The Forester was the largest woman that Summer had ever seen—not just tall, but enormously broad across the shoulders, with heavy hips and breasts and thighs like tree trunks. For a moment, Summer wondered if she was a regular human at all, or some kind of giantess.
Her skin was the color of fallen oak leaves, and her black hair lay tightly curled against her scalp. She walked toward them, and her footsteps were as silent as the wings of the owls.
“Reginald,” she said, sounding amused. She held out her arm, and Reginald flew to it. Even though he was much larger than any normal bird, the Forester’s wrist did not tremble under his weight.
“Ma’am,” said the hoopoe, dipping his wings. “Begging your pardon for troubling you, but I happened on this chit of a human dragging a destiny along behind her, all about trees and Baba Yaga and of course I thought, ‘Who’d know about trees? The Forester, that’s who,’ and so here we are.”
“Indeed,” said the Forester. “And did you happen on the wolf and the weasel as well?”
“Eh?” Reginald glanced over at them. “Oh, right. The weaselly chap came along with Summer here, and we helped Glorious here out of a tight spot.”
“And we will be in another tight spot in a moment, if I do not get clear of these trees,” said Glorious dryly. “Forester, is there a clear place where I may transform? It is nearly sunset.”
“Do you wish to transform?” asked the Forester.
“Wishes have little to do with it. I have no choice in the matter.” Summer felt his skin ripple and she slid hurriedly off him. The valet-birds swirled and landed along her arms. The weasel climbed into her pocket.
Glorious shivered again and looked around for an opening in the trees.
The Forester stepped forward and laid her hand on Glorious’s skull.
“Be at peace,” she said.
The wolf inhaled sharply.
After a moment, he said, “You have stopped the change. I thank you, Forester.”
“Not permanently,” said the Forester. “But I know what it is to be in a body where you do not
belong. In the bounds of my power, you need not fear the change.”
The Forester tossed her arm in the air, launching Reginald. He flapped down beside Summer, settling his neckcloth. “Told you she was amazing,” he whispered. “She’ll fix us right up.”
Dusk spread out from under the trees. Glorious’s fur shone like a star.
The Forester knelt down and cupped her hands together. Warm golden light flared up between her fingers.
When she took her hands away, there was a tiny animal curled up in the leaves. It had quills like a porcupine, and every quill burned like a candle-flame.
“Phoenix Hedgehog,” said the weasel. “You don’t see many of those any more.”
The hedgehog stretched and yawned. The light grew brighter.
The Forester patted a log next to her. “Come and sit, child. Tell me about your journey, and start a little before the beginning, because we are usually wrong about where things begin.”
Summer sat down. The hedgehog fire was as warm as a real fire, but without smoke. Glorious’s eyes reflected flat green discs back at her.
“I think it started when Baba Yaga’s house walked into the alley,” she said slowly, “but if I start before that…I was in school, and then I went home. I live with my mom…”
“Tell me about her.”
So Summer tried, starting with how tall she was, and what she looked like, and what she did, and how she cried at night.
The Forester watched her, her eyes in shadow. She was listening. She listened like Glorious did, with her whole body, with her head cocked and her elbows on her knees, and Summer began to feel as if no one had ever listened to her so intently in her entire life.
Without quite knowing how, Summer began to talk about how her mother worried and that spilled over into how Summer wasn’t allowed to ride horses and—“I know she loves me!” said Summer, and her voice startled her, because it sounded like she was going to cry. “But she won’t let me do things and it’s like they’re all the same thing, like riding a horse and crossing the street and playing with matches, except they aren’t the same at all and I never know what they’re going to be until she won’t let me do them!”
The Forester nodded. “Now we are starting to learn things,” she said. Summer rubbed her eyes and felt grateful and resentful all at the same time. I won’t cry. I won’t.
“And into this, Baba Yaga’s house came walking,” said the Forester. “Yes. That would have called her, I think. If you want a mouse, look in mouseholes. And then what happened?”
Summer told her.
It was a long story, and the weasel put in a few words about Grub and then Reginald talked about meeting Summer, and Glorious did too. “And she won my license by means of words,” said the wolf, which warmed Summer as much as the hedgehog-fire did.
“And then we went into the woods here,” said Summer finally, “because Reginald said you could help. And then there were owls, and I guess you know the rest.”
The Forester nodded.
The silence stretched out. Summer began to feel uncomfortable, as if there was something more she should have said. “Does that help?” she asked. “I mean, do you know what we should do?”
“Yes,” said the Forester. “And no. There are, perhaps, things I may tell you, but you will decide what to do with them. But first, Summer, I have a question for you.”
“Okay,” said Summer, sitting up straighter.
“You are not a hero,” said the Forester. “That is no insult to you. You might become one, I suppose, but I would not wish it on you.”
Summer did not quite know how to feel about this statement. It still sounded vaguely like an insult.
“And yet you are here,” said the Forester. “Why? What is it that you are hoping to do?” She smiled. “You may take time to think, if you like. I believe that your friends are eager to have dinner.”
The valet-flock was, indeed, twittering around Summer’s ears. They took flight at this, and went to the packs. They kept very low, watching the owls, but they nevertheless laid out meat and cheese and grapes for everyone.
Summer ate without tasting it, trying to think of the answer to the Forester’s question.
What did she want? She had wanted an adventure, and her heart’s desire, but then they found the burned inn, and it had no longer been an adventure. Her heart’s desire was nice, but it wasn’t worth having people die.
So why had she not given up and tried to go home?
Because it wasn’t just about her heart’s desire.
Because something else was relying on her.
“I just wanted to help the Frog Tree,” said Summer. “I mean—you must think it’s stupid—people are dead, and Zultan is awful and maybe it’s stupid to worry about a tree, but it was so—it was trying so hard, and it was doing something wonderful and it wasn’t hurting anything and—and—”
She dissolved into tears.
Half of Summer was shocked, because she hadn’t expected to cry—she hadn’t even known how much she cared until right this minute—and the other half of Summer was sobbing her heart out on the Forester’s shoulder.
I thought I’d cry about my mother, and I didn’t want to, but I didn’t know I’d cry for the Frog Tree!
She was embarrassed for a moment about crying in front of her friends—but they had already seen her cry, over the burned out inn. What was once more?
The Forester gathered Summer up in her large arms. “There it is,” she said. “There. All may yet be well.”
“It was only a tree,” whispered Summer, feeling as if she were stabbing herself in the stomach with the words. Only a tree.
“And you are only a girl,” said the Forester, “and Reginald is only a bird and I am only…what I am. We are all still worth saving.”
Summer let out her breath in a long sigh. It caught a little at the bottom, but only a little.
“Now,” said the Forester. “Saving a single wondrous thing is better than saving the world. For one thing, it’s more achievable. The world is never content to stay saved.”
Summer laughed a little at that. The Forester set her down on the log and she wiped her face on her sleeve.
“As to the saving…well.” The Forester closed her eyes for a moment, and then—“Look,” she said, turning her face toward the light.
The Forester’s eyes were not human. In the shadows, they had looked normal enough, but when the light struck them, the pupils contracted into slits instead of circles.
“What—” said Summer, startling back. “How—”
The log was not wide enough. She overbalanced and fell over on her back in the leaves.
The Forester laughed softly and held out her hand.
Summer took it. “I’m sorry,” she said. It had been very rude to jerk away, she knew that, as if the Forester had something wrong with her. “I’m sorry.”
The Forester smiled. “It’s all right,” she said, pulling Summer back up to her seat. “The first time I saw myself in a mirror, I did the same—though not, I think, for the same reasons.”
She tilted her head so the fire caught in her eyes, and they were brilliantly blue, the color of a turquoise stone or a lizard’s tail.
I couldn’t have missed that. She did something. Or stopped doing something. Her eyes weren’t like that before.
“Are you human?” asked Summer timidly.
Wanting to say: It’s not like you have to be, Glorious isn’t and Reginald isn’t and the weasel isn’t and I love them all.
Wanting to say: I don’t think being human is any better than anything else, really I don’t, only I don’t quite know how to say it without sounding like I’m saying the opposite.
“The answer to that,” said the Forester, “is not quite no, and not quite yes.” She shook her head and one of the barn owls raised its wings and made a soft, creaking call.
“I am half a dragon,” said the Forester.
Summer considered this. “You mean your mom was a dragon, or your dad?”
The Forester shook her head. “No. Then I would be a dragon or a human. Being a dragon is like being alive or being dead. It is a thing you are or a thing you are not.”
“Like being a wolf,” rumbled Glorious.
“Very much like being a wolf,” said the Forester, nodding to him. There was a smile in her voice, if not in her slitted eyes. “Well. I was a dragon. I had a dragon’s body and a dragon’s heart. And then someone got hold of a great and terrible magic, and wished to be a dragon.”
She shook her head, and there was no smile in her voice now. “You cannot turn your heart into a dragon’s heart. Hearts can only be changed from within, and there is no magic in the world that can change them from without. But a dragon’s body can be stolen, and I imagine that I was the nearest.”
“They took your body?” whispered Summer.
“And left me this one in trade,” said the Forester. She ran her hands over her heavy brown forearms. “Poor thing. It did not know what to do, having a dragon’s soul slammed inside it. Like trying to catch a bonfire with a candlewick. But it was a child’s body, then—yes, this was long ago, longer than you know—and it still had a little give to it, so it wrapped itself around me as best it could.”
Glorious made a sound that Summer had never heard him make before—a whimper, almost, of sympathy.
“I woke in the middle of my hoard, in a cavern full of rings and crowns and shadows, and I was freezing cold and smaller than the egg I hatched from.”
“I’m sorry,” said Summer, who had sometimes dreamed of being a dragon, and could not imagine having it taken away from you.
“It was long ago,” said the Forester. “And whoever did it—poor stupid fool—found themselves with a human heart in a dragon’s body, and it was likely worse for them.”
At Summer’s expression, she laughed a little. “Think, child! There was too much dragon heart to fit in a human body—there must have been too little human heart to fit into my body. To be alone, inside a great mansion of dragonflesh, listening to the echoes in the empty places where more of you should be…” She shook her head. “I hated her at first. Now I think, perhaps, she has done more to punish herself than I ever could. The best a dragon can do is burn you alive, and while that is a very short eternity while it is happening, it ends. She has trapped herself in a prison that will never grow old.”
“She?” asked Summer. “Her?”
“Her. For this must have been her body, so it must have been a human girl. One like you, perhaps.” The Forester bared her teeth, not quite a smile, and Summer caught a hint of dragon fangs in her expression.
Summer sat up very straight. Her cheeks felt hot. She felt ashamed, even knowing that someone like her had done such a thing.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.
“It is all right,” said the woman who was only half a dragon. “It is an old story. This body has lived for a long time, for its takes its cues from the heart inside it. And it has done its best.” She patted her own arm affectionately, like a rider with a good-natured horse.
“Is there any way to put you back?” asked Summer.
The Forester shook her head. “That’s a task for someone else,” she said kindly. “A god, perhaps, or the ghost of a bird, or a hero born of moonbeams. Not a human task. Yours is large enough already, and will lead you far and fell.”
“It is? Then—then you know what’s wrong with the Frog Tree?”
The Forester nodded. “You’ve encountered others, haven’t you? Other things dead or dying. Great creatures struck down.”
Summer nodded. Glorious growled softly.
“They are being poisoned,” said the Forester. “By the wasps of the Queen-in-Chains.”