Willow, Oak, Lily and Larch came charging out of the hut and headed straight for the three strangers. Before the green-skinned invader had a chance to aim his weapon, Willow blew a great cloud of spores into his eyes. He screeched and rubbed them
furiously, while she darted behind him. The wolf-man made a beeline for Oak, apparently singling him out as an easy target. It had to be admitted, he was a little less prepared than his sister, but just as Larch was about to cry out, he looked behind and winked. He swung the heavy, leather bound book and gave his opponent an almighty whack on the back of the head. With a strange noise somewhere between a howl and a whimper, the wolf staggered backwards. Oak turned and took Lily’s arm, prodding her in the direction of the main hut. Larch gave her a nod and set off after the red-haired man.
“We have to lose them!” called out Willow. “Get them off your tail and meet us back where this all started.”
“Ok,” said Larch. A few minutes after Willow was out of range he realised that he didn’t actually know what she meant. The panic he’d been suppressing overcame him, and he stopped dead. Then he spotted Lily, looking terrified and clutching Cherry to her chest. Unfortunately, it seemed he was not the only one. The red-haired man burst seemingly out of thin air and lunged at them. Without thinking Larch ran forward and stuck out a foot. To his utter amazement, it worked: he tripped and fell headlong, giving Lily time to dart out of sight. The man spat onto the ground, furious at having his prey whipped from under his nose a second time. He sprang to his feet and turned on Larch. Larch was still frightened, but this time he was ready for the attack. He ran straight towards him, aiming to take another swipe at his legs. The two collided, tussling for a while on the floor.
“Granny and Grandad must be pretty mad at you little scrub,” the stranger sneered, aiming a scratch at Larch’s face. “Looks like you knocked up their little princess.” Larch gritted his teeth and refused to respond, so he continued. “And all just to serve me a meal! I hope she was worth it.”
“Shut up!” Larch couldn’t hold himself. “You have no right to talk about them that way, you filthy snake!” Tears sprang to his eyes, taking him off his guard. All of a sudden he felt himself be thrown against the roots of a tree with a vice grip around his throat.
“You do insist on getting in the way, don’t you?” the stranger smirked. He tightened his icy grip on Larch’s neck and leaned in close. “Pity, I never did care for salads.” Larch could feel his hot, menacing breath on his face even before he saw those fearsome fangs approaching his throat. He looked wildly around for help, but there was no one to be seen. He closed his eyes, prepared to die as alone as he had always felt. But all of a sudden –
“Get your hands off him this minute!” Before Larch could figure out whose voice that was, something appeared a few inches away from his face. A long, thin, wooden spike thrust through the stranger’s shoulder. He hissed in pain and shock, releasing Larch’s throat to snap off the offending insertion. Even as he did so, the remaining half began to beat him around the head and poke him in the eyes. In the confusion of it all Larch felt someone grab his arm and drag him into the nearby hut. Hearing the door slam and bolt, Larch’s head spun before he was brought sharply to his senses with a slap to the side of the head. He spun round. Reed stood there, panting. In his hands was the broken end of a fishing rod and on his face was a glare like burning coals.
“Larch Rose…” he said quietly. Larch screwed up his face and braced himself for a torrent of abuse. To his astonishment he felt the force not of furious words but of Reed running headlong towards him and burying his face in his chest.
“Oh, I’m so glad you’re alright!” Reed sobbed. “I was sure you were dead!”
“I think I am,” said Larch, his voice muffled by the hug. “This definitely can’t be
happening in real life.” He stood awkwardly for a moment, before finally softening. He patted Reed’s back gently. “I thought you’d be mad at me.”
“Mad? I’m absolutely seething!” Reed laughed through his snivelling. “You’ve somehow managed to bewitch my youngest daughter, produce a flesh-baby with her and bring the wrath of I-don’t-know-what down upon us! It’s a good job we love you, or it’d be me with my hands round your neck.” He straightened up, patted Larch’s shoulder and headed to the bed on the far side of the room.
“Love me?” said Larch. He was somewhat taken aback. Not only had he heard the last words he ever expected to hear from one of his family members, they had come out of the least likely mouth of the lot. A curious feeling began to bubble up in his stomach. He followed Reed over to the bed and was shocked by what he saw.
“Holly! You’re alive!” She was lying on the bed, her serious face tensed against the pain. A great gash had been cut down her leg, she had teeth marks on one arm and her clothes were bitten and tattered. Reed was binding her wounds with some bits of fishing tackle.
“Just about,” she grimaced. “Where’s Lily, is she alright?” Larch nodded. Holly heaved herself up and got shakily to her feet.
“We have to meet ‘back where it started’ apparently. But I don’t know where that is.” Holly and Reed looked at each other.
“The spring,” the said together, as if it was obvious.
“Come on Larch, we’re not that daft,” she said, noticing his jaw drop. “Enough dawdling, let’s go before the fancy one gets that stick out of his arm. The dog owes me some blood.”
Meanwhile Lily and Oak had just given the green-skinned man the slip. They were standing in the orchard, just behind the fruit trees. Both were panting, and Lily was crying.
“Good grass, I’m far too old for this,” Oak puffed, wiping his brow. “We need some technical know-how if we’re going to beat that one.” Lily sniffed and nodded, drying her cheeks on Cherry’s soft hair. Cherry gave a mewl of indignation, apparently more troubled by being used as a handkerchief than her own impending doom. Oak peered over his shoulder.
“Oak, I need to tell you something terrible…” Lily’s thoughts had returned to the first time she saw the green man.
“Is it about the green chap?”
“Then wait till we find Moss. That funny little lantern seems very much like a modern kind of thing – that’s more his area than mine,”
“Oak, Moss is… dead.” Lily whispered. Oak choked in shock. He shook his head, putting a
hand to his mouth. Lily recounted the scene that had greeted them before, with the debris melted by the mysterious weapon
“Dead…” breathed Oak, thinking of the cuddly little bundle of nerves he used read to sleep.
“Who’s dead?” said Moss. Lily and Oak jumped out of their skins. They looked up above them. High in the branches of a tree, clinging on for dear life, was Moss. His face looked bare without his glasses and there was a big burn smouldering on one side of his tunic. But he was unmistakably alive.
“H-hey, guys. It’s a-all k-kicking off now, isn’t it? D-do you th-think you could give m-m-me a hand, I’m a b-bit st-stuck.”
Eventually, all eight Roses reconvened at the spring. Willow looked worried, evidently having waited quite a while for everyone to arrive. Larch and Reed came last, hurriedly ushering the limping and cursing Holly through the trees.
“Moss!” exclaimed Larch.
“Holly!” gasped Lily. Both of them flew to their respective relations, Lily handing Cherry to Larch and flinging her arms around her sister. Larch stopped a little awkwardly in front of Moss.
“S-so. I g-guess I’m a g-grandfather th-then?” Moss nodded at the baby in his son’s arms.
He squinted at her for a while, unsure of how to respond to this new, alien addition to his family. Eventually he took a deep breath and made up his mind not to be scared. “H-hi cutie!” he said, gently poking Cherry’s soft tummy. He reached out as steady a hand as he could muster and put his arm around Larch’s shoulders. Then, Reed and Holly came over to examine their new granddaughter and niece. Eventually all the Roses were huddled together, with Larch at the centre holding his daughter proudly to his chest. The bubbly feeling was back again.
“Well,” said Willow quietly. “Ready to fight for the little rosebud?”
“Yeah,” said Larch, taking a deep breath and turning to face her. The others followed suit.
“Ok then. Oak, let’s see what we’re up against.”