ ye ge’away wi’it.”

His Mam huffs out a breathy chuckle. “Oh, this I absolutely must see,” she insists with a grin that is far too sharp and... something to belong to a Mother.

She leans forward, her hands grasping his Fa’s wrists, and he stretches up toward her. The kiss is imminent.

“Eugh. Enough, please,” Tam begs. “Just hand over some bread and butter and you can carry on!”

His Mam leans back, looks up at him and snorts. His Fa doesn’t look all that perturbed by the interruption, either. Unfortunately.

“Ye’re late!” his Fa informs him.

“Or early,” he mutters as his Mam slides off of his Fa’s lap and, with that very unsettling grin curving her lips, collects the jar of Batten jam sitting on the table and murmurs something that sounds like: “We’ll settle this score later.”

Tam decides to ignore the anticipatory grin and unfocused, beaming expression on his Fa’s face.

He does not, however, ignore the fact that his Fa looks... better.

“Do I want to know?” Tam grouches, helping himself to the aforementioned bread and butter.

“I’m sure you don’t,” his Mam replies lightly.

“That would depend on the question,” his Fa replies, rather astutely.

Turning, Tam leans a hip against the counter and butters his bread. “You look...” Healthy. Well. Great. Younger. Stronger. Yourself. “...better,” he finishes lamely.

His Fa’s auburn brows arch upward at that.

“But if that has anything to do with Batten jam and settling scores then I do not. Want. To. Know,” he warns them both.

His Mam sniggers.

“On the contrary,” he Fa replies happily. “In fact, I expect it has very much to do with a history lesson that you are long overdue for.”

Tam rolls his eyes. “A history lesson? Come on, Fa. I’ve still got two whole days before you toss me into Sir Fenruffle’s lair.”

“Gryphons have nests, not lairs,” his Mam notes, now fiddling with the teapot at the sink.

Tam rolls his eyes.

“Have a seat and take some tea,” his Fa invites, gesturing to Tam’s usual chair. And because the two of them appear to be behaving themselves (for the moment), he decides to indulge him.

Plopping down, Tam asks around a mouthful, “How come my hat’s gone. The Answer to My Prayers top hat.” He clarifies which hat in particular before his Fa can misunderstand – which Tam suspects he does quite a lot... accidentally on purpose, too! – and starts naming things that begin with the letter M.

Accepting a cup of freshly brewed tea, his Fa says with shocking bluntness, “It turns out you won’t be needing that one any time soon. I’ll make you another.”

“I liked that one.”

“You’ll like this next one better.”

“How do you know?”

His Fa glances over the rim of his teacup at him and – maddeningly – giggles. Tam takes his own cup – milky and well-sugared – from his Mam and glowers in thought as his Fa indulges in a noisy sip and, leaning back, declares in a dreamy tone, “Ye make th’ best tea, mogh’linyea.”

“At no time do you ever cease to rhyme?” she counters with a happy smile.

Tam sighs, looks from one parent to the other and shakes his head. Seriously, what is going on here? All last week things were... weird. And now... what’s with all this lovey-turtledovey... stuff?!

It’s enough to put a guy off his tea.

But Tam remembers the doorknob and, calculating the likelihood of it still being in a snit, resigns himself to occupying the breakfast table for a bit longer. If only the stupid thing had been installed correctly! Whoever wants to have the talking end of a doorknob inside their room? But every time Tam asks his Fa or Mam to fix it, he gets some irritating excuse or other... or another list of things that begin with the letter M.

Wondering precisely how long he’ll be forced to wait before the fixture on his bedroom door either forgives or forgets the incident and permits Tam to re-enter his room, he pulls his Fa’s pocket watch out from under his nightshirt – where he keeps it on a leather cord around his neck – concentrates on his request and consults the face of the watch.

“Hm,” he muses. According to this, he should be in the clear in just a little over a quarter of an hour. Much sooner than he’d thought. Of course, he might get into another argument with the blasted thing the moment he sets foot in his bedroom...

“It’s still behaving for you?” his Fa asks idly, indicating the pocket watch.

Tam smirks. “Of course it is.” Wiggling his brows, he challenges, “Would you like to know your future?”

His Fa looks up and over the table. Tam’s Mam does likewise and Tam finds the coordination of the gestures a bit... eerie. More eerie than usual. For them.

She smiles and his Fa sighs. “Thank you for the offer, son,” his Fa says, “but I do believe that answer has already been Asked... and Given.”

Strangely, his Mam says nothing. She merely reaches across the table and he watches as his Fa’s hand meets her halfway, their fingers intertwining.

Tam gives up. Grown-ups. Maybe the doorknob was right: there’s not an ounce of sense in them. Tam sighs; there’s just no understanding them. And it’s a somewhat depressing thought that he has this – sugary smiles, gooey gazes, and certain senility – to look forward to in his later years.

Maybe, if he offers the doorknob an apology, he won’t have to wait the full quarter hour to be allowed back into his room. His Fa always says that introductions and apologies are the sugar and cream of life – as with tea, a great many things are more easily swallowed with a liberal application of both.

Firmly ignoring the Moment his parents are sharing, Tam snaps the pocket watch shut and tucks it back under his shirt.

“Well, if you change your mind...” he says, guzzling his tea and rising to put his cup in the sink.

“We know where you live,” his Mam finishes for him.

Tam thinks about the snooty doorknob he’s on his way to negotiate with for a pair of socks and a jacket and finds he can’t be as optimistic as her on that point. One of these days, that stuck-up bit of brass is going to lock him out of his room for good, and then who knows where he’ll end up living... maybe in the stables with Fitzfrey and his Mam’s students! At this point, a truce with that bloody-minded doorknob seems impossible. But, then again, his Mam’s specialty is impossible things.

“Yeah,” he says, grinning as he grabs another piece of bread for the trek back up the stairs. “You do.”

 

Chapter Text

“You did everything you could,” Mirana’s lion-husband and king soothes her.

She rolls toward him and burrows into his warmth. Yes, there is a kingdom to be managed and children to see to. (Except for Tarra, who has been apprenticing in Crimson Harbor for two weeks and Mirana will not think about how much she misses her! Not now when she is facing another Thursday and Alice’s imminent arrival... without her Hatter!)

“It wasn’t enough,” Mirana insists, pressing a lace-trimmed handkerchief to her nose.

Dale sighs. “Mi-sh’rya, you gave that scar a Royal Decree to slow it. Don’t you think your Hatter and your Champion appreciated the additional time you gave them?”

She hiccups softly. Yes, she had interfered. She had not been able to stop the scar from realizing its Intent, but she had managed to Command it to take more time in going about it. “I should have done more,” she insists.

Her husband rubs his long-fingered paws along her back. She is still in her shrift and she knows she ought to get up, get dressed, get the children downstairs for breakfast and then off to their respective lessons or livelihoods...

“Mirana,” Dale rumbles firmly. “Had you been able to do more, you would have. And then this past you have spoken of... this Gray Lady who found the Oraculum and turned the Hatter into the leader of your Resistance... none of it would have happened that way. And if that had been changed...”

“I know,” she sniffles. “Our lives now might have been changed as well. Perhaps we would not have met and wed when we had... and our children...”

He presses his whiskery mouth to her forehead. “It is selfish of me to think it, but if it means the safety of our children, then I...”

She sighs. She knows. She feels the same guilt. How can she want Tarrant to die? For any reason? But if changing the past somehow hurts her children...!

No, things must happen exactly as they had happened or perhaps not everything would be the way it is now. Knowing this, she had given up the very idea of defying Tarrant’s destiny; she had acquiesced to the future she knows over the great many she does not. What she is not sure of is the nature of that lack of intervention: had it been queenly... or cowardly?

“You Decreed that his end would be gentle,” Dale reminds her. And, closing her eyes, she remembers: the morning of the autumn Barterment, with Alice and Tam in attendance at the market, Tarrant had slipped away on some excuse and had arrived at her office, where she had been writing a formal reply to Jaspien’s proposal. Tarrant had curled up in the very armchair that his Alice had sat in years and years ago, when Mirana had first told her of the Wooing Rites and the duties of the Champion, and he had cried.

“Do you know how it will happen?” she had asked.

He had nodded miserably before pulling himself together with a series of deep breaths. “The scar Masonmark gave me. It’s already begun to move,” he had lisped.

And Mirana had shaken back her scallop-edged sleeves. “Show it to me, Hatta, and let me see what I can do.”

And she had done it.

“You shall not be hasty in your Intent... nor shall you cause undue pain...”

She had Commanded and Decreed... and it had given Tarrant more time, more peace... But, oh, if only she had dared to Court Fate again! She might have convinced them to spare his life, or teach her of a cure, or allow Alice to come to them another way!

And now... now she will never know if any of that might have been possible. Surely, by now, Tarrant has... passed. It would have happened on early Tuesday morning if her calculations are correct... and she knows they are. Still, she has not received word that there is one less hatter in the White Realm, nor has she heard that there is a new Laird of Iplam...

Nevertheless, by now Alice has very likely Stepped back in Time and saved them all... for the first time. But her success will not change the fact that Tarrant is irreversibly dead. She fears what this will mean for her friend when all that Alice must say and do is at last said and done.

What will Alice do without her Tarrant? Or will she somehow manage to convince Fate to return him to her? Despite the fact that, to Mirana’s knowledge, that has never been done before nor do the Fates have any power over those in the realm of Death...

Oh, Hatta...! Surely, the sacrifices that have been demanded of him are Too Much. You have been wronged, my friend, by your world and by your queen. She is thankful that Alice had remained beside him, loyal and true and strong and brave, since the moment she had been pulled from that sinking ship through the mirror. They two had had nearly twenty years together... and while that is no small duration of time, it seems far too brief to Mirana’s aching heart.

And very soon – today! – Mirana will be greeting an old, gray, peaky widow on the steps of Marmoreal... and what will Mirana say to her then? What could possibly make any of this marginally bearable for her Champion?

“Alice will never forgive me... for not doing more.”

“You did all you could,” Dale repeats patiently. “And Alice will understand that. It is you, my love, who must forgive herself.”

His words are wise, but she is not ready to hear them. Mirana closes her eyes and shakes her head with regret. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, Mirana can see how effectively all of them have been manipulated by the Fates (and perhaps even Chance) into forcing Alice to Step back in time:

Mirana had been the one to tell her of Courting Fate in the first place, years and years ago.

Chessur had asked the jabberwockies to go so that Alice would not be tempted to ask for a vial of blood.

And the very fabric of Underland – the magic that makes promises and intent Real in ways that they are not in Upland, in ways that Alice could not have anticipated – had led to...

“I’m so sorry,” she murmurs into her husband’s mane, recalling that old widow. The Gray Lady had done so much to make this world – the world Mirana rules now – possible. In fact, Mirana would dare to say that, as Alice had made this Underland, should she ever choose to, Alice – who is a queen in her own right! – would have more right to rule it than Mirana does.

“I deserve to be usurped,” she acknowledges. “I should have... If I had only told Alice to Court Fate before... then They might have warned her of the scar and the Intent before Tarrant was ever injured in that wretched canal and he might still be...alive. Alice has every right to blame me for this. I should have known it was no coincidence that one Alice would be the harbinger of another. There has only ever been one Alice to visit Underland. I am a fool for not seeing it sooner.”

When Dale does not immediately refute her, she despairs, “This will change everything.” She consults her handkerchief again on the issue of her runny nose. “I will have lost Hatta... and Alice, my friend...”

“No, that will not happen,” Dale insists. “You must trust Alice, as you have always done. And you must be strong for her, and for the children... for Ama...”

She nods. Yes, he is right. Alice will need her. And the children... they will all miss their Uncle Hatter... Amallya most of all...

“And you must get out of bed, Mi-sh’rya.”

She still doesn’t want to, but she knows she must. And so she does.

Her sorrow and guilt and despair have not been exorcised, but she manages a brave face and a pair of dry – if somewhat reddened – eyes.

Chestor notices. He allows his brothers and sisters to take the lead with his father and drops behind. Falling into step with his mother, he places a lanky arm around her waist. Mirana’s smile returns briefly, prideful and watery as it is. Her eldest son may not have a way with words, poor awkward boy, but his grace manifests itself in other ways. In silence, and out of sight from the rest of her family, Mirana squeezes him back and presses a kiss to his neat hair.

It is a measure of his goodness that he does not object in the slightest, despite the blush that turns his face bright pink. “Mother?” he asks softly, pausing in the hall as everyone files into Thackery’s kitchen.

She lingers, tweaking the locks of hair she had mussed back into place, and rubs his shoulder. “I...”

“Can’t talk about it?” he guesses, resigned. There are many things Mirana does not discuss with her children, many troubles and issues that she – as queen – must handle herself. She will not burden her children with these worries unless absolutely necessary. But, in this case...

She shakes her head. “I am expecting some... bad news.”

“If you haven’t heard it yet, then it might still be all right,” he ventures.

Overcome, Mirana pulls Chestor into her arms. “Thank you, darling,” she says to his bright pink ear. “You make an excellent point.” And one she would give almost anything to make Real. “Now,” she says with false brightness, “you go on and have some tea. You know how Thackery hates it when someone’s late.”

“But... are you not eating?” Chestor hesitates with one hand on the door.

“I’ll be along in... just a moment.”

He nods and gives her an encouraging grin before turning toward the door.

“Don’t forget—” she begins.

“To duck. I know, Mother.”

She watches as he pushes open the door, but no spoons or teacups or even teabags are launched at him. No Witzend-accented screams of “YE’RE LATE!”

No, instead, a sound that is... impossible tumbles out into the corridor. It is the snorting, cackling giggle of a Mad Hatter. She freezes, her eyes wide and jaw agape, until Dale shoulders past Chestor and reaches out a furred hand to her.

“Mi-sh’rya,” he rasps, his own eyes looking quite as watery as hers must be, “you must come and see this.”

Numbly, she lays her hand in his and allows him to pull her into the room. There, at the long kitchen table, sits not only her family, but her friends and loyal subjects and... her Champion and her Royal Hatter.

In the midst of accusing Leif of running back to Marmoreal for the sole purpose of lazing about when he ought to be hard at work at Causwick Castle and assisting with the preparations for Underland’s very first Festival of War Games, Alice – a perfectly perfect Alice who is not gray in the slightest! – pauses, turns toward Mirana... and smiles.

But Mirana is a bit too preoccupied to respond, for here sits her Hatter, healthy and whole and vibrant with happiness, laughing with delight at the hat Ama is proudly modeling for him.

“Tarrant?” Mirana asks, staring quite rudely, she is sure, but unable to help it!

“Your Majesty!” he crows, standing and rounding the table to present himself before her. She watches him bow, still unable to understand how... Surely, he had... and Alice had... because if she hadn’t...!

“Alice!” she declares, panic turning her question into an exclamation.

“It’s done, Your Majesty,” Alice replies, pushing herself up from the crowded bench and doing her best not to jostle Tamial.

“Done?” she echoes. “But...” She looks back at Tarrant. “How is this possible?”

Tarrant giggles warmly. “We will tell you!”

At the table, Sir Fenruffle clears his gullet. “Yes, it appears I have been replaced by two substitute history instructors this morning.” Interestingly enough, he does not appear all that upset by the forced holiday.

Her gaze passes over her children: all except Tarra, of course, are present and currently filling their plates, unaware of the miracle that has taken place. Mirana takes in Thackery’s roving gaze and toothy smile. Nivens is also in attendance, seated next to Mallymkun. Leif is here and, to his left, so is Uilleam (who is looking quite proud of himself for something or other). Bayard and Bayelle – and both litters of pups – have squeezed in along the benches as well. Tweedledum and Tweedledee are rather characteristically seated side-by-side, although oddly unquarrelsome. Chessur hovers impudently over the sugar bowl and grins at Tamial.

Mirana allows Dale to lead her to her seat and Tarrant returns to his place at the corner of the table, two seats away from his Alice with their son between them. “Tell me, please! How it is possible that you are both... here!” Mirana finally manages to say, ignoring the teacup Dale is holding out to her.

Ian grunts and Lanny scoffs, “By carriage, I imagine. Unless you came by Bandersnatch this time?”

Tamial rolls his eyes.

“Tea, first, love,” Dale purrs, interrupting the speculation and earning an adoring grin from the March Hare.

“A T always comes first when it comes to tea,” Tweedledee announces authoritatively and his brother frowns into the depths of his own teacup before grinning and nodding in wholehearted approval.

Knowing this is undoubtedly the quickest way to get the answers she needs, Mirana accepts the steaming beverage and takes a sip. “Now,” she says, placing the cup and saucer and its unsavored contents onto the table. Mirana clutches her husband’s wrist to ground herself and addresses her Champion and her Hatter: “You have my undivided attention!”

Tarrant glances at Alice who, with a smile, nods. “You start.”

“From the beginning, Raven?” he confirms and she agrees:

“That would be a very typical place to begin,” she concurs.

And, having obtained her blessing, he does:

“Once upon a very unfortunate Horvendush Day, there was a newly crowned Red Queen with a prison made of marzipan which she filled with a great many rather reluctant prisoners...”

It is, without a doubt, the most engaging and urgent history lesson, Mirana has ever had. And, by the looks of their gob smacked – or would that be flunderwhapped in this instance? – faces, none of the children have ever been so entertained before, either. Or so engaged. Question after question are launched into the breakfast atmosphere.

“Aunt Mally, tell us they’re joking? You? A sleepy dormouse?”

“But, Uncle Hatter! What about your Muchness?”

“Didn’t you recognize Aunt Alice? Was she really a shriveled-up old hag? Really?”

“So that’s why the Bandersnatch only lets you ride him! Oh... and Uncle Hatter, too.”

“But... if all this is true,” Tamial Hightopp eventually says with a very Alice-y sort of frown, “then how come you didn’t know before that you’d have to Step back in Time? Aunt Mirana has the Oraculum...”

“Actually,” Alice replies gently to her son’s question. “Absolem has the Oraculum... and he refused to let me see more than a few glimpses of the very distant future. I had no idea your father would die... or that I would Court Fate... or go into the past.”

“You really... died?” Tam asks his father, his eyes wide and face pale.

Tarrant merely smiles. “And now you know why your Mam and I were acting so oddly!”

“But... why didn’t you tell me?” Tam demands. “And... oh! The hat! You made me that hat with all those answers and...! I asked it why Mam was acting so strange and it said...!”

“Aye,” Tarrant admits, saddened. “It told ye that yer Mam was actin’ odd b’cause she missed me... I was... tryin’ teh anticipate yer questions, lad. After I was gone.”

“But... but... why didn’t you tell me you were...?!”

Mirana’s heart goes out to the boy who is nearly a man... and on the verge of frustrated tears.

And Tarrant, bless his beautiful soul, is not unaffected. His blue-green eyes shimmer and his voice crackles a bit as he replies: “Because I di’nae want teh make ye sad one moment afore ye would be.”

“And it’s all worked out fine, in the end,” Alice interjects rather timely. “Because we have your Fa back with us again.”

Tam gives his Fa a suspicious look. “And that’s why I won’t be needing that hat anytime soon?”

“Precisely! I’m afraid that – if you have a question – you shall have to ask me personally,” Tarrant replies with a wink. He reaches out and tousles his son’s curly hair. And, despite the arm-waving and grumpy protests, Mirana gets the distinct impression that the youngest Hightopp does not mind the high-handed gesture very much.

With tea and breakfast finished and questions from the youthful members of the gathering asked and answered, Sir Fenruffle ushers the lot off. “To the library with you! I want your notes on this adventure legibly written before lunch!”

The adults linger: the hounds, the hare, the dormouse, the cat, the dodo, the Champions, the Hatter, and the king and queen.

“Alice...” Mirana begins after the door has shut and the kitchen has been silent for a very long moment. “How did the two of you manage to cheat Death?” She looks between her Hatter and her Champion, sure that they had somehow managed the impossible through their combined efforts.

“Would you believe my Alice bartered with the Fates for me?” Tarrant lisps.

“No,” Mirana responds promptly. “Given the nature of the Fates and the scope of their powers, no, I would not believe that, Tarrant.”

Alice sighs, places a hand on her husband’s arm, and confesses, “I did barter... in a way. I pointed out the fact that since they had destroyed my... family to right their mistake – they never should have given the Oraculum to the Duchess in the first place! – I was owed a boon.”

“So easily?” Mirana challenges.

Alice bites her lip. “Well, there was a bit more, erm, persuasion involved, but they were very gracious... in the end.”

The White Queen nearly snorts. “Alice. It is a well-known fact that the Fates rule over the Living. They could not have returned Tarrant’s soul to his body, even if...” Mirana pauses, takes in the expression on her Champion’s face – one that she knows contains many secrets – and rephrases, “You went into the realm of Death, didn’t you?”

Around the table, gasps and gurgling chokes are heard. Were any other matter being discussed, Mirana would have paused, patted backs and whispered reassurances to her assembled friends, but the White Queen barely hears them, so focused is she on Alice. In this moment, she is a queen, and she demands the truth from her Champion.

“Yes.”

“That is impossible,” the White Queen counters.

“And yet, here we are.”

“But... you cannot enter the realm of Death and escape it alive if you so much as see—”

“Hear, touch, taste, smell or otherwise perceive it. Yes, I know. I was told that very thing,” Alice replies bluntly, meeting the queen’s challenge with a stare of her own. “And the solution to that conundrum lies in the very act of passing into the realm of Death.”

“Alice...?” Tarrant lisps on a tone tinted with burgeoning fear as comprehension dawns in his expression.

Mirana pursues the truth more directly. “Do you mean to tell me you purposefully—?”

“Yes, I did. And it worked, didn’t it?”

Mirana’s urgency begins to give way to horror and she whispers, “Alice... You are saying that, when you passed through the light, you allowed it to...?”

“Again, yes,” Alice replies abruptly, her back stiff and straight. “I did. And, as you can see, I am fine.”

“Alice, what did you do?” Tarrant demands, truly frightened now.

Thackery bangs his teaspoon on the table. “Caught walkin’ through fire, aye, ye wee besom?”

Tarrant gasps, eyes Alice’s frozen expression, and leans toward her. “Tell me ye di’nae, Alice. Tell me there was ano’her way teh...”

She looks up into his seeking, fearful gaze and he chokes on a sob at what he sees in her eyes.

“Oh, Alice,” he whispers, gathering her hands reverently in his own. “Ye... th’ pain... Ye shouldnae’ave...”

She reaches out and pets his grasping, trembling fingers. “It was the only way to enter... that place without seeing it, the only way to Call out to you without hearing an answer, the only way to walk without feeling anything from my surroundings...”

He shakes his head, cupping her cheeks now, in his hands. “No, Alice... No...”

She reaches up and grasps his wrists, although she does not pull his hands away. “The pain was brief, and the fire did its job well.”

Mirana doesn’t doubt that it had, for here Alice sits. There can be no other explanation: the light that Alice had passed through had destroyed her ability to perceive her surroundings, had cauterized her nerves and burned away her sight and hearing and... The queen shudders.

“Yes,” Alice continues softly, focusing on her husband’s devastated expression and ignoring all else. “I walked through fire for you. Do not deny me that when I know you have suffered for my sake more than once.”

“Just as you have suffered, again and again, for mine! Alice!” Mirana watches as Tarrant’s brows twitch and his lips twist with the power of the emotions rising within him.

“Gray ’r gold, small ’r tall, late ’r Champion... all the same!” Thackery announces, soothing the moment with his abrupt observation.

“That is true,” Mirana admits. “Which bring me to my own confession. Alice...”

Her Champion and her Hatter both look up and Mirana finds that she needs the strength of her husband’s hand upon hers to continue. “I should have realized you – my Champion and the Gray Lady – were one and the same. I should have warned you to Court the Fates long before you did. If I had—”

Alice shakes her head. “They would not have answered my Suit, and you know it. I wasn’t ready then, or properly... motivated. I wouldn’t have had as much to lose... or as much to gain.”

“Alice! Listen to me! I participated in the most wretched scheme to take your husband from you! And, at the time, I had no reason to believe that you would be capable of bringing him back!”

“You’re under a misapprehension, Your Majesty,” Alice says sternly. And then she continues in a teasing tone, “You are hardly Queen of all Underland – past, present, and future! You are as much subject to Fate as anyone. How could I blame you for being caught in the same trap as I? As a mother myself, don’t you think I can understand why you didn’t try harder to interfere?”

“Well, yes, but—”

“You are – if you’ll forgive the Uplandish saying – only human,” Alice insists.

“True, but you see, I—”

“I do see. And I thank you,” Alice continues, “for using your powers to extend the time Tarrant and I had together.”

“But, Alice, it was all—”

“All you could do. And you did not hesitate to do it.”

“I should have—”

“No, you shouldn’t have.” Alice delivers that comment with an air of conclusion and a victorious grin.

Mirana huffs. “If you will please stop interrupting me, Alice!”

She smirks. “A Champion’s prerogative, Your Majesty. When one’s liege is being a dunce, it’s a Champion’s duty to step in and save them from themselves.”

“Oh, botheration,” Mirana grumbles. She subsides, a hesitant smile curling her dark lips.

“’Twas all Fated,” the March Hare summarizes. “An’twere nuthin’ teh b’frettin’ o’er! Auwr Alice ’as a way o’ negot’atin’ wi’th’ Future.”

Mirana can’t help but smile at that, even though it is a rather watery and wobbly smile. “And I don’t doubt you got all that you wanted out of that bargain... and more.” Yes, Alice’s skills at bartering had been more than sufficiently proven at the autumn Barterment!

But, despite Alice being perfectly capable of managing her own future, Mirana still fears. “Alice...”

“We are all right, Mirana. Everything is fine.”

“No, it ain’t!” a shrill voice declares.

Everyone turns in the direction of a very upset dormouse. “The Gray Lady said – you said, Alice – that yer husband’s death was Intentional!”

“It was,” Tarrant himself admits with visible reluctance.

“I want tha’ rat bastard’s head on a plate!” Mally howls, thumping one small fist into the palm of her other hand. “Tell me ’is name, ’Atter!”

“No, Mally.”

“’Atter...!” she threatens.

“Mallymkun!” he barks. “’Tis over. An’ I d’nae believe th’ perpetrator will try again.”

Mally purses her mousy mouth into a sour expression. “If ’ee so much as tries... I swear...!” She draws her sword and swishes it.

“He won’t,” Alice assures her.

“Well...” Chessur drawls into the increasingly awkward moment. “This is all cheery. I suppose I can alert Krystoval that the blood of the jabberwockies is no longer in urgent demand?”

“Yes, you may, Cat,” Alice replies on a tolerant sigh. “Tell that lot to come home as soon as possible. Don’t you miss getting chewed on my juveniles?”

Chessur blinks slowly. “I’ll have you know they’re well past their second teethings.”

“If I remember correctly, Krystoval told me that, in the next phase, you’ll have the tail spikes to look forward to,” Mirana mutters into her teacup.

Alice snorts. “Good luck with that.”

“Good luck...” Chessur muses, unperturbed. “Now that is something I have enjoyed since a very gray widow showed up and pointed me in the right direction.” He twists in the air, swirling into an evaporating mist, “And that’s all the thanks you’ll ever be getting about that,” he declares.

“You’re too kind,” Alice mutters, grinning.

There is no reply. The Cheshire Cat has already vanished.

“Well,” Bayard speaks up, “I don’t mind telling you, Alice, that I’m sorry I missed out on all the adventure back then.”

“Ah, but if you had smelled me, Bayard...” Alice begins.

“Hm? Oh, yes,” he responds with a doggy frown. “I would have said something... and it had to be a secret, didn’t it?”

Mirana commiserates with the hound. Deception is not something Dog Logic takes to with ease.

In answer, Alice merely nods. And then her gaze alights on the Dodo Bird, sitting patiently beside a very quiet and contemplative Leif. “Uilleam,” she says with a grin. “It’s nice to see you again, my friend.”

He preens. “Thank you, No-longer-gray Lady. Although I expect that I have missed you a great deal longer than you have missed me!”

“I expect you’re right.”

“Of course I am!” he declares pompously. The statement only makes Alice’s grin widen, however. And then the dodo levels himself up off the bench and hobbles his way over to Alice and Tarrant. Mirana spies something under his wing, something bound in blue leather...

“This is for you,” Uilleam says, presenting her with a thin book.

Alice accepts it and, holding it out for Tarrant to see it, lifts the cover. “Uilleam...” she breathes as Tarrant gently thumbs the first page aside. “This is...”

“A record of the adventures of the Gray Lady,” he supplies. “I wrote it after you left. And now seems a good time to give it to you. I expect it’ll have its own place in your family history.”

“It will. It does,” Alice tells him. “Thank you, Uilleam.”

He nods once. “And Othenia and I will be expecting you ’round for tea in the near future!”

“Tarrant and I will be there!” she promises, grinning as he stumps his way from the kitchen.

“Alice, Hatter...” Leif says on an awe-filled sigh. He shakes his head ruefully and then, glancing up, gifts them with a twinkle in his eye. “You...!”

“Had all the fun without you... yet again,” Alice finishes for him. “And you’re jealous.”

He leans back and laughs. “Sure I am. Still, I think I could have beaten you one-on-one, Gray Lady.”

Alice smirks. “I would have liked to have seen you try!”

Tarrant giggles. “Indeed! You rather put Stayne through his paces, Raven!”

“That was a little fun...” she admits. “Unfortunately for you, Leif, I’m the one you’ll have to prove your mettle to if you still intend to marry Tarra before she turns nineteen!”

He chuckles. “You’ve got that backwards, Champion. She’s the one who needs to have someone explain the concept of Patience to her. As for me, waiting is looking better and better every day,” he muses.

“Scared of the big, bad Alice, lion?” she teases.

He noisily swallows a laugh. “Isn’t everyone? As big and as bad as you are! Although... I guess I ought to do you the favor of letting you practice on me. Bethie’s up for a bit of wooing soon enough! And with her vows...”

“I know,” Alice replies. “There have already been inquiries.” She glances at Mirana, who nods.

“Yes. Several. Including one from a certain unicorn lord we both know, on behalf of his son. Whom I believe you are also acquainted with, Alice?”

Alice snorts. “Wonderful.” She smirks at Leif. “I’ll try not to let you feel too left out.”

“How generous!”

And despite Leif’s sarcasm, Mirana cannot help hearing the truth of his words as they ring out in the kitchen. Yes, Mirana hears the Truth... and she is not alone in that:

Thackery twitches.

Mally sighs.

The Tweedles elbow each other.

Alice smiles.

Tarrant giggles.

And Mirana feels Dale’s warm hand turn and clasp hers beneath the table. Yes, all things considered, Fate has been very generous, indeed.

 

*~*~*~*

 

Tarrant surveys the bustling, boisterous goings-on surrounding the impregnable walls of Causwick Castle and marvels. Here he is, sitting beside his Alice (who is frowning fiercely as one of her students – Ursalea... yes, that particular shade of fur is unmistakable on a bear – battles with a more experienced lion from Shuchland). The atmosphere is seething with life and packed with cheers and even the surrounding murky swamp and drooping willow trees seem more optimistic. The Callion has changed: here they are – he and his Alice and their son (who is around here somewhere, making a nuisance of himself, Tarrant happily muses) – witnesses to that metamorphosis, in attendance at Underland’s first Festival of War Games!

He had never expected to live to see this day.

Alice’s hand grips his tightly as they watch from the hastily-erected stands. Well, he does not watch the sparring match on the packed earth. He watches his Alice as she watches the matches. He knows, not from witnessing it for himself, but from reading his wife’s expressions, the varying degrees of tension in her shoulders, and the warmth that travels completely unimpeded through the renewed heart line, that her students have done well.

They have made her proud.

It is a sensation he recognizes easily, now. This warmth has always been there, he realizes. Yes, it has been ever-present and always for him. Alice has always been proud of him... he had simply mistakenly identified the feeling before as Alice-ness, as an intrinsic and inseparable aspect of who his wife is. Now he knows this warmth that she Sends him without conscious thought is not just the manifestation of her existence; it is not only a facet of her love... It is More.

Tarrant does not know if he has ever been More to anyone else. His family had loved him and been proud of him, he believes. The White Queen cares for him as part of her family. Mally and Thackery would fight beside him if ever the need arises again. But Alice... To Alice, he is More.

She had dared to Step back in Time with only the thought of saving him on her mind. No, she had not rescued the Oraculum and completed the assigned delivery for the sake of Underland. This time... this time she had fought, had given her life, to save him.

Alice had once told him, on the bed of a guest room in her mother’s house Above, that she loves him more than anything. And now he knows it is as true here and now as it had been then and there.

“Do you forgive me?” he whispers into her ear.

The combatants have not broken from their furious exchange of blows, but Alice responds immediately. She turns her full attention to him, gives him this moment that he selfishly demands despite the fact that she is working now!

“Forgive you? Whatever for?” she murmurs back with endearing confusion.

“I doubted you,” he reminds her, lifting his hand and trailing his fingertips over the scar on her throat. “After you died to save Underland, I thought it had finally happened... that you no longer...”

His heart aches at the thought and she Feels it.

“Tarrant...” she sighs with a rueful shake of her head. “I love you more than anything.”

His lips curve upward and his heart warms at the words, at the feel of that love, which she Sends along the heart line to him. “I know,” he replies. And this is not the place for kisses, nor is it the time – he has demanded too much of Alice’s attention as it is! – so he forces himself to turn back to the swordplay in the rustic arena.

And he is just in time to see the lion’s sword spiral through the air.

Ursalea had disarmed him.

The fight is over and the spectators applaud. Alice’s is the loudest voice amongst the rabble. She stands and cheers, grinning as madly as a Mad Hatter. The she-bear, on the other hand, is a bit too busy looking flunderwhapped to take a proper bow.

“She’ll advance to the next round after lunch,” Alice sighs with happiness as she lets Tarrant lead her from the wooden stands. The game participants and visitors mill about, awaiting the announcement of the next match. Some drink warm Grobbenale and Battenmead from mugs of wood or brass or even glass that are clipped to the owner’s belt when not in use. It is nice to see such accessories in the place of swords, Tarrant thinks.

“Things will be better next year,” Alice predicts, gazing around at the facilities that Leif had been in charge of preparing. “Leif will have more time, for one thing. And perhaps there will be more volunteers to help.”

Tarrant hums his agreement. Truthfully, he is rather indifferent to the games, himself. The peaceful compromise they represent is important, yes, but his Alice is not fighting in these matches, so the outcome and sophistication of the event itself has little bearing on him. But, at the mention of Leif, Tarrant finds himself glancing about and – yes, there! – locating the White King’s Champion.

Tarrant giggles at the sight of Tarra bullying the he-lion into accompanying her as she makes the rounds at the stalls. Perhaps she is looking for carpentry tools. Or perhaps a leather binding for what will become a book of memoirs of their house.

Alice pivots and glances at the sight that has so amused Tarrant. She smirks. “Do you really think Tarra will let him wait another three months?”

“Oh, Alice,” he answers. “That princess is having far too much fun to hurry the inevitable.” Inspiration – or perhaps instinct – takes him and he hears himself burr, “’Twon’ happen ’til her apprenticin’s done. Ye’ll see.”

“And so will you.” He clearly hears her knowing reply. The words are so soft a gust of wind could have easily blown them away. Luckily, the wind is quiet and leaves them be for Tarrant to catch.

“Aye,” he agrees, still hardly daring to believe that it is true. “I will.”

He does not thank her for defying the Fates for him, for venturing into Death for him, for suffering the unimaginable pain of passing through the Light at the End for him, for trusting him to follow her back, for risking everything for him.

He does not thank her... again. Yes, his Alice sometimes gets rather impatient when people repeat themselves too often. But a heart line message... that, he is sure, doesn’t count. And so he Sends her his awe again. And she Answers with her love.

“Lassling? Alice Lassling?”

Tarrant turns, placing himself half a step in front of his wife, wary of that title and all who freely speak it. This time, however, there is no threat. The speaker is the woman who had delivered tea and ginger bread and stew to them when Alice had bargained with Jaspien for succor.

“Madam...!” Tarrant greets her with a grin, and then pauses when he realizes... “I’m terribly sorry, but I don’t believe we’ve been properly introduced. Tarrant Hightopp.”

“Inghan Causwoman,” the older woman says, shaking Tarrant’s hand firmly and then Alice’s. “’Tis gehd teh see ye again, Lassling.”

“Alice, please,” Tarrant’s wife gently – but firmly – objects. “And it is wonderful to be here. How are you finding the event?”

“Mos’ beneficious,” she declares with pride. “Auwr leather-works b’tradin’ well an’ th’ gifts from th’ guests...” She shakes her head in wonderment. “Auwr expectations werenae this high when auwr laird firs’ gave us th’ news tha’ we’d be hosts teh th’ festival.” She takes a moment, to look around at the people and mud-colored stands and arenas and recently drained but as yet un-planted fields. “’Tis nae Maigh,” she admits. “An’ we’ve a laung ways yet teh go afore it becomes th’ event we all hope it teh be...”

Inghan Causwoman pauses in her survey and pins Alice with a sharp look. “Bu’ if’n th’rumors’re true, then ’tis ye we all have teh thank f’r bringin’ a livelihood teh auwr lands, Champion Alice.”

Obviously uncomfortable, Alice responds with gratifying muchness, “You should not discount your lord’s hard work, Madam Causwoman. Without him, this would not be possible.”

The woman’s mouth curves into a wry grin. “Aye, ye’ve the righ’o’that.”

Tarrant reads, in Inghan Causwoman’s knowing look, a wily logic that is disconcerting in its near-Alice-ness. Alice returns the woman’s smile... and a secret is locked away: no, this festival would not have been possible without Jaspien’s efforts... nor would it have been possible if not for Alice’s initial suggestion of it. But Tarrant knows that the latter contribution will never be mentioned: no one will ever know that the White Queen’s Champion had also championed for the people of the Callion. That honor will fall squarely on Jaspien’s shoulders... just as it should.

Inghan leads them through the market, introducing them to various craftsmen, women, and beasts. Tarrant meets a man he is sure must be a relation of the Sheafments, who had developed an ingenious method for preserving records in the damp swamp air: tar and feathers!

“Th’ tar seals awae th’ wet, aye?”

“And the feathers?” Tarrant hears himself ask as he inspects a specimen.

The older man informs him, “Keeps i’tall afloat in th’event o’flood.”

Alice, Tarrant notices, finds many of the adaptations that the folk of the Callion have made of great interest as well. As they make the rounds with Inghan’s services as guide and introduction-facilitator, Tarrant has half a notion to invite many of these craft-workers to Iplam... or perhaps invite their apprentices...

“Remarkable work-womanship,” he praises one lady’s black-clay pots that had been baked in a charcoal pit rather than under the sun (which rarely shines very strongly here). And when he makes that comment, he watches Inghan and... yes, there! The calculating gleam in her eye is the very one he’d expected. It appears he is not the only one contemplating an exchange of sorts in the future. Truly, Iplam could be a middle-place between Causwick and Marmoreal, for it is not so much ruled by the White Queen as it is governed by the Hightopp family.

Yes, perhaps, in the future, Tarrant will invite some of the youngsters here to come to Iplam, to learn Outlandish trades and to share Callion technologies...

“My Alice...” he muses after they have bid farewell to Inghan and are on the way to collect their son. It is nearly supper-time and Alice’s students have nearly finished with the stew she’d assigned them to prepare. True to expectations, none of the guests have imposed upon the Callion’s meager food resources. In fact, if anything, they have supplemented it by bringing gifts of grain and dried fruit and vegetables, pots of honey and oil and herbs. The White Queen had thoughtfully issued a list of gifts that would be appreciated by the Callion and a great many of the visitors who have made the pilgrimage had heeded the advice.

“Yes?” she prompts, when he allows the scent of a well-spiced soup to distract him.

“Hm? Oh! Yes,” he clears his throat. “As I was saying, I do believe that Causwoman will be a person of interest to Iplam in the future.”

Alice grins. “I got that sense as well. She was telling me quite a lot about the society here... and made a special mention of the many children who hope to apprentice in Outlandish trades. Her own niece, included.”

“This bears consideration,” he concurs. “We would nae wan’teh anger the clans by removing opportunities from those who seek apprenticeships a’th’ Maigh, but...”

“Perhaps,” Alice suggests slowly, “we might do a bit of research into forgotten or lost trades? If we can create more work, then more apprentices will be needed...”

Tarrant grins at his wife and – again – marvels. “I ha’ th’ mos’ saganstitute Alice in aul o’ Underland,” he informs her softly.

“And if she is the only Alice in all of Underland?” she replies with a wide smile of humor.

“Then aul th’ more awespicious,” he murmurs. Uncaring of the dimming twilight and the people and creatures milling about from tent to bath house to shop stall to stew pot, he leans toward his wife and kisses her. Thoroughly.

Tarrant takes his Time – and a fair bit of Alice’s Time, as well... but these sorts of things must be done properly! – and only when the laughter and murmurings of uninvited onlookers begin to register does he pull back. And even then, he does so reluctantly.

Alice opens her eyes and looks at him. “You don’t have any lost time to make up for,” she reminds him, delivering the answer to the question he sees in her eyes. Yes, the kisses he gives her have changed, but not because he had missed any opportunities to kiss his wife. No, he lingers at her lips and prolongs their embraces now because...

“Alice, for how long were you without my kisses? Surely, I can attempt to compensate you for that.”

She grins. “All right. In that case, I suppose I can let you.” And when she lifts her face for another kiss, he immediately obliges.

“And now,” he remarks softly, ignoring the chattering and caterwauling and whistles, “shall we locate Tam?”

“We’d better. He’ll forgive us for many things, but not if we make him miss his supper.”

They wander around the corner of the castle wall, toward a mostly-drained but too-small field. It had been deemed too narrow to accommodate any of the games or crowds of spectators, but the rambunctious galumphing of littlin’ after littlin’ fit rather nicely within its safe borders.

Tarrant sweeps the field with his gaze, looking for a swamp-mud-splattered boy with red-gold and curly hair – which could quite possibly be accessorized with twigs and bits of hanging moss – and stumbles to a halt just as Alice’s hand urgently grips his jacket sleeve.

Their hearts Stop.

For a long, breathless moment, Tarrant can only gape and gawk.

“Is that...?” Alice begins in a voice that is nearly devoid of breath.

“Our Tamial, aye.” Tarrant gulps as he watches his son lecture and then demonstrate with great flair... “Futterwhackening...”

And the shorter figure beside their son does its best to copy the movements, managing to do so but with considerably less panache.

“... with a... girl?” Alice wheezes.

Tarrant wheezes with her. This is very much a moment for wheezing, he decides. Or possibly outgribing... Or both.

“Does this mean... what I think it means?” Alice finally asks, no doubt prompted to do so by her Muchness and Curiosity.

“Aye,” Tarrant allows, reaching blindly for her hand. “Aye, it does.”

From the other side of the field, Tamial’s voice carries as he instructs his young and lovely student, “You need to think of something happier.”

“Happier?” she answers in tone far too bewitching to belong to a mere littlin’. Oh, no. That is the voice of a Lass. “Like what?”

Tam huffs, immune to her teasing. “Like... flying! Like feeling the wind in your face or... like winning a duel or like... outracing Time or...”

“Like kissing?”

“Eh... huh?” Tam appears utterly flunderwhapped by the suggestion. “Ki—?!” he squeaks.

With a look Tarrant recognizes Very Well – for his Alice has worn it on numerous occasions – the little lass leans toward Tamial and invites, “I’m sure I’ll think much happier thoughts if you kiss me...”

“Uhm, I... W-w-well...”

Tarrant holds his breath. His chest aches as Alice does the same.

Tam gulps very visibly in the darkening evening. “Uh... all right...”

And that is how Tamial Hightopp not only receives his first – and thankfully chaste! – kiss, but also how he manages to achieve heretofore un-managable and ought-to-be-impossible Futterwhacken steps.

Tarrant watches in apprehensive dismay as his son positively glows with happiness. He grins... well, madly as he Futterwhackens beside a lass who – from the look of that smile – must have a bit of Cheshire in her family tree somewhere! Tarrant opens his mouth – to despair or moan or beg for mercy, he’s not sure which – but nothing whatsoever emerges.

It is Alice who, at least, manages: “Er... have you spoken to Tam about... um, girls, yet?”

Tarrant frantically shakes his head in the negative.

Bloody bulloghin’ brangergain!

He remembers – with great trepidation! – when his own Fa had sat him down for The Chat and – blast i’tall – he’d been about Tam’s age at the time and... Horridly, completely, wretchedly...! A bloody Fate Worse Than Death...!

“Surely not?” Alice inquires, very obviously (and bravely) biting back a snort – or several – of amusement and Tarrant realizes he must have been muttering aloud.

“What? I... oh! I...” He glances across the field at his son who is now giggling along with that lass! Tarrant’s heart pounds in his chest: drumbeats of Dread. Perhaps, for this occasion, he should revisit the idea of giving Tam that top hat. Had he prepared a ribbon for this? He’s sure he must have! Perhaps a scarlet one, warning him of lascivious lasses and their smiles and giggles and demands for kisses and—!

“I could talk to him,” Alice playfully suggests. “I’ve given advice on the subject before, if you recall.”

Their first Maigh, yes, Tarrant does recall! Perhaps too well! He meets his wife’s gaze. (And if he had seen any hint of apprehension in her expression, he would have taken her up on that offer!) Faced with a veritable outpouring of unsettling muchness, he quickly assures her, “No, no! I’ll do it!” He utters the words on his son’s behalf, thinking only of rescuing Tamial from an experience far more mortifying than the lad can contemplate. Dear Fates, how wretchedly embarrassing it would be to discuss Those Topics with one’s own Mam, who fancies herself a Champion of her son’s Chastity!

Tamial might one day forgive him, but he would never forgive himself!

As preoccupied as he is with these thoughts, the realization dawns rather belatedly – in fact, it occurs to him as Alice’s muchy expression transforms into a smirk of triumph – that he had just been masterfully maneuvered into making a Promise. Tarrant blinks, considers retaliating, and then sighs. He gazes upon his wife, feeling so many things all at once – weariness and toleration and humor and love and...

“You, my Alice, are dangerously slithy, when you set your mind to it.”

“Ha! Luckily for you!”

And yes, he must admit that his Alice has used her cunning to his advantage many times. “Aye,” he agrees. “I’m a ver’lucky mahn, indeed.”

Turning back to the now-murky-with-darkness field and suddenly-up-growing-son within it, he sighs. Tam continues grinning and Futterwhackening with the lass and the evening’s emerging dragonflies. Tarrant grumbles, “I suppose this means he will finally demand that the doorknob be turned around.”

“If he doesn’t, I’m sure the doorknob will. I’m a bit surprised Tam never realized why it was installed the way it was.”

“Oh... he’ll un-riddle it soon enough,” Tarrant acknowledges. Yes, when his son finally demands Privacy, he will realize that his parents had been keeping an eye on him – or rather, they had been keeping the doorknob’s eye on him. Not that doorknobs have eyes, and yet they make marvelous child monitoring devices!

Alice tugs on his arm and Tarrant stomps (very noisily) over to Tam, where they introduce themselves to the lass – a Traeva Causwoman and the very niece of their helpful guide, Inghan! – and then threaten Tam with overnight starvation if he does not accompany them back to the tent. They do not try to to get a single, coherent sentence out of him once they have seen his new friend home. Alice snorts into her stew at Tam’s dreamy expressions and – sometimes – vibrating ears.

Otherwise, it is a rather hum-drum sort of evening despite the fact that they have made a tent their home for the duration of the festival. Tarrant lies down beside his Alice and, exhausted from being awakened by every odd swamp and festival noise during the night before, tumbles into sleep...

And then, after what seems like a very short duration of time, he wakes. It smells quite early in the morning and the world is cloaked in the darkness that lingers before dawn and the next round of games when Tarrant gasps and his eyelids fly open. He sits up, his heart pounding, and his wife stirs.

“What is it?” she whispers. “A nightmare?”

Her warm hands reach for him and he takes them. Mindful of their son, who is sleeping the sound sleep of the well-Futterwhackened only a step away, he whispers back, “Nae, my Alice. A dream.”

She crawls from her pallet into his arms and listens as he tells her of the place he had visited in that dream, of its lovely, pure, golden light. “As if’twere built from Love itself,” he murmurs into her hair. “An’ th’Hightopps were there... all of them, my Alice. An’ they told me...”

Such wonderful things: their love for him and Alice and Tamial, their pride in all that they have done and will do!

“An’ Townsend! He was there,” Tarrant lisps quickly and quietly as Alice listens. “An’ yer Mam an’ yer Fa! An’ they were sae proud o’ ye, Alice. An’ they aul luv ye sae much! Ye take afteh them aul, aye? Yer Mam’s muchness an’ Ascot’s savvy an’ yer Fa’s merry madness... An’ I dreamed,” he tells her as quickly as possible, lest the dream start to fade away and he forgets it! “I dreamed they gave us their blessings, Alice.”

“Tarrant,” she murmurs on a hitching breath and only then does he feel her tears soaking into his shirt and cooling in the early morning chill. “My love, my Hatter, my Raven...” She lifts her face to his and he can just make out the edge of her smile in the darkness. “I know they did.”

He smiles back. “Of course ye do,” he agrees. “Of course. But still... ’twas nice teh hear.”

“Yes, it was. Thank you, Tarrant, for that dream.”

He giggles softly. “I am not sure I deserve thanks, my Alice. It was only a dream.”

“It is still a dream,” she insists. “Remember? I’m still dreaming us, Tarrant. And I’m not waking up.”

“If that is the case,” he warns her, his brows twitching with the rapture and magnitude of his thoughts, “this adventure of ours could take a very, very long time.”

“Perhaps,” she murmurs back, “that is precisely what I intend.”

Tarrant curls closer to her and sighs happily into her hair. “Then, by any and all means, my Alice, dream.”

And then she settles down against his side, sighs out a happy breath and – for all intents and purposes – appears to do just that.

 

Chapter Text

The Maigh.

It does not matter how many times she attends this particular festival nor how often it is hosted at Iplam as it is now; it never ceases to make Alice catch her breath at the sight of its beauty and passion and promise. Nor do the sights and sounds ever fail to remind her of that first festival, when she had been carrying her and Tarrant’s son – although they hadn’t know then that the child would be a boy, or that he would be a Tamial, or that he would become a Keeper of Time so young or that his instincts about Time and the way he works would make him an Artist in his field and every clock and pocket watch he creates a masterpiece in an of itself. No, neither she nor Tarrant had known any of this when they had hosted (and attended) their first Maigh together. The only thing Alice had known – had dared to suspect – is the only thing that Absolem has ever willingly shown her of her own future in the Oraculum.

And today it is about to Happen.

Alice allows the manor door to close behind her and jogs down the steps that she had once despaired her lost Championhood upon – the steps that Tarrant had offered her tea upon... and then a sword fight in the mist of early morning – and weaves her way through the throng clogging the village center. The Champion Blossoms had retreated once again and the maypole had once again been erected. Alice can’t help but snicker at the sight of it... and the shenanigans she and her husband had gotten up to again when they’d been faced with setting it up. In the end, a few stout lads had helped Tarrant (who had gently refused Alice’s assistance, his eyes twinkling with mirth and passion, and reminded her that she had already helped with the maypole Quite Enough for one day).

She comes up behind her husband who has also just discharged his own duties. The young men in their clan colors mill about and fidget as they wait for their betrothed to finish their preparations within the main house. Sliding an arm around his waist, she Tickles his heart and presses against his side. After nearly thirty years of being a-Vowed, the action is automatic, as is the way he extends his arm to welcome her.

“Aul done?” he burrs and Alice tilts her head back so that she can see his expression fully from beneath the brim of her top hat.

“You, too, I see,” she replies, glancing at the assortment of young men. “Are they going to curse us or thank us later?”

Tarrant snorts, cackles, and finally giggles. “We shall see...”

“Speaking of,” she says with a start, “where is Tam?”

She glances up just as Tarrant rolls his eyes. “Where d’ye think, my Alice?”

She sighs. “Again?”

Beneath the brim of his hat, Tarrant’s brows arch. “He’s ver’be-fortuned tha’ Traeva d’snae mind.”

Alice snorts. “Well, how could she? Seeing as she’s the one he’s always going on about.” She looks back over her shoulder at the path that leads behind the manor house and into the woods beyond. “At the usual place?”

“I would assume so.”

And as they both can’t abandon the festival that they are hosting, Alice offers, “I’ll go get him. It won’t be long now...”

Tarrant squeaks out a laugh. “An’ if Traeva has teh wait e’en launger fer him... Fate help us aul.”

Hearing the truth in that, Alice gives him a pat on shoulder before hurrying toward the house. As she takes the path, she spies Leif and Tarra... and their little lion-cub, Rend. Alice watches as her former apprentice tends to the customers at her stall while Leif wrestles with his son... and does a very good job of keeping the toddler from sharpening his new claws on the furniture his mother had crafted.

Yes, Tarrant had been right about them: Tarra had indeed waited until she’d finished her apprenticeship to wed her lion-man. And then they’d waited quite a bit longer before inquiring about conception rituals.

Alice smiles. The next time she’s in Marmoreal, she really must make time to visit Tarra’s workshop and let Rend claw up her boots and chew on the buckles.

Aptly named, that one, Alice allows as she disappears around the corner of the house.

The trail she follows is a familiar one and she knows the clearing to which it leads. As she glimpses it through the trees, she slows and remembers: years ago, she and Tarrant had sparred here, had Stopped Time here, had come together here. Although, in recent years, they had ceded dominion of the clearing to the next generation.

And he is here now, with his closest friend and eternal conspirator.

The sight of her son leaning back against Maevyn’s mauve stomach in the small, grassy clearing, both of them staring up at the sunset-painted sky, brings to mind more than a few occasions upon which an unslept-in bed and a missing son had prompted her and Tarrant to wait up for their erstwhile child and his partner in crime to return home.

She shakes her head as she recalls those rocky years.

The first time Tamial had convinced Maevyn to fly him to the Callion to visit his sweetheart, Alice had been frightened and infuriated beyond words. Tarrant, luckily, had not been so hindered. The punishments they had leveled on Tam should have dissuaded him – then a mere sixteen years of age – from trying such a dangerous and irresponsible stunt ever again!

However, the very next week, there had been a second instance. Once again, she and Tarrant had encountered a concurrence of midnight and an unoccupied Tamial-bed. The fifth time it had happened, Chessur had shown up, uninvited, to propose that they merely bow to the hormones of youth and appoint Maevyn as chaperone.

Alice remembers that she had stomped on Tarrant’s foot before he’d wearily agreed. Impressionable and naïve Maevyn, entrusted to ensure that their son does nothing more irresponsible than kiss Traeva? A laughable suggestion if there ever were one!

“We shall simply do what we should have been doing for years,” Alice had admitted. “What we should have done after the first Festival of War Games.”

“Lock the little boggletog in his closet at night?” Chessur had mused playfully.

Alice had snorted even as Tarrant had made an appreciative noise of agreement. “We shall invite those of age in Causwick to apprentice to a trade here, in Iplam.”

And so young Traeva had come to Iplam and had taken a shine to silver-smithing.

“She’s e’en more talented than mae Mam was,” Alice recalls Tarrant musing as he’d turned Traeva’s very first silver hair comb over again and again in his hands. Alice had fingered the Champion-themed hatpins she’d been given (and which she is wearing very proudly now in her Hightopp top hat!) and allowed that they were exquisite creations. “What do think, my Alice?” Tarrant had suddenly and brightly asked, holding up the delicate comb he’d been gifted. “Shall I grow a beard or use it for my brows?”

She laughs silently now, at the memory. Yes, Traeva had brought quite a lot of amusement and life and activity to their family. So much so that today seems like merely a formality. Still, Tam has every right to be nervous, to confer with his best friend, to worry that he’ll disappoint Traeva Causwoman... who has already suffered quite enough disappointment in her young life.

Alice frowns briefly at the thought of a very young and little Traeva, at her delicate mother and the father that Inghan had seen fit to... remove from Underland. Alice had never asked after the murder Inghan had done, nor why she had brought her sister and niece to the Callion with her. After all these years, Alice knows that the past is just that: past. And – if at all possible – it is best not to throw pebbles into that pond.

Tam, though, knows quite a bit more than she does, Alice is sure. And it worries him. Actually, she would say he has grown up to be just like his Fa... except for the fact that only a matter of life and death could induce his father to cuddle up next to a jabberwocky and pour out his troubles.

“Your absence is conspicuous, Tamial Hightopp,” she informs him, stepping into the clearing.

Maevyn looks up and grins apprehensively in greeting.

Tam sighs. “I’m not going, Mam.”

“Excuse me?”

“I’m not... Traeva isn’t...”

Alice marches over to her son and kicks his highly polished boot. “She isn’t going to wait another year for you, young man. Either get your scut to that festival and make her happy or watch her walk away from you.”

He doesn’t answer and Alice cannot see his face beneath the brim of his top hat. She watches him breathe, notes the way his always-shaggy curls tumble this way and that, just a bit longer than her ever-short hair.

“Tamial,” she murmurs, kneeling in the soft, cool grass. “Do you love her?”

“Aye, Mam. But that’s why I—”

“Am being a fumptwat,” she finishes and he glances up sharply at that. She continues, “Whatever injuries Traeva has suffered have long since healed. And she loves you and she wants to move onward in life. Would you deny her that?”

“But, I could... Maybe I’m not... the right... man for her...”

Alice stares into his eyes, pale with worry, and she shakes her head. “She chose you, Tam. Ten years ago. At the first festival at Causwick, she chose you. And you chose her, time and time again, sneaking out of your bed late at night and getting poor Maevyn here to take you to the Callion, scaring your parents witless...! My son, your doubts... They have no place here, now. Let them go.”

She reaches out and places her hands on his shoulders, squeezes his tense muscles. She watches as her son takes a deep breath.

“Now, Tamial Hightopp, youngest Keeper of Time in the known history of Underland, son of Tarrant Hightopp and Alice Kingsleigh, what does your heart tell you?”

And Alice receives the gift of watching her son’s eyes color from pale yellow to gold and then darken with determination to the richest shade of cognac she has ever seen. He meets her gaze and nods once, decisively.

Alice holds out a hand to help him up and he stands without further hesitation.

“Brush off your scut, Tam,” Maevyn helpfully offers. “And smile, won’t you?”

Tam laughs. “Sure. I won’t forget.”

He takes another breath and turns on his heel. Alice and Maevyn watch as, back straight and fingers curled into fists of resolution, he strides across the clearing to the trail head and disappears into the forest.

“Thank you, Maevyn,” Alice murmurs. “For always looking out for him.”

The young jabberwocky turns its dawn-colored eyes on Alice and replies, “That’s what friends do.”

Alice nods. “Give Krystoval my best.”

“I will!”

Alice lingers a moment more to watch as Maevyn launches into the air, circles the clearing once, and then takes off toward the Witzend mountains. And then Alice has no reason to linger. She takes a deep breath of her own and returns to the festival, to her husband and her son and her soon-to-be daughter-in-law.

She arrives just as the brides leave the house and she breathes a sigh of relief when she sees Tam standing with the other betrothed lads, looking confident and happy.

In short, he looks just as he should. He looks just as the Oraculum had shown when Alice had seen the prediction of this day so many years ago.

“An ’ just what are ye lookin ’ sae be-pridish o’er, mae Alice?” her husband rumbles in her ear.

She considers telling him about the Oraculum, about the scene of the future – this future – that she has carried with her ever since she had proposed dying on the battlefield to save Underland from a civil war. She considers sharing this... and then chooses not to. It is not necessary, she believes. And her husband has long since lost faith in that scroll. Instead, she summarizes, “You. Me. Tamial.”

Tarrant winds an arm around her back and she slides one around his waist. It is not enough contact, however, and he reaches for her free hand with his own, Reaches along the heart line to her and she Answers. Standing in the circle of witnesses, they watch as their son kneels before his betrothed and intones his sonnet. They listen as his beloved sings her acceptance.

And then the Wedded Step begins.

Alice welcomes both Inghan and Traeva’s mother into their family with open arms and Tarrant presses a brotherly kiss to each Causwoman’s cheek. And when he meets Alice’s gaze once more and his hand twitches toward her belly, she does not ask why his eyes are filled with tears. Nor does she ask why his heart is overflowing with Joy and Awe. She remembers. He does not congratulate her on predicting this moment, so many Maighs ago. She does not thank him for saving her life, for saving Tam’s life, that night at the Ascots’ country estate. He does not mention the fire she had walked through for him, so that he might live to see this day.

No words are spoken. Well, none are spoken aloud.

And when the Wedded Step concludes and all are properly married and the musicians strike up a lively tune, Alice pulls her husband out into the throng, and dances. The wind whips away their tears and the music drowns out their laughter and their sighs. That does not make them any less real, of course, for they are Felt.

It’s not until later – much later – that Alice emerges from this haze of a dream-come-true. The wedded couples have been chased into the manor and the barrels of Battenmead opened when a very abrupt declaration jars Alice back to reality.

“Oh, bugger,” Tarrant mutters and Alice Feels his apprehension and irritation.

She looks up from her own mug of mead, following his nod and gazing in the direction in which his gaze is focused. Across the clearing, in the light of the torches, Alice watches Davon Irondirk (still unwed and still in possession of every single one of his perfect teeth) smile his most winning and charming smile... at a rather rosy-cheeked Inghan Causwoman.

“Sure as th’ Fates made wee, little boggletogs, auwr lives are abou’ teh enter a whole new world o’ Complicated,” Tarrant predicts.

“You’re right,” Alice replies as the steelsmith leans in and steals a kiss from the woman. Inghan blushes, blusters, and gives him a blistering scolding in Outlandish. As she storms away Irondirk’s smile widens; Inghan’s step has a bit too much sway in it to be a product of pure ire. “Bloody hell. You’re right,” she agrees.

For a brief moment, Alice wonders what ought to be done about it... and then she snorts at herself. Truly, in this case, the services of a Champion are not needed, for there is nothing to be done. Except prepare for the inevitable.

She sighs, shares a knowing glance with Tarrant, and they giggle drunkenly.

“Oi! Yer attention, nauw, ye drunken be-draggle-be’s!” a very bossy and matronly voice shouts. Alice looks up to see Mrs. Bakerstone standing on a table with a rather large and rather full mug in hand. “We aul ken whot time i’tis!” she declares with a grin.

Yes, Alice agrees, yes, we do. Gently, she pulls on Tarrant’s arm, urging him back through the crowd until they are in the shadows of the forest. She dimly hears the selecting of the judges – and she doesn’t doubt that she’d dimly heard Inghan’s name among them – but her attention is focused on her husband, on Tarrant’s naughty grin and his sparkling eyes. Oh, yes, for this Maigh, Alice won’t be kissing anyone except a certain Hightopp Hat inventor!

She wraps her arms around his shoulders and leans in for a kiss just as Mrs. Bakerstone belts out, “An’ nauw, aul ye lads who b’lookin’ fer a lass, le’s see yer Futterwhacken!”

Alice sees nothing except her Tarrant, which is just fine with her. The music starts and the dancing begins and Alice pulls Tarrant a bit deeper into the forest with a very specific sort of Futterwhacken in mind...

She does not notice when Irondirk wins the contest and kisses Inghan with passion and skill to the hoots and hollers of the guests. She is a bit busy at that moment, although she can honestly say that her activities are in keeping with the spirit of the Maigh!

She gazes into her husband’s eyes – they would be violet, she knows, if only there was enough light to see by – and holds onto him tightly. Their breaths merge with every kiss and his soft moans heat her blood just as her needy whispers for more drive him to give it to her.

Ask and Give...

Just as the newly weds had Asked with a pledge and Given with a song, just as the unwed lads had Asked with a dance and been Given a kiss.

It is some time later when Tarrant finally manages to convince Alice to return to the merry-making in Hightopp Village. Their absence had apparently gone unnoticed and they easily join the dancers whirling over the trampled grass, becoming lost in the atmosphere of carefree laughter and warm drink and hearty food as the people crowding the fields of Iplam celebrate life... carrying it ever – and forever – onward.

 

*~*~*~* The End *~*~*~*

 

 

 

Over the course of writing and posting One Promise Kept, I received a great many comments and questions which propelled this series. Sometimes I was inspired to add a scene. Sometimes I was encouraged to develop a plot point in response to an inquiry or speculation. All of you who have left feedback for me have helped make this story possible, and I THANK ALL OF YOU for your generosity and love.