A mile further on, she found the Grannies waiting for her.
It could have been the same spot as before, except for the river running to the right. The Grannies stood or sat in a half circle, so like the day before that Alexandra wondered if they had even changed their clothes. They all inspected her, in her colorful Ozarker dress, so she slid her pack off her shoulders, spread her skirt, and twirled around. Charlie fluttered off her shoulder, then resettled atop her head when she was done.
“Well?” she asked. “Is this a proper outfit for a Solemn Quest?” Suddenly she wondered if the Pritchards had played an enormous prank on her, and the Grannies were all about to burst out laughing. But no, the Pritchards would never do that — and the Grannies’ wizened, taciturn expressions didn’t change.
“Mighty courteous of you to take this serious,” said Granny Ford. The old, old woman’s voice was dry and sour and might have been just a little bit sarcastic, though Alexandra couldn’t tell for sure.
“Did Lamentation an’ her daughters make that for you?” asked Granny Pritchard.
“Yes ma’am,” Alexandra said. “They said appearances are important.” She kept her eyes fixed in their sockets with an effort — it was so natural to roll them.
“So they are,” said Granny Pritchard.
“You haven’t really told me anything about what I’m supposed to do,” Alexandra said, addressing the assembly of old women. “I have to say that just hiking into the woods and waiting for something to happen doesn’t sound like a very solemn Quest to me. Also, if I’m not back by tomorrow, my sister and my friends will freak out, and I’ll be in big trouble if I’m late getting home on Friday.”
“Girl,” said Granny Ford, and her voice now was the groan of iron hinges, “if’n you thought this was a ‘hike’ you wouldn’t’ve come. So cease yore prattle. Once you set out on this Quest, you will return when you return and yore friends waitin’ fer you and yore folks back home makes no nevermind. You know that. If’n you don’t want to go, then say so now and go back to the Pritchards’ homestead.”
Alexandra was silent.
“Dorcas?” said Granny Ford.
Granny Pritchard stepped forward. “Your wand,” she said. She held out her hand.
Alexandra hesitated a moment, but decided the wandsmith meant to do something with it, so she handed the old woman her yew wand.
Granny Pritchard tucked it into her skirt.
“Hey!” Alexandra protested.
“You won’t be needin’ it,” Granny Pritchard said.
“Wait a minute — you’re sending me on a Quest without my wand? How am I supposed to Quest when I can’t do magic?”
“Can’t you?” asked Granny Ford. “You’re a witch, hain’t you? With or without a stick o’ wood?”
“I don’t see any of you running around without your sticks of wood,” Alexandra said.
Granny Morrison clucked her tongue.
“That wand is not suited to you and you know it,” Granny Pritchard said. “As this Quest is meant to find you a new one, you must make do. Don’t fret, I’ll give it back to you when you return.”
“How am I supposed to defend myself?” Alexandra asked.
“With wit and charm. An’ one does not flit about by broom on a Solemn Quest neither. I’ll take yourn as well.”
Alexandra hesitated. How did Granny Pritchard know about the broom in her magic backpack? She considered denying it, then with her lips turned down in a pout, pulled the Twister out of her pack and handed it over.
Granny Pritchard took it with an appreciative whistle. “Well, hain’t she purty? Furriners sure do make ‘em fancy.” She nodded to Alexandra. “Now, daylight’s a’ wastin’, so I’d git goin’ if goin’ is what you aim to do.”
Alexandra fumed. “Am I allowed to keep my pack?”
“Shore,” Granny Pritchard drawled.
“And my familiar? I’m not going without Charlie.” She reached a hand up to touch the bird. Charlie cawed.
“‘Course you oughter take your familiar with you.”
“Okay then. Take off, Charlie.”
The raven took off and flew into the woods. From deep in the trees, Charlie cawed, as if inviting her in.
Alexandra said, “I’ll see you when I get back, I guess.”
None of the old women said anything as Alexandra set off.
She walked a while through the trees, with Charlie hopping and gliding from branch to branch ahead of her. Alexandra followed the river a ways, in a slightly downhill direction, until it turned down a rocky slope that Alexandra didn’t feel like climbing down, so she veered away and followed the circumference of the hill she was on, since that was the easiest walking. By late morning it was becoming very warm, and soon she was sweating profusely, with her back damp beneath the backpack and sweat pouring down her forehead.
She looked over her shoulder. The trees were dense around her, and she’d seen and heard no signs of other people since she’d left the Grannies behind. She must have covered at least a mile and a half.
Laying down her pack, she untied her bonnet, and unlaced the green, white, and yellow dress. Charlie watched her and cawed as Alexandra stepped out of the dress, carefully folded and bundled it up with its bonnet, and stuffed it into her pack. She took out a pair of shorts and a sleeveless tank top.
Now she was dressed like a Muggle. No doubt a half-naked Muggle, according to Ozarker propriety. It was how she might walk around back home, minus her Seven-League Boots, and it was a lot cooler than hiking in that voluminous dress with her head sweltering inside a bonnet.
She’d worn the dress to be presentable to the Grannies. She never promised to keep it on.
Next, she reached into her pack and took out the basswood wand she’d hidden there. “Wit and charm, my ass.”
She shouldered her pack again and took a few breaths. The air was laden with the smells of damp plants and animals and other summer things. She set off at a faster pace, not taking the flying leaps that the Seven-League Boots were capable of, but no longer hindered by the swishing of a long skirt.
The woods were hot and humid and Alexandra’s clothes stuck to her. She stopped frequently to drink water. Sometimes she poured water into the cup of her hand for Charlie, though she knew the raven could easily find water in a nearby stream.
For the first hour or so, she enjoyed the scenery while wondering just how deep into the woods she might go. By rights she should reach a town or highway eventually — even here in the Hollers, Muggles were never that far away. Yet she couldn’t remember ever hearing the sound of a car engine while in Down Below Holler, Clearwater Holler, or Furthest. Occasionally an airplane passed overhead, reminding her of the Muggle world, and she supposed the Ozarkers must hate that. But like the woods around Charmbridge Academy, the island of Croatoa, and the deserts of Dinétah, places where wizards lived somehow possessed an isolating power that could make you forget there were towns and cities and millions of Muggles with their cars and machines and power lines just a few miles away as the crow flies.
As she continued walking, the fact that she had no idea where she was going or what she was supposed to do began weighing on her. She looked around, as if hoping to see a sign or a guide or even a glowing ball of light, but so far all she saw were trees, birds, and squirrels.
“So where are we going, Charlie?” she asked.
She had a magical bond with Charlie — maybe her familiar was supposed to lead her. But Charlie cawed and settled on her shoulder, refusing to give advice or direction.
Perhaps she would have to camp out. The prospect didn’t daunt her; Maximilian and the JROC had taught her the rudiments of outdoor survival. But she had been hoping to get home by dinner, and spending a night in the woods, let alone several, made this Quest business a bigger deal and a much more inconvenient one.
“Well,” she said, “it would be great if something happened now.”
When this didn’t produce a response, she said in a louder voice, “Bored now.” And in an aside to Charlie, she said, “And you need to find a branch.” Since her shoulder was almost bare, the raven’s talons were digging painfully into her skin.
With a disgruntled croak, Charlie flew away from her and into the trees.
That was when Alexandra felt a sensation that stopped her dead in her tracks. Tiny needles of ice that jabbed her first at the base of her neck and then progressed all the way down her spine and back in one shuddering instant.
She spun around. All she saw were trees and sky. From overhead, Charlie cawed, not in alarm but as if to say, “What’s your problem?”
“Didn’t you feel that, Charlie?” she asked.
The raven did not. She usually knew when Charlie was feeling what she felt.
She studied the gloomy woods, which had become foreboding despite the sun overhead. It was still afternoon, but she had yet to encounter anything that might qualify as a Quest, and she began to wonder if she would actually have to spend the night outdoors. The creeping conviction that something was behind her had faded so completely that she began to doubt herself, though she wasn’t prone to such starts without cause, and she’d learned to trust her instincts. She fingered her nearly-useless basswood wand, and really wished she had the yew one. It might not be cooperative, but at least it produced magic.
Carefully, she turned her back on the way she had come, and proceeded in the same direction she’d been going.
She didn’t get more than fifty yards when she felt it again. No sound, no movement in the corner of her eye, no smell, not even the slightest breath of air against the back of her neck, but something was behind her. Charlie squawked as she whirled and pointed her basswood wand.
Once again, there was nothing there. Alexandra opened her eyes wide, flared her nostrils, and held very still, trying to take in sight, sound, and smell, and look beyond what was visible to see the world with her Witch’s Sight.
Still she detected nothing. The moment she turned, the feeling of something behind her vanished. She cast a glance at the black feathered form perched on a bush a few yards away.
“You’re supposed to be watching my back, Charlie,” she said.
Charlie protested with a shrill caw. Surely if she felt it, Charlie did too? Yet Charlie seemed confused by her reaction.
She resumed walking, stopped suddenly, and spun about. Nothing. Several more times she walked on, never for more than a minute, sometimes looking over her shoulder, sometimes spinning without warning. Charlie watched silently. It only annoyed Alexandra more that her familiar didn’t sense anything, and none of her abrupt about-faces caught anything stalking her.
Yet when she finally forced herself to march on without looking back, it wasn’t more than five minutes before she felt it again, an unmistakable presence behind her. Once more she looked over her shoulder and saw nothing.
“Fly, Charlie,” she said, and with no further warning, she ran. Stepping with the full stride of her Seven-League Boots, she shot between trees and vaulted over gulches and streams at inhuman speed. Anyone who saw her then would have been astonished at a streak blurring through the woods. She didn’t know where she was going, but since the Grannies hadn’t bothered to give her a map or directions, she didn’t figure it mattered. She did have her Lost Traveler’s Compass still.
When she was sure she’d gone too far for anyone or anything to keep pace with her, she slowed and then nearly stumbled to a halt. She was on a sparsely-vegetated hillside that was turned away from the sun and toward the wind, so all that grew here was rough, sharp grass and a few straggly bushes poking up between jumbles of rocks. Below, another river valley spread before her, turning dark brown and shaded green in the lengthening shadows.
She bent over and rested with her hands on her knees while she waited for Charlie to catch up.
That was when she realized she was being watched. Again.
She stood up and turned about in a circle, but it wasn’t the same sensation as before. She couldn’t describe the difference, but this was a more mundane feeling of being watched, like she might feel in Larkin Mills or anywhere else.
It took a moment for her eyes to focus on the one part of the rocky hillside that didn’t match the rest, and she almost jumped back with a start as she realized that a small, brown man in long sleeves and pants was standing motionless on a rock and staring at her from not five feet away.
“Hello,” she said.
The little man was about half her height. Other than his skin color and mountain clothing, he looked a great deal like a goblin. His mouth was an unsmiling seam in a creased face. His eyes were small and hard, above a blunt awl of a nose. He radiated unfriendliness. Alexandra felt it even before she belatedly noticed his pickax.
“Um, are you a hill dwarf?” She remembered the Pritchards mentioning hill dwarves. They hadn’t said anything good about them.
“I suppose I be,” the hill dwarf said. “Be you a witch?”
“Yes,” Alexandra said. Well, at least he speaks English.
“Be you no Ozarker,” the dwarf said, looking her up and down. His gaze gave her the creeps. “What do you here?”
“I’m kind of on a Quest,” Alexandra said.
“You be trespassing,” the dwarf said.
Magical beings always seemed to have their own notions of property and territory. “I’m sorry. I didn’t see any signs. If you tell me where I’m not supposed to go, I’ll be sure not to go there.”
The dwarf’s face wasn’t made for smiling at all, but it managed to fold into even greater expressions of discontent with ease. “Be you smart, girl?”
Alexandra could think of several replies to that. She held her tongue. She decided if the dwarf could answer questions by wordlessly wrinkling his features, so could she.
A few moments passed like that in silence. Then the dwarf said, “Bigfeet always be traipsing here in our hills. You want our secrets and our gold.”
Definitely related to goblins, Alexandra thought. “Actually, I just want to be on my way. Sorry for trespassing.” This dwarf was clearly not going to help her on her Quest.
“Wicked! Wicked! Wicked!” cried Charlie.
Yeah, I figured as much, Alexandra thought. She took a few steps backward, not eager to turn her back on an unfriendly dwarf with a pickax, when something flat and hard smacked her on the back of the head. Stunned, she fell to her knees, dropping her wand.
“You’ll not be leaving so quickly,” said another voice behind her. “You be trespassing. Be there a price for your unwelcomeness.”
More small figures melted out of the rocks around her.
It wasn’t unlike being surrounded by Redcaps when she was eleven. Including being without a wand. Well, without a good one. She grasped around for where she’d dropped the Grundy’s wand, and then another blow to her head knocked her flat on her face.
She didn’t quite black out, but she was stunned for several moments, during which the dwarves grabbed her arms and legs and pulled a coarse wool sack over her head.
She heard a fluttering and a great deal of commotion as Charlie squawked and the dwarves laughed. She screamed Charlie’s name, and Charlie cried, “Alexandra! Alexandra!”
“Quiet!” Alexandra felt a kick in her ribs. The pain took her breath away.
“Got her wand,” said one of the dwarves triumphantly.
“Make we sure she doesn’t have another one,” said another, in a tone that raised goosebumps on Alexandra’s flesh despite the heat.
She felt small hands running over her body, and she squirmed and struggled, but between her dazed condition and the dwarves holding her down, she couldn’t break free.
“Why would I have… another wand?” she asked.
“Witches be cunning,” the dwarf said. She tried to kick him as his hand roamed more places where she was very unlikely to be hiding a wand. Over her protests, the dwarves proceeded to pull her arms behind her back and her ankles up to her wrists and hogtie her. It was very uncomfortable, but when she tried to resist, one of the dwarves planted his feet on her, just above her kidneys, causing even more excruciating pain.
The dwarf who’d been searching her so roughly added a pinch for good measure. Then they hoisted her off the ground, and she was carried away. She focused on Charlie. She could hear the raven’s wings beating against a sack or a net, and she tried to calm her familiar: Be still, Charlie. We’ll get out of this. Don’t hurt yourself.
She’d been suspended from what she guessed was a pole being carried over the shoulders of her captors. They were hauling her over rough terrain, and now and then her chin or chest bounced against the ground. Charlie continued making noise.
“Where are you taking us? What are you doing to Charlie? Don’t you hurt my familiar or I’ll make you sorry!” she said.
“Without your wand?” said a gloating dwarf voice. “What will you do, little witch?”
She gritted her teeth as the wrenching of her shoulders and another thump against hard rocks brought pain searing through her body in earnest.
I should have known this Quest was going to suck, she thought.