Chapter Eight

Summer was half-expecting the world to have changed outside the Wheystation, the way it had changed outside Baba Yaga’s house, but it was the same landscape as before. Cottonwoods huddled closely around the stream. The road ran from the front door of the Wheystation off into the hills, following the path of the stream. There was a split-rail fence running along it on the left side. At some point the fence had been painted blue, but all that remained were cracked and faded stripes.

Your Way is marked in turquoise.

The paint was…not turquoise, maybe, but not far from it. Grub and his unseen master were nowhere to be seen. They had presumably gone over the hill and into the desert.

Summer started down the road.

It was hot. Dust puffed off the road under her feet, and stained her sneakers and socks a grayish-tannish-gritty color.

Carrying the cheese knife was difficult too. Holding a sharp object in one hand requires a little bit of attention all the time, so you don’t cut yourself.

Summer’s mother would never have let her carry at all, for fear that she’d trip and cut her own head off. It was really almost the size of a sword, particularly for an eleven-year-old girl. The blade swept up in a curve and came to a double point at the end, like a fork.

She wouldn’t have expected anyone to have a cheese knife that big, but then again, given the size of some of the cheeses at the Wheystation, you’d need a cheese-sword just to cut them.

There were words etched in the handle, in a language she didn’t know.

“If this were like The Hobbit,” Summer said, to herself or the knife or possibly the weasel, “you’d have elvish runes and glow when enemies were around.”

“What, enemies of cheese?” The weasel clung to her shoulder and peered at the blade. “Like mice? That could be useful. I’m feeling a bit peckish. I could go for a nice juicy mouse.”

“Yuck!”

“I’d catch you one, too,” said the weasel.

Summer considered this. She did not want to eat a mouse, but it was nice of the weasel to offer. She wasn’t sure if the weasel qualified as a grown-up—probably not—but…well… “Thank you very much,” she said carefully. “But I don’t eat mice.”

“Suit yourself,” said the weasel, and went to sleep in her hair. (Summer had very thick, dark, curly hair and it supported a weasel admirably.)

She kept walking.

The hand holding the cheese-sword sagged. It wasn’t very heavy, but she had to hold it out away from her body and it was making her arm tired. If only she had a sheath or something. She didn’t feel right just dropping it by the side of the road—what if she needed it? She was in a fantasy world, after all, having an adventure, and adventurers always seem to need swords. Maybe she could tie it to her belt loop somehow…

It required the sacrifice of both shoelaces, but she managed to tie the cheese-sword to her belt loop so that the pointy bit pointed away from her and she didn’t whack her arm on the hilt when she walked.

Of course, if I have to draw it out in a hurry, I’m going to be in trouble…

Still, she felt grown-up and resourceful for having worked it out. The tongues of her shoes flopped against her ankles as she walked.

She had walked for nearly an hour, stopping to drink from the stream once or twice, when a dragonfly landed on the split rail fence in front of her.

It was blue. It was bright, electric blue, blue like a neon sign. Its wings had tiny blue veins in them. Its eyes were huge and mossy green.

It perched on the fence, as immobile as a stone.

Summer looked at it. She dug a hand into her pocket, past the lock and the acorn, and pulled out the piece of stone that had fallen out of the cheese.

Blue. The same color as the dragonfly.

The dragonfly lifted off the fence and droned through the air a few feet, then landed again.

“Do you think it’s part of my Way?” she asked the weasel.

“Hzzt?” said the weasel, and rolled over and went back to sleep.

Summer bit her lip. When she was nearly abreast of the dragonfly, it lifted off again, but this time it was going away from the fence, through the cottonwoods.

Following the dragonfly meant she’d have to leave the road. If she stayed on the road, she wouldn’t get lost—but if she stayed on the road, what if Grub came up behind her and caught her?

She looked back the way she had come. There was no one there.

It occurred to her that if Grub did follow her trail back through the desert—with the “sniffers,” whatever they were—then he might run into Boarskin and Bearskin and Donkeyskin. She hoped that they would be all right. They had seemed very tough, but Grub had been frightening and hit people, and Summer didn’t know how someone like Donkeyskin would cope with being hit.

The dragonfly buzzed toward her again, zipped in a circle over her head, then flew back into the trees.

Well, I guess that’s pretty obvious…

She put a foot over the split rail fence. It was hard to get over the top—it was nearly chest high and the cheese-sword banged against the post—but she managed. The weasel woke up and made grumbling noises behind her left ear.

When she stepped through the band of cottonwoods, she saw that the landscape had altered subtly from the desert. The shrubs grew in pockets of dirt wedged in between long bands of rock.

Because Summer had paid attention in class, she knew that the rock was the type called sedimentary, which lays down in long bands at the bottom of prehistoric lakebeds. But something odd had clearly happened here, because the bands were not flat but diagonal, as if some enormous force had picked the rock up and dropped it down off-kilter.

She stepped up onto the stone.

“Stone’s good,” offered the weasel. “Hard to track someone over stone. Doesn’t leave footprints.”

The stone ridge went on for twenty or thirty feet—the length of the driveway to Summer’s house—and on the far side it fell away into nothing. When she peered over the edge, she saw the tops of pine trees far below.

“It’s a cliff!” she said, startled.

She took a step back. If her mother had been there, she would have screamed at Summer to get away from the edge before she fell, and Summer would have been annoyed, because she knew perfectly well not to fall off very steep cliffs and wasn’t going to start doing cartwheels on the edge or anything like that. You would have to be very stupid to fall off a cliff that was so obviously there.

But her mother wasn’t there. She could stand as close to the edge as she wanted, and look down into the valley below. The pine trees were deep green and the cliff gave way to a long slope of shattery scattery stones. They looked sharp, like broken plates.

A cool breeze whispered up from the valley. It smelled like Christmas trees and cedar chests. A bird called somewhere in the forest, and another one answered it.

Summer took several more steps back, until she was a comfortable distance away from the edge. When she looked back toward the road, she couldn’t see anything through the cottonwoods. Maybe that meant that no one could see her, either.

The dragonfly buzzed away over the stone, along the cliff’s edge, and she followed.
The day got on and Summer got hungry.

Manticore cheese is very filling, but even it runs out eventually. Summer concentrated on plodding along the rock, one foot in front of the other, and tried to ignore the growling in her midsection.

She got in the habit of checking the dragonfly every minute or so, and it was always there, zipping along the cliff’s edge, until suddenly it wasn’t and she didn’t know where it had gone.

She stopped in her tracks. “Weasel? Did you see where it went?”

The weasel had been making a perfect rat’s nest of her hair, trying to find the most comfortable position. He stuck his head out and said “No.”

Summer turned in a circle, looking for flashes of turquoise.

Nothing.

The sky was hard and blue, but it went on forever and even in this mad world she could hardly be expected to walk into the sky.

“Should I just keep walking?” asked Summer. “I mean—will something show up, do you think?”

“It occurs to me,” said the weasel, going back to mussing around in her hair, “that you are laboring under the impression that I am some sort of magical familiar. I’m not. I’m really a very ordinary weasel—although quite good-looking, of course—and not magical at all.”

Summer sighed. “You talk, though.”

“All weasels talk,” said the weasel. “Most humans are just bad at listening.”

Since standing on the edge of the cliff wasn’t going to get her any closer to food, Summer started walking again.

She walked for about a dozen steps, and then a lizard shot across her path. It was black with narrow cream-colored racing stripes, and its tail was as pure and brilliant blue as the sky.

It came out of a crack in the ground and went over the edge of the cliff, clinging to the stone with all its tiny toes.

“Oh no,” said Summer, stopping. “I am not jumping off a cliff! I don’t care where my path is supposed to lead me! And not on an empty stomach!”

She might have continued in this vein for quite some time, but the weasel said, “Hsst! What’s that?”

Summer stopped. For a moment, the only thing she could hear was the wind sighing through the trees below the cliff.

Then there was a thud and a jingle and another thud and a clip-clop-clip-clop and the distant throbbing that happens when somebody says something a long way off.

“Someone’s on the road,” whispered the weasel. “They’re coming this way.”

“Do you think it’s Grub?” whispered Summer.

“I don’t know, but I don’t like it.” He stared over her shoulder, the way they had come, and his tail lashed once-twice like a cat’s. “The hoofbeats are wrong. The horse has too many legs.”

Summer was perfectly willing to believe that in this world, there were horses with four legs, six legs, eight legs, maybe a hundred legs, like some kind of centi-horse, and maybe they were still very nice horses that would like to have somebody feed them apples, despite however many legs they might have.

Maybe.

On the other hand, when you knew that somebody was after you and probably behind you on the road, and suddenly you heard a lot of commotion and a horse that maybe wasn’t quite a horse after all…

The lizard skittered over the cliff’s edge and ran across her shoe. Summer watched it spin on top of her foot, blue tail flashing, then it scurried over the cliff’s edge again.

“I think we should get out of here,” said the weasel.

The lizard poked its head over the cliff again.

Summer gulped. The jingle-jangle-thud-thud-thud was coming closer. She knelt on the edge of the cliff and reached a hand over.

Her fingers touched metal. She traced a round outline—a ring? It was the size of the big rings that held towels in the bathroom back home.

There was another one beside it. The lizard skittered frantically back and forth.

Someone laughed from the road. How had they gotten so close? If they came through the cottonwood trees, they’d be sure to see her. She had to stick out like a sore thumb on the bare rock.

Could she really go over? Wouldn’t she just fall? Was she supposed to hang by the rings?

She leaned farther out over the cliff. She could just see the rings now, under the stone lip, and there was a little bit of a ledge a few feet down. Enough to put her feet on, maybe.

“Go,” whispered the weasel. “Oh, go, go, there’s something bad behind us, I can smell it from here—”

“Hold on,” whispered Summer, and grabbed one of the rings.

She truly didn’t know how she was going to get down, and for a minute she didn’t think she could bring herself to swing over the edge, but then she heard the worst sound of all.

The hoofbeats had stopped.

There were monkey bars at school. Summer hung on them all the time. It wasn’t much different from that, surely?

She grabbed a ring and swung herself over the edge. The world lurched, or maybe it was just her stomach. She grabbed for the second ring, couldn’t find it—oh no, oh no, where is it no no—

Cold metal under her fingers. She locked her hand around it. Her toes just reached the little ledge. She looked up.

She could see the edge clearly. If somebody looked over, they’d see her.

The lizard was practically under her nose. It scurried sideways, sticking to the rock as easily as if it were flat ground. Summer pressed her cheek against the stone. Her fingers burned.

The metal rings were cast in the shape of bees, a whole circle of little bees, nose to stinger, and the sockets holding them to the cliff were great blooming roses. They were very pretty. More importantly, they seemed to be very solidly attached.

The rock sloped sharply inward under the overhang at the top of the cliff, forming a shallow cave. The ledge widened. Summer thought she could probably reach it, although there would be a bad second or two when she didn’t quite have her feet in the cave and she didn’t quite have her fingers on the metal rings.

The lizard skittered out of the cave, then back in.

“Somebody’s coming this way,” whispered the weasel. “I heard them climb the fence.” His mouth was right next to her ear, he was speaking so quietly, and she could feel a tiny puff of breath on her cheek.

Summer nodded.

She moved both hands to the ring closest to the cave and slid her feet along. The scrape of her sneakers on rock sounded much too loud.

The last bit wasn’t as bad as she feared. She stretched out as far as she possibly could, got one foot solidly inside the cave, and half-jumped, half-fell over it.

It was deeper than she’d thought. It was deep enough that she could sit down with her knees drawn up and not be in any danger of falling. She could probably have slept there, if she wasn’t worried about rolling around in her sleep, and if her heart hadn’t been hammering in her chest like a jackhammer.

“So you’ve lost her, then,” said Grub. Summer jumped, but managed not to squeak. The weasel pressed against her neck. She could hear his tiny heart humming along, even faster than hers.

Grub was standing on top of the cliff, she thought, maybe ten feet back the way she’d come.

“Lost,” said another voice. It was a man’s, and it sounded older and deeper and much more tired than Grub’s. “I don’t know about lost. She might have come this way, or not. I’m a tracker, not a miracle-worker. I’d guess she’s been walking along the ridge for a few hours now, and I haven’t seen any signs to tell me she’s left it. I thought I saw something flash through the trees here, but might have been a bird or something else. It’s gone now.”

“Lovely.” Grub did not sound happy. She heard his footsteps crossing the rock. “Zultan will not be pleased.”

“That’s as may be,” said the tracker. “But I can’t call tracks out of thin air. She may still be ahead of us.”

“A sniffer could find her,” said Grub sulkily. “It was sniffers who knew she’d come through.”

“Then go get a sniffer,” said the tracker. “And while you’re at it, get the wagons full of the water you’ll need to keep it damp in this here desert, why don’t you?”

Grub made a frustrated noise and scuffed at the ground. He had to be right over the top of the cave. Summer breathed through her mouth and tried to not even think loudly.

“You’re supposed to be the best,” he said.

“No, I’m not,” said the tracker. “I’m supposed to be good, and flattery won’t help. My great-grandfather was the best, and not even he could track someone across naked rock. That’s the way it is. You like it or you don’t, but you can’t change it.”

There was a brief silence. Someone—maybe Grub—hawked and spit.

Summer winced. Her mother would be deeply horrified. Spitting in public was only slightly less grim than murder in her mom’s world.

“What does he want with her, anyway?” asked the tracker. He was moving off now, farther up the canyon rim.

“She’s a human,” said Grub.

“So? Plenty of humans around, even now. You were one yourself, I hear, before you got into the wight-liquor—”

“Yes, well,” said Grub, cutting off whatever else the tracker was going to say.  “This one came through from somewhere outside. It’s crone magic, they think, and you know how the Queen feels about crones…”

The tracker said something else, but Summer couldn’t make out the words. They’d moved too far off. It was very frustrating. She wanted very much for the men to go away without finding her, but she also wanted to hear the rest of the conversation, which seemed like it might be important.

So they were after her because she was human and she’d come from somewhere else. That didn’t seem very fair. She hadn’t done anything.

Summer knew, of course, that a crone is a not-very-nice term for an old woman, and she could guess that they meant Baba Yaga, who was, after all, a not-very-nice old woman. Still, it wasn’t her fault. She hadn’t asked for Baba Yaga to send her somewhere…

…had she?

This must be my heart’s desire. I didn’t think that it was to wander around hungry in the desert and then have scary people try to catch me, though!

And what were sniffers, anyway? Or wight-liquor?

She was torn. She wanted her heart’s desire—that was the point of having a heart’s desire, after all!—but she didn’t want to be chased through the desert by strange men who might or might not be human.

It’s an adventure. I am on a grand adventure. It’s like when the children went to Narnia, and they were chased by wolves. It was probably pretty scary to be chased by wolves, but they stayed anyway and there were centaurs and fauns and talking lions.

And this was all true and settled her nerves a bit, but it was a long time before she felt comfortable leaving the cave.

 

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