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Authors: Jane Yolen

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BOOK: The Last Changeling
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At last,
he admitted grudgingly to himself,
He's right—I
am
endangering all of those around me. But especially Snail.

Turning to Maggie Light, he said as politely as he could manage, “And my tools?”

She handed him a bucket and brush, then led him around the wagons to enter it from the front.

SNAIL LEARNS SOMETHING

S
nail was hard at work in Maggie Light's room, learning to take apart and put together a puzzle.

Odds himself had set Snail that task, soon after Aspen had disappeared into the woods. He had guided Snail into his room, leaving Maggie Light to feed the troll what she could. Once there, he picked up something shiny off his desk. The shiny thing was a dense cube, about the size of a cooking apple.

Then he led the way into Maggie Light's room, tossing the cube back and forth between his hands. Once there he set the cube down on Maggie's dressing table, where it was reflected in the silvered mirror. Then he'd settled Snail into the dressing table chair, and turned on a magic lantern to illuminate all the pieces.

The cube and its reflection seemed to shimmer.

Twice as mysterious that way
, Snail thought.

“Hand on the puzzle,” Odds commanded.

“Puzzle?”

He bent over, then placed his pointer finger atop the silver box. “Tell me what you see, what you feel.”

She bent forward until her nose practically touched the box. It seemed to be made of several metals, some silver and some a bit darker. She told him so.

“Good. What else?”

She touched the box as he had, with a single finger. “Cold.”

“Yes?”

“And . . .” She rubbed all the fingers of her right hand except her thumb across the surface of the box. “Smooth,” she said, before hesitating. “Though not, I think, entirely smooth. Little small runnels, or hair's-breadth creases. I think . . .”

“It's good to think. Continue until you can take it apart.”

“It comes apart?”
Doing so might be amusing
, she thought,
some other time
. Out loud she asked, “But shouldn't we be back helping with the feeding of
 
. . .
 
?”

“Maggie has everything under con
trol
.” Odds laughed at his little joke, which seemed to Snail no joke at all.

“But professor, a puzzle
 
. . . at
this
time, with a hungry troll eating up your stores and a war about to break out, you want me to take a puzzle apart?”

“We'll feed the troll from our stores,” Odds said, “enough to stave off the worst of her hunger till the prince comes back with the dweer. Maggie Light and I have the least to fear from her.”

“Huldra won't eat
me
,” Snail reminded him. “Trolls are pledged not to eat midwives.”

“If this is indeed war,” retorted Odds, “all pledges are considered void. Finished. Done with. And if she gets hungry enough, even a midwife would make a tasty morsel.” His pointer finger poked at the puzzle.

“But you and Maggie . . .”

“Our magic, alone or combined, will not be overcome by a troll who has nothing but brute strength on her side,” Odds said. “Now this is what I want you to do . . .” His pointer finger poked at the puzzle and pushed it closer to her.

Snail couldn't take her eyes off the cube, but she didn't reach out for it again.

“Don't make me regret taking you in, girl. You are as much of a puzzle as that bit of iron and silver. There is no time like the present. I am offering you a present of time.”

“It's made of
iron
? But . . . it will burn me.” She wondered why it hadn't already burned her. Or him. She assumed it had to be his magic. That would make him a very potent magician if true because cold iron burned every fey.

Or he was lying to her. About the iron. About . . . everything.

“It will not burn you,” he said.

“It will.” Snail turned her stubborn face up at him. And her glare.

“Trust, my girl, is the first step.”

Snail shook her head, but he didn't seem to notice.

“And of course the puzzle comes apart,” he continued. “Anything that is made can be unmade. Just do not wrench any of the pieces or bend them out of shape, because later I will have you put it all back together.”

“But why
 
. . .
 
?” Snail persisted.

“Some whys do not make you wise,” Odds said, “though you will be wiser later.”

Snail's head was spinning with questions, but she only managed one more. “Is the box worth a great deal, then?” She didn't take her eyes off it as she spoke.

“It's not more than its price but less, which is to say it's priceless,” he said, which was an answer that was no answer at all.

He stood and went over to the door. “Oh, and I shall want to know how you planned what you will do and how long it takes. Call me when it is fully apart. And each part fully noted. There is a piece of paper for your notes. You do know about notes, I hope. And not the kind you sing. And sing badly, I warrant.”

She wondered if he was simply giving her something to do to keep her safe and away from Huldra, or just busy and out from under his feet. Or if the box thing was some kind of test. Though what kind she couldn't even begin to guess. And why she should be tested was a fact even further away from anything she could guess at.

She was still trying to figure it out, when the door closed behind Odds with a short
snick.
Startled, she felt as if waking from a spell. Snail stared down at the box until she stopped thinking about the reasons Odds had given it to her, and became fully engaged in the process of taking it apart.

Quickly she realized three things.

First, she was already beginning to see the fine lines she'd only felt beneath her fingers. They reminded her of fault lines on a mountain road. Shaken or tapped the wrong way, crevices could open big enough to swallow a cart and carter whole.

Two years earlier, the apprentices at the Unseelie Court had had a day off to go into the mountains, and such a fault had opened up in the road. Cart and horse with all their food for the day had fallen in. They'd scrambled away from the road, some screaming, some weeping, some dragging away friends. Luckily the carter had escaped. Or luckily until he was put in the dungeon by an angry Bonetooth, the half-ogre chef of the Unseelie castle kitchen who'd complained to the king's account keeper about the loss of cart and food. Nobody had cared about the horse, an old spavined creature on its last legs anyway, which would soon have been a meal for the drows and woodwose. But its screams as it fell in had invaded Snail's dreams for many nights after.

She guessed her best hope to open the box was to concentrate on those fault lines.

Second, she knew she'd be needing finger dexterity. That didn't worry her. How many knots had she practiced tying under Mistress Softhands's watchful gaze? Seven years' worth before she'd been allowed to tie off the cord that ran between the ostler's wife and her newborn child. And how many scissors had she taken apart and put together again till Mistress Softhands was satisfied she could do it in a dark cave or a candlelit byre, with or without a tool to help. And how many fine cuts had she learned with the vast array of midwife knives—some as thinly bladed as a fingernail and as curved, others as straight as a string stretched between fingers.

That left the third thing: What was her plan, where and how to begin? And what kind of notes would satisfy the professor?

She hefted the box in her left hand and threw it into her right, then back and forth as she'd seen Odds do, nervously and quickly in case of a burn. Next she gave the box the slightest shake. Closing her eyes, she let her right fingers glide across the box's surface again, still a bit warily until she realized that Odds was right. It didn't burn her. Which meant either the thing wasn't iron or Odds's magic still held even though he wasn't present.

Or three
, she thought,
I really
can't
be hurt by cold iron
. She dismissed that idea at once. Everything she'd ever been told about the fey trembled on that answer being false.

This time she knew what she was looking for. She did that whole routine twice more, and each time she could feel the fault lines getting slightly larger.

When she opened her eyes at last, she found she could see the largest line when she squinted at it. Putting the box back carefully on the table with the lines at the top of the cube, she began massaging the face of the box in different directions.

She pretended she was massaging the belly of a woman in labor as Mistress Softhands had taught her, with a broad, consistent, slow touch, though—unlike the bellies she'd massaged before—this surface was hard, cold, and hadn't the pulse of life. As she did so, the almost invisible lines became entirely visible, turning quickly into a crack, then a crevice large enough to stick her pinky in.

After that, the thing came apart easily, but she slowed down enough to be sure she arranged the pieces on the table in groups so she would know how and where they could be put back together. Then she made careful notes, of the kind she'd done for each birth she'd attended with Mistress Softhands, though not that last, disastrous birth where the queen of the Unseelie Court had killed one unfortunate apprentice and consigned the rest of their group to the castle dungeons.

And not, of course
, she thought,
when Huldra gave birth to Og, there being no paper, no pen, and no time for any such.

Snail had no idea how much time had passed. But when she went back into the professor's room it was to learn that Huldra had finished the last gulp of the second deer, the dwarfs had been sent off to check on the unicorns, the professor and Maggie were taking notes in a book with the title
Of the Eating Habits of Wild Trolls
scrawled across the top of the page.

Oh—and baby Og was beginning to stir in his apple barrel cradle.

“I've finished taking it apart,” Snail said, wondering idly where Prince Aspen was since clearly he must have been the one who'd brought Huldra the deer. Funny, how she hadn't heard a thing. He couldn't have been
that
quiet about it and she was only just next door.

It's just like what happens in a birthing room
, she thought.
Intense concentration on one thing leading to a kind of deaf-blindness to everything
else
.

“We're all but finished here as well,” said Odds. “Let me come and see how well you've done.”

ASPEN DOES SOME CLEANING

A
spen stared bleakly between the bucket and rag that Maggie Light had handed him and the furry
thing
he was supposed to wash. He had been distressed enough being forced into a servant's role—again! But he was prepared to clean the rug with as much energy as he could muster.

The rug had other ideas, sprouted teeth, and growled at him.

“The bowser does not like to be washed.”

Aspen jumped in surprise at the voice coming from what he had thought was a long, grey cloak hanging on a strange rack. But then he saw pale eyes in the recesses of the hood and pale, knobby fingers just peeking out of the sleeves.

“And I most assuredly do not want to wash it,” he replied. He wanted to add,
A task well below my station . . . or below my former station. The professor has made it perfectly clear that I hold no station here.

Something about the creature seemed familiar, but he could see so very little of it, he could not figure out what it was.
Seelie? Unseelie?
“But that is the task I have been set.”

He stopped for a moment, remembering something his old nanny had said: Work ennobles. He hadn't understood it then, of course. He must have been five or six at the time when she said it. But now, suddenly, he
did
understand: Sometimes the noble thing to do is the lowest thing. Like helping Snail in the cave as she midwifed the troll baby into the world. Which led directly to Huldra the troll not eating anyone in Odds's troupe.
This, at least, is a step up from a troll baby's birth!
he thought.
Though on second thought, maybe not!

“The bowser respects firmness,” said the cloaked creature.

Aspen nodded and took a cautious step forward, bucket before him as a shield. “I can be firm,” he said without much conviction.

“But not too firm! The bowser appreciates a gentle hand.”

“Firm but gentle. I understand.”

He took another step forward and the bowser rippled down the middle like a sheet being puffed out by a maidservant. Then the row of fearsome teeth reappeared in the front, and Aspen stopped, shaken.

Firm.

“Stop it, bowser!” he snapped, trying to speak in the deep, strong tones he remembered his father using with the castle hounds. He sounded squeakier than his father ever had, but the bowser stopped rippling.

However, its teeth were still bared.

Now gentle.

Aspen forced himself down to one knee, his face now alarmingly close to the creature's mouth. He could see it had multiple rows of teeth like the large predators of the northern ocean. Only smaller, of course. Not that he had ever had the opportunity to see the large predators or the northern ocean, but he had read about them in his studies with Jaunty. And there had been one rather horrific illumination in the book. He had always thought it exaggerated. He was no longer certain. The back rows of the bowser's teeth looked ready to swarm forward if any of the front ones failed in any way.

Gentle but firm,
he reminded himself.

“See here, bowser. I do not want to wash you, and you, apparently, do not wish to be washed.” He knew that might sound indecisive to the bowser. And possibly to the other creature in its shapeless cloak as well.

“Nevertheless, bowser, that is exactly what is going to happen. Best if we do it quickly and quietly with as little fuss as possible.” Dipping the rag into the bucket, he swished it around. All the while he hated the greasy feel of the thing and wanted to remove his hand from it. But he did not.

Remembering his father with the hounds, holding out leather leashes for them to sniff, he held the rag up now so the bowser could examine it.

Though the thing has no eyes that I can see. No ears either, but it obviously knows I am here.
The teeth are proof of that.
He may have been imagining it, but the jaws did not seem to be gaping so wide after his little speech to the creature; the teeth
were
a bit more hidden.

Aspen squeezed the rag a little so he would not slosh cold water onto the creature.
We definitely do not want to shock it, now.
Then he leaned forward and pushed the rag into the middle of the bowser's . . .

Back? Surface? Floor?
Aspen did not know what to call it; he was just glad the animate rug made no move to bite him.

“There, that is . . . that's a good . . . erm . . . bowser,” he cooed, and began scrubbing. The surface of the creature was rug-like, but a great deal warmer, and it moved occasionally under his hand as a hound might. Aspen went back for more water, then scrubbed another spot.

The brown of the—
fur? fabric?—
turned near black with the moisture; but after scrubbing for a few minutes, Aspen looked over at his earlier work and saw that the part of the bowser he had washed was drying to a shining gold.

“You really
were
filthy!”

The bowser rippled as if in response and finally closed its toothy jaws.

“I believe you may have made a friend.”

Aspen had almost forgotten the cloaked creature, and turned his head toward it.

“Perhaps.” He shot it a quick grin. “We shall see when I wash near the mouth.”

He moved to where he'd last seen the teeth and scrubbed there now. There was no sign of teeth—front or back—and he felt no sign of anything hard or pointy beneath his rag.

Interesting
.

And suddenly he was done. Only a few spots of dark remained as the bowser's heat dried the final wet patches, and it looked for all the world like a rug of spun gold, a gold that seemed to light up the room.

“Why—it is . . . beautiful,” Aspen said, unable to disguise the awe in his voice. “Fit for a king's chamber.”

The cloaked creature stepped forward and reached down, stroking the back of the bowser with long, skeletal fingers. “Is it?”

Close now, Aspen smelled the sweet stench of overripe fruit and remembered where he had seen this kind of creature before.

“Sticksman!” he shouted. The bowser rippled backward and gave a halfhearted show of teeth, before quickly settling again.

The cloaked creature turned its gaze on Aspen, and he recalled clearly the same pale blue eyes of the skeletal creature that had poled Snail and himself from the Unseelie lands across a river filled with carnivorous mer. They had not had enough payment for passage, and Aspen had promised the Sticksman a favor in exchange for the ride. He remembered that favor now. It was his geas, his fate, and he spoke it softly to himself:
You will travel far and you will meet creatures old, odd, and powerful. You will ask each of them these three questions.

He asked the first questions aloud.
“What is the Sticksman?”

“The Sticksman?” the creature asked Aspen. “What is that?”

Aspen bit his lip. It was an old childish habit he thought he had overcome. Ever since Old Jack Daw had told him it was a
hsssko
—in the drow language, a “tell” by which players of the game of Chancer read another player's face to know what chits he held in his hand—he had tried to lose the habit.
He let his face go bland, but inside he felt empty. He had been so certain of the creature.

“Sticksman,” he repeated. “Just something I thought you were.” He no longer had high hopes for his three questions, but he would ask them anyway, for after all, the promise had been given.

Even if he was late in remembering.

“What is the Sticksman?”

“I asked
you
, man, because I know not,” the creature answered.

“I suppose, then, you do not know how he came to be?”

It was the second question.

He/she/it cocked a skeletal head. “If I know not what it is, I deem it unlikely I would know how it came to be.”

“Then I suppose,” Aspen said, “asking how the Sticksman could come
not
to be is right out?” That was the third question.

The creature shook its skeletal head, which made an alarming creak, and looked away.

“I have a question of my own,” Aspen said suddenly.

“The other questions were not yours?”

“They were given to me.”

The creature nodded. “Then they were yours.”

“Yes . . . um . . . no! Or, yes, I do not know. I do not think it is important.”

The creature nodded some more as if Aspen had made sense, though he felt he had begun to babble.

“Anyway, my
new
question is this: What are
you
?”

The creature straightened and pointed to the far end of the room. Aspen looked and saw another identical cloaked creature he had not noticed before. Or if he had noticed, he probably thought it just another cloak hanging on a hook.

“My sib and I . . . ” the creature said, pausing midsentence while its sib raised a skeletal hand in what started as a wave but ended in an ambiguous upturned palm. “My sib and I . . .” the creature began again, “we are so old, our names have passed from the minds of all creatures—even our own.”

“Truly?” Aspen thought that seemed both likely and unlikely, he was not sure which.

The creature and its sib nodded.

“Then what are you called?”

“Why should we be called?”

“I mean, if someone wants you to . . . to . . . come quickly.”

The sib joined them, walking silently, as if its feet did not touch the floor. It said, “We do not come quickly.” But indeed it had.

Aspen tried again. “Well, should I want to introduce you . . .”

“Sometimes,” said the first creature, “the professor calls me
You
.”

“And sometimes,” the sib said, “he calls me You, Too.”

“And sometimes,” they said together, “he calls us They or Them or Those.”

“And when he is with Maggie Light, he calls us the Trio,” said the sib.

“Though we are not three but two.”

“And the last two of our kind,” added the sib.

“Actually,” Aspen said, smiling up at the tall creature, suddenly sure, “I believe there
are
three
of you. But Maggie Light is not one.”

A sudden hush filled the room, as if eternity had entered, but before either creature could speak further, the hush was broken by a snore. The bowser, so long ignored, had fallen asleep at Aspen's feet.

The snoring reminded Aspen of how tired he was.

Seeming to recognize that, one of the twins said, “You should rest,” and almost at the same time, the other said, “You have walked a long way, hunted through the night.”

Together they added: “We can talk of this on the morrow.”

That sounded good enough for Aspen. At least someone—some
ones,
he reminded himself—recognized all that he had done through the long night. He
did
deserve to rest. Not caring whose bed he collapsed onto, he pulled off his boots. Within minutes he was asleep.

But somewhere, in the middle of a dream in which everyone was screaming, he woke up.

BOOK: The Last Changeling
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