Page 24

Almost like a wet dog drying off, Tinklebum began to shake his entire body with excitement. His smile was wide and infectious, and his body tolled with the happiest sound Thomas had heard him make yet.

"Our Boy! Our Boy! You really are back! I know you can do it, I know you can! You can fix it! Of course we will help you and when the child is gone back to the other place, you will stay here with us and Strangewood will be safe and beautiful again."

That was the moment when Thomas began to wonder about Tinklebum's sanity, which was why he did not correct the bell-bottom's assumption of the path things would take in the future. For the moment, all that mattered was saving Nathan. Then he would do what he could to save Strangewood, whatever that might be.

He looked away from Tinklebum's gleaming grin and glanced across the path again. The burned out cottage, the lake, the Winding Way leading out into a wondrous world beyond. While he had been talking with Tinklebum, the dark had crept in and night had truly fallen. Now the orange stars gleamed above, and Thomas realized he was already tired. He needed rest.

But there would be no rest yet. Not for a time. Not unless he absolutely had to.

He frowned and turned back to Tinklebum. "Where are all the others?" he asked, realizing even as he did so that he had thus far learned nothing from the bell-bottom, save for the fact that the Jackal Lantern was among his enemies.

"Others?" Tinklebum asked.

Then he began to shake a bit, as if he were shivering from the cold. But it was quite warm in the wood that night.

"Tinklebum?" Thomas asked.

But Tinklebum wasn't answering. He shivered, staring off into the orange-starred sky, and Thomas had the odd idea that somehow he was being electrocuted. It was the way he stood there, almost frozen, quivering.

A low growl came from behind Thomas. Then the words. "Been like that ever since his village burned. Fiddlestick wanted to leave him behind, but I wouldn't let him."

Thomas turned around and stared up, up, and up into the snout and tiny, soft eyes of Brownie the Grizzly. His paws were huge, his teeth like daggers, but Thomas wasn't frightened at all. Instantly, he trusted Brownie. Perhaps, he thought, his anxiety around Tinklebum had to do with the bell-bottom's questionable sanity. And his own.

Brownie was another story.

Just as he had done when he was eight years old, Thomas folded himself in the soft, moist furry embrace of the Grizzly, and he felt safe. He whispered the bear's name, and Brownie patted his back, as he'd done all those times, all those nights when Thomas had cried.

"Our Boy," Brownie whispered. "We will find Nathan. You are not alone, here. You'd be surprised to learn who has sided with you."

That stopped Thomas a moment. He felt the bear's arms tighten around him, and the breath went out of him just a little. Then he pushed away from the bear, stared up at him, back at the mad little bell, and then Thomas Randall nodded.

He was in Strangewood. They had his son, his Nathan, but he was not powerless here. Strangewood was not really his creation, but this Strangewood . . . this he had created. All he had done had gone to shape it, to carve it. His memories had changed it, his words had ordered it. Yes, and left alone it had begun to fall back into chaos, back into its own law, its own awareness.

But he knew this place. And he knew all of them. There was power in that, and Thomas was determined to use that power against the Jackal Lantern. He would need it.

"The Forest Rangers," he said grimly. "With whom do they side?"

Brownie growled low in his chest. Tinklebum actually chuckled a bit, and his clapper bonged twice.

"The Rangers have not acted to help either side, as far as I know," Brownie said, his tone revealing his displeasure.

"No. Broadbough came to me, in my own world, and warned me," Thomas admitted. "If their captain has allied himself with me, the Rangers must do the same."

"What if they refuse?" Mr. Tinklebum asked, a nervous frown of concern on his face.

"Then I'll burn them down," Thomas replied.

The Grizzly actually shivered.

Thomas turned and began to walk south, and the others fell into step beside him.

"I don't think it's a good idea to take Tinklebum through what remains of his village," Brownie said quietly, glancing down at the bell-bottom who ding-donged happily along far below them.

"We won't be going that far," Thomas replied.

The bear stared at him, but Thomas said nothing more.

* * * * *

The fire burned blue.

That was the first clue the Peanut Butter General had that things were not quite right. With Fiddlestick sitting atop his shoulder, the General had forged tirelessly on through the oldest part of the wood. The trees were a bit further apart and much taller and thicker than elsewhere. Some were as broad across as four men shoulder to shoulder, and taller than even the General's eyes could see, in spite of the glow from the orange stars.

They had passed the time mostly in silence, this strange pair of travelers. What little they had in common stemmed from their concerns for the boy, Nathan, and for Strangewood itself. And their journey. The journey was all that mattered now. That, and the blood that must flow at journey's end.

Wildlife had been scarce, save for various night birds and a run-in with Fox Trot. Though the General and Fox Trot had worked together several times to thwart the best intentions of The Boy and those who lived in the wood nearby Grumbler's cottage, the General had never trusted him. Nor did he trust the red furred one now.

Still, Fox Trot was no friend to the Jackal Lantern and would do nothing that did not benefit him directly. In the present conflict, the General was certain the four-legged beast could be counted to stay out of things all together. In truth, he suspected that having seen them in the forest, and realizing that a battle was likely due, Fox Trot would have hidden himself away somewhere until the worst was over.

Clever and mischievous, yes, but the fox was a coward.

They had journeyed on, after that brief meeting, and did not chance upon any more fellow travelers. The Orange Pealers were silent, as the General had commanded, and they moved in and out of the trees to either side. After a time, the General saw them so infrequently that he'd nearly forgotten they were there.

The night had come, and as the darkness crept from tree to tree, and branch to branch, silence swept across Strangewood. Fox Trot, it seemed, wasn't the only one who had hidden himself away.

"Fiddlestick?" the General had asked, the first time in an hour that he had broken the silence. "Why do you do this?"

The dragon was unsettled, and fluttered its musical wings for the first time in long, long minutes, causing the General to shush him again. But Fiddlestick craned his long, scale-encrusted neck out so that he could stared into the General's peanut butter webbed eyes.

"What do you mean?" the little dragon had asked.

The General had nodded, realizing how inadequate the phrasing had been. "If the Lantern gets hold of you — or, for that matter, if Longtooth or Cragskull get their hands on you — they'll kill you, my orange-bellied friend. Do you understand that? You'll be dead?"

Fiddlestick's head sank lower, and he had glared at the General through slitted eyes, only inches from the General's face. He had snorted and fire licked out of his nostrils and scorched his nose.

"My parents are dead, aren't they?" the dragon asked.

The Peanut Butter General raised his eyebrows at that, though no one who saw him would have recognized the expression. Covered as he was. He looked back at the dragon. So many questions came into his mind, but instead of asking a single one of them, he had merely nodded slowly and said, "Yes, of course."

"Love," Fiddlestick had said a moment later. "I'm here for the love of Our Boy, and of his son, and of Strangewood. I can't think of any other reason."

The dragon had leaned in so close that the heat from its nostrils seemed to melt the peanut butter on the General's nose.

"What I'd like to know, General, is why you're here."

"I don't have a choice," the General had replied. "Which, I believe, makes you the more courageous." Then he stared more closely at the dragon for a long moment before looking away, as if to indicate that his next question meant absolutely nothing.

But the Peanut Butter General was not one for idle chatter.

"Let me ask you, Fiddlestick," he had begun. "Do you recall a time before I came? A time when there was no Peanut Butter General?"

"You ask the strangest questions," the dragon had replied.

After that, they had fallen into silence once more. Even the wood was quiet. They had walked on along through the trees. At times it would seem that they had come upon a path, but soon it would turn out to be nothing more than the lay of the land. Once they came to a tiny stream, a tributary of the Up-River, apparently, for it flowed up the steep wall of a ravine and then on away into the wood.

Then, moments later, the fire. Blue, flickering light that cast ghostly shadows through the trees. And in the branches above them, the wood all around, things moved; and the General didn't think it was the Orange Pealers. Wings fluttered like moths swarming to the glass around a torch lamp. Leaves rustled. The General felt Fiddlestick begin to stir on his shoulder, and he whispered harshly to the dragon to be still.

Ahead, perhaps eight yards away, the wood opened into a clearing. The blaze was there, blue and white and crackling with destructive hunger. Beyond the clearing, on its far edge, stood the largest tree the Peanut Butter General had ever seen. But he had only been in this part of Strangewood once before, and never through this particular clearing.

This was to be avoided.

"The fire," Fiddlestick whispered suddenly, pointing one of his thin arms into the circle. "It's stones. They're burning stones."

The General saw that it was true. In the presence of all this wood, whatever had camped here had made a fire of stones. How this had been done, the General did not know. But he did not doubt that it could be done, for he was seeing it even now.

"We should turn back," the dragon suggested.

Out of the corner of his eye, the General saw the way Fiddlestick's neck was drawn back, and he could feel the way the dragon was tensed to flee. Calmly, the General moved his right hand to the pommel of his sword and spoke to the dragon without turning.

"We go forward," he said. "It is the only way for us now. If you try to flee, I'll cut out your flaming heart myself."

Fiddlestick said nothing after that. With the dragon on his shoulder, the General moved cautiously toward the clearing. Wings beating, something fluttered out of the branches above them and darted toward the General's face. He ducked, put up a hand to defend himself, and several others appeared and instantly raced toward his face.

"Back!" the General snapped, and struck out. He connected with something, and heard it crash through some leaves and plummet to the forest floor.

Another came at him, and now the General saw it clearly. Saw it, even as Fiddlestick named it.

"Wood nymphs!" the dragon snarled.

And they were. Tiny fairy creatures, with bodies made of wood and bark and wings of leaves. Their faces were savage and angry lights burned in their eyes.

Many of them were covered with orange pulp, and the scent of it was strong on them. The General's eyes went wide with horror. These creatures had been stalking them, flanking them, and had murdered the Orange Pealers in silence. Not one of them had so much as screamed.

"General, do you smell . . .?" Fiddlestick began.

"They're all dead," the General replied grimly.

Fire spurted from the dragon's nostrils.

The wood nymphs then swarmed in, and the General drew his sword from its scabbard with a sticky tug. The peanut butter whipped away from the gleaming blade and he slashed in front of him. The blade connected, hacking through wood. The peanut butter on his shoulder slipped away, just as he had promised, and Fiddlestick took flight, the music of his wings cutting through the dark, pulsing with the flickering of the blue flame up ahead.

As he spun to face another onslaught, the Peanut Butter General moved backward, his body naturally seeking a wider space from which to defend himself, he stepped into the clearing.

The wood nymphs did not follow.

They hovered just outside the clearing, red, ugly light flashing in their eyes as they glared at him for a moment, then turned to go back and help their comrades-at-arms to attack Fiddlestick.

"Dragon, to me now!" the General cried. "They're afraid of this place!"

Instantly, Fiddlestick moved. He had heard the General, and with the tinkle of wind chimes, he shot up through the branches. Several of the wood nymphs held on to his wings, but he brushed them off on the trees before soaring out over the clearing. Moments later, he settled down not far from the Peanut Butter General's feet.

Ten feet from the burning stones.

All around the clearing, the wood nymphs hovered. For all intents and purposes, they were trapped.

"Vicious creatures," the General observed.

"Very," Fiddlestick agreed. "But what I'd like to know is, for such horrid little things, what fear would this clearing hold?"

They stared at one another then, soldier and dragon, and the General felt a queer dread creep over him. He stared once more at the burning stones, and then looked across the clearing toward the enormous tree. Fiddlestick also turned to stare at the tree.

"That's her, isn't it?" the dragon asked.

"I believe so," the General replied.

Together, they moved slowly across the clearing and closer to the enormous tree. With a last glance at one the dragon, the General knelt on the ground before it.

"Queen of the Wood," he said quietly, with a deep and abiding respect. "Please hear our imploring voices. A boy is in trouble, a victim of the Jackal Lantern. But he is more than merely a boy. And if he dies, all of Strangewood may die as well."

As if expecting some sort of response, the General looked up at the motionless, expressionless tree. At his side, Fiddlestick seemed to also be looking to it for answers. After several minutes had passed, and the General had his fill of being foolish, he rose from his knees.