|Table of Contents|
Another murmur went through the woods. Pardus looked around. His lips were drawn into a scowl, but his eyes were full of fear.
Dee couldn't feel or hear anything to indicate the Woodsman's approach, but she knew he was out there, somewhere. That was good enough.
"Oh, you mean the Tin Man?" She took a step forward. "Walking chainsaw with lawnmowers for hands? 'Stand clear' and all that?"
The murmur grew. Pardus fixed her with a glare of false rage. He may not have known what lawnmowers or chainsaws were, but he got the idea.
"He's with us. Guess I should have mentioned him before. Would you like to discuss letting us go, now?"
The bear-human stood.
"We leave now! GO!"
He turned and walked into the woods, transforming back into a bear between the second and third step.
"WAIT!" shouted Pardus. "They lie! There are no more Woodsmen! They are destroyed! Come back!"
The figures in the woods receded as quickly as they'd appeared. Most looked like ordinary humans, but there was no shortage of furry shapes in their midst.
There was no sign of the giant ape. Dee had taken her eyes off of him when the hawk first appeared, and now he was gone. He was far too large to slip away unnoticed, and Dee wondered what had happened to his wound when he returned to human form. Had it healed, or was he bleeding out somewhere behind the trees?
There was a loud CRACK in the distance, followed by the sound of a tree falling. Dee felt the earth tremble when the sound finally ended. Silence followed. Dee listened, and thought she heard a rhythmic thump accompanied by a familiar metallic whine.
"It comes!" The hawk-man squeaked. He made a small hop, transformed in mid air, and flew out of the clearing, wings flapping frantically.
"No!" Pardus shouted. "Come BACK!"
"Perhaps you missed the part where you DIDN'T kill me and, therefore, are NOT king?" Lahr taunted.
"Bring this one!" Pardus pointed at Lahr. Several humans appeared, grabbed the net, and started to drag it away.
Lahr, however, did not go with it. Dee and the Scarecrow had almost cut him free before the others arrived. Lahr had finished the job on his own. The prisoner twisted to one side and slipped out of the net, allowing the servants to pull it off of him. Lahr was on his feet in an instant.
The servants froze. Still holding the useless net, they stood and waited for instructions.
Instead of fleeing, Lahr pointed an accusing finger at Pardus.
"None of this is necessary! Just let me go!"
"You deny your people a king, even as Mazoz and the Covenant bring war against us!" Pardus growled.
"I decide who my people are," said Lahr. "And I will not be bound by oaths of savagery."
"I don't see you staying to fight the Woodsman," Lahr countered. "You or anyone else."
"YOU"LL fight it then!?"
"What for? This forest? Mazoz can have it."
"Traitor! You've conspired with these outsiders!" He pointed at Dee and the Scarecrow. "You bring the Covenant and Mazoz into our lands!"
"Now I'm a traitor AND a coward? Or is it just traitor, now?"
Another tree fell. The grind of the Woodsman's mechanisms was clearly audible... though the distance was hard to judge.
Pardus gestured to his servants and they vanished quickly into the trees. None of them changed into an animal form, but that didn't stop them from disappearing as quickly as the others. Pardus glared at Lahr.
"Mazoz will betray you and feeds you to his machines! I only wish I could be there to see it!"
Lahr gave a dainty wave and smiled. Pardus snorted in disgust, then shifted into panther form and trotted away, pausing only once to look back into the clearing before becoming part of the shadows behind the trees. Dee couldn't tell when Pardus was actually gone. She didn't assume that he actually WAS gone until the Scarecrow relaxed and put away his knives.
Lahr had moved before then. Pardus's former prisoner knelt beside the corpse of the wolf that the Scarecrow had eviscerated. He touched the animal's fur.
"Friend of yours?" said Dee.
"Hardly. Doesn't mean I enjoy his death. Unlike some others..." he flashed a disgusted expression at the Scarecrow.
"He was going to eat us, you know."
Lahr looked up at her.
"And there were as many ways to stop him without killing him as there were to take his life."
His eyes shifted to the Scarecrow again.
"Being a Covenant soldier is no excuse for unnecessary violence."
"He's got other excuses," said Dee.
"I'm sure he does," said Lahr. "Everyone does. Why should he be any different." He stood and walked to the center of the clearing, near the moss and fungus-filled 'V' of the two fallen trees. He reached down and retrieved a gnarled walking stick that he clearly didn't need, and a shapeless pack that seemed to be made of woven strands of plant material rather than leather. He turned back to Dee.
"I was going to thank you again. Perhaps I shouldn't, given your methods. ...and your associations."
"Look, maybe we got off to a bad start. Seems to happen to me a lot lately. My name's Dee. This is... he doesn't talk, so I don't know what his name is."
"Can he write?"
"He tried. I can't read. Not what he writes, anyway."
"Ah, well. Maybe I can help with that. If you can refrain from killing anyone for long enough to try. I am Lahr."
Lahr stood up straight and puffed out his chest, as if he expected to be challenged. He wasn't.
"Nice to meet you." Dee extended her hand, and Lahr looked at it curiously.
"Ahh... yes. This is... how does this go?" He extended his own hand but didn't grab Dee's. She reached out to take his hand into her and give it a shake.
"Curious," said Lahr. He inspected his own hand as if surprised to find it undamaged.
"It means 'nice to meet you'. It also means neither hand is holding any weapons at the moment."
"Ah!" Lahr extended his hand to the Scarecrow, who regarded it with a raised eyebrow but made no move to take it. "I see. You seem to have forgotten someone."
Lahr indicated Treach, who was standing to one side. Dee was surprise that the dog hadn't assumed his usual defensive position between Dee and the stranger. His stance was curious rather than aggressive.
Lahr walked up to him and extended his hand.
"Um, yeah. Dogs don't-"
Treach placed one dirty paw into Lahr's palm, then sat down and licked his lips. Lahr shook the appendage as if it were a hand.
"That's new," said Dee. "He likes you."
"Interesting breed," said Lahr. I don't think I've seen one before."
"He's not from around here. Neither am I. We're lost. I'm hoping that this Mazoz person can get me home."
Lahr's demeanor changed at the mention of Mazoz. His disapproval deepened, with hints of suspicion appearing in his eyes. Some of the friendliness drained from his voice.
"Mazoz can do many things. Has done many things... very few of them good. And none of them without benefit to him. Is there a reason you're bringing a Covenant soldier to him?"
The Scarecrow flashed her a warning glance. Lahr undoubtedly saw it.
"He's sick," Dee continued. "Mazoz might be able to help. And the Woodsman-"
"Wait... there really IS a Woodsman?"
"Yes, what did you think?"
"I thought it was a distraction! A ploy! An exceptionally clever ruse!"
"And it's coming this way?!"
"We have to leave! Run! RunRun!"
"It's all right! He's with us!"
"All right!?" Lahr had gone from startled to terrified in the span of a few seconds. "All RIGHT!? CLEARLY you've never encountered a Woodsman!"
"Clearly we have," said Dee. She indicated the direction from which the sound of snapping trees and whining motors was approaching. "We're not scared."
"You should be! You..." Lahr took in their lack of agitation or concern. "... with you? Really?"
Lahr calmed down, but only slightly.
"Well," he said. "...to be honest, I've never encountered one myself. No one has. Perhaps they aren't as... dangerous... as the stories say? Or maybe what you've got isn't really a Woodsman at all?"
Dee could only smile.
"I guess we'll find out."