Read A Tale of Two Castles Online

Authors: Gail Carson Levine

A Tale of Two Castles

Gail Carson Levine


Thanks to all the creative writers who posted title possibilities to my blog. Special thanks to April Jo Ann Mack for the actual, final,
ta da!
Thanks to Renée Cafiero for the many fixes to many books. Such security you give me!
And thanks to David Macauley for his crystal clear book

To David, to whom I cannot dedicate too many books

Chapter One

other wiped her eyes on her sleeve and held me tight. I wept onto her shoulder. She released me while I went on weeping. A tear slipped into the strait through a crack in the wooden dock. Salt water to salt water, a drop of me in the brine that would separate me from home.

Father's eyes were red. He pulled me into a hug, too. Albin stood to the side a few feet and blew his nose with a
. He could blow his nose a dozen ways. A honk was the saddest.

The master of the cog called from the gangplank, “The tide won't wait.”

I shouldered my satchel.

Mother began, “Lodie—”

lodie,” I said, brushing away tears. “My whole name.”

“Elodie,” she said, “don't correct your elders. Keep your thoughts private. You are mistaken as often—”

“—as anyone,” I said.

“Elodie . . . ,” Father said, sounding nasal, “stay clear of the crafty dragons and the shape-shifting ogres.” He took an uneven breath. “Don't befriend them! They won't bother you if you—”

“—don't bother them,” I said, glancing at Albin, who shrugged. He was the only one of us who'd ever been in the company of an ogre or a dragon. Soon I would be near both. At least one of each lived in the town of Two Castles. The castle that wasn't the king's belonged to an ogre.

“Don't finish your elders' sentences, Lodie,” Mother said.

lodie.” I wondered if Father's adage was true. Maybe ogres and dragons bothered you
if you didn't bother them. I would be glad to meet either one—if I had a quick means of escape.

Albin said, “Remember, Elodie: If you have to speak to a dragon, call it
, never

I nodded. Only a dragon knows ITs gender.

Mother bent so her face was level with mine. “Worse than ogres or dragons . . . beware the whited sepulcher.”

The whited sepulcher was Mother's great worry. I wanted to soothe her, but her instruction seemed impossible to follow. A sepulcher is a tomb. A whited sepulcher is someone who seems good but is, in truth, evil. How would I know?

“The geese”—Mother straightened, and her voice caught— “will look for you tomorrow.”

The geese! My tears flowed again. I hated the geese, but I would miss them.

Mother flicked a gull's feather off my shoulder. “You're but a baby!”

I went to Albin and hugged him, too. He whispered into my hair, “Be what you must be.”

The master of the cog roared, “We're off!”

I ran, leaped over a coil of rope, caught my foot, and went sprawling. Lambs and calves! Behind me, Mother cried out. I scrambled up, dusty but unharmed. I laughed through my tears and raced up the plank. A seaman drew it in.

The sail, decorated with the faded image of a winged fish, bellied in the breeze. We skimmed away from the dock. If fate was kind, in ten years I would see my parents and Albin again. If fate was cruel, never.

As they shrank, Mother losing her tallness, Father his girth, Albin his long beard, I waved. They waved back and didn't stop. The last I could make out of them, they were still waving.

The island of Lahnt diminished, too. For the first time it seemed precious, with its wooded slopes and snowy peaks, the highest wreathed in clouds. I wished I could pick out Dair Mountain, where our Potluck Farm perched.

Farewell to my homeland. Farewell to my childhood.

Mother and Father's instructions were to apprentice myself to a weaver, but I would not.
. I mouthed the word into the wind, the word that held my future.
. Actor. Mansioner of myth and fable. Mother and Father would understand once I found a master or mistress to serve and could join the guild someday.

Leaning into the ship's bulwarks, I felt the purse, hidden under my apron, which held my little knife, a lock of hair from one of Albin's mansioning wigs, a pretty pink stone, a perfect shell from the beach this morning, and a single copper, which Father judged enough to feed me until I became apprenticed. Unless the winds blew against us, we would reach Two Castles, capital of the kingdom of Lepai, in two or three days, in time for Guild Week, when masters took on new apprentices. I might see the king or the ogre, if one of them came through town, but I was unlikely to enter either castle.

I had no desire to see King Grenville III, who liked war and taxes so much that his subjects called him Greedy Grenny. Lepai was a small kingdom, but bigger by half than when he'd mounted the throne—and so were our taxes bigger by half, or so Mother said. The king was believed to have his combative eye on Tair, Lahnt's neighbor across the wide side of the strait.

Queen Sofie had died a decade ago, but I did hope to see the king's daughter, Princess Renn, who was rumored to be somehow peculiar. A mansioner is interested in peculiarity.

And a mansioner observes. I turned away from home. To my left, three rowers toiled on a single oar. The one in the center called, “Pu-u-u-ll,” with each stroke. I heard his mate across the deck call the same. Father had told me the oars were for steering and the sail for speed. The deck between me and the far bulwark teemed with seamen, passengers, a donkey, and two cows.

A seaman climbed the mast. The cog master pushed his way between an elderly goodman and his goodwife and elbowed the cows until they let him pass. He disappeared down the stairs to the hold, where the cargo was stored. I would remember his swagger, the way he rolled his shoulders, and how widely he stepped.

The deck tilted into a swell. I felt a chill, although the air was warm for mid-October.

“Go, honey, move. Listen to Dess. Listen, honey, honey.” A small man, thin but for fleshy cheeks and a double chin, the owner of the donkey and the cows, coaxed his animals into a space between the bulwark and the stairs to the rear upper deck. He carried a covered basket in his right hand, heavy, because his shoulder sagged. “Come, honey.”

His speech reminded me of Father with our animals at home.
Good, Vashie,
he'd tell our cow,
Good girl, what a good girl.
Perhaps if I'd repeated myself with the geese, they'd have liked me better.

The elderly goodwife opened her sack and removed a cloak, which she spread on the deck. Holding her husband's hand, she lowered herself and sat. He sat at her side on the cloak. The other passengers also began to mark out their plots of deck, their tiny homesteads.

I wasn't sure yet where I wanted my place to be. Near the elderly couple, who might have tales to tell?

Not far from them, a family established their claim. To my surprise, the daughter wore a cap. In Lahnt women wore caps, but not girls, except for warmth in winter. Her kirtle and her mother's weren't as full as mine, but their sleeves hung down as far as their knuckles, and their skirt hems half covered their shoes, which had pointed toes, unlike my rounded ones.

The cog dropped into a slough in the sea, and my stomach dropped with it. We rose again, but my belly liked that no better. I leaned against the bulwark for better balance.

My mouth filled with saliva. I swallowed again and again. Nothing in the world was still, not the racing clouds nor the rippling sail nor the pitching ship.

The son in the family pointed at me and cried, “Her face is green wax!”

My stomach surged into my throat. I turned and heaved my breakfast over the side. Even after the food was gone, my stomach continued to rise and sink.

Next to me, a fellow passenger whimpered and groaned.

I stared down at the foamy water churning by, sicker than I had ever been. Still, the mansioner in me was in glory. Lambs and calves! I would remember how it was to feel so foul. I wondered if I could transform my face to green wax without paint, just by memory.

The cog rose higher than it had so far and fell farther. I vomited bile and then gasped for breath. The bulwark railing pressed into my sorry stomach.

The person at my side panted out, “Raise your head. Look at the horizon.”

My head seemed in the only reasonable position, but I lifted it. The island of Lahnt had vanished. The horizon was splendidly flat and still. My insides continued bobbing, but less.

“Here.” A hand touched mine on the railing. “Pepper-mint. Suck on it.”

The leaf was fresh, not dried, and the clean taste helped. “Thank you, mistress.” My eyes feared to let go of the horizon, so I couldn't see my benefactress. Her voice was musical, although not young. She might be the old goodwife.

“I've crossed many times and always begun by being sick.” Her voice lilted in amusement. She seemed to have found respite enough from her suffering to speak more than a few words. “I've exhausted my goodman's sympathy.” She sighed. “I still hope to become a good sailor someday. You are young to travel alone.”

Mother and Father didn't have passage money for more than me. “Not so young, mistress.” Here I was, contradicting my elders again. “I am fourteen.” Contradicting and lying.


I was tall enough for fourteen, although perhaps not curvy enough. I risked a sideways peek to see if she believed me, but she still faced the horizon and didn't meet my eyes. I took in her profile: long forehead, knob of a nose, weathered skin, deep lines around her mouth, gray wisps escaping her hood, a few hairs sprouting from her chin—a likeable, honest face.

“Conversation keeps the mind off the belly,” she said, and I saw a gap in her upper teeth.

The ship dropped. I felt myself go greener. My eyes snapped back to the horizon.

“We will be visiting our children and their children in Two Castles. Why do you cross?”

She was as nosy as I was! “I seek an apprenticeship as”—I put force into my hoarse, seasick voice—“a mansioner.”

“Ah,” she said again. “Your parents sent you off to be a mansioner.”

I knew she didn't believe me now. “To be a weaver,” I admitted. “Lambs and calves!” Oh, I didn't mean to use the farm expression. “To stay indoors, to repeat a task endlessly, to squint in lamplight . . . ,” I burst out. “It is against my nature!”

“To have your hands seize up before you're old,” the goodwife said with feeling, “your shoulders blaze with pain, your feet spread. Be not a weaver nor a spinner!”

Contrarily, I found myself defending Father's wishes for me. “Weaving is honest, steady work, mistress.” I laughed at myself. “But I won't be a weaver.”

The boat dipped sideways. My stomach emptied itself of nothing.

She gave me another mint leaf. “Why a mansioner?”

“I love spectacles and stories.” Mansioning had been my ambition since I was seven and a caravan of mansions came to our country market.

Then, when I was nine, Albin left his mansioning troupe and came to live with us and help Father farm. He passed his spare time telling me mansioners' tales and showing me how to act them out. He said I had promise.

“I love theater, too,” the goodwife said, “but I never dreamed of being a mansioner.”

“I like to be other people, mistress.” Lowering my pitch and adding a quiver, I said, “I can mimic a little.” I went back to my true voice. “That's not right.” I hadn't caught her tone.

She chuckled. “If you were trying to be me, you were on the right path. How long an apprenticeship will you serve?”

Masters were paid five silver coins to teach an apprentice for five years, three silvers for seven years. The apprentice labored for no pay during that term and learned a trade.

“Ten years, mistress.” Ten-year apprenticeships cost nothing. Our family was too poor to buy me a place.

The cog dipped lower than ever. I sucked hard on the mint.

“My dear.” She touched my arm. “I'm sorry.”

“No need for sorrow. I'll know my craft well by the time I'm twenty-two . . . I mean, twenty-four.”

“Not that. In June the guilds abolished ten-year apprenticeships. Now everyone must pay to learn a trade.”

I turned to her. Her face was serious. It was true.

The boat pitched, but my stomach steadied while a rock formed there.

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