The antelope woman’s story left Summer cold inside. There was something so strange and twisted about what she was saying, and yet…and yet…
They were cursed for something that wasn’t their fault. That wasn’t right.
It seemed as if the antelope women were saying, “Curse us, will you? We’ll show you!”
“You’re thinking very hard, my innocent,” said the antelope woman. She stretched, arching her back and drawing one hand gracefully down her other arm. She was very beautiful, and Summer had a sudden vision of a dark world, empty even of grass, and antelope women dancing together in the darkness.
It was frightening, and yet she thought that she would like to watch that dance, for a little while at least. As if it might reveal something to her that she did not understand and that grown-ups had never been able to explain.
She did not know how to say this out loud. She was not entirely sure that she wanted to.
“Could you find another world?” she asked instead. “One where the gods didn’t hate you?”
The antelope woman shrugged. “Perhaps. It is not always so easy. Some worlds lie together like the feathers on the breast of a dying bird, and some are as far apart as mountains. But why should we? If the gods punish us, let us stay here forever and remind them of what they could not tame.”
“Do antelope women ever try to be good?” asked Summer. “Not wicked?”
“Oh, certainly,” said the antelope. She flipped her hand in a dismissive fashion, wrinkling her broad nostrils. “They fall in love with dogs or saints or shapechangers. Someone with broad shoulders, who is so good that it makes your teeth ache, and then they wind up using their skills to save him from himself. They never live very long after that, but it makes a good doomed love story.” She seemed unimpressed by this prospect. “There’s a very nice shrine on the coast to the Stag Maiden, which is both historically and biologically inaccurate, but the marble work is lovely. She fell in love with the Sea Dragon’s Daughter, and they had a marvelously tragic romance. I’d take you there so that I could make sarcastic comments about the tour guides, but Zultan would probably object. Are we going to escape or not?”
“I don’t know!” said Summer helplessly. “How do I know if you’re telling the truth?”
“You don’t. You won’t. Even I’m not sure.” The antelope woman grinned again. Her eyes were as dark as a skull’s eye sockets, and gave away even less. “I suspect, however, that if I were planning on betraying you right away, that I’d be more persuasive. But I am not quite certain, right now, whether it will be more fun to betray Zultan first, then turn on you, or perhaps the other way around.”
She turned her head back toward the camp. Her ears swept up to catch the sounds.
Summer looked around desperately for turquoise, for any sign that this was the road to take. There was nothing.
I have to decide. I have to decide myself. I know this is bad, and the saint warned me, but I have to decide what the warning means.
Sometimes all the choices are bad.
She, too, looked back toward the camp. Grub was walking toward them. The eight-legged horses pawed at the ground, their muzzles studded with unblinking eyes.
“Let’s escape,” she said quietly.
The antelope woman laughed. “Clever innocent. Or foolish. I haven’t decided yet. Wait for a signal, then.”
Summer sat on a rock and waited for a signal and wondered what one would even look like.
A fire? A stampede? What could I even do? I can’t run…
The sun tracked its way across the sky. A bird chirped somewhere in the canyon, or a bug that sounded like a bird. Guards came and went in the camp. Grub huddled under a tarp, looking pale and ill, although Summer had no idea if that was normal or not.
The landscape looked like that around the Great Pipes, but with even less vegetation.
Large rocks littered the landscape. The campsite was set on a level place amid loose scree slopes.
Even if her feet were free, she would have had a hard time walking across the scree with any speed. The Sleipnerians had gone across it with spidery agility.
If I run…I can’t run very far.
The antelope woman strolled through the camp, her tail swishing. She exchanged a few words with Grub and then laughed. Grub huddled deeper into his clothes and glared.
Maybe she’s not going to help me at all. Maybe it was all a lie to amuse herself.
Zultan was nowhere to be seen.
She felt hot and exhausted and sore. She was no longer quite so thirsty.
The bird chirped again, closer. Then she actually saw it, a little dark shape hopping across the broken ground.
It was wearing a tiny bowler hat.
Summer wanted to cheer or scream or yell, but she didn’t dare. She sat very quietly, watching the valet-bird hop around the ground.
It seemed confused, but it came closer and closer.
Could it get her out of here? Then she wouldn’t need the antelope woman’s help.
The valet-bird cocked its head and looked at her. It was hard to read the expression on its tiny face, but Summer thought that it looked…baffled.
She glanced around for the rest of the flock, but couldn’t see any of them.
It hopped closer to her, settling at last on one of her shoes, and began picking at her shoelace.
“Are you here to help?” whispered Summer.
It glanced up at her, then back down. There was a burr stuck in her shoelace. The valet-bird worked it loose, chirping grumpily to itself.
Summer’s heart sank.
Flock-mind, Reginald said. Smarter when they’re together. Did they split up to try and find me? And now it’s not quite smart enough to know what to do?
The bird looked up at her again, then scuffled at the ground. It seemed to be thinking hard.
“Can you tell the others where I am?” whispered Summer. “Or lead them back here?”
It began picking at her other shoelace.
Maybe it will remember when it gets back to the others. Maybe it’ll be able to tell them then. Or maybe others will come, and then they’ll be smart enough…
Summer scanned the air for other valet-birds, but saw only the hard blue sky, already softening towards evening.
Gravel crunched as someone walked toward her, and the valet-bird flew away.
It was one of the guards. His face didn’t change when he looked at her. He set a thin metal plate on the rock beside her and walked away without speaking.
Summer stared at the plate, which had some kind of glop on it. It looked like very wet rice with some kind of sauce. There were chunks of something in it. It did not look terribly appetizing. Even goulash day at the school cafeteria was better than that.
She thought of wight-liquor and it became much easier to set the food aside.
Time passed with agonizing slowness. Summer watched the guards wander around the camp. No one seemed to care that she was sitting out here.
Well, where am I going to go? I can’t run with my legs tied up, and the spider-horses can catch me in five minutes on these slopes…
She wondered if there were other guards posted out of sight, or if this was all of Zultan’s army. Was it really just—she counted—eight guards and Grub and the antelope woman?
How could such a tiny handful of people cause such misery?
I guess in the Old West, all those outlaw gangs were pretty small. And they robbed trains and shot people.
She’d gone with her mother to historic Tombstone once, and actors had done the shoot-out at the OK Corral. She couldn’t remember how many there had been. Mostly she remembered her mother whispering, “It’s okay. They’re not really shooting at each other,” and being annoyed because she knew perfectly well that it was a show, she wasn’t a baby.
She wished she’d paid more attention to the number of people at the OK Corral, or that her school hadn’t wasted so much time on vocabulary words when teaching history and had spent a little more time on important things, like how many people you needed to keep a land terrorized for a hundred years.
And then she remembered Zultan’s face under the mask and her skin crawled again.
More gravel crunching. Summer realized that she had been staring at the ground and looked up.
Grub smirked down at her. “Not hungry?”
“Not really,” she said.
“Oh, but you’ll need to keep your strength up,” he said, voice dripping with fake concern. “Who knows what might happen out here in the—“
“Don’t be an ass, Grub,” said the antelope woman, elbowing him out of the way. “Just because Zultan doesn’t posture like a two-bit actor doesn’t mean you need to fill in the gap.”
She handed Summer another waterskin. Summer drank thirstily.
“Up on your feet,” said Grub, giving the antelope an irritated glance. “I’m keeping an eye on you tonight.”
The antelope woman rolled her eyes. “Give the child a chance to pee first, unless you want her wetting your tent.”
Grub scowled. His strange translucent skin pulled tight over…something. Summer stared up into his face, trying to figure out if Grub had cheekbones in the wrong places.
The antelope woman picked her up by the rope around her wrists. “Come on, child. And turn your back, Grub.”
She winked at Summer.
Wait for a signal…was that it? Are we running now, with Grub right there?
Is there anything that I can do to buy us more time?
She did not know much about being captured by enemies, but Summer was a veteran of the public school system, and she knew that there were things that even the cruelest disciplinarian was forced to accept.
“I…I think I might have to do more than pee…” said Summer.
Grub made a disgusted noise and turned his back.
“Then we’ll go around downwind,” said the antelope cheerfully. “Zultan’ll be in a fine mood if he’s smelling human crap all night.”
She pushed Summer in front of her, with a hand between the shoulderblades. Summer made her slow, shuffling way across the slope.
“That’s good,” murmured the antelope woman. “A bit slower. He has to be sure you can’t run.”
This was easy to do. Summer stumbled repeatedly and the antelope woman took her arm.
“Humans are so slow,” she said loudly. “One of my sisters would be there and back again twice already.”
“Your sisters don’t have their feet tied together!” retorted Summer, and felt the antelope’s breath stir against her ear as the woman laughed.
They made their slow way around the edge of a miniature canyon, out of sight of the camp. Summer cast a last glance behind her, and saw Grub standing with his arms folded and his back turned.
They took two more steps and then the antelope woman crouched down at Summer’s feet. “Hoof up,” she ordered, patting her knee.
Summer obediently put one foot on the woman’s knee. The antelope woman bent her long neck down, gripped the knot in her teeth, and made one rolling, chewing motion.
The hemp parted neatly in two halves.
“How did you do that?” asked Summer, amazed.
“It’s easy when you’re the one who tied the knots,” said the antelope woman dryly. “Looks impressive, but there was only one strand holding it together. It was already starting to come loose. Now come on. There’s a cut through in the back of the canyon here, and we can go up. Stupid thing to leave unguarded if you ask me.”
She stood up, dusting off her knees, and began walking swiftly toward the back of the stone defile. The footing here was better,
“Does Grub know about it?” asked Summer, hurrying after her.
“I’ve no idea. I never told him. If he doesn’t find it himself, he can wonder where we went. It’ll do him good.”
“What I don’t understand,” said Summer, scrambling to keep up while the ends of the rope flopped along the ground behind her, “is why you were helping him in the first place.”
“I still might be,” said the antelope woman cheerfully. “You don’t know, do you? Even I’m not entirely sure. Trust an antelope and you get what you deserve. Everyone knows that.”
Summer shook her head, baffled. The antelope woman was like the opposite of Glorious. You know what she meant, but you weren’t sure if it was true, whereas Summer never doubted the truth of what Glorious said, she just had no idea what it was supposed to mean.
“But if everybody knows that, why did Zultan trust you in the first place?”
“Oh, Zultan.” There was no mistaking the contempt in the woman’s voice. “He thinks he’s a great deal smarter than he is. Assumes that just because he’s angry at the world, he could understand my anger.” She tossed her head and her horns hissed through the air like swords. “He wants the world to burn and I want to dance on the ashes, so he thinks that we are alike. But hate and chaos aren’t the same thing. Occasionally, I see fit to remind him of that.”
“I still don’t understand him,” said Summer wearily.
“Pfff.” The antelope woman waved her hand. “Nothing worth understanding. His people are as good as mine are wicked. The better you are, the farther you can fall. Come from a race of angels and about the only thing you can be is a devil.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Goes the other way too, of course. I could have been a saint. I thought about it very seriously when I was young.”
“Did you really?” asked Summer suspiciously.
“No. That was a lie.”
“Unless this is also a lie,” said Summer, who felt that she was beginning to get the hang of things.
“Oh, very good.”
The cut in the back of the canyon was easy to overlook, and Summer wasn’t entirely sure that it counted as a way up for anyone less than an antelope. She could make three or four steps up the slope and then she would get stuck and her rescuer would grab her wrist and haul her up to the next little ledge.
She didn’t look down.
It’s not as bad as where I hid from Grub in the little cave with the lizard. It’s not like that. If I fall, I’ll roll down, not fall to my death.
She told herself that repeatedly and she didn’t fall down and then they were standing on the canyon rim above the camp. Summer could see the glow of the campfire below, and wondered how soon she would be missed. Could they see her, if they looked up?
She stepped back from the edge, thinking they must look like two black cut-outs along the canyon rim. The antelope woman came with her, her tail swishing.
“Will they come after us on the spider-horses?”
“They can try. The beasts haven’t fed for two days, though, and unless Grub cuts some poor sod up for blood and grain, they won’t be happy about moving at night. And once they do, they won’t get far with their saddle girths cut.”
Summer stared at her back, honestly amazed.
“Do you have a name?” she whispered, when they had walked for a little way.
She did not elaborate on this. Summer tried again: “Will you tell me?”
“No. It’s dangerous to lie too much about your name.”
There were any number of things that Summer could have said to this, but she had a feeling that none of them would end with her learning the antelope woman’s name.
When they had gone far enough that she could no longer see any light but the stars, Summer asked “Will Zultan be angry when he finds that you’ve gone?”
“Perhaps,” said the antelope, shrugging. “His anger’s no concern of mine. Where are your friends, do you think?”
“I don’t know,” said Summer. “Still back at the Great Pipes, maybe. Which way is that?”
“A little south of the setting moon,” said the antelope woman. “As good a direction as any. Follow me.”