Chapter 4: That Which We See or Seem
Sometimes questions are more important than answers. -Nancy Willard
Alice. Alice. Alice. Beloved, Alice.
Was it her imagination, or was someone calling her name?
Alice rubbed her arms self consciously, standing in the middle of the cold, black, cavernous room that she was placed in. It was the size of the entire top floor of her house back home in England. A titanic sized bed lay at the back of the room, canopied like a waiting dragon's mouth ready to swallow her whole within its ebony sheets. Alice turned one full circle, her brown eyes surveying the room. She didn't like this place at all- it gave her bad feelings. Feelings that would have been squelched if she had been with someone…someone who could guide her and hold her hand…
Be back before you know it.
Suddenly, she felt ridiculous for being so meek.
Alice rubbed her bare arms, looking up at the ceiling. She had been let to take a bath and given clothes. She looked at herself in the looking glass, turning gently this way and that way. The dress she wore was a black crystal bejeweled bodice, the sheer sleeves falling off her shoulders. The skirt reminded of Alice of the tutus that the ballerinas had wore when her father had taken her to see Swan Lake, though she resembled Odile now, not Odette, as the glittering black tulle skirt swayed about her knees.
Focus, Alice. Something is not right! Where is Queen Mirana?
Alice hurried to the door and put her ear to the cold black stone, listening. When she was only met with silence she turned the door knob and tip toed out into the hall. It's so dark, she thought uneasily. I don't like this at all. And so quiet. Where are all the servants? Where are all the talking objects?
It was almost like she wasn't in Underland at all.
Tip toeing down the hallway, Alice came upon the stairs that she had ascended only an hour ago. She wanted to find Lord Rivalen and ask him questions without taking his good manners for excuses- or even the servant who had escorted her. Alice thought he was very kind, and she wished he hadn't left her.
"Goodness, when have I turned into such a wilting flower?" Alice mumbled to herself. I slayed the Jabberwock. I shouldn't have to fear a soul.
And with that, Alice descended the stairs quickly, her footsteps silent on the marble flooring. It was as if everyone around her had vanished through the walls, like she was all alone there in that Un-Underlandian castle. As she came to the base of the stairs, she had doors lined along the wall either side of her. Left or right?
I have never been "right", Alice thought. But I've been "left" many times and I've been fine until now. So with her curious reasoning, Alice veered to the left, her brown eyes turning sharply over her shoulder to make sure no one came upon her from behind. She pressed her ear again to the door, and as she heard nothing, she pushed the two black doors open. Inside was a parlor, a roaring fire in the fire place, making the ebony walls glitter gold, however this room wasn't as dark for it had a window that faced out toward the front gates of the castle, so Alice could see the way she had come. The walls were lined with floor-to-ceiling shelves of great masses of books, all dusted and yet retaining that antique smell that only good old books are accustomed to. Alice stepped into the parlor, giving a little circle to view her entire proximity, pouting when she found nothing to be of her interest.
There's no way I could find my way to Marmoreal by myself…but perhaps with a map-
Suddenly, something caught her eye out through the window pane- something white.
Alice's heart jumped up, Mirana's face swimming in her mind's eye as she rushed to the window. A flaxen haired woman was riding across the country on a horse, veering through the garden, and Alice's heart sank fast when several soldiers could be heard outside shouting angrily. She couldn't tell if it was Mirana, but if it was, she was leaving Alice here. Perhaps she didn't know if she was in the castle? Alice pushed the window open, climbing up into the window sill. Her heart began to pound in her chest, and she opened her mouth to call to the white haired rider-
The cry startled Alice so much she nearly fell out the window if it were not for two sturdy hands that grabbed her waist. They gently pulled her back into the window and yanked it shut.
It was the servant that had escorted her up the stairs. He had light gold hair mixed with a copper brown that was tied back half heartedly out of his face. His clear grey eyes regarded her with concern and kindness. Alice rather liked his face, for he was quite handsome, but he felt to her to be very kind. Alice noticed that he was dressed quite shabbily, which was curious because those who had ridden with Lord Rivalen had been well dressed. Her brow wrinkled gently in disheartenment at how much pain the servant looked to be in, but he was not worried about himself.
"What were you doing, milady? You could have hurt yourself quite terribly if you had fallen," he said softly. The word "milady" tickled the back of Alice's brain queerly. He truly seemed to care about her wellbeing, so Alice took the chance.
"I thought I saw someone I know," Alice explained as Carnwick dusted her skirt off.
"Really? Who?" he asked, indifferently. He seemed much more interested in making sure the pleats of her tulle skirt were dusted.
Alice bit her tongue, unsure if she should say anything about who she thought she had seen out the window, and instead chose something else to ask. "What's your name?" she asked quietly.
"Carnwick, milady," he answered dutifully, pulling back after a moment and folding his hands. The way he leaned over himself he was almost always staring at his feet. "I'm servant to Lord Rivalen."
Alice took a step closer and was surprised to see him blush, his head lowering even more. "Please," Alice murmured. "Can you tell me what's happened since I've been gone? Since- Since Frabjous Day? I've been gone for an awfully long time."
Carnwick looked uncomfortable for a moment, his fingers circling his left wrist. Alice peered at this, curious why he did it, but he suddenly pulled his shirt sleeves down over his hands completely and looked up at her as best as he could. "Many things have happened, milady. Perhaps you should be more specific."
Alice frowned in annoyance. She didn't like her questions being responded to with questions (usually), and even though the servant had merely suggested it, it sounded to Alice more like a question. She sighed and then said, "Where is the White Queen? …the Queen of Underland. How is Marmoreal?"
Carnwick looked especially uncomfortable now, as if he had to pick up a bug and was being forced to eat it. "M-Miss Alice…" he whimpered, closing his eyes and bowing his head. It was so strange-he seemed as if he was in true pain over speaking with her.
"What is it? What's wrong?" Alice whispered, her annoyance evaporating, stepping forward and taking his hands compassionately. Carnwick jumped as if he was a cat who'd had water poured over him. Alice let him go equally as fast, swallowing, thinking it was probably too inappropriate to simply grab a stranger's hands here in Underland. Wonderful, Alice, now you've scared him speechless, she snapped at herself.
Carnwick put his hands up to his face, breathing erratically, murmuring (muffled behind his hands), "M-Miss Alice, p-please… I d-don't want to l-lie to you…"
Alice frowned deeply, her stomach turning to stone. "Why won't you tell me anything?" she asked, her eyes narrowing, giving him a long look.
Carnwick stopped trembling and his hands fell limply to his sides, looking up at her remorsefully, nodding. "I would like to, Miss," Carnwick said quietly, defeated. "But I am not allowed."
"Something is going on then, isn't it?" she asked quickly, her heart beginning to feel like iron in her chest, thinking of all of her friends here in Underland. "Something bad- otherwise you wouldn't have to hide or lie." Something she had learned in her business travels, though she knew from the moment she stepped into the Strange Garden that things were amiss. She could feel it, but hearing it… was much different.
Carnwick looked miserable at her words, and for a moment Alice felt the need to take his hands. However, because that had been so helpful the last time she'd attempted it, instead, she laid her hand on his shoulder, which made him give a violent twitch. At least he didn't topple apart. "Please, you can tell me," Alice whispered. "Whatever it is-"
"Will have to wait after dinner," came a voice from the door.
Carnwick didn't turn around, but his face crumpled in defeat and Alice looked up to see Lord Rivalen standing at the door. His plain clothes had been traded for grander clothing, a black velvet tunic embroidered with deep gold vines crawling across his chest, black pants and boots, and a thick, expensive midnight cloak- that Alice was shocked to see was made out of fur. Even being around the Red Queen, Alice had never seen such a thing, though she couldn't tell from what beloved Underlandian animal the coat had been made from. Something like a fur coat wouldn't have alarmed Alice in England- anywhere in her world in Upland, but here… things were different for a reason.
"Come now, Lady Alice," Rivalen said with an enchanting smile. Alice's face didn't betray her feelings of uneasiness and she looking down at Carnwick. His stormy grey eyes beckoned her go, but his hands had started to tremble again. Guilt weighed on Alice unpleasantly, and she wished that she could fix whatever it was that had been done.
Rivalen turned on his heel and walked out, with Alice following behind him, starting to understand why everything was so dark in Mortpheal.
Alice was not picky about her food. Granted she didn't eat that much very often, as was custom when one is preoccupied sailing around the world and using up all her energy and time to imagine a grain of sand into a mountain. However, she had never seen food like this before. On the plate before Alice sat various sliced fruits, ruby colored melons, juicy, violet tangerines, and plump, turquoise strawberries, all drizzled with a bright orange sauce that engulfed Alice's nostrils and made her mouth water on demand. There was a fillet of fish (Alice nearly lost her head at the sight) that had iridescent scales glittering in the candlelight on the other side of her plate, as well as a petite loaf of buttery bread that had something akin to cranberries baked into it.
Alice glanced up at Lord Rivalen, who was watching her with bemused interest. She held his gaze for a moment, her face clear and impassive, however her eyes seemed to betray her stomach.
"Please, my dear Alice," Rivalen said with a handsome, white teethed smile. "Eat. I daresay I think you'll like it. Have you ever tried Underland's foods?" he asked curiously.
"Only Upelkuchen and Pishsalver," Alice said, looking back down at the succulent ruby melon. The scents mixing together were intoxicating.
"Tck, tck, tck," Rivalen clucked, grinning. "Those are not food items, dear Alice. They are not for eating."
"Well, they tasted good to me," Alice replied. She remembered that Upelkuchen tasted like carrot cake. At least McTwisp's share did.
"Try the Opalite," Rivalen said with that same smile. His black eyes were glittering excitedly. Rivalen was such an interesting man, to be sure. Alice knew she should be on her guard, suspicious, and not trust him as far as she could heave him. At the same time, Rivalen possessed an irresistable magnitude, like that of a panther-beauty and power of such amazing height, but while one was busy admiring the panther, it was circling to feed.
Alice's stomach growled at his words, though, as if the Lord of the Castle possessed an uncanny hold on Time itself, and she looked down at the different foods. "Which one is that?" she asked.
Rivalen glanced at his own plate and picked up the ruby melon slice. He held it up to his nose and gently inhaled, sighing deeply as if he'd just had the most delicious bouquet of wine. Alice frowned slightly, glancing at hers and picked up the identical slice of fruit. Immediately, her hand was warm, as if she was holding a cup of tea. She gasped, her eyes widening a bit as she slipped it between her fingers.
"Smell it," Rivalen offered.
Alice thought this was a very queer introduction, but Curiosity won and she brought the fruit to her nose. Immediately, her nose, face, and lungs were filled with a variety of-well, of memories. Alice smelled her father's amber scented cologne, she could taste the warm, buttery flavor of Christmas liquor candies, practically drink the memory of her mother making apple cider and sneaking a quick cup...such warm, rich, sensuous scents flooded her nose. Without any other prodding, encouragement, or thought, Alice took a bite of the ruby red fruit. Flavor, just as delicious and mouthwatering filled her senses. Sweetness, tanginess, and yet a bite of sour made her cheeks blush and her eyes roll. It was one of the most scrumptious things she'd ever had- and Alice ate the next three slices on her plate, too.
Rivalen chuckled. "It is my favorite, too."
The blue strawberries were sour and delightful, the tangerines were zesty, almost spicy but left the warmest aftertaste on her tongue that Alice ate them all too. She paused at the fish, deciding not to eat it (It could be someone I once knew, Alice thought despondantly) and drank some of the wine- which tasted pungent of lemon.
"What did… you call the melon?" Alice murmured. Her head felt heavy and fuzzy all of the sudden. She wasn't used to drinking, and now regretted emptying her wine glass.
"Oh dear, I hope the wine isn't getting to you," Rivalen cooed with a smile. "It's awfully strong, isn't it?"
"Terribly," Alice murmured, rubbing her throat, looking back up at him. She felt like there was a veil over her eyes. Everything looked misty.
"The fruit? Ah, yes, it's called Opalite," he said, picking up an uncut ruby melon. He gripped it in his hand and squeezed, and Alice watched as the juice traveled from between his fingers and down his hand and arm all the way down to his plate-where the same ruby fruit laid, untouched before him. Rivalen looked at Alice, and she could feel her skin tingling with urgency.
"Lord Rivalen, where is the White Queen?" Alice asked, squeezing the cushion of her chair to help herself focus. Hadn't she wanted to ask him questions of this nature? Something about… Marmoreal… hadn't she needed to know something? She felt like she was drunk (not that she knew what that would be like), and she was trying harder than ever to keep steady and sitting up.
"Queen Mirana of Marmoreal has removed from herself from her throne by a motion of no confidence, I'm afraid, dear Alice," Rivalen drawled, watching her with amusement. His eyes were sparkling like a cat that had a mouse between its paws. "She will not be returning."
"Removed-?" Alice's head began to spin now, shutting her eyes tight. Why was her throat so dry? It felt like she was trying to talk with a ball of cotton in her mouth.
Lord Rivalen stood up, tossing the beautiful crimson Opalite between his hands, his eyes pinning Alice in her seat with an intense satisfaction. Alice gripped the armrests with white knuckled hands. "The White Queen tried to rule with a soft touch and a gentle smile; unfortunately, the Game of Thrones is not sympathetic to the kind and the meek. Underland needs a ruler that will bring it out of this Dark Age of nonsense and care-freedom. Queen Iracebeth was indeed powerful, but she could not contain herself. Queen Mirana had her troubles fought for her-and no self respecting ruler can hope for a victory without putting forth some effort…especially when the one who fights her battles…disappears."
Alice's heart began to pound hard in her chest, and a cold sweat broke out on her face. She tried to push herself up from her chair, but she fell against the table, her knees buckling under her. Rivalen grabbed her wrist, making her cry out and pulled her up to face him. He was grinning like an alligator that could see its food. "I am a ruler that will reform these lands, Alice. There is power and magic to be had in Underland, and these little fools who try to protect the old ways- the Oraculum, the Outlands, and the animals are but mere visions of the past. We will no longer be bottom dwellers in this world, my dear, Alice."
"Stop-stop this-" Alice whispered, her head fuzzy as if she had a sea anemone tickling her brain inside her head. "This is wrong…"
"No, what is wrong is that I have been living under an idiot monarch's hand for far too long," snapped Lord Rivalen. "I am going to take power over Underland and flourish-and then we will march into your world, Upland…" he dragged his hand over her cheek, his thumb caressing her lips that were still moist from the ruby red Opalite. His hand now gripped her jaw. "And you will help me."
"NO!" Alice swung her arm out at him, batting Rivalen's hand from her face, glaring with fierce brown eyes.
"You will," Rivalen promised, licking his thumb where the juice from Alice's lips had grazed his skin. "And you'll find that you will enjoy this, Alice, being Queen. Indeed, but until then you need your rest. The skin of the Opalite is quite toxic, but it shan't harm you. In fact, it will help you sleep ever so well."
Alice fell onto her hands, her head spinning from her sudden exertion. She tried to blink her eyes rapidly, but it was no use. She could feel herself slipping under darkness, her eyes rolling to the back of her head. She could hear Rivalen's boots rhythmically scuffing the floor as he sauntered over to her. She heard him chuckle as her body went limp, her head hitting the black tile with a sickening crack.
"Sleep well, Alice," he cooed, his dark eyes smiling down at her with a sinister glint. "Sweet dreams."
Lily had finally dismounted close to four hours after Carnwick had helped her escape. Her limbs trembled with weakness, her legs raw and numb. She stood in the dark Tugley Wood, on a twisted path that led deeper into the darkness. This was one place that the Black Jack had not overcome with his tyranny yet. Deep in the wood, the Trees were fighting against the forces that Lord Rivalen was trying to wield against their kind. Lily held onto the Gillian's reins as they walked down the path into the deep and the dark, the horse whimpering and neighing in anxiety.
"Thank goodness Alice has returned," Gillian neighed quietly under her breath. "Thank goodness! She'll save us from this horror! This terrible nightmare!"
Lily tasted sour at the mention of the Alice. She had been told stories of Alice, The Beloved as so many in the Resistance had come to know her, for as long as she could remember: tales of a blonde girl in blue who had the most exquisite mind. She was a hero to the people of Underland, and had saved them in more ways than one. Lily was to be grateful (or so her governess and mother had told her), but the only feelings the Princess of Marmoreal had for the Champion of her Kingdom was distrust, distaste, and disgust.
Lily thought of the days she had spent in hiding during the Days of the Bloody Red Queen. Her Queen Mother had sent her out of their kingdom for safekeeping, in a hideaway with her ladies in waiting and body guards, though Lily knew for certain that her Aunt Iracebeth had never taken an interest in her. They had received news of Alice returning on Griblig Day, and everyone had been so enthralled over the news. At the time, Lily could just vaguely remember Alice (Lily had only been a little girl at the time when Alice had first journeyed to Underland), but when she heard that she had defeated the Jabberwocky in the name of Marmoreal and Underland, Lily had wanted more than anything to meet her Kingdom's Champion. It had thrilled her to learn that someone so close in her age could accomplish such a feat- it gave her immeasurable hope…
However, by the time Lily had arrived at Marmoreal, Champion Alice the Beloved was nowhere to be found. It was as if she had vanished entirely. Her mother had told her that their Champion had returned to her homeland, called Upland. Lily found that it was cruelly unfair. She was their Champion, not Upland's. What right did she have to leave them? How could she betray them that way, abandoning their people! If she was a true Champion, in Lily's opinion, she would have stayed in Marmoreal, she would have stood by her people loyally where she belonged.
Lily muttered, "Good riddance."
Gillian didn't seem to hear her, neighing anxiously.
Lily sighed, her icy blue eyes looking around as they walked deeper into the woods. Everything looked the same to her (which was unbelievably frustrating!), and Lily definitely started to regret that she hadn't paid attention to her mother when she tried to get her to listen to the trees. Look for a tree that is not a tree, Lily thought to herself. How shall I do that when I'm in a forest that's filled with trees that are most certainly trees?
"Who are we looking for, Princess?" Gillian asked, her eyes nervously casting from one twisted tree to the next. Lily began to pet her mane to calm her, but whether it was doing her any good or not, she wasn't sure.
"The Mad Hatter," Lily whispered with reverence. "Tarrant Hightopp."
Chills tingled her skin, and Lily felt a warm, earthy blush come to her body. The Mad Hatter was a dark character that hid a noble man underneath. Lily remembered when he would used to lead the dances at the royal balls, or when he would offer his services as a diplomat to the Queen. In any other court, Lily knew that this would never have been accepted, but Tarrant had saved his mother years ago when his clan had been destroyed by the Jabberwock. He had sacrificed much to save the White Queen, and her mother would not let that go idly by. After all, Tarrant was as well such a talented Hatter as he was passionate about the freedoms of Underland. He had led the Resistance against the Red Queen.
"Oh, the Mad Hatter!" Gillian neighed appreciatively. "He'll help us fix this mess."
Lily's heart fluttered in her chest and she smiled to herself. "Yes, he will." Lily wasn't quite sure if he'd know who she was- after all, she had been so little the last time she'd seen him and he'd seen her…
"But… how will we know where to find him?" Gillian asked worriedly, and Lily sighed, for that was the exact question she had been wondering over for an hour now.
"Carnwick said we were to look for 'a tree that is not a tree.'"
"All I see are trees that most certainly are trees," Gillian complained, snuffing as she echoed Lily's own personal thoughts. She wondered if perhaps she had heard Carnwick wrong. They had been in such a terrible hurry, perhaps she'd misunderstood him. Carnwick was so difficult to understand sometimes, he was so intelligent and learned that sometimes he used words that Lily herself-tutored by some of the most resplendent instructors in Underland-could not always recognize.
As they perused the path that they were on, the trees became suddenly less dense in population, and the forest thinned until they walked out into a clearing. Carnwick's words rang in Lily's ears: You will happen upon a clearing deep in the woods, and you will find a tree that is not a tree, do you understand?
Lily understood exactly when she stepped into the clearing-she had not misheard him at all. Carnwick had protected the whereabouts of this place in case anyone was listening, because to the untrained eye, it was indeed a tree that was not a tree, but if he'd said the one word that this thing actually was, anyone could find it If they were looking.
The March Hare's Windmill.
Though, it was a remnant of the past, a dilapidated windmill, with drooping propellers, moss covered and overgrown. But instead of an average windmill, it had been so unkempt and abandoned that a tree had indeed sprouted inside it, coming right through the roof. Several branches stuck out through the random windows, and a large canopy helped the propellers to blend in with the nature. It looked exactly like a tree. Lily smiled, whispering, "Carnwick the Clever."
"What is it? Why have we stopped?" Gillian asked nervously, and Lily continued to pet her soothingly.
"Calm yourself, Gillian. We've found what we were looking for."
They approached the windmill, and only then did Lily notice the odd arrangement of tea tables so that they created a makeshift dining hall table, bedecked with various plates, cups, and teapots. Chairs and stools of every size and color surrounded this table, and Lily felt some slight sadness. She'd been told of the Mad Hatter's tea parties with the March Hare and the Door Mouse. Perhaps this was where it all had taken place. Lily swallowed, feeling as though she were looking at an ancient part of the past, for the table cloth (that had surely seen a beautiful past at one time) was weather worn and moth eaten, the cups and dishes and teapots nearly all shattered and broken into pieces, and even the chairs and stools that surrounded the tables were either knocked over, broken down, or so misused they were falling apart.
Gillian neighed softly, trotting in excitement. "I don't see him- I don't see him! Where is he?"
"He must be here," Lily whispered then turned to Gillian. "Wait here. I'll go look."
Lily led Gillian beneath a weeping willow tree, hiding her behind the curtain of leaves. She patted her neck reassuringly, took a deep breath and walked up the little steps to the door. They groaned under her weight, and when she pushed the aged door open, it creaked so loud Lily grimaced. Inside, the entire housing of the windmill was overgrown in moss. The left over furniture was scattered around, falling apart and left sadly behind. In the middle of the windmill, though, which took up the greater portion of inside of the structure was the tree's trunk. The dark brown bark was ragged and scattered with deep ridges and indentions. She put her hand on the wood, surprised to find it so smooth. She had never seen a tree so gargantuan. Lily was sure almost the entire White Queen's court could fit inside the trunk.
"Do you see anything?" Gillian called anxiously.
Lily ran her hand over the bark, stepping on the large roots as she slowly circled the tree. "No," she said, looking around for anyone, but it seemed as if the windmill had been abandoned years ago. Lily paused on the far side of the tree, feeling failure build up inside her quickly, tears of dejection and hopelessness stinging her eyes. She could hear Gillian restlessly dancing back and forth on her feet, waiting for her. "Where are you?" Lily whispered, and with the hand that was resting on the bark she rapped her fist on the tree in frustration.
Suddenly, the roots slithered beneath her feet like serpents, right out from under Lily's feet, opening a dark abyss. Lily fell instantly, disappearing into that darkness, her scream echoing behind her as the tree swallowed her whole, leaving behind no evidence the Princess of Marmoreal had ever been at the Windmill of the March Hare.
A/N: Thank you so much to my reviewers!