All Nonfiction Bullying Books Academic Author Interviews Celebrity interviews College Articles College Essays Educator of the Year Heroes Interviews Memoir Personal Experience Sports Travel & CultureAll Opinions Bullying Current Events / Politics Discrimination Drugs / Alcohol / Smoking Entertainment / Celebrities Environment Love / Relationships Movies / Music / TV Pop Culture / Trends School / College Social Issues / Civics Spirituality / Religion Sports / Hobbies
- Summer Guide
- College Guide
- Author Interviews
- Celebrity interviews
- College Articles
- College Essays
- Educator of the Year
- Personal Experience
- Travel & Culture
- Current Events / Politics
- Drugs / Alcohol / Smoking
- Entertainment / Celebrities
- Love / Relationships
- Movies / Music / TV
- Pop Culture / Trends
- School / College
- Social Issues / Civics
- Spirituality / Religion
- Sports / Hobbies
- Community Service
- Letters to the Editor
- Pride & Prejudice
- What Matters
The Mad Hatter of the Wonderland
Author's note: Inspired by the many versions of Alice in Wonderland and my own imagination. You will enjoy this. The story has received many good reviews on a fan fiction website.
Alice was far from slumber. After her parents had kissed her goodnight and shut the door, Alice crawled out of bed and went to her mirror. She pressed her small hands against the glass, trying hard to reach through to the other side. Nearly every night for the past few months he had come to her through the mirror. He would stay for a little while, tell her amazing stories of where he came from, and promise that she could go there soon. She was hoping that tonight was the night she could finally go to the Wonderland.
“Hatter,” she whispered to the mirror. “Hatter, are you coming tonight?”
As if called by her sweet voice, a shadow came spinning fast from the depths of the mirror. As it grew bigger and bigger Alice scuttled back to give it room. A smile was blossoming on her face.
Out of the looking-glass tumbled a man. He was young and handsome. His jet-black hair was cut in choppy layers and fell over half his face. His eyes sparkled as if a thousand golden stars danced in them. He wore a black waistcoat over a white poetic shirt. His black trousers were tucked into his calf-high boots. The top hat set on his head still had the price tag – 10/6 – tucked into the band.
Alice ran to the Hatter and leapt into his arms. The Hatter lifted the small child up easily, swinging her around once before setting her gently down on her bed.
“I was worried that you weren’t coming tonight,” Alice told her friend, her smile like the sun.
“That’s something I need to talk to you about, Alice,” the Hatter said.
He knelt down before her. His eyes were changing to a deep sea blue. He reached out and tucked a lock of Alice’s golden curls behind her ear. The smile faded from the child’s face.
“You’re sad,” Alice said in a small voice. “Why are you sad, Hatter?”
“I’m so sorry, Alice. I made you a promise that I cannot keep,” the Hatter said regretfully. “I cannot take you to the Wonderland… and I can never come back to your world again.”
“But why?” Alice asked tearfully.
“Remember that I told you that time in the ageless Wonderland passes differently to time in your world? Well, in the past few days since I came here, a long time has passed in the Wonderland. There are many bad things happening and it’s not safe for you to come.”
“But you’ll protect me, Hatter,” Alice said with all the faith of a child.
“I swear I will always protect you and keep you safe, little rabbit,” the Hatter promised. “That is why you must never come to the Wonderland. Do you understand? There is only hurt there now.”
Alice looked up at her friend, wide-eyed with confusion.
“I don’t understand, Hatter. You told me that the Wonderland was a beautiful place. What’s happened?”
“If you ever knew the answer to that, my dearest Alice, then you would never love me again.”
The Hatter stood and went to the mirror. The deep blue of his eyes was now riddled with black lines.
“Hatter…” Alice began, but the tears fell from her eyes as she started to cry.
The Hatter turned his back on the child he loved more than anyone else in all the worlds. He longed to comfort her, to wipe her tears away, but it was best that he leave her broken-hearted. By the time she grew up, she would have forgotten all about the Wonderland. She would have forgotten all about him, the Hatter. She would never know about the darkness that was quickly turning him mad.
Chapter One: The End
It was here, shut away in her room, that Alice could escape from the constant fighting that went on between her and her mother. With her iPod up loud and her earphones in, she could sit down at her desk and draw. Pictures covered her walls and ceilings, amazing drawings of a fantastical world she had created from her dreams. Every dream she had was a part of this world. Sometimes it seemed so real and tangible, while at other times she berated herself for dwelling on this fantasy for so many years.
The character she was drawing now was yet another picture of the young man who covered one entire wall of her room. He had black hair but no eyes, and wore a top hat with the price tag still tucked into the band.
When the drawing was finished, Alice pinned it to the wall with all the others. Her gaze lingered on the face of this man. She felt that he was real, had been someone she had known a long time ago when she was just a child. For some reason, whenever she thought about him she would feel a pain in her chest, as if an invisible hand were clenched tight around her heart.
“Girl! Get out here!” her mother screamed at her through the door.
Sighing, Alice took her eyes off her drawings and unlocked her door. She grudgingly left her room and found herself face-to-face with her angry mother.
“What did I do?” she asked wearily.
“What did I do? What did I do?” her mother repeated in a scathing voice. “Everything! You’re a useless excuse for a daughter!”
“Yeah? Well, you know what? You’re a pathetic excuse for a mother!” Alice shot right back. “Leave me alone!”
Her mother backhanded her across the face. The blow was so hard that Alice stumbled into the wall. She tasted blood in her mouth. Her mother encroached on her so that their faces were an inch away.
“Disrespect me again, you little b****, and you’ll be out on the street,” she hissed.
“B****!” Alice spat right back at her.
Not giving her mother the chance to hit her again, Alice darted like a rabbit back into her room and slammed the door shut, firmly locking it behind her. She then dropped to her knees and pulled a suitcase out from under her bed, into which she proceeded to pack everything of value she owned. Money, clothes, toiletries, photographs, sketchbooks, drawing pencils… She tore her favourite pictures off the walls and stuffed them in too.
Her mother was hammering at the door and swearing at her. The verbal abuse hurt much more than the hit, and as she zipped her suitcase shut, tears began slipping down Alice’s face. What had happened to the loving mother she had known as a happy child? They had both changed so much since Alice’s father died.
Her suitcase packed, Alice unlocked the door again. Her mother raised her hand to strike her once more but Alice grabbed her wrist before she delivered the blow.
“You will never hit me again,” she said resolutely. “I’m finished here. I’ve had enough of you treating me like I’m a worthless piece of crap.”
Alice pushed past her and wheeled her suitcase to the front door. Her mother followed her.
“Good! You’re finally going. I’ve put up with your miserable crap for seventeen years. Don’t come back, you hear? Never come back! You’re not welcome here!”
Alice was out the front door and down the drive. She was running across the road, suitcase bounding along behind her, the tears flowing freely down her face. She didn’t see the car speeding towards her as she turned back to look at her mother for the last time. She heard her mother scream, felt her body break, and then everything was gone.
“No. No. Why is she here?”
“Why is who here?”
“Alice! Alice, here, in the Wonderland!”
Alice opened her eyes. The two people bending over her were blurred for a moment, and then their features defined themselves into the faces of two young men. One had a mane of soft brown hair that framed his surprised face. His tawny eyes had cat-like slits for pupils. The other was hollow-cheeked. His jet-black hair was cut in choppy layers and fell across half of his face. His shadow-ringed eyes were a startling emerald green.
He was the one from her dreams.
The dark-haired man set his top hat back on his head. He and his companion stepped back so that Alice could now see their whole bodies. The one from her dreams wore a black waistcoat over a white poetic shirt, black trousers tucked into his calf-high boots, and the top hat still had the price tag – 10/6 – tucked into the band. The cat-like man wore nothing but a pair of loose-fitting pants through the back of which poked a long, swishing brown tail. His surprise was quickly turning to amusement and he grinned down at Alice, revealing two elegant fangs.
“How pleased I am to meet you, Alice! Here, let me help you up…”
He reached down with a clawed hand and Alice recoiled in fear. There were bloodstains on it – and now that Alice took notice, she saw that there were bloodstains on the dark-haired man’s clothes too.
“Who are you?” she cried.
“You don’t remember, Alice?” the cat-like man said with a purr in his voice. “I know you were just a child when my friend here visited you, but surely you must recall something about the Wonderland.”
“Wonderland…” Alice echoed, the name striking a chord in her memory.
It all came flooding back to her. She had been a child, sweet and innocent at seven years old, who spent each night standing in front of her mirror waiting for the magical arrival of her friend. And here he was now, aged not a day, as real and solid as he had been ten years ago.
“Hatter,” Alice breathed, climbing slowly to her feet.
A thousand different emotions were flashing across his face and his eyes were rapidly changing colors. There was something else altered there too. It was the light. The brilliant light, like tiny golden stars, no longer danced in whatever color his eyes happened to be. Something had left the Hatter’s soul and changed him forevermore.
Alice reached out and stroked his face, as if to be sure that he was truly real. The Mad Hatter’s eyes warmed to a glowing gold color before he snapped his gaze away.
“You shouldn’t be here,” he said painfully. “Go home, Alice. Go home.”
Alice stepped back, hurt. She remembered the first time he had not wanted her to be a part of his life in the Wonderland. She had cried for weeks after he left, and then the death of her father had caused her to try and forget all about her best friend. It had all been too much for the little girl to cope with.
“I don’t know how to go home,” she told him. “I don’t even know how I got here.”
“What happened before you arrived here in the Wonderland?” the cat-like man asked her.
Alice cringed and touched her cheek, remembering the slap.
“My mother and I were fighting again. I packed my bags and walked out. There was the road, and I was crossing it, and then… I’m here.”
“What d’you make of that, Cheshire?” the Mad Hatter asked his companion.
“It’s simple,” the Cheshire Cat said lethargically. “Alice died.”
“What?” the Mad Hatter said in shock.
“I’m sorry, Alice,” the Cheshire Cat said, sounding sincere. “But I’m afraid that you’re either dead or in a coma. That’s the only way you could have come here without someone from the Wonderland bringing you through a looking-glass.”
Alice felt suddenly faint and she fought hard to keep standing. She turned accusing eyes on the Mad Hatter.
“You promised,” she said shakily. “You promised that you would protect me. You promised that you would keep me safe.”
“Alice, I cannot even begin to express how sorry –”
“Sorry doesn’t mean anything,” Alice cut in, tears sparkling in her eyes. “Sorry can’t change the crap that’s happened. Sorry can’t make my mother love me. Sorry can’t bring my father back. Sorry can’t change the fact that I might be dead.”
She was crying now, tears flooding down her face, her whole body shaking. Before she could fall, the Mad Hatter’s arms were around her, cradling her to his chest. She could smell the dried blood on his clothes and feel the hard blades of concealed weapons.
“I tried to keep you safe, Alice,” he murmured in her ear. “The Wonderland is not the fairytale I told you when you were a child. There is a great darkness here. Evil is everywhere. I’m not the same Hatter you once knew.”
Alice tore away from him and turned to the Cheshire Cat, hoping that he could take her somewhere safe, only to find him gone. She was alone with the Mad Hatter in a dark, sprawling forest. And she was afraid.
Although he had not aged and still resembled a young man in his early twenties, this was not the same Hatter she had known ten years ago. He was so much darker and blood-covered, armed to the teeth with blades. There was a scar below his right eye which, at first glance, looked like a single teardrop rolling down his cheek. He gazed at her with glowing gold eyes, a color she had never seen before so she had not idea what emotion he was feeling. She had known and loved him as a child, but now, as a teenager, he was a stranger to her.
“Do you fear me?” he asked her quietly.
“Yes,” Alice said truthfully.
“Please don’t,” he said, eyes flashing sea blue. “I would never hurt you, Alice. I would kill for you.”
A frown flickered across Alice’s face. She had heard the phrase I would die for you before, but never I would kill for you. She looked at the bloodstains on the Mad Hatter’s clothing and backed away, terrified. What kind of a man was he?
“You’ve killed people,” she said in horror.
“Only those who deserved it,” the Mad Hatter said, as if to justify the countless murders he’d preformed since leaving her. “The Wonderland is darkened by a great evil.”
“An evil like you!”
The Mad Hatter moved towards her as fast as she moved backwards. His fingers snaked around her wrists and held her tight. She struggled to break free but he was far too strong.
“You must stay with me, Alice. The Wonderland is no longer safe. There is much out there that would do you harm. I will protect you and I swear that this time I will not fail as I did before.”
She tried to pull free but he would not let her go. His golden eyes were sweeping over her and he pulled her in so that she was pressed against him. The way he looked at her terrified Alice.
“Let me go,” she demanded.
“No,” he said.
“Let me go!”
“You’ve changed, Alice,” he said. “You’re not the child you once were.”
He wrapped one arm tight around her, holding her fast against him, and with his other blood-stained hand he tilted her face up. His eyes looked like burning gold as he lowered his mouth to hers.
Alice was stunned when the Mad Hatter kissed her. The kiss was soft and filled with longing, his hand on her face gentle. Alice pushed hard against his chest with both hands, trying to force him away, but he only held on tighter and kissed her deeper. Not knowing what else to do, she bit him.
He jerked his head up, his lower lip bleeding. His eyes flashed black and then slowly softened to emerald green. Unfortunately, he hadn’t released Alice, so she was unable to run as she had planned. She had to simply stand there as the Mad Hatter wiped away the blood. He looked down at her, half annoyed and half amused.
“Let me go!” she said for the third time.
The Mad Hatter smiled. He had a gorgeous smile but Alice was too angry to think much about it.
“And where would you go, little rabbit? You don’t know anything about the Wonderland. You’ve yet to learn who’s safe and who’s mad,” he said, his smile broadening at the little joke.
Alice looked up at him in despair. He was right. He was the only one she knew there, and as he seemed more inclined to kiss than kill her right now, he was the safest mad man around.
“I’ll let you go if you don’t run,” he offered.
“Okay,” she said heavily. “You win.”
He let her go and she moved a good five feet away from him. She wiped her mouth on the back of her hand as if she could wipe away the taste of him. He looked hurt when he saw her doing that but chose not to comment.
“We should get going. Night comes early to the Wonderland,” he informed her.
They set off, the Mad Hatter leading the way with Alice several steps behind. Spider-webbed trees with dark green leaves towered above them, their roots crawling sideways across their path. Everything seemed on the verge of dying.
“It’s so… depressing,” Alice said.
The Mad Hatter dropped back his pace so that they were walking side by side and could talk.
“It was not always so. The Wonderland was once a beautiful paradise filled with vibrant colors and much life. All loved the White Queen, who ruled with peace and justice. I myself worked as a milliner, making hats for the nobles of the court. They were good days of much prosperity.”
“What happened, Hatter? Why did everything change?”
“Jealousy, Alice. The envy of a woman who had always been overshadowed by her sister. Princess Heart led a mutiny against the White Queen. Heart won and named herself the Red Queen.”
“Do you work for the Red Queen?” Alice asked.
The Mad Hatter looked deeply insulted.
“I work for no one. When the Red Queen stole the crown, I chose to make my own way. I live under no law and the Red Queen knows that. I am the only one she fears – and so she should.”
Cold fear gripped Alice and she drew away from the Mad Hatter. He stopped walking and looked at her regretfully.
“I’m sorry, Alice. Am I scaring you again?”
He approached her carefully and stroked her face like she had done to him upon her arrival, only his was a caress that sent shivers down her spine. She did not know why the Mad Hatter desired her. It was true that they had known each other for a long time, but she had been a child then. He did not know her as a seventeen-year-old.
“Don’t,” she pleaded.
He dropped his hand but his eyes still glowed gold. He gazed longingly at her for a moment before beginning to walk again. Alice let him get a little way ahead before following.
“We’re nearly there,” he called over his shoulder to her. “You can gush over my home to your heart’s content in a few minutes.”
Alice was alarmed. He was taking her to his home? What type of a graveyard would it be?
The Mad Hatter’s home was nothing like Alice had expected. Built in a large clearing in the Wild Woods, its boundaries were shown by a simple wooden fence. The front yard had several neatly kept rose bushes. A dirt path led up to the front door of a cozy cottage with a thatch roof and round windows.
“You’re a gardener?” Alice asked in surprise, noting the elegant rose bushes.
“Hardly,” the Mad Hatter laughed. “My old friend, the March Hare, looks after the garden. He used to work as the White Queen’s gardener at the time I was the court milliner.”
He opened the gate for her and bowed her through. Alice went up to the front door and let herself in. There were just four rooms in the cottage: a bathroom, a kitchen, a bedroom and a large room that was locked.
“So what d’you think?” the Mad Hatter asked Alice.
“It’s surprising,” she replied truthfully.
“Not what you’d expect from a mass murderer, yeah?” he grinned.
He began stripping off his shirt and waistcoat. Alice blushed and looked away but, as a teenaged girl, she couldn’t stop herself from sneaking a glance at the handsome young man. He was well built, with a muscled chest and strong arms. He was covered in hundreds of scars all over his chest, back, arms and shoulders. Some were only silver lines on his skin while others were thick and white.
“I have some old clothes in a chest in my room that may fit you. They’d be more appropriate than your garments,” he offered, casting an eye over her t-shirt, shorts and sneakers.
“Thanks,” Alice said, carefully avoiding his gaze.
She hurried to his bedroom and shut the door behind her. The room was comfortable, with a large bed, a tall wardrobe and a heavy wooden chest. Alice went to the chest and lifted the lid. It was filled with an assortment of clothing. She found a white shirt, a pair of dark breeches and soft black boots. She stripped down and pulled them on. The shirt sleeves were too long so she rolled them up to her elbows, and the breeches had to be held up by a leather belt.
When she returned to the kitchen, the Mad Hatter caught his breath. His golden eyes blazed and he had to turn away from her. Alice sat down at the small wooden table opposite him. He took a deep breath to control himself and smiled in a friendly manner at her, although his eyes were still glowing gold.
“I’m beginning to remember it all,” Alice told him after a brief silence. “About when I was a kid, I mean. When you would come through the mirror to see me. I was frightened at first, but after a few visits I would wait by the mirror and call your name. You were my best friend.”
“I used to tell you stories of the Wonderland until you fell asleep,” the Mad Hatter said softly. “You would gaze up wondrously at me with those beautiful blue eyes and I would watch as they slowly drifted shut. Then I would kiss your cheek and return home.”
His jaw set determinedly and he looked her full in the face.
“I loved you then and I love you now, Alice.”
Alice looked down at the table, seeing every knot and scratch in the wood, refusing to look at the Mad Hatter. She did not want to see his eyes and know how much he desired her. He had left her a long time ago and she was still hurting over the abandonment.
“Alice,” the Mad Hatter said, his voice caressing her name. “Alice, I know you love me too. That is the only thing that could’ve drawn you here to the Wonderland. You came here to me because you love me. You always have, even when I was far away. I know a part of you fears me and I understand that. But you love me, Alice. I know you do.”
“You left,” Alice whispered. “I went through hell and I had no one there for me.”
He was at her side, on his knees, their eyes level.
“I know, Alice. I’ve been watching you through the looking-glass for the past ten years. I saw all the tears you cried over your father’s death. I saw the way your mother emotionally and physically abused you – it was all I could do not to jump through the looking-glass and kill her. I watched you grow up, alone and on the outside, never having any real friends. You were always drawing the Wonderland from the stories I told you. I knew you hadn’t forgotten, however much I wanted you to.”
The Mad Hatter reached for her and Alice leapt out of her chair. She backed away across the kitchen, the look of a rabbit caught in headlights on her face.
“I – I need to sleep,” she stammered.
“Of course. You must be tired,” the Mad Hatter said as if nothing had happened. “My bed is free for you to use. I’ll be out tonight but I’ll be back by the time you wake up. If you need anything, just call for the Cheshire Cat and he will come.”
“Where are you going?”
The Mad Hatter flicked his wrists and a knife appeared in each blood-stained hand. He twirled them expertly between his fingers. His gorgeous smile was unfurling on his face. He could’ve had Alice swooning if she hadn’t been so terrified. She fled into the bedroom, slamming the door behind her.
She threw herself onto the bed and burst into tears. She sobbed for what felt like hours. When at last she could cry no more, she undressed so that she was wearing only her underwear and the long shirt, and then crawled under the bedcovers. She lay with the candles burning in the torch brackets and listened to the occasional screams that pierced the night. She had no doubt that it was the Mad Hatter who was out there murdering.
“What happened to you, Hatter?” she wondered aloud. “Once upon a time you were my best friend. Now I don’t know you at all.”
She sighed and rubbed her eyes. She had so many questions but the Mad Hatter wasn’t there to answer them for her. Therefore, she needed someone she could talk to. Someone who knew the Mad Hatter well. Someone like his old friend the Cheshire Cat.
“Cheshire!” Alice called out. “Cheshire, I need you!”
He materialized in the middle of the room. He was wearing the same loose-fitting pants he had been wearing earlier. Alice sat up, the covers pulled up to her chin.
“Hi,” she said a little nervously. “Sorry to disturb you.”
“That’s quite all right, Alice,” he said graciously. “How can I help you?”
“I was hoping you could tell me what happened to the Hatter,” Alice said. “When I knew him, he had the kindest soul and couldn’t hurt a fly. Now he’s a murdering lunatic!”
The Cheshire Cat sighed but did not seem surprised that she had asked such a thing. Perhaps he had been expecting it. He settled himself comfortably on the end of the bed.
“It’s tragic,” he stated sadly. “He did indeed have the kindest soul. He was renowned for his hat-making abilities and was held in high esteem in the White Queen’s court. He was the milliner and I was the queen’s personal attendant. We had our circle of friends – the March Hare, the White Rabbit, the now-estranged Tweedle sisters, the Caterpillar, the Dormouse, the White Queen herself… But he and I had a bond of brotherhood that went back for many years, to the time when we were both children.
“All was well in the Wonderland. We heard wild stories that Princess Heart was scheming but they were nothing more than rumours to our ears. We did not believe that she would actually rise against her sister and so we were unprepared.
“The White Queen threw a tea party in her garden and invited a good number of her subjects. The Hatter and I were among the guests. We ate, drank and laughed, and it was a merry affair.
“And then, she came.”
“Who did?” Alice whispered.
“The princess. She entered the garden with her soldiers and walked right up to the White Queen, who was seated at the end of the table. Heart said to her, ‘Off with your head!’ and killed her with a single blow from her sword.”
“That’s horrible!” Alice cried, her hands over her mouth.
“It was. The Hatter was seated next to her and her bloody head fell right into his lap. The soldiers then set about killing everyone at the tea party. Myself and some of the others tried to fight back but there were too many of them. When it looked as if all was lost, the Hatter – who had never before held a weapon – picked up a sword and killed three soldiers in quick succession. His eyes were black and he had a terrible dark look on his face.
“He was a man possessed. While the courtiers fled, he stood in the middle of the throng of soldiers and swung the sword as if he had been born with it in his hand. Heart called in archers. I knew that he would surely die from the arrows if he didn’t run, so I joined him and helped him fight his way out of the soldiers.
“Before we fled, he turned to the princess and said, ‘You may think you now rule the Wonderland, but it will never be yours. I will be with you in your nightmares and haunt your waking hours too. All will know and fear the name of the Mad Hatter.’”
The Cheshire Cat’s tale left Alice with a cold chill on her skin. So now she knew the cause of the Mad Hatter’s murdering obsession. He had seen his beloved queen assassinated right before his eyes and that had tipped the once-sweet milliner over the edge. He had gotten a taste for killing at the Mad Tea Party.
“There is still good in him, Alice,” the Cheshire Cat told her earnestly. “It’s still there. I saw it whenever he spoke of you, and now that you’re here, when he’s around you he’s calm. You have the ability to tame him.”
“Tame him? You make him sound like some wild animal.”
“That’s because he is, in a way. Something broke inside him that day. That’s why he knew he couldn’t continue seeing you. He was afraid that he would lose control and hurt you.”
“But if I can tame him,” Alice said slowly, “then maybe I can stop him from killing.”
She looked up at the Cheshire Cat with bright-eyed determination. Seeing the spark in her eyes, the Cheshire Cat gave his infamous grin. He nodded approvingly to the girl.
“That’s the spirit,” he said. “Maybe you really are a Wonderlander.”
“What makes someone a Wonderlander?” Alice asked curiously.
“Oh, we don’t have any specifics,” he said loosely. “We’re all mad here.”
He dematerialized before Alice could say anything else. The last thing to fade away was his wide, sharp-toothed grin. Alice watched the spot where he had sat until all remnants of him (but for the wrinkled bedcover) had disappeared.
She curled up beneath the bedcovers and sunk down into the warm depths of the Mad Hatter’s bed. His scent lingered everywhere and Alice found herself licking her lips as if she could taste him again. The memory of his kiss brought a blush to her cheeks and caused her stomach to do somersaults inside her. He frightened her but he also fascinated her. She had never before had anyone who so blatantly wanted her.
Alice fell into a fitful sleep. The Mad Hatter drifted in and out of her dreams. He mostly appeared covered in blood with blades in his hands, but several times he appeared dressed all in white with a single rose held gently between his teeth. However he looked, he always gazed at her with his glowing gold eyes.
“I love you, Alice…”
She recoiled from his reaching hands but he wrapped his arms around her and held her tightly against him. She struggled to break free. The blood that covered him was drenching her too. She could feel its hot wetness and hear the screams of his victims. Her soul was being tainted too.
“I would kill for you, Alice...”
“No!” Alice screamed.
“Alice! Alice! Wake up! It’s just a dream!” the real Mad Hatter cried, his voice distant.
Alice frantically tore herself from the nightmare and clawed her way into wakefulness. She found herself tangled in the bedcovers on the floor with the Mad Hatter leaning over her. He was wearing nothing but a pair of trousers. His hair was wet from washing and there was a bandage around his left bicep.
“Are you all right, Alice?” he asked, his eyes grey with concern.
“I’m fine,” Alice panted, pulling free and sitting up. “I just… had some bad dreams.”
“I can give you a sleeping draught if you want,” he offered. “They’ll stop any dream, good or bad.”
“Is that how you sleep at night?” Alice asked before she could stop herself.
“Yes,” he replied evenly.
Alice immediately felt ashamed and hung her head. He didn’t sound angry but he didn’t seem all that impressed with her either.
“What time is it, Hatter?” she asked, keeping her tone friendly.
“Almost midday. You slept for a long time. Are you hungry? There’s some breakfast for you in the kitchen.”
“That’s wonderful, thank you,” Alice said graciously, just realising how hungry she was.
She followed him to the kitchen, very self conscious as she was wearing nothing but his long shirt and her underwear. He had set out a plate of bacon and eggs on the table for her, as well as a glass of cool spring water. As she ate, he busied himself in the kitchen, and whenever he walked past her his hand would brush her shoulder or he would let her long golden hair slip through his fingers. They were gentle, caressing touches, and Alice had to fight very hard to stop herself from flinching.
The moment she had finished her breakfast, he whisked away her plate and then turned to her with that gorgeous smile.
“I think, little rabbit, that an outfit change is in order.”
After she had taken a long, relaxing bath, Alice discovered what was in the fourth locked room. It was the Mad Hatter’s dressing studio. It was here that he made his clothes and hats. The front quarter of the room was used for his work table; the rest of the area was devoted to shelves and racks of clothing. It was the largest wardrobe that Alice had ever seen.
“Did you make all these?” she asked wondrously, running her hand over a neatly folded pile of silk waistcoats.
“Every stitch,” he replied.
He went to a nearby rack of brightly colored clothing and pulled out a dress that was the exact same shade of blue as Alice’s eyes. A white corset top flared down into a blue skirt. He matched the dress with a soft pair of white shoes.
“I made these for you last night,” he told Alice. “I figured that you would want to wear something other than my old clothes.”
“It’s beautiful,” Alice gasped. “Thank you, Hatter.”
He laid the dress and shoes on his work table and then turned his back so that she could change. She stripped off her oversized shirt and pulled on the dress. The skirt stopped half way down her thighs.
“Hatter?” she said a little nervously. “Could up lace me up?”
He turned back to her and as he saw her his eyes blazed gold. She turned around so that he could lace the corset up. He did so professionally but she could feel his gaze burning through her clothing. When he had finished, he took her to a mirror and sat her down in front of it. He stood behind her and spent a long time playing around with her hair. In the end he just left it to tumble down her back in golden curls.
“You look beautiful, Alice,” he murmured hoarsely.
Before he could stop himself, his hands were slipping over her shoulders and his lips were on her neck. Alice closed her eyes, afraid to move or say anything. Her nightmares had left her in fear of upsetting the Mad Hatter.
He suddenly dropped his hands and backed away from her. Their eyes met in the mirror’s reflection.
“I’m sorry,” he said simply.
Alice simply nodded, not trusting herself to speak. She was beginning to understand that he could not control his feelings for her. He desired her and found it difficult to accept the fact that she no longer loved him as she had as a child.
To get away from him without giving the impression that she was doing just that, Alice wandered about his workroom. She was glad to see that he had not given up his millinery work. Hundreds of hats sat on shelves and adorned numerous hat stands. Even if he worked part-time as a crazed, murdering lunatic, he still appeared to devote many hours to his beloved hat-making.
“You have an amazing skill,” she complemented him. “Everything is far more beautiful than anything you could find in my world.”
He gave her that gorgeous smile. She blushed and looked away. Even though she did fear him, it was hard to be terrified when he looked at her that way.
“Would you like to come for a walk with me?” he asked her. “I was planning on visiting my friend the March Hare. He makes a great cup of tea.”
“All right,” Alice agreed, trying not to let her hesitancy show through in her voice.
Quick as a flash, the Mad Hatter dashed around the room throwing on clothes. He chose a silk waistcoat to go over a tidy blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows; a pair of dark trousers that tucked into his shiny black boots; a long black walking cane with a silver tip; and a black top hat with a blue band. He tucked the price tag – 10/6 – into the band. After pushing his hair out of his face, he offered his arm to Alice. She took it.
They left the cottage and strolled through the Wild Woods. Even though it was early afternoon, the woods were still dark and gloomy. Barely any sunlight penetrated through the canopy. The only thing that showed that it was truly day were the bizarre flowers that bloomed everywhere and the vulture-like birds that crowed in the trees.
There was no distinguishable path through the tree roots but the Mad Hatter seemed to know where he was going. Alice just had to trust and follow him. He chatted happily – about the garments he made, the people he knew. After she had been able to relax, Alice began to enjoy being with him. The Mad Hatter proved himself to be intelligent, insightful and witty. Sure, he was rather sadistic and found amusement in morbid things, but that was to be expected from a man such as himself. The whole time they were together his eyes remained a soft gold and that gorgeous smile never left his face.
The March Hare lived in a huge, hollowed-out tree not far from where the Mad Hatter’s cottage was. They found him in his front garden with a pail of red paint. He was an older gentleman, with thick grey eyebrows and a bushy beard. Out of his shock of grey hair flopped two long brown hare ears. He was wearing a grey suit and a red tie, and he walked with a curious bounding gait.
“Ahoy, and other nautical expressions!” he called out cheerfully. “How are you, Mad Hatter?”
“Absolutely amazing,” the Mad Hatter replied. “What’s with the paint? Are you painting your roses?”
“Again,” the March Hare said gloomily. “This is the third time I’ve planted red ones but they’ve turned out white. White! Why would I want white roses?”
“Oh, it’s such a tragedy,” the Mad Hatter said with barely concealed sarcasm, tipping Alice a large wink and making her giggle.
“And who’s this?” the March Hare said in surprise, hearing her. “It can’t be Alice! What’s she doing here, Mad Hatter? It isn’t safe in the Wonderland!”
He threw aside his bucket and the red paint went flying over the rose bushes. He seized Alice and the Mad Hatter and practically threw them through his front door. He quickly locked the door again behind them and rounded on the Mad Hatter.
“What’re you doing?” he barked, sounding more like a dog than a hare. “How could you bring her here? I thought we’d agreed she was never to come!”
“I know what we agreed, March, but it wasn’t my decision,” the Mad Hatter said. “Alice was involved in an accident back in her world. She came here by herself.”
The March Hare calmed down by just a fraction but his tawny eyes were bulging. He pursed his lips over his jutting teeth and breathed down his nose at Alice.
“Well, in that case…” he said, “would you like a cup of tea, my dear?”
Alice flicked a glance at the Mad Hatter, who nodded subtly to her. She nodded too. The March Hare clapped his hands and hopped to it.
The house was made up of several different levels reaching up the middle of the hollow tree trunk. The floors were connected by a spiral staircase that curled its way up the trunk, right up to the canopy. The ground floor was the March Hare’s tea room. The Mad Hatter whispered to Alice that no one had ever seen the upper floors or knew of what the old man kept there. There were many rumours, of course, but the March Hare led a very private life.
The tea room was small, round and cozy, with a large tea table, an assortment of high-backed chairs and a tall bookcase that curved around the wall. The table was laid with a pink table cloth and mismatched china. Alice and the Mad Hatter took a seat as the March Hare served them.
“Oh, my apologies,” he blushed, and pulled a wet albino mouse out of the tea pot. “You little rat, I have guests!”
He dropped the Dormouse on the floor. It raised its middle finger at the March Hare and squeaked “Dickhead!” before scurrying away.
“Was that mouse wearing a red coat?” Alice asked in shock.
“And he had a rapier too,” the March Hare said, pouring them tea. “Well, technically it’s just a sewing needle, but I don’t have the heart to tell the little fellow.”
“The Dormouse has big self-image issues,” the Mad Hatter informed Alice. “He’s one of the Wonderlanders that doesn’t have a human form so he has to stay in his animal form. He hates being a mouse because they’re so small.”
“I think he’s cute,” Alice confessed.
“Don’t say that to his face,” the March Hare advised her.
“He will stab you. And that needle – I mean, rapier – hurts.”
Alice sipped her tea. It was surprisingly sweet and very good. She said nothing and just listened to the Mad Hatter and the March Hare’s conversation. They were talking about the Red Queen and the discussion was heated.
“She’s spreading out across the Wonderland towards the Freelands,” the Mad Hatter said. “You must do something! I say that before the full moon rises, the Caterpillar would have lost the Mushroom Valley. After that it’s only a matter of time until they reach the Pool of Tears.”
“The Pool of Tears will be fine,” the March Hare argued. “The Bandersnatch is protecting the boy.”
“The Bandersnatch’s past leaves much to be desired. We may have a friendship with him but would you ever place your life in his hands?”
“You know he would not harm Gryphon.”
“How do you know you can trust him?”
“The same thing can be said about you, Mad Hatter.”
The Mad Hatter’s eyes turned black. Alice, reading the signs, slipped her hand onto his knee under the table and waited for his eyes to turn to green. When at last he was calm, she took her hand back.
“I think it’s about time we went home,” the Mad Hatter said, standing up. “Thanks for the tea, March.”
“Yes, thank you,” Alice said.
“Any time,” the March Hare replied a little gruffly.
He bounded up the stairs, leaving his guests to show themselves out. When they were in the garden, the Mad Hatter pulled Alice into the shadows of a painted red rose bush.
“Thank you, Alice,” he sighed, his hands winding through her hair. “I would’ve been greatly sorrowed if I’d killed him. We may have different opinions sometimes, but the March Hare is as steadfast and loyal as his old tree house. I’m glad to have had him by my side all these years.”
“You say the Bandersnatch is ‘protecting the boy’. Is that Gryphon?” Alice asked.
“Yes, it is. Gryphon is the best-kept secret in the Wonderland.”
“Who is he?”
“The White Queen’s son.”
As the days went by, Alice become comfortable living with the Mad Hatter. He treated her courteously and was there by her side every day. He let her hang about his workroom while he was making things and had her try on countless garments. If he had to go ‘deal to’ a troublemaker or one of the Red Queen’s soldiers, he would send for the Cheshire Cat or the March Hare and the Dormouse to stay with Alice while he was gone. But he would always come back, wash off the blood and try to make up for his absence.
And then one evening, as Alice and the Mad Hatter were in the workroom, the Cheshire Cat materialized in their midst. He was soot-streaked, bloodied and semi-conscious.
“Cheshire!” the Mad Hatter cried. “What happened?”
“Soldiers… the Mushroom Valley…” the Cheshire Cat gasped.
He could say no more. He fell to the floor before the Mad Hatter could catch him and transformed into a limp brown cat. Alice quickly picked him up and cradled him in her arms. The Mad Hatter was already throwing on a black cloak and his top hat.
“You’re not going there, are you?” Alice said in panic.
“I have to, Alice. There are many Wonderlanders in the Mushroom Valley,” he said as he strapped knives to his body. “If I go they stand a chance.”
She lunged forward and grabbed his hand as he turned to leap into the mirror. He looked at her, surprised.
“You come back, you hear?” she whispered. “You come back to me.”
He leaned down and kissed her forehead. Then he was gone.
Alice sank down into a pile of uncut cloth. She curled up on her side with the cat next to her and stroked his soft brown fur. She would stay there, she decided, until the Mad Hatter came home.
She must have fallen asleep because the next thing she knew, the Mad Hatter was back and he had lost control. His clothes torn and bloodied, his face streaked with soot, and he was ripping his workroom to pieces. His eyes were pure black and there was a terrible dark look on his face. He shouted and swore as he used his knives to demolish his carefully ordered wardrobe.
The cat patted at Alice’s knee with his small paw, too weak to transform into his human form. Terrified, she sat up and pressed herself against the wall behind her. She had never seen the Mad Hatter this angry before. She was prepared to wait for him to calm down on his own – but then he started attacking himself. He hacked at his own chest and shoulders with his knives. Blood poured from the wounds.
“Hatter!” Alice screamed, leaping to her feet. “Hatter, no!”
He turned his nightmare eyes on her. He stared right at her as he thrust the blades in once again, tearing his flesh and bringing forth more blood.
Tears were flooding down Alice’s face. She was scared – scared for him and scared for herself. It took all her courage to walk up to the Mad Hatter and wrap her arms around his neck. With her in the way, he couldn’t cut himself. He stood there for a few minutes with his knives held loosely in his hands and then they fell from his fingers. He wrapped his arms around Alice’s waist and buried his face in her golden hair.
“Oh, Hatter,” Alice whispered. “What happened?”
“The Red Queen’s soldiers took the valley,” he said hoarsely. “They killed so many families and then they burned everything. I watched the Caterpillar die.”
“I’m so sorry, Hatter,” Alice murmured.
“She was one of my best friends. And she was the oracle. She could see into the future. That’s how the Red Queen’s enemies have been able to stay alive for so long. What will they do now that she is dead?”
He held Alice tighter. They were both drenched in his blood.
“How long until the rest of them join the Caterpillar and the White Queen and the White Rabbit?” he said hoarsely.
“No,” Alice said firmly, drawing back to look up into his blue-black eyes. “Don’t say that, Hatter. That’s not going to happen. No more of your friends are going to die.”
“But they have no leader now.”
“You can be their leader.”
The Mad Hatter barked a humourless laugh.
“I’m not even a part of their resistance! The only reason I haven’t killed them is because a few are my friends from the old days. They don’t trust a murderer. I’m mad.”
“Yes, you are,” Alice agreed. “But do you want to know a secret? All the best people are.”
The Freelands were the last areas in the Wonderland that the Red Queen did not control. The Mushroom Valley had been one. Still remaining were the Wild Woods, where the Mad Hatter and the March Hare lived; the Archway, where the White Rabbit had once lived; and the Pool of Tears, refuge to the White Queen’s son. Although the Freelands had no ruler, the Mad Hatter held the power through fear. All were answerable to him.
The Mad Hatter explained all this to Alice as they straightened out his workroom. Once the room was sorted out to the Mad Hatter’s satisfaction, Alice forced him down into a chair. She gently pulled off the tattered remains of his shirt and began to clean his numerous wounds.
“Do you always do this to yourself when you lose control?” she asked softly, lightly running her hand over his old scars and new cuts.
“Yes,” he replied quietly, his eyes a stormy blue. “Whenever a friend dies or when I’m very angry. I first did it after the Mad Tea Party. I guess it’s a way of repenting my sins.”
Alice cleaned and dressed his wounds as best she could. She wrapped a strip of cloth – her makeshift bandage – several times around his chest and held it in place with a safety pin. The cat prowled around their ankles, still too weak to change into his human form.
“You’re amazing, little rabbit,” the Mad Hatter told Alice, looking at her handiwork. “I’d be lost without you.”
He pulled Alice into his lap. She wrapped her arms around his neck and rested her head on his shoulder.
“Promise me that you’ll never hurt yourself like that again,” she whispered.
She shifted in his lap so that she was sitting with her legs on either side of him. She wrapped her arms back around his neck and looked him in the eyes.
“Promise me, Hatter,” she said forcefully.
“I promise,” he agreed reluctantly.
His gorgeous smile suddenly unfurled on his face and gold flecks warmed his blue eyes. He curled his arms around her waist and bent his head to kiss her for the second time since her arrival in the Wonderland.
This time Alice didn’t fight. She kissed him back, her hands threading through his hair. He pulled her against him and ran his hands up her sides. When at last they broke apart, Alice was breathless. She touched her fingers to her lips wondrously.
“Wow,” she said. “I just made out with the Mad Hatter.”
The Mad Hatter laughed and cradled her in his arms. His eyes were a strange blend of warm gold and deep sea blue. Alice knew that he grieved for the Caterpillar and the innocent families that had died that day.
“There’s nothing we can do,” she whispered to him, stroking his face. “Hatter, it’s done.”
With the Caterpillar dead and the Freelands in a state of even more disorganised chaos, the Mad Hatter was rarely at home. He terrorised the Red Queen’s army. He murdered and maimed countless soldiers, leaving their mangled bodies for their comrades to find. After each killing, he would return home to Alice drenched in their blood. The black rarely left his eyes those days.
“Hatter, why do you keep doing it?” Alice asked in a whisper.
It was mid-afternoon and the Mad Hatter had just finished washing up. He had been gone for three days straight. When he had come back, he had looked like a walking nightmare and had terrified Alice so much that she had shut herself up in his bedroom, refusing to let him be near her until he had washed. He was leaning against the doorframe now, scarred arms folded across his chest.
“Don’t go out again, Hatter,” Alice begged from where she was sitting on the end of his bed.
“I have to, Alice. The Freelands are crawling with soldiers and traitors.”
“Cheshire and March and the others can fight them.”
“And what if they lose? What if the army advances to the Pool of Tears? When the time is right, Gryphon will be the Wonderland’s symbol of hope. If he is killed then everything is lost.”
She got up and went to him, and he enfolded her in his arms. She stood on tiptoe to kiss him, trying to pour everything she felt into that kiss. If only he knew how much she cared about him, then maybe he would stop going out killing. Maybe then he would stay with her forever.
The Mad Hatter kissed her back for a while, and then he pulled away. His green eyes were flecked with gold and blue.
“Ah, Alice,” he sighed, cupping her face in his hands. “There’s no need to worry about me.”
“But what if you don’t come back?” Alice said in a small voice.
“I will always come back to you, Alice. I swear that I will never leave you like I did before.”
He kissed her again, very softly, as if she were made of delicate china. Then he took her by the hand and led her to his workroom. Alice hadn’t been allowed in there for a while and now she was intrigued to see what the Mad Hatter had been working on.
It was a gown. The bodice was studded with tiny diamonds. The skirt was full and sweeping, with an intricately embroided train. The whole dress was white.
“Is that… Is that a wedding gown?” Alice whispered.
The Mad Hatter stood behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist. He placed a kiss on her neck, his eyes glowing a warm gold.
“One day, when you’re ready, I would love you to wear that,” he murmured.
Alice didn’t know what to say. A tumble of emotions were falling through her. She knew that he was desperately in love with her but she didn’t know if she felt the same way. She was only seventeen years old, lost in the midst of a war in the middle of a strange world. Now was surely not the time to get engaged to the man who had broken her heart once before.
“Hatter, I – I –” she said, not sure what she was trying to say.
“You don’t need to give me an answer now, little rabbit,” he said gently. “But I would love to see if the dress suits you.”
Alice let him lead her to the mirror and hold the wedding gown up in front of her. Even though she technically wasn’t wearing it, Alice still gasped at how she looked. If she chose to marry the Mad Hatter, she would make a beautiful bride.
As they both stood there admiring Alice’s reflection, the image in the mirror changed into that of a man. He had a mane of soft brown hair and tawny eyes with cat-like slits for pupils. He reached through the mirror with a clawed hand and grabbed the Mad Hatter’s shoulder.
“They are coming.”
Before they could say anything, the Cheshire Cat had vanished. The Mad Hatter threw the dress aside and leapt into action.
“What’s going on?” Alice asked, panicked.
He ignored her, darting instead to the windows to peer through the curtains. He swore and turned back to her, running his hands through his hair. His grey eyes were quickly turning black.
“They’re here. They’ve surrounded the cottage.”
“The Red Queen’s soldiers.”
The color drained from Alice’s face. As the flutter of fear entered her chest, she wrapped her arms around herself and gazed up at the Mad Hatter with wide eyes. He looked back at her, a torn look on his face.
“No,” Alice whispered.
“I won’t leave you!”
“Alice, listen to me!” the Mad Hatter cried. “You’ve got to go, you’ve got to leave. I will not see you come to harm.”
A crash sounded as the soldiers broke down the front door. The Mad Hatter grabbed Alice and kissed her desperately, then he broke away and steered her back towards the mirror.
“I’ll break the looking-glass once you’re through. That way they can’t follow you,” he told her, trying to sound emotionless, but his black eyes were ringed with deep blue.
“I will come for you, Alice, do you hear me? I will come for you.”
He pushed her beyond the glassy reflective surface and into the mirror itself just as the door burst open. Soldiers flooded into the workroom. With a single fluid, sweeping movement, the Mad Hatter drew a sword from beneath his cloak. He faced Alice and brought the sword up.
“Hatter!” Alice screamed, reaching out to him.
The sword came down and struck the mirror. The glass shattered and Alice was falling, falling away from the Mad Hatter and into the unknown.
Falling through the looking-glass was one of the most frightening experiences of Alice’s life. Despite the madness of it all, it was dead quiet. She was freezing, as if she had broken through the icy surface of a frozen lake. Everything was a blur of color and mirrors. Every so often she collided with the speeding figures of other looking-glass travellers. Battered, bruised and with frozen bones, Alice finally fell out of the looking-glass and landed on the ground, hitting her head hard.
“What’s this? An angel, fallen from the heavens?”
The voice was that of a boy on the verge of manhood. Throwing one arm over her face to shield her eyes from the sun, Alice looked up at him. He was a good-looking fourteen-old with pure white hair and dark brown eyes. He wore an open-necked shirt over breeches and boots.
The boy reached down a hand and helped Alice to her feet.
“You must be the Lady Alice,” he said. “The Mad Hatter speaks most highly of you. It appears you have captured his heart.”
“I don’t know about that,” Alice said, blushing, and quickly changed the subject. “Who are you?”
“Gryphon,” he replied simply.
“The one and only,” Gryphon said with a crooked smile.
Alice was surprised. He was not what she had expected the White Queen’s son to be. Well, in all truth she didn’t know what a prince of the Wonderland should look like, but Gryphon seemed so… non-regal.
Gryphon went to the looking-glass that Alice had fallen through. It was propped upright against a stack of old crates. He peered into it, his brow furrowed.
“Alice… Where’s the Mad Hatter?”
“Hatter…” Alice said slowly, and then it all came flooding back to her. “Oh, God – Gryphon, he’s back there, at the cottage, with the soldiers! He pushed me through the mirror and then broke it!”
Tears filled her eyes but she refused to let them spill. Crying wouldn’t do the Mad Hatter any good now.
“Gryphon, we have to send him help,” she said, struggling to keep her voice even. “It looked as if the whole of the Red Queen’s army was there. He can’t fight them all by himself.”
“By the time anyone gets there it’ll be too late,” Gryphon said regretfully. “Now that the Mad Hatter’s looking-glass is destroyed, there are none left in the Wild Woods. I’m sorry, Alice, but the Mad Hatter is on his own.”
“There must be something we can do!” Alice cried.
“Alas, there is nothing. We can only wait and pray for his safe return.”
Although she hated to admit it, Alice knew that Gryphon was right. There was nothing they could do to help the Mad Hatter. Her heart breaking, she turned away from the looking-glass and surveyed the land before her.
They were standing at the base of a mountain range, right on the edge of a small lake. The lake was being constantly filled by two waterfalls that fell from parallel holes in the cliff. It looked just like a weeping face.
“The Pool of Tears,” Gryphon said, sweeping out his arm to encompass the whole cliff face. “My sanctuary.”
Alice looked at him and then at the cliff. Her eyebrows drew together slightly as she tried to figure out where exactly the boy lived.
“So do you chill behind a waterfall or something?” she asked, feeling like a first-class retard.
Gryphon stared at her blankly for a few moments before bursting out laughing.
“I see you’re confused. I’ll show you. My lady?” he said courteously, offering his arm.
Alice took it. She let Gryphon lead her towards the water’s edge. When they got to the bank, Gryphon didn’t stop. He kept walking out and Alice clung to his arm. She dug in her heels to stop him from dragging her into the water.
“What’re you doing? That’s a lake.”
“I know,” Gryphon said unconcernedly. “Trust me, Alice. You won’t drown. Trust me.”
They stepped out over the lake. For a moment Alice felt like Jesus as they stood on the water, and then, slowly and gently, they sank beneath the surface of the lake and entered the Gryphon’s secret home.
Slipping beneath the lake was nothing like falling through the looking-glass. It was very slow and not at all frightening. Of course, the main reason for it going a lot smoother was because Alice wasn’t alone this time. She held on so tightly to Gryphon’s arm that she nearly cut off his circulation. When they’d touched solid ground again, he prised her fingers off him, wincing.
“Sorry,” Alice mumbled.
“That’s quite all right,” Gryphon said, rubbing his arm. “Just be a little gentler next time, please. Ah, Bandy!”
Alice whipped around to locate this ‘Bandy’. Her jaw dropped. The name sounded more appropriate for a fluffy bunny rather than the giant bear-of-a-man who was hunched over in an armchair in front of the fireplace. He was twice the size of the Mad Hatter, with a long, grizzled mane of black-and-white hair, flashing black eyes and huge clawed hands. He may have been handsome in his youth, but now his face was slashed by three long, gruesome-looking scars.
The Bandersnatch – for that was who Alice guessed him to be – stood up, filling the small sitting room almost completely. He was dressed in a plain brown robe that reached all the way to his feet. It had wide sleeves and a hood that hung down his back.
“Lady Alice, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance at last,” he said, inclining his head.
Alice was shocked again. The Bandersnatch, despite his hard, battle-scarred appearance, spoke in a soft, deep voice that was as courteous as Gryphon’s. Now Alice knew where the boy had received his etiquette from. The Bandersnatch had not been lax in the training of his young ward.
“The pleasure’s mine,” Alice replied, resting her eyes on his left shoulder so that she didn’t stare at his scars.
“Pray tell where the Mad Hatter is?” the Bandersnatch said, his gaze sweeping the room in search of the crazed milliner, and then he looked back at Alice with softening eyes. “He stayed behind.”
Alice nodded, not trusting herself to speak. There was a lump in her throat and a hollow pit in her stomach. For all she knew, the Mad Hatter could be being tortured by the Red Queen right then – or worse, he could he dead, with no hope of ever returning to Alice. She could not bear the thought of living in the Wonderland without him.
“If the Hatter were to be captured, where would he be taken?” Alice asked Gryphon and the Bandersnatch, fighting hard to keep her voice even.
“No doubt he would be held in the Red Queen’s castle, which lies far beyond the Wild Woods,” the Bandersnatch replied. “I regret to inform you that no prisoners ever return from the dungeons.”
“The Hatter would,” Alice said with more confidence than she felt. “He’d find a way out. He’d escape.”
“I admire you for your faith in the Mad Hatter, Alice, but then again you have not heard the tales of the dungeons. They tell of inhuman atrocities and abominable cruelties carried out on the prisoners. Even the torturers themselves eventually go mad. The Red Queen’s mind is nightmarishly warped.”
Alice felt faint. She had known that darkness had enveloped the once beautiful Wonderland, but to hear of torture chambers… The place had truly turned into a nightmare. Alice could envision (with the help of a few horror films she had watched back in her world) screaming men, women and children being slowly carved up, their blood running thick and fast through the cracks in the floor as their screams pierced the night…
“Take a seat, child,” the Bandersnatch said kindly.
The huge man practically carried Alice to the armchair in front of the fireplace. The enormous seat swallowed her up. She curled up into a ball, her wide eyes reflecting the light from the fire.
“Hatter…” she whimpered pitifully.
Gryphon and the Bandersnatch looked upon her compassionately.
“She loves him, doesn’t she?” Gryphon murmured.
“They’re soulmates,” the Bandersnatch replied softly. “I believe she’s just realised that they share one heart, and always have.”
Gryphon carefully approached Alice and knelt down in front of her. She looked at him with empty eyes, her face streaked with tears. The boy’s own eyes were very wise and compassionate. They seemed too old for his young face.
“I know your heart is breaking but grieving will achieve nothing, Alice,” he said, not unkindly. “If you want to avenge your Mad Hatter, then I ask you to fight with us. Fight and help us free the Wonderland from the evil that has stained and darkened her history pages for so many years.”
“What can I do?” Alice whispered. “I don’t know how to fight.”
“The Bandersnatch was once a warrior and I am proficient in archery,” Gryphon said humbly. “I would be honoured to train you.”
Alice was uncertain as to whether or not she would be able to use a bow and arrow to take another’s life – but these tyrants of the Wonderland had taken her Hatter from her and she suddenly realised she would do anything to avenge him.
She sat up and wiped the tears from her cheeks. Her eyes flashed.
And so the training began. Safe in the valley sanctuary of the Pool of Tears, Gryphon taught Alice the ancient art of archery. What had taken Gryphon years to learn he had to pass onto Alice in a considerably shorter time. The girl worked hard even to the point of exhaustion. She pushed herself further and further, refusing to take a break even when her muscles screamed out in pain. She was wasted physically and emotionally.
The Cheshire Cat came to tell her what had happened after she had fallen through the looking-glass. The Mad Hatter’s cottage had been turned inside-out in the savage battle. Blood splattered the walls and the stench of death hung upon the air. Soldiers’ bodies were piled all through the clearing but there was no telling what had happened to the Mad Hatter.
“I’m sorry, Alice, but all evidence – or lack thereof – suggests that he was taken to the Red Queen,” the Cheshire Cat told her regretfully as he lounged on the bank beside the Pool of Tears, his toes dabbling in the water. “He would surely have come for you if he were able to.”
“I know,” Alice said softly, her fists turning white-knuckled around her bow.
“You have our condolences,” the Bandersnatch said gently, placing a large, comforting hand on her shoulder.
“Condolences?” Alice said sharply, stepping away from Gryphon, the Bandersnatch and the Cheshire Cat. “The Hatter isn’t dead. He will find a way to come back. He promised he would come for me.”
“Alice, it is not wise to let yourself become deluded –”
“Don’t you dare,” Alice hissed, rounding on the Bandersnatch. “I am not deluded. I know perfectly well that there is the likelihood that the Hatter has been murdered. But I also know that he is alive. I don’t know how to explain it but I have this strange feeling inside me. It’s like there’s a voice inside me telling me not to give up on him.”
The three males exchanged looks, neither one wanting to voice their mutual opinion. None of them believed that the Mad Hatter could survive the monstrous torture which the Red Queen would undoubtedly inflict upon him. Not even the Mad Hatter could be strong enough to live through that nightmare. They believed Alice to be a love-stricken girl who was holding fast to the dream that her soulmate would return to her. They themselves had no such faith. Having lived in the Wonderland for so many, many years, they of course had heard of, witnessed and even suffered the cruelty of the Red Queen.
“We could all do with a cup of tea,” the Bandersnatch said tactfully. “Alice, you’ve been training for hours now. You should take a rest.”
“I’m fine,” Alice replied shortly.
“It wasn’t a suggestion,” the Bandersnatch said, his tone equally cool.
With a frosty look on her face, Alice followed him, Gryphon and the Cheshire Cat back down into the Pool of Tears. Gryphon had recently redecorated the sitting room, exchanging the huge armchair for a cozy tea table with several chairs placed around it. He placed the kettle on the fire and then joined the others as they all sat down. Alice laid her quiver and bow across her lap.
There was a tense, rather awkward silence as they waited for the kettle to boil. Gryphon threw himself into making tea for them all and nearly poured boiling water over the Cheshire Cat, so great was his distraction. He apologised profusely and, his face flaming, he set the tea cups in their respective places and took his seat again.
“Ah, nothing like a touch of jasmine to make the perfect cup of tea,” the Cheshire Cat sighed, his clawed hands curled around his cup. “I remember the days of the White Queen’s court, when the White Rabbit could whip up the best tea in all of the Wonderland.”
“What’s with Wonderlanders and their tea?” Alice asked, despite her mental vow to sit in frosty silence.
“Tradition,” the Bandersnatch said simply.
“We don’t like that nasty stuff your lot drink from bottles and cans,” the Cheshire Cat told her. “We keep a clear head and enjoy a good tea party. What’s the point of chugging back so much of that horrible stuff so that you’ve got a headache and no memory in the morning?”
“I have no idea,” Alice admitted. “It’s just how we socialised back in my world, I guess. It seemed that people liked each other better when they were drunk because no one was really themselves.”
“I thought your world was meant to be more ‘evolved’, what with all the technology you have,” the Cheshire Cat said with a shake of his head. “You make the Wonderland look civilised.”
“Almost civilised,” Gryphon corrected absently as he helped himself to another sugar cube.
“Even those who consider themselves to be civilised are barbaric in some way,” the Bandersnatch said wisely.
“Speaking of barbaric…” Alice said, standing up from her empty tea cup. “I need to work on my archery some more.”
“Do you want another cup of tea?” Gryphon offered.
“No, I’m fine. I’ll get myself something if I get thirsty or hungry.”
She slung her quiver and bow across her back, and disappeared upwards. Her jaw was set determinedly. She would train day and night, draw the bow with bleeding fingers, if that was what she had to do to get her Hatter back.
“I will come for you, Alice, do you hear me? I will come for you.”
The Mad Hatter pushed her beyond the glassy reflective surface and into the mirror itself just as the door burst open. Soldiers flooded into the workroom. With a single fluid, sweeping movement, the Mad Hatter drew a sword from beneath his cloak. He faced Alice and brought the sword up.
“Hatter!” Alice screamed, reaching out to him.
The sword came down and struck the mirror. The glass shattered and Alice vanished. With his eyes blue-black and a terrible dark look on his face, the Mad Hatter turned back to face the horde of soldiers. There were so many of them, more than he had anticipated… How could one man fight an army?
That battle was to become something of legend in the Wonderland. The bloodstains began in the workroom, spread throughout the rest of the cottage and then made their way into the clearing. The Mad Hatter fought with sword and knives, whirling across the ground like a nightmare. His body was drenched with the blood of his enemies. On losing his blades, he began ripping the soldiers apart with his bare hands, black eyes ablaze with a vicious bloodlust. Soldiers fell like packs of cards, their bodies brutally mangled.
It took hours, but at last the Mad Hatter was defeated. The soldiers surrounded him and pointed their blades at his throat. They looked upon him with ill-disguised fear. Never had they met such a fierce opponent.
The Mad Hatter dropped to his knees. Blood – the soldiers’ and his own – painted him from head to toe. Countless slashes covered his body and left his clothing in tatters. With a calmness born from insanity, he picked up his top hat, dusted it off and set it carefully back on his head.
“To the Red Queen’s castle, I suppose?” he said in a friendly tone.
The soldiers’ sneers were answer enough. They chained the Mad Hatter’s hands and shackled his ankles, then they directed him into a cage that had been mounted on wheels. The Mad Hatter went without a fight. There was no point in resisting. He allowed them to chain him to the bars of the cage like an animal. The cage was small but there was just enough room for him to curl up on the floor as best as he could and try to fall asleep. He would need all his strength when he faced the Red Queen.
The Mad Hatter lay down and closed his eyes. The pain from his wounds was agonising but he blocked it out as he had trained himself to do. The motion of the cage as it was pulled along by a string of soldiers lulled him somewhat. He focused his mind on the steady rhythm, refusing to let himself think of the pain, but as he lay there with silver moonlight trickling down through the canopy of the Wild Woods, a different sort of pain crept over him. It started in his chest as a small ache and then the pressure built and built until he felt as if something were trying to claw its way out of his body. With every beat it gave, the Mad Hatter’s heart tattooed a name across its scarred surface.
He had to survive, the Mad Hatter realised. He had to survive because he couldn’t bear the thought of never holding Alice in his arms again.
It was a long, arduous journey. The soldiers’ spiked the Mad Hatter’s water so that he could only stay awake for short periods of time. The flesh of his wrists and ankles were rubbed raw from the shackles, and his whole body ached from lying curled up on the hard metal floor of the cage for so many hours. Most of his wounds became infected but he was unable to tend to them properly. He had to make do with sucking out the poison with his mouth and cleaning the gashes with rainwater. Within a week, the Mad Hatter was fighting a fever. “Out,” a soldier barked, throwing open the door of the cage. It was a hot mid-afternoon and the army had stopped for a short break. The Mad Hatter was unchained from the cage bars and he literally crawled out of the cage on his hands and knees. The shackles clanked as he moved. With great difficulty, he climbed to his feet and staggered over to a nearby bush to relieve himself. He had barely finished when the world started spinning and he lost his balance. He dropped into the grass with a thud. “Grass angel!” Spread-eagled on the ground, he began to sweep his limbs as if he were a young child making snow angels in wintertime. The soldiers stared at him for a moment before dismissing it. He was mad, after all. A pure white butterfly alighted on the Mad Hatter’s belly. He ceased his angel-making and looked down the length of his body it. A shadow passed over his gaunt face. “Save me,” he whispered hoarsely. “On your feet!” a soldier ordered. The butterfly took flight and abandoned the Mad Hatter. He climbed to his feet again and did a few stretches, then he obediently returned to his cage. As he curled up once more on the floor, his eyes scanned the air outside in search of the butterfly. He found it flitting around a soldier. Irritated, the soldier swatted at it, hitting it with an open palm. The butterfly dropped to the ground like a stone. “Bastard!” the Mad Hatter yelled. “You killed it!” “Keep your hat on,” the soldier snarled, brandishing his sword threateningly. The Mad Hatter hunkered down and stared through the bars at the soldier with wide, multi-colored eyes. A shadow passed over his face and he began to sing. “’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves, did gyre and gimble in the wabe; all mimsy were the borogoves, and the mome raths outgrabe…” “What’s he on about?” one soldier asked. “He’s stark-raving mad,” another replied. “Beware the Jabberwock, my son!” the Mad Hatter cried, his voice darkening. “The jaws that bite, the claws that catch! Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun the frumious Bandersnatch!” “Shut it!” the butterfly-murdering soldier snapped, rapping his sword across the bars. “He took his vorpal sword in hand,” the Mad Hatter continued, miming drawing a sword from a sheath at his hip. “Long time the manxome foe he sought – So rested he by the Tumtum tree, and stood awhile in thought.” Here he adopted a pensive expression. A good number of soldiers had gathered around the cage by this time to watch the Mad Hatter’s performance. He had never had such a crowd before and he pretended to relish in his captors’ attentions. “And as in uffish thought he stood, the Jabberwock, with eyes of flame, came whiffling through the tulgey wood, and burbled as it came! One, two! One, two!” the Mad Hatter cried, pretending to slash at an imaginary foe with his imaginary sword. “And through and through the vorpal blade went snicker-snack! He left it dead, and with its head he went galumphing back.” He sank down onto the floor of the cage and his voice became a mere whisper. “’And hast thou slain the Jabberwock? Come to my arms, my beamish boy! O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’ He chortled in his joy. ’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe; all mimsy were the borogoves, and the mome raths outgrabe…”
He lost track of time. Days turned to weeks as he traveled in that tiny cage across the Wonderland. He became very thin, gaunt and ill. His water was no longer spiked but he had barely any strength. He kept his madness in check by spending hours retelling tales of the Wonderland. His stories often entertained the soldiers and if the narrative were exceptionally good they would feed him.
The Mad Hatter felt like a circus freak. The way they treated him was degrading. He felt less than human, less than a dog, a mere object that could be disposed of at will. For the first time in many years – since the Mad Tea Party, perhaps – the Mad Hatter had no control. And so he was afraid.
Fear was an emotion he had not felt in a very long time. It turned his eyes white and tightened like a noose around his neck. He was afraid of what the Red Queen would do to him, he was afraid that the Wonderland would be lost to her tyranny forever and he was afraid that he would never hold Alice in his arms again.
It was dusk and the horizon was splayed with dark purple. The cage was placed near a blazing campfire and its occupant was sitting cross-legged with his hands curled around the bars. The soldiers were passing around bottles of rum. They were the only Wonderlanders to drink alcohol rather than tea.
“Have you ever been in love?” the Mad Hatter suddenly asked them all.
A few shook their heads but many more became dreamy-eyed. One, apparently eager for a good love-story, passed a bottle of rum through the bars to him. The Mad Hatter took a long, deep drink which caused him to cough. He wiped his tongue several times on the palm of his blood-stained hand.
“Good Lord, that’s revolting. Anyone got any tea?”
“Tell us a story!” the soldier demanded, snatching the bottle back.
“Alright, keep your hat on. So it’s a love story for you chaps tonight?”
Heads turned to the Mad Hatter. They may have been the Red Queen’s minions but they still had hearts, he mused. There were always two sides to a villain’s story – he could vouch for that himself.
The Mad Hatter got himself as comfortable as he could in the cage. He waited until all eyes were on him and then, with the firelight casting a haunting glow across his face, he began to speak, his rich voice adding depth to the story.
“A long time ago, when a peaceful kingdom was ruled by a good and fair king, a commoner began to make a name for himself by serving the most excellent cups of tea ever tasted in the land. The king brought the boy into the royal court and appointed him the court tea maker. The boy was living his wildest dreams. He had fame and wealth – but what he didn’t have, what he knew he could never have, was the hand of the king’s elder daughter.
“The boy had fallen hopelessly in love with the princess. With each breath he drew, her name was printed on his lungs just as it was tattooed across his heart. Despite their different births, the princess became attracted to the boy. He was pale but handsome, humble but determined, gracious but strong. In the end, he finally won her over with his affections.
“Time passed and the flower of their young love blossomed into something beautiful. Swept up in a whirlwind romance, they became more daring. Many times they were almost caught and their secret revealed. The princess was terrified that her father would find out and deny her the crown. Only their closest, most trusted friends knew. With suspicions rising among the other courtiers, the boy thought it best to take a break from the court and return to the Archway, the home he had had before the king had found him.
“The separation was heartbreaking for the couple. It was made even harder for the princess when her father fell gravely ill. She had to adopt the role of ruler while he was confined to his sickbed. The boy desperately wanted to be by her side but it was a long time before he was finally able to return to the court.
“They had both changed in that time. They had grown older, wiser, worldlier, but their love for each other still remained. The young man was the princess’s confident and best friend. He was there for her during the grief following her father’s death and cheered her on when she was crowned. Now a queen, she had nothing to fear – or so she thought.”
The Mad Hatter paused and looked around at the silently listening soldiers. He could tell that they thought the story to be nothing but a fairytale. They had no idea that he was recounting a true story about the tragic love between two of his old Wonderland friends. He sighed and pressed on.
“When the queen became pregnant, they knew that it was only a matter of time before the truth came out. There had recently been a split in the court when the queen’s younger sister had turned renegade and so the queen feared what her sister might do with the knowledge of her affair. The lovers spent one last night together and in the morning the young man left the court.
“The queen did well to hide her pregnancy. There were rumours, of course, that the queen had been promiscuous as a teenager and had finally gotten herself with child, but none dared confront her. Her sister gathered all this information and she cruelly schemed ways to hurt the older sister she had always been jealous of. When the queen entered her eighth month of pregnancy, her sister sent mercenaries to the Archway and there they murdered the man who had once been famed for his cups of tea.”
“What?” a soldier gasped, tears in his eyes as he clutched a bottle of rum. “She killed the queen’s lover?”
“Yes, she did,” the Mad Hatter said gravely, his own eyes deep blue as he sadly reflected on the past. “She had him castrated and burned, and then she sent what was left of him back to the queen. The shock and grief caused the queen to go into early labour. On the same day his father died, their son was born. Fearing for the baby’s life, the queen placed the premature newborn in the arms of his father’s elder brother. He had spent many years as a warrior and so she knew he could protect her child while she tried to keep a kingdom from falling apart.
“The queen saw her son again just once. Although he was only a child, he looked so much like his father. Pale and handsome, with white hair and dark brown eyes. She took him in her arms, kissed him and told him to be strong for her. ‘We’ll be together soon, my brave Gryphon,’ she vowed. Alas, it was a promise she could never keep, for her life was cruelly ended and all that had once been pure and good fell into darkness…”
The Mad Hatter lifted his face to the stars, eyes painted blue by a deep sadness.
There was a moving silence when the tale had ended. Several soldiers blinked tears from their own eyes. Many of them had been touched by the tragic love story – a story they had no idea was true. It cut chasms in the Mad Hatter’s heart. He remembered when it had happened. He had been serving in the court as a milliner, young and free and with a stainless heart. He and his friends had known of the liaison between the couple, for they were also friends of theirs. It had caused them much joy to see their happiness – and then their whole world had fallen apart.
“The queen’s sister was evil,” a soldier declared.
“No, not necessarily,” the Mad Hatter said quietly. “She has her own story too, her own love and loss. It was not easy living under her sister’s shadow.”
“Was she beautiful?” another soldier asked. “The queen, I mean.”
“Both sisters were beautiful in their own way,” the Mad Hatter admitted. “While the queen was fair, her sister was dark. The queen’s mother passed away when she was very young and so her sister’s mother was the king’s second wife, if you get my drift.”
The soldiers stared at him blankly.
“They had different mums,” he said slowly, as if he were speaking to children.
“Oh!” several soldiers said in unison, revelation dawning on their faces.
“Muppets,” the Mad Hatter muttered.
The soldiers, content with his story, moved off to spread out their bedrolls. Sentries were posted on the outskirts of the camp, armed with a spear and a bottle of rum. The fire slowly sank to glowing embers as the soldiers drifted off to sleep.
Although his captors slept, the Mad Hatter was wide awake. He looked up at the stars that littered the night sky. Legend told that when a Wonderlander died, their soul became a bright light to shine upon the land and thus the stars were born from death.
The Mad Hatter could name many of the stars that hung over him that night. He found the Caterpillar, the White Queen, the White Rabbit and countless others. Names rolled off his tongue in a whisper as memories filled his head.
His gaze was caught by two stars shining directly above him. To his eyes, they appeared bigger and brighter than all the others. He knew their names but dared not utter them. They had died a long time ago, leaving him orphaned and forced to find his own way in the world. Even though his heart still ached for them after all these years, he still had not forgiven them for leaving him alone when he was just a boy.
A star suddenly shot across the sky to reunite with another star it had known down on the Wonderland. This was considered immensely good luck for any Wonderlander who caught sight of the shooting star. The Mad Hatter immediately fixed his eyes on the star and made his wish.
“Born from death,” he whispered, not even sure himself what he was wishing for. “I wish to be born from death.”
As he watched, the shooting star shot past all the others. It became bigger and brighter, a raging ball of fire that was falling from the sky. It hurtled downwards at a remarkable speed. The Mad Hatter’s breath was caught in his chest. Never had he seen something so beautiful yet terrifying. It lit up the night sky in violent shades of red and gold, as if the horizon itself were aflame. The closer and faster it came, the louder the sound of it became so that it sounded like a hurricane was hurtling towards them.
The soldiers were awakened by the light and sound. They stared at the falling star, dumbfounded, and then all at once they began to panic. With screams of fear they raced around the camp with all the usefulness of decapitated chickens. They knew that the star was heading towards them and would surely crash in their vicinity.
The Mad Hatter flicked the soldiers a scornful look and then he returned his gaze to the star. He was on his knees now, hands curled around the bars of the cage, mouth half-open in wonder. He felt honored to be witness to such a marvel.
For the first time since his capture, the Mad Hatter was not afraid. He lifted his face towards the burning night sky and let the falling star swallow him up.
Alice was slimmer now. Her body was sun-kissed and toned, the muscles of her arms strong from hours spent stringing and drawing her bow. Her long golden hair was drawn up into a ponytail with her fringe and a few stray locks falling across her face. Her blue eyes held the bright flame of determination.
Clad in a comfortable open-necked tunic that brushed her thighs, Alice shifted her position slightly, her tall boots scuffing in the dirt. She had never done hand-to-hand combat before but she guessed it couldn’t be too different from the girls’ self defense classes her school had made her take when she was twelve. The Cheshire Cat was looking at her with a lazy smile, his claws sheathed but hands ready. He was garbed in a pair of loose-fitting pants and his muscular chest was bare. There was no denying that the Cheshire Cat was very attractive, even if he did have a tail, Alice mused.
The Cheshire Cat showed Alice basic blocking movements. He taught her to use every part of her body to block whatever hit he threw at her. Once she was sufficiently bruised and battered and was able to identify which body part she needed to block his hit, he moved her on to delivering the blows herself. He complimented her on her strong punches but ended up frowning because her kicks were weak. Alice didn’t have enough leg power to deliver a good kick. The Cheshire Cat easily dodged her blow or grabbed her leg, neatly twisting it so that she was hopping around backwards on one leg. This frustrated her but try as she might, she couldn’t get it.
“Stop using just your lower leg to kick,” the Cheshire Cat told her, ever the patient teacher as they stopped for a breather. “Use your whole leg – calf, knee, thigh and hip too. That way you get more force behind it.”
Alice tried as he had instructed but she just didn’t have enough strength in her legs. She fell back, panting, and wiped the sweat from her brow.
“I don’t think I was made for kick-boxing,” she confessed.
The Cheshire Cat was trying very hard not to laugh. He turned his face away and turned his chuckle into a cough. When he had got himself under control again, he turned back to Alice.
“No, apparently not. Well, I guess you’ll have to revert to the old knee-groin tactic if your assailant is a male.”
“Shall we practice that one, then?” Alice asked with a sly grin.
“I think we’ve done enough training for the day,” the Cheshire Cat said quickly.
Laughing herself, Alice lay down on her back in the grass at the edge of the Pool of Tears. She pulled her boots off and dabbled her toes in the cool water. The Pool of Tears was a beautiful place. Isolated but still a safe, wonderful place for Gryphon to have grown up in. It made the grey city of Alice’s childhood look like a prison.
The Cheshire Cat stretched out on the grass next to her. He gave a deep purr in his throat as the sunlight bathed him in its golden rays. He turned his half-slitted tawny eyes on Alice’s face.
“Do you ever think of going back?” he asked her. “To your world, I mean.”
“No,” Alice said quietly but truthfully.
“What about friends, family? Don’t you wish to ever see them again?”
“I didn’t have any real friends,” Alice admitted. “I didn’t fit in well at school. As for family, I was an only child. My father died when I was young and my mother and I… well, we never got along. The day I came here to the Wonderland was the same day I walked out of home.”
“So you would rather stay in this mad world than return to yours?” the Cheshire Cat said, surprised.
“Yes, I would,” Alice replied honestly. “I have friends here. I have the Hatter. Despite the insanity of it all and the horror caused by the Red Queen’s tyranny, I’ve never felt more at home.”
“Even when the man you live with has been a murderer since you were just a little tyke?”
“The man I love,” Alice corrected, feeling a secret thrill at saying the words aloud. “And yes, even if the guy I want to spend my life with isn’t exactly all with it. But you know the Hatter’s a good man, Cheshire.”
“Yeah, I know,” he agreed, a smile unfurling on his face. “Did you know that he and I have been friends since childhood? When we were about six, we were playing with my siblings when my baby brother, Chess, suddenly fell into the pond. None of us could swim but that didn’t stop the Hatter. He dove into the water and doggy-paddled Chess to safety. He nearly drowned himself but all he could think about was rescuing my brother.”
“He was only six?” Alice said in surprise.
“He was brave beyond his years,” the Cheshire Cat said fondly. “He was generous, caring and selfless. Even after the Mad Tea Party, I could still recognise these traits when he was with his old friends. I have deeply valued his friendship all these years.”
Alice was silent. There was so much more to the Mad Hatter than she knew. She had never thought about his childhood before. Did he have parents, brothers, sisters? If so, where were they now? Did they know of what he had become?
She opened her mouth to ask the Cheshire Cat this when the March Hare came bounding through the looking-glass with the Dormouse clinging to one of his floppy ears. They were both looking excited. Alice and the Cheshire Cat leapt to their feet, anticipating good news.
“Good news!” the Dormouse squeaked happily, clambering up the March Hare’s ear to sit atop his head. “A troop of the Red Queen’s soldiers are dead. The Jubjub Bird says they were killed by a ball of fire.”
“The Jubjub Bird?” the Cheshire Cat said, looking disappointed. “He’s a fool! He was probably eating that strange weed plant again.”
“No, no, he swore on his egg he saw it!” the Dormouse said. “He was roosting in a Tumtum tree when it fell from the sky. The place where it hit was about three hours easy flying away.”
“So he went and investigated,” the March Hare continued, wanting to have some input before the Dormouse told the entire story himself. “He found the ruins of the soldiers’ camp and their charred bodies. A huge crater was in the ground and there was a giant rock smouldering in it. There was another thing there, too: a cage for their prisoner.”
“Hatter?” Alice gasped, hardly daring to believe it. “Was it him?”
“We believe so,” the March Hare said. “And here’s the mystery: the cage was empty. I believe he survived.”
It was raining but he wasn’t cold. In fact, he was hot, very hot. He felt as if his whole body were burning up. His blood was boiling in his veins and within minutes he was drenched in sweat. Startled, he realised he was naked. All he had was his top hat clutched tightly in his white-knuckled hand.
He opened his eyes. He was lying beside the fallen star in the crater it had gouged out of the earth on impact. He wondered how he had gotten there because he couldn’t recall leaving the cage, which was nowhere in sight. The last thing he remembered was being in the cage and looking up at the star as it roared towards him.
Against his better judgement, he sat up and reached out a hand to touch the smoking star. To his surprise, it was cool beneath his fingertips. He had expected it to burn him.
“What’s happened?” the Mad Hatter wondered aloud, his voice hoarse.
He felt… different, as if he were wearing a new skin. He ran his hands over his chest, arms, legs and crotch, checking that everything was still there. Same muscles, same scars, same family jewels. Nothing was out of order. He ran his hands over his face now. His mouth, nose and eyes were still there, as was his teardrop-scar just below his right eye. He pulled locks of his hair down to check that the color was still the same.
His hair, once jet-black, now had a thick silver streak in the front. The Mad Hatter was horrified. He felt suddenly old, which was a rather novel thing for a Wonderlander. Aging was so sporadic and unnatural that many Wonderlanders never got a grey hair. No one in their history had even died of old age.
“What the – Hell no!” the Mad Hatter raged. “What’s happened?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” said two musical voices in unison. “Your wish came true.”
From the other side of the fallen star came two beautiful, identical women. They had flowing silver hair and skin so pale it appeared translucent. Their wide, blue-grey eyes were filled with wisdom. They were both dressed in loose white dresses that floated on their slender bodies like clouds. Their feet were bare.
“Tweedles!” the Mad Hatter exclaimed.
He recognized the pair as his old friends from the days of the White Queen’s court. With sudden mortification, he remembered that he was naked. He quickly placed his top hat over his crotch, his face flaming.
“Where’ve you been all these years?” he demanded, hoping to kill two birds with one stone by drawing their attention away from his embarrassment and answering the question that had plagued him for so many years.
“Our apologies. In the aftermath that followed the Mad Tea Party, we dared not stay,” one of the Tweedle sisters, Dum, explained, seeming oblivious to his humiliation. “We – and the Caterpillar – fled to the Mushroom Valley. However, while the Caterpillar chose to stay and become an oracle, we found that that was not our calling.”
“We left the Mushroom Valley and began to search for the White Queen’s son,” Dee continued. “We found him being cared for by his uncle, the Bandersnatch. The Pool of Tears was not very secure so we created for them the system of caves beneath the water.”
“With that task completed, we decided that we had best go into hiding too,” Dum took over. “We found ourselves a small niche in a remote part of the Freelands and there we stayed for many long years, cut off from the outside world. It has only been recently that we have surfaced to face what has become of the Wonderland.”
Great sadness dampened the Tweedles’ faces. This was a new world to them, cruel and wild and filled with much pain and anguish. They had hidden themselves away for so long that, when they had at last emerged, it was to find that all they had known before had been stripped away.
“Much has changed,” the Mad Hatter agreed, his voice hoarse and humbled. “Too much.”
“The dawn of battle is fast approaching,” Dee prophesied. “Nothing will ever be the same. And you have a part that you must play.”
“Me? But I am nothing, Tweedles, nothing but a mad murderer whose hands have been stained by the blood of thousands.”
“You are much, much more than that,” Dum said. “When this star fell to earth you should have died, but the Wonderland chose to spare your life. It is not finished with you. You are to gather the resistance and storm the Red Queen’s castle to claim the crown back for the White Queen’s son. You will lead the Wonderland out of this darkness and into a golden age.”
The Mad Hatter shook his head in disbelief. Him, lead the resistance? Alice had said that to him once before but he had brushed her comment aside as foolishness. A man like him could never do such a thing. And who would follow him? He doubted even his friends would. They knew him, had shared many things and discussed the war with him, but none – save the Cheshire Cat – had attempted to convince him to join the resistance. They did not trust him and he understood that perfectly well. If he were in their shoes, he wouldn’t trust him either.
Wordlessly, the Mad Hatter held out his hands, palms facing upwards, showing the Tweedles the burgundy stain of old blood on his skin. He kept them there for a long time, envisioning the liters of blood that had poured off them over the years. He remembered each blow he had struck, each voice that had screamed out piteously, each life he had ended without hesitation. His hands were stained with a sin that went far deeper than his skin.
“These hands will never be clean,” he confessed in a whisper, hanging his head.
Dee swept forward and placed her cool fingers beneath his chin, lifting his head so that he looked her in the eye. Her clear gaze was filled with pity.
“Oh, how life has been cruel to you,” she said softly, her eyes welling up. “A family broken, a childhood stolen, a new-found happiness destroyed… You have endured so much heartbreak.”
Because Dee and the Cheshire Cat had once been lovers in their youth, the Tweedle sisters knew the Mad Hatter’s story. They and the Cheshire Cat alone knew where he had come from and what he had been through, and now the Tweedle sisters knew of the nightmare he had become. The Mad Hatter could feel the love pouring out from both women, a love he felt he was unworthy to be deserving of.
“Tweedles, I –” he began, the words catching in his throat.
“This is what you were born for,” they said in unison. “Only by fulfilling your destiny can your blood-stained hands be washed clean and your soul find redemption.”
It was like the floodgates had opened in the Mad Hatter’s heart. All the emotion he had ever felt but never shown during his youth – the hurt, the rejection, the abandonment, the worthlessness, the loneliness, the guilt, the shame, the pain… It all came pouring out as he cried for the first time since he was orphaned at five years old. Tears more precious than diamonds flooded down his face and splashed onto the scars on his chest. It was so beautiful that the Tweedle sisters had tears slipping down their own cheeks too.
He didn’t know how long he cried for but when at last his tears were spent, the Mad Hatter felt as if a great burden had been lifted off his heart. He hadn’t known until then just what a weight he had been carrying for all those years. As he raised his head again, the Tweedle sisters saw that a thousand gold stars were dancing in his calm green eyes.
“Healing is yours,” they declared. “Now, arise.”
The Mad Hatter made to do so and then remembered that the only thing covering his nakedness was his top hat placed strategically over his crotch.
“Would one of you be so kind as to fetch my clothes for me?” he asked, flushing.
Dum did so and, while she and her sister turned their backs, the Mad Hatter quickly dressed. He brushed his hair out of his eyes – grimacing at the silver streak – and placed his top hat carefully on his head. He took a deep breath and let it out as a sigh, feeling more comfortable in his clothes.
“There’s one last thing you require before you are ready,” Dum said.
The Mad Hatter wasn’t exactly sure where she drew it from, but somehow she produced a sword and handed it to him. He took it, turning it over to look at all sides of it. The hilt fit his hands perfectly. The gleaming silver blade was inscribed with ancient runes from a language long since lost to the Wonderland.
“It’s the Vorpal sword,” he said wondrously. “The sword which the Bandersnatch used to slay the Jabberwock many years ago. How did you come to have it, Tweedles?”
“The Bandersnatch gave it to us when he came over to our side,” Dee explained. “We have kept it safe ever since, waiting for the day that we knew it would be needed again.”
“Will I have to use it on the Red Queen?” the Mad Hatter asked quietly.
“We know you wish that she didn’t have to die by your hand, but only you can end this war,” Dum said. “You were there when she murdered the White Queen. It is only right that you are the one to claim vengeance.”
“What about Gryphon? He’s her son. He was the one who, because of her, had to grow up without his parents,” the Mad Hatter argued. “Or the Bandersnatch, he could do it, the Red Queen caused him much pain.”
“No,” Dum said firmly. “It has to be you. Gryphon is too young and there is a part of the Bandersnatch that still loves the Red Queen.”
The Mad Hatter looked down at his hands, seeing the old blood that stained them. What were a few more drops to him? He had killed mercilessly for so many years. Would it be ironic for him to save the Wonderland by killing once again?
“Not far from here you will find a horse whose reins are tied to a Tumtum tree,” Dee told him. “Knave is no ordinary horse so you should make it to the Red Castle in time to meet Alice and the others. Ride hard and don’t look back.”
Alice felt as if the Jubjub Bird were leaping around in her stomach. She was quiet as the March Hare fixed her breakfast. Gryphon had already eaten a hearty meal and was now gazing at nothing, his lips moving in silent prayer. The Cheshire Cat was absolutely still but for the swishing of his tail. The Bandersnatch was grave and silent, and the Dormouse was fidgeting nervously. Alice knew that they, too, were wondering if they would live to see tomorrow.
When the time came for Alice to put on her armor, she had lost all color from her face. She pulled on her greaves, light gauntlets and very light chain mail. The armor was black but for the silver designs on them. She slung her quiver and bow over her back.
In a few hours time, the final battle would commence. The resistance would rally to the plains outside the Red Castle via looking-glasses from all over the Wonderland. For the first time since the Red Queen stole her sister’s crown, Wonderlanders would openly oppose her.
“Alice!” Gryphon called. “It’s time.”
Alice came up out of the Pool of Tears and joined Gryphon and the others on the water’s edge. Gryphon was wearing chain mail beneath a flowing white cloak and he carried his bow. The Bandersnatch wore his long brown cloak with the wide sleeves and hood. He wasn’t visibly armed. The Cheshire Cat was dressed in only his loose-fitting pants and his claws had been freshly sharpened. The March Hare had swapped his suit and tie in favour of chain mail and a giant hammer. The Dormouse’s garb was his favourite red coat and he was bravely wielding his tiny rapier. They were such a mismatched group that Alice felt the sudden urge to laugh.
Gryphon looked back at the Pool of Tears, obviously wondering if he would ever see his home again. The Bandersnatch placed a large, comforting hand on his shoulder.
“Your father would be proud of what you will do today,” he told his nephew.
One by one they filtered through the looking-glass. Alice placed herself deliberately last. She kept hesitating, hoping against hope that the Mad Hatter would come swooping in. He had promised that he would come for her. She couldn’t bear the thought of going into the battle without him.
“Alice,” Gryphon said softly. “Alice, we’re the last ones. We have to go.”
Alice threw a last, desperate look around the quiet valley. There was no sign of the Mad Hatter. Defeated, she followed Gryphon into the looking-glass. After the wild spinning had finished and she had tumbled out the other side, Alice was bruised and freezing, but the journey wasn’t as bad as it had been the first time.
She had to quickly compose herself because there before her was a great sea of Wonderlanders. There were so many of them, hundreds – thousands – all disloyal to the Red Queen. A hush fell in waves across them as Gryphon stepped forwards. He was so young and pale, but his dark brown eyes were determined.
“My name is Gryphon,” he declared to the rabble at large. “I am the White Queen’s son.”
There was momentary silence and then an uproar tore through it. The Wonderlanders didn’t seem to know what to believe. They began arguing loudly among themselves and fights broke out. The Bandersnatch stepped forward to put a stop to it.
His bellow echoed across the desolate plain. Heads turned and shock showed on many faces as most of the Wonderlanders recognised the Bandersnatch. He was much feared and respected across the Wonderland and was such an imposing, legendary figure that they immediately fell silent. However, despite the awe that he commanded, there was still a fair share of hostility and distrust among them.
“Continue, Gryphon,” the Bandersnatch muttered to the boy.
“Thank you. Wonderlanders,” Gryphon began again, his clear voice ringing out for all to hear. “Wonderlanders, all you who have traveled from near and far, hear me now. I know that I appear as nothing but a mere boy in your eyes, but please, I beg you to lend me your ears.
“Today is a day that will be marked forever in our history books. Today is the day that you say no to oppression, no to tyranny, no to the cruelty of the Red Queen. For many long years the Wonderland has existed under an iron fist. Many of you have lived in fear for your lives, loathing the Red Queen’s rule but being too scared to openly oppose it. My brothers and sisters, I now give you the chance to rise up.
“Many of you have tragic pasts filled with loss and heartbreak. Before I was born, my father, the White Rabbit, was brutally killed on the orders of the Red Queen, then known as Princess Heart. When I was just a small child, she then murdered my mother, the White Queen, at the Mad Tea Party. I grew up in the Freelands, hidden away from the rest of the world, my existence kept secret from all but a few.
“But I will hide no longer. Frabjous day is upon us. Today, we fight for the vengeance of our loved ones. Today, we fight for the future of our children. Today, we fight for the freedom of the Wonderland.”
Gryphon’s eyes, a blazing fire burning deep within them, swept over the rabble. He knew that he had gained their attention and, he hoped, their respect and trust too. He did not speak lightly to them, nor did he say words that he had rehearsed. They came straight from his heart, from the very depths of his soul that had churned all his life over the injustice he had suffered in having both his parents murdered.
He felt that there was nothing more he needed to say. He glanced over his shoulder at Alice, the Bandersnatch and the others, and they all nodded. He stepped back in relief.
Alice had been concentrating on the Wonderlanders loyal to their cause and so she hadn’t taken in her surroundings. She did so now, turning around to face the castle and the land around it. Like the rest of the Wonderland – barring the Pool of Tears – this plain was dark and dismal, a dull strip of land naked but for a smattering of trees and the Red Queen’s castle which sprawled like a large, black insect. Where the White Queen’s castle had been a glorious work of art, her sister had mangled its beauty, turning it into something ugly and ominous that pierced the clouds with its many spikes and turrets. Armed soldiers in black armor lined the ramparts, their faces menacing. Human bones bobbed in the crocodile-infested moat waters. The portcullis was raised and the drawbridge lowered – and, as Alice watched, a woman came out with her guard.
There was no denying that she was beautiful. Tall and breathtaking, her locks of midnight-black hair tumbled down her back. Long lashes framed cruel eyes that appeared to be the deepest shade of violet. Her body was encased in a red leather suit that emphasised her curves. She gripped a cruelly curved blade in one hand and on her head shone a silver crown.
“The Red Queen,” the Cheshire Cat muttered.
Proud and haughty, the Red Queen stalked across the drawbridge in the safety of her guards. She went about a hundred yards from the moat and then stopped. With her arms crossed and sword dangling from her fingertips, she eyed the army ranged before her. A smirk lifted one corner of her red lips.
“You’re all fools,” she told them scornfully, her voice carrying across the space between them as she pointed her sword in Gryphon’s direction. “You follow this boy? He is the bastard son of a harlot princess and a common tea-maker. Slit his throat and see for yourself that he has not a drop of royal blood in his veins.”
“Harlot princess? Now that’s what I call the pot calling the kettle black,” came a familiar voice from behind Alice.
Alice felt as if the ground had fallen away beneath her. A powerful black horse trotted up beside her and halted with a gentle tug of its reins. Its rider slid gracefully from the saddle, booted feet sending up a small dust cloud.
“Mad Hatter!” the Red Queen said, shock showing momentarily on her face before she smoothed her features over into a cool mask. “The rumour was that you were dead.”
“Yes, well, I figured I’d best squash those rumours before I ended up reading the eulogy at my own funeral,” the Mad Hatter said lightly. “Talk about awkward.”
He placed a gentle kiss on Alice’s head but did not speak to her, instead turning to the Bandersnatch to catch a quick, private word. Alice gazed at him, drinking in the sight of him. He was different. Lighter. There was a thick silver streak in his hair and his eyes were filled with stars again. She ached to have him take her in his arms but she knew that now was not the time.
Almost lazily, the Mad Hatter reached beneath his cloak. In one fluid, sweeping movement he drew a sword out. It was a magnificent weapon, with a gleaming silver blade engraved with ancient runes.
“The Vorpal sword!” the March Hare exclaimed. “Where did you find that, Mad Hatter?”
“Oh, you know. Around,” the Mad Hatter replied vaguely. “Bandersnatch, is it all right if I borrow this for today? I seem to have lost my own sword and knives.”
The Bandersnatch nodded. He was looking at the sword with fondness on his scarred face, as if remembering the legendary day he had slain the Jabberwock and become a hero in the eyes of Wonderlanders all over. Those were the days when he had been in his prime, the days before he had met a devastatingly beautiful young woman who took everything he had and tore his world apart.
Rain began to fall from the dark grey sky. It began as a trickle that, within moments, had transformed into a roaring waterfall that thundered down over the Wonderland. Beside Alice, the Cheshire Cat groaned and tried to make himself as small as possible.
The Wonderlanders were becoming restless. They shifted and fidgeted, swapping their weapons from hand to hand. Then, from the very back, someone began to drum, using the flat of his sword to beat against his neighbour’s. The clashing of blades began a steady rhythm that flowed like a wave up to the very front. By the time it had reached the Mad Hatter, Alice and the others, the sound was almost deafening.
“Now?” Gryphon said, looking inquiringly at the Mad Hatter.
“Not yet,” the milliner muttered. “Wait for it…”
Alice looked around, wondering what they were waiting for. A signal? She could see lots of movement in the castle as the Red Queen’s soldiers got themselves organized. This went on for several minutes before all of a sudden the movement ceased, as if they, too, were waiting.
And then it came, out of place in the rain, a clap of lightning that struck the ground at exactly dead centre in the stretch of space between the Red Queen and the resistance. A coiling black spire of smoke curled up from the crater it formed. The Red Queen’s lips curved in a cruel smile as she raised her sword, and her soldiers came pouring forth.
It was chaos. The rain streamed down just as heavy as the blood that flowed across the plain. Silver streaks whirred through the air as blades came scything down to clash with one another. Gore splattered the ground and stained the bodies of the dead and wounded. Each combatant was locked in a deadly dance where one wrong move could end it all.
There was no space to breath nor time to rest. Sweat and rain drenched Alice. She felt hot and heavy in her armor but dare not take it off. It was difficult using a bow at such short range, but she and Gryphon both had a knack for nocking their arrows and letting them fly at ridiculous speeds. Also, if a soldier was found to be bearing down upon her, she could whip out an arrow and stab him with it as if it were a knife.
The Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat and the March Hare were all viciously fighting too. The Bandersnatch was wielding an enormous lochaber axe that was sending heads flying left, right and centre. The Dormouse was scurrying along the ground, stabbing feet with his rapier. Even the horse the Mad Hatter had ridden there, a powerful black steed called Knave, was crushing soldiers beneath his flailing hooves.
The two armies had seemed evenly matched to begin with but now – miraculously – the tide appeared to be turning in favour of the resistance. The soldiers had been trained by drill masters that taught them specific sword patterns, but because the Wonderlanders fought with raw skill the soldiers were unable to duel as they normally did. The Wonderlanders’ style was to hit as hard as you could as fast as you were able to.
The Mad Hatter was like the Grim Reaper himself as he marched solidly across the battlefield, the Vorpal sword slicing out. Blood and rain drenched him and his black eyes were filled with golden stars. Gore splattered his boots.
He knew that they would win as surely as he knew that the sun would rise in the morning. The Wonderland had been waiting a very long time for this day and now victory was at hand. He was carving a path through the battle in order to reach the Red Queen. She was spinning like a ballerina, her black locks thick with rainwater, curved blade slashing through the downpour. There was a cruel, vicious look on her face as men and women fell like tenpins around her.
And then, to the Mad Hatter’s horror, Alice was there. She didn’t seem to realise that she had strayed near the Red Queen. She was bleeding from several wounds but kept on fighting, her arrows flying out. There was fear showing clearly on her face among the fierce determination. For the first time since Alice had arrived in the Wonderland, the Mad Hatter realised that she was still so young. At seventeen, she shouldn’t have been fighting with them. She was barely more than a child. He began to run, desperate to reach her, but before his eyes a horrible scene unfolded.
The Red Queen had spotted Alice. With a cruel look on her face, she slid a long black knife from her boot. She stole up to Alice and, so fast that the Mad Hatter didn’t even have time to cry out a warning, she brought the knife up and thrust it right through Alice’s chain mail. The knife was imbedded just below her right shoulder blade. Alice gave a splitting scream and dropped to the ground.
The Mad Hatter froze. He simply couldn’t put another foot forwards. The battle was forgotten to him now. Nothing else mattered but for the fact that Alice was lying still upon the ground, her face deathly white and eyes closed. The knife was in her back and her life’s blood was pouring out. The Red Queen caught the Mad Hatter’s eye and smiled.
A terrible animal’s cry tore from the Mad Hatter’s throat. It ripped across the battlefield, an anguished howl of pain and grief. He raised the Vorpal sword in both hands and, with a speed that almost defied the laws of physics, he shot across the battlefield. In a heartbeat he and the Red Queen were engaged in a perfectly choreographed death dance. It was a tragic, beautiful thing to watch – for both armies that had been fighting had ceased their own battles to watch them. The Bandersnatch was cradling Alice’s limp form in his strong arms as Gryphon stood pale at his side and the Cheshire Cat was holding onto the Mad Hatter’s top hat. The March Hare and the Dormouse were looking tense and worried.
It had come down to this battle between the Mad Hatter and the Red Queen. Whoever survived would be the one to hold the fate of the Wonderland in their hands.
The Mad Hatter and the Red Queen were both lithe and agile. They were fast on their feet and matched in strength. Long years spent training had given them practically flawless skills with their swords. Neither one made a mistake. They could not afford to.
The Red Queen was taking the offensive now as the Mad Hatter built up his strength by playing defense. The Red Queen’s anger was a great fault when it came to dueling. Over time it made her hard and impatient. Her blows fell harder and faster but with less care. Often she would leave herself vulnerable to an attack. The Mad Hatter was observing and planning, trying his best not to think of Alice. Right now he had to put the Wonderland before his own feelings and he could not afford to lose focus.
The Red Queen was relentless. Her face shining with sweat, she bore down on the Mad Hatter with a twisted look in her eyes. She was far stronger than any other woman in the Wonderland and could best many of the men. But the Mad Hatter could see a chink in her armor. She was using her rage to give her more power. If he were to replace that rage with another emotion then she would be weaker.
“Tell me, Red Queen,” he panted, sweat dripping from his scalp. “How does it feel to have your first love as your enemy?”
The Red Queen dropped back, her chest rising and falling rapidly as she regained her breath. Her dark violet eyes flicked over to the Bandersnatch.
“It is better to be feared than loved,” she stated resolutely.
“It didn’t seem that way in your youth, when you risked everything so that you two could be together,” the Mad Hatter said. “Why, you even aborted your three pregnancies.”
The Red Queen’s face turned white as her secret landed on the ears of thousands of Wonderlanders and soldiers. A furious look crossed the Bandersnatch’s face as he remembered the old feelings of shame, anger, hurt and betrayal. He had wanted each of those babies and had been devastated each time to learn that Princess Heart had ‘miscarried’. He had found out the truth in the end.
The Red Queen’s gaze kept lingering on the Bandersnatch. The Mad Hatter could see that the old spark between the pair was still there. Nothing could entirely douse the flames of their old love, not even everything the Red Queen had put the Bandersnatch through when she was a young woman. He realised then and there what he had to do, and he fell back so that he and the Red Queen were circling each other.
“March!” he barked as he passed the March Hare. “Would you see the Red Queen killed for her crimes?”
“Yes!” the March Hare said stoutly, looking the Red Queen straight in the face.
“Me too!” the Dormouse squeaked from where he sat on his friend’s shoulder.
“Cheshire? What about you?” the Mad Hatter asked.
“Nothing would give me more pleasure than doing it myself,” the Cheshire Cat said in a dark voice that was filled with countless years of pain and rage.
“Young Gryphon?” the Mad Hatter pressed the boy.
“Even though she is my aunt, I swore vengeance on her for my parents’ murders,” Gryphon said coldly.
The Mad Hatter at last come to the Bandersnatch. He positioned himself so that he could see both him and the Red Queen. The Bandersnatch’s expression was emotionless as he cradled Alice’s limp body in his arms, but the Red Queen’s face was chalk white as she stared at her old lover.
“Would you see the Red Queen killed?” the Mad Hatter asked the Bandersnatch in a quiet voice that seemed to split the air in two.
A tear broke across the Bandersnatch’s scarred cheek. His eyes were filled with an endless pain. It was clear that a part of him still loved the woman who had killed his unborn children, murdered his brother and brought the Wonderland into a tragic era of darkness. The Red Queen had stripped him of everything but his nephew, a boy who he loved as if he were the son he never had.
“Heart,” he said in a choked voice, speaking directly to the violet-eyed woman. “Heart, why have you let this happen? Why have you let your jealousy and anger consume you and all of the Wonderland?”
The Red Queen couldn’t even look at him. She dropped her eyes to her blade, her grip on the hilt knuckle-white. Her hair fell across her face, hiding any emotion she might have been experiencing.
“I loved you, Heart,” the Bandersnatch said softly. “I gave you everything I had. I wanted us to be as happy as my brother was with your sister. We may not have been the rulers of the Wonderland as you had wanted, but even so you were still a queen in my eyes.”
This caused the Red Queen to lift her head again. She had a twisted look on her face.
“No woman is a queen without a crown,” she declared.
“And no queen is a woman without a heart,” the Bandersnatch replied, and then turned to the Mad Hatter. “Yes. I would see her killed. She is no longer the woman I once loved. That woman is dead.”
The Mad Hatter stepped away from the Red Queen, moving back into the armies and leaving her standing on her own. Her soldiers made no move to shield her. Exhausted and wounded, their livers ruined by years spent consuming alcohol, they had long since lost all respect for the Red Queen. And so, abandoned and unloved, the Red Queen stood alone as the armies advanced on her.
The Bandersnatch lay Alice upon the battlefield among the dead, dying and wounded. Her face was deathly white, eyes closed and her blood soaked the grass. The knife that the late Red Queen had used to stab her with had been cast aside. The Mad Hatter sat down upon the ground and pulled Alice’s head into his lap. As if called by his touch, her eyes fluttered open. She gazed up at him, frail and weak, blood at the corner of her mouth.
“You came back,” she whispered. “You came back to me.”
“I promised I would never leave you,” the Mad Hatter said softly, stroking her golden hair.
“Hatter, I – I hurt so much,” Alice whimpered. “My body’s on fire. I – I’m dying, aren’t I?”
The Mad Hatter didn’t speak. He simply kissed the top of her head and held her tighter, desperate to hold on, unable to let her go. He knew that she was gravely wounded. All hope was quickly dying.
The Cheshire Cat’s paw fell on his shoulder. He looked up at his friend, tears in his eyes.
“What can I do?” he asked hollowly.
“I’m taking care of it,” the Cheshire Cat replied. “A looking-glass is being fetched from the castle. It’s the only chance we have.”
“I have to send her back?” the Mad Hatter asked painfully.
“It may be the only way to save her.”
Alice’s hand found the Mad Hatter’s and she twined her fingers through his. She looked up at him, her blue eyes filled with pain and fear. She could feel death approaching fast on black angel wings. She could not bear to part from the Mad Hatter again.
The March Hare brought the looking-glass. He, the Dormouse, the Bandersnatch and Gryphon were all grave as they stood around Alice and the Mad Hatter. The Cheshire Cat held the looking-glass up before them.
“This leads to your world, Alice,” he told her. “You can get medical treatment that is far beyond any herbs or potions that the Wonderland has. If you go, you have a chance to live.”
Alice gazed into the depths of the looking-glass. For a moment she saw herself reflected back as she was, wrapped up in the Mad Hatter’s arms, white-faced and blood-soaked, the light fading from her eyes. And then the reflection changed. She was dressed in a white gown and wrapped up in casts and bandages. She was hooked up to life-support as she lay unmoving on a hospital bed.
“I’m alive!” the Alice in the Wonderland gasped.
She squeezed the Mad Hatter’s hand with the little strength she had left.
“Hatter, what if I died back in my world? Would I get the last of my strength back so that I don’t die here?” she asked with fearful hope.
The men, mouse and boy around her all looked at one another. They had never heard of anyone doing such a thing before. But this was the Wonderland, where anything was possible if you were mad enough to try it.
“I’ll do it,” the Dormouse declared. “I’ll go through and switch her off.”
“Will you be able to get back?” the March Hare asked worriedly.
“He’ll be able to,” the Mad Hatter said reassuringly. “All Wonderlanders can travel between worlds using looking-glasses. We created them, remember?”
“Go, Dormouse,” Alice urged in a small voice. “Please hurry.”
His small face determined, the Dormouse leapt from the March Hare’s shoulder and shot straight into the looking-glass. He fell beside Alice on the hospital bed. After a moment taken to find his feet, he scuttled across the bed to the life-support. He pulled out the lines and switched it off.
All at once doctors and nurses flooded the room. As the Dormouse jumped back into the Wonderland, the Alice in the Mad Hatter’s arms saw a familiar face amongst the crowd of white-coated men and women. It was her mother, her face sick with worry, her mouth open as she screamed for her dying daughter. The Alice on the hospital bed broke into a seizure as the hospital staff attempted to save her. They worked frantically but it was in vain. Alice went limp as her heart stopped beating. On her lifeless face was the ghost of a last smile, as if she knew that her true life was only just beginning.
A little girl and two boys were in the royal gardens. The girl was as cute as a button, her black hair framing a pretty white face with sparkling blue eyes. She wore a blue frock and had grass stains on her bare feet. The younger boy was climbing a tree nearby. He was older than the girl, about thirteen to her six years. He had tawny eyes and wild hair. Two delicate fangs curled in his mouth. The older boy was in his late teens. He had pure white hair and dark brown eyes. Both boys were dressed in breeches and open-necked shirts, revealing the elder’s muscled chest.
The little girl ran up to the elder boy. He took her hands and swung her up onto his shoulders. She broke into peals of sunshine laughter, her small fingers threaded through his hair.
“Now I’m taller than my daddy!” she said happily.
“But not as tall as my uncle,” the white-haired boy said. “You’d need to sit on your daddy’s shoulders to be as tall as the Bandersnatch.”
The boy was happy to be stealing a moment in the garden with Matilda and Chess. Despite his youth, he carried a great responsibility in the Wonderland. Being with the children made him feel like he was recovering the childhood he had never had the opportunity to have. Of course, he had to keep his excursions on the down low. It wouldn’t do for some loose-tongued courtier to start gossiping about how the king played in the garden with children. No one would take him seriously then.
Gryphon walked over to Chess’s tree with little Mattie on his shoulders so that she could climb up to him. He knew that her mother would have his hide later for letting her daughter climb trees in a dress, but Mattie was an adventurous little girl who had a charming and rebellious side just like her infamous father. She had the world melting at her feet with just one smile.
“Here, Mattie, I’ll help you up,” Chess said as the girl started to climb.
Gryphon sank down into the grass and watched the children. Just as he himself did, they carried a great legacy on their youthful shoulders. Wonderful things were expected of them because of who they were related to. The Cheshire Cat had once helped lead the resistance that had taken the Wonderland back from the hands of the Red Queen. He had now taken his youngest brother under his wing and was to enlist Chess in the army when the boy turned fifteen.
While Chess was known for who his brother was, none was more famed than the little girl he was helping to climb a tree. Blessed with her mother’s beautiful blue eyes and her father’s jet-black hair, Gryphon knew that the whole of the Wonderland was quickly falling in love with Mattie Hatter.