Chapter Eighteen

Summer was never quite certain, afterwards, how they left the Forester. She thought that they talked for some time, but she could not remember what was said. She had been gazing into the hedgehog flames, hadn’t she? And the Forester said something to her—something that might have been courage or perhaps Mother.

All that she knew was that she came to herself sitting on Glorious’s back, and the wolf was walking through the mist of early morning. She did not feel tired or hungry, although she could not remember having slept.

Summer tried to remember having mounted, or having said goodbye to the Forester, but she could not. The weasel was asleep in her pocket.

“Is…is anyone else having trouble remembering?” she asked carefully.

“Comes of talking to dragons,” said Reginald. “Though I didn’t know the old girl was a dragon! What a facer!” He did a little sarabande in midair. “And me making free with her forest, too, and strolling in like she was my old maiden aunt. Ha!”

He seemed to be pleased as much as abashed.

Glorious flicked an ear back at her. “It is not entirely clear,” he admitted. “Though like a dream, not like magic.”

“Dragons aren’t magic,” said Reginald. “Dragons are dragons.”

“I thought they were magic,” said Summer.

“Magic is like rain,” said Glorious. “Dragons are like mountains. Or wolves. Magic may happen to a dragon, but mountains are not made of rain.”

Summer digested this. It sounded very simple, but it would probably have made more sense if she knew more about dragons.

Or about magic, for that matter. She sighed.

“Never fear,” said Reginald. “She’s given us a direction, hasn’t she?”

“Certainly,” said Glorious dryly. “Find the Queen-in-Chains, whom no one has seen since the fall of the Tower of Dogs. That will be no easy task, hoopoe.”

“I don’t know why not,” said the weasel, waking up with a yawn. “She’s sending out wasps, isn’t she? Why don’t we just find a wasp, then?”

There was a thoughtful silence.

“If we could find one of these wasps,” said Summer, feeling a slow excitement building in her stomach, “then we could follow it back to the Queen!”

“Thought they died when they stung a chap,” said Reginald doubtfully.

“That’s bees,” said Summer confidently. She had done a report on honeybees for school last year. “Bees sting you and the stinger pulls their guts out. It’s kind of awful. But wasps can sting you over and over again and it doesn’t hurt them.”

“Huh!” said the hoopoe. “Well. Never too late to get an education. So we find a wasp and follow it back. But how do we find a wasp?”

“That should be easy,” said Glorious, in his deep, somber voice. “We need only look for a great and wondrous thing. Before long, as things are going, a wasp will come to poison it.”

“Where will we find one, though?” asked Summer.

The wolf laughed, but kindly. “The great joy of the world, Summer-cub, is that it is full of wondrous things.”

He shook himself and his muscles tensed. It was the only warning Summer had before he broke into a run.

“We’re only two days out from Almondgrove,” said Reginald, when Glorious finally slowed. “Had a notion we’d stop and get some provender. Introduce you to the old pater and all. M’father’ll know where to find something wondrous.” He laughed. “He’s nearly a wondrous thing himself, come to that.”

“Great,” muttered the weasel. “A whole house full of twittering twits.”

Reginald heard this, but he didn’t look particularly upset. “Oh, quite! But there’s no need to rustle up the whole clan. We’ll stock up on supplies, though, and the valet-flock will be wanting to pick up a few more members.”

The flock chirped agreement. Summer wondered if they missed the dead valet-bird.

Is he really gone, though? They’re a sort of mind all together, like a beehive. Was there something that was specific to that bird that’s gone, or do they just move the same mind around between them?

It was mid-afternoon on the second day when the road began to change. It was still narrow, but it turned to cobblestones instead of dirt. The trees became taller and more widely spaced.

Side roads branched off the main thoroughfare, reminding Summer of driveways, but the sort of driveways you got in an expensive neighborhood where the houses were not in sight of the street. The branching roads were framed with lantern posts, but each post had a dozen perches sticking off it and the ground beneath the posts was white with droppings.

The first bird they saw was some kind of partridge, sitting low on a perch with her eyes closed. She had a little leather helmet on, and a collar with a badge.

“Heyo, copper!” said Reginald cheerfully.

“Eh? Eh!” The partridge shook herself away, fluffing up all her feathers. “Eh? Oh, it’s you, young Almondgrove. You’d best not be up to any tricks.” She looked over Glorious and Summer and her round eyes went even rounder. “Friends of yours?”

“They’re all with me,” said Reginald. “Best friends a chap could have, wot? Companions in adversity, one and all.”

The partridge snorted and settled back down on her perch. “Shouldn’t think you know a thing about adversity, you young jackanapes. But go on, and give your father my best.”

“Will do,” said Reginald.

They went on. More and more birds appeared, flying overhead, filling the trees, chatting to one another. Ripples of silence spread as the wolf walked by, and then conversation rushed in to fill the void—“Did you see? A wolf!” “A wolf and a human on it!” “It’s a small human…” “Yes, but it’s quite a large wolf!” “And was that Reginald?”

Reginald did not seem bothered at all. He called out greetings to birds as he passed, and did little aerial jigs and bounces of delight.

“I suspect that we are no longer travelling in secret,” said Glorious wryly.

“They’ll have word from here to the far ends of Orcus,” grumped the weasel.

Summer said nothing. Surely Zultan and Grub wouldn’t do anything with all these birds watching, would they? They had burned an isolated inn, but there were hundreds of birds here, and they could all fly away.

Reginald isn’t worried. She sat up straight and remembered the saint’s book again—Don’t worry about things that you cannot fix. And overhead, the birds chirped and chattered and sang to each other about the wolf and the human girl on his back, and Summer felt as if she were in a parade.

They reached the branching road of Almondgrove Manor just as the sky was beginning to show traces of pink. Two brick pillars framed the road, hung with lanterns, and in front of the lanterns stood two geese.

The geese were as tall as Summer. They had white heads and black throats and their bodies were sooty gray. Their orange legs were as thick around as Summer’s calves.

“Heyo!” said Reginald happily. “It’s me.”

“Indeed,” said the goose on the left.

“Welcome home, Master Reginald,” said the goose on the right.

They turned their small black eyes on Glorious.

“You seem to have a wolf,” said the left goose.

“We were not informed there would be a carnivore visiting,” said the right goose.

Glorious grinned. “I would not pick a fight with such brave warriors,” he said. Summer, listening, thought that there was a faint emphasis on I, as if he had almost said “Even I” and then thought better of it.

The geese and the wolf studied each other for a very long moment.

“Indeed,” said the goose on the left.

“Then we shall pick no fight with you,” said the goose on the right. “Follow me.”

Glorious dipped his head an inch and they passed between the brick pillars, following the goose.

“Would you really not pick a fight with them?” asked Summer in an undertone.

“Geese are perilous creatures,” said Glorious. “A flock of geese can kill a foolish wolf.” She felt a soft rumble through his chest. “Though I am not foolish, and two is not a flock. But we have other concerns for now.”

Summer had always been a little frightened of the large flocks of geese that sometimes gathered on the school lawn. They hissed like angry cats and did not seem at all wary of humans. But she had also thought that her fear was just because she was afraid of everything. Hearing Glorious describe them as perilous made her think that perhaps she wasn’t just a coward after all.

The goose ahead of them turned its long neck and winked at Summer.

And apparently they have good hearing, too…

The goose led them down the road. It was narrow by human standards, more like a paved footpath than a street. Broad green lawns rolled out around them, studded with trees, fountains, perches, and something that looked like a giant wicker gazebo.

The house itself was shadowed in the dusk, but there were lights in many of the windows. The doors were flanked with lamps. There were three sets of doors, one per story, but only the bottom one had steps. The upper two were ringed with perches. A bird stood at attention besides each set of doors.

A footman, thought Summer, and then, No, a footbird, and then …a wingbird? Maybe?

The goose dipped its head to the footbird or whatever it was, and the bird hurried to open the doors.

Glorious paused at the foot of the steps. “It is getting late,” he said. “And I would rather not change inside your home, however grand, Reginald.”

“No, no,” said Reginald. “Not the thing at all. Houses inside houses! Terrible damage to the millwork. Here, stay out here with him, will you? He’ll turn into a very nice cottage in a few minutes.”

This last was to the guard goose. The goose tilted its head for a moment, gazing at Reginald in bafflement, then said, “Very well, Master Reginald.” To the footbird, it said, “Please take the master and his guests to quarters. Lord Almondgrove will wish to see them, but not in all their dust.”

“Quite right,” said Reginald cheerfully. “Wouldn’t want to pester the pater in a crumpled waistcoat. Glorious, give a howl if you need anything at all.”

Glorious shook his head, looking amused. “I shall need a very large breakfast in the morning,” he said simply. “There is too much prey about, and I would be a poor guest to hunt any of it.”

“Right!” said Reginald. “Huge breakfast! Sausage and kippers and eggs and ham.”

“Sure,” muttered the weasel, “give him eggs…”

Summer slid off the wolf’s back and he trotted off beside the goose guard. The two of them went side-by-side, and Summer heard the goose say something too low to hear, but which made Glorious growl with laughter.

The foot-bird gestured. Reginald and Summer followed him through the door.

The door opened into a grand entrance hall, the sort of extraordinary tiled room that was designed to make an impression on a visitor. It looked like the sort of room Summer had seen in mansions in movies.

Unlike those rooms, however, there were no stairs. The upper level was lined with perches and immense windows, but where a human mansion would have had a giant staircase with gilt banisters, this hall had only empty space.

Well, of course. They’ve got wings.

“Now, then,” said Reginald to the foot-bird, “this is my friend, Miss Summer. She’s from a different world. Tough as a nut, game as a pebble, but probably wing-sore by now.” He paused. “Err—foot-sore?”

Summer stifled a laugh. He’d probably call foot-men wing-birds. We’re all trying our best, though…

“Certainly,” said the foot-bird. He stamped a foot on the ground and his claws made a hollow knocking sound.

Servant-birds appeared. One plump bird, a mourning dove with a white lace cap, approached Summer. “If you’ll follow me, miss…”

“Go on,” said Reginald. “You’ll be so clean and well-fed when I see you next that I’ll hardly know you. And I’ll have a clean waistcoat.”

The valet-birds twittered in what sounded like relief.

Summer followed the dove.

They went through a large door on the side of the hall, and then a smaller door, and then a corridor lined with quite small doors indeed. The doors were set high in the wall, nearly six inches off the ground.

The dove opened the door. Summer stepped carefully over the threshold.

It was a small room, or perhaps it only seemed small because there was so much furniture in it. The bed was very large and completely circular. There was a wooden screen in one corner and a basin on a stand in another, a door in the far wall, and a wardrobe so large that you could have fit most of Narnia inside it.

Though I hope not, thought Summer, a bit wearily. Orcus is quite enough excitement for me at the moment…

The servant-bird smiled at her, mostly around the eyes. “Just you take off those dirty clothes, mistress, and we’ll get them washed for you”

Summer was thrilled at the thought of getting her clothes washed—the valet-birds tried very hard, but her t-shirt was still showing a great deal of wear, and her underwear didn’t bear thinking about—but she was worried about the blanket Donkeyskin had given her. It looked so grubby and travelstained, surely they’d want to throw it away?

“It’s very important I get this back,” she said. “I know it doesn’t look like much…”

“Dress of your people,” said the servant-bird. “I quite understand, mistress. We’ll treat it very carefully. In the meantime, we’ve some clothes for non-birds here…”

She gestured to a screen. Summer went behind it and took her clothes off.

The clothes for humans, or at least human-shaped people, came in several varieties. One was rather like a sari and the other was rather like a bathrobe—shapeless, but belted in the middle.

The sleeves had gigantic openings. The armholes went down nearly to Summer’s hips.

I suppose they’re used to fitting wings through them. They probably think these are quite tight!

She tied the sari-like fabric around herself, then pulled the bathrobe on over it. She had to roll up the cuffs on the sleeves several times and they still dangled past her wrists. She felt like a very small child playing dress-up.

She took the lock and the acorn and the turquoise stone out of her jeans and put them in a pocket in the robe. There didn’t seem to be any place to tie the cheese-sword.

“There you are!” said the servant-bird cheerfully. “Would you like a dust bath, or oil or water?”

“Um,” said Summer. “Water?” She was rather curious about the dust bath, actually, but water seemed easier.

“Right this way, mistress.”

The water bath was oddly shaped. It was very shallow and very wide, a tiled pool six feet wide but barely four inches deep. Summer had to scrub herself and crouch down to rinse.

Like a birdbath, she thought. And then, Well, of course it is!

She was just starting on her hair when the servant-bird came back. Summer yelped, but the bird bustled in with such cheerful professionalism that it was hard to feel embarrassed. “Fresh towels and oil for your fur if you need it.”

Summer had no idea what to do with the oil, if anything. She used regular soap on her hair.

There weren’t any combs, so she raked her fingers through it and heard it squeak.

She dried herself off with a towel and then climbed into the robes again.

The servant-bird clicked her tongue at Summer and helped her tie the fabric rather more securely. Apparently there was a trick to it. The over-robe was easier. The weasel, who had been napping, grumbled inside her pocket.

“I’m afraid we have no footwear for you,” said the bird. “Human feet are very complicated, are they not? But now, if you are ready, Lord Almondgrove will see you before dinner.”

 

 

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