Several Orange Pealers came screaming up the path behind them, gnashing their teeth as they rushed to take up positions on either side of Nathan, eyes darting around, looking into the darkness of the wood for any sign of attack. Nathan bit his lip. He was still afraid of the Pealers, but they seemed much more interested in protecting him than in using those gleaming needle teeth and their tiny spears on him.
Nathan glanced around. The dark wood was thick on either side of the Winding Way, but there were no fruit trees here, burned or otherwise. He didn't know what kind of trees they were, but they looked good for climbing. Or they would have been, were it not for the nasty looking pricker bushes that lined the left side of the path. Though there was no breeze at all, the wicked-looking branches swayed back and forth, and Nathan knew without a doubt that he didn't want to go anywhere near those bushes.
Then he recalled passing Grumbler's cottage, and what that meant. He felt a brief urge to turn back, but he was only five and a half years old — that half having become so very important to him — and he didn't want to go alone. In some strange way, the Peanut Butter General was the only grown-up around.
Eyes darting around nervously, Nathan reached up unconsciously to hold the Peanut Butter General's hand. The bees still kept away from Nathan, and that was good. The General seemed surprised when Nathan's fingers touched his own, but after a moment, he gripped the boy's hand firmly, and they began to walk along the Winding Way together.
"Why are you going to have to fight?" Nathan asked suddenly, though he'd actually been running the General's statement through his head ever since he'd been put down. "Are they . . . are they coming back?"
They had reached a point where the Winding Way became a small hill, an incline up which they now walked briskly. Nathan had to hurry to keep up with the long stride of the General. Somehow, the Orange Pealers seemed comfortable with the pace, which for them was almost an out and out run. Nathan smelled oranges again, and of course the smell of the General.
"Strangewood smells like breakfast," he announced, happy the thought had occurred to him.
But the Peanut Butter General had not forgotten his question. "The only way I can think of to keep you safe is to take you to my home," he explained. "The journey is long, and there are many dangers along the way: those who would try to prevent us from reaching our destination."
"Why?" Nathan asked, eyes wide with his lack of understanding. Longtooth and Cragskull wanted to hurt him, but he didn't know why anyone else would try to attack, especially a . . . well, a monster, like the Peanut Butter General.
The General stopped in the path. They'd reached a point just below the crest of the hill, and the path was all hard-packed dirt and stones and twigs there. When the General crouched by Nathan with a hand on his shoulder, the boy heard his knees pop just like an old man's and he stared hard at the General's knee for a second. Bones in there, he thought.
When he looked at the General's face again, Nathan studied him intently. There was someone in there. Somehow. More than just peanut butter.
"Son," the General said, "there have always been bad things in the wood. Bad people and places. Danger. But since your father stopped coming here, it's only gotten worse. It isn't safe now. You know the stories, the way things would always work out for the best. That's over, now. It's savage here. Do you know that word? It's wild, son, and there's only one person in the world who can do anything about that."
Nathan bit his lip. "My Dad?" he asked.
The General smiled slightly, kindly, and nodded. Then he stood again and took Nathan firmly by the hand, and together they walked up the crest of the hill, Orange Pealers spread ten feet on either side of them, covering the entirety of the broad path out to where the trees shot up from the earth. Their bumpy flesh glowed oddly under the light from stars whose color matched their own.
At the top of the hill, Nathan looked down. The path fell away at a steep angle and then leveled out. It began to curve then, but gently, and ran another fifty yards as the wood thinned a bit. Then there was the Up-River, flowing into the heart of Strangewood off to the right. Though it wound all around Strangewood, almost in an embrace, it changed considerably over the course of that route. Here, the Up-River had carved itself a canyon thirty or forty feet deep over the years. The Winding Way led right up to the edge of the river and continued fifty-seven feet away, on the other side.
Spanning the rushing water was a wooden structure twelve-feet wide that looked as though it had been patched together over the course of several decades by a blind carpenter.
"The Rickety Bridge," Nathan whispered.
"It will be all right," the Peanut Butter General said, and started down, still holding Nathan's hand as the boy stumbled to keep up with him and the Pealers scrambled madly alongside.
"It will be all right," the General repeated.
But Nathan knew what lived under the Rickety Bridge.
He wanted to go home.
The river rushed up a gentle slope, ignoring gravity completely. It burbled along, quite content, speaking the language of water. The Peanut Butter General stood at the edge of the Rickety Bridge and listened to all the sounds of Strangewood around him. A light breeze stirred in the leaves on the path, whirling up into a little dust devil that seemed to sway toward him, whisper a warning, and then skitter off down the path, moving away from the Bridge as quickly as it was able.
The Rickety Bridge creaked as the wind pushed lightly yet persistently against it. The General listened carefully to the sounds of the forest and the river and the bridge, but he could not concentrate over the other sounds that insinuated themselves into his head.
"Hush, now," he said sternly, lips nearly sticking together with the first word. He ran his tongue over his lips to clear the webs of peanut butter away.
The Orange Pealers obeyed instantly. Though it was part of their nature to scream at all times, almost like bats with their squeaking sonar, the Pealers fell silent. They had dropped back behind the General and surrounded the boy, Nathan, whom the General had told them must be protected at all costs.
Still, there was a cacophony of noise surrounding him that the General would not tolerate.
It was the bees.
"Away!" he commanded, and held out his arm to point toward the trees.
Instantly, as though he had torn a garment away from his skin, the bees fled the body of the Peanut Butter General. Several buzzed from his throat, into and then out of his mouth. They moved as one, a swarm of angry yellow and raging black.
The Peanut Butter General waited until he could no longer hear them, until all that reached his ears were the language of the river and the whisper of the wind. He felt a ripple at his side, an ebb and flow in the thickness of the peanut butter at his hip. His fingers seemed to flex of their own accord, and then he reached out to grip the peanut butter covered hilt of the long, deadly edged sword that was part of his dress uniform.
It required a great deal of strength to draw the sticky blade from its scabbard.
"Sir?" the boy said behind him. "General?"
The Peanut Butter General turned silently and brought a finger to his lips, shushing the boy. Nathan's eyes were wide with helpless terror. With a gesture to indicate to the boy that he should stay with the Pealers, no matter what, the General turned and took his first step out onto the Rickety Bridge.
The creak was tremendous, the wail of unoiled hinges magnified a hundredfold. The General held his sword out in front of him. There were boards missing or rotted all across the bridge, and despite its width and substantial structure, the way it swayed made it feel dangerously flimsy beneath his feet. The General kept his legs spread wide for balance as he made his way across. He could hear the scritch-scratch of the tiny feet of the Orange Pealers on the wood behind him and felt the realignment of weight with each step Nathan took to follow him.
Without the trees, the orange stars lit the night around them. The black water of the Up-river ran on either side of the bridge, rushed quickly over rocks and around jags in its deep canyon walls, and where the rough water gave up foamy white, it too was tainted orange by the light. To the west, the canyon fell away and the river followed more than a mile before it turned north and collapsed entirely into a water rise, where millions of gallons of the Foamy Sea flowed up the side of a cliff to get to the riverbed in the first place.
In all his years in Strangewood, the Peanut Butter General had never been to the Foamy Sea. He thought briefly that if he survived all of this — if Strangewood survived it — he would like to get a glimpse of that churning water.
To the east, the Up-River flowed, well, up. The incline became greater and greater as it wound steeply into the Bald Mountains toward the high peaks and the fortress of the Jackal Lantern.
The General took several steps across the bridge, carefully, staying alert. There was no sign of trouble from either side, or from beneath. Only thirty-five feet to the other side now, where the Winding Way picked up once more and the wood began to thin out some. And after that, less than two miles to the forest stronghold that the Peanut Butter General had been secretly building for the past six years — ever since Thomas Randall published the first book about Strangewood. A good soldier was always prepared for the worst.
That thought was still echoing in his head, along with the rushing river below, when the bridge swayed dangerously to one side. The east edge of the structure dipped and only because of his stance did the General not lose his footing. Even as he turned, he saw several Orange Pealers slip and roll off the side of the bridge to tumble, screaming louder than ever before, into the rushing water below.
"Help!" Nathan shrieked.
The General was about to shout his name, to go to him, when the resourceful boy grabbed hold of a wooden support on the west edge — what was now the high side — of the bridge. A number of the Orange Pealers only avoided tumbling to the river by holding onto Nathan's clothing.
With an ear-splitting roar, the beast that lived beneath the Rickety Bridge swung up from beneath the wooden structure and landed with a heavy thump on the floorboards. It did not lose its footing. Rather, the sway and creak of the bridge seemed to suit it.
Nathan was just getting his bearings, and stood halfway between the General and the monster.
"Run, boy!" the General snapped and moved forward even as Nathan and the Pealers slipped past him, making for the other side of the bridge. The Orange Pealers had forgotten his orders now, and were screaming as loudly as they were able.
It did not matter now. The Peanut Butter General had been foolish to hope that the beast would sleep through their entire trek across a bridge so ridiculously loud. It made no effort to follow the child, however. There was that, at least. Instead, it merely stared at the General, smoke billowing from its wide nostrils.
It stamped its left foot and the bridge swayed. Then the thing used its weight to continued the pendulous motion. The General didn't dare turn his head to see if Nathan had reached the safety of the other side. Sword in front of him, he began to back up, sliding his feet over rotted boards, hoping he would not reach a spot where the wood had collapsed down into the shoddy latticework that held the bridge up. It was not easy to keep his balance, but the Peanut Butter General had an advantage the creature was unaware of.
The bottom of his boots, coated with peanut butter, stuck fast to the wood.
"General," the thing said, its voice a low, laughing rumble. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"
"Keep well back, Troll, or they'll use your guts to lash this old bridge together," the General warned.
The Troll laughed. It was a hideous thing, three and a half feet tall and nearly that broad. Stout as a wooden keg, its head and back, belly, groin and feet were covered with fur, while the rest of it was a dry and cracked brown leather. Its dark orange nose was huge and bulbous, and spread halfway across its face. Massive twin tusks jutted from inside its lower lip. Nearly six inches long, they came up to the side of the beast's nose. Its jaw was long and its chin pointed, decorated with a long, tasseled bit of beard that hung like a horse's tail.
When it fed, the Troll's jaw opened wide enough to swallow a pig whole.
"You have no token for me, General?" the Troll rumbled with amusement. "For safe passage across my bridge, you know I require some sort of payment."
The thing's wide yellow eyes glanced past the Peanut Butter General toward the other side of the bridge, and the Troll lowered his gaze. All trace of amusement had left his voice when next he spoke.
"If you have nothing else," he said ominously, "I suppose I'll have to take the boy."
The Peanut Butter General studied the Troll's wide yellow eyes, saw the steam jetting from its nostrils, gauged the length of its thick-muscled, ropy-veined arms, and then he smiled, peanut butter stretching across the gaping grin. Then he waited. The bridge swayed west, then it began to swing back east. As the wood beneath him tilted, the General nodded.
"That sounds fair," he said.
The Troll blinked in surprise. The Rickety Bridge paused in its motion, about to sway back in the other direction. The Peanut Butter General surged forward and drove the point of his sword deep into the Troll's shoulder. As the blade whickered toward Troll flesh, the peanut butter seemed to roll back from it, revealing a steel edge beneath, gleaming in the orange starlight.
Steel pierced flesh. The Troll screamed. With huge three-fingered hands tipped with vicious claws, the Troll raked the Peanut Butter General's chest. The General fell backward onto the rotted wood, heard the snap as several boards broke or crumbled beneath him. The Troll rushed toward him, but the General rose quickly.
He heard the Orange Pealers howling. In that chorus, he thought he heard Nathan screaming as well. For the boy, he must prevail. Failure was not even conceivable. The Troll lunged for him, the General ducked his attack and drove steel through Troll flesh once more. This time the blade passed through the Troll's abdomen. Blue blood began to crawl like heavy cream down the beast's pelvis and legs.