Read The Last Changeling Online

Authors: Jane Yolen

The Last Changeling

BOOK: The Last Changeling
ads

Books by
JANE YOLEN

Young Merlin Trilogy

Passager

Hobby

Merlin

The Pit Dragon Chronicles

Dragon's Blood

Heart's Blood

A Sending of Dragons

Dragon's Heart

Sword of the Rightful King

The Last Dragon

Curse of the Thirteenth Fey

Snow in Summer

Dragon's Boy

Sister Light, Sister Dark

White Jenna

The One-Armed Queen

Wild Hunt

Wizard's Hall

Boots and the Seven Leaguers

BOOKS BY ADAM STEMPLE

Singer of Souls

Steward of Song

BOOKS BY JANE YOLEN AND ADAM STEMPLE

Pay the Piper: A Rock 'n' Roll Fairy Tale

Troll Bridge: A Rock 'n' Roll Fairy Tale

B.U.G. (Big Ugly Guy)

The Hostage Prince: The Seelie Wars: Book I

The Last Changeling: The Seelie Wars: Book II

VIKING

Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) LLC

375 Hudson Street

New York, New York 10014

USA / Canada / UK / Ireland / Australia

New Zealand / India / South Africa / China

penguin.com

A Penguin Random House Company

First published in the United States of America by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, 2015

Copyright © 2015 by Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple

Original map conceived by John Sjogren, rendered by Eileen Savage

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

LIBRARY
OF
CONGRESS
CATALOGING
-
IN
-
PUBLICATION
DATA
IS
AVAILABLE

ISBN 978-0-698-15504-6

Version_1

Also by Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Map

1. SNAIL ON THE ROAD

2. ASPEN HAILS THE WAGON

3. SNAIL ENTERS THE WAGON

4. ASPEN AND THE DWARFS

5. SNAIL'S ODD ENCOUNTER

6. ASPEN'S LOUTISH CAST

7. SNAIL PEEPS

8. ASPEN AWAKENS

9. SNAIL'S JOURNEY BEGINS

10. ASPEN HOBBLES A UNICORN

11. SNAIL TO THE RESCUE AGAIN

12. ASPEN HUNTS AND GETS SMALL THANKS

13. SNAIL LEARNS SOMETHING

14. ASPEN DOES SOME CLEANING

15. SNAIL MEETS A MAN WHO WASN'T THERE

16. ASPEN GETS ALL NOBLE

17. SNAIL AND THE HUNGRY TROLL

18. ASPEN FACES THE ODDS

19. SNAIL TALKS TOUGH

20. ASPEN AND THE BEST-LAID PLANS

21. SNAIL FIRST SEES THE FAIR

22. ASPEN DRESSES UP

23. SNAIL LEARNS SOME BRUTAL TRUTHS

24. ASPEN PLAYS HIS PART

25. SNAIL MANAGES SOMEHOW

26. ASPEN HAS SOME ANSWERS

27. SNAIL MEETS HER CLAN

28. ASPEN CHANGES PLANS . . . AGAIN

29. SNAIL HEARS ODDS'S BIG SPEECH

30. ASPEN'S BEST-LAID PLANS

31. SNAIL MAKES A DECISION

32. ASPEN OVERSEES THE BATTLE

About the authors

F
or Alison, David, and Betsy because they couldn't wait for the second book—J.Y.
F
or Alex, who lives on, forever young—A.S.

SNAIL ON THE ROAD

S
nail's new clothes itched. The soft wool of the mauve gown seemed to set her skin on fire. Running a finger under the top of the bodice, she thought about how she must look. The neckline was too low, the hemline too high, the lace collar too starched. There was no apprentice over-apron with deep pockets like the one she'd worn all her working life. She missed those pockets.
You could keep a sticky bun or a knife or an apple or a hair ribbon or a comb there. Or, if you had a coin . . .

And then she thought angrily,
Toffs probably have no need of pockets. If you're rich enough, someone carries all your stuff for you.
Well
,
she wasn't a toff, just a midwife's apprentice.
A midwife's apprentice
, she reminded herself,
on the run with a hostage prince. And both of us being sought by not one but two armies. TWO!

She said “TWO!” out loud, and it sounded like an explosion, the kind wizards make with smoke and fire and a horrible stench.

And how can I possibly run from any armies in these shoes?
She glared at her feet. An hour earlier, her midwife sandals, well broken in and comfortable, had entered into an unfortunate battle with a peat bog. They'd lost.
Or rather
, she thought,
they'd
been
lost
.

She'd had to put on the shoes the queen had given her, the ones that she'd been carrying for miles slung around her neck by their laces. With their narrow toes and small heels, they pinched her feet. She'd known at once that they weren't the kind of shoes made for long walks across treacherous terrain. They were dancing shoes made for a grand ball. And
that
was a terrain she'd never crossed in her life, nor did she ever want to.

The fancy dress made her feel . . .
exposed
was the word that leapt to mind.
Vulnerable
.
Visible.

As a midwife's apprentice she'd worn a uniform that both identified her and made her part of a team. She was a pair of hands, a ready heart, an agile mind, but otherwise invisible. At least that's what Mistress Softhands—who's apprentice she'd been—had always said.

But poor Mistress Softhands was in the dungeon of the Unseelie castle now, completely invisible to everyone except the guards. Her partners—Mistress Treetop and Mistress Yoke—were there as well. And the other midwife's apprentice, Yarrow.

Actually, Snail didn't care a fyge about Yarrow.
Let her scream her lungs out in that place!
she thought with a bitterness that surprised her. But Mistress Softhands had been a good teacher, if strict. Her only mother, indeed her only trustworthy friend in the beastly Unseelie Court, as she understood now. Even though she'd learned from the other midwives as well, they'd never been a particularly comforting lot. Yes, they'd imparted knowledge with their every breath, but they imparted as well a certain heartlessness, a nasty preference for their own apprentices whether the girls had been worthy or not. She shuddered, remembering. Still, the knowledge of midwifery had helped in her endless escape from the Unseelie lands.

Well, not endless,
she quickly amended to herself
. It's only been a couple of days.

“But they were awful days. . . .” she mumbled. “Beatings and a death and a stay in the Unseelie dungeon and . . .”

“Really,” Aspen said beside her, “can you not . . . er . . .
can't
you say something pleasant?”

She glared at him and then thought,
Well, there weren't any actual beatings, only a bit of manhandling
—
but I probably have bruises. He wouldn't want me to mention those. And there was a dungeon. And two, no three . . . no five or six deaths, if you count the ogre who was questioning me
and the two assassins, and Philomel, the apprentice midwife. Oh, and three or four Border Lords eaten by carnivorous mermen. And the merman I stabbed with a poisoned blade. Maybe that was eight or nine
deaths.
Or ten. Nothing pleasant there!

The merman had been the only one she herself had killed. Snail could almost feel his cold, wet fingers around her body as he tried to drag her from the boat. She shuddered again.

Still, she'd delivered a baby along the way. A troll's baby. The first she'd ever done unsupervised and all by herself. And she hadn't dropped it or been eaten in the process. Maybe that balanced everything out. Maybe she could remind Prince High-and-Holy Aspen—Karl!—of that. After all, it was a very
big
baby. Once again, she blessed whoever had made the law that forbade trolls to eat midwives.

But the other midwives had been left behind in the dungeon, and Snail was now running for her life across Seelie lands, the Hostage Prince by her side.

They'd already crossed fields and those soft, peaty bogs that threatened to grab them and pull them under. The Peat Hags—so Mistress Softhands had once warned—were merciless and cunning old things, notorious for their greed. She said their teeth were enormous and sharp as a chef's knife. Snail was glad she'd only lost the shoes in the bog and not her feet as well.

But to be honest,
Snail thought,
we only encountered mud, not hags. And beyond the bogs were well-tended farms with the barley halfway up to our thighs, and corn, too. Some grouse leapt up when we passed, which was scary
—
all that loud wing-fluttering
—
but no one seemed to notice us.

And here we are, wherever
here
is!
She hoped Prince Aspen—who was Seelie and had lived his first seven years in the Seelie kingdom they were now traveling in before he'd been sent off as the Hostage Prince—still remembered his way around. She'd never been anywhere outside the Unseelie castle till their escape. Wasn't sure yet that travel was a good thing, under the circumstances.

They'd already crossed two streams, leaping from rock to rock, not daring to wade in the water.
Thank Mab
the rivers had been too shallow for merfolk
. Her stomach had remarked about trout, but she doubted the prince knew how to fish.
And I'm no cook.
Though at least with his fire magic we could have tried.

Aspen had claimed—with more authority than knowledge—that the mer lived only in salt water. Snail hadn't felt it necessary to remind him that the great river they'd so recently crossed by boat into the Seelie lands had been fresh water and not salt.
And full of carnivorous mer
.

Still, the two of them were free.

Free!

Or as free as they could be with two armies chasing them—Seelie and Unseelie.

Snail made a face and pulled on a strand of her red-orange hair.

Free maybe, but far too identifiable when they should be trying to remain invisible.

No one,
she thought miserably,
can be invisible in these clothes.
She pulled up on the bodice again. Ran her finger around the starched collar again. Bit her lower lip in frustration.

The prince—
she had to remember to call him Karl, his minstrel name
—looks even stranger than me in his multicolored rags and silly red hat.
She feared the two of them stuck out like apples on a winter tree, like dog meat at the king's high table . . . like . . .

She must have said that last aloud because the prince—Karl—asked, “Why dog meat? Cannot . . . er . . .
can't
you think of . . .”

“Something more pleasing?”

“Exactly.”

Snail shrugged but didn't otherwise answer him. Right now, they needed what breath they had for running, hiding, being invisible, not wasting it with talking. They needed minds that were devious and serious and alert and questioning. Not minds that were worried about pleasing things. Or pleasing people.

Besides, even while trying so hard to be an ordinary person—his golden hair hidden under a scruffy hat, his voice harsh from his ordeal, carefully saying “can't” instead of “cannot” and “I'm” instead of “I am”—Prince Aspen still looked and sounded like a toff.

It's all hopeless, really
.
And by Mab's little toe, this bodice itches!
Snail was miserable. She expected soon to be covered in a roseate rash, as raw as a baby's bottom, probably by nightfall. And probably locked up in another dungeon as well.

The problem was that in these clothes they weren't disguised at all. In fact, they were
highly
visible. And not only were they visible, now they were on a main road.

A main road with very few people so far—only a couple of rough peasants had passed them by, and never gave them a second glance. The lack of people who might be curious or able to identify them had only been by luck. After all, it was early morning, the light was a dull grey, like pewter, rain threatened, and until now they'd been walking in fields and bogs and wasteland, so it wasn't a surprise that they hadn't yet been noticed.

“Pleasing?” she said again, or rather whispered it, though the whisper was almost as loud as a shout. “You want me to think of something
pleasing
? When every step along a road like this brings us danger and possible imprisonment, probably death? How about my being back in the Unseelie Court working side by side with the other midwives, hands bloody from bringing a child into the world. It would be a sight more
pleasing
than this.” She gestured toward the bodice, the skirt, the shoes.

“I think you look . . .” Aspen hesitated.

“Yes?” Now she stood, hands on hips, as if daring him to figure his way out of this small predicament in the middle of their much greater one.

All the while she wondered if he was going to say she looked like a sow in a princess's castoff, which in a way she was. Or a toad before it was kissed by the prince, as the old story went. Or . . . she shuddered at the idea of kissing a prince. It could be a hanging offense.

“Um . . . pleasing.” He shrugged, tried to grin, failing that, looked faintly embarrassed, before getting angry, shifting the lute—with its battered carving of a cross-eyed cherub—behind him and folding his arms. He all but growled at her. “Girls!”

She liked him angry. It would make him more careful the next time. It would make him . . .

He looked past her, down the road, then suddenly flung himself prone onto the ground, right ear dramatically against the road. Then just as dramatically, he sat up and pointed.

“Horses!” he said. “Probably soldiers. Quick—the trees.”

But she was already running. She hadn't needed to put
her
ear to the ground to hear the horses. That many horses make a lot of noise. And that many horses meant soldiers. It mattered little to Snail if the soldiers were Seelie or Unseelie because it meant death to the two of them either way.

Aspen was right behind her, and at the last, when they were in a rough patch of grass about ten steps from the trees, he tackled her and they both went down in a flurry of her skirts, and his silly red hat flew into the air.

“What did you do that for?” she said, glaring at him.

“Stay down,” he said. “The grass will hide us. It is our only chance. We were never going to make it to the trees.”

She looked about carefully and could see he was right.

They lay there for a very long time, hardly moving, till the sound of the horses was entirely gone. In fact they both fell asleep for a while, fear and exhaustion combining with the constant birdsong—wrens and cuckoos calling above them working as well as any sleep potion.

• • •

W
AKING
LATER
WITH
a start, Snail realized her dress was now itchier than before because the grass had gotten down the front of the bodice and she had had to pinch her nose with her right hand to keep from sneezing, in case anyone was about.

The sun had begun its descent when they sat up, both at the same time. Carefully, looking around and seeing the road once again deserted, they stood and straightened themselves out, brushing bits of grass and seeds and brambles from their clothes—
to look half-decent
, Mistress Softhands would have said.

Then they argued a bit, looking for the red hat, but never finding it, which was strange.

“Maybe a bogle took it,” the prince said. “Or a brownie.”

“This far from a house?” All she knew about brownies was what she'd heard in travelers' tales. Brownies were Seelie folk, small servants who kept the home, hard workers, though not thought to be terribly smart.

His face looked as if an argument was about to start, but before he could correct her, he breathed out a single word.

“Bother!”

They turned at the same time.

Snail thought,
Entirely visible
. Meaning herself. Meaning the prince.

ADS
15.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
READ BOOK DOWNLOAD BOOK

Other books

Beyond The Cage by Alana Sapphire
Unbroken Hearts by Anna Murray
Colin Fischer by Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz
Gatewright by Blaisus, J. M.
Ahoy for Joy by Keith Reilly
Put Me Back Together by Lola Rooney
Between Sisters by Kristin Hannah
The Cube People by Christian McPherson