“You and Jaylah run ahead,” my father said as the town came into view. “There may still be seats near the stage.”
He called it a stage, but it was a poor affair, a narrow platform constructed at one end of a barn-like meeting room. The benches were half-filled when we entered. Parents rocked infants in their laps while young children sat on the straw-covered floor, jumbled together like puppies. Conversation filled the air, the thrum of a busy beehive, growing louder when the Teller entered the room. Her sleeveless dress displayed her tattooed arms, covered from wrist to shoulder with an intricate tapestry of characters from the Book of Tales.
She mounted the stage and stood proudly, as if our shabby hall was the grandest theatre in the capital city, then raised her arms and began perusing the figures embedded in her skin, gracefully tracing the designs with a forefinger. It was all part of the show, a quiet method of commanding attention. When the hall was pin-drop silent the Teller looked at her audience and announced, “The Tale of the Little Goose Girl.”
Beside me, Jaylah groaned. I gave her a poke in the ribs and leaned forward to get a better view of the Teller, who clasped her hands over her heart and said the words that started every tale: “In the long-ago--”
She performed the story as she had the year before, just as every other Teller throughout the land performed it, using the same words, cadence, intonation, and inflection. The Little Goose Girl, tasked with moving her master’s flock to market in early winter, is lost in a sudden blizzard. The next day she is found dead in the snow, though every goose huddles safe within a tidy shelter made of pine branches.
I watched the Teller’s face, her hands, her posture, marveling at how she became in turn a brave child, a frightened goose, even a sudden icy storm. In the audience, the youngest children stared with wide eyes, some hearing the tale for the first time, while adults nodded and smiled, lulled by familiar words and an ending they already knew.
That night Jaylah scrambled into my bed and drew the quilt tight around us. The fine spring day had yielded to a chilly night. Moonlight streamed down from the single window in our sleeping loft, while our parents’ snores drifted up through gaps in the floorboards.
“The Teller did not perform any of my favorites today,” Jaylah said, unwinding a loop of yarn from her wrist and beginning a game of cat’s-cradle. “And the Goose Girl is stupid. Starting a winter’s journey without a tinderbox or knife. Building a shelter for geese but not for herself.”
“Jaylah! It’s just a story, about duty, and bravery, and ….” In truth I disliked the story as much as she did. Surely a child’s life was worth more than a flock of geese.
“I wouldn’t have died,” Jaylah said. “I’d have built a blazing fire, wrung the neck of the fattest bird, and had goose for dinner.” She was not bragging; she delighted in exploring the woodlands and was always prepared with a map, a compass, and a plan.
Jaylah held up her finished cats-cradle, a complicated star-burst pattern. “If you become a Teller, Katya, you’ll go to the capital, travel across the country. And I’ll be stuck here in the fields. It’s not fair.”
“Fair!” I snapped. “Is it fair that I’m kept in the house, never allowed to roam the woods?”
My sister shook the yarn from her fingers. “Do you even want to be a Teller?” She threw back the quilt and padded across the floorboards to her own narrow bed.
There were six of us, six nervous girls standing at the door of the town hall, waiting to audition in front of a committee from the Teller’s Guild, hoping to be chosen as an apprentice. I was dressed in my festival costume: full skirt, linen shirt, and colorful embroidered vest. Mother had succeeded in forcing my unruly dark hair into braids that morning, binding them tightly with ribbons.
The other girls were summoned inside one-by-one, until only I remained in the courtyard, listening to the squirrels that chattered and quarreled in the trees above. A redbird pecked at his reflection in a window, seeing a rival where none existed. At last I entered the hall, where three members of the Guild sat at a table covered with papers and inkpots.
“Katya Aestivum, welcome.” The speaker was an older woman wearing a deep blue shirt with lacy sleeves that revealed her tattooed arms. She smiled and said, “I am Lady Otha. Now child, tell us a tale.”
I clasped my hands, took a deep breath, and began: “In the Long Ago, a rabbit, a vole, and a tiny mouse, banded together to keep a house.” It was a simple children’s story of little animals joining together against the deceitful fox, the lazy bear. When I finished, the committee members bent to their papers, pen nibs scratching, until Lady Otha commanded, “Again.”
I repeated the tale and was met with silence. All in the room looked to Lady Otha, who addressed me. “Your words were the same, and words matter. But so does tone and phrasing, inflection and rhythm. The wrong emphasis, an errant tone, can change the lesson of a tale. A Teller must recite the tales exactly as they are meant to be told. Exactly as the King in his wisdom has mandated. Do you understand? These stories give us guidance, teach us how to see the world.”
I nodded but remained silent.
“Your voice is pleasing,” Lady Otha continued, “and you appear obedient. How old are you?”
“Sixteen--seventeen next month, my lady.”
“Older than I prefer. An apprentice must undergo three full years of training to earn the rights and responsibilities of a Teller.” She tapped the tabletop with her index finger for a moment, then began gathering her papers. “Thank you, you may go. We will make our selections within the fortnight.”
Before clay can be turned into pottery, it must be prepared. Mother and I were in the potting shed, rolling and pressing slabs of clay to smooth out imperfections, when we heard bells. Not the great rolling bells of the church in the valley, but a delicate, rhythmic jingling from our farm lane. A woman on a sturdy mountain pony was approaching, leading a dove-gray mule whose bridle and saddle were hung with tiny silver bells. I watched as Father greeted her, then, giving a shout that startled the pony, he ran toward us.
“Katya’s been chosen! She will become a Teller of Tales!”
Dinner that night was festive. The rider, named Ana, would escort me to Lady Otha’s house in the capital. Her silver-streaked hair fell past her waist in a thick braid, and her tanned face told of years spent riding across mountains and grasslands. As we ate, she entertained us with stories of her travels. Jaylah and I could not hear enough of her journeys, but Mother was interested only in details of apprentice training. Ana pled ignorance. “I will see your daughter safely to her destination, that is the end of my work.”
In the morning I dressed in the clothes Ana had brought: loose-fitting pants, an embroidered cape, too-big leather boots that required an extra pair of woolen socks to keep them on my feet. Mother bustled about, adding items to the mule’s saddlebags, while father showed me a small purse filled with coins. “Just in case,” he whispered, hiding it deep within my rucksack. Finally, with nothing left to give, they embraced me--with pride, with love, with tears in their eyes--until Ana threatened to ride off without me.
The little mule went at a brisk trot, carrying me past tidy farms and greening fields. As the road descended toward the river, we met a sheep herd being driven to summer pastures high in the hills. The wooly beasts surrounded us, heaving and leaping like turbulent white water, while the shepherd’s dog ran alongside, watching for any animal that dared stray. My darling mule grew impatient with the silly creatures blocking her path. She brayed loudly, imperiously, and I delighted in her bellowing, the audacity of her protests.
At Shallowford, a busy town on the edge of a placid river, we led our mounts aboard a barge filled with travelers and livestock. The bargemen sang songs unfamiliar to me, their voices meshing in complicated harmonies as the river grew ever wider. By dusk I could barely see the banks on either side. Snug in our cloaks, Ana and I sat on deck and watched the stars multiply in the sky. I pestered her to tell more of her travels--she had been everywhere, it seemed, from the eastern sands to the western snows. I don’t remember falling asleep, but at dawn Ana shook me awake and pointed to the first sign of the capital, a patch of sky smudged with the smoke of ten thousand chimneys.
“Will you stay in the city?” I asked, as we neared the docks.
Ana shook her head. “Only a day, to buy supplies. I’m not much for cities. I plan to ride east, find work gathering the half-wild cattle of the plains.”
“And after that?”
“After that we’ll see where the winds take me.” She stood and shook out her cloak. “Come, time to move.”
My mule followed Ana’s pony through narrow streets filled with strange smells and more people than I’d ever seen in one place. We clattered over arched wooden bridges across broad canals. In the main square a troupe of acrobats leapt and tumbled, while a chained monkey danced to a tin whistle, its mournful face at odds with its lively jig. A colorful banner flapped in the breeze, advertising the exhibition of a small dragon, guaranteed alive, just three coppers admittance. All too soon we left the excitement of the city center to follow a canal path into a quiet neighborhood of walled gardens and timber-framed homes.
The Lady Otha’s house rose three stories, each floor jutting out over the one below. Two other apprentices had arrived that morning: Sparrow, cheerful and outgoing, and Deena, a quiet girl from a village just outside the capital. They led me to my bedchamber on the uppermost floor, tucked beneath a slanting ceiling. There, as the sound of silver bells faded away, I shed my traveling clothes and donned the simple brown dress of an apprentice.
Training began the next day, after a breakfast of porridge and berries served by Mrs. Tench, the cheerful cook who called us her ducks, her kits, her lovely little songbirds. Such kindness put me close to tears, overwhelmed with longing for my family.
Sparrow peppered Mrs. Tench with questions, but she received few answers. “I barely know my way around this kitchen,” the cook protested. “Hired only last week. I’ve spent my life in harborside inns, cooking for travelers and merchants. Working in a household will take some getting used to!” She hustled us out, up a flight of stairs to the classroom where Lady Otha awaited. A long trestle table with three straight-backed chairs faced her grand mahogany desk; on the table sat three fine new copies of the Book of Tales, bound in green leather and stamped with gold lettering. Morning birdsong floated through the window, opened to catch the breeze.
Lady Otha remained silent until we were seated, then rapped her desk with her knuckles. “The Books are yours, a gift from the Guild,” she said. “You will read nothing else for the next three years. You will commit the words to memory, and I will teach you how each tale is properly performed. You will also learn practical skills--geography, map-reading, and self-defense, in preparation for your travels.”
My spirits soared at those words. Truth be told, I was more excited by the idea of traveling the country than performing any of the tales.
“We will begin with an easy story,” Lady Otha said, “the ‘Tale of the Little Goose Girl.’”
My spirits returned to earth. Why must she start with that loathsome tale?
We took turns reciting the story. We learned which words to emphasize and which to glide over, when to pause and when to rush forward. At the end of the day Lady Otha commanded us to perform together as a trio. “I should hear a single voice, that is how alike you must be.” Deena and I matched, but Sparrow’s trilling voice dipped and soared above ours, causing Lady Otha to grimace as if in pain. When we finished, she swept back her sleeves and thrust out her tattooed arms.
“Tellers carry the tales writ in their skin, not as mere decoration, but as a sign of devotion. We are charged with imparting the tales to others, so that they carry the words within their hearts, whether they realize it or not. Stories, heard over and over, without variation, without discussion, take hold deep inside.” She smoothed her sleeves over her arms. “That’s all for today. You may go.”
After supper the three of us sat in the kitchen, reading tomorrow’s tale while Mrs. Tench rattled about, cleaning and organizing her cupboards. We were awkward and overly polite, each of us missing the easy familiarity of home. An hour ticked by until Sparrow, bored, shut her book. “The little goose girl,” she said, in a nasal, whining voice. “I hate that story.”
I looked up, startled that someone agreed with Jaylah and me. “My sister, she also hates that tale,” I ventured. “She thinks the girl is simple-minded for not saving herself.”
Sparrow shook her head. “No, just a child given an adult’s job.” She pushed her book away and recited a few lines from the tale--but not in the way we’d been taught. She voiced the girl as a frightened innocent, alone and afraid.
Deena frowned and shifted nervously in her chair. “Lady Otha would not be pleased with that way of telling,” she said, causing Sparrow to halt mid-sentence and glare at her.
“Lady Otha is not here. We have no audience.”
“Yes, we do,” Deena snapped. “Mrs. Tench.”
The cook, hearing her name, emerged from the pantry. “Pay me no mind, girls.” She took a seat at the table and, from a hidden pocket, retrieved a length of bone and a small carving knife. “I’ve heard every tale from the Book, though I confess I prefer the tales my grandmother told me, of water sprites and warrior queens. And dragons! Not the scrawny beasts of today, but fire-breathing monsters who slept in sea-caves and guarded mountains of treasure.”
Warrior queens? Had I heard right? There were no warrior queens in the Book of Tales.
Deena shifted her glare from Sparrow to Mrs. Tench, though the cook did not notice, focused as she was on setting knife to bone.
“Katya, you will begin,” Lady Otha said. “Recite ‘The Tale of the Stolen Child.’”
“Yes, my lady.” I stood and took a starting pose, but the words would not come.
“Please, my lady, a question first.”
Deena sighed dramatically while Sparrow gave me a worried look. I willed my voice to remain steady. “This tale describes the Wandering Folk as liars and cheats and thieves of children. Yet in our farming province, the Folk come every year to work the harvest--and never has a child gone missing.”
“If no child has been stolen,” Lady Otha said, “it is because the tale reminds us of the danger.”
“Or,” I cleared my throat, “or perhaps the tale is wrong, perhaps we are afraid only because of the tale--”
“Enough! We are not here to discuss the tales. Now tell the tale as you’ve been taught.”
I complied, though the story left a bitter taste in my mouth. I received my corrections and took my seat to watch Deena recite the same words with the same gestures and expressions. The tattoos peeking through the lace of Lady Otha’s sleeves taunted me. Some were pleasing: a tiny mouse, a sailing ship, a farmer working the soil. But Tellers also carried within their skin dying goose girls and evil old crones, imprisoned maidens and wandering thieves.
The first snow fell on the evening of winter solstice, icy flakes that hissed against the windowpanes. The lingering warmth from the cookstove kept the kitchen cozy as we sat and read our assigned tales, while Mrs. Tench prepared honeyed milk as a treat.
“Do you ever wonder why,” I asked no one in particular, “the good daughters are golden-haired and pretty, while the bad daughters are dark and ugly? And why are old women hags and evil witches? I know them as teachers and artists and healers.”
Deena looked up from her book. “That is the way the tales have always been told.”
“Always? Surely in the long-ago, before the Guild existed, there were other ways of telling a tale, and other tales to tell.” I curled a strand of dark hair around my forefinger. No matter how obedient I was, I could never turn it to gold. I’d heard the tales all my life. I’d memorized most of them. Now I was starting to listen.
“I know a story,” Mrs. Tench said, placing steaming mugs on the table. “One not in your book. About a raven-haired maiden who spoke with the animals. It was told to me by a sailor many years ago. Would you care to hear it?”
“No,” Deena said.
“Yes,” Sparrow and I said in unison. We teased several stories from Mrs. Tench that evening, until she yawned and commanded us to bed.
It became a welcome habit. Every few days we begged a story from Mrs. Tench, who would protest that surely Tellers-in-Training did not need to hear her half-remembered tales. Sparrow and I would insist, while Deena remained quiet, pretending to read her book--though she seldom turned a page when Mrs. Tench was speaking.
“It is only a short walk,” I told Deena and Sparrow as we turned away from the marketplace. Spring was near, heralded by the pale green buds on the trees, by the daffodils poking through the dirt below.
Deena wrapped her scarf more tightly about her throat. “We did not ask for permission to visit a printing shop,” she said, but hurried to stay close as we passed a tavern. Even at mid-day it was crowded, the steady murmur of conversation punctuated by bursts of song.
The shop smelled of bright ink and old leather, of calfskin and glue. Examples of the printer’s work hung on the walls, from dense legal proclamations to brightly colored advertisements. A glass-fronted case displayed a newly printed history book, the pages still uncut and unread. Behind the counter, rows of shelves ten feet tall held books of all sizes and ages and colors.
“Ladies, welcome!” An ancient clerk, spectacles balanced on the bridge of his nose, greeted us. He wore earrings made of the blue-green stone unique to the western mountains. “You have good timing!” he said. “Only this morning we received several copies of a new cookbook. Would you care to take a look?”
“Thank you,” I said, “but I am interested in older books, those with fables and folktales.”
“We have many copies of The Book of Tales. New and used, bound in humble fabric or hand-tooled leather. What is your pleasure?”
Deena tugged at my sleeve. “Katya, let’s go,” she whispered. “We have no need of other books.”
I ignored her and started anew with the bookseller. “Sir, your earrings are lovely, mountain jade, yes? Have you traveled in the highlands?”
“You are kind to show an interest,” he said. “I was raised in the Tocsin mountains, near the slate mines. A beautiful place, but a lonely one! As a young man I accompanied a load of roofing tiles to the capital, and I never went back.”
“As a boy in the mountains, did your elders tell tales during long winter nights, stories different than those in our Book of Tales?”
He smiled, a genuine smile, not that of a clerk desiring only to make a sale. “Oh yes! Strange stories of blue-skinned people who lived deep in the mines, of trickster spirits and fearful monsters.”
“Do you have books with such stories?”
“That would be an old book, from a time before our King.” He drummed his fingers on the counter for a moment, then disappeared into the stacks. The squeak of a wheeled ladder, the sound of shuffled books, a sudden volley of sneezes, and he returned with a single dusty volume. The edges were crumbling, the spine broken. I turned brittle pages and scanned the stories. Some were familiar--a pair of children captured by a stranger, a princess given in marriage as a prize--but the tales were darker, full of blood and betrayal. And the endings differed. The children save themselves by pushing their captor into a blazing oven; the princess becomes a warrior queen fighting for her people.
From my pocket I pulled coppers meant for the purchase of new hair ribbons and placed them on the counter.
The clerk rubbed his chin. “That is a pitiful price,” he said.
“It is a pitiful book,” I replied, “more dust than paper. And tell truth, has anyone asked for such a thing in all your years?”
He laughed and swept the coppers off the counter, then wrapped the volume in brown paper.
Outside, Deena walked rapidly, keeping several paces ahead. Once home, she hurried up the stairs while Sparrow and I rushed to the kitchen to show Mrs. Tench the Warrior Queen. I’d barely opened to the correct page when Deena, breathless, burst through the door.
“Katya! Lady Otha wants you in the classroom, right away.”
Sparrow and I stared at each other. Mrs. Tench gave my shoulder a reassuring squeeze. I laid the book on the sideboard and started out of the room, but Deena darted behind me and snatched up the volume.
“You went to a printer’s shop today.” Lady Otha, ensconced behind her desk, accepted the book from Deena.
“It was a small detour, my lady,” I said.
“One I did not approve.” She turned a few pages before rising and moving to the fireplace. With a poker she stirred the remains of her morning fire, then cast the book upon the glowing embers. A thin strand of smoke spiraled upwards; small flames began dancing along the book’s spine. “You have talent, Katya, but you also have a prideful and obstinate nature. A Teller of Tales must be obedient and faithful, not stubborn like a mule.”
I thought of the dove-gray mule with the powerful voice, of Ana who traveled her own path, of Mrs. Tench who dared tell stories not in the Book of Tales. “Calling me a mule is no insult,” I said. “I would rather be a mule than a performing monkey.”
“You are a disappointment,” Otha said, “a failure. You will return to your parents as soon as I can arrange an escort. Go to your room and stay there.”
In the fireplace, a burst of flames took the shape of a dragon and disappeared up the chimney. Lady Otha, mired in anger, did not see this marvel.
Late that night Sparrow knocked softly at my door. She was not surprised to see my rucksack packed and waiting on the floor.
“Where will you go?”
“To the mountains, to the harbors, anywhere I can find the old tales, ones never molded or shaped to fit inside a King’s book. I want to listen.”
Before sunrise I donned my traveling clothes. The boots fit me now, and the pants no longer hung loose about my hips. I slipped out of house and turned westward, toward the mountains, and stepped into my unwritten future.
In the Long-Ago a woman traveled the land, riding a dove-gray mule adorned with a hundred silver bells. Intricate tattoos of her own design covered her arms, and she sang her own song in a voice as clear as running water. Wherever she journeyed she listened, quiet as a mouse, as others told their tales. And always, she encouraged every person to be the hero of their own story.