Continuing Tales

One Promise Kept: Book 5

A Alice in Wonderland Story
by Manniness

Part 9 of 13

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One Promise Kept: Book 5

“Access not granted,” the knight intones, barring Alice’s way on the wide, ever-blossoming-tree-lined path with his pearly spear.

For a moment, Alice is too shocked to reply. Yes, the White Queen’s life had been very recently threatened and her crown stolen and her power revoked. Yes, the White Guard had lost a good many of their fellows during the attack. Yes, it makes perfect sense for them to be wary of strangers, which Alice freely admits to being in this time and place...

But, this is perhaps the first time, in all her experience in Underland, that someone has taken sensible action.

It’s rather a shock.

“Not granted?!” Tarrant lisps, gesticulating gracefully with one hand and causing his tattered cuff to flutter in the air.

“Spoon!” Thackery declares, leveling his ladle on the White knight.

From Alice’s shoulder, Mally declares, “I don’ need yahr permission tah set foot in Mamoreal!”

As her future friends and her will-be-husband protest, Alice grits her teeth as a shiver quakes through her. She barely feels it in her hand or up her forearm anymore, but when she does feel it on her upper arm, the sensation strengthens with terrible power. The chill erupts above her elbow and beneath her arm, shoots up to her shoulder, and then plummets down to her chest, where is burns ice-cold and then sinks into her heart... which aches very noticeably.

Yes, she is still dying and she knows she doesn’t have much time left.

“Oh, no. We’ll let you in, Madam Dormouse,” the second guard intones from within his rook-shaped helmet. “It’s only strangers we’ve been told to be wary of. And we don’t recognize you, Stranger,” he concludes, his attention very pointedly directed at Alice.

The first guard concurs, “You could be an assassin sent by the Red Queen!”

Unfortunately, despite her advanced age, Alice has to admit that she looks the part.

“But she’s an Alice!” Mally insists with heartwarming loyalty and obstinacy.

Alice, however, can see that the declaration is not going to do any good. She glances at Uilleam whose eyes are bleary with pain. Oh, botheration! They don’t have time for this nonsense!

“You misunderstand,” she says, interrupting what she is sure will be another denial. Reaching out, Alice collects Tarrant’s hand – which is still held aloft in frozen disbelief – and wraps his rather filthy fingers around her own arm. Shivering with another rolling wave of cold, she grits out, “I’m Hightopp’s prisoner.”

“You are?” the guards ask at the same time Tarrant glances down at his fingers curled around her upper arm and muses, “You are?”

And then he gives himself a brief shake. “Yes, yes!” he declares with such authority that Alice feels her cooling heart swell with pride. “She came from inside the Castle of Crims, you know!”

The guard stutters, “Cr-crims? Er, escaped or...?”

“Mally!” Tarrant hisses and, following a very meaningful twitch of his brows, the dormouse draws the borrowed hatpin she’d stuck in her belt and points it at Alice’s eye.

“We captured ’er!”

And the very valuable information she knows,” Tarrant concludes with a decisive nod.

“Knows all thar is teh know!” Thackery inserts unexpectedly, googling and shuddering and glaring at the guards.

“Yah goin’tah le’us all in, now?” the spunky mouse challenges.

“We’ll keep aur eyes on th’ auld bessom,” Thackery announces. “Eyes, aye. All ten-an’-two o’em!”

The second guard glances back at his guard-mate, then, hesitantly points out, “Er... there’s only the three of you, with two eyes apiece...”

“Och, tha’ ye can see!” the hare rhymes, panting and twitching. The ladle, interestingly enough, remains steady in his furry grasp.

“Fates of Underland,” the knight grumbles, lowering his spear.

“Exactly!” the hare exclaims, leading the way down the pearly white drive.

Alice stumbles showily along, frowning mightily, playing up her role as well as allowing herself to express the occasional grimace as one shiver and then another rushes up her arm.

“Gray Lady, are you well?” Tarrant murmurs when they four are all beyond earshot of the guards.

“As can be expected,” she temporizes. “Don’t let go of my arm until Mirana tells you to.”

“Mirana o’ Mamoreal,” Mally corrects her sternly, the hatpin most considerately lowered away from her eye. “First yah say we’re off tah th’ queens infirmary an’ now yah’er callin’ her by ’er given name!”

“Indeed,” Tarrant muses in a thoughtful tone that Alice knows precedes a moment of his blindingly bright brilliance. “Precisely which is it you mean, Gray Lady?”

Before Alice can fumble for a reply, Thackery interjects, “Ask th’ Fates yerself if’n ye’re keen teh know! Oracles teh introduce!”

“Right you are, Thack,” Tarrant admits – perhaps reluctantly – a moment later. “We do have other priorities at the moment.”

“I think you’re enjoying this just a bit too much,” Alice redirects him. “You’re lucky the guards never asked why your prisoner is wearing a sword.”

“You’d hardly be much of a suspicious person if you weren’t,” he replies.

She rolls her eyes. Apparently, his Un-logic is an indefatigable aspect of his character.

Seeing the future White Queen of Underland is as simple as stumbling up the stairs, into the main hall, and delivering a bossy demand (this from Mallymkun) to see the once-was monarch. Uilleam is carried off to the infirmary by a pair of frog footmen and the throne room doors are swung open by Algernon and... It all happens so fast that, thankfully, only four additional shivers make her tremble in her will-be-husband’s grasp.

“Release her, Hatta,” Mirana says, smiling gently upon seeing them. “She is our guest here...”

“I’m afraid not. I am merely a messenger,” Alice differs gently as Tarrant’s warm hand slides away from her cloth-covered arm. She despairs for the loss of his touch as she weeps in silence for her son whose own existence now hangs in the balance of all she does here and now. Suddenly, the chill takes on new significance for her as she draws nearer to the conclusion of her appointed task. Has she done enough to ensure that the Underland she knows will be waiting there when she returns? Or has she done too much?

Terrifying as these thoughts are, there is no way for Alice to know for sure one way or another.

It is a cruel moment to be in. She wracks her brain for as many 24-year-old memories as she can... and hopes...

“A messenger. Hm... yes,” Mirana muses, her dark gaze examining Alice from the windblown wisps of gray hair on her head to the toes of her scuffed, leather boots. “Hatta... Dormouse, Hare... will you please excuse us? I sense there is something our... reluctant guest needs to say to me in private.”

“Gray Lady?” Mally squeaks before anyone else can protest.

“She’s right,” Alice concurs. “I will see you three again later.”

Looking rather unsure, Tarrant hesitates to go.

“I promise,” she adds. “And you know what a promise is worth.”

“I do,” he lisps and finally does as his preferred sovereign had bid him.

She watches her friends go, stands alone while the dormouse, hare, and the man who will father her child leave the room, wishing she could follow them, but knowing that she cannot. This is her task to complete. Just as what is coming will be theirs. Thus, the sound of the heavy doors closing behind them, echoing in the great, cavernous hall, is not a comfort to her. Hoping that she is doing the Right Thing, Alice takes a steadying breath and says to her hostess, “The Fates of Underland have sent me.”

The had-been and will-be-again queen smiles softly. “Yes. I know. They said they would send help.”

“You Courted them?” Alice muses, remembering the conversation on the edge of the croquet pitch so long ago.

“What else could I do after... what happened?”

The woman is clearly referring to the attack on Iplam Village, and is also clearly still mourning for those lost, so Alice does not badger her for a confirmation. “What else, indeed. And they have sent me.”

“Alice...” Mirana surmises. “Yes, they have sent you, Alice. You are the one who will save us.”

For a moment, she can do nothing but blink at the observation. “I... I’m sorry, no. I’m afraid I am not the right Alice for that task.”

“But... Fate... She assured me...”

“You are waiting for another Alice,” Alice hears herself say, biting back the twinge of curiosity that would have made her ask: She? The Sheep? Or is Fate completely different for you? Yes, its a head-spinning thought to contemplate that each and every individual in Underland has their own, personal Fate (although that makes a great deal of sense!) or perhaps it is the petitioner who makes Fate appear as it does?

As a shiver screams across her shoulder and down to her heart, Alice gives herself a brief shake. As she had told Mallymkun not so long ago, wasting time on semantics will hardly do anyone any good now.

“You are waiting for Alice, but the Right One. Here. I will show you.” With that, Alice removes the Oraculum from within her jerkin and unrolls it. The destruction of Hightopp Village makes her pause, for it is here, just as she’d suspected it would be. And it breaks her heart that the Duchess had allowed it to occur, all for the sake of securing her own position in the Red Queen’s Court. And it nearly brings her to her knees at the thought of Chessur’s blatant lack of assistance, of warning, of caring...

But, then again, perhaps she is judging Chessur too harshly. Perhaps, even had he looked, even had he acted, nothing could have been done. The Oraculum has been known to change, after all. And it has been known to show only that which must be seen in order for Underland to continue to exist as the Fates decree it to.

Alice gently unrolls the parchment and more events scroll past:

The delivery of the Oraculum, at the hands of an old, gray woman, to Mamoreal and Absolem.

The construction of a new prison in Salazen Grum, one that is horrible and dark and not made from edibles.

The enslavement of so many creatures.

The Bandersnatch being directed by Stayne to do the Red Queen’s bidding.

The morning beheadings... including that of a certain duchess and her cook.

So many dark, dark things are recorded in the coming days, and yet there is light. Tarrant is there, leading the Resistance against the Red Queen, marshaling rebels and foiling the Knave’s plans in secret. Mally is also there with him, standing proudly with a hatpin sword in her belt and not a sleepy yawn in sight.

And then Alice, The Alice, arrives.

“Here,” Alice shows the will-be White Queen. “The right Alice will come. On Griblig. And on Frabjous...”

“Yes, I see,” the future queen muses. “She will be my Champion.”

“She will protest,” Alice feels compelled to warn her. “But yes, eventually, she will. Once she sees this.” Alice indicates the Oraculum. “Once she understands...”

“Then I shall be patient.” Mirana smiles and relaxes. “Thank the Fates... and thank you, Gray Lady with the Impossible Scar.”

Alice twitches, raising her hand to her own throat before she can stop herself. “Not impossible, Your Majesty.”

“Isn’t it? I may not know much about Uplander physiology, but that is a mortal wound. Had it been left untreated for the length of time necessary to make that scar, surely you would have died. If not from the loss of blood, then from its inflicter’s Intent.”

The practiced gaze of a healer studies Alice very thoroughly and she must command herself to hold still and firm.

“Therefore you must have been healed quickly, which would have removed the Intent... and yet the scar remains.”

Again the White woman pauses. Alice waits, thinks, plots, says, “Perhaps I received this scar Above. Things are different there.”

“Did you?”

Even now, Alice cannot bring herself to lie to the woman who will claim the throne for which Alice will risk her life to keep secure. Mirana notices this and nods.

“There is only one conclusion to be had.”

“You must not share it with anyone. Please,” Alice says into the expectant silence.

Mirana’s hands lower a bit as the solemnity of her tone seems to weigh on both of them. “Ah... of course not, for it is too late to undo, is it not?”

Relieved, Alice merely nods. Perhaps it is not too late to undo the future, but Alice is too fearful of losing it to allow the risk: Tarrant must never suspect that she is, in fact, his Alice, not until she asks him to help her die, not until she shows him how he must kill her. In truth, she fears she has already left too strong an impression with him and frets that she has changed the future already: her husband had never mentioned an old widow who had mentored him in the wake of Horvendush Day. But surely he would now, wouldn’t he? His rush to “rescue” her seems to indicated that she matters to him, so wouldn’t that mean that he will miss her? Speak of her? Worry about her when she is gone?

But what is there to be done about all that now?

And then, thankfully, a very distracting, steely gleam enters Mirana’s dark eyes. “Oh! We have much to prepare! First, of course you must deliver this to Absolem, as has been foretold.” She indicates the Oraculum with an airy gesture. “I will have him brought here.”

“Was Nivens successful...?”

“Oh, yes!” Mirana assures her. “They arrived three days ago.”

“Botheration. I’m sure he’s in a mood.”

“Rather,” Mirana admits, her eyes narrowing with what Alice knows is curiosity and speculation. “Nivens will have to be sent up to London... for I believe that is where Alices are from, are they not?”

“This one is,” Alice allows, entirely truthfully.

“Hm, yes. And then we shall have to see about some armor for our Champion...”

With a shiver-aided start, Alice realizes that the armor she had donned on Frabjous Day had, indeed, been ready for her when she had arrived at Mamoreal. In fact, it had been waiting for her. And, once she had been her proper size again, it had fit her perfectly.

Mind racing, Alice realizes it had fit her perfectly because...

“Use my measurements,” she says to her will-be friend. “We Alices are of similar size. It will fit her.”

Mirana nods. “Which is why it was you the Fates chose to send. Yes, I see now.”

So does Alice. So much more than she had ever thought possible.


“I’ve been expecting you.”

“And I’m late. Alices tend to be, I’m afraid.”

“You could have slipped away from that fitting over an hour ago.”

The Gray Lady sighs. “Well, I’m here now, Chessur.”

“Yes, I can see that.”

“And now you want the rest of it.”


Tarrant continues hesitating just around the corner of the night-darkened hallway. He had been waiting for the Gray Lady to finish her business with Mirana of Mamoreal. He had been hoping he would be able to ask her more about who she is, why she had come to help him, how she had known where to find him once she had known the date, why she had needed to be told the date in the first place... But none if it is as important or as driving as his need to simply see her once more. He has felt, increasingly as the day had worn away into darkness, a sense of impending separation... as if she, too, will leave him. It scares him; the thought of being alone... again. So, when he had heard her purposeful gait echoing down the corridors, he had raced down hall after hall and followed her, found her... but now he finds he must wait. Apparently, she has an appointment with the Cheshire Cat.

“Tell me why I should help you now, Chessur? You lived in that house with her. The Oraculum was there for you to see, to know. The Oraculum foretold the attack on Iplam. You could have prevented it all.”

“The Jabberwocky, you mean? Yes, I suppose I could have.”

Tarrant blinks, chokes on something strong and sudden and surging in his gut. His ears fill with the rush of his own anger and confusion and betrayal and...!

“Yes, I could have saved Tarrant’s people,” the Cat continues, his drawling tone sounding as if it has traveled a very long distance before reaching his ears. “In fact, I made up my mind to do precisely that... do you want to know what the Oraculum showed me once I had?”

“Go on.”

“A battle. A march on Crims. Every Outlander in Underland would have drawn swords against the Red Queen, heedless and willfully ignorant of the Jabberwocky’s terrible power... and all would have perished. Is that what you would have preferred, Gray Widow? An Underland without a single Outlander, their young ones enslaved by the Red Queen?”

A long pause follows this. “... No. Of course not.”

“I’m not completely unfeeling, you know,” the Cat continues. “How would the eradication of so many benefit me? It wouldn’t, of course. What a waste it would have been. Not to mention the fact that my intervention would have been recorded in the Oraculum. I would have been found out eventually... and promptly hunted! Perhaps mere queens and knaves cannot trap a Cat with Evaporating Skills, but there are plenty of others who would have been happy to utilize their own unique gifts in tracking to locate me and take revenge upon the one they believe had led the Outlanders to their destruction. That would have been quite unpleasant for me.”

“... yes. I imagine it would have.”

“And so I did nothing.”

“And so you did nothing.”

Tarrant lifts his head and blinks at the wall opposite him. He takes great care in memorizing everything he can about it. At the moment, it seems to be the most important thing in the world.

“So, does that answer your question, Widow Woman?”

“It does, Cheshire Cat. And now I will tell you what you want to know.”

“My tasks?”

“Yes. First, when Alice arrives in Underland on Griblig, watch for her in the forest, near the Room of Doors, and lead her – once more – to the Hare and the Hatter.”

“The Hatter... are you... sure?


“All right then. What else?”

“On the eve of Frabjous Day, the Red Queen will schedule two executions. At sunset on the day before they are carried out, offer your assistance.”

“Help them escape, you mean.”

“Yes. Crouch it in an offer. Barter, if you like, but save his life.”

“Ah, a he is it?” When the Gray Lady does not reply, the Cat continues, “And I will do this at the cost of my own life?”

“No. You will not be harmed. In fact, you will have a splendid time doing it.”

“Spoken like someone who will be there personally,” he observes wryly.

“I won’t be.”

“Hm... If I do these things – show this Alice—”

The Alice,” the Gray Lady corrects him.

“Yes, yes, the Alice. If I show her the way to wherever Tarrant and Thackery are and I help this fellow escape from prison on the eve of Frabjous Day...”

“If you do those things, Chessur, you will have what you want most in all the world.”

“And how can I trust you to speak the truth?”

There is a very long pause before she replies. “I suppose you can’t,” she finally says. “But tell me, Chessur, what do you have to lose if I am lying? You have seen the dangers of these tasks. I am sure you will prepare well for them.”

“Hm. Point taken, Widow Woman. I will do as you ask in exchange for this thing.” The Cat pauses and then presses, “It will make me happy, will it not?”


It is only one word, but it rings.

It rings in Tarrant’s ears and it galls him that this... this... shukm-lickering... egg-brimni... booly-greizin’-grommer will receive any sort of guarantee of happiness after he...! After he had seen the warning in this Oraculum that the Gray Alice had stolen and yet he had done nothing! NOTHING!

“Hm... I’d best be going... And you’d best be attending to Tarrant. I think he’s about to erupt.”

Tarrant doesn’t know how the Gray Lady locates him so swiftly. She is around the corner and bracing his shoulders with her leather-encased hands so fast that a helpful gesture from a slurvish, shukm-slackush toadie must have directed her to him.

Ye don’ want teh b’ thinkin’bout that, nauw, lad.

No, no he doesn’t.

He opens his eyes and tries to fight the mercury rising within him, but he can feel it burning his skin as his rage ekes out from his reddened gaze.

“Gray Lady?” he grits out through the haze.

“Yes. That’s it. Focus on me. Take another breath. That’s good, Hightopp. Now another...”

She coaches him as she had coached him in Iplam. The Gray Lady has always strived to help make him better, to help him be better, and he takes comfort in that. He wants to make her proud. For this old woman – for whom he would make a Hightopp tartan if only the memory of how it is done no longer had the power to eviscerate him – yes, for her, he fights the madness.

“Breathe in again... Good. Very good, Hightopp. Now let it out slowly... There’s a lad...”

“Chessur knew,” he hears himself accuse in a voice he does not recognize as his own; it is too deep, too dark... it is Blackness itself.

“And chose the path that lead to fewer deaths.”

“Chose the path that saved his own skin!! Should have... another WAY!!”

She doesn’t argue with him. The old widow curls an arm around his shoulders and ushers him around the corner and into her apartment. She kicks the door shut and sits him down in an arm chair. He trembles – shivers, shudders, quakes! – against the cushions.

“Be angry,” she permits him. “You’ve that right.”

“I want justice!” he hisses.

“And you know how to get it, don’t you?” she tells him, her dark gaze burning into his and he must admit that she is right. He does know how to get revenge. She has shown him what he must do, what it will require from him. And, for the first time, he is not overwhelmed by it.

She continues, “Do not waste your ire on that cat, Hightopp. Save it and store it and use it against the ones who chose to wrong you and your people.”

“Our people,” he corrects her, not forgetting that she is both an Uplander and an Alice.

Her expression softens at that and he feels himself relax along with her. “Aye,” she breathes. “Our... people.”

She had been about to say something else, he is sure. He’s of a mind to ask her about it, but then her gloved fingers lift and touch the scar on her throat and the question dries up into nothing.

He watches, still breathing heavily as his anger and madness subsides, as the Gray Lady turns away and directs her attention to a tea set, of all things. Moments later, she holds a cup out to him. From the flavor and thickness of the steam, as well as the shade and the subtle swirling of the beverage itself, he knows that it is Throeston Blend and that it has been fixed to his preference perfectly.

“How did you know?” he murmurs, accepting the cup out of awe rather than any genuine thirstiness.

“I know you,” she answers.

“You also know the future,” he says, remembering her promises to... that... Tarrant gives himself a slight shake and watches her expression, waits for her reaction.

“I know the task I was given,” she finally corrects him. “I was sent to deliver the Oraculum to a worthy keeper... and, I believe, to prepare all of you as best as I am able. Do not ask me about the future, Hightopp. You know what is coming. You must be ready.”

“Ready...?” His mind whirls at the implications. “So... you... you cannot stay?”

“No. I’m sorry, Hightopp. This path you must make on your own.”

“On my own,” he echoes, gulping down a rush of... something that explodes up from his heart. He drops his gaze to the cup in his trembling hands.

“It will not always be so,” she whispers, drawing his gaze again. “She... He will come. The one who will slay the Jabberwocky... and save you.”

“Who? This... this Oraculum that... Iplam... it shows...?” he queries, knowing he shouldn’t ask, chastising himself for his weakness, wishing she would answer faster, hoping her words will be a comfort and not another curse to bear.

“’Twas brillig,” the Gray Alice tells him on a husky whisper. “And the slithy toves did gyre and gimble on the wabe. All mimsy were the borogoves, and the mome raths outgrabe.”

Tarrant stares, enthralled, as she speaks, as the words seem to fill the room like treacle in a well.

“The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame, jaws that bite and claws that catch! Beware the Jabberwock, my son, and the frumious Bandersnatch!”

He shivers, despite himself. There is Power in her words. He can feel the Truth of a Prophecy throb against his skin. No faded sketch on a mere roll of parchment can compare to this: these are words from the Fates themselves, he knows. He feels.

The Gray Alice leans forward. “He took his Vorpal Sword in hand; the Vorpal blade went snicker-snack! He left it dead, and with its head, he went galumphing back!”

“What...” Tarrant manages to stutter long moments after the firelight from the hearth has warmed the chill in his veins. “What is that?”

“It’s about Alice. The Champion of the White Queen. The slayer of the Jabberwocky.”


“The Alice.”

“The Alice...” he says slowly, “will come?”

“Will return,” she corrects him urgently. And then she smiles and breathes on a chuckle, “The very same one whom you so offended so long ago.”

He frowns into his teacup, unsure of what to think of that, of what he ought to feel... The sensation currently churning in his chest feels very much like... anticipation. “Alice...”

Yes, he remembers her. Golden hair in need of cutting and odd Uplandish ideas and huffs of affront and contrary pouts and sunny smiles and...

“Alice?” he seeks to confirm, unable to say more than her name, unable to describe her properly. The Gray Lady, however, seems to understand precisely whom he means.

She nods. “Will you wait? Will you gather those loyal to the White Queen, keep them as safe as you can? Wait for your chance to lead the rebellion against Iracebeth? Will you do whatever you must, whatever you can, to help Alice? Even if that means you must become skilled at lying, at hiding, and at fighting? Even if that means surrendering your life? Even if that means escaping certain death to stand on the battlefield and at the Champion’s side?”

“I will,” he hears himself vow. “I will do all of that. Even wait. I’ll go and actually Kill Time if I must!”

She smiles thinly. “He’ll not thank you for that.”

“No, I don’t suppose he will,” Tarrant replies. “But we haven’t been on very good terms since... Well. It’s been a long time.”

The Gray Lady has no answer to that. She reaches into the pouch tied to her belt and pulls out a small glass bottle with a cork stopper.

“What’s this?” he asks when she holds it out to him, obviously intending for him to take it.

“Pishsalver,” she says as he complies and cradles the bottle in the hand not supporting his teacup and saucer. When he looks up with a frown, she continues, “Smaller things are easier to hide. Save it for when the one whom you protect desperately needs it.”

“This is good-bye, isn’t it?” he asks, curling his fingers around the tiny container.

She doesn’t answer that question, but another that he hadn’t asked. “Your hair wants cutting.”

Tarrant frowns mightily, fighting tears, as he considers both that fact and the distant memory it stirs. “I suppose that is true.”

He hadn’t yet managed to get the tangles and knots out of it completely when he had at last cleaned up. Cutting it all off would be easier than trying to deal with it properly. But more than that, he decides, cutting it will prove to this old woman (who has done so much for him!) that he is earnest about his declaration to be the warrior she wants him to be. (But no, that’s not right. She does not want him to be a warrior. He had noticed that earlier today in her lack of enthusiasm and her sad silence on the road to Mamoreal. She does not want him to fight, but she knows he must!) And fight, he will. He will protect those he can. He will lead the Resistance, launch a rebellion, wait for and then guide the Alice...!

Tarrant places the tiny bottle of Pishsalver in his vest pocket and sets his teacup aside. He doffs his top hat, sets it on the low table between them, and then draws a pair of sewing shears from his jacket pocket. Offering them to her, offering her this proof of his intent to take up the mantle she is telling him he must don, he says, “If you are willing to oblige me, Gray Lady.”

She stares at the small pair of scissors as they gleam golden in the light of the fire. Swallowing thickly, she sets her teacup down and takes a deep breath. Despite that, a long moment passes before she speaks.

“Do not,” she rasps, her dark eyes shimmering with moisture, “be too hard on Chessur for what he did not do.” She looks up, meets his gaze, and he stares as a pair of fat tears spill onto her cheeks and tumble over her wrinkled skin and roll down to her sagging chin. “For I am no better.”

And then she reaches out and takes the scissors from his grasp.

Tarrant thinks about that as she pulls a sheet from the bed and drapes it around his shoulders. He thinks about her task – this thing she is doing for the Fates of Underland – and its importance. He cannot fathom the breadth of her bravery or the depth of her duty, and so he says, simply, “I’m ready.”

“Not yet,” she argues softly. “But I know you will be.”

He listens as she pulls her gloves off. There are no mirrors in the room, so he cannot see her hands as she works, gently parting his long, orange-stained hair and cutting out the snarls. “I’ll leave it a bit longer on the top, shall I? For your hat.”

“Yes,” he lisps, and then great locks of hair begin falling around him, rolling down the sheet over his chest to pool in his lap. The night deepens and the fire crackles-cackles-cracks in the unworded farewells they exchange: He has given her his promise to be the fighter she has tried to help him to become, and she has given him the means to succeed at it.

He presses the palm of his hand against the little bottle in his pocket. “I don’t want this to be good-bye.”

“Neither do I, Hightopp. But it must be.” She pauses, as she has been doing from time to time, and Tarrant is not quite sure why she does that, but he thinks it might have something to do with the shivers he had felt from her today, had often seen at Iplam and had blamed on the wind. But there is no wind here, in the castle, and he knows it is too late to ask her why she shivers.

“All things must end,” she whispers.

Despite it being true, the truth gives him no comfort now.

“Life, death... sleep,” she murmurs.


“Yes. Mallymkun has awakened. Have you noticed?”

“Of course!” Of course he had noticed! She had opened her eyes and gathered her wits and strength long before he had!

“I think she’ll need a sword to go with those opened eyes. It would be nice if it came from you.”

“From me?” he checks.

“Yes. Believe in her, Hightopp. Consider it practice for believing in Alice.”

“I already believe.”

“Not enough. Believe in yourself, in Mally, in Mirana of Mamoreal, and then believe in Alice. In that order.” Tarrant mulls that over as the scissors continue snipping softly and slowly, as his hair continues to tumble to the sheet-draped floor and a soft, motion-made breeze whispers against the bare nape of his neck.

He sighs. “I don’t like farewells very much.”

She huffs a humored breath. “Then I would strongly recommend avoiding them in the future.”

“Saganistute advice, Gray Lady.”

“Wise beyond my years,” she mumbles wryly.

He supposes she is. He supposes she would have to be. He considers her Widow’s Peak, which conceals her true age, and the inexplicable scar across her neck and this task she has spoken of...

“Perhaps, when you return to the place from whence you’ve come,” he ventures, “things will be different. But better! And you will have no reason to be gray.”

Her hands pause at that. For a very long minute, she makes no sound or motion whatsoever.

“Thank you,” she breathes in the instant before he would have turned to look at her. And then with three more snips from the scissors, she produces a comb. Tarrant closes his eyes as her warm hands move through his now-short hair. Only his mother and aunts and grandmothers had ever touched him like this. And he knows with soul-quaking sorrow that he will miss them. He will miss all of them. And he will miss this lady as well. He will miss her too much.

He bites his tongue rather than ask her not to go. She had already given him her answer and he knows this mysterious woman well enough to know that no amount of begging will sway her. She would stay... if only she were able. He knows. She would lead the Resistance herself and spare him this haircut if only she could. But she can’t and she hasn’t. They both know he must be the one to do these things.

“Will you...?” he begins, stops, wishes this moment would never end.

“Will I...?”

“Stay... for a little while yet?” he finally dares.

“I think I can do that,” she answers, stepping away and pulling on her leather gloves. He wants to ask her why she always wears those things but merely accepts the scissors when she returns them to him, merely watches as she gathers up the corners of the sheet and his mercury-stained hair cradled within it.

“Is there a looking glass?” he asks.

“Through there,” she says, nodding toward the bedroom.

He glances toward the open door, but doesn’t move toward it.

“It’s late,” she says, as she sets the sheet beside the front door. “Sleep, Hightopp.”

And when she places a hand on his arm and guides him into the next room, he goes willingly. She permits him to take the side of the bed that is closest to the mirror, which he promptly – and without a single glance toward its reflective surface – presents his back to as he curls around her smaller, wrinkled and leather-armored frame.

He will not remember her, he decides. The pain of doing so will be far, far too great for him to manage. Nor will he permit himself to remember the ones he has lost. Not yet. No, for now he must remain focused. Memories... will only distract him. So he will shut them away. It will be better that way. He will remember Alice. He will wait for Alice and he will fight and lead and...

“I’ll not forget all you have taught me,” he promises on a strangled breath. “And I will make you proud, Gray Lady.”

Tarrant Hightopp closes his eyes when her gloved hand wraps around his wrist and holds on tightly. No, she does not say the words, but – oddly enough – he has the sense that she already is.

Now all he must do is earn that respect. And that, he Believes, he can do.



Uilleam supposes he shouldn’t have been so surprised, really. It’s the oldest story in the history of the world. The war veteran receives succor from a lovely, young nurse and falls madly in love with her. And he cannot deny that he is, rather unexpectedly, a war veteran of a sort, nor that he is desperately in love with the lovely dodo hen who had tended to his injuries in the infirmary. Othenia, she had said her name was, and although Uilleam has not found any suitably flattering words that rhyme with it, he is not concerned. He will finish a sonnet to her, in her honor, with or without rhyming. Such is his adoration. Even the cane that he must use is not as hated as he would have expected, for she had been the one to give it to him.

“Fashioned it myself,” she had chirped shyly, endearing herself even more to him. “And I think you’d suit it fine, Mister Uilleam.”

He had been too tongue-tied to thank her and had fumbled, dropping the precious cane, when she had given it to him.

And then she had rewarded his clumsiness with a gentle look and a touch of her beak to his.

How... unexpected.

But welcome!

So much so that he has been unable to sleep all night re-remembering the moment. In fact, he is still sitting on the terrace when dawn breaks the dome of night and shoos away the stars and a strange man with short, orange hair and a singed top hat strides onto the croquet pitch accompanied by the captain of the Mamoreal Guard. He blinks as the man lifts and then wields his sword with a purpose and skill and efficiency that a long-haired Hatter had never managed.

Perhaps this is an unexpected side-effect of receiving a haircut?

What an interesting thought to contemplate!

But not quite as interesting as thinking of lovely, kind, wonderful Othenia...

Uilleam has every intention of spending the remainder of the morning thinking of nothing but her as his hip finishes healing: “This time tomorrow, you’ll be right as a river bend,” Othenia had said. “You’re quite fortunate it was an accidental injury; those heal much faster than the non-accidental sort.”

So, enjoying the fact that his hip is pain-free and mostly healed – if a bit stiff and unresponsive, but truly that can only be blamed on the hours it had taken for the Hatter to carry him to Mamoreal – Uilleam lingers on the padded bench, turns his thoughts away from the rather impressive sparring match on the field, sighs out the name of his true love and...

… then something else unexpected happens. The Dormouse, Mallymkun, rushes out onto the terrace waving something hatpin-sized and hatpin-shaped but considerably sharper!

He wobbles out of her way as she screams her thanks to the Hatter, who grins and nods without breaking his concentration.

“He’s actually doing well with that,” she observes after a moment, and since Uilleam is the only other being present, he feels compelled to answer:

“Yes. Unexpectedly well.”

“What do you suppose caused it? The haircut?”

“I surmised the very same thing,” he admits.

“Strange,” she remarks, sheathing her new sword and hooking it to the belt at her waist. “I ain’t never seen a haircut do that before.”

“Neither have I,” he sighs happily. Good and interesting unexpected things do happen sometimes. Not just hardly ever or rarely. They happen sometimes. It’s a comforting thought for the dodo.

And another unexpected thing: “The Hatter gave you that... sword?”

“He did!” she declares with much pride. “Found it in my room with a note just for me!”

Uilleam blinks. It is unexpected but true, then, that the Hatter believes that this little dormouse can do great things. Uilleam rolls this concept around in his mind before deciding on an appropriate response.

“Congratulations, Mallymkun,” he intones.

“Thanks, Uilleam.”

His happy sigh is silent, but real.

For a long moment, Uilleam finds himself enjoying a moment of silence with his old friend as they watch the Hatter embark on this new enterprise of warcraft. It is frightening, this change, but also exhilarating and wondrous. It’s not until Mally speaks up, gesturing toward the orchard beyond the field that Uilleam realizes quite a bit of time has passed between them.

“Did yah see that?”

“See what?” he replies.

She squints her liquid dark eyes. “I think it was the Gray Lady...”

And without another word, she races off to investigate.

“Oh, not again!” Uilleam moans, thinking of Squimberry patches and Royal Decrees and morning beheadings. He hobbles after her as fast as he is able on his new cane, negotiating the terrace steps carefully and shuffling along the orchard path with much flailing and flapping of his left wing. He glimpses her tail as she disappears through the castle gate and, with a nod to the guards on duty, he follows her.

Uilleam grumbles as he pushes his way through brambles and bushes in pursuit and, as a reward for his efforts, nearly gets skewered through the ankle by the brand new sword that is in the possession of the very object of his rescue mission!

“Shhh!” Mally hisses, pointing to a clearing beyond and the two figures occupying it. Uilleam follows her gesture and startles.

“Sir Bandersnatch,” the Gray Alice greets the beast with surprising warmth. “You were waiting for me after all, weren’t you?”

He huffs in affirmative and shuffles closer.

“And I’m late. My apologies, friend.”

Uilleam gapes as the beast sighs expressively.

The Gray Lady joins the fearsome creature in that gesture and, reluctantly, she says, “Leading the Red Knights on a merry chase is all well and good, but it will not help the White Queen’s Champion, when she arrives.”


“Yes,” she says, answering his trilled inquiry. “Alice – another Alice, the Right one – will come to slay the Jabberwocky. And she will need your help.”

“Grrrt. Grrrrl!”

“What must you do?” The Gray Widow smiles gently. Then she leans forward and, despite the frumious stench, whispers into his small, twitching ear. Uilleam glances at Mally, who glances at him and shrugs helplessly; she can’t hear the old Alice’s words, either.

“Do you think you can do all of that?”

He nods once with a gruff bark of assurance and, amazingly, the Gray Lady scratches him behind his grubby ear.

“Thank you and farifarren, friend of Alice,” the Gray Lady bids the Bandersnatch.

Uilleam hears Mally snort in disbelief and he agrees; imagining the Bandersnatch as the friend of anything that is not on the menu is quite difficult to do!

And then it doesn’t matter if bandersnatches do have or even can have friends; the Gray Lady lifts her face to the sky, closing her eyes. Her lips move but her whisper is too soft for Uilleam to hear.

A moment later, a beam of the purest sunlight descends upon the old woman’s form, sparkling and shining with heavenly brilliance. Uilleam has to raise his feathered hand to block the power of that light, to spare his eyes.

And then, when the glow diminishes and he dares to peek out into the clearing once more, he sees in the place where she had been standing... no one.

The Bandersnatch snuffles at the ground, turns his small, yellowed eyes toward the heavens, whines once, and then – with a great, huffing sigh – ambles off into the wilds.

“Where d’yah suppose she went?” Mally asks, awed.

Uilleam turns his face upward as well, and replies, “I expect she went... to a most unexpected place, my friend.” Unexpected... and very far away.

One Promise Kept: Book 5

A Alice in Wonderland Story
by Manniness

Part 9 of 13

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