Twelve: Following the Leader
The room Brandon was taken to, by a card (two of hearts), was spacious. The walls were plain, a sort of off-white, and there was little there but a wardrobe, drawers and a bed. The bed itself was a large four poster, the drapes red while the blanket and sheets were cream. When the card left him, he happily crawled into the bed, smiling as he pulled the thick warm blanket around him. He was soon asleep, with almost no room in his head to dream.
When he woke, the sun was shining through the blinds, and he climbed out of the bed, briefly wondering why the angels hadn't made an appearance, why they hadn't dragged him and Candice back to the darkness, whatever the darkness was. Or wherever it was.
He tried to spend as little time as possible thinking about, focusing instead on how happily he was at the prospect of going home.
Or, at least, of getting out of Wonderland.
Mave had told him there were clothes in the room for him, and Brandon quickly stripped off what he had been wearing, dropping it on the floor by the bed before rummaging in the wardrobe. He found a pair of dark blue jeans, a brown jacket and black t-shirt. He yanked the clothes on, ignoring the more fancy suits and royal looking clothes. Once he was done, he glanced in the mirror.
Brandon grinned. He didn't look half bad. Of course, he still had a bit of flab around his stomach, but it had gone down considerably since he had been ripped from home. He was far from being as good looking as Lancelot, or Mave, but the clothes made him look, he thought, just a bit more rugged.
That, and the thick stubble on his jaw.
There was a knock on his door, and when it opened it, it was to see Candice standing there. She'd changed, too, and was now wearing a plain black leather jacket, black jeans and a black vest top.
"Liking the black, huh?" he asked, grinning as she gently nudged him.
"Ready for this?"
"Nah," he chuckled. "But if we want to get home..."
She nodded. "Onwards, right?"
Together, they made their way through the castle, heading downstairs to the hall where Mave and the queen waited for them. She stood with her back straight, hands folded together in front of her. She looked like she was trying not to cry. Mave leant against a window, his cowboy hat pulled down and covering his eyes. The queen smiled, before glancing towards Mave. He pushed himself away from the window, reaching down and grabbing three rucksacks. He carried them to Brandon and Candice, handing them one each.
"Food, supplies, and a gun each." He glanced at the queen, who gestured to a table behind her. On it were two swords, both with sheaths.
"Take these, too," she said, and Brandon glanced at Mave. The cowboy/hatter wore his gun in his belt, a sword on the other side. He nodded, before grabbing the larger of the swords, holding it up and studying the blade.
"You know we don't know how to fight with these, right?"
Mave shrugged. "Sometimes it's enough just to show you've got one."
Brandon looped the sheath through the belt loops on his jeans, before sliding the sword in. Candice copied him, looking worried as she stared at the gun on Mave's belt.
"Will we really need them?"
He shrugged. "Might do."
They put on the bags, stepping back as the queen moved towards Mave. "Be careful."
He planted a kiss on her cheek. "I'll be back before you know it. Come on." He nodded his head towards the entrance of the hall, setting off with Brandon and Candice following. He took them out to the front lawn, glancing over his shoulder at them.
"Just stay close to me, okay?"
They nodded, as Mave walked straight towards the maze. Brandon and Candice walked directly behind them, both gripping their bags. The ground beneath their feet seemed to shift, and he thought he felt his stomach drop. The world around them began to shake, almost shivering. Mave carried on, but instead of the archway this side leading them into the maze, they seemed to step into a dark tunnel.
"Don't look behind, all right?" Mave called over his shoulder, having to shout above the whistling sound that seemed now to surround them. To Brandon, it sounded like wind. He took a deep breath, trying to ignore the sick feeling in his stomach. "Keep walking, both of you." Mave kept his head high, and the other two imitated him, Candice breathing steadily, inhaling through her nose and out through her mouth.
Ahead of them was a light, bright white, but Mave didn't speed up. Brandon wanted to; the urge was there, to just start sprinting. He resisted, keeping the same steady pace.
They reached the light, and as it wrapped around them it felt like the whole world turned upside down. Brandon tumbled forward, losing sight of the other two, and panic set in.
"Candice!" he yelled, keeping a tight grip on his bag.
"Keep calm!" Mave called back. "Both of you."
Brandon tried, but with the constant tossing and turning it was hard. His stomach still felt like it was twisting, and there was a pounding building up in his head.
Suddenly it just stopped, and he felt himself hit the ground, hard. Beneath him was sand, and he found himself coughing a fair amount of it out as he lifted himself to his knees. The waves lapped against the shore, the water a beautiful blue. He glanced to his other side to see Candice standing up, brushing sand from her jeans and top. Mave was already up, looking like he'd come through the tunnel much better than the other two.
"You two all right?" he said, moving forward until he was standing closer to them. Candice nodded, though her skin was slightly green and she was shaking. Brandon didn't think he looked any better. He got to his feet, glancing around. At the edge of the beach were trees, normal trees with green leaves and brown bark and trees which were just a normal height.
"Toto, I don't think we're in Wonderland anymore."
Mave laughed, while Candice just stared blankly at him. "Who's Toto?"
"Never mind. What now?"
"We move." Mave put a hand on his gun, gesturing to the trees with his other hand.
"Can't we just, you know, go back through the tunnel or something? Go to the next place?" Candice asked, though she didn't sound too keen on the idea even as she said it.
"Sorry, no can do. There are only certain points I can go from and to in each world, and I can't go from the same place I land." He shrugged. "Don't look at me like that, pretty lady. I didn't make the rules."
He began to walk towards the trees, Candice and Brandon following. They walked in silence as they left the beach, and it was Brandon who broke it first.
"So if you leave Wonderland, does it take you a while to get back?"
He shook his head. "Nah. The thing is, each place I go to, they all have different...doors. Each door leads to somewhere else. But Wonderland...it's almost like I can get to Wonderland from anywhere." He shrugged. "It's why we always end up there, I reckon. Because even if you make a mistake, you somehow end up there."
"Wonderland's its real name?"
"Sure is." He pushed his hat up, glancing around. "We should be all right here. The natives know me pretty well."
"What are the natives like?" Candice spoke up, glancing around just a little uneasily. As they walked, her foot caught on a root and she stumbled forward, but managed not to fall.
"They're all right. Almost killed me the first time I came here, but like I said, they know me pretty well by now."
She glanced at Brandon, who just shrugged. Both the men had one hand on one strap of their bags, while Candice held onto both. As they walked, Brandon couldn't help but notice how her grip seemed to tighten. Her eyes darted constantly around, her tongue lashing out to lick her lips every couple of seconds.
He moved closer to her. "Hey, you okay?"
"I want to go home," she whispered, blinking quickly. "I want to...see my family. Christ, I don't even know if they're alive."
It felt natural to do what he did next. Brandon threw an arm around her shoulders, pulled her close and planted a kiss on her head. "It'll be okay."
She didn't pull away. Not at first. Instead, they walked like that for a few moments until she stepped to the side and Brandon dropped his arm. "How can you say that? Brandon, I...when I get home, it'll be to a world that's managed to destroy itself. You saw it. I want to go back but what's the point? Once I get back there, I'll, what, exactly? Spend the rest of my life in that bunker, with Lucas?"
"And Lancelot," he muttered. "He's probably still there."
"Screw Lancelot!" she snapped. Candice groaned, shaking her head. "Sorry, I...I feel like crap, Brandon."
"Not surprising." Mave was directly in front of them, staring at Candice with a strangely neutral expression on his face. "You've just walked through time and space. It's going to screw with your head a bit, not to mention your body." He shrugged. "But you get used to it. After a while. And obviously the more you do it at first the worse it can get but..." He trailed off, and then his familiar grin was back. "Look, lady, you don't have to go straight back to wherever you came from. If you still aren't sure by the time it comes down to it, I can always drop you off a little bit sooner." He winked.
"I don't know..."
"Or leave you somewhere new entirely. Can always pick you up another time. But you don't have to make any decisions now, yeah?"
"You haven't asked anything about where we're actually from," Brandon pointed out, frowning at Mave. "Like, how do you know how to get there?"
"You always end up where you're supposed to go."
He didn't like the sound of that. To Brandon, it sounded too vague, and too much like something one of the angels would say. Still...
"So you don't even need to know the year, or the place?"
"Nah. Surprising, isn't it? We can move to different timelines, can leap to different universes or worlds even and yet we will eventually get to where you're from. Again, I don't know the specifics."
"You don't know much about what you can do, do you?" Brandon muttered, beginning to grow annoyed at the way the hatter seemed to skirt around everything, the ignorance he carried and the seeming lack to do anything about it.
"I know it's what you need to get home," he replied, expression growing dark. "So try not to be too critical, all right? Come on." He turned and began to walk again. Reluctantly, the other two followed, all three remaining silent as they walked through the trees.
The sun began to set before they got away from the trees. It got dark slowly, and for that Brandon found himself strangely grateful. He figured it meant the nights would be longer than in Wonderland, too. Mave stopped walking, holding his hand up to stop them.
"We should set up camp," he said, taking his bag from his back before he began to walk off the path. Without a word, they followed, moving through the trees, Mave swinging his bag at his side. Not far from the path, they came to a river, and Mave flashed them a smile over his shoulder.
"Here. It's my usual site."
Not far from the riverbank were the remains of a fire, logs and branches placed together. Mave opened his bag, pulling out a basic tent. He began to set it up.
"You got them in yours, too," he said, after realising neither of them had moved. Candice blushed, while Brandon rolled his eyes. They took off their own bags and imitated Mave in setting up the tents.
Once he had pulled his own out, Brandon realised they weren't exactly tents. Instead, they seemed to be just long plastic sheets. He glanced towards Mave. The hatter was throwing his over the branch of a nearby try, using sturdy twigs to pin it down into the ground.
"Oh," Brandon muttered. "Great." He looked around, trying to find somewhere to put up his own. Candice seemed to be getting into it. She had thrown her own plastic sheet over a branch, and was focusing on 'nailing' it to the ground.
Apparently, there were small hammers in the bags, too. He rummaged around in his until it found it, holding it in his hands as he turned it over before continuing his search for a decent spot.
"You all right?" Mave called, grinning as he glanced at Brandon.
"Sure. Just..." He stopped, realising Candice was now looking at him. He shrugged. "Just trying to find a spot."
"Look above you, friend."
He tilted his head back, feeling his face flush red as he spotted a more than suitable branch right above him. "Oh, right, thanks." He unrolled the sheet, keeping his back to the other two as he did so. Brandon threw it up.
Only to watch it flutter back to the ground.
He tried again.
The same happened.
He could feel their eyes on him, could almost imagine their snickering and laughter. He glanced at the sky. It would be dark soon.
"Why don't you go fetch some wood for a fire?" Mave suggested. "I'll take care of that for you."
"We need wood," Candice said, shrugging. "And if you keep trying you'll end up with no shelter."
She was smiling gently, and Brandon resisted the urge to huff. Instead, he stomped off into the woods, grumbling to himself as he looked for dry wood to use on the fire. Were they laughing at him? Were they commenting to each other about how silly he was, how the hell had he survived this long?
He wondered it himself, sometimes, just like he wondered how he had ever managed to get a girl like her. He wasn't the worst person in social situations, but he wasn't great, either, and there had been many times he had embarrassed her in front of friends and family.
Once, he had asked her what she had seen in him. She had just stared at him for a few seconds, blinking, before replying, "Do you really have to ask that?" There had been no answer, and he thought that maybe that was why she had left. Because there really wasn't anything to see.
Brandon remembered the excuse they had used to get him out of the way, and grabbed a few branches lying on the ground. Part of him wanted to dump the wood and turn around, head back to their 'campsite' and disturb the other two in whatever they were up to. Because he was sure they were up to something, sure Mave had just wanted an excuse to get him out of the way.
His hands were shaking as he looked around. No. He wasn't going to go back, not yet, he wasn't going to show Mave how much he had freaked him out...
And he remembered the queen, the way she had looked when they were leaving, the way Mave had looked at her. He dropped the wood, leaning against a nearby tree.
He was being stupid, ridiculous, even he could see that. Because even without Mave, he didn't have a chance with Candice. And Mave wasn't interested in her; there had been too much between him and the queen for them not to be in love.
They had looked at each other the same way Rachel had looked at Brandon in Lancelot's memories. They had looked at each other in a way she had never looked at him.
Stuck in his mind, with no control over his body, Brandon had felt the man's pain, fresh even after years. He had seen the aftermath of his break up, the way Lancelot, after his work had been pretty much finished, had just locked himself away for weeks, refusing to see anyone.
Brandon knew he hadn't really had a chance to think about the break up, to really register what had happened, but even so, what he felt had been nowhere near Lancelot's pain. Even if he thought about it, thought really hard, all he felt was sort of sad. Not devastated, or distraught, but the same kind of sadness he felt when finished a game, the same kind of sadness that washed over him at the thought that, well, it was no longer there anymore.
Dark was pretty much on them, and Brandon scooped up the wood, deciding to head back. He took a step forward, before stopping abruptly. He turned his head right and left, feeling his mouth go dry.
He had no idea which way he had to go to get back.
He wasn't even sure how far he had come, wasn't sure how long he had been walking for. Brandon tried to keep his breathing steady, as he tried to think of a rational, logical way out of his current situation.
He had no idea what to do.
He wasn't an outdoors person, he didn't know which side of the tree moss grew on or which stars led north. He had never needed that information, had never thought he would be in a situation where it would apply. Brandon shivered, as the temperature dropped. He was tempted to call out their names, but wasn't even sure they would hear.
Plus, it might have attracted the natives, and though Mave said he was all right with them, Brandon couldn't help but think of what he said their response had been when he had first arrived. If they found him on his own...
The sound of a twig snapping filled his ears.
He dropped the wood.
"Mave?" he said, trying to keep his voice low. "Mave? Candice? Is that you?"
Another noise, one he couldn't identify, and then one that reminded him of Lord of the Rings and Robin Hood.
The whistling of an arrow.
Brandon threw himself to the ground.
"I mean no harm!" he called out. "I'm with Mave!"
He had heard the thunk of the arrow as it hit the tree behind him, and he was trembling as he lay in the grass, praying they would take his words to heart.
Whoever they were anyway.
He wished Mave had told them more about the natives, wished he knew what to expect. Instead, he positioned his hands on the back of his head, keeping his face to the grass with no idea who was approaching.
He heard the footsteps, light on the floor of the woods. There was just the slightest crunch on the leaves, and once it had grown close to him, it stopped.
Whoever it was spoke in words he didn't understand. Another voice replied, but when it spoke again, it was in English.
Brandon removed his hands from his head, lifting himself up slowly. He saw their feet first; nothing like human feet. These were big, hairy, the toes on them long and clenched. Almost like a monkey, but not quite. Their legs were just as hairy, and they seemed to be wearing shorts made out of fur. Once he was on his knees, he tilted his head back. Both creatures had bare chests, hair thick and brown on one, white on the other. Their faces were humanoid, sharp, intelligent eyes but with short noses. They even had tails, swishing this way and that.
"Feet," the one said, gesturing at Brandon. He climbed up, shaking as the two surveyed him. "With Mave?"
"I don't know. I got lost."
The creature spoke in that strange language to the other, and Brandon was left with no idea what was going on as they conferred. Eventually, the one who spoke English turned to him.
"If Mave really here, why you do not know where is?"
"I told you, I got lost. I was collecting wood, for a fire." He gestured to the pile near his feet, watching as the creature glanced down at it before looking back at Brandon. Again, the pair spoke, their words rapid. The brown one shrugged, before the white one reached forward and grabbed Brandon's wrist.
"Sure, sure," Brandon said, nodding, glad they had seemed to decide, for now, anyway, not to kill him. He was dragged with them, through the woods with the moon hanging low in the sky. They walked for ages, until they left the trees and came to a small camp. Here, there were more of the creatures around, and he saw smaller ones, running around and giggling. Some were climbing trees, even though dark had come fully now. There were a couple of fires burning around, and the natives were gathered around them.
Some had black fur, others had ginger, while some were striped or multi-coloured. Brandon couldn't help but gape at them as the two led him through the camp, and he noticed a fair few gaping at him, too.
They yelled out things in their language, and one of his captors would respond, sometimes smiling and laughing, other times taking on a serious expression. One of the children – he assumed that's what they were – ran forward, holding his arms out.
The brown furred one, the one who spoke English, laughed and gently pushed the child away, saying something to it before shaking his head. The kid bounded away.
"Where am I?" Brandon asked, glancing at the creature.
"No longer lost," he replied. "If friend of Mave, Mave find you here. Cannot stay in woods on own. Dangerous."
"Right, okay. So, do you have a name?"
"Not one you can say. Mave calls me Student."
"Did Mave teach you to speak English?" he asked, as the three came to a stop outside a small tent.
"Taught me some. Took me with him to other lands. I learn much from travels; I teach others here."
Brandon nodded, deciding not to ask how he could go anywhere and not be noticed.
"Stay here," Student said, gesturing to the tent. "We return with food."
"Okay, thank you." He entered the tent. There was little in there except a nest like bed, near one wall. Plants were piled together, along with blankets made from fur. He wondered why they got the fur from; or even why they needed to wear it when they were covered in it. He shrugged the thoughts off, dropping onto the 'nest' and rearranging it to make himself comfortable.
It was better than a grassy floor, but he missed the bed in the castle. Brandon curled up, wondering what sort of food he would be given.
He wanted to see Mave. He wanted to demand an explanation for where they were; the only possibilities he could think of where that it was either an alternative world, like Wonderland, or a different planet entirely.
The second one didn't make a whole lot of sense to him. Surely a different planet wouldn't have a beach or woods exactly like those on Earth? And, he reasoned, if it was a new planet how the hell could he breathe?
His head felt like it was spinning. He was sure Mave knew a lot more than he was letting on, and the absence of the angels was beginning to worry him. Why hadn't they been in contact? No weird dreams, no getting torn from one place and dumped in another and no reliving his own memories.
Maybe, he thought, they had decided to leave him alone, had decided to leave it up to Mave to get him home.
There was a rustling from the entrance of the tent and Brandon sat up, spotting Student stepping in with a tray. The creature smiled at him, before crossing the room and kneeling beside the nest.
"Mave may wait for sun to come here," he said. "You eat and rest. Is meat." Student gestured to a bowl on the tray. To Brandon, it looked almost like chicken soup. "Is very good for self. Mave likes very much."
Brandon nodded. "What if Mave doesn't come here?"
"Then you have lied to us, and you will be punished accordingly." The smile on his face made the sentence more unnerving, and Brandon's mind was suddenly full of thoughts and possibilities of what kind of punishment these strange creatures would inflict on him. "But I trust you know Mave. We look after friend of Mave."
Student dipped his head, before standing. "Eat then sleep. Friend will stand outside, anything you think, talk. He will help."
Again, Brandon thanked him, watching as Student turned and left the tent. He just hoped Mave would realise what had happened, would come to the camp. Because if he didn't...
He picked up the soup. Beside it was a bread like something, a couple of lumps that looked almost like rolls. He used them to dip into the soup. The soup itself tasted slightly bland, but the meat was decent enough, almost like chicken. The bread-like rolls were sweet, and he found it difficult to eat too much. Still, he tried, wishing he knew more about the natives, wondering if they would be offended if he didn't finish.
The meal made him sleepy, and soon enough he was drifting off, wondering if Mave and Candice had even noticed yet that he hadn't returned.
A/N: As always, thoughts and feedback are very much welcomed. And please, if you have a moment, have a quick look at the poll on my profile page; would really love a few more votes on it to decide which direction to go next. Thanks very much.