Cover image for The last changeling
The last changeling
Yolen, Jane, author.
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Publication Information:
New York : Viking, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA), 2015.
Physical Description:
290 pages : map ; 22 cm.
"When Prince Aspen and Snail, the midwife's apprentice, realize that they have started the war they meant to prevent, they take on new identities and go on a quest to make things right"--
Program Information:
Accelerated Reader AR MG 5.7 10.0 170234.
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J FICTION Juvenile Fiction Open Shelf
J FICTION Juvenile Fiction Central Closed Stacks
J FICTION Juvenile Fiction Open Shelf

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In The Hostage Prince , Prince Aspen and midwife's apprentice Snail tried to prevent the Seelie War by making a perilous journey to Aspen's father's kingdom. Their journey started the war instead. Chased by two armies, Aspen and Snail find refuge with the actors of Professor Odds' traveling troupe, dodging soldiers, Border Lord berserkers, a hungry troll, and assorted dwarfs, drows, lycants, boggles, and a cloaked spy. Will they make it out? Is any place safe for the two of them? And who, exactly, is the mysterious Professor Odds, who seems to have his own hidden powers and agenda? Fast-paced and funny, The Last Changeling , the second book of the Seelie Wars trilogy, is the perfect way to introduce newly fledged readers to fantasy.

Author Notes

Jane Yolen was born February 11, 1939 in New York City. She received a bachelor's degree from Smith College in 1960 and a master's degree in education from the University of Massachusetts in 1976. After college, she became an editor in New York City and wrote during her lunch break. She sold her first children's book, Pirates in Petticoats, at the age of 22. Since then, she has written over 300 books for children, young adults, and adults.

Her other works include the Emperor and the Kite, Owl Moon, How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? and The Devil's Arithmetic. She has won numerous awards including the Kerlan Award, the Regina Medal, the Keene State Children's Literature Award, the Caldecott Medal, two Nebula Awards, two Christopher Medals, the World Fantasy Award, three Mythopoeic Fantasy Awards, the Golden Kite Award, the Jewish Book Award, the World Fantasy Association's Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Association of Jewish Libraries Award.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 1

School Library Journal Review

Gr 4-8-Mother-son team Yolen and Stemple return to the "refreshingly atypical" characters they introduced in The Hostage Prince: Prince Aspen, a Seelie raised at the Unseelie Court, and Snail, a midwife's apprentice. Fans will be eager to see the fallout of the war the pair inadvertently caused in this action-packed jaunt, ideal for fantasy newcomers. (c) Copyright 2014. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Snail'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. • • • WAKING 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. 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. As 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. From 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. • • • MAKING 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. Aspen 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." Excerpted from The Last Changeling by Jane Yolen, Adam Stemple All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.