They stopped that evening deep in the scrubby woods, in a little fold in the ground.
“Their steeds will find it hard to get through this terrain,” said Glorious. “Though the antelope woman will not. I will light no fire tonight. These trees are not tall enough to keep the smoke from giving us away.”
“How do you keep from having a fire in your fireplace?” asked Ankh.
Glorious closed one eye and scratched his ear. “I just do,” he said. “A bit like coughing or not coughing—” and then he unrolled into the cottage.
They sat in front of the cold fireplace and talked. Summer wasn’t sure how much Glorious was aware of, when he was a house, but she addressed the mantelpiece, for lack of any better place.
Reginald and the geese told her what Glorious had not. “When the priestess locked herself in and wouldn’t come out, I flew up to the top and got the Ladderback—he’s the woodpecker’s chief—and brought him down. He’d been suspicious of the mess, and they’d seen people coming and going on horses they didn’t like.”
“The Ladderback went with us when the priestess would not unlock the door,” said Ankh.
“There are few locks that will stand to a determined woodpecker,” said Ounk. “He cleared the space away around the hinges and we took the entire door down.”
“And then Glorious—yow! Straight for her throat, he went!” Reginald made excited wing gestures and toppled over backwards. “It was bellows to mend with her at once! That guide of ours set up yelling but we knocked him down and sat on him. She spilled her guts right away, told us everything.”
“She had a wolf on her chest,” said the weasel. “Although I’d have bitten her like fire if she’d talked any slower!” Summer stroked his back and he sat up straighter, several inches worth of grand ferocity.
“Anyway, the poor guide was so upset, but the Ladderback was cool as a skua, even when we all tromped in that awful back room. Lord! I never want to see anything like that again. Pure nasty, from top to bottom.”
“What will they do?” asked Summer. She didn’t ever want to go back to the Great Pipes, but the market and the woodpeckers hadn’t been responsible for what Cereus had done.
“The Ladderback will deal with it,” said Ankh. “I suspect that he could not intervene in the ruling of the lower city without a very good reason, but he has one now.”
“Seemed a solid chap,” said Reginald cheerily. “Sure he’ll work something out.”
And I have enough to worry about with the Frog Tree, thought Summer. Let this be someone else’s problem. She remembered the saint’s book again—Don’t worry about things you cannot fix.
She told them, in turn, about Zultan.
Reginald let out a low whistle. “A dog! Well, that’s a facer, isn’t it? Heroes, the lot of them, I’ve always heard.”
Ounk rubbed the back of her long neck with the edge of her wing. “I did not know that dogs could go bad.”
“Not the sort of thing you’d shout from the rooftops, is it?” said Reginald. “Doubt they’d want to advertise.”
“But he’s old, really old,” Summer said. “Like he should have died a long time ago, but for some reason he hasn’t.”
“There’s magic for that,” said Reginald. “Not good magic, mind you.”
“You can’t make more life,” said Ankh.
“Only take it from others,” said Ounk.
“Or so I’ve heard.”
It was harder to talk about the antelope woman. “I know she was bad,” said Summer, but the secret writing in the chamber under her heart read was she? and do I know? and what if…?
What if we’d welcomed her? What if she was sitting here next to us? What would she say?
She knew that Glorious had to know more about it than she did, and yet…
“Antelope are tricky,” said Reginald. “Tricky and tricksy. There’s stories, you know. They say it was an antelope woman who really ruled the Badlands Empire, you know, and whispered into the Stone Emperor’s ear.”
He looked at Summer expectantly, as if that was supposed to mean something. Summer shook her head.
“Better to stay far away from them,” said Ounk.
“She brought you back to us,” said Ankh firmly. “And that is good, even if she meant it for her own ends.”
Lying in bed that night, Summer put her face in the pillow and cried for the horror that was over and the fact that she was safe again, but also for the antelope woman and chances lost, a chance that might have been different, or better, or wonderful.
The next morning, they set about making a compass out of a live wasp.
Summer and the valet-birds had to do most of the work. No one else had the hands for it. Summer popped the cork out of the bottle and jammed a narrow cloth tube over the end to catch the wasp as it crawled out. The valet-birds managed the small, fiddly work of tying the string around the segments of the wasp’s hind leg—and more importantly, of muffling the long, wicked stinger with a cloud of cork and gauze and a metal cap hastily rolled together from a sardine can lid.
“Peace-bonding its hind end,” said Reginald, amused. “That’s a first!”
The wasp itself was as large as a mouse. When the birds nodded in unison to Summer and she let it go, it buzzed up into the air like a hummingbird, then hit the length of the string and dropped out of the sky. It swung for a moment, righted itself, then rose again.
When it was in front of her, Summer found that it was less creepy than she expected. Perhaps after the spider-horses, a merely large insect could not scare her.
It was strangely beautiful. Its abdomen was banded in black and scarlet, and its wings were an iridescent glory. It had a triangular face and enormous dark eyes. It looked more like a sculpture of lacquer and porcelain than like a living creature.
“Gorgeous little thing,” said Reginald. “Make a good brooch, wouldn’t it?”
“Pretty things are usually poisonous,” said the weasel. “It’s why they can afford to be pretty.”
“That’s a bit harsh,” said the hoopoe. “Plenty of pretty birds, and most of us aren’t poisonous. ’Cept the shrikethrushes, of course, and they’re all a bit dicked in the nob, if you ask me.”
“I didn’t,” said the weasel.
Summer was holding the bottle with the string tied to it. She was pretty sure that the wasp couldn’t sting through the sardine can lid, but she held the bottle at arm’s length anyway. The wasp was huge and she didn’t want it to fly into her face.
Fortunately, it did not seem particularly interested in her, or indeed, in anything else. The wasp looked up at the sky, antennae moving, and then it oriented itself and began to fly determinedly toward the northwest. When it reached the end of the string, it hovered there.
Summer walked in a slow semi-circle, but the wasp stayed pointing northeast like the needle of a compass.
“That way,” she said. “I think?”
“The Tower of Dogs is that way, if I’m not completely addle-pated,” said Reginald. “Or what’s left of it.”
“A cursed place,” said Ounk. She didn’t say it as if she were afraid, Summer noticed, she just said it, as if commenting on the weather.
“Rarely visited,” said Ankh, in the same tone. She hefted her spear. “Very well! Let us follow this—”
A dozen high-pitched shrieks cut her off.
The valet-bird flock rose up into the air, screaming an alarm. There was a crash, a thud, and Glorious let out a yelp almost as high-pitched as the birds.
“Ho!” shouted a strange voice, practically in Summer’s ear. “Got him!”
Summer whipped around. The wasp tried to reorient itself and buzzed at her face. She dropped the bottle.
There were three men in the road, big burly fellows wearing rough armor that looked as if it were made of leather and shingles. At their feet, Glorious thrashed back and forth, pinned to the ground by some kind of net.
“No!” shouted Summer, running toward them. “Leave him alone!”
“Blood and feathers,” cursed Reginald. “House-hunters!”
“Go away!” screamed Summer. She felt like she was running impossibly slowly, like in a nightmare where you can’t move fast enough and your voice is a thin, feeble thing. “Go away! Leave him alone!”
“Here, now,” said one of the hunters. “We’re just doing our job—”
And then, almost to her own surprise, Summer actually reached them.
She hadn’t thought this far ahead. She was half the size of the largest hunter. If she went for one, he would probably laugh, and then would undoubtedly do what grown-ups always did—grab you by the wrists and tell you to calm down and then it would all be over because there was really no getting past that.
Summer flung herself over Glorious instead. “You won’t take him!” she said. “I won’t let you.”
Under her, Glorious growled, a long, drawn-out growl of fury and despair.
“Now get off, there’s a good girl,” said the shortest hunter. “This is hunter business. Just give us a few minutes and we’ll be out of your hair in no time.”
Summer wrapped her arms around Glorious as well as she could through the net and clung for dear life.
Two of the house-hunters carried long poles with nooses at the end. One sighed and started to lower the noose toward Summer.
A goose-guard’s spear knocked it aside.
“I think not,” said Ankh.
“You will touch neither the girl nor the wolf,” said Ounk.
“We’ve been tracking this cottage for weeks,” said the biggest hunter. “Thought we lost it after it flipped the cage. This is our prey.”
“This wolf is no one’s prey,” said Ankh.
Why doesn’t he speak up for himself? thought Summer. “Glorious, tell them!”
Glorious heaved under her and growled again.
“We’ve got permits,” said the shortest hunter. “All legal and notarized. We’re allowed to take houses over a certain size.”
The weasel hissed into her ear: “He can’t. The net’s silver-plate. Silver steals their voices if they touch it.”
“I thought silver killed them!” gasped Summer.
“You don’t have a voice, you’ll find yourself written off quick enough! Get the net off him!”
Summer grabbed for the edges of the net. There were little tear-drop shaped bits of metal on them, like fishing weights.
“None of that,” said the nearest hunter. He stamped his foot down next to her fingers and glared down at her in a manner that suggested that he would just as soon step on her.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” said the biggest hunter. “This is just business.” He addressed the geese. “You take the little girl so she doesn’t get hurt and we’ll take the cottage and we’ll all be about our business.”
The shortest hunter squatted down so that he was at eye-level with Summer, and smiled like someone who believed that he was good with children. “Here, now,” he said. “The cottage will be up on the market at Delta this month. You tell your mommy and daddy and maybe they’ll come and buy it for you, hey?”
Summer stared at him with profound disgust.
“It’s all legal,” said the biggest hunter again. “We’ve got permits.”
Do you have a title on file at the Registrar of Deeds?
It came to her all at once.
“This house isn’t for sale,” she said. “He’s mine.”
The shortest hunter’s smile slipped a bit.
“Don’t go telling stories now,” he said. “This cottage is unlicensed, and it’s free for the taking.”
“No, he isn’t,” said Summer. She gathered herself and glared into the hunter’s eyes. “There’s a title on file in Fen-town. You can go there and see for yourself.”
The hunter’s smile vanished entirely.
“You said this cottage was unlicensed!” hissed the middle hunter.
“It was!” he snapped. “I checked when we started tracking it!”
“Maybe then it was,” said Summer, “but it’s changed. We registered him in Fen-town.”
The hunters looked at each other.
“We lost the trail near Fen-town,” muttered the middle hunter.
“She poached our real-estate!” said the biggest hunter. “That’s not allowed!”
“Private sale, wot?” said Reginald. “All nice and tidy and notarized. There were stamps. Big ones. In red ink.”
The hunters wheeled to glare at this new addition to the discussion. Reginald waved at them and tried to look stern and legal, which didn’t go very well.
The three men formed a huddle. Summer stealthily flipped up one of the weights and Glorious reached a paw through the gap. A violent shudder went through him.
There was a line scored in his fur where the silver had touched. She could see raw skin underneath.
“Don’t understand…” she heard one hunter say.
“Should have double-checked…”
“She said it was free…”
“Told you not to trust one of them…”
“Yes, but she told us which way it had gone, didn’t she? That was true enough!”
Summer’s fingers stilled on the silver net.
Inside her heart, the innermost chamber was lined with frost. She felt as if she were writing a word in the frost with her fingertip, but she did not know what the word was, only that it was very cold.
“Tell me,” she said, in a voice that sounded as if it belonged to someone much older, “was it an antelope woman who told you this?”
Two of the hunters stepped back, and left the short one looking sullen. “She said it was free! And on this road!”
Summer sat up. She did not look at Glorious. She drew, ironically enough, on the memory of the antelope woman herself.
Derision. Grace. Sardonic amusement.
And she lifted her head and curled her lip and said “And you believed her. One of the daughters of chaos.”
“She told us where the trail was!” said the shortest hunter, as much to his companions as to Summer. “A week ago, and we found it, didn’t we? How was I to know?”
“Antelope women,” said Summer, with as much scorn as she could muster, “are not to be trusted.”
The other two hunters looked at each other over their leader’s head, then at the goose-guards.
“Making trouble,” said one of them gruffly. “Like they always do.”
“But we’ve been tracking this cottage for weeks!” cried the leader.
“She lied to you,” said Summer. “The way she lies to everyone.”
She was a little surprised that her breath did not come out in a cloud of ice.
The two taller hunters took a step back. The goose-guards pressed forward, and then their spears came down in an X in front of Summer.
“We’ll dispute it,” muttered the shortest hunter. “You’ll hear from our lawyers.”
“Oh, very good,” said Reginald. “M’father’s got solicitors for that. Perhaps you’ve heard of him—the Lord Almondgrove, of the Almondgrove Hoopoes?”
The house hunters retreated another few steps. They locked their hands around their leader’s arms and pulled him with them.
Summer rose to her feet and dug her fingers into the net.
“Take this with you,” she said, still feeling strange and cold and clear-headed.
She could not throw the net over one of them the way she would have liked—it was shockingly heavy—but she heaved it into the road at their feet.
The tallest scooped up the net. The middle one mumbled something that sounded like, “Sorry to be a bother,” and then they hauled their leader into the trees and away.
“I’ll make sure they’re gone,” said Reginald, and took to the air.
Summer fell to her knees next to Glorious.
He gasped air as if he had been drowning. There were red lines across his legs and his muzzle.
“Talk,” begged Summer. “Say something. Don’t let them have taken your whole voice!”
“Alive,” he gasped. “Alive—” and that was enough for Summer to bury her face in his ruff with a cry of relief.
Ankh—or maybe it was Ounk—spread her wings over both of them. Summer had not known that the goose’s wings could cover a full-grown wolf, but they could. The goose stood guard, and the three of them sat in the dust and listened to Glorious breathe.
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