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Red Queen by Christina Henry

 

Overview: The author of Alice takes readers back down the rabbit hole to a dark, twisted, and fascinating world based on the works of Lewis Carroll…

The land outside of the Old City was supposed to be green, lush, hopeful. A place where Alice could finally rest, no longer the plaything of the Rabbit, the pawn of Cheshire, or the prey of the Jabberwocky. But the verdant fields are nothing but ash—and hope is nowhere to be found.

Still, Alice and Hatcher are on a mission to find his daughter, a quest they will not forsake even as it takes them deep into the clutches of the mad White Queen and her goblin or into the realm of the twisted and cruel Black King.

The pieces are set and the game has already begun. Each move brings Alice closer to her destiny. But, to win, she will need to harness her newfound abilities and ally herself with someone even more powerful—the mysterious and vengeful Red Queen…

 

Red Queen by Christina Henry Book Chapter One

 

Alice was a Magician, albeit one who did not know very much about her own magic. She was escaping a City that hated and feared Magicians, which was one of the reasons why she didn’t know so very much about it. Alice was tall and blue-eyed and a little broken inside, but her companion didn’t mind because his insides were more jumbled than hers could ever be.
Hatcher was a murderer, and he knew quite a lot about it. Alice thought that Hatcher knew so much about it that he ought to be capitalized too—a Magician and her Murderer. He was tall and grey-eyed and mad and dangerous but he loved her too, and so they stayed together, both stumbling toward a future that would let them leave their past in the past.
She wished she could do something magical like in a fairy story—make a carpet to fly on, or summon up a handy unicorn to ride. It seemed very useless to be a Magician without spectacular tricks at hand.
At the very least she would have liked to be able to summon a bicycle, though the thought of Hatcher balancing on two wheels while holding his axe made her giggle. Anything would be better than this tunnel, an endless, narrow semidarkness with no relief in sight. She never would have entered it had she known it would take so long to get out again—three days at least, by her reckoning.
Alice thought it must be close to that long, although they had no true way to determine the passage of time.
They slept when they were tired, ate what little provisions they had left in the sack Hatcher carried. Soon enough they were hungry and thirsty, though it had become a familiar feeling and therefore just another discomfort. Food and water never seemed to be a regular occurrence since their escape from the hospital and its regular delivery of porridge morning and night.
During the long walk Alice dreamed of the open fields and trees that she would find at the end, a beautiful verdant land described by Pipkin, the rabbit they rescued from the Walrus’ fight ring. Anything, she thought, would be better than the crushing fog and darkness of the Old City.
Hatcher, in his own Hatcher way, alternated between moody silence and fits of mania. When not brooding he would run ahead of Alice and then back again over and over until he was white and breathless. Sometimes he stopped to box with the walls until his hands were bloody, or take chunks out of the wall with his axe. It seemed to Alice that there was more brooding and less running about than usual, though to be fair he had more to brood on.
He’d just remembered he had a daughter, more than ten years after she’d been sold to a trader far to the East. It wasn’t really his fault that he’d forgotten her, because the events of that day had turned him from Nicholas into the mad Hatcher he was now. Alice suspected that there was guilt and anger and helplessness all churned up inside him, and these feelings mixed with his dreams of blood and sometimes she saw all of this running over his face but he never spoke of it.
And, Alice thought, he’s probably a bit angry with me for putting him to sleep when it was time to face the Jabberwocky.
Alice didn’t regret the decision, though she knew it didn’t suit Hatcher’s notion of himself as her protector. Hatcher had a tendency to swing his axe first and think later, and as it happened, no blood-spilling had been required to defeat the ancient Magician.
She felt the reassuring weight of the little jar in her pants pocket, deliberately turned her mind away from it. Soon enough the Jabberwocky inside would be dead, if he were not already.
The tunnel, which proceeded along level ground since the initial entry into the Old City, sloped abruptly upward. It was then that Alice noticed the lanterns set at intervals had disappeared and that the interior of the cave was lightening.
Hatcher trotted up the steep incline while Alice labored after him, tripping several times and clawing in the dirt to push her body upright. Everything always seemed much harder for Alice, who was not as strong nor as graceful as Hatcher. Occasionally it seemed that her body was actively working against her progress.
When they finally emerged, blinking in the sunlight, Alice decided her disposition was not well suited to a life underground.
She crawled over the lip of the cave entrance, half blind after days underground and squinting through slitted eyes, expecting the soft brush of grass beneath her fingers. Instead there was something that felt like very fine ash, and a few scrubby grey plants poking brave faces toward the sun.
Alice forced her eyes to open wide. It took much more effort than it ought to; her eyes did not want all that glaring light and kept stubbornly closing against her will.
Hatcher ran ahead, already adjusted and seemingly glorying in the freedom after the constraint of the tunnel. She was aware of him as a half-formed shadow through her partially closed lids. He stopped suddenly, and his stillness made Alice struggle to her feet and take a proper look around. Once she had she almost wished she hadn’t, for this wasn’t an improvement over their recent tunnel life.
They had emerged on the side of a hill that faced what must have once been an open meadow, perhaps dotted with wildflowers and trees and filled with tall grasses. Now there was nothing before them but a blackened waste stretching for miles, broken only by the occasional mound or hill.
“This isn’t what we expected,” Hatcher said.
“No,” Alice said, her voice faint. “What happened here?”
Hatcher shrugged. “There’s no one around to ask.”
Alice fought down the tears that threatened as she looked at the blight all around them. There was nothing to cry about here—no criminals kidnapping women, no streets lined with blood and corpses, no Rabbit to steal her away.
It’s only a wasteland. There’s no one here to hurt you or Hatcher. You can survive this. This is nothing.
Perhaps if she repeated this to herself often enough she could make it true. This is nothing, nothing at all.
But the promise of paradise beyond the walls of the City had sustained her, the dream of a mountain valley and a lake and a sky that was actually blue instead of grey. To have been through so much and discovered only this burned-out land seemed such a poor reward that crying seemed the only reasonable option. She let a few disappointed tears fall, saw them drop into the ash beneath her feet and immediately disappear. Then she scrubbed her face and told herself that was enough of that, thank you very kindly.
Alice walked around the hill to see what lay in the other direction. The New City sparkled in the distance, its high walls and tall white buildings shimmering on the horizon. Caught within the ring of the New City was the blackened sore of the Old City, completely encircled by its neighbor.
“I never realized it was so big,” Alice said as Hatcher joined her. His burst of energy had passed and he was subdued again, though by his troubles or by the landscape Alice did not know.
The combined Cities were a vast blot upon the landscape, stretching into the horizon. Of course it must be tremendous, Alice thought. It took them many days to cross from the hospital to the Rabbit’s lair, and still they had seen only a fraction of the Old City. The close-packed structures of the Old City had, somehow, made it seem smaller.
“Now what to do?” Alice muttered, returning to the cave entrance. Hatcher trailed behind her, silent, his mind obviously elsewhere.
They had counted upon being able to forage for food and water once they escaped the tunnel, but that seemed impossible now.
“There must be a village or town somewhere,” she said to Hatcher. “Not everyone in the world comes from the City. And there must be something beyond this blight, else Cheshire and the other Magicians would not have been interested in maintaining the tunnel.”
Hatcher crouched and ran his fingers through the dark substance that covered the ground. “It was all burned.”
“Yes,” Alice agreed. “But burned unnaturally, somehow. That doesn’t seem like ordinary fire ash.”
“Magic?” Hatcher asked.
“I suppose,” she said. “But why would a Magician want to burn all the land in sight? And how recently has all this occurred? It seems the burning goes right up to the edge of the New City. How was it that the City was not burned too?”
“Whatever happened, you can be certain that no one in the City was told of it,” Hatcher said.
“But the residents of the New City,” Alice said. “How could such a thing occur without their notice?”
“You once lived in the New City,” Hatcher said. “Did you notice anything that you weren’t told to notice by the ministers?”
“No,” Alice admitted. “But then, I was a child when I lived there. I didn’t notice much beyond my own garden, and my governess, and my family.”
And Dor, she thought, but she didn’t say it aloud. Little Dor-a-mouse, scuttling for the Rabbit. Dor, who had sold Alice to a man who’d raped her, who’d tried to break her. Dor, her best friend in all the world.
Thinking of Dor made Alice remember their tea party with the Rabbit and the Walrus, and the enormous plate of cakes, beautiful cakes with high crowns of brightly colored frosting. She’d give anything for a cake right now, although not one of the Rabbit’s cakes, which had been filled with powders to make her sick and compliant.
For a moment she wished for one of Cheshire’s magic parcels filled with food, but then remembered that such a thing would require a connection to Cheshire that she didn’t want.
She might be able to summon up food for them. Her only excuse for not doing such a thing before was that she wasn’t yet accustomed to the idea of being a Magician. Perhaps, when they were far from the City, she could search for another Magician, one who might teach her. They couldn’t all be terrible, couldn’t all be like the Caterpillar and the Rabbit and Cheshire and the Jabberwocky.
She must stop thinking of the Jabberwocky. The wish had said she would forget him, and he would die because of that. So she needed to forget, because she never again wanted to see the results of the Jabberwocky’s rage. The streets of the Old City lined with bodies and rivers of blood, those streets utterly silent, nothing living remaining except her and Hatcher.
Much like this, really, Alice thought. Just her and Hatcher and the burned land.
Sitting in the ruins of what was probably magical fire, remembering the horrors committed by those men in the Old City, the belief of the existence of a good Magician seemed naïve.
“Maybe power corrupts them,” Alice said.
It was a frightening thought, one that made her suddenly reluctant to try any magic at all. She’d spent years under the influence of drugs that made her think she was insane. She was only just learning who Alice was, what it was like to be her own self. She would rather use no magic at all than become someone unrecognizable.
“Power corrupts who?” Hatcher asked.
“Hm?”
“You said, ‘Maybe power corrupts them.’”
“The Magicians,” she said. “We’ve yet to meet a decent one.”
“Yes,” Hatcher agreed. “That doesn’t mean they don’t exist. In the story Cheshire told us, a good Magician saved the world from the Jabberwocky. At least for a while.”
“Of course,” Alice said. “I’d forgotten.”
“It’s easy to forget the good things,” Hatcher said, and this statement seemed to set off another fit of brooding. He sat back in the ash and began idly drawing with the point of one of the many knives he carried.
Alice decided to leave him to it. Hatcher wasn’t voluble at the best of times, and forcing him to talk would only leave them both irritated.
It couldn’t hurt to try a little magic. They obviously weren’t going any farther at the moment, and Alice was hungry.
The only magic she had performed thus far—on purpose, anyway—had been in the form of wishing. She’d wished the Jabberwocky into a butterfly; she’d wished the connection between herself and Cheshire broken. A delicious meal should only be a wish away, then.
Alice sat a few feet away from Hatcher and his drawings. She noted that he wasn’t merely idly tracing shapes in the dirt. There appeared to be a pattern to his work, and the pattern was growing larger and more complex. He was on the balls of his feet now, crouched like a monkey, darting to and fro as he added to the design on the ground.
“What are you doing?” she asked, curious.
He grunted at her, and Alice frowned. Well, if he is going to be that way about it. She deliberately turned her back on his activity and concentrated on her own task.
First, she thought with a thrill of anticipation, what to wish for?
Alice had a terrible sweet tooth, one that had not been suppressed in the least by ten years of bland oat porridge. Her first instinct was to wish for plates of cookies and cakes, and a large pot of steaming tea and pretty china cups to pour the tea into. But that was not a practical wish. Even Alice knew that they could not walk for miles on nothing but frosting and butter.
What, then? Something that would pack up easily in Hatcher’s bag, and not spoil in this bleak, hot landscape. It was very hot, Alice realized. Beads of sweat had formed on her forehead and upper lip and trickled down her chest. The tunnel they’d left was cool and dark. Now the full scorch of the sun made the shirt and jacket and heavy trousers Alice wore cling to her skin, which resulted in her being more cross and more uncomfortable than she already was.
She took the jacket off, transferring the little knife she always carried to the belt of her trousers. She put her hands in front of her, palms down, though it felt a little foolish to do so. Alice had an odd idea that the magic would come out of her hands. She closed her eyes and focused hard on what she wanted.
“I wish for . . . six meat pies,” she decided. “And a dozen apples. And a jug of fresh milk.”
She opened her eyes and peered under her hands. Nothing. Only fine grey ash, and the hot wind lazily blowing it in little swirls and eddies.
Alice frowned. Now, why hadn’t that worked? She kept her hands in her lap this time, and repeated the words, staring at the blank space in front of her intently.
Again, nothing. She realized Hatcher had ceased his frenzy of activity and peered over her shoulder.
“I don’t think it works like that,” Hatcher said. He sounded almost normal, like the fever that seized him had passed.
“What do you know about it?” Alice snapped. She felt a little embarrassed, like she’d been caught being naughty.
Hatcher shrugged. “As much as you, I suppose. Or probably less.”
“Then why do you think it wouldn’t work?” Alice asked.
“You’re trying to make something out of nothing,” Hatcher said. “When you wished the Jabberwock into the jar as a butterfly, you were using the Jabberwock himself to start with. When you broke the connection between you and Cheshire, you were breaking something already in place. You didn’t start with nothing.”
Alice frowned. “And what about when I pushed the Jabberwocky away from you? I made something out of nothing then.”
Hatcher shook his head. “No. You used your own fear, your own love, and you pushed it toward the Jabberwock.”
“I’m hungry and thirsty,” Alice said. “Why can’t that make food, then, if love and fear can chase away a monster?”
“You’re the Magician,” Hatcher said, and he waited to see what she would do.
“Something from something,” Alice muttered. “So many rules, always, no matter where we go. What’s the good of being a Magician if you can’t help yourself now and then?”
“I’d say all the Magicians we’ve known have done nothing but help themselves,” Hatcher said. He cocked his head to one side. “Do you hear that?”
“What?” Alice asked. She was busy scooping ash and piling it into little mounds, each about the size of the meat pies she wished for.
Hatcher stood, gazing off in the direction of the City, his hand shielding his eyes from the sun. “Something buzzing.”
Alice heard it then—a low, whiny sort of buzz, not the kind an animal would make, but a machine. She abandoned her ash project and stood next to Hatcher, mirroring his posture. There was a black blot in the air just above the City.
“What is that?” Alice asked, trying to make sense of the shape and the noise.
Hatcher shook his head slowly. “I don’t know, but it isn’t natural. No insect makes that kind of noise.”
“No insect should be that large either,” Alice said. “Unless it’s magical.”
“Cheshire?” Hatcher wondered aloud. “But why such an obvious display?”
“Yes, it seemed he preferred to keep his power under wraps,” Alice said. “He likes to operate in secret.”
Perhaps there was another, unknown Magician in the City. This was certainly possible, even probable. The very existence of the Magicians that they had already encountered proved the City government had been unable to drive them all out.
The buzzing grew in volume despite the distance of the object. As Alice and Hatcher watched, the black blot broke into several smaller blots.
“A flying machine?” Alice asked.
“I’ve never known of one so small,” Hatcher said. “You saw them from the window in the hospital.”
“Yes,” Alice said.
The airships were always large and silver and slow-moving, and the passing of one had seemed as thrilling as a parade, given how infrequently they flew over the skies of the City and the lack of excitement generally in the hospital. Entertainment, as such, was limited to the days when the workers would try to take Hatcher out for a bath. Alice amused herself some days by counting the number of noses and fingers Hatcher managed to break before they gave in and left him in his cell.
There was a flash of metal from the approaching objects, and the buzzing that preceded them ground in Alice’s skull. She covered her ears just as Hatcher tugged her toward the tunnel entrance. She gave him a puzzled look and removed one hand long enough to hear his answer.
“Whatever it is, we don’t want to be out in the open,” Hatcher said.
Hatcher ducked inside the tunnel, pulling Alice after him. She would have rolled down the incline again if he wasn’t gripping her upper arm with a strength that bruised. Alice dug her elbows and toes into the packed dirt, pressing her hands hard against her ears. Beside her, Hatcher had the eye-rolling look he got when he was agitated. The noise had set him off again. He was shaking all over, a fine trembling like clenched muscles about to release.
And just when he’d settled down, too, Alice thought. She didn’t mind his fits as much as she probably ought to, but he could be very impulsive when he was in this state. Part of her feared that he would leap out of the hole in the ground and attract the attention of whatever approached.
The noise penetrated the mouth of the tunnel, seemed to seep into the earth and through the flimsy cover of Alice’s fingers. She felt like a worm, returning to the earth for safe haven.
“My jacket,” she said, remembering she had left it out in the open on the side of the hill. And she also remembered the complicated pattern Hatcher had carved in the ash. Whatever creature approached, Alice hoped it would not notice the signs of their presence.
The sound reached its crescendo long before the objects passed overhead. Alice actually thought for a moment that the blots had gone by and she had somehow missed them.
Then there was a flash of silver, followed by another, and another. They seemed like a weird school of fish in a stream, miraculously lifted to the clouds. Alice realized what she was seeing were flying machines, as she’d initially thought, but not like any flying machine she had seen before.
Instead of the huge, stately airships with their giant balloons and large propellers, these were slim pods, perhaps the length of a tall man. Each pod had a small propeller at one end, though Alice could not see how the tiny things made the pods move or how they would have managed to get off the ground without the assistance of magic. Each pod was ridden astride by a man in strange black clothing—clothes that clung tightly to their bodies and covered their head and faces.
Mother would call those clothes indecent, Alice thought.
She glanced at Hatcher and noticed his lips moving. He silently counted all the ships until they disappeared, sweat running down both sides of his face as he fought for some measure of control. The fliers had not appeared to notice the hole in the side of the hill, the pattern carved in the ground or Alice’s jacket.
They clambered out of the tunnel again, peering after the pods that gradually shrunk and disappeared into the horizon.
“I don’t like this,” Alice said. “I thought that once we’d escaped the City, we would also escape the reach of the City.”
“Why would you think that?” Hatcher asked. “Cheshire and the others went out of the boundaries. It only stands to reason that those in power would too.”
“Yes, of course,” Alice said, but she was troubled. Troubled by these machines that she had never seen before, and by the mysterious figures that rode them. Troubled by the thought that they might be pursuing something or someone beyond the borders of the City. Could someone—a minister, a Magician, a doctor—have discovered that Alice and Hatcher survived the fire? Were they being hunted?
She said nothing of this to Hatcher. He would scoff and say that they weren’t that interesting to the doctors or her family. Or else he would tell her that of course they were being pursued, and make her feel silly and naïve for not considering it in the first place.
Alice realized she stood before the pattern Hatcher had so carefully carved in the ash. She squatted on her heels to get a better look.
It was a five-pointed star, encircled by six smaller stars. Five of the stars were of equal size, but the top one shone very large and bright. As Alice stared at the star it seemed to shift in the sand, to glow in a way that could not be possible without magic.
Alice stood up quickly, and the star returned to its original state.
“What’s all this?” she asked Hatcher, gesturing toward the drawing.
“It’s the sign of the Lost Ones,” Hatcher said.
“Who are the Lost Ones?” Alice asked, glancing at him.
Hatcher seemed surprised. “I haven’t a clue.”
Alice sighed. “A vision, then. Something else we will have to see or do later.”
She bit back the comment that his Seeing might be more useful if it were more specific. She wasn’t exactly a competent Magician, and therefore not in a position to criticize Hatcher’s abilities.
“It might have something to do with Jenny,” Hatcher said, and he could not disguise the hope in his voice. He’d forgotten his daughter and remembered her again, and now he was clutching for any hint or hope of her.
Alice put her hand on his shoulder. He gripped her fingers with his opposite hand so that his arm crossed his body, like he was holding tight to keep from flying apart.
“Let’s see if I can’t make some pies out of ash,” Alice said gently, pulling her hand away. “It seems we have a very long way to go.”

After several attempts Alice managed to produce two small pies (though the pies were inclined to be greasy and the gravy was not very good), four pitiful-looking apples, and some milk that was so curdled they immediately dumped it onto the ground.
“At least you were able to make food,” Hatcher said philosophically as he chewed on his pie. Something crunched between his teeth and he fished out a small bone.
Alice tried telling herself that something was better than nothing, but the pie was barely edible.
“I wonder if it doesn’t taste good because I made it from ash,” Alice said, and again thought longingly of frosted cakes and hot tea. It would be lovely to even have plain water to wash away the gritty taste of the pies.
They packed away the apples, not knowing whether any decent food would be in the offing, and began to trudge in the direction the pods had flown. The only clue they had to Jenny’s location was that she was in the East. The City was to the west, so they went the opposite way.
Alice tried not to worry about the men who had flown out of the City on the strange machines. She tried not to worry about the fact that they were horribly exposed in this landscape, and that they had no way of knowing what types of weapons those men carried. She tried not to think about the gun that Hatcher had hidden in his coat, the gun with one bullet for him and one for her, just in case anyone tried to capture and return them to the hospital.
She tried, and failed.
In the distance were a few features, small hills like the ones that they had emerged from. Alice wondered if they also had tunnels within, and if so, where those tunnels might lead.
“Look,” Hatcher said suddenly, and pointed at the ground.
Imprinted in the ash was the distinct paw print of a rabbit. A very, very large rabbit.
“Pipkin!” Alice said. She’d half forgotten the rabbit they’d saved from the Walrus, and the band of girls who’d joined him in escaping the City.
How disappointed they must have been, Alice thought sadly, when they left the tunnel and discovered this blight instead of the green land they were promised.
Alice knew her own disappointment could have been nothing to those girls, those girls who had been locked away in bedrooms with men they did not know, and some of them locked in cages to be eaten by the monster who’d captured them.
“I wonder how far ahead they are,” Alice said.
“Can’t be that far, if the print is still clear in the ground,” Hatcher said. “It’s not so windy.”
Alice peered ahead, hoping to see figures moving on the horizon. There was nothing but blank sameness, and they themselves were the only living creatures in sight.
She resigned herself to another long and tedious walk, and let her mind drift away as they trudged through the ash.
“How did you do that, Alice?”
A little girl’s voice. Dor’s voice. It was full of wonder and, Alice knew now but had not known then, jealousy.
“I don’t know!” Alice said as they both peered at the little blue jewels that had appeared on Alice’s palm.
She had been holding a blue forget-me-not, plucked illicitly from her mother’s carefully tended garden, and thinking that the petals were like little jewels in the sun, and suddenly they were jewels.
Not very useful, Alice thought, making jewels out of flowers. Too bad she had never made bread out of dirt. She might have a better clue how to fill their bellies then.
Alice had spent the majority of the last ten years feeling hungry, but it had never bothered her so much in the hospital. Mostly that was because they kept her drugged all day, so that everything seemed to drift around her like a dream.
Since they’d escaped she’d been aware of an almost constant low-level gnawing in her belly, a feeling that she might never be full enough, and that feeling was only exacerbated by the constant threat they’d been under—threat of capture, torture, death.
What Alice really wanted was to sit right down and have a nice meal, and then a long sleep, and she also wanted to take a really good bath, a proper bath in a copper tub with hot water poured from kettles and sweet-smelling bubbles everywhere. The closest thing she’d had to a bath in recent days was when she’d swum through the lake in the center of Cheshire’s maze to save Hatcher from . . . whatever that creature had been.
There had been quite a lot more blood and fighting and scrabbling through the dirt since then, and Alice was uncomfortably aware of the scent of her own body after these exertions.
The sun went down, and the moon came up, and the wasteland around them seemed suddenly alive with things that skittered and crawled and shifted through the sand, shadows that made Alice creep closer to Hatcher.
Hatcher’s grey eyes shone in the moonlight like a cat’s, and so did the blade of his axe. This was Hatcher’s time, his element, the place where he could show the hunters that he was not to be hunted.
Alice took out her own knife, ashamed of her fear. She’d faced down men and animals more dangerous than any small scuttling thing that might be out here. All these creatures were small, barely recognizable as live things and not simply tricks of the eye. They couldn’t possibly pose the same threat as, say, the Walrus.
Then suddenly the sky was filled with a bursting light so bright that it seemed the sun had risen again and launched straight to the top of the sky, impatient with the moon’s stay. Alice fancied that it was the flare of a torch, for it flickered like fire, though no fire she’d ever known could be so large.
Save the fire that burned this land, you nit, she thought.
The light revealed what the darkness had concealed. Dozens of small creatures dotted the landscape around Alice and Hatcher, their eyes gleaming in the flare of yellow that illuminated the night. At first Alice thought they were stoats, but a closer look told her that the animals weren’t quite right. No stoat Alice had ever seen had long curving fangs like that, or mad red eyes.
“Alice,” Hatcher said, and his voice was very calm as he stared into the distance, at the place where the light emerged from the horizon. “What if Jenny hates me?”
This was the reason for all the brooding, then, although Alice felt it would have been better if Hatcher had waited until they were not in potentially mortal danger to discuss it.
“She likely will,” Alice said, inching around behind Hatcher so that they stood back-to-back. She felt it was best not to lie generally, and found she was incapable of lying to Hatcher in any case. “Little girls think their fathers can do anything, save them from any danger. Your father is the strongest person in the world.”
Alice remembered the wonder she’d felt when she’d learned her father had killed a rat that had gotten into the house when she was young. She’d thought her papa was the greatest hero who ever lived.
Alice was sure that Jenny had cried every night for her father. And when he didn’t come she would have learned to despise him for not saving her.
“That’s what I would have done, if I could have remembered her,” Hatcher said as the light began to fade. “I would have killed anyone who ever touched her, ever harmed her. I would have mangled them to pieces like I slaughtered the men who killed her mother. But I don’t expect that intentions will count for much now.”
“No,” Alice said. “I don’t expect that they will.”
The stoats, or whatever they were, moved closer. They made low hissing noises in the backs of their throats. It was not the sibilant song of a snake, but a rough, threatening sound that was harsh in the silence.
Alice had a brief vision of being swarmed, overwhelmed by these tiny vicious animals, her flesh stripped from her bones even as she screamed out her death wail.
“No,” she said.
The animals stopped. She could barely see their faces now as the blaze of light faded to a faint glow. Their heads tipped to one side in unison, suddenly doglike, curious.
“No,” she repeated, and this time she put force behind it, and the air shimmered with magic. “Let us pass.”
The last droplet of light disappeared, leaving them in a dark that seemed closer than before. But Alice did not need her eyes.
There was still so much about magic Alice did not understand. There was power in her words, and the creatures responded to it, though she did not know why. The night was as it should be again, dark and full of stars.
All about them the stoat-like animals kept still as Alice and Hatcher passed, their silence somehow respectful.
Hatcher sighed, and Alice felt rather than saw the relaxing of his axe at his side. He was disappointed, she knew. In his heart Hatcher was a killer, and he longed to exercise his best skill, to feel the crunch of bone and muscle beneath the blade, to be baptized by the hot splatter of blood. He would regret any missed opportunity for wild death and mayhem.
Alice knew all this, knew that his heart wanted this release. She also knew that, somewhat inexplicably, he was a good man, and that the latter impulse kept Hatcher’s murderous tendencies in check—mostly.
She did not know how far they walked that first night, but the notion of sleep never entered her mind. The thought of placing her body against that slippery ash, vulnerable and insensate to all around her, did not seem even a little bit wise. Just because the stoats did not attack now didn’t mean they wouldn’t take their chance if it were offered.
A persistent worry troubled her too, keeping her thoughts so busy she couldn’t imagine quieting them to sleep. She’d been convinced (somewhat naïvely, it now seemed) that if they left the City they would also leave the City’s influence. The strange flying machines and their mysterious mission seemed to indicate that would not be the case, that the City’s tentacles stretched away from its bloated body like a living monster. How far could those tentacles reach?
Alice wished to shed her life in the City as a snake shed its skin. She feared being snatched back into that life, plucked from her freedom. And she wished to be as far as possible from Cheshire. He might decide that she was too valuable to let escape.
She must have dozed off, for one moment she watched the slightly darker shadows that were her feet moving against the black ash, and the next moment the sun was shining and she was tucked against Hatcher’s chest like a child.
He moved steadily through the strange desert, seemingly untroubled by her weight in his arms. Alice blinked in the glare and noticed several large birds circling overhead.
“Best put me down, Hatch,” Alice said. “Those birds are looking for a meal.”
“They are, but not us,” Hatcher said, placing her on her feet. He ran his hand over her short hair and down over her cheek, lingering for a moment. Then he pointed straight ahead. “Whatever they’re after is up there.”
There were several black shapes disfiguring the flat landscape ahead. It was difficult to tell, owing to the utter sameness in all directions, how far away those shapes might be.
Alice didn’t want to see what was there. It couldn’t be anything good, and she’d had enough of what wasn’t good. But they were heading east, and the dark shapes were right in their path.
When they reached the place where the vultures collected, Hatcher spent a few enjoyable moments chasing the birds away with his axe. Alice stared at the bodies in confusion. They were all piled together in a charred heap, and there was barely enough flesh remaining for the scavengers to bother with.
“What caused the burning?” Alice wondered aloud, approaching the corpses. Then she stopped, her heart in her throat, choking her.
“Whatever’s burned these fields to nothing, I expect,” Hatcher said. “The same something that made the sky light up last night.”
Hatcher hefted his axe from one hand to the other and eyed a truculent vulture who’d refused to leave with the rest of his fellows.
“Hatcher,” Alice said.
He appeared not to hear her as he stalked toward the bird. It had its back turned to Hatcher and was busily grooming one wing.
“Hatcher,” she repeated, and this time she pierced the fog.
“What is it?” he asked, straightening.
The vulture glanced behind, noted Hatcher’s proximity and flew away.
“Pipkin,” she said, and pointed.
Now that she knew what was there, Alice could make out the charred shape of a rabbit’s ear, a blackened shoe, the delicate rib cage of a girl.
“This wasn’t how it was supposed to end for them,” Alice said. Her grief threatened to bubble over, to explode out into the desert, to cover the corpses of those who were supposed to have found a better life. “They were supposed to be happy in green fields.”
It had all been for nothing, Alice thought. Their suffering, their escape. She didn’t feel, suddenly, that there was much hope for her or Hatcher.
“The world gobbles us and chews us and swallows us,” Hatcher said, in that uncanny way he had of reading her thoughts. “I think happy endings must be accidents.”
“But we hope for them all the same,” Alice said. She looked sadly at the remains of those hopeful faces. Above all, we hope not to die in terror.
They walked on, leaving the remains of the giant rabbit and the girls behind them, as they must. Alice tried to leave her sadness behind, but it clung to her heart like a wraith.
By the dawn of the third day Alice was heartily sick of the desert, for that was what this surely was, whether created by man or nature. It was hot and dry and the sun was unrelenting. She would have been thrilled beyond imagining to see a ray of sunshine in the Old City; now she wished for even a single cloud to relieve the constant glare.
They slept each afternoon, when the sun was at its zenith and any creature with sense hid from it. The long-fanged stoats did not trouble them, although a few occasionally followed Alice and Hatcher’s footsteps, sniffing curiously.
Each night Alice observed the same flare of light from the sky, although it came from a different direction each time. As they moved farther east the light tended behind them. The mysterious men on flying machines did not reappear. Alice wondered if they were the cause of the strange light in the sky, or if they were seeking it.
Alice crested a rise, one of the few they’d encountered, and stopped beside Hatcher.
He gestured in front of them at what he obviously thought might be a hallucination.
“Is that real?” he asked.
Alice blinked, and when she looked the hallucination was still there.
The rise they stood upon overlooked a little valley. About halfway down the slope, the fields of ash abruptly terminated, as if stopped by an invisible wall. Beyond were green grass, and fragrant pines, and an expanse of rolling hills that gradually stretched into snowcapped mountains, far in the distance.
A silver-blue stream wound through the little valley, and beside it was a series of small neat buildings, almost like a doll’s village. Smoke wisped from chimneys, carrying the scent of breakfast cooking.
“Do you see it?” Hatcher asked.
“Yes,” Alice said, and relief broke over her.
She’d half thought they would never see water again or sleep without a cradle of ash. She’d forgotten what it was like to see without grit clogging her eyes or to breathe without inhaling fine particles of dust. She was too exhausted and hungry to run down the hill—and she would likely fall flat on her face if she tried—but her pace quickened as much as she was able.
Hatcher scampered ahead, as always seemingly unaffected by fatigue and lack of food. When he reached the stream he dropped his pack on the bank and waded right in, dipping his head beneath the water and splashing like a happy dog.
Alice was uncomfortably aware of just how dirty she was, but at the same time she glanced uneasily at the little village just a short distance away. Its citizens might not appreciate two strangers swimming in their local waters.
She knelt by the bank and cupped her hand in the stream, drawing it to her mouth. It was clear and cool and delicious. Alice had never tasted water like this before, not even when she lived in the New City. It was like melted snow and sweet honey and summer flowers and an autumn breeze all in one, and she was so thirsty. She wanted to gobble it all down, plunge her face into the stream and drink until she was a spider bloated with the juice of too many flies.
But Alice knew that would give her a stomachache, especially after so many days without proper food or drink. So she contented herself with a few careful sips, enough to relieve the parched withering feeling in her throat. Then she washed her face and hands and neck and splashed a little water in her hair, and hoped that her scent would not offend any villagers they met.
Hatcher’s odor, she noticed as he climbed out of the stream and flopped on the bank, had not improved by the dunking of his whole self in the water. Steam rose from his clothes and carried with it a sour stink that reminded Alice of a dog that just rolled in the streams of refuse that ran along the curbs in the Old City.
They lay in the sun for a time, content to let the breeze touch their faces and hair, to breathe in warm green smells and, underneath, the hominess of black earth, an earth that let things grow instead of killing them. Then Hatcher sat up, his nostrils flared, and a moment later Alice smelled it too.
“Bread,” she said, breathing the word out like a prayer.
She could already taste it on her tongue, slathered in fresh sweet butter and berry jam, filling up all the aching, gnawing places under her ribs. Perhaps there would also be tea, or milk, or soft creamy cheese. Perhaps there would even be cake.
Without awareness of her actions she rose and followed the wafting smell of baking bread. Hatcher was a few paces ahead of her, his nose in the air like a hunting animal sniffing out prey. They found a little worn track from the riverbank and followed it to the edge of town.
All of the houses were small and well kept, porches swept, pretty little flowers in boxes at the windows, blue and pink and yellow. Two rows of homes faced one another over the main road, which led to a small village square and a fountain spouting the same beautifully clear water as the spring. Each building in the square could be identified, not by a written sign indicating ownership or the type of business, but by a small picture painted on a board. A hat for the milliner, a horseshoe for the farrier, a loaf of bread for the baker.
These little icons only emphasized the sense of a doll’s village instead of a real one, and that sensation was reinforced by the lack of people. Hatcher paused as he reached the fountain and Alice noted his stance had changed. He’d lost the aspect of a sniffing dog. His axe was in his hand, the knuckles tight around the handle.
The scent of bread was stronger here, as the baker was directly opposite. Alice reached for her own little knife, resolutely ignoring her rumbling stomach.
“It’s not right,” Hatcher said. “Where are they?”
“What if we look inside?” Alice asked. “Maybe they are only wary of strangers. They are alone here in a valley on the edge of a desert. New folk likely don’t pass this way often.”
“I suppose,” Hatcher said, and he sounded very grumbly, “this means you want me to put away my axe again.”
Alice laughed, a short laugh that surprised the tension out of her. She tucked her knife away. “Wouldn’t you prefer to meet some slightly suspicious but otherwise kindhearted villagers rather than be forced to hack your way through a population of enemies?”
Hatcher only grunted at this, which Alice took to mean that either option would be welcome. She wondered how he’d subdued his impulses when in the hospital, then realized with a shock that he had not suppressed them at all. Many a night Alice fell asleep to the sound of Hatcher punching the padded wall, punching so steadily and determinedly that she’d been certain one day his hand would emerge on her side like a sprouted fungus.
Alice’s first inclination was to explore the bakery, where she hoped to both meet a friendly baker and fill her stomach. She and Hatcher climbed the steps and peered through the window. Rows of cakes and breads were arrayed on shelves, but no one was visible through the glass. By silent and mutual consent they tried the door. It gave easily under Alice’s hand. Hatcher had put his axe away but he had a tense, coiled look, ready to spring.
“Hello?” Alice called.
There was no movement to be heard from the room beyond, no indication whatever that anyone was present. Yet the goods all appeared freshly baked, and they certainly smelled that way. Alice staggered a little, her hunger overwhelming her.
“Hello?” she called again.
She had a strange thought, that perhaps the people of this village didn’t speak her language and couldn’t understand what she was saying. But they still should have responded to my call, she thought. They would hardly cower under a table simply because they did not understand “hello.”
Alice and Hatcher looked at each other, the same thought in their eyes.
“I suppose it would be all right to take some food if we left money,” Alice said hopefully.
“I still have some of the trader’s gold,” Hatcher said.
Alice spotted an enormous slice of yellow cake with a thick layer of lavender frosting atop it. A little moan escaped her lips. Yellow cake and colored frosting, her favorite.
The cake was crammed in her mouth before she even realized she’d crossed the room. Sweetness exploded on her tongue—the soft moist crumble of cake, the thick, melty butteriness of frosting. A moment later the entire slice was gone and Alice’s head was rushing, swimming in sugar and ecstasy. She sank to the floor and waited for the dizzy spell to pass.
She soon felt herself again, and glanced at Hatcher, embarrassed at her behavior. She needn’t have bothered worrying, as Hatcher was on the floor opposite her, surrounded by things he’d pulled from the shelves. He was busy stuffing his face and took no notice of her whatsoever.
Alice stood slowly and chose two loaves of bread and some paper to cover them. She wrapped one loaf in its entirety, then broke the other in two, saving half for later. She ate the other half carefully, chewing and savoring.
No person appeared in all the time Hatcher and Alice were in the baker’s—not the shopkeeper nor any customer from the village. When Hatcher finally had eaten his fill they swept out the crumbs (evidence of guilt, Alice thought), left a generous quantity of gold in exchange for the goods they’d eaten, tucked some extra supplies in Hatcher’s bag and left the shop.
Outside in the square everything was just as it had been before, silent and still, though the silence seemed less ominous somehow. A full belly, Alice reflected, went a long way toward improving one’s outlook.
The sun was almost at its zenith, but the little valley felt cool and shaded. Hatcher and Alice went around the square, entering every shop, calling out for any resident.
In each case they discovered the same scene—goods laid out, everything fresh and clean and dustless, but no people. It was as if all the village had woken that day and walked away, leaving everything behind.
Given the state of their clothes and their meager supplies Alice and Hatcher took the time to collect things they needed—cheese and fruit to accompany the bread, an extra sack for Alice to carry, ropes and blankets.
Alice swapped her ill-fitting trousers for a new pair and a clean shirt, though there were pretty dress patterns on display, just like in a City shop. She fingered one, a light cotton patterned all over with blue flowers.
“You would look very fine in that,” Hatcher said.
Alice dropped her hand from the cloth, color rising in her cheeks. “It’s not practical,” she said. “Anyway, I’m too tall to fit in it, and I’ve grown used to trousers in any case.”
It’s much easier to run in trousers, she thought. She hadn’t forgotten all peril behind them, nor what might be ahead.
She chose two of each item, carefully rolling up her old trousers and placing them in the bottom of her sack, mindful of the presence of the bottle in her pocket, the one she had not yet disposed of.
Alice dressed in a clean shirt and pants, wishing now that she’d bathed in the river with Hatcher. The crispness of her new clothes only seemed to emphasize the layers of grit on her skin.
In all the empty shops they left behind what they thought was fair payment for their goods. “After all,” Alice reasoned, “what if they are all simply away for a festival or some such thing? How would they feel upon returning to find they’d been looted?”
“What if someone comes along after us and takes our gold and their goods?” Hatcher countered.
“At least we’ll know we did the proper thing,” Alice said. “And besides, who would come along after us? We never saw another soul crossing that blight.”
Besides the men from the City, Alice thought, though she did not say it.
“There is more than one way to approach the village,” Hatcher said, pointing toward the mountains. But he left the money, because Alice wished it.
Once they’d purchased everything they needed, Alice and Hatcher returned to the fountain at the center of town. Hatcher peered up at the sky.
“The sun is going down. We may as well stay here tonight instead of taking our chance with the mountains.”
“I hate to sleep inside someone’s house uninvited,” Alice said. “What if the owner returned and found you sleeping in his bed?”
She remembered a story one of her governesses told her, about a little girl who went into a house that wasn’t hers. She sat in three chairs and tasted three bowls of porridge and rolled in three beds. And for being too curious (and, Alice thought, very rude) the little girl was eaten up by the bears who lived there. She repeated this story to Hatcher, who gave her a curious look.
“Are you worried about bears?” he asked.
“Well, no,” Alice admitted. “But the moral remains. Considering the type of person we’ve encountered since we escaped, I wouldn’t want to make assumptions about the owner of any of these houses. We might go to sleep and wake up to discover a madman with a knife leaning over us.”
“I’m the madman with the knife,” Hatcher said. “And you are not exactly scrupulous with a blade yourself.”
Alice rather resented this remark, as she felt she had killed only in defense or out of necessity. She wasn’t like Hatcher, who if left unchecked would instigate a bloodbath for the fun of it.
“Still, we can sleep here in the square if you prefer,” Hatcher said.
“I do,” Alice said. “But first I want a bath.”
They returned to the stream. Hatcher watched in open frankness as Alice undressed. She knew she ought not allow him to do so, that it wasn’t a proper thing for an unmarried girl. But he’d already seen her whole body, had embraced her while she stood naked in Bess’ spare room. And while Hatcher had never pressed his attentions on her, there was an intimacy between them much stronger than any man and wife. That was what happened when you killed for each other, to keep the other person safe.
Alice waded into the clear, cold stream and scrubbed the days of grit and sweat from her skin and hair. Hatcher never took his eyes from her. Then she climbed out and shook off the water and put her new clothes on again.
Hatcher stayed her hands as they moved toward the buttons of her shirt, performing the task himself. His fingers brushed against her damp skin. When he finished she was breathless. Then he smiled, and turned away toward the village. Alice followed, feeling out of sorts and not certain why.
The sun disappeared behind the desert. They rolled their blankets close together beneath the fountain in the village, Alice nestled in the curve of Hatcher’s body. She was certain she would not be able to sleep, that the strange atmosphere of the village would make her restless. But there was something to be said for a full belly and clean clothes, and if the ground was hard it was at least better than sand, which had a perverse way of getting between one’s clothes and skin and itching you awake.
Alice dropped off immediately, her breath and Hatcher’s rising and falling in the same rhythm. As she slept, she dreamed.
She dreamed of a giant shadow looming over her, and as she looked on, one shadow split into three. There was a sound of something heavy scraping across the ground, like it was being dragged behind the shadow. Then the darkness began to speak in three voices.
“We can’t,” said number one.
“What do you mean, we can’t? They’re right here,” said number two.
“We can’t; they haven’t broken the rules,” a third cut in.
“Not a single one,” the first voice said mournfully, and Alice could see the shadow shaking “no” from side to side.
“There’s gold in every shop,” said number three. “They didn’t even drink from the fountain.”
“But I’m hungry,” number two said. “There haven’t been any travelers for ages.”
Number one grunted. “Well, that’s his doing, isn’t it? Burning up everything in sight.”
“There isn’t much to them anyway,” number three said. “Hardly worth the effort it would take to chew and swallow them.”
“Well, that one is scrawny,” number two said, and Alice had the strangest feeling he was pointing at her. “But the other looks right healthy, lots of good meat on him.”
“We can’t,” said number one, and this time there was a finality to his voice that brooked no disagreement. “There are rules, and we must follow them. Unless you want her to get angry.”
“No,” said number two, and his voice was both sullen and slightly afraid.
The shadows moved away then, only to be replaced by another, a gigantic black specter with wings that covered the sky. The night was colder than it had ever been, and then it was abruptly filled with flames, flames that lit the sky so that the moon was brighter than the sun. The fire seemed to have a voice of its own, a growl and hiss that opened into a howl of delight as it burned and burned and burned.
Underneath that howl was something else, full of dark and dangerous glee. “Alice. Don’t forget me now.”
Her eyes flew open. The sun streamed over the mountains, and all was quiet. There was no one about except Hatcher and her, and the echo of the Jabberwocky inside her head.
“I’m going to forget you,” Alice said, her voice low and fierce. “I will.”
There might have been a small dark chuckle from deep inside her pack, where the bottle was inside her old trousers and her old trousers were rolled tight and buried beneath all their new supplies. But then, there might have been no noise at all, only the clinging edges of a nightmare burned away by the dawn.
Hatcher woke at the same moment Alice did. She recognized the quality of tension in his body that told her he was alert even if he had not moved. She shifted, moving to rise, and he unwrapped his arm from her waist.
They silently rolled their blankets and slung their packs over their shoulders. When all the tasks were complete Alice asked, “Hatch, did you hear them last night?”
“No,” he said. “But I see their footsteps.”
He pointed to the place where the grass was trampled by large feet, and something else. Something that dragged behind those large feet and left a long track. Something that might be a hammer, or a club.
The flattened grass was very near to where Alice and Hatcher had lain, as if the creatures leaned over them in the night.
“What are they?” Alice asked.
Hatcher shrugged, though Alice could tell he was not as nonchalant as he wished to appear. “Nothing we want to run into. Best get on. The mountains will take some days to cross.”
He reached toward the fountain with a cupped hand, to take a drink or splash his face with water. Alice threw out her own hand in alarm, knocking his back.
“No!” She did not know whether the conversation in the night was real or imagined, but Alice would take no chances. “Let’s take water from the river.”
Hatcher’s fingers were a whisper from the flowing spout. “Why?”
“Can’t you take my word?” Alice asked, grabbing his elbow and leading him away. Under her breath she added, “I’ll tell you when we are beyond the borders of the town.”
Alice’s neck itched, like someone stared at it. Like someone was thinking of grabbing and twisting it and crunching on bones. Yesterday the village seemed eerie, but not actually dangerous. Today danger seemed to be all around them, making the air thick and Alice’s breath fearful.
The village ended as abruptly as it began. There were no outlying houses or sheds or—and this only just occurred to Alice—signs of animals or farming.
Who had baked the goods in the bakery, and where had the eggs and flour come from if there were no pecking chickens to feed, no golden fields to tend? This isolated place could hardly gather resources from a nearby town.
“Why, oh, why didn’t we see it right away?” Alice said.
“See what?” Hatcher asked.
He allowed Alice to lead him to the stream that ran alongside the village. Here the water tumbled merrily over grey-and-white rocks before widening into the pool where Alice had bathed the previous day.
“It’s magic,” Alice said, and as she said this she could smell the enchantment on the air, and see the faint shimmer of mist around the village.
Hatcher washed his face and drank from the river before filling a skin with water. He twisted around to stare at the buildings as he did so. “It’s not real?”
Alice shook her head. “It’s real. But it was put there by magic, not by human hands.”
She could hardly credit her stupidity, although if she were fair to herself she would remember that when they arrived they were parched, exhausted and half-starved. Alice supposed under those circumstances she might be forgiven for not recognizing the enchantment.
Still, they would need to be more watchful in the future. There was much more magic out here than inside the walls of the City. Magicians had been driven from the City, and that meant the wide world held even more peril for Alice and Hatcher.
“Why plant a pretend village?” Hatcher asked.
“As a trap,” Alice said, and repeated the conversation she’d heard (or possibly dreamed) the night before.
“I suppose it’s lucky you’re so honest,” Hatcher said. “If we hadn’t left payment for the things we took, we would be in no end of trouble.”
“I may have imagined it all,” Alice admitted. “Because I felt I was right in leaving the money and my dream-self wished to congratulate me.”
Hatcher grinned. “Feeling very clever?”
“If it saved our lives I suppose I have a right to, at least in a dream.”
His grin faded. “You didn’t dream those tracks. Some creature was near us last night for certain. For reasons of its own it did not harm us, whether because it had no need or wish to or because it was restrained by some outside force. ‘Her.’ I wonder who ‘her’ is.”
“If everything follows, then she is the one who made this place, and that means she is very powerful.”
For the second time Alice wished to speak with Cheshire, an impulse that irritated her greatly. The little Magician was hardly a friend and probably a dangerous ally, but at least he had experience and knowledge. And for some reason unknown to her, he liked Alice.
It was possible she’d been foolish to break the connection between them. She’d like some advice from someone who had experience and knowledge. She’d like to know how to recognize magic before it was used against her.
“I suppose it was safe to eat those cakes and things?” Alice said. She could hear the doubt in her voice.
“If it wasn’t, there’s nothing to be done about it now,” Hatcher said.
That’s true, Alice thought. And it was also true that not for the first time in her life did she wish she could go back and undo her actions, make a different decision. How many times had she dreamed that her sixteen-year-old self was not so curious, not wishing for a little thrill of danger, not so silly as to follow Dor into the Old City, a place nice girls should never go?
But if she had not followed Dor, had not been through everything an innocent young girl should not have experienced, then she would never have known Hatcher, and she couldn’t be sorry for that.
No man in the New City could love her as Hatcher did—of that Alice was certain. It was deep and all-consuming but somehow never suffocating. It was unselfish. It did not ask for anything and yet he made no secret of his need. There was no one in the world like Hatcher, and if she hadn’t been mad, there would be no Hatcher for her.
So she should not wish to undo the past but learn to accept its consequences, and remember that not all consequences were evil.
They had eaten food from the enchanted village. They must now accept what came next.
Although, Alice reflected, it would be lovely if a village were just a village. She would like it if for once things were exactly as they seemed.
They followed the stream until about midday, as it led toward the mountains and there was no obvious footpath to follow. Occasionally they saw the flashing silver of fish in the water. Around lunchtime Hatcher decided to try his luck catching a fish.
“But you don’t know a thing about fishing,” Alice protested. “You’ve lived in the City your entire life.”
“It can’t be that difficult,” Hatcher said as he stripped off his shirt, jacket and boots.
He rolled his pants to his knees, revealing pale white bony feet and legs so lacking in fat that Alice could see the veins and muscles pressing against his skin. His naked torso was covered in scars, the product of his life before the asylum.
“There’s fish and chips on offer every day in the City, so someone must be able to catch fish,” he said.
“Those fish are brought on boats,” Alice said. “Boats that come from the sea, and the fish are caught in nets.”
Alice recalled a young nurserymaid had once taken her on an outing to the docks, but only after obtaining Alice’s solemn promise that she would not speak of the incident to her parents. Alice was very small at the time, perhaps three or four, and was so excited by the prospect that she promised immediately, would have promised anything to be allowed to go.
Her mother always scrupulously avoided that part of the New City, sniffing that it was “full of common people.” Alice’s nurserymaid dragged the gawping child through the masses of burly, sweaty men, reeking of salt and fish and whiskey and tobacco smoke, their teeth and clothes stained, their arms and faces so brown from the sun that they looked like visitors from some exotic Eastern land.
Everywhere there was noise and movement—men shouting, carrying barrels of goods, old sailors mending nets or sails, docks being scrubbed and supplies carted aboard for the next sailing.
There were a few people like Alice’s father, dressed in suits, speaking intently to captains. There were men who invested in ships’ concerns and kept scrupulous track of those investments.
There were others from the upper echelons of the New City, wrinkling their noses as they were led to ships’ quarters for a sea voyage. It would be lovely, she thought, to sail on a ship to a faraway country.
Her nursemaid halted before one of the smaller fishing boats, where she was hailed by a grinning young man with hair so pale it could not be called yellow and eyes of startling blue.
His name was Mathias, and he had a strange accent. He told Alice he was from a country of ice and snow, a place where there was barely anything green and the land was filled with white bears twice the size of a man.
Alice could hardly credit this, but Mathias said it was true. Then he put her on his knee and fed her some very strange dried fish that tasted mostly of salt and told her a story of a woman who fell in love with one of these great white bears, who was actually a prince in disguise.
This story so thrilled Alice that she wanted to go with Mathias back to his home, so that she too might marry a bear and live in a palace made of ice. He laughed and kissed her cheek and set her down. Then he and the nurserymaid (Why can I not recall her name? I remember his but not hers) had sat close on overturned barrels, holding hands and murmuring to each other while Alice played a game collecting odd things she found on the dock. A ripped bit of netting, an interesting rock, a tarnished coin from someplace far from the City. She ran to and fro, gathering things in a pile at their feet.
After a time she’d found everything within easy reach and strayed farther and farther in search of something interesting. Suddenly she looked up, and realized she could not see Mathias’ boat, and all around were the dizzying tall masts of ships and a busy crush of people who did not notice her.
She wanted to burst into tears but instead took one or two hesitant steps, hoping the movement would reveal the fishing boat nearby. But there was nothing familiar.
Alice felt her insides shrinking and all she wanted then was to be at home. It was nearly teatime, she was sure, and her stomach growled and her hands shook and she wanted her mother, wanted the sweet scent of roses to envelop her.
Then there was a man before her, a man clothed in the respectable suit and top hat of the New City, a man with a kind voice and hard, hungry eyes, offering to help her and pulling a sweet from his pocket.
She reached for it, forgetting her fear, forgetting the need to find her nurserymaid, and the man’s other hand reached out for her, to close around her.
Then she heard, “Alice! Alice!”—a frantic cry—and she turned about and saw the white face of the nurse just behind her.
She scooped Alice into her arms, her face wet with tears, and scolded her for wandering. As she carried Alice away, Alice saw that the man with the top hat had disappeared.
They never went on another outing to the docks. A few weeks later, the nurserymaid left in the middle of the night and never returned, which of course made Alice’s mother very cross until she could find a suitable replacement. But Alice hoped she had run away to the land of ice and snow, and that when she arrived she found Mathias as a great white bear, a prince in disguise.
Alice blinked suddenly, for her face was splashed by water, and found Hatcher standing before her looking proud and holding a struggling speckled fish in both hands.
Alice blinked again. “Where did that come from?”
“I caught it. Didn’t you see?” Hatcher said, his face falling. “Were you not watching?”
“I’m sorry. I was remembering . . . something.”
Only now did she recognize that hard, hungry look of wanting in the man’s eyes and realize how close she had been to danger. What would have happened to her if she had been too young to fight and run away, as she had with the Rabbit?
She pushed the memory away, returning her attention to Hatcher, who now appeared sulky that she had not properly appreciated his efforts.
“I’m sorry,” she said again, eyeing the fish as its flapping slowed. “What are you supposed to do with it now?”
“Cut it open and cook it,” Hatcher said.
“I don’t know anything about cooking fish,” Alice said. She had never eaten a meal that wasn’t prepared by somebody else. “Don’t you need a butcher or a fishmonger or something?”
“I am a butcher,” Hatcher said, and he proceeded to skin and gut the fish as though he’d been doing it all his life.
While he did this, Alice collected dry sticks and managed, after several tries and much repeated instruction from Hatcher, to start a fire. Soon enough the fish was roasting on sticks, and they made a lovely picnic of it with some bread from the village and water from the stream.
Alice hesitated over the bread, not wishing to eat more enchanted food, but Hatcher felt it was of no consequence now. They’d already eaten some, and more would not make a difference, was his reasoning. Alice paused, dithering, suspicious now that she knew the bread was made by magic.
Which is silly, really. You would be thrilled to eat this bread if you made it with your own magic, she thought.
Hatcher noticed her uncertainty and snatched a large chunk off the loaf, shoving it in his mouth and remarking, “If you don’t want it, I’ll eat it.”
Alice ate the bread.
She was still inclined to worry that it might somehow be used against them. In a fairy tale the food would have led them to a witch’s cottage, where the witch in question would imprison them until they were fat enough for eating.
Or else the bread would not be bread at all, only something enspelled to appear as bread. Alice half expected to find not a freshly baked loaf wrapped in a towel in her bag, but a worm-ridden lump of dirt or something equally repulsive. However, the bread had still been bread, and she didn’t know if she was relieved or disappointed.
All the elements of a story are here, Alice thought. The enchanted village, the mysterious creatures in the night. Yet there was something not quite right, some element that didn’t result in the usually expected end.
Alice and Hatcher had escaped without a struggle, without a confrontation of any kind. If Alice’s dream were true, then the reason for this was because she’d insisted they pay for anything they took from the shops.
Somehow, though, she didn’t think it was that simple. Why place a trap—Alice was fairly certain now that was the purpose of the village—and then allow fish to swim out of the net instead of closing it?
“And why did we never see what was causing that light in the desert?” Alice muttered as they packed up their things and started again.
“What was that?” Hatcher asked.
“Nothing,” Alice said. No need to trouble Hatcher with her unsubstantiated worries.
The trees were thicker ahead, and the stream veered away from the easterly course Alice and Hatcher followed.
Hatcher paused as they entered the woods, peering at the ground. “There’s a deer track here. We can follow this for a while.”
“How do you know so much about these things?” Alice asked suspiciously. “About deer trails and fishing and so on. You’ve never left the City in your life.”
Hatcher shrugged. “I don’t know. I just know. The knowledge is there when I need it, like when we escaped the hospital and were trying to find Bess.”
“That, at least, made sense,” Alice said. “You’d been there before. You were only following your nose, so to speak. But this . . .”
“Maybe there’s more to being a Seer than just seeing the future,” Hatcher said. “Maybe I can call on some other power.”
Or maybe, Alice thought, her eyes narrowed, someone is helping you. Someone who was forced out of my head but made no promise to stay out of yours.
She did not say this aloud. She had no proof of Cheshire’s interference, although the relative ease with which they had passed through the desert only increased her suspicion. Cheshire liked to set and clear the chessboard according to his own whims. If it suited him to steer them away from the mysterious light in the desert, then Cheshire would not be above using Hatcher as his tool to do so.
And Hatcher had so much noise in his head that he wouldn’t necessarily notice the presence of another. She would watch him carefully and see whether she could find any trace of Cheshire in his manner.
Hatcher moved along, confident and sure-footed, into the forest, seeming to know precisely where he was going. As for Alice, her unease grew as the trees thickened.
She’d never spent any real time in the woods. The avenues in the City were lined with carefully trimmed branches and rigidly spaced trunks providing the exact amount of shade for strolling nursemaids that pushed prams at midday.
There was a large open park near Alice’s childhood home, but even there the trees were scant, planted here and there in a field of well-kept grass. There was nowhere in the City where the trees pushed close, snagging one’s clothes, thickening the air with the scent of bark and leaves decomposing underfoot. It seemed a wholly alien world to Alice, and not one she was certain she liked.
“It’s so quiet,” she said, and though her voice was barely above a whisper it seemed to fill in the empty space left between the breathing of the trees.
The quiet was oppressive. It gave her a sense that the forest lurked, waiting for its chance to do . . . Well, Alice wasn’t certain what a forest could do, but it didn’t give her a pleasant feeling. She felt she might never see the sky or the sun again. The only roof visible was the arcing canopy of trees twining their arms about one another in an eternal embrace above their heads.
“Yes,” Hatcher said, and his voice was even lower than hers, so faint it was barely distinguishable from the exhalation of his breath. “No birds, no squirrels, not a sign of the deer whose trail we follow.”
Of course now that it was mentioned, Alice noted the lack of twittering and scampering and scurrying, the sorts of sounds you might expect in a forest even if you had never been in one before. But nothing moved except themselves.
“What does it mean?” Alice asked.
“It means,” Hatcher said, and suddenly his axe was in his hand, “that there is a hunter about, and the hunted things have tucked out of sight.”
“But not us,” Alice said, looking around. The shadows were thicker, more sinister, shifting into shapes that may or may not actually be there. “What if we’re what it’s hunting?”
“I’m certain we are,” Hatcher said, his eyes gleaming.
She knew he longed for this, the tension of the hunt, the aching silence before the thrill of blood and mayhem. Alice might understand Hatcher, but she would never understand that need. She fought only when necessary, only when she had to defend her life—or his. She would never revel in the melting of flesh beneath her blade. (Except the Caterpillar’s flesh.)
Well, that was different, wasn’t it? He was keeping those girls captive for his own amusement.
It was sort of funny, Alice mused. She’d thought when she left the City behind she would also leave all the horrors, shed them like that snake sliding out of its old skin that she longed to be. Instead they returned to her over and over, sleeping and waking—the Caterpillar, the Walrus, Cheshire, the Rabbit, and the girls they used and broke, the girls taken screaming from their streets and homes. Girls like Alice was, once.
“Alice,” Hatcher said.
It was only then she noticed that he’d kept going while she’d stopped, gazing into the hole of her past instead of looking for peril in the present. She hurried to his side.
“You’ll be in someone’s stew pot before long if you don’t keep a sharp eye about,” Hatcher said.
Alice nodded, knowing it was true, but also knowing it was as hard for her to stop it as Hatcher’s bloodlust. Sometimes the lure of thought and memory was too much for her, a tug that compelled her away from the world and into her own head. It came, she supposed, from all the years in the hospital, with only her own brain for company aside from Hatcher’s voice through the mouse hole.
Though she did have a vague memory of her mother’s voice, sharp and impatient: “Straighten up and stop dreaming, Alice!”
Yes, she’d been a dreamy child, and the experience of her life had not removed that impulse. Despite the danger that unraveled before them at every turn, Alice seemed unable to keep her mind on what she was doing.
Several minutes passed as Alice and Hatcher walked shoulder to shoulder in the woods. Alice felt the coiled tension pouring off Hatcher. The woods, however, kept their secrets, and she wondered if this was simply a quiet place with no animals. It didn’t have to mean anything sinister because they didn’t see any scampering rodents. (But no birds? Not even the buzz of insects? Nothing?)
Then she heard it.
It was such a small noise it could almost be dismissed as the rustle of leaves in the wind. Except there was no wind. The air was heavy and still, and Hatcher stopped moving, holding up his hand so Alice would do the same.
His grey eyes were hard and alert, and his facial muscles moved ever so slightly, just enough for Alice to receive the message. Behind us.
She’d always been dreamy, but she’d also always been curious, which was why she turned around to look before Hatcher was ready to strike. She gasped, her scream of horror swallowed in shock. There was a thing, a thing she could never have imagined, and it was much nearer than it should have been.
It was directly behind her, long fingers extended and about to brush the place where her nape had been a moment before. Its face was hideously distended, as if the whole skull had been pressed between two blocks and then a child had pulled the nose out long and the chin down to the chest.
Its limbs, too, were unnaturally elongated, though its whole body was drawn into a crouch that put its face at Alice’s eyes. The skin was a mottled green, covered all over by some shiny yellowish substance that oozed. It wore a kind of jerkin composed of patches of skin sewn together, and Alice thought some of those patches looked like human skin.
All this she registered in an instant, and then the smell of it, the reek of decay and death, reached her nostrils and she choked, staggering out of the reach of those long, grasping fingers.
It hissed at her, took a step forward on its oversized feet and reached again. Hatcher spun, swinging the axe so hard and fast Alice felt the brush of air as the blade whistled past her. She squeezed her eyes shut, anticipating the hot splatter of blood splashing over her, the final agonized cry of the thing that had stalked them through the woods.
It did not come.
Alice opened her eyes again to find Hatcher staring in bewilderment at the empty space where the creature had been.
“Where did it go?” She could not disguise her astonishment.
Hatcher never missed. It was a truth as reliable as the rising of the sun and the blue of her eyes. Hatcher never missed once he’d unsheathed his axe and moved with intention. And yet, somehow, he had.
“It disappeared,” he said, then shook his head. “No, that’s not exactly right. It sort of . . . stuttered, I suppose, in front of me and then I didn’t see it anymore.”
The image of the creature was burned in Alice’s eyes, so that it was almost as if the thing stood before her still, fingers grasping for her face now instead of her neck.
“Was it real, do you think?” Her heart pounded in her chest, and she could hear how breathless and fluttery her voice was.
The encounter disturbed her greatly, much more than she would have thought possible given all the horror she had already seen. It would have been a comfort to have the bloodied corpse of the monster at their feet. Then at least Alice would know for certain that it had happened.
Hatcher sniffed the air. “It smelled real enough. I can still smell it.”
“If it was real, what is it? What does it want with us?” Again she was surprised by the intensity of her fear. It looked like something from a childhood tale, a thing that crept out from under the bed in the darkness, a thing that reached its thin, creeping arms over the bed to snatch little girls from their blankets before they had a chance to scream. It looked like a—
“Goblin,” Alice said, remembering a maid called Liesl who’d come from the forest in the high mountains, a long way from the City.
She’d told Alice stories of goblins and of witches with candy houses that lured children, of girls who chopped their feet in two to fit inside a glass slipper.
They were not, Alice reflected, very nice stories, although Liesl claimed they were told to children.
“What’s a goblin?” Hatcher asked.
“Something that’s not supposed to exist,” Alice murmured.
The thing that had been there a moment before still did not seem real. It was easy to accept the presence of magic in the world, and that animals could talk if you knew how to listen to them, and even the idea of a mermaid. It was easy to accept the pleasant and nice things (although magic isn’t always used for pleasant and nice things, is it?), but monsters, especially ones from children’s stories, were somehow more difficult to grasp.
Her mind wanted to slide away from the reality of the goblin, to deny that her eyes had seen what they had seen, to pretend her nose had not smelled what it smelled, to forget the almost-touch of long fingers reaching for her neck.
Alice shook her head, telling herself to stop being foolish. She’d faced and defeated the Jabberwocky—
(Alice)
—and surely this hob would be nothing compared to that.
(I’m still here, Alice.)
There might have been a dark laugh emerging from the roll of dirty clothing at the very bottom of her pack, but Alice refused to hear it.
Hatcher crouched to the ground, inspecting the place where the creature had stood. Alice saw no obvious sign of its presence, nor of the way it had retreated. She remembered her brief glimpse of its long, oversized feet and the protruding blackened toenails. There ought to be footprints or some other kind of mark in the ground from those appendages. But there was nothing. Alice saw Hatcher glance around, then stand and scrub his face in frustration.
“I don’t know what a goblin is, but it sure disappeared bloody quick,” Hatcher said. “If both of us hadn’t seen it I would say we hadn’t seen it.”
He slapped the blunt end of his axe in the palm of his left hand, his eyes searching around the forest. Alice could see the longing in his eyes, the desire to hunt the thing that had slipped away from his blade.
“Come on, Hatch,” she said, with a certainty she did not feel. “If it appears again you can have another go.”
She knew he wouldn’t move unless she did, because he wouldn’t let her walk through the woods unprotected. So she did the thing she did not want to do. She held her chin high and pretended she didn’t feel like a scurrying mouse, like she didn’t want to find the nearest hole and dive into it. She pretended that her heart wasn’t a faint little flutter in her chest, trying to make itself small and unnoticeable. She pretended she wasn’t terrified to look back over her shoulder and see not the carved bones of Hatcher’s face but the distorted ones of the goblin. She pretended, and she led the way.
A moment later Hatcher fell in step beside her and patted her shoulder. “I’ll get it next time. You don’t have to worry.”
“I’m not worried,” Alice said. But she was. Because Hatcher never missed, and this time he had.
They trudged along, both of them lost in their own thoughts. Alice noted the return of birds and chipmunks and little noises from the brush. She even saw a flash of antlers through the trees. Another time she might have pointed in amazement at the sight of a wild deer, but not now.
The fear had suffused her, like a poison that spread from the place where the goblin had almost touched. She felt cold all over, cold in her bones, and her hands shook so hard she closed them in fists in her pockets so that Hatcher would not see.
Alice could not have explained why the goblin scared her so, scared her more than anything else she had seen—more than Cheshire, more than the Walrus, more than even the thing that she was not supposed to think about because she was going to forget it. All she knew was that as the shadows lengthened and the faint sunlight disappeared, she wanted to hide under her cloak until the sun rose again.
Hatcher, however, had a different idea. The darkness drew out the predator in him, and as the creatures of the forest settled into their nests and burrows, his teeth gleamed like a wolf’s.
Alice heard Liesl’s voice in her head, that nurserymaid from long ago who came from the high forests. Grandmother, what big teeth you have.
Hatcher was no wolf in an innocent’s clothing. He was a wolf in a man’s form, a killer forced to pretend that he was civilized. And now, in this raw and uncivilized place, his nature could finally find its full bloom.
She sensed the shift, felt the expectation that built in him. And then she saw the goblin, and felt her heart stutter and her blood halt.
It was just ahead of them, on the path, a silhouette that did not quite fit into the shape of the trees. Alice was faintly surprised she could recognize anything at all with the sun gone. She realized the night was not entirely black, that there were differing qualities of darkness that made monsters loom where once had been only forest.
She squinted, not certain that the goblin was there after all. Perhaps it was only her imagination, and the crooking of a tree branch, for it wasn’t before them now.
Hatcher was muttering beneath his breath as he stalked, a single phrase repeated over and over that grew louder with every step. Alice leaned closer to hear.
“The night is alive and so am I,” he said, and his voice came from somewhere that was not his throat, but deep in his belly. “The night is alive and so am I. The night is alive and so am I.”
Alice felt chill all over at the sound of that voice. I can’t lose him, she thought. Hatcher, stay with me.
She reached for him, not knowing what she would do, not knowing the words to keep him with her, to keep him human.
And then the night was alive.
All around were the sounds of trees expanding against their bark, the flexing of branches, the brushing of leaves against one another. A hissing sound rose, the singing of a thousand snakes. Far behind them was the crashing of something huge, something moving through the wood with dangerous intent. A wolf howled, and then another, and another.
Alice stared around, unsure which threat was most dire. Were the trees about to snatch her from the ground? Would a wolf pack descend on them and tear them to pieces? Or would the goblin arrive to finish its business?
Then a wolf howled very close to her ear. She turned slowly, full of dread, expecting the glint of yellow eyes and sharp white fangs. The only eyes she saw were grey ones, full of blood and mischief, and teeth bared in a murderer’s smile.
“The night is alive, Alice,” Hatcher said. “And so am I.”
She felt a thrill of fear, a fear that surprised her. First, she’d been in a heightened state since the goblin appeared. She didn’t think she could be more scared, but there she was. And second—well, Hatcher had never frightened her before. Not directly. Alice was secure in her certainty that he would never hurt her. Or at least, she had been secure.
Now he looked like the wolf she’d imagined him to be, a wolf once trapped and now free.
“The night is alive, Alice,” he repeated, and he drew his face close to her still one.
She did not move, barely daring to breathe. Her body was still but her mind was moving rapidly through a series of horrifying images, things that might happen to her if Hatcher snapped. Things that involved leaving her on the forest floor in many small and bloodied pieces.
He would regret it tomorrow; of that she was certain. But whatever happened would be done, and Alice would not be there to reprimand him.
The huge crashing thing continued in their direction. Alice heard it approaching, brush and branches giving way before it, the rush of small creatures as they squealed away from its tread. It would crush them in a moment, and it wouldn’t matter if Hatcher had gone mad—or, rather, madder than he was before.
Hatcher seemed not to hear the giant thing. He was listening to something else, something that spoke only to him.
Alice saw movement out of the corner of her eye as the forest broke in pieces before the marauding creature. Several small animals with long tails ran over her feet. It amazed her that even in this moment, when she was fairly certain that she would either have her throat cut or be squashed by a giant, she could think how much she hated rats, and shudder inwardly at the feeling of their tails dragging over the toes of her boots.
Then Hatcher leaned into her face, bit her nose—but gently, very gently—and ran away into the woods.
Alice wanted to be astonished (he left me) but the giant monster was upon her, and now she needed to run too.
She couldn’t possibly follow Hatcher. The darkness had swallowed him too quickly. Away from the path she would get lost; there was no doubt of that. But the other creature, the roaring, crashing monster, was coming straight down the path.
Up, you silly nit.
Alice reached blindly toward the nearest tree, scraped her boots against the bark and pulled herself up, and up, and up. Even a short time ago she wouldn’t have had the strength to do this, but a full belly went a long way, and their adventures had made Alice much fitter than she’d been in the hospital. And fright was a powerful motivator.
All she could think was that she needed to get out of the giant’s reach. She didn’t know how tall it might be—it sounded huge—so she kept going up, ignoring the angry squirrels that chittered at her and the birds that flew off, squawking in irritation. She climbed, sweat beading on her face and making her hands slippery, until her head spun and she knew she could not go any farther.
Alice glanced down, and only then did she realize she was much, much higher than she intended to be. The forest floor was not visible, and the darkness below her seemed an abyss ready to swallow her in its maw.
And the creature, whatever it had been, was gone. The crashing, banging, breaking noise had passed on, fading away from her, and Alice had been so consumed by her terror and shock that she hadn’t noticed.
She was so high her stomach turned sickeningly. What on earth had she been thinking? How was she to get down from this great height? Where had Hatcher run off to, and how would she find him? And what was she to do if she couldn’t find him again? Should she go on without him? Or back to the City?
No, there was no future for her in the City. She knew that. Her family would not be pleased to discover she was alive. And if she did not return to her family, what then? There was only Cheshire, and Alice had no wish to be a cat’s-paw for Cheshire.
She squinted below her, trying to find a safe foothold down. Everything was soft and blurry and impossible to distinguish. Now she realized that there was some faint star and moonlight trickling in through the canopy above, which had allowed her to climb upward with a surety she did not have going down.
Her hands were wrapped around a particularly thick branch, and she thought she might be able to sit on it. Staying in one place seemed the smartest notion. Alice could not see clearly below her, Hatcher was missing and the goblin could be anywhere. Blundering through the wood was about the most foolish thing she could do.
She struggled to pull her whole body up, and once she was there she realized the branch, while thicker than many of the others, was hardly wide enough to accommodate her narrow seat. Her hands trembled as she gripped the branch with her legs like she was astride a horse and tried to find a comfortable resting place against the trunk. It was not comfortable at all, especially with her pack in the way.
Alice twisted her pack so that the straps still went over her shoulders but the pack itself nestled in front of her, like a mother’s pregnant belly. She was taking no chances that she might accidentally drop the pack below, where a certain something she was supposed to forget might fall into strange hands.
Moving the pack only made her uncomfortably aware of the bark scratching the back of her neck, and the fact that she was perched in a tree like some demented bird. She wanted very much for her feet to be on solid ground, where they belonged. She wanted very much for Hatcher to return to her, preferably in a calmer state. She wanted, and she was slightly ashamed to admit it to herself, for their quest to be over.
They were traveling east in search of a vague rumor. Hatcher’s daughter might not be where they thought she was. Jenny might not be alive at all. And if she were alive, who was to say she would remember him, or care? What if Alice and Hatcher were crossing this forest and the mountains and the desert for nothing?
And there was something else too—that conversation that Alice might have heard, or might have dreamed. The conversation of three enormous shadows in the night, who talked of “her,” and the source of the light that Alice and Hatcher had seen as they passed through the scorched land.
Alice found there were too many worries, too many unknowns that may or may not affect their journey. Her sharp fear (of both the goblin and Hatcher) had faded, leaving her drained and exhausted. Her head nodded forward on her chest and she jolted upright, terrified of falling from her insecure perch. She could not drift off to sleep here. It was not safe.
She listened to the settling forest, all the animals and birds and trees quieting down for the night. Her own heart quieted as she peered up at the stars, the few little specks of light that she could see through the leaves. The breeze was cold, and though she was slightly disoriented by their time on the path, she thought it came from the mountains.
It will be cold there, she thought. There is snow on the peaks.
Alice had never seen snow like they got in the northern countries. In the City a few flakes would fall occasionally, hardly enough to blanket the street before turning into a grey, slushy mess. She wondered what it would be like to walk through thick carpets of snow, and perhaps see a snow bear, like in the stories.
A bear that would turn into a prince, she thought, and then smiled sadly to herself. Her prince was not a bear, but a madman. Alice had learned that you could not choose whom to love. If royalty appeared out of nowhere and offered her a future, she would have to turn away from it, because Alice could never love any other but the one with grey eyes and bloodstained hands. Was he thinking of her right now, wondering why she had not followed him? Or was he lost in the thrill of the hunt, not to remember her until morning and regret set in?
She shivered as the wind blew again, and wrapped her arms together, hunching her shoulders.
Cold. So cold.
Her eyelids drifted downward; her breathing was smooth and even. Her eyes snapped open again, and she adjusted herself on the branch. I can’t fall. I can’t fall. I must stay awake.
But it was cold, and the cold made her sleepier than she already was.
Cold. So cold.
Alice stood before a palace made of glass, perched on the highest peak of the highest mountain. Her hands shook so hard she could barely feel them and when she glanced down she saw her fingertips were blue. She could not feel her feet inside her boots, and her teeth clattered together.
The palace glittered in the sunlight, more beautiful than any building Alice had ever seen. But it was a cold beauty, and something was wrong here. Something very wrong. She cocked her head to one side, listening. The wind blew shards into her ear that sang an icy song, but underneath that sound there was something more. A long, high laugh, a woman’s laugh that held no joy.
And there was screaming. The children were screaming.
The sound was so terrible, so full of heartbreak, that Alice grabbed her ears and covered them, trying to block it out, trying to pretend she had never heard such a noise.
The screaming wound inside her ear and up into Alice’s brain, lodging itself there, deep inside so that it permeated her bones and blood and flesh so that she would always hear it, sleeping and waking, as long as the children were screaming.
They were screaming for her.
No, she thought. No.
And she ran, and was heedless of where her steps carried her, and her boots skidded on the ice and she went over the edge of the peak, the highest peak of the highest mountain, and felt herself falling away into nothing, but the screaming followed her all the way down, so that even in death she would not escape those terrible cries.
Her eyes opened, and she was falling, really falling. Despite all her precautions she had drifted off to sleep while perched on the branch and now she would pay for it. She could still hear the screaming from her dream, an echo that followed her into wakefulness.
The wind whistled in her ears. Her back arced toward the ground as her limbs curved upward, grasping for the sky. She had only a moment to brace herself for the hard crash of ground beneath her, for the blossoming of pain as her bones shattered.
But that did not happen. Instead she hit something leathery and tough and very, very smelly, like a sulfurous swamp. She had a glimpse of an enormous face—bulbous green eyes, hairy nostrils under a giant potato nose—and then everything went dark as fingers closed over her and a rumbling voice shouted in triumph, “Got you!”
Her body was breaking now, though not the way she’d expected it to when she was falling. The creature’s grip was crushing her, but more than that she couldn’t breathe. The hideous stink of its skin was overwhelming. She was choking, gagging, and in a moment the hand that held her would snap her ribs and the splintered pieces would pierce her heart and she would be dead.
Hatcher.
It was a thought or a wish or possibly a cry, and she was certain it would be her last.
Then she was able to breathe again, the unbearable pressure gone, but it was hardly reassuring as the monster had opened its hand, grasped her by the ankle, and lifted her to its eye level. Her pack knocked against the back of her head as all the blood rushed from the bottom of her body to the top.
The giant’s eyes narrowed slightly as it observed her. “Well, you are hardly more than a mouthful,” he said. “But you’ll do until I can find your friend.”
The creature’s maw opened, revealing cracked yellow teeth and a large grey tongue. An astonishingly foul odor emitted from its throat, like the inside of the creature’s body was populated with dead things.
This is the last thing I will see in this life, Alice thought, and reflected that death by Jabberwocky would have at least been less disgusting than this.
The bottle with that monster (butterfly) was still in her pack, so at least it would also be digested and Alice could go to her death with a clear heart. She closed her eyes, not wanting to see the inside of the monster’s throat as she slid down, not wanting to know anything else. She hoped it would be quick. She hoped it wouldn’t hurt.
Then, yet again, something unexpected happened, as it always seemed to do to Alice.
As the giant released her and she fell toward its wet grey mouth, she was snatched from her fall by another enormous hand.
“Cod, no!” shouted the second giant, who held Alice by her ankle and shook his hand as he spoke. “You know the rules. You know her law. They’ve done no harm and we are to do no harm in return.”
The giant’s gesticulating made Alice feel that all her organs would soon shake loose and fall out of her mouth, and then where would she be?
Dead, she thought sourly, whether by the will of one giant or the accident of another.
“I’m huuuungry, Pen,” whined the first giant, whom the second giant had called “Cod.” He sounded exactly like a child begging for a lemon ice at the zoo. “It’s been ever so long since we’ve had any human flesh. Not since he started burning everything out of spite. That one and her friend were the only two to pass through in ages. No one wants to cross the plains anymore.”
“No one left to cross the plains anymore,” said the second fellow, who appeared to be called “Pen.”
What curious names these giants have, Alice thought. It was something to think about besides the fact that she was upside down and rocking to and fro with every motion of Pen’s hand.
“But that don’t give you the right to break her laws. She said she’d punish us and you know right well she can and will,” Pen said.
“Don’t see how she could punish us worse than she already has,” Cod muttered.
“I’m sure the Queen has more imagination than you,” Pen said. “A maggot would.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Cod roared.
“It means you’re a selfish cur without the brains of a dog!” Pen shouted back, and Alice was once more subjected to a violent shaking.
All of a sudden she decided she’d had quite enough, thank you. She opened her mouth and emitted a scream so bloodcurdlingly shrill it stopped both the giants dead.
Pen lifted her to his eyes. They were like tremendous boulders in his face; Alice thought she might be only half the height of his nose, and that it might take seven or eight Alices to reach from the bottom of his chin to the top of his head. His face was an almost perfect duplicate of the first giant’s.
“Here, now, what’s all this?” he asked, and he had the temerity to sound insulted.
The constant hanging and shaking and screaming and the threat of imminent death had quite taken Alice’s breath away, but she managed to gasp out, “Turn . . . me . . . over.”
Only then did Pen seem to grasp the distress Alice was in and right her in his palm, his expression somewhat abashed. “Sorry about that, miss. It’s just I was angry at my brother here and forgot I was holding you.”
“Yes, I gathered,” Alice said, attempting to look as though she witnessed arguments between giants all the time and certainly failing as she staggered across Pen’s hand and was forced to sit. She could have stretched out flat with her arms wide and not covered the whole breadth of his palm. “Do you think you would let me down now? I’d feel much better with the ground beneath my feet. Not that your hand isn’t lovely.”
She added this last bit hastily, not wishing to offend the giant and have him decide she was better off in his brother’s gullet after all.
“Of course, of course, miss,” Pen said, lowering his hand toward the ground.
As he did, Alice caught a glimpse of both giants’ faces looming above her—and the gleam of malice in Cod’s eye. Pen appeared to have noticed the same light, for he hesitated when Alice was still several feet from the ground.
Then he said, “What if I were to accompany you for a short way? Perhaps until you rejoin your companion?”
The creature’s formal language was so at odds with its monstrous appearance and the behavior of his brother that Alice nearly laughed aloud. But she didn’t dare. The giant hadn’t released her yet, and his hand was just as large and bruising as the other’s.
“I thank you very much for your kindness, sir,” Alice said, matching her tone to his. “But I would not wish to inconvenience you. If you would point me back to the path, I would be very grateful.”
“Oh, no, it’s no inconvenience at all, miss,” the giant said, and instead of lowering her to the ground he lifted her again, higher and higher—
(And I’ve had quite enough of heights as well.)
—until his palm was level with his shoulder. It was quite clear what he expected Alice to do. She sighed, a very small and almost inaudible sigh, and clambered over his palm to the giant’s rather horny shoulder, gripping one of the protrusions so as not to fall off.
“Right,” said Pen. “You go back to the village now, Cod. Gil’s waiting there for you.”
He showed Cod his fist as he spoke, making it clear what his brother could expect if he didn’t obey.
“What about you?” Cod asked, an ugly grimace twisting his mouth. “Where do you think you’re off to with her?”
“I’ll be along directly, as soon as I assist this lady.”
“I don’t think you are,” Cod said. “I think you’re just keeping her for yourself.”
This thought had already occurred to Alice, and that perhaps Pen would use her to find Hatcher and have two scrumptious mouthfuls for himself, his brothers none the wiser. She’d already resolved to escape the giant as soon as a plan presented itself, although from this height her only real option was to perhaps stand upon the backs of a couple of sturdy crows—always presuming she could get them to cooperate.
Cod lunged for Alice then, his hand swiping out and just missing the tips of her short hair. Pen slugged his brother in the face, a furious crash of knuckle to cheekbone while Alice held on for dear life.
Alice thought that Cod would retaliate for certain, but instead the other giant’s great green eyes filled with tears.
“Whatja do that for?” he sobbed, holding one hand to his injured cheek. “Whyja do that?”
“Now, now,” Pen said soothingly, patting Cod’s shoulder. “There’s no need for all this fuss. You brought it on yourself, you know. Go on back to Gil now.”
Alice thought he seemed a bit embarrassed by his brother’s outburst. He peeked at Alice out of the corners of his eyes, as if checking to see how much attention she was paying.
“You didn’t have to hit me,” Cod said.
“Well, you weren’t listening. Go on. I’ll be along soon enough.”
Cod moved away, shoulders hunched, sniffling and sobbing. Even though he had just tried to eat her, Alice felt suddenly sorry for him. He looked small and pathetic for all that his head nearly reached the tops of the trees, and while Alice had no wish to be a meal herself, she could well understand the desperate hunger that had driven Cod to act as he had.
“I’m sorry you had to witness that, miss,” Pen said, peering down his nose at Alice perched on his shoulder. His breath was just as foul as his brother’s. Alice fought the impulse to cover her nose as he spoke.
“That’s quite all right,” Alice said, trying and failing to speak without inhaling. “And there is no need to call me ‘miss.’ My name is Alice.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Alice,” Pen said, and held up one giant finger for her to shake.
Alice did so, thinking that she had been in many extraordinary situations since she and Hatcher had broken free from the hospital but this, somehow, was the most extraordinary of all—nearly eaten by one giant and saved by another with better manners than most people in the City.
“Now,” Pen said, and he thankfully turned his head away from Alice (who took great lungfuls of air as surreptitiously as possible). “You wanted to return to the path, is that right?”
“Yes,” Alice said. “I need to find Hatcher again.”
The giant moved forward in great lumbering steps, and Alice felt the bottom drop out of her stomach. It was not a very pleasant way to travel, she reflected as she wrapped both arms around one of the giant’s horns and prayed fervently not to fall off. She would be crushed by one of Pen’s feet before he realized what happened.
“You got yourself far afield,” Pen said.
“Your brother was chasing me,” Alice said drily.
“Ah,” Pen said. “Yes, of course. That would happen.”
He fell silent, seemingly brooding on something. Now that the threat of immediate death had passed, Alice found herself fretting about Hatcher. It wasn’t like him to leave her behind. His behavior had been so strange last night, far stranger than usual. It was as if he’d been seized by some power not his own, some temptation too powerful to overcome.
Indeed, for a moment Alice had the odd thought that she’d seen a wolf’s yellow eyes in his face rather than Hatcher’s grey ones. But that was silly, and probably a trick of the moonlight. Probably.
Whatever the reason, he had left her. And while she could comprehend a brief madness overcoming him, she couldn’t understand Hatcher not returning once that madness had passed. Which meant that something must have happened to him, something that would prevent his return.
Alice remembered the goblin, its long fingers reaching for her hair, and shivered. What if the goblin had gotten Hatcher? “Gotten” was all she could allow herself to think, because a world in which Hatcher was dead was not a world she wanted to live in. There was no future for Alice if Hatcher wasn’t in it, and so she must extricate herself from the admittedly polite and helpful clutches of this giant and find him.
Even if it means facing the goblin again?
She deliberately moved away from thoughts of that creature and seized on something the giants had said.
“Pen,” Alice said. “Who is the Queen?”
Pen shuddered all over when Alice said “Queen,” an involuntary spasm.
“The White Queen,” he said, and his voice was low, almost furtive, as if he feared being overheard. “This is all her land hereabouts, from the village at the edge of the plain to the top of the mountain.”
“And at the top of the mountain,” Alice said, almost as if she were in a dream, “there is a palace made of ice, and the walls echo with the sound of children screaming.”
The giant gave Alice a startled glance. “I don’t know anything about that, Miss Alice. I’ve never been to her palace. Me and my brothers stay here in the forest, for that’s where she told us to stay.”
“Or she will punish you. More than she already has,” Alice said, and the question in her voice was an invitation.
Pen was silent for a moment. Alice dearly hoped he was not about to grab her and smash her against a tree for being impertinent. Then the giant sighed, a long sigh of such misery and exhaustion that Alice wished, somehow, that she could relieve his burden.
“My brothers and I,” Pen began, studiously looking ahead and not at Alice, “we were not always as we seem to you now. We were human once, just like you. Nothing but boys, really, though we had the appearance of men. We all shared the work of a farm at the edge of the plain, quite near the place where the village is now. Our mother passed on when Cod was born, and our father followed when he was twelve, so you really must forgive him.”
Pen turned earnest eyes toward Alice and she received a blast of horrid breath again. “For he never had a mother, and Gil and me could only do our best after Da passed on. I’m afraid we let him run a bit wild.”
This, of course, was a completely inadequate reason for trying to eat a person whole, but Alice took it in the spirit of apology that it was given and nodded for Pen to continue (and to return his attention to the path before she passed out from breathing his fetid air).
“Well, for a few years after Da died we kept the farm as best we could. Gil and me worked side by side with Da since we could walk, but we didn’t really understand about getting a fair price for our crops and all—Da had always gone to the market on his own while we stayed home to tend the animals and Cod. You likely know what happened next. It’s a common enough story. When we brought our crops to market the folk there saw we didn’t know what we were about and took advantage. And every year we had less money than the one before, less feed for the animals, less wood to repair the roof and the barns. Finally, there were no animals at all, for we sold them, and then the furniture, and finally the land. If our da was alive he would have wept in shame, for that land had been part of our family more generations than you could count.”
Then your da ought to have taught you better how to keep it, Alice thought tartly, instead of keeping all that knowledge to himself.
She felt desperately sorry for those three boys, parentless, starving, only doing the best they could and failing at that. And still she knew the worst was yet to come, for she rode the shoulder of a malformed giant instead of walking alongside a man.
“When we lost the farm I went out looking for work, but since I had no trade there was no work for me, though I was more than willing to learn and to put my back into the day. But time and again I was turned away.
“Then, one day, I’d had enough of begging and pleading and was ready to go back to my brothers and propose we cross the plains and try to find work in the City. My da always said the City was no fit place for a human, but we were already living like dogs, sleeping out in the open, begging for scraps from the kindhearted. Just when I’d made the decision to tell my brothers we’d go to the City, a man tapped at my shoulder.
“He told me he’d heard me asking for work and said he might have a job for me. Well, Miss Alice, this fellow looked too good to be true, and what he offered was too good to be true too, though I was too foolish to see it at the time. I thought him a heaven-sent angel, though you’d never seen anyone who looked less like an angel.
“He was tall and thin, though a crook in his back made him appear shorter, and his face was just as long and bony as the rest of him. He was dressed like a lord in silks and velvets, and in one of his hands he had a bag of gold—a bag of gold for me if I only agreed to what he asked. I should have turned and run from him soon as I saw his hands. Unnatural, they were, the fingers twice as long as they ought to be.”
Long fingers reaching for her hair, almost brushing through it.
“The goblin,” Alice said. It burst from her mouth without warning.
“So you know him, then,” Pen said. “I’m not surprised, though I am surprised he didn’t stuff you in a sack and take you to the Queen. You’re just the sort he likes, with that golden hair, even as short as it is.”
Alice did not ask what the goblin did with “the sort he likes.” She had seen enough in the City of what men—and monsters—did with girls they took away.
“At any account,” Pen continued, “he was in disguise then, though he couldn’t hide those hands no matter how much glamour she put over him. He offered me the gold, and a cottage to live in here in the forest, and all my brothers and I could wish to eat.”
“And what did you have to do?” Alice asked.
“Patrol the wood and make sure no one poached from the Queen’s herd of white deer. It seemed easy enough. Not many hunted here, and few ever saw a white deer. I’d killed an ordinary deer or two myself in my time, when one had wandered onto our farm. We would eat well then,” Pen said, and his voice faded away into a place of pleasant reminiscence.
Alice imagined him remembering sitting around the table with his brothers, back when their hands and teeth were small, a platter of meat piled high between them.
She was reluctant to interrupt those memories, partly out of politeness and partly because she thought she knew how the story would end. It seems too sad that one small mistake could change the course of one’s future, she thought and then realized she might easily be thinking of herself. One different choice, a choice to stay home like a good girl instead of following Dor to a place where she was not supposed to go, and her life would have been something entirely different.
She might be married now to someone respectable and approved, someone whose eyes never gleamed like a wolf’s but who never made her blood race, either. She might live on a clean little lane where cherry blossoms bloomed on the trees and golden-haired children played in the garden, turning blooms into butterflies and terrifying their mother.
“As you may guess, Miss Alice,” Pen said, his rumbling voice bringing her back to the here and now, “I took that goblin’s gold and his cottage and promised to keep the poachers away from the Queen’s white herd. My brothers came to live with me and for a time we were happy and content.
“Content, that is, until Cod saw the white stag drinking from the stream that runs down from the mountain. He was out on a walk one day, not hunting or doing anything in particular, and he saw the king of the herd. He told us the stag’s hide gleamed like the moon in winter, and that it had looked on him without fear, such as no other animal ever had.
“From that day forth he spoke of nothing but the animal he’d seen, how such a creature was suffused with enchantment and how anyone who ate the flesh of the stag would gain its power. He’d never spoken like that before, about enchantments and magic and such, and his talking frightened us. Nothing Gil or I said or did turned his mind from the stag. He started to waste away in his obsession, wanting no food unless it was the meat of the white stag, and no drink unless it was that animal’s blood.
“Still, we thought the madness would pass. It seemed impossible that it would not, for you have to understand, Miss Alice, that none of us had ever seen real magic before.
“Of the three of us, Cod was the only one who had seen even one member of the herd. I walked these woods from dawn to dusk and never saw so much as a sliver of white in the trees. So we thought he would forget, for how could it be that he was so cursed as to see the animal twice?
“One night, as Gil and I snored away on our mats, Cod rose up and went out into the forest. I would hardly have thought he’d have the strength for such exertions, for no morsel of food had passed his lips for seven days, and the only water was that which we’d forced him to drink. We had not anticipated, though, the strength his obsession gave him, the way his need drove him out to fill the hole in his heart.
“Me and Gil woke only when Cod returned at dawn, the white stag slung over his shoulders, his hands and mouth soaked in blood.
“‘What have you done?’ I cried, but it was too late. She appeared, her horrible creature beside her, and I tell you, Miss Alice, it was almost as though they expected it to happen—or worse, had hoped for it, though I don’t know what purpose it would serve other than her own cruel amusement.
“She cursed Cod into a deformed giant for the crime of killing her stag, and she cursed Gil and me for not stopping him.”
“That hardly seems fair,” Alice said. “You were asleep when he left, and anyway had warned him many times before.”
“I don’t think fair comes into it. The White Queen, she wanted three giants in her wood, and she was going to make certain she got them.”
“Then why not turn three snails into giants and be done with it? Why all of these machinations?” But even as Alice asked she knew the answer. Why did any Magician do such things? For their own pleasure, as when Cheshire had set her and Hatcher against his maze, or to fulfill some ancient and unknowable law of magic. Or simply because the Queen had wanted to see what would happen if she tricked three farmers into breaking her rules.
“The worst of the curse isn’t even looking like this,” said Pen, gesturing at his body. “It’s the craving.”
Alice shifted a little, her hand automatically reaching for the little knife Bess had given her so long ago, in the heart of the City. It wasn’t there.
A little spurt of panic jolted through her. It must have fallen from her pocket when Cod or Pen dangled her upside down. She was fortunate, really, she hadn’t lost the pack (and the Jabberwocky) too, but without the knife she felt vulnerable. That little blade had done more than its fair share of work defending Alice’s life, and what magic she knew how to use was hardly adequate for a dangerous situation.
Pen grunted, and Alice realized he’d been silent for a long time, almost as if he’d been waiting for her to ask about the “craving” he mentioned.
As soon as he’d said that, though, Alice had thought of her knife. She’d thought of the knife because she didn’t need Pen to tell her what he craved. Cod had nearly eaten her, after all.
“It never goes away,” Pen said. “It doesn’t matter how many sheep or deer or fish I stuff in my gullet. I never feel properly full unless I’ve eaten some travelers.”
Alice looked at the nearest tree branches, tried to gauge whether she could leap from Pen’s shoulder to a tree without plummeting to the ground.
Pen, correctly interpreting Alice’s movements, held out his hands in reassurance. “But you have nothing to fear from me, nothing at all. For the White Queen’s laws say we can only have the wicked—murderers and poachers and thieves. And you and your man, you were the first folk to pass through the village who paid for what you took. So we weren’t allowed to eat you and Cod knew that. He’s just never been able to help himself, when he sees something he wants.”
Pen trailed off, seemingly aware that this explanation hardly sufficed.
“And the Queen will punish you all if one of you breaks her laws again,” Alice said.
“Cod says he doesn’t know what she could do worse than she’s already done, but I’m sure she could think of something.”
“She might kill you next time,” Alice said.
“Death would be a relief, Miss Alice, and that’s the truth,” Pen said. “I’ve been alive for about eight hundred years, I’d say. In all that time I tried throwing myself off high cliffs and sinking to the bottom of the lake and even slashing my own throat.”
He pointed to a thick scar Alice hadn’t noticed. It ran like a giant ridge from the top of one collarbone to the other.
The wound must have been fearsome, Alice thought. Or he tried more than once.
“It doesn’t matter how much I bleed or break,” Pen said. “She’ll never let me—let any of us—die until she’s done with us.”
Alice felt anger, quick and hot, in her veins. This White Queen was no different from the Caterpillar or the Rabbit or Cheshire, using people for sport. And she is certainly a Magician, as is the goblin.
Alice’s path was leading her to the Queen just as it had led her to the Jabberwocky. Hatcher had seen a vision of what he called “Lost Ones,” and Alice dreamed of a palace filled with children’s screams. Yes. She was going to the Queen.
She was going to the Queen and she would try to free the children, and perhaps, too, she could free Pen and Gil and Cod. Though how she was to do such things, she did not know. She didn’t have her knife or her Hatcher, and she had some magic but no notion of how to use it.
Still, Alice knew she must try. Just as she must find Hatcher and they must find Jenny and then, at long last, perhaps they could find peace and a quiet place to live a quiet life.
“Pen, where are you going? Are we back to the path now?” Alice thought they must be, for though she had run ziggetty-zaggetty through the wood, she didn’t think she’d run this far, and a giant’s steps were much longer than her own.
Pen paused, scratching his head. “Well, Miss Alice, to tell the truth, I’ve been following my nose. I caught the scent of your friend and thought I would deliver you to him with a bow on, so to speak, but now . . .”
He trailed off, sniffing the air and shaking his head. “I’ve lost it.”
“He disappeared?” Alice asked.
“No,” Pen said slowly. “More like his smell got mixed up with something else, but I can’t tell what.”
“Well,” Alice said, still feeling slightly like a meal-in-waiting despite Pen’s assurance otherwise. “I appreciate all you have done, and tried to do, for me. Perhaps it’s best if you leave me here. I’m certain I can find him on my own.”
In truth, Alice felt no such certainty, but she wished to be about walking on her own two feet again and to feel once more like her own mistress. Besides, while Pen seemed kind enough and probably would not eat her, there was no guarantee he wouldn’t hand her over to the goblin or the White Queen if ordered to do so.
Alice knew she would have to face the Queen, but she wished to face her as an equal, not a prisoner.
“Oh, I couldn’t do that, Miss Alice,” Pen said. “This forest is much larger than you think. You could wander for hours without finding your friend. But me, I know these trees backward and forward. I’ll get you to him, right enough.”
And that, Alice reflected, was that. She couldn’t get off Pen’s shoulder without assistance, and the only assistance he seemed willing to provide was the kind she didn’t want.
Still, she supposed she could let him help for a time. Sooner or later he would wish to return to his brothers and then he would leave her alone. She hoped. Everything here looked the same to Alice anyway. She’d no idea how Pen could tell one part of the forest from another.
After a while the gentle rocking side to side lulled Alice into sleep. For once, she did not dream, so when she awoke she was quite startled to discover it was dark, and she was no longer on Pen’s shoulder but cradled in his hand.
“You nearly fell to your death, Miss Alice,” Pen said. “Lucky thing I caught you in time. I’ve never seen anyone sleep so soundly.”
“I was tired,” Alice said, stretching her arms overhead.
She ought to feel alarmed, she supposed, by her brush with death, but mostly she felt refreshed. Alice couldn’t recall when she’d last slept without dreams. It was a lovely feeling to wake up without the tangled edges of clinging nightmares.
“Where are we now?” Alice asked.
“Near the place where the forest ends and the mountain begins. There is a village at the foot of the mountain, about a day’s walk. But I can go no farther,” Pen said.
“Because of the Queen?” Alice asked.
“No,” he said, and some quality in his voice made Alice sit up straighter in alarm. “My brothers are calling me.”
She peered closely at his face, trying to make out whether he was thinking of eating her or not, but all she could see was the gleam of starlight reflected in his enormous eyes.
“I wanted to get you back to your man, but I walked all over these woods and couldn’t catch the smell of him again. I’ve never known someone to disappear like that here. I’ve never lost a man under my own nose.”
“You said yourself the forest is larger than one expects.”
“Yes, but it’s my forest,” Pen said. “No one knows these trees like me, every root and leaf and branch. If he was here, I’d have found him. That means he’s not here.”
Alice shook her head. “You don’t know Hatcher. He’s . . . not like other people.”
“Not talking about his manner. Talking about his smell. He had a smell, and then he didn’t. So unless he changed into something else, he isn’t here.”
Alice deemed it wiser not to argue, and wiser still not to pursue the thought that Hatcher “changed into something else.” She’d wanted the giant to let her go, and now that he would finally comply she shouldn’t hold him here quarrelling about Hatcher.
“Well,” Alice said rather pointedly. “I thank you, very kindly, for all you have done for me, Pen.”
She waited, but Pen did not lower her to the ground as she expected. He seemed to have fallen into a kind of fit, seeing and hearing nothing. “Pen?”
“My brothers are calling me,” he said, and his voice was low and singsongy and his eyes were very far away. “The night is alive and so am I.”
There is something very wrong with these woods. Alice thought she must be the only creature to pass through them without falling under their influence, quite possibly because she found nothing enchanting in rows of trees that crouched over one, almost as if their branches might reach down and grasp you by the neck.
“Pen, you can put me down now,” Alice said, very quietly. She didn’t want to startle him out of his trance. Her gentle tone seemed to pierce the fog, and he lowered his hand to the ground.
For a moment Alice felt the ground was rising up to snatch her from the air, just as she’d felt about the trees, and when the ground touched her feet she would discover it wasn’t solid at all. She would slip into it like sand, like water, and the earth would cover her head and draw her deep into its heart, never to let go.
Pen’s fingers touched the ground with a soft thump. Alice put her feet on the forest floor for the first time in more than a day, and as her boot touched the solid firmness of the ground she shook away her odd little visions of being swallowed into the earth.
Really, Alice, and you were just thinking with some pride that this place wouldn’t affect you. It was best not to let strange fancies take hold. The real world was quite frightening enough without adding her imagination to it.
Alice glanced about and found that Pen had deposited her practically on the doorstep of a crumbling stone cottage.
“It isn’t much,” Pen said. “But you’ll have a roof above your head and four walls around you, and that will keep you safe from most things here.”
Alice thanked him once more. Pen nodded, just the movement of a darker shadow against the black cloak of night, and then disappeared into the woods, the tremendous form making hardly a sound.
And here I am again. Alone in the woods, in the dark, no Hatcher, no knife, no notion of where to go from here.
She surveyed the cottage with chagrin. “There’s probably a nest of vermin in there.”
Pen had doubtless meant it kindly, but the tumbledown structure hardly qualified as “four walls.” The only other option, however, seemed to be another night spent perched in a tree branch, and Alice had experienced quite enough of falling toward certain death.
So with much trepidation and certainty of discomfort if not danger, Alice pushed open the door of the cottage. And blinked.
Inside, the floor was washed, the fire crackled merrily in the hearth and the table was set with covered dishes. The smell of roast chicken and potatoes wafted toward her as she stood frozen in the doorway.
Alice stepped back, on to the small stoop, and surveyed the building again. It still appeared to be a run-down and apparently uninhabited fieldstone cottage. The door swung shut, hiding the vision inside.
The forest has got inside your brain, Alice. When you open the door, it will all be just as you expected, some broken furniture and an empty hearth and a dirty mat inhabited by mice and flies.
Alice closed her eyes, pushed open the door and looked again. The fire hungrily devoured wood. The aroma of chicken and potatoes was tinged with fresh baked bread and something . . . Alice sniffed the air, like Pen, like Hatcher, like a dog that’s caught hold of something good. Cake. She walked toward the platters, hand outstretched, abruptly aware of the gnawing deep in her belly, and the only food that could stop it was under those covers.
Her hand grasped the lid and lifted it partway, revealing just a hint of pink and blue and yellow, layers of frosting twice the thickness of her wrist.
She let the lid drop with a clatter.
Only a fool wouldn’t notice the enchantment on this cottage. Thanks to Pen she knew for certain a Magician ruled here, one who called herself a queen and kept a goblin at her beck and call and turned human men into man-eating giants for some secret reason of her own. If the Queen had not set this enchantment, then some creature of hers had.
Alice and Hatcher had wriggled out of her trap once. Had Pen brought Alice here on the Queen’s orders? Or had he simply thought he was doing her a good turn by finding her shelter from the night, and he knew nothing of the spell on the cottage?
It didn’t matter, really, Alice supposed. She was not a mouse to be tempted by a piece of cheese. There was plenty of food in her pack. She did not need the Queen’s cake.
Nor did she need the crisp white sheets and down quilt made up on the bed in the corner. Alice had her own (scratchy wool) blanket and had slept in places worse than a clean stone floor.
As long as she didn’t accept hospitality, she thought she would be safe enough. Pen had invited her to use the four walls and a roof and so she would, and it was probably all right to sleep by the fire, as it was already set.
The bread from her pack was dry and stale. Alice tried to work up some enthusiasm for it, the same enthusiasm she’d had when she and Hatcher had entered the baker’s in the village on the edge of the plain. But the chicken and the potatoes, and yes, the cake—Alice had always loved cake too much—had lodged inside her nose and wouldn’t leave.
You don’t need any cake. It was cake that got you in trouble with the Rabbit. You were too young then but you know better now.
“Just because something is there and you want it doesn’t mean you have to take it,” Alice said aloud. Her voice was not nearly as strong and sure as she would have liked.
She took a sip of warm, musty water from the small skin in her pack. Somehow her throat felt drier than before, but Alice determinedly turned away from the offerings at the table.
She walked about the cottage, blowing out all the candles, careful not to touch anything, careful not to give even the momentary impression that she was using any object other than wood for the fire.
And I’ll collect more in the morning to replace it. That’ll put a bee in her bonnet.
She was quite certain all of this was the Queen’s doing, and equally certain that her pleasure came from cruelty. Nothing good would come of letting such a person have her own way.
Alice wondered briefly what the Queen’s interest was in her, and then decided it probably had nothing to do with Alice specifically. The White Queen seemed to keep a close eye on her forest. Alice and Hatcher had passed into it, and through the village trap unscathed. The Queen’s interest was roused; that was all.
(or the goblin’s)
No, Alice would not think of the goblin. For reasons she did not fully understand, the goblin terrified her. She spread her blanket before the fire, put her pack under her head and wrapped the ends of the blanket around herself.
Alice was not even a little bit tired, having just had a very refreshing sleep in Pen’s hand. She stared at the shadows flickering on the ceiling, not wanting to move around the cabin and do something she did not mean to do, like eat the meal set at the table.
Now that there were no giants and no goblins and no immediate danger for a change, she realized something startling. This was the first moment that Alice had been alone—really, completely alone—for the first time in ten years. It was entirely possible that it was the first time she’d been alone in her entire life. She strained for a single childhood memory that didn’t include at least one other person—a governess, a maid, her parents, her sister, Dor—
(the Rabbit the Walrus the Caterpillar Cheshire)
(a goblin in the woods)
(Hatcher)
A lump formed in her throat and she determinedly turned to one side. She would not cry just because Hatcher was gone. She wasn’t a little girl anymore—
(little girl lost in the woods)
—and she would just have to find him and there was no need to cry about it, no need to cry—
(Hatcher was always with me. Always)
—because he had run away and left her alone in the woods.
The tears ran over her cheeks and nose and she did not wipe them away, because to do that would be to acknowledge that she was crying in the first place.
She would not think about the tears or Hatcher or the creeping, creaking noise outside the cottage. She would not think that it sounded like the trees were curling down to the roof, that their branches would break the panes of glass on the window or sneak under the door where the wind whistled.
Tomorrow she would find Hatcher, never mind what Pen said about knowing the whole forest and still not sniffing out a trace of Alice’s beloved,
(Yes, my beloved, but that’s my secret.)
She would find Hatcher. She would, and that was all. And after that they would continue to the desert to the East, to finish what they’d set out to do, to find Jenny. But in between them and Jenny was that mountain, and on top of the mountain was the Queen, and the Queen would not, could not, let them pass without paying a price. Alice knew that must be true, for she’d yet to meet a Magician who didn’t extract his price in blood or gold or power from everyone they met.
Worry about what’s coming when it comes, she thought, and found the shape of a spiky-leafed flower in the fire, a flower she’d noticed growing in the undergrowth outside. The flower became one star, then two. The points of the stars turned into teeth, the teeth of a bear’s open maw; then the teeth became the clawed paw, slashing toward her face. She felt strangely apart from this, that the claws would tear her eyes from her head but it was all right. It wouldn’t hurt.
“Alice?”
Alice struggled up, her eyes seemingly stuck shut.
(Or maybe gone altogether, taken by a bear and his claws.)
She thought she’d heard someone calling her name.
“Alice?”
A little voice, followed by a scrabbling sound like fingernails scratching at a windowpane.
“Alice? I’m scared.”
Alice rubbed her face, forced her pasted eyes open. The cottage was dark, the fire nothing more than a few yellow-grey coals. The room was cold, colder than ice and snow and a winter Alice had never known except in her dreams.
She pulled the blanket tighter around her shoulders and peered into the darkness. She squinted at the fogged window, trying to make out any shape outside but half afraid that she might actually see one. Nothing that was at your window in the dead of night could be a good thing.
“Alice?”
The voice again, a little girl’s, so small and frightened. This time it sounded from under the door.
“Alice? Let me in. It’s so cold out here.”
Alice could see her breath, crystals of frost making a dark cloud in a room of shadows, and felt the ice forming on her eyelashes.
“Alice!” the girl called again, insistent, compelling Alice to come to the door, to let her in.
She was on her feet before she knew what she was doing, stepping tentatively toward the door, her hand outstretched and her mind not quite present. She was nearly there when her bootlaces, half undone, seemed to reach for each other, tangling together, running under her soles, making her fall to the floor and slam her forehead painfully against the perfectly smooth planks. She raised her head, felt an ugly lump forming, but knew she wouldn’t open the door now, no matter what sounded outside.
“ALICE!” the girl said, and she was screaming now, the sound of fingernails at the door frantic, her voice desperate, and it sounded exactly like Dor’s.
Exactly like Dor’s voice when they were small. Alice’s wonderful friend Dor, who became a woman who sold her best friend away to a monster. And of course it couldn’t be Dor, because Alice and Dor were not little friends in pinafores skipping and singing and holding hands anymore. They were all grown-up, and Dor was dead. Hatcher had cut off her head and Alice had watched it roll away and felt nothing.
But now there was this noise at the door, this scrabbling and scratching and screaming, this nonsense meant to draw Alice from the cottage where she was safe and out into the night where she would be scooped up or cut up or changed into something horrible to make the White Queen happy.
“You’ll have to do better than that,” she muttered, and turned her back to the door.
The scratching stopped.
The creaking of trees had also ceased, and so had the wind whistling under the door. There was nothing now except a blanket of silence, terrifying in its completeness. All things in these woods obeyed the Queen. They bent to her will. Alice knew then that the trap was not the village, but the whole forest. Once in the Queen’s land there would be no escape except by that lady’s leave.
And yet there was no fear in Alice, only a sense of waiting. She wanted to see what the Queen would do next.
“Alice?”
That voice, that dear voice. Hatcher.
Fists pounded at the door. “Alice, I know you’re in there. Let me in.”
It was as if the Queen had reached inside Alice’s body and was squeezing her heart, tighter and tighter in her cold white fist.
It couldn’t be Hatcher. How would he find her? How could he know she was within these four enchanted walls? She hadn’t walked here, but been carried. He couldn’t have tracked her footsteps, and if Hatcher had seen her being carried by a giant, he certainly would have done something about it.
No, it wasn’t Hatcher. She was sure it wasn’t Hatcher. It was another trick.
A wolf howled out in the forest, and then another.
“Alice? Enough of this—let me in,” Hatcher-Not-Hatcher said. “There are wolves.”
“Hatcher isn’t afraid of wolves,” Alice said, and now her voice sounded small, as small as Dor’s had, like she was a little girl in a pinafore hiding from the monster under the bed. “Hatcher isn’t afraid of anything.”
She said this because it was true, and because she needed to believe it. Because otherwise she was standing on this side of the door while the one person in this world who cared about her was on the other side with the howling, barking, snarling wolves that were getting closer every moment.
“Alice, open this door. They’re coming,” Hatcher-Not-Hatcher said, and now he sounded scared, and that was when Alice was sure, just absolutely sure that it wasn’t him, because Hatcher never sounded scared, not ever.
(But he might if there were wolves. If he thought he was going to be eaten by wolves.)
“It’s not him,” she said. “It’s not.”
The wolves and their screaming drew closer, and Hatcher-Not-Hatcher’s pounding continued. He kicked with his boots and he banged with his fists and he shouted and shouted and then suddenly there was a yelp, and the sounds of Alice’s beloved crying out her name as wolves rent his flesh from his bones, as their canine teeth tore him limb from limb.
She covered her ears and crouched down to the floor and put the blanket over her head, rocking to and fro and whispering, “It’s not him, it’s not him, it’s not him.”
Outside the wolves barked and growled and tore and ate, and Alice pressed her fists into her ears and wouldn’t hear them.
After a long time it seemed like the noise had stopped but she didn’t want to look; she didn’t want to hear; she didn’t want to know. She stayed under the blanket all night long, and hoped that it wasn’t because she was a coward.
When she saw the first shafts of sunlight through the thin weave of the blanket, she lifted the cloth from her head. Her pack was still by the fire, imprinted with the shape of her head. The food on the trays no longer gave off its tempting smells. As Alice looked, one of the tray covers seemed to move, almost as if something alive was beneath it.
She would not look. It was another trick, another kind of temptation. Alice knew well, better than anyone, the dangers of curiosity. If she lifted that tray, there would be a plate of squirming maggots instead of a roast chicken and a nest of spiders instead of bread. She would not look.
And she thought, with just a touch of contempt, that the White Queen was really quite predictable. Or perhaps it was simply that Alice herself was no longer helpless, and that she had become better at negotiating the dangers of this world.
She slowly repacked her bag, then glanced at the charred wood in the fire. She’d promised herself she would replace it, but Alice didn’t think she would want to reenter this cottage once she’d left it.
Her own magical ability was something she hadn’t spent very much time thinking about since her rather pathetic attempt at making food out of sand. But she didn’t want to change one thing to another here, just turn the wood from burned back to unburned.
She knelt before the fire, and touched the scrap of wood there. “Make a wish, Alice,” she whispered.
(I wish that you would come back to me, Hatcher.)
(Come back to me.)
(Come back to me.)
“Come back to me,” she said aloud, and to her wonder and surprise the charred bits in the fireplace seemed to grow before her very eyes, to become something they had not been a moment before—whole, and untouched. As they grew, the air inside the cottage seemed briefly to grow as well, to puff up like a balloon, to fill all the space more than it had before. Then it abruptly stopped, like it had been popped by a needle, and there was a sound like an angry exhale.
The trays on the table rattled in earnest for one moment, and then were silent.
Alice placed the tip of one finger on one of the logs, just to be certain it wasn’t an illusion. A splinter slid beneath her skin, quick like the strike of a snake, and she yanked her finger back, sucking at the sore place.
“I suppose it’s real enough, then,” she said, and felt a little glow of pride.
She had done a spell, real magic like a real Magician, and she had outlasted the Queen and her horrors in the night.
A drop of blood from Alice’s finger stained the splinter protruding from the wood.
Don’t leave that.
It wasn’t her own thought but a voice that wasn’t quite there, floating in the room, a whisper that should not be.
Alice felt a flash of anger, anger that Cheshire was still following her somehow despite the connection she’d snapped between them, anger that he was still trying to interfere. She stood, shouldering her pack, determined not to do anything he wanted her to do.
Don’t LEAVE that!
The whisper was now annoyed. The voice clearly said it was annoyed at her behavior, at her stupidity, and this was her last chance not to be a silly nit, as far as the voice was concerned.
I’m not stupid. Alice stared at the bloodstained splinter, wavering between an admittedly childish desire to deny the voice what it wanted and a sudden understanding of why it was dangerous to leave some of her blood behind.
Blood was a little bit of yourself, a little piece that someone with magical powers might be able to take and use. After spending a long night resisting the assorted enchantments on this place, it would be very foolish indeed for Alice to walk through the door without the splinter.
She carefully tore a small strip of cloth from the bottom of her shirt and wrapped it around her fingers. Then she pulled off the bit of wood. It grew much larger than the initial splinter as Alice peeled it off until she had something more like a wooden dagger than a splinter. Still, there was none of her blood left in the fireplace. She shoved the piece of wood into her pack and finally left the cottage.
She’d half expected to discover the ragged bones of a person torn apart by wolves, but of course there was nothing. The sun filtered weakly through the trees, never seeming to really brighten the forest floor.
It always seems to be almost-night here, Alice thought. She longed to feel the sun full on her face—though not the way she had while crossing the burned plains, she considered. There must be some step in between scorching and shadow.
As she pulled the cottage door closed behind her, Alice noticed deep scratches on the wood, as if made by long fingers scrabbling all night long.
The goblin, she thought. He’d been the one outside while she huddled inside. He’d been the one pretending to be Dor and Hatcher and a pack of wolves. The goblin, with his long, long fingers reaching for her hair. She shuddered and moved away from the little building, tumbling down again now that she was no longer in it.
But why, Alice wondered, was he not able to enter the cottage? Why try to draw me out?
There were so many things Alice didn’t understand about this forest. In the City there had been guides and guideposts, Bess and Cheshire and the other Magicians. There had been a clear beginning and a clear end to their journey. Now she and Hatcher were supposed to be looking for Jenny, but they’d both gotten lost in the woods. All she wished was to find Hatcher and to be free of this place, and sometimes in her very secret heart she wished not to look for Jenny anymore, either. She wanted to rest, to find a place where terror was not always at their heels.
Alice struck out east—at least she hoped it was east—toward the mountain. She didn’t want to spend one more moment than necessary in this forest, where she felt the goblin and his grasping hands might appear at any moment. If she found Hatcher on the way, all the better. If she didn’t . . .
You will find him, she told herself, although her thoughts didn’t seem very sure of themselves.
Once Alice had passed out of sight of the strange little cottage, she felt her heart lighten. All around her the scampering of the small animals and the tweets of birds filled in the silence, making the place seem more friendly than it had ever appeared to her before.
She walked for perhaps an hour, and was just thinking she might take the rest of her bread out and eat when she heard someone crying. Someone very, very large and rumbly, crying like his heart was broken.
Alice frowned. “Pen?”
She hurried toward the noise, hoping it was in fact Pen and not Cod or the other one (Gil?), hoping that she wasn’t running toward another trick.
That thought made her slow just a bit, made her cautiously consider. The goblin could pretend to be anyone, it seemed, so why not pretend to be a distressed giant? Why not try to attract Alice’s attention this way?
Soon enough you won’t trust anything, Alice, not your own ears or your own eyes or your own heart.
As she thought this, there was another huge wail from somewhere ahead. The sound was in her path. Wandering around it would only make her lost, and perhaps that was the intention? To have Alice stray from the path, and straight into the hands of the goblin?
“You can’t be afraid of everything, Alice,” she said, and went toward the sound of weeping.
She didn’t see any sign of the giant, and then suddenly he was just there, crouched beside the path, his face covered by his tremendous hands.
Alice was fairly certain it was Pen, but she didn’t want to approach him until she was completely certain, so she paused several feet away and called, “Pen?”
The giant didn’t seem to hear her, too consumed by his weeping. Alice repeated his name more loudly, then again, then once more. Finally Pen sniffled and looked over the tips of his fingers.
“Miss Alice? You’re alive?” he asked, and dropped his hands to his sides. His eyes went wide in astonishment.
It was then that Alice noticed his face and body were covered in soot. His great green eyes looked like freshly watered leaves in a mass of blackened skin.
“Yes, of course I’m alive. Why wouldn’t I be?” she said briskly, though she didn’t feel brisk. She remembered how her governesses would force her out of a crying fit by being firm and practical, and she thought that tack might work on Pen.
Except it didn’t. The very fact of Alice standing before him, whole and somewhat hearty, seemed to set him off again.
Alice blew out one frustrated breath. What to do? Continue on her way and leave the giant crying here? That might be the best course. After all, what could she do for the fellow?
And yet . . . it seemed cruel to ignore a creature in so much distress.
Really, Alice thought, you have quite enough to get on with, don’t you? You don’t need the troubles of a weeping giant.
Alice edged around Pen, moving down the path, feeling more than a little heartless. After all, the giant had saved Alice from being eaten by his brother.
She paused, and blew out a hard breath, and went back to Pen. Standing beside him made her realize just how enormous he was, something she’d not really been aware of when being held in his hand because she couldn’t see all of him then.
Alice’s head only just cleared the top of the giant’s foot, and she was an exceptionally tall girl. Unfortunately, standing this close also brought Alice into contact with the revolting reek that wafted from his skin. There was also the smell of ash and smoke to go with Pen’s soot-covered face, and Alice had an idea what might have happened, and if she was correct, then it was very dreadful indeed.
“Pen,” Alice said, placing a hand on Pen’s horny foot. “Were your brothers hurt? What happened?”
“Him. He happened,” Pen said, lifting his face from his hands. “He burned the village, the one you stopped in. And Cod and Gil, too, just like he’s burned everything else from the forest to the City. And all because of her.”
Alice was startled by the venom in his voice. Yesterday, when Pen told Alice of the Queen’s curse on him, there had been resentment and fear, but no heat. Now there was anger, the kind of anger that made one foolish and led to foolish actions, the sort of actions you would regret later if only you survived.
“And she could stop it anytime she likes,” Pen said. “He’s made of fire but she’s made of ice. She could bank his fires, stop the burning, but she won’t. She could have stopped him burning my brothers alive, the way she wouldn’t let me die when I cut my own throat. But she won’t give him the attention he wants, and now my brothers are dead. And he takes everything he can, bit by bit, and still she pretends not to notice him doing it. Soon he’ll set the whole forest alight, scorch all the ground right up to the door of her castle, and then she’ll have to take note of him or burn herself.”
“Why?” Alice asked, and there were so many questions in that “why.” She didn’t understand all the details, but she understood enough to know that somehow she’d gotten snagged in a struggle between Magicians, just as she had done in the City.
“She’s scared of him,” Pen said, and there was a great deal of relish in his voice. “She thought she could make him a toy in her playroom, like everyone and everything else. Only he wouldn’t play the way she liked, and she tried to throw him away when she found him tiresome. But he wouldn’t be thrown, that one.”
Alice found she had quite a lot of sympathy for this man, despite his habit of burning everything in his path. Someone had called her a toy once, too, and expected little of her.
And the men of the City want him too, Alice thought, remembering the strange flying machines chasing through the air, and the light in the desert that could only be fire. Those machines had never returned.
Then, too, she remembered Pipkin and the girls they’d saved from the Walrus, blackened husks under a merciless sun, and her compassion receded. However much the White Queen had wronged this man, the innocent should not have to pay the price.
“But, Miss Alice, how is it that you are here at all? I thought . . .” He trailed off, his face a mixture of guilt and relief.
“You thought I should be dead, or taken by the goblin—is that it?” Alice asked.
“It wasn’t . . .” Pen began.
“I’ve no doubt you were forced to take me to that cottage,” Alice said, holding up her hand to stop his protestations.
Pen hung his head. “When she orders me, I must obey.”
“Yes, I understand,” Alice said, though she really didn’t.
“She sent a crow while you were asleep, and told me to leave you in that place.”
“So you never really did search for Hatcher, did you?” Alice asked. He could still be somewhere out there in the forest, looking for her.
“No,” Pen said. “But I didn’t need to look for him.”
There was something in his voice that made her look up at him sharply. “You know where Hatcher is? Where?”
Pen shook his head. “I don’t know where, exactly, but I know what happened to him.”
He paused, like he wasn’t sure he wanted to tell Alice, like he was afraid of how she would respond.
“What happened?” Alice demanded.
“Well,” Pen said. “Remember as how I told you I followed his scent to a clearing and then it just stopped? And I pretended to be sort of bewildered by that?”
“Yes,” Alice said, restraining the urge to shout at the giant so he would hurry up and tell her what she wanted to know.
“Well, his scent stopped because your man changed. And it’s a certainty that she changed him.”
“Changed him?” Alice said. “Changed him into what?”
For a terrible moment she thought, Not a giant. Not a hideous monster like you. It was cruel, she knew, to think this, for Pen was only hideous to look upon. His nature, when given free rein, seemed sweet and human enough. But she did not want her Hatcher to become like the cursed creature before her. She simply did not.
“She changed him into a wolf,” Pen said.
A wolf. Not human anymore, not even close. An animal that would run and bite and howl, all the wildness in Hatcher’s heart finally given its freedom.
Alice might have adjusted to that, might have concluded that perhaps it was better for Hatcher to run in the woods than pretend to be something he was not, even if her heart ached and wept that she lost him. Then Pen spoke once more.
“Your man is her creature now, and he’ll never belong to himself again.”

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