Summer laid herself flat against Glorious’s fur and stared between his ears. Reginald, who had obviously been spotted, did not try to escape. He was a tiny figure in the road, staring up at the oncoming riders.
The weasel scurried up beside Summer, and laid his tail across her mouth like a bar for silence.
He needn’t have bothered. Summer knew, as soon as the riders came into view, that they were bad.
It was the horses.
From a distance, if you weren’t looking too closely, they might have passed as real horses. From thirty feet, even viewed through ferns and bracken, they were clearly something else.
Each one of them had eight legs, in two sets, front and back. She could not see their hooves. They had no tails or manes, and the faces—oh, there was something badly wrong with the faces.
Summer felt queasy. She had doodled a lot of horses in her notebooks over the years and she had a folder with an Arabian running across the cover. Each of the eight-legged horses had a large round eye, like a black stone set into a little cup of bone, and then under it, another cup of bone and another smaller black stone, and another—
They’ve got four eyes, she thought. Or eight, since there’s four on this side. The horse is really a spider, or part spider, or something spidery, and if I’m sick they’ll hear me, so I can’t be sick, but those are nasty…
There were a dozen of the spider-horses. Ten of the riders wore leather, with helms that shadowed their faces. They were dusty and had shields slung over their packs. Summer could see dark, pitted metal, crossed with iron chains.
The eleventh rider had a very strange helmet. It looked to be metal as well, but it was shaped like a dog’s head, with its lips rolled back in a savage snarl. From the back were dozens of thin metal chains, hanging down like hair. If the rider had any hair of his own, she couldn’t see it.
He was sitting on the back of the spider-horse, holding a book in one hand, and appeared to be reading it. Occasionally he would reach out a gauntleted hand and turn the page.
The twelfth rider was out in front of the column, and held up a hand. The entire group came to a halt in the middle of the road, facing Reginald.
When the twelfth rider spoke, Summer recognized his voice immediately.
“Well,” said Grub. “What have we here?”
Summer craned her neck. She didn’t want to make any noise, but she desperately wanted to see what Grub looked like. Being chased is bad enough, but it’s much worse if you don’t know what they look like.
Unfortunately there was a particularly dense hemlock branch in the way, and when he stopped, all Summer could see were his legs.
“Can I help you gentlemen?” asked Reginald. “Fine day for a ride or a fly, isn’t it?”
Fly away! Summer thought frantically. Fly away! They’re bad, Reginald, can’t you see it?
“You’re a bird,” said Grub.
“I can tell you’re the clever sort,” said Reginald, tapping a claw to his beak. “Spotted it right off. ‘Now that fellow, there, he’s a clever one,’ I said to myself—”
“It is a hoopoe,” said the rider with the book. His voice was very deep and seemed to come from a long way away. “A noble, by the look of him.” He turned a page. “Ask him, Grub, and let us not waste time.”
Grub swung down off his horse. Summer felt her lips curl back. Her mouth tasted sour.
There was something not-right about Grub in the same way that something was not-right with the spider-horses. He was enormous. His skin was wet white with gray shadows. He had no real neck, but his flesh puckered in at regular seams, like the segments of a soft-bodied insect.
Reginald hopped backward on the road.
“Now listen up, bird,” said Grub. “We’re looking for a girl. A human. Have you seen her?”
Summer’s heart rose into her throat and stuck there.
“A human?” said Reginald. “I see lots of humans. All the time. Thick as flies. Not out here, of course.” He waved a wing. “Nothing out here.”
“Then what are you doing out here?”
“Eh?” Reginald cocked his head. “P-practicing my dance moves for the—for the Assembly, dontcha know?” He did a half-hearted pirouette. “For the lovely Miss—Miss—well, dash it, all the lovely misses.”
“You sound nervous, bird,” said Grub. “Something you’re not telling us?”
Summer clenched her fists in Glorious’s fur. Oh Reginald, be careful, Grub hits people…
“Be nervous too,” muttered Reginald. “Dozen horses like that staring at you and thinking of drinking your vital juices.”
“Indeed,” said Grub. “But I am sure it will not come to that, if you answer our questions. I’m sure you want to answer our questions, being a loyal subject of the Queen-In-Chains.”
“Oh, well, queens,” said Reginald. “Very important people. Don’t stand up at Assemblies though, do they?”
“I’m going to ask you the question again,” said Grub. “And this time, I want you to think very hard about what might happen if you don’t answer it.”
There was a soft snick sound. One of the other riders was aiming a crossbow at Reginald.
Summer clenched her fists in Glorious’s fur. What would she do if Grub tried to hurt Reginald? Should she get up and turn herself in? Whatever they were going to do to her, surely she couldn’t stand aside and let them shoot her friend!
What if I’m too afraid? What if I just sit here and can’t move?
“Have you seen a human girl on this road?” asked Grub.
Reginald shook his head violently. “I haven’t seen anyone!”
There was a second snick sound as another crossbow was pointed at him.
“Why are you on this road?” asked Grub. “Don’t give me some nonsense about dancing.”
“Th-there’s an inn,” said Reginald. “Isn’t there? I was rusticating, but I’m out of clean waistcoats and the valet-flock’s getting cheeky about it. So I thought I’d go to the inn, you know, see what they had in the way of laundry and interesting cheeses?”
Grub dropped down to a crouch. Perhaps he meant it to be friendly, but Reginald took another two hops backward. “And you haven’t seen a human girl on this road? Smells of shapeshifters and crone magic?”
Reginald shook his head.
Grub looked as if he wanted to ask more questions, but the rider with the book said, “Most birds have very little sense of smell, Grub, as you would know if you read more.”
Grub hunched his shoulders. He looked like a giant pillbug trying to roll into a ball.
“Not much for the old sniff-box,” said Reginald apologetically, taking another hop backward. “Not a seabird, you understand. One of the Grace-petrels, now, they could tell you what you had for breakfast.”
“I wonder how bird would taste for breakfast,” said Grub. He rose to his feet and turned back to his horse.
“Errr…could ask a vulture, perhaps? Fine sniffers on those fellows. Not much for talking, though, not like civilized birds…”
The crossbows never wavered.
I should go. I should go now. They’re going to shoot at him. I have to stop this.
Whether or not she would have moved to save Reginald, Summer never learned, because the valet-birds got there first.
The whole flock erupted from the trees, chattering and swooping around the guards. The men with crossbows looked away from Reginald, only for an instant, but that was long enough for the hoopoe to launch himself off the roadway and into the trees.
Bolts slammed into the trunk. Summer made a tiny noise of terror and the weasel slapped his tail across her cheek for silence.
“Grub…” said the rider with the book, sounding bored. The valet-flock vanished into the trees.
“We could shoot him out of the tree, Master Zultan,” said Grub. “He knows more than he says, I’ll bet.”
“We do not shoot loyal subjects of the Queen,” said Zultan Houndbreaker, turning back to his book. “And I am sure that he is very loyal. Are you not, hoopoe?”
“Err. Yes. Very, um, loyal,” called Reginald, from the other side of a tree trunk. “Long live her Majesty, wot?” Pinecones rained down as he flew for deeper cover.
“Indeed,” said Zultan, looking back down at the page. “Indeed. We are wasting time, Grub—time we would not have wasted if your precious tracker had not run off in the night.”
Grub swung onto his horse, and the whole company started off again.
“I wouldn’t expect too much of the inn, if I were you—” Grub called over his shoulder, and the whole troop went clopping down the road and out of sight.
Summer let out a long, shuddering breath and buried her face in Glorious’s fur.
What felt like a long time passed. Reginald did not come looking for them. He stood in the road and muttered to himself and hopped and fluttered about, then set out down the road by himself.
“Waiting to make sure they’re not watching,” whispered the weasel. “We’ll catch up to him.”
And indeed, after the hoopoe was long out of sight, Glorious rose to his feet and padded through the woods, as quiet as a cat.
“You said he’d fly away at the first sign of trouble,” said Summer to the weasel.
The little animal had the decency to look embarrassed. “Fine. I misjudged him, okay? He’s still a fop.”
When they came out onto the road, Reginald was soaring overhead, and came down for a landing at the wolf’s feet.
“You were so brave!” Summer cried, and swept him up in a hug. He weighed hardly anything.
“Here now!” squawked the hoopoe. “Careful, Summer, you’ll bruise my feathers—oh, well. Suppose I did rather a good job at that.” He looked guiltily pleased. “Not that I could very well turn you in. Wouldn’t have. Word of a hoopoe.”
“I never thought you would,” Summer assured him, “but you were so brave! I thought you’d run away!”
“If he’d run, they would have chased,” said Glorious. “And on those mounts, they might have caught him, or gotten close enough to put an arrow into him at least.”
“Sleipnirians,” said Reginald grimly. “Breed ’em out of horses and giant spiders, and don’t ask me how, but there’s no way it can’t be a bad business.” He ruffled all his feathers and settled them back down again.
The valet-flock came out of the trees and gathered on the road. Four of them set something down at Reginald’s feet.
Summer looked over at them, and her heart turned over, because one of the birds was lying silently in the dust.
The flock silently took off their hats and held them over their breasts.
“Nicked with an arrow,” said Reginald. “Poor little blighter’s stuck his spoon in the wall.” He sighed and dipped his wings, bowing very low to the fallen bird.
Summer bit her lower lip to keep back the tears. She bowed as well, feeling clumsy and useless and huge. “What do we do?” she asked. “Do we bury him?”
Reginald shook his head. “The flock will handle it,” he said. “He’s one of theirs. They won’t thank us for sticking our beaks in.”
The valet-flock put their hats back on and lifted the body of their comrade. They flew into the forest in a small, swirling knot.
“They’ll catch up to us,” said Reginald. “We’ll keep going.”
Summer pinched the bridge of her nose. She still wanted to cry, but it seemed like there were other things to do first. “Where do we go, though?”
“We keep to our original plan,” said Glorious. “When we reach Fen-town, the smell of humans will confuse your trail beyond all following.” He nodded to Reginald. “And you are certain that your sire will welcome us?”
Summer noticed the us and was warmed by it.
Reginald nodded vigorously. “Sure of it. M’father’s up to all the tricks, and if he hears you’ve got the Houndbreaker after you—well, nobody in all of Orcus I’d rather have at my back. And Almondsgrove’s only a short flap from Fen-town.”
“Do they let wolves in Fen-town?” asked Summer timidly, imagining the uproar if she had tried to walk into the middle of her home town, riding a wolf the size of a pony.
Glorious’s teeth gleamed. “I don’t see that they have any way to keep us out. Do you?”