When they stopped that night, Summer was more than ready. There was a blister on the back of her heel, and when she took her shoe off, it was one of the big squashy ones. She poked it with her finger and it turned bright white, then red.
“Ow,” she mumbled.
The valet-birds flittered around her, trying to bandage it up with napkins, but there was only so much they could do.
It was getting late. The sky was turning purple. The valet-birds hopped about gathering sticks, but Glorious yawned. “Don’t bother,” he told them.
He sat back on his haunches, threw his head back, and howled.
Summer let out a squeak and jumped a little. She can be forgiven for this, because the howl of a real wolf sitting right next to you is shockingly loud and shockingly strange. It starts deep and works its way up to a high pure note, and it shivers along your spine and down your arms and makes your fingers tremble.
The sound seemed to say to Summer that the world was divided into predators and prey, and Summer herself was most definitely prey.
But it was also very beautiful. It made her heart ache with its wildness and its sorrow and she loved Glorious for being exactly what he was.
The howl lasted for a long time. Even after it died away, Summer thought that she could still hear it, hanging in the air around them like smoke.
The first star came out and balanced on the point of a pine tree.
“That’s that, then,” said Glorious. He yawned again and laid down on his side. “Don’t be alarmed,” he added, as an afterthought. “It doesn’t hurt—” and then he turned into a house.
From Summer’s perspective, it looked as if Glorious just…unrolled. There weren’t any unpleasant inside-out bits. (She had been rather nervous that it would involve guts and bones and things.) He simply unrolled as if he had been a carpet, into a wooden floor. Planks slid under Summer’s feet as politely as bedroom slippers. Walls shot up around them, formed a ceiling, and then, in less time than it takes to tell it, she and Reginald and the valet-birds and the weasel were standing inside a neat little cottage with a roaring fire in the fireplace and white curtains blowing in the evening breeze.
“Well!” said Reginald, turning around several times. “Well! You don’t see that every day, indeed you don’t! If you’d told me about it, I’d say you were trying to sell me a bag of moonshine.”
Summer turned around in place, her mouth open. The door and the cupboards were painted blue, and the stones of the fireplace were the color of wolf-fur. The trim around the windows was painted the pale green of Glorious’s eyes.
It was not a very big cottage. There was one large room with the fireplace and a low table, and the roof peaked overhead. There was one small room with a bed in it and a pink comforter the color of a wolf’s tongue. The rafters were carved with running wolves and the chairs had cut-out pawprints on their backs.
“Oh, Glorious!” said Summer. “This is lovely!” She wanted to hug the wolf, but it is rather hard to hug a house, so she ran a hand over the back of the chairs. “Oh, how wonderful!”
They went outside to admire the cottage, and Summer’s heart turned over and gave a funny little squeeze.
The outside of the front door was painted turquoise.
She stared at it for a little while and didn’t think at all, and then finally she thought: So that’s all right, then. I am on the right path. And I was meant to meet Glorious and help free him from the cage. It’s all right.
It is a great relief, when one has thrown away normal life in search of their heart’s desire, to know that one is doing it right and isn’t going to get yelled at for going the wrong way.
It was a very pleasant evening. They toasted cheese and bread in the fireplace and Summer slept in the bed while Reginald perched on a chair back.
She thought that if she did have to go home—and probably she would eventually—she would do everything possible not to forget this.
“Do you think it’s safe?” she asked. “When he wakes up, we won’t all be—be squished up inside him somehow, will we?”
“Shouldn’t think so,” said Reginald. “He’d have said something, surely.”
And indeed, when Summer woke up in the morning, after a long and luxurious sleep—for there is nothing better than a real bed when you have been sleeping on sand and tree roots—she was very warm and not at all squished, and curled up with her head pillowed on Glorious’s side.
The wolf grinned lazily at her as she sat up.
“You are a very nice house,” said Summer shyly.
“Indeed,” said Glorious. “But I am a much better wolf.”
He rose and stretched from nose to tailtip. “Start on without me. I shall catch up to you when I have eaten—small brother, would you care to join me?”
The weasel hopped out of Summer’s pocket and swarmed up one of the wolf’s legs. “Very much so,” he said.
They loped off into the woods. Summer watched them go, feeling a little left out.
“Thank goodness,” said Reginald. “He’s a marvelous chap and very sound in the architecture, but I was dreading having to feed him. He could eat us both up in two bites and probably have room for a bit of trifle afterwards.”
“Will they come back?” asked Summer.
“Once they’ve eaten,” said Reginald firmly. “And we should do the same.”
They did indeed come back, licking their lips. Summer would have been more bothered by that, but her blister was much worse this morning and she was limping badly and biting her lip.
She wanted to cry, but it is very hard to cry when you are travelling with a wolf. There is something about them that is so much larger and braver that you feel determined to try and look large and brave as well, even if you are rather small.
Glorious trotted along beside her for perhaps ten minutes, then sank down into a crouch.
“Up on my back, “he said. “There is no running on torn paws, and we will make better time without it.”
“Are you sure?” asked Summer. “I mean—um—you’re a wolf—”
“And you a human,” said Glorious, “and that is a weasel and that fluttering fellow dancing up ahead is a hoopoe. But here we all are nonetheless. A slow rabbit is a dead rabbit, Summer-cub.”
Summer rubbed her suddenly sweaty hands on her jeans and put a leg over the wolf’s back.
It was not like riding a horse. Summer had never actually ridden a horse, it must be said, but she had read every book in the library about girls and horses and all the Black Stallion books, even the ones toward the end that got very strange and had aliens in them. Riding a wolf was not anything like those books.
For one thing, wolves are not nearly so broad as horses, even very large ones, and for another their bones are arranged differently, and there is nothing that resembles reins. (There is no real reason you couldn’t put a halter on a wolf, provided you don’t mind ending with fewer fingers than when you started.) Summer sank her hands into Glorious’s mane. She could feel his ribcage expand as he breathed.
He stood up, shook himself a little, and moved into a quick trot and from there into a ground-eating lope. It rattled Summer’s bones until she got into the rhythm of it and flattened herself down across his back.
I’m riding a wolf. I’ve never ridden anything scarier than the carousel and now I’m riding a real wolf.
Overhead Reginald, who had been holding his speed down in deference to his companions, let out a whoop and went across the sky like a streak of lightning in a tastefully pinstriped waistcoat.
Such a pace cannot be kept forever, of course. Soon enough, Glorious slowed to a trot, with his tongue hanging out, and Reginald landed and strolled alongside them, hopping to low branches and practicing the occasional dance-step.
Meanwhile, Summer was doing her best to engage Glorious in conversation. She loved the way she could feel his voice rumbling down in his chest when he spoke.
“But how did you come to be a were-house, anyway?” she asked.
“Indeed!” said Reginald. “Were you bitten by a hinge or cursed by a hearth-witch?”
“Oh, that.” Glorious stretched hugely and yawned, showing a vast pink gullet. “I went down to the stream where the houses drink, and drank there under the full moon. You could probably do so without taking harm, but wolves are prone to metamorphic instability, and so what with one thing and another…” He shrugged. “It’s not so bad. Houses aren’t hungry, and most of the necessary business of life can be accomplished during the day.”
“I didn’t know houses had to drink,” said Summer.
“They get thirsty on the long migrations,” said Glorious.
“It’s a magnificent sight from overhead,” added Reginald. “A hundred houses in a herd, stampeding across the savannah, the big bulls slashing at each other with their rain-gutters…”
Summer was very suspicious that they were making fun of her, but then she thought of Baba Yaga’s house, walking about on enormous bird feet. Perhaps the house had come from this world initially.
“Are all houses wild here?” she asked. “Do people ever build them?”
“Oh, well,” said Reginald. “You can build them. It’s a bit shabby, but of course there isn’t always a well-grown warehouse—begging your pardon, Glorious—about when you need a place to store the potatoes.” He flitted his wings. “And the big manor houses are almost all gone, from overhunting. You can only get them from house-herders now, and they’re never as good as the wild ones.”
He took to the air and did a brief pirouette, then landed before Summer and walked backwards. “You’ll see, when we get to Almondgrove. The old family seat there is a real manor, one of the big wild ones. Fifty point cornices! My great-great-great-great-hatchfather hunted it across the—”
Without any warning, without so much as a sound, Glorious leapt off the path and into the woods.
Summer had let go of his mane with one hand to scratch her nose, and nearly fell off. She threw herself forward, clinging with her legs and managed to get a grip just as Glorious vaulted over a fallen log. Her stomach lurched and she nearly fell off.
“Eh?” said Reginald. “What’s—”
Then he too stopped and lifted his head. The valet-birds twittered and murmured, dropping the pack and flying up into the trees.
Glorious turned, nose-over-tail, like a dog lying down, and curled himself into a fern-encrusted hollow at the base of a tree. Only the very top of his head poked out, watching the road through a screen of branches.
With a clank and a jangle and the thudding of hooves, a group of riders came around the bend in the road.