An ancient superstition calls for knocking on wood to thank the tree’s spirit for granting a favor.
—The Fifth Korus of the White Tree
I must be floating… Am I…? Ughhh!! Pain pierced NightFire’s head, yanking her back to the present. She sat upright on singed forepaws, only to find herself engulfed in a smoky haze.
Beneath her, sinewy branches cradled her bloody and bruised body. Long, pliable pine needles pricked the fur around her muzzle. Through squinted eyes, she made out a Ponderosa pine, silhouetted against the storm.
“Do not worry,” leafed the tree. “I have you.”
NightFire placed a paw against the tree’s trunk, struggling to convey what her scorched voice could not. Thank you. Blurred memories continued to bounce around in her head.
As if sensing her confusion, the Ponderosa attempted to explain. “You were struck by the Skaarsgard and tossed skyward in the explosion. I caught you before you… well, see for yourself.” As if upon command, a gentle wind caressed the forest, momentarily pushing away the smoke.
NightFire peered over her cradle of pine boughs, and there, several hundred feet below, was a crater. Dark and black, it scarred not only the forest floor but also the trunk of the tree that held her.
“Had you fallen back…” The Ponderosa pine left it at that.
She thought for a moment. Of course. How stupid could she have been? What had Sequoia taught her? Speak only in the tongues of your Toka. No wonder the Skaarsgard had found her. In sudden fear, she searched the clouds.
“It’s gone,” declared the Ponderosa. “For now.”
As relief slowly soothed her panic, she opened her mouth to speak. Only the rasping whine of a lynx’s growl emerged.
“You are NightFire, I know. I am Peycos. Please, give my regards to your father.”
NightFire squeezed her eyes shut, searching for the human words. She licked her lips and tried again.
This time, her words found their whispered voice. “I will, m’lord. I was on my way to him. To stop this.” She faltered, her burnt whiskers flicking back to life.
“Are you sure that’s wise?” Peycos asked. “I mean, you, alone, against all of this? Speaking on behalf of the Standing People, we’re more or less forced to stay out of things. After all, we can’t be of much help, but you…” The tree bowed toward her, enveloping her within what appeared to be a mix of protective confidence and fear. “You know you’re welcome to stay as long as you like.”
“I appreciate the offer, m’lord, but…” NightFire nodded toward the distant fires still raging. “It’s probably not the best idea,” she said. “At least for you.”
“True,” the tree sighed. “You know what they say…Born to breathe, but bred to burn.” With that, the Ponderosa Pine gently lowered NightFire to the ground, branch by branch. “But find help,” the tree added as she leapt the final few feet. “This is not a battle that can be waged alone, much less won.”
“Thank you, Peycos. I’ll try.” She couldn’t bring herself to commit. What if no one was there to help?
As if reading her mind—which the Standing People did on a regular basis—the pine responded: “Good luck, child. And like I said, this isn’t just your war. It belongs to every living thing. Never forget that.” As NightFire stretched her tired limbs, the pine retreated, standing tall in the night sky once more.
After gathering her bearings at the foot of the Ponderosa, NightFire pondered her next move. She couldn’t risk remaining in one animal skin forever. The granting was strong but it had its limits. Never had she assumed so many forms in so short a time. Even now she felt the resistance in her limbs to change.
A part of her longed to continue racing through the forest, to experience life with a lynx’s heightened sensations of sight, hearing, and smell, but in her heart she knew her greatest value to Sequoia and the Emerald Guard was as a human—a human who could make complex choices.
Reluctantly, NightFire decided it was time she returned to what she was.