Hunt Across Worlds by Sherwood Smith

‘It’ and not ‘he.’ So this slob was after Wende, not Arthur.

  I wanted badly to yell, “You’d be the last person I’d tell, you and your creep 11s!” but I knew I wouldn’t get by with that. So instead I lied like a rug. “I don’t know what you’re blabbing about. So go away. People who sneak around this palace find themselves in trouble.”

  “You’re going to be in far more trouble than I am if you do not tell me what I want to know.”

  You can always tell when there’s enchantment on somebody, they have that flat tone, like their mind can’t do anything else except whatever it is they were sent to do. This guy sounded like that. It’s horribly creepy, in so many ways.

  Then he lifted one of those little crossbow things with what look like hypodermic needles (which are horrific enough!) so as to put their nasty enchantments right into your blood—if they don’t kill you outright—”Why don’t you go away?” I yelled, hoping to waken Clair. “You and your kind aren’t welcome, and even if I knew what you wanted, and told you, you’d just shoot anyway!”

  He took aim. I ducked back so he couldn’t see me, then yelped, “She’s crossing the Senyavin!” in my most cowardly voice.

  Sherry gasped, then grinned. Of course the 11 would think the kiddies stupid enough to answer just because they were scared.

  He turned away, then turned back. “If you’re lying...”

  “You slimegnackles always do,” I muttered. But not loud enough for him to hear, and he ran down the steps and away.

  “Now we’ve got two sets of Norsundrian nasties lurking around.” I groaned. “Talk about stenchiferous luck! We have to get Arthur out.”

  “They can’t do magic in here, can they?” Sherry asked.

  “There are wards against dark magic, but if Kessler wants to walk in, you remember how mean he is. He could squelch us all without doing the tiniest spell.”

  Sherry gave a serious nod, then said, “We gotta get Clair to disinfect and decootize the terrace.”

  “Right,” I said heartily; the girls all pretty much knew that exterminating villain cooties was all in our imaginations, but I wasn’t so sure about Sherry. “But first we haveta get Wende outa here.”

  “Isn’t she going to travel with Arthur?”

  “We’ll get him going, too.”

  “And the two others who came with him?”

  “May’s well. At least, they can go or stay. You wake them up, and I’ll get Wende and Arthur.”

  “What about Clair? And the girls?” Sherry asked.

  I thought about how long it would take to wake everyone up and said, “She can find us. We gotta move. What if that creep is reporting to Kessler right now?”

  Sherry took off like a rocket.

  I found Wende, who woke up the second I shook her. As soon as I mentioned the 11er, she sighed. “I really like it here. And I was even having a nice dream! Such a big, comfy bed, better than a hammock...” She patted her pocket, then scrambled frantically through them. Then hunted in the bedding, relaxing when she discovered the dyr down where her toes had been. “Musta tried to kick it,” she muttered, dropping it into her pocket. Then she sighed, and swiped her shaggy hair back. “But I can’t just lose it. Granny always says, If you lose someone’s things, they get yours. I don’t have a dyr to give those Everon people.”

  I waved her on, rousted poor Arthur (who was just descending into Norsunder-magic nightmares), and we all gathered in the kitchens like iron bits to magnets. It makes sense—it’s warm and smells good.

  There is always plenty of food to be grabbed for midnight snacks. We stuffed ourselves, which woke us up. The noise brought everyone out, so we didn’t have to worry about shaking anyone awake. Even Clair appeared.

  “I tried to find you,” Sherry exclaimed.

  “I went down to the Junky. “ Clair flashed a grin at me. “I had to look through your record about that Norsunder knife slice nastiness. See if I remembered right.” She turned to Arthur. “Maybe you’d better go, like CJ says. I’ll stay here in case someone got my message.” She held up her hand. “Don’t tell me where. Just don’t go on the north road, because they’ve got to figure you’ll go that way.” Clair fought a sudden yawn, clapped her hand over her mouth so hard her white hair swung forward, almost covering her face. Then she blinked at Wende. “Sorry you won’t get to stay. I wish you could.”

  Wende sighed. “Granny says, ‘When the neighbors ruin your crops, fight back. When they’re stronger, move.’”

  By the time we were done snickering, we were out the door. We’ll go south and double back, I thought.

  o0o

  The only one of the girls who wanted to go adventuring in the middle of the night was Sherry. She and Wende had really hit it off during dinner, and as we snackled on down the road, I overheard them talking about sailing. Not that Wende had had much experience, it turned out, though she lived on an island that was famous for its ships and sailors. Sherry was telling her about Captain Heraford and the Tzasilia.

  I looked around, enjoying the forest at night even when at its spookiest, in the blue moonlight, the empty branches like fingers. The one thing I don’t like are moon shadows. That is, moon shadows are beautiful when I’m just strolling around, but when the moon isn’t real bright, the shadows make the ground look more uneven than it is, and I kept tripping. I got madder and madder until I noticed Frederic snickering after my pocalubes. Amazing. There’s nothing like someone thinking you’re funny to make a mood change!

  Er, when you don’t mind being thought funny, that is. Being laughed at nastily is a whole nother tentacle.

  Anyway, it was nearly dawn when Kessler caught up with us. We felt the hoof beats before we heard them, then we heard them, and nobody had to say a word before we all left the road to hide in the bushes. Nobody gallops that hard just before dawn, especially making the poor horse gasp like that.

  I knew it was Kessler riding that horse so hard, I just knew it. I motioned the others to hide, and sure enough the moon (just barely visible behind us by now, dropping fast) outlined that horribly familiar profile as he dashed past, foam from the horse splatting on some leaves just inches from my face.

  As soon as the sound had diminished, we all came out. “What now?” Arthur asked. “I have no experience with such events.”

  “Well, my experience with that snackle-brained gorbanzo is that I always lose,” I said, and as Frederic whispered “Snackle, where’d she get snackle?” to Deirdre, I turned into the woods. “I think we better leave the road because I bet anything he’ll be back.”

  “He has to sleep sometime,” Arthur said tiredly.

  “Ohhhh no he doesn’t. That’s another horrible thing about that creep. He takes some kind of dark magic spell that lets him go without sleep. It makes him crazier, but does that bother him? Nooooo.”

  The two Earth kids gave weak laughs as we all got up and began plodding tiredly again. What could we do? I was pretty practiced at transferring lots of people—not an easy spell—but I needed a Destination. We didn’t have horses...

  Oh, wait. That gave me an idea.

  Deirdre said, “I sure like Clair.”

  “She’s great!”

  “Yeah,” Sherry echoed from just behind.

  “What’s it like, having a kid for a queen?”

  “Fun!”

  “Does she come from a long royal line?” Deirdre asked. Her tone was odd, and I wondered if she expected us to be blue bloods. Or rather, pretending to be blue bloods. Or something.

  “Nope,” I said cheerily. “Her great grandmother was a seamstress. The story goes that one day she up and got disgusted with the fatheads and gasbags in charge, who were all squabbling with each other, and took the throne while they didn’t notice, and that was that.”

  “And no one stopped her?” Frederic asked, walking backwards.

  “Rather her than each other, and nobody else wanted the job,” I said. “Isn’t a lot of detail about that part of her reign. Well, none.”

/>   Deirdre said, still in that odd tone, “So I suppose she got married and lived a long life?”

  “She had the non-growing spell on her, same as us,” I said. “And she vanished. Weird, we have little about her before she took the throne and renamed herself Mearsieanne, and nothing about why or where she vanished. Just that she did. Her son, Tesmer, Clair’s grandfather, had the long and boring life.”

  The forest was so quiet that the faint rhythm of hooves was no more than a feeling, rather than a sound.

  “He’s coming back,” Sherry whispered.

  I’d let myself get distracted. Quickly I touched my ring and whispered the spell to call to Hreealdar, the entity who comes as a White Horse (though sometimes changes to lightning). He (not actually a male, but we say ‘he’ because of his size) doesn’t always come, but he did this time.

  “Cram on his back,” I yelled, leaping up.

  With some tugging and shoving we all squished onto his back.

  Hreealdar can’t turn into lightning if there are more than a couple of us on his back. None of know why, since he doesn’t talk. But even having to travel like normal horses, he’s still way faster.

  We began trotting alongside the road, the trees making a dark lacework blotting the moonlit road. Someone in the back groaned softly at every step of the horse—and Hreealdar’s gait isn’t nearly as jolty as a regular horse, but it was jolty enough to sound like “Guuulp-ulp-ulp-ulp” until Deirdre hissed, “Shh!”

  The galloping was distinct now. Kessler passed by, his horse much slower. Foam flew from its mouth in flecks, poor thing, glowing faintly in the light. He galloped slowly past, but we’d scarcely had time to gloat when the sound of speedy hoof beats returned.

  I thought at first it was Kessler, on another horse. I didn’t know whether to be glad for the old horse, or sorry for us, until we saw this rider silhouetted against the sinking moon. I patted Hreealdar to stop, and we halted with a copse of young spruce between us and the road. In silence we kids watched as the 11er reined in.

  “Not Kessler,” Sherry breathed.

  I pressed my leg back against hers.

  The horse danced and tossed its head. The man peered down at something in his hand, turned slowly... and his head jerked up in our direction. He kneed the horse, which plunged straight for us.

  “Cut out!” Frederic gave a strangled yell.

  Not like I needed the advice—we were already moving.

  “There must be 11ers all over the place,” Sherry muttered into my shoulder.

  The dyr. Had to be, magnetting the stench-wights to us like flies to garbage.

  As Hreealdar flowed over the uneven ground, lifting to soar over a mossy log, plunging over a low stream, and galloping on and on, I thought, anything that can clod two whole countries is worse than garbage. I wished I could take the thing away from Wende and toss it down a well, but magical objects just don’t stay tossed, not ones that powerful. Our job was to keep it away from the 11s as long as we could, even if Kessler had somehow managed to commandeer an army.

  Though the 11 chased hard, Hreealdar didn’t even run at his top speed, and sure enough, the difference between a magical entity and a real horse, even one ridden by a mean, nasty 11, gradually made itself clear. The distance between us and our pursuer lengthened, and finally the guy dropped back when we raced up a hill, and vanished.

  I wondered if Hreealdar would tire, and urged him toward the road.

  He obeyed, and soon we galloped along the road, alone as the world slowly blued. Hreealdar’s speed didn’t change much, but our jolting was considerably less. Since we were all really tired, this was a good thing.

  As impending dawn blued the sky, we crossed a bridge. We’d reached the last of the forest, and had entered the southlands where there were wide expanses of farmland, gently rolling hills, and slow peaceful rivers with only occasional thick patches of forest here and there. Light twinkled golden in windows in the distance as farm people slowly began their day.

  Then we rode over a bridge—and found a long horseman waiting for us. Hreealdar came to a stop, head tossing, but I could feel his sides quivering against my legs. I didn’t remember him doing that before.

  In the bleak pre-dawn light, we could see that this man was not Kessler. He raised a hand, and the world around us blurred oddly. I felt that icky metal-on-the-teeth, static electricity spark of a lot of magic. Nasty magic.

  “You have it,” he said, in Mearsiean. Then gazed at each of us in turn.

  He was not a super tall guy—not like Shnit, who’s tall and skinny and old and evil, or like Rel, who’s tall and broad-shouldered. He was just regular height for a man, but he shared one thing with Kessler, who’s kind of short for a man: a sort of sinister stillness that was more threatening than the loud speech-spouting of most villains.

  I didn’t mouth out about ‘it’ like I might have—we all knew what he meant. And from his faint smile, and the slightly raised brows, he knew we knew.

  When no one answered (except Frederic muttering softly, “Oh crud oh crud”) the man said, “Which of you is Beditha?”

  Wende was between Sherry and Deirdre. I caught a sudden movement out of the extreme corner of my eye as she tossed her hair back. I suspect she was hoping to be taken as a boy.

  “Well?” the man said in a goading voice.

  “Drop down one,” Sherry muttered into my hair.

  The man briefly looked at her, and turned his attention to me. A slight frown, as if he was bringing me into focus—then he said, “Are you the one Kessler spoke of? Could you be Wende?”

  “You’re as stupid as you look,” I yelled, though I knew it was even dumber as a crack.

  Wende said in a small voice, “Are you from Everon?”

  “Yes,” the man said. “And I am trying to regain a lost possession. Do you have it?”

  Then something really, really weird happened.

  At first, nothing seemed to be going on. The man didn’t make any threats, he just waited, or seemed to be waiting. His gaze was steady. I clutched handfuls of Hreealdar’s silky mane so hard my palms sweated, and though I wasn’t yanking or anything, Hreealdar trembled beneath me.

  The light had gotten just a bit brighter—I could see distinct leaves, instead of greenish blurs, and the air filled with a faint golden light as the sun’s rim just peeked above the hills to the east. I could even make out the grayish green of the man’s eyes as he gazed at Wende, in an intent, unblinking way...

  And then she slowly put her hand in her pocket, slowly withdrew it, and on her palm lay the dyr.

  Deirdre gasped. “He’s—he’s hypnotizing her!” she whispered.

  The word came out in English—and I understood it.

  I wrenched around and tried to grab the dyr. It felt just like I’d stuck my fingers in a light socket, only cold and horrible. I yanked my hand back—and Wende jerked upright like she’d been slapped.

  “Go!” I screeched to Hreealdar.

  One moment I looked in horror at the man reaching inside his gray coat to pull out a weapon—then we were galloping fast.

  Everyone had to struggle to stay upright. I yowled with relief—which was short-lived when I heard the thunder of hooves right behind us. That man had a horse with some kind of spell on it, or maybe it was the Norsunder version of Hreealdar, but he was actually gaining!

  So I bellowed to the kids, “Hold on to each other tight!”

  And though it’s tough to transfer that many, I firmly fixed the Junky in mind, muttered the spell, and we zapped away!

  Sixteen: On the Road, Take Two!

  There we were, on the bright rug in the main room.

  Sherry gave a small sigh. “All that walking and riding for nothing.”

  “I’m too tired to care,” I crabbed. “Let’s hit the sack, and plan later.”

  Which is exactly what we did.

  The others were still up in the White Palace, so we had the Junky to ourselves when we woke.

  I h
ate being all turned around, or maybe it’s that I hate being up all night and scared, then waking up feeling cross and gritty and headachy—and there’s still the danger to be faced. But when I saw Sherry come out of her room at the same time, her hair (which usually hangs in corkscrew curls just by nature) wild as a cloud, I had to laugh.

  Sherry grinned. “Did I get thorn bush hair? Feels like it!” She ran her fingers impatiently through the curls, trying to tame them, as we bucketed up the short tunnel to the main room, where we found Wende sitting alone and forlorn in the middle of the rug.

  “I wasn’t sure if I should go or not,” Wende admitted.

  “Not without planning,” I said. “Mind, you don’t have to plan with me. Mine always flub. But a plan? You gotta have.”

  Wende smiled a little at that.

  Sherry said, “Can you put that invisibility spell on her?”

  Not that it’s real invisibility, but it makes the eye slide by. I cast the spell—and though the air smeared around Wende, so we saw our bright rug, and the dirt of the wall, the dyr was cold and sharp and clear. Floating in the air.

  Deirdre appeared from behind, out of one of the rooms. “That’s really weird!”

  “I’m glad you thought of that here,” I said to Sherry. “So we could try it out. If we had relied on it with a villain nearby...”

  Sherry gave a short nod. “I’m not a dummy, not me!” She laughed, finished taming the curls, and headed to the kitchen. “Now, anyone for breakfast?”

  “First time I ever had breakfast at sunset,” Frederic said, right behind Arthur, who still looked weary and wan.

  “Me too,” I said. “I think. Everyone hungry?”

  “I don’t know,” Arthur admitted, and I knew he was dreading the 11th hour again.

  Wende pocketed the dyr. “Granny always says, Eat what you can today because you can’t trust tomorrow.”

  Nobody wanted to argue with that.

  o0o

  After we ate, I suggested that I transfer us to a regular Destination, which I knew had no nasty wards or tracer spells on it. This would be the Destination for the governor at the Lake province. It would be too late for them to see us—which was fine, as the governor, though nice, was a grownup. I could just see her insisting we wait while she contacted Clair, and worry, fuss, and worry about the kiddies.

 
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