“There’s something wrong!” Mally said, as she began pacing the floor again.
Mirana knelt down to her. “I have the utmost confidence in Tarrant and Chess’ ability to get Alice back.”
“They would have been here by now if they had been able to stop her,” Mally argued. “You know how Tarrant is. If Alice finds herself in trouble--and no doubt she will--then it’s as sure and certain as cold tea that he’s gonna make up his fool mind to help her!”
Mirana frowned as she acknowledged the wisdom of the mouse’s words. “Nivens said that he relayed my request for them to return if they were unable to find Alice before she entered Otherland.”
Mally snorted. “Do ya really think Tarrant is gonna leave Alice behind there to ask for help? That smitten lump is gonna do whatever it takes to keep her safe.”
Mirana’s hands faltered slightly. Tarrant had always had a weak spot with Alice. She held her hand out for Mally to stand on. She raised her to the counter where she was working on her latest concoction. “I found my father’s recipe for purification. If Iracebeth is willing to use it, I am going to need someone to deliver it to Otherland.”
Mally’s eyes gleamed. “I’d be willin’ to do it!”
“It is a dangerous place,” Mirana felt the need to remind her. “If what you fear is true, then that dreadful land has already claimed three of my most treasured subjects.”
“I ain’t scared!” she huffed. “You need someone who isn’t so blinded by adoration or self-preservation to convince that Bluddy Begh Hid to use what you’re cookin’ up!”
Mirana turned back to the potion that was brewing, giving it a stir. “The only way to counter the dark magic of the dark prince is to use this purifying agent in the River of Life, but only the monarch has access to the mouth of the river.” She added crystal tears to the mix, giving it a stir before carefully pouring the liquid in a clear decanter. “Iracebeth may not feel the need to use this,” Mirana said, holding up the vial.
“Then I’ll convince her otherwise,” Mally said, whipping out her hatpin.
“Let’s hope that you can find a less violent way of making Iracebeth listen to reason,” Mirana replied softly.
With a scowl, Mally tucked away her pin and took the vial Mirana held out. “Is this going to be enough?” Mally asked, eying the small container suspiciously.
“It’s amazing what a little bit of goodness can do,” Mirana answered.
Mally seemed pleased with this answer and slid the vial in her belt strap. “I’ll be back with the boys and Alice soon,” she promised before scurrying down the counter.
“Fairfarren, Mally,” whispered Mirana as the mouse ran out of the room.
As the Bandersnatch approached the castle, Alice was struck by how pristine and full of light it was. The darkness of the land that surrounded it made Salazen Grum’s brightness stand out even more. The moat that surrounded the castle was not filled with decapitated heads, as the Red Queen’s castle had been in Underland, but croaking toads, which were watching her arrival with great interest.
She slid off the Bandersnatch’s back and walked to the gate.
A lone toad, armed with a butter knife, stood guard at the gate. “Who are you?” he demanded.
“Alice from Underland?” he croaked.
It was strange for her to be referred to as such a title, but it was certainly seemed appropriate.
The toad in front of her leapt for joy. “Come! The Queen has been eagerly waiting for you!” He reached up and grabbed the hem of her dress, pulling her forward.
“Where are the rest of the guards?” Alice asked they walked through the near-empty corridors of the castle.
“Her Majesty ordered that all card soldiers are to remain with her in the throne room until the threat of the rebellion is over,” he explained.
He walked her to a large, ornate door. “She has been waiting for you.”
So Hightopp was telling the truth, she thought, Iracebeth had sent her McTwisp to London to lure her down the rabbit hole. Alice thought of the rabbit meat at the tea table in the clearing and shivers with horror.
As she was about to push open the door, the toad spoke. “You will help us, won’t you, Alice? The world is a dangerous place with Hightopp in it.”
She paused. Would she be willing to place her life in danger to save another world again? She did feel an inexplicable tug to protect the land. “I’ll do what I can,” she answered.
She pushed open the door and allowed the toad to jump ahead. “Your Highness, Alice has arrived.”
At this statement, Alice found herself at the center of attention. Everyone, card soldiers and creatures alike, turned to face her. There, seated on her throne was Iracebeth. Alice was taken aback by the stark contrast between the pristine condition of the castle and the frazzled, desperate appearance of the Red Queen.
Iracebeth stood up from her throne and ran across the room, to stand in front of Alice. She raised a hand to her face, patting her cheek softly.
Alice stiffened momentarily before Iracebeth pulled back.
“Forgive my forwardness, Alice, you see, it has been so long since I’ve any reason to have hope, but now seeing you here…” she paused and smiled. She looked behind Alice, a frown creeping on her face. “Where is Nivens?”
Alice swallowed. “He found me and led me down the hole to…here,” she started, realizing she wasn’t quite certain where “here” was. “But, it would seem that the Resistance found him and I have reason to believe that,” she hesitated slightly, “Mally…that is she…”
Iracebeth took a step back, appalled. “Are you telling me that ravenous rat ate my courier?”
“I’m afraid so,” Alice said, her voice full of remorse.
A large tear slid down Iracebeth’s face. “It is worse than I have feared. Hightopp and the rebels have gone mad with power!”
Suddenly Checkers appeared in the room. “And I have even more bad news, I’m afraid.”
Iracebeth’s eyes fluttered shut. “What is it?”
“After Alice’s escape, Hightopp became quite enraged. Now that Alice knows the location of the Rebellion’s stronghold, he insisted that they move to Marmoreal,” Checkers replied. “When the remnants of the white army attempted to hold its ground…well, let’s just say that Hightopp has more blood on his hands now than he had at teatime today.”
He disappeared briefly and reappeared next to Iracebeth. “We must start to prepare. Hightopp no doubt knows the Champion is here,” Checkers replied. “He will come after her.”
“He’s right, your Highness,” a sloth who was standing close to the throne added. “We don’t stand a chance against him now that Marmoreal has fallen.”
“Hightopp hasn’t won yet. We just need a Champion,” Iracebeth proclaimed.
Suddenly, Alice found all eyes on her. “What about Stayne?”
Checkers frowned as Iracebeth began silently weeping. “A while back, he was captured by Hightopp and tortured for information about Salazen Grum,” Checkers explained, sorrow creeping into his voice. “They did things to him that were unimaginable, but he never revealed anything to them.”
“How do you know?” Alice wondered.
“Because…I was there too. I tried to help him to escape but Hightopp he administered a True Colors potion to him, which rendered my ability to make others invisible useless,” Checkers said, ashamed.
Iracebeth dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief. “You acted admirably, Checkers,” she assured him. “But, now that does leave me with the unbearable situation of not having someone to protect me.” She batted her eyelashes. “But you could be that person Alice…Would you be my Champion?”
“But I am already Mirana’s, I mean, the other Mirana’s Champion,” Alice replied.
“Which is precisely why you are perfect to assume the role,” Checkers replied. “You have already proven yourself worthy of the title by slaying the Jabberwocky in Underland.”
“Please, Alice,” pleaded Iracebeth, looking forlornly at her. “I would not ask you to risk your life if the situation did not demand it.”
Alice couldn’t deny there was a strong pull to acquiesce to the Red Queen’s request, but would she really be willing risk her life for Iracebeth? The image of Tarrant’s--no! Hightopp’s--wicked smile as he explained his reasons for murdering Mirana flooded Alice’s mind. She looked at Iracebeth’s allies - the few loyal servants that had survived Hightopp’s revolution - and knew she had to become her Champion. It would be the only thing that could save Otherland from the blood lust of its revolutionaries.
She looked around at the creatures who gazed at her with how in their sorrow-worn--sloths, toads, rabbits and hedgehogs. They seemed quite pitiful when compared to Hightopp’s army of griffons, lions and bears, she admitted. But, she would protect them as well as she could.
“What would you have me do, your Majesty?”
Tarrant was going mad worrying about Alice. That thought that she was wandering around in this wretched place was nearly unbearable for him to consider.
They had been walking, in Tarrant’s mind, for far too long, but Chess reassured him they were making good time through the forest. He was tempted to argue, but grudgingly admitted that the cat did know more about this place than he did. Chess said that Otherland’s geography was identical to that of Underland, but with the overgrowth of the ferocious plants, Tarrant had no way of knowing exactly where he was.
They climbed a final hill, walking past a grove of embittered orange trees. As Tarrant looked into the distance, he could hardly believe the sight before him, several kilometers ahead of them.
“That’s Salazen Grum?”
“Like I said, the red queen is quite different here,” Chess said.
Not so different, Tarrant thought. She had tricked Alice into coming here. He mumbled curses to this Iracebeth, his yellow eyes glowing dangerously.
To the side of him, Chess sighed. “Calm down, Tarrant. I am sure Alice is capable of seeing a few grotesque things,” Chess said as they made their way through the slime pit of Ipalm. “She did behead a Jabberwocky without a flinch.”
Tarrant frowned. How could that cat ever equate the necessary action of overthrowing Iracebeth’s rule to being immersed in such a vile place?
“If you think I'm going to stand by again Oraculum and Prophecy or no and watch Alice risk her life for that slurvish--”
“Quiet! I hear someone approaching!” hissed Chess, fading away.
Tarrant cursed his companion’s lack of bravery as he ducked behind a tree and held his breath. Several seconds later, he heard a twig on the ground breaking and a voice, as cold as ice, from behind him. “Tell me right now why I shouldn’t kill you where you stand.”
The words were shocking, but what was more unbelievable was whose voice they belonged to! “Alice?” Tarrant asked, turning around slowly.
When she saw him, he saw her eyes soften slightly before she renewed her grip on her sword.
“It’s me…Tarrant,” he said slowly, not wanting to upset her.
“Take off your gloves,” she demanded.
What an odd, unusual, strange request for her to make! Was this a new fashion in Overland? It seemed a highly personal sort of request... Would it be like doffing one's hat? Only Alice doesn't have a hat and he has a hat but why hadn't she asked him to take it off and...
“Tarrant,” she said firmly, calling him from his thoughts. “Your gloves.”
With a confused look, he took off his gloves and tucked them into his pocket.
“Show me your hands.”
He held up his hands reluctantly. They were not very attractive hands. They were orange-colored and scarred from the long years spent as a milliner.
Suddenly, he found himself with an armful of Alice. “It’s you,” she said, letting her sword drop haphazardly behind him. Tarrant barely registered the sound of the blade clattering to the ground as she embraced him, her warm voice near -pleasurably near! - to his ear. “It’s you. But why are you here?”
He slowly wrapped his arms around her, grateful she was seemingly all right. “To get you out of this frumious place, of course.”
She grinned against his chest, which was a most delightful feeling! “You wonderfully mad Hatter,” she said warmly. She pulled back slowly, raising her hands to cup his face before pressing her lips against his own.
Of all the ways he had expected to be reunited with Alice in this Fate-forsaken land, this was not one of them! He responded quickly, bringing his hands--which had brought her obvious joy to see-- to her cheeks as the kiss continued. Finally, after several infinities of perfection, she pulled away slightly.
“Come, Alice, we need to get you out of here.”
Her hesitation told Tarrant everything he needed to know. His eyes flashed yellow. “Ye have already sworn yer allegiance to protect th’ Bludy Bigh Head, havent ye?”
“The Red Queen,” she corrected softly. “And yes. I tried to convince her to go to Underland where she would be protected, but she isn’t willing to let Otherland fall.” She sighed. “We know he will make his way to Salazen Grum soon enough. I must stay here and wait for the others to report back to me.”
His eyes flashed orange. “And ye thought the best place for ye was in between her and him?!”
“I have no choice,” she replied. “She needs protection.”
“This isn’t your war!”
“Neither was the one in Underland, but I helped you, didn’t I?” countered Alice heatedly.
“But it’s th’ Bluddy Bihg Hed,” he hissed. “She’s nae deserving’ o’ your assistance.”
“She is different here, just like everyone else. I cannot leave her here to die at the hands of the Rebellion,” Alice argued, picking up her sword off the ground. “I won’t do it.”
Tarrant began pacing. Surely there was some way to convince Alice not to put herself in harm’s way! Surely she could see the reason why he was afraid for her to be in such a foul place! “But Alice--”
“I’ve made my decision, Tarrant. You can stay here with me or return to Underland, but my place is here for now,” she replied.
Tarrant couldn’t understand why her stubbornness seemed to be directly tied to her Muchness! “I will not protect the Bluddy Begh Hid,” he answered.
Her eyes flashed in anger. “Tarrant--”
“Look at what she’s makin’ you do! Traveling alone in this slackurish forest with not even proper armor!” he argued, gesturing to her over-sized wardrobe. “She’s naught but a slurvish--”
“Stop!” Alice shouted. She lowered her voice. “I volunteered to patrol the forest while Checkers made his way to Marmoreal, to make sure that Hightopp didn’t send his followers in Salazen Grum. We will form a plan of attack once he has returned.”
“Please, Tarrant,” she said, taking a step forward. “Trust me.”
He did trust her!
It was that no-good-red-queen that he doubted!
As he studied her, looking as Muchy as anyone could with mismatched armor, he felt his anger recede. If he did truly believe in Alice, then he should trust her assessment of this Iracebeth.Besides, his reason whispered, where else would you rather be than by her side, even if it meant protecting that…queen?
“I do, Alice,” he whispered. “How can I help?”
She beauterific smile flourished on her face - a rare sight of pure beauty in this forsaken land - and replied, “Checkers should be--”
Before she could finish her sentence, a loud shriek pierced the air.
Tarrant instantly recognized the voice; it was Mally! But when he turned from Alice’s face to the source of the sound all he saw was a hideous, rabid rat.
“He’s here,” Alice whispered fearfully, looking at Tarrant. Quickly, she scooped her blade off the ground.
“Where is he?” he asked, as he pulled out his sword from its sheath.
Alice spun around, scanning the forested area. “I can’t see him yet.”
Suddenly, a perfectly demented laugh filled the air. “Don’t the two of you make the most adorable couple?”
Tarrant finally saw his Otherlandian counterpart walking through the forest with a smug arrogance that Tarrant had only attributed to evaporating cats. Alice still had time to flee!
She shook her head. “I’m not leaving you. Not like last time.”
Tarrant knew what she was talking about, of course. And, just like the time he had sent her away from the Red Queen’s castle, he was committed to making sure she was safe and fulfilled her duties. “Protect the Queen. It’s what you promised to do!”
She hesitated for a second, looking between him and Hightopp. “Wait for me. I will save you,” she replied before she raced away from him.
It was a situation that was becoming familiar to Tarrant. Sacrificing himself to keep the--no, his--Alice safe. And it was Something he was willing to do without hesitation, even if it benefited the Red Queen…
“She’s getting away!” Mally screeched.
“Let her go,” Hightopp said as he got closer to Tarrant. “She’ll be back for him.”
Tarrant watched as his counterpart looked at him with an undisguised disgust. “Though there won’t be much for her to come back to.”
“I’m not afraid of you,” Tarrant said, looking at Hightopp. He wondered how someone who was so impeccably groomed could even begin to imagine what he had gone through during the years of Iracebeth’s dreadful rule in Underland.
Tarrant hefted his claymore, ready to fight, but then shadows moved out from behind the trees. Lions, bears, griffins and other beasts emerged, armed and ready to fight. He was surrounded.
Hightopp took a step towards him and grinned manically, showing a row of perfectly white, perfectly straight teeth.
“Oh, but you will be.”Next Chapter