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Authors: Jane Yolen

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BOOK: The Last Changeling
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“Two,” Huldra said. “Two deer. I have to eat for two, you know.”

“Not anymore, dear,” Snail said in her best imitation of Mistress Softhands in her scolding mood. “That's only for when you have not yet given birth.”

“I will need a bow,” Aspen said.

“And arrows, too, I suspect,” said Dagmarra.

Just then Maggie Light came gliding across the clearing with a large bow and a quiver of arrows.

Dagmarra spit expertly to one side. “Always anticipating.”

“That is my calling,” Maggie Light told her. “It is what I am made for.”

Snail wanted to ask what else she was
made
for, but held her tongue. There was something about Maggie Light that was
 
. . . off. Not right. Odd. Even odder than Odds. But this was hardly the time to find that out.

Smiling, Aspen reached for the weapons, but Maggie Light held them back.

“Perhaps you should wait till you are steadier?”

“Noooooooo!” howled the troll. “So. Hungry.”

Aspen looked at Snail and she shook her head. “Best not.”

With a sigh, Aspen pushed himself to his feet, slung the bow and quiver over his shoulders, and trudged to the forest edge where the unicorns still munched the undergrowth. He stumbled slightly as he walked.

Snail realized he was still wobbly from the fall. Watching him disappear into the woods, she wasn't sure whether to be angry he'd revealed himself, worried he'd get hurt while hunting, or afraid he'd take too long and Huldra would eat the rest of them before he returned.

She ended up feeling all three things at once. Which didn't feel good at all.

ASPEN HUNTS AND GETS SMALL THANKS

A
spen marched into the woods, following a stream, his head aching, his steps a bit unsteady. He had never actually hunted deer before, but he could certainly use a bow, and he knew a tiny bit about deer, thanks to Jaunty.

Deer like to drink in the evening before their night grazing.

Jaunty had told him that at some dinner long ago. The high table had been served venison, and the smell of the food was, for once, divine. As he had only been at the Unseelie Court for less than a year at that point, and had not had his Seelie seventh-year growth spurt yet, he had been barely able to peer over the table. Even perched on several pillows so he could eat, the meats were piled too high for him to see his dining companions.

Just as well. Even after a year, he still was not used to the oozing and warts and general grotesqueness of the Unseelie nobles, and he found it hard on his appetite to look at them while eating. But he kept his eyes on Jaunty, who was not unsightly, only old.

“What do you think of deer?” Jaunty asked, pointing to the venison on the platter.

He remembered answering Jaunty happily, “Deer like to be put in my belly!” Jaunty had laughed his distinctive high titter and given his young student a friendly pat on the head. That was one of those few good memories from his time as a hostage, a time that otherwise had made him uncomfortable and sad.

I wonder if Jaunty is even still alive?
he thought.
My running off may have sealed his fate. The king would have had him tortured into a confession and then killed. I wish I had figured that out before.
I could have persuaded him to come with me.

But of course he knew that was nonsense. If he had told Jaunty, the old tutor would have been honor-bound to report it.

And then he had an even more horrific thought
. If the Border Lords are in the Hunting Grounds, then war has truly begun.

His thoughts began to spiral downward in a maelstrom of misery.

Who has died so far because of me? Who else will die while I pretend at minstrelsy and poach my father's deer?

Pausing and listening, he answered his own question:
All of us will die if I don't get that troll fed.

He heard nothing, just birds singing a last chorus before full night. So he moved on, heading farther upstream.

A few hundred yards, where the stream turned south, he stopped again. This time he thought he heard movement up ahead and he pulled the bow off his shoulder and then an arrow from the quiver. He could not believe how easy it had been to track the deer.

But was it deer?

Or could it be a bear or a lion or a charging boar? Were the arrows in his quiver strong enough and sufficient for killing a predator? The questions tumbled through his head with no answers following them, like deer fleeing an incompetent poacher.

Only then did he remember the hidden watcher. The man in the green-and-black cloak. Maybe
he
was the one making all the noise.
Could he just have been innocently relieving himself and then been frightened off by the ruckus of the unicorns and the crash of the troll?

Aspen didn't think so.
That cloak.
That cloak had been designed for keeping the man hidden. And for spying
.

But who was he spying on? Me? Odds's troupe?
The troll?

He bit his lower lip. It seemed unlikely that anyone would want to spy on a humbug magician, a trio of dwarfs, an animated rug, a mysterious, beautiful lady, a midwife's apprentice—and especially not on a troll.

Besides, how many wars have any of them started lately?

He thought about turning around and going back to camp. He needed to warn the others about the watcher.

But returning with no food for Huldra seemed an even more dangerous proposition. If he was to face the mysterious stalker, at least he was armed and Snail was in the company of friends.

Strangely, though that should have been a comforting thought, he found that he wished Snail was here with him, facing whatever was making all that noise around the bend in the stream.

Probably Snail would stand shoulder to shoulder with me, a knife in her hand and a scowl on her face,
he thought and chuckled silently.

Notching the arrow, he slow-walked quietly to the bend in the stream and sidled up to a maple whose branches stretched halfway across the water. He knelt down and peered carefully through the leaves.

There was just enough light left for him to see a half dozen deer, all females, dipping their heads and drinking while a big stag kept watch farther up the bank.

If I could get two shots off quickly, he thought, and if I hit both targets . . . Suddenly he started to tremble with anticipation, and the arrow began to wobble.

Slow, steady
, he warned himself.
Take a deep breath
.

He was suddenly struck by another thought: killing the deer was one thing, hauling them to camp by himself another.

With that in mind he picked out the two smallest females as his targets and aimed at where he thought the heart would be.

Firing from his kneeling position, he took the first doe in the chest. It fell as if struck by a spell.

“Oh!” he gasped. He had done it. Done it!

Then he stood and stepped out of the maple's branches as the herd began to scatter. Keeping his eye on his second target, he reached back for an arrow. Then sighted along the arrow's length.

The second deer he chose bounded back and forth recklessly. For a moment he considered sending magic after it, but knew that—even though the magic anti-poaching spell that was on the deer would not be triggered because he was a Seelie prince—with two armies after him, any spell he cast could be noticed and traced.

He breathed out, opened his fingers, let the arrow go.

It missed the deer by two hands' breadth.

He pulled another arrow from the quiver, and another, and shot them after the fleeing deer, barely stopping to aim now, knowing that with the distance and the deer's jumping and jolting, he just had to put arrows in its vicinity and hope the doe leapt the right way.

Or the wrong way, if you are the deer.

The doe jumped into the path of the fourth arrow, and it hit her in the throat. She stumbled a few more steps, then fell down.

Aspen tried to remember the Seelie prayer of thanks to Great Nature, but it had been too long or he was still too addled from his fall, so silently he heaved one carcass onto his shoulders and grabbed the other by a hind leg, and began a long, dragging stomp back to camp. Dusk lasted till near midnight in Seelie lands, but still he doubted he'd make it back before full dark.

• • •

N
O
ONE
WAS
there to welcome him into the clearing. The unicorns, hobbled by better hands than his, were still munching contentedly on the thorn bushes and did not even look up.

But movement from one of the wagons caught his eye.

It was Dagmarra standing watch.

Or rather
sitting
watch
, he thought, for she was perched on the wagon's seat.

She jumped down and, without a word, picked up the larger of the two does and slung it over her shoulders.

And it dwarfs her
, Aspen thought, laughing silently at his own wit, before realizing he was thinking like an Unseelie prince.

“Thank you for the help,” he said quickly.

She grunted in answer, before adding, “We've just about run out of starters for her meal.”

Together, they hauled the deer to the campfire, where the Professor had set up a mobile kitchen. Supplies had been dragged from their storage under the wagon, and a clever, collapsible table stood ready with knives sticking magically to a dark stone inlay along its side. There was a spit over the fire and several large pots that each looked capable of cooking a small dragon.

Huldra was sitting on the ground hunched over, but even when she was sitting, her head grazed the lower branches of the trees. Her baby was asleep in a cradle made out of a barrel that had once housed apples. Or at least that was what the sign on the side of the barrel said:
ESKER APPLES; ONE BI
TE WILL CHANGE YOUR
LIFE
.

Around the troll was all that was left of several pounds of carrots, a sack of potatoes, and the shells of what must have been two dozen eggs. He wondered if she had eaten all the Esker apples as well.

“At last,” said Huldra, reaching for the larger of the two does. “I was about to start on her.” She pointed to Maggie Light, who simply smiled back at the troll as if harboring a great secret.

“Touch one hair . . .” Aspen began, but beside him Dagmarra laughed. “Don't worry about her,” she said. “She's
klebarn
.”

“Klebarn?” He had never heard the word, trollish or otherwise, and wondered if it had to do with her ability to sing spells. But he had no time to puzzle it through before Huldra began stuffing the deer—head first—into her cavernous maw.

She ate it whole.

And raw.

Aspen was disgusted. Professor Odds, on the other hand, seemed fascinated.

“I've never had the opportunity to observe a troll's eating habits before.” Professor Odds pointed at Huldra's throat. “See how she swallows the hunks of meat, much like a wolf. Barely any mastication at all!”

“Yes. That's . . . um . . . interesting,” Aspen said, peeved that no one, not even Huldra, had thought to thank him for bringing back not one but two deer—though Huldra could be forgiven since she was, after all, a troll.

He glanced around for Snail but she was nowhere to be seen.
Maybe
, he thought,
she is elsewhere sleeping. Or . . .
He could not think what other things she might be doing.
And really
, he told himself,
I don't actually know much about her besides the fact that she's a midwife's apprentice, very argumentative, and . . .
He gave himself a mental shake
. Be fair
, he told himself.
She is loyal, honest, and brave, and likes me. Well,
sometimes
she likes me. Other times she just glares.

Still, he wanted to tell Snail about his successful hunt for the deer. And about the cloaked man.

But first he needed some sleep.

Looking at Odds, Aspen said, “I think I'll go to my room.”

“Not hungry?” Odds laughed a peculiar sniggering sound. “Then your room is a splendid idea. And ideal . . .” He waved his hand in Maggie Light's direction without taking his eyes off the troll. “Maggie, get Prince Karl's supplies for him. Then supply me with my sketchbook. Take the long way around to the bowser's room. No need to disturb the others.”

“My
supplies
?” Aspen asked.

“Oh, didn't anyone tell you?” The professor finally looked at Aspen after Huldra swallowed her last section of the first deer and had started on the second, smaller doe. “You're to clean the bowser. The rug in your room. It's waiting. In fact, it's lying in wait, though it weighs hardly anything at all. And having no tongue, never lies. Though, of course, it lies around all the time. There's a riddle there, prince, if you can but read it. If you are good at unriddling riddles.”

“Professor Odds, with all due respect, I have been injured, I am exhausted, and since you have made clear that you know of my station, the respectable thing would be to—”

“Station!” the professor interrupted, snarling. “You have no station
here
, boy!” He leaned in, and though he was looking up, Aspen got the impression that Odds was looking down his nose at him. “The troops after you endanger the troupe I look after. And endanger that perfectly respectable girl who follows after you.” He gestured toward the wagon.

Which
, Aspen thought,
could mean Snail is anywhere.

Odds completed his rant: “If she didn't care for you I'd leave you in a ditch without a care, having ditched you.”

Aspen was agog. Not even in the Unseelie Court had anyone spoken to him that way. Even when King Obs said he was going to kill him, he had said it politely. When the twins Sun and Moon had teased him, they did it within the proper form. The Border Lords called him names, but never anything a prince could not bear. And though the assassin boggarts in the Unseelie dungeon had spoken roughly, it was to one another
about
him. Even with a knife at his gut, they would have given his station all due respect. So why was this highly educated professor not treating him with respect?

Professor Odds glared at Aspen for another moment before Maggie Light returned.

“Ah, my sketchbook,” Odds said in a normal tone, and turned back to sketch Huldra with the second deer partially down her throat, its white tail waggling between her tusks at each gulp.

Aspen stared daggers at the professor's back but could not think of a single thing to say on his own behalf.

BOOK: The Last Changeling
13.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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