About the Author
Nancy Farmer grew up on the Arizona-Mexico border, did a tour of duty with the Peace Corps in India in the mid-'60s, and lived in South Africa and Zimbabwe in the '70s and '80s. Her novelette The Mirror won the 1987 Gold Award in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest. Her first book, Do You Know Me?, a children's adventure set in Zimbabwe, received an award from the National Endowment for the Arts. She received Newbery Honors for A Girl Named Disaster; The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm; and The House of the Scorpion, which also won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature and a Michael L. Printz Award Honor Book for Young People's Literature. She and her husband currently live in Menlo Park, California.
Carol Emshwiller is the author of many acclaimed novels and story collections, including Carmen Dog, The Start of the End of It All (winner of the World Fantasy Award), Report to the Men’s Club and Other Stories, I Live with You and You Don't Know It, and The Mount (winner of the Philip K. Dick Award and a Nebula Award finalist). She teaches in the New York University continuing education program, and divides her time between homes in New York City and California. Visit Emshwiller online at www.sfwa.org/members/emshwiller.
Sherwood Smith started making books out of paper towels at age six. In between stories, she studied and traveled in Europe, got a master’s degree in history, and now lives in Southern California with her spouse, two kids, and two dogs. Smith’s the author of the high fantasy Sartorias-deles series as well as the modern-day fantasy adventures of Kim Murray in Coronets and Steel. Learn more at sherwoodsmith.net.
Laurel Winter (born Laurel Anne Hjelvik) is the author of fantasy, science fiction, and poetry. In childhood she attended a one-room schoolhouse. Her first published fantasy story was "Mail Order Eyes" in 1988. She has since won two Rhysling Awards and a World Fantasy Award for Best Novella. She has also written young adult fiction.
Hometown:Menlo Park, California
Date of Birth:July 9, 1941
Place of Birth:Phoenix, Arizona
Education:B.A., Reed College, 1963
Read an Excerpt
Table of Contents
Nancy Springer - KINGMAKER
Nancy Farmer - A TICKET TO RIDE
Christopher Barzak - A THOUSAND TAILS
Chris Roberson - ALL UNDER HEAVEN
Ellen Klages - SINGING ON A STAR
Louise Marley - EGG MAGIC
Kara Dalkey - FLatLaND
Candas Jane Dorsey - DOLLY THE DOG-SOLDIER
Margo Lanagan - FERRYMAN
THE GHOSTS OF STRANGERS - NINA KIRIKI HOFFMAN
Jo Walton - THREE TWILIGHT TALES
Carol Emshwiller - THE DIGNITY HE’S DUE
Marly Youmans - POWER AND MAGIC
Sherwood Smith - COURT SHIP
Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple - LITTLE RED
Laurel Winter - THE MYTH OF FENIX
Nick O’Donohoe FEAR AND LOATHING IN LALANNA: A Savage Journey to the Heart of ...
Clare Bell - BONECHEWER’S LEGACY
Elizabeth E. Wein - SOMETHING WORTH DOING
ABOUT THE EDITOR
ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR
WHERE FANTASY TAKES FLIGHT™ WHERE SCIENCE FICTION SOARS™
FIREBIRD Published by the Penguin Group Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 345 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4P 2Y3 (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.) Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England Penguin Ireland, 25 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd) Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd) Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi - 110 017, India Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, North Shore 0632, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd) Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa
Registered Offices: Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
First published in the United States of America by Firebird, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2009
eISBN : 978-1-101-02228-3
Decorations copyright © Mike Dringenberg, 2009
“A Thousand Tails” copyright © Christopher Barzak, 2009; “Bonechewer’s Legacy” copyright © Clare Bell, 2009; “Flatland” copyright © Kara Dalkey, 2009; “Dolly the Dog-Soldier” copyright © Candas Jane Dorsey, 2009; “The Dignity He’s Due” copyright © Carol Emshwiller, 2009; “A Ticket to Ride” copyright © Nancy Farmer, 2009; “Something Worth Doing” copyright © Elizabeth Gatland, 2009; “The Ghosts of Strangers” copyright © Nina Kiriki Hoffman, 2009; “Singing on a Star” copyright © Ellen Klages, 2009; “Ferryman” copyright © Margo Lanagan, 2009; “Egg Magic” copyright © Louise Marley, 2009; “Fear and Loathing in Lalanna” copyright © Nick O’Donohoe, 2009; “All Under Heaven” copyright © Chris Roberson, 2009; “Court Ship” copyright © Sherwood Smith, 2009; “Kingmaker” copyright © Nancy Springer, 2009; “Little Red” copyright © Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple, 2009; “Three Twilight Tales” copyright © Jo Walton, 2009; “The Myth of Fenix” copyright © Laurel Winter, 2009; “Power and Magic” copyright © Marly Youmans, 2009
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The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party Web sites or their content.
for Lloyd and Janine Alexander
—I miss you—
Here’s a question: How does one write an introduction for the third anthology in an ongoing series?
If this is the first Firebird anthology you’ve read—welcome! If this is the second or the third—welcome back! Repeat readers already know the following:
• I hate reading introductions myself, so this will be short.
• I won’t tell you anything about the stories.
• This book has been sequenced to allow you to read it all the way through in one sitting, although you probably won’t.
• I want to hear from you, so my e-mail address is at the end.
But there’s more to this book than four bullet points.
Each Firebird anthology sets the standard for the next, and, needless to say, each is a hard act to follow. This is the most substantial book yet. Its nineteen stories range in length from a few pages to almost one hundred; the settings range from 25,000,000 years ago to far in the future; and there are a number of stories that can’t be classified as science fiction or fantasy, exactly. You might wonder why they’re included. Simple. If someone has a wide range, I want to have the freedom to show it. It’s more fun to blur the boundaries, anyway. Thus, the subtitle refers to “speculative fiction,” which I consider more generous than “science fiction” or “fantasy.”
The second bit of boundary blurring is visual. I asked the artist Mike Dringenberg if he’d like to be a part of the book, and to my delight he said yes. This meant that he became something of a collaborator; since he wanted to do “decorations” for each story, he read things right after I had selected them. More than a few times I was surprised by the images he’d chosen. But everyone sees a story differently, of course—especially a visual artist. (For those taking notes, he painted with powdered graphite mixed with water.)
You can’t miss the third boundary blur—it’s right in the middle of the book. If you’ve been keeping track of the list, you’ll know that 2007 was Firebird’s fifth anniversary, and we celebrated by publishing three short novels, each by one of Firebird’s biggest names: Diana Wynne Jones, Tanith Lee, and Charles de Lint. Other people had written short novels, too; one of them was Nina Kiriki Hoffman, and I couldn’t resist making it the centerpiece of Firebirds Soaring.
So what’s next for Firebird? Well, more good books, of course—I am perennially looking for non-dystopian science fiction. Help me!—and more anthologies, if you’ll have them, and surprises where I can fit them in.
Of course, I want to know what you think of Firebirds Soaring. Please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I actually do read all of the e-mail I receive and take your suggestions into account, so let me know what you think I should be publishing, what’s missing in the marketplace, what we’re doing right, and what we could do better. This is your imprint as much as anyone’s, remember.
Speaking of which: you named this book. The acknowledgments in the back will tell you everyone who sent me Firebirds Soaring as a possible title. Thank you.
And, as always, thanks for reading Firebird books, and allowing me to publish more of them!
Destiny, I discovered upon a fateful day in my fif-teenth year, can manifest in small matters.
Tedious matters, even. In this instance, two clansmen arguing about swine.
Barefoot, in striped tunics and baggy breeches, glaring at each other as if they wore swords instead, the two of them stood before me where I sat upon my father’s throne. “His accursed hogs rooted up the whole of my barley field,” complained the one, “and there’s much seed and labor gone to waste, and what are my children to eat this winter?”
“It could not have been my hogs,” declared the other. “I keep iron rings in my pigs’ snouts.”
“Better you should keep your pigs, snouts and all, where they belong. It was your hogs, I’m telling you.”
Outdoors, I thought with a sigh, the too-brief summer sun shone, and my father, High King Gwal Wredkyte, rode a-hawking with his great ger-eagle on his arm and his nephew, Korbye, at his side. Meanwhile, in this dark-timbered hall, I held court of justice in my father’s stead. No easy task, as I am neither the high king’s son nor his heir; I am just his daughter.
My cousin Korbye is his heir.
But I could give judgment and folk would obey me, for I had been guiding my father’s decisions since I was a little girl, sitting upon his knee as I advised him who was telling the truth and who was lying. In this I was never mistaken.
This is my uncanny gift, to know sooth. When I lay newly born, I have been told, an owl the color of gold appeared and perched on my cradle. Soundlessly out of nowhere the golden owl flew to me, gave me a great-eyed golden stare, and soundlessly back to nowhere it flew away, all within my mother’s closed and shuttered chamber. “This child will not die, like the others,” she had whispered from the bed, where she lay weak after childbirth. “This child will live, for the fates have plans for her.”
If those plans were only that I should sit indoors, on an overlarge chair draped with the skins of wolf and bear, listening to shaggy-bearded men quarrel, I wished the fates had kept their gift.
The accused clansman insisted, “But it cannot have been my pigs! They can’t root, not with rings the size of a warrior’s armband through their noses.”
“Are you telling me I’m blind? You think I don’t know that ugly spotted sow of yours when I see her up to her ears in the soil I tilled? Your pigs destroyed my grain.”
I asked the accuser, “Did you see any swine other than the spotted sow?”
“His sow destroyed my grain, then.”
“Answer what I asked.”
“No, I saw only the spotted sow. But—”
“But how could one sow root up the whole of a field by herself?” cried the other clansman. “With a ring in her snout? It could not be so, Wren!”
I scowled, clouds thickening in my already-shadowed temper. I possess a royal name—Vranwen Alarra of Wredkyte—yet everyone, from my father to the lowliest serving boy in his stronghold, calls me Wren. Everyone always has, I suppose because I am small and plain—brown hair, brown eyes, clay-dun skin—but plucky in my stubby little way. Although no one, obviously, is afraid of me, or they would not bespeak me so commonly.
“Wren, I am not a liar!” insisted the clansman with the ruined barley field.
I held up my hand to hush them. “You both speak the truth.”
“What!” they exclaimed together.
“You are both honest.” My sooth-sense told me that, as sometimes chanced in these quarrels, both men believed what they had said. “The real truth flies silent like an invisible owl on the air between you two.”
“But—but . . .”
“How . . . ?”
But how to resolve the dispute? they meant.
Customarily, in order to pass judgment, I would have closed my eyes and cleared my mind until my sooth-sense caught hold of the unseen verity. But on this day, with my father and my cousin out riding in the sunshine, I shook my head. “I will sit in the shadows no longer. Come.” I rose from the throne, beckoning dismissal to others hunkered against the stone walls; they could return on the morrow. “Show me this remarkable spotted sow.”
Surely, striding out on the moors, I looked not at all like a scion of the high king, the sacred king, Gwal Wredkyte, earthly avatar of the sun. I, his daughter, wore only a simple shift of amber-and-brown plaid wool, and only ghillies, ovals of calfskin, laced around my feet. No golden torc, no silver lunula, nor am I royal of stature or of mien.
Nor did I care, for I felt like a scullery girl on holiday. Laughing, I ran along the heathery heights, gazing out upon vast sky and vast sea, breathing deeply of the salt-scented wind making wings of my hair.
“Take care, Wren,” one of the clansmen called. “’Ware the cliff’s edge.”
He thought I had no more sense than a child? But my mood had turned so sunny that I only smiled and halted where I was, not so very near to where the heather ended, where sheer rocks plummeted to the breakers. Long ago, folk said, giants had carved these cliffs, playing, scooping up rocks and piling them into towers. Atop one such tower nearby balanced a stone the size of a cottage, rocking as gently as a cradle in the breeze that lifted my hair. It had teetered just so since time before time, since the giants had placed it there.
“Wren,” urged the other clansman, “ye’ll see my pigsty beyond the next rise.”
Sighing, I followed.
A sturdy circle of stone it was, but no man has yet built a pen a hog cannot scramble out of. For this reason, and because swine require much feeding, customarily they roam from midden heap to midden heap, gobbling offal, with stout metal rings in their snouts to tug at their tender nostrils if they try to root. Otherwise, they would dig up every hands-breadth of land in search of goddess-knows-what, while the geese and sheep and cattle would have no grazing.
Laying my forearms atop the pigsty’s stone wall, I looked upon the denizen.
The accused, doubly imprisoned. Tethered by a rope passed through the ring in her nose.
There she lay, a mountainous sow, unmistakable, as the complaining clansman had said, because of her bristly black skin splotched with rosettes of gray as if lichens grew on her. A great boulder of a sow, all mottled like a sable moon. Shrewd nosed and sharp eared, with flinty eyes she peered back at me.
I felt the force of something fey in her stare.
Almost whispering, I bespoke her courteously, asking her as if she could answer me, “Are you the old sow who eats her farrow?” For such was one of the forms of the goddess, the dark-of-the-moon sow who gives birth to a litter, then devours her young.
I sensed how the clansmen glanced at each other askance.
The great pig growled like a mastiff.
The clansman who owned her cleared his throat, then said, “You see the ring in her nose, Wren?”
“Yes. She looks disgruntled.” Still oddly affected, off balance, I tried to joke, for a gruntle is a pig’s snout—the part that grunts—so disgruntled could mean a hog with its nose out of joint, as might be expected when a ring of iron—
I stared at the ring in the sow’s snout, all jesting forgotten.
No ordinary swine-stopper, this. Despite its coating of mud, I saw flattened edges and spiral ridges like those of a torc.
“Where did you come by that ring?” I demanded of the owner.
“Digging turf one day, I found it in the ground. She needed a new one, hers was rusting to bits, so—”
“I want to see it. Come here, sow.” Reaching for the rope that tied her, I tugged.
“She won’t move for anything less than a pan of buttermilk.”
But as if to make a liar of him after all, the sow heaved herself up and walked to me.
Reaching over the stone wall, with both hands I spread the ring and took it from her snout, feeling my heartbeat hasten; in my grasp the ring felt somehow willful, inert yet alive. It bent to my touch, so I fancied, gladly, then restored itself to a perfect circle after I had freed it from the pig and from the rope.
Still with both hands, as if lifting an offering to the goddess, I held the dirt-caked circle up in the sunlight, looking upon it. Pitted and stained it was, but not with rust. Rather, with antiquity.
“That’s no ring of iron, fool,” said the complaining clansman to the other one.
“Some softer metal,” I agreed before they could start quarreling again. And although my heart beat hard, I made as light of the matter as I could, slipping the ring into the pouch of leather that hung at my waist, at the same time feeling for a few coppers. I would gladly have given gold for that ring, but to do so would have excited the jealousy of the other clansman and caused too much talk. So with, I hoped, the air of one settling a matter of small importance, I handed threepence to the sow’s owner and told him, “Get a proper ring to put in her snout. Then she will trouble your neighbor no more.” To the other man, also, I gave a few pence, saying, “If your children grow hungry this winter, tell me and I will see that you have barley to eat.”
Then I left them, striding home as if important business awaited me at the stronghold.
In no way could they imagine how important.
All the rest of that day I closeted myself in my chamber, with the door closed and barred, while I soaked the ring in vinegar, scrubbed it with sweet rushes, coaxed grime from its surface with a blunt bodkin, until finally by sunset glow I examined it: a simple but finely wrought thing made not of iron or copper or silver or gold, but of some metal that lustered even more precious, with a soft shifting green-gray glow, like moonlight on the sea. Some ancient metal I did not know—perhaps orichalcum? Perhaps this had been an armband for some queen of Atlantis? Or perhaps a finger ring of some giant who had long ago walked the heath and built towers of stone?
Such an ancient thing possessed its own mystery, its own power.
Or so my mind whispered.
Was I a seer as well as a soothsayer? The odd sort of recognition I had felt upon seeing the black moon-mottled sow had occurred within me at intervals all my life, although never before had I truly acknowledged it. Or acted upon it.
Perhaps I was an oracle. Druids said that the wren, the little brown bird that had fetched fire down from the sun for the first woman, possessed oracular powers.
I should feel honored to be called Wren, my mother had often told me while she still lived, for the wren is the most beloved of birds. It is a crime to harm a wren or even disturb a wren’s nest. Except—this my mother did not say, but I knew, for I had seen—once a year, at the winter solstice, the boys would go out hunting for wrens, and the first lad to kill one was declared king for the day. They would troop from cottage to cottage, accepting gifts of food and drink, with the mock king in the fore carrying the dead wren. Then they would go in procession to the castle, and the real king would come out with the golden torc around his neck; the dead wren would be fastened atop an oaken pole, its little corpse wreathed with mistletoe, and a druid would carry it thus on high while the king rode behind with his thanes and retainers in cavalcade. Therefore the wren was called the kingmaker.
As I thought this, glad shouts sounded from the courtyard below: “High king! High king!” Gwal Wredkyte and his heir Korbye and their royal retinue had returned from hawking.
Although I seldom adorned myself, this day I took off my simple shift and put on a gown of heavy white silk edged with lambswool black and gray. I brushed my hair and plaited it and encased the ends of the braids in clips of gold. I placed upon my head a golden fillet. Around my neck I hung a silver lunula, emblem of the goddess.
For a long time I looked at myself in my polished bronze mirror that had been Mother’s before she died.
Finally I took my newfound treasure—a ring the size of a warrior’s armband, just as the black sow’s owner had said—and I slipped it onto my left arm up to my elbow, where it hid itself beneath the gown’s wide sleeve.
Then I went down to dine with my father and my cousin.
I found them in the best of spirits.
“Wren!” My father stood up, tall and kingly, his bronze beard shining in the torchlight, to greet me with a kiss.
“Cousin,” declared Korbye, rising also, with equal courtesy if less enthusiasm. A comely lout accustomed to having his way with any maiden he fancied, he took it ill that his gallantries could not deceive me. Nevertheless, he held my chair and saw me seated at the small table on the dais, apart from the long ones down below where castle folk ate by the dozen. All could see the high king and his family, but none could hear what we said.
While the three of us ate mutton soup, pork in currant sauce, and oat scones with gooseberry jam, Korbye and Father told me of hawking, how well the ger-eagle had flown, and how Korbye’s goshawk had taken a brace of hares. Not until the cheese and biscuits were served did Father ask me, “And what heard you today in the court of justice?”
“Little enough. A matter of swine.”
A matter of a nose ring that had, I suspected, empowered an old sow mottled like a black moon to destroy an entire field of barley.
In other words, to do what would otherwise have been impossible.
Facing the high king across the table, I drew a deep breath, looked into his eyes, and spoke: “Father, if your only living child were a son instead of a daughter, would he be your heir?”
And even as he opened his mouth to reply, my heart began to beat like a war drum, hard and fierce and triumphant, for yes, yes, it was true, the ancient ring thing hidden under my sleeve endowed me with a new kind of power: not just power to know truth, but also power to impose my will.
This I knew because my father, High King Gwal Wredkyte, answered me like a servant, whereas he should have rebuked me most angrily for asking such an impudent question at such an ill-chosen time. He should have risen and roared and ordered me to leave the table. But instead, without so much as lifting his eyebrows, he replied, “It is the custom that the king’s sister’s son should be his heir.”
Indeed, such was the very old tradition, a reminder of the time when kinship was reckoned through the woman. But now that men also laid claim to their children, this ancient way of thinking no longer held force of law.
I demanded of my father, “And to this custom you cleave?”
My sooth-sense told me: if I were a boy instead of a girl, I would be the next high king.
But letting no emotion show in my face, I nodded and turned to my cousin, the sister-son, the chosen one. “Korbye,” I asked him, “when you are king, will you think more of the clansfolks’ well-being or of your own pleasure?”
And quite tamely, as if I sat in judgment and he stood before me, he answered, “Of course I will consider always first and foremost the needs of my clans, my people.”
He would consider always first and foremost his own greed.
Why, then, should he be high king after my father?
Why not I? With this ring of power on my arm, I could make my father do as I pleased. I could claim the throne. I could be the first high queen, Vranwen Alarra of Wredkyte, earthly avatar of the moon, and no one would ever again dare to cry at me, “Wren this” and “Wren that.” Embodiment of the goddess, I would rule my people for their own good. I would rid the clans of brigands and thieves, lying snakes such as Korbye—
How best to have it done? Behead him?
Torture first. The thumbscrews, the rack. Next, burn him at the stake or rend him limb from limb with horses—
And then such horror shook me that I am sure it showed on my face, for never before had such fancies manifested in me.
Cold as the moon.
My own thoughts unnerved me so that I leapt up from my unfinished dinner. Gasping, “Excuse me,” I fled.
Through the dark-timbered doorway to the shadowy courtyard I ran, across the cobbles to the postern gate, out of my father’s stronghold and away across the moors to the same place I had visited so sunnily earlier that same day, at the edge of the sea cliff.
There I halted, panting.
Not far away stood the tower of stone with the huge boulder rocking as gently as a cradle atop it.
Overhead a full moon swam like a swan amid scudding clouds. The sea wind blew strong, lifting my gown’s wide sleeves as if I might take flight. Below, the breakers roared, gleaming silver-green in the moonbeams.
I snatched from my arm the ring of that same sheen, the color of the moonlit sea. I lifted that circle of mystery metal in both hands, presenting it to the goddess in the sky. Surrounding her, it shone like her dark and hollow sister.
It called to me.
My horror had passed, seeming of no account. More than ever, I yearned to cherish my treasure and be powerful. Destiny had given this ring to me to make me a queen.
A man’s voice, behind me. Turning, lowering my arms, I knew who it was.
He strode forward to stand beside me, shining golden even in the silver moonlight. Quite gently he asked, “What is that you held up to the sky?”
I gripped the ring with both hands. Instead of answering my father’s question, I said harshly, “Korbye should not be king.”
“He lied. He cares only for himself.”
“Granted, he is a greedy young boar hog now, but do you not think he will change as he grows older?”
“Think you so?”
If he had said yes, he would have spoken untruth, and he did not dare. He did not know any longer what I would do, whether I might call him liar to his face. He knew only that something had vastly changed, and he guessed why.
He said, “Give me that thing you are holding.”
“No.” I stepped away from him so that he could not seize the ring.
Never in my life had I defied him so.
Always in his kiss on my face I had felt approval for my obedience.
Which did not necessarily mean that he loved me.
Or that he would not kill me if I threatened his power.
He scowled fit to darken the moonlight. With perilous softness he addressed me. “Wren—”
“Vranwen,” I ordered, clutching the ring, feeling its chill metal awake and puissant in my grasp. “I am Vranwen Alarra.”
I think he tried to stride toward me but could not move. He gasped as if something strangled him. Three times he drew choking breath before he whispered in a ragged voice, “Vranwen Alarra, guard that ring well if you wish to keep your life.”
“Seize it!” shouted another voice. Korbye’s. He lunged from where he had been hiding, listening, in the shadow of the stone tower.
And because I had not known he was there, because I had not turned the force of my will upon him, he could have done as he said. Before I could face him he leapt toward me—
Then without making a sound as it left its perch, as silently as an owl in flight, the giant boulder stooped from atop the tower of rock.
Thudded down upon him.
Flattened him within an eyeblink. Took him. No part of him to be seen ever again.
For all mortal purposes, Korbye was no more.
Father stood as if he himself had turned into a tower of stone. And I heard a sound like the harsh cry of a sea hawk. Maybe from him. Maybe also from me.
I know not how long we stood like wood before Father whispered, “Daughter, did you wish this?”
“Did you—power of that ring—”
“It acted of its own will.” And in that moment I knew what it might make of me.
An avatar of the moon goddess, yes. One of whose forms was that of a black sow who devoured her own newborn babies.
Trembling, I flung the ring away. Off the cliff. Into the roaring, all-grasping breakers of the sea.
There I knew it would be safe. The sea needed no more power than it already possessed. Indifferent, it would drop the ring somewhere and forget it.
I turned, once more only a stubby dun-skinned girl named Wren.
Standing at the cliff’s edge, I said to my father, “Kill me if you will.”
He faced me for a long moment before he said softly, “Daughter, I could never do you harm.”
I breathed out.
“But there is a fate on you that may kill you yet,” he said, his voice as taut as a war drum’s stretched dry pigskin. “What is it, my daughter? You wish to rule after I am gone?”
I shook my head. “Should I attempt it, some clan chief will slay me and take the throne.” Just as someone might well have slain me for the sake of the ring.
“What then? What is this destiny that mantles you?”
I closed my eyes and let my mind search the night for the invisible sooth. And I found it.
Indeed, I thought as I opened my eyes, I should have known it before.
Slowly, gazing upon my father’s sober face, I told him, “I am to be your kingmaker.”
On the moonlit heather a shadow moved. I looked up: low over my head an owl flew. Just an ordinary brown owl, most likely. I barely glimpsed it before it disappeared.
At the same time something invisible winged between my father and me, some understanding beyond words but not beyond awe.
And fear. Great fear.
But I loved my father. I whispered, “Somewhere, growing pure like a golden rose in some hidden place, there is a true chosen one who should rule after you. I will quest for him. And I will find him for you.”
And also for myself, for he would be my prince, my true love, and I would wed him even though I knew that thereby death awaited me. As clearly as if I saw it in a mirror of polished silver, I knew that on the day they placed the golden torc of the high king on his neck, I would die. In childbirth. Of a daughter, who would someday be high queen.
Yet this was what I knew I must do. I told my father, “I will find him even if it means the oaken staff and the crown of mistletoe.”
But Gwal Wredkyte did not, after all, completely understand, for he protested, “Some sacrifice, you mean, Wren? But already you have sacrificed—”
I took his arm, clinging to the warmth of his love, yet turning him away from the cliff’s edge, guiding him past the boulder hunkering nearby like a mountainous dark sow wallowing in the night. “Bah. Nonsense,” I told him. “I have sacrificed nothing. That thing I threw away was best worthy to adorn the gruntle of a pig.”
NANCY SPRINGER is closing in on the fifty-book milestone, having written just about that many novels for adults, young adults, and children, in genres including contemporary fiction, magical realism, suspense, and mystery—but her first fictional efforts were set in imaginary worlds, and writing mythological fantasy remains her first love. Just to make life a bit more like fiction, she has recently moved from her longtime residence in Pennsylvania to an isolated area of the Florida Panhandle, where she lives in a hangar at a small, reptile-prone airport in the wetlands.
Visit her Web site at www.nancyspringer.net.
Oh, give me a home where the water snakes roam, where the pilots and the alligators play. . . .
But “Kingmaker” was written years before any of that happened. The story developed from a fortunate fusion of a daydream I’d been having ever since my divorce—a fantasy about magically knowing whether people are telling the truth or lying; gee, wonder where that came from—and my longtime interest in legend and mythology, particularly Celtic. Too disorganized and enjoyable to be called research, my reading takes in many things odd and antique, such as the usages of nose rings in swine.
Given my Celtic bias, in “Kingmaker,” the setting is sort of Welsh, almost Tintagel, with the crashing sea, the cliffs, the huge rocks left behind by playful giants, the logan stone balanced and rocking atop its pillar. I can’t think of any detail in the story, including the sister-son as heir or the moon mythology of the old sow who eats her farrow, that did not come straight out of some nonfiction book I’d read sometime in the past, um, forty years. The legend of the wren is straight out of—somewhere; it’s beyond me at this point to give credit where credit is due.
I can credit myself only with naming my youthful protagonist Wren, giving her the gift to know sooth, placing her in the judgment chair of her father the high king, and staying out of the story’s way. In other words, don’t ask me, I just live here. Now reading up on boiled peanuts, blue-tailed skinks, Catahoula curs, bromeliads, cottonmouth moccasins. Whatever.
A TICKET TO RIDE
The lights in the library flicked on and off, and Jason knew it was time to go. The librarians already had their coats on. One of them, Mike, was waiting impatiently at the door.
Mike patrolled the stacks, pouncing on readers with cell phones or those who had too many books piled in front of them. “You’re making work for the staff,” Mike would say accusingly. “We have to reshelve those, you know.” He prowled the library like a guilty conscience, taking books on sex away from teenagers, removing large-print novels from readers who had perfectly good eyesight, and evicting homeless people from the restroom.
Mike stood at the door with his keys. Jason slunk past, avoiding eye contact. He knew he was out after curfew and that Mike had the right to call the police. Twelve-year-olds weren’t supposed to be on the street. But Jason had learned how to creep into his group home after hours. If he was lucky, he would miss getting beaten up by the older boys.
Rain was pouring down outside, and Jason pulled the hood of his poncho over his head. He knew he looked weird with his skinny arms and legs and the backpack of books sticking out like a hump. But the books were more important to him than anything. If need be, he would wrap the poncho around them and let himself get soaked.
He saw a dark shape under a tree and prepared to flee—but it was only old Shin Bone bedding down for the night. The hobo spent his days on the lawn of the public library, playing a flute and stopping people for conversation. He treated Jason seriously, speaking to him adult to adult, and the boy liked him.
Jason suddenly became aware that Shin Bone hadn’t put up his tent. The rain had overflowed the gutters and the lawn was flooded. The old man lay in the water like a stone in a river.
“Wake up!” shouted Jason. He grabbed the old man’s coat and tried to rouse him. A light in the library switched off. Now all the boy could see was the slick of a streetlamp reflected on the rain-filled gutter. Shin Bone’s chest heaved and his breath rattled in his throat.
Jason ran to the library door. It was dark inside, but he pounded on it anyway. Mike was always the last one out, and he didn’t go until he’d checked the locks. “Mike! Mike!” screamed Jason. After a long moment a light came on and the surly librarian approached the window by the door.
“I’m calling the cops,” he said, his voice muffled.
“Yes! Call the cops! Call an ambulance! Shin Bone’s dying!”
For a moment Jason was afraid the librarian wouldn’t do anything, but at last he said, “Oh, bother,” and picked up a phone.
The boy went back to Shin Bone, wishing Mike would open the door and help drag the old hobo inside. But perhaps it was dangerous to move him. Jason didn’t know. He held the man’s hand and felt a slight squeeze. “The ambulance is coming,” he told him. “They’ll fix you up. Just hang in there.” Jason heard a siren wail in the distance.
A scrap of paper floated down the gutter, winking and turning in the light of the streetlamp. Points of light fizzed all around it like bubbles in a glass of soda. Jason felt a whisper of alarm.
It washed out of the gutter and swirled across the lawn. Jason reached for it and then drew back his hand. He didn’t like the paper. It was up to no good, moving like a live thing, coming straight at them. It slid past his legs, turned two or three times in an eddy, and made its way to Shin Bone’s side. The old man, with great effort, moved his hand. “I’ll get it for you,” said Jason, picking the paper out of the water.
The fire engine roared into the parking lot, sending out a tidal wave of water. The fire department was always the first at an emergency. The cops would be next, followed by the ambulance. Jason had seen the procedure at the group home, when someone had a drug overdose or got stabbed. He scrambled out of the way as the firemen bent over Shin Bone.
Mike came out of the library carrying a large black umbrella.
He could have done that before, Jason said to himself, thinking of the rain pouring down on the old man’s face. The firemen were pressing on Shin Bone’s chest. They shone a bright light on him and one of them shook his head. Then the police arrived.
“That’s the boy who found him,” Mike said, pointing at Jason. “It wouldn’t surprise me if he was going through the tramp’s pockets.”
Jason was both shocked and outraged. He’d never stolen anything from the library. He’d kept every one of their rules, not even returning a book late. The library meant too much to him, the only place that was safe and warm, where he didn’t have to constantly look over his shoulder.
“Hey! I know you,” the cop said. “You’re from that group home—”
Jason ran. It was a split-second decision and he regretted it at once, but by then it was too late. Once you ran, you were already guilty. You’d be sent to Juvenile Hall, where the boys were bigger and hit harder.
Jason climbed over a fence with the cop yelling at him to stop. He tore his plastic poncho and had to throw it away. He wriggled out of the backpack and the books splashed into a puddle. Now he’d never be able to go back to the library. He almost ran into the arms of another cop waiting at the other end of an alley. Fear gave him a burst of speed. He zigzagged, leaped a ditch, scrambled over a hedge—
—and found himself in a vast empty field. Jason was so startled he skidded to a stop. He listened. There were no pounding steps behind him and no shouts. He couldn’t even hear the rain because it had stopped raining. The sky had not a single cloud in it and was lit by a moon so bright it was slightly frightening. Jason had never seen such a moon.
In the middle of the field was an old-fashioned train. Steam hissed around its wheels and the clock-face of the engine, glowing in the brilliant moonlight, trembled with heat. The engine huffed gently as if talking to itself. It rolled slowly past and stopped.
Directly in front of Jason was a boxcar with the doors open on either side so that he could look through. He approached it cautiously. The floor was piled with what appeared to be empty flour sacks, and the space inside had a neat, comfortable look about it. It felt safe, as the library did when Jason had a good book and a whole afternoon before him. Almost without thinking, he climbed in and lay down on one of the heaps, pulling a flour sack over him for warmth. Soon he was fast asleep.
The engine quivered. The whistle gave a short, soft call, and the wheels began to turn. The train moved out. Long, low, and mournful it sang through the canyons of the city, past shopping malls and apartment buildings, until it reached the wilderness beyond.
Jason sat up. Sunlight was streaming into the side of the boxcar, and the wheels were going clickety-clack at great speed. Outside, a desert stretched away to distant purple mountains. At the far end of the car two men were playing poker, using beans instead of chips. One had a broken nose and the ruddy face of an alcoholic; the other resembled a wrestler Jason had seen on TV. They looked up at him at the same time.
“Feeling rested?” said the one with the broken nose.
Jason looked around frantically for a rock or some other weapon. In his experience, such men meant trouble.
“We let you sleep,” the wrestler said. “You looked like death warmed up last night.”
“Yeah, death warmed up.” The other man chuckled. “But we’ve got to ask you questions now.”
“Don’t come near me!” cried Jason, inching toward the door.
“Whoa! Don’t go there,” said the wrestler, bounding over to pull the boy back from the edge. He carried him easily to the poker game, paying no attention to the blows and kicks Jason gave him.
“Settle down, kid. Haven’t you seen a guardian angel before?” said the man with the broken nose. He swept the beans into a Mason jar and screwed on the top. “The kidney beans are worth a dollar, the pintos five, and the limas ten,” he explained without being asked.
Jason crouched on the floor, sweating. “You don’t look like guardian angels.”
“That’s because we watch over Shin Bone. These are the shapes he’s comfortable with. Normally, we look like this.” The wrestler turned into a towering Presence in a white robe, with huge, rainbow-colored wings sweeping from one end of the boxcar to the other. In fact, he looked exactly like the stained-glass window in the cathedral near Jason’s group home. The boy covered his face and when he looked again, the wrestler was back.
“W-well,” Jason said, trying not to be afraid, “If y-you’re Shin Bone’s guardian angels, you did a rotten job last night.”
“See, that’s what we’ve got to discuss,” said the man with the broken nose. “By the way, my name’s Chicago Danny, and that’s Three Aces over there. We watch over people for the years allotted to them, and when their time’s up, we call them home. Shin Bone was supposed to board the train last night.”
“Only you showed up instead,” said Three Aces. “I assume you have his ticket.”
“Ticket?” Jason said faintly. He felt in his pants’ pocket and pulled out the rectangle of paper with light fizzing around the edges. TICKET TO RIDE, it said in swirling gold letters, and in finer print, ONE WAY.
“Thought so,” said Chicago Danny. “Problem is, it isn’t yours.”
“I didn’t steal it!” Jason protested.
“Never said you did, but it puts us in a pretty pickle. Why don’t you explain how it happened.”
And so Jason told them about the storm and finding the old man under the tree, the scrap of paper floating down the gutter, and how he ran from the cops. “Can’t we return and fix things up?” he asked.
“That’s a one-way ticket,” Three Aces pointed out. “Most trains go farther and farther into the past, until the bearer finds the place he was completely happy. That’s where he stays.”
“I can’t remember ever being happy,” said Jason, and he wasn’t angling for sympathy. It was simply true. He’d been born addicted to crack and placed in one foster home after another. No one wanted him because he wasn’t cute. As he grew older, he learned to spread his own misery around to make others unhappy. And he did steal, no matter what he told the angels, only not library books. That was how he’d ended up in the group home, one step away from Juvenile Hall. His life had been bad experience after bad experience, and there wasn’t a bit of it he wanted to repeat.
“You’re not reliving your past because that’s not your ticket,” explained Chicago Danny. “You’re going to where Shin Bone was happy. Looks like the first stop is the town of Amboy.”
The train pulled to a halt next to a cluster of houses and businesses. They got out and went into a café. Cowboys, truck drivers, and families on vacation crowded into booths with yellow plastic tables and vases full of yellow plastic flowers. A juke box played in a corner, with globes of colored light rippling around its edges.
“What’ll ya have, gents?” said the waitress, pencil poised over an order pad.
“I don’t have money,” Jason whispered to Chicago Danny.
“Sure you do. Look in your pocket,” the angel said. Jason pulled out a dollar bill.
“I’ll, uh, I’ll have a hamburger and a slice of apple pie— with ice cream,” Jason added, daringly. He was sure he didn’t have enough money, but the hamburger turned out to cost thirty-five cents and the pie with ice cream was only twenty-five. He looked out the window and saw a car with enormous tail fins, and chrome just about everywhere you could put chrome, pull up. A man Jason had seen only on midnight television got out.
“Isn’t that . . . ?” He hesitated.
“Elvis,” Three Aces said.
“But isn’t he . . . ?”
“Dead? Sure, and so is this town. They built the new freeway on the other side of those mountains, and one by one the businesses folded up. You’re seeing Amboy as it was when Shin Bone was here. This was one of the best days of his life.”
Elvis came in, and since all the other tables were full, he asked if he could sit with Jason and the angels. “Sure,” said Jason, thrilled beyond belief. He sat in a happy daze as Elvis ate three slices of pie with ice cream.
But it seemed this wasn’t the final destination for the train. Its whistle blew long and lonesome, and Jason, Chicago Danny, and Three Aces climbed aboard.
The next stop was Yuma, where they attended a rodeo and Jason rode a bronco for three minutes and won a prize. Then they went to Albuquerque and New Orleans, followed the Mississippi River up to St. Louis, and turned right to get to Chicago. “My town,” said Chicago Danny, “when I was alive.”
It was there Shin Bone had had the accident that ended his career. He’d been a fireman for the railroad. “He was the best,” Three Aces said. “He should have been promoted to engineer, but in those days a black man couldn’t get that job. One night he fell between two cars that were being coupled and got his leg smashed.”
“But he kept riding the rails,” said Chicago Danny. “Once you get that wandering spirit, it never goes away.”
At each stop Jason had a wonderful time, but sooner or later, no matter how much fun he was having, he would feel restless. He wanted to see what was around the next bend, over the next hill, beyond the horizon. Then Jason and the angels would get back on the train and travel on. Until they got to the farmhouse.
It was a rickety, falling-down structure at the bottom of a deep valley. Rows of scraggly corn grew next to lima beans, broad beans, and tomatoes. Chickens pecked their way through the vegetables, and a mangy hound lay on the porch. She looked up and thumped her bony tail.
“How can she know me?” whispered the boy.
“She knows Shin Bone,” replied Chicago Danny. “He loved that dog Beauty, and when she died, he was heartbroken.”
“I thought this was supposed to be a happy memory.”
“This is before.”
And now a skinny black woman came out onto the porch, followed by four raggedy kids and a pair of men, followed by a very old man and three more women with three more children, not counting the baby one of them carried.
“They can’t all live in that shack,” Jason said.
“They can and do,” said Three Aces.
“Shin Bone!” the people called from the porch. “You’ve come home at last! We’re all so glad to see you!”
“I’m not him,” Jason said, shrinking against Chicago Danny. “I’m not even the right color.”
“They see what they hope to see. Now run along and make them happy,” said the angel. So Jason was swept into the middle of Shin Bone’s family, and they made a big fuss over him. They fed him corn pone and fatback and many other things he’d never heard of but that tasted good. Best of all were the long, lazy evenings when everyone crowded together to tell stories. And nobody was left out, not even the great grandma, who never left her bed and who you had to shout at because she was deaf.
One night, very late, Jason sat on the porch with Beauty. Stars filled the gap between the mountains on either side. Mockingbirds sang as they did on warm nights, for it was summer here and had been for years. Jason heard, far off, coming through the mountains, the long, low whistle of a train.
He stood up as it chuffed to a halt, gave Beauty a last friendly pat, and climbed into the boxcar.
“Welcome back,” said Chicago Danny from the shadows.
“We were counting on you,” said Three Aces. The train went off through the mountains, away from the dog, the farmhouse, and Shin Bone’s family sleeping inside.
“Counting on me for what?” asked Jason.
“To put things right. You see, most people travel only one way. They go into the past until they find the best time of their lives and there they stay. But not Shin Bone and not you. You’re just naturally restless. You’re happiest on the train, looking for what’s around the next bend.”
“What if I hadn’t got restless?” Jason said.
“The train would never have returned.”
Again they crisscrossed America, finding stops they hadn’t seen before and revisiting some of the others. Clothing fashions changed; cars got longer, sprouted tail fins, and shrank again; the blue light of television flicked on behind window shades. And one night they pulled up in front of the library. The windows were dark, and frost covered the grass. Shin Bone stood under his favorite tree, waiting.
“What’ve you been doing since we left? ” asked Jason, glad to see the old hobo look so healthy and happy.
“Haunting the library,” admitted Shin Bone. “That’s what happens to people who lose their ticket. They become ghosts. I amused myself by hiding in the stacks and flushing toilets. Mike drove himself crazy trying to catch me, but he never did. He’s in a nice rest home now, I hear.”
“I guess this is yours,” Jason said regretfully, holding out the ticket.
“What are you going to do now?”
“Oh . . . I don’t know.” Jason looked at the dark city all around, at the ice coating the dark street. He had no idea how long he’d been gone or what would happen when he returned to the group home.
“Why don’t you come with me?” suggested Shin Bone.
“I don’t have a ticket.”
The old man grinned. “I’ve been riding boxcars for fifty years and never once—not once!—did I have a ticket. Stick with me, kid, and we’ll go places.”
They both climbed onto the train. “You made it!” hollered Chicago Danny, slapping Shin Bone on the back.
“Welcome home,” cried Three Aces. “Just look at that view!”
The train picked up speed, and the countryside rolled by like life itself, field after valley after mountain range, with here and there the lights of a small farm. The air rushed past, scented with pine needles and sage.
“It never disappoints,” said Shin Bone as the whistle sang its way through the sleeping towns and cities of America.
NANCY FARMER grew up in a hotel on the Mexican border. As an adult, she joined the Peace Corps and went to India to teach chemistry and run a chicken farm. Among other things, she has lived in a commune of hippies in Berkeley, worked on an oceanographic vessel, and run a chemistry lab in Mozambique. She has published six novels, four picture books, and six short stories. Her books have won three Newbery Honors, the National Book Award, the Commonwealth Club of California Book Silver Medal for Juvenile Literature, and the Michael L. Printz Honor Award. Her Web site is www.nancyfarmerbooks.com.
“A Ticket to Ride” was inspired by an elderly homeless man who camps outside our local library. He is clean and well spoken, doesn’t take drugs or drink alcohol. Most of the time he lies in wait for library patrons because he loves talking and can do it for hours. But there is nothing wrong with his sanity. “Shin Bone” (not his real name) is simply one of those people who can’t live too close to others. He has to be outdoors and he needs total freedom. He would have been perfectly happy living in the Stone Age, and I find him thoroughly admirable.
A THOUSAND TAILS
When I was five years old, my mother gave me a silver ball and said, “Midori chan, my little kitsune, don’t let Father know about this. He’d take it from you to sell it, but it’s yours, my little fox girl. It’s yours, and now you can learn how to take care of yourself.”
“You mean I can learn how to take care of the ball,” I said. Even then I was not polite as I was supposed to be. I was a girl who corrected her mother.
“No, no,” said my mother. “So you can learn how to take care of yourself. That’s what I said, didn’t I? ” She swatted a fly buzzing near her nose and it fell to the floor, stunned by the impact, next to her bare foot. The next moment she crushed it beneath her heel and continued. “A fox always takes care of itself by taking care of its silver ball. Don’t you remember the stories I’ve told you? Well, I’ll tell them again, my little one. So listen and you’ll know what I mean.”
My mother had always called me her fox girl, had always told me she’d found me wandering in the woods and brought me home with her. Father would laugh and say, “Your mother is always bringing home lost creatures. Soon we’ll be keeping a zoo!” He’d stroked the back of my head like I sometimes saw him pet our cats: one long stroke and a quick pat to send me off again.
As a child I was often confused by the things my mother said and did, but it didn’t bother me. It felt natural that life was mysterious and that my mother hid her meaning behind a veil of stories, as if her words were water through which truth shimmered and splintered like the beams of the rising sun. She taught me that some matters have no clear way to explain their meaning to others.
Children at school often remarked on her. How strange your mother is, they told me. And how alike the two of us were. “Why does your mother speak to herself? Why does she sometimes laugh at nothing? Is she crazy?” a small group once asked me at recess, forming a circle around me. “Why do you sit in class and stare out the window while we’re playing karuta or Fruit Basket? Why don’t you talk to us, Midori? What’s the matter? Don’t you like people?”
To tell the truth, they were correct. I was a strange child, and they sensed it. It was because, even then, people seemed so odd to me in their single-minded concerns and simple pleasures. I did not know at the time why, at the age of five—at an age before the world had had time to inflict many wounds on me—I felt this way. Somehow, though, I felt somewhere a world existed that was my true home, not the rice fields or the gray mountainsides in the distance, not the rivers and the fishermen standing along their banks, not the dusty fields where other children played games during afternoon recess, not the farm on which I was being raised, not the little town of Ami. And it was not that I felt I belonged in a radiant, carnivalesque city like Tokyo either. It was that I somehow knew I simply did not belong with people.
I knew all that at the age of five. But it was at nine years old that I discovered my true being in this world.
In fourth grade we read a book called Gongitsune. This is an honorable way of spelling and saying the name of the fox, the kitsune. Many of the new kanji we were learning that month were in this tale, and beside each new character the publisher had printed small hiragana, the simpler alphabet, to guide us to the right sound and meaning. I didn’t need hiragana as much as the others, though. Kanji was easy for me. When sensei introduced new characters, it seemed I could look at them and, almost by magic, they would reveal their meanings to me, yet one more reason for my classmates to be suspicious. So when sensei gave us this story, I read for pleasure, I read without having to study our new words.