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Authors: Jane Yolen

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BOOK: The Last Changeling
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ASPEN AND THE DWARFS

A
spen stared at the closed door and then at the three dwarfs, wondering if he should go in after Snail. Separation was not a good idea. The last time they had been separated . . .

The dwarfs stared back.

Rather rudely,
he thought. But then he reminded himself that he wasn't a prince anymore, and anyone could stare at a minstrel as rudely as they wanted and expect no punishment for it. In fact, he supposed, getting stared at was an essential part of a minstrel's job. Stared at and listened to. Two things he was definitely not accustomed to after his years as a hostage in the Unseelie Court. There, if anyone responded to him at all, it had usually been with derision, mockery, or laughter.

Of course
, he thought,
maybe that was what was going on here as well.

“Ummm.” He inclined his head toward the closed door.

The taller dwarf spit through its teeth—or the place where some teeth would have been—and said nothing. The sputum was green, the color of those little worms that turned into flutterbys with their sharp teeth and barbed wings.

Grimacing, Aspen wondered what possible foodstuff could turn saliva that particular shade of green. He decided not to ask that but rather to answer rudeness with courtesy.

“My dear lady,” he said while giving a small bow. Up close he was now certain the taller dwarf was female. There was a fineness to her cheekbones—well, the parts of her cheekbones that weren't covered by her beard—and a thinness to her nose. There were also the missing teeth. Female dwarfs were incorrigible brawlers.

“My dear lady, I wish to enter your . . . um . . . noble . . . carriage and join my traveling companion. If you and your brethren could please step aside.”

Her eyebrow rose at “My dear lady,” but the frown never left her face. She drew in a breath through her nose and Aspen took an involuntary step back, fearful she was going to spit again. Or worse.

“No,” she said.

“I must insist you step aside!” Aspen said, bristling.
Really, how much insolence must I take from these . . .

His thoughts ran down as he realized once again that he was no longer a prince and he no longer carried a sword.

The female dwarf, far from looking intimidated, was finally smiling once more. She cracked her knuckles while the two males, still looking grim, let their hands drift toward their belts and the well-worn hand axes that hung from them.

“Insist away, popinjay,” she said. Aspen towered over her, but he couldn't help noticing how broad her shoulders were and how thick her fists. Her ears, too, were swollen and misshapen, as if she'd spent a lifetime in and out of wrestling holds.

Lovely,
Aspen thought.
I am about to be beaten bloody by a creature I could step over.

“Now, let us reconsider,” he said quickly, then remembering a minstrel shouldn't sound like a prince, changed it to “I mean, let's hold on a moment.”

If anything, the female's grin grew wider and she took a step toward him. “Why?”

“Because . . .” Aspen began, but stopped and thought,
Yes, because why? They owe you no allegiance. No one does. Because of you, thousands of innocent Seelie folk will probably be slaughtered. And thousands of Unseelie, too. Though that wouldn't be such a disaster. Except for the innocents, like the midwives. And the potboys. And my tutor, Jaunty. And . . .
He bit his lower lip, thinking,
You are reviled in both lands, and rightfully so. The only person in all the realms who likes you even a little is . . .

“Snail,” he said.

“Because
 
. . . Snail?” the female mocked him, then guffawed heartily. “The air thin up there, elfling?”

Aspen shook his head, half in answer and half to clear it. “No, I
 
. . . it's just . . .”

“Yes?”

He took a deep breath and gathered himself.
Obviously no manners or courtesy will work here.
He took another peek at the female dwarf's cabbage ears. His right hand pawed reflexively at the spot on his belt where his sword would normally hang.
And violence is right out, too.
Sighing, he straightened his back and tugged the hem of his jacket straight.
If I am to be bludgeoned to death, I will carry it off as nobly as possible.
“It is just that the only friend left to me in all the world is now inside that wagon.”

The female's grin waned as he continued.

“And you can mock me, or beat me, or even kill me.” He put a brave foot forward.
Well, not an actual foot, more like a toe.
“But you cannot keep me from her.”

The dwarf's grin left her face entirely, but she didn't move out of the way. Aspen took a full step forward and steeled himself to walk over or through or around her.

Brave words,
he thought,
but putting them to action is going to be another thing altogether.

He gulped and had just lifted the toes of his right foot off the ground when one of the male dwarfs spoke.

“Skrek!”

Aspen thought that meant “Listen up!” Or “Halt!”

“Brave words,” the dwarf said, as if reading Aspen's mind, “and bravely spoken.” He turned to the female. “The professor would like those words.”

The other male chimed in. “Put them in one of his plays, he would.”

“He's a fine one with the words is the professor,” said the first.

“Not like our sister, Dagmarra,” said the second.

“She's a fine one with her fists.”

“And her forehead.”

“And her knees.”

“And elbows.”

“And feet, and fingers.”

“And her ax. Dinna forget the ax.”

“The ax.”

The flurry of words from the male dwarfs buffeted Aspen's ears and he took an involuntary step backward.

Dagmarra smiled at his stumbling, showing off all six of her teeth. “'Tis true,” she said, “I'm a fine one with all that.”

“Now, tell her she would've beaten you,” the first dwarf said.

Aspen nodded immediately. “Bloody,” he said, knowing it was true.

“You had nah chance at all,” the second dwarf said.

“None whatsoever.”

The two brothers looked to their sister, who shrugged. And stepped aside.

“I am Annar,” the first dwarf said.

“And I am Thridi,” said the second.

“And you are accepted into our
hule.

The last bit sounded like a formal welcome, though whether he had just been accepted into their house, their kinship group, or their dinner table, Aspen was not certain, but he bowed respectfully nonetheless. “I thank you, good sirs.” He turned and made another bow toward the female.

“May I ask you a question?” he began, thinking to bring up the Sticksman and perhaps find an answer to the questions he'd been geased. But before he could address her or step up and open the door to the cart, he heard hoofbeats. Lots of them.

He looked back down the road and saw a troop of mounted soldiers dressed in the livery of his father, the king. It was surely the troop that had gone by before.

Bother!
he thought.
But at least Snail is safe.

“Hold,” Annar and Thridi said at the same time.

Aspen gulped. “Why do . . . don't I go on in while you . . . um . . . talk to the soldiers.” The horses with their fierce-looking riders were already closer than he would have liked.
Almost close enough to see me,
he thought.
And if my brother is leading them, I
will
be taken.
His jaw was stiff. He knew he looked grim.
Or frightened. Or both.

But at least they will not get Snail.
He shuffled his feet impatiently.
Still, it would be better if neither of us is found out.

“You're nah going in without me,” Dagmarra said.

“And she'll nah be with you without us,” Annar added.

“But
 
. . . Nomi . . .” He found himself stumbling over Snail's false name. Said it again with a bit more authority. “Nomi went in without you.” He tried not to whine, but at this point the soldiers were so close, and he could not quite keep the panic out of his voice.

“She is skarm drema,” the three dwarfs said as one, as if that explained anything.

But of course, it didn't.

And now Dagmarra blocked the door and the soldiers blocked the road and Aspen was left with nothing but a lute to defend himself with. A lute with a carved and battered angel on the top of its neck, perhaps foreshadowing how Aspen would look once the soldiers caught hold of him.

Maybe,
he thought,
I could hang myself quickly with the strings and save them all the trouble.

SNAIL'S ODD ENCOUNTER

T
he next room was fully lit. Instead of the starkness of the caped creature's room, or the snugness of the dwarfs' room, this one looked like a place in the Unseelie palace, luxurious enough for a queen to give birth in or see ambassadors.

Snail spun around slowly, taking it in. Was this then the professor's room? All she knew of professors were that they taught dry old facts like how many Hobs could dance in a pentagram or what moon was most propitious for birth-giving or burial, or the list of the kings of the Unseelie Realm down to the fiftieth generation. Though, since her only teachers had been midwives, and professors never seemed to have babies (though how they multiplied she'd never been able to figure out), she'd never actually met one before. A professor might be as tall and thin as the Sticksman or as broad and brangling as a Border Lord. It was silly to speculate. But the room itself might hold some clues.

The one bed was enormous, with pillows of all sizes and shapes piled high and covered with cloth of silver and gold. No one in the Unseelie world was allowed cloth of silver except a prince or princess; none allowed cloth of gold except the king or queen.

Snail drew in a quick breath.
Perhaps . . .
she thought . . .
perhaps the professor is married and needs a midwife.
Perhaps that's what skarm drema meant and why I've been brought inside
. It was an interesting idea, and she considered it for a moment.

Drawing herself up, she recited the midwife creed silently, and prepared to get down to work:
Anticipate, alleviate, and then await
. She'd need hot water and soap. Wondered how that might work, given this was a wagon and they were some ways to the last stream.

She snapped her finger. Prince Aspen could say the fire charm and . . .

Stupid
, she muttered,
if he did such a daft thing, he'd be giving himself away
.

She was puzzling this over when another door suddenly creaked open, this one by the right side of the bedstead. It was an ominous sound. She stood ready to flee back into the room with that annoying bird.

However, instead of something fierce coming through the door—like an ogre or troll—in glided the most beautiful woman Snail had ever seen. She was more beautiful than the twin princesses Sun and Moon, who wore their boredom on their faces, more beautiful than the Unseelie queen, who had every kind of glamour at her fingertips.

This was no professor's wife, who would undoubtedly have been a dowdy and difficult patient wanting to know all the midwifery secrets before giving birth. The woman was clearly one of the ancient Seelie goddesses. No one else could be that beautiful and serene.

Snail managed a quick and adequate curtsey, though her right knee creaked and the left one locked.

The beautiful woman glided soundlessly right up to her and held out her hand. “I am Maggie Light,” she said, in a voice that was sweet without being cloying, strong without being demanding. “Not Dark. Not dark at all. Remember that.”

“I will, goddess,” Snail whispered to the hand.

There was a tinkling sound that Snail just managed to realize was a laugh, not bells. The proffered hand did not move away, just dangled there, as if waiting, just at Snail's sight line. At last, she realized that this Maggie Light wanted to help her up out of the curtsey.

Tentatively, Snail reached for the hand and was dragged up to her feet, like a fish caught on a hook and line.

“There, that is better,” said Maggie Light.

“Better than what?” Snail muttered. But she knew. It was better than being in a dungeon or at the end of a rope. Better than being captured by one or two armies. Better than being devoured by a carnivorous merman . . .

“Now I can see your pretty face.”

Pretty?
Snail couldn't tell if Maggie Light always overcomplimented her visitors or if she was making a joke. Or, perhaps, she was blind. Snail dared a glance at her.

Maggie Light's eyes were a strange color, a kind of silver.

And who has silver eyes
, Snail thought,
except—maybe—a fish?
She tried to think of Maggie Light as a fish. A mer. She shuddered, wondering how sharp the woman's teeth were.

Almost as if reading Snail's mind, Maggie Light smiled. Her teeth were small, white, and even as pearls on a necklace. There was no threat in them. “Why have you come here, child?”

All Snail could think of to say in answer was what the dwarfs had said, the words that had worked before: “Skarm drema!”

“Ah,” Maggie Light said, turning away from Snail and gliding over to a nearby desk. The desk had a slanted top and there was an open book lying there with ruled lines going both sideways and up and down.

Snail followed her and looked at the book. Things were scribbled on the page in blue and red inks.

“You are not in the diary,” Maggie Light said, pointing a perfect finger at the book. “He has not put you in the diary. How unusual.”

Snail shrugged. “Maybe he didn't know I was coming.”

“But if you are truly skarm drema, he will know you are here.”


I
didn't know I was here. Or even
know
I was coming here. Until I
was
here, that is,” Snail said. Now that she knew she wasn't needed for a birth and she wasn't about to be eaten by an ogre or merman or troll, her irritation was beginning to show.

“Nevertheless,” said Maggie Light, and then she was suddenly no longer paying attention to Snail. Instead, head cocked to one side like a bird, she stood still as stone, listening to something else. Something that Snail couldn't hear.

At last Maggie Light moved and, turning her head, announced, “He comes.”

“Who? The professor?” asked Snail, adding, “And by the way, what does he profess?”

“That he will tell you himself,” said Maggie Light, gliding soundlessly toward the bed as if stepping out of the way.

Out of the way of what?
Snail wondered. But before she could even try to guess, the bookcase by her side swung wide and she had to scramble to avoid being hit. It was a third door into the room.
Is three the charm?

A figure strode through.

Snail had been expecting someone taller. Someone fiercer. Someone . . . consequential.

The man who came through the door was small and round, a gourd of a man, with thinning hair, a short grey goatee, and twinkly grey eyes.
Grey
. No one in the Seelie Courts had grey eyes. Unless . . . unless perhaps they were related to fish. She wondered if it was a coincidence that both the professor and Maggie Light had grey eyes. Father and daughter? Uncle and niece? Some other family connection she wasn't acquainted with?

“Hello,” the man said in a voice like bubbling water. “Nice to have you here,
here
being the operative word. At least the way we operate.”

“Operate? Are you a doctor then?” Snail asked.

“I can strike a set but not set a leg,” he told her. “I can boil a lance but not lance a boil. I . . .”

Decidedly not a fish
, Snail thought. Fish folk rarely spoke above water, or so she'd heard
.
The one mer she'd had a close encounter with had said nothing.

“. . . I'm Professor Odds,” he said, before adding, “Odds are you weren't expecting someone like me.”

In a day of strangeness, he was perhaps the oddest thing of all.

BOOK: The Last Changeling
12.97Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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