Continuing Tales

One Promise Kept: Book 4

A Alice in Wonderland Story
by Manniness

Part 8 of 15

<< Previous     Home     Next >>
One Promise Kept: Book 4

One foot is placed in front of the other. One step is suffered at a time.

Alice can no longer feel their plodding progress itself, even as they make it. The cold, sucking mud has long since drawn all feeling out of her legs from the knees down. Her hips and thighs and back compensate for the lack of sensation by screaming in agony as she pulls one foot out of the muck, thrusts it forward, sinks it back into the marshy earth, and then lifts the other.

She can only imagine how Tarrant is bearing this.

Reaching up, she yanks on his hand again where it dangles in front of her chest. She’s too lightheaded – perhaps from lack of sleep although that has never affected her this strongly before – and too shaky – from pushing her body past its limits, no doubt – and too exhausted to be gentle with him. At this point, she’s just trying to remind him that they’re both still Alive. Loving and teasing touches will come after they’ve made it through the Slough.

She fairly claws at his clammy, mud-splattered, grimy hand. Tarrant fumbles until his fingers grasp hers and although he does not speak – he can barely keep his eyes open for any length of time! – he does respond with a painfully strong grip.

If she weren’t incapable of stringing two words together, she would have thanked him for the discomfort. Anything other than the monotony of their trek is welcome at this point. Anything.

“Tam... safe,” he rasps suddenly.

Alice blinks, breathes, and winces as she pulls her left foot out of the muck. A few steps later, when the meaning registers in her brain, she nods. “Yes.”

“... good,” he points out flatly.

“Very.” Yes, it is very good that they had decided to send Tam to Upland. He’ll be safe there. Margaret will look after him. Hamish will lecture him. Winslow will corrupt him. Yes, Tam is fine.

“Son...” Tarrant grunts and Alice thinks she might have actually heard a sprinkling of emotion in his tone. “So glad. Thank you, Alice.”

She takes one more step... one step which Tarrant does not take with her... and stops. “No,” she tells him, finally understanding what he’s trying to say. “No quitting.”

She tugs weakly at his arm. He shuffles a bit in the mud and stops again.

“So sorry.”

“Shut up and walk, Tarrant!” she hisses, hot fury flaming through her muscles, reanimating her. She knows it won’t last and when it burns out she’ll be even worse off that she had been before. That doesn’t stop her from taking advantage of it. “Are you going to let me die here?

He raises his eyes – a frighteningly dull gray – to her face and stares at her.

“You quit; I quit,” she threatens.

Slowly, he shakes his head. His long auburn hair is matted and tangled and looks utterly foul from where he had permitted the slimy moss hanging from the skeletal branches of the half dead willow trees to drag over his head and shoulders. He had been too tired to try to duck or dodge them.

Alice continues her onslaught and there is no room for sympathy in her attack: “Will you make our son an orphan? What was the last thing you said to him? Did you tell him how much you love him? Did you tell him he’d never see you again?”

“Alice...” he wheezes, pained. His face twists with such agony she doesn’t doubt she’ll feel guilty for torturing him like this... later... when she has the energy to spare for it.

“Either keep walking or let me fall into the mud, Tarrant.”

“Twimble fumpt,” he curses and begins slogging forward again. Alice grimly joins him, taking note of his colorless state. She can even see the pinkish shadows of lingering stains on his once-again-too-white face. She has a fleeting thought for checking his wound, wonders how much blood he has lost, but there is nothing she can do to improve his state by expending energy on either.

“Ten,” she announces, completing a step. And then another: “Nine...”

“Eight,” he gasps.


They count down to one and then Alice starts over again. Over and over and over they count down from ten and little by little the ground firms, the trees thicken, until – suddenly! – she stumbles against Tarrant, scrabbling at his waist in a futile attempt to keep herself upright as her feet hit what feels suspiciously like a hard-packed dirt path. The solid surface beneath the mud-saturated soles of her boots jars her knees and she squeals with the vibrations as they run up her aching spine. Tarrant’s right hand fists in the remains of her tunic and keeps her from falling flat on her face.

“Sorry. Sorry,” she mutters, climbing shakily back to her feet. She tucks herself under his arm again, noting that he’d locked his knees to stay standing. They have to get moving again or he’ll pass out right where he stands.

Alice uses whatever is close at hand to pull them further along the path.

“Familiar,” Tarrant whines as the path begins to slope upward through the scraggly forest of foliage-less trees.

“I know.”


“I know.”

“Won’t help...”

“He will.” Or else.


“Only if you believe it is.”

Alice sets her jaw, ignores the oscillating torment of shattering cold and frightening numbness along her heart line, and nearly drags Tarrant along the path. They pass intersection after intersection but Alice continues stubbornly south. She conserves her voice, struggles to plan her strategy but her thoughts are slippery and every tactic she considers turns into a threat or a plea. She can only hope she performs better than she thinks when they arrive.

And arrive they do. Tarrant is shuddering, shivering, swaying on his feet as Alive pounds on the door. The effort is only possible with the aid of her entire body. Tarrant has no strength left to offer. He is spent and standing only because Alice had leaned down and locked his knees into position herself before she’d thrown herself at the castle gate.

She pounds on the door, screams to the midday sky... or, at least, she thinks she does. In all honesty, she cannot be sure.

“Prince Jaspien!” she pleads, all thoughts of threats long since evaporated. The heart line alternately burns her with cold, sears her with heat, and numbs to nothing, which is the most frightening sensation of all.

She slumps against the door, cries out when her knees hit the hard-packed dirt, and sighs when the door swings open. She looks up and into the unfeeling face of the man who had once lusted after the White Realm, had participated in Alice’s capture and had held Mirana against her will... She looks up into the face she hates more than any other in all of Underland.

“Please...” she begs, swaying, struggling not to fall prostrate on the ground. Although it won’t hurt her case, she doubts she’ll be able to get back up again.

Jaspien regards her for a moment that seems to warp into an eternity. She pants on the threshold of the only available haven for miles, too tired to plead, too exhausted to argue, too dizzy to even keep her eyes open for more than an instant at a time.

Finally, the gray, indifferent man replies, “If you can get him to a bed, I will fetch what medicines I have.”

She very nearly passes out with relief right then.

“However...” he muses softly.

Alice holds her breath, wills herself to concentrate.

“You will owe me a boon.”

“Name it,” she whispers despite her dry tongue and cracked lips.

He does.

“Agreed.” She would have agreed to anything to save Tarrant, so the concession is not difficult to make. No, not difficult at all.


Irondirk, the only one of them who both serves the White Queen and can identify every one of the rebels, sits on his bedroll with his bound hands in his lap. If only circumstances permitted him to make his report to the queen, he could have quite possibly been rather heroic, but here... now... the man is more or less useless.

Leif scowls at everyone, his golden eyes roving over the occupants of this room-ish section of the tunnel, stubbornly memorizing their faces and maybe even their individual infractions in the event that one of them is stupid enough to let him near a weapon. At the moment... that is unlikely.

Yes, things are looking pretty damn Bad at the moment, Mally assesses with brutal honesty. At least she has not been discovered. Yet. She dares to poke her head a bit further out of the cloak hood as movement at the edge of the campfire draws her attention.

Little is being said just now, so she lets her attention wander. Unfortunately, it does not wander anywhere Pleasant; she glowers across the softly illuminated space, their prison, resenting it.

This place will ruin her spotless service record. She is sure of it.

And, to think, just yesterday – or had it been the day before yesterday? – she had been enjoying rather optimistic thoughts:

One minute, Mallymkun had been riding in a clever fold in the hood of Tarra’s cloak, seriously considering indulging in the fine weather she can sense on the other side of the woven wool, wondering if she dares poke her nose out for a snuffle of richly-scented, sun-warmed, gluttonously over-ripe Orash orchard air...

One minute, she had been convinced that the rumors of a potentially dangerous movement against the White Queen must have been a product of Setteeson’s glue-addled imagination (that workroom had looked rather poorly ventilated)...

One minute, everything had been fine, well, under control...

And the next minute...




Mally had very nearly shouted that exact declaration, her thoughts skittering with panic, her mind spinning in the darkness of the wool. Weightless, helpless, she’d scrabbled to clutch the fabric in her paws to anchor herself.

It hadn’t helped.




And then a very sudden Stop!

Luckily, Tarra had landed on her scut and not on her back, otherwise the day might have turned out even Worse for the dormouse riding in the hood draped down her back between her shoulder blades. (Not that Mally is having a callaycious time of things at the moment. No, there is not callou-ing or callay-ing to be done here! Now!)

Mally had taken a deep breath in relief... and had nearly choked on the noxious fumes of something rancid, rotting, rank.

Perhaps they had fallen down a well... but, from the smell of it Mally is Sure it is not of the Treacle variety!

No, this is most definitely not a Treacle Well. She had not been spared the scent of the tunnel; it had seeped through the tight weave of the cloak more swiftly than a rainstorm deluge. Ar, Mally winces, wishing she could close her nose, a Red Rule moaty-muck water deluge! It had made – and still makes! – her nose twitch and her eyes water despite the handkerchief she had applied to her face.

She turns her attention back to the present circumstances and huffs. Despite the sand and sawdust that had been packed down onto the floor in this particular section, the ground, the air, everything still smells—

“Frumious!” she mutters to herself in abject disgust, clinging to the square of linen pressed over her nose, and suspects she’ll have rather vivid sensory nightmares about this place.

Mally reluctantly climbs out of the hood, despairing that her boots will ever smell pleasantly of leather and polish again... then scolds herself for such vain thoughts in the face of their... Situation. She is a Dormouse with a Job To Do! She returns to her survey of the inhabited portion of the tunnel, counts the bedrolls, and notes the stack of pots and barrels of water.

Stomach rolling at the sight, Mally cringes at the thought of putting anything in her mouth here, wherever this foul, frumious Here is! How do up-right folk tolerate such filth and stench? The state of their sense of smell must be woeful, indeed!

There are coils of rope and a wheelbarrow. And beyond the light of the campfire around which more than ten youngish people have gathered, Mally can see something glimmering in the darkness. Several somethings. Long and straight and metal with a sharp edge...

Wary of the youths circled around the campfire – and especially wary of Tarra’s obvious comfort amongst them – Mally skirts past and investigates those sharp metal somethings. Unfortunately, they turn out to be broad swords and spears and there are quite a lot of them.

“Oh, dear...

As that seems to sum up the situation nicely enough, Mally turns her back on the weapons she can do absolutely nothing about at the present time and turns her attention toward her other concern, her original concern: Princess Tarranya.

Mally’s ire rises at the sight of her now: Princess Tarranya, the Champion of the New Resistance.

It boggles Mally’s mind how things have come to this. It is... She is...


Unbelievable but True. How can Mally ignore the evidence? Tarra had not only offered to fight with them, but she had told them how to issue an Intention to Do Battle to the White Queen. She had educated them on how to use the Rules of Wartime Engagement to their benefit. She had heard it with her own ears! (And a dormouse’s ears are sensitive, indeed!)

The only thing Mally can’t quite understand is why Tarra had neglected to warn them that the queen would be sending a search party. No, she had not told them that. Perhaps because Tarra had never realized she’d been being watched this last week... ? Perhaps Mally and Bayto and Leif had done their jobs Very Well, after all!

She wishes she could feel more proud of that at the moment, but how can she? Tarra had not seen them, had not realized she had not been alone and without Friends; she’d gotten herself embroiled in a rebellion instead.

Oh, the king and queen are not going to like this! Not one bit!

Well, once they hear the truth, that is. And how Mally intends to send them a message is still a detail she hasn’t managed to work out yet. She is torn between remaining here, with Tarra and Leif, and trying to scurry back to Mamoreal. But even taking her fastest scurrying speed into account, Mally doubts she would arrive with this information in time to be of much use.

She doesn’t like it, but even doing Nothing here is more useful than wasted energy.

Alice and the Hatter may not know the Details, but they know enough. Yes, they will escape to Mamoreal and tell the queen and...

“We aul ’ave our reasons f’r wantin’ this war,” Abler says suddenly, parting the thickened silence. He speaks quietly – too quietly for his voice to echo – but everyone seated at the campfire listens. “Bu’ mos’ly, we’re keen teh fight f’r the sake o’ our Fa-s an’ Mam-s.” He takes a deep breath, stares into the fire. “I mae case, ’tis m’uncle.” He nods in Irondirk’s direction. Mally turns to catch the man’s reaction: a flash of temper in his eyes, a clenching jaw, the griding of his new teeth. But he does not interrupt.

Masonmark continues, not even looking over his shoulder at the object of his speech, “He was a fighter once. Strong an’ proud. Nauw he makes carvin’ knives, candlesticks an’ dress mannequins.”

“A shame worth weepin’ o’er,” a young man murmurs. Several others nod.

“’Tis b’cause o’ the White Queen he can ne’er pick up a sword again.”

“How so?” Tarra whispers back.

Abler glances at her. “Aye, I doub’ they wouldae tol’ ye th’ truth o’ it. Ye see...” he begins with a deep breath. “’Twas some time ago... mayhap o’er fifteen years when Outlanders were proud warriors. Times were hard, though, an’ many ’ad teh fight f’r a wage. Like m’uncle. Like numerish uncles an’ fa’hers an’ bro’hers...”

There are a fair number of nods at this.

“They took work where they coul’ find it, an’ they found it wi’ a nobleman who sided agains’ th’ White Queen. A visionary, tha’ man. Mustae seen her f’r who she really is.”

A round of Aye-s follows that speculation.

“Bu’ on th’ day o’ battle, the White Queen an’ her Champion used th’ most slithy, shrifty means teh win. Faced wi’ death ’r throwin’ down their weapons an’ swearing fealty... well. ’Twas nae choice, really.”

The silence that follows in the wake of this is one filled with grief. Mally has heard silence like this before. It is the silence observed in honor of the dead. But what do they mourn? Because of Alice’s Uplandish plan, no one had died that day! In fact, Peace had been made! Surely they cannot be mourning the very peace that has made their lives possible?!

And what’s this about a nobleman? Mally scrunches her face into a scowl that – for once – has nothing to do with the smell. Do they really believe that Valereth, Oshtyer, and Jaspien had had the right of things back then?!

Mally wishes very vigorously to introduce herself and her very sharp hat pin sword to the man or beast who has been manufacturing history! Why, there’d been no mention of those three greizin’-grommers’ bid for power! No one had mentioned the crimes they’d committed: kidnapping the queen and Alice and Worrying the Hatter! Why, for that last offense alone, Mally had been inspired to start a skewered eyeball collection!

It is impossible for these children to believe the White Queen is their enemy. It is ridiculous for them to insist that either the queen or Alice have done anything other than give their families a Future! They are, each and every one of them, dreadfully mistaken! Mally knows. She was there, after all! She is a witness to that very moment!

She realizes she’s marching toward them moments after she begins stalking. Regaining her senses, she ducks behind a bedroll and bites her lower lip to keep herself from railing at them. Mally takes a deep breath, notes that this bedroll could do with a good week and a half of airing out, and then peeks around the edge at the group seated around the fire.

“Nauw ye, yer majesty,” Abler says. “Whot’s yer grievance wi’ th’ queen?”

“It’s personal,” Tarra replies stiffly.

“As is each o’ ours,” he reminds her in a stern tone.

“The king and queen...” Tarra takes a fortifying breath. “... are wed by Soul Bond.”

This seems to upset and startle several amongst the present company.

She continues, “I knew what that was supposed to do, how it was supposed to control the minds and hearts of their children... Maybe I always knew that they were... that I was enslaved. That I wasn’t my own person. Maybe that’s why I wanted so badly to come to Crimson Harbor. Maybe I sensed that I could be... free here, away from them and the power of the Bond. And now I know it’s true. It’s all true!” She sends a brief, furious glare in Leif’s direction. “They had me followed, knew when I disappeared... and tried to force me to go back. Well, I wont. Their control over me is Finished.”

Again, they observe a Moment of Silence. Abler is the one who gathers their collective attention once again. “We cannae stand f’r the White Queen’s rule any launger. Ye’ll ’ave yer vengeance, Tarra,” he promises.

Tarra laughs. Bitterly. “Oh, yes. Vengeance. By way of battle. What a grand idea! Nineteen of us against the White Army? How can we not be victorious?”

“There’s a fair few more o’ us than who ye see ’ere.”

“Is that so?”

“An’ besides, whot were ye sayin’ abou’ issuin’ a Champion’s Challenge? Ye d’nae need a great army f’r that.”

“No, I won’t but before I step out there and expose my... true allegiances, I want to know exactly who’ll be standing with me.”

This is met with quite a bit of angry muttering. Abler replies, “I willnae tell ye our true numbers.”

“Then find yourself another Champion.”

Abler growls, “There be nae need f’r tha’. Ye’ll figh’.”

“Oh, will I? What makes you so sure?”

“Ye’re ’ere, lass. In our territory,” he reminds her darkly.

“And you’ll do what? Keep me here if I decide I don’t want to be your Champion after all? You’ll be no better than the queen herself to get what you want?”

Abler actually rears back as if she had struck him in the face. “... Nae. Nae. We will nae do tha’.”

“I’m glad to hear it. It’s nice to know I’m not trading one bucket of worthless rath spit for another—” By the pitch of Tarra’s inflection, it’s clear that she has more to say, but sounds of approaching footsteps splishing, splashing, and splatting through the muck and mire of the tunnel echo loud enough to interrupt.

Mally, having heard them coming minutes ago, stays close to the nearest frumious bedroll as a half dozen sword-bearing young men and women stride up to and stop beside Masonmark and Tarra. Masonmark looks up expectantly. The leader of the expedition that had just spent several long hours investigating the tunnel between here and Gummer Slough shakes her head. “They’re gone.”

Masonmark sighs.

“Cheer up,” Tarra comments. “If she’s alive that means you can still have your battle.”

“An’ I suppose ye still think ye’ll b’ fightin’ in it!” the young woman snaps. “’Tis our figh’ and we don’ need some lily white bluddy Champion teh b’ fightin’ our battles fer us!” the young Outlandish woman retorts.

“All right. Go on and get your friends killed. I’ll happily let you get on with it. There’s a warm bowl of stew that doesnt taste like borogove droppings calling my name topside.” Tarra turns away and toward her abandoned cloak. Mally twitches, eyeing the distance between herself and her mode of transport, despairing of being trapped here.

Masonmark reaches for her arm. “Wait...”

“You’re manhandling me again.”

“I... ahem. Sorry.” He takes a deep breath and turns a very stern expression on his kinswoman. “Corea, Tarra ’as as much righ’ teh this figh’tas we do. Ye’d do well teh consider supportin’ our Champion.”

“An’ she’s just gae’ng teh put ou’ ’er neck... outteh th’ gehdness o’ ’er heart?”

“With such a warm welcome, how could I not?” Tarra drawls sarcastically.

Abler steps between them and holds out his hands. “Halt, th’ twine o’ ye. Corea, Tarra ’as proved ’er intentions well. An’ I’m nae keen teh lose m’kinsmen an’ kinswomen in battle if’n can be avoided.”

“Ye’re makin’ a mistake, trustin’ a royal,” Corea spits. The two womens’ gazes lock and, for a moment, the silence vibrates like a plucked string. And then everyone stands and the tunnel echoes with the clashing clamoring of their shouts and objections.

“Well...” a soft, aristocratic voice drawls next to Mally’s ear, starling her. She gasps and gets a whiff of a very familiar cat in the process.

She turns toward the newcomer. “Chess!” she hisses, thankful the argument on the other side of the room is continuing to heat up despite Abler’s efforts to calm everyone. “What’re you doing here?”

His eyes blink open over a wide, sharp-toothed grin that forms from the teal mist swirling in the gloomy shadows. “The usual, of course: indulging my curiosity.”

Mally smirks. “Some things never change. Or...” she muses with a regal arch of her brow, “maybe some things do. Domestic jabberwocky bliss not all it’s cracked up to be, Chess?”

His grin doesn’t waver. “Only news of this magnitude could pull me away.”

“I’m sure,” she replies wryly. “And just what are they sayin’ about all this?”

“Oh, nothing terribly exciting... hot-headed, young idealistic revolutionaries have taken a very valuable princess hostage and neither hide nor hair of either the King’s or Queen’s Champions has been seen since the rescue was launched. That sort of thing. Everyone in Mamoreal is quite distressed over the whole affair, interestingly enough.”

“I’ll just bet you’re loving that!” Chessur could find mischief in Sir Fenruffle’s sock drawer; an atmosphere filled to bursting with tension must be singing a siren’s call to him! “So, what are you doin’ here?” she insists. “Unless you fancy yourself the calvary?”

“I fancy myself quite a bit,” he admits. And then his grin widens. “But you know I don’t get involved in politics.”

“You did once or twice that I recall.”

“Dreadful experiences, the both of them. I’ve seen the error of my ways.”

“Bloody Cat,” she hisses, crossing her arms.

“Well, if thats all you have to say, perhaps I wont offer my services as a courier to the White Queen after all...”

Mally spits out a swear word under her breath. “Dammit, Chess! You...!”

“And just where is our dear Alice? Isn’t she supposed to be here, trying to convince Tarrant not to chew through his bindings and bludgeon everyone in sight with a sopping tea ball?”

“I ain’t gonna let you talk down on the ’Atter! He was the best fighter we had until...”

“Yes, until Alice. Speaking of whom...?”

“She ain’t here. Not her or the ’Atter. Tarra an’ tha’ bloke who’s always got ’is arm around ’er waist fought ’em and—”

“Alice’s own apprentice – the queen’s daughter – resisted rescue? Now that is interesting!”

“Hush up, you! This is important! Now Alice an’ the ’Atter are missing!

“And from your tone, which I’m sure you meant to sound Significant, shall I infer that you have a general idea of where they might be?”

“In Gummer Slough.”

“I... see... Well. I hope you’re not actually considering asking me to—”

“Go look for them,” she orders.

Chess heaves a martyred sigh. “Yes, I thought you might feel inclined request something highly unfortunate and deeply unpleasant... like that.”

Mally pokes a finger into the space between his free-floating eyes. “Whatever happened to our Chess? The one who braved th’ axe-man at Crims and stood up to th’ Jabberwock at the Trial of Threes? Never hesitated to offer his-self up for a hair-pulling, foot-stomping, hand-biting free-for-all?”

“Whatever makes you think I dont volunteer for that specific torment day in and day out? There are four juveniles, after all. They still have not left the nest and they still get rather... unavoidably excited over Thrambleberries. Luckily, they are Thackery’s problem at the moment.”

Mally ignores that last remark – as well as an exasperated thought for Thack; oh, if only he would share those Thrambleberries, he wouldn’t have to worry about them being stolen every time he turns his tail to them! – and presses her point, “See? You ought to be well versed in danger, then. Heroics...”


Please, Chess. Alice needs your help.”

“Well. Why didn’t you just say so?” he muses and then, on a smile, disappears completely.

Before Mally can take a swing – even if it’s merely a token one! – at the space Chessur’s face had just been not-filling up – things in the center of the room get un-ignore-ably loud rather suddenly.

Im not going to waste my time and energy in a MOCK BATTLE!

Anjuswho said anythin’ ’bout ibeina mockery o battle?

“Corea! Stan’ dauwn! Tarra, gi’ us a mite moment.”


Mally watches as Tarra steps over a collection of dirty pots from an earlier meal and wanders away from the caucus taking place near the campfire. She doesn’t glance over her shoulder but as snitches and snatches of Masonmark’s rebuke echo outward, her smirk deepens.

Mally takes this opportunity to dash back to the cloak and the relative safety of the hood. It appears to Mally that the same principles apply when it comes to keeping an eye on princesses as they do when selecting a teacup: location, location, location!

She takes cover just as Tarra passes by the hostages.

“On anyone else, I’d call that a satisfied smile,” Leif dares to inform her on a rumble that only Tarra, the nearby Irondirk, and the dormouse of superior hearing can make out.

She turns and glares at him. Mally has never seen her look so... so... Wait, where has she seen that look before?

“If you’re waiting for me to ask for your opinion, you might as well hold your breath until I do.”

Leif growls softly. “That would have sounded wittier if you weren’t so focused on playing the fool.”

“A fool am I? That’s a new one.”

“You are opposing the queen.” He looks at her for a moment. “Are you going to tell me that’s not the stupidest thing anyone’s ever thought of?”

She plants her hands on her hips and looks down her nose at him. Suddenly, Mally knows where she’s seen that look!

“I don’t know... if I had to choose, I’d say giving lions a natural chain to yank had been pretty stupid.” She glances pointedly at his tail. “Wonder who decided on that?”

“You can’t win, Tarra,” he tells her, an edge in his voice that Mally thinks is panic.

“You underestimate me.”

“I don’t think I do,” he replies, glaring up at her. “I know what your mentor is capable of.”

“Maybe you do, but it doesn’t follow that you can judge me so easily.”

“What makes you think I can’t? I’ve seen this game before. You’re going to lose, Tarra. This won’t end well.”

Tarra opens her mouth to reply, retort, rebut. Mally stares at her, marvels at the haughty arrogance of her expression, the patronizing arc of her brows... that’s the look of a queen. The Red Queen, to be exact. Dear tiny teacups, how had Princess Tarranya managed to learn that look from her dead aunt?

For the first time since this wretch business began, Mally is more than Concerned for Tarra... She is, undeniably, afraid.

“Nauw, nauw, lion man,” Masonmark replies before Tarra can cut him down. He approaches the hostages and grins broadly. “Ye cannae b’lieve tha’ Tarra’s mentor – e’en if she’s bein’ th’ Queen’s Champion – woul’ kill ’er aun apprentice.”

“There are fates worse than death,” Leif responds, not taking his golden eyes off of the princess.

She snorts derisively. “I’m willing to risk them. You’ll see, Leif,” she coos, leaning down to breathe her reply in his face. “Everything will be just fine. The way it’s supposed to be. Have a little faith in me and I’ll make you my personal assistant when this is all over and done with.”

Masonmark laughs.

“B’ this a merrymakin’ matter, Abler?” Irondirk inquires in a brittle tone.

The young man shakes his head, although not in denial, but in playful rebuke at his uncle. “F’r shame, Uncle Davon. ’Tis f’r ye we’ve decided teh fight. Teh gi’ ye back the rights teh yer aun sword. Don’ tell mae ye d’nae appreciate all th’ effort we’re gae’ng teh.”

Irondirk frowns at him. Fiercely. “Wha’s there teh b’appreciative o’er? Ye’re destroyin’ yer aun future. ’Tis nae wee gift ye were given.”

Gift?” Masonmark sneers. “Th’ loss o’ our heritage... Watchin’ yer own strength fade day by day... Tha’ gift ye think sae keenly of? ’Twas bought wi’ freedom. Ye cannae e’en see it, can ye?” Masonmark leans closer to his uncle and sneers, “Ye’ve b’come one o’ the White Queen’s flock. Ye’re under ’er control nauw. Bu’ ye’ll see. Aye, soon, uncle; ye’ll see.”

With a decisive nod, Masonmark turns to Tarra and nods toward the fire. “C’mon back, lass. We’ve a Champion’s Challenge teh issue. An’ if’n ye’re still keen teh finish yer match with Champion Alice, we’ll need ye teh sign it.”

“Yes,” she agrees, her gaze lingering on Leif. “You know... it’s a shame you never could see my potential.”

“I see it now. Don’t send that challenge, Tarra,” he rumbles, ignoring their audience. “Stop this from happening.”

She considers him for a moment before smiling gently. “There’s no point in being afraid of your own destiny.” Her expression turns mockingly rueful. “I thought you would have figured that out by now.”

“This isn’t destiny Tarra—”

“This is my choice,” she replies cutting through his protest. “And Imake my own choices. Deal with it.”

And then she turns on her heel and strides back to the campfire. Irondirk glares after his nephew who gives Leif a mocking salute then joins his conspirators. Leif does not deign to give the lad one fraction of his attention. His gaze follows Tarra and Mally puzzles over their exchange. There had been something... something in the words or in their tone... Something... coded.

She considers it for a long moment before the rumbling of her empty stomach distracts her. How she can be hungry in the midst of the tunnel’s stench, she doesn’t know. With a sigh, she slides from the garment she has taken to concealing herself within and searches for a few crumbs no one will miss. She tries to be quick about it; it won’t do for Tarra to put on her cloak while Mally is out of it!

Nose pinched shut, she forages as quickly as she can and then dives back into her familiar cover. Sometimes it pays to be small...

And yet Mallymkun can think of a dozen ways to rescue the queen’s daughter if she were only somewhat bigger!



When Tarrant opens his eyes, he is – understandably – confused. He searches his surroundings with his gaze even as he searches his memory for any recollection of how he’d come to be here (he even looks in the dark, dusty corners of his mind for clues) but is met with a rather frightening blankness.

Fortunately, the strange bed he’s occupying is not as empty as his box of Recent Recollections. Alice lies beside him, her face pale but her hair clean. She’s wearing a shrift he’s never seen before and – now that he thinks of it – he doesn’t recognize the one hes wearing, either. He shifts, attempting to sit up, and winces as his left shoulder pulls and burns something fierce.

“Hm... shh... fine... e’erythin’s fine...” Alice mumbles, rolling over and pressing her nose against his right arm.

“Alice? Where are we?” He knows he should let her sleep – she obviously needs the rest – but this is Important.

“Safe... sleep...”

With a sigh, he lies back down and turns his face toward her mostly-dry hair. He frowns at that. When had she finally crawled into bed? But he thinks he can guess: after she’d gotten him inside this place, wherever they are (and he has the vague recollection of dread during the journey here but he can’t recall precisely why at the moment); after she had cleaned and dressed his wound; after she had bathed him and – yes, he realizes with a wobble of his head against the musty pillow – washed his hair; yes, sometime after all of that, Alice had probably bathed and permitted herself to sleep.

“My Champion,” he summarizes. She has never been and never will be anything else, no matter how many foodstuff exchanges she organizes or stews she cooks or books she reads or Upland visits she makes. Alice belongs here, with a sword at hand, her hair cropped short, and her skirts packed away in a trunk she’s long since lost the key to.

That is who Alice is and he wishes he had never tried to change her.

He curls toward her, slides an arm around her waist and lets sleep escort him away from this foreign room again.

The next time he opens his eyes, Alice is cursing at him.

“Brangergain i’tall, Tarrant! I told you to lie on your back!”

“Humph?” he inquires as she pushes him rather forcefully flat on the bed.

He opens his mouth to apologize – he is not in any sort of shape whatsoever to indulge her in loveplay at the moment – but pauses when he sees how Worry tightens her mouth, crushes her brows together. “Alice...?” he asks.

“Hush. I’ve got to get the bleeding stopped.” He watches as she unlaces the front of his nightshirt and presses down on the bandages covering his shoulder. Oddly enough, the pressure doesn’t hurt but Alice seems quite Concerned.

“Th’ bleedin’?”

She looks up. “Yes. You probably can’t feel it because of the Pain Paste. Not the queen’s recipe, unfortunately. Numbs fantastically but doesn’t heal worth a snoutful of tove snot.” She smiles at him. “But don’t worry. We’ll get back to Mamoreal soon and then you’ll truly be on the mend.”

“Mamoreal?” he murmurs, thinking as fast as his fogged mind allows. “Where... is here, then?”

“We’re safe,” she temporizes.

“Safe where?

“Sleep,” she says, her fingers dipping into a nearby pot and then massaging his forehead. Only a moment later – as darkness begins to envelop him too quickly for it to be of a natural variety – does he realize that she must have used Sleep Saver on him. He determines it’s worth getting angry over – and he will be Very Angry indeed! – and that is the last thought he manages before the ointment does its work.

The third time he opens his eyes, he does so on a shiver. The room – windowless, he realizes – is nearly completely dark. The fire in the hearth has died down to glowing embers. He takes a deep breath and blinks through the muzziness of his head, trying to remember the correct way to work his brain, trying to make heads or tails of this nebulous thinking business.

“Now, don’t strain yourself, Tarrant. You know your logic isn’t up for all the deducing you’re forcing it through.”

Tarrant startles as a warm, male hand presses against his brow. He blinks up at the man who had most definitely not been standing at his beside a moment ago.

“Chess?” he croaks, taking in the image of more-than-two-decades past Mad Hatter. A Hatter before the heart line, before fatherhood, before lairdship...

Despite wearing Tarrant’s form, Chessur’s smile is uniquely sharp, steeply curved, and utterly his own Cat Grin. His eyes glow their usual blue-green. “Good morning!”

“Is it?”

“Is it what, good?” Chessur replies with a wry twitch of wild, orange brows. “You’ll have to be the judge of that. Is it morning? Somewhere it is, I’m sure. It’s inevitable enough, at any rate to be forgiven the anticipation of it.”

Tarrant blinks and shivers.

“Ah, yes. Feverish. You’re quite wintery, at the moment.”

Tarrant frowns as Chessur meanders over to the hearth and begins flinging sticks onto the grate, one at a time, with delicate flicks of his wrist. For a moment, Tarrant thinks of the White Queen.

“How did you find us?” he rasps, wishing for a cup of water. And then, in conjunction with that thought, he hears himself say the word “us” and immediately makes a thorough effort to locate Alice. He sighs out a breath of relief when he does: she is inexplicably seated in a very inhospitable-looking chair on the other side of the bed, slumped forward on the mattress with her pale face pillowed on her arms.

“Mally sent me, of course, as she’s the only one who had an inkling of where the two of you had disappeared to... and the means to tell me circumspectly. Odd that she didn’t mention your injury... perhaps she doesn’t know?”

Tarrant slowly considers all of that. Tries... and fails. “Circumspectly?” he presses with a resigned sigh, latching onto the one word that is giving him the most trouble. Perhaps Chess is right: his logic isn’t up for any astounding feats of acrobatics at the moment.

“Yes, it appears our dear dormouse has managed to remain undiscovered by those bothersome, acne-infested rebels.” He rolls his eyes. “Rebels, indeed. They’ve taken a perfectly good word and reduced it to swaggering arrogance.”

“Well, I suppose you would know a thing or two about that,” Tarrant muses.

“Of course I would!”

He smirks weakly at Chessur’s obvious pride in the fact. “Did you say Mally sent you?” he confirms after a moment.

Chessur finishes chucking bits of burnables into the fire and dusts off his hands then inspects his nails... thoroughly. “Yes. Why? You don’t honestly think I would have sniffed you out like one of those dogs, do you?”

“Scratch of a Bandersnatch, Chess,” he mutters, shaking his head, “Fates help us all if you ever got it into your furry, evaporating head to take the initiative for once and be heroic without effusive prompting.”

Heroic?” the Cheshire Cat sneers, still wearing Tarrant’s pale face and battered (from the Knave’s enthusiastic “hospitality”) body. “Just what have I done recently to deserve having profanity spewed at me, Tarrant?”

“I’m sure I can think of something...”

“While you’re doing that, shall I put Alice to bed? Or would you like to register an objection?”

“No objections whatsoever. Please proceed.”

Chessur does. Tarrant watches as the Other Hatter kneels down beside Alice’s chair and gently maneuvers her head and shoulders back against his chest. With one arm wrapped around her, he reaches out and twitches the bedclothes aside. Then, with a graceful motion that is part mist and part Hatter-ness, he gathers Alice into his arms and settles her on the mattress.

“You’ve some skill with putting someone to bed,” Tarrant observes softly, mindful of waking Alice when she so obviously needs to rest.

“There are four juvenile jabberwockies, you know.”

“Ah. Yes.”

“Now,” Chess continues, standing and sniffing the air delicately. “You’re developing a fever and I can already smell that the festering has started. It’s time we cleaned those wounds of yours.”

“’Twas a knife, no’ a Bandersnatch tha’ got me.”

Chessur gives him a knowing look. “Correct me if I’m under a misapprehension, but did you – more or less – swim through the gum of the slough on your way here? The gum which, may I remind you, was once teeming with decomposing beheaded bodies? If you think the Bandersnatch’s claws are unhygienic...”

“All righ’, all righ’,” he concedes.

“I find it rather interesting that you bipeds tend to insist on everything being ’all right’ especially when you are in the wrong...” Chessur muses in a clinical tone as he beings to loosen the bandages over Tarrant’s upper chest and shoulder.

“By the way,” Tarrant remarks, knowing that what he’s about to say is not by the way at all, but rather a saganistute detour around an impending cat-sarcasm-induced spat. “Where is Here?

Chessur’s brows arc. “I’m surprised you haven’t figured that out for yourself yet, given the fact that you’re aware of your general location in Underland and the fact that you once spent an incomparable amount of energy trying to get inside this very structure... Although, considering the circumstances at the time, I can understand why Alice would not have been in any rush to educate you on precisely whose hospitality you are both taking advantage of at the moment.”

Tarrant gapes, thoroughly flunderwhapped. “This... this is...!”

“Yes, yes,” Chessur replies, parting the bandages with practiced ease and delicacy. “Jaspien’s castle. Don’t ask me how Alice got the man to agree to take you both in. I’ve only just arrived and this was my first stop so – for once! – I know as little as you about the matter.”

Tarrant shivers as his chest is bared to the still-cool air.

“Hm... Well. This explains a lot,” the cat muses, narrowing his eyes and observing the wound.

Curious as well, Tarrant looks down at the small, but very deep stab wound. He looks and then he gawks. The knife had landed not too far from his heart, actually, and he actually wonders if Masonmark had thrown it hard enough to break through bone and pose a serious threat to his heart had it hit its intended target. But even if it hadn’t been given the necessary momentum, Tarrant can only imagine what sort of havoc would have been caused if the knife had plunged into his Heart Mark.

Still, the damage done is not insignificant: the blade had sliced through one of the twining veins of the heart line. Even now, he can see not only his own dark blue blood seeping out of the gash, but Alice’s dark red blood as well. Thoughts of the wonderful numbing properties of whatever salve Alice had used on him are completely overwhelmed by the evidence that Alice had towed him to the end of the tunnel and through the swamp and then from there to this castle while she had been bleeding through his severed heart line!

“Dear sweet Fates...” he breathes.

“Yes. No wonder she’s utterly spent, hm?” Chessur muses. “Still, I suppose it’s quite fortunate the knife hit you where it did. Another smidgeon to the south here and the heart line would have been broken completely.”

Tarrant examines the afflicted area again and shivers: Chess is correct. If he had twitched just a little to the side... Masonmark might have cut his heart line in twine. Tarrant takes a moment to study his bonding mark, from the tip of his heart-line finger to his heart. The color is as dark and deeply crimson as it ever has been... which means that new blood is somehow replacing the blood that he loses through the wound... and it has cost his Alice dearly. The deficit his injury had created has, in fact, been paid with her own blood!

“Let’s get on with things, please, Chess,” he lisps softly, his gaze drawn to where Alice lies utterly motionless in the bed. “Mend Alice.”

“I was waiting on you,” the cat-that-is-currently-a-hatter replies. “Although, I’m afraid what I’m about to do may neutralize whatever that noxious ointment is that is obviously numbing the wound...”

“’Tis fine.”

“Don’t say I didn’t warn you...” Chessur sing-songs and then shifts into a smiling cat before getting to work.

And, oh how it burns! Tarrant presses his head back against the stiff, musty pillow, glares at the ceiling, grits his teeth and fists his hands. The strong grip is necessary, he finds, for holding back the whine snaking up his throat.

“There,” Chessur says finally, leaning back and licking his cat chops. “Just like old times. You’re even in a dungeon room. How... literary.”

Tarrant pants and slowly relaxes his fists. The miraculous numbness is gone, yes, but his head feels sharper, wittier, faster than before, for which he is Very Thankful

Chessur once again resumes Tarrant’s shape and begins stitching up the gash in his chest.

During this moment of silence, Tarrant sorts through his most recent memories and accuses, “Alice drugged me.”

“At the time, what with her own weakness to contend with, perhaps it was for the best,” Chessur, interestingly enough, defends her.

“Aye. Perhaps...” Still...!

“Or perhaps she was not thinking clearly.”

Well, aye... Tarrant nods reluctantly.

“Were I you, I would be more concerned with what she might have promised or bargained in order to secure Jaspien’s assistance.”

That gets Tarrant’s attention!

Do try to keep your priorities well-ordered and ranked, Tarrant,” Chessur says, whooshing back into his usual cat-self and flicking his tail with a satisfied huff. “Now, would you like me to look in on our host and see what he’s up to?”

Tarrant stares at Chessur, marveling that the cat had just dared to care enough to stop Tarrant from allowing his own feelings of betrayal and wounded pride to quite possibly come between himself and Alice. Especially here; especially now when things are so frighteningly uncertain. If only Chess had deigned to intercede years ago when Tarrant had been charged with explaining the origins and severity of Alice’s madness to her...

“Chess?” he asks just as the cat begins to dissolve, apparently not requiring a response to his question. Although, in Chessur’s case, mere curiosity is reason enough to commence with Spying Activities.

“Yes?” A grin and pair of glowing eyes point themselves in his direction.

“Why is it we can never be civil to each other unless I’m either dying or...” He swallows thickly. Or Alices life is in danger?

Even without eyebrows, Chessur manages to look condescending. “Probably because you look unusually wretched and pitiful when you’re at Death’s Door and even I can’t find any enjoyment in taunting a man when he’s down as far and as flat as he can be flattened.”

Tarrant’s brows twitch in time with his snort of wry acknowledgement.

“Although... we might want to consider avoiding those circumstances which tend to engender us favorably toward each other... if for no one’s sake other than Alice’s. Wouldn’t you agree?”

“Tha’ friendship and cooperation is our last resort an’ it ought teh stay tha’ way? Aye. Agreed.”

“In which case, I shall look forward to resuming our usual familial animosity. And now,” the cat continues in a catty tone. “If you have no other maudlin observations you feel are vitally important at this precise moment, I shall see what there is to see around here.”

“Be gone.”

And, with a wink, he is.

Tarrant smiles. Bloody bulloghin’ boggletogs, who would have thought Chessur would be a cause for smiling while Tarrant is bed-bound and Alice unconscious in the keep of Causwick Castle?

Ye live laung enough aneen thimpossible will happen, lad.

Indeed it will, and indeed it has.


“How are we gonna find out if that man was telling the truth?” Tamial Hightopp – undiscovered yet soon-to-be-world-renowned savant! – muses aloud, staring up at the ceiling of his bedroom in his cousin’s house. If he closes his eyes and strains his ears, he knows he’ll be able to hear the traffic. Although, having been dragged through the muck and mire of it twice today, he doesn’t find the sound very soothing anymore. Shukm on the streets! Ew!

“I beg your pardon?” Win says in an interestingly surprised tone.

Tam turns his head and looks at his cousin’s feet where they dangle next to his head over the side of the bed. (A rhyme! his Fa would say.) “Well, maybe I’m not the Queen’s Champion like my Mam, but I’m pretty sure we should, you know, confirm some of that before...”

Before Win does something Stupid.

“Confirm. Right. How’re we going to do that?”

Tam glares at the feet in front of his nose and resists sticking his still-stockinged foot in front of his snooty cousin’s snout. “I don’t know...”

“Well, then keep your unhelpful suggestions to yourself and let me think!”

Tam sits up on his elbows, making the bed bounce, and glares at Win. “Sure. Pardon me for trying to help!”

He rolls himself off the end of the bed and stomps over to the window. It’s raining again. Wonderful. He tries not to look too closely at the streets below and churned-up sludge of Disgusting. Despite that, he almost wishes there was someplace he and Win could go. Even if it’s the library or some other boring, silent room! Just so long as Win stops being such a... a... a fumptwat!

Tam sighs. “I still say we should ask my Fa about it. He must know something. He and Uncle Hamish have been friends for... well, since I was born, right? He’d know. He’d tell us the truth.”

“Do you really believe that?” Win, obviously, is Skeptical.

“Well, you think it would be better to ask your father?

My father is dead. Which is rather the problem at hand,” Win snipes back.

“So what are we gonna do about it?” Tam says. “Right,” he continues as Win frowns darkly and opens his mouth to spew more snark. “What can we get Uncle Hamish to confirm without making him realize what we’re doing?”

Contemplative silence settles in the room for the first time since Win had grouched and grumbled his way through his lessons. Yes, last night had been bad – trying to hide their knew Knowledge from Aunt Margaret and Uncle Hamish – but today... today...! Tam has never seen anyone so determined to be as miserable and angry as possible!

He relishes the almost-peace in the room.

“The ship name?” Win suggests slowly.

“Yes!” Tam agrees excitedly. “We could ask him to tell us about the company, about the ships! There’s no reason he won’t tell us if The Waymaker – that was the ship your father sailed on to America, right? – was owned by the company!” Tam turns away from the window and flops back down on the bed, jostling Win. “What else?” he presses.

Win sighs. “No idea.”

Tam’s rush of excitement fizzles out. He lets out a long breath and folds his hands under his chin. Clicking and clunking his heels together, he mutters, “There must be something else. Some way to check...

Win huffs, “Still waiting for you to be brilliant, Hightopp.”

Tam scowls at him. “I am brilliant!”

“So prove it!”

Tam glares at his cousin, who glares back, until Win looks away. Smirking in self-congratulations at winning the stare-off, Tam turns away and looks across the room. He’s not really paying attention to what he’s looking at as he’s trying to produce some Brilliance. (The trouble is that it doesn’t seem to respond well to a command to appear! Well, what good is being brilliant if Tam can’t do brilliant stuff whenever he wants? Maybe another hero-power would be more reliable...)

He’s gazing at the tall, up-right standing mirror in the corner when he hears himself wonder aloud, “Wouldn’t it be great if you could use the mirror to see the truth?”

The idea is so Surprising that Tam actually stops breathing. Beside him, Win seems to pause as well.

“What do you mean? Looking glass travel?”

Tam answers slowly, searching for each word one at a time. “Maybe... Like, maybe we could... spy on people...”

Win sits up. “Can you do that? Take us to that man’s house or something so we could watch him or read his journals or something?”

Frowning thoughtfully at the mirror, Tam says, “No... I think that’s the same problem: how do we know if he’s telling the truth?

Frustrated, Win demands, “So, what are you saying?”

“I... don’t know.”

“What a surprise.” Win falls back on the bed and continues being a fumptwat.

Tam, his attention fixed on the reflection of himself in the looking glass, crawls off of the bed and approaches it. He stares into his own golden-brown-orangy eyes.

“What are doing?” Win demands on an exasperated sigh.

Tam doesn’t answer. He looks into his own eyes, and then he looks through them. He looks into the mirror. “The past,” he whispers, reaching out to the glass, drawn by some strange force. “Show us th duel between Uncle Hamish and Lowell Manchester...”


Tam doesn’t reply. He glimpses shadows moving under the surface of the mirror. Just... just there beneath the silvery shine... If he just leans a little closer...


A wind that is not a wind blows through his mind which has become the mirror... or has the mirror become him? Does it matter? The shapes and shadows catch his thoughts and tumble them away. There’s something there waiting for him to look and if he can get just a little closer...!

“Show us the duel...” he murmurs. “Show us who killed Lowell Manchester...”

And then a hand grabs his wrist...

… just as the wind-that-is-an-ocean-current within the looking glass jerks his legs out from under him and he’s falling into the silvery depths.



One Promise Kept: Book 4

A Alice in Wonderland Story
by Manniness

Part 8 of 15

<< Previous     Home     Next >>