“I will water it,” said Boarskin.
“Will it grow?” asked Summer. “More than it is?”
The shapechanger pushed her hood back. “The tree knew that it was dying, and it put all that was left into the seed, where the poison could not get to it. If any tree in the world will grow, it’s that one.”
“Better than it would have if there were still wasps poking it, anyhow,” said Reginald cheerfully.
The Frog Sapling had stopped growing visibly at about eighteen inches high. It sat there, looking green and absurd and alive, with the hulk of the dead trunk behind it.
“The rotten tree will fertilize the ground as well,” said Boarskin. “Death feeds life and all that.”
She hugged Summer tightly. “Thank you. I knew when I saw you—well. Thank you. When you come back again, I hope that it will be growing strong.”
They left her with the Frog Tree, and they walked through the woods, past the Mouse Tree and the Horned Toad-Tree, until they came to a set of steps leading down into the ground.
“This is it,” she said. “This is where I came in.”
Summer stared at the dark entrance to the underground room. The stained glass shown purple along its sides.
She was tired. She had done what she set out to do, and now she was impossibly tired and she wanted to rest for a little while. Her heart was exhausted from looking on marvels.
The thought of her own bed nearly brought tears to her eyes. I could sleep there. I could sleep and wake up and I’d be in a world where no one has tried to kill me.
They never told you, in the stories, what a weight that was. In Narnia, you were attacked every few feet and you walked away from it and no one ever said anything more about it. If Peter woke in terror from nightmares about Fenris Ulf, it wasn’t written down.
In her own bed, Summer thought, perhaps those nightmares would no longer be able to find her.
But if I go back…what happens? Does Baba Yaga make me forget?
No! I won’t! I refuse!
“Go,” said Glorious. “Back to your den to heal. We will meet again or we will not. But come back when you are not a cub, and if I am still alive, I will greet you as a wolf.”
The weasel rubbed his furry head against her chin.
It was enough. It gave her strength to straighten her shoulders, and to hug Glorious one last time, and to only cry a little.
“Come back when you can,” said Reginald. “We’ll do the whole season—balls every night and parties and picnics. I’ll take you up to Parliament Roost and they’ll give you a medal. Two medals. Ten medals!”
“I’d like that,” said Summer. The valet-flock twittered and swirled and tucked a few last strands of hair behind her ears.
And then she walked, with her back straight, into the hall of the stained glass saint.
The angels were not moving in their windows. The saint in purple sneakers stood at his initial position, holding the book.
Summer looked up at him, then looked away, and back again. Had she seen…?
He winked down at her, under the eyes of the solemn-faced angel.
At the far end of the stained glass corridor was a door, and on the door was a familiar face.
“So you did it, eh?” said the skull. “She’ll be pleased, I imagine.”
“Did she send me here to stop the Queen-in-Chains?” asked Summer.
It is hard for a severed skull to shrug, but the wood grain around it rippled.
“More or less, more or less. And to get your heart’s desire, whatever that was. And maybe to do something else entirely. She doesn’t tell me anything. For all I know, you kicked a rock that had to be in exactly the right place, and everything else was entirely incidental. Baba Yaga sees all the way through time and chews off the bits she doesn’t like.”
The door swung open, and Summer stepped inside.
Baba Yaga’s house was smaller and darker than she remembered. It still smelt strongly of bleach, but the only light was from a single candle.
“Come in, child,” said Baba Yaga. “You’ve done well. Better than I expected.”
Summer paused in the doorway. She could see the outline of the crone in the rocking chair.
“What’s wrong, child?”
“I don’t want to forget!” blurted Summer. “And you’re being kind and that scares me!”
There was a long, long silence, and then Baba Yaga began to laugh.
It was not a cruel laugh, although it could have been easily. It sounded like aged bourbon and owl feathers. It was the laugh of a woman enjoying a joke that she has heard before, but not often. It rolled through the chicken-footed house and Summer was comforted, although she couldn’t say why.
“So you learned that much,” said Baba Yaga finally, wiping at her eyes. “That’s good. I am much safer when I am wicked, you know.” She beckoned. “You’re safe enough for now. Next time we meet, you may not be, but you’ve earned this one.”
Summer came forward, her gaze on the single candle. She could see the glitter of Baba Yaga’s eyes behind it.
It was the frog candle. She had almost forgotten it.
It had burned perhaps two-thirds of the way down. The flame was bright and strong.
“It didn’t burn out,” she said, surprised. “It’s been days—weeks—I thought—”
“No,” said Baba Yaga. “You did it all quite quickly, all things considered. The frog lasts a season, but I’m not above fudging around with tapers if it gets the job done.”
She adjusted herself in the bone rocking chair. The runners creaked. “Oh, I suppose it would make a better story if you arrived just as the wick was falling into the wax. Raise the stakes, they always say. Raise the stakes! We must always have the fate of the world in the balance, never one person’s happiness, and we must always arrive at the eleventh hour. No one wants the small stories any more. Bah.”
“Did I save Orcus?” asked Summer.
“Orcus never needed saving. You saved the Queen and your friends and made things generally more pleasant for most of the inhabitants.”
Summer felt a deep relief at this. She could not have dealt with saving the world. “I saved the Frog Tree,” she said, standing up a little straighter.
“Yes. That alone was worth the price of admission.”
She nodded. She felt triumph, but there was something complicated under it—sadness, maybe, and a sense of ill-use. “You sent me because I know what to do when someone cries and I tell them it will be okay. Because of my mother.”
“Ah…” said Baba Yaga. “Yes. Quite a skill you have at it, too. A great and terrible magic, but not one that a dragon would think to guard against. Perhaps you should not have that skill at your age, but the world is unfair, and sometimes we must use that unfairness to our advantage.” She rocked back and forth. “It would be a good day for the world if I could not find a child who knew terrible adult things. But I will be a great deal older before that day comes, I think.”
The bone runners creaked on the floor. It seemed to be getting darker in the room, or perhaps Summer had been looking at the candle flame too long.
“I don’t want to forget,” said Summer. “If you’re going to do the thing—the thing they do in books, you know, where you forget everything and it’s all like a dream—I don’t want that!”
“Are you sure?” Baba Yaga rocked a few more times, and her motion made the candle flame flicker. “You want to go through life knowing that there was another world and you went there? And then you’ll get a little older and you’ll start to think you must have been mad. And if you tell anyone, they’ll think you’re mad. Forgetting’s easier.”
Summer wrung her hands in the hem of the blanket. The old woman’s voice seemed to ring down a long corridor, as long as all the years she would live with no one to believe her.
“I don’t want to forget my friends,” she whispered.
Baba Yaga rocked in the chair.
“Well,” she said, when the silence had grown nearly unbearable. “Well. What is it that you do want, then? Ask for what you want, child, or you won’t get it.”
Summer sat down on the floor. Her legs were trembling. She put her head in her hands. Ask for what you want. “I don’t know. No, I do know. I want to go home for a little while. And then, maybe when I’m a little older—I—I think I want to go back to Orcus.” She thought of her mother with anguish. Her mother was flawed and imperfect and sometimes frightening, but would Summer really be willing to leave her forever, to go to another world?
In the chambers of Summer’s heart, there was a word written on the wall, and she was afraid that word was YES.
She looked up finally, and saw the firelight gleaming on Baba Yaga’s teeth. They were very sharp, and she was grinning.
“Then I grant your heart’s desire,” said Baba Yaga. “It shall be so. Now blow out the candle and go home.”
Summer blinked. “I can go back?”
“Oh, eventually. It’ll be a few years, you understand. Things may look a little different.”
“But not hundreds of years, like in Narnia, right? Where everyone has died of old age? That would be worse.”
“I’m not a monster, child. Or I am, but not a completely unfeeling one.” She waved her hand. “All will be well. Or well enough, anyway. With a bit of work.”
“Is my mother very upset?” asked Summer.
“She hasn’t noticed that you’re gone.” And when Summer gaped at her, “Oh, don’t start. You look like a landed fish. It’d be a poor return for your service to have you go home to that. Your mother’s half a madwoman already, and that much grief would push her over the edge completely. And you’d probably have to make up some story about being snatched by someone in a panel van, and the panel van industry has enough problems as it is.”
“But I was gone for weeks!”
“Not while the candle burned,” said Baba Yaga. “The grass doesn’t grow under your feet while the wick is lit. At most she’ll think that you’ve gotten too much sun recently and wonder why she didn’t notice before.” She waved her hand irritably. “Now get gone! I’m getting hungry.”
Summer scrambled to her feet and blew out the candle.
The room was suddenly dark. The weasel moved worriedly in her pocket. She could hear Baba Yaga breathing, a deep sound like a hungry predator.
She found the door by the outline of light around it and pulled it open.
She was in the yard of the house next door.
“Shut me quick!” said the skull, and Summer slammed the door hastily. She could hear something padding around inside the house, something with nails that scratched on the boards like claws.
The house tilted forward on its chicken legs, and Summer stepped down into the alleyway. Then it rose up, up, high-stepping over the wall, and ran away down the alley. A car alarm went off as it stepped too close, and Summer wondered what the owner would think had set it off.
She went very slowly to the gate of her own house. It stood ajar.
Summer set her hand on the latch which no longer had a lock.
If I go in, all of this is over. And I’ll be done.
But Baba Yaga said that I could go back. She said it was my heart’s desire.
Maybe…when I’m older. Maybe my mom will be ready then.
The thought hovered, unvoiced, that a day might come when the door to Orcus opened, and it would not matter who was ready or not.
The weasel climbed out of her pocket and looked around. “Is this where you live?”
Summer jumped. “I can’t keep you,” she said, horrified. “You’re a weasel—my mom won’t let me—but I don’t want you to go—”
“Pffff!” said the weasel. “This place is lousy with mice and bugs and little birds. And trash cans.” He licked his little white teeth. “If I can’t find a way to live here, I don’t deserve to call myself a weasel.”
“You’ll stay?” asked Summer.
“For a while at least.” He scratched one ear, rapid fire. “I wouldn’t object to the occasional egg, mind you.”
“And…you’ll talk to me? So I know I didn’t dream it all?”
The weasel gave her a withering look. “If you suggest it was a dream, I shall bite you.”
“Thank you,” said Summer, and kissed the weasel on the top of his small brown head.
“Guh,” said the weasel, and leapt off her palm. He went up the side of a tree like a squirrel and sat on a branch, glaring. “Now I have to groom everything.”
Summer laughed aloud. She felt suddenly very light.
She took off the blanket and folded it under her arm. She’d stash it under her bed later.
The back door opened. Her mother looked out. “Summer? Why’s the gate open?”
“I don’t know,” said Summer. “I think the lock broke.”
“You didn’t see anyone, did you?”
Her mother frowned, and Summer could see the worry shadowing her eyes, but as long as she was worried about the lock, she wasn’t going to notice the blanket. “You didn’t go anywhere, did you?”
“No, mom,” said Summer. She came up the back steps two at a time. “Nowhere at all.”
“Well?” said the skull to Baba Yaga, when the crone had finished eating.
“Well, what?” She picked her teeth with a splinter of bone which had belonged to a salesman. She did not like people who came around selling useless textbooks. If he had been more polite, he would have had a chance, but historically no one has ever escaped after trying to put the hard sell on Baba Yaga.
“Will she ever go back to Orcus?” asked the skull.
“Don’t ask me the future,” said Baba Yaga. “I’m a crone, not an oracle. You start poking about in the future and people start wanting things. For all I know, she’ll get run over by a dump truck tomorrow.”
The house slammed the shutters down in irritation. The floor tilted and the rocking chair skidded against the table.
“Settle down!” snapped Baba Yaga. She smacked the fireplace with her cane. “I can still trade you in, you know!”
The house stamped its feet. China rattled in the cupboards. Baba Yaga did not eat off china, but she kept a set in the house in case company came over.
“Fine,” muttered Baba Yaga. “Yes. She’ll get to go back some day. I promised her, didn’t I? I keep my promises.”
Mollified, the house sat back down.
“You fudged a bit,” said the skull. “Her heart’s desire was already granted, wasn’t it?”
“To find out what she was capable of? To get out from under someone else’s fear?” Baba Yaga worried at a bit of gristle with her toothpick. “Oh, perhaps. But it wasn’t a lie, you know. Hearts are complicated. Hardly anybody wants just one thing.”
“You’re not going to do anything tricksy to her, are you?” asked the skull suspiciously. “Send her back when she’s ninety years old or something?”
“No,” said Baba Yaga. “I’m not an oracle, but I’m also not a monkey’s paw. Not if you’re polite. She’ll go back soon enough. When she’s a bit older. When it’s a bit easier. When Orcus needs her again.” She gave a jaw-cracking yawn. “Perhaps after I wake up from a nap.”
She leaned back in the rocking chair and closed her eyes. She was always groggy after a big meal.
The house on bird feet rose up and tip-toed carefully away, to find a place where its master could wait, and sleep a little while longer.