"Where is that girl?" Ferramin the dormouse asked, glancing around for what must have been the tenth time that morning. "I swear, she's never anywhere that you want her to be."
"And she's always everywhere that you don't want her to be," his wife, Prinee, added in exasperation. "Has anyone seen Mallymkun?" she asked their family, standing behind her in a large group of pups, uncles, aunts, and cousins.
Everyone shook their heads or gave a variation of "no."
"She wasn't home when we woke up," their son Kedanir said.
Prinee sighed. "She'll show up when it suits her fancy, I guess. But, really! She ought to set a better example for her younger siblings…"
"There she is!" someone called. All eyes turned to the approaching dormouse, running on all four legs and yet somehow managing to not trip over the long splinter of wood tied to her waist, sword-style. The latecomer was wearing a white shirt and riding breeches, which were damp with sweat.
"Mallymkun. How nice of you to deign to join us," Ferramin sarcastically greeted her.
"Good morning, everyone," Mallymkun said, ignoring the comment.
"Where have you been?" Prinee interrogated her daughter. "And what is that?" she added, indicating the shirt and breeches.
"I've been around," Mallymkun replied with a practiced air of nonchalance. "I've been exercising and practicing my swordplay since dawn. And 'that,' Mother, is clothes. Anyone with half an ounce of self-respect wears them."
"It's just a fad," Ferramin said. "Clothes can't do anything for a mouse that fur can't."
Mallymkun shook her head. "When are you going to realize that there's a world outside the mouse hole?"
"We are outside the mouse hole!" Prinee pointed out, completely missing the point, in Mallymkun's opinion. "The question is, when are you going to give up your little games and start acting like a mouse your age should? It's high time you found a mate and started a family."
Mallymkun made a disgusted face. "Do I look like I want to become a naked, lazy, fat pup-making machine?"
All of the dormice present who'd ever mothered pups took offense. The pups themselves glanced at each other and shrugged. This argument was by no means a new one.
"Family is a necessity, Mallymkun," her father reproached. "Someday, you'll need someone else. And unless you make yourself into someone less selfish and possibly even likeable, you won't have anyone."
"I don't need anyone," Mallymkun snarled, fingering the splinter. "I never have, and I never will. I'm making sure that I can survive in the world, and that's more than you can claim, even if you surround yourself with a hundred other mice!"
Prinee opened her mouth to speak again, but Ferramin laid a paw on her shoulder.
"We'll talk more about this later," he said. "Now, we'd better go before we miss the festivities."
Mallymkun maintained an expression of indifference as her family walked away. She made no move to follow them.
Kedanir paused as he passed his sister.
"So, what's your plan for the day?" he muttered, glancing behind him to make sure their parents weren't watching.
"The same as everyone else's, until it gets boring," she replied. "But at least I'll have a better view."
"A better view—Mally, have you been climbing trees again? It's too dangerous. I'll—"
"You'll what, tell Mother?" Mallymkun challenged. "What'll she do, climb up after me? Ask a human or a bird to get me down?"
She turned and began to walk away.
"Mally, wait," Kedanir said, following her. "We're from the same litter, Mally. Just listen to me for a moment…"
Something rustled in a nearby bush, and a four-legged figure emerged, towering over the two dormice.
"Run!" Kedanir squeaked, sprinting off into the foliage. Mallymkun stood her ground, drawing her splinter and staring defiantly upwards, silently daring the animal to attack.
The bloodhound blinked at her in surprise. For a few moments they just stood there, staring at each other. Finally, the bloodhound lay down, putting himself at eye-level with the dormouse.
"What were you planning to do with that?" he asked, looking at the splinter.
"I could do a lot of damage, if I felt like it," Mallymkun replied.
"I'll be careful to stay on your good side, then," the bloodhound said with a smile. "I'm Bayard Hamar. Do you live here?"
"I'm Mallymkun, and yes, I do," the dormouse said, sheathing her splinter. "But you don't."
"Correct," Bayard said. "You might say that I'm here on vacation. My wife's been trying to get me to relax and enjoy myself for weeks."
"And you chose Witzend for your 'vacation' because the White Queen was coming here, too?" Mallymkun guessed.
"It's practically an ensured party," Bayard said, nodding. "I don't like leaving my wife so late in her pregnancy, but we have plenty of good neighbors in the Tulgey Woods…"
"You've come all the way from Tulgey Woods?" Mallymkun exclaimed, excited. "That's almost as far away as Marmoreal! What's it like there?"
Bayard shrugged, surprised at her enthusiasm. "There are more trees there than there are here, and fewer humans," he said. "I think it's very nice…I'm sorry, I don't know what you want to know."
"Anything," the dormouse replied. "I've never left this part of Witzend, although I probably know more about it than anyone else you'll meet here."
"I don't doubt it," Bayard said.
A trumpet fanfare from the town met their ears.
"It sounds like it's time to head in." Bayard stood up. "Will I be seeing you at the festival?"
"Maybe later," Mallymkun said.
"Well, it's been very nice chatting with you, Mallymkun," the bloodhound said. He walked off towards the town center.
Mallymkun waited a few seconds, and then rolled her eyes.
"You can come out now, Ked," she sighed.
Kedanir cautiously crept out from his hiding place.
"You're mad," he gasped, still trembling from what he had been sure was a near-death experience.
"Yes, and I'm enjoying it, too," Mallymkun retorted, walking over to a nearby tree. "Now, are you coming?"
"No thanks," Kedanir said. "You know, you're going to get yourself killed someday, Mally."
"Whatever, Ked." Mallymkun began to climb the tree, feeling for handholds in the bark and easily pulling her own weight up the trunk.
Kedanir watched her fearfully until she'd sat down on a high branch. Then he shook his head and ran off to join his family.
Mallymkun didn't have to look down to know that he was gone. The fact didn't bother her. She was much more comfortable on her own, achieving things by her own means.
At least Kedanir usually didn't tell her that her own means were wrong, like everyone else did.
We'll laugh about it later, she thought. The trees, the dog…it's all life out here, and if he isn't willing to live it, at least he'll hear about it…
Mallymkun scanned the crowd below, looking at all the well-dressed humans. There were even a few animals in the crowd, most of whom were wearing at least a waistcoat. Her eyes passed over the hollow log that she knew her family was watching from, out of sight.
Most of the people below her she could have called out by name, despite having never talked to them. Mallymkun spent her days watching and listening, which was how she'd learned about such things as swords, clothes, and other regions of Underland. She'd heard about the Oraculum, which recorded all the days of Underland from its birth to its death, the Red and White Queens and their unending struggle for the throne, and Outlandish monsters such as the Jubjub Bird and the Bandersnatch, who had never been defeated or tamed. The young dormouse's wish was to see such things for herself.
Mallymkun turned her attention back to the crowd. Most of the humans belonged to the Hightopp clan, a family of hatters so well-renowned that there was always a Hightopp in the royal court. The dormouse quickly spotted Tarrant Hightopp, the current Royal Hatter, standing out amongst the white-clad courtiers with his orange hair and dark coat and top hat. She saw him smile and wave at someone on the other side of the clearing, probably a relative.
The fanfare played again, and a young woman on a white horse rode into view. Everyone bowed to her. Mallymkun thought that she must be Mirana of Marmoreal, the White Queen. Everything about her was white—her dress, her skin, her hair—but she wore black lipstick, and the crown on her head had light blue gems on it. The Queen smiled at her people.
She looks kind, at least, Mallymkun thought. She knew very little of rulers besides what she'd overheard. Her family certainly never spoke of them unless one came to town, like today.
The people gradually rose again, and some musicians and dancers began to perform. Mallymkun leaned back against the tree trunk, listening to the music and chatter below. This was the way to live, not hiding in terror from predators that rarely ever showed up—
"It's all very lovely, isn't it?"
Mallymkun jumped. Suddenly, sitting next to her on the branch was a large, striped, blue-gray cat! It grinned at her widely, showing all of its pointed teeth. The dormouse was on her feet, splinter in hand almost immediately, simultaneously watching the cat for its next move and looking for the fastest and safest way down the tree.
"Now, what king of a 'hello' is that?" the cat said. "You might as well relax. I don't eat mice."
Mallymkun frowned. It wasn't easy to tell how civilized an animal was, particularly carnivores. He was talking to her, and that was a good sign, but he was still showing off his teeth. She kept her splinter raised.
The cat shrugged. "Suit yourself," he said, turning back to the people below. "The Queen certainly chooses her entertainers well," he added conversationally.
Mallymkun sat down again, keeping a wary eye on the cat. Everyone below seemed to be having a good time, merrily clapping in time with the music.
"It's really a shame that it won't last," the cat commented.
"What?" Mallymkun asked.
The cat's grin widened slightly. "Let's just say that the party's going to end just a little bit earlier than expected," he said.
"What are you talking about?" Mallymkun demanded.
Annoyed, Mallymkun went back to watching the festival. The musicians had finished their first song to much applause, and some acrobats were stepping forward to participate in the next number.
Suddenly, something huge blocked out the sun. A few people, Mallymkun included, glanced skyward in alarm.
"Uh oh, time to go," the cat said, vanishing. Mallymkun hadn't even had time to register that oddity before she made out bat-like wings and claws dark against the sky, and fiery-red eyes glaring down above an enormous, fanged mouth.
Someone screamed. Then the mouth opened and purple flames rained down on the town.
Mallymkun dashed back down the tree, missing a handhold and tumbling the last few feet. The air was burning hot, and all the young dormouse could hear as she stood up again were people screaming and the crackling of flames. All she could do was run, run far away from the chaos. At one point, she felt heat on her leg, and she glanced down to see that her splinter had caught on fire. She threw it away and continued to run, dodging tree branches as they fell to the ground in flames.
Gradually, the screams faded into the distance, and there were no more flames. Mallymkun slowed to a walk, glancing around. She didn't know where she was. There was less plant life here, and the grass felt very dry. The dormouse realized that she hadn't seen anyone else for a very long time.
She was all alone, far away from a home and a family that probably weren't there anymore.
Mallymkun, worn out and afraid, dragged herself over to a tree and fell asleep between its roots.