It was a long, long night.
She walked for hours, or what felt like hours. The sand-stars lit her path. She blew her breath out in a white cloud and pretended to be a dragon.
There was not exactly a path, but if she kept the highest mountain in front of her, it was easier. She wandered off course once or twice, when the horizon vanished behind a ridge, but then she would come up to the top and correct herself.
They were in the desert now, though like no desert she had ever seen. Instead of great sweeping dunes, there were rocks and stones and low scrubby bushes. Ferns were a distant memory.
When she had walked for a few hours, she began to see cactus, great big saguaros like the ones in cartoons. They were twenty and thirty feet tall, with dozens of arms.
She was very tired. She had been walking forever. The stars overhead and the stars underfoot spun together, until she seemed to be walking across galaxies. Perhaps the stars in the sky were scorpions too. In Summer’s world, they were giant flaming balls of gas, but who knew about this place? Maybe the sky was a great black desert, and when she reached the highest mountain, she would walk up into it.
“Sit down,” said the weasel, “and have a drink of water. You’re giggling a little too much and it’s starting to worry me.”
She sat down on a boulder and had a drink of water. Her head cleared a bit. She dripped a little into the bottle’s cap and let the weasel drink it.
No one knows where I am, she thought, except the weasel. No one is expecting me to be somewhere. No one is going to come looking for me if I don’t arrive.
She took another sip of water. She knew that she should be afraid—and she was, a little—but also she felt…free.
There was a sand-star a few yards away, under the curve of a prickly pear cactus. Its light gleamed off the flat pads and winked on the pale thorns.
Movement caught her eye. As she watched, an owl walked past her on long scaly legs. It walked right up to the sand-star. Summer held her breath. Did owls eat scorpions?
It spread its wings and bowed to the sand-star, very deeply. The sand-star flexed its tail and bowed back, fanning its claws out. The light bounced and shattered across the cactus thorns.
The owl walked away. She lost sight of its shape in the maze of mesquite shadows. The scorpion didn’t move again.
“Come on,” said the weasel softly. “Let’s get moving again.”
Eventually the sun came up.
Summer became aware of this because the stars started to go out—first the stars in the sky, then the ones on the ground. It made her nervous, because then she didn’t know whether she was about to step on one or not.
But even after the last sand-star went out, there was a gritty gray light from the horizon. The highest mountain stood out sharp and clear.
“Dawn,” said the weasel, standing on her shoulder. “It’ll be an oven out here soon.”
“You didn’t say anything to the sisters,” said Summer, who was tired of the vast silence of the desert.
“No, I didn’t.” The weasel stretched himself like a very small cat.
He lifted one small shoulder in a shrug. “Oh, well. They seemed pleasant enough, but seeming isn’t everything.
And they smelled like shapechangers. Real animals and shapechangers don’t always get along.”
“They don’t?” This was news to Summer. She had wanted to be a shapechanger specifically so that she could talk to animals. It hadn’t occurred to her that the animals might mind.
“Some of them aren’t bad. Knew a fellow who spent half his days as a hawk, and he was fine if he wasn’t hungry. But some of them don’t move right and they don’t smell right and they don’t wear their skin right. You want to watch out for people who don’t wear their skin correctly.” The weasel rubbed his face on her shoulder. “Some of ’em don’t mean any harm, poor souls, but some of them will have you by the throat before you can say ‘rabbit.’”
Summer kept walking. The sun was coming over the horizon now, although the air was still chilled. She was sweaty under the blanket, but her face and the tips of her ears were cold. It was a strange sensation. The cactus threw long, long shadows across the sand.
“Is it true what they said about Baba Yaga?” asked Summer.
“True?” asked the weasel. “True enough. They said less than they might have and a great deal less than they could have. It doesn’t pay to talk about Baba Yaga behind her back.”
“Oh.” Summer thought about that. “How did you wind up in her house? Did she offer you your heart’s desire?”
“Not hardly,” said the weasel, sounding very annoyed.
“The witch’s house lays eggs sometimes,” said the weasel. “I tried to eat one.”
Summer wrinkled her forehead. “But it’s a house. Wouldn’t its eggs be—oh—enormous? Bigger than me?”
“So maybe I’m ambitious,” said the weasel. “Nothing wrong with ambition, is there? ‘Shoot for the moon,’ everybody says, ‘if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.’” He spat, a motion almost too tiny for Summer’s eyes to follow. “Feh! I suppose, ‘if you miss, you’ll be captured by a great bloody hag out of legend and stuffed into a coat pocket for a week’ was too much of a mouthful.”
Summer had no idea what to say to that. “Um. I’m sorry?”
“Not your fault,” said the weasel. “Also, we’re being followed. No, don’t look!”
Summer froze. “What do we do?” she hissed at the weasel.
“You keep walking,” said the weasel. “Making light conversation, if you please.” He raised his voice. “Lovely day for a stroll in the desert, isn’t it?”
“Stop at that rock up ahead,” he whispered. “Have a sip of water and look around, casual-like. You don’t expect to see anything, you’re just taking in the scenery, understand?”
Summer nodded. She stopped at the rock and fumbled for the water bottle.
“And you can pour me a little while you’re at it.”
She did. The weasel’s tiny pink tongue flicked in and out of the water, and Summer scanned the desert, looking for someone or something.
“I don’t see anyone,” she whispered.
The weasel interrupted his drink long enough to say “The way we came. Higher up the mountain. By the three cactuses standing together.”
She found the cactus. There was a rock—a shaggy rock? A rock with ears?
“It’s a…I think it’s a donkey!”
“Burro, out here,” said the weasel. “Might be your friend from earlier. I thought she smelled like a shapechanger.”
“Should I wave?” asked Summer.
“No. If it’s her, she knows it’s you, and if it’s not, no sense letting on that you’ve seen it.”
“Could a burro really do something bad to us?”
“It could kick you halfway to perdition if it felt like it, I expect.” The weasel cleaned his shoulder with his tongue. “Rather like giant rabbits in that regard. Keep walking. This Waystation place has to be somewhere.”
She kept walking.
“Two of them, now,” said the weasel a few minutes later. “The other one’s a javelina.”
“Desert pig,” said the weasel. “Like a wild boar. I’m guessing it’s your other friend, which means we should have a bear after us shortly, and won’t that be nice?”
But Bearskin did not appear. The boar and the donkey flanked them for an hour, then melted away into the desert as quietly as they had come.
Summer was a little sad when they left. She could have crossed the desert by herself—probably—she was eleven, after all, and had a weasel besides—but it was still nice to know that there were people around in case she fell off a cliff or stepped on a rattlesnake.
They came upon the Waystation with very little warning. There was a stand of cottonwood trees tucked in the next valley, and the sound of water. Summer hurried toward it and found that the trees grew along the banks of a stream. The stream rushed briskly over tiny pebbles, and on the far side was a little fence, and a large round house the color of butter.
On top of the house, in enormous letters, was a sign that said, “WHEYSTATION.”
Summer was quite good at spelling. She knew that “Waystation” was spelled with an A and no H. Whey, on the other hand, had to do with…cheese?
There was a small bridge over the stream. At each end of the handrail was a carving of a mouse wrapped around a piece of cheese.
“I think this is a pun,” said Summer, scowling. She liked puns well enough in their place, but this struck her as the sort of pun that a grown-up would make, expecting a child to find it hysterically funny.
It is difficult to walk across an enchanted desert and then be thrust into someone else’s sense of humor.
They crossed the bridge and approached the Wheystation. A road ran from the doorway out across the desert, as far as her eye could follow it.
“Is this even the right place?” asked Summer. The weasel shrugged and climbed back into her pocket.
The door of the Wheystation was made of wood. Inscribed over the lintel in elegant script were the words:
1800 Desert Whey
“All The Cheese That’s Fit To Please”
Summer gritted her teeth and knocked.
The door swung open. She poked her head around the doorframe and saw an enormous glass counter full of cheeses. A fat man stood behind the counter, wiping it with a cloth.
“Hello!” he cried. “Hello, traveler, hello cheese-lover! I am the Wheymaster. Come in, come in, out of the heat!”
Summer stepped inside. A little bell went jingle jingle over her head.
It looked like a museum of cheese. There were great round wheels bigger than car tires and tiny little cubes in trays. There were wedges and slices and tubs and bricks. There was blue cheese and green cheese (“FRESH FROM THE SLOPES OF MARE IMBRIUM” said the sign) and red cheese and white cheese. There were cheeses made from cow milk and goat milk and sheep milk and unicorn milk.
“Unicorn milk?” asked Summer.
“Every kind of milk,” said the man behind the counter. He was tall and broad and had enormous forearms and bright green hair. “Every kind you can imagine. Except platypus. We’re out of platypus.”
“There’s a problem with our supplier. They’re monotremes, they sweat milk through bare patches on their belly, so it’s not so much milking as wringing the platypus out like a towel. Except the monotreme milker’s union is on strike right now. But I can cut you a lovely wedge of Gouda. Same flavor, not as oily.”
“Err—not right now,” said Summer. “I’m actually looking for—”
“Oh, just try a bit. A free sample.” He dove into a case and she heard the clicking of a knife. A moment later he held out a cube on a toothpick.
She didn’t want to be rude—and she was very hungry—so she took it. She nibbled.
It was rich and creamy and she thought it would make spectacular mac and cheese. “It’s delicious,” she said.
“A good seller,” said the Wheymaster. “One of my favorites. Now what did you come looking for?”
Summer shook herself. She hadn’t come here for cheese. “Ah, I’m looking for the Waystation.”
“And here we are,” said the green-haired man. “The Wheystation. You’ve found it.”
“No, not whey—way. With no H. Boarskin told me to find it—she said it would be this way—”
“This whey,” agreed the man, “right here, yes. All the cheeses you want. Nothing else.” He mopped at his forehead with the rag in his hand.
A day ago, Summer would have believed him. Even if she hadn’t she wouldn’t have said anything, because if you are a kid, you never ever argue with a grown-up. But a day ago she hadn’t crossed a desert lit by scorpions.
She took a long, long look at him.
The Wheymaster was sweating.
“Are you sure—” she began.
“Very sure! Absolutely sure! Just cheese. Only cheese.”
Summer folded her arms and tapped her foot, like her teacher Mrs. Selena did when somebody in class was acting stupid. “Boarskin said you’d help me find my way.”
The Wheymaster’s eyes flicked toward the door.
“I could get in real trouble,” he whispered. “I don’t do that anymore. I had to repaint the sign and everything.”
“But I need your help,” said Summer. “I don’t know where I’m going, or what I’m supposed to do. I don’t even know what this place is called.”
The Wheymaster nodded wretchedly and blotted his forehead again. “I can’t,” he said. “I know I should, but I can’t. They closed me down, you know? He did. Zultan. Her lieutenant. You know.”
“I don’t know,” said Summer. “I’m lost. I mean, I crossed the desert, but I don’t know what I’m doing, and I don’t even know where I am. I don’t think I’m from this world, and that’s okay, but I’m looking for my heart’s desire, and I need to know how to find it.”
She almost stamped her foot, but she really wasn’t that kind of girl.
“I can’t help you,” said the Wheymaster. “I can’t. I won’t. I shouldn’t.”
Summer gritted her teeth and said, “Baba Yaga sent me.”
The Wheymaster’s skin went the color of blue cheese. He put his elbows on the counter and dug both hands into his hair.
“Oh me,” he said. “Oh me, oh my. Oh, I am the unluckiest man in the world. If I don’t help you, the crone will get me, and if I do, Zultan will get me. Oh, what to do?”
“I don’t want to get you in trouble,” said Summer. “I really don’t. I just need you to tell me where I’m supposed to go.”
The Wheymaster took a deep breath. He reached into the case and pulled out another cheese and cut off a slice. He popped it into his mouth and then cut off another piece for Summer, and another very small piece for the weasel.
This one was not the sort of thing that you would put on mac and cheese, but delicious nonetheless. It tasted a little like cheddar and smelled like new mown grass. It crumbled on her tongue, and her stomach warmed and her skin prickled. Summer felt taller, suddenly, taller and stronger and braver.
She thought she might be able to walk across the desert again, if it came to that.
“Manticore cheese,” said the Wheymaster. “Ripened on the grass where heroes have slept. There’s nothing like it for courage.” In Summer’s pocket, the weasel fluffed himself and lashed his tail.
“Can I have another piece?” asked Summer.
“Not a good idea,” said the Wheymaster. “Too much of it and you forget the taste of fear, and that’s a dangerous place. Find yourself charging lions barehanded and nonsense like that.” He straightened up and took a deep breath.
“Very well,” he said. “My grandfathers would be ashamed of me, cringing like this. We’ve always found ways, you know. The cheese was just a side business. If I am going to be hanged, might as well be for something I did do as for something I didn’t do.”
“I don’t want anybody to be hanged,” said Summer, quite alarmed.
“Well, we can hope. You are, my dear, at the edge of the Sonorous Desert, in the land of Orcus, and we will see what other information you require as we go. Come behind the counter.” He held a curtain aside for her and ushered her into a small room in back.
The room was stuffed with cheese. There were barrels of cheese and more of the tire-sized wheels. A block of Swiss took up half the room, with holes in it big enough for Summer to crawl into.
“Cauldron…” muttered the Wheymaster. “Where did I put that cauldron? I used to have it right here…” He opened a closet and most of him vanished into it. Summer winced at the sounds of crashing plates and banging crockery.
What he pulled out looked a bit like a cast iron frying pan, only much bigger. It had little metal lion feet on it, and reminded Summer of Baba Yaga’s coatrack.
It was stuffed full of cobwebs and covered in rust, and there was a forlorn bit of old cheese in the bottom.
Summer and the Wheymaster gazed into the cauldron together.
“Is it supposed to do something?” asked Summer.
“Years ago,” said the Wheymaster gloomily. “Time was, you so much as poked your head over it, and it would tell you your Way. Usually it was one of us by accident, and only so far as the outhouse or the bathtub, but you’d bring a traveler by and it would get very excited. Ways used to spill out all over.” He thumped the cauldron with one finger. It went “clonk.”
“Not a drop of magic left in it, now,” he said sadly.
Summer opened her mouth to say something—“It’s okay,” or “I’m sorry” or “But what do I do now?” (She was never quite sure herself afterwards.) But anything she might have said was drowned out by a sudden savage pounding on the wooden door. It sounded like a battering ram, like an angry mule kicking in the boards.
The Wheymaster’s head shot up so fast that he struck it on a cheese hanging from the rafters. Summer put both hands over her mouth to hide a squeak of terror.
“Open!” cried a harsh voice on the other side of the door. “Open for Zultan Houndbreaker! Open in the name of the Queen-in-Chains!”