She tried to make small talk, as they called it, but it was too small for Tip, and she soon gave up. Tay capered after them almost as a dog might, and sometimes allowed itself to be carried on the shoulders of one or the other. They bought the cheapest food at any crossroad farmstand they passed, always taking care to follow signs for THE WEST, which by late in the day had begun to be called GILLIKIN R. With an attempt at good humor Tip referenced the map once or twice, but its markings were archaic, and Rain was happier when he put it away.
“Why aren’t you heading toward your own home?” Rain asked once.
“Why aren’t you minding your own business?” he replied.
So they walked, and ate, and sang a little bit—that was neutral enough—and slept again. Longer this time, for they had spent a whole day on shank’s mare. The next day Rain had blisters and the friends had to slow down. The day after that Tip had grown his own blisters, worse than hers, and they paused on the banks of a river they had found. They didn’t know if it was the Gillikin already or a tributary, but if they turned left at the water’s edge and kept walking west, they would either see the great mountains sooner or later on the horizon, or they would see their river merge with a larger one. That is, assuming the mice in the hedgerow were correct. But how could mice know where Rain wanted to go?
A series of bluffs and strands ran down to the water’s edge, which was frantic with fish life and seemed some sort of bird paradise as well. Tay dove away from them for the water, and for a moment Rain thought she might have lost her rice otter forever, but after a half hour’s frolic Tay returned, its hair slicked back and some sort of weed in its teeth, a very happy look on its face.
Rain and Tip found a kind of cave with a little ledge in front of it, almost a front porch with a river view. A single room, not too deep, nothing scary asleep inside but for a few bats in the ceiling. What could be better? Tay brought them some fish, and Tip, who’d come equipped with a flintstone, struck up a small fire. Whatever fish it was, he baked it wrapped in whatever greens. It was the best meal Rain had ever eaten.
She didn’t remember falling asleep, but she was suddenly sitting bolt awake. The bats were screeching in pitches too high to hear; they were saying something like “Oh!” and “No!” and “Blow!” Tip was gone, and Tay was asleep in some richly enviable dream. Rain leapt to her feet, her senses as alert as an animal’s, and cried out, not even in words.
The fire had gone down and she stepped in the embers in her haste, because she had heard Tip moan, perhaps. She fell to her hands and knees and looked over the edge of the bluff. Tip lay six or eight feet below, on his chest.
She remembered someone called Zackers, but not what or where about him. “Tip?” she called.
The moon was lowering at this hour but there was enough light still for her to see an animal of some sort, an overgrown grite perhaps, and a partner or mate behind it, growling and tensing to jump.
She reached for the first thing her hand fell upon, the shell, and she almost threw it, but something stopped her. “Blow!” said the bats. She put the broken tip to her lips and puffed up her cheeks and forced air through the aperture as if it were a trumpetina.
The sound screeched like ogre’s fingernails on an ogre’s slate, and any remaining bats in the cave fled the premises permanently. But so did the grites. Then Rain slithered down to crouch beside Tip and check to see how hurt he was.
Not very, it turned out. He wouldn’t admit until the next morning that he had gotten up in the middle of the night to pee off the edge of their cliffporch, and misjudged. So, maybe not so hot to be a boy, thought Rain, but she didn’t say so.
She remembered the Clock crashing down a slope the time her forgotten companions had come across the Ivory Tiger in the poppy fields. That earthquake. And the other time, when the Clock slid off into Kellswater, up to its gills in fatal water. Now Tip himself was hurt from a fall. To aim high—to risk the prospect—well, there was no assurance of safety. Ever. As the world turned, it kept sloping itself into new treacheries. To live at all meant to risk falling at every step.
He couldn’t walk just yet; his ankle or his shin was bruised. He could hardly name the location of the pain, and Rain couldn’t tell. She wished Little Daffy were here. “A day’s rest won’t hurt,” she said.
“You are in such a hurry, can’t stop to help relieve an unmilked cow. So you should go on without me,” he taunted her.
She didn’t reply, just went scavenging for breakfast.
Later. “You saved my life, you know. Those overgrown grites were a nasty branch of the grite family. They were all ready to jump. I couldn’t have fended them off for long, or gotten away. After all this, to be eaten by beasts in the wild! A certain mythic justice, probably, but no fun for me.”
“After all this?” said Rain. And now, since she had saved his life, he more or less had to tell her something. Otherwise he’d have died and she wouldn’t even have known a thing about him, really.
“I know you were a fairly useless butler to Miss Ironish,” she declared.
“A studied ineffectuality,” he protested. “Kept me from being pestered for ever more boring chores.”
This is what he told her. He had come to Shiz from Munchkinland a year or so before he had met her in St. Prowd’s. He was an orphan but had escaped from the house of the person who had both raised him and imprisoned him. “A single woman,” said Tip. “A powerful and important woman, who had dozens of minions at her beck and call. I never knew why she paid attention to me, but she kept me closest of all, under her eye and in her chambers. I couldn’t bear it. All the time the ministers of war came and went, and I had to crouch on a stool behind her formal chair.”
“She sounds very important indeed,” said Rain politely. “A charwoman at some fine hotel, perhaps?”
“Don’t make fun of me.”
“Don’t make a fool of me. I just saved your life, remember?”
So he told her. “I was in the household of the infamous Mombey, who serves as Eminence of Munchkinland, and who directs the war of defense against the mongrel Ozians.”
“Mongrel Ozians?” Rain had to laugh. She was quite a mongrel herself, part Quadling, part Arjiki, part Munchkinlander.
“They invaded Munchkinland,” Tip reminded her, but then he shook his head. “Oh, but that’s only part of why I left. I couldn’t bear the endless posturing. The Emperor of Oz may be a demiurge or whatever he has named himself, but La Mombey herself is a sorceress of no mean skill.”
“Do you think she has found the Grimmerie?” asked Rain.
“All I know is that she has had her people looking for it,” said Tip sadly. “For the book, and for the descendants of the Wicked Witch of the West, for in their hands the book would reveal its secrets most quickly, and Mombey is in urgent need of some sort of surge in the attempt to beat back the Ozians. Whether she got the book first or the Emperor’s men did, I can’t tell; but if it’s truly in the custody of one or the other of those adversaries, things will change before long.”
“Yes, they will,” said Rain. She told him who she was, and that she was heading for Kiamo Ko to see if her parents were still alive, since they had had the Grimmerie last. Then, because Tip clearly hated divulging secrets of his past as much as she did, she kissed him on the mouth so there would be no more talking for a while.
She collected the kisses one by one by one, but she didn’t count them.
A good season to walk. Later—and not all that much later—Rain would look upon the six weeks it took them to find their way to Kiamo Ko as the happiest period of her young life.
They forded the Gillikin River easily enough, swimming when they had to, wading the rest of the way. When they reached the Vinkus River, a more treacherous waterspill channeled between obdurate yellow cliffs, they feared they’d been stopped. Spent days walking first north and then south along its banks, becoming desperate. Tay responded to their
anxiety and made a whimpering sound but wouldn’t plunge into the water until they were ready to forge ahead too.
Finally, at a stretch where the river widened and slowed, they came across a beaver dam. How the colony had managed to build against such force was hardly short of miraculous, thought Tip. Rain, less inclined to consider anything miraculous, remarked that if they could interview a talking Beaver they might learn a good deal.
Such a moment presented itself once they were almost across. What had looked like detritus caught up against the brackwork of fortifications on the far side turned out to be a lodge. And, “Hullo there, don’t step too hard or you’ll bring down the ceiling on my mother-in-law,” said a Beaver, turning a fish over in her paws and eyeing them with wariness and courtesy alike.
She introduced herself as Luliaba. The lodge was empty at this hour except for her aging mother-in-law, who wanted to be put to the sea in a coracle and allowed to sail to her doom, but she was too beloved by the clan and so they had locked her in her room, the better to cherish her.
“Put to sea?” said Rain, to whom the phrase seemed excessive.
“Term we have, in Beaver lore,” said Luliaba companionably. “The mortal goal of our species is to build a dam big enough to flood all of Oz, as legend says once happened. Then all the rivers would flow together, making the mythical sea of story and song, and on the other side of that misty rainbow all the Beavers who’ve gone before will be having a fish fry, and waiting for us there. She’s anxious to git going, y’see. She’s been learning off new marinade recipes that have come in fashion since her lollymama and lollypapa died, and she’s afraid she’ll go soft in the noggin and forgit them before she gets there. The dear.”
“She thinks all that, she’s already soft,” said Rain, for whom the mystery of the silent animal had more potency than that of the chattering classes.
“The notion of a world of water, it always makes me feel ill,” said Tip. “But tell us how you came to build this magnificent barricade.”
“I’m chief engineer on this job site,” said Luliaba. “And I don’t mind saying that the sweet accident of coincidence is the best foundation upon which to build. Two big ole stag-head oaks, uprooted upriver upmonth, floated into view one morning pretty as you please, and lodged for a while against some rocks you can’t see. About a third of the way out. Before they could work their way free, we’d established the underwater salients, using cedar logs we had stripped and at the ready. Cedar don’t rot under water like some woods, you know. By sunset the first day we’d begun the breakwater to slow the pressure moving against the twiggy firmament. Come a couple more days, we’d already completed the initial span. Your basic herringbone. Long since subsumed by upgrades done by artisan builders, of course. But the essentials we git all in place on day one.”
“Let me out!” cried the mother-in-law from below.
“Can we bring her something, maybe? A present?” asked Tip. “In exchange for your letting us cross over?”
“Bring me a gun!” cried the mother-in-law. “I’ll shoot my way out, or shoot my brains out if that don’t work!”
“A tasty flank of otter would be awful welcome.” Luliaba leered at Tay.
“We’ll be going now,” said Rain.
“Take me with!” came from inside the lodge. “I’ll be good! I won’t foul the nest any more than I can help it!”
“If we come back this way, we’ll try to bring you a little coracle,” called Tip, looking at Rain and shrugging.
“Not too little! I’m not the glass of fashion and the mirror of form I was in my springwater days!”
The travelers headed up the bank. Tip kept Tay safe in his arms. “You’re awfully sweet to a talky old Beaver,” said Rain. “Do you really mean you’d bring her a boat?”
“Well, if the opportunity presented itself.”
“Why are you so nice?”
“You make me nice. I’m pleased this all happened—that I ended up bursting out of your wardrobe instead of, say, Miss Ironish’s. Or Miss Igilvy’s.”
“Or Scarly’s?” She could risk making that almost-joke now that they had put so many miles between themselves and St. Prowd’s.
“Or Scarly’s.” He was sound and firm, and didn’t rise to the ribbing. “It’s just as Luliaba said. The sweet accident of coincidence is the best foundation on which to build. I might have gone in any direction once I escaped from Colwen Grounds. I might have gone to the Emerald City to throw myself on the mercy of the Emperor.”
“Smart move, avoiding that. For a deity, he isn’t widely known for his mercy.”
“Even ending up at Shiz, I might have found some sort of position at one of the colleges. Or hired out for that Bear, to help him in his shop in exchange for a mattress. I might even have come to St. Prowd’s before you’d been moved out to the annex. Really!—doesn’t coincidence hurt the sense of reason? What’s the likelihood that I’d have escaped the court of La Mombey, where I’d already heard of the Grimmerie, only to stumble across you, who seem to be one of its closest relatives?”
“We don’t do probability theory until third year at St. Prowd’s, but I’d guess about ozillion to one.” She trained her eyes on the tall grasses to select the best path across the plateau rising west of the Vinkus River. Butterflies hung like slow confetti as far as the eye could see. “The chances are so slim, in fact”—she paused as the thought consolidated—“that it might make me wonder if La Mombey had charmed you to find me.”
“Well.” He was taken aback by that. No easy riposte to offer. Finally he shrugged and said, “If she did, we have something to thank her for at last. But you’d expect she’d also have charmed me to kidnap you and take you back to her, so that even if she didn’t have the Grimmerie, she’d have you in custody. Then if the Emperor’s men found the book first, at least they wouldn’t have you, too.”
“Maybe she did charm you to do that,” said Rain, though she didn’t really believe it. “You just haven’t gotten around to it yet.”
“If she did, then you cast a stronger charm upon me,” he said.
“Stop that. You sound like one of the silly schoolgirls on the second floor.”
They walked in sunlight, in shadow, speaking and not speaking. The hours were long and their feet hurt, and their stomachs rumbled like thunder. They postponed fretting about what they would find at Kiamo Ko; it couldn’t be helped from this distance, not yet. Gradually the sentinel mountains emerged from heat haze, to supervise their progress. First filmy banks, easily mistaken for a low storm front on the horizon; then icy translucencies; then, too soon—all too soon—the silhoutte of Oz’s natural ramparts. The Great Kells.
Foot ahead of foot, step step step. They were in little need of omens. They trusted to the charm of chance. Why not? It had done them no harm so far.
From the east the Kells rose, wrinkled solidity, and scored to two-thirds of their height by innumerable aromatic conifers. Few low valleys, but as Rain and Tip climbed they kept finding pockets of higher pastureland. Hung tarns. Sudden upland meadows where Arjiki tribespeople had been settled forever.
Like the chancel above the Sleeve of Ghastille, these villages were often invisible to climbers until the last few steps, and then the settlements would appear as if sprinkled there by the wind. The huts were made of stone and the roofs of thatch and grass, bundled in bristly fagots and weighed down by rocks tied into place. The first village on Knobblehead Pike was Fanarra, said the villagers, pointing to it and naming it. Tip and Rain could understand little else but the mountain courtesy that gestured, “Come, eat. Here, sleep. Blanket.” They treated Tip and Rain as a married couple, bedding them close, which Rain didn’t mind and Tip didn’t seem to either, as far as Rain could determine. Upon leaving the village they noticed other couples not much older than they were. They saw an infant in a sling who wailed every time the teenage mother hit it.
“That isn’t right,” murmured Tip as they passed.
“Send it down the everlasting sea in a little coracle, it’ll be fine,” said Rain. Tip didn’t talk to her for a while after that.
Fanarra led, another day’s steep hike, to Upper Fanarra, where the welcome was equally warm. Someone slaughtered a young goat and it was roasted at night, and the whole village celebrated. Tip sang a Munchkinlander spinniel that was intended to be comic, but the villagers closed their eyes and listened with painful care as if it were a voice from the beyond.
Silly me tender, silly me sweet,
Tickle me under the bandstand.
Handle me merciful, handle me neat
And I’ll tickle you under the waistband.
“I think Tip is tipsy,” said Rain that night, so he tickled her.
The villagers of Upper Fanarra responded eagerly to the mention of Kiamo Ko, and by wheeling motions they suggested it wasn’t a day or two farther on, three at most. Coming up for late summer now, thought Rain. Probably autumn arrived earlier in the high hills. Rain and Tip needed to warm themselves around a breakfast campfire for a few moments before starting out.
“I’m still thinking about that little baby,” Tip confessed. “I wish we had taken it with us.”
“We can’t even hold our liquor, can we,” said Rain, “how are we going to hold a baby?”
“Not for us,” he said. “I just mean, to save it from that poor exhausted mother.”
“We’re not old enough for a child. We’re children still.”
“How old are you?” he asked her.
“Somewhere between school and college.”
“I don’t know. I’ve grown used to ignoring the question. By the standards of the students at St. Prowd’s, I seemed to be about thirteen from some points of view, and fifteen from others. But perhaps I’m eleven, and quick for my age. How old are you?”