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Authors: Jane Yolen

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BOOK: The Last Changeling
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But not, perhaps, as visible as the cart.

She knew it was too late to run from it, but that didn't stop her from trying. What really stopped her, though, was Prince Aspen's hand. He caught her upper arm roughly and held on.

I've been princed!
she thought, which was something everyone said when a toff decided to lay a hand on an underling.
There was something, especially in a mature prince's hand, that could burn at a touch. Though she did wonder if Prince Aspen was mature enough for that.
Either way, I'll wear bruises the size and shape of his fingers tomorrow
.

The cart was the oddest contraption Snail had ever seen and was as long as five or six regular market carts. The sides had brass latches so they could fold down, though for what reason Snail couldn't guess. A solid roof arched over the wagon—or rather four arched roofs about eight feet high—and there were twelve large wooden wheels, six on each side. It made the cart look top-heavy, like a moving mill, and yet somehow it all worked.

The cart was pulled by four huge, gleaming white war horses, their feet feathered with thick hair.

Snail quickly corrected herself when she saw that each horse had a stiff, whorled horn in the center of its forehead.

“War unicorns?” she whispered to the prince.

He shrugged. Shook his head. Either he meant he'd never seen any such either, or else they were a specialty of the Seelie kingdom. Either way, they were amazing.

As the cart came closer, she could make out three dwarfs—siblings by the look of them—sitting on a raised platform at the front, reins in their hands.
Two males and a female
, she thought, though of course they all had beards, so she could have been wrong.

“Players,” the prince said.
Karl,
she reminded herself. “Just ordinary players.”

The only players she'd ever seen at the Unseelie Court had been a motley crew of five who'd arrived at the castle in a small green wagon and done a sloppy performance of “Dread Ned the Pirate King” for the apprentices with a lot of whoops and dancing to cover the forgotten or misspoken lines. Their horrendous attempt at performing “The Fairy Revels” for the court had almost gotten them eaten by the drows.

“Here's our chance,” Karl said, letting go of her arm.

“Chance?” She wondered if she was being thick.

A moment later, the wagon went by them, its side covered with posters about the troupe written in garish colors proclaiming that Professor Odds and His Magnificent Players had performed before kings and commoners alike.

That's when Snail understood Aspen's meaning.

He held out his hand. “Come on!”

“No!” Snail said. “No, no, no!” Players were meant to be seen. The only way she and the prince were going to escape capture was to remain invisible. “No! No! No!”


That
is the perfect hiding place for us,” he said.

She put her hand in his. For the life of her—
and probably the death of me, too
, she thought—she didn't know why.

ASPEN HAILS THE WAGON

A
s they scampered to catch up with the rumbling cart, Aspen tried to explain his half-formed idea to Snail.

“The armies will be looking for hiders,” he said, “so we should not . . . er . . . shouldn't hide!”

Snail gave him a look usually reserved for feast hounds that threw up on the banquet table. Or an apprentice midwife who dropped a blanket or a baby.

He tried again. “The hooded face, the concealing cloak, the furtive movement, the swift turning away—these are what will attract the soldiers' eyes.” He pointed at the gaudy cart. “But what fugitives in their right minds would stand on a stage and perform for all to see?”

“I doubt anyone ever accused you of being in your right mind,” Snail said. But she showed him a brief smile, and he thought that perhaps she understood his point.

“Good, we are—we're—in agreement then.”

“Oh, I wouldn't say that,” Snail said. “But I agree that your idea makes a certain amount of crazy sense.” She glanced ahead at the cart, which had slowed to a bare walking pace to deal with deep ruts in the road. “But why would they take us on?”

Aspen grinned and said nothing until they were just a few feet behind the cart. “Listen.”

Snail wrinkled her nose as she concentrated on her hearing. “I don't hear anything.”

“Exactly,” Aspen said mysteriously. Then, “Ow!” as Snail squeezed his hand hard.

“What am I supposed to hear?” she hissed.

Aspen wrenched his hand free and peevishly answered with another question. “What always accompanies a player's performance?”

He watched her contemplate that for a few moments—or more likely contemplate which of his limbs she could reach with a kick—before realizing that Snail had probably never seen a
decent
performance by a group of players. Troupes of fine actors and acrobats and artisans and performers of all kinds were constantly seeking audience at court, leaving their apprentices to perform for the underlings. He suddenly felt sorrow for Snail, but then she
was
of a different station in life than he, and nothing was ever going to be able to bring her closer.

A different everything!
he thought. But it didn't seem to matter as much as it had when they first met. When his life had made sense.
Actually,
he reminded himself
, it had been a horrible life. Being a hostage prince was full of dangerous pitfalls and enemies at every turn. But it
had
made sense.

Now nothing made sense. Not only had he been tricked into starting a war, but his father—his real father—wanted him executed for treason, his mother wanted him dressed as a minstrel, and there were two armies actively looking for him. And, to make matters worse, he had just insulted his only friend (who was a servant, of all things), and he did not know how to apologize, because he should not
have
to apologize. He was a prince and she was a midwife, and he could insult her all he wanted without fear of anyone thinking he had done wrong.

Only now I am no longer a prince—I'm Karl the minstrel and she has saved my life as I have saved hers, and . . .

Aspen tried desperately to think of a way to take back the insult—such as it was—to roll back the clock two minutes and close his fool mouth before speaking again.

“Music,” Snail said, snapping the fingers of her free hand.

“Exactly!” Aspen gushed with relief. “And we know they have none because their only practice time is while they travel. We would hear them playing.” As a child, having escaped from the nursemaid, he would climb the walls of the palace to watch the players approach because he so loved hearing music skirling from the wagons as the musicians put the finishing touches on the evening's performances.

This wagon was deathly silent.

“Halloo the players!” Aspen called as they drew even with the dwarfs on the front seat.

“Asp—Karl, no!” Snail cried in a desperate whisper, but she was too late.

The lead unicorn on the right turned its head slightly, though it kept on walking, but the others plodded on as if Aspen had not spoken at all.

The middle dwarf, slightly taller than the other two and possibly female, smiled and called back, “Halloo the ground!”

Aspen chuckled politely. “I . . . can't . . . help but notice you're without musical accompaniment.” He was proud of not sounding like a toff for an entire sentence. Dropping Snail's hand, he swung his lute off his back with a theatrical flourish, saying, “I, Karl the minstrel, wish to offer my . . .” His words petered out as he realized the dwarfs were no longer listening to him. They were staring past him at Snail.

When she realized they were staring, she, of course, took up a belligerent stance, hands on hips, chin jutted out. “What are
you
looking at?”

Oh no,
Aspen thought,
they have recognized us.

The dwarfs exchanged a few brief words in their native tongue.

Aspen's knowledge of Dwarfish was limited and rusty, for he had had little chance to practice it in the Unseelie Court. Dwarfs were not common there. They were Seelie folk, and what he knew of their language came from the first few years of his childhood when one of his father's jesters had been a dwarf. Even so, he caught two words: skarm drema. He was fairly certain that meant “free one.”

Or maybe what they said was “liberated body.” Dwarfish had very few words and so each word had at least three close but not equal meanings. And sometimes one or more oppositional meanings as well. They might have also meant “tied woman,” or “newlywed.” His nurse, when he had been a prince of the Seelie, had been quite specific. “It's tone that counts,” she had said often enough. However, these dwarfs had been speaking too quickly and quietly for Aspen to get their meaning.

But whatever they had meant, all three of them pulled on the reins at the same time, and the giant unicorns came to a quick halt, the lead one stomping impatiently in its traces, giant hooves making dust winds swirl around the front wagon wheels.

None of the dwarfs were smiling anymore.

“Girl,” the middle dwarf said to Snail, “Professor Odds will want to see you. Hop to, before the soldiers return.”

Aspen moved quickly to put himself between Snail and the dwarfs, his hand moving to his hip for a sword that no longer hung there. He tried to remember where he'd hidden his dagger in his ridiculous minstrel costume but stopped when he realized he was patting himself randomly and probably looking like a buffoon. So he puffed his chest and tried to regain his dignity with a brave speech.

“Who is this Professor Odds and why should I allow him to see her? Perhaps we should be wary of him and not some paltry soldiery.” He was feeling fairly proud of his performance until Snail pushed past him and tapped the side of the cart.

“He's the leader of the company, genius,” she said. “It says so right there.”

The script on the cart's side was quite flowery. It wrapped around a painting of an oddly jointed silver spider who seemed to be proclaiming that the cart contained “Professor Odds's Traveling Circus of Works & Wonders, Performance & Prestidigitation, with Occasional Flights of Fancy & Fantasy, Not to Mention a Marvel of Mimicry and Action.” The last was in smaller letters, but still readable.

Aspen muttered, “So it does,” and feeling the fool, followed meekly behind Snail as the three dwarfs hopped nimbly from their perch and led her to the back of the wagon.

SNAIL ENTERS THE WAGON

F
rom behind it was even harder to tell the dwarfs apart, as they dressed alike in rust-red thigh-length tunics and brown hose. They were shoeless and their feet looked hard as shod hoofs.

In the back of the wagon was a round door—rather like the entrance to a cave. It yawned open.

“You are expected,” said the tallest of the dwarfs, turning to Snail and grinning. There seemed to be genuine delight in the smile, as well as too few teeth. No doubt knocked out in a pub fight. That marked this dwarf as the female. The males rarely fought except in times of war.

“How could I be expected?” Snail asked. “If I didn't know I was coming upon you, how could anyone else?”

The dwarf woman giggled, which made her beard move back and forth. “Magic!” she said, waggling her fingers, and pushing Snail up the two steps.

The door snicked shut behind her, and Snail was instantly worried. She was now inside the mysterious cart. Aspen and the three dwarfs were on the outside. It could be a trap. The only other time she and the prince had been separated on their escape journey had been when he'd been led off to his execution.

Well
, she thought,
that didn't work then. Maybe this won't work now.

Whatever
this
is.

That thought didn't make her any less afraid.

Slowly her eyes adjusted to the gloom of the room. There were two lanterns, one on either wall, but they were too feeble to be doing much of a job. She could only barely make out two long beds, one on either side of the room and a single tall table in the middle. Stepping forward carefully to avoid the table, she tripped over something large and furry on the floor, only just managing to right herself by grabbing the nearby bedstead.

The furry thing yelped, sat up, and showed about a hundred white teeth. Before Snail could scream, the mouth shut, the teeth were hidden, and presumably the creature—whatever its pedigree—lay back down again.

“Not much of a watch hound,” she whispered to give herself courage.

“Why would we need a watch hound?” came a voice at her ear.

She whipped around and stared into the gloom but could see nothing. She was preparing to shout for help when a being in a long black cape materialized out of the gloaming, its two pupil-less eyes staring at her. “We have nothing worth stealing here.”

“I . . . I . . .” Snail stuttered. “I was sent in by the dwarfs.”

“They prefer we call them Little Folk.” The voice came from an unseen mouth, located, Snail presumed, somewhere below the two staring eyes, though the cape and the lack of light—and perhaps, she thought hopefully, the lack of teeth—hid the mouth from her.

“All right,” Snail said. “Little Folk. I'll remember that.” She looked behind her, trying to locate the door. It, too, was lost in the darkness.

“Skarm drema?” the creature asked.

They were the same words the dwarfs had used before. But as Snail only knew
skrek!
, which was what dwarfs—Little Folk—said to get your attention or to ask for berry beer or for pain relief in the midst of giving birth, she'd no idea what the creature meant.

She'd had very little to do with dwarfs actually—just helped out at one dwarf woman's labor, which had been the very first time she'd been allowed in a birthing room. It was the one babe she'd ever dropped. Luckily onto the bed. But none of the midwives had ever let her forget it. Since there were very few dwarfs in the Unseelie Court—and those few brought back by the Border Lords after raids in the Seelie kingdom and made to serve as jesters and fools—it wasn't a language she'd ever had much need to learn.

“Maybe I am
skarm drema,”
she said, hoping it was the right answer and not a swear.

“The professor will know,” said the cloaked creature, and pointed to the next room.

Snail squinted in that direction, noticing at the same time that the creature's hand was thin and pale, as if it were something that had been long under a rock that had only just now been turned over. The fingers were much like knobbed sticks, the nails either naturally white or painted.

“That way,” the voice said, a bit ghostly, a lot scary.

Snail understood. She was to go through to the next room. There would be no turning back to find the door to outside.

Just pretend,
she told herself
, that you are a babe in the womb hurtling down the birth canal and heading for the light
. Unfortunately, it wasn't a particularly comforting thought as she moved toward the door.

• • •

M
AKING
HER
WAY
forward with a bit more care, wondering all the while if she was a prisoner—or a guest—Snail was pleased that at least she fell over no other furry creature on the way.

At last she reached the door, pushed it open, stepped over the small lintel, and found herself in a brighter room. Here three lanterns glowed merrily. There were three beds as well, all set against the wall on the right, each one small enough for a child.

Or a dwarf
, she thought.
Little Folk
.

The room was a tumble of mismatched chairs and small tables, large pillows on the floor, and an assortment of toys that looked rather worn as if something with teeth had played with them. She picked her way slowly through the toys.

A sudden squawk from her left made her turn. In a cage, swinging on a perch, was some sort of bird, with a long tail and a curved beak like a sword. The color of the tail seemed to be a cross between pink and blood red.

“Feed the troll,” said the bird in a sharp, high voice.

“You're not a troll,” Snail snapped.

“Pay the toll,” the bird said.

“This is not a road,” Snail answered. Then, not wanting to be bested by a bird, she spit out the dwarf's words, “Skarm drema!” She probably mangled it. But maybe not.

The bird responded at once, squawking out, “Skarm drema!” three times, and the door at the far end of the room opened.

When Snail hesitated, the bird said, as if continuing their previous conversation, “If it winds, it's a road.” It cawed, then said again, this time in a failing voice, “Skarm drema—if it winds, it's a road.” It repeated the same sentence a third time as if running out of ideas, then ended with a pitiful moan.

“If it whines, it's a bird,” Snail said, squaring her shoulders before going through the door. She would have preferred talking to the dwarfs, strange as they were. Or the cloaked creature. Or even the thing with teeth on the floor. She certainly didn't want to wait around to hear any next line from the bird.

BOOK: The Last Changeling
11.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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