Chapter Twenty-Nine

They found the wasp a little while later. It was a few feet from where Summer had flung it, crawling determinedly northeast with the bottle dragging behind it.

Summer felt as if she were standing a little bit behind herself. She picked up the bottle and set it to the northeast of the wasp. It climbed into the mouth of the bottle and she put the stopper in. It buzzed against the glass, still mindlessly pushing to the northeast.

Glorious was favoring his left hind leg, where three of the silver weights had wrapped around it. There was a burn across the joint that looked as if someone had stuck him with a hot poker. The valet-birds had dressed it as best they could.

“Later,” said Glorious. His voice was still ragged. “We must move. If we can be found by one, we can be found by others.”

So they moved. Summer didn’t ride. They went low, under the scruffy trees, until Summer and the goose-guards had to bend down to fit. The sun rose high in the sky, but they moved through dappled shadows.

“She lied the whole time, didn’t she?” she said abruptly.

“It is likely,” said Glorious. Not needing to ask who, or about what. “She would have had to put the hunters on my trail some time ago.”

“A week, they said,” said Ounk.

I didn’t trust her, said Summer to herself. I didn’t, I didn’t, I knew I shouldn’t!

Her cheeks burned anyway. She felt embarrassed in front of herself.

So stupid, so gullible, so young…

I wouldn’t have done anything differently! I still would have tried to escape!

But I could have left her once I was away…and she would have followed me, most

likely, so what was the difference?

The difference was that she would have tried.

They rested for a little while in the shade of a rocky outcropping. There was a seep under a stone, enough to make a little pool no larger than Summer’s cupped hands. By unspoken agreement, they let Glorious drink first.

The antelope woman lied, and the priestess lied. Who else is lying?

Summer leaned her head back against the stone. Perhaps everyone was lying. Perhaps there was nothing true in the world. What did she know for certain, anyway?

Perhaps the Forester had lied about the wasps. Perhaps the Queen-in-Chains was not responsible at all. Perhaps everyone had lied about the dogs and they were all exactly like Zultan. Perhaps there was some dark deception behind Reginald’s foolish enthusiasm and the dignity of the goose-guards.

Perhaps Baba Yaga herself had been lying. How could she have been stupid enough to think that she would find her heart’s desire here? How could her heart’s desire be in another world where practically the first thing she saw was a dying tree?

Teeth gripped her hand and Summer’s eyes flew open.

“Enough,” said Glorious, releasing her fingers. “You’re chewing your own wounds open now. They won’t heal that way.”

“How can you tell?” asked Summer. Her voice sounded as hoarse as his.

“Do you think I’ve never done the same, Summer-cub?” He shook himself. Hair flew in a blizzard, where the silver had loosened it. “I learned. You’ll learn too.”

He tested his hind leg and nodded. “Up on my back,” he said. “We’ve gone far enough in stealth. Now we run.”

In the end, they could not run far enough, or fast enough. Reginald went up on a short scouting flight and came down almost immediately.

“Sleipnerians,” he gasped. “The hunters must have put them on our trail.”

“Or they’ve been hanging back until now in hopes that the hunters would take out Glorious,” said Ankh.

“Go to ground?” said the weasel.

Reginald shook his head. “They spotted me. The one with the crossbow shot at me—nowhere near, but I don’t dare go up again. They know we’re here.”

The weasel let loose a long, chattering call, which sounded profane, and ended with, “You damn dandy, you’ve led them right to us!”

“Now see here—” began Reginald.

“No time, you two!” said Ounk. “Begging your pardon, Master Reginald,” she added, somewhat perfunctorily.

“If we take to the air, we can lead them off—” began Ankh.

“No good. They know two of us are on foot,” finished Ounk.

“I cannot outrun them on this leg,” said Glorious. “But I can fight.”

“A defensible position, then,” said Ankh.

“And let us sell our lives dear,” said Ounk.

It was all happening too fast. Summer wanted to say “Wait—stop—slow down!” But of course they couldn’t. She wanted to say “I didn’t agree to this!” and that should have mattered but it didn’t, and the fact it didn’t matter was even worse.

The valet-birds rushed in, twittering, and then zipped away to the left. Glorious veered after them. Summer ran alongside him, gripping his fur. He was half-dragging her along, and all she could do was keep her arm over her face to fend off whipping branches.

The goose-guards had it worse. Unable to fly for fear of arrows, their waddling gait was not suited to speed. But they could flatten their long necks down and get under the worst of the branches, and finally, all together, they scrambled and crawled and fell into the place that the flock had found.

There was a rock barely as tall as Summer and a line of dense bushes to one side. Other than that, it looked distressingly open.

“I have seen more defensible trees,” muttered Glorious.

“Master Reginald and Miss Summer against the rock,” said Ankh crisply.

“Now see here—” began Reginald.

“Glorious in the middle. We shall flank,” said Ounk.

“I’m not an egg that you need to keep warm!”

“We must take the crossbowman first if we can,” said Ankh. “Otherwise he will pick us off from a distance.”

“A fine plan,” said Glorious dryly. “How do you propose that we do this?”

“You know, I can fly right over the blighter’s head!”

Summer wanted to ask if they were going to die, but it didn’t seem particularly helpful, and she was afraid that she knew what the answer was going to be. She pulled the cheese-sword out of its sheath and stared at it. Could she stab somebody with it?

It’s not that I don’t think I’d want to, she thought glumly, but if I stick somebody with it, can I push hard enough to make it go in?

She’d never stabbed anyone before. It seemed difficult.

“Are you listening to me?” demanded Reginald, and then Summer heard the strange, multiplied sound of the spider-horses’ hoofbeats.

They did not come from the front, as Summer had expected, but from the side. They ran along the line of bushes and as the first one began to turn the corner, the valet-birds surged toward it.

The Sleipneirian was not expecting a flock of tiny things pecking at its eyes. It stumbled, reared, and snapped at them. The horses behind had to halt their run, veering around them.

The pileup rather ruined the effect of the charge, but Grub made the best of it anyway. He spurred his steed around the embattled horse and halted.

“Surrender,” he said. “Hand over the human and you will be spared.”

Summer glanced back across the horses. There were six besides Grub’s. She did not see Zultan or the antelope woman.

Feathers brushed her cheek as Reginald launched himself into the air.

The crossbowman jerked his weapon up and fired.

“Now!” shouted Ankh. “Before he reloads!”

“Surrend—” began Grub again, obviously caught flat-footed, and Glorious leapt.

He tore into the horse’s neck as if it was a deer. Its front legs buckled and it went to its knees. Grub was thrown forward, over the saddle, but Glorious was already gone.

Ankh and Ounk looked at each other, shrugged, and waded into the fray.

Summer would not have thought that a bird could fight effectively with a spear held in a webbed foot. She had forgotten how often birds stood on one foot. The geese balanced like ballet dancers, striking with spear and beak and wing. The riders they hit with their wings did not get up again.

Reginald smashed into the crossbowman. There was no finesse to his method at all, he just flew directly into the man’s face, battering with his wings and tearing with his claws. The man flung up his hands to defend himself and the crossbow dropped to the ground.

For a moment, everything was flailing legs and wings, spears and swords, the hiss of angry geese and Glorious growling.

And then there was a spider-horse coming right at Summer.

She threw her hands up in the air to protect her face and then she realized she was still holding the cheese-sword, so she lashed out with it wildly. It hit something and the shock traveled up her arm, which promptly went numb to the elbow.

The spider-horse screeched. So did Summer.

She looked up into the face of a rider and then something happened and he fell down and Glorious was there but so was another horse and Summer threw herself sideways without understanding why she was doing it and a sword much bigger than the cheese-sword slashed through the space where she had been.

She fell over backwards, which probably saved her life. The rider could not reach down to her. The spider-horse snapped at her but then the valet-flock zoomed between them. One exploded in a puff of feathers as the awful mandibles snatched it out of the air.

Summer screamed and crab-walked backward as fast as she could. She still had the cheese-sword—somehow—and she slashed it at the spider-horse, hitting one of the bristly legs right at the joint.

It cracked and the horse made a horrible chattering noise and then Glorious slammed into it from the side and knocked it back against the rock.

Summer scooted away, farther and farther, and then ran into something soft and solid.

It was Grub.

He lay motionless where the horse had thrown him…or almost motionless. His face was still and collapsed, like a Halloween mask with no one wearing it. But his back was heaving strangely, as if he were struggling to rise.

“No!” shouted Summer. “No! This is your fault!” She rolled to her knees and lifted the cheese-sword and slammed it down as hard as she could into her tormentor’s back.

The first few inches slid in as if she were cutting butter, and then the blade struck something hard and skidded sideways.

The heaving motion grew far more pronounced. Before Summer’s horrified eyes, Grub’s clothes split open.

His skin was white and covered in thin ribbed lines. It swelled up like a monstrous balloon, and then it too split open. Something black and huge began to force its way out of Grub’s skin.

The sound of the horses and the geese and the wolf behind her seemed to fade. All Summer could see was long, bristly legs poking out, and then pushing down Grub’s skin the way that a human might push down a skirt that she was taking off.

It was dark, iridescent blue and black. It had wings like wet tissue paper. Its abdomen rose high in the air, but its head seemed to be stuck. It pushed against the deflated Grub, trying to get free.

“Wight-fly!” screamed Ankh somewhere behind her. “Wight-fly!”

Summer lifted the cheese-sword and hacked at the monster’s wings.

They parted with a wet ripping sound. The Grub-fly made a high, terrible buzzing and jerked upright.

The old skin came with it. The Grub-fly scraped at its new face, trying to remove the old one that was blinding it. As the skin shredded, Summer caught glimpses of vast, segmented green eyes, shot through with white lines.

It buzzed, and in the buzzing Summer could almost hear a voice.

She thought that if she could make out words, she would probably go quite mad, so she screamed louder to block it out and slashed at the monster with the blade.

It caught the cheese-sword with one bristly, hooked leg, and flung it contemptuously aside.

Summer decided that this would be a good time to crawl away.

The Grub-fly tried to spread its wings and found them useless. It stamped after Summer instead, catching up and looming over her, and she looked up and thought, I am going to die now.

A spear sprouted out of the fly’s right eye.

Ankh struck the Grub-fly with her wings outstretched and they rolled over in a tumble of feathers and hair, buzzing and hissing. Summer scrambled to her feet and looked around wildly.

The spider-horses had collapsed into strange piles of crooked-up legs. There were dead men strewn across the ground. She could not see Ounk. Glorious was standing with his head low and blood streaming over his face, looking at a last, tall figure, who stood gazing over the carnage.

Zultan.

She heard a wet, sickening noise, and turned.

Ankh had torn the Grub-fly open. It lay on its side, spasming, its legs moving like a mechanical toy winding down.

The goose-guard stood over it, swaying.

“There,” she said. “There. That pays for all.”

And then she too fell down, and did not move again.

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