“What are you thinking?” asked Summer, when they had walked what seemed like a long way. They had already stopped for lunch, and Summer was tired and feeling groggy. Reginald was in the air and the weasel was asleep in her pocket.
“My own thoughts,” said Glorious.
He said nothing more, and Summer felt a squirming unease in her stomach. Why wouldn’t he tell her? Was he thinking something bad? Was he thinking of leaving them? She wasn’t sure why he was staying anyway, and if they kept finding things like the giant turtle and the rotted wheat—if that was the path she was going down—maybe he would want to leave. Who would want to see more things like that?
She closed her fists in his mane and stared down at them.
He flicked an ear back at her. “You’re wound tight as a hare’s hind leg, Summer-cub.”
“Why won’t you tell me?” she whispered, although by now she didn’t want to know.
He snorted. “Because what I think is of no concern to anyone but me, unless I choose to tell them. And my thoughts are not ready yet to be shared, so I will not share them. Is that all?”
Put that way, she felt foolish. She thought of her mother saying, “Fine. Don’t tell your mother what you’re thinking,” and felt the edge of some emotion so vast and complicated that she did not know what to call it.
“The thoughts of others are dangerous,” said Glorious. “But it is not a danger that we can protect ourselves from.” He shook himself, but cautiously, so that she did not fall off. “Be at ease. A friend will not think unkindly of you, and an unfriend will not tell you the truth of their thoughts, so what purpose is there to worry?”
“It’s not as easy as that,” said Summer sadly. “I can’t stop myself from worrying.”
“You’re human,” said Glorious. “Humans hoard up their fears as if the world might run out.” He huffed a laugh. “Still, you build cities with them—and towers and artworks and families and faiths. It seems to work for your people, even if it would not work for mine.”
“I wish I was a wolf,” said Summer.
“That is a very sensible wish,” said Glorious. “But even Baba Yaga cannot grant you that. So you will simply have to be a brave human.”
Reginald landed on the causeway before them. “Turn off at the end of the causeway,” he said. He waved a wing at the line of trees that had appeared on the horizon. “The Forester holds all the woods on the left side.” Glorious nodded.
Summer was glad to leave the fens. There was something about their emptiness that made her feel empty, too.
If I had more fears, like Glorious says, maybe I’d want to feel empty. Maybe it would be easier.
She wondered what her mother would think of the fens. Probably that the mud was dirty and full of broken glass and you’d cut yourself and get tetanus. She sighed. Her mother’s fears were too vast for a mere landscape to heal.
The trees on this side of the marshes were not like the pine forest on the other side. The trunks were spaced like pillars in a cathedral. The leaves rustled in every breath of wind, so that it was like walking through a constant murmuring wshhhht wshhhht. Great thickets of blackberries tangled around some of the trees, throwing up whips higher than Summer’s head.
They went a little way into the woods and Reginald stopped them. “Here,” he said, pointing to an opening in the trees that looked just the same as every other opening in the trees.
“How can you tell?” asked the weasel.
Reginald laughed. “No fear,” he said. “I can’t, and probably neither can anyone else. But if we go into the woods, the Forester’s birds will pick us up, and then there’ll be a guide.”
“A guide for birds,” said the weasel, but did not protest as Glorious padded off the road and into the forest.
Summer was fairly sure that the weasel wasn’t really bothered, and was just snipping at Reginald on general principle. She petted his tiny furry back. He grumbled.
It was not more than half an hour before the valet-flock set up a startled twittering. Glorious halted.
Summer looked around to see what had upset the birds. She couldn’t see anything at first, and then suddenly she did see it, and wondered how she’d missed it before.
An owl sat on a low branch, directly in front of them. It was the biggest owl that Summer had ever seen. Its chest was as big around as hers was. It had mottled brown feathers and two enormous ear-tufts.
There was a thin gold chain wrapped around its left foot. The talons, where they gripped the branch, were as long as Summer’s fingers.
“Settle down, you lot,” said Reginald to the valet-flock. “He’s the Forester’s bird. He won’t eat you.”
“It wouldn’t take him two bites if he did,” breathed the weasel, pressing up against Summer’s leg.
The valet-flock settled, but it was clear that they didn’t like it.
The owl tilted its head sideways, which would have been comical if it were not so gigantic.
“Hello…?” said Summer carefully. Did the owl talk? She didn’t want to hurt its feelings by asking.
Apparently it did not talk, or it chose not to. It spread its wings instead and launched itself off the branch, passing so close to Summer’s head that she could feel a wash of air from its wings.
“Don’t mind them,” said Reginald, as she ducked. “Not a talkative bunch. He’ll lead us right in a trice, though.”
“I thought owls didn’t like the daytime,” said Summer, as Glorious followed the owl.
“They don’t,” said Reginald cheerfully. “But they know their duty, and if we go blundering around at night—with a cottage in tow, begging your pardon, Glorious—we won’t get far, will we?”
Glorious grinned briefly. “If we do not reach your Forester by nightfall, you may have to.”
“No, no,” said Reginald. “Once we’ve got an owl leading us, won’t be half a heartbeat. You’ll see.”
Summer wished she felt as confident as the hoopoe. The owl landed on a branch a hundred feet away and waited. It did not look patient or impatient. It did not look like anything but a truly enormous owl.
As long as it doesn’t look hungry…
The owl watched them approach. The valet-flock swirled, and then landed, all at once, on Summer’s shoulders and head.
They startled a laugh from Summer. The owl turned to look at her. Its eyes were vast and golden and looked nearly as large as her palm.
The weasel muttered something unkind as the valet flock twittered, but Summer noticed that he stayed close against her knee, where the owl might not see him.
When they had passed underneath the branch, the owl flew again. This time it landed on a small hummock on the ground and turned its head to watch them.
Glorious paced past it, close enough that Summer could have reached out her hands and touched the owl’s feathers. She knotted them in the wolf’s mane and did nothing of the sort.
On the ground, the owl seemed even larger. The weasel lay flat as a rag and the valet-flock did not even peep. Summer could feel their tiny claws prickling in her hair.
If it jumped for me, it could knock me off with one wing.
The owl did not fly after them. Instead, Glorious pricked up his ears and went forward.
Reginald flew from tree to tree ahead, and at long last, Summer’s human ears picked up the sound as well—hoo-hoo-koo-hu-yu?
She peered around, and saw a smaller owl, feathers striped with black, in a tree off to the left.
“It’s over there,” she said quietly.
Glorious nodded. “Humans have better eyes,” he rumbled. “Owls don’t smell very strong themselves, though their leavings stink to heaven. There’s at least two more.”
Summer craned her neck. The valet-birds on her head adjusted their grip.
The big owl was still on the ground behind them. Summer picked out another, much smaller owl in the crook of a branch, then another, then another.
The woods were full of owls. All of them wore golden chains on their claws. Sometimes one would hoot, but mostly they stared in silence.
It was more than little bit creepy.
Glorious paused and Reginald landed next to them.
“It is easy to follow one guide,” observed the wolf. “Harder to follow a hundred. Which way do we go to find this Forester?”
Soft laughter came from behind him. “You have already found her,” said the Forester, stepping into the open. “And I see that you have brought trouble with you.”