Traveling with the hoopoe might not have been faster, but it felt like it.
He hopped along the road, from fence-post to fence-post, chatting to her.
Occasionally, he would take to the air. “Nobody for miles,” he reported cheerfully when he returned. “Not the shake of a cat’s whisker. Zultan and his bully-boys have taken themselves off, I b’lieve.”
Summer was glad for someone else to talk to.
“He’s a fop,” muttered the weasel, as Reginald flew off on another scouting trip. “Look at that! Spats! Really? Who dresses like that?”
“You don’t dress like anything,” Summer pointed out (quite reasonably, she thought).
“Yes, I do. I dress like a weasel. Weasel fur goes with everything.” He sniffed.
“I like him,” said Summer.
“Oh, he’s likeable enough.” The weasel flicked his tail. “Sure. But I don’t trust him any farther than I could throw an ostrich egg.”
Summer bit her lower lip, watching the distant speck of Reginald over the fields. “You don’t think he’d sell us out, do you? Find Zultan and tell him where we are?”
“Well…I wouldn’t go that far.” The weasel studied his claws. “I don’t think he’s bad, per se. But if we get in a tight spot, he’ll be up and away and never looking back, don’t think he won’t!”
“You think he’d do that?”
“Birds!” said the weasel. “Huh! Never trust birds.”
“You’re just mad because he didn’t have any eggs.”
They saw one strange thing, before they left the farmlands.
They smelled it before they saw it. It smelled like wet bread left in the bag to get moldy. Summer wrinkled her nose.
The source was obvious as soon as they reached it.
One of the fields of hundred-year-wheat had rotted where it stood. The stalks were black and wet-looking. The kernels had swollen into huge blisters, then burst with streaks of green and purple and clotted brown.
“Ewwwww,” said Summer.
The weasel wiped his muzzle against her shoulder repeatedly, his mouth open in disgust.
“That shouldn’t happen,” said Reginald. “Not proper at all. Look at it—those stalks weren’t high enough yet. Can’t be more than eighty or ninety years old.”
“Couldn’t it have just gotten mucky?” asked Summer, covering her nose.
“Not hundred-year-wheat,” said Reginald. “Never heard of anything that bothered a wheat field.”
“It doesn’t smell right,” said the weasel. “It smells bad, but it smells bad like a termite mound, like something white and wiggly at the bottom. Not like plants. Not just like plants.”
Reginald scratched his chin with a claw. “’Course, not a farmer, you understand. Maybe it does happen. Odd, though. Not proper. Cuts up my peace, I don’t mind telling you.”
He glanced at Summer and added, “Makes me uneasy, I mean,” but she thought cuts up my peace described the situation very well.
Walking past the rotted field put Summer in mind of the poor Frog Tree. That hadn’t been proper, either.
She put her hand in her pocket and rubbed her finger over the tadpole acorn. It was comfortable in her fingers, but the smell of rotting wheat hung in the air long after the field was out of sight.
It was a long day of walking, and Summer was already tired. She had walked for most of the night on a very few hours of sleep and then walked most of the day as well.
She had also been briefly frightened out of her wits. Unless you have ever been really truly terrified, you cannot know how exhausting that is. For a brief period, you are extremely awake and tense and terrified, but afterwards, when all the adrenaline wears off, you feel you could sleep for a week without stopping.
What kept Summer plodding along the dusty road after Reginald was hope that his father, Lord Almondgrove, would be a real honest-to-god grown-up.
Grown-ups are strange creatures, and many of them are useless, but even the worst of them has authority. Summer’s second grade teacher had been a small fluttery woman with watery eyes, but when she cleared her throat and gave the class a stern look, everybody sat down in their desks and opened their books and stopped throwing spit wads. Summer’s face had felt hot, even though she’d been sitting at her desk the whole time and hadn’t done anything wrong.
Summer hoped that Lord Almondgrove would have that same authority. Maybe he could get things sorted out, like a teacher or a principal. If there were police in this world, maybe he could call them and explain about Grub and the tracker and that Summer hadn’t done something wrong. A grown-up could explain things like that and have the police listen, whereas if you were a child, even if you tried very hard to speak slowly and clearly, grown-ups tended to steam-roll over the top of you (or worse, smile and tell you what a vivid imagination you had. Summer did indeed have a vivid imagination, but she didn’t know what bearing that had on anything.).
Reginald alighted on top of a fence post and shook out his wings. He proceeded in a series of short flights, darting this way and that, always coming back to Summer and the valet-flock.
Although Reginald clearly wasn’t a child, he also wasn’t quite a grown-up as Summer understood it. Summer was pretty sure that real grown-ups weren’t supposed to run away into the country to hide instead of paying their bills.
It was awkward that the weasel didn’t seem to like him, though. Summer felt embarrassed. She wanted both her new friends to get along, so she cringed a little when Reginald said something particularly foolish, and cringed again when the weasel muttered something cutting in reply.
She did like the bird, though, no matter what the weasel thought. It was hard not to like someone so cheerful and with such hopeful goals.
“Dancing,” he said, hopping along beside her in the late afternoon. “I was practicing my dancing for the Grand Assembly. I shall take the claw of Miss Merope, of the Lankyshire Bee-Eaters, and we shall stand up together for the country dance and the aerial waltz.” He sighed and clacked his beak. “Not that I wouldn’t dance the sarabande and the cotillion and the reel with her as well, but her chaperones will not let her stand up with a single gentlebird for more than two dances. It wouldn’t be proper, not unless they were betrothed.”
“You must like her,” said Summer.
“Oh, I’m passionately in love with her, of course,” said Reginald, as if commenting on the weather. “Everyone is. She goes everywhere in the best company and has fans made of sugar-spider silk. Her throat is as golden as the sun and her eyes are the color of pomegranates and her feathers are as green as—well, as a deuced green thing, I don’t know, something very green anyway.”
“Grass?” offered Summer.
“Oh, much greener than that. You wouldn’t think much of grass after you’d seen Miss Merope.”
Reginald thought about this one. “Y-e-s,” he said slowly, drawing out each syllable. “I suppose that’s accurate. Not very poetical, though, is it? If you were writing an ode to her beauty, you wouldn’t want to compare her to peas. She’d likely get offended.” He considered. “Although it does rhyme with ‘bees.’ I tried to write her a poem where I compared her feathers to emeralds, but hardly anything rhymes with emeralds. Had to use ‘them scalds’ and then I had to figure out who was being scalded, and by the end I had an army storming the castle and having boiling oil dumped on them. Miss Merope said it wasn’t romantic and threw it away.” He sighed.
Summer, for no particular reason, was starting to dislike the absent Miss Merope.
The fields were giving way to forests, like the one that Summer had seen from the cliff. At first it was just a few copses of trees, and then the copses got larger and larger and joined together, and soon they were walking through the woods and it was getting dark under the trees. The road led across a number of small streams, and Summer’s feet went clomp clomp clomp on the wooden boards of the bridges.
The valet birds called a halt by virtue of flying off the road and dropping the packs under a likely set of trees.
“Oh!” said Summer. “Will we be safe here?” She looked around. There might be wolves in the woods, or cougars. Summer was very well read and knew that wolves hardly ever attack humans, but cougars are another matter entirely.
“Sure,” said Reginald. “The flock’ll keep watch, turn and turnabout, and we’ll have a nice fire. Nothing to worry about.”
“What about Grub and the Houndbreaker?” asked the weasel, stirring out of Summer’s pocket for the first time in hours. “They might come back this way looking for us.”
“Oh,” said Reginald, looking worried. “Hadn’t thought of that.” He looked to the valet-birds.
The flock twittered and conversed among themselves, then picked up the packs again. They led the way back down the road a few hundred yards, to the last small stream they had passed, and then flew out over the water.
“Ah,” said the weasel, satisfied. “They’ve got some sense, anyhow. We’re to break our trail so they can’t track us.”
Summer raised her eyebrows.
“Water won’t hold a smell,” the weasel explained. “If you take off your shoes and wade down it, they won’t know where you’ve gone or how far.”
So Summer stripped off her shoes and socks and stuck her feet in the water. It was surprisingly cold for being so near a desert, but her feet were hot and throbbing and the water felt good.
Her mother would never have let her walk on the rocks—they were so slimy with waterweed that she’d likely fall and break her neck, or catch some horrible disease—but Summer went slithering and slipping and sliding over the rocks and didn’t break anything. (She supposed she’d simply have to wait and see on the diseases.)
When the bridge had vanished around a bend in the stream, the valet birds led her up the bank and into a mossy clearing in the woods. They dropped the pack and several of them began hopping about gathering sticks and bits of pine needle.
Summer flopped down and began massaging her abused toes. They looked red and they ached when she wiggled them, but she didn’t seem to have any blisters. By the time it occurred to her to offer to help, the valet-birds had built a small, tidy fire in the middle of the clearing. Several of them helped Reginald out of his waistcoat and into another one, which had candy-red stripes.
One of the birds landed on her shoulder and looked at her very seriously out of one tiny black eye.
“Um?” said Summer.
“Aren’t you going to dress for dinner?” asked Reginald.
“I haven’t got anything else,” said Summer, looking down at herself. Her jeans still looked okay—jeans tend not to show dirt unless you’ve been wallowing around in mud—but her t-shirt looked like she’d slept in it, then sweated in it, then climbed into a cheese in it, then walked down a very dusty road and sweated some more.
Reginald clapped a claw to his beak. “Of course! I’m a wretch. Forget I mentioned it. Not important at all.”
The valet-bird turned its head so it could stare at her out of the other tiny black eye. Apparently it did not feel the same way.
“I could wear the blanket…” said Summer, picking at the blanket that the shapechanger sisters had given her. It did not show the dirt nearly so badly, perhaps because it came from the desert and was the color of dust already.
“They’d prefer it,” said Reginald. “Sorry. Don’t think anything of it. Many’s the time I’ve sat down to dinner in all my dust, and nobody minding but Great-Aunt Murgatroyd, and she’s a regular Tartar.”
Three more valet-birds landed on Summer’s head, and with tugs and chirps, pulled her behind a tree. She managed to get her t-shirt over her head and the blanket back on, despite their help.
Two of the birds grabbed the shirt and flew toward the stream, joined by another with a scrub brush the size of a pack of gum. The third settled on Summer’s shoulder and began futilely trying to groom down her hair.
Summer giggled. The tiny beak against her scalp didn’t hurt, but it certainly tickled. (Her hair tended to eat hairbrushes, even on days when a weasel hadn’t been nesting in it. “Just like your father’s,” her mother had said once, so Summer hadn’t asked about it again.)
Any dismay she’d felt at being dusty and dirty rapidly vanished when she stepped out from behind the tree to see the dinner set out for them.
Apparently bread and cheese was fine for lunch, but the valet-birds felt that dinner was a special occasion. There was a white linen tablecloth laid over a stone, thin metal goblets full of spring water, and little bone china plates. There was even a little saucer for the weasel.
“Cat-lap,” muttered Reginald, hooking his beak over the goblet and taking a sip. “Can’t offer you much better—didn’t pack any ratafia or negus, not thinking, you understand, that I’d be encountering a little chit fresh out of the nursery here in the wilds—not that I’m not glad of your company! Not at all!” He took another sip. “But it’s a shockingly mean drink for a proper dinner.”
“I don’t mind at all,” said Summer. “I’ve never had—err—ratafia?”
“You won’t like it,” said Reginald. “Dreadful stuff. All the ladies drink it, but I’m sure I don’t know why.”
The valet-birds brought out a little tin of ham and another little tin of some kind of meat paste, and little squares of bread and cheese. One roasted slices of apples on a stick over the fire. Two birds flew in from the woods with blackberries in their claws—only a few, but enough to make a lovely dessert.
This was the sort of adventuring that Summer could get behind whole-heartedly.
“We’ll have a proper feast at Almondgrove Manor,” said Reginald. “Roasted fish and Beef Arvington and potatoes as big as your head and a hundred sauces and lobsters and stuffed eggs—”
“You eat eggs?” asked Summer, a bit shocked.
“Not from anyone we know,” said Reginald. “Chicken eggs, same as anybody. Chickens aren’t much for conversation, you understand, and the eggs wouldn’t hatch anyway. Not like going into somebody’s nest and stealing a proper egg. They’ll have you up on charges for that, or someone’ll call you out before the Dawn Chorus, and heaven help you.”
The weasel muttered something into his tinned ham.
After dinner, alas, things were not quite so pleasant. While the valet-birds had stocked Reginald’s pack with many good things to eat (and a spare waistcoat) they had not included any bedding. Reginald simply hopped to a low branch and put a wing over his head.
Summer was left to curl up between the roots of a tree (which despite the moss was not very pleasant) and pull the blanket around herself. She had to take off the cheese-sword so it didn’t dig into her ribs. The valet-birds twittered and hopped around her, apparently quite upset that they could not make her any more comfortable.
Eventually, after much discussion, four of them picked up the corners of the linen tablecloth and dropped it across her shoulders.
Summer smiled a little, touched, and was asleep before the birds had finished twittering.