She looked up to see a tall white horse standing over her, with a short knight in silver armour sitting upon it.
At first, she could say nothing, because she didn’t understand how the Knight had suddenly appeared without making a noise.
“Are you hurt?” asked the Knight. “Here, let me help you.” And he dismounted his tall horse to help her up off the ground.
She numbly let the Knight help her to her feet. He really was rather shorter than she would have expected a knight to be: in fact, she was somewhat taller than him. He had a stocky build, and, when he removed his helmet, revealed himself to be middle-aged, with a greying beard and kind blue eyes.
“What is your name, young maiden?”
“Alice,” said Alice.
“Alice,” he repeated thoughtfully. “I am the White Knight. And what, may I ask, are you doing here in the Dark Forest all alone?”
“I got lost,” Alice said simply.
“So I see. How did you end up here?”
Now there was a philosophical question, no doubt.
“The Hatter and the Hare sent me here.”
“I see. You should not listen to the delusions of madmen.”
“The Hatter said you would lead me through the Dark Forest. I’m trying to get to the White Tower, you see.”
“Ah. Well, I can certainly do that. I know this place very well. I’ve been here a long time. Far too long, actually.” A mournful look passed over his face. “It’s nice to have some company for a change.”
Alice was curious. “Why are you here?”
“The White Queen whom I served is missing, presumed dead. It’s the Red Queen who rules this land now. I have been banished to this forest, for she cannot stand the sight of me. I was lucky, really. Most people she dislikes don’t survive. Maybe I should view it as a special sort of favour.”
He chuckled, though there was little humour in it.
“Perhaps she still sees some sort of use for me. In my old life I was a Demon-Slayer, you see.”
“A Demon-Slayer? There aren’t any demons in the forest, are there?”
“Oh yes. But they are afraid of me. They hide behind the trees.”
Alice looked around her at the dark, hulking shapes of the trees. She remembered the voices which had taunted her.
“They haven’t been bothering you, have they?” asked the White Knight.
“Some of them were talking to me earlier… but I couldn’t see them.”
“That’s because they’re too afraid to show their faces while I’m around. To be honest, most of them are pathetic creatures. It’s the shadows which lend them their threat. If you could see them in broad daylight, you’d laugh.”
Alice sensed a hush in the forest, and felt sure the demons were listening, but while she was with the White Knight, she felt safe. His presence was reassuring.
“Would you like to ride Snowdrop? We’ll travel much faster that way.”
Alice looked up at Snowdrop, who looked back at her and snorted gently.
“Don’t worry, he’s perfectly safe.” The Knight patted Snowdrop’s long nose affectionately.
First, the White Knight commenced to mount Snowdrop, which was quite a sight, as the horse was so tall and the Knight so short and stocky. Alice waited patiently while the Knight struggled to swing his leg over the horse’s back. Then, when he was safely seated, the Knight held out a gloved hand to help Alice up behind him. They set off at a steady trot.
“Let me sing to you the song of the Demon-Slayers,” said the White Knight.
“Okay,” said Alice.
The White Knight cleared his throat and began:
“Hark! I hear the demons coming –
I hear their footsteps softly drumming.
Their faces are so unbecoming,
Grimacing at me.
Men of honour, stop your sleeping –
Can’t you hear the women weeping?
While the demons keep a-creeping,
In amongst the trees.
From the trees rebounding,
Let my horn-blast sounding
Summon all the White Queen calls
To honour nigh-astounding!
Men of honour, on to glory!
See your courage famed in story
Harken to these words we sing ye –
May they never fade!
See the demons – see them running!
Where is now their evil cunning?
Their faces still so unbecoming,
Scatter, evil ones!
Our brave steeds are wildly neighing,
Our brazen horns are hoarsely braying,
While the women keep on praying
For our mortal souls!
See! they’re all afeared!
Frightened and bat-eared!
Ever they shall rue the day
They saw my mighty beard!
Now the demons fly before us!
They’ve had a fright or my name’s Doris!
So raise the loud exulting chorus,
“The woods are safe again!”
“Erm, that’s very nice,” said Alice gently. “Did you make it up yourself?”
“It’s a traditional song the Demon-Slayers used to sing,” said the White Knight. “Of course, I’m the last of them now.”
“What happened to the White Queen?” asked Alice.
“Nobody knows. She just disappeared one day. And I’ve been banished to this forest ever since.” He heaved a deep sigh.
Alice felt sorry for the White Knight, who seemed like such a nice gentleman, living here in the forest all alone. She wished there was something she could do to help him.
Snowdrop picked up speed, until soon it seemed they were virtually flying, judging by the way the trees were whirring past.
“All the paths look the same,” shouted Alice, as the wind whizzed through her hair.
“Yes, it does look like that to the untrained eye,” shouted the Knight, “but when you’ve been here as long as I have, you start to know your way around.”
“I wish there was a way you could get out of here.”
“The only way is if the Red Queen will let me go, but I doubt she’s ever going to. She’s a very headstrong woman.”
“Perhaps I could talk to her.”
“I doubt she’d listen to you, Alice. In fact, I’d rather you stay away from her. She won’t listen to anyone but herself.”
“But there must be a way,” thought Alice. Then, a thought struck her.
“Is this my dream?” she asked. It occurred to her, you see, that the Knight was the only person she’d met so far who seemed like somebody she could completely trust.
The Knight seemed puzzled by this question. “I don’t know, Alice,” he said after a while. “If this is your dream, what would become of me after you wake up? I should disappear, and though my life isn’t very interesting, I shouldn’t like to disappear completely.”
“I didn’t mean to worry you,” said Alice. “It just occurred to me that if this is my dream, I could set you free.”
They had reached the edge of the forest. The Knight helped her down off his horse, and raised his visor to look at Alice.
“Don’t worry about me,” he said. “Just focus on your own journey. You have much to learn.”
“But what about you?” said Alice.
“There is a friend of mine who lives in the gardens of the Red Queen,” said the Knight. “A Gryphon. He has to take you somewhere important.”
“Great, back to riddles again,” thought Alice.
“But whatever you do, you must evade capture by the Red Queen. Watch out for her guards. They are everywhere. I can go no further, but I shall watch you from this hill, for I can see over the Queen’s gardens from here, and if it looks like you are in trouble, I can raise a diversion.”
“What is this, a game of chess?” thought Alice. For suddenly it seemed to her that she was just a pawn. It wasn’t really her dream at all – she was in someone else’s dream, and they were playing games with her. But who?
But she only nodded to the Knight.
“I’ll miss you,” said Alice. And it didn’t seem wrong to say so. For in such a short space of time, they had really bonded. Time didn’t work properly here, wherever ‘here’ was – not like it did in the real world.
“I’ll miss you too, Alice. Really, I will. How I wish that things could have been different, and I wasn’t confined to the forest! Ah, how I wish I could turn back time! But Time has a habit of getting between us and the people we care about; between us and the things we wish to do. And, alas, it cannot be undone.
“Try not to make a false move, Alice, but remember, if you do, I’ll be watching, and I will do all I can to assist you.”
Alice thanked him with tear-rimmed eyes, and they embraced, then parted, and Alice walked down the hill towards the Red Queen’s gardens alone. As she did, she turned back to look at the White Knight one last time: the solitary figure by the horse on the hill; in gleaming silver armour that caught the moonlight. The poor, brave Knight, who she would probably never see again.