“Let me do that,” Begley called after her.
“You’ll get in trouble if you ruin your clothes,” Caoinlin said as she trudged through the mucky reeds.
“So will you!”
“Yes, but I’m used to it,” Caoinlin said. “Besides, this dress won’t fit much longer anyhow. And I have too many dresses as it is.”
Fee floated at the surface of the water. He would’ve found a way to get out of this, but he wouldn’t go back on his word. Though the thought of putting a sword into Caoinlin’s hand terrified him, he knew it was inevitable. He couldn’t risk losing her trust. He had started on this path and he would have to see it through, no matter how fearful he was of where it might lead.
He froze as he came face to face with a real frog. The frog chirped at him, puffed up its yellow-brown throat, and then dove into the water. Caoinlin stopped behind him, and he rocked on the waves she created.
The day was sunny and there was a light breeze, but it could not break through the fresh leaves of the trees. Below the canopy, the air was stagnant and laden by the sour musk of dank decay left over from the fall and the thick bright scents born on new blossoms and green leaves.
Fee did not need to dive to know where it was. He had a sixth sense when it came to his sword.
He hesitated and reconsidered what he was about to do. This time it was less about his concern for Caoinlin’s future and more a selfishness about handing over his sword to . . . anyone, let alone a impetuous, boarder-line lunatic little girl.
When he got his hands on that damned sorceress . . . Oh, the pain he would do her.
“Reach down here,” he instructed.
Caoinlin plunged her arm into the water, submerging it almost to her shoulder. Fee swam back to the shore, unsure how he would feel once he saw it again. It had been almost a year, since he’d last seen it, since he’d last worn it.
The water sloshed as she prised the weapon free from its coffin of silt and weeds.
“Have you got it?” Begley craned his neck up and over to see her through the rushes.
She waded back in a drift. Her pale yellow dress, stained muddy mustard, clung to her legs and beat the ground around her with heavy streams.
As she emerged, she held the war sword out before her, resting it across both hands reverently. The blade was encased in its black leather scabbard. The sheath was clearly ruined. On the bank, Caoinlin grew very still as she inspected the length of the sword. A great sadness filled Fee he looked at her.
“Well?” Begley prompted.
She looked up at him startled, as if he’d just appeared.
“What about it then?” Begley prodded.
Her hands, which were large enough, curled around the grip and pulled the sword out slowly.
Cold metal gleamed, dripping wet. It would need attention to keep from rusting, but otherwise, the blade appeared undamaged. He was disturbed by how much this comforted him. But as he watched the scummy pond water slide along the flat, collect on the edge, and drip from the lower end, every battle, every victory, every defeat, every breathless, sore hour he’d spent afterwards, wiping the blood from that blade, came back to him in a choking rush.
In that little girl’s hand was not a weapon, it was him, his life, this true life.
He’d had many swords, but this one had been with him the last three years—the worst frays, the closest margins—and it had survived with the most minimal of wear. Had he been his true self, he would’ve torn the blade from her hand. But as he was, he could only watch and pray that he hadn’t made the worst mistake of his life, this one or the previous.
She turned the blade upright. Gripped by her waist, it rose above her head by almost two feet. She would grow a few more inches and it would suit her better. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected from her, but she didn’t brandish the weapon about like a child. Nor did she show any excitement or delight, despite the fact that she’d finally received the gift she’d most wanted. There was no outward sign of how she felt as her eyes traced the lines of the sword; as she learned the weight of it, her slender fingers adjusted her grip around the simple leather binding. That, too, would need to be replaced.
“Cao, can I?” Begley asked.
She looked to Fee, who looked away.
She held the sword out to Begley. He did his best to mimic the chilled sobriety Caoinlin displayed, but was unable to keep from swinging the blade through the air.
Fee sighed. His attention strayed back to Caoinlin. She brought the scabbard closer to her face and wiped a glob of mud from the badge.
After a moment of consideration, her gaze met his and, for the first time, he thought she was looking through the frog and seeing him, his true self.