With a grunt, and then silence, the General stepped toward the Queen, sword raised and out to one side, its hilt gripped in both hands. The Queen seemed to glide away and off to his left, and then she darted in at him, talons before her, rending the air as they would rend the General himself. His sword, glinting in blue flame and orange starlight, whickered out and slipped between the fingers of the Queen's left hand. Her hand split down the middle, and two wooden talons were sliced off, dropped to the ground, and lay there, withering in seconds.
But the sacrifice of two fingers barely slowed her. The Queen's right hand gripped the General's sword hand. Her willow branch hair whipped out and pulled the sword from his grasp, tossing it aside in the clearing. The General tried to fight her off, his right palm splitting on a huge thorn.
Then the Queen took him into her embrace. Thorns pierced the peanut butter and whatever remained beneath it. The General felt weak instantly, and he wondered if the thorns themselves were poisoned, of if he had simply had enough. Then the Queen of the Wood gripped him around the throat with her whole hand and lifted the split appendage in the air for him to see. New green shoots had begun to sprout up where her fingers had been chopped off.
She hauled back the wounded hand, held the fingers straight and firm, and drove her hand as a projectile right through the General's chest. Ribs shattered. Organs were punctured.
The Peanut Butter General let out a long gasp of despair and pain and loneliness, and then the Queen of the Wood shoved him back. He tumbled onto the blue blaze and it began to melt and bubble the peanut butter that enshrouded him.
The General rolled away from the blaze and lay there, barely breathing, on the scrub grass and dirt of the clearing. He waited for the killing stroke, blinded by the pain of the fire and his wounds. After a moment, instead, he heard applause.
The Queen of the Wood spoke. "You dare?" she said, furious and frustrated as well. And somehow, the General knew that she did not speak to him.
"Ain't thisss a pretty sssight?" growled a familiar voice. "You've done my job for me, and I get to watch. It'sss a beautiful thing, ssso it isss. Glad to sssee you've landed on the right ssside of thisss thing."
The Queen was silent a moment. Then her voice came, but not from any one spot. It came from the trees themselves. From the wood, a whisper that any sane man would have known was prelude to bloodletting.
"I am Queen of the Wood," her voice rustled like wind in the trees. "I have no allies, only subjects. I am not here for your amusement. You will suffer, just as he, your enemy, has suffered."
The General was bleeding profusely now. The peanut butter was healing him, but with the scorched area on top of his skin, it wasn't as malleable as it ought to be. It was slowing down the process, possibly too much. Where the thorns had pierced him, new peanut butter had slipped in to knit the wounds. But where the Queen had impaled him on her talons, opened up his chest . . . he was not faring as well. Still, the General managed to moved a bit further from the blue flames and sit up enough to see the battle that was about to be joined. To see the other creature foolish enough to stumble into the Queen's lair . . . this one doing so with purpose, and without regard to her.
As he looked up, the General saw them standing opposite one another. The Queen of the Wood and Bob Longtooth, the saber-toothed tiger man. Longtooth's fur was matted, and his claws and mouth were crusted with gore. He had been living in the forest at least one full night. His eyes burned with malice and mischief.
"I'm not here to fight you, my Queen," Longtooth snarled. "Only to be certain the General and hisss companionsss never reach their dessstination."
Companions, the General thought. So much for Fiddlestick. His vision had begun to dim slightly, or, he thought, perhaps the blue fire from the tumble of stones had begun to flicker out. He preferred the latter, though he knew the possibility was likely pure fancy.
The Queen of the Wood snarled something nearly unintelligible to Longtooth. Clearly, this was a challenge. Longtooth laughed at her.
"The Jackal Lantern isss my massster, lady," the tiger man said bluntly.
"I have killed the General for his blasphemy, Robert of the Long Tooth," the Queen of the Wood said, clearly, rising to her full height, her willow hair sprouting thorns of its own. Each strand was more like a pricker branch now than a willow. "But the General is not of the wood, cub. You are, and thus, I will give you one final chance to bow and pay fealty to your Queen before I flay the fur and flesh from your bones."
The General lay on his side, only a yard or so from his sword. He wanted it back in his grasp, but the pain in his abdomen made the very thought of moving too agonizing to bear. His mind had begun to drift, to lose its focus, but still he stared at Longtooth and the Queen. The tiger growled, low and deep, and allowed air to fill his chest so that he looked every bit as vicious as the General knew him to be. His yellow eyes flashed in the blue light of the cairn fire and he took several steps to one side, taking the Queen's measure.
"I warn you, Robert. I played with you when you were a cub, but I will gut you without remorse if you . . ."
Longtooth growled. Hissed at her. "Ssshut your rotten trap, you ssstupid bitch."
The Queen froze, horrified. For a moment, the thorny tendrils hanging from her head dropped lifelessly to lie along her back. She stared at Longtooth in astonishment.
"You're nothing but a dim-witted wood nymph, a ssspritely ssslut with too much power and delusionsss of greater grandeur. You've been nothing but deadwood sssince Our Boy put you in this circle. You're Queen of the Wood? What a fucking joke. Queen of thisss circle, perhapsss. A patch of dirt, sssome burning rocks, and a big oak tree. Half the creaturesss in the Wood have forgotten all about you, little ssstump. Little sssapling. The Jackal Lantern didn't even consider asssking for your aid becaussse you're uselesss."
On the ground, the General was as stunned as the Queen seemed to be. In the forest around the clearing, the real wood nymphs buzzed with what passed for conversation among them. They must have also been shocked, for they had let Longtooth into the circle, and now he was challenging their Queen. But perhaps after all this time, and all the fear she had inspired in them, the nymphs were uncertain how to respond.
This was the General's thought as the Queen of the Wood began to scream. It seemed, almost, a scream of suffering, of horrible agony. In truth, it was the scream of a tree being uprooted, branches snapping and whipping the air as it fell toward the forest floor. That was the sound that was emitted from her mouth as she flew at Bob Longtooth in a rage unlike anything the General had ever seen. She was out of control.
Which was the only reason, as far as the General was concerned, that Longtooth cut her as badly as he did. Her face was his target. Green and new as a raw shoot bursting through the earth after the last snow before spring comes on full bloom. It was her vanity, he knew. The softness of her face.
Longtooth tore half of the Queen's face off with his claws. One of her eyes burst, spouting sticky sap. She screamed. And then she attacked him, the thorny strands of her hair wrapping around him, tearing at his fur. Blood began to flow.
While the General watched, failing. Dying.
Then a bee landed on the tip of his nose.
Simple as that, the swarm returned. They covered him. Filled him. Worked their way into the cavity in his belly, bolstering the peanut butter, working with it the way they might have with honey. And the fabric of his form, the sticky sweet flesh of him, responded. The peanut butter flowed over him, covering the opening in his gut, trapping the bees inside to buzz around in there forever, or as long as they could keep him alive.
The General struggled to his knees. He held out one hand and a tendril of peanut butter flew from his palm to wrap around the hilt of his sword and bring it flashing, flying through the air to lodge comfortably in his grip.
He stood, sword at the ready.
Bob Longtooth broke free, and ran screaming from the clearing, bleeding, stumbling, cursing weakly. The wood nymphs flew off after him, and the General smiled thinly and offered up a little prayer for the saber-tooth's death.
The Queen turned, saw the General newly risen, and scowled at him with her ruined face. She was maddened now, beyond reason. Her talons extended, grew thorns of their own, until they were like ragged tentacles. The General thought to retreat. There was no sense in continuing this fight. With the wood nymphs gone, he could go on to Old Jack's fortress and find Nathan, save the boy.
Sword in front of him, the General moved backward as quickly as he was able. He moved around the flaming blue cairn, the pile of stones blazing high. He could feel the heat on the part of his body that had been scorched before, but he ignored the discomfort. He had to. The Queen was coming for him.
Like serpents, her long fingers moved in front of her, reaching for him. The General hacked one tentacle clean through. Then he turned and dove for the edge of the clearing. Thorns wrapped around his legs. Cutting. Crushing.
"No," he said furiously. "Not now."
The General's head and shoulders and arms were beyond the edge of the clearing. But even now, she was dragging him back in. Despair began to creep over him. The bees within him were silenced for the moment. He heard no buzzing and wondered if they had somehow abandoned him once more. But no, he could feel them crawling over his ribs from the inside.
"No!" he roared. "My Queen, you know not what you do! If I don't save Nathan, Strangewood may be destroyed forever! Don't you see? Our Boy might scour us from existence, as vengeance, or merely in his grief! We may cease to be entirely!"
But the Queen was not listening. She hauled him back into the clearing.
The Queen was not listening.
But someone was.
From the tree high above came the sound, incongruous amidst the horror, of harp chord and wind chime, of violin and piano key, and the General turned over and stared above him as Fiddlestick the dragon swooped down low over the clearing. His orange belly glowed purple-red in the blue firelight and his green skin looked black. But the General would not mistake him for any other.
The dragon flew at the Queen of the Wood. Her thorny pricker hair swept up behind her and reached out for his flapping wings. Fiddlestick opened his mouth, and fire jetted from his gullet in a blaze of crackling red. It burnt her hair to cinders before it reached her tattered face. Then, as Fiddlestick flew on, past the Queen, she burst into flame completely, the fire crawling swiftly over her body.
The Queen of the Wood shrieked in sorrow and surrender.
And she burned.
Moments later, as Fiddlestick settled once more on the Peanut Butter General's shoulder, all they could see of her was the fresh, moist, blackening green of the unruined half of her face. It was too green, too young to burn so quickly. But in the end, she would be gone entirely.
Fiddlestick wept little tears of fire.
The General walked from the clearing, straight and true on a makeshift path for the Up-River and the fortress beyond. The dragon snorted sadly.
"You did what you had to do to save the wood," the General said, unused to offering such comforts. It had been hard enough with Nathan, and now the dragon . . . the General had never been a very compassionate man. Even when his own children had been small, he had rarely kissed their wounds or soothed their sorrows.
"I slayed the Heart of the Wood," Fiddlestick replied.
"The wood could not live without its heart," the General reassured him. "Perhaps that is what all of this is about. I've thought Our Boy was the Heart of the Wood, in his way. But now, I wonder, if all of this has put that on Nathan."
They walked through the trees for some time before the dragon spoke again. At length, Fiddlestick said, "Will we die, do you think? In this battle, I mean? The Jackal Lantern is fierce, you know."
"We may," the General replied. "That is the nature of war. Are you afraid?"
The dragon seemed almost to laugh, and spread his wings a bit. The music no longer sounded as sweet, but instead made a mournful dirge.
"I was afraid of pain, before, but not afraid to die," Fiddlestick said reasonably. "I thought I would be with my parents then. Now the pain holds no fear for me. I am numb. But of death . . . I am terrified. I don't know what lies beyond the wood for one who is damned. Do you?"
It was the General's turn for silence now. He walked on several yards, the dragon on his shoulder, and then he stopped a moment. He turned so that, craning his neck, he was eye to eye with the dragon.
"We'll find out together, my friend," said the Peanut Butter General.
Together, they walked on.
* * * * *
It was half past eight in the morning when Walt Sarbacker arrived at Emily Randall's home in Tarrytown. He hadn't even gone into the office yet. He'd received a call from the lieutenant just after seven with the full story on the break-in at the Randall house earlier that morning. The lieutenant didn't see any connection, but the Randall woman had asked for Walt.
Before he went up to the front door, he walked around the side of the house to look at the shattered second story window. The rain of previous days had passed and the sun shone brightly that morning, a clear blue sky above and a nice breeze to go with it. Walt thought for a moment about the beach and how nice it would have been to be with Jenny and their boy, Alex, right then. He'd bought a new kite for Alex in the springtime, one with dinosaurs on it, and they flew it every chance they got.
Then he thought again of Emily Randall's son in that hospital bed, and his heart broke a little bit. On the job, his heart broke a little bit nearly every damned day.
With a disgruntled sigh, Walt ran a hand through his salt-and-pepper hair and turned back toward the front of the house. He was surprised the carpenters hadn't shown up to board the window yet, and he made a mental note to track the guys down for Mrs. Randall if she needed the help.
He went up the front steps and rang the bell, then stood and waited patiently with the Dunkin' Donuts bag in his left hand. Two cups of coffee, black. If she wanted cream and sugar, she could add it on her own.