There are few reasons Natalie Black would opt to spend a perfectly good Saturday morning in a hospital bed. On a normal Saturday, she'd have already gone for her morning run around Trade Park with her Finnish Spitz Frannie, had a late breakfast with her best friend Molly, and she'd be in the middle of conducting an English as a Second Language class. She wasn't the type to sleep in, even on her days off from work. Her experiences in college had taught her that sleep was a last priority, especially if she wanted to survive her first year in a very competitive professional field.

However, she'd fainted almost two weeks ago and a second and third episode confirmed that it was not low blood sugar or exhaustion as Dr. Evans had suspected. It was an aneurism, and while medicine could stabilize it for awhile, her doctor had recommended prompt surgery. If left untreated, Dr. Evans warned, the aneurism would eventually become worse and cause stroke, paralysis, or worse.

Now, the sunlight pouring through the blinds of her hospital room tantalized her. Natalie knew it would be a long time before she'd have the chance to enjoy a perfect day. The promise of Spring improved her morale; by the time it came, winter would be over and she'd have the strength and energy to resume normal activity without awful headaches or fainting spells.

Mrs. Black held Natalie's hand while Mr. Black smoothed her hair with strong reassurance. Natalie was nervous and appreciated their support. Any type of surgery was dangerous, but this one was particularly risky, she'd been told. The doctor had explained the procedure thoroughly, and Natalie was grateful that her imagination wasn't strong enough to fill her with any more doubts. Her parents had flown to her side for the surgery and her mother would stay for several weeks to care for Natalie and keep the apartment and dog in good condition.

The attending nurse entered the room and announced that it was time. Natalie's eyes enlarged with fear, but she told her parents she loved them and allowed the nurses to wheel her down the hallway. She counted the ceiling tiles and oblong, fluorescent light panels.

Nine by four. Thirty-six. One light per three. That makes...makes...

Medicine that flowed through the tubes in the crook of her arm worked quickly, causing her eyelids to become heavy. She barely noticed the new room, the new masked faces. Numbness spread from her arms to her feet, and her neck soon felt like a string that suspended her airy, balloon head. She laughed at this idea and fell into a deep sleep.

The only thing Natalie Black remembered before falling asleep was a piece of circular plastic rapidly approaching her face. And a light – a bright light indeed. With her eyes still closed, she could picture the object increasing in size until it covered her mouth, nose, then eyes, forehead, and finally, her chin.

Her calmness surprised her. Normally such a breach in her proximity made her feel rather claustrophobic, but her breathing remained regular and no insane amount of heat crept to her face as it commonly did when her sympathetic nervous system was reacting to an external stimulus. The circle of light brought a gentle warmth that lulled her to sleep and apparently erased all of her previous memory. For as the circle of light separated from her face, becoming farther and farther away with each of her breaths, it grew like an inflated balloon until it became as wide and white as the sky.

It was the sky, actually.

A loud sound startled her. A herd of white horses galloped away from her, leaving a cloud of dust. Faint human voices urged them along.

She lay there blinking, confused and wondering where she could possibly be. A quick inventory of the events that had led her to this point produced no ideas. There were lots of tall pine trees, she surveyed, and a ground of soft soil gathered in her fingertips. The pleasant conversation of forest wildlife could be heard, and another sound – running water. Propping herself on one elbow, she craned her neck to listen for danger, heard nothing, and decided to investigate in the direction of said running water.

Curiosity brought her out of the clearing and deeper into the forest. She noticed the trees became taller, thicker, and the sunlight dimmed. Each step was cushioned by cool earth, clear of the sharp rocks and sticks that had prevented previous barefoot strolls in the woods.

Natalie kept careful watch of her surroundings, mentally marking the land so she could find her way back to the clearing if she needed to. There were several different types of trees – mostly oaks, sycamores, and pines – and each appeared vastly different. All of them were remarkably tall, but some looked ancient while others were thin and wispy children; their shades varied from almost translucent light grays to muddy browns and smoky blacks. Green leaves circled a few of the trunks and continued thick among the branches, but others were painfully bald. A variety of shapes distinguished the trees the most, however.

She almost stepped into the water, not watching where she was going. The water's clarity revealed a bed of stones a couple of feet beneath, and she dipped a foot into the water to test its temperature. As she braced herself and gathered her skirts in order to wade, a sharp sound startled her and, losing her balance, she stumbled into the water with a startled cry.

"Ho, Miss! I didn't mean to startle you," said a melodic female voice.

Natalie turned around and looked into the beady black eyes of a female fox. Now, the fact that the voice came from a fox didn't frighten her one bit. Nor did the fact that the fox was in the upright position of a human, leaned against a tree trunk with one hand on her hips and the other twirling her bushy red tail without an afterthought.

"Well, yes ma'am," answered Natalie. "I believe I've lost my way."

"Where'd ya come from?"

Natalie's eyebrows furrowed, and she made a few strangled, perplexed sounds before shrugging.

The fox's eyes brightened with realization. "Did the horses bring you?"

She nodded, remembering the herd she had first seen.

"Ah-ha!" said the fox, licking her lips. "That explains that." She offered Natalie her hand, which she accepted. Water dripped from the dress, which was soaked from the waist down. She followed the fox alongside the stream, wringing some of the moisture from the dress, which she realize looked strange against her pale skin. It was a deep teal color with a light blue sash, and though she couldn't remember her life's specifics, she knew that it was unlike any dress she'd ever worn. She smoothed the silky fabric as she walked, feeling beautiful.

"Where are we going, Miss..."

"Missus," corrected the fox, "Missus Frannie Fox of Hollowlog, at your service."

"Nice to meet you, ma'am," said Natalie politely. "I'm..."

"Natalie, but your friends call you Nat."

"Oh." Natalie paused. "Yes...yes ma'am."

When they'd walked almost a half mile, Natalie noticed steam coming from the water. The trees obscured the sun from their view just as much as it did at their meeting point. Logically, it didn't make sense that the temperature of water from the same body would differ so much.

"Where does this water come from?"

"It comes from the trees," answered Frannie, "and it feels heavenly! We can take a swim if you'd like. He's not expecting us for another half-hour."

He? One word produced a new stream of questions in Natalie's mind. She agreed to the swim, but only sat at the bank and soaked her feet. "What were we talking about?"

"Oh yes, the water!" Mrs. Fox exclaimed and laughed. "Yes, it comes from the trees and they take what they need and make sure the rest of it's nice and clean."

"Doesn't it rain much?"

"I'm sure it's raining now! But the water never reaches us down here except the little ones in the clearing. The leaves reach up to the clouds, wring the water from them, and send it to the branches who decide how much the tree needs to store, and then the trunk absorbs the nutrients, sends the bad bits to feed the soil, and the rest of it goes to the streams..."

"Which feed into the rivers," finished Natalie. She nodded her comprehension. "Now, who is he?"

"Who's who?" replied Mrs. Fox.

"Who?" The conversation became rather confusing, and the arrival of a handsome brown owl did not help matters much.

"Whooooooo called me?" asked the cross owl, whose eyebrows were furrowed in annoyance.

"Oh you'll have to excuse us," apologized the fox. "This is Nat. She's new."

"That's nice," said the owl flatly. "Are you named for the pesky variety of fly?" Mrs. Fox cleared her throat, her eyes wide, and motioned as inconspicuously as possible.

Worried, Natalie dried her legs with the hem of her skirt and stood, curtsying to the owl. He flapped his wings and his countenance brightened.

"Pleased to meet you, Miss Nat. I am Oswald the Owl, Official Forest Surveyor of the Trees. I will allow you to stroke my feathers, if you must."

Trying her best not to hesitate, Natalie obliged, using three fingers to feel the fine, oil-sheened feathers.

"I'm afraid you caught Oswald at a bad time. He's supposed to be sleeping," Mrs. Fox scolded. She squeezed the white, bushy end of her tail and a few droplets of water from the brook landed on the ground. It resumed its normal, fluffy appearance.

"What are you doing in the forest anyhow?" asked Oswald, landing on Natalie's shoulder.

"She's going to pay our friend Trober a visit," explained Mrs. Fox just above a whisper. She winked, trying to be conspicuous but failed miserably.

The owl hooted in recognition and flapped his wings in excitement.

"He will tell you where you have come to us from," said Mrs. Fox to the girl.

"What?" Natalie was becoming flustered. "Who is Trober?"

"Why, Trober's going to become the King of the Forest," Mrs. Fox said as if Natalie should have already known. "It's only a matter of days."

"And we believe you're to be his queen." Oswald then did something quite uncharacteristic of his usual behavior: he sprung from Natalie's shoulder, twirled in the air, and returned to the spot with a dignified cough.

"Me?" The idea made sense to Natalie for some reason. Her dress was fitting for a forest queen, she had no commitments or obligations to speak of, and besides, she rather liked the forest and the creatures she had met so far. She wondered aloud why this Trober fellow would choose her.

Mrs. Fox cleared her throat ceremoniously. "The ancient forest law has required that everyone have a match. I have Mr. Fox; Oswald has Mrs. Owl, but there's no Mrs. Treeman."

"Trober's a Treeman?" Natalie interrupted.

"Let me finish."

"Right. Sorry."

"So in order for Trober to become king (which the citizens of the forest have already decided almost unanimously) he has to abide by the law. And, as Winifred Wolf so graciously pointed out, he cannot become king until he finds a wife."

"Who is Winifred Wolf?" asked Natalie of the bitter tone in Mrs. Fox's voice.

"Our forest's only opposing vote," the owl spat, shaking his head with reproach.

"We worried that Trober would never choose a bride; nobody in the whole forest would suit him, you see. He announced that he would find a human wife in effort to restore peace and order between the forest and humankind."

"How did he find me? I am nobody special," said Natalie, chewing on her thumbnail. She turned from them and began plopping fist-size stones into the brook.

"You're right," Oswald began. "Anyone could have been the queen. But yoooooou are the one whooooose path led this-a-way, and that was Trober's dooooooing."

"So you've answered why he chose me, and what he's looking for, but you've never really told me how he found me."

"Trober has his ways," said Mrs. Fox. "You see, he's a very special kind of being. He has the properties of a tree but the appearance of a man. Some people believe he's fashioned a sort of magic reflecting pool that shows him parts of the human world."

"That's kind of…awkward."

"No Trober would never bring anyone harm," interjected the owl. "Most people don't believe in the pooooool for that reason. Trober has never done anything for himself; all of his powers have been used for the gooooood of the forest ever since he came from the swamp."

Natalie paused and turned to face them. "Did you say something about a swamp?"

"What about it?" Oswald asked.

"I thought all of the water in the forest is supposed to be pure?"

"Well, the swamp isn't exactly pure. Nor is it water, exactly. That's where the dead...go," said Mrs. Fox.

"Should I be afraid?"

"No. The creatures that come from the swamp like toooooo keep toooooo themselves. And not all is bad; Trober came from those parts, after all." The owl took flight and landed on Natalie's shoulder. Using one of his long wing feathers, he pointed to a clearing where Natalie could see a faint green glow in the distance. "That's where you'll find the swamp. You'll doooooo well to stay on this end of the forest."

"So is this Trober character I'm supposed to marry more tree-like or more man-like, because I don't think I could handle being hitched to a stump my whole life."

Mrs. Fox and Oswald laughed.

"He's a bit of both, actually," said Mrs. Fox. "He has the height of a young tree, a head of leaves instead of human hair, but has eyes and ears and arms and legs like a human. And you–you just wait until you see those eyes."

"When do I get to meet him? How does he know I'm here?"

"He knows. There's a type of commuuunication in this forest that puts the human telephone toooooo shame," said Oswald with a tinge of pride in his voice.

"Now, he's nearly ready for you," Mrs. Fox said, moving to straighten Natalie's hair as if she were pruning one of her own children.

More than ever, she was happy to be wearing the beautiful dress. Her dark red hair felt smooth to the touch and she knew that the slight heat of anxiety was doing wonders for the color in her cheeks. Her stockings and shoes had been abandoned near the brook long ago, but being barefoot seemed appropriate for travel in this forest.

"I'm ready," said Natalie, drawing in a deep breath.

The owl closed his eyes for a moment and bobbed his head in rhythm with the birds overhead. "Alright. He will see you now."

Mrs. Fox led the way along the dry patch of grassless floor, which formed a sort of trail that wound them through the trees. Oswald hovered behind them, the flapping of his wings making a lovely sound. Natalie noticed they were walking toward the green glow of the swamp, but said nothing. If she calculated right and they continued on their present path, at the present angle from the swamp, their projected destination would be several feet from the swamp anyway. This bit of logic put her at ease along with the fact that she would soon know why she was in the forest and where she had come from.

As they walked, the trees became shorter – still tall, nonetheless – and more gnarled and knotted, as if they were hunched in pain. The whole atmosphere appeared more ominous, and Natalie's stomach clenched with her intimidation. Her teeth began to chatter and she shivered involuntarily, crossing her arms around her stomach to keep warm.

They approached a hill that was covered with trees, but one of the sides had been hollowed out and replaced with a wooden door. Natalie wondered if a Treeman should have a door made of his very substance. If he's as heartless enough to dispose of his own kind for a silly door, Natalie thought, I wonder what use he will make of me!

She stopped in mid-step and Oswald crashed into the back of her, feathers flying everywhere. With a grumpy snort, he nudged her, urging her to continue. Natalie darted behind a tree, pressing her back against it so the house was out of view.

"Fine," said Oswald. "You can wait here."

Natalie listened as her companions' steps crunched against the earth, becoming more faint as they progressed. Mrs. Fox approached the big red door and tapped on it. As it swung open and a rich voice mingled with their greetings, her heart pounded as if it would leave her chest any moment.

She strained to hear the voices behind her and turned to peek at the group, but the gravity of the situation jerked her head back quickly before she could see anything.

"Yes," she heard the rich voice say. "When can I meet this woman?"

Natalie took a deep breath, stepped away from the tree, brushed the back of her dress, and turned to face the future king.