A Lost Boy Rade

I stood and watched while the twins carefully applied tribal paint to each other’s faces. Tig’s was black and orange stripes. Leo’s was a sort of mix between tawny gold and brown. Not quite stripes, but something that looked fierce. Stumble and Surefoot were predictably painted with black circles around their eyes and alternating black and grey stripes across the rest of their faces. Red’s upper face was reddish-orange with a white mask and lines drawn in for whiskers below, the tip of his nose black. Roo’s face was grey with kangaroo paw prints on both cheeks. I turned back to the mirror and sighed. I had no clue as to what to paint on my face. Before I could pursue the thought any further, there was a commotion and Peter came dive bombing into the common room from his trapdoor.

“Fall out, men,” he crowed. With a lot of yelling and shoving, we managed to form a crooked line in front of him. He started at the end opposite where I was and examined each Lost Boy, hmmming and making comments about how fierce they looked. He came to me, looked at my face and shook his head. “I appreciate the effort bear boy, but there’s just something missing. You know, like everything?!”

“But Peter, it’s his first time,” Stumble said. “He’s never had to do it before.”

“Oh, and you lunkheads couldn’t teach him? Fine crew you make.” He stared at me and grinned. “That’s okay, first time is for luck.” The next moment he was yelling for stuff and telling me not to move an inch. The rest of the boys trotted back and forth as he called for one thing after another. His hands moved my face back and forth, smeared stuff on it, poked and prodded it, painted and drew on it. He stopped and took a step back. “There’s something missing,” he mused almost to himself and then grinned. “Leftenant Lion front and center.” Leo stepped over to Pan and looked at him questioningly. Peter handed him something I couldn’t see and then pointed at the left side of my face. “Left cheek, right under that dent in his face.” From behind Peter, Tig mouthed “dimple” before I had a chance to panic about a dent in my face.

Leo stood in front of me, screwed up his face a moment and then nodded before squishing something into my left cheek and stepping back.

“Ha, knew that’s what it was,” Peter crowed. “Turn around and take a look bear boy.” I turned and looked into the mirror and was stunned. My face was covered in brown but it wasn’t solid color, I could almost swear I could see individual strands making up fur. On my right cheek there was a skull and crossbones with a dagger drawn in below it. On my left cheek was a bear paw and right above it a squished blueberry. There was a small wooden sword drawn just below my mouth. “Told ya, you’re the grizzliest bear this side of anywhere. The biggest too. Okay, line up again.”

Once more a ragged line was formed. Peter took out his dagger and made a small cut in his left palm, bloodying the knife. He stood in front of Leo and wiped some of the blood from the dagger on the left shoulder of his pelt. Next he took his right index finger, dipped it in the blood in his palm, and then smeared it on Leo’s forehead as he said something too soft for me to hear to which Leo gave an answer I also couldn’t hear. He repeated it for each of us and I wondered how much blood he had. He finally got to me and gave me a grin that was made up of pure wildness. He wiped the bloody dagger on the shoulder of my pelt and then drew something in blood on my forehead as he said, “My life for yours, your life for mine.” It wasn’t a question but I responded with an unhesitant “from now until death.” If he had told me to attack The Jolly Roger at that moment with only my bare paws, I wouldn’t have even questioned it.

He stepped back, rose a foot off the floor and crowed. We all answered back, the echoes bouncing back and forth off the common room floor, ceiling and walls. “Okay lads, let’s show Neverland who keeps this place together. It’s time for the Lost Boys to rade and show the flag. Bear boy will lead since it’s his first time. When they see him, they’ll know Pan means business. When they see the rest of you they’ll be cowering in their caves, lairs, holes, and even their prissy castles. Let’s do this!”

With a great deal of commotion all of us headed for our trapdoors and the outside world. Before I jumped up to grab my trapdoor (which I did on the first try) I took a look in the mirror to see what Peter had drawn on my forehead. It was a perfect replica of the red feather he wore in his hat. I lightly traced it with a finger.

Outside, there were a couple of torches that had been lit, giving the area around Hangman’s Tree a sort of reddish, otherworldly look. There was confusion as Lost Boys and wolves milled about chasing and yipping at each other. I went towards Ember, but Peter shook his head. “Tonight you are the one who leads Curly and that means riding the leader.” I started to remind him I was Cubby and not Curly, but it didn’t seem important enough to worry about. He led me towards an older wolf that was silver and grey, missing an eye and most of an ear. The wolf, who was the size of a small pony, sniffed at me and then raised his muzzle and howled at the sky. The rest of us, boys and wolves, answered the howl and for a moment every doubt I’d ever had about myself was left behind. Laughing and teasing me about the need for pixie dust, the rest of the boys grabbed me and managed to get me on the wolf’s back. The wolf looked back and introduced himself as CloudLeaper. As I looked back, I saw a ragged line of wolves behind me with a Lost Boy on each one. Peter strode up to where I was sitting and handed me a longsword with a flag furled at the top. I took it and managed to immediately cut myself on the blade. It was good to know some things never change. Peter cocked his head at me and nodded. “Whenever you’re ready, bear boy.”

I looked out at the dark beyond the torches. “Where do I go? I mean is there anywhere special I need to head?”

“Don’t worry. CloudLeaper has been doing this for ages. Just keep one fist tight in his ruff and the other holding onto the sword. Try not to let your tongue get between your teeth either,” he added with a laugh before levitating a few feet above us. He let out a crow that echoed back from the forest and then looked at me.

“Let’s go,” I told CloudLeaper. The wolf lifted his grizzled muzzle up towards the moon and let out the most blood-chilling howl I’d ever heard. It didn’t sound like a wolf, but something terrible. Behind me the wolves let out answering howls and then CloudLeaper took off as though demons were after him.

The trip through the woods was unreal. I couldn’t see hardly anything, but could feel the trees rushing by on both sides as CloudLeaper moved left and right to avoid them. The fingers of my left paw were locked into the ruff of fur at his neck while I did my best to keep the sword with the flag upright in the other. I finally did what I do best and closed my eyes trusting the wolf to get us through the woods. Behind me I heard howling, but couldn’t tell if it was the wolves or the boys making it. In what seemed like seconds, I heard the crashing of surf and opened my eyes to find that we were on the beach at Pirate’s Cove. The Jolly Roger was in the middle of the bay swinging at anchor and I saw a pirate in the crow’s nest looking at us and rubbing his eyes. The wolves skidded to a stop in the sand and all of us started howling. Peter floated over to where I was and unfurled the flag on the sword I was holding.

Out on the ship a lot of yelling and commotion started up. A couple of the hatches in the side of the ship opened up and I saw two cannon rolled out. I leaned over and whispered into CloudLeaper’s ear, “We should probably go now.” I heard what sounded suspiciously like a laugh before he turned and raced back for the trees. Behind me I heard the jeering of the others and hoped it was directed at the pirates and not at myself. There was a roar and a crash in the trees to the left of us. Hook was screaming something that was lost as we entered the trees and I breathed a sigh of relief.

CloudLeaper created his own path between the trees and once more I closed my eyes figuring I didn’t want to know if we were getting ready to hit a tree. We raced over hills and through valleys eventually coming to the Great Bear River just below the falls. This was pretty open area, so I opened my eyes just in time to feel the wolf bunch up under me and leap. “Are you crazy?” I shouted. There was no way that a wolf was going to be able to jump across the river, especially with the heaviest Lost Boy hanging on for dear life on his back. Before I had a chance to get too scared, CloudLeaper landed on the other side with plenty of distance. “How’d you do that?” I whispered, not sure I wanted to know the answer. The only thing I knew for sure was that it wasn’t pixie dust.

We ran flat out along the river and then forked off towards Lost Boys’ Meadow. CloudLeaper slowed to a trot and then a walk as we approached the huge field. Nibbler was a specter by the massive oak tree as he saluted us. At the outskirts of the field we stopped. Peter was above and slightly ahead of us and gently crowed. Nibbler strode out to the middle of the field and started to sing. I can’t remember the tune and the words were not any I could understand but those in the field apparently did. As we waited in front of the field, the ghosts of generations of Lost Boys rose from the ground. By the time they had all risen, the field was covered with their ghosts. This time Peter cut loose with a crow that shook the guardian oak tree and received a responding crow from the group.

I had no idea what came over me, but I waved the sword with the flag above me and howled as loudly as I could. There was silence for a moment and then a blast of sound almost knocked me over as the ghosts, the wolves, and my brother Lost Boys howled back at me. I pointed my sword and yelled, “Forward.” CloudLeaper gave a growl and took off. I looked back and saw the ghosts following along with the rest of the current Lost Boys on the wolves. The ghostly Lost Boys were running along the ground, but had no problem keeping up with us. I glanced up and saw Pan flying above, his eyes reddish through some trick of the light and a smile that wasn’t quite one of good humour on his face. I heard crowing and howling from the ghosts that were now following me.

I knew exactly where to go and with my knees directed CloudLeaper towards the elves’ domain. I had a feeling of vertigo and then felt a set of arms around my middle letting me know someone was riding behind me. Whoever it was, it didn’t bother CloudLeaper at all. “You’re going to rade the elves, aren’t you?” I heard a voice I recognized as Nibbler ask me.

“Darn right,” I responded. “They deserve it.”

There was a laugh from Nibbler. “I think you’re going to be surprised. I think all of you among the living are.”

“Whatcha mean?” I asked, but he wouldn’t tell me anything else except that I shouldn’t worry. Whenever someone tells me that, the first thing I end up doing is to start worrying but I knew better than to try to turn the horde at my back around even if I’d wanted to.

The countryside opened up and I saw the castle of the elves and gulped when I saw a couple of battalions of elvish rangers lined up in front of it. They didn’t look at all concerned, but then rangers never look concerned even when facing dragons and orcs all at once. Without any prompting, CloudLeaper slowed to a walk. I stole a look behind me and saw that the Lost Boys, both living and ghostly, had come to a halt. As I continued to move forward, one of the rangers came out to meet me. He nodded a greeting to the wolf who nodded back then he turned and looked at me. “What’s this then? Are you planning on attacking?”

“No sir, we’re on a rade.”

There was a gentle thump as Peter landed next to me, but he didn’t say anything. “Rades are useful things. They remind those who don’t know better what’s important. Once around the castle?”

“Twice,” I said surprising myself.

He tried hard to suppress a smile but didn’t quite succeed. “Very well, twice but no swimming in the moat and no stealing any pies.” I wondered how he knew about that but decided not to mention it.

“Deal,” I declared. He nodded, spat in his hand and held it out. I spat in my own hand and we shook. I turned back and once more yelled, “Forward.” CloudLeaper moved at a trot and started around the castle, the others following.

“Told ya you’d be surprised,” Nibbler said. “The rangers know what us Lost Boys are all about and they remember the real reason for rades. They aren’t all stuck up like the knights are.” I was too busy gawking at the castle to respond. Elves were staring out windows and gathered on the walkways between the towers. Naturally, being Lost Boys, we created as much noise and racket as we could. It was sort of expected. We came around the front of the castle and started our second rotation. If anything there were more elves looking down upon us. I was sorta glad I couldn’t hear what they were saying, because I was pretty sure it wasn’t flattering. Still, it was a sight that I don’t think I’d have ever been able to imagine. We finished the second circuit and started away from the castle. As we were leaving the rangers sent us off with a cheer. That surprised me more than anything did.

“Not too shabby, Cubby,” Nibbler told me. “I guess I’d better get these guys back or no telling what mischief they’ll get into.” I heard a whistle and then the arms around my middle were gone. I turned back and saw the only ones following now were the Lost Boys on wolves and Peter. The ghosts had vanished, which I guess is one of the things that ghosts do really well. I resolved to bring Nibbler some carrots when I visited him for the chess game. Maybe if I did that, he’d have mercy on me. I’d never managed to win a game from him.

I don’t know if it had anything to do with the vanishing of the ghosts, but when they disappeared, the moon rose from behind the mountains. Our shadows were running in front of us and has we crossed the open ground, they leaped free and raced us across the ground. The shadows pulled ahead and then vanished as we crossed into the woods only to return when we reached the other side, but once again attached to us.

After what seemed like a few more minutes, the wolves pulled up in front of Hangman’s Tree. It took me a while to get my fingers to unclench from CloudLeaper’s fur, although he didn’t seem to mind. I came close to tumbling off his back, but managed to catch myself when I remembered I was holding the longsword. The rest of the boys dismounted. I suddenly felt as though I’d been up for days and noticed that everyone else was yawning as well. CloudLeaper walked up to me and washed my face with his tongue. He gently nipped my left hand, drawing a little blood before leading his pack back into the forest, Ember giving me a wolfy grin as he left.

Peter flew up and took the sword from me. He untied the flag from it and gave it to me. “Not bad Furball. For your first rade anyway.” He glanced over at Stumble. “When raccoon boy led his first one, he almost fell off.”

“Did not.”

Peter smirked but didn’t say anything more about Stumble before drifting upwards. “Keep an eye out for pirates, they’ll be looking for blood.”

“Let ‘em try,” I faux growled through a yawn. Tigger laughed at my words, but it was the good type of laughter. We all clambered back into the tree and settled down into hammocks and pallets. I finally had a chance to look at the flag I’d been carrying all night. It was blue with Pan’s green hat and feather in the center. What really surprised me was the figure in the upper right corner. It was a very round bear that looked vaguely familiar and was holding a sword aloft. The bear didn’t look very fierce but gave me a feeling of security, although I wasn’t quite sure why. I dragged it under the common room table as I got into my pallet and fell asleep holding it tightly.


Not a Resolution

I was hanging by my knees from a limb of Hangman’s Tree when Surefoot came through his trapdoor and jumped to the ground. “C’mon or we’re going to be late,” he advised as he adjusted his pelt hood.

“Late for what?” I asked lazily. The Jolly Roger hadn’t returned from wherever it had set sail for, so it wasn’t a raid on the pirates. The elves still weren’t bothering with us and we’d just had a mock skirmish with the Indians so I didn’t have to worry about being captured a record number of times again. It was cloudy and misty out so we probably weren’t going to be hiking any huge distance to get where we were supposed to go.

“It’s the new year, Furball. Don’t you remember? It’s time for resolutions and stuff like that. You did come up with a resolution, didn’t you?” He smirked at me. I sorta had a reputation for procrastination.

“Course I did. I got tons of them.”

“Yeah, sure you do. Anyway, we gotta get going. Everyone else is at the beach already and if you’re late you’ll have latrine duty ‘til the sun comes up blue.”

That thought terrified me almost as much as fighting pirates does. I unlocked my knees, fell several feet to the ground and bounced off my skull. We took off for the beach, Surefoot quickly outpacing me. By the time I made it to the beach, the rest of the guys were standing in a circle around a bonfire waiting. I took my position in the circle panting as I tried to catch my breath.

“Took you long enough. What’d you do, stop to gorge on blueberries?”

My stomach chose that moment to grumble about the fact it was empty loudly enough that it could be heard over the waves coming in. I blushed as everyone laughed, but held my paws up to show they were grimy but not stained purple. “See? No blueberry stain,” I declared to Stumble.

Stumble started to say something but Leo interrupted. “Lay off or I’ll start telling them what’s in your stew.” Stumble’s mouth closed with a snap making me wonder just how horrible it could be and deciding I really didn’t want to know as long as it wasn’t going to kill me.

“Last night the comet returned, so it’s the new year and we gotta decide what we’re going to do for it.”

“I still say this sounds awfully like a resolution and Lost Boys don’t do those,” Red protested. “That’s grown up stuff. We’d be doing just what the pirates want us to.”

“We’re not making resolutions, we’re just telling what we want to do this year. There’s a huge difference. It’s that thing that you do cuz everyone else has always done it.”

“You mean tradition?” Roo asked Tig.

“Exactly!” Tig shouted loudly enough that it startled a bunch of seagulls who started screaming back. We broke from the circle and chased the seagulls up the beach because you just can’t have screaming seagulls ruining what we were trying to accomplish. As I raced up and down the beach, I kept trying to come up with my resolution, but it always ended up being silly, so I’d try again.

Finally, the seagulls had enough and flew off to some other part of the Island and we resumed our places around the bonfire which looked as though it wouldn’t last much longer. I kicked at a piece of wood to push it back into the fire and somehow managed to start the pelt paw smoldering. I was quick enough to bury my foot in the sand before anyone else noticed or before the smoldering burst into flames.

“We gotta do this quick before the fire goes out.” If the fire went out in the middle of the ceremony than the opposite of what we said would end up happening instead. It was how the magic worked even if there wasn’t any magic involved. Leo looked at Tig. “You got here first, so it’s your turn.”

Tig grinned and pointed at his twin. “For this year, lion boy won’t swaddle me in down. He’ll let me go on adventures without him and he won’t tear the Island apart if he doesn’t see me for an hour or two.” He shot his brother a ‘so take that look’ as he finished. Leo frowned, but didn’t say anything about the resolution he’d been given. “Surefoot, you’re next.” I wondered how he’d managed to be next when he’d left with me and I’d been the last to arrive. Maybe I needed to practice my galloping.

Surefoot looked at the ground for a moment then looked up and pointed at Stumble. “You won’t put snails and slugs in my hammock anymore.”

“Aw, don’t say that,” Red told him. “If he doesn’t put them there, he’ll stick them in the stew.”

“So? It might end up tasting better than it does now.”

“Slugs are pretty good if you don’t eat them fresh out of the mud.”

“Are you crazy? That’s when they’re the best. It’s when the mud is all dry and gross that they don’t taste good.”

“That’s because when the mud is dry and gross, so is the slug. They don’t live long when you just dump them in a box.”

“Don’t worry,” Stumble finally spoke up. “I know exactly where I’m going to put them now.” I reminded myself to check for slugs and snails in my pallet for awhile.

“My turn,” Leo announced. He had a smug grin on his face as he pointed at Tig. “When you go adventuring without me, it’ll be with Cubby that you’ll go.” I sighed waiting for Tig’s eruption. Instead I was surprised when Tig’s grin got huge and he gave me a thumb’s up. “Excellent,” he told Leo who looked a little bit unsure. I certainly didn’t know why Tig thought it was so great, but was pretty sure I was going to get a talking to from Leo.

“Roo.”

Roo thought it over for a moment and then pointed at Surefoot. “You’re going to help me find the plants I need to make stuff with to fix you blokes. No excuses and when I say we go, then we go.”

Surefoot mulled it over for a bit in that serious way he has and then nodded. “Yeah, that’s fair. I guess I’ve been dogging it a little.”

“Your turn Red.”

He raised his arm and moved it back and forth between each of us as though he was acting as some pronouncement of doom. He finally stopped and pointed at Leo. “You’re going to show me how to use a boomerang like you do. I can’t believe how you throw that thing and it always does what you want it to. I can’t do it worth beans.”

“All you had to do was ask you know, but that’s cool. We can start tomorrow.” Red looked like he’d just been given the greatest gift ever and I just had to grin seeing that look on his face. The grin was quickly lost when Leo announced Stumble was next.

Stumble looked around at each of us, a sly smile on his face. “I thought about telling masked boy he had to look up once in a while when tracking, that stripes had to listen to his brother all the time and do exactly what he was told to, that feather duster had to do latrine duty ‘til next year, that teddy bear had to quit eating blueberries or that pockets needed to be less serious. I decided something else though.” As if to punctuate his words, a peal of thunder crashed and a strong breeze came from the sea.

“You better hurry, it’s about to pour.”

Stumble gave me an evil grin as he pointed to me. “You’re going to start writing stuff down that happens, that we do. Like a historian or something. That ought to keep your mind, and your tummy, off blueberries.”

“Huh, but…” There was another peel of thunder and raindrops began to fall causing the fire to sizzle and steam to rise from it.

“Hurry up, Furball. It’s your turn and you gotta say it before the fire goes out.”

I looked around the circle my mind suddenly going completely blank. “I… I…” All of them started gesturing for me to say something. It began raining as though it meant it and I knew I only had seconds. I looked at Stumble and pointed to him. “You’re going to let me help you cook whenever I want to,” I yelled.

“Are you crazy?” he demanded.

“Like a fox,” Red decided.

Leo knelt down by the fire. “It’s still burning. Furball made it in time.” As if upset at its plans being thwarted, the rain turned into a downpour. It was a decidedly cold rain, unlike the warm ones that usually fall.

“Back to the tree,” someone yelled and we all took off into the woods. As I galloped through the trees, I wondered exactly what I’d done.


Prayers, Wishes, Death and a Cowardly Bear of a Lost Boy

“Are you scared?” Tigger asked me as he rubbed his hands in front of the small fire we’d built in the middle of the small clearing, having abandoned the beach we’d been searching for stuff that the sea had given up.

“You’ve cracked, haven’t you? This is me you’re talking to. I’m scared of everything from my shadow to everything that goes bump in the night and even that stuff I don’t know exists.”

“You can say that again,” Stumble chimed in.

“I could but I’m not going to. Everyone already knows it.”

Leo passed around a small bottle that had been liberated during a pirate raid and we each took a swallow. I felt fire for a moment and then my face flush.

“That’s not what I meant,” Tigger said, a note of irritation creeping into his voice. “I want to know if you’re scared of what’s going to happen on the next adventure.”

“You mean dying?” his twin asked, looking at him in surprise. I had to agree with his surprise. Tig was the last person you’d ever think would worry about the end of this adventure. I also wondered why I was the lucky recipient of this question.

“Yeah,” Tig said, a little nervously.

“C’mon stripe boy, why would you worry about that? All we’re doing is scavenging today and it’s not like there are any pirates around.”

Tig gave Stumble a sour look. “I didn’t say I was worried about it, I just wondered if… about things. How others felt about it, that’s all. It’s not like I think I’m going to kick the bucket today.”

“So you ask the cowardly lion about it? Good plan.”

“Bear,” I corrected. “I’m the cowardly bear and I don’t do emerald cities.”

“What does that even mean?” Leo asked with a grin.

“C’mon Furball, answer the question. I’m curious what you think. That’s why I asked.”

“Thanks heaps. Give me a moment to ponder on it. It’s not really something I was prepared to answer this morning.”

“All you have to do is tell him you’re terrified. Question answered and we can move on again.”

I shook my head causing a bunch of leaf pieces to fly out of my hair. “I think that may be the one thing that I’m not terrified over,” I said slowly as I tried to think it through. “Sometimes I think it might be a thing not to worry about.”

“Have you lost your @#$^& mind?” Stumble exploded. “Why would you even think such a thing? You think a Midnight Walk is some sort of game? Some noble gesture? Why the hell would you even consider it a good thing?”

“To die would be a great adventure,” Leo quoted Peter.

“Oh sure, especially if you never die. There’s a whole field of those who found out the hard way about how much fun the next adventure is. Everyone thinks it’s so great that Lost Boys never grow old but they never consider it might be ‘cause we don’t live long enough to grow old.”

“Have you ever thought we’re already on the next adventure?” I asked with a crooked grin. “Ya ever hear that rumor that Peter is actually an angel of death and that the reason we never grow old is because we’re already dead?”

“What, and this is supposed to be heaven?” Stumble said incredulously, spreading his left arm to take in the Island.

“It is for us,” Leo and Tig said simultaneously.

“If it weren’t for this place…” Tig started.

“…we’d be in a hell much worse,” Leo finished. When they started and finished each other’s sentences, I knew they were either stressed, very concerned, or very emotional about things.

“Oh sure, so you get dropped in a heaven where everyone hates you and tries to kill you. Not enough that we might be dead, but someone’s always trying to kill us again.”

“Hate’s nothing new to me,” I said with a shrug, “and I don’t care if this place is heaven, hell or someplace else, it’s still better than that place I came from and it’s the first place I’ve actually found friends to watch my back.” Stumble gave a snort but didn’t say anything.

“You still haven’t really…”

“…answered the question Furball.”

I stuck a stick into the fire as I thought about my answer. The flame instantly travelled up the stick and ended up singing part of my pelt before Stumble tackled me and put it out. I brushed myself off as I stood back up. “Am I scared of dying? A little but I don’t think it would be a horrible thing, at least it wouldn’t be depending on how I went. I guess what I’d worry about most is being by myself again.”

“Aw, c’mon Furball…”

“…you wander by yourself…”

“…all the time.”

“Seriously?” I asked the three. You’re going to be doing this in triplet now?” Leo and Tig looked at Stumble warily.

“Like it could have been finished any other way. Like shooting fur in a barrel.” Tig started towards Stumble but Leo held him back, grabbing him by the scruff of his pelt.

“It’s not the same,” I answered. “I wander by myself sometimes because I just like to wander and there are times that I’m really crappy company to be with. I’m probably the poster child on the Island for being insanely depressed. What if I get in one of these funks and everyone hates me because I’m moping around? I worry about that all the time. My biggest fear about being reaped is that after Nibbler drops me off I’ll be by myself again.” I looked down at my paws digging furrows in the dirt. “I know it’s weird but I have nightmares about it sometimes and I’m scared to death I’ll do something really stupid that will cause the rest of you to ignore me. What happens if I die and everyone ignores me?”

“You’re too big to ignore,” Tig said laughing and punching my shoulder before he got serious again. “I don’t believe all that stuff about Peter being the Angel of Death. He’s not exactly angelic. None of us are, so if we died, I’m pretty sure this isn’t heaven but it’s a good substitute. I’m with my brother and all you guys. Pirates are irritating, but we’ll always outsmart them. What else is there to worry about? Besides, didn’t Furball have a crush on Death at one point?”

“Did not,” I said blushing.

“Yeah you did, but it don’t matter none,” Stumble declared. “Why shouldn’t you? Why shouldn’t any of us? Who cares?” It was totally opposite to the comment I’d have expected Stumble to take.

“The thing to care about is why the hell it’s so freaking cold,” Leo said as he added a few sticks to the fire. “I don’t think it’s ever been this cold before.” The small bottle made a pass around again.

“We could be bundled up at home,” Stumble pointed out. “It’s not like we’ve gathered a lot this trip. Nothing that wouldn’t have kept until later.”

“Do you believe in God?” Tig asked him.

“Huh? What’s that got to do with being bundled up someplace warm?”

“Nothing, I just wondered, that’s all.”

“Well duh, of course I believe in God. Why wouldn’t I?” Apparently Tig didn’t think that conversation was going to go anywhere, so he turned to me and asked the same question.

“Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t,” I admitted. “The fact that I ended up a Lost Boy makes me believe that someone is watching over me, but the fact that I had to become a Lost Boy makes me disbelieve too. I seem to have a bunch of luck but I have a hard time believing anyone is paying any attention to me. Why would any deity care about an overstuffed, clumsy, scared teddy bear? Why would It let us be killed by pirates, tortured by orcs or end up depressed as hell and worried about stuff that’s crazy to worry about?” I stopped and pondered a bit more. For some reason I was feeling a little dizzy. “I think there is someone or something but I’m not sure what. I think every story about how things got started has a bit of truth in it and that the same thing, deity, or what have you, is at the beginning. I just think different people have different ways of looking at the same thing.” I gave a shrug. “How should I know? Something gave me a nutsy imagination and a sweet tooth that never ends. I don’t know what it is or why. What about you? What do you believe?”

Tigger and Leo looked at each other. “I believe because I’ve got Leo and wouldn’t have survived without him. Leo doesn’t believe because he had to watch over me and doesn’t believe in anyone that wouldn’t stop things that happened from happening to us. Was it an accident he’s my twin? Fate? Something else completely? I don’t know.”

“Lost Boys aren’t subject to fate.”

“But what if we aren’t Lost Boys yet?” Tig asked to which Stumble rolled his eyes.

“Well I know God exists, just because,” Stumble said almost grumpily.

“I’m not saying there isn’t, I just don’t know as sure as you did. If He does exist, I want to say that he’s different than what’s written about him, that he’s nicer I guess, but then how does that resolve with us ending up here and really how does it resolve with all those who aren’t rescued?” Leo and Tigger simply shook their heads as if there wasn’t really anything they could or wanted to add to the conversation.

“So whatcha want from me, anyway?” Stumble suddenly demanded, practically yelling. We all looked at him in surprise and a sheepish expression appeared on his face. “Sorry, I don’t know what got into me.”

“Maybe we should be moving on,” Leo suggested. “This isn’t getting us very far and I swear it’s getting colder.”

“I wish it’d snow. This grey crap gets old after awhile.”

“How about wishing stars?” Stumble suddenly spoke up.

“What about them?”

“You wish on them all the time and they seem to come true a lot, except the one where you wish you weren’t fat anymore. Are those wishes or prayers?”

“Aw, get serious. Wishes and prayers are completely different.”

“Oh?”

“Well sure. I’m not going to bother God or whoever asking for, I don’t know, that pirates don’t attack us next week. That’s a wish type thing. Prayers are for when someone is dying and you ask that they either be healed or sped on their way and that Nibbler be with them so they’re not alone.”

“That alone part really bugs you, don’t it?”

“More than almost anything in the world. I’d rather walk the plank or be fried by a dragon rather than end up alone. I’m more scared of being alone than of the dark or my shadow.”

“Whoa. How come…”

“…you’ve never mentioned it before?”

“Because ya’ll already think I’m craven, and yeah I am, but I don’t know. Being scared of something that can’t hurt you? That’s all I’d need for everyone to know.”

“That’s where you’re wrong…”

“…it can hurt you. We know.”

“So when you ask not to be alone, is it a prayer or a wish?” I looked at Stumble but the expression on his face was one of curiosity, not maliciousness. He saw me glance at him and expanded. “I mean maybe some would think it’s not important enough to be a wish but it’s really important to you so why wouldn’t it be a prayer?”

“Does…”

“…it matter?”

Stumble clenched his fists and screwed up his face, but then relaxed. “Yes it does. I can’t tell you why, but it really does.”

I sighed still trying to figure out exactly where this whole conversation had come from. It was really weird by Lost Boy standards and that was saying a lot. We normally didn’t worry much about religious things, at least I hadn’t thought we had. Of course my track record when it came to being correct about such things was pretty horrible. “It really isn’t either one. It’s not important enough to pray over and I never make wishes for myself because they don’t work that way. You never get a wish granted that you wish for yourself.” Stumble raised an eyebrow at that, but didn’t say anything. “It’s true, at least since I got here it is. I can’t remember for sure, but I think I used to pray or wish or something to be rescued when I was in the ‘real’ world.”

“We used to wish…”

“…for that all the time.”

“Me too,” Stumble admitted. “The world is a scary place when you’re all by yourself and no one cares. It’s an even worse place when you find someone who cares and they get ripped away from you. I don’t understand why you don’t think being alone is important enough to pray about.”

“Aw, c’mon Stumble, who cares? It’s important to me but not to anyone else. Does anyone really care whether one screwed up kid is scared or not? There are millions of kids who are scared of stuff. I’m lucky that I found myself where I did. Why would I even think it’s fair to pray for something like that? What if there are only a certain number of prayers or wishes that can be answered? Should I use one for that when someone else might need it tons more?”

“I think you’re nuts,” Stumble said, although not as convincingly as he normally made such announcements.

“Dude, we’re Lost Boys…”

“…no one cares about us except ourselves.”

“The elves care when this freaking teddy bear starts gobbling their blueberries. He’s a one man disaster area when he gets hungry.”

“Riiiiggghhht, and that type of caring…”

“…makes everything okay.”

“Quit arguing. Yeah I eat too much, no I don’t care. Yeah the elves hate me, no I don’t care. Yeah, you think I’m too fat, no I don’t care.”

“Well excuuuuse me,” Stumble said reminding me of something from sometime ago that I couldn’t place. I was pretty sure it was a ‘real’ world thing. “I’m just trying to help you improve yourself, that’s all. Roo does the same thing and you don’t get upset with him.”

I started to snap back a response, but stopped. Maybe he was right. Maybe in his way he thought he was helping me. Maybe I should give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe I should quit beginning all my thoughts with ‘maybe’. “It don’t matter none, Stumble, none of it really matters. I know what I am and where I am and that’s probably a lot more than most people know.” I think I giggled, but I can’t remember.

“What’s that got to do with anything?”

“Plenty if you’re scared of the dark, scared of your shadow, and more scared of living than you are of dying.’”

“Whoa, what’s that…”

“…supposed to mean.”

“Nothing. I’m not going to go Midnight waljkies or anything like that. That would be giving up and that’s something no true Lost Boy would do, no matter how scared he was. Even I learned that lesson.”

“Damned…”

“…right.”

“All for one and one for all and all of us against the world?” Stumble asked.

“Hell yes,” we all answered in unison, spitting on our right hands and clasping them together above the fire that was more a memory now than anything else.

Stumble let out a long drawn out sigh. “I wish I could cook better.” That created a look of astonishment from all of us. “What? It’s true. I eat this stuff too, I know it’s not great. Half the time it’s not even good. You think I don’t know that?”

“That’s one thing I can wish for,” I said hesitantly.

“Good, then wish for it.”

“Are you…”

“…crying?”

“Course I am, I’m standing downwind of teddy bear and he stinks.” I’m not exactly sure why, but when Stumble said that we all burst out laughing. I had no clue what had just happened. It didn’t make any sense at all but that was the thing about the Island and being a Lost Boy upon its back. Sometimes these things happened because they had to happen. I don’t know that I was any happier than I had been and I was still scared to death of the whole loneliness thing, but it had been good to get it out. I tried to resolve that I’d quit messing with the elves’ blueberries, but I found it wasn’t something I could readily do. No matter how much Roo and, yeah, Stumble tried to help, I couldn’t see where going from bear pelt to wolf pelt would solve anything. I couldn’t see that it really mattered to anything that I found to be important. That in itself was probably something that should have scared me a little, but I’d found other stuff to be scared about.

Leo looked around at us. “It’s going to be dark soon and I don’t want to spend the night out here, although I’m only thinking about it because of you guys. It wouldn’t matter to me at all. I’m used to roughing it.”

“Yeah, right. I’ve heard you bitch plenty of times about pulling night duty. You don’t like it either.”

Leo stuck his tongue out at his twin. “Let’s cover the next beach section and call it a day. It’s not like there’ve been any big storms lately to wash anything really good up.” There were murmurs of agreement as we all stretched in preparation of heading back to the beach. As we left the clearing, I took a wistful look behind me. Things like this didn’t happen very often, but when they did, they were awesome.


The Shadows

I don’t know if it’s a Lost Boy thing or a Neverland thing but since I’ve been on the Island, I’ve lost my shadow three times. The first time I lost it was when I fell out of a tree and it got snagged on a limb on the way down. It ripped free and got stuck in the tree as I continued my plummet to the ground. I didn’t really consider it a big deal. I just climbed the tree where it was at and started untangling it from the branches. Once I got it untangled, it stood on the branch and pushed me out of the tree. Seeing stars, I climbed back up the tree and got shoved out of it once more. Of course what the shadow didn’t realize was that even free of me, it’s still a part of me. I was just coming to when I heard a rustle of branches and found that it had slipped off the branch it had been standing on. A few seconds later, it landed on top of me (shadows are heavier than you’d think) and my shadow was attached once more.

The second time I lost my shadow was during a pirate battle. One of the pirates known as Bull casually picked me up and threw me over the tail of The Jolly Roger. I bounced off the plank before falling in the water. I didn’t realize it at the time, but somehow my shadow got hung up on a bunch of splinters on the plank and we parted company once more. It took me awhile to get back on deck because my supply of pixie dust was wet and I’m not the world’s best anchor chain climber (actually I probably rank near dead last when it comes to that). I heaved myself over the rail and collapsed on deck just in time to see my shadow keeping three pirates at bay while rescuing Stumble from a scrape he’d gotten himself into. The moment it had finished the fight with the pirates, I snuck up behind it and tackled it. For the next three cycles all I heard was how much better my shadow fights than I do. I dunno, it’s hard to feel confident when your shadow is braver than you are and can fight three pirates at a time. Stumble even kept stomping on my shadow for awhile to see if he could break it free again.

The third and last time so far, I lost my shadow was when I was sledding with the seals down Glacier Hill. Normally you get to the top of the hill and you either ride the seal down like a sled or you slide down yourself down the ice covered hill and onto the sea ice where you’re normally stopped by a skiff of snow that’s been built up a few yards from the beach. So I decided to go down myself (being built like a seal has its advantages). I was practically flying by the time I reached the bottom and sped across the sea ice and managed to go through the snow berm. I lay there on the ice for a few moments and then started hearing the sea ice start to crack (being as heavy as a seal without the same ability to hold one’s breath that long—definite disadvantage). I broke through the ice and entered a world of freezing water. The crack in the ice was big enough to let me through but not big enough for my shadow to drop through with me (how does that even work). Being clumsy on land doesn’t make you any less clumsy in the water and I kept bumping my head against the ice but wasn’t able to break through. I figured I was at the beginning of the next adventure when something grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and pulled me up through the ice. Yeah, it was my shadow who had rescued me. It looked at me, shook its head, and stepped into me to reconnect us.

I’m not nearly as scared of my shadow as I once was, but I’m still a little wary of it. Stumble keeps asking me why I can’t just stay home on adventures and send my shadow instead. What I don’t tell him is that for pirate battles I’d be more than happy to send my shadow in my place since I’m allergic to bravery. Of course I don’t know what happens when one of us goes onto the next adventure. I’m assuming if I head that way, my shadow doesn’t survive without me. I’m not sure about what happens to me if it gets killed. I’m still trying to figure out a way to communicate with it because I have a bunch of questions. Not so much the whole next adventure thing, but when I’m walking alongside one of my brothers or a wolf and our shadows merge together, what happens? Does my shadow get some sense of the other shadow? Can stories be shared that way? I’m just curious to know.


Playing in the Clouds

One of the things I like best is playing hide-and-seek in the clouds. I’m at a little bit of a disadvantage since brown tends to clash with white, or even grey if we’re playing in thunderheads, but clouds make the perfect playground for hide-and-seek because you can pull layers of cloud over you to hide. Being the roundest Lost Boy also means that when I pull cloud pieces over me, they keep their un-angular shape, something that Leo, Tig or Red can’t pull off. Another good thing about the clouds is that with enough pixie dust and thick enough clouds, it’s possible to bounce all over them instead of having to walk. The only downside is if you’re too close to the edge, there’s a tendency to tumble off. The first time that happened to me, I almost lost my stomach in my throat, but there’s usually enough pixie dust to make landing feel as though you’ve jumped from a few feet instead of a couple hundred. Having a tendency to land on my skull also means I don’t sprain my ankles nearly as much as I could.

The best time to play in the clouds is during a thunderstorm at night. It’s ridiculously hard to get up to the clouds when it’s raining because pixie dust dissolves in water. You have to try putting it on under your pelt and hope you make it to the clouds before the water soaks through. It tends to seep through pretty fast, especially when you have a bunch of holes in your pelt. Something else that never got into the stories is that pixie dust can be extremely itchy. I have a feeling that it’s something the fairies can control because I seem to get more batches of itchy dust than the others do. I guess it takes a long time for a fairy to forget that you accidentally flooded their house pulling a prank on someone else. Anyway, the reason thunderstorms at night are best is because you can see the lightning bolts chase each other through the clouds. Because of the whole grounded thing, we don’t have to worry about getting struck by lightning if we’re in the clouds but it’s interesting to see the effect it has on Leo’s pelt when a bolt passes by him. Hair and fur stand up all over. Another cool thing is that if you watch closely when the lightning flashes below the clouds, you can see the outline of those you are seeking sometimes. I try to pull enough cloud cover over me that my outline just looks like part of the clouds. It works about half the time.

A snowstorm with tons of snow and wind is another great time to play hide-and-seek. Not so much because of the game itself, but because there’s nothing more awesome than leaping off the edge of a cloud and slowly floating back to the Island with gobs of snow surrounding you. Snow doesn’t get rid of pixie dust near as quickly as rain, so there’s not a whole lot to worry about when it comes to sudden acceleration towards the ground. There’s also falling through gobs of snow. It’s hard to tell that you’re even falling and it’s like you’re in the middle of a snow storm that’s been suddenly halted. That feeling usually ends for me when I crash rump-first into a tree but I wouldn’t trade it for a bucket of blueberries.

Some of the guys like playing Follow-the-Leader in the clouds. I don’t like that as much as hide-and-seek because when they are the leader, and head to the clouds, they tend to choose mackerel or mare-tail type clouded days. There’s a lot of holding power in clouds, especially when combined with pixie dust, but even Red can fall through one of those clouds pretty quick. That normally means the first cloud I put my paw on disintegrates under me. I’m always suspicious because the past three times that’s happened, I’ve fallen into a glacier stream when Tig was the leader. Not that I’d ever accuse him of anything, but…

Another awesome thing about clouds are the wolves. Wolves don’t use pixie dust. I accidentally spilled some on Ember and all he did was give me one of those inscrutable wolf looks as he shook the dust off of himself like it was water. Ember tells me that all wolves have the ability to climb into the sky but it can only be done at night. I’ve never been able to figure out how he does it, he just starts climbing as though he’s going up a flight of stairs. Once he’s on the clouds, he can lope across them and can jump from one to another no matter how far apart they are. He can also climb stars. I’ve never seen what happens when a wolf hits the ground, either. When he’s ready to return to the Island, he’ll usually leap off a cloud when I’m at the opposite end of it. By the time I’m able to get to the side he jumped off and look down, he’s looking up at me with his tongue lolling and an expression that seems to ask what’s taking me so long. A lot of the time when Ember and I are up in the clouds, I’ll lay on my back next to him and he’ll point out the history of certain stars. It’s not that he’s been around enough to know the histories first-hand, but his pack is familiar with the histories by the tales and stories that have been passed to them by those before. He says he knows about earlier Lost Boys too, but I never seem to remember to ask him about any of them. I’m not sure why that is. He also wrestles with me, which can be fun too even though he’ll tackle me hard enough to knock me through the bottom of the cloud and give me a lupine grin as I tumble back down to the Island.


Groundhog Day in Neverland

In all the books I read about Neverland before becoming a Lost Boy, it was described as this tropical type island.  For about half the year it is, or maybe it’s more like most of the year.  There aren’t any calendars on the island and even if there were, trying to figure out what day it is seems like way too much of a grown-up thing to do.  The island has a dark side when it comes to weather, though, and there would be a stretch that we called winter during which it would get gloomy and stormy with cold, wet rain and sleet.  It doesn’t snow much on the island but we get more than our share of sleet and freezing rain.  The good thing about that is the pirates normally stay on The Jolly Roger during this time or actually leave the island to go wherever it is they go to plunder and pillage (although it’s hard to see Mr. Smee as a pillager for some reason).  It’s also a time when game gets scarce, fishing sucks, and even fruits, berries, veggies, and dandelions are in very short supply.  It’s not a lot of fun and there are many a winter night when we go hungry.  Add that to having all us Lost Boys cooped up in Hangman’s Tree for days at a time and all of us are ready for winter to end.

As bad as winter itself can be, there’s one day of the winter that I absolutely dread with a passion.  There’s no warning or predicting of when this day will come.  The day itself is simply signaled by a break in the rain and wind with a spectacular sunrise that slowly appears above Dragon Mountain to the west of Hangman’s Tree.  Yeah, the west.  Even in Neverland the sun normally rises in the east.  Aside from it being a bit creepy to have the sun rise and se on the west, it’s the day that’s become traditionally known as Groundhog Day.

At the moment, none of us Lost Boys are in a groundhog pelt.  Unfortunately the rest of the guys have decided that the animal most resembling a groundhog is a bear and there’s only one Lost Boy who’s in a bear pelt.  So how bad can it be you may ask.  Find a burrow, climb out of it, either see or don’t see my shadow, and go back to scarfing blueberries.  If only.  Like most other stuff on the island, there’s a lot of tradition and stuff built into Groundhog Day.  Naturally the sun rises a few hours earlier than normal.  I guess it has to if it’s going to do something weird like rise in the west, although I can’t help but figure it’s done purposely.  If you know anything ‘bout us Lost Boys, you know that we spend half the night playing and usually flake out in the wee hours of the morning.  Being the biggest and clumsiest of the bunch, I also am something of the laziest, so when I flake out, I flake out big time and inevitably one of the others discovers the sun rising in the west way before I’m even half conscious.

When I wake up on Groundhog Day it’s usually because I’ve got half the guys holding me down while the other half are busy tying me up.  They get most of it done before I even know what’s going on, so by the time I’m able to fight back, it’s way too late.  They usually stick an old pawmoc in my mouth but I think that’s more for laughs (theirs not mine) than because I need to be kept quiet.  Once that’s done, they pull me from my pallet under the common room table and sprinkle pixie dust on me.  I’ve tried thinking unhappy thoughts as I float towards the ceiling, but it’s never worked for some reason.  They tie a rope around an ankle or wrist and then float me out through my trapdoor.

Once outside, they drag me along like a balloon until we reach the middle of the island where there’s this huge badger’s den.  This is what I’m supposed to come out of to determine whether or not my shadow can be seen.  Even with the dirty pawmoc and the dragging around the island, it still doesn’t sound too bad, does it?  That’s until you realize that unlike the real world, in Neverland it actually makes a difference whether or not the Lost Boy’s shadow can be seen.  If I see it, then there will be a very long period of winter.  If I don’t see it, then when the sun rises the next day (in the east this time) Neverland will be dressed in tropical finery again and we won’t have to worry about sleet, ice or starving for a very long time.  Oh, and one other thing, Groundhog Day in Neverland is always the same, bright and sunny.  Under normal circumstances there’s no way I’m not going to cast a shadow.

The first couple of times I got to be the guinea pig… I mean groundhog, they tried covering the area with an old sail we’d found washed up on one of the beaches.  It let in just enough light that a very big faint shadow showed, so we got bombarded with a lot more winter.  Next they tried surrounding me when I came out so their shadows covered mine.  Apparently that didn’t work either as there was lots more winter that time too.  One time (and for me this was the best, at least at first) we ignored the whole thing.  Bad idea.  The next morning a cyclone hit the island along with an ice storm.  We sorta took that to mean that Neverland was going to have its Groundhog Day.  Then someone got a brilliant idea (note massive sarcasm).

If you’re familiar with the real world story of Peter Pan you know that he managed to loose his shadow.  That really happened and the reason Peter was do desperate to get it back is because shadows are stubborn, mischievous, and extremely uncomfortable to be without.  Now every Groundhog Day, when I’m dragged to the badger’s den I’m tied to a tree while the rest of the guys use a magical pair of scissors to cut my shadow loose from me.  It’s hard to describe how irritating it is not to have a shadow connected to you..  First off it feels similar to the way it does when you realize that you’re breathing.  It drives you crazy and you try to forget about it but it’s almost impossible to and when you’ve almost reached the point where you do, something brings it up again.  Normally it’s the shadow itself.  Even more annoying is the fact that my shadow can run faster than I gallop, can beat me at hide-n-seek, and can fly higher than me.  It always takes me a few weeks to catch it and try to sew it back on.  I can’t sew worth beans, so it’s always a 50-50 chance that I won’t end up repeating the whole process in a couple of days.  Try being in the middle of a pirate fight and having your shadow break away and start hurling shadow crème pies at you.  In case you’re wondering, they don’t taste good at all.

Once they’ve gotten the shadow cut off and put in someone’s pelt pocket (remember, I can’t see it or winter keeps coming), then they pull me down and stuff me into the badger’s den.  Badgers don’t much care for anything, but they seen to especially dislike Lost Boys and really dislike Lost Boys dressed up as bears.  I normally end up rocketing out of the den as quick as I can but usually end up with half my pelt (and the skin beneath it) in tatters.  It doesn’t help that I’m just a tiny bit bigger than the den entrance either.  I usually end up leaving a bit of blood behind as well as most of the previous night’s dinner.

I’ve been especially worried about the Groundhog Day thing lately and not really sure why.  The feeling has been there for what I think is the past couple of weeks, but the sun has continued to rise in the cloudy east, so I figure there’s nothing to worry about after all.  Groundhog Day doesn’t happen every winter in Neverland and I’m thinking I’ve lucked out that it’s not going to happen this time.  It’ll be nice to sleep soundly tonight.


One Winter’s Day

“Aw, c’mon.  You said you’d do it.  You can’t back out now,” Red jeered at me.

“He’s right.  You didn’t just say you wanted to do it, but you said you had to do it.  You know it’s going to be stupendous.  In fact, I bet that a million years from now that this tale gets told.  I’d give anything to be the one to be doing this.”

“Hey,” I said, taking a step back and gesturing to the slope that looked like it was at about a 65-degree angle heading down, “knock yourself out, Tig.  I won’t be upset.  I’m not the glory seeking type no way.”

Tig peered down the slope and shook his head.  “You’re due some glory, Furball, and you did say you’d be the first one down.”

“Chicken?” I asked, surprising myself that I’d say such a thing since I knew I was.

“Nope, I’m just a bit too fond of this adventure to be going downhill.”

“Downhill?  You’d be better off saying downcliff,” Roo advised.

“You think I’m going to die?  You’re the one who said how safe it’d be.”

“I didn’t say you were going to die, I just said that I was fond of my life.  I mean, c’mon.  You’re all the time falling out of trees and falling into pits and…” he paused.  “You’re pretty clumsy, aren’t you?”

“Are you seriously asking me that question?  Seriously?”  Tig responded to my question by looking a bit sheepish.

“Naw.  I know you get tangled in your paws a lot, but I didn’t really think about how many different places you manage to get tangled in.”

“Or stuck in,’ Red added helpfully.

“So are we going to do this or what?” Tig asked, looking at me expectantly.  I don’t know why we even bothered playing this game cause everyone present on the mountain top knew that I was going to go down on the toboggan the moment we’d arrived at the top of the mini-mountain.  The snow on the slope was a good foot deep and didn’t have a single print on it anywhere.  A belt of trees bordered each side of the slope and halfway down narrowed the cleared path to a couple of feet before the trees retreated after a few yards leaving a large area the rest of the way down, a very long distance.  I figured that the whole thing was probably close to a mile, even if I took off the distance I knew I was exaggerating.

The toboggan had been Tig’s idea.  Made with pieces of wooden ships that had washed ashore during a century of storms, it was long, heavy and unwieldy.  It was easier to drag than carry, and it had taken all four of us to drag it up the ‘hill’.  The back of the hill wasn’t nearly as long, steep or snow covered as the front of it was, so it hadn’t been too horrible.  I’d asked how we’d ever get the thing to the top of the hill again, but Tig said that he knew a couple of polar bears who owed him a favor.  I’d badgered him for the entire trip asking him how one managed to get polar bears to owe them favors.  His response was to tell me that he’d tell me when it was necessary.  Tig was always saying stuff like that.  It probably went hand-in-hand with his ability to create 218 different rules for tic-tac-toe.

“If I do this, I want…” I’d been ready to mention blueberries or chocolate or something else, but caught Roo looking at me, “…broccoli.”

“Yeah sure, that won’t be a problem… huh?  What?”

“Broccoli,” I repeated to answer Red’s question.  “What’s so strange about that?”  Red, Roo and Tig looked at each other.

“It’s okay, we’ll get you some broccoli,” Tig said in a placating voice as he held up a hand that I guess was supposed to soothe me or something.  I’d have preferred chocolate to broccoli, but their reactions sort of made up for it.  I wondered what they’d have done if I’d asked for beets.

“You know, there’s no way to steer this thing,” I said as I examined a rope that appeared to be on there for decorative purposes only.

“You lean,” Tig said, confidently.  “You’ll pick it up in no time.  Besides, it’s not like you’re going to need to steer.  When we start you off, we’ll make sure you’re aimed straight down the center.”  I wasn’t impressed, but that wasn’t something I was going to share with anyone.

“Whatever, I guess we might as well do this.”

“Told ya,” Tig told Red smugly.

I helped the other three carefully aim the toboggan in the right direction, Tigger carefully having us move it an inch one way and a couple of inches the other until it was lined up to his satisfaction.  “Hop on,” he directed me.

“Do we need pixie dust?” Red asked as I got on the device.  I glared back at him.  “I meant because the sled was so heavy.”

“It’s not a sled, it’s a toboggan.  There’s a huge difference,” Tig advised.

“Yeah, you can steer a sled.”

“But you can’t steer a cardboard box.”  We all stared at Red for a moment.  “You can’t.  Try it and see.”  There was no answer to that statement at all, so I grabbed the rope the way I figured cowboys did when they were riding broncos.  I was seated in about the middle of the toboggan and waited while Tigger dusted the contraption with a bit of pixie dust, sneezing when he sprinkled some of it on me.

“Ready, steady, go!” Red called out as the three started pushing the toboggan.  In spite of the weight, it started off quickly.  I heard a thump from behind me and threw a look behind my shoulder to see Roo kneeling behind me.

“What happened?” I yelled, figuring he’d slipped or something even though that wasn’t like him at all.”

“Nothing,” he yelled back at me.  “This looked too cool not to try.”  That was the second statement in less than a minute that there wasn’t any answer to, but it brought a grin to my face.  That is until I noticed that Tig’s careful alignment had us whizzing towards the trees.  “Lean!  Lean!  Lean!  Lean!” I yelled leaning towards the left although there was probably a good third of a mile until that would become a problem.  Through some quirk, the sled angled to the right, did a couple of 360s and a partial and ended up still angled towards the trees, but now going backwards.

“That was unexpected,’ Roo said before dissolving into laughter.

“They though I was crazy,” I muttered to myself, as I leaned to the left this time so far that the right side of the toboggan threatened to leave the ground.  We completed another couple of spins and wound up heading forward again, although still angled towards the trees.

“Wolf!” Roo yelled.  For a moment, I wondered what the heck that was supposed to mean until there was a thump in front of me as a snow wolf suddenly appeared on the toboggan.  It looked as though it had been running across the slope and had managed to intersect our course.  It gave me a look of surprised disgust (which is hard for a lupine face to express) causing Roo to break out in renewed laughter.  That in turn caused the snow wolf’s expression to look even more disgusted before he turned to face forward and sit on his haunches, ignoring both of us.  In the meantime the trees continued to loom in front of us as we got closer.

“You really ought to do something about not running into those trees,” Roo suggested.  At the rate we were eating up ground, we had a couple of minutes before that event would occur.  As if in agreement, the wolf’s tail thumped a couple of times against both the toboggan and my face.  As wolf tails go, his was pretty long.

“I’m open to suggestions,” I retorted as I attempted to lean in either direction.  The wolf wasn’t small and his weight, combined with that of Roo was enough to keep me from having any effect on anything.  I tried moving from side-to-side in an attempt to get something to happen causing Roo to comment that I was acting as though I needed to go to the bathroom.  “I’m not heavy enough,” I said, fairly positive that it was the first time those words had ever been strung together in a sentence describing myself.  “You need to lean too.  To the right on three.”  I counted to three and Roo and I leaned towards the right.  We might have gotten shifted more than we did, but the wolf leaned to the left at the same time.  “Seriously?” I asked in his direction.  He gave a yip and I counted to three again.  This time all of us leaned to the right in concert and the toboggan smoothly moved to the right.  “Stop!” I yelled, moments too late.  We were now perfectly aimed at the tree belt on the other side of the clearway.  The wolf’s tail thumping increased in momentum and I was getting fur in my eyes.

“What’d ya do that for?” Roo demanded from the back.  “Now we’re going to crash into the other side.”  He wasn’t laughing as he had been before, but there was a definite note of excitement in his voice that I hadn’t heard for awhile.

“If you think you can do better, feel free.”

“Like I could get past you and your friend to be able to steer.”

“You can’t steer, it’s a toboggan.”  I figured he already knew the rope was just for… whatever Tig had put it on for.  It sure wasn’t for steering anything.  Before Roo could make a comment back I felt a weight on my left shoulder and turned to see that a raven had landed on it.  It stared at me with bright black eyes and gave a caw before ignoring me and facing forward.  “I don’t think that’s a good sign.”

“What?  The raven?  I don’t think they’re bad luck.  At least not too much.  I think it’s some other bird that’s supposed to be bad luck and only if they’re following a ship or a boat or something like that.  If it was a skunk that landed on your shoulder, then that would definitely be bad luck.”

I declined to point out the fact that, fortunately, there weren’t any flying skunks on the Island that I knew about.  The trees were now close enough that I could see individual branches.  I wondered for a second if all the branches really were pointed towards us or if it was just my imagination.  The wolf let out a howl, but declined to leave the toboggan.  The raven didn’t either, although it spread its wings, cawed, and did something that both myself and my pelt wished it hadn’t.  The light dimmed as the toboggan entered the small forested area between two tree trunks.  “I can’t see the forest anymore, there are too many trees,” Roo sang out.  I started to wonder if he’d somehow managed to get some pirate rum.  We generally didn’t grab that on raids, but there had been mistakes made in the past.

“We’re going to die,” I sang out in counterpoint.  The wolf yipped and Roo laughed.  “Not with your luck,” he said.  “If I were on this thing with anyone else, I might be concerned but with your luck there’s no way they’re going to let you die riding a toboggan in the middle of a forest.”

“Lean!” I yelled as a tree trunk loomed in front of us.  We all leaned to the left, including the stupid raven, and there was a buzzing sound as the toboggan scraped the tree trunk as it flashed by.

“That was fantastic,” Roo decided.  The wolf howled with what could have been agreement, disagreement, or a prelude to getting ready to rip my head off.  The way things were going, I sort of figured it was probably the first one.

“Are you crazy?” I demanded but quietly enough so he couldn’t hear me.  There was something good going on behind me and I didn’t want to take a chance of ruining it or having it end too soon.  The toboggan sped over a root mound and became airborne for several moments before crashing back to the ground with a teeth-rattling thump.  I ended up falling backwards and found my head in Roo’s lap.  The raven had let out a caw and had leaped from my shoulder as I went backwards.  I looked up to see him grinning so wide, it looked as though his face would split.  What really got me, however, was the quick look I had of his eyes.  They were a kid’s eyes, at least for now.

“Get up,” he said.  “Someone’s got to be in charge and it ain’t me.”  I grinned back and struggled back up to a sitting position.  We were still moving rapidly through the tree belt and I saw that the raven was no perched on the wolf’s head.  Neither one of them seemed concerned about events.  The trees thinned briefly and we were racing across a pond or small lake.  There was a distinct cracking sound under us, but by the time I’d even figured out what words were appropriate, we were back on land again.  A branch slapped my chest as we went past it and there was suddenly a pear in my lap.  Anywhere else, that wouldn’t have been possible, but on the Island…  I liked pears almost as much as blueberries, but was pretty sure I knew what this one was for.  I picked it up and held it behind my back, letting Roo grab it.  I’m pretty sure it was thanks he offered me, but it was hard to tell through his mouthful of pear pulp.

“Left,” I screamed as I started paying attention to what was in front of us again.  For something that hadn’t looked real big from the summit, this belt of trees was taking forever to get through.  Everyone leaned left as the raven directed things with a spreading of wings and insistent cawing.  Once more we didn’t quite make it and sideswiped the tree leaving behind part of the ride side of the toboggan which was now vibrating.  I felt something new thump into my lap and looked down to see a raccoon taking a look around.  I tensed, since racoons aren’t that fond of surprises such as these, and waited to feel teeth and claws against me.  Instead the raccoon finished looking around, lay down in my lap and closed its eyes.  I’d thought about closing my eyes as well, but there were just too many trees around for that.  Sometimes closing one’s eyes wasn’t the best solution.  Actually it wasn’t the best solution most times, but it was really not the best one when you were zipping past trees.
“Don’t even think about bringing it back to the Tree,” Roo advised.  “There’s no telling what reaction Stumble might have to a real raccoon hanging out.”  There wasn’t any time to ponder on that particular train of thought because we zipped out of the trees and were on bare slope again.  As if overjoyed to be cleared of the trees, the toboggan started picking up speed.  I’d closed my eyes as the sun shone full upon us without the tree branches to block it any longer.  Roo let out a cheer.
“Uh, Roo, we got a problem.”  Ahead of us the ground did something unexpected.
“No we don’t, not with your luck.  Anyway, even if we did, it’d be your problem since your the leader of this wonderful expedition.”  The raven showed its superior intelligence by giving a caw and winging off the wolf’s head and into the sky.
“There’s a cliff,” I pointed out.  “It’s right in front of us and there’s no way we’re going to be able to stop in time.”  It wasn’t so much a cliff as a crevice.  The snow covering both sides had made it all but invisible from the top of the summit.  The distance between the two crevice sides was only about three yards or so.  Even I could have probably jumped it on a good day, with the wind at my back and my eyes tightly screwed shut.  None of that applied at the moment.
I felt Roo shift and look over my shoulder at the approaching topography.  “That’s not good.”  The wolf apparently had the same idea because it gave a yip and sprung off the toboggan and loped away.  The raccoon continued to sleep.  “Show off,” Roo called after it, a smile in his voice.  “Well Furball, it’s a good thing at least one of us is prepared.”
“Maybe if we roll off…”  I had to stop to let a huge sneeze out.  It was big enough that I’m pretty sure the toboggan slowed a little from the force.  It was caused by something that Roo had sprinkled over my head which had gotten into my nose.
“Steady, Furball.  Be sure and grab the raccoon and think about blueberries.”
“Blueberries?” I asked as I grabbed the raccoon in a bear hug which seemed to concern it not at all.
“Happy thoughts,” he said as the bottom dropped out from under us when we ran out of ground.  The toboggan continued forward where it smashed into the opposite wall and pretty much became bits of driftwood and sawdust that rained on whatever was below.  Violating pretty much a whole slew of physical laws, Roo and I came to a stop over the middle of the crevice.  I was thinking of happy thoughts as fast as I could, but I was slowly sinking.  I was jerked to a stop as Roo grabbed my hair and pulled me up.  The raccoon forced it’s head out of my arms and was staring around as though raccoons didn’t normally find themselves a couple hundred feet above nothing.  “I should have brought more pixie dust,” Roo sighed.
“It’s because of the raccoon.  It weighs a ton.”  I wasn’t even convincing myself with that comment and the raccoon gave a squawk of indignation.  I’d never known that raccoons could squawk.
Roo didn’t say anything, but pulled me by the mane to the edge of the crevice and above solid ground again.  A few yards beyond the edge, the pixie dust went wherever used pixie dust goes to and we both tumbled to the snow.  I lay there catching my breath while the raccoon crawled to my chest and gave me a good chewing out in raccooneese before turning tail and running off.  I carefully moved various pieces of my body, but didn’t feel anything that would indicate I’d broken, sprained, punctured, or slashed anything.  Roo was already on his feet and was giving me a crooked grin.
“That was fantastic,” he exclaimed.  His face was bright red from the cold and excitement and the grin on his face was contagious and I found myself grinning back at him like an idiot.  His eyes were still young which was all that counted to me at the moment.  “Can we do it again?”
I almost choked, but found myself nodding in agreement.  “All we need to do is get back up this hill.”  I sighed as I contemplated the journey back to where the others might or might not be waiting for us.  I wished we had some more pixie dust, but figured I could probably make it without tumbling down the hill after a misstep and ending up rolling into a snowball.
We’d climbed about 100 feet and I’d already broken a sweat and was huffing when Roo turned around and looked at me.  “Thanks.”  He turned around and continued climbing.  I was still struggling, but after that I knew I could probably, somehow, climb a mountain three times this one after that.


Nibbler’s Tale

I trudged up the hill, a bunch of carrots in one hand.  It was twilight and I hadn’t thought it would take so long to gather carrots.  Unfortunately the gardens were being guarded by the elves a lot more thoroughly than they had in the past and I definitely wasn’t built for stealth or tiptoeing.  I normally wouldn’t have been pleased by the appearance of a griffin, but it did draw off the elves long enough that I was able to snatch some carrots.

Eventually I got to the top of the hill.  Even though I knew in my head it wasn’t true, my legs and lungs were pretty sure that when I went up this hill it was longer than when any of the others climbed it.  I stood at the top for a moment to catch my breath and watched a couple of bats play chase with each other in the gathering gloom.  It only took me a couple more minutes of walking when the huge oak tree guarding Lost Boys’ Field came into view.  Underneath it I was just able to make out a figure that would be Nibbler.  I should probably be more cautious when I make my approach to the graveyard, but it wasn’t like it was a graveyard like most graveyards were and there wasn’t a pirate alive who would come around here.  Still, that didn’t mean there weren’t any dead pirates who wouldn’t come around, although I’d never seen any pirate ghosts before.  I wondered if that was something I should be concerned about and what sort of weaponry, at least weaponry I was capable of using without killing myself, would be useful.

By the time those thoughts had chased themselves around my skull; I’d arrived at the oak tree to discover the figure I’d seen seated below the oak was indeed that of Nibbler.  The rabbit pelt he was wearing looked as though it had been recently washed but was as faded as ever.  I couldn’t quite see through Nibbler, but it seemed like it was prevented by only the barest margin.  He grinned at me, although it might have been the carrots just as easily, and nodded.  “Ready to play?” he asked.

“Not really,” I said, handing him the carrots.  “I figure you’re going to wipe the board up with me but that’s okay.”

“You never know.  I’ll take my rooks and knights from the board, how ‘bout that?”

“I don’t suppose you’d consider giving up your queen and a bishop or two, would you?”

Nibbler laughed, something that was extremely rare and made the clobbering I was about to get totally worthwhile.  “I may be crazy, but not when it comes to giving an advantage like that.”  He reached behind him and pulled out the chess set I had gotten very familiar with.  The board itself was a basic wooden tiled board but it was populated by figures carved in what appeared to be clear and black glass.  The pieces looked as though they should have weighed a ton but were delicate in weight alone.  I was never sure where the set came from.  Nibbler always reached behind him and when his hand reappeared, it was holding the set.  He placed it between us and, as promised, proceeded to remove his rooks and knights from the board.  I didn’t have any illusions that it would make any difference to how the game would end, but I appreciated the thought.  “Just a second,” he said as he got up.

I sat there and watched as he went behind the oak and a moment later reappeared carrying a fair quantity of wood.  “It’s not oak,” he’d reassured me on more than one occasion, and it wasn’t hard to believe since when he lit it, all it put out was light without any smoke or heat.  Nibbler had mentioned that light was all he needed and only when one of us came around.  He didn’t get cold and could see in the dark like a wolf.  He carefully arranged the wood into a small pile, lit it with a match he pulled out of his pelt and lit on the bottom of his pawmoc, and then sat down across from me again.  I always had the clear pieces, so I got to make the first move.

Twenty-seven moves later I tipped my king over in defeat.  “Told ya,” I said not unhappily.  It was always cool to see the way he methodically went about destroying my field.  Equally cool was that he never gloated or did it in a superior way even though I knew I wasn’t much of a challenge at all.  Surprisingly, Tig was the only Lost Boy who could give Nibbler a run for his money and he’d won more than a few games, but hated to play because he said it took too long and he didn’t like that he couldn’t change the rules.  Why he didn’t feel he could change those rules when he changed the rules for every other game on earth remained a mystery.

“You did better this time.  I didn’t expect that move you did with your knight at all.”

“Neither did I.  I probably wouldn’t have done that if I hadn’t sneezed when I was moving it.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself.  You probably knew what you were doing only you didn’t know so you could tell.  It happens to me all the time.”  Somehow I doubted that, but thought it was nice of him to say so.  “Another game?”

“Naw.  I probably shouldn’t suffer multiple defeats in under a half hour,” I said with a grin.  I thought back to the pondering I’d been doing earlier.  “I have a question for ya concerning the next adventure.”

Nibbler had put all the chess pieces on the board and was in the act of putting it behind him.  That done, he turned to me and started chewing on a carrot.  “Which would be?” he asked spraying me with carrot specs in the process.

“I know that you don’t know about the next adventure and all that,” he nodded, “but I was wondering about pirates.  What happens to them?”

“Why would I know about those?”  His tone was more curious than accusatory.

“I dunno.  I don’t want to know where they end up but I was just sort of curious to know if I had to worry about pirate ghosts.”

Nibbler gave me a fond smile that looked as though it belonged to someone a lot older than a kid of 14.  “Don’t you have enough stuff to worry about, Furball?  Why add ‘pirate ghosts’ to that list?”

“I’m not really adding it since I worry about everything.  It’s more like subtracting something from it.”

“Have you ever seen a pirate ghost?”

“No,” I admitted hesitantly, knowing where he was going with this.  “But I’ve never seen a firebird but have seen that huge burned area in the North Wood.  I’ve never died before either but worry about where I’m going to end up at on the next adventure.”

The look Nibbler gave me was skeptical.  “You don’t mean the ol’ heaven and hell thing, do you?”

“Kinda.  I know I’m nowhere near the best thing and probably more towards the bottom of that whole heap.  What if my next adventure ends up being somewhere very hot?”

Nibbler sighed.  “I don’t believe in all that stuff.  I really don’t think you gotta put that on your list to worry about and if it’s already on there, throw it away.”

“Really?  So what’s the whole ‘next adventure’ thing all about?”

“Just because you’re going on a next adventure doesn’t mean it’s the one that’s been force-fed to you.  I know there’s a next adventure and it’s probably one without pirates or others who get their thrills tormenting you, but I’m pretty sure it’s not the one that all the grown-ups would have you believe.”

“So you don’t believe in, umm, God?”  Religion was something I gave absolutely very little thought about most of the time.  I believed in God, most of the other Lost Boys did too to one degree or another even though according to most references we’d be on the express lane to the area below ground since we also had a great deal of faith in pixie dust, Pan, magic, and a lot of other unauthorized things.  The elves had their own religion, along with the dwarves, trolls and even unicorns.  We didn’t fight about it, there was too many other things to get maimed over.  I’d also never heard a pirate talk about his abiding belief in anything either.

Nibbler’s face took on a sad and serious cast.  “Why would I?  That whole thing made my life a cesspit.  If it hadn’t been for Peter…”  That was a mantra that every Lost Boy carried with him.  I knew what would have happened to me if it hadn’t been for him.  I didn’t say anything, but gazed at the small fire snapping silently away.  It had gotten dark and the crickets were in full voice.  A herd of fireflies were busy playing in the branches of the oak tree and everything gave off a feeling of well-being and safety, at least as safe as a place could be that you shared with things that occasionally tried to rend you to bits.

“When I was in the ‘real’ world I didn’t have a mother and father like most people do.  I mean I had them, but we lived in this place with a bunch of other people.  They called it the Spiritual House of the Rod and the Crown.  It was sort of like a commune but without the fun stuff.  I don’t remember a whole lot when I was young.  I had a couple of friends

when I was real young, but they vanished, probably ‘cause their folks wised up and left.  Anyway, like I said, I don’t remember a whole bunch about the early part so it couldn’t have been too bad or too good.  It was after they moved that things got freaky.  We went from this place that I guess was in a large town or a small city, I don’t even remember the name of it, to this place in the middle of nowhere.  Someone had this great idea that we should grow our own wheat and make bread like it would be more natural and get us back to nature and because it sounded biblical somehow.”  While he’d been talking, he had pulled some grass out of the ground and had started twisting it into different figures.  So far he had a group of five people he’d made.

“That must have been quite a change,” I ventured softly.

“Not so much as you’d think.  Even in the city we didn’t get out much.  If we left the house we might be influenced by the devil.  Same if we watched tv or talked on the phone, or had friends who didn’t believe in the things the House did.  All I ended up noticing was that instead of hearing traffic noises I heard nothing at all except for a bunch of insects.”   He stopped talking and finished up the last person he’d been making out of twisted grass before starting on building a miniature hut from twigs.  “So there we all are, like twenty or thirty adults and kids living in this huge house that’s falling apart.  There weren’t enough room for everyone, of course, so most of us kids end up in this barn that’s falling apart even faster than the house.  One of the girls ended up falling through the floor of the loft and killing herself.  ‘God’s will’ all the adults kept saying and even some of the kids.  It wasn’t their fault that they hadn’t made sure things were cool, it was all God’s fault.  No, not fault, but reason or design or something else to make you feel better about things because there’s no way it could be your fault no matter how stupid you were.”  His hands were shaking and he accidentally knocked over the wall he was working on.  He sighed and started rebuilding it.

“So things went along as dumb as usual.  No one knew how to plant, plow or anything else and nothing ever got planted there.  Some of the men and women went to some city nearby to get work or something and sent back whatever so everyone could survive.  I guess the rest were on welfare or something like that.  Every now and then some government looking woman would show up to look things over.  The week before that we had to clean everything up and all this other junk.  I don’t think anyone else ever knew about the girl that died, they just had us bury a big hole in the middle of one of the fields and put her in there and cover her back up.  She looked so tiny and lonely in the middle of that huge hole and they wouldn’t let us put anything in there with her.  He just told us that was the way it was going to be because it was supposed to be that way.  I always wonder if she ever blames me for not putting something in with her to keep her company.”

“She doesn’t blame you, Nibbler.  I know she doesn’t.  She knows the type person you are and what you do for us Lost Boys and that you don’t let anyone ever go by themselves when they start the next adventure.  You couldn’t do anything about it then, they wouldn’t let you.  Don’t you dare beat yourself up over anything that you couldn’t do nothing about.”  I said that last with a lot of heat because I knew what that was like.  I didn’t have any problem handling it, but it wasn’t fair that anyone else would have to.

Nibbler looked at me, surprise showing.  I don’t think he’d ever heard me raise my voice before, at least not when it didn’t involve having icy water dumped down my back or having a bee’s nest thrown at me (a totally different story).  “How do you know what she thinks, Furball?”  The hopeful tone behind it was unmistakable.

“Because if she didn’t know then you wouldn’t be doing what you do and there wouldn’t be no Lost Boys and… and… there sure wouldn’t be things like that,” I said, pointing up into the tree where the fireflies were playing.

Nibbler looked at where I was pointing and nodded after watching the ballet for a bit.  “You could be right.  It doesn’t make any kind of sense, but then a lot of what you say doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense to begin with.  You’re one crazy dude sometimes.”

“Um… thanks?”  I wasn’t entirely certain what to make of Nibbler’s words, but the tone sounded good so I figured it was a compliment.  The wall had been rebuilt and a roof added to the hut, and now Nibbler was working on a tiny fence.

“So anyway, that was bad but it gets worse.  I used to cut up a lot.  What else was I supposed to do?  Then we started spending most of the morning studying this crazy weird Bible stuff and most of the afternoon trying to plow a field.  I figure you know how much luck we had with that.  I used to get beat a lot because I’d be horsing around instead of doing something that wasn’t possible to begin with.  The other kids’d laugh but before I let them get in trouble I’d do something dumb to make him look at me and beat me instead.  I got a pretty thick hide, so the beatings didn’t bother me all that much.  It was the questions that did me in.”

“What sort of questions?” I asked after a couple of minutes of silence.

“Questions about God.  Like if he were so powerful how come Nellie died?  Why was there crime and hate?”  He must have caught my look in the firelight.  “Oh, just ‘cause we weren’t allowed out didn’t mean we didn’t know some of the stuff that was going on in the outside world.  He seemed to get some sort of joy in letting us know how bad things could be outside and how honored we should consider ourselves that they tolerated us enough to protect us.  It was a regular lovefest.  Then I’d mention stuff about how some of the stuff they told us didn’t seem to make a lot of sense.  That went over real big.  I dunno why I kept bringing it up, but it was like I had to.  Maybe that was His plan for me,” he added with a sardonic grin. “For about a month after they start this new program of teaching us, I’m still asking questions that I shouldn’t be and still cutting up as well just to make sure the others get a laugh. You can’t believe how grim that place was. There was only one purpose far as they were concerned and it weren’t to have fun. My own folks, if you could still call them that, pretty much disowned me. Not that it was unusual for that to happen for a long shot. He was in charge of us and the parents didn’t care one way or the other that I saw. You might see a kid with his folks every now and then but it wasn’t usual for it to happen.

“So one night I’m asleep and he comes in and yanks me out of the hay I’m sleeping in.  None of the other kids say a word, and I’m glad they didn’t.  He drags me out of the barn and tells me that my questions show I’m an unbeliever and that I obviously need reeducation.  Seriously, that’s the word he used, ‘reeducation’.  He strips me to my skivvies and then throws me into this blockhouse looking thing.  It’s got a cement floor and walls that are more solid than anything else on the whole place.  So keep in mind it’s October and on the plains it gets cold as hell even then at night but still can swelter during the day.  He tells me to think about my faults and my beliefs and when I’ve repented, I will be allowed to return to the society.”

I knew the chess game had taken mere minutes and it didn’t seem like it had taken very long for Nibbler to relate his tale up to this point, but it was full dark outside and one of the few nights in which there was no moon rising anywhere.  The fireflies had gone home and the only sound I heard was the occasional hooting of an owl and a few members of Ember’s pack talking to one another.  Nibbler looked up at me, his eyes reflecting a sort of orange-gold from the fire that showed no sign of going out, and continued.

“I can be sort of stubborn sometimes,” he allowed with a small grin, “and I was determined that I wasn’t going to let anyone get the best of me for something that I hadn’t done.  Heck, I kind of believed that I’d be watched over by a certain deity since there was no way I thought He’d allow this to happen.  Yeah, sure.  I spent two days on a freezing, undressed concrete slab in a windowless blockhouse with a roof that had holes in it.  I kept thinking about what happened to Nellie and if I was going to end up in some hole in the ground like she did.  That bugged me more than anything because I knew it’d mean I’d be alone forever and ever if I ever had that happen.”  He stopped building the fence and stared at me full on.  “What about that, is she scared to death because she’s all alone?”

“Course not.  If she were, she wouldn’t know about how you help us.  Since she does, then it just proves she ain’t there any more.”

He pondered on that for a moment and then nodded and continued on the fence.  “Anywho, after the second day of burning and freezing and having nothing to eat but moldy bread and muddy water, something he said was part of scripture for ‘realignment’ although I don’t remember ever reading nothing like that, I decided I’d had enough.  It took me most of a day and a night, but after a bunch of scratching and punching and stuff I found a weak spot in one of the walls, nothing more than a lose board, really.  It took a lot of pounding before I managed to get it out.”

“Weren’t you scared that they’d hear you?”

“Nope, remember I told ya ‘bout that woman that used to show up?  This was far enough away from everything that she wouldn’t find it I reckon.  Plus I didn’t do any of the real pounding ‘til it was late at night.  They never came out after the coyotes started yelping at night.  So I finally got the board out and managed to squeeze through it, sort of like the way that I hear you manage to get out through your trapdoor.”  I figured I was going to have to talk to Tig about spreading that story around; it was bad enough that the rest of the guys knew it.  He didn’t have to tell the Island about it.  “So I’m all scraped up and bleeding and I realize that I’m standing in the middle of a plains night with it freezing and the wind blowing in my underwear.  Do you have any clue how hard it is to wrap up in wheat?  Especially wheat that don’t exist?”  I shook my head no.  “I thought about trying to sneak back in the barn, but didn’t figure I’d get too far doing that.  So I decided the only way to keep warm was to run.  I started off across the field, having no clue where I was headed for, but knowing only that I would be headed away.  Almost worked too.”

“What happened?”  I couldn’t help it, I had to ask even though we weren’t supposed to.

“After I’d run across that field and a couple of others, I saw some light so I headed towards it.  Turned out to be another farmhouse.  Probably the only farmhouse in the world that didn’t have a clothesline outside that had clothes hanging from it.  I stood in back of the house not sure what to do since there weren’t any lights on.  I was sol cold I couldn’t stop shivering and the way the sky looked, it was going to dump a whole bunch of rain or something worse pretty soon.  I tried to get in the barn, but it was locked up tight.  I finally decided to pound on the backdoor figuring anything was better than freezing to death.  After a few minutes the door opens and this guy is standing there with a shotgun pointing at me.”  Nibbler gave a tiny grin.  “Reckon I’d have done the same thing if I’d been in his shoes.”  The grin vanished almost instantly.  “He heard me out and lowered the gun and brought me inside.  They gave me a blanket to wear and some cereal and then the guy looks at me sort of sad and tells me that he’s sorry as he can be but he gotta take me back.  I tried to get away, but some other guy grabs my arm and well, long and short of it is they take me back.  Never did find out why either, that bugs me almost as much as everything else.”

“When I got back, he beat me so bad I could barely stand.  They put me in the basement of the farmhouse for a few hours and then he took me back to the blockhouse.  Only this time they have these chains or whatever bolted into the wall with these manacles attached to them.  Not exactly sure where that’s listed in the Bible either, but it was ‘necessary’ according to him.  I couldn’t reform and stronger steps were needed.  Yeah, right.  I got pretty loopy for awhile, he still only gave me stale or moldy bread and muddy water to drink, and I kept thinking someone was watching over me and was going to help me. Didn’t happen, though. After a couple days I decided that I wasn’t ever going to be protected, saved, looked after, or anything else. There was only one thing I could figure out to do and that was end it all. Everything. The shackles were bolted up towards the roof, I guess they figured that would keep me from miraculously unscrewing the chains from the wall or something. Since they were so high up, there was a lot of excess chain and so I started wrapping it around my neck. I knew it would take long for me to go somewhere else. I was scared to death about ending up in a hole by myself with never anyone else to ever talk to again but even that didn’t seem important by that time.”

I sat there listening to Nibbler. My eyes were leaking like they always do but it didn’t bother me near as much as it normally does. Even though these things had happened who knows how long ago, I wanted to strike out and do something to make things right because in Nibbler’s case they had been so wrong. We’d all been wronged, but this was a new level of horror that I hadn’t even been able to imagine.

“That’s when Peter showed up. I still don’t know how he got into the blockhouse. Maybe he didn’t, I don’t know. All I knew was he asked if I wanted to escape and I said yes. There ain’t a whole lot to tell after that.” He populated the homestead he’d made with the twisted grass people, spreading them among the hut and outbuildings and fences he’d created. “Faith, trust and pixie dust is what saved me, but it wasn’t faith and trust in what the ‘real’ world was offering, it was what Pan offered. He ain’t got no halo on his head, but he’s the most angelic thing I ever run across in my life.” He flashed a quick grin, “You don’t necessarily need to let him know I said that, either. He thought I was crazy, cuz I wouldn’t let him take me anywhere ’til he took me to a payphone and I called the state mounties and told them about that place. Don’t know if it did any good or not, I sure wasn’t going to stick around to find out, but I figured it gave them a chance.” He swept the little homestead he’d made away with his hand.

“So I got here and figured as messed up as most of the ones who end up here are, that the last thing they need to do is go onto the next adventure by themselves and the rest is history… or current affairs I guess.” He stopped and looked a little confused for a moment. “I don’t know why I told you that story, Furball. It’s one that really don’t need telling at all and half the time I don’t even remember it, least that’s what I tell myself.” The confused look became puzzled. “What was it you asked me anyway?” I thought about it and then shrugged. I couldn’t remember either, but it didn’t seem important whatever it was.

“I’m tired, Cubby,” he said with a huge yawn.

“So lie down and go to sleep. I’ll keep watch.” I sliced the air with the wooden sword and put a mock expression of fierceness on my face. I’m sure neither one fooled him at all

“That would be groovy, Cub. I think I’d like that a lot. If any of them wander by,” he said pointing towards the field, “just tell ‘em everything’s okay. They’ll understand.” He curled up to the base of the tree and within a few minutes I heard the sound of his regular breathing. I stood watch for the rest of the night and wasn’t even scared when I was joined by a bunch of less substantial watchers.


Troll Raid 7-The Ending

I lay there and actually thought about it for several minutes, trying to remember what had happened.  I gently shook my head, afraid that if I did it too hard, the headache would come back.  “No fun,” I said quietly thinking about Ursa and whatever had been in my head.  “Is Ursa okay?”

Her smile didn’t diminish a bit, which was a good sign.  “Back,” she declared, got to her feet as though she were a gymnast, and skipped out the flap of the tent.  The sight of seeing a troll skipping was one that would always be strange to me, but I was glad they did.  It made things better, somehow.  I closed my eyes and tried to make sense of the bits and pieces I remembered from the river.  I must have fallen asleep once more because when I opened my eyes again, it was Odin who was sitting next to the pallet.  She gave me one of those wise, smirking looks that I had gotten used to from trolls.

“Back awake from there?”

“I guess,” I said.

“Paining?”

“My side stings a little, but that’s it.”  I didn’t feel the need to check things out yet, but it felt as though Roo had done some messing with my injuries.  I suddenly wanted to start bawling.  Not because of what had happened to me, or even Ursa, but because of the stuff Roo went through.  Neverland was the best place anywhere, even with the pirates, but it was just as unfair as a lot of other places were.  “Ursa?”

“Small bear do good. Happy-sad but not before like same.  Make feeling worth and see that forgiven happens, littermate safe not lone.”

My mind spun as I tried to get it around what Odin said, but after a couple of false starts I thought I understood what she was saying.  “That other voice, the one in my mind…?”

“Death closing, thing mixed up easy when mind looking for escape.  Self talk outside, do same in.  Happen?  Matter you?”

I closed my eyes again, as I wondered how the heck she had found out that I talked to myself.  I was pretty sure I hadn’t been doing that in the troll camp, but remembering stuff wasn’t my strong point.  As she said, it didn’t matter all that much as long as Ursa felt better about things.  “What about you guys?  I mean, I lost the flag and now…”  I wondered if coming close to drowning caused everyone to suddenly stop completing sentences.

“Like that lot why?”

“Huh?”

“Fault you for bad, not good.  Think what when happen?  Bad thought self even true not?”

“Forty-seven,” I said, nodding wisely.  I was too tired to try and untangle what she’d said but figured I could play with it later when I couldn’t sleep one night.

She looked at me and did her own wise nod.  “Mix.  Gone flag lost us so out tossed.  Bad not happen.  Tribe of you become.  Pirate fight maybe but not fuzzy like same.”  It wasn’t quite as hard to unknot the fact that having lost the ‘game’ by not capturing the flag, they had been declared misfits and were now on their own.  It sounded as though they were going to become sort of like us Lost Boys, but without the animal pelts.  I was sure tat they wouldn’t have any problem but I still thought it was another version of ‘unfair’.  “Sleep eat.”  So I did.

A week later, we went home.  It took that long for me to be able to walk on my own and not have to listen to Stumble complain about the possibility of having to carry me.  To be fair, he said the same about Tigger who’d ended up with a concussion during the last battle.  He and his twin went through Tig’s decisions about a zillion times and Leo finally told him he couldn’t have done any better.  Tig’s grin was so bright that it threatened to drown out the sun.  I was still trying to figure Ursa out.  I never told him about the voice that may or may not have been sharing my skull with me while I was trying to breathe water, but did thank him for saving me.  Predictably, he didn’t take any credit for it, but something had changed within him.  He wasn’t as hesitant about things like he had been and was a lot more laid back than he had been.  He still built his old house in the sand, but nearly as frequently as he had been and he let the waves take it now instead of destroying it himself.  I hoped it was a good sign.  The tiny bit of pixie dust remaining went to the trolls who supposedly took up with some of the Punk Unicorns in the North Wood.  I hope at least one of them is still skipping.


Troll Raid 6

I looked at the troll laying there on the ground with her eyes closed.  Her skin was a sickly gray and there was blood all over the place but she was still breathing.  “Fix her, Cubby,” Ursa demanded as he came to stand next to me.  “You need to do something.”

“But don’t…” I started to ask if the trolls didn’t have their own healers.  I was scared enough when Roo had me work on one of the boys.  The thought of working on a troll and doing something wrong terrified me.

“No healer for thing like this and not here if did,” Odin said, apparently figuring out what I was going to say.  “Not way thing happen if done.”

I looked down at the troll.  Her eyes were still closed but she’d started to whimper very softly.  My eye fell upon the ribbon that was still wrapped up in her hair and I dropped to my knees next to her.  I rolled the sleeve of my pelt down and started wiping the blood away with my arm.  The pelt arm became crimson almost instantly but wiping the blood away revealed that things might not be as bad as they originally looked.  Tig ran up with my backpack and I was able to dig through it to use something other than my arm to finish wiping the blood up.  There was a ragged cut running down here side from which most of the blood had come from.  I stared at it, watching it ooze blood, and froze once again.  “You can do it, Roo says you’re one of the best,” Tig said as he gave me a light shake.

Looking at Odin, I asked if it would violate some sort of taboo and she shook her head.  “If can do, grateful.”

Mentioning Roo’s name had brought everything together.  I started asking for stuff and Ursa, Tig and Odin brought me stuff.  I did what I could before sitting back on my heels and sighing.  “That’s the best I can do,” I said to no one in particular.  I’d had to stitch up the cut but had ended up having to use a needle that was for sail work rather than skin stitching.  I’d had a couple of regular needles with me, but they just wouldn’t work.  The sail needle had done the job, but in a very ugly way.  Ursa had ended up taking the ribbon out of her hair and dismantling it to threads that were heavy enough to hold.

“She wake up?” Odin asked, examining my handiwork carefully.

“I hope so.  I just don’t know.  I think everything should be okay.”  She was still breathing and all her wounds had been closed or bandaged.  Somewhere along the way she had gotten a huge lump on the back of her head, but there wasn’t anything I could do about it except keep my paws crossed that her skull was as thick as mine.

“How come that vermin hit her after she crossed the marker?” Tig yelled.  “She got past it.  She was supposed to be safe.”

Odin didn’t quite shrug.  “Not happen to hit after pass but do occur,” she said darkly.

“So who do we complain to?”  Tig seemed a little surprised that there wasn’t already a delegation getting ready to head to whoever oversaw this ‘game’ we were playing.

Odin looked confused.  “To complain?  No.  If happen, happen.  Deal with self way to go from cub.”

“But it’s not fair,” Tig wailed.  “How can they be allowed to do that?  If the marker means they can’t hit on the other side, why do they?”

Odin stood there as if trying to figure out how to answer Tigger.  It wasn’t because she was slow or didn’t understand what he was asking, I think it was because she didn’t understand the concept of complaining to someone else about what had happened.  I don’t know if anyone was watching what was going on or if the other team would be punished for what they had done, but it was apparent no one else would interfere.  “They know not right,” she finally answered.  “Pack gets hurt for it beyond maybe but risk take if do what not right.”  It was obvious she wasn’t happy, but she accepted what had happened as something that did occur.

Tig looked as though he wanted to yell, protest or take his club and destroy something.  It was seldom that I’d seen such a furious expression on his face.  He stood there practically quivering in indignation before he calmed himself.  A slow smile formed on his face that was almost as bad as the fury that he’d shown just a moment ago.  “Okay, if that’s the way they want to play, I’m sure I can come up with something they’ll have fun with.”

No one was paying any attention to me, so I stood up and wandered a little way into the woods.  When I figured I was far enough away, I threw up behind a tree and then moved over to another one, sat down and shed a few tears.  I wouldn’t say it was actually crying, but the circumstances behind what had happened along with the glimpse of the ribbon in the troll’s hair had affected me a little.

There was a rustling of leaves and brush and I looked up, wiping my eyes, to see Odin approaching.  “It is okay?” she asked me.

“I dunno,” I said, sounding a bit frustrated.  “She should be, but there won’t be any way to tell ‘til she wakes up.”  If she wakes up, I silently added to myself.

“Droista, no.  You be right?”

I looked down at the ground.  I wasn’t, but there wasn’t anything that could really be done about it.  I could say how unfair things were, but saying it wouldn’t change anything.  “I’m okay.”

She sat down right next to me.  “Think no okay.  Believable worry things today and past and next.”  I had to puzzle through that one for a moment before shaking my head.  She patted my leg with her hand.  “Not other sad.  Worry over all.”

“It’s just that she, and you, shouldn’t have to worry about stuff like that.  I mean it’s bad enough worrying about pirates gutting us Lost Boys.  I’d hate to think that I’d have to worry one day about Leo and Tig trying to kill me cuz that’s how they were supposed to move forward or something.  You should be playing tag or follow the leader or something like that.”  I scrubbed furiously at my eyes that were threatening to overflow.

Odin shrugged her massive shoulders and grinned at me.  “Thing different for different ones.  We play but not long.  Not even you play ever after even if stay young.  Right?”  I had to admit there were a lot of times that we did stuff that was totally opposite of playing, but it still bothered me a lot.  “You do lot stuff from here,” she said as she pointed to her chest.  “Too we do but also know stuff be hard and follow as well.  You stay way, survive good, help them.  Everything work way supposed to.  Promise.”  She patted my leg again before getting up as gracefully as Ursa does and starting to walk away again.  She paused, turned back and said, “If talk, let know,” before continuing on.

It wasn’t too long that I sat there before Ursa and Tig came to find me.  They both were aware of what normally happened to me after I did first aid stuff involving a lot of blood or fighting pirates.  I let them know I was okay and that nothing unusual was going on, but Ursa kept giving me weird looks.  Not like he was upset or something, but like he was trying to figure something out.  They led me back to the camp where everyone was discussing what had happened.  I was pleased to see that the troll who’d been flattened was walking around as though nothing had happened, although I felt a little guilty that I had bailed before she woke up.  When she caught sight of me, she grinned as she skipped (yes she was skipping) over to me and caught me up in a huge hug that caused my ribs to creak and my face to get very warm.

“You fix,” she declared as she released me.  “Thank!”  I told her that she was more than welcome while trying not to get too choked up about it.  It seemed like everything was causing that lately.  She gave me another rib-crushing hug before going off to rejoin the group she had been with.

“You did good, Furball,” Tig told me.  “I have a feeling things may be different between us and trolls from now on for a whole lot of reasons.”  I shrugged since I would have helped regardless, but was still pleased to catch praise from Tigger.  I liked the trolls, so I was hoping his words turned out to be true.  Sometimes Peter could be sort of strange about such things, though.  I figured it would probably be worth a shooting star wish to help things along.

For the next three days we tried various strategies of Tigger to attempt to capture the ‘flag’ of the other team.  There wasn’t a whole lot he could do, because Odin demanded strict adherence to the troll’s tradition, even though the other team wasn’t coming close according to her.  Most of the trolls had bumps, scrapes and cuts.  I’d had to stitch up Tig’s arm twice, was pretty sure that Ursa had a cracked rib or two, and I was limping.  All of us were covered in bruises of various shades of yellow, green and blue. 

Tig had gone halfway across the bridge and met Leo once and let him know what was going on.  They weren’t doing much on the other side, but apparently had had several rousing games of tag with the wolves while they waited for us to be finished.  Tig was in a jolly mood when he came back, so it appeared he’d received his twin’s approval for what he’d been doing so far.

Living with the trolls was pretty interesting too.  Tig learned a bunch of new games that he was able to bend, trample, and reconstruct the rules for.  Odin told us a lot about some of their customs and beliefs as well as their history that she remembered.  Trolls were fearsome, but mainly just wanted to be left alone to do their thing.  The few times that trolls and Lost Boys had clashed in the past were considered more of a game to the trolls than it had to us.  I’d finally gotten up enough nerve to join the troll pile at night and found it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it’d be.  I even managed to forget blueberries for a few minutes while eating the trolls’ waybread.  It was also pretty cool not eating stew every single day.

It was obvious on the final day of the trial that Odin and Tigger had decided to pull out all the stops.  The previous day we hadn’t made an attempt on the ‘flag’ but instead spent it sort of licking our wounds.  My leg hadn’t gotten any worse, but it wasn’t any better either and I wouldn’t be doing any galloping anytime soon.  Tigger looked as though he’d been run through a drum with a bunch of rocks.  Ursa had a black eye and I’d ended up putting some stitches in his foot, of all places.  Fortunately it was on the top of it so it didn’t affect his movement much.  The trolls were in even worse shape.  There wasn’t one who didn’t have a ton of bruises, scrapes, cuts, and tears.  I’d had to remove three fingers from one of them and had been having nightmares about it every night since then.

The final day was cloudy and rainy causing the path that led to the other camp to become a sheet of mud.  Ursa and I were talking about nothing in particular when Tig and Odin came up.  “There’s a new plan,” Tigger declared, squatting next to where we were sitting.  Odin remained standing and kept looking around as if she thought someone might be spying on us or something.  “We’re going to blow the trombone in a few minutes.”  Odin grunted at Tig’s word for the horn but remained silent on the subject of disrespect.  She’d dressed him down before with no result.  “After we sound it, we’re going to wait here for a few turnings of the glass.  Everyone except you two and Belrhonda.  You’re going to go through the woods and approach the enemy and then wait.  The rest of us are going to go up the path after awhile and meet the enemy head on.”

“Then what happens?” Ursa asked.

“The other trolls should end up meeting us about halfway towards their camp.  We’re going to feint into the woods so they’ll think we’re trying to get around them and follow.  We’ll lead them far enough off the trail that you three will be able to drag the ‘flag’ back to our camp.  It shouldn’t be too bad since it’ll slide in the mud and both of you are the strongest of us, so once you get it moving, it should be okay.”  He held out a harness that looked as though it was equal parts hide, rope, and some other unidentifiable materials.  “This will help you drag it.  Easy, right?”

“Sure,” I declared.  “Easy as pie, but not blueberry.  More like peach.”  I shook out the harness.  There was what I assumed were straps for Ursa and me to put over our shoulders and around our middles.  Those straps merged into a large circle made of straps that must go over the ‘flag’.  Yeah, real easy.  I collapsed it and stuffed it in my backpack.

Tig looked at me as thought I’d lost my mind.  I seemed to get that look a lot.

“What the heck is that supposed to mean?”

“Blueberry pie is a lot easier than peach pie.  You just pour the blueberries in and it’s done.  With peach pie you gotta peel them and then get rid of that thing in the middle and cut them up.  Apple pie is even harder because the skin isn’t fuzzy so you can’t get a grip on it.  I thought everyone knew that.”

“Only a furball like you,” he said, grinning and giving me a punch in the arm.  It landed on a bruise and I winced.

Odin turned towards Ursa, her face even more serious than normal.  “Chore for you to keep small bear undamaged even over all.  Make sure not broken.”

“Hey, I can take care of myself,” I said, a little upset that this person I respected thought I needed a babysitter.  She completely ignored me as if I hadn’t said a word.

“Most task important happen you do.  Belrhonda do some help as you order but your task main.”

Ursa looked as though he wanted to say something and I knew he was remembering the last time someone had given him such a chore.  It sounds like a cliché to say his expression was ‘haunted’, but that’s the only way to really describe it.  He shook his head, looked down at his feet and mumbled something that I couldn’t make out.  I opened my mouth to say something and it was Tig who stopped me.

“Don’t even think it, Furball.  There’s a reason for everything that’s going to happen today,” he looked at Odin, “or so I’m told.  Ursa will be in charge and you follow everything he tells you.  Okay?”

I nodded, a sullen expression on my face.  I didn’t care that Ursa was in charge.  Heck, I sure didn’t want me to be in charge.  I was more concerned about this task he’d been given.  I jumped as the horn sounded behind us, signaling our start to attempt to grab the ‘flag’ once more.

“You’re up,” Tig said.  “All you’ll need is your clubs and the harness so you won’t have to take anything else.  Be as stealthy as possible,” I’m sure he was looking at me when he said that, “and good luck.  We’ll do everything we can to throw them off your trail.”

Ursa and I grabbed our clubs and I put my backpack on and we started into the woods.  We were joined by Belrhonda who turned out to be the troll I’d stitched up on the first day.  She grinned at seeing me, gave me a crushing hug and demanded, “Fun, yes?”  She didn’t seem to expect an answer as we started to make our way through the woods.  I pondered on the plan that Tig had come up with.  It was wonderfully simple, but at the same time I couldn’t help but wonder if it was too simple.  Trolls were definitely creatures of habit and the other team was way overconfident, but did that mean that they wouldn’t leave anyone to guard the ‘flag’ when they took off down the trail towards our opposing force?  I asked Ursa about it and from what he’d gathered from his conversations with Ursa and the trolls’ ways he thought there was a good chance no one would be there when we arrived.

“Ya know, you don’t have to take care of me?” I hesitantly mentioned as we bulled our way through the woods.  We were far enough from the trail that we couldn’t see it and it was obvious no one had wandered to the other camp off the trail this way before.  We’d had to backtrack a few times and all of us had added a few scratches to our collection.  I wondered if I’d have to replace the bear pelt by the time this whole thing was done.  It was looking decidedly ragged even by my standards.

Ursa looked at me and I took a step back, tripping over a fallen log, at his expression.  A piece of the harness dug into my back through the backpack.  “You think that would be perfect, don’t you?”  The gentleness in his voice was at complete odds with the furious expression on his face.  “You just wave your arms and say ‘don’t worry about anything’ and that’s going to make everything okay no matter what happens.  Is that it?”  He was standing over me and I wondered if I could learn the ability to sink into the ground in a few seconds.  Belrhonda was looking at both of us frowning, but didn’t do anything else.  Trolls didn’t get involved in discussions between other trolls unless it was a pack issue, which this clearly wasn’t.

“I didn’t mean that at all, Ursa.  It’s just that I don’t want…” My words came to a dead stop.  What I wanted to say was that I didn’t want to bring back old memories or have him beat himself over the head if something happened to me that he couldn’t do anything about.  I also knew there was no way I could say anything like that.  “What I mean is that you’re always looking out for me.  You have since you got here.  I just meant that ya don’t gotta do anything special.  We’ll take care of each other just like all of us do.”

“It’s not that easy,” Ursa said.  His words were still soft and his expression angry, but not the fury of before.  I tried to figure out what I could do or say to try and make things better but was interrupted by a growling roar from somewhere in the woods.

Belrhonda looked into the woods, away from the direction of the river.  “Fast go now. Lemur pay not attention to troll, devour small bear whole.”

The change of expression on Ursa’s face was so sudden and confused that I came close to bursting out laughing.  “Lemurs?” he asked me.

“Don’t ask me.  Maybe it doesn’t translate the way it should.”  The growling roar came from the woods again and Ursa helped me up to my feet.

“We need to talk about this later.  It’s not going to go away.”  He brushed the leaves off my backpack as I wondered what wasn’t going to go away.  He was a lot more confident since we’d begun this whole thing than he had been before, but he was also angrier and sadder seeming.  I wondered if the trade-off was worth it or if I was concerned for reasons that had to do with him and not with me.  My head started to hurt a little.

Whatever a lemur on this part of the Island was, it didn’t show itself and we didn’t hear anymore sounds from it.  We pressed on and after forever reached the outskirts of the other team’s camp.  “There’s no one around,” Ursa whispered.  All three of us stood there waiting for something that didn’t occur.  The ‘flag’ was in the middle of a bunch of tent looking things, just sitting there.  The sides of the tents were raised, so it was easy to see nothing was hidden in them.  There wasn’t anything else in the camp big enough to hide a troll.

“Do ya think it’s a trap?” I whispered back.  We both turned to look at Belrhonda.  She sniffed the air and looked around again.  The woods came around the camp, but with the exception of the trail and a smaller path by the river, it didn’t look like anything had forced their way through the trees and brush surrounding the place.

“May yes, may no,” Belrhonda said after a few more checks.  “Not usual but happen once.”  This time it was Ursa who got stared at.

He looked at us, back to the camp, and back at us again.  “You cover us,” he told Belrhonda.  “We’ll get the thing hooked up and started moving.  You watch to see if anything comes out and give a yell.  Stay hidden for now and come out after we get moving.  Belrhonda nodded and watched as we emerged, our clubs in the ‘guard position’ if such a thing existed.

The ‘flag’ was a major disappointment for something that people had died over.  It was about up to my chest, vaguely triangular in shape and looked like a zillion other smaller boulders I’d seen in my life, both in the ‘real’ world and on the Island.  I dropped the pack off my back and grabbed the harness out of it.  It fit the ‘flag’ as if it had been tailored to it.  I gave Ursa one set of pulling straps and I took the other.  Ursa’s was snug.  I felt like I was being cut in two, mine was so tight.  I swore for the millionth time that I’d cut down on blueberries, waybread, even stew.  Ursa glanced over at me and grinned.  That made me inordinately happy.  He counted to three and we struggled to move.  Nothing happened.  Belrhonda came out of the woods, continuing to look everywhere, and joined us.  We tried again with the troll pushing and moved the ‘flag’ a few inches.

“Hang on a second,” I said.  “Move back towards the rock with me,” I told Ursa as I started towards it.  There wasn’t enough give in the harness that I’d have been able to get all the way back to the rock without moving Ursa, and that wasn’t going to happen.  He complied and I rummaged through my pelt pocket looking for leftover pixie dust.  I pulled together about a thimbleful and dumped it on top of the ‘flag’.

“Aw, c’mon Cub.  Do you think it’s going to have happy thoughts and take off through the air or something?”

I shrugged as I moved back into position.  “I dunno.  If I were a rock, I’d probably have happy thoughts that no one was trying to gut me.  It’s worth a shot.”  Ursa grinned again and took up the slack on his side.  With Belrhonda pulling, we began to move the rock.  I don’t know if it was the pixie dust or just the thought of it, but the rock slid easier.  It wasn’t ‘flying’ type easier, but it didn’t feel like we were pulling all its weight this time.  We were able to move forward at a steady walk.  We tried running, but that seemed to cause it to bog down and make it both harder to pull and slower, so we resigned ourselves to the walking pace.

You can only be scared to death of things for so long, especially when pulling a rock.  I started to get bored by the time we were out of sight of the camp and was stupidly letting my mind begin to wander; trying to figure out what to do about Ursa, about the time I figured we were almost halfway between the two camps.  There wasn’t any yelling or screaming or any other warning.  In an instant three trolls I’d never seen before came rushing from the woods.  Two were wielding clubs that were about as big around as a small tree trunk.  The third was slashing with a sword.  It wasn’t a wooden one either.

Naturally the two wooden club wielding trolls went after Belrhonda and Ursa.  I’m not sure why they thought I was the one who needed subduing with a sword, but he was racing towards me at full speed.  I managed to grab my club and got it up just in time to block a swing that would have probably taken my arm off if it’d connected.  The block threw him, or possibly her, off balance and I glanced around to see how the others were faring.  Ursa had managed to slip out of his half of the harness and was doing well defensively and offensively with his troll.  Belrhonda ‘unzipped’ the latest ribbon from her hair and used it to trip her troll with it before jumping on top of him and swinging with her club.  It looked as though she was using her teeth too.  The troll I was facing made two more lightning-fast swings towards my throat and my thighs with the sword, both of which I managed to block, the last one barely.  I noted as I blocked the second time that the sword made a weird sort of buzzing sound as the troll swung it.  He swung again and my left arm went numb as I held the club in both hands to block it.  It was only sheer luck that I was able to hold the club with my right hand

I tried to get out of the harness while blocking the blows, but it was too tight and spending the time to get out of it would mean I’d lose a body part or two.  I blocked another mighty swing towards my head and ended up holding two pieces of wood that suddenly seemed extremely small.  The troll grinned at me and spat on the front of my pelt.  I was panting and he wasn’t even winded.  I threw one of the pieces of wood at him and it bounced off his snout not appearing to do any harm to him.  The grin grew wider and he swung at my side as I tried to back away from him as much as possible.

I was trying to move to the side as much as I could, but being tethered to the ‘flag’ didn’t help any.  As I was scrabbling backwards, my paw hit the piece of club that had bounced off the troll’s face, and I stumbled backwards.  The sword swing still caught the harness, my pelt, my arm and my side, but instead of being a killing swing, it was only a severe one.  I didn’t appreciate the difference at the time, I guess.  I was still pulling backwards when the harness was cut and I went heels-over-head backwards.  I saw a bunch of red that I was pretty sure was coming from me before I tumbled over the river bank and into the river.

Normally when you put me in a body of water, I float.  It’s just the way it is.  This time, though, I started sinking towards the bottom.  My left arm didn’t hurt but I couldn’t move it either.  My left side, on the other hand, felt as though it was on fire.  With the pelt as soaked as it was, I knew there was no way I was going to get back to the surface.  The thought saddened me, but didn’t terrify me for some reason.  I wondered if anyone would miss me.  I felt my heart pounding as I continued holding my breath.  There was no sound at all, which I thought was really strange, but didn’t care enough to wonder why.  I hit the bottom of the river and sat there, my useless arm hanging by my side.  A few moments later a huge object gently dropped next to me that I recognized as the flag.  I wondered what was going on up there, but again didn’t really care that much.  I began seeing spots of darkness in the water and decided it was probably time to breathe water since the next adventure was beginning to look better and better than a prolonged contest to see how long I could hold my breath.  It might also help the killer headache I seemed to have developed since I fell into the river.

*Please don’t do that.  He’ll be along in just a very short time,* a voice said in my head.  It could have been me talking to myself except it was a very young voice.

“Who are you?” I asked aloud, forgetting that probably wasn’t a good idea and watching bubbles float in front of me towards the surface.

*I’m Bubba’s brother.  He needs my help and I need his.*

*Bubba?  Ursa?*

*Yes!  That’s what I call him.  This will help but make sure he’s okay, okay?*

I should have replied, but I wasn’t thinking real well and the thoughts that usually careen through the caverns of my mind seemed more interested in going to sleep.  I wanted to join them until something grabbed my hair and started yanking upwards.  That was mildly interesting to me and I remember waving goodbye to the ‘flag’ as it vanished from view.

Whoever it was pulling my hair managed to get my head above water.  They let go of my hair and grabbed my pelt to tow me to shore.  For a moment I panicked because I couldn’t remember how to breathe.  Nothing happened when I tried to inhale.  I vaguely wondered if trolls could give mouth-to-mouth with their tusks in the way.  Before I got too far with that thought, I coughed and starting breathing again.  Ursa, and somehow I knew it was going to be him, carefully dragged me up on the riverbank making sure my injured arm and side didn’t connect with the gravel.  Ursa’s face was worried and grave, expressions that I knew didn’t belong on it.  Very carefully I told him, “I’m not thirsty anymore.”  I also noticed the headache was gone.  Everything went black after that.

I opened my eyes and saw a roof above me.  It wasn’t so much a roof as the top of a tent, which was strange since we didn’t use tents and I don’t think the trolls did either.  I looked around and saw Belrhonda sitting next to me.  She saw my eyes open, grinned, and said, “Fun, no?”