Once Tonner customer service had confirmed to me that Original Tonner Bella's personality was a feature, not a bug, I realized that everything I knew about Bella Swans might be out the window. I would have to look to Tonner Bella herself, rather than the books, for my cues, and since she actually seemed to like things, it wasn't too hard to find something for her to do. Immediately, she seemed drawn to animals--and animals seemed drawn to her. Okay, I thought: let's go with it. If I walk in one day and she's all Snow Bella singing to the woodland creatures with a halo of songbirds, fine, as long as she's got something useful to do.
And that is how she ended up working at the Sparklerosa. By the end of a week Bella had acquired a specific job title, in fact, but we'll get to that later. I'm just telling you all this right now because otherwise, you'll have no idea why Bella would have been in a position to discover captives in the stable.
"Um, hi.'' I looked down to see Bella at my feet, beside my desk. "There's something you should probably take a look at. The little Edward says it's okay, but... well, you need to see this."
Honestly, I had felt like something was wrong all evening. It was the Fourth of July, which is a big holiday for the little asshole kids on my street, who set off bottle rockets in the street and throw firecrackers at passing cars all night. (Of course, that's how they celebrate everything, including but not limited to Halloween, New Year's, Memorial Day, Veterans' Day, Arbor Day...) And this is not even to speak of the giant fireworks display that you can see from our back windows. Which makes Shelby whine and cry and try to hide under my mother's bed, which is particularly sad given that she can only fit her head under there now. All I wanted to do was try to work. So I had my headphones on to block out the noise (rockets, firecrackers, dog whimpers, booming fireworks, asshole kids whooping and cackling), and thus, I didn't hear anything amiss. And yet... The Littlest Edward wanted to close my blinds, which was reasonable enough--
"The noise is upsetting the babies!"
On cue, a little herd of baby ponies threw back their heads and bawled.
But something just seemed... off... about the whole thing. But, to be fair, I could also hear Shelby whimpering from all the way downstairs (judging by the drift of sound, I guess she had wedged herself behind the sofa for a change), so--sure, okay. But it all just seemed so... deliberate?
So I was not entirely surprised when Tonner Bella came to get me--a little relieved, even, to think that I wasn't just imagining a weirdness in the air. This was confirmed when The Littlest Edward immediately looked the other way when I crossed the room. The ponies started milling about with feigned aimlessness like an equine sea between me and the stable. Clarice sidled over to the doors and let out a loudly casual baaaaa.
"Okay, WHAT is going on?"
That's when I realized there was someone inside, kicking against the walls with a muffled "MMMMGHMMMMHMMM!" I lifted up the roof, and there was Lyra, bound with half a dozen rubber bands, Pan tied to her shins. And let me tell you, the only thing sadder than finding a doll gagged with a wad of cotton ball is seeing a tiny matching wisp crammed into her little ferret daemon's mouth.
"It was for her own good!" cried The Littlest Edward. "They only wanted to keep her safe!"
The moment the gag was off Lyra, a furiously bereft cry rang out: "THEY WENT TO THE WAR WITHOUT ME!"
And there stood poor confused Bella. "What?"
"Uh... yeah. We have a blood feud going with the squirrels from behind the house. It's a long story."
Most of which you already know. Most recently, there had been skirmishes in the street at night--the Shelfians had been attacking the university raccoons, hoping the raccoons would get pissed at the squirrels, who had sold them foraging rights to our trash cans that they essentially could not make good on. But the Shelfians' efforts had not been successful: the squirrels had backed the raccoons up with bombardments of foreign acorns. I was no longer allowing Lyra to go outside at all--she was one of the squirrels' primary targets--and I instituted a curfew for the warriors as well. Once my parents (and therefore our dogs) went to bed for the night, no more battles were allowed, since it was our dogs' barking that was the small army's greatest asset in scaring their enemies away. Realizing this, however, my dolls had started going around the neighborhood waking up all the dogs. The situation was insupportable, and I had threatened to ground everyone with no hope of pie. In retrospect, obviously things were gong to come to a head--
Suddenly "they went off to war without me" sank in, and I realized that, outside the suburbs of Ponyville-on-Sparkleton, no one else was in the room, not even Galadriel and the Arwens. And then we all heard a low rumbling that was not fireworks. I jerked up the blinds and peered outside--and saw the afterglow of a pale blue fireball down in the woods.
It was only nine o'clock, so none of the Real Human Big People were in bed yet. I tried to sneak through, but in the den, my mother looked up from the end of the couch, where she was trying to coax Shelby out. "Where are you going?"
"I... just... I have to go down and reset the modem."
Once I was downstairs, I got myself a rake from the garage and went down into the weed-and-sapling-choked gully behind the house, which was pretty much at the bottom of things I wanted to do in the in the woods, at night, in the dark. I immediately ended up in the line of fire with three of Legolas's toothpick arrows in my hair. A hundred squirrels scattered.
"Okay, I am gonna ask you one time, and the answer better be no: is that tree on FIRE?"
"Absolutely not," said Faramir Two. "The Lady Galadriel is simply burning the squirrels' entire cache of ammunition."
"I WAS UNDER THE IMPRESSION THAT 'BURNING' INVOLVED 'FIRE.' "
"Not if it's elven fire," he replied.
I gave them all a cautious side-eye.
Further down the gully, on the other end of our house's foundation, there in fact stood Galadriel, keeping the blue-white blaze within a pleasantly controlled diameter. A future debriefing would reveal that Legolas's double agent Skippy had used his vague resemblance to an actual squirrel to discover where the enemy was keeping their munitions: a dead, hollow--but still standing--pine. The two Arwens were at work on a secondary cache in a fallen oak; while I was peering into the darkness, White Arwen calmly raised her hand and blasted a squirrel creeping through the dusky underbrush. Of course the munitions tree was always guarded, so it had required a serious battle to get anywhere near close enough to it. This is why the Shelfian warriors had brought the elves of Lorien and Rivendell--and why they had needed the cover of fireworks.
Galadriel and the Arwens finished their luminous work, but everyone continued to stand around in the afterglow that hung low over the roots and fallen branches like blue foxfire, as if they were waiting for something. In the trees, the squirrels were chittering bitterly, and if you looked very closely, you could see a gray plushie--dedicated to maintaining his cover--shaking his little clenched fist along with all the others. An unshakeable rebel hurled one last acorn at my dolls, and it hit Elizabeth in the tricorn, resulting in a general re-aiming of bows and unsheathing of swords. Reader, I confess that I brandished my rake in the darkness, and may have even demanded if they Wanted Some of This. And then I realized I was threatening a squirrel in the middle of the night and began to reevaluate my life choices.
As the glow faded and my eyes refocused in the dark, I started counting heads. Everyone seemed smug enough about the victory, so I was running on the assumption that no one had fallen in battle. "Okay, so where are the Aragorns this time?"
Eowyn looked at Faramir One, and Faramir One looked at Faramir Two. Faramir Two opened his mouth and shut it again. Elizabeth adjusted her hat and looked away. Then I heard the rattling, which caught my attention in part because it sounded a great deal like the noise that had come from the toy stable I had just left.
You know those big plastic flower pots, the black ones they put tree saplings in? The Aragorns were sitting on top of one, smoking placidly. On the ground, Anna--I had forgotten to look for Anna, since she hadn't been at the Battle of Beagle Yard--was poking the narrow end of her trident through a crack in the plastic, much the way a tamer might jab towards a lion.
"Yeah, THAT'S RIGHT. You sit your stripy ass down and WAIT."
The flower pot shuddered. Fug looked away from his pipe long enough to give it a sharp heel kick.
"What the hell?"
"This," Anna said proudly, "is our hostage."
I reached up under my glasses to rub the inside corners of my eyes. "Seriously, what the hell."
Before I could start in on questions I desperately did not want to have to ask, the underbrush rustled anew, and two small figures appeared. One of them was carrying a lunch-sized paper bag; the other was waving a white rag on a stick, which, I realized as they came closer, was a--forcibly misplaced, shall we say--pair of underpants.
"S'up, buddy," said Legolas. Apparently Dude is the universal tongue, because the raccoon with the sack started chucking at him angrily. "Look, man, don't get started with me. You take up with the wrong side, these things happen. Maybe think twice next time the chitterchats call for reinforcements, you know? I'm just sayin'."
The first raccoon kicked the sack towards our side.
"Whoa! Don't bruise the leaf." Legolas opened the paper bag, stuck his head in, and examined what I was beginning to realize was the ransom. "Excellent. He's free to go, guys."
The Aragorns jumped down off the flower pot and drew their swords, as did everyone else on our side (again) (some more), not sure what would happen--the pot was knocked back and a profoundly disgruntled third raccoon emerged. Things got ugly for a moment--he took a swipe at Anna and started hissing, but then I was in there with the rake shoving him back over to the enemy side like a puck across a shuffleboard; he scampered around behind his cronies and made faces at me over their shoulders.
"YEAH? I GOT PLENTY MORE WHERE THAT CAME FROM--"
"Okay, everybody, it's cool, all right? It's cool. See you guys around--"
The former hostage spit out a stream of pissy clicking sounds and gave Legolas the paw.
"Oh, like you're gonna turn down a lembas trade. See you at Christmas."
Of course Lyra sulked all night and all the rest of the next day as well, but the rest of the gang returned home in triumph to feast on cookies and mead. Faramir Two--always the most far-sighted--was somber, however.
"I think that will neutralize the enemy for the rest of the summer," he told me, but his eyes were pensive; he looked out the window into the warm, settling gloom of the summer evening. "They have no weaponry now, of course. But... the oaks of the university will turn red again. There will always be more acorns. The nuts of war will never cease."
Next week: another jump forward to the Shelfiest Time of the Year.
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