It's strange how much things can change in three years.
Alice stood amongst the shadows, patches, and broken beams of weak sunlight filtering through the canopy at the edge of Tugley Woods, and gazed out at the surreal image fighting with what her mind knew to be unpossible.
Before her lay the mouldered remains of what had been Thackery Earwicket's home and his delightfully ramshackle set of tea tables.
The fires had long since died out, and much of the ashen remains had blown away several months ago with the wind. Alice Kingsleigh, Marmoreal's Champion, stared ahead sadly as a feeling of loss and anger washed over her. A hollow silence settled where once the sounds of laughter and mad cackling had echoed through the trees. There were no brightly coloured ribbons, jams or teapots. There were no stacks of books upon chairs on which to sit. There were no chipped cups and saucers scattered among scones.
A bitterness filled her chest and radiated clear through to her toes. This was wrong. This sad, empty, ruined clearing had once been a place of light and safety for her as a child; it was where she'd first met those who would become her dearest lifelong friends.
Now they had all gone.
Beside her, a tattered, singed scrap of yellowed lace from a tablecloth fluttered in a tangle of dead tree branches. Alice reached out to it and cut a strip off, rubbing the coarse fabric reverently between her fingertips.
With determination, she inhaled and tucked the memento into the leather satchel at her hip, that held various necessities the queen had given her, and cast one final glance back to the broken remains of a once vibrant tea party.
Behind her, the bandersnatch pawed anxiously at the earth as if ready to move on; they had a job to do and there was precious little time to waste.
Taking the cue, Alice mounted the beast, and together they set off for the wilds of Witzend, and away from the ruins of Tugley Woods.
Having picked their way through the woods, they reached the edge and burst out into open, flat meadowland, heading West. Overhead, the sun shone brightly, and for the first time since she'd arrived, Alice felt as if something was finally working in her favour. She was grateful to have returned to Underland in the fall, elsewise the journey she was undertaking would be decidedly more miserable.
As Bandy and Alice raced across hill and dale, the heavy feeling in her gut grew more and more unsettling, and the White Queen's words echoed around her head.
She'd said that after Alice had left, Marmoreal, and most of Underland, had enjoyed only a couple years' worth of relative peace. Although, as would later be discovered, in some areas, that had only been superficial. Following Mirana's banishment of Iracibeth and Stayne to the Outlands, the knave promptly disposed of his literal ball and chain and had quietly begun plotting his recompense.
When word of his deceit had finally reached the queen, she dispatched her most trusted emissary to his native land to gauge the situation. Several months later, like the deteriorating conditions in Witzend, it appeared her agent was losing a near imaginary fight, and quickly.
That's when her Champion had arrived.
When Alice, who had initially been exceedingly excited to be back, had learned that she'd returned at yet another apparently pre-destined time again, her spirits wilted just the tiniest bit. She wondered if she would only ever return to Underland during a crisis. The thought was more than a little depressing.
The White Queen had reluctantly tasked Alice with finding her Royal Hatter, and the young woman was only too eager to begin. When she'd realized that her friend wouldn't be nearby to welcome her to her other home, it had upset Alice more than she'd let on. Now, the queen's noble interests aside, his well-being was her top priority.
The Champion and the bandersnatch rode hard for two days, stopping only out of necessity. By late afternoon of the third day, they had reached the innermost regions of Witzend, and Alice allowed themselves a break at the first proper village they encountered.
The frightening pair was directed, grudgingly, to a small inn where Alice procured a meagre meal for herself while Bandy had gone off to hunt. The innkeeper paid only as much attention to her as was acceptable, and Alice was a bit alarmed at the behaviour the locals displayed towards her. The only other creatures that had been as rude to her, in this land, were the flowers when they'd thought she was a weed.
Nevertheless, she soldiered on quietly. Finally, when she was halfway through her supper, the tetchy innkeeper approached, at his wife's prodding, and set down a mug of weak ale. "Wel ya be stayin' o'ernigh'?" he asked.
Alice swallowed her food, but before she could answer, the innkeeper pressed on, eyes averted. "We don' have n'more rooms, y'know. Ye can stay in th'back if ye mus'."
Alice blinked up at him, perplexed and a little outraged – she was only one of two patrons in the room.
"No. I'm only here long enough for a quick rest." This was a lie. She sincerely hoped to sleep in a bed that night. Given her options now though, she'd take dry, open-air fields and a warm bandersnatch as opposed to the dingy, mice infested straw of someone's spare shed.
The skittery man with grizzled gray hair glanced at the royal crest on Alice's tunic. He nodded, quietly relieved, and returned to the bar counter.
"Although," Alice continued, nonplussed, "I am looking for information."
The innkeeper's wife seemed to puff up quietly, and her husband froze.
"I'm looking for someone, but I don't think he's from here," she said, intrigued with their reaction. The Hatter, an Outlander himself, had always seemed so friendly and inviting. His people, however, appeared to be another story altogether.
"Aye, an' why would ye thin' I have tha'?" he asked with an air of frustration.
Alice set down her spoon and turned to face him. "You seem like the sort who knows a little bit about everything." She kept her tone polite and cheerful in the hopes that she wouldn't alienate him.
This response flustered him, and he waved her off, but glanced at the other man a few tables over. "Yer th'on'y one here what isn' local, lass."
Outside, someone shrieked as the bandersnatch sauntered back to wait by the inn and chewed on the leg of some dead thing.
The man's wife bustled over to Alice and began clearing away empty plates and bread crumbs before she'd even finished.
"Best move on, nauw," she hissed quietly and hurried off to the kitchen.
Alice gazed after her with a frown. Something was decidedly off here. In her experience, tavern keepers were typically an extraverted bunch who was always interested in news from travellers and guests. These people seemed reluctant to even engage in small talk, and for all intents and purposes, Bandy aside, there was nothing about Alice that suggested mischief. Very curious. She mulled this over, but eventually decided that she'd get nothing further out of her so-called hosts, and growing increasingly agitated, she finished her meal in contemplative silence. Perhaps she would have better luck with other people in town.
When she had finished, she stood up from the table, preparing to leave, when the innkeeper skittered back over to her under the pretence of wiping off the table.
"Yeh bes' keep silen' here, lass. It's Farowen yeh wan' ta go for news."
His eyes flashed quickly to the man who continued to sit quietly in the corner, then gathered her remaining dishes and left.
Alice stared after him curiously and took note of the feeling of eyes on the back of her neck. Perhaps it wasn't obstinacy she was facing so much as fear.
Outside, the sun had set farther than she'd liked, but nevertheless felt she should heed the innkeeper's advice and move on. According to the map she'd been given, Farowen was about five hours north-northwest, and it was too late in the day to start that next leg. They could sleep somewhere just outside the town's limits and begin again in the morning.
As they left the village, they passed small houses and farms dotted every now and then along what appeared to be one of the main roads cutting through Witzend. After having accidentally scared the daylights out of a dozen or so harmless passers-by, Alice felt it would be best to travel near the road, rather than on it, given that they were now in more densely populated territory; and to most a bandersnatch was a terribly frumious sight to behold.
They slept in peace and picked up their journey the following morning without incident. However, because they were sticking to the forests beside the road, they'd lost more time than previously anticipated, and the first rooftops of Farowen weren't visible until much later in the day.
Alice directed Bandy onto the path as they entered the outskirts of the village, and as predicted, all those they encountered ran off, terrified.
As they got closer to town, more and more homes sprang up, neighbourhoods formed, and the passing Outlanders' fear eventually began turning into hostility. Alice loosed the hilt of her dagger just in case, and Bandy lowered his great head menacingly. It was soon evident that Farowen was much larger than the previous village, and it was hoped that their animosity didn't match to scale.
When they neared the village centre, Alice jumped down and chose to walk beside her companion in an effort to appear less threatening. Soon, they came to a large intersection, with no apparent lodgings in any direction, and they stood to the side of the flow of partly terrified, curious, and shifty villagers populating the street.
Eventually, one brave man in a patched straw hat who had been watching the action from the doorway of a squat little house approached the Champion with a long staff draped across his shoulders carelessly.
"Wha's yehr bus'ness, stranger?" he asked haughtily.
Alice took in his lazily arrogant demeanour and did not care for his tone. She didn't like this man, but seeing as he was the only one willing to speak with her, she acknowledged him and replied. "We're looking for a possible place to stay for the evening."
The Outlander spat something brown onto the ground and looked Alice up and down. "We?" he repeated.
She stood her ground, not willing to be intimidated. "My friend and I," she said, patting the imposing bandersnatch at her side.
The man was soon joined by three or four other men of equal stature and disposition, but none of them were forthcoming with any further information regarding an inn.
Alice sighed and made to continue, hoping for more helpful individuals up the street.
"Yeh call tha' a frien'?" called another Outlander, gripping a pitchfork.
The bandersnatch growled quietly.
"Yeh di'nae answer me, lass," said the first, spitting another foul wad of something onto the dirt.
She stopped and cast a disparaging look at the man. "I didn't think it was relevant to my needing a room to stay in. My business is my own."
The men laughed and closed in just the slightest bit. Alice was alarmed to realize that there were now a crowd of at least a dozen people gathered around them.
"Tha thin' abou' tha' is," the first man continued on, lazily dropping his staff from his shoulders, "tha bus'ness o'strangers is tha bus'ness of ours." He stopped two feet from Alice and eyed the bandersnatch warily. "An' those who come in wi'somthin' like tha' tends ta bring abou' concern."
Alice met his glare and forced a tight grin. "Well, fortunately, I'm not a cause for concern."
She nodded and considered the ramifications of reaching for the dagger at her side, but supposed that would actually negate what she'd just said.
"All I need is a room."
The man's eyes flicked up the street towards a large, two storey building two blocks up.
"We don' need trouble here," shouted someone from the crowd. Others mumbled in agreement, and Alice held her hands up in supplication.
"I'm only looking for a friend and then I'll be on my way."
A large-nosed man to her right stepped forward. "A friend like tha one you brough'?" he asked, indicating the bandersnatch. A woman with curls atop her head now peeked out at her from the row of buildings behind the crowd.
Alice quickly shook her head and took a careful step to the side. "No. He's a hatter, actually." She hoped that sounded as light-hearted as she felt anxious.
The crowd went silent, and Alice was immediately aware of a shift in mood. Several villagers took a step back, while others narrowed their eyes. She decided it was a very Bad shift.
"A hatter?" the first man said, eyes slitted in anger.
Alice swallowed and leaned against the bandersnatch as the villagers openly displayed their distaste for her. Bandy growled much more audibly now, and they all took a hasty few steps backward.
"We know of no hatter," the man said, looking at Alice with even more suspicion. The woman at the back of the crowd was staring at Alice with surprise and interest. Alice just caught the look and quirked an eyebrow at her.
"Yeh should move on, lass!" someone called from behind her. Bandy bared his teeth in warning.
"We wan' no trouble!" a woman shouted again.
Alice took the opportunity and tugged on Bandy's shoulder.
"Well then, we'll do just that." She flashed an apologetic smile and moved through the crowd, thanks to her companion's threatening leers.
The group of five men, however, continued to follow Alice. She quickened her pace and grabbed the hilt of her dagger.
As they walked away, her mind raced. Given their response they had obviously lied about knowing the Hatter, but what would cause them to react in such a way? What were they hiding? Furthermore, what could he have possibly done to warrant such hatred at the mere mention of him?
The men were getting closer, and Alice took the next side street she encountered.
"Quickly," she whispered to the bandersnatch. Ahead, there was a break in houses; an alleyway they could perhaps hide out in until her pursuers had dispersed.
"Inside," someone called to her right.
Alice started in surprise and turned to see who had spoken. It was the curly-haired woman from the crowd. She was standing in front of an open doorway and gestured within.
"Hurry up nauw," she hissed, looking towards the main street. Alice took a chance and made for the house.
"Tha' stays out," she barked anxiously, looking at the bandersnatch with concern.
"Hide for awhile," Alice said hastily to Bandy and ducked inside. He grumbled but obeyed and took off for the alley ahead.
Once inside, Alice shied away from the windows and stood quietly as the woman who had helped her remained outside on her porch.
The woman leaned casually against the wooden railing as the group of men came trolling up the /
Alice peeked just slightly out the window, partially hidden behind drapes, and waited. The woman had acknowledged them, but otherwise appeared indifferent.
"Did yeh see where they wen', Li'?"
Alice held her breath.
"Who? Tha blonde an' tha beast?"
"Aye, who else?" said a second.
The pretty woman jerked her head to another side street on the left and crossed her arms, as if she could care less. "No idea."
Four of the men nodded and made for that direction, but the first man grinned up at her. "P'raps I should stay nearby an' keep yeh safe."
The woman placed her hands upon her hips and barked out a sarcastic laugh. "As if you stood a chance agains' tha' wild thin', Samlin Dunagh." With that, the brunette turned and left the man to catch up to his fellows.
Alice wasn't sure if she should breathe a sigh of relief or not, and when the woman looked over to her, Alice immediately felt her instincts kick in. This was a person to be cautious around.
"Nauw," the woman said, a sudden fierceness to her voice, "how do you know Tarrant?" Her eyes flashed dangerously and she produced a silver blade, cautiously directing it at Alice.
She pulled her own dagger at her hip and swallowed. Had this woman just used his first name?
"Who are you?" Alice asked quietly. Perhaps it had been a bad idea to send Bandy off so quickly.
'Oh, well done, Alice,' she mentally chided.
"I asked firs'," the woman said. "How do yeh know him, an' what do yeh wan' with him?"
Alice's eyes had finally adjusted to the light inside, and she carefully glanced around at her surroundings. There were shelves and shelves of bottles, and phials and other medicinal looking paraphernalia. She sincerely hoped these were being used for good.
"My name is Alice," she said carefully.
The woman's eyes narrowed, but she lowered the blade. "Alice." she said.
The stranger cautiously stepped towards a large, wall-sized set of shelves and glanced down at a small pewter cauldron whose contents Alice couldn't see.
"The Alice?" she continued curiously.
Alice just fought the urge to groan. "Yes. I suppose."
"I've slain a Jabberwocky if that's what you're asking."
The woman stared for a moment at her, then grinned the slightest bit. "An' how do I know you aren' tellin' stories?"
Alice blinked, then tugged at her tunic. "Well, I'm bearing the queen's mark on my clothes, I arrived with her personal guard, and I easily made a mess of something that could have been much simpler to have handled. If that isn't enough, I guess you'll just have to take my word for it."
The curly-haired brunette nodded, her guard coming down more and more, until she inhaled and finally put her little blade away.
"Yeh still haven' told me why yeh'r lookin' for Tarrant."
"And you have yet to explain to me how you know him, nor give me a reason why I should trust you," Alice countered.
The woman smiled then and gestured to a seat opposite her. "Yeh mean other than savin' yehr life?"
Alice put her dagger away as well and sat. "They might not have tried to kill me."
The lady sniffed in amusement. "I doubt tha' beast would have let them, true." She frowned momentarily. "What is tha' by tha way?"
The lady gawked. "Is it nauw?"
"Tar- the Hatter?" Alice prompted. It felt odd to say his given name.
She regarded Alice carefully and nodded. "Aye. For future ref'rence, don' speak of him ta anyone ou'side his circle."
"And who is in his circle?"
The woman sat quietly, still staring at Alice with curiosity.
"You, I suppose?" she went on.
The woman nodded.
"Incidentally, who are you?"
The mysterious woman stood up and went to the fireplace to put a kettle over the flames.
"My name is Lilas Thistle. Are yeh hungry?"
Alice's stomach rumbled on cue, and she watched her shuffle about preparing food.
"He's no' here," Lilas added with her back to her.
Alice's heart dropped. "Then where?"
Her hostess sliced through a loaf of bread. "Th'forest. Outside tha village. He's no' been ta town for nigh on a week." She looked up. "Due back any day, I'd think."
"Wonderful!" Alice chirped, finally feeling as if she were making progress.
Lilas sharply turned towards her. "Yeh've no'said why yeh were lookin' for him."
Alice's grin faded and she again felt suddenly cautious. "I'm afraid that's all I can say for now."
Lilas stared at her a moment before turning back to their supper.
The women ate, and Alice was supremely grateful for not only the food, but for the overall hospitality. She was eager to move on, however, as she was apparently close to finding her friend.
Alice asked only a few questions about her, feeling it was in her best interest to remain discreet. She'd learned that Lilas was a Healer, although Alice had her doubts that they shared the same definition. She'd known the Hatter since they were children, thus she'd known his family. She was part of some sort of "circle" of individuals the Hatter dealt with; and she was fiercely protective of him. This more than anything bothered her in an odd sort of childish way. And while she was thankful for all Lilas had told her, she still didn't altogether trust this person.
Her stomach full, and the streets empty, Alice finally rose to say goodbye.
"Thank you for your help."
Lilas inclined her head then turned to the wall-sized shelf at her side. Her fingers danced over several glass bottles and phials of all colours and shapes, until coming to rest on a small rack hidden between two massive tomes.
"T'would be so kind," Lilas said while plucking two phials from their rack, "if yeh gave these ta Tarrant for me."
She quickly checked the softly simmering, pewter cauldron Alice had noticed earlier, then turned back to face her as if unsure. "On secon' though', it might be better if yeh waited til th'morrow, lass."
Alice internally bristled at the inferior term, and ignored the moderate excitement she'd felt at the thought of sleeping in a bed.
"I'm too close to stop now, but thank you."
Lilas approached her slowly, the phials cradled in her practised hands. "Th' woods ou' there are really no place ta be alone. 'Specially for those who don' know its secrets."
The older woman stopped short of Alice and gave her an appraising glance.
"Then again, yeh do have tha' terrible beastie wi'yeh."
Alice forced a smile and held out her hands for the phials. "I'm sure I've faced worse before. What are these?"
Lilas smiled and laid them in Alice's waiting palms. "He'll know." She swept past and checked the street outside to make sure it was clear. "If you're goin', go nauw. Be quick about it, and head straigh' through th'meadow outside of town. Tha forest is just beyond."
Alice nodded and settled the phials in her leather satchel.
She said nothing further to the strange woman and quietly called for Bandy. He slithered out from the shadows of the alley and gave her a quick snuffling on the cheek before letting her climb up onto his back. Her body lightly ached with fatigue, but the thought of finding her friend was too exciting.
The sun was, once again, lower in the sky than she'd have liked, but if the Hatter were truly nearby, what was a bit of darkness to stop her from finding him?