The howls sounded closer, but Abbie was more concerned with just keeping up with Foster as he dashed through the forest. “Sammy!” she called fearfully, trying to look over her shoulder to make sure he was still with them, but afraid she was going to fall down if she took her eyes away from the boy. A flash of tan and white caught her eye, and the Jack Russell terrier burst out of the underbrush next to Foster, his face split in a doggy grin as he raced alongside them.
She wanted to ask so many questions, but Foster held her hand in a vice grip and she was soon dragging deep gulps of air into her lungs. Trees loomed overhead, their dense leaves leaving the ground in shadow as they grew closer and closer together, the way ahead becoming less clear. Abbie shrieked and desperately tried to get her hand free as Foster pulled her straight toward the largest one without slowing down. At the last moment he waved his free hand, the tree trunk splitting silently lengthwise and opening like a set of double doors as the two children tumbled inside.
Foster scrambled backward, sticking his hand out and snatching at Sammy’s collar as the tree began to close up, pulling the very surprised dog inside just in time. Abbie gaped up at the crack of light between the ‘doors’ as it sealed and disappeared, leaving the trio in complete darkness.
“What -” she started, her voice thin and high pitched as she pulled her knees up in front of her on the ground, but Foster shushed her. After a moment a warm orange glow enveloped the boy’s hand, coalescing into a small flame. Sammy whined, nudging Abbie’s elbow, and she wrapped her arms around him as she took in her surroundings. Being inside a tree was nothing like she might have imagined, had she ever considered it before; it was an egg shaped space with polished wood walls and floor, and just enough room for all of them to sit on the ground inside it. She opened her mouth to talk again, and Foster shook his head, his blond curls falling into his eyes.
“They are close,” he said, so softly she could barely hear him. The flame on his palm shrunk until it was just a tiny thing, and she stared at it, fascinated. How was he doing that? Was he holding a candle? Abbie leaned forward to get a better look, and then peeked under Foster’s hand. There was nothing, only the small bit of fire inexplicably burning in his hand. Foster looked at her, and then at Sammy. “Ssshh,” he said to the dog, touching the terrier’s forehead.
Sammy sighed, leaning in against his mistress and resting his chin in her lap just as a wolf’s howl tore through the air outside their wooden hideaway. Abbie jumped with surprise and sudden fear, her hand tightening on the dog’s back. She was still clutching the daisy Foster had given her, and as she focused on it she realized that she’d skinned her knee falling into the tree.
The elf’s eyes tightened as he followed her gaze to where a drop of blood was beading up on her skin, heavy footsteps all around as whatever had been pursuing them seemed to be investigating the area thoroughly. Foster put his finger to his lips, and Abbie nodded, her eyes wide. The moments stretched into minutes, but the tree was surprisingly comfortable, and she leaned back against the curved interior, her sleepy dog making her relaxed as the footsteps moved away, and the howling became more distant. She watched Foster, who was crouched by where the tree-door had been, turning his head this way and that as he …listened? The flame in his hand danced and turned green, and he dismissed it, pressing his palm to the smooth wood.
The wolves had moved on, though with no trail to follow it was likely they would double back. As the tree opened up to release them from its protection Foster cautiously poked his head outside. “They are gone,” he said with relief, pushing himself up and reaching down to help Abbie to her feet. Sammy perked up, padding outside onto the soft dirt of the forest floor, giving his little body an all-over shake that jingled his collar.
Abbie stepped out of the tree, looking back at the hidey hole with wonder. “How did you - what was that? Why are wolves chasing us?” She backed away from the large oak as it began to close up, bumping into another tree trunk. She stared at Foster, and then sat down heavily against the smaller tree.
“Wolves work for the Queen. They always have. Because you are not meant to be here, and I certainly was not supposed to bring you here…” His voice trailed off helplessly, his thoughts disjointed. “They must have sensed the gate opening and trailed us from the pond.”
“Are we safe now?” Abbie rested her chin on one knee and tried, and failed, to resist poking at the scrape on the other.
“For now. I obfuscated our scent, and the oak hid us well enough.” He was rotating, looking at their surroundings, while Abbie made a face at the big words he liked to use.
“Well, that’s good,” she said optimistically, even though she wasn’t sure what he’d said, exactly.
“They will return,” he said darkly, “To try to pick the trail up again.”
“Not so good,” Abbie said, twisting her mouth and pursing her lips.
“Yes, not so good.” Foster reached toward her, relieving her of the wilted flower she was still holding. When he tossed it away and it fell harmlessly to the ground, she gave a little sigh of disappointment, half expecting it to explode like a hand grenade or a puff of smoke, or something else, equally magical. “We should go - and I still have something to show you.” His green eyes twinkled, and a smile lit up his sun browned face. “Come!”
Abbie straightened her still damp shorts and followed after him as Foster worked his way between the trees, Sammy trotting along beside her obediently. “Isn’t this, like… a trail? Won’t they follow us?” She looked behind them, worried.
“Keep watching,” said Foster, stopping and waiting for a moment. Crumpled clover and bent branches stretched slowly back into place, moving up along their path toward them, erasing any visual proof of where they’d gone.
“Forest magic?” asked Abbie, her brown eyebrows raised high.
“Yes.” Foster grinned at how much the small display had impressed her. “Elemental earth magic, with a lean toward wood and plants.” He put his hands on his hips, puffing out his chest with pride - and then beckoned for her to follow him again. “Come on, we should still hurry.”
Not anxious to meet the wolves, Abbie scrambled after Foster as he led her through the trees. Now that they were traveling at a normal pace she could see where the flowers grew in patches of sunlight, and smell the rich earthiness of the forest. She ducked under a low branch and scrambled over a fallen log, her bare feet getting thoroughly dirty. Nothing was poking or pricking her, however, perhaps because of something magical Foster was doing?
The existence of magic was not that surprising to Abigail D. Brown. She’d been raised on a steady diet of fairy tales (even the scary ones), as well as the stories where girls fall through mirrors or wardrobes and end up in a wondrous land of enchantment and adventure. Her mother had always told her they were made up, even if they were fun to think about, but her father had usually followed those statements with a wink. Abbie also liked to write her own stories, even if she didn’t know how to spell all the words yet. Lately all her writings had revolved around Sammy. He was an adventurous dog.
“Do the animals talk?” she blurted, hurrying to catch up with Foster and his longer legs.
He looked at her strangely. “Does your dog talk?”
“Well, no. But I thought… maybe they do here? Sometimes in stories the animals talk. Like, the wolves. Do they talk, or just howl?”
“Ohhh,” he said, holding a thin branch out of the way for her. “In Otherworld animals are just like in your world. Mostly. Well,” Foster paused, thinking. “There are animals here you will never see in your world. And they talk to each other, but they do not …talk like we do. The wolves are different.”
“Oh.” Abbie fell behind a bit while she processed her disappointment. The trees were thinning out and she caught a whiff of something familiar in the air. Her stomach gurgled and growled, and she clutched it, suddenly remembering her lunch that she had been about to eat before the entire adventure had begun. The odor was unmistakable. “Bacon,” she moaned, turning this way and that to try and see where the delectable smell was coming from. Sammy perked up and trotted away from Foster to the left until the elf clicked his tongue, halting the dog in his tracks.
He had no such control over Abbie, however, who was walking in the same direction as her canine. Foster’s carefully honed senses detected what they’d nearly walked into, and he quickly ran after her, his leaf shoes making no noise. “Stop,” he hissed, grabbing her arm just above the elbow and yanking her down behind a big leafy mass of raspberry canes. It was too late.
“Ow!” she said, landing awkwardly. Foster grimaced at her, trying to communicate without talking, and she stuck her tongue out at him.
“What do we have here?” Both youngsters looked up at the new voice, a dark skinned woman with tightly cropped hair and a hawkish nose, a pale scar drawn across her right cheekbone and disappearing under her ear. She loomed over them from the other side of the raspberry thatch, and as she waited for a response she took a big bite from a slice of bacon.
Foster scrambled up to his feet, pretending that this was his plan all along. “Merely picking berries,” he said, standing as tall as he could. The woman looked down at the thorny vines with their flowers and hard green fruits, and then back to the elf. He grit his teeth and touched the plant with a swirl of earth magic, ripening a handful of raspberries. He picked one and put it in his mouth, chewing without breaking eye contact with the stranger.
She grunted, amused, and finished off her bacon, Abbie’s eyes watching every move of the tasty morsel until it disappeared. “Nothing to do with that pack that was running a ways over, I imagine.”
“Of course not,” Foster said, doing his best to sound offended. “I am an apprentice Guardian. Foster,” he introduced, inclining his head just enough to be polite. The woman’s eyes tracked to where Abbie was still sprawled on the ground, and the elf hurriedly helped the girl to her feet. “Just a …dryad,” he lied badly, “Newly born. I was showing her around the forest.”
“Not very leafy for a dryad,” mused the woman, her deep brown eyes shot through with gold. Abbie was keeping her mouth shut, but her stomach growled and Foster sagged, desperate to get her away.
“Ah, the birches are not known for being very, uh, leafy when they are new. Something you learn when you are a Guardian,” he said too brightly, pulling Abbie close and slightly behind him.
“I’m sure it is,” the stranger said. Then she smiled, a beautiful expression on a face that was, in all honesty, a little scary if you weren’t used to it. “I am Nadiene. Come, join us.” She gestured, indicating that he should walk around the berry thicket.
“Yes please,” said Abbie before she could stop herself, just as Foster said, “We should be going.” Were dryads supposed to eat bacon? Well, this one was going to if she could get her hands on any.
Sammy looked at all three of them in turn, then wagged his tail and ran around the raspberries. Abbie squeaked as her dog disappeared around the canes, and Foster squared his shoulders. “We would be happy to accept your hospitality,” he said formally, and the woman chuckled.
“Come on then, little ones.” Nadiene stepped back from the raspberry vines while the human and elf made their way around to where her campsite was nestled into a grassy hollow. Lined on three sides by masses of thorny vines, it was a cozy little place, with just enough room for her, and her companion. “This is Charles,” she said, taking a seat on the ground and leaning her elbow on a hummock of grass.
Charles was a thick chested human man with a fiery red beard, and he was ruffling Sammy’s ears and neck while he inspected the dog’s collar. Both he and the woman wore weather stained clothes of sturdy cotton and leather; clothing made to stand up to the vigors of a life on the move. Foster’s green eyes picked out the sheathed sword on the grass by Charles, and the long dagger belted to the woman’s hip.
Abbie initially had eyes only for the tiny campfire and the cast iron pan resting on some stones beside it, but she slowed awkwardly at the presence of the big man. She was happy to slide behind Foster’s more familiar presence as they approached the camp.
“Are you hungry?” Nadiene asked mildly, indicating the pan and the lonely bit of bacon lying limp inside it with a jerk of her chin.
Abbie looked at Foster questioningly. “Dryads, of course, do not eat,” he said tightly.
“No?” she said mournfully. “Maybe if I just… tasted it… to be sure?”
He turned toward her, staring at her quite fiercely when he thought the two adults couldn’t see, and she sighed, sitting down on the grass. Sammy rolled over onto his back while Charles rubbed his belly, his mouth wide open and tongue lolling out. “I would gladly share some bread,” Foster said pointedly, even though he wasn’t hungry.
Nadiene’s scarred face stretched into another smile, and she dug into her bag. “I’m sure I had some here… Did you eat the bread, Charles?”
“No,” he said. “We haven’t had bread in days, since the last village.”
“No bread, I’m afraid,” she said to Foster, who pressed his lips together and looked back the way they’d come. “We need no bread to extend the hospitality of our camp, such as it is, to you, young elf. And to your charge,” Nadiene added, her eyes lingering on Abbie and her yellow t-shirt and denim shorts. “Be at ease - the wolves will not find you here.”
“How did you know they were chasing us?” asked Abbie, and the adults shared a look while Foster inwardly groaned.
Nadiene leaned forward a little, speaking conspiratorially. “I understand the howls, little one. Please, eat the bacon before your stomach growls again, I know you are no dryad, no matter what our Guardian here says.”
Not needing any more encouragement, Abbie scrambled over to where the pan sat, pulling the warm bacon free from the cooling grease. She let it drip for a second before starting to eat it, sharing a tiny piece with her dog when Sammy wandered over.
“You understand them because you are a wolf,” said Foster with sudden understanding, trying to decide if he should abandon Abbie and run for it, or stay by her side. He was responsible for her, after a fashion. Sort of. Not really, though…
“Not one of the boot-lickers,” Nadiene said easily, the elf’s wariness amusing her.
Abbie licked her fingers clean, but she was frowning. “But you’re a lady.”
Charles laughed loudly at that, abruptly enough that both Foster and Abbie jumped, and so hard that tears formed in his eyes. “She’s no lady,” he managed after a while, wheezing for air when Nadiene tossed her bag onto his belly.
“Your kind would call me a werewolf, I think,” said the woman. “Here we are simply wolves.”
“Not part of the Pack?” She had called them boot-lickers, which had many interesting connotations, Foster considered. He gave the only exit from the hollow a sideways glance, gauging the distance.
“Not anymore,” said Nadiene, leaning back once again. Her relaxation now seemed like the languid posture of a predator, and the elf considered the Elements at his disposal. Middling to no affinity for Air or Water. Moderate Fire. Excellent Earth with an emphasis on woodscraft. Hiding was not very useful when the enemy was already staring at you, but there was already a fire in front of him, it would not take much to -
“I think you’re good.” Foster was broken out of his escape planning by Abbie’s voice, and his mouth fell open at her abrupt proclamation.
“And why is that, little one?” asked the wolf, the corners of her mouth curling with amusement.
Abbie thought for a moment, not expecting to have to back up her statement. “The wolves chasing us are bad. Or, if they catch us it’ll be bad. And… you seem nice.” Faltering now, Abbie thought over everything her mom had ever told her about talking to strangers, and pushed herself up to her feet, reaching for Foster’s hand.
“Perhaps I am only stalling you for the others,” suggested Nadiene.
Charles grunted. “Now you’re scaring them. Look, young elf, at my brand.” He pulled back the neck of his shirt, the laces loose enough to show the Tree, a stylized rendition of the tree of life, the seal of the Summer Court. The old brand had a newer scar near it, a simple block rendering of an F hovering above the Tree. Both were long healed.
“Did that hurt?” asked Abbie, leaning forward.
“This one did,” he rumbled quietly, touching the Tree. “The other I barely felt.” His big finger traced the F under his collarbone. Charles looked at the elf, raising one eyebrow as Foster met his eyes. “Do you understand?”
“The brand means he was a slave in a Summer house - to a lord or lady of the Court,” Foster said after a moment, explaining it to Abbie. “The letter above it indicates he was freed. He is human, like you, and is from your world.”
The big red-haired man covered the brands, meeting Nadiene’s eyes before looking at the girl. “The Queen will not take you, if I have anything to say about it.”
“Thank you,” Abbie said, uncertainly, still not quite sure what was going on. It had been a very busy afternoon. Sammy was nearly asleep beside her, his little head on his paws and his eyes drooping. She sat down again and pet his wiry fur, trying to think. “Can you help me get back home? You… you could come too. I mean, if you want.”
“An excellent offer,” Charles said kindly. “I am afraid we are not equipped to take on the Queen’s guard, nor would I care to.” He looked at Foster, who wasn’t sure if he should be happy or sad that these adults seemed to be offering to take Abbie off his hands. “And you, elf, how came you to be in the company of a human child?”
“By accident,” Foster muttered. He spoke up, “I found her in the woods, by a pond.” Abbie opened her mouth to expose his lie, and he amended quickly, “In a pond. I may have, ah, pulled her through.”
There was a silence at that. Nadiene said, after a moment, “You opened a gate?” Charles shook his head with wonder, either at the accomplishment or at how someone could be so stupid - Foster couldn’t tell which.
“I did not,” he said quickly, in case any nearby tree was listening. “I saw them open the Gate last Equinox, to let the Spring Boar through. It is a bit of Fire and Earth together… I was only playing at it. I did not think it would work.”
“A fact I’m sure the Court will take into consideration,” said the wolf woman dryly. “What are your names?”
“Abbie,” said Abbie, smiling and trying to be polite.
“Foster,” said the elf, sagging down into the grass.
“And you are a Guardian? Not quite yet, I think,” mused Nadiene. “You’re doing your trials, or soon will be, I wager, before the wood elves initiate you.”
“Yes,” admitted Foster, uncomfortable at how quickly he’d been laid bare. He had much still to learn about guile, it seemed. His four week sojourn into the Summer forests had just begun a few days ago. He could take nothing with him, and had to find a suitable offering for the other Guardians to present to the Queen on his behalf. His parents had already bade him farewell - after this, if he was successful, he would live with the other Guardians, seeing them only on feast days.
If he were not successful, like if he accidentally yanked a human girl through an unauthorized gate and then were chased by wolves and forced into an unlikely partnership with a pair of obvious ne’er-do-wells, well then all his hopes and dreams would be over, and his life might as well be over too.
He looked down with surprise as Abbie scooted closer and put her smaller hand over his on the grass. She curled her fingers around his, finding comfort in the gesture. Even though she barely knew him, she did know him more than she did the woman and the man. “He’s taking care of me,” she said to the woman, trying hard not to stare at her scar.
Nadiene looked at the unlikely pair, and then to Charles, her partner. “There is one possibility.”
Abbie perked up. “So, you can get me home?”
Charles looked at Nadiene blankly, and then straightened, his eyes sharpening as he shook his head. “That would be madness.”
“What would be madness?” asked Foster, completely confused at the pair’s dialogue.
"Summer’s Gate is too well guarded. But, there is another,” the woman said, the gold in her brown eyes glittering in the sunlight.
“Oh no,” said Foster, realization dawning.
“You’re insane,” said Charles, with respect in his voice. He grinned. “The Queen will not expect the girl to head for the border.”
Nadiene smiled wolfishly. “As Summer waxes, Winter wanes. It would be your choice of course, Abbie.” She looked at the girl, who knit her brows together in thought.
She did desperately want to go home. As amazing as her few hours in the Otherworld had been, she certainly didn’t want to live there forever. Abbie nodded, uncertainly. “I want to go home.”
The werewolf sat back, satisfied. “Then it’s settled. We head for Winter’s Heart.”