The sun was behind the fortress now, and it cast a long, chilling shadow across the windy mountaintop. The Up-River sped by fifty or sixty yards away, and another hundred yards beyond that, it reached the edge of the mountaintop, and it fell off into a void of swirling light and mist that led nowhere. Perhaps everywhere.
Somewhere. Grumbler felt in his heart that he knew where it went.
Feathertop was bleeding down one leg from a wound in his chest as he came galloping up, snorting and sweating. The lime green feathers on top of his head blew about in the breeze.
Grumbler cocked both revolvers and pointed them at the pony who had once been his best friend.
"Not another goddamn step!" he said loudly.
With a grunt, Feathertop came clattering to a halt, stamping and snorting twenty feet away.
"Give me the boy," the pony said. "Old Jack will tear your heart out for this, but if you stop now, I might be able to convince him to spare you."
The dwarf in the pinstriped suit laughed bitterly and shook his head.
"You really believe that?" he asked. "He's insane, Feather. Open your fucking eyes, pally. I mean, if he really meant what he said at the beginning, if he was really trying to save the wood, to save us all, that was one thing. But look at him." He gestured with his head for Feathertop to look at Nathan.
The pony did.
"He wasn't supposed to be hurt," Grumbler said. "He's dying now. This isn't what you wanted, is it? This kid has been with us since the day he was born. He's pulled my beard and he's ridden on your back and he's laughed and he's never been a mewling pain in the ass like some kids can be. He's a good kid.
"He's Our Boy's son. And Thomas may have left us all behind, but that doesn't mean he stopped loving us, Feather. It just means that he had to live. He had to be what he was meant to be, had to be this boy's father. I've seen more of the world out there than you have. It isn't easy. Thomas didn't turn his back on us because he wanted to. It's just life, that's all. And for that, we're going to kill his only child?"
Feathertop's hooves clacked hollowly on the stone as he shifted from side to side. He looked down at Nathan, whose eyes suddenly fluttered open. The boy was sickly, and he stank of illness and worse. But he was just a boy.
"Feathertop?" Nathan asked.
"Thomas could make this place paradise if he wanted," Feathertop said, sounding suddenly unsure.
Grumbler let his arms relax a little. The barrels of his weapons lowered a bit. He tilted his head to one side and gazed imploringly into the pony's eyes.
"It's already paradise, you idiot," he said lovingly. "Or it was until old Jack started burning and killing."
"Things were dying, changing, already. And that was just neglect on Our Boy's part," Feathertop said angrily, though he would not look at Nathan any longer. Not even when the boy said his name again, weakly.
"Things die," Grumbler said. "Things change. That was the way it always was until Thomas came and started to dream us all, to wish us all. If it happens again, that can't be his fault.
"I don't want to die, Feather," said the dwarf. "But I can't let Nathan die. I can't let the Lantern have him."
"It's the only way," Feathertop said. "The only way to control Thomas. If you want to stop me from taking him, you'll have to kill me."
Feathertop charged. Grumbler was shocked for a heartbeat, and then his face was contorted with sorrow. He whipped the Colts up to where they were level with Feathertop's chest.
Then he fired.
The pony died. Grumbler wept over his corpse. Nathan was crying as well, and it was his coughing, his sniffing and wailing, that got Grumbler moving again.
He put the guns away and had just bent to pick up the boy when he heard the voice.
"I do value loyalty you know, dwarf," growled the Jackal Lantern.
Grumbler's head snapped up and he stared in fear at the approaching beast. In the shadow of his fortress, the Jackal Lantern looked especially haunting, candlelight illuminating the inside of his pumpkin skull. Grumbler could see through one eye and right out the back.
He could see through that hole that the remaining Forest Rangers were coming round the back of the castle and moving toward them. And beneath their branches, in the shade they provided, the Peanut Butter General ran, knees pumping, sword waving in his hand.
"Strangely," old Jack whispered. "I also value disloyalty. There's a lesson in it, don't you think? A lesson to the one who has been betrayed, and later, a lesson to others who might betray him. At least, if the traitor is dealt with right away. I'm going to make an example of you, traitor," said the Lantern as he closed in on Grumbler.
The dwarf stood in front of the boy. In the distance, the General was closing in. Grumbler reached under his arms and drew his guns just as the Lantern leaped toward him. He managed to get one clear of its holster and to fire, but the bullet only creased the pumpkin head, and then the Lantern was on him. Together they tumbled to the ground. Grumbler hit his head, hard, and was momentarily disoriented.
Old Jack slashed at his face, and Grumbler began to bleed.
Bleeding pissed Grumbler off to no end.
He brought a knee up into the Jackal Lantern's groin, with every ounce of strength he could muster. Old Jack let out a gasp of air and Grumbler threw him off. The Lantern rolled on the ground, not far from the gun Grumbler had been able to draw and then lost his grip on.
The other was still in its holster, and he drew it now. He fired, just once, and missed. The Jackal Lantern was still moving, keeping his distance now, afraid of the gun.
By its weight, Grumbler knew it was empty. And at the moment of recognition, he saw the light blaze in old Jack's eyes. For the Lantern had seen that realization in the dwarf's face.
"Shoot me," old Jack said happily.
He began once more to close in. To stalk them.
Empty gun trained on the Lantern, Grumbler stooped to grab Nathan. With one powerful effort, he lifted the boy up onto his shoulder again and felt the scratches in his face pull, opening even deeper.
"Shoot me," the Lantern said again. "Or I'll have to kill both of you."
Then the pumpkin eyes went wide, and they both could hear the rumbling of the approaching trees.
The Jackal Lantern laughed. "Honestly," he said. "You think those aging Rangers are going to get here in time to be of any help to you."
"They're not alone," said the dwarf.
For a moment, the Jackal Lantern hesitated. Then he turned toward the sound of the charging Rangers to see the Peanut Butter General bearing down on him, sword raised high.
The moment old Jack's back was turned, Grumbler bolted toward the Up-River.
With a snarl, the Jackal Lantern leaped at Thomas. Peanut butter pulled back from the sword like a sheath as he brought the blade to bear. One of the Lantern's claws raked his shoulder, but Thomas lopped the other off halfway up the leg. Blood spurted and old Jack wailed as he tumbled to the ground.
He whimpered, climbing first to three legs, then getting up on his haunches to walk on two once more. He held the truncated limb close to his torso, and he glared at Thomas, growling. Inside his pumpkin head, the candlelight flickered.
"There's no place for you here now," Thomas told him, his voice sticky with the peanut butter that coated the inside of his throat.
With a pained snort of amusement, the Lantern winced, a half smile on his horrid face. "You've destroyed it for me," he said. "You gave it rules. Good will triumph and evil must fail. That isn't life. That's mythology."
The candle in the Lantern's head flickered again and began to burn down. It grew dim inside his head now, in the shadow cast by his great fortress.
Wax leaked from his eyes and mouth.
"It's all a story, Jack," Thomas said coldly. "Mine. Yours. It doesn't matter. There's only one rule, that it comes from the heart. You never understood that."
Wax dribbling down his chin, the Lantern mumbled, "you're King of the Wood now."
"No," Thomas said, "that title belongs to another."
Heart heavy with sorrow, Thomas Randall, the Peanut Butter General, brought his sword down quickly, splitting old Jack's pumpkin head right in half, cleaving the candle in two, extinguishing the flame.
The two sides of the rotten pumpkin dropped away, and the headless jackal's corpse crumbled to the ground.
As the Forest Rangers finally reached him, Thomas turned his back on them. He stared across the rocky plateau toward the Up-River. He caught sight of Grumbler, Nathan held in his arms, just before the dwarf jumped into the rushing water.
"Grumbler wait!" he cried.
He began to run in a diagonal course, trying to keep up with the flow of the river. At the edge of the Up-River, he picked up speed. Thomas called his son's name over and over again. Finally, Grumbler's head bobbed up and his eyes locked on Thomas's.
Grumbler waved. And then, holding Nathan in his arms, the dwarf went over the falls. Thomas stopped abruptly at the cliff, and stared down into the water tumbling off into the Misty Nothing below.
They will be all right, he knew. Beyond that mist, whatever part of Nathan had been trapped here in Strangewood would find its way home. It was only that Thomas had wanted to say good-bye.
He stared down into the mist and wept.
* * * * *
Emily was crying silently as she stroked Nathan's hair. His father had just died — the orderlies had carted his body out on a gurney — and Nathan didn't even know. Couldn't know.
There was a numb place in her heart where grief was beginning, for she had always loved Thomas, no matter what had happened between them.
But the grief would have to wait. It was overshadowed by the fear that what happened to Thomas would happen to Nathan. Her ex-husband had experienced massive heart failure, and the doctors had no explanation. None. No reason.
So she sat and she stroked her son's hair and his beautiful face and she whispered to him that he should come back to her.
And then he did.
Nathan Randall began to murmur to himself. His hands moved slowly to his eyes and pulled away the tape that had been used to keep them closed.
"Oh, God, Nathan!" Emily cried, loud enough for the nurse at the station out in the corridor to hear.
Her baby boy opened those ice-blue Paul Newman eyes and looked at her with grave concern.
"Mommy, why are you crying?" Nathan asked innocently.
Emily could not answer. She could only hold him, rock him back and forth, and whisper countless thanks to whomever had answered her prayers.
One morning, several weeks after Thomas Randall's funeral, Nathan woke up very happy. It was the day his mother was going to sign the contract for Adventures in Strangewood to become a live-action film. But Nathan wasn't quite six years old yet, and he didn't know that. It was a happy day, of sorts, a bittersweet day for the family. But he didn't know that, either.
Still, he was smiling quite broadly when he came into the kitchen in his Batman pajamas and gave his mother as tight a hug as he could manage. He was still getting his strength back, but Emily smiled at the fervor in that embrace.
"How you doing, buddy?" she asked Nathan. "How'd you sleep?"
"Great," Nathan replied, sitting down in his usual chair as Emily poured him a bowl of Apple Jacks.
Then he said, "I had a dream about Daddy."
Emily blinked. Ice began to form on her heart. She put her hand on the back of Nathan's head and crouched beside him.
"You miss him, don't you, baby?" she asked. "It's okay. Mommy misses him too. But he'll be watching out for us. I know he will."
"Sure he will," Nathan said happily, through a mouthful of milk-moistened cereal. "He said he would."
Emily's hand stopped its slow movement across Nathan's head.
"What else did he say?" she asked.
"He said that I could dream him any time I wanted to. That I could come to Strangewood, and I could help him make it better," Nathan said happily. "And he told me that, maybe when I was bigger, and he was stronger, he'd come to see us if he could."
A chill ran through her, and Emily pulled Nathan into another tight embrace. She was annoying him with her attention and he tried to squirm away, to get back to the business of breakfast. She wouldn't let him go.
She didn't completely believe it. She didn't understand it at all. And it frightened her, even though it had made her son so happy. It gave him back his father, in a way she could only begin to imagine.
There was such a thing as magic.
Outside the Randall house, a dwarf in a pinstriped suit took one last look, smiled to himself, and began walking down the road, heading for Broadway.
He'd hitch a ride, if he could, or he'd end up walking all the way down to Manhattan. He knew a store in Greenwich Village where he could buy a felt fedora in the perfect shade of green.
BY BENTLEY LITTLE
Dark Fantasy is a term that gets bandied about far too frequently these days. Every writer afraid of being stigmatized by association with the dreaded word “horror,” every hack genre editor with literary pretensions and delusions of grandeur, every reviewer searching for another synonym for supernatural fiction seems to trot out that overused phrase and shove it in our faces.
But Christopher Golden really does write Dark Fantasy, and Strangewood is a prime example of how well he does it.
At a time when religious wackos are up in arms about the magic in Harry Potter books (what’s next? Will they want to ban The Wizard of Oz because it features a Good Witch of the North? Or Cinderella because there’s a fairy godmother?), Strangewood is a breath of fresh air, a terrific novel about a not-so-benign fantasy world that is far more real than anyone suspects.
As Pablo Picasso proved early in his career, you have to know the rules of art in order to break them, and Golden has not only mastered the form and substance of the adult fantasy novel, is not merely conversant with the rather rigid tropes of that particular genre, but also, and more impressively, he understands the specific dynamics and requirements of the children’s story.