Blood of wonderland, p.1
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       Blood of Wonderland, p.1

           Colleen Oakes
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Blood of Wonderland


  This book is for Ryan, forever the good king of my heart


  The Cat only grinned when it saw Alice. It looked good-natured, she thought: still it had very long claws and a great many teeth, so she felt that it ought to be treated with respect.

  — Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll




















  The Black Towers


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  Books by Colleen Oakes



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  The former Princess of Wonderland was lost. Leaves crunched loudly beneath Dinah’s feet as she made her way through the Twisted Wood, her exhausted body groaning, her eyes taking in the maze of living trees that breathed above her. Not living in that they spoke or walked or had faces, but that they saw her—of this Dinah had no doubt. It was strange and unnerving, these eyes without eyes.

  The trees of the Twisted Wood were taller than the Black Towers, and sometimes just as wide. The night before, Dinah had found herself not so much walking as maneuvering through them. Dinah folded her hands over her stomach—empty and ravenous, as always—and looked at the trees. Each tree was so different—some had bountiful blossoms of pink that swirled through their branches and up their trunks, some had velvety ferns that draped from weeping branches, and some were barren, with only their branches to shelter them. There were trees that grew sideways—long and low. Others were spindly towers of wavy bark, their branches shooting straight into the heavens. Some trees looked as though they had been burned; they were as black as night and their trunks gave off a faint aroma of ash. They were alive and thriving, however, as evidenced by the black and white swirled flowers that danced on the tips of their branches. It was incredible—and terrifying.

  As Dinah walked, she considered how the trees knew everything. They knew that she had once been the Princess of Wonderland Palace. They knew that her father, the brutal King of Hearts, had betrayed her mere days before her coronation. He had murdered her beloved brother, Charles—once the infamous Mad Hatter—by throwing him out a window. They knew of the stranger who had sent her on her way, fleeing the palace on Morte, the devil steed, a Hornhoov whose bloodthirstiness was legendary. They knew Wardley, the love of her life, had promised to come for her. And they knew that her father was probably tracking her now.

  It wasn’t just Dinah’s history that these trees knew—she could feel their keen awareness in her bones. These trees of the Twisted Wood knew who drew the location of the stars night after night. They knew each Yurkei and Wonderlander, those who embraced the dark and those who chose the light. Yes, the colossal trees of the Twisted Wood were aware, and that fact had both frightened and comforted her as she trekked through the wood with Morte following her, always at a distance of at least twelve paces. Farther and farther they wove their way into the wood, as the trees, always knowing, groaned and cracked around them.

  Her stomach gave a loud growl and Dinah reached for her bag as she knelt on the forest floor, but not before she settled Wardley’s sword close beside her. She untied the brown straps attached to the muslin and slowly laid out its contents, taking a full inventory of what she had: two white linen tunics, a belt, one black dress, eight full loaves of bread, twelve large pieces of dried bird meat, a bag of rapidly rotting berries, the remnants of her bloody nightgown, and a sharp dagger. She pulled the dagger out of the bag. It was obviously expensive, the hilt inlaid with dozens of amethysts interspersed with rich swirls of silver and gold. The black gown beside it was heavy and completely devoid of color—it was the kind of thing that Dinah would wear but Vittiore would never let drape her shoulders.


  Dinah ground her teeth together, gripping the dagger. No doubt Vittiore would soon be crowned queen, taking Dinah’s place on the throne next to her father. It was all so clear to Dinah now, how Vittiore had always been part of the plot, always waiting in the wings to get her hands on Dinah’s crown. She had long suspected that Vittiore wasn’t exactly the poor child found in a sack that she claimed to be. Vittiore had been in on the plot to frame Dinah from the start. She’d been in on the plot to kill her brother, Charles. The king could never have pulled off such a coup without her willing participation. Dinah angrily closed her fist around the dagger hilt before forcing herself to calm down. She turned the dagger over in the sunlight. Maybe I can exchange it to buy food, Dinah thought, before she realized how silly that sounded. She would be going to no villages, no towns. Her father and Cheshire expected her to be weak, to look for help among Wonderlanders. She wouldn’t. She would just disappear into the wood, forever.

  I will learn to survive, she thought. I will wait for Wardley and then we will find a boat and sail to the Other Worlds. The thought made her weary and morose. Heavy despair seemed to hover around her, waiting for the perfect opportunity to overwhelm. If Dinah didn’t keep moving, it would come for her swiftly. Her legs were sore when she pushed herself onto her feet and strapped the sword firmly across her back. Morte had fallen asleep beside her, and Dinah thought it best not to wake him. He no doubt needed the rest as much as she did, and waking an angry Hornhoov might lead to being crushed to death.

  Making note of the path behind her, Dinah began wandering through the trees as she snacked on some berries. The wood seemed to go on forever in every direction. Tiny clusters of flowers brushed her face as she pushed past a tree that spiraled in on itself, its trunk circling into the sky. The tree was weeping a frosty milk that dripped down its branches and formed a white moat around the base of the trunk. Dinah knelt beside the tree and peered into the milky substance. Tiny pink insects with gossamer wings skated over the surface, dipping their long noses into the liquid. The milk was sucked up into their bodies and distributed into their veiny, transparent wings. The white substance then gave their wings a crumbly texture, like toasted bread. At this transformation, the insects tucked their wings back and walked away, looking more like tiny lizards than the butterflies they had resembled at the start. They looked at Dinah with indifference as they strolled away into the forest.

  “Incredible,” murmured Dinah. She stood. The sun flashed on an unnatural shape in the distance as Dinah raised her eyes. It was tall and metallic—and not of the forest. She leaped backward, stumbled on a wide root, and fell. She scrambled for her weapon in the damp leaves as she struggled back to her feet. I am no warrior, she thought as her heart hammered in her ears. The metal continued to flash in the sun. Dinah advanced slowly, making her way through the trees, her sword leading the way. Trembling, Dinah clawed her way up a small embankment parallel to the flashing light to gain a better view.

  The hill rose up next to a deep groove in the forest, and Dinah perched on the edge, preparing to see a battalion of soldiers waiting for her. Instead she found herself looking down into a valley . . . of heads? Dinah quickly counted dozens of them as she carefully made her way down the hill. Dirt rose when her boots hit the ground with a thud. The forest floor had changed—all around this particular valley, the foliage was thick and dense, with ankle-high ferns and roots tangling the ground. Here were only soft grasses that danced in the wind, their seeded tops brushing the carved heads. The heads were massive
in size, most larger than Dinah’s ridiculously large bed back at the palace. Some of them were propped upright, which made it appear as if the rest of their bodies were buried underground and they were simply popping up for a look around. Some of the heads lay on their sides, their lips brushed with the burnt yellow grass. One head lay completely upside down, the blunt cut of its square neck facing the sun. That head was wearing a crown, the sharp tips of the crown anchoring the head into the soil. There was something familiar about it. . . . Dinah ventured closer, making her way through the heads. She bent to look at the face and crown, her black hair brushing the dirt.

  A wave of dizziness rushed over her as she realized she was looking at her father, the King of Hearts. She could tell by the crown, the same crown that encircled her father’s head now, and by his heavy cheeks. Though he was made entirely of shiny bronze metal, it looked so much like her father—the same unbending will etched across his brow, the same bloodlust running through his eyes, the same hint of an ironic smile that never quite blossomed. The upside-down head stared at Dinah, its hard eyes piercing her chest. Her heart thudding, she turned away to take in the others. They were all kings and queens of some sort. She recognized several members of the royal family—her grandfathers and grandmothers, dating all the way back to those who had been present at the building of the palace.

  There was Queen Millay, famous for her gracious hospitality and striking beauty. Her head lay on its side, the pearl crown on top of it covered with a creeping, soft, green moss. Next to her lay her king, King Royce. He was famous for not being faithful to his diligent queen, and for making his mistress the Queen of Hearts after Millay had died. Dinah did not see the mistress’s head anywhere.

  Twenty or so heads of what Dinah guessed to be Yurkei chiefs were here as well—strong, solid heads of handsome warriors carved from stone, crowned not with a piece of gold or silver, but with feathers or elaborate fabric swirls that dangled down and framed their bright, glowing eyes made of blue gemstones. Dinah found these the most haunting. The eyes of the Yurkei heads made her feel as if they were watching her as she walked along, as she touched each face and marveled at its size and beauty.

  Sunlight reflected through the low clouds and sent a rippling shadow over the heads, making them look for a minute as if they were engaged in conversation—a never-ending dialogue of politics, land, and legend. Dinah was fascinated. Who made these, and why? When? How had they transported such massive sculptures into the forest without removing the trees that surrounded them? Dinah let her fingers run over the face of the current Yurkei chief, Mundoo, her father’s enemy. The metal was warm, perpetually kissed by the sun, and it felt soothing against her cut palm. The valley was utterly unnerving and yet, somehow, also strangely beautiful.

  I will take Wardley here one day, she thought, if I can find it again. She wasn’t convinced that she could—she and Morte had twisted and wound their way through the wood not unlike the black snakes with silver eyes that she had seen in several trees so far. Together they had spiraled themselves into the deepest parts of the Twisted Wood, hoping to make their trail confusing and untraceable. How could she find her way back here, to this valley of her ancestors, who ruled when she would not? Had she been queen, would her head have one day graced this clearing? Now it would be Vittiore’s. She felt the blind fury rising up inside of her, that black hunger that clawed up her stomach and wrapped its arms around her heart when she was least expecting it. How dare they take her crown away? With a cry, Dinah flung her sword blade across the nearest tree, hacking and jabbing until the trunk was battered and flaking. She felt the tremors vibrate up the blade and into her arm, a jarring sensation that was more cathartic than painful. Both of her hands throbbed with pain, but she didn’t care.

  “You killed him!” She sobbed, tears covering her face as she brought the blade of the sword down again and again against the rough trunk. “That was my crown! It was mine!” In wide arcs, she slammed her blade against the tree, the metal cutting into the wood deeper with each swipe. This wasn’t swordplay, this was something else, something she had never known before. It felt glorious and dangerous at the same time, intoxicating.

  Dinah continued until her arms shook with exhaustion. She angrily flung the sword away to wipe the tears off her face. Taking ragged breaths, she leaned her head against the tree, her salty tears soaking into the now-exposed virgin white wood. From its towering height, the top of the tree let out a deep groan, and Dinah watched as the bark rippled up the tree like water. Several trunks twisted accusingly in her direction.

  “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, forgive me.” She rested her now-bleeding hand against the raw wood, feeling the scars and notches she had left. “I’m sorry. They killed him. They took everything.” Sniffling, Dinah found herself looking again at the head of her father, the way his crown was dug into the ground, the way his neck bore the blunt cut of a sword. There was an aggressiveness to this statue that the others did not share. While the other heads were resting, his position was a punishment.

  An unwelcome whisper was beginning to creep up her spine, a familiar, surreal feeling. It was the same feeling that she had awakened to that night in the palace, when a stranger in black was standing over her bed. She was being watched. Was it the heads? Dinah stared at the statues, her eyes jumping from face to face, but she saw no movement. They were not living things, only stone and metal. Dinah slowly picked up her sword from the base of the tree and held it in front of her, both sore hands clutched firmly around the hilt.

  “Come out!” she screamed. “I know you’re there!” There was only silence in return as the heads stared back at her, unmoving, and the long grass waved in concentric circles around their necks. Dinah was backing up slowly, past one head, then another. There was something here—she could feel it. Had her father found her? Dinah spun around and her eye caught a glimpse of white moving swiftly through the high green grass. She would never make it to Morte in time. It was time to fight, time to die.

  She saw the pelt of white emerge from the trees, and at first her mind wondered if her father was wearing a costume. Then she saw the claws, the black eyes, the red mouth that inspired the nightmares of Wonderland children. She heard the hungry gnashing of teeth and the licking of a fat, bloody tongue. It was a bear, and he was charging at her, letting out a roar that echoed off the metal heads and out into the wood. Dinah stood paralyzed with fear. She felt like she was in a dream, unmoving, watching death race swiftly toward her. I need to move, she told herself. Move, Dinah! Finally, her feet obeyed and Dinah sprinted toward the nearest head—an upright Yurkei chief, whose fabric crown circled lazily around his head and then looped down onto the ground. Without thinking, Dinah sheathed her sword and started her ascent, placing one foot onto his lips and pushing off the ground, grabbing hold of the chief’s long nose. The eyes didn’t provide anywhere to grasp, so Dinah moved sideways and pulled herself onto the man’s ear by holding the tip of the large feathers that rested against his temples. A spasm of pain ripped through her hands as she heaved herself up and over the heavy swath of fabric and beads that circled his head. She leaped off the tip of his fabric crown and tumbled onto the man’s head.

  A roar came from below, so loud and terrifying that Dinah feared her nerves would rip apart. The bear had reached the head now. Dinah peeked cautiously over the edge. The bear was gigantic. He began pacing around the base of it, irately sniffing the ground where she had stood and pawing jagged trenches in the earth. Rising up on his hind legs, the bear’s shoulders were level to the chief’s eyes, just below Dinah’s face. He opened his mouth and let out a bloodcurdling roar. Dinah felt a rush of hot, rancid air blow over her face and she gagged as she smelled his potent breath—a mix of decaying meat and death. It reminded her of the Black Towers.

  The bear raked his huge paws down the statue’s face and the terrible screech of bone meeting stone filled the air. He was a daunting creature, tall enough that his skull would brush the ceiling in her bath
room. His coat was two distinct shades of white—most of his fur was the shade of dirty cream, but the stripes that ran up from his stomach area to his visible spine were a bright, unspoiled, pure white, whiter than any garment or paint she had ever seen. His jaws snapped shut loudly as his milky eyes took in her face. Besides his massive mouth full of teeth, he also had two large fangs that rose up from the underside of his jaw. The head gave a tremor as the bear began rocking his weight against the statue. He means to knock it over,she thought with terror. The statue gave another tremble as the bear slammed his paws against the base and began digging in the mud around the chief’s neck.

  Dinah had read about the white bears of the Twisted Wood. They were sometimes passed off as myth, and many theorized that there were only a handful left. They were hard to kill, which was a shame since their pelts were worth a small fortune. Her entire body trembled as she stared down at him. The bear slammed his huge body up against the head, and it gave a violent lurch. He huffed, frustrated, and continued digging around the base before rocking the head again and again, alternating one activity for the other. Sprays of dirt flew into the air. Dinah frantically looked around for some form of escape. The trees weren’t within reach; besides, she was certain the bear could climb anything that wasn’t stone. She could jump and run for it, but she was entirely sure the bear was faster. She would be dead in a matter of seconds. Perhaps if she could entice the bear higher, she could stab its face with the end of her sword, or perhaps blind it. That would give her the best chance.

  Dinah leaned over the edge of the statue, her face low, the sword raised above her head. “I’m here!” she screamed. “Come and get me!” The bear gave her a confused look, its milky eyes focusing on her. Its jaws opened, and it let out a loud roar before charging the bottom of the statue. It hadn’t taken the bait, and Dinah braced herself for impact. The statue gave another violent lurch when the bear’s bulky body rammed against it. There was a moment when she thought the statue would stay upright, when it teetered on the edge of falling, but then Dinah was flying through the air and the sword dropped from her hand. She landed hard on her side and rolled into the deep grasses. She barely had time to look up before the bear was charging again. There was nothing she could do. She closed her eyes and waited for the attack.

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