Mallymkun woke up very early the next morning, and she jumped out of the teapot and stretched.
"Good morning," she said cheerfully to Tarrant and Thackery.
"Mornin'," muttered the Hare. The Hatter remained silent.
"I'll be back later," said the Dormouse, jumping down off of the table and running off into the woods. She felt better than she had felt in ages. Awake, eager, excited… It was wonderful!
Now, to find Exel…
Mallymkun enjoyed the run through the sun-dappled woods. Everything felt so bright and happy. It was crazy… No, not crazy, mad! she giggled to herself. Mad in a good way!
She reached the place where she had first seen the fox and looked around for clues as to where he had been. There were none; this Outlander was very adept at leaving no trace of his presence. She would have to rely on memory as to his original direction, and improvise from there.
Mallymkun wandered through the trees, keeping an eye out for Red Knights. You could never be too careful… but the idea of anything bad happening to her seemed so far away now, so she wasn't really worried.
Finally, she found him. Exel was lying under a bush, shrouded from above, but visible to the small dormouse.
"Exel!" she called softly.
The fox turned, and he face lit up.
"Fairbon, Mallymkun," he greeted her.
"Good morning, Exel," the dormouse replied. "That's what you said, right?"
"Aye." Exel nodded. "Lesson the first: fairbon, good morning."
"Fairbon," Mallymkun repeated, committing the new word to memory. "Fairbon."
Thus began a daily routine for the Dormouse. It was a new routine, not the monotonous one from before. First, wake up and find Exel. Then, talk, learn, and teach. Sometimes, she could listen to the fox tell of the Outlands, and of the Resistance. Once or twice they had to avoid Red Knights, and the thrill of the chase was always exhilarating. When night fell, she returned to the tea table, finding something for Tarrant and Thackery to eat along the way. The next morning, she would repeat. It was a very pleasant routine. Learning Outlandish kept her occupied, and she practiced even when she wasn't with the fox, using what she had learned when she spoke to the Hare and the Hatter, even though they most likely did not understand her. Best of all, she was pleased with her new routine, even though it ended with her returning to the tea table. But she couldn't bear to leave it for good. Something always stopped her whenever she considered asking Exel to take her with him back to the Outlands.
Things went very well for just over a week, but the bliss had no chance of lasting for long. Life has a way of reasserting the seriousness of its nature.
"Donda vivs?" Exel asked one day. Where do you live?
"Qui?" The question caught Mallymkun off guard. "What?" she repeated in her own tongue, although she had understood his meaning perfectly well.
"You go somewhere at night," said Exel, his Otherspeak much improved since the day that they had met. "Where do you live? Where do you sleep?"
"Oh, around," said Mallymkun. "In a hole somewhere. It isn't very interesting."
She hadn't told Exel about the tea table, nor had she ever mentioned the two people who stayed there. It just never came up, and she didn't really want him to know, for some reason.
Exel shrugged. "I was just wondering," he said. "It is strange to me to think of living alone out here. Have you always lived alone?"
"No," said Mallymkun. "Just… just since Alice came through here. Everyone either fled or was captured after that, you remember." It was only sort of a lie. Mentally, she had been alone since then.
"Hepkreg Shukm!" the fox exclaimed, his shock evident. "That long? Es vrai?"
"Yes…" said the Dormouse, now slightly worried. "Exel… How long has it been since that day?"
"Nearly tracedi anyes." Exel fumbled for the correct Otherspeak words. "Nearly… nearly thirteen years."
"Thirteen years!" Mallymkun squeaked. "You're serious?"
"Aye. You did not know?"
Mallymkun just shook her head helplessly. Thirteen years… Hepkreg shukm…
"I've been… I don't know," she said, standing up. "I'll see you tomorrow, okay? Fairnacht, Exel."
She didn't wait for him to return her good-night, but went back to the tea table, her mind busy and full.
Thirteen years, I've been here! I'm practically an adult. I don't feel like an adult… Shukm, I don't feel like anything competent. Shouldn't I know what to do, if I'm an adult? I can't even get myself to leave the Woods… I don't want to leave the Woods, not while Tarrant needs me.
Mallymkun climbed up onto the tea table and looked up at the Hatter.
"Did you know that it's been thirteen years?" she asked him. "Or are you somewhere so far away that you aren't touched by time? Maybe time's stopped for you, Tarrant, but it hasn't for me… Time went on outside, but I didn't grow up inside…"
A tear rolled down her cheek, and she wiped it away with a paw.
"I'm stuck, Tarrant," she said to the unresponsive man. "I'm stuck here, somewhere in the middle. That dormouse of adventure and that dormouse of war… I don't know where they are. I don't know if either of them is really Mally. I just… I need someone to tell me what's right, and what I should do now, because I don't know, Tarrant. I thought that I knew, way back when I was little, and life was an adventure. Now, I don't know what it is…"
Something, some soft noise, made her turn around, her hand reaching for her hatpin. Her eyes widened. There was Exel, standing nearby, watching and listening, a frown on his face.
"You… You followed me!" the Dormouse said, her voice barely over a whisper.
The fox nodded. "Aye. And this… this is where you live?"
Exel let out his breath in a huff and turned to walk away.
"What?" Mallymkun called after him, jumping down off of the table. "You have something to say about it?"
"This is not where Mallymkun lives," said the fox. "This is not ruachem, like Mally. This is depriminglen."
"It's what? I'm what?"
"Depriminglen!" The fox whirled around, a strange sort of glare on his face. "Sad. Depressing. You said that you live alone. This is worse than alone. You are stuck here, you say? Why do you stay? You are ruachem! You are… you are spirit. Muchness. The Mallymkun who outwits Red Knights is not depriminglen. Why do you stay?"
"How does it concern you whether or not I choose to stay here?" Mallymkun demanded.
"Oh, so is a choice!" said Exel. "Why make the choice? What are this man and this hare to you, when you could be doing so much more? Thirteen years you have been here, wallowing in depriminglen? Du o meecean gallymoggers!"
"I am not a crazy mouse!" Mallymkun snapped. "I'm not! How would you know what I am, what Mally is, when even I don't?"
"I thought that I knew," said the fox. "I thought that I knew… I do not understand…"
He turned and walked back off into the trees.
Mallymkun didn't know if it was the bloodhound's howling that woke her up the next morning, or if it was the fox's yelping. Either way, she was out of the teapot before her eyes were completely open and she ran off into the trees.
She didn't have to go far. She came upon the fox very near to where she had booby-trapped the Red Knights before. Exel was gingerly standing on a wounded leg, and he was surrounded by cardsmen. Bayard stood behind him.
"Is he a rebel, bloodhound?" one of the cardsmen demanded.
"Slurking urpal slackush scrum," hissed the fox.
Mallymkun fingered the end of her hatpin. Would Bayard betray him? If he did, could she help him?
"…yes," said Bayard. "I remember him from the Outlands. He's with the Resistance."
Exel turned and stared at the bloodhound. "Frefaire… Quiden?"
Brother, why? Mallymkun translated to herself.
"Do we take him to Salazen Grum?"
"No, let's just kill him here. We'll bring the Queen his head."
Mallymkun drew her hatpin and was about to charge into the clearing when Exel yelped again.
"Meecean! Naught! Stei milesd!"
Bayard's eyes widened at meecean, and for a fraction of a second they stared right at Mallymkun's hiding place.
"What's he saying?" one of the cardsmen demanded.
"Char neccessin du," said the fox. "Fairfarren, meecean."
They need you. Goodbye, mouse.
The fox leapt forward, his jaws closing around one of the cardsmen's legs. The Red Knight shouted and kicked him away. In the fight that followed, Exel fought valiantly. Mallymkun watched nervously as he dodged and bit, keeping just out of their range the whole time despite his injured leg.
And then, he was on top of Bayard, his teeth inches from the bloodhound's throat. The next few seconds felt like forever to the three animals. Bayard's eyes were fearful, Exel's murderous. Mallymkun could only watch helplessly.
Exel sighed and got off of the bloodhound.
"Man frigate non ves du," he said.
My fight is not with you.
Then, a Red Knight rammed his spear through the fox's torso. Exel let out one short, whimpering yelp, and then he sagged to the ground, completely limp and lifeless. The sharp tip must have pierced his heart.
The cardsman sliced off the fox's head and placed it in a sack that was attached to his belt.
"Let's go," he said. "We should report this to Stayne. Come, bloodhound."
The Red Knights marched off, Bayard silently following them. Mallymkun waited until they were out of sight, but then she could stay still no longer. She ran forward, falling to her knees at the side of the fox's body.
"Exel…" she whispered, touching his side.
She couldn't have saved him, not without being killed herself, she knew that. But this had been a friend, and he was dead, dead like her parents, dead like Kedanir…
They need you… Exel's final message was that she had to live. Had he meant for the Hatter and Hare?
She heard soft footsteps behind her, but she didn't move.
"I'm sorry," said Bayard.
"You're sorry." Mallymkun stood up and turned around very slowly.
"You're sorry," she repeated. "How can you just stand there and say that you're sorry? You didn't have to do this! You could have led the cardsmen away! You could have told them that he wasn't with the Resistance! You held his life in your paws and you tossed it away like it was worthless!"
"They have my wife and pups," Bayard protested. "I have to turn people in, or they'll kill the people that I care about…"
"We all have people that we care about, Bayard!" Mallymkun was shouting. "Do you think that you're the only one in this world who's struggling? Do you think that you're the only one with problems? Do you think that there aren't others who have been scrounging for survival, trying to keep the people that they care about alive and safe? Do you think that the people that you care about will ever be truly safe if you help to destroy the people who oppose the Red Queen? This was a good and brave person that you destroyed today, Bayard! He knew what had to be done to win this war, and he was doing it. But you aren't doing what needs to be done, Bayard. You're just sitting there and letting people die. Whose side are you on, Bayard? Whose side are you on? You'd better find an answer to that question, and find it soon, because the world won't wait for you to decide!"
Suddenly, she looked up and realized that they weren't alone. Sitting on a tree branch high above them was the Cheshire Cat. He'd probably been sitting there all morning, just watching events unfold!
This new revelation was too much for Mallymkun to bear. She let out a cry of anger, frustration, and sorrow, and then she ran away. She ran through the trees, leaving the bloodhound, cat, and dead fox far behind her, and when she reached the tea table she kept running, leaving that, and the Hare and Hatter who sat at it, far behind her, too. She wanted to keep running until it was all behind her. She wanted to run all the way back to Witzend, and to curl up in the mouse hole with her family. She wanted to run all the way back to when she was young and carefree, and when everything had been certain and secure and constant, when she had climbed trees and played with her brother and there was no Red Queen, no Horunvendush Day, and no Resistance…
She ran until her legs gave out, and she fell to the ground beneath a mushroom and sobbed her heart out.
The smell of smoke reached her nose, and she sat up in alarm, thinking of flames and Jabberwockies. But this was no fire smoke. It was blue…
Mallymkun crept out from under the mushroom, and upon looking around she realized that there was a blue caterpillar sitting on the mushroom's cap, smoking a hookah, which was the source of the blue smoke. The caterpillar watched her silently with a steady gaze.
A memory from long ago stirred in the Dormouse's mind.
"You're Absolem, aren't you?" she said.
"That is correct," said the caterpillar. "And you are Mallymkun."
"Yes," said the Dormouse. "I'm Mally… whoever she is. I lost track of that years ago."
"I know," said Absolem.
Mallymkun frowned slightly. "How do you know?"
The caterpillar just took another whiff from his hookah and pointed at a rolled-up scroll that lay at the base of the mushroom's stem.
"Is that… Is that the Oraculum?" Mallymkun asked. Absolem nodded.
The caterpillar nodded once again, and the Dormouse approached the scroll. It was slightly larger than she was, but she managed to unroll it by pushing at it with her paws. On the old, yellowed parchment were pictures and day names, just as she had heard it described in her youth. Right in front of her was an image of herself crying over Exel's headless body, with Bayard and Chessur watching. Mallymkun unrolled the scroll further to her left, passing by the days and years until she reached the one day that she wanted to see. In this picture, there was a town on fire, with people and animals fleeing the flames. Towering behind the burning buildings was the Jabberwocky. Horunvendush Day, read the name above the picture.
"You knew that this would happen," Mallymkun said, turning to look up at Absolem again. "Why didn't you tell someone? The Red Queen could have been stopped before she even attacked… Everyone would have been spared…"
"I could have," said the caterpillar. "I could have done as you say. However, I have found that it is better to let events unfold as they are supposed to."
"But you could have saved so many lives!" the Dormouse insisted. "Not just in Witzend, but all over Underland! You could have stopped the Red Queen's conquest altogether!"
"I exist to advise," said Absolem. "Not to alter."
"You know that?" Mallymkun challenged. "You know what you're meant to be? I don't. I don't know what I'm supposed to do."
The caterpillar shrugged. "You could always read for yourself," he said, blowing more blue smoke.
Mallymkun hesitated. It was tempting. I have all of the days of Underland at my fingertips, she thought. I could know everything, what will happen, who else will die… I could stop them from dying; I could do something useful…
The Dormouse sighed.
"I don't know if I want to know," she said. "I mean, life's supposed to be an adventure, isn't it? I thought that it was supposed to be one, at least."
"Life is always an adventure," said Absolem.
"Well, mine is not a very good one," Mallymkun replied. "It isn't going anywhere."
"That is not true," said the caterpillar. "Life never stops, Mallymkun. The Oraculum has no end. The choices that people make keep it going ever onward."
"So, things could get better?"
"They could," said Absolem. "They could also get worse. You never know."
"But you know," said the Dormouse.
The caterpillar shrugged. Mallymkun turned back to the Oraculum and began to roll it up again, pausing when she neared the end of her task. Slowly, hesitantly, she unrolled it to the right, just enough to see the next day.
Gribling Day, was the name. There she was again, with… Her eyes widened. Standing there were McTwisp, Uilleam, and the Tweedles! All four of them were gathered around a girl, who was reading the Oraculum…
"Alice!" Mallymkun gasped. "Alice is returning, tomorrow?"
She rolled the scroll further, eyes passing over day names, until she reached the one she wanted.
Frabjous Day. There stood Alice, swinging what was obviously the Vorpal Sword at the Jabberwocky's neck.
"Things could get better!" Mallymkun exclaimed, growing more excited with every passing moment. "They could get better! Oh, where's Alice going to end up here, Absolem? Where is it?"
"The door to Overland," said the caterpillar. "You've seen it before."
"I have! Oh, yes, I have!" Mallymkun leapt to her feet.
"I have to be there!" she said. "If Alice is coming back…! Oh, Tarrant will be so happy!"
She stopped, suddenly serious again.
"It has to be the right Alice," she said. "It has to be the Alice who stood up to the Red Queen thirteen years ago. I'll be there, to make sure that it's really her! Oh, I'll be there! Thank you, Absolem! Thank you!"
She turned and ran off again, but this time she was running to something, instead of away from it. She was running towards a future that she knew was there, even if she didn't really know how it would work out.
She'd be there to see how it worked out.
Fairfarren, mis fairamis