"Do you always pray to trees?" a voice asked.
A very feminine voice, not at all like the General had imagined a tree's voice would sound. He glanced up, to where he thought the voice had come from, and sure enough, there she was.
On the largest of the tree's lower limbs, a young woman sat, dangling her legs beneath her. She was nude, though this condition, the General thought, seemed reasonable enough when one considered that she was made entirely of wood. Even as he met her startling white eyes, shining as the stars if the stars themselves were white, the General knew she was not through with them.
With a tiny shove, the Queen of the Wood dropped down from the tree and onto the hard earth of the clearing. He saw her more clearly now, in the flickering of the stone fire. Long whips of willow branch hung down her back, and he had the distinct impression this was meant to be hair. Her skin was covered with a tender bark, young and perfect, with whorls and knots that were, in themselves, alluring. Her face seemed somewhat green, as though it were spring, perhaps.
He found her quite beautiful.
"You blaspheme, coming here, you know," she said pleasantly enough. "Even entering this clearing would have condemned you. But you insult me, then, with the tale of a young boy in danger. A boy whose life would put the wood itself in danger."
Delicate branch fingers traced over the seductive form of her body, and then those branch fingers began to grow, and move. They were sharper now. The willow branches that he'd thought were only hair seemed to sway. Massive thorns began to burst all over her body like blisters.
"Nothing happens in this wood I am unaware of. If the Jackal Lantern succeeds or fails, it means nothing to me. But I won't have disrespect," the Queen of the Wood declared.
"You're mad," Fiddlestick told her, his wings already playing a discordant tune. "If the Lantern isn't stopped, we may not have anything left. We may not even exist!"
"I am Queen of the Wood!" she proclaimed. "I shall always exist. But you . . . both of you shall die for your affront."
Wooden body rippling with massive thorns, she moved toward the General. He held his sword at the ready, and beyond the circle, the wood nymphs chittered excitedly.
"For Nathan," the General whispered to himself.
But even over the music, Fiddlestick heard him. "For Nathan," the dragon repeated. "For Strangewood."
* * * * *
On Thursday morning, Emily woke before the sun, and could not, no matter how hard she tried, get back to sleep. She had never slept at Joe's before, and the oddness of it, the weird freedom that came from not having anyone to report in to, only made her think more despairingly of Nathan and Thomas.
But then she watched Joe sleep. The gentle rise and fall of his chest and the movement of his eyes beneath the lids. He was dreaming.
"Dream of me," she whispered and kissed his eyes before pulling on a thick cotton robe of Joe's and heading down to the kitchen.
She made coffee and kept it strong, adding only a dab of milk. It was still dark out, but there was just the hint of light on the horizon, and the sky had taken on a surreal, two-dimensional quality that fascinated her. After wandering his living room, checking the titles in his CD collection, and looking over the volumes on a tall bookshelf, she resolved to go back upstairs and crawl into bed with Joe.
She was naked beneath the robe. If he woke, all the better. If he did not, she would be just as pleased to snuggle close to him, feel his warmth. Even with the coffee, it was possible that she might fall back to sleep once more.
When she walked back into the bedroom, she slipped off the robe, then hesitated. Fascinated, still, by this time of day, when the light was slowly overcoming the dark, Emily went to the window and peered out. There was little chance that she might be seen, but she felt a bit daring anyway. A naked woman standing framed in a window. There was something a bit thrilling about that.
She glanced at the sky, at the fading white stars and the way the moon looked like a ghost now that a bit of blue had begun to infect the black of night. She scanned the treeline behind the apartment, and then looked at the roofs and windows of the houses behind Joe's building, at windows that might also hold people daring the morning to catch them unaware at the window.
A horrible burden rested on Emily's shoulders. Not merely one — many. Foremost among them was the welfare of her son, and it was that priority that would drive her today. She had a great deal to do, and it was going to get taken care of, come hell or high water.
But for the moment, the peace of dawn.
Birds had begun to sing while she was making the coffee. Now they were positively a chorus of the morning. Several sparrows squawked and took off from the branches of an oak tree behind the apartment, and Emily watched them go with a heart full of both pain and joy. Her eyes rested on the tree, on its branches, and the way the leaves seemed to move even without the breeze.
On the dark mass in among the branches.
On the eyes, staring at her through the leaves.
Feral eyes. A face thick with beard. Or fur.
With a shout of surprise and fear, Emily backed away until her calves hit the bed and she sat down hard on the mattress, even as Joe flipped back the covers to come to her side.
"Em, my God, what's . . ."
"Out there!" she snapped, and her mind began to race. "He was in the tree, down there. Watching me. Watching this room, Joe!"
She saw the doubt begin to cloud his gaze, and she grew angry.
"Damn it, Joe, down there!" she barked and pulled him to the window to point down at the tree where she had seen the face. The eyes.
The watcher was gone.
"He was there," Emily said.
"Listen, Em," Joe began. "Maybe you're just . . ." He stopped there. The look in her eyes, she knew, was enough to tell him not to go on.
"Look, we can call the cops if you want," Joe finally added. "But don't get carried away."
Too late, she thought. For Emily had already been carried away, borne aloft by crazy suspicions and snatches of paranoia from a man who'd just tried to kill himself. Nathan had seen someone in Thomas's yard. Thomas believed there was a stalker. Now Nathan and Thomas were both in the hospital, and while the doctors could hazard a guess as to the cause of their initial trouble, their lack of any sign of recovery was baffling even the most knowledgeable or arrogant of doctors.
"He was there," Emily insisted, even as Joe picked up the phone to dial the police.
And, though her fear for Nathan and Thomas was extraordinary and all-consuming, Emily could not help one, single moment of concern for one other. Herself.
If there was a hunter out there, she had just become the target.
Under a heavy, musty blanket, Nathan slept fitfully. He had cried a lot before finally drifting off to sleep. Now he lay on the hard mattress, his round little boy belly poking out between his rucked up T-shirt and the only pair of underwear he had. He had almost taken them off and slept naked, but the blanket was dirty and smelly and it grossed him out. He'd wished he didn't need it, but it was too cold not to use it.
His right foot poked out from under the blanket, bare and round and still baby soft and pink. Pink, but growing pale, and perhaps even a bit gray, for Nathan did not feel well. Not well at all. Even in his sleep, he sniffled and coughed a bit, throat constricted around a thick gob of phlegm that had built up as he snored on.
In his sleep, Nathan dreamed of home. His thoughts before finally slipping into the arms of the sandman had been of his bedroom in his house. Not Daddy's house, though he had a room there, too, that he liked a lot. But it wasn't his real room. He dreamed of his room at home, and of his parents when they used to smile at each other. It wasn't far enough in the past that Nathan had forgotten that. He remembered those smiles, remembered causing them.
The dream Nathan was in bed as well, but not sleeping. Instead, he was arguing about sleep, claiming to be exempt from the laws of the sandman that his mother so exhaustively detailed. She lay next to him on one side of the bed, stroking his hair and trying not to smile so Nathan would know she was serious. All Nathan wanted was that smile, and he worked hard until he got it.
In the dream, his father was on the other side of him, which was impossible since his bed was so small. But it was a dream. And in the dream, his Daddy was singing to him, soft and low the way he always did when Nathan had trouble falling asleep. There were a lot of songs Daddy sang to him, but in the dream, Nathan could only hear one of them. "Over the Rainbow," the song Dorothy sings in The Wizard of Oz during the black-and-white boring stuff.
Nathan loved that movie. Especially the winged monkeys. He had been so disappointed to learn that there weren't really monkeys with wings.
His Dad always sang to him when he couldn't sleep.
Or when he was sick.
In his sleep, Nathan coughed harshly, loosening up a string of dark brown phlegm that rattled in his throat, and the dream ended.
Nathan woke with a small start. His eyes were open a moment before he recognized his surroundings. The smell of the dingy blanket, the cold wind whipping against the battlements of the fortress. The dank, dark menace of the stone walls around him. He felt and heard and saw it all, and once again, he could barely believe that it was real. He wasn't supposed to be here.
Again, he coughed, this time choking a gob of phlegm up the back of his throat and into his mouth. Weak, he lifted his head and spat it onto the stone floor in the corner of the room.
Nathan took a long breath, and then he felt his face crumble. His lower lip quivered, pouted. His eyes narrowed, brows coming together as though he were angry. The tears sprang up without preamble, and the pouting lips opened, plastered back against the teeth as he finally let loose with the roaring sob of fear and hate and loneliness that had been building within him since he'd first woken in Strangewood.
Wracking sobs overtook him. There was a moment when he recalled his silent promise to himself from earlier — a promise not to cry. But Nathan was five and a half years old, and such things did not bother him overmuch. He whimpered and coughed and wept, and used the stinky blanket to wipe his eyes and his running nose because it was all he had.
A sudden chill swept over his body and he shuddered beneath the blanket and began to cough again. His throat ached. When the chill had gone, he found, to his surprise, that he felt warm.
After the tears had subsided, Nathan closed his eyes and tried to fall back to sleep. He pulled his legs up tightly so that he was in a little ball under the blanket. Soon, he was drifting again. He was afraid, but he wanted to sleep. It was the only way to get away from the fear, and from his cough, and from Strangewood.
Then, just before he might have fallen asleep yet again, he heard the tread of thick paws, and the click of sharp claws on the stone floor of his cell. Nathan's eyes snapped open again, but he didn't dare move. On the wall, he saw the flickering light cast by the eerie glow inside the Jackal Lantern's pumpkin head. It shone on the wall, shadows where old Jack's eyes and nose and mouth would be, but twisted all out of proportion. If possible, it was even more horrible than the Lantern's true face.
"I know you're awake, boy," the Lantern said, its voice crackling like dry logs in the fireplace.
Nathan said nothing. He didn't want to look at the thing. Couldn't look at it. When the leathery pads of a paw touched the exposed flesh of his lower back, Nathan flinched. Three sharp claws pricked Nathan's skin, and he froze. One of them pressed into his flesh, punctured, drew blood.
"Leave me alone!" Nathan screamed, hysteria overcoming his fear. "Leave me alone or my daddy will kill you!"
Then he bit his lip, his heart racing madly as he waited for the Jackal Lantern to scratch him, to kill him. Part of him was past caring, too terrified to survive the fear one second longer.
He felt the hot, wet breath of old Jack as the mangy pumpkin-headed mongrel moved closer to him. He could hear the ragged breathing of the Lantern and feel the heat of that weird fire against the back of his neck. Nathan closed his eyes tightly, the silence too much. He just wanted to go home. Home to his bed and his spaceships and his videotapes and the yellow tractor that he rode for hours in his mother's driveway.
"Don't ever ignore me," the Jackal Lantern whispered, and a thick rivulet of hot drool slipped down to land at the nape of Nathan's neck.
Nathan thought he was going to puke. Instead, he started coughing again, hacking up dark phlegm. He still refused to open his eyes.
"I only came up here to tell you that your father is on his way."
With a start, Nathan opened his eyes. He didn't turn to face the Lantern, but stared at the wall in astonishment. Hope surged up in his heart.
"It may take a while," the Lantern added. "But he is here in Strangewood at last. Back with us once again. As long as he does as he is told, you might yet live, young Master Nathan. This is good. The wood needs an heir."
Then the Lantern's presence withdrew. No more hot breath or sizzling drool. The pad and scratch of its paws on the stone receded, and Nathan heard the door scrape shut behind it. He waited silently for several minutes before he dared open his mouth. When he did, he coughed once more. But when the cough had subsided, Nathan allowed himself a tiny, weak smile.
"Daddy, please come quick," he whispered.
He did not sleep again after that.
* * * * *
Emily left Joe's just after seven A.M. She drove slowly back to her house, where she showered and dressed with no sense of urgency. Nathan was in the hospital. Thomas was in the hospital — and she was still uncertain of his condition. But she wasn't in a rush. There would be plenty of time today to get to the unpleasant tasks ahead of her.
As much as she could, she tried not to think about the face she thought she had seen outside Joe's apartment at dawn. She'd been unable to sleep afterward, but it had still taken on a kind of weird, dreamlike quality. It could have been anything, or anyone. A homeless person, a kid climbing a tree. But at dawn, how many kids were out and about? None of those things were any more likely than her initial thoughts of some kind of stalker.