“Can trees see?” asked Rain.
“Some say the trees are houses of spirits,” said Little Daffy. “I mean, stupid people say it, but even so.”
“I don’t mean tree-spirits,” said Rain. “I mean the trees. Can they see us?”
“They weep leaves upon the world every autumn,” said Little Daffy. “Proof enough they know damn well what’s going on around here.”
After Rain’s eyes had closed and her breathing softened, Brrr intoned to Ilianora, “Do you think everything is right with our Rain?”
She raised an eyebrow, meaning, In what context do you ask?
“I’ve known few human children. That Dorothy Gale just about completes the list. So I have no premise on which to worry. But doesn’t Rain seem—well—odd? Perhaps she is a girl severed from too much.”
Ilianora shut her eyes. “She’s young even for her age, that’s all. She still lives in the magical universe. She’ll outgrow it, to the tune of pain and suffering. We all do. Don’t worry so much. Look at how she touches the trees tonight, as if they had spirits she knew about and we didn’t. That’s not weird; that’s what being a child is. I was such a girl, when I was alive.”
“Don’t talk like that.”
“Oh, I’m alive enough now.” Her eyes opened, and they were filled with whatever passed for love in that woman. “I am alive. But I’m not that girl. I’m a woman grown from a life broken in the middle. I’m not even a cousin of that girl I was so long ago. I see her life like an illustrated weekly story I read long ago, and it is pictures of that that I carry in my head. Her life in Kiamo Ko. Her life with her father, long ago—that famous Fiyero Tigelaar, prince of the Arjikis. Her life with her mother, Sarima, and her father’s erstwhile lover, Elphaba Thropp. It’s a child’s story in my head, no more real than Preenella and the skeleton hermit in the everlasting cloak of pine boughs. I’m not sad; don’t shift; leave me be. We were talking about Rain.”
For her sake, he returned to the earlier subject. “I don’t fault her interest in the natural world. What I notice is her … her distance from us.”
“She’s here curled up against your haunches. To get her any closer you’d have to swallow her whole.”
“You know what I mean. She seems to float in a life next to ours, but with limited contact.”
Ilianora sighed. “We agreed to take her to safety, not to perfect her. What would you have us do? Sing rounds? Practice our sums as we march?”
“I don’t know stories. Maybe you could tell her more? I wish we could get through a little more. She loves us, perhaps, but from too great a distance.”
“She’ll have to cross the distance herself. Trust me on that, Brrr. I know about it. Either she’ll choose to visit us when there is enough of her present to visit, or day by day she’ll learn to survive without needing what you need and I need.”
“I think it’s called a knot in the psyche.”
“It’s called grief so deep that she can’t see it as such. Maybe she never will. Maybe that would be a blessing for her in the long run. If she can’t learn to love us, would that keep us from loving her? Brrr?”
Never, he thought. Never. He didn’t have to mouth the word to his wife; she knew what he meant by the way he tucked his chin over the crown of Rain’s head.
A day of mixed clouds and sudden fiercenesses of light. Breezy but warm, and aromatic, both spicy-rank and spicy-balm. The road passed through open meadows interspersed with dense patches of black starsnaps and spruces, where clusters of wild pearlfruit glistened in caves of foliage. Rain paid no attention to the clacking of nonsense rhyme that Ilianora had taken up. Rain heard it but didn’t hear it.
Little Ferny Shuttlefoot
Made a mutton pasty.
Sliced it quick and gulped it quick
And perished rather hasty.
Reginald Mouch sat on a couch.
A ladybug bit him and he said ouch.
It smiled at him. He started to laugh
And bit that ladybug back. In half.
“What’s up with you today, all this mayhem?” said Mr. Boss to Ilianora. “Awful passel of nastiness in children’s rhymes. Toughens up the little simpletons, I guess.”
“A lot of biting too,” said the Lion, showing his teeth. He was proud that Ilianora was taking up the challenge to force-feed childhood lore to Rain.
“I remember a counting-out rhyme,” said Little Daffy, and proved it.
One Munchkinlander went out for a stroll,
Two girls from Gillikin danced with a troll.
Three little Glikkun girls chewed on their pinkies.
Four little Winkie boys showed us their winkies.
Five Ugabumish girls started their blood.
Six little Quadlings went home to eat mud.
Now who wins the prize for being most pretty?
The girl from the Emerald, Emerald City.
One Ozma, two Ozma, three Ozma.
“And on until you miss a step,” said Little Daffy.
“Which you rarely do,” said the dwarf.
“There’s a skipping game to that,” said Little Daffy. “We used to play it in Center Munch.” She found a stick of last night’s kindling saved for tonight, and with the charred end she drew squares and circles on the yellow pavement. She labeled them with numbers.
“No one learned me numbers yet,” said Rain.
“It’s easy.” The Munchkinlander skipped and huffed to the ninth circle. Whinging, Rain tried to follow, but she was stopped at the seventh circle by the explosion into the eighth of a small whirlwind of feathers and beaks. A Wren with a grandmotherly frown had landed onto the bricks in front of them. She was flustered and out of breath.
“No time for nursery games,” panted the Wren. “Unless you fly, me duckies, you’ll have enough time to skip stones in the Afterlife.”
“Sassy thing,” said the dwarf. “Are you available to stay for supper? We’ll serve roast Wren.”
“I cain’t spend precious moments in foolflummery. I been hunting a while.” She was having a hard time talking while catching her breath; her voice came out whistley. “The crazy bird lady asked me to find you. I followed the words I saw on the ground. You’re in danger, the blessed lot of you. A thumping great crew of the Emperor’s nasty-men is on your tail and no mistake. Oh, all is lost! Unless it ain’t.”
It took them a while to piece together the silly creature’s message. The soldiers were armed and mounted. They’d interviewed the Bird Woman of the Disappointments, and wrung from her the information that the company of the Clock had passed that way, all jollylike and worms for brekkie.
“Begging your pardon, sir, you’ll not get the privilege of prison, I bet,” said the Wren. “Not to judge by them fiercish faces. Why do you loiter so? Fly, I tell you!”
“I have short legs. I never move fast,” said Little Daffy. “Maybe we should split up?”
“It was a nice marriage while it lasted,” said Mr. Boss. “I never thought it would come to this, but life is full of pleasant shocks.”
“I didn’t mean you and I split up, oaf.”
Ilianora roused to alarm earliest. “Perhaps it’s a sign we should ditch the Clock and take the book; we can move faster on our own.” The Lion flashed her a warning look; however dizzy this Wren, they oughtn’t reveal to her that they had any books. But it was too late now.
“If you got the singular volume they’re after, pity upon you,” said the Wren. “Grayce Graeling thought you might. But the longer you sit here and mull it over, the easier a job to round you up. Those horsemen on their way are all done up in silver plate, bright as icicles, armed with saw-ribbed swords and quivers of skilligant arrows.”
The dwarf had heard enough. “On we go, then. When you return to that Bird Woman, tell her we thanked her for the warning.”
“There ain’t a whole lot of he
r left to thank,” said the Wren. “Ozspeed, you little egglings. Wind under your wings and all that. I’ll sing out to alert what remains of the Conference of the Birds that I saw you safe, once upon a time, and I left you safe. What happens next belongs to your decisions, and to luck. Is that girl who I guesses she is?”
“Don’t go,” said Rain. Brrr and Ilianora looked at each other. Even in the face of mortal danger parents are attentive to the smallest improvements in the capacities of their children.
“I’ll sing you cover best I can,” said the Wren kindly. “If you’re looking for Liir, he’s well hid. But what a sight for sore eyes you’d provide him, on some happy day! Meanwhile, I’ve done me best, and now you do yours.”
Having finally been roused to worry, they made up for lost time. “We’re history,” said Little Daffy. “Even without the Clock, we can’t move faster than soldiers on horseback. Not with a child.”
“I can run faster than you can,” said Rain.
“I know. We’re both three feet tall but I’m two feet stout.”
“We’re not ditching the Clock,” said Mr. Boss. “That’s a nonstarter.”
They were hurrying along; their chatter was nervous chatter. “Why armor, at this time of year?” asked the Lion.
Little Daffy spoke up. “Against some sort of spell, hammered metal can afford a minimal protection. Or it can at least slow down a spell’s effectiveness.”
“You’re not a witch, except in the boudoir. Are you? You witch,” huffed her husband, almost admiringly.
“It’s no secret that some professional people can manage a bit of magic in their own line of work. Sister Doctor and I used to sew sheets of hammered tin into our clothes when we worked among the Yunamata, for instance. The mineral prophylactic. Only common sense.”
“Can you do us something useful? A pair of seven-league boots for each of us, to settle us more deeply into the safer mess of Quadling jungle?”
“I’ll need two pair,” said Brrr. “Though I’d also accept a seven-league settee.”
“Bring me an ingrown toenail and I’ll trim it without my sewing scissors,” huffed Little Daffy. “That’s about the size of what I can do, people. Anyway, even the most powerful enchanter doesn’t have the power to do anything he or she might want. Only certain things. No one can point a finger at a dozen horsemen and turn them, poof, into a dozen doughnuts. No one can, as a single campaign, magically remove the Emperor from his throne, nor bring Elphaba back from the dead. Magic powers are limited to start with, and more limited by the history and aptitudes of the person attempting a spell.”
“Look,” cried Rain. Brrr turned, aware that for once she was paying more attention than the rest of them.
Across the open meadows through which they were hurrying, they saw a clot of horsemen emerge from around a stand of larches, miles back. With a zealotry of spear and sawtooth sword. If the companions could see the horsemen, they could be seen too. It could be mere moments before the kettledrumming of horses at gallop.
“Anything to get rid of her, eh?” roared the Lion. He turned once, three times, five in desperate circles. The cart turned with him. He was tempted by the moral acceptability of a personal escape for himself in the service of guarding a human girl—but then he set his pace forward again. “I’m not leaving the book to the Emperor,” he growled, “nor the rest of you to the Emperor’s spears.”
“We should fly,” cried Rain, “din’t the Wren say we should fly?”
“Now isn’t the time to discuss figurative language,” ventured Little Daffy, “not when our livers are about to be diced in situ.” She pulled herself up onto the Clock, where Rain and the dwarf were already riding.
Rain gave out as much of a curse as she could, given that her fund of vocabulary remained on the spare side. She crab-walked up the side of the Clock and put her foot upon one of the long wrought-iron hands on the time face. “I seen a real dragon that could fly. This one knows about it as good as I do,” she cried. Using the leathery flaps of the wings to scurry higher, she eventually thumped the dragon on its reticulated proboscis. “Fly, you stupid worm, and do the work you was made to do!”
Maybe she’d hit a secret lever or a magic nerve still potentially alert while the rest of the Clock remained paralyzed. The great wings shook. Browned leaves and the husks of forest insects dusted out upon them. The creak, when the sallowwood ribs attained their fullest extension, was like the snap of an umbrella when it catches. The batlike wingspan reached twenty-eight or thirty feet from tip to tip.
“Pretty, en’t it,” said the dwarf. “If they didn’t see us before, they’ll see us now. We’re a whole dragon-cloud on their horizon, soon as they look to their left.”
A cry of discovery. The avalanching sound of horses’ hooves. As Brrr strained to pull even harder, he noticed that the wind had swung round. It had been blowing from the north, bringing with it the cool of Gillikin summer farmland, but now from the west the wind picked up with a sudden, drier emphasis. As if it meant business.
The wings of the dragon caught the wind and billowed, to the extent that aging leather, softened by time, can billow. The wagon moved faster as if loaned spirit by the weather. “Whoa!” cried Ilianora. She scooped herself onto a running board.
Rain perched forward like a gargoyle on a chapel parapet. She hopped up and down on the shoulders of the dragon, looking forward, not scared at all, as the Clock accelerated.
If it starts to fly, thought Brrr, I’ll be hanging from the hasps of this cart like a kitten sagging out of the mouth of its mother. He couldn’t stop to disengage from the harness, though. There was no time. The Clock hurried on.
Brrr didn’t think the dragon could outpace military steeds, but maybe the horses had been ridden hard. By the time the Lion had either to pause or else risk a coronary, the assemblage had mounted a slight slope of the Yellow Brick Road and descended the other side. The gravity hurried them all the faster, into a copse that promised, just beyond, a deeper forest. Affording a small window of time to strategize before their predators were upon them.
The dragon’s wings folded so suddenly that Rain tumbled forward to the pavement. She didn’t complain about the scratches on her dirty limbs, the little blood. She had that look a child has only a few times in its life, when the child has bettered her betters. The expression isn’t smug, though adults often take it for smugness. It’s something else. Maybe relief at having confirmed through personal experience the long-held suspicion of our species, that the enchanted world of childhood is merely a mask for something else, a more subtle and paradoxical magic.
As if Rain’s enthusiasm had called it into being, they soon came to an opportunity. A fork in Yellow Brick Road. A high section running along a ridge, a lower road, perhaps an older line that had been superseded by later engineers. Mr. Boss selected the descending road, as it looked more brambly. Sure enough, the scrub trees and snarled hedges snapped back into place after the Clock pushed through, providing the companions deeper cover, hiding evidence of the choice they’d made. At least for the time being.
That night the dwarf said to Rain, “You made the dragon fly. Could’ve tickled me in the tickle zone with a tickle wheel. A good job, that. I guess you can stay.”
“I already stayed,” said Rain.
They couldn’t imagine giving their pursuers the slip so easily, but it seemed so. A good thing too: another day or two, and the forest had petered out entirely. Pale meadows rounded beside them like billowing sheets being flapped dry by two laundresses. Here and there a rill wandered past them, and the company could pause to rinse a cup or soak a sore heel. They didn’t pause for long.
The little girl, thought Brrr, seems more thrilled than frightened by the urgency. Though he offered to carry Rain on his back, she preferred to walk and she didn’t tire. She often spra
ng ahead as he imagined his own cub might have done, had he been sprightly enough to father a cub. He had to resist the urge to cuff her, not out of annoyance but love. She seemed not to appreciate the stress beneath which her companions lumbered.
And then he thought, Oh, sweet Ozma. She doesn’t understand it. Deep down, she doesn’t get it. She is younger than her years. Is she simple? She doesn’t know that the world is made up of accidents jackknifed into every moment, waiting to spring out. Of poison saturating one mushroom and not another. Of pox and pestilence accordion-pleated in the drawing room drapes, ready to spread when the drapes are drawn of a chilly evening. Of disaster stitched in the seam of every delight. The fire ant in the sugar bowl. The serpent in the raspberries, as the old stories had it. She doesn’t know enough to worry. She hasn’t been educated enough to fret.
The General had been teaching her how to read her letters, but she hadn’t learned how to read the world.
The old branch line of the Yellow Brick Road began to peter out. Local scavengers with building projects of their own had dug up the looser bricks in such a patchwork fashion that traveling the road became difficult. Around here, the meadowgrass to either side grew more serrated. It scratched against them, as if each frond were rimmed with salt crystals. Then, at last, the white meadows dipped into the first stand of something more like jungle than forest.
They didn’t expect to find the going easy, as the Clock was tall and the growth was dense, but nor did they expect that the swift change in climate would surprise them with a huge increase in native population. Not forty feet under the canopy of marsh-jungle they were deafened by the jaw-jaw of life. Cawing birds and scolding monkeys. Ten thousand industrious insects chewing, sawing, fighting, digging, dragging, battling, zizzing by. The vines pulled away like spun-sugar candy. The Clock drove in deeper. The noise itself was a kind of camouflage, and welcome.
The first afternoon in the badlands, Little Daffy identified a plant whose small quilted leaves, when snapped open, oozed with an unguent that repelled mosquitoes. The need was urgent enough that the adult companions ventured out to harvest a goodly supply. For her safety, though, Rain was shoveled into the body of the Clock. Protected from mosquitoes there, and also from getting lost. She could tend to wander, thoughtlessly, and a jungle was no place for that.