Continuing Tales

One Promise Kept: Book 3

A Alice in Wonderland Story
by Manniness

Part 3 of 22

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It’s going to take some getting used to: being called Lady Hightopp.

Alice tries not to roll her eyes at the irony of it; ten years ago, she’d escaped that very fate by turning down Hamish Ascot’s proposal.

As Tarrant guides her away from the most recent arrival – a family of papermakers headed by a wizened old man called Jonnath Sheafment – Alice interlaces his fingers (where they rest on her left hip) with her own. Leaning close, she murmurs, “Laird and Lady Hightopp? Of Iplam?”

He blinks at her. “Ye’re surprised?”

“Well... yes. I thought...”

Part of her hopes he’ll pick up on her thoughts – use that genius intuition of his to read her mind as he so often does. He doesn’t.

“Ye thought...?” Tarrant prompts.

Alice sighs. “I thought it was a term of... endearment or some such,” she reluctantly admits, feeling stupid enough to deserve a scolding from Absolem-of-old.

Tarrant’s confused expression reforms into something resembling regret. “Ye di’nae need teh be concernin’ yerself o’er it. ‘Twon’t be many responsibilities fer us outside th’ hostin’ o’ the Maigh – this Maigh.” He takes a breath and tightens his arm across her back. “Th’ title has no meanin’ beyon’ th’ clans. ‘Tis only used because we still have th’Hightopp ancestral lands an’ we’re their host an’ hostess.”

Alice reads the truth in his expression and softly presses, “Earlier... the Bakerstones, was it? Clayton called you The Hightopp... Is that...?”

Tarrant rescues her from her verbal fumbling. Oh, she hates it when she doesn’t know how to ask the questions churning in her mind! He says, “I’m called The Hightopp nauw as I’m th’ head o’ Hightopp clan. By default as ‘twere.”

Alice ignores the next arriving clan – still a good two dozen paces off – and gently turns Tarrant toward her. She rises up on the balls of her feet and presses a warm, sure kiss to his lips. She’s only a little startled by her own actions – she and Tarrant rarely kiss in public. But, then again, this isn’t public, per se. This is their family, their people. And Alice already knows how affectionate and warm Outlanders are in general.

So no one seems to mind the display, most especially Tarrant, who smiles down at her, his eyes a luminous, rich green.

They greet and assist clan after clan with settling into the roomy white tents. Alice is introduced to Laird Huffin Bootsmith, the Master Cobbler from Galandonland with whom Tarrant’s father had once attempted to encourage him to apprentice. She shakes hands with Gloriana Clefbar, a music mistress and fiddle-maker. She then finds herself making light conversation with a husband and wife called Paneshine who are accomplished artists in glassware.

The air buzzes with enthusiastic greetings and gossip as the clan heads exchange news, the artisans set out their wares, the children chase each other around the tents, and last year’s smitten lads shyly approach and whisper to their lasses. The field – which had been so utterly peaceful before – is bursting with activity and Alice almost wishes she and Tarrant had been able to travel to one of the other Maighs.

“This is wonderful,” she breathes, leaning close to his ear.

Tarrant cackles. His eyes sparkle. “Jus’ wait ‘til we finish supper. If’n I recall correc’ly, there’s a wee bit o’ dancing and singin’ afteh-wards...”

Alice leans back a bit and gives her husband a once-over: he looks magnificently dashing in his kilt, waistcoat, and jacket. Too magnificently dashing. “There’ll be no dancing with any of the lasses,” she warns him. “Unless that lass is your wife.”

His smile widens. “An’ wha’ wou’ ye say if’n I told ye ‘twas tradition fer the host teh dance with a lass from each clan?”

She smiles back. “Then, I’m afraid I’d have to honor the tradition of the hostess dancing with a lad from each of the clans.”

“Ah, but, Alice there is no such tradition fer th’ Lady o’ th’ Maigh!”

“There will be.”

Tarrant gently curls his hands around her upper arms and growls. “No dancin’ wi’ anyone other than me.


“Aye,” he agrees.

And then, because it’s well past brillig and the sun is beginning to set, Tarrant heads for the kitchen to start serving the stew they’d prepared from Thackery’s recipe (with a pinch less salt than recommended) while Alice waits beside the Maypole, which had finally been erected with the help of two burly lads hoping to be taken on by a carpenter and an ironsmith. She watches the group she can just barely see approaching through the trees. And when they round the bend and step from the gloom of the Tulgey Wood, Alice feels a wry grin pull at her mouth.

“Lassling! How be ye?”

“You’re late, Davon,” she scolds him, nodding to his sister and her eldest daughter (who looks quite marriageable, now!), and three apprentice-aged boys.

“Och, an’ye still be rememb’rin’ me name!” The man practically bursts his waistcoat seams as his chest puffs up.

“Forgetting it even as you speak.”

“Ar, ye’re such a fibber, Lassling!” As she escorts them to their tent, Davon glances pointedly around. “Where be yer laird an’ husband at nauw? No’plottin’ me demise, I hope!”

“So long as you keep your hands to yourself, you’ve nothing to worry about,” Alice replies, surrendering to a wide smile.

“Och, nauw we come teh th’pickle o’it, fer how’m I teh ask ye teh dance if’n I mus’ keep me hands teh meself?”

Alice laughs. “I’m afraid I don’t know the answer to that one, but if you come upon a solution, please feel free to restate your invitation!”

He winks. “I’ll be doin’ tha’, m’Lady Hightopp.” Sketching a mocking half-bow, Davon turns away to begin directing the boys where and how to set out the various daggers, dirks, and bodkins that his family had brought to trade.

Drawn to the fine quality of the knives, Alice promises herself that she’ll come by their booth again later when she has time and then makes her way toward the kitchen to help Tarrant hand out the traditional Eve-of-the-Maigh meal to their guests.

“Th’ Irondirks?” Tarrant asks, ladling stew into two bread bowls before passing them to the young woman waiting beside the table.

Alice picks up the bread knife and starts working on hollowing out the loaves of bread for the next guest. “Yes. Everyone’s here now.”

Tarrant nods, ladles, hands over the second stew-in-a-loaf to the girl, then turns and murmurs intently to Alice, “An’ he behaved himself, I hope.”

Alice gives him a smug grin and a tight nod. “Only dancing with one man this Maigh,” she reminds him and he leans over and kisses her briefly in thanks.

In drips and drabs, the clans send their children to retrieve dinner from the kitchen and, when the last one has been sent off with a serving in each hand, Tarrant passes a stew-filled loaf to Alice and they wander over to their own tent where Tarrant had set out the hats he’d made specifically for trading.

“Thank you, Alice.”

In the midst of seating herself on the quilt, she glances at him and is surprised to see a certain... hesitance in his manner and bearing as he looks out over the crowded clearing. “What is it?” She asks, but she thinks she knows his answer, nonetheless: “Memories?”

He sighs and scoops out a bit of stew. She watches him take a bite and his eyes widen with surprise. “This is quite good!”

Alice grins and tastes her own dinner.

They absorb the sounds of the families and friends around them. And then:

“Almost every family here lost someone to the Jabberwocky on Horvendush Day,” Tarrant says quietly. “I couldn’t... couldn’t have... not alone, I wouldn’t have been able to... But, you’re here, my Alice. My Champion. So, I could.”

Alice places her hand on his arm and squeezes gently. No, she can’t imagine having to face so many still-grieving families all alone, the awkward silence that would very likely follow the initial greeting and words of welcome. “It’s fine,” Alice replies, meeting his worried peridot eyes. “And what happened that day was not your fault.”

And, with any luck, this festival will ease whatever strained relations still linger between the last born-Hightopp and the clans that had lost beloved members of their family all those years ago.

She reminds him, “This is a new beginning for all of us. Iplam is different. You’re different... Everything will be fine,” she predicts, then blinks with surprise when Tarrant leans in and presses a quick kiss to her cheek.

“You’re right, of course!”

Looking resolved and cheerful about it, Tarrant finishes eating. Alice rushes a bit to keep up with him and then they begin to wander from tent to tent. Tarrant is greeted by the head of each clan and Alice finds herself trying her best to follow the thick burr of their spouse or clansman... or clanswoman...

“Ye’ll b’lookin’f’rward teh th’D’claration o’Vows, then on th’morrow?” Clarisha Paneshine murmurs with a friendly smile.

Alice takes a moment to smile back and make sure she’d understood the woman’s Outlandish correctly before replying. “I’m looking forward to everything – it’s my first Maigh.”

Clarisha nods. “Aye, w’ken, Lady Hightopp. Asked yer laird teh bring ye teh our Maigh two Springs back bu’he said th’twine o’ye ‘twere tae busy teh attend. W’all been keen teh meet th’lass who cou’tame tha’ one!”

Alice feels herself blush a bit – with both embarrassment and temper. She hadn’t “tamed Tarrant Hightopp! Of all the ridiculous insinuations! However, she resists saying exactly that. “It wasn’t a question of taming but of waking up,” Alice replies, enjoying the puzzled frown Clarisha gives her in reply to the enigmatic answer. “I would have liked to have attended your clan’s Maigh,” Alice continues before the moment can turn awkward. “I regret not being able to. The White Queen, you see, had been expecting the birth of her daughter, Thacie...”

“Oh, aye,” Clarisha agrees. “’Tis our duty as women teh stand wi’each other a’those times an’ help our sisters onteh th’ birthin’ bricks.”

Alice nods, remembering. Indeed, Alice had been the one to wrap her arms around the queen and brace Mirana’s elbows in the crook of her own, their hands tightly clasped, as the woman had stepped onto the special bricks meant for giving birth. The first time Alice had performed that duty, she’d been shocked to discover that women in Underland do not typically give birth lying down as women in London do.

“Why... not ask... Gravity for... a bit of... assistance?” the queen had panted when Alice had blurted out her observation.

Why not, indeed!

“From tha’ look, m’lady, I’magine ye’ve had quite a bit o’ practice wi’ assistin’ in births...”

Alice snaps her attention back to the glass-smithie. She chuckles. “I have.”

“An’ when will i’be yer turn, Lady Hightopp?” Clarisha asks with startling forthrightness. But, Alice knows, this is merely the way Outlanders are: there’s no point in beating around the bush unless you’re negotiating for something in particular. For that reason, Alice knows Clarisha is genuinely interested and curious. And, well, Alice would never blame anyone for giving in to their curiosity!

She glances around the field. “Soon, perhaps,” she hedges. “The house is rebuilt. Perhaps it’s nearly time for people to start living in it again.”

“Glad teh hear it, m’lady.” Laying a warm, strong hand on Alice’s arm, the woman invites, “Ye’ll send word if’n ye be wantin’ help steppin’ up teh the bricks, nauw, won’ye?”

“I will. Thank you for the offer, Mrs. Paneshine.”

“Clarisha, m’lady.”

“Alice, Madam Glass-smithie.”

Dusk melts into night and Alice finds herself nodding thoughtfully along with Jonnath Sheafment’s expert advice on the proper long-term storage methods of important documents – something she’ll have to mention to Fenruffle with regards to the deeds office in Salazen Grum, what with it being so near the ocean and the air so humid at times! – when the sudden, sweet announcement of a chord from a fiddle bursts out across the clearing. Suddenly, the hum and hash of gossip and bartering dies down.

The fiddler strikes another chord... and then another... and another... And then a tin flute joins in with a brief, fleeting melody. A rawhide drum is struck. A pulse of silence rolls over the assembly. And then, as one, the musicians begin to play.

“May I have this dance, Lady Hightopp?”

Alice turns and smiles. “You may, Laird Hightopp.”

Tarrant smiles and leads her out to the clearing, lit with standing torches and meandering fireflies, and swings her about in a dance that resembles a waltz only as much as Underland resembles London: the pace is fast; the turns are wild; the rush of excitement is undeniable. Tarrant easily dodges the children chasing each other through the dancing pairs and Alice keeps her eyes on his to avoid getting dizzy.

The song changes but never stops and Alice forgets to keep track of Time. When both she and Tarrant are starting to get breathless, he twirls her out of the way and toward their tent for a rest. As they sit, side-by-side, Alice watches young men and women, exchange surreptitious glances and then sneak away from their parents who, it seems, purposefully turn a blind eye. Alice glimpses hands being held and whispers being made in each other’s ears in the shadows between the tents.

Again, Tarrant’s left arm presses against her back and his hand cups her hip. She covers it with her own, her heart-line finger touching his. “They’re so...” she murmurs.

Somehow, despite the music and revelry and screams of delight from the children, Tarrant hears her. She feels his hair brush her shoulder as he follows her gaze to those young, romancing couples. “Aye,” he agrees.

“That was never us. At a Maigh, I mean,” she says, her heart oddly aching for the memory of first love in the Outlandish custom that she and Tarrant had never known.

He brushes his lips against the brim of her hat. “Ours was better,” he whispers.

Turning, Alice tips her head back a bit so that her hat brim conceals none of his expression from her. “You really think so? No regrets that we didn’t happen this way?”


She doesn’t ask him if it would have been better if she’d been born an Outlandish lass, if they’d met at a Maigh, if the trials and tribulations they’d endured had never happened. Those Ifs and Maybes don’t matter; after all, they’re Here.

“Together,” she murmurs, brushing her thumb over his hand.

“Perfect,” he agrees.

The nights stretches out; the children fall asleep wherever they happen to sit down for too long; barrels of Battenmead are opened and cups passed around. The music fades as the Clefbars join everyone in a second, late night feast of cheeses and toasted bread and dried fruit. Conversations turn toward more serious topics: politics, history, and rumors from foreign lands.

Again, she and Tarrant wander amongst the tents to speak with the clans and learn news from the other lands and the clan members who had chosen not to attend this year. With so many unfamiliar names – let alone Outlandish words she’s never heard before – Alice can’t participate much. Tarrant doesn’t say much, either, as he often ends up explaining the details and history whenever Alice loses the thread of the conversation.

The thread of the conversation, she muses, amusing herself for a moment. Yes, with a milliner for a husband, she’s sure he can help her manage to keep all those threads straight!

The fifth or sixth time – Alice has long since lost count – she drowsily lists a bit too far to one side, a warm arm wraps around her shoulders and pulls her against a Tarrant-scented chest. “Come teh bed, Alice,” he whispers, urging her along. Alice is muzzily aware of stumbling a few steps before being swept off of her feet completely. She curls toward her husband – following his scent and warmth. The sounds of murmuring voices and distant guffaws and crackling torches fade from her awareness...

... and the next time she opens her eyes, she finds Tarrant next to her, snoring gently, his eyes hidden beneath the brim of his hat.

It’s morning, she notes, and Iplam is quiet although a few people are moving about, mostly to and from the bath house or the kitchen. Turning, Alice studies what she can see of Tarrant’s face. She bends down and winces in sympathy at the dark circles she sees beneath them in the shadow of his top hat.

Alice doesn’t even bother to consider asking him what time he’d finally laid down to sleep. With only his perpetually broken pocket watch to go by, he can’t possible tell her late – or how early! – he’d stayed up the night before.

“Sleep,” she whispers and then, sighing, Alice stands and heads for the kitchen. As hostess, the least she can do is help their guests feed themselves.


Tarrant opens his eyes, finds himself alone, inhales sharply, glances about the clearing, and – not seeing his Alice in the immediate vicinity – sends out a stutter of panic along his heart line.

“I’m fine,” the mark over his heart seems to say with its replying warmth.

He stands, still searching for her among the guests who are moving about freely. He judges the time to be mid morning by the position of the sun and the fact that banners and streamers have been hung around the clearing for the Declarations later in the afternoon. The younger children – those barely old enough to become baker’s apprentices – are galumphing around the Maypole, gleefully tangling up the ribbons.

“Bit out o’practice with a-Maighin’, Laird Hightopp?”

Tarrant limits his glare to a mere glance. “Irondirk. Wha’ brings ye a-gimblin’ o’er teh this side o’ th’field?”

“’Twas lookin’ fer th’ Lady Hightopp,” the man announces with far too much enthusiasm for someone who had been very nearly swimming in his cups of Battenmead the night before. “She set me a riddle an’ I was hopin’ teh un-gyre it f’r her.”

Tarrant scowls as the man lifts a pair of white gloves that look very much like the ones Nivens insists on carrying around with him wherever he goes... except this pair are considerably larger. Irondirk holds them out until Tarrant reluctantly accepts them.

“Th’ answer teh th’ riddle?” Tarrant prompts, indicating the gloves.

“Oh, aye. ‘Twasnae all tha’ difficult teh solve in th’end. Mayhap she was hopin’ I would!” And with a wink, the man wanders off. Tarrant stares after him for a moment then glowers at the gloves in his hand. He turns and tosses them on the quilt next to the hats and marches over to the kitchen. Although he receives a rather nice slice of warm, buttered bread for his trouble, he doesn’t find Alice.

So, again he Asks with his heart line: “Alice...?”

And again, she Answers: “I’m fine!”

The note of slight irritation might have made him smile any other day, but Tarrant remembers how easily his Alice finds trouble, especially in unfamiliar situations.

“... but ‘twas so dark, Mam! Is tha’... normal?

“Fer a heart line, I suppose so. W’don’ see many o’ those these days.”

“’Cause only th’ Hightopps use ‘em?” a young girl asks her mother. Tarrant notices the damp bath linens over their arms and the bundle of – presumably – yesterday’s clothes between them.

“Tha’s righ’, dearlin’.”

The girl sighs. “’Twas so pretty. I wan’tae be Thrice a-Vowed jus’ like th’Lady Hightopp one day!”

The mother opens her mouth to reply but Tarrant moves forward at that instant. “A-gehd mornin’ teh ye, twine ladies,” he burrs. “Were ye seein’ m’Lady Hightopp jus’ now in th’ bath?”

“Aye, tha’ w’were, Laird Hightopp.”

Tarrant relaxes.

“How come yer heart line’s red, m’laird?” the girl asks suddenly.

“Corea, hush now!

“Nae, nae, ‘tis al’righ’,” Tarrant replies. “Me Alice isnae an Outlander. She’s from Upland, ye see. An’ th’ folk up there has red blood.”

The girl wrinkles her nose a bit at the odd idea of someone having red blood.

Her mother, on the other hand, looks a bit startled. “An Uplander? So ‘tis true then; th’ Queen’s Champion isnae bein’ o’this world?”

Tarrant frowns. He makes an effort to sound pleasant despite the unpleasant reminder of Alice’s origins. Will she ever want to go back?! Tarrant says, “Aye, she isnae. But Underland chose teh bring her here, an’ tha’s surely sommat teh take under consid’ration...”

“Indeed, ‘tis, m’laird. Gehd day teh ye. Come along, Corea.”

For a moment, he merely stands there and watches them haul the laundry to their tent, but then he glances in the direction of the bath house where Alice is no doubt washing up. He sends a brief apology to her through his heart line, then takes himself off to bathe.

In some ways, this day – Maigh – is even louder and busier than the evening before. Tarrant helps the parents set up a few games to keep the younger children occupied and out from underfoot: He hides one of his new hats and gives the children a riddle to puzzle out (“Wha’ can be taller than ye, yet able teh be sat upon?”) and sends them off on the hunt for the answer. He also devises a game of hat-tossing after a pair of bright-eyed girls have won the hunt by solving the riddle then locating and presenting him with the hat he’d hidden. The Hat Toss provides a good deal of entertainment for the children as they fling hats by the brim down a stretch of grass and mark the distance... and then demand rematches with the winners.

Tarrant keeps his eyes open for Alice, but with all the activity, all he manages is a glimpse of her as she’s ushered into the Main House with several mothers. Tarrant sighs; no man will be allowed in that house this morning and he doubts Alice will be able to rejoin him before the Declaration of Vows is about to start.

He frowns as he struggles to remember what his Mam had said of the hostess’s tasks. It had been so very long ago... He vaguely remembers something about helping the brides bathe and dress and... oh. Oh! Tarrant glances worriedly at the house again. He’s just remembered: the hostess is expected to give the girls advice of an... intimate nature concerning their wedding nights.

He winces.

Oh, lad. Ye really should’ve remembered tha’ bit a little earlier... Alice isnae goin’teh b’pleased wi’ye fer f’rgettin’ teh tell her ‘bout tha’ duty!

No, he doesn’t expect she will be.

Lips compressed in a tight line of indecision, Tarrant hesitantly decides to apologize both now... and later. An instant after he sends his heart line message, Alice’s confused query massages his heart. And as he stands there, trying to figure out how to explain her predicament though emotions, another pulse tickles his chest.

He twitches and blinks. Alice is... laughing? Oh, she must be! He’d know the feel of her laughter anywhere! And then there’s a caressing warmth around his heart and he knows that not only has he been forgiven, but also reassured.

Tarrant sighs. Of course Alice would be all right with advising the brides. Of course she would! His Alice can do anything! And she’s never yet let at challenge defeat her! He giggles.

And he feels thankful for their heart line. He can’t recall if his parents had ever used it they way he and Alice do, if it had deepened to the point where his Fa and Mam had been able to very nearly converse with it, but he suspects they hadn’t. He suspects that the connection he and Alice have is very Special...

Tarrant startles as several lads shuffle past him carrying one of the long kitchen tables.

Ah, yes, yes! The Declaration preparations!

He launches himself into action, locating white table cloths and chairs. In the kitchen, men and women and some of the more responsible children are slicing, dicing, baking, and simmering the afternoon meal. Noticing Irondirk amongst them, Tarrant steers clear of the kitchen and asks a pair of bored-looking boys to help him untangle the Maypole ribbons.

The morning races by and suddenly the lads who will be wed to their lasses appear in their clan colors.

“A few words o’ wisdom fer th’ new husbands, m’laird?” the Master Cobbler asks him.

Tarrant blinks but recovers quickly. By the nervous – but not embarrassed! – expressions on the faces of the young men, Tarrant realizes that he’s not expected to give advice on the wedding night, but on marriage in general.

Clearing his throat, Tarrant says simply, “Th’ lass always has th’ right o’ it. So ye’d best be resignin’ yerselves teh listenin’ teh her from th’ start ‘r ye’ll be regrettin’ it sommat fierce later on!”

Master Cobbler Bootsmith laughs. “I see ye’ve learned tha’ lesson well, Hightopp!” The older man steps closer to Tarrant. The lads, looking slightly more relaxed now, begin to talk amongst themselves or idly pace a bit in the field, waiting for their betrothed. “I ne’er thought I’d see ye so happy, lad. Be-giddies me heart.”

“Thank ye, sir.”

The cobbler grins. “Oh, how proud yer Fa an’ Mam wou’be teh see ye nauw, lad. A grown man, a hatter, a husband, a happy man... ye ken tha’s all they e’er wanted fer ye?”

Tarrant swallows, but it takes a good bit of concentrated effort to do so. “Mayhap they wou’d’ve wanted teh see me makin’ shoes instead...”

The cobbler laughs. “O’ course no’, lad! Di’ye ken how enpuff’d yer Fa was teh’ve his own son take on th’ trade? ‘Twas impossible teh talk teh th’ man! Right be-pride-ish he was o’er it!”

Tarrant feels his mouth open, eyes widen, and brows arc in disbelief. “But he...”

“Wanted wha’twas best fer his o’ly son, Tarrant. Ye’ve done the twine o’ them right proud, ye have. Or I’ll eat me smelly, dusty sole!” The cobbler winks, claps Tarrant on the shoulder, and moves back to the assortment of grooms.

“Right, ye lot! Le’s have a las’ look a’ye, nauw! Leorgan, mind yer hem, lad; if tha’ kilt’s straight, then ye’re a bit lopsided...”

Tarrant watches the lads fumble with their kilts and sporrans, getting themselves ready for the Declaration and their future wives. He watches and... he wonders if that might have been him, nervous and twitchy, waiting to wed his Alice on May Day... Another him, perhaps, and another Alice, in another Underland. Or perhaps, merely in a dream...

A hand brushes against his fingers and clasps them. Turning he smiles at Alice, lifts his arm and pulls her against his side with a sigh of contentment.

“You worried,” she accuses.

“Aye,” he admits. “If’n ye can be late, then I can worry.”

He enjoys her breathy laugh. “I suppose that’s only fair. One bad habit for another.”

His smile turns apologetic. “An’ if’n ye can be th’ wrong Alice size, then I can f’rget teh mention certain duties o’ th’ hostess teh ye?”

“It’s fine,” she assures him, as he’d more or less expected she would. “It’s all taken care of.” Her smile is rather... wide.

Tarrant Knows that smile!

Oh, bulloghin’ boggletogs,” he murmurs, amused and yet apprehensive. “Th’ poor lads won’ survive their lass’s demands, will they?”

“A few might,” she replies optimistically.

Tarrant cackles and snorts so loudly he earns himself the Evil Eye from not a few of the anxious grooms. “Beg yer pardon,” he murmurs, allowing Alice’s hand, which is rubbing circles across his back, to calm him down.

And then he’s released from their attention as the door to the Main House opens and, one at a time, the lasses emerge, take their Fa’s arm and walk toward the Maypole and its fluttering ribbons. Tarrant leads Alice away from the center of the clearing and, leaning his cheek against the brim of her hat, watches as each lad steps forward and – on bended knee – declares his love and loyalty to his betrothed. Many of the lads had chosen to craft sonnets in Old Outlandish and Tarrant aches to translate them for Alice. When he draws a breath and prepares to whisper in her ear, she merely brushes her fingertips over his lips. He sees the tears in her eyes and knows she needs no translation. The moment itself and the cadence of the words speak for themselves.

And the lasses reciprocate. Pulling their husbands to their feet by their trembling, sweaty hands, they sing their acceptance. The lads twirl their lasses so that their wives now stand facing the crowd. The young men step up behind and to the left, take their wife’s hand, and the music starts.

Tarrant watches as the seven newlywed couples begin the Wedded Step together. They move in concert – in utter and complete unison.

“How is this dance possible?” Alice murmurs. Tarrant can feel her awe radiating in his own chest. “Have they practiced before this?”

“No’ta’tall,” he replies. “They learn th’ steps from their Mam ‘r Fa, but this is th’ first and o’ly time they’ll dance it taegether.”

“But they’re... perfect,” she argues.

“’Tis magic, my Alice.”

She sighs happily. “I’ll never learn everything there is to know about Underland.”

Tarrant is very happy she sounds so pleased by that.

The Wedded Step concludes with a flourish from the tin whistle and then the fiddler strikes up a lively tune: the party has begun!

Younger couples take to the circle of dangers around the Maypole. Fathers clap each other on the shoulders and shake hands. Mothers hug and kiss their new sisters on the cheeks. The children make mad dashes for the banquet laid out on the long tables.

Noticing Alice’s stillness despite the infectiously festive atmosphere, he turns and crouches a bit to see beneath the brim of her hat. “Alice?”

She gives him a trembling smile and Tarrant fishes for a handkerchief to mop up the tears on her face. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m just being silly.”

He watches as her hand drifts over her belly. He follows her gaze to where the families – now joined through their children’s marriage – are coming together, laughing and crying and embracing.

“That will be us... some day,” she whispers.

Tarrant gasps. He struggles with his own response to that, thankful that Alice hadn’t Shared this feeling with him; he’s not sure he could have handled both hers and his own! He pulls her into his arms, lifts her chin, wipes away her tears, and agrees.

“Aye. One day...”

She rises up and he leans down and their hats bump as they kiss. Tarrant doesn’t care. And, if the strength of Alice’s grip on his shoulders is any indication, she doesn’t care, either. He gives them both the kiss they need: warm, wet lips; sinuous, brushing tongues; hot, panting breaths; sharp, scraping teeth. No one interrupts them.

But when they part, knowing smiles on their swollen lips, someone shouts:

“Nauw, tha’s how it’s dun!”

Several people cheer, whoop, and applaud.

One daring soul shouts at the newlyweds, “Le’s see wha’ ye young’uns can do, nauw!”

More cheers follow that challenge and, blushing, one groom – then another and another! – takes his wife into his arms and gives her a thorough kissing.

“Ours was better,” Alice informs Tarrant as the crowd eggs the newlyweds on.

And just because he can’t resist his Alice when she praises his skills in pleasing her, he kisses her again. This time no one notices. No one except Alice, that is. And, frankly, that’s exactly how it ought to be!

There’s dancing and drinking and eating and all sorts of merry-making until the sun beings to set. And then the new wives and their new husbands race between lines of cheering Outlanders toward the Main House and disappear inside.

“Where’s tha’ barrel o’ Battenmead?” one woman hollers. “’Tis callin’ me name!”

And then the drinking and feasting and reveling begin anew. And, just as the night before, the festivities do not stop, even when the air is filled with fireflies.

Tarrant sweeps Alice across the much-trampled grass in time with the lively jig, feeling more complete and whole and healed than ever before! She keeps her gaze on his and, despite the fact that it’s terribly crowded! Tarrant is beyond noticing anyone other than his wife in his arms.

“Oy! Yer attention, ye boisterin’ lot!” a woman calls, banging a wooden ladle on one of the long tables. The music dies down and the dancers stop. Tarrant notices this a tad belatedly and draws a bit of ribbing for it:

“Aye, aye, we can see yer still madly in luuuv,” the announcer says with a smile and roll of her eyes. “But nauw ‘tis time teh gi’th’ young’uns a chance!” She pauses for dramatic effect. And then: “All ye lasses who be looking fer a fella, open yer eyes an’ yer hearts! ‘Tis time fer th’ Futterwhacken!” She turns toward Tarrant and Alice. “Yer ladyship? Ye’ll be one o’ our esteemed judges...?”

The cheers and general uproar of approval makes it impossible for Alice to decline. With a nod of her head, she joins the woman – Mrs. Bakerstone – at the long tables along with the eligible lasses.

“An’ nauw, ye lads lookin’ fer a lass, le’s see yer Futterwhacken!”

Tarrant and the other married men step back into the crowd, clearing the area for unwed lads of all ages to step up and face the judges. Tarrant does his best to ignore the fact that Irondirk is among them.

The Clefbars strike up the music and the spectators clap, stomp, and whoop in time with the music. One by one, the men in the clearing give the dance their all, taking turns and striving to outdo each other. The judges cheer with the crowd when a lad manages a particularly difficult maneuver – a head spin, then a twist of his upper body, and finishing with a leap-and-tumble. Tarrant enjoys the show immensely. And he also enjoys the fact that, after the music has died down, Alice looks out across the clearing, finds him, smiles and winks.

“Yours is better,” the twinge around his heart seems to say.

“An’ nauw, w’shall consult!” Mrs. Bakerstone announces. The unwed lads in the clearing wait while the ladies gather together. There’s a bit of gesturing that indicates particular techniques that impressed the lasses. Tarrant watches, as – for the most part – Alice merely nods along with the younger women and seems to endorse their preferences.

Long moments and yards of speculation later, the lasses resume their positions along the near side of the long tables.

“W’have decided,” the masonry matriarch says loudly (no doubt with the aid of a bit too much Battenmead), “tha’ w’have three fortunate winners this year!”

The number changes every year? Tarrant finds himself wondering. Oh, how he wishes he could more clearly recall the first Maigh his clan had hosted!

“Fylvin Sheafment!”

Unable to contain his victory, the lad in question leaps into the air not once, not twice, but over and over again!

Belatedly, Tarrant wonders what the prize is...

“Ollant Clefbar!”

The lad whoops and spins around, his kilt flaring just shy of an indecent level. Ollant turns back to the judges and just grins.

A faint thrum of dread vibrates in the pit of Tarrant’s stomach.

“And Devon Irondirk!”

Irondirk doesn’t celebrate. No, the bloody bastard smirks.

Tarrant’s eyes narrow and his nostrils flare.

“An’ nauw our lads may claim their prizes – a kiss from each o’ our luvely judges!”

Alice’s eyes widen. She turns toward Mrs. Bakerstone and squeaks, “A kiss?

The woman merely smiles.

Tarrant considers doing something highly... unpleasant to her. After he breaks the winners’ noses, of course.

Remember teh use yer left hand this time, lad!

“Aye,” he growls.

“D’nae worry, Alice. I’ll b’gentle,” Irondirk announces and the crowd roars.

Tarrant feels his heart race with Alice’s alarm. He’s a breath away from stepping out there and forbidding any of those greizin’-grommers from TOUCHING HIS ALICE!


He blinks at the calm, controlled emotion stealing over his heart. He looks up and Alice is smiling softly at him.

She says, “But I won’t be if those lips of yours come anywhere near mine, Davon Irondirk!”

The crowd guffaws. Men smack their thighs and women shriek with laughter. Tarrant tenses and wonders how this can’t not remind Alice of that horrible trial she endured in Causwick Castle years ago...

He watches for the madness to take her, for her smile to stretch just a little too wide, for her brown eyes to turn black and vicious... but none of that happens.

“Step up, Young Sheafment, and claim yer kisses!”

The crowd counts as the young man steps up to the first lass who gives him a brazen smile and an eager kiss. Tarrant marks the boy’s passage down the line of eight lasses before stepping – a bit reluctantly, Tarrant notes with satisfaction – in front of Alice. She stands tall and straight. Tarrant has seen that haughty expression on her face before although, thankfully, never directed at him. Still, she takes pity on the lad and presses a chaste kiss to his cheek.

The knot that had once been Tarrant’s lungs and stomach relaxes enough for him to breathe. At least, until the second lad – bit older than the first – steps up to claim his kisses. Again, Alice doesn’t give him the chance to kiss her on the lips. Tarrant manages a deep breath before Irondirk steps forward.

The man is nearly Tarrant’s age, but that means nothing to Outlanders. If a lass is of marriageable age and desires to find a husband, there’s nothing to stop her from choosing a much older, unwed man. Still, Tarrant wishes there’d been a way to bar the bastard from competing in the Futterwhacken altogether!

The man gives each girl a seemingly gentle kiss, just as he’d promised, but as he moves closer and closer to Alice, Tarrant feels his ire mounting. He can only guess what color his eyes are now and very nearly squeezes them shut to keep everyone from finding out how very Much the Idea of another man kissing his Alice upsets him. He doesn’t shut his eyes, however. Alice will find a way out of this. He Believes. He Knows. He Demands...!

Smirking with unrestrained glee, Irondirk moves toward Alice and stands opposite her.

“I hope ye don’ think I’ll le’ye ge’away wi’a tiny peck on th’cheek, m’lady!”

Alice glares. “I hope you don’t think I’ll let you walk away with that jaw unbroken if you try for more!”

More laughter rolls out over the field. Tarrant is too busy fisting his hands to notice.

“Ar, ye’re still a righ’laugh, Alice!”

She gives him a tooth-filled grin. “Continue thinking that at your own peril, sir.”

More sounds of merriment that Tarrant barely hears.

“Bu’ I like livin’ dangerously,” the man burrs, leaning closer.

Mind blanking with the madness Tarrant hasn’t felt in years, he tenses, feels the burning begin beneath his skin, behind his eyes... He is one Instant away from pulling that son of a shukm-lickering booly-geber away from his wife...!

And that’s when it happens:

Suddenly, there’s a rush of air, a powerful blast of wind that dampens the torches and scatters the fireflies. A shadow passes over the clearing as something large comes between the moon and the people below.

And then they hear the roar. A beast unfolds its massive wings. A crested head rises up, a jaw (full of wickedly sharp teeth) opens.


The shout destroys the silence, the moment of suspended terror and disbelief. People scream and scramble toward the shelter of the woods. Tarrant, however, does not.

As he sprints across the field, Alice pushes past Irondirk.

“What is it, Krystoval? Is it...?”

“Yes,” the Jabberwocky replies. “You must come with me now.

“Th’lass isnae goin’ anywhere wi’ye!” Irondirk proclaims, reaching for her.

Alice evades his arm easily and reaches out for Tarrant. In the next instant, he has her hand clasped in his and they’re facing a shadowy monster with flashing red eyes.

“Champion Alice,” the Jabberwocky tells the Outlander, “has promised me her assistance should I require it. I require it now!” Turning back to her, it says plainly, “Maevyn has spoken.”

One Promise Kept: Book 3

A Alice in Wonderland Story
by Manniness

Part 3 of 22

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