Continuing Tales

One Promise Kept: Book 5

A Alice in Wonderland Story
by Manniness

Part 7 of 13

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One Promise Kept: Book 5

The farewell comes as a shock.

“Where... where are you going?” Tarrant asks the Gray Lady. He ignores the unbitten apple in his hand and studies her profile.

“To Mamoreal,” she replies slowly, “eventually. I want you to take Thackery and Mally with you and meet me there.”

“At... Mamoreal?” he confirms.


He lifts his gaze and studies the battle-torn field that is all that remains of his home.

“No,” she says and he startles at the feel of her gauntlet-encased left hand clutching his forearm. “This is not where you need to be now.”

He feels his brows draw together and a bubble of Stubborn expand within his chest.

“There is no more you can do for them here,” she says.

He blinks at her, studies her earnest expression.

“Do not let the Red Queen win. Do not allow her to destroy other homes...”

She says nothing about families and he feels that bubble of Stubborn harden... and then fade away like a misplaced sneeze.

“Go to Mamoreal with Mally and Thack,” she whispers. “Uilleam and I will meet you there.”

Preparations are made and feet are set onto the road and shoe leather squeaks-groans-grumbles and he moves through it all as if in a dream – and perhaps it is a dream! Yes, yes! Perhaps now he will make that long journey he has sensed doing in his other dreams! Although, those had been dreams had during slumber and this is a Waking Dream and that should make his adventures much easier to recall after the fact!

He muses about hat repairs and cups of tea and riddles and rhymes and his fevered imagination stumbles and stutters as he tries to picture the sights he has yet to see...

But of course: as he hasn’t seen them yet he can hardly picture them, can he? That’s putting the cutting of the plum pudding before the passing ’round, isn’t it? When did his mind begin thinking in such hopelessly backward ways?

He giggles and the sound seems to startle Thackery who trips and bangs into a tree. The sound echoes down the forest lane and calls Tarrant back to himself, back to this place – wherever he is – rather forcefully. Eyes narrowed, he surveys the forest, its trees, the dirt road and his own feet upon it. How had he...? How long had he...? And where are they going?

“Calm down, ’Atter,” Mally’s voice soothes him as gently as she can considering the amount of jostling his wild glancing about is causing for her on the brim of his hat. She reminds him firmly, “We’re on our way tah Mamoreal, followin’ the Gray Lady’s orders.”

Ah, yes. Tarrant vaguely remembers something about Mamoreal and meetings and... was there some other M-word involved?

“Mamoreal, yes, yes,” he agrees. “Marvel... meander...”

Although he has found himself on this road, following Thackery’s meandering lead, with a dormouse traveling via his hat, a cooking pan in one hand and the still-unbitten apple in the other, he still feels a bit... lost. Puzzlingly lost. Lopsidedly lost. Perhaps if he loses himself completely, the feeling will not seem so disconcerting?

Tarrant struggles to let his mind wander with his feet; walks are excellent exercise for the mind. In fact, he has thought of several riddles worth serious Investigation whilst walking. He strives for that normalcy but instead finds himself wondering why the Gray Lady and the Dodo Bird had insisted on traveling separately from himself, Mally and Thackery despite the fact that they are all bound for the same destination! In fact, now that he thinks about it, he can’t even hear the pair walking behind him... He blinks as the sun glints off of the small pot Thackery wears on his head, pauses in the middle of the Tulgey Wood road, and turns to look back.

Frowning, he complains, “I don’t see them.”

“Don’t see who?” Mally replies.

He glances up momentarily, as if he has the ability to see through the brim of his hat to the creature perched on the top of it. “The Gray Alice and the Dodo Bird,” he replies. “Do you think they’ve misplaced themselves already?” The road seems easy enough to follow to him but perhaps Gray Ladies and Dodo Birds see things differently... Or perhaps they had succeeded where he had failed in getting themselves lost, in losing themselves...

Mally snorts. “Lost? I wouldn’t think so! They ain’t followin’ us tah Mamoreal directly.”

“Aye!” Thackery agrees. “Ano’her road! E’erone’s gotteh make thar auwn path!”

“Thackery,” Tarrant objects, “this is the way to Mamoreal. If the Gray Lady isn’t taking this road, then she’s headed toward...” He twitches his chin to the side, feels his eyes narrow, decides to not think of whom lives in the place where the Other road leads. “They’re traveling in the wrong direction and...! Not acceptable! Risky! Bluddy Dodo Bird!”

He pivots smartly on his heel – causing the passenger on his hat to squeak with alarm – and begins to jog back the way they’d come but a pair of paws on his jacket tails and hairy hare feet digging into the rutted road stop him from getting very far, very quickly.

“Halt, thar, laddie!” the hare commands, not releasing Tarrant’s jacket hem. “Ye heard th’ auld bessom; best ge’ye teh th’ castle!”

“But they’ve taken the road to Crims!” he argues, wincing even as he says the name of that cursed place.

“Calm down, ’Atter,” Mally announces. “They ain’t goin’ back there!”

“... back?” He glances up again – and again sees only hat brimage – as he allows Thackery’s insistent tugging to pull him a bit further down the empty, dirt road.

“Ar!” she declares. “She didn’ tell yah? The Gray Alice busted the dodo and I outta prison!”

Tarrant listens as Mally narrates the daring escape the Gray Alice had orchestrated from the Red Queen’s prison. (He had not even known that Mally had been arrested! In fact, she might have been beheaded and he might never have realized... Or perhaps he would have heard days – weeks! – after the fact and...!) Through the haze of frenetic guilt, he hears something about Pass Words and Palace Guards and Pokings and...!

He is glad he hadn’t been told any of this earlier. The Gray Alice’s familiarity with the Red Queen’s castle is unsettling. Had he known about this before he’d met the Gray Lady, he would have been quite suspicious of her. He would, very likely, not have trusted her. And he likes trusting her. He wants to believe she is worth the risk of his trust. Trustworthy.

But the Gray Alice seems to know quite a bit about Crims and its castle and its queen... One must, naturally wonder why...

Perhaps a bit of round-about will get him the answer to that question!

“If the Gray Alice and Uilleam are not planning to pay a visit to Crims, then where are they going?” he asks after the tale has been told and several rhymes made and ballads sung about the historic event: the end of the Red Queen’s marzipan prison.

“Tah see the Duchess,” Mally helpfully informs him. Or, rather, the information would have been helpful if Tarrant had possessed an inkling of how to interpret it.

“What a strange place to wish to visit...” he muses. “Do you suppose our Gray Alice wishes to learn how to escape the axe-man?” That is the skill for which the ugly duchess is most well-known for. Why, time and time again, she has managed to make herself scarce at the Red Queen’s court just when that Bluddy Behg Hid’s temper gets the better of her. Which is often. Or so he has heard.

“Do you suppose it’s a learnable skill?” he muses, successfully distracted from his woes. “The Gray Alice seems rather well-versed in many skills... Sword-play, Stubbornness...”

“Don’t know why she was wantin’ tah go there,” Mally muses to the universe in general. “Don’t know why she changed ’er mind about it when McTwisp told ’er the date, neither.”

“She... did not know the date?” he queries, puzzled that a woman so... Commanding of all in her presence would be so remiss as to neglect collecting something so utterly mundane as the date!

“Naw, but she knew you. Even knew where yah were, too. Odd, innit?”

“Quite,” he agrees, unsettled.

“An’ e’en odder... she’s still wantin’ tah see the Duchess. Fer a chat on self-preservation, yah think?”

Slowly, Tarrant shakes his head. “No... The Gray Lady seemed quite adept already at... such things...”

“So what’s she takin’ her Stubbornness an’er Sword tah see the Duchess for?”

The dormouse’s tone is merely speculating – to pass the time, no doubt – but Tarrant feels a twinge of worry at the words. Yes, why would the Gray Alice be going to the Duchess’ house with those twine companions?

“Knave-speak!” Thackery suggests, swishing his ladle though the air wildly.

Tarrant’s mouth goes dry. He comes to a halt in the middle of the road again as, bit by bit, the most unbelievable picture begins to form:

A sword...

Battle leathers...

A visit to one of the Red Queen’s favorites...

Knave-speak, indeed! Why else would a woman in battle leathers, carrying a sword, be so determined to seek out the Duchess... who is also the sometimes-favorite-confidant of the Red Queen? The Red Queen whom had been so recently re-named Bluddy Behg Hid... The Gray Lady had destroyed the Red Queen’s prison, had freed its inmates, had been on her way to see the Duchess next when she had learned of the date... had stopped... had turned around and gone to Iplam to help him.

And she had helped him. Quite a bit, he sees now. She had even tried to help him help himself. She had endeavored to teach him to not only survive, but to fight for Just Cause.

Would she have asked him to accompany her to the Duchess’ house if he hadn’t been so irredeemably useless at battle skills?

Had that been the reason why, upon learning the date (which she ought to have known already!) she had sought him out? Had she been hoping she would have an ally against the Duchess? (And Tarrant doesn’t believe for one moment that the Dodo Bird will provide any measurable assistance at all in the event of a fight!) Before Tarrant manages to take one more step on the road, he has convinced himself that he has failed the Gray Lady... is failing her! She is taking her sword to the Duchess’ house to fight and she had tried to train Tarrant so that she might not face whatever dangers await her there alone but she is alone – utterly alone! – because Tarrant had not once managed to scrape together enough competence to be a fighter worthy of standing beside her... and... and...!

… and what if something happens to her?

Tarrant cannot bear the thought. Yes, her knowledge of the Bluddy Behg Hid is suspiciously accurate and, yes, she can probably fight her own battles, but she is the only person who... she was with him when no one else... she had stayed even though he had tried to drive her away and she had given him a purpose despite his resistance to it and... could he one day be the one to bring down the Bluddy Behg Hid? He doesn’t know... but if he does it will be because of her, because of her Belief in him!

How can he let her go on alone in the face of all that she has done for him?

“Thackery!” he shouts, blinking himself into focusing on his surroundings again. Standing opposite him and in the process of reaching for Tarrant’s jacket sleeve, Thackery stumbles backward at the force of his announcement. “About-face, Thack! Back to the spur!”

Without waiting for the hare to obey, Tarrant pivots on his heel and resumes jogging back the way they’d come, his mind very clear and focused solely on the nearly forgotten trail that leads from the Mamoreal Road to the Duchess’ house.

“’Atter! What are ye doin’?” Mally cries, no doubt clutching the ribbon on his hat to keep herself from bouncing right off the brim.

“Goin’ teh th’ Dunchess’s house,” he growls. “Teh help th’ Gray Lady.”

“Help ’er do what?” the mouse shouts back.

In all honestly, he is not sure he knows what the Gray Alice is intending to do. He only knows that he must ensure that she is unharmed!

“She’ll b’ usin’ tha’ sword, aye?” Thackery summarizes.

“We don’t have a sword,” Tarrant assesses.

“We have hatpins,” Mally observes.

“An’ spoons!” Thackery contributes, beating the wooden ladle against the pot he’s still wearing on his head.

Tarrant feels his lips stretch into a wry grin. “Hatpins an’ spoons,” he summarizes. “Pots an’ pans...”

Well, the Gray Alice had told him just yesterday to fight with whatever is at hand. It looks like this day could very well bring about a practical application of that very theory!


“Hush!” the Gray Lady hisses, rather rudely pulling Uilleam off the road and behind a bit of accommodating shrubbery beside the gates of the Duchess’ house.

“Hush? Whatever for?” he muses and the peaky widow clamps a heavy, leather-clad hand over his beak. “Should we not announce ourselves?” he manages to mutter. “It’s the expected thing to do, you know.”

“I know,” she whispers. “Stay quiet.”

Uilleam gives himself a shake as she removes her grip from his beak. He blinks at her. Watches as her hands ghost over the various knives posted about her person. He clears his throat and summarizes, “This... is not to be a friendly visit, then?”

The Gray Alice snorts. “Well done, Uilleam.”

“I’ll preen later,” he declares. “For now, however, I would very much like to know what it is you’re planning to do here.”

She glances away from the grand estate for a moment and studies him. “If I tell you...”


She smirks. “You’ll have to help me.”

He ruffles his feathers at the ultimatum. Rather unexpected, that! “Well. That hardly seems fair.”

She grunts softly and returns her attention to the house. He trails along behind her as she begins to circle the perimeter, staying low behind the hedgery and stone walls.

“Gray Lady,” he whispers, “are you quite sure it wouldn’t be more... prudent to introduce ourselves? I’ve heard tales of mome raths that she keeps as guard pigs and—”

The Gray Alice pauses and turns toward him. “Uilleam, I appreciate your guidance in bringing me here. But now, I ask that you either kindly shut up or continue on your way to Mamoreal without me.”

“Oh! Oh, oh! Well, I simply couldn’t do that!”

“Which one,” she mutters. “And you had better not say either.

Well, with that look in her eyes, he wouldn’t dare! He swallows and very deliberately does not say another word as he picks his way through the winter debris of soggy sticks and mulched leaves to her side. He pointedly – and silently! – stares her in the eyes and she nods once before turning back to her survey of the estate’s exterior.

Uilleam – although he had known the way here – had never actually seen the Duchess’ house before now and he is rather surprised by its grandness. He studies the rows and columns of arched windows with their carved and whitewashed window sills, the wrought iron detailing that crawls like an unexpectedly well-ordered line of spiders up the nooks and corners up to the steep, shingled roof. The entire structure is gray, nearly as gray as the old Alice, and he can’t help but think the pair of them are well-matched.

“Bigger...” Uilleam startles to hear the Gray Alice’s mutter.

“Bigger than...?” he prompts very softly.

She sighs out an angry breath. “Bigger than I expected. Or remember... I was here once, long ago.” Her eyes narrow until her wrinkled eyelids seem to conceal them completely. “It seems she’s benefited quite comfortably from the Oraculum.”

“Oraculum?” he – despite being a dodo – parrots.

She nods.

“You’ve mentioned that before,” he notes. “But you neglected to say what it is, precisely.”

“I didn’t neglect,” she murmurs, once more moving along the hedgery, still studying the manor house and its many, many large windows. “But, if you’d like to see it, I’ll show it to you... after I’ve safely stolen it.”

Uilleam bites back a squawk. Steal?! Oh, dear, oh dear! What has he gotten himself into now? Another highly unexpected situation, that’s what!

“Uilleam,” the Gray Lady hisses. He looks up and watches her shiver once, from left to right, and then her eyes harden with a strength of purpose he knows no dodo would dare refute. “Follow me.”

From watching her train the Hatter, Uilleam knows this old woman could pluck every blue feather from his body with ease should he defy her. He shudders and shuffles closer, choosing to keep his plumage. “This is most unexpected, Gray Lady,” he protests weakly. And while he rather enjoys contemplatingunexpected things, he has very recently discovered that he does not actually enjoy their manifestations!

“I know,” she replies, a look of regret reforming the creases on her peaky face. “But Hightopp wasn’t ready and I can’t put this off any longer and...” She glances at Uilleam and confesses on a soft croak, “I don’t want to do this alone.”

His dodo’s heart may be small, but it swells with warmth at her admission. “Then I shall unexpectedly assist you, madam. Willingly.”

Her thin lips lift into a rare smile. “Thank you, Uilleam.”

“My pleasure.”

Her brows lift in doubt, but she merely turns back to the estate, examines the rear face of the great house and muses, “Now... thus far, I’ve only seen movement in the kitchen and in one room upstairs, so—”

Uilleam looks up and the Gray Alice abruptly quiets as the sound of red-painted metal armor clinking-and-clanking approaches. She leans a bit over the top of the hedges and, unwilling to be left out, Uilleam does likewise. They watch as a dozen Red Knights gallop up the wide, curving drive to the Duchess’ house, inverted-heart-tipped spears in hand.

“Well! Rather unexpected!” he mutters and the old Alice places a hand on his narrow shoulder to remind him of the importance of silence. And it’s a good thing she had reminded him, otherwise he very likely would have screeched and fled at the sight of the Red Knave trotting onto the Duchess’ property on his Death Stallion. Uilleam flinches back as the Knave pauses at the front gate and, with a sweeping gesture, directs half of the soldiers off the property.

“Keep a lookout for the Bandersnatch. Her Majesty demands its capture this time,” the man growls in a tone that very clearly threatens Dire Things should the card soldiers fail their appointed task... again. Six of the Red Knights startle and pivot smartly before charging off, spears at the ready, down the forest road again.

The Dodo Bird feels himself quake in his hiding place as the Knave turns his dark gaze toward the manor house and, with a nudge from his knee, commands the Death Stallion to approach. The pair make their way toward the manor, looking as if they own the place.

And Uilleam is still glad for the Gray Lady’s hand on his shoulder when, a moment after the Red Knave and his hellish mount have disappeared around the front of the house, the Knave’s shout echoes through the clearing:

“Open this door, Duchess! You and I have business to discuss!”

“Oh, my. I don’t think his visit is very friendly, either,” Uilleam frets.

The Gray Alice merely smiles.

The sound of running footsteps from within the house moves along what must be a hall upstairs and then thunders down carpeted steps.

The Knave pounds impatiently on the door. “Open this door, or we shall turn it to splinters!”

The running footsteps hurtle along the first floor. “Cook! Cook!” the voice of an older woman shrieks with restrained panic. “Open the door!

“Ain’t my job,” Uilleam hears the cook protest mightily through one of the open kitchen windows. When a door slams open – presumably the kitchen door – the cook says loudly, “Where’s ’at frog footman at, eh? Th’ one ye’re trainin’ up fer her Majesty?”

“Bother-of-a-nation,” the Duchess says in a tone that usually accompanies the ineffectual and nervous wringing of hands. “I sent him on yesterday!”

There’s the sound of something – perhaps a pepper mill – being slammed down. “Fine!” the cook barks, stomping toward the door just as the Knave promises his final threat: “This is your last warning, Duchess!”

The cook screams at her employer, “An’ I s’pose yah wan’ tea, too!”

“Yes, that would be acceptable!” the Duchess shrieks and then pounds back down the hall, past the front door and up the stairs to the second floor.

Beside him, the Gray Alice clamps her other hand over her mouth but he can hear her gigglish snorts escape through her nose. He raises his brows at her in inquiry and, seeing his expression, she murmurs, “Well, some things haven’t changed.”

The sound of the front door slamming open interrupts Uilleam’s response to that.

“Well?” the cook shouts at the Knave. “Are yah comin’ in ’r ain’t yah?”

“With such a warm welcome, how could I refuse” is the oily-toned response.

The Gray Alice shakes Uilleam’s shoulder. “Come on,” she murmurs, climbing over the low wall and – staying low – dashing for the wall beneath the open kitchen window. Uilleam, glances left, right, and above before scrambling after her. He races as fast as his spindly bird legs can carry him across the lawn and, in his haste, slams into the side of the house with a choked screech.

“Shhh,” the old Alice reminds him as the cook stomps up the stairs, shouting at the Knave, “We wasn’t expectin’ nobody so there ain’t any tea!”

“Now, I’m sure you’ll be able to brew up some, won’t you?” the Red Knave replies.

“Humph! Won’t be rushin’ on yer account!”

He chuckles darkly.

“Quickly, Uilleam. Through the window,” the Gray Alice commands, boosting him up without further warning.

“What—? Ack! Oomph!” he declares, landing in a bucket of potato peelings on the other side of the window sill. “Oh, spuds,” he swears, flopping out of the wooden tub and onto the quite-possibly-never scrubbed stone floor. He looks up as the Gray Alice hoists herself up into the open window and watches – horrified – as the air above her head suddenly swirls with an aqua-gray mist.

“Well, well, well. Now, what have we here?” A wide, toothy grin splits the air.

While Uilleam clutches his vest and wonders if he’s experiencing heart failure – theyve been caught out! – the old Alice merely scowls up at the mist as she somersaults into the kitchen, clipping the bucket of peelings with her heel but, thankfully, the misstep does not have enough force to tip it over.

“Cheshire Cat,” she greets. “I was wondering if you were still allying yourself with these fumptwats.”

“Oh, language, madam!” he purrs, his glowing eyes and furry face appearing, a sure sign that the old Alice has intrigued him. “And how is it that you know of me, and yet I do not know of you?”

She smirks and arches a brow. “Perhaps you’ve become too complacent, Cat?”

“Hm...” the Cheshire Cat considers this as Uilleam tries – and fails – to decide if he ought to be panicking.

“Despite that,” the Cat continues, “I am not so unobservant as to have missed your declaration to steal the Duchess’ Oraculum.”

The Gray Alice straightens and glares back at the cat face still hovering in the air. “The Oraculum is the property of the Fates of Underland. Not the Duchess.”

“And yet you – who are most assuredly not one of the Fates – are determined to liberate it. How interesting...”

“Cheshire Cat, listen very carefully to what I am about to say,” she bids him and Uilleam intends to give her his full attention, but at that exact moment an upstairs door is banged open and the cook shouts, “The Knave of Hearts, Ilosovich Stayne, is ’ere ta see yah, Duchess!”

“Well let him in!” the Duchess screeches in reply.

“... by the Fates.” Uilleam turns back to his comrade in arms and hears only the last bit of what the old Alice had whispered to the smiling cat. “Times are changing and you’d be wise to remove yourself from politics, Cheshire Cat.”

“I never get involved in politics,” he purrs.

“Oh? Is that why you never told anyone that the Red Queen would send the Jabberwocky to Iplam? Is that why you left the Hightopps and their guests to their fate? Is that why you gave the Crown of Underland to that Bloody Big Head?”

“Just what are you suggesting, Widow Woman?”

“I think you already know what it is I’m suggesting, Chess. Why is the Knave here?” The question, Uilleam realizes, is rhetorical. The old Alice arches a brow at the Cat in a silent dare for him to deny it.

“Very well,” he drawls in a bored tone. “I do have my suspicions on that front, but I fail to see why I should permit you to take the Oraculum for yourself.”

“It is not for me,” the old Alice replies as Uilleam swings his beak toward the ceiling and the heavy footsteps of the cook thudding ever closer to the top of the stairs. “It is for the White Queen. Tell me, Cat, do you believe you will fare any better under the Red Queen’s rule?”

“It matters not to me,” he drawls. “Nor to anyone else with Evaporating Skills.”

The widow grins in triumph. “Then it shouldn’t matter who has the Oraculum, should it?”

The Cat gazes at her appraisingly.

Uilleam twitches with each stomping step as the cook marches down the stairs and toward the kitchen.

“Well argued, Widow,” the Cheshire Cat concludes, looking rather entertained. “But I still fail to see what is in it for me to let you get away with your planned theft.”

The old Alice leans in closer, her voice lowers until Uilleam can barely make out her words over the thundering racket that the ever-furious cook is making.

“I know what it is you want more than anything, Cheshire Cat. Chessur. Chess,” she mumbles into his smiling face. “And I promise the only way you will ever get it is by abandoning the Duchess.”

The Cat sits back, his body and tail finally appearing. With harsh skepticism, he demands, “And what is it you think I want, Widow Woman?”

The Gray Lady doesn’t hesitate. “A companion to equal you, who will never bore you, who will be your partner in all things. Yours and only yours.

For a long moment, the pair stare at each other, frozen. Uilleam scrambles away from the kitchen door as the angry footsteps of the cook thunder closer. “Gray Lady...?” he whimpers, afraid of that fearsome woman and her terrifying pepper mill.

The Cheshire Cat moves first. Without blinking or otherwise removing his stare from the Gray Alice, he nods toward a side door. “Into the pantry.”

Uilleam has never – he is sure – moved so fast in his life! One moment, he is shaking in the middle of the filthy kitchen and the next he is slumped against the shelves in the dark pantry with the door cracked open to allow in a shaft of light and the Gray Alice’s hand is once again firmly planted on his shoulder. They listen – and the Cheshire Cat hovers, contemplating the Gray Lady – as the cook bangs together a tea set and then slams out of the room.

“You offer this to me freely, Widow Woman?” the Cheshire Cat says when the cook has gone. “I need only let you take the Oraculum and...”

“Not quite,” she replies bluntly. “You have a part to play in the coming events, but it is one that I think you will find very... rewarding.”

“Hm... I admit I am intrigued, Widow Woman,” the Cat replies. “But this is hardly the time or the place to discuss it, is it?”

“Perhaps not,” the Gray Lady allows. “But, should you reconsider our bargain, it would be a small matter to steal the Oraculum back from me, would it not?”

“An excellent point! Very well,” the Cat agrees. “As this appears to be a most interesting enterprise, I invite you to steal the Duchess’ prized scroll. If you can.

And with that, he evaporates.

Uilleam lets out the breath he’d been holding but chokes on the very next one when the Gray Alice grabs his vest and hauls him to the pantry doorway. “Come,” she insists on a whisper. “The cook will be back soon.”

They scuttle across the kitchen to the door, which the old Alice eases open, peers out into the hallway beyond and then beckons Uilleam to follow. They scamper from doorway to doorway, ever ready to duck into a room at a moment’s notice and Uilleam decides that Mally would have been better suited for this task. Dodo Birds, he realizes, do not scamper effectively.

He is on the verge of sharing this observation with the Gray Lady when they hear the cook’s heavy tread on the stairs. The old Alice pulls him behind a large, wilting potted plant along the side of the stairs and, crouching, they wait and watch as the cook – a frightful woman with a furious scowl pulling her face ever earth-ward, marches past, grumbling to herself. They wait until the kitchen door slams shut and then Uilleam once again struggles to keep up with the old Alice’s quick, decisive strides as she hurries quietly up the stairs.

“... don’t know what you are talking about, Sir Knave!” the Duchess announces loudly enough for her voice to carry along the hallway and down the stairs.

“... you know, Duchess.” Uilleam watches as the Gray Lady shivers again. He himself shudders at the threat in the Knave’s soft voice. The closer they move toward that voice (and the man speaking it) the more unsettled Uilleam becomes.

“I overheard you advise the queen to attack Iplam on Horvendush Day. Assured her of victory over her sister... and possession of the Vorpal Sword. What I want to know, my dear Duchess, is how you knew that would come to pass,” the Knave murmurs.

“I knew nothing!”

“Now, come, come, madam. Do not be coy – you play the emotion so poorly. Tell me; what witchcraft did you use to make those events come to pass?”

“There is no witchcraft!” the Duchess shrieks, her voice shrill with panic and denial.

The sound of a teacup being set down upon its saucer precedes a beat of absolute silence, and then:

YOU WILL CONFESS YOUR METHODS!!” the Knave roars and Uilleam cringes against the wall of the hall. When the Gray Alice grabs his vest, he gladly allows her to pull him into a conveniently placed room and quietly shut the door behind him.

“It’s only a matter of time,” the widow murmurs.

Uilleam – shivering – nods. “Yes. I expect he’ll use that sword of his and search this place himself if she continues to be... unhelpful. Perhaps there is no secret to be had,” he mutters. “Certainly, one would expect her to divulge it when faced with... him.

“Oh, there’s a secret,” the Gray Alice replies. “And she knows it’ll be her head if the Red Queen finds out about it.”

Startled, Uilleam glances away from the door as the old woman leaves him and ventures further into the room. Only then, when his focus has broadened beyond the threat down the hall, does he notice that they appear to be in a very well-kept library.

He trails after the old Alice. “What secret?”

“The Oraculum,” she replies, turning the corner among the book stacks and stopping before a pedestal with a glass case resting upon it.

The dodo cranes his neck to see over the edge and blinks at the rather plain-looking scroll within. “This is...?”

He watches as the Gray Alice removes a knife from her boot, slides the blade between the jaws of the lock and twists it viciously. The blade breaks and Uilleam flinches as the metal rebounds off of the glass with a musical clang!... then gapes as the bits of the broken lock bounce off of the widow’s boots and clatter to the floor. She lifts the case, and snatches the scroll from its velvet mat. Uilleam is too stunned to feel shocked at himself for watching her stuff the scroll inside her shirt – between the jerkin and tunic she wears underneath.

“You’ve done it,” he muses, disbelieving. “You’ve stolen the Oraculum...”

“And now we only have to get away with it,” she murmurs, glancing over her shoulder in the direction of the door.

Uilleam turns with her and shudders when he hears footsteps approaching – reluctant, mincing steps and a purposeful stride – along the hall toward their door.

“Which room, Duchess,” the Knave asks sweetly. “Show me this oracle of yours. This... Oraculum.”

“Blasted boggletogs,” the Gray Alice curses. Once again, Uilleam finds himself being dragged across a room, his feet and claws scrambling against the tiled floor and his knees knocking together.

He freely admits that this is far more adventuresome than he had expected. And he had, perhaps, erred when he had readily agreed to accompany the Gray Lady on her quest.

The Duchess’ voice is shrill with stress when she speaks: “Here! It is kept here, in the library.”

“Open the door,” the Knave insists.

The brass door handle rattles and Uilleam breathes out a heartfelt sigh as the old Alice pulls him behind a very full bookshelf. The door opens and the Duchess protests sharply as her footsteps falter. “I’ll ask you not to shove me about in my own home, Ilosovich Stayne!”

The sound of sword metal against scabbard leather manifests itself as an icy chill that skitters down the dodo bird’s spine.

“Show me... the Oraculum,” the Knave articulates, biting off his words two at a time.

Uilleam is jostled gently and he turns his attention to the peaky widow.

“Quietly,” she mouths to him and he nods vigorously.

He follows her on tiptoe as they maneuver through the rows of books and shelves and stacks and tables. The journey only takes a moment, but it feels like so very much longer, as if they are dragging Time by its second hand along with them. But then they are but a sprint from the door and...!

The footsteps stop.

The Duchess’ complaints stop.

All sound stops.

A beat of silence echoes in the room.

Where is it?” the Knave growls.

And then Uilleam finds himself being shoved into the hall. He stumbles in the direction of the stairs, but a hand on his vest swings him around and into a neighboring room. He crouches with the old Alice in what appears to be a recital hall.

In the neighboring room, the Duchess screeches and shrieks, “Well... the moral of the story... and, you see, it was... and...!”

Uilleam braces himself for what must be coming. The Red Knave is not known for his leniency... or his tolerance of what he believes are useless creatures.

And yet, the sounds of a sword being drawn and a rather unfortunately uglified and pointy-chinned Duchess begging for her life are not what he hears next.

“Oh, my. What happened here?”

Uilleam blinks at the sound of a very Cheshire-like drawl. It is muffled from its journey through the library, out the door, down the hall, and into the recital hall where Uilleam huddles against the wall near the door with the Gray Lady.

“What does it look like, Cat?” the Knave growls.

“Why... it looks as if our Duchess’ prized scroll has been stolen!”

Beside him, the old Alice huffs out a soft laugh. “Smart Cat,” she mutters. She glances at Uilleam and seeing his no doubt befuddled look, elaborates, “He’s not letting on that he knows what the Oraculum actually is. Smart Cat.”

Setting aside the fact that he doesn’t know what the Oraculum is at all, that line of logic seems a bit convoluted to Uilleam’s way of thinking: surely, pretending to know less than one actually does is a very odd sort of way of being smart...

“My dear Duchess,” Chessur muses, “I don’t suppose this development could be at all related to the old Outlander woman I saw on the premises earlier today?”

“An Outlander woman!” the Duchess wails, as if the very thought is more terrifying than the Bandersntach.

“That very well may be,” the Knave declares, disgust evident in his tone. There’s the faint sound of metal against metal and Uilleam imagines the Knave has picked up the remains of the Gray Lady’s broken blade. “Inferior Outlandish craftsmanship,” the Knave announces and then the broken bits of blade are very audibly tossed aside. “Cat. In which direction did you see this Outlander slink off?”

“Towards Mamoreal, I believe.”

If Uilleam had possessed a voice suited for growling, he would have done so right then. “Traitor!” he hisses. “Should have expected...!”

A leather-gloved hand clamps down on his beak rather forcefully and Uilleam struggles for a moment before he realizes that the regular thuds he hears are not products of his blood-pounding temper but the commanding strides of the Red Knave.

Uilleam’s heartbeat picks up as the man approaches the door to the recital hall and pauses.

There is a moment during which Uilleam doesn’t dare breathe, blink, think...

And then the Red Knave pivots and says very clearly, “You, Duchess, will have much to answer for, should I locate this... prized scroll of yours and determine it to be precisely what you claimed... Of course, if I discover that you have lied...

The Duchess, for once, does not appear to have an answer.

The Knave’s smirk is audible. “Good day to you then, Duchess.

Uilleam listens with the old Alice as the Knave hurries along the hall and down the stairs. There are vague shouts in the yard and the unchoreographed, clanking symphony of red-painted armor.

“Bragergain i’tall,” the old Alice mutters.

“Really, Widow Woman?” Chessur muses, whooshing into being beside them. “And here I thought you might be a bit more appreciative of my interference.”

“You told the Knave exactly who stole the Oraculum!” Uilleam hisses, clicking his beak in abject aggravation. “And you sent him to Mamoreal!”

“Well, I doubt he would have believed me if I had directed him anywhere else.”

“True,” the old Alice surprises Uilleam by agreeing. “But that doesn’t mean you haven’t made a rather large mess of things, Cat.”

The Cheshire Cat narrows his aqua eyes at her, which she ignores. She leans closer to the door and listens, her wrinkled and gray brows scrunched up in concentration. Uilleam listens as well. The yard is silent. There is faint banging coming from the direction of the kitchen and shrill sobs interspersed with mentions of morals and stories which float out from the library.

“Come on, Uilleam,” the Gray Lady says. “With the mood Stayne’s in... we’d better find Hightopp and the others... before he does.”

One Promise Kept: Book 5

A Alice in Wonderland Story
by Manniness

Part 7 of 13

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