Authors: Gail Carson Levine
To Joan Abelove,
my pal on this fine wild ride
—a million thanks
Out of a land laid waste
To a land untamed,
The lad Drualt led
A ruined, ragtag band.
In his arms, tenderly,
He carried Bruce,
The child king,
First ruler of Bamarre.
, the epic poem of Bamarre’s greatest hero, our kingdom’s ideal. Drualt fought Bamarre’s monsters—the ogres, gryphons, specters, and dragons that still plague us—and he helped his sovereign found our kingdom.
Today Bamarre needed a hero more than ever. The monsters were slaughtering hundreds of Bamarrians every year, and the Gray Death carried away even more.
I was no hero. The dearest wishes of my heart were for safety and tranquility. The world was a perilous place, wrong for the likes of me.
Once, when I was four years old and playing in the castle courtyard, a shadow passed over me. I shrieked, certain it was a gryphon or a dragon. My sister, Meryl, ran to me and held me, her arms barely long enough to go around me.
“It’s gone, Addie,” she whispered. “It’s far away by now.” And then she crooned a stanza from
“Step follows step.
Hope follows courage.
Set your face toward danger.
Set your heart on victory.”
I quieted, soothed by Meryl’s voice and her warm breath on my ear.
Meryl was my protector, as necessary to me as air and food. Our mother, Queen Daria, had succumbed to the Gray Death when I was two and Meryl was three. Father rarely visited the nursery. Bella, our governess, loved us in her way, but her way was to moralize and to scold.
Meryl understood me, although we were as different as could be. She was fair, and I was dark complexioned. She was small and compact, a concentration of focused energy. I was always tall for my age, and loose-limbed, and my energy was nervous and fluttery. Meryl was brave, and I was afraid of almost everything—from monsters to strangers to spiders.
As a child Meryl loved to act out scenes from
or scenes from a made-up drama in which she saved the kingdom. Our games would begin on the miniature carriage that was our nursery’s best feature. I’d sit inside, and Meryl would climb up to the driver’s seat. We’d travel to the Eskern Mountains, where ogres and gryphons dwelled, or to the elf queen’s castle on the shores of the Haun Ocean, or to the western desert, where the dragons had their lairs, or to Mulee Forest, where specters abounded.
She would rescue me from a flaming dragon or a hungry ogre. When I was supposed to, I would shriek in terror that was half real; but when I could, I’d stay still and watch Meryl perform—that was what I loved.
Her favorite game was the Gray Death adventure. Oddly enough this one didn’t frighten me. The Gray Death wasn’t a monster or a spider I could see and shiver over. It was invisible. If I caught it, it would be somewhere within me, and while the outside world was full of danger, I knew my interior. I was certain I could oust an intruder there.
In the game I always portrayed the Gray Death’s victim. For the first stage of the disease, the weakness, I’d begin to walk toward the worn nursery couch, growing weaker as I went. After a few steps I’d fall to my knees and begin to crawl. I’d drag myself to the couch but lack the strength to climb up onto it.
I’d fall asleep there on the floor. A moment or two later I’d wake up and rise, consumed by fever. I’d rush to the fireplace and rub ashes into my cheeks, because the faces of the afflicted always turned gray near the end. I’d pretend to shiver, and I’d try to make my teeth chatter.
Meanwhile, Meryl would be busy battling monsters, consulting with sorcerers, climbing mountains, sailing stormy seas. While I shivered, I’d keep one eye on her, because I couldn’t start to die until she was ready to rescue me. When she triumphed and found the cure, I’d slump to the floor.
She’d rush to me, cradling the cure in both hands. Sometimes it was an elixir in a golden chalice. Sometimes it was the feather of a gryphon or the tooth of a dragon or even a plain black stone. Kneeling at my side, she’d whisper, “I have found it, maiden. You shall live.” She’d cure me, and I’d jump up. Then we’d frolic about the nursery, skipping around the carriage, banging on the suit of armor, clasping hands and dancing around the small spinning wheel.
We knew that a cure would be found one day. A specter had prophesied it, and the prophecies of specters always came true. The cure would be found
when cowards found courage and rain fell over all Bamarre
. That was all we knew. No one knew when the cure would be found, by whom, or what form it would take.
Once, at the end of our game, I asked Meryl if she really planned to quest for the cure. I was nine at the time, and Meryl was ten.
“I’ll leave as soon as I’m strong enough to ride a charger.”
She’d never come back! A monster would kill her.
She took a heroic stance, legs apart, brandishing an imaginary sword. “I’ll find the cure, and knights will flock to me. We’ll destroy the monsters and save Bamarre. Then I’ll return home.”
She wouldn’t. She’d be dead. But I knew better than to say so. Instead I asked, “What will I do while you’re away?”
She lowered her pretend sword and smiled. “Why, you’ll be the wife of a handsome prince and mother of a little princess who is learning to embroider as beautifully as you do.”
I didn’t smile back. “What if the prince hasn’t come yet, or he didn’t like me and left?”
“Then you’ll come with me.”
“No, I won’t. I’d be too afraid. You know I would.”
She sighed, exasperated. “Oh, Addie! Suppose I say that I won’t go anywhere until you are wed and happy. Does that suit you?”
She dropped to one knee. “I swear that I shall remain at Bamarre castle until the princess Adelina is wed to her true love. May my sword turn against me if I break this pledge.”
“Thank you.” I collapsed on the nursery floor, feeling vast relief. Marriage was years and years away.
She threw herself down next to me. We lay quietly for a moment, looking up at the wooden ceiling.
“If I ever really caught the Gray Death,” I said, “even if you hadn’t found the cure yet, I wouldn’t die.”
Meryl rolled over. “Why not?”
“Because I wouldn’t give in to it. When the disease made me feel tired, I wouldn’t act tired. When it made me want to sleep, I’d stay awake. If the fever still came, I’d run up and down to keep myself warm. By refusing to do the Gray Death’s bidding, I’d chase the illness away.”
Meryl leaped up. “I’d do something hard—climb a mountain, catch an ogre.”
I rose and sat on our couch. “I don’t know why they die.”
She sat too. “I don’t know why anybody dies, except when they’re burned to a crisp by a dragon or skewered by a valiant knight.” She thought for a moment and then shrugged. “I
find the cure, you know.”
I nodded. “But if I become ill before then, I won’t fall prey to death.”
, my chambermaid, Trina, contracted the Gray Death. It was the first time I saw the disease at close quarters. A few people in the castle died of it every year, but I’d never known any of them well.
Before she took sick, Trina used to snap the bedclothes off my bed in the morning and shake them sharply. She was a grumpy angular woman, and all her gestures were sharp.
Then one morning there was no snap in her. She took away my bedclothes, moving as if she were swimming through syrup.
Later that day our governess, Bella, who heard all the castle gossip, told Meryl and me that the elf nurses were tending Trina. An elf had seen her in a corridor and had noticed her loose stride. Only her stride, and the elf knew.
Trina had been my chambermaid since I was three. Mornings wouldn’t be the same without her grumpiness. I loved her, as I loved all the routines and fixtures of my life.
Since I believed I knew how to defeat the Gray Death, I wanted to save her. When our lessons with Bella were over, I begged Meryl to come with me to Trina’s bedchamber in the west wing. Meryl would be more persuasive than I, and Trina would listen to her.
“I was going to practice my swordplay,” Meryl said, frowning. “You can convince her as well as I can.”
I shook my head. “She won’t do—”
“Better, even. After all, she knows you best.” But in the end she agreed to come for a little while.
Milton, an elf nurse, sat next to Trina’s bed, knitting. When we came in, he slid off his chair and bowed and smiled at us. Then he sat down again, standing on tiptoe to place himself in the seat. He was the elf we knew best. He had nursed us through colds and sore throats for as long as I could remember.
Meryl strode across the room. “Greetings, Trina!” She took the chair next to the fireplace.
I remained in the doorway for a moment. Someone had put flowers on the mantelpiece—anemones, thought to bring peace to the dying.
It was odd to see Trina clad in a nightdress. She got out of bed to curtsy and didn’t seem much weakened yet. Some people weakened quickly, while others remained relatively strong for months. I hoped for Trina to have months to fight the disease.
The second stage, the slumber, always lasted nine days, and the fever always lasted three days and ended in death. If Trina was to have time, it would be in this first stage, the weakness.
Trina climbed back into bed. I started toward the window seat, then froze. A spider was crawling up one of the legs of Trina’s bed.
Meryl said, “Addie tells me—”
“Meryl!” My voice was a squeak. I pointed. My heart was pounding. It was a hairy one, the kind I feared most. I wanted to bolt, but I was afraid it would come after me.
Trina raised herself on one elbow. “What’s amiss?”
“I see it, Addie.” Meryl hurried to the bed and brushed the spider onto her left hand. With her right she cranked open the casement window. I couldn’t see, but I knew she was placing the spider on the castle wall. “There.” She closed the window.
“What was that?” Trina asked suspiciously.
“Addie tells me you’re not feeling well,” Meryl said, not answering.
Trina looked straight at me. “It was a spider, wasn’t it, Princess Adelina? Begging your pardon, but everyone knows you fear them.”
My face heated up as I crossed the room and sat in the window seat. The whole castle probably thought me a worse coward than Father. I glanced over at Milton, but he was knitting placidly and didn’t look up.
“No spider,” Meryl said. “It’s just a game Princess Addie and I play sometimes.”
Trina let her head fall back on the pillow. “It was a spider.”
“What is your illness, Trina?” Meryl asked. “Has Milton mentioned its name?”
That was clever. I would never have gotten to the subject so quickly, and it was tactful of her to ask Trina rather than Milton.
“He says I have the Gray Death, Your Highness, but he’s wrong. I would feel worse if I had it, wouldn’t I?”
“I suppose. Then you don’t need to know what Princess Addie and I came here to tell you.”
“Tell me what?” Trina said. “Begging your pardon.”
“That Princess Addie knows how to defeat the Gray Death.”
“I told you, I don’t have the Gray Death. I’ll be better tomorrow.”
“You can be better today using Princess Addie’s plan.”
Trina turned her face to the wall. “I don’t have the Gray Death.”
Meryl’s expression was the same as when her stallion, Bane, turned balky. With Bane she’d apply her spurs and a flick of the whip. With Trina she said, “I command you to listen to Princess Addie’s plan.”
Trina didn’t refuse. She only moved her head to another spot on her pillow and said, “This pillow is too hard. I should have a better one since I’m sick.”
Milton stood. “I’ll find a better one for you.”
Meryl jumped up. “I’m leaving too. I hope you are better soon, Trina.”
“I’ll stay awhile.” I was disappointed in Meryl. But Trina hadn’t been her chambermaid, and it wasn’t up to Meryl to save her.
After they left, I moved to Milton’s chair and pulled it close to the bed. I cast about for the right words.
“Don’t expect me to entertain you, Your Highness.”
“No,” I said, surprised. “I don’t expect that.” I had an idea. “I dreamed about my mother last night.”
“The old queen,” Trina said, still facing away and not sounding at all interested.
“That’s right.” I leaned forward. “Do you know what she told me?”
“She said she misses being alive.”
“Being queen. That’s what she misses, Your Highness. Begging your pardon.”
“And do you know what else she said?”
“She said that she could have cured herself if she’d struggled. She said, ‘Addie, the Gray Death was there, in my chest. If I’d sought it, I would have found it.’”
Trina rolled over and looked at me.
Encouraged, I went on. “She said, ‘I could have cast it out.’”
Trina wet her lips to speak.
“You’re a pretty one,” she said. “I always thought so. High smooth brow, fine eyes. Narrow boned. Pretty.”
“Thank you.” Hadn’t she heard anything I’d said?
“You should wear brighter colors, begging your pardon.”
I nodded. I loved strong hues in my embroidery and on other people, but not on me.
I returned to saving Trina. “Mother wished she had gone on ruling despite the disease. Perhaps I had that dream so I could tell you to do what Queen Daria said.”
Trina’s lips twitched. “To go on ruling?”
For a startled moment I wondered if the Gray Death gave people a sense of humor. I smiled. “No, you should do what you always do. Don’t let the disease stop you.”
“You want to keep your chambermaid, Princess Adelina. Begging your pardon.”
I wanted her to live! And I wanted to prove that the Gray Death could be vanquished. “No, I want to help you get well.”
Milton entered, carrying two pillows. Someone followed him in—Rhys, our new apprentice sorcerer.
I jumped up. My chair shot out behind me and fell over. In confusion I bent to right it, but Rhys was already there. He picked up the chair and swept me the deepest bow with the most flourishes I’d ever seen.
I curtsied, feeling awkward. He’d come only a week ago. I’d seen him in the banquet hall, but Father hadn’t yet thought to introduce him to Meryl and me.
Milton placed the new pillows under Trina’s head.
The sorcerer said, “Mistress Trina, I am very sorry that you’re feeling ill. Please let me know if there’s anything I can do to make you more comfortable.”
“I don’t want any magic potions, begging your pardon, sir.”
Rhys bowed again. “No magic potions. I promise.” He smiled.
I felt a jot more at ease. His smile was kind.
He was tall, as sorcerers are. His face was almost flat, with wide cheeks and high cheekbones. His eyes were compelling—large and blue, and ringed by the thick white lashes all sorcerers have. His attire was gay—a brocade doublet and purple satin breeches. Father’s last apprentice sorcerer had worn only dark tones. I’d thought drab attire as much a rule with sorcerers as it was with me.
“These pillows are hard too.”
Rhys said, “Perhaps I can improve on them.” He turned to Milton. “May I try?”
Trina sat up straight again, looking alarmed. “I don’t want a magic pillow that will explode or fly me away in the middle of the night.”
The sorcerer’s eyes widened. “I would never give anyone such a pillow.” He opened a pouch at his waist, took out a golden baton, and pointed it at the sky.
The afternoon was cloudy. A wisp of white shredded off a cloud and sailed down to the castle, toward us. Rhys opened the window and swept the wisp in with a grand gesture.
A cloud was in the room with us!
Trina put both hands over her face. “Don’t let it hurt me!”
Using his baton, Rhys gathered the cloud and shaped it into a pillow.
I began to smile. Trina peeked between her fingers. Milton stood up to see better.
“Sleep is always sweet when your pillow is a cloud.” Rhys stepped to her bedside. “Lean forward.”
“You’re sure it’s safe?”
She did as she was directed, and Rhys placed the cloud pillow behind her. I could see that his touch was gentle.
“There,” he said. “Now lean back.”
“I’ll go right through it!” She lowered her back gingerly while scowling at Rhys. The scowl vanished. “It
a trifle better.”
“Why, look at that!” Milton said.
I laughed, and spoke before I could think. “The pillow won’t rain, will it?”
Rhys laughed too, harder than I had. “Rain! I never thought of that. Pillow rain.” He shook his head, still chuckling. “It won’t rain, and Trina’s dreams will be lovely.”
She sighed deeply and closed her eyes. “I think I’ll take a nap now.”
I didn’t want her to nap. I wanted her to listen to me. I appealed to Milton. “Trina should struggle against the Gray Death, shouldn’t she?”
“It can’t hurt her to try, but she should sleep now. She won’t get much rest tomorrow.”
I must have looked puzzled, because he added, “One of your father’s carriages will take her home to her family tomorrow.” He tucked the blanket in around her. “Trina, you’ll think over Her Highness’s suggestions in the carriage, won’t you?”
She nodded with her eyes still closed. I supposed that was something. But I wished I could slip into her cloud-sweetened dreams and persuade her there.