Andrew whirled and looked up at Jack, John, and Charles, standing in the golden sunlight, smiling at him. Well, John and Jack were smiling. Charles was frowning as usual.
Jack lifted a cloth from a basket filled with bread as Granny approached the table. "Not waiting for our guests?" she asked.
"If I wait for them," Jack replied, "Neither the 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 embraced each of the men in greeting. She whispered something to Charles and to Andrew's surprise, he smiled.
Jack looked up from spreading butter on his bread to see a lithe figure with a head of golden hair step from the house.
"Silke!" Jack shouted. She returned his smiles, flashing impossibly white teeth, and danced lightly across the lawn, 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?" Charles said, standing at Andrew's elbow. 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," Jack grinned.
"Don't mind ," 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," Granny said, appraising Andrew.
Jack nodded. "He doesn't look like much, does he? But neither did Tollers when he was given the job."
"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 Jack sent me to rescue you."
Andrew sat, feeling uncomfortable. "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," John said, filling his plate with bacon and eggs. "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,"John said.
"But we're getting off the matter at hand John," Jack 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," John said, his face a grim mask of determination. "Would someone pass the blackberries please?"