CASTLES IN THE AIR
Ten-year-old Wikkley McStag and his family are born farmers, happy to work and live off the land. But then they—and all other royal subjects—are forced to buy strange, useless machines. Money starts running out. Now the McStags have two days before they lose their farm. As the eldest child, Wikkley must journey to the palace and ask for the king’s help. His loved ones only hope his reckless nature won’t get him in trouble once he’s there!
When Wikkley arrives at the palace, he finds the royal family building a huge, unnecessary castle right into the sky. With his own ruler too busy to help, Wikkley turns to the neighboring kingdom. But the royal family there is making subjects buy bizarre things as well. They’re also building a castle too high to be safe.
When the kings’ foolishness leads to disaster, it’s up to Wikkley to save several lives. Will his recklessness finally come in handy? Or will it mean the end of his family, his farm, and possibly . . . his life?
From the fantasy world of The Adventures of Stanley Delacourt, Ilana Waters brings you another alternate-medieval adventure. If you like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, don’t miss the chance to meet Wikkley McStag! (A novella of about 21,000 words, or 70 pages).
Chapter 1–In Which I Leave on a Quest (excerpt)
“But why can’t you stay?”
Annabelle’s face was more pouty than usual. And believe me, this is someone who can pout real good when she wants to. She nudged the kitten at her foot gently to send it away. Annabelle not payin’ attention to her kittens? This was serious.
I knelt down on the farmhouse’s wooden floor and tried to reason with my four-year-old sister. I adjusted the leather satchel on my shoulder so it wouldn’t fall off.
“I told you, Belly—I gotta go to the king of Hart and see if he can help us.”
“Yes, but why?” She pouted again, her bottom lip a quiverin’ pink petal. She blew air from her round cheeks to look even sadder and more adorable. “Why can’t you ask the king for help from here?” Her eyes looked like they’d spout tears at any moment. She tugged sadly at my trouser leg. All in an attempt to get me to stay, no doubt.
I put my large, rough hands on her tiny shoulders. “Because, Belly, the king’s in his castle and I’m on a farm. And while you can get a farmer to go to a castle, you’ll have a devil of a time gettin’ a king to come here.”
“Wikkley McStag—watch your language!” My great-aunt hit me upside the head with a damp towel. Thwack! She was still busy washin’ and dryin’ dishes from this mornin’s breakfast.
“Ow!” I rubbed my sore ear and got up. “Sorry, Aunt Edna. But I’ve only got two days till the farm is repossessed. If ever there was a lad battlin’ time and the dev—”
Aunt Edna gave me a Look. In her faded apron, with straw-like hair escapin’ its bun, she didn’t seem a woman who went around causin’ trouble. But boy, could that woman give a thwack!
“Er, a lad battlin’ against time and real bad things happenin’, that is,” I said.
“What’s ‘repossessed’ mean?” Annabelle asked.
“It means we lose the farm because we can’t afford to keep it,” I explained gently.
Annabelle’s eyes went wide. “We wouldn’t be able to stay here anymore?” she whispered.
I blew a puff of air out of my cheeks. “That’d be the gist of it, Annabelle-kins. Which is why I must get to the castle right quick, and ask the king for money to buy the farm. Or a royal decree that we can keep livin’ here. But I must do somethin’—” I looked pointedly at her “—or all five of us will be out on our ears.” And with that, I rubbed my own sore ear again.
The “five of us” would be me, Great-Aunt Edna and Great-Uncle Jeb, and my two sisters. Edna and Jeb took us in after our parents died a few years back. But what with runnin’ the farm and tryin’ to feed and clothe all of us, it was a hard life indeed.
It was harder still when the crops failed a few times, and expected aid from the royals did not come through. Combine all that with the new farm equipment the king said we had to buy (but didn’t need), and you had a recipe for five homeless farm folk. Unless, of course, I could do somethin’ to stop it.
I’d miss our farmhouse while I was gone, of course. There was the Dutch door, whose top half was usually open to catch the breeze. The big white sink sunk between two warped wooden counters. The gingham curtains had hung on the window over that sink since forever. Same with the rickety old coal-burnin’ stove, and the cracked blue-and-white cups above it. They’d been there when I used to visit the farm long ago, before my parents died. And if my eyes weren’t lyin’ to me, a freshly-baked pie sat on the windowsill. It teased all of us with its scent. But I would get none this time, ’cause I had to be on my way.
Aunt Edna rang the enormous mealtime bell that hung by the back door. In no time, Uncle Jeb appeared.
“Almost time for you to go then, is it?” he asked, eyein’ my satchel and leanin’ a rake against the door frame. He sat down at the kitchen table and chewed a piece of straw thoughtfully. In his typical overalls and work boots caked with dried mud, he looked the same as always. There was still dirt under his fingernails that had escaped washin’. But his light-brown hair seemed to get grayer every day—possibly from worries ’bout the farm.
“I reckon so,” I replied. “Already had my lunch, and Aunt Edna packed even more food for my journey.”
“I am sorry it falls on you to do this, son,” he said, lookin’ down at the table. “I’d go myself, but the harvest is almost upon us. If I don’t get the crops in good shape this year, well . . .” His voice trailed off. He didn’t need to go on. If the crops failed again, and I failed in my quest, we all knew what would happen.
Besides, I was ten years old already. And as the eldest child, it was my job to look out for the family. If I didn’t, it was unlikely I’d ever make a good farmer. After all, I wouldn’t have a farm to come back to if it got repossessed. Plus, let’s face it: I was really the brave one in this bunch. Aunt Edna said that I was even reckless on occasion. Like the time I tried to outrun a rabid fox that had snuck into our henhouse. It was great fun! Then again, you should’ve seen the welts I got from Aunt Edna’s towel that day. I’d have had better luck if I let the fox bite me.
But I couldn’t help it. Life on a farm can get pretty dull sometimes. I just wanted to liven things up. So I got into plenty of scrapes, and even broke a bone or two. I didn’t care. It just made me try harder the next time to not break my bones. I mean, what’s the point of takin’ risks if you can’t improve with each one, right? A foal can fall down seven times, but must get up eight if he wants to grow to be a horse. And although I wasn’t feelin’ quite as brave ’bout this journey as I did ’bout other things, I couldn’t let that stop me.
“Don’t worry, Uncle Jeb,” I assured him. “You just concentrate on the crops, and let me take care of the rest. Why, before you know it I’ll be right back, mowin’ and hoein’ and—”
I was interrupted by a hard shove on my right shoulder. My eight-year-old sister Clara bounded into the kitchen, bumpin’ me on her way in. Whether it was by accident or not, I couldn’t tell. She didn’t stop to discuss it. She was too busy lookin’ for lunch before the next round of washin’. You could always tell it was washin’ day ’cause she came in soakin’ wet.
“What’s to eat?” asked Clara, pattin’ herself dry with a towel. Her red hair was in braids: always two, never one. She was real particular ’bout her hair. But not her clothes. For instance, she didn’t seem to care about the grass stains on her white cotton dress. I hoped she at least remembered to put her checkered apron in with the washin’. If not, Aunt Edna might thwack her.
“I’m starvin’!” she continued. “Hey, why does Wikk have that satchel on him? Wait, is today—no!” She stopped in her tracks. “He can’t go. Not yet!”
I allowed myself a little grin. I bet she regretted shovin’ me in the arm now.
“That’s what I said,” sniffed Annabelle, threatenin’ to break out into tears again. She sure knew how to turn on the waterworks when she wanted somethin’. Most of the time it was annoyin’, but I knew how to handle her. A few jokes or crazy stunts, and I’d have her smilin’.
This time was different. I knew I had to leave soon. If Annabelle started bawlin’, it would be all over. I’d have to stay hours to calm her down, and I didn’t have hours to spare.
“Now, don’t you start with the dramatics, Annabelle,” said Aunt Edna. She rubbed a dish briskly with the towel. “It ain’t like Wikkley’s goin’ away forever. And stop hangin’ on his trouser leg! For pity’s sake, you look like a baby skunk seekin’ its supper. Now, come over here and sit down for lunch so you can have some pie.” With the mention of pie, Annabelle dashed over to the table and sat with her hands folded. A perfect angel.
“And you, Jebediah McStag, need to take off them filthy boots!” Aunt Edna cried. “How many times I gotta tell you not to track dirt on my nice clean floor? Honestly, thirty years of naggin’ that man,” she muttered to herself. “And yet it’s always in one ear and out th’ other.”
“I still don’t understand it,” said Clara, helpin’ set the table. It was one of her chores; Aunt Edna set the dinner table, and I did the breakfast one. “If Uncle Jeb hadn’t had to buy another pricey piece of equipment, Wikkley could stay. We’d have plenty of money. We could get more seeds for plantin’, more farmhands for harvestin’. I just don’t know what’s goin’ on in that old king’s head. Got bats in his belfry, if you ask me. Why does he make us get these silly contraptions, anyhow?”
“We ain’t quite sure, my sweet chickadee,” said Uncle Jeb. He took off his boots and put ’em off to one side. “But maybe Wikk here can bring us back some answers. I’d love to know what that new Confibulizer does myself.”
“What’s a ‘Confibbaliner,’ Uncle Jeb?” asked Annabelle. I suspect she knew the machine we meant, but wanted to stall for time and force me to stay.