Black Alice

How Doth the Little Crocodile

Eventually Kate spotted a building.

It seemed like an old but sturdy building, and quite a small one, built into the rocks. Not one to leave anything alone, especially not when even the smallest thing could be what she was looking for and she wouldn’t even know it. Kate approached the building. It seemed like a shop of antiques and doodads, the short of shop an older woman could spend quite a bit of time in reminiscing. In fact, Kate very well might have, if not for the need to hurry herself along. She entered the shop and a bell rang to signal her arrival.

She stared at the shopkeeper. The shopkeeper stared back. It was a sheep in a bonnet. Yes, Kate was quite sure, even with her eyes being what they were, that this was a sheep. It wore a bonnet and eyeglasses, calmly knitting something under the table. She glanced up at Kate as though she only just noticed she was there.

“What is it you want to buy?” the Sheep said. The voice sounded feminine. Yes, a kindly old woman’s voice, to be sure. Kate was surprised at how unsurprised she was.

“Er… I’m actually just browsing,” Kate said uncertainly. The Sheep stared a little more meaningfully. Kate supposed that hadn’t been the right line. The Sheep sighed and stood slowly.

“Can you row?” she asked. Kate nodded, a little bewildered by the question.

“Well, yes, I fashion myself a bit of a knitter,” she said. The Sheep sighed again and gestured vaguely at a shelf towards the back of the room.

“Go on then,” she said. “You don’t seem like the sort of person who enjoys a handsome bit of nonsense, so I shan’t keep you. I should say we have crabs and all sorts of things, but that over there is what you’re looking for, more likely than not. It’s fivepence farthing for one, twopence for two, must eat them both if you buy two, etcetera. Good luck.”

Kate followed the goat’s gaze to an egg sitting quite politely on a shelf. “Ah!” she said, thinking that for once she understood completely. “That ought to be Humpty-Dumpty himself, then?” she asked as she started toward it. Behind her, the goat just heaved another sigh, muttered “feathers” under her breath, and set herself back to her knitting.

Not too surprising now, the egg seemed to move away the closer Kate got to it. Remembering her little run with the Red Queen, she raced after it at the fastest pace her old knees could keep up. Her eyes noticed, as she ran, a chair nearby seem to take root. The next thing she knew she’d passed a brook, though she hadn’t any time to wonder, and then the room faded away in a familiar fashion, making way for trees all about her.

The egg began to get larger now as she neared. As she got closer, she found a nose and mouth in its features, and eyes, and by golly, now it wore clothes. Kate found herself staring up at the large, rather humanlike egg, as he sat atop a wall with his legs crossed and his eyes staring off into space, taking not even the slightest notice of her.

“Excuse me,” Kate said as she slowed down and came to a stop by him. It took her a fair moment to catch her breath before continuing, glad that it had been so easy to find him after all. “I don’t suppose you have a moment to be asked for directions, Mr. Humpty-Dumpty? I’d be much obliged if you could, I’m in a bit of a hurry, you see—”

“It’s very provoking to be called an egg,” Humpty-Dumpty interrupted loudly. “Very.”

“Pardon me,” Kate said patiently, “but I didn’t call you an egg, and I shan’t, if it upsets you so. Though I will admit in all honesty, as should you, that you do very closely resemble one.”

“Some people have no more sense than a baby,” the odd being mumbled, shifting in his seat. He watched Kate out of the corner of his eye, as though expecting something, and sighed helplessly when she did not deliver. Kate rolled her eyes as she realized what he wanted.

“Yes, I know. You’ll have to forgive me; I didn’t have time to practice my lines. If we could just get right to the point, that’d be grand. Not to hurry you along or anything.”

Humpty-Dumpty sighed once more. “All right, then,” he said agreeably, waving his hand for her to continue. “Tell me your name and business.”

Finally, something Kate could answer. “I’m Kate, and I’m looking for—”

“It’s a stupid name enough!” Humpty-Dumpty remarked before Kate had a chance to finish. Kate stared indignantly. “What does it mean?” Humpty-Dumpty continued, averting his gaze.

“Well, it means… well, I don’t know,” Kate said honestly. She’d never really thought about it. “Probably courage or beauty or something of the sort?” she suggested. “But really, it’s quite rude to interrupt when someone’s talking. Can’t you just settle down and wait until I’m fairly through with my sentence? As I was saying, I’m looking for—”

“My name means the shape I am,” Humpty-Dumpty continued loftily, picking up from where he’d left off without paying much attention to what Kate was saying. “A good, handsome shape it is, too. With a name like yours, you might be any shape, almost.”

“What has that got to do with anything?” Kate asked exasperatedly.

“As you can see,” Humpty-Dumpty added in a condescending tone, “this wall is very narrow. Why, if I ever did fall off—which there’s no chance of—but if I did, the King has promised me, with his own mouth—oh, you’re right, this is so very boring indeed. When there’s nobody to argue with, one’s lines can’t make a lick of sense. You were asking something?”

“I was, and thank heavens I haven’t forgotten it by now,” Kate said rather crossly. “I’ve been twisted and turned about on my merry way, I’ll have you know. It’s led me from one person to another, so please do be the person I need. I’m looking for the Vorpal sword, do you know of it?”

“Know of it?” Humpty-Dumpty scoffed. “My dear. That sword was an un-birthday present. Or a model of it was, anyway. Given to me by the king himself, it was.”

“I’m not interested in a model,” Kate explained carefully. “I’m looking for the bona fide relic. The sword, made from a star, given to Alice, etcetera and etcetera?”

“Surely you don’t believe that,” Humpty-Dumpty said, aghast. “Why, how could a star cut through anything? It’s simply unpossible. Preposterous. A sword can’t be made with anything but metal, even a child knows that. While we’re on the subject, it is a most provoking thing when one does not know a cravat from a belt! I say, which do you think this is?” He gestured to the decorative… strap, Kate supposed, around his general midsection.

Kate had to take a second look. She wasn’t very sure, now that he mentioned it, if it was his waist or his neck that the lovely belt/cravat/thingy was attached around. Thinking fast, she replied, “… Cravat?” at which Humpty-Dumpty harrumphed quite loudly, causing her to think that she’d chosen poorly. But no, the creature adjusted it quietly.

“It was a present,” he said. “From the Master on my un-birthday. Isn’t it lovely?”

“Pardon me,” Kate began.

“I’m not offended,” Humpty-Dumpty replied innocently. Kate continued speaking, it being just about her turn to ignore him.

“—But just what is an un-birthday?” she asked. “Would that be… a day when it’s not your birthday? In other words… a random gift?”

“Random? Of course not, my dear,” Humpty-Dumpty said. “Why, how many days are there in a year? That’s quite right, 365. And you’ve got one birthday, yes? Well, of course you have, you can’t very well go around taking two or three. Now, say you’ve got this one birthday and you only get presents on your birthday. Why, that’s only one day out of the year! But an un-birthday, you see, is 364 days out of the year, which makes way for many more gift-giving opportunities. Of course then, no one can complain when they miss an un-birthday!”

Kate could understand his reasoning… but really, this was no time to be debating about birthdays or un-birthdays. There were much more important matters at hand! “The Vorpal sword?” Kate reminded impatiently.

“Tut-tut,” Humpty-Dumpty said. “All right, then. You’d think that once you got to your age, you wouldn’t worry so much about squeezing any extra time. Where were we… ah, yes. ‘Slithy’, you see, means ‘lithe and slimy’. ‘Lithe’ is the same as active. You see, it’s like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word.”

“That wasn’t what I asked at all!” Kate explained, waving her hands for effect. “Can you or can you not tell me where the sword is?”

“I can’t say that I could or couldn’t,” Humpty-Dumpty said crossly. “I shall recite for you—that ought to clear things up in a jiffy.”

“No more recitations,” Kate exclaimed, throwing up her hands once more. “I simply need a straight answer, is that too much to ask?”

“If you think it is then you should not ask,” Humpty-Dumpty replied coldly. “If you’re just going to be rude, I think that I shall not tell you whether I know or not, and if I did, what I knew or what I didn’t, to be quite honest!”

Kate closed her eyes. It took more effort to stay calm now than any of the adventures thus far. However, remembering the advice constantly repeated, she kept her temper as well as she could. “Might I please,” she said slowly, “humbly request of you information regarding the Vorpal sword, of which you may or may not know?”

“Quite right,” Humpty-Dumpty said with a disdainful sniff. “Since you asked so nicely, I suppose I must help. Let’s see now… the Vorpal sword. What do I know about it? Ah, yes. Have you heard of the Jabberwocky?”

“I have, briefly,” Kate replied. “I can’t say I know much on the subject, however.”

Humpty-Dumpty waved a hand dismissively. “The sword was made originally to kill the Jabberwocky. That was the quest that the Master created for Alice to play… I’m sure by now you know who Alice is.” He seemed quite suspicious, Kate’s quick nod not changing his expression. “Anyway, the sword is basically meant to kill things that are very hard to kill.”

“Oh, like cockroaches?” Kate asked, her face brightening in understanding.

“No, not like cockroaches,” Humpty-Dumpty said scornfully. “Try to have a little more imagination, if you please. You remember the poem of which Lily spoke?”

“Which one?” Kate asked, trying to think back. Another thought made her pause. “How do you know about the poems Lily recited?”

“People talk of many things,” Humpty-Dumpty half-answered. “Anyway, it goes, ‘How doth the little…’ something-or-other, you know the one. What happens is I tell you where to find him, and he has the sword. Unless he’s long since sold it in a yard sale or something of the sort, such things do happen. You shall have to remain optimistic.”

“I can manage that,” Kate agreed. “So where can I find him, and it, subsequently?”

Humpty-Dumpty raised a hand to stroke his chin, taking his time with his answer. “If you go along this wall,” he said slowly, “you should come across a marsh. The wall goes over it. If—I say again, if—you make it to the center of the marsh without getting lost and/or stuck, that’s where you’ll find the guardian of the sword. If I remember correctly, that is. Then all you need to do is get him to let you have the sword, that ought to be the easy part.”

“I… see,” Kate said. She didn’t much like the idea of a marsh. She didn’t have the shoes for a marsh, after all, as she hadn’t been expecting it. However, she was quite confident in her negotiating skills, if nothing else, and with the goal so close after all… Kate nodded. “All right, then. Thank you, Mr. Humpty-Dumpty. It was a pleasure. Until next time.”

“I shouldn’t know you again next time,” Humpty-Dumpty said discontentedly, “you’re so exactly like other people. Oh, dear, I know, ‘one generally goes by the face’. Your face is the same everybody has—the two eyes, just so—nose in the middle, mouth under. It’s always the same. Now, if you had two eyes on the same side of the nose, for instance, or the mouth on top…”

Kate did not bother to listen to the rest of his ramblings. Putting a hand on the wall, she surged onwards, preparing herself for the worst. She had no more time to spare. Exhaustion could be the proper term for what she was feeling… it had been a very, very, very long day. As enjoyable as it had been in the beginning, it seemed not worth the trouble now. Kate would have much rather curled up in her living room before the fireplace with a cup of tea and a book in her lap than stay with this tiring adventure, but she supposed it was necessary. Though honestly, Alice couldn’t have picked a better time to invade? And Corbin, having woman troubles. It was like him, she supposed, what with that smile of his; she was surprised there hadn’t been more legendary skirmishes. Heaven knew he’d probably had enough past girlfriends to write a book.

Not that it was really any of Kate’s business. She’d grown out of dating long ago… it’s fun enough when you’re a pretty young thing, but the drama gets to be a bit much as one gets older. Certainly Kate wouldn’t have liked to be involved in anything like this if she’d been given the chance to refuse. It was far too late, she admitted, to back out now. In a way, then again, it was turning out to be the adventure of a lifetime, and Kate was grateful for it, but… it could have been just a little bit easier. It felt much like she was being rushed along and pushed into it, and it wasn’t a very pleasant feeling at all. Kate realized somewhat amusedly that when she’d said she wanted an adventure, she really meant more of a vacation.

Kate couldn’t argue with herself for forever. She’d asked for it, after all.

The walk was not particularly difficult but for the mud getting deeper as she went along. She became quite grateful for the wall to have something to lean on, since it became harder and harder to lift her feet with each passing step. Kate had never been a fan of mud; dirt she could deal with, even on the worst of days, but mud was an unnatural creation meant to simply spread itself all over cleanly washed hems and magically appear on children’s faces.

The roots that threaded themselves throughout the mud did not make the journey easier. Every ten steps or so Kate would trip, and would have fallen flat on her face if not for the wall. The wall did go along for quite a while, Kate noted. It must have taken someone a fair amount of time to build the thing. Though, then again, perhaps Corbin has simply done it with a wave of his hand. Wouldn’t that be a handy ability to have? Setting up new curtains, making a pot of tea, and sweeping the floor, all with a glance. It would be very useful indeed. Of course, it wasn’t something your average person could do, which got Kate to wondering what sort of thing this master was, exactly. While part of Kate might have said he was part angel, another part of her doubted that just as strongly as she was sure he wasn’t human.

Then again, if he did turn out to be an angel Kate wouldn’t have been surprised. Curious things kept happening one after another, really that wouldn’t be curious at all. Surely it would explain some things. But then would Alice be considered a devil? It was dizzying to think about. Not that anything else had been easy, but all sorts of fantasies could start sprouting up with that thought. Though more fantasies, Kate supposed, would exist if Corbin had been the devil and Alice the angel. Pity, really, if one had gotten so close only to go off in a different direction entirely. It would disappoint many a young lady.

Kate realized somewhat suspiciously after a little ways that she really didn’t know what she was looking for. Just how far in was the center? If it was to be a matter of miles, it’d be quite a bit more than a jaunty walk before anything of value came into sight. Not that Kate minded the walking much, but the mud did make it a trying endeavor. Much more of this and Kate would simply climb the wall and…

Well, goodness! Kate was surprised at her own foolishness. Surely the wall was narrow, but it was built of stone, and sturdy enough. Walking atop the wall would be much easier than struggling through this mire, and it had taken her far too long to think of it! As Kate reached up and attempted to get herself onto the wall, the mud seemed to grab onto her and pull her down even more. She made it, though losing a shoe in the process. She lay on her belly and leaned down to wiggle her shoe out of the mud’s sludgy hold. She managed to tease it out eventually and, after taking a moment to slide it back on, was grateful that she wore such practical shoes. It would have been a bit more impossible had she been wearing sandals or heels.

Balancing along the wall proved to be only a bit more difficult than Kate had thought it would be. She made her way carefully along the wall, still quite a bit faster than struggling alongside it. In the time it took her to walk perhaps a quarter of a mile, she began to realize that trees had sprung up gradually along the way. The trees were tall, spindly marshy trees, the sort that lent a creepy feel to the marsh itself. The mud also became deeper further in, with pools and puddles that made Kate grateful she’d decided to travel atop the wall instead of alongside it.

There was also a light.

Now, most sane people would dismiss a light in the middle of the woods, or perhaps consider it a trick of the eyes. The first thought that came to Kate’s mind, quite honestly, was that of an Angler Fish, the sort that had that dangly thing on the top of its head that lured fish into its jaws from the deep. She wasn’t about to give up just because of that, however, and continued on, though perhaps a bit more shakily than before. The light became brighter as she neared. The wall she was walking on sloped down towards the ground in a sort of comfortingly gradual way, finishing on what seemed like a little island that Kate hoped was her destination. She half expected something to jump out at her the moment her foot touched earth, but it wasn’t so.

In fact, nothing happened the moment she stepped off of the wall. The ground was higher and firmer here, so her foot merely made an unattractive squelching sound in the wet grass. Other than that, all was quiet and still. Kate thought she’d take a moment to inspect the light she’d seen before, but now that she had a moment, the light seemed to have disappeared in the blink of an eye. The marsh around her had not seemed to get much darker, which she thought was quite impossible, but chose not to think too much of it.

Seeing as she really had no idea what it was that she was looking for, she took a seat on the stone, smoothed out her skirts, and set herself to waiting. Patience, after all, was a virtue, albeit a terribly boring one. Kate thought she’d have plenty of time to mull things over. Her thought proved mistaken, however, when something appeared in the marshy distance heading for her at a calm, relaxed pace. It was preceded by what seemed like a herd of eyeballs on two legs, perhaps the tallest one being eight inches high. The odd creatures hopped towards her much like a frog, prompting Kate to immediately back up higher onto the wall. The little eyeballs hopped around the wall, seeming more excited to meet her than anything else, but Kate wasn’t about to take chances.

The thing that followed the eyeball-frogs moved in a similar fashion to something Kate was familiar with, and dreaded. Surely something such as that would not live in a marsh…?

But as the log-shaped figure approached, Kate’s fears were confirmed.

“Goodness me, it’s a crocodile all right,” she muttered to herself. “Though really I couldn’t tell a crocodile from an alligator if I saw them side-by-side… I could only hazard a guess, but I should think that with the poem being as it goes… er… well, something about a crocodile, in that case it would be a crocodile rather than an alligator…”

As the creature approached, Kate hoped very much that it would be as civilized as the other animals that had appeared so far. Surely a talking crocodile would be willing to work something out and not simply resort to… well, eating anything that seemed yummy in sight. Surely that would be the case? The creature paused before the ground and then its head appeared fully as it began to drag itself laboriously ashore. It seemed quite large to Kate, but with its length being perhaps 12 feet, she couldn’t help but wonder if that wasn’t quite small for the species.

The crocodile breathed a very human sigh of relief as it crawled the last foot onto the little island and set itself down, seeming unlikely to move again for quite a while. Its eyes, a lovely mix of gold and green, set upon Kate in what seemed like a friendly way.

“Hello there, young visitor,” said a deep bass voice that Kate could only guess was the crocodile. His jaw didn’t move, but she could definitely hear him. “How rare indeed to get visitors,” the creature commented, looking Kate over once more with those lovely eyes.

“Hello there,” Kate said, not daring to approach. She nodded her head in greeting instead. “I’m… er… I’m looking for the Vorpal Sword, and my search has led me here to, I assume, you. You wouldn’t happen to be able to help me, would you?”

The crocodile was silent for a good long while. “The Vorpal Sword,” it said at last, breathing out. “Yes… I know of it. I cannot simply give it to you, you must understand, as I have been tasked to protect it. However… should you prove worthy, perhaps…”

“I’m willing to try just about anything,” Kate said honestly. The crocodile was silent for a while again. Kate didn’t fancy herself especially good at riddles – she asked too many questions, focused too much on the specifics, thought too literally. She’d assumed that riddles would be the game of choice from the poem of the White Queen’s, but then again, what if it weren’t? Kate wasn’t up to any physical feat like a hero from a novel, not by now.

“I shall ask you then,” the crocodile said, interrupting Kate’s thoughts, “an enigma, of sorts. The correct answer will lead you to what you are searching for.”

A riddle. Well, that was easy enough. “All right, then,” Kate said bravely. “Go for it.”

The crocodile took some time eyeing her once more before clearing his throat loudly (an action that sent birds fluttering away in the distance) and continuing. “Then… how far can one run into the woods?” This didn’t sound like a riddle to Kate, and more importantly, it sounded too simple to answer, which of course made Kate rethink the obvious one. While her first thought had been “why, however far one wants”, she began to realize that it must be a trick question, and so it was.

“I’ve almost got it,” Kate murmured.

“I’m not a very patient man,” the crocodile replied coolly. Rather than pointing out that, patient or not, the thing could hardly call himself a man, Kate thought a little harder.

“Why, halfway, of course,” she said at last, triumphantly. “Any more than that and one would be running out of the woods.”

“Well done,” the crocodile said. Kate waited expectantly for the sword. “There are six sisters,” the crocodile continued. Kate frowned.

“Wait, but wasn’t that correct?” she asked, interrupting him.

“I never said I’d only ask one,” the crocodile said meaningfully. “Do be patient, young one, and listen. As I was saying – there are six sisters. Each sister has one brother. How many brothers are in the sisters' family?”

Kate supposed annoyance wouldn’t help in this situation, and so she made herself calm down and think about it. She was an only child herself, so even simply imagining having six sisters and apparently some number of brothers in one family seemed quite tiring. Nevertheless, it was simply a riddle, so she didn’t mind trying her hand at it. And in fact, this one may be less tricky than the first, considering. “One,” she said after a fair moment’s thought. “If each has the one brother, it can be assumed that they each have the same one brother.”

The crocodile went silent again, causing Kate’s mind to go on a wild rampage of concern, before he simply continued. “I am the beginning of the end, and the end of time and space. I am essential to creation, and I surround every place. What am I?”

Kate refused to give up. Three was the magic number, after all. Surely this would be the last one. “All right, then,” she said aloud. The crocodile seemed amused. She glanced down at the little eyeball things surrounding her feet, which had gone very quiet and stared up at her with wide eyes. “The beginning of the end…” Kate repeated, mostly to herself, averting her gaze. “End of time and… the letter E?” she asked, her face brightening. “The letter E is my answer. That was the easiest of the three, if you want my opinion. For once you just have to have a decent head on your shoulders and you’re good to go, none of that tricky nonsense.”

The crocodile stared a moment. Then he cleared his throat once more.

“Fair enough,” he said. Kate waited expectantly. “All right, you pass,” he said quite agreeably. Just as Kate was about to open her mouth, he added, “That stage, anyway.” Kate’s spirits sank just as quickly as they had risen. “But don’t worry, my dear, the next is easy.” So saying, the crocodile groaned with effort as he pulled himself towards Kate. Surely he must have been a very old crocodile, for while he wasn’t the slimmest one, he didn’t seem quite out of shape enough to require such effort. Kate subconsciously pulled her legs up close as he approached. The hopping eyeballs all got excited as the crocodile neared and settled once more at the foot of the wall.

“You can relax, Miss Kate, I won’t eat you,” the crocodile said kindly. Kate was debating whether or not this was a comfort or an affirmation of her concerns when something he said specifically made her pause.

“You know my name?” she asked, a little surprised. The crocodile nodded… or at least gestured vaguely with his head.

“I guessed you’d be coming,” he said. “Can’t fool this ancient reptile. The riddles, you see, are really merely for show. It has to seem… adventurous. I’d just like to have a little chat with you before I hand over the sword. I’m quite advanced in my years; a little chat will do me good, I think. They make good company”—here he gestured to the walking eyeballs, which seemed to eagerly listen… even without ears—“but they don’t make the best conversational partners.”

“I can understand that,” Kate said agreeably. She met the eye of one of the odd creatures and it seemed to silently giggle, the corners of its face turning up most adorably. They were rather… cute, weren’t they? Kate moved her gaze back into the distance. “All right, then, Mr. Crocodile. What would you like to talk about?”

“Oh, you know,” the crocodile said, smiling impishly. “‘Of shoes and ships and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings. And why the sea is boiling hot, and whether pigs have wings’.”

“I’m afraid I don’t quite follow,” Kate said sheepishly. “But no sea I know of is hot, many are quite cold, and I can confidently say that pigs do not have wings. Not where I come from, anyway. In fact, we joke about the very impossibility.”

“Impossibility is hardly a thing to joke about,” the crocodile said thoughtfully. “I was quoting ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’. ‘Twas a poem the twins were supposed to recite for you, before you hurried them along. And no, before you ask, I shan’t be hurried along either. Not that I have anything to recite, mind you, I never was one for poetry. Here we have all the time in the world, so you needn’t worry. Tell me about yourself, Katie.”

“Oh, Kate is quite all right,” Kate said, somewhat disappointed that she wouldn’t be able to hurry this along, now that she’d gotten to where she was supposed to be. “Er… well, I do quite like sunny days. Not very hot days, no more than decently warm, but at least sunny. Days like those I’d go to a beach, and perhaps spend the day reading a book while the kids play in the water. And there’s often shouting and crying going back and forth, but I ignore it for the most part.”

Kate took a moment of confusion to wonder what kids she was thinking of specifically. Somehow the town children didn’t seem quite right.

“Mmm,” the crocodile murmured softly. Kate continued.

“On cool days,” she said, memories flooding back to her, “I often tend to the garden, I’m not sure why. Most people would think it better to tend to the garden on warm days, but I seem to have pegged cool days as garden days. Usually then I go inside for a cup of tea, or sometimes cocoa, if I fancy it. If I’ve run out of books to read, as I often have, I’ll take an afternoon nap, and then bake something warm to feed to the neighbors. I do quite like to bake, you know. I can’t for the life of me make anything fancy, but bread or pie or some other classic I can manage all right. Sometimes I take some time to dust the bookshelves on the second floor, usually they don’t need it, but whenever I’m bored I dust the bookshelves.

“Other days, when nothing much seems to go on at all, I can spend hours watching people live. It’s a very merry thing, people living. You see all sorts on busy days. Once I remember I caught a dog that’d slipped his leash; the poor boy was chasing after him, and I told him ‘you can’t catch a dog by running after him, you’ve got to lure him in with meat’ and the boy didn’t believe me. Of course I’d already caught the dog and had it hidden on the porch, and went and fetched it to prove my point. Thinking back it was an odd thing to do, I suppose, but I’m old, I’m allowed to have my quirks. It would be more odd if I didn’t, I should say. Another time I remember not too fondly, some girls were pulling the flowers.

“No doubt they thought they were lovely, but to simply pull one’s flowers and run off with them… goodness, they could have asked. I should take it as flattery over anything else though, seeing as they really are quite nice flowers. I say that myself, so you can’t take it as truth, but I assure you they’re very fine flowers. The garden from the mirror world reminded me a bit of my garden at home, come to think of it… sometimes I did imagine the flowers talking, and what they would say. If that doesn’t brand me a crazy, I don’t know what would.”

The crocodile let Kate talk and when she had finished, he chuckled. “You seem like quite a kind soul,” he said at last. “Then, I do have a question for you.”

Kate blinked. “Of course, ask away,” she said charitably.

“Why do you require the Vorpal Sword?”

Now this Kate required a moment of thought on. An adequately crucial explanation was not easy to come by, and Kate had not prepared one. The crocodile was patiently silent as she thought, for which she was grateful. Why did she require the Vorpal Sword? The whole hunt had been so confusing she’d nearly forgotten. It was to save Wonderland from Alice, she supposed, though she most definitely would not be the one to use it herself.

“Eh… then… I guess to save the world?” Kate offered, hoping that it was the answer the crocodile was looking for. Of all the crocodile’s silences until now, the one that followed her answer was the longest. Surely Kate must have been blushing, thinking her answer had been so ludicrous that the crocodile was laughing inwardly at her. Then the crocodile smiled a big smile, one that made even his eyes light up with laughter. Kate tried to ignore the teeth.

“A fine answer, little one,” the crocodile said with a sigh. “The best I’ve heard yet. Do you know, perhaps, what Alice said, when she was asked the same question?”

“I don’t,” Kate answered honestly, relieved that her answer had been acceptable.

“She said…” the crocodile chuckled a bit. “She said, ‘because I need it to finish this dumb thing, that’s why’.” The crocodile continued to chuckle as he pulled himself back towards the muddy waterline. The eyeballs excitedly ran after him. He said something to them that Kate didn’t quite catch and they all leapt fearlessly into the murky depths with merry splashes.

“They shall fetch the sword,” the crocodile said, turning back to Kate. “Remember your answer, Katie. Remember your purpose, and that of the sword. I shall guide you back to where you need to go, but from there you will be on your own once more. I wish you the best of luck, and I mean that more than I have ever meant a word.”

“Oh, thank you so much,” Kate said honestly, feeling a surge of friendliness towards the old crocodile. She smoothed her skirts, realizing she still had her legs drawn up, and shifted on her perch. “But… um… if you don’t mind my asking, what exactly will have to happen? I mean, if you know… it’s just that I’ve been a little confused about the whole thing.”

The crocodile seemed mildly surprised, but he gave his reply some thought. “If you’re after the sword,” he said slowly. “I assumed you’d already planned to take Alice out of the equation. The sword was made to rid the world of evil, after all.”

“Oh, dear,” Kate said, realizing what he meant. “Surely no one expects me to kill anyone? Can’t we just sort of wave the sword at her and she’ll give up, if it’s that special?”

The crocodile chuckled. “I doubt any sword is that special,” he said. “In my experience, there are very few problems that can be solved by leaving them be. Not every fairy tale villain can just be convinced to be good, you know… that only happens in fairy tales.”

Kate groaned. It seemed that it was going to be more trouble than it was worth. Again. “Well, thank you for your help, in any case. It was a good chat. I’d half forgotten what it was like to take a quiet moment for myself. I feel like I haven’t in a very long time… but surely it can’t be more than a day that this adventure has been going on?” She said it more as a question, since she judged it likely that the crocodile had a better idea of things than she did. She glanced at the animal hoping for a likable reply.

“Perhaps,” was all he said. His attention turned to the distance, where little splashes signaled what Kate guessed was the return of the little eyeballs, hopefully with the Vorpal Sword. The crocodile turned back to her with a kind expression in his eyes.

“You’ve travelled by pool before, I presume,” he said. It wasn’t a question.

“J-just the one time,” Kate stammered, remembering the strange experience from before, in the White Queen’s palace. Was it a palace? Really it was more of just a room… or else a scaled-down palace, by quite a bit… not that it was an important thing to wonder about. Surely a man’s home was his palace, and in this case Lily’s was regardless of the actuality? What little light existed reflected off of the mass of creatures that approached.

Kate had seen swords before, and this one was, yes, a beautiful piece of metalwork. Was it… magical-looking? Not really. Pretty, yes, but it really didn’t seem to be a sword out of the ordinary. Not that Kate had ever had to use a sword before. That was a different matter entirely. Kate assured herself that it would be simple enough. One end you hold, the other end’s sharp. You stab in the general direction of what you want to cut. There was no need for spins or fancy French words.

The little eyeballs on legs hauled the sword up onto land and danced proudly around it. The crocodile glanced at Kate expectantly and she stepped forward to lean down and pick up the sword. To her disappointment, it didn’t even hum vaguely or glow. She looked around. “Isn’t there a sheath that comes with it?” she asked. “Seems awfully dangerous to carry this thing without.”

“That, we don’t have,” the crocodile said somewhat sheepishly. “There was an accident.”

Kate looked nervously down at the sword. The crocodile laughed.

“Nothing of the sort,” he said, as if reading her mind. “It’s just that there are slim pickings in the marshes, and when you don’t have very good light, everything sort of looks like something edible. My apologies. You can wrap it in some swamp grass if that makes you feel safer.”

“This will be fine, I suppose,” Kate said, wondering how she’d get it back with all ten fingers still attached. “Thank you for your help.” One of the eyeball things approached the crocodile and seemed to give him a meaningful look. The crocodile seemed surprised.

“Are you sure?” he asked. The eyeball thing seemed to smile. The crocodile looked back at Kate. “Silvy here has volunteered to be your sheath,” he said, gesturing at the little creature. Kate was aghast, but before she could say anything, the crocodile continued, understanding her horror. “Forgive me, I forgot to introduce them. These are the raw forms of what makes up this world. They can turn into anything once in their lives, and once they assume that shape, exist as it for the rest of their lives. Each thing here was one of these creatures in the past. Master Corbin created the place using them.”

Before Kate even had time to realize what he’d said, the little creature had hopped up and seemed to flash out of existence. In its place, in less than the blink of an eye, a black sheath had appeared covering the silver blade, dimming the reflected light. Kate was awed by the sudden transformation. She looked back at the crocodile. “Is… is it dead now?” she queried. The crocodile shook his head.

“Nothing here is dead,” he said simply. “Come, Kate. Look into the water.”

Kate obligingly approached the crocodile. Before she had a chance to react, the crocodile’s great tail lashed around into her legs, collapsing her knees. She fell forward, startled, sword in hand, straight for the murky water before her. She closed her eyes and held her breath instinctively. Instead of wetness, a familiar feeling of weightlessness swallowed her. She opened her eyes, recognizing the feeling. Light above, and blackness below.

Where are you going?

She both heard the question and didn’t hear it. She held the sword tighter. I’m going to Mr. Voice, she thought determinedly. I’ll save the world, since apparently no one else around here has enough sense to do so. And I’ll be home by suppertime, see if I’m not.

The ripples swallowed her.

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