Continuing Tales

One Promise Kept: Book 4

A Alice in Wonderland Story
by Manniness

Part 7 of 15

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One Promise Kept: Book 4

He’d told them they were going the wrong way.

They hadn’t listened.

Leif glowers at the lot of them as they pull up short in front of the masonry blocking their path. He folds his arms over his chest and swallows back the four words that are clawing at the back of this throat: I told you so.

“Well,” the Hatter says with forced cheer. “You were correct, Leif. We won’t find Tarra on the castle side of the canal.” He tilts his head to the side and studies the abrupt end of their northward path. “I still maintain that it would have been rather poetic to find a band of revolutionaries encamped on the site of the slackush castle of Crims.”

Alice turns, following the lantern light as Irondirk pivots to retrace their path. “Perhaps they don’t appreciate poetry much,” she offers.

The Hatter scoffs. “Amateurs. All revolutionaries worth a mention in the history of history are noted for their poetry. Why, when I was the head of the Resistance, there was a Place for poetry and rhymes and look how far that brought us!”

“Shut it and leave it, Hatter. In case you hadn’t noticed, there’s nothing here,” Leif announces on a growl, stomping along in the too-slowly moving glow of the lantern. “And in case you’ve forgotten, were are still looking for someone.”

“Two someones,” the Hatter has the nerve to correct him. “And I still say that poetry is exponentially helpful in the case of resisting tyranny.”

“That is utter nonsense.”

“Nonsensery is also a valuable asset to the aspiring rebel. I assure you.”

Alice cuts through Leif’s snarl: “I find that very reassuring.”

Leif just shakes his head and holds out a paw for the lantern. Irondirk hands it over without a word of protest. Miracle of miracles.

Miracles. Yes, he wouldn’t mind experiencing an example of that particular phenomenon right about now. Leif wouldn’t say No to having Tarra safe and sound in her chambers at Mamoreal, all this Champion business forgotten and everything back to normal.

And while he’s at it, why doesn’t he just wish for Tarra to stay six years old forever? Things had been so simple then. Or had they?

Leif frowns as he considers barefoot tea parties and hastily assembled search posses for lost wooden swords and...

Why couldn’t Tarra have stayed that way forever? The Tweedles are certainly giving that very goal their best combined effort. Those boys haven’t aged a day since they’d left school and refused to return, had refused any and all responsibility not related to games and adventure and arguments. They had lost themselves in childhood.

But Tarra had never tried. She’d always reached for more. She’d always pushed herself to be stronger, braver... more.

And he had let her.

Leif grits his teeth and breathes out a snarl. Damn his selfish soul, he had let her.

Dale is right.

But of course he is. Of course he is right: Tarra had made herself into a mate worthy of the King’s Champion. She had chosen him. And he had let her.


He cannot remember when it had happened, exactly, when he had started wanting that brash little princess to be his friend. He cannot remember when he had decided to be hers. Somehow, it had happened, though. One slowly passing day at a time they had fallen into a trap of sorts... and Leif had not noticed until she had donned the uniform of the Queen’s Champion, had smiled up at him with unmistakable pride and daring, had grown up...

… and had awakened a completely different kind of Wanting within him.

Leif remembers that moment. He had never been so horrified in his entire life. And he had certainly never expected to feel such shame. Unlike when he had betrayed his family to save Alice’s life on the battlefield, Leif had been unable to summon up even a twinge of righteousness, of honor. He had looked at Tarra – his Tarrash’rya! – and it had destroyed him.

Only later had he begun to realize the why of it.

He’d avoided the truth as long as possible. He had hoped Alice and the queen’s ruse to dissuade her from her chosen path would work. And only when it had become obvious that Tarra would sooner give up on him than becoming a Champion, only when he had realized she will do anything to prove herself, only when Dale had confronted him with his crimes – committed in ignorance, but crimes nonetheless! – had Leif finally faced the Truth.

He is the one who has allowed Tarra to come to this end.

And he will never forgive himself for it.

Nor can he forgive Alice for agreeing to train Tarra to be the next Champion. He has seen what the role had done to Alice. She knows the pain and suffering it entails. His heart aches to think of Tarra facing those horrors.

When she does, it will be your fault.

There is no arguing with the Truth, so he doesn’t even try.

“Leif,” Alice whispers. “Calm down. Your breaths are echoing.”

He wants to shout at her about the ridiculous order of her priorities: how can she care about the loudness of his breaths when they have not yet found Tarra?!

But his Better Sense stays his tongue. He clenches his jaw, nods, and focuses on taking shallow, measured breaths. The danger has not passed, after all. Tarra is down here, somewhere, and they need to find her... without risking her life in the process.

He imagines all manner of unpleasantness: Have they bound her? Are they intending to hold her hostage? Has that blighter Masonmark dared to touch her?

Alice bumps his arm and the lantern wobbles.

He renews his focus.

Irondirk’s stomach growls.

The Hatter counts off the paces left to their entry point under his breath in a lisping hiss. And, not for the first time, he has to admit that – in the Hatter’s case, at least – madness and brilliance are a pair well-suited to each other. As with all first-time journeys, the return trip seems much faster than the initial venture into the unknown.

According to the continuing countdown, they are only thirty paces away from the entrance that leads up to the orchard when, ahead, something flickers in the darkness. Even before Alice throws out an arm, Leif has skidded to a halt.

“Torches,” she mouths as a second then a third point of light glow to life in the distance.

Leif fumbles with the lantern, tries to turn down the flame before the approaching group notices, but his fingers are too broad and the mechanism too delicate. He reluctantly thrusts the lantern in Irondirk’s direction.

“Put it out!” he growls.

“It’s a Long-light Lantern,” he protests. “Won’ go out sae laung as it’s dark.”

Leif curses and moves the lantern behind him, trying to dampen the light. The Hatter takes it from him and there’s the sound of fabric flaring and then darkness falls.

“’Twill start burning through m’jacket soon,” he warns them. Leif crouches down and scuttles toward the wall. He can hear the others doing likewise.

“Retreat,” Alice orders as the sound of footsteps echo toward them.

Leif shakes his head. “No.” This may be their only chance. They will have the aid of Surprise. They might be able to end this now – right now! and that is something he cannot back away from!

And then, suddenly, the torch bearers are close enough to be illuminated. Leif recognizes them even though he does not know their names. He’s seen them around town, in taverns and exchanging friendly, harmless greetings with Masonmark.

They look neither friendly nor harmless now.

They plow through the muck with practiced ease. The torchlight reflects off of the long knives they carry on their belts. Leif remains perfectly still; they have not noticed their uninvited guests yet.

And, of course, because he’d dared to think it...

“Sommun’s been ’ere!” a young man says, stopping and lowering his torch to the ground. Several others briefly study the tracks in the grime. (Perhaps there had been a symbol drawn into the muck that they had disturbed? Or perhaps it is their boots that are unfamiliar? But no! Leif realizes what it is they must be seeing: Bayto’s footprints. Of course! How stupid of him to neglect that!)

“Bluddy bulloghin’ brangergain! Search the tunnel,” a young man curses and commands. Leif recognizes Masonmark’s voice. He looks past the line of torchlight and spots the blighter... as well as the long knife in his hand and his grasp on Tarra’s unresisting arm.

“We can’t permit them to take the queen’s daughter,” the bastard reminds his fellows.

Leif bites back a curse. Luckily, the growl that emerges is camouflaged by Tarra’s protest: “You’ll find out precisely what the queen’s daughter can and will do if you don’t stop trying to manhandle me!”

Even though her burst of bravery soothes him, reassures him that she is still herself and well and unbeaten, Leif tenses. His paw inches toward his scimitar. His gaze moves over the approaching adversaries. They are children – nothing but children! – but they have Tarra!

What choice does that leave him except the only one he can bear to live with?

The scent of smoke, of smoldering fabric, reaches his nose an instant before the Hatter unveils the lantern and flings it toward the group. Gasps echo and bounce back and forth in the the small space. Bodies dive and stumble aside. Leif makes his move. He can hear Alice beside him as they race into the throng along the path the tossed lantern had cleared for them. There’s a brief flash of light on steel and he knows she has drawn her broad sword.

There is no time for dwelling on the Hatter’s brilliance – for in throwing the lantern away from them and into the group, he had preserved the mystery of their numbers and their identities – if Leif intends to take full advantage of the situation. And he most definitely does!

Fear freezes many of these young, inexperienced fighters in place as he and Alice bully through. Most have not even thought to draw their knives. Leif swings the scimitar, knocks the long knife from Masonmark’s hand even as Alice grabs Tarra’s arm.

For an instant, they are victorious.

And then...

“Fight! Stop them!” Masonmark screams and there’s a flurry of motion in the flickering torchlight. Somehow, Alice loses her grip on Tarra’s arm.

Masonmark retreats, stumbling and splashing, into the shadows with his hostage.

Leif glimpses Alice’s pursuit and then an instant later, a blur of shirtsleeves and auburn hair as the Hatter sprints after her. Leif turns to follow but comes up against a circle of blades.

He pauses, glances over his shoulder and past the knives being presented to his back. Irondirk has been backed against the wall, his sword at his side. Of course the bastard doesn’t want to fight. Neither does Leif! Their foes are nothing but children, after all!

But Tarra...


His fingers tighten around the scimitar. His gaze turns toward the darkness into which his Tarrash’rya has disappeared.

He can fight, true. And he can kill...

But these are children.

Leif cannot permit himself to cross this line. But the roar of fury...

That he does not deny himself.

It thunders down the tunnel, unsettling the knife-wielding obstacles in his path, but they do not drop their weapons. And he will be of no use to Tarra or the king or queen dead or injured.

His growls are composed of Shuchish curses as he stares into the darkness, unable to do anything more than hope that Alice and the Hatter will succeed where he has failed. And that, one day, Tarra may forgive him for surrendering without a fight.


Alice is not happy. Not at all. Not with Leif – the idiotic male! (How could he think they could possibly win against so many and on enemy territory?) She is not happy with herself – why hadn’t she thought to rub out their tracks in the muck!? She is not happy with Tarrant – he could be charging right into a poised sword blade right along with her in this echoing darkness! She is not happy with Tarra – what is stopping her apprentice from dealing with Masonmark herself? Leif had knocked away young man’s knife and even if Masonmark does have another weapon in his possession Alice does not doubt that Tarra is fully capable of freeing herself!


She slips, skids, abrades her hand against the rough, grimy wall and regains her balance. Tarrant’s free hand gropes for her in the dark – finding first her elbow, then her wrist – but she’s moving again before he can pull her right along with him.

She tries to remember how many youths had been in the group returning to the orchard entrance. Had that been all of the missing apprentices and shop assistants from Crimson Harbor or are they being lead into another group? She digs in her pocket for a handkerchief and covers her mouth, muffles her breath in order to hear the racing footsteps ahead of them more clearly.

She listens carefully to the rhythm of their quarry’s flight, hopes any irregularities will be enough to alert them to traps – trip wires, garrotes, or other obstacles – set up for the expressed purpose of injuring the uninitiated.

Alice wonders if Tarrant has been counting their paces. It’s likely. They race perhaps for what seems like a Very Long Time but must not be too far because she is not winded yet before Alice can finally make out... something ahead.

She wants to ask what it is, that odd grayish glow – it cannot be the end of the tunnel and Gummer Slough... it’s too soon for that to be possible! – but refrains. No, she needs all the breath she can spare at the moment. Questions are a luxury she cannot afford.

Abruptly, the sounds of the footsteps ahead of them change: soften to muffled thumps, pound to a halt, swish on a pivot.

Alice hears the unmistakable clatter of metal-on-metal.

She tosses aside her handkerchief and transfers her sword to her scraped hand. With the other, she reaches out and catches Tarrant’s shirtsleeve. He jogs to a halt beside her. She pushes him insistently toward the wall nearest to him. The heart line twinges but he moves silently in the direction she’d indicated. Alice mirrors him, taking up position against the opposite wall, and advances toward the faint illumination.

As she moves closer, listening so hard in the darkness she thinks she can hear the sound of her own ears working furiously, Alice realizes that the light is coming from outside. There is a hole in the ceiling of the tunnel and the moon is out tonight. There is sand beneath her feet and the remains of a campfire beneath the light itself.

She moves carefully, feeling with her hand and feet, sword held at the ready. Somewhere in the darkness, Tarrant moves with equal silence and caution. Somewhere in the shadows, Tarra’s abductor is lurking... with Tarra in his grasp.

How does he expect to win?

He can’t. Not burdened with a hostage.


Alice twitches her chin to the side. Denies the thought. Now is not the time for it. Later... she will think on what has occurred later.

And then a whistling whoosh! cleaves the silence. Alice ducks an instant before she deduces – thanks to the slight spike of alarm and quick pulse of determination over her heart – that the attack had not connected with its intended target. She realizes a moment later, as light explodes in the center of the room, that the whistle and whoosh had been the tossing of a Fire Cracker and the subsequent ignition in the campfire ring.

The biscuit does its job, illuminating the tunnel in a glow that grows steadily brighter. Alice will think about flammable snack items and the three-second rule pertaining to dropped food later. Yes, later, she’ll marvel at the Underlandish-ness of Fire Crackers.

Right now...

She keeps her attention localized even as two shadows converge on the opposite side of the tunnel with a crash of steel: Tarrant has found Masonmark. Alice forces her gaze away from the ghastly shadows striking out at each other against the illuminated tunnel wall. The malformed images and the very real bodies that are producing them have the power to mesmerize her if she permits herself to even acknowledge their existence. She makes a decision to trust Tarrant to handle Masonmark and she looks for Tarra.

And finds her.

She opens her mouth to call her name...

And spends much of that breath dodging a tossed bedroll.

Tarra!” she gasps.

Her apprentice replies with a very sharp, very long drawn sword. A claymore by the look of it.

The alarm Alice feels as Tarra advances with purposeful steps, her eyes flashing, is not her own. It’s Tarrant’s.

Concentrate on your own opponent! she Demands. And trust me to handle mine!

Alice!” Tarrant hisses, perhaps misinterpreting her heart line message. He rather frantically blocks Masonmark’s next thrust.

Irritated with herself and concerned for him, Alice makes an effort to Send him a measure of calm. In order to do that, however, she must first be calm. Alice demands it of herself before the situation can slide into more dire territory.

“Tarra, what do you think you’re doing?” Alice inquires, stepping over a bedroll, her sword poised in front of her.

Tarra pursues. “What does it look like, Champion?” she replies with a mocking smile.

Alice’s eyes narrow. She listens as Tarrant smacks aside another attack from Masonmark and keeps her eyes on her apprentice. “It looks like you’re experiencing a very Serious Error in Judgment.”

“Does it? That’s... interesting.” Her apprentice cocks her head to the side. “Although not very surprising. You never were strong enough to go against my mother.”

“And you fancy yourself in that role now?”

“What do you think?”

“I think that sword’s too big for you, Squimkin.”

Tarra hisses through gritted teeth, “I am not a child. As you well know.”

“Then why are you doing this? We’ve come to take you home.

Home?” Tarra sneers. “Where my every move is watched? Where my every decision is controlled by that damn Soul Bond? My mother holds no power over me here, away from her. And neither do you!”

And with that declaration she attacks.

Alice meets Tarra’s blade with her own. They circle, charge, and clash. Alice takes note of the cloak Tarra still wears. She takes note of the determination and aggression in Tarra’s expression and form. Clothing that can tangle around you in a fight; an overly emotional state of mind: all are mistakes that Tarra ought to know better than to make after all this time.

Alice gives ground as Tarra charges. In the hearth ring, the Fire Cracker flares. Soon, without any kindling to feed it, it’ll burn itself out and they’ll be cursed to darkness again. And Alice and Tarrant had better be pointed in the direction of an exit when that happens. And, as the orchard exit is... occupied at the moment, only one other option is available.

When Tarra swings high, Alice ducks under her arm, rolls in the foul-smelling sand and comes up on her feet. Now, to her back is the end of the tunnel that leads to Gummer Slough and, hopefully, the Bandersnatch. Tarra pivots before Alice can do more than find her center of gravity and sends her sword arcing toward Alice’s throat.

She jerks her upper body and chin back even as she brings up her broad sword and Tarrant shouts her name and there’s a clang! and a clatter. Someone has just lost his weapon. She hopes that person isn’t her husband.

“Im all right!” he Sends.

Alice slides her blade under Tarra’s and flips it up. Tarra doesn’t lose her grip, however. She follows the blade’s momentum, is turning back for another go at Alice’s throat...

And then Tarrant is There. Right there coming between them!

Alice curses him through the heart line as he knocks Tarra’s attack away and then...

Suddenly, his body jerks and Alice’s heart jumps up into her throat and Chokes her. The heart line burns for a moment before going numb... then turning cold... icy... brittle.

Alice shivers and Tarrant stumbles back into her. She raises her sword and defends him as best she can as his sword arm drops. She curls her body around his as he flinches in on himself. The force of Tarra’s continued assault jars her and she has to strain her muscles to keep her guard up, to keep Tarrant safe despite his highly inconvenient position between her and the queen’s daughter.

A motion to the side draws her attention: Masonmark is lowering his arm. His hand is empty but Alice knows that pose. Knows it well.

“Tarrant!” she Screams in silence. It vibrates along her heart line, and the sensation is unlike anything she has ever felt. It jars and stabs her from within. She stumbles.

Tarra is relentless.

Masonmark collects his dropped sword.

The Fire Cracker sputters.

With the last instant of light, Alice grabs Tarrant’s cravat, pushes him behind her toward the end of the tunnel...

And then, with a flick of her wrist, Alice rips the sword from Tarra’s hand.

The light dies. Suddenly. Completely.

Alice does not care about making noise. Her heart is pounding, the heart line itself is a frozen river of ice shards beneath her skin, burning her with its chill. She manages to keep her sword in her hand as she stumbles backward, using her hips and knees and shoulders to force Tarrant deeper into the gloom. She pauses long enough to grope for and pick up a bedroll. And when hasty footsteps follow, she gathers her strength and flings it awkwardly at the advancing foes. Her shoulder muscles scream but not loud enough to distract her from the pain of the heart line.

Dear Fates, she has never felt anything like this before!

The bedroll fulfills its purpose, however, and Alice listens as two bodies fumble and crash to the ground. She doesn’t linger. She fists her left hand as best she can in Tarrant’s waistcoat and shoves him deeper into the tunnel.

Masonmark’s curses are hissed but the tunnel amplifies them. There’s the sound of scrambling, of fumbling with something wooden – a crate, perhaps – and then the whistle and whoosh! of yet another Fire Cracker being dropped and allowed to ignite.

Alice slows her steps and watches as Masonmark peers into the tunnel, sword in hand. He moves as if to follow, but Tarra stops him. With her smaller hand clutching his sleeve, she says, “No. They can see us.”

Indeed they can: not only can Alice see her two adversaries very clearly, but she realizes that she and Tarrant are too deeply ensconced in the shadows now for either Tarra or Masonmark to see them.

From this distance, Alice can see Masonmark nod his head once. “Aye. Bu’ they won’ ge’ far...”

Despite the threat, he lowers his sword. Perhaps he will gather the others before continuing pursuit. Or perhaps he expects them to perish in the swamp beyond. Or perhaps he expects the injury Tarrant had received and the heart lines to...

Quietly, Alice walks backward, breathing through gritted teeth, guiding Tarrant ever closer to the exit, wherever it is.

Let it be near!

She prays as she has never prayed before. Something is very wrong with Tarrant and she fears it is due to that empty hand of Masonmark’s. When the second Fire Cracker fades and its dim distant glow is completely extinguished, when she is sure that their foes are not continuing the chase (or, not yet, at least), Alice pushes Tarrant against the wall and silently sheathes her sword. She runs her hands over his chest, which is difficult as he seems incapable of standing fully upright. But after a moment, she feels it: the fingers of her right hand brush against a very noticeable and double-edged metal protrusion. She examines the area. The knife is lodged in his shoulder. His left shoulder and...

No...” she whispers, measuring the placement of the wound.

Aye,” he replies on a pained breath, slumping a bit further down against the wall.

She checks once more, just to be sure! She probes his shoulder with her fingers – hoping she is wrong! – but she knows his body better than she knows her own!

Her fingers trail up his shirtsleeve, over his waistcoat, following the heart line she Knows to be there... and then her fingers are stopped by the blade embedded in his flesh. The blade that is bisecting his heart line.

“What do I do?” she mouths in the darkness. Can she treat this like a normal knife wound? Can she remove the blade without bringing further harm to the heart line? But how can she even begin to try to slow the bleeding if she just leaves the knife there?!

His blood runs warm and thick over her fingers and she begins to feel a little lightheaded.

“Help me,” she begs. “Tell me what to do.”

He does. “Pull th’ bluddy thing out an’ pack th’ wound.”

Tarrant’s voice, while soft, carries in its tone an Authority that she responds to automatically. She reaches up and rips her sleeves from their seams. She also uses one of her throwing knives to cut away the lower six inches of her tunic. With these scraps draped over her shoulder, she reaches for the dagger in her husband’s flesh.

“I love you,” she whispers. And then she Pulls.

Grraah!” The moan of agony is so soft it doesn’t manage to travel past their panting breaths.

Alice tosses the offensive weapon aside and quickly folds up one shirtsleeve and presses it to the wound, wedging it beneath the stiff fabric of his waistcoat. With the other strips of fabric, she fashions a rough sling. He leans back against the curved, filthy wall, sighing with relief as the weight is taken off from the muscles, easing the pressure. Alice takes a moment to reach for the waistband of his trousers and pull out his shirt. She swiftly cuts two swaths from the hem of the shirt lengthwise. With these strips, she manages to bind the compress in place over the wound. It’s far from perfect and she’s sure she’ll be utterly horrified once they have a teaspoon of light to see by, but it’s the best she can do.

“How does that feel? Any less wretched?”

“Surprisingly... yes. A bit.”

“Surprisingly...” she parrots, blinking. And it’s in this moment that she realizes his Authority had been completely and utterly false. “Damn it, Tarrant. You let me operate on the heart line in the dark?!

He giggles... weakly. “I did do that, didn’t I?”

“Brangergain i’tall,” she mutters. If only he were well enough for her to go into all the ways in which what they’d just done had been unforgivably stupid!

However, she says something a bit more productive, instead: “Don’t you dare go into shock on me. We still have to get out of here.”

“Yes, yes. If you’ll lend me your shoulder, Raven...”

Taking a deep breath to try to dispel the persistent dizziness she feels, Alice ducks under his good arm and wraps her throbbing left around his waist. The heart line still feels cold, damaged, incomplete... as if a stumble will be enough to crack it, shatter it, smash it to bits. Her heart line finger aches, her hand is numb, her arm burns, and her heart feels nearly frostbitten. She turns Tarrant toward the exit and begins the necessary trek. They set a mindless, steady pace and Alice takes to pinching and tickling the fingers of his right hand to keep both him and herself alert. He presses his lips to the side of her head regularly in thanks.

Every heartbeat seems to measure less time than it ought to: the journey to the end of the darkness can’t possibly take as much time as she imagines it does, for it feels as if forever has passed since Tarrant had stupidly come between her and Tarra. She’d had everything under control, damn it!

“She tried to take off your head,” he murmurs, somehow reading her mind. Or perhaps simply the tension in her shoulders. Or perhaps they have been married so long that they are occasionally – like now – of the same mind. Or perhaps she had merely and mundanely been muttering under her breath. She blinks just to be sure her eyes are still open. The wooziness is playing tricks with her mind and the uninterrupted darkness does not help.

“I wouldn’t have let her.”

He sighs. “I couldnae help it, Alice. ’Twas nae under my control.”

She leans her temple against his cheek and acquiesces. They both have their own personal limits and nothing will come from arguing about it now. Now they exist one step at a time, moving closer to what they hope will be the end of their trials.

“Bandy will be waiting,” she assures him. He nods.

It’s a very long time before the pinpoint of weak, glowing light ahead brightens with the coming of dawn. They trek closer and the pinpoint becomes the size of a ship’s window... and then a tea table... and then they are there, standing on the rim of the tunnel and, with a relieved sigh, Alice leans Tarrant against the slimy, moss-covered wall.

Ignoring the stagnant stench of the swamp, she takes a moment to inspect his bandages and the sight of him is even more horrifying that she’d imagined. Both his shirtfront and the whole left side of his waistcoat are soaked dark with blood. She frowns at the color, for it doesn’t appear to be as... bluish as she’d expected. She cuts more fabric from the hem of his shirt – a persistent breeze will be more than enough to show off his pale belly now! – and replaces the soaked compress. She reties the bindings across his chest and over his shoulder then adjusts his sling. He dozes through the entire procedure, still bracing himself against the curved wall of the tunnel.

“Don’t fall asleep,” she orders him. “I’ll go get Bandy.”

Alice wades through the muck of the swamp, pushing her way through saw grass and trying not to trip over willow roots and into bogs. She struggles as far from the tunnel entrance as she dares but she does not see the Bandersnatch. It takes her fogged, starved and pain-wracked mind several minutes before she realizes that she cannot find the Bandersnatch because there is no Bandersnatch. Not here, anyway. Not waiting for them.

No Bandersnatch, she realizes on a full-body shiver, means no rescue. It means they are Alone.

And Tarrant is still bleeding. The heart line is still burning. Inconceivably, their tribulations have only just begun. Mind numb, Alice turns and retraces her muddy, water-filled steps back to the tunnel.

“Wha’tis i’?” Tarrant asks, his words slurring together. His eyes are unfocused but he can no doubt see her pallor and tension clearly enough in the morning light.

She fists her left hand and tries to ignore the agony searing her through the heart line. It’s getting proportionally more difficult to do with her increasing exhaustion. “No Bandy,” she replies, too tired to be tactful.

Tarrant closes his eyes, sighs out a breath in defeat.

Seeing that, Alice summons a surge of... something. She stumbles, wobbles, weaves toward him and shakes him urgently, if a bit weakly. “No! No! And don’t you even think about sitting down now! I’ll never get you back up on my own. And I need your help.”

“You know...” he lisps on a wispy breath, “that I would give you anything you desire, my Alice.”

“Good. Because I need you to be strong for me now,” she informs him in a tone she wishes was as steely as it ought to be. “We can’t stay here. Masonmark and the others will come looking for us eventually. We have to keep moving.”

“Oh, Alice...” he moans. “Ask me another...”

“We have to!” she commands.

This time, when he sighs, it is not a pleasant sound but it is, thankfully, not an admission of surrender. “Forgive me, Alice. Of course we must. Of course... Where shall we go?”

Alice is grateful he is too worn out to consider that very carefully. If he were capable of his usual brilliance, he would have already worked that out for himself. And he would not have been happy about the answer. No, not in the slightest.

“Trust me?” she nearly begs. She’s sure she’ll have quite a bit of explaining to do once they arrive, once he has received medical attention, once he is recovering. And when that time comes, she will gladly endure his fury. So long as he makes it to that moment, the rest is inconsequential.



Tamial Hightopp – the master of espionage, warrior of truth and justice – had needed a place to hide. Luckily, the room Win had chosen had offered several. Tam had forgone the obvious under-the-tablecloth location and crouched behind a screen, wedging himself between a cabinet and a sizable stack magazines to wait. He listens to the sound of his cousin’s footsteps as Win paces back and forth in the cluttered room. Taking in what there is to see, Tam peers at the cover of the topmost magazine and... gapes.

The image on the cover is... Oh! Ah, um... well! He ought to be embarrassed even seeing a woman who looks to be his Mam’s age with her bare breasts spilling out over her corset but... he thinks his eyelids might be permanently stuck open, actually.

He leans toward the edge of the screen, tearing his attention away from the mostly not-dressed woman on the cover of the magazine in order to call Win over – his cousin had got to see this! – when, suddenly, a grumpy-looking, gray-haired man wearing spectacles stomps in.

“What do you think you’re doing in here!” the man blusters and Tam flinches quickly behind the screen, his guilty conscience biting him on the scut just like his Mam has always warned him it would should he let his Curiosity get the better of him.

“This shop doesn’t cater to children! Get out!!”

What happens next, Tam is sure, guarantees his cousin a place in Heroic Infamy until the End of Time:

In a firm, commanding tone, Win announces, “I’m here about the newspapers in the front window, sir! And I don’t expect you to cater to me unless you’re the one who sent me this!

Tam hears a slight rustle and he imagines Win pulling out the envelop he’d received over a week ago and holding it up as if waving one of those lace fans of Aunt Margaret’s. Tam has no idea if his cousin actually does that, but it is a completely Epic visual so he lets himself enjoy it.

“And if you are the gentleman who sent me this, I would very much like an explanation!”

Tam has to press his hands to his grinning mouth to keep from cheering him on. Grinning, he mouths to himself, “I think I’ve figured out what trade I want to take on.” Yes, if being as Awesome as his cousin can be considered a trade, then Tam is going to learn it!

“Ah... Well. I see,” the shop’s owner replies grudgingly. “Have a seat there. I’ll contact the man you’ll need to speak to.” Tam listens to footsteps retreating from the room into the hall. “Wait at that table and dont touch anything!” is the final command.

The door slams shut. Again, Tam scuttles forward and peers around the edge of the screen. “Hey! Win!” he whispers to his cousin’s back.

“What?” Win demands, turning in his seat, looking pale and nervous and not at all heroic, but that doesn’t erase Tam’s memories of a few moments ago. Nor does it shake his admiration.

“You were great!

“Thanks!” Win grins.

Tam smiles back. Then, remembering what he’s sharing the space back here with, he glances over his shoulder and pulls the first magazine off the stack. “Look at this!

“Holy...! Tam!

“I know! There’s a whole pile of them back here!”

Win glances over his shoulder at the door, then turns back around and whispers, “Put one in your vest!”


“C’mon!” Win whines. “Just one. No one will notice!”

I will!


“Well... all... all right.”

Win squirms in his seat, doing a rather frenzied half-Futterwhacken sort of dance. Tam giggles, rolls his eyes and turns back to the stack. He flips through several, finding one that makes his jaw drop and he actually wonders if a person’s eyes can pop out of their head.

“He~llo...” he murmurs to all the bare womany flesh on the cover of the magazine. Hastily, he tucks it under his vest and the wedges it into the waistband of his trousers. The magazine is guilty stare on his back, but he doesn’t have time to suffer much nibbling from Guilt this time. The door opens once more and the man who speaks this time is definitely not the shopkeeper!

“Mr. Winslow Manchester. It’s an honor to finally meet you.”

Tam listens as Win stands up, pushing his chair back noisily. “The pleasure is mine, sir.”

“Hm. You know, it is startling how much you resemble your late father.”

“I... um, thank you, sir.”

There’s a contemplative moment during which Tam is sure his heart is going to explode from the oppressive silence.

“Please. Have a seat, Mr. Manchester. You know, I wasn’t sure if you would agree to meet me. You are an uncommonly brave young man.”

“Th– thank you, sir. Um, what may I call you?”

The man seems to consider that for a moment. Tam itches to get a good look at him but fists his hands and forces himself to stay hidden.

“You may call me... a friend.”

Win pauses before replying. “I’m afraid I require your name, sir.”

Tam blinks, his admiration for his very muchy cousin growing by the minute.

“You require nothing, Winslow. You don’t mind if I call you by your Christian name, do you? Ah, very good. Now, Winslow, everything you require, you are already holding in your hands.”

“This?” Winslow replies, obviously not believing that. Tam smothers a snort of agreement. He listens to the crinkle of aged newsprint as Win takes them out and glances at them again

“Yes. Those. They’re fairly self-explanatory.”

“So... my dad... Lord Ascot... he really fought a duel with my father?”

“Yes. He really did. A dreadful affair.” The man shifts and his chair creaks. “Did he tell you what his infraction was?”

“Uh, well...”

“No, I didn’t think so. Hm. Well, let’s consider the facts, shall we? Your mother, Margaret Kingsleigh, was married to Lowell Manchester. And then, after his unfortunate death... she married Lord Ascot, didn’t she? Now, you’re a bright lad. Don’t you find that suspicious?”

“Well, I suppose so...” Tam listens to his cousin thinking. “So, you’re saying they fought over my mother?”

“May duels are fought over the love of a woman.”

“So... did she know? My mother?”

The man chuckles. “What do you think, Winslow?”

Silence answers that question. Tam struggles to think of a reply himself but nothing comes to him.

“Did you notice the dates?” the man drawls.

“Yes. So... my father really died on the ship to America?”

“Perhaps he did. Lord Ascot’s family is very wealthy, you know. And the ship was one of his. The men aboard were loyal to him. If he wanted the younger Lord Manchester – your father – to... disappear...”

Tam hears his cousin swallow thickly in the expectant silence. “Oh.”

“Indeed. Many things are possible for Lord Ascot. Do keep that in mind.”

“But... I can’t...! No!” Win decides hotly. “I don’t believe this! He wouldn’t. He wouldnt!

The legs of the man’s chair scrapes against the floor as he stands. “Be careful, Winslow. Associating with people who command a great deal of money and power can be... perilous.”

“But... wait! What if I have more questions! I mean... what happened at the duel? How do I know you’re telling the truth?”

“I suppose you don’t,” the man answers in a thoughtful tone. “But what possible motivation would I have for bringing this to your attention?”


“Precisely. And as for the details of that duel, I suppose you could ask Lord Ascot... if you think he’ll actually tell you the unvarnished truth.”

Win has no reply to that. Neither does Tam, actually.

The door opens but the man pauses before departing. “Take care, Mr. Manchester. And if you should wish to speak to me again, please ask the shop proprietor to fetch me. I’ve left instructions for him to do so.”

“All... all right.”

“Very good. Good bye and, until our next meeting, please, take care.”

The door shuts and the room is so silent, so still that Tam wonders if Win has disappeared. He dares to lean out around the screen and sees his cousin staring at the pair of newspapers spread out on the tabletop. He moves to stand and the magazine jabs him between the shoulder blades. Frowning, he pulls it out and considers the uncovered woman on the cover. For some reason, the image upsets him now, although he can’t really say why.

He replaces it in the stack and approaches his cousin. “Come on, Win,” he says, pulling on his cousin’s sleeve. “We should go before the shopkeeper comes back.”

Gazing blankly ahead, Win simply nods.

Tam gathers up the newspapers and tucks them back inside the envelope. With a hand on the other boy’s arm, he leads him down the hall and toward the door. Just before he opens it, he hesitates. Is the man outside, waiting? Will he see them both and realize that Win had not come alone after all?

Tam bites his lip and dithers. It’s not until he can hear the sounds of the shopkeeper moving precariously close to the door separating the shop proper from these back rooms that he dares to open the door and haul his unresisting cousin outside. And he continues hauling him right back to Green Park.

“Sit down,” Tam orders him, pointing to the base of a tree. Win does. Tam slumps to the ground next to him and for long moments, they contemplate the late afternoon light on the green grass, the passers by, the completely normal (if grayish and somewhat smoggy) day around them.

“Do you think my dad... Do you think he really... did those things?” Win finally whispers.

Tam huffs out a breath and replies brashly. “I can’t even imagine it.” And that’s really saying something.

“You couldn’t imagine him in a duel, either,” Win reminds him.

Tam scowls and searches for something reassuring to say.

But, for the life of him, he can’t think of a single thing.

One Promise Kept: Book 4

A Alice in Wonderland Story
by Manniness

Part 7 of 15

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