"I see the lost pup has risen," said a voice as deep as the one that had just sung out over the valley.
Andrew turned to face Pierre in the full sunlight. Towering up over the table, the man cast a long shadow. Andrew could make out a broad, bearded face etched with age-lines drawn up in a smile. Dark hair streaked with silver and grey fell about is broad and powerful shoulders, over which an axe rested. Andrew doubted he could lift it with both hands, but Pierre was putting it down effortlessly with one. He nodded at Andrew, went to the water barrell and washed his hands, then stopped, cupped his hands, and sang out a reply Heigh Ho! , then strode to the table and sat down.
"I am Pierre," he said, clasping both hands together and holding them against his head. "Namaste," he said.
"You're a Buddhist?" Andrew blurted.
"I respect the teachings," Pierre replied. "And living in this valley teaches one humility. Serving the Tree even more so. 'Namaste' means that I recognize the divinity I share in common with you."
"Right," Andrew said, recalling his World Religions class. "Namaste," he said in reply. It beat the hell out of saying a simple good morning.
Pierre lifted a cloth from a basket filled with bread as Granny approached the table. "Not waiting for your brothers?" she asked.
"If I wait for them," Pierre replied, "Neither this pup nor I will get anything to eat." He winked at Andrew.
"The pup's name is Andrew," Granny said with only a light scolding and kissed Pierre on the cheek.
"Your brothers are coming?" Andrew said, wanting desperately to make some sort of conversation. He had felt like an outsider with the Leprechauns, and then again in the company of Silke, and still yet this morning with Granny and Pierre, despite the warm open manner both had about them.
Pierre nodded, a piece of buttered bread in his mouth. He chewed and swallowed, then said, "That was them singing out a moment ago. My reply let them know the valley is safe and secure."
Andrew couldn't imagine this valley being anything but. "You mean they aren't dwarves?" Andrew asked.
Pierre laughed. "Do I look like a dwarf to you? What gave you the impression we were dwarves?"
"Well," Andrew said, feeling the blood rush to his cheeks. "You sang the "Heigh-ho" song...from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves."
"The Disney movie," Pierre said. "He got the song from us, when he stayed here on his way through the Tree."
"Walt Disney travelled the Tree?" Andrew gaped.
"A man with that much magic in his work," Pierre said, "almost always travels the Tree. At any rate, he heard that song from my brothers and I. Asked us if he could use it in a film. We told him the same thing our forefathers told the Grimm Brothers. The story had to be about seven dwarves, not seven giants, or else we'd never get any peace and quiet; every treasure seeker from your realm who could travel the Tree would come looking for our 'diamond mine'. But we're not miners. We're woodsmen."
"Some of us are!" called another deep voice from across the meadow. "Others just sit around stealing kisses from pretty ladies!"
Andrew turned to see a group of tall men approaching, massive bows slung across their shoulders, quivers at their sides, and variations of Pierre's double-bladed axe in hand. They put down their weapons near the doorway to the house and began washing up. While they were still splashing neck, face and hands with the cold barrel water, a lithe figure topped with golden hair stepped from the house.
"Silke!" the men shouted. She returned their smiles and bear hugs, laughing and acting in a manner that made Andrew doubt this was the same girl who had killed Coll so easily the night before. She was dressed in a light shift that covered her to mid-thigh; her bare legs shone golden in the sunlight.
"She is a vision, isn't she?" Pierre said. Andrew suddenly realized he was unabashedly staring at Silke and turned his head down to study the food on his plate. "Apparently not as beautiful as bacon and eggs," Pierre grinned, rising to greet his brothers.
"Don't mind Pierre," Granny said. "He enjoys having fun with our guests. And it's been a long time since we've had anyone here near Silke's age."
"What are you two talking about?" Silke said, coming up to the table and sitting down beside Andrew. Andrew felt the blood rise to his cheeks and ears again. "I could have sworn I heard my name."
"I was just telling Andrew here how long it's been since we had anyone near your age here in the valley," Granny said.
Andrew mustered his courage to get back into the conversation. "I thought you said you were part of an order...are none of them your age?" he asked.
Silke's face grew dark, her smile vanishing suddenly. Andrew looked over at Granny, a look of confusion on his face. Granny gave Andrew a sympathetic look.
"I'm the last of the Rotkäppchen," Silke said.
"I'm sorry," Andrew said.
"You couldn't have known,' Silke said, getting her composure back. She looked up at Andrew and gave him a smile.
"So this is the newest guardian of the Tree," one of Pierre's brothers said as he sat down at the table. Pierre and the other brothers sat down; one of them appraised Andrew and said, "He doesn't look like much."
"I think you've got the wrong guy," Andrew said. "I'm not the guardian of the Tree."
"Yes you are," Silke said. "That's why it sent me to rescue you."
Andrew sat, silent. "Growing the Tree was an accident. I didn't mean for it to happen."
"Perhaps the Tree did," Granny said.
"And technically speaking, you didn't grow the Tree," one of the brothers said. His hair had more silver in it than Pierre's, and instead of a beard he wore long mustaches. "The Tree exists outside the worlds. It was here before the worlds were made, and as each was spoken into existence, it became like a piece of fruit upon the Tree."
Andrew nodded, "The Garden of Forking Paths. But what is the Tree in my coffee shop?"
"A manifestation of the Tree within a world always appears as a full tree itself. Or a bush. Or a huge beanstalk," the silver-mustached brother said.
"But we're getting off the matter at hand Jean," Pierre said. "It isn't really accurate to say you're the Guardian of the Tree Andrew. It might be better to say you are a Guardian of the Tree. Each manifestation of the Tree requires a Guardian. It's almost always the person who plants the seeds for the Tree's avatar."
"That's what Granny is in this world," Silke said. "And it's what you are in your world."
"And it's why you're going to help us stop the Redcoats, before they start a fire that could burn the whole tree to ashes," Jean said, his face a grim mask of determined fury. "Would someone pass the blackberries please?"