Five years passed.
Three very important things developed in that time.
The first being that Caoinlin and Begley grew into skilled, deadly warriors. They trained nearly every day in the old armory, which was, as Saorla had promised, easily accessible through the hidden passageways that connected almost every room in the Palace.
At first, the children made their own wooden wasters. They trained with those for a year before Fee would allow them to use actual swords. In that time, they also pieced together bits of old armor to suit them—an evolving process as both of them were taking on their adult shapes. While Saorla was healthy, she freed the two hours each afternoon in which Begley and Caoinlin disappeared, telling her husband or Draigen the children were under her personal instruction to account for their absences. Until, after a couple of years, it simply became part of the household routine and people stopped asking.
This was the second development, Saorla’s diminishing health. She spent more and more time in bed and less overseeing Caoinlin and Begley’s education. Ruairi’s moods grew darker, his temper shorter. Draigen’s lips solidified into a hard pressed line. Caoinlin was hardly seen to laugh or smile. Though her behavior was outwardly what was expected of her, Fee knew it was only her clandestine training that kept her in line.
But on the day, during her fifteenth year, when Ruairi announced that Caoinlin and Brogan would be married shortly after her seventeenth birthday, Fee watched as the last of the child in Caoinlin died. She took to her training with frightening vigor and dedication, riding longer, running faster and farther, pushing herself to learn every weapon—the bow, the staff, the axe. When after a long day of study and exercise, Fee suggested she’d had enough, she invariably took that as a challenge to do more. Her body grew lean and muscular, sculpted like no woman he’d ever seen, not even the farmers or fishwives. Her shoulders were broad, her reflexes unparalleled, her constitution stout, her mind quick. Never had he known a soldier or squire take to their training with such single-minded dedication.
By her sixteenth year, Fee felt his skin itching more than ever. With increasingly conflicted emotions, he watched Caoinlin and Begley like a hawk.
Because, thirdly, things were changing for both of them.
Fee looked up from his book. At least, in the last five years, he’d had time to read.
Begley thrust his sword in toward Caoinlin’s face. She parried, her sword point moved upward. Begley sprung to plant his right leg behind her left in order to throw her to her back. The pommel of his sword grazed close to her neck, above her right shoulder. Her left hand shot between his arms and grabbed his right arm. She dodged, swung her hip against him, and threw him over.
Begley cringed as he landed hard on his back, but in a moment, he was up again in a moment, grinning.
The boy had grown handsome, too, Fee had to reluctantly acknowledge. Strong and spry. All the young ladies in the palace whispered about him when he wasn’t around and sometimes when he was.
Both youths panted. Streams of sweat ran down their faces. The armory stayed cool, even in the heights of summer, but was stuffy and damp and little air moved through, even when they left the passage door open.
The two of them sized each other up again and sprang.
In the next second, Begley was once more on his back, both swords at his throat.
“Do you yield?” Caoinlin asked through her teeth.
Begley grunted, still straining against her weight, but despite her disadvantage both in height and weight, she was in a winning position, again.
He nodded his submission and Caoinlin disengaged.
Fee knew that the Begley rarely won unless Fee instructed Caoinlin to let him, in order to assist the boy in his training. It seemed absurd that Begley should not win against her. The boy did not lack skill, it was simply that Caoinlin better. Frighteningly so.
The few times he had won, he never won again in the same manner. Fee would never tell her as much, but Caoinlin was one of the best he’d ever seen. As good as he’d been during his human life, and if he were being truthful, better. Had she been given opportunity to face a greater variety of opponents and to participate in battle, he was sure she would be something of a hero.
And this scared him more than anything.
Caoinlin pulled off her chest mail.
“What, you’re done?” Begley egged her on.
Caoinlin rolled her eyes and tossed the mail into the chair. She poured a cup of water and drank in deep gulps.
Since the spring, she seemed to lose interest in speaking. She didn’t tease Begley hardly ever, and even the game of telling each other wild fantastical stories about marauders and heroes had come to an end.
Begley leaned his sword against the table and took the mail from his head. He dropped it on the table, jarring Fee. In his fifthteenth year, Begley had the look of manhood about him already. His face had the narrow angle and quick eyes of a fox, but as he was now well-fed and possessed an education befitting a noble. Confidence infused his demeanor. Caoinlin had taken to heart what Fee had said, as much as it had upset her, and she’d taught Begley to demand respect even from those who didn’t think him worthy of it. But as proud and strong as he’d grown, his assured gait moved always with an awareness of Caoinlin, restlessly seeking the safest means to be closest to her.
Fee couldn’t tell if Caoinlin noticed or not.
She seemed ignorant of Begley’s feelings. Or it might’ve been that her mind was elsewhere and that Begley simply could not broach the faraway distance her thoughts were riding.
That Begley didn’t know wasn’t of concern to Fee, but that he couldn’t tell, and that it preoccupied him more and more, drove him to distraction.
Begley leaned against the long wooden table, bouncing Fee again.
“I, um, need to tell you something, my lady,” Begley said.
She poured another cup of water. “Don’t call me that.”
Begley’s straight and strong shoulders heaved. “I need to call you that, Cao,” he said. “It isn’t right that I don’t.”
Caoinlin put the cup down, not looking at either of them and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. Damp ends of black hair poked at her sharp cheekbone. She might’ve moved like a man, prowling and dangerous, but she had her mother’s face.
“Gus invited me to spar with the others.” The words came out in a quick rush and Begley cowered as he said them, his face turned away from Caoinlin.
Fee held his breath. Not that he was surprised by the news, he’d heard rumors. But if Caoinlin had heard them, he didn’t know.
Caoinlin’s gaze shifted over to him slow as a glacier.
A tense moment passed in which Begley quailed under her penetrating stare and seemed about ready to plea for her forgiveness, when her gaze suddenly flicked away.
“You should,” she said, unemotional.
Begley was stunned. Fee was as well, but his feelings were rooted in an uneasiness that Begley did not seem to feel.
“You mean it, Cao? I mean, I’ll still spar with you . . .”
She shook her head. “No.”
This paralyzed both man and frog.
Begley was the first to recover.
“Cao, you can’t mean that. I know how important this is to you. It’s important to me, too. If sparring with the others means that I can’t spar with you, then I won’t.”
“Don’t be a fool.” She tugged off her gloves one finger at a time and tossed them onto a chair. “You could be a knight. Once Gus sees what you’re capable of, he’ll want to take you on.”
“I could never be a knight,” Begley said, his mouth barely moved.
“Of course you could,” she said. “Isn’t that what you want?”
Begley covered himself enough to scowl. “Cao, you can’t want to end our sparring sessions. Not truly.”
“Why can’t I?” She continued to stare at the far wall, lined by the forgotten, dusty implements of knights long dead.
Begley gripped her arm, something he only ever did in their bouts and even then, not often. Caoinlin glanced down at his hand and up to his face, as if she weren’t at all surprised by this gesture. Fee could see that Begley was desperately trying to suss out the true meaning behind Caoinlin’s breezy dismissal of the one thing that had sustained her all these years. Fee was trying to do the same, but as he’d been expecting an upheaval from her, he already had a few ideas about why she was giving Begley the brush off.
“Because I know you, Cao,” Begley said. “Training is everything to you.”
Caoinlin laughed, a curt sound that was hardly a laugh at all, more like a breathy punch. Begley winced, withdrawing his hand from her slowly.
“We both knew it couldn’t go on forever,” she stated in a voice she’d been cultivating—one deep and strong and plain. “Besides, I’m sure Brogan would not have his wife sparring at all. Let alone with a stable boy.”
Both Begley and Fee stared. She hadn’t said Brogan’s name since she’d apologized to him all those years ago. If she ever had to refer to him, she used the male pronoun and expected his identity to be evident from context.
And to call Begley a stable boy…
Fee scowled. He thought they’d put this behind them. But here she was again, she deliberately wounding the boy.
Begley, who’d never had a good defense against Caoinlin, turned and fled.
That evening, Caoinlin ran her finger over Fee’s head absent-mindedly. The moon shone through the balcony doors which stood ajar. The light was pale and cold. The faint chirps of grasshoppers and buzz of late summer insects, some fat and juicy before they would go into hibernation, others dissected in their final days, reminded Fee that after all this time, he was still a frog and seemingly no closer to freeing himself.
With one eye he studied Caoinlin. Once, his exceedingly good night vision and peripheral awareness had given him vertigo, but after five years, he barely remembered what it was like to see any other way.
In the moonlight, her black hair spilled like ink over the pearl-white silk of her pillow, her granite eyes were shadowed, darkened to obsidian and plunged so deeply inward that she might’ve been dreaming with her eyes open. Vaguely, he felt an ache that he was sure no frog had ever felt. But he let the feeling pass, else it might render him mute and paralyzed.
“What are you thinking, mo ghrà?” he asked finally.
The shadows over her eyes flickered. “Why should I be thinking anything?”
“Because you always are.”
“I shouldn’t need to,”—her tone was arid—“with a husband to do it for me.”
Fee shifted. He needed to tread very carefully, to avoid rendering himself speechless by saying too much.
“You and I both know you have no intention of marrying Brogan,” he said. “Why don’t you tell me what you do intend?”
She rolled over onto her back. “What choice do I have?”
Her impassive tone chilled him.
“I never told you what he said to me that night, did I? The night I pummeled him?” A faint smile came onto her face, it was thin and rueful and thankfully dissolved quickly. “He said we would never love each other, amongst other things. . .”
She clasped the blanket and drew it up to her chest. “You were once a man, weren’t you? I don’t know if you can tell me, but were you ever in love?”
Fee wondered if he could tell her. He wondered if he wanted to speak, even if he could. She must have thought his silence a signal that he could not answer, because she went on.
“You were a nobleman,” she said softly. “All those years ago, I found a book in the library. All the crests in the lands. I found one similar to the one on your sword’s sheath. Blackstone from the northernmost kingdom, Gaidtach Tuath. Did I say it right?”
He choked up, unable to answer.
“I wish you could tell me about it,” she said. “I couldn’t find much more about it. It’s as far away as it could possibly be, isn’t it? It seems like it must be a different world. That was why you warned me against running away, on that first day. Why you warned me against the marauders, because you’ve fought them, haven’t you?”
He didn’t try to answer, because he knew what would happen. She didn’t seem to expect him to.
Her gaze turned upward again, to those heavy shadows hanging above. “I could fight them now, couldn’t I?”
He didn’t answer this, either, but not because the magic prevented him.
“Brogan was right,” she said after a moment. “I would sooner slit his throat than marry him, but if I don’t, then I will dishonor my family. My mother—” Her tears shone in the dead light as they slipped over her cheek. “She will die soon.”
Swiping at the tears hastily, she blinked the rest away.
“I am more of a man than Brogan,” she said, steel edging her voice now. “That I should have to let him…” She shuddered, squeezing her eyes shut. “The thought makes me ill. I should want to slit my own throat if it comes to that. Do you believe in love, Fee? The kind in the stories? The kind that conquers all?”
He had to calm his boiling blood before he could answer.
“It hardly seems to matter,” he replied glumly.
She sighed. “It doesn’t matter, does it? But shouldn’t it? I think it would be easier, to allow him to. . . you know what I mean.”
“It would be easier if I loved him, wouldn’t it? It would be something I wanted?”
Fee tried to clear his head. “You mean, you’ve never wanted . . . you’ve never even thought of man like that?” He cringed. “Not even Begley?”
She was quiet for a time. “Begley is a child.”
“Hardly,” he said. “And . . . he loves you.”
Her tone turned blunt. “He shouldn’t.”
“Love doesn’t know the word should or shouldn’t.”
“But wouldn’t it be cruel?”
“To think of him like that? Isn’t it better that he should love me without my giving him any hope? Rather than let him think I love him, too, when we can’t ever be . . .”
He hesitated before he asked, “Do you love him?”
She lapsed into another thoughtful silence.
“How do you know you are in love?” she asked.
Before he could formulate an answer, she said,
“I do love Begley, in a way, I suppose. But… when you gave me that sword, when I finally had it, it was better than I can describe. I felt as if it was myself. When I held it, I knew that I should be holding it. There was nothing I wanted more. Does that make sense?”
“Sometimes I think of what it would be like to kiss Begley and to be kissed by him,” she admitted. “I wonder if I’d like it. But I think that, if I truly loved him, I shouldn’t wonder if I’d like it, but know that I would, even though it had never happened. I should be wanting it and waiting for it. But I don’t. I don’t want it at all. I don’t spend my time thinking about being kissed. Do you understand?”
“I think so.” Though he couldn’t say he was particularly comforted by her answer.
“Still, I’d rather it be Begley, than him,” she growled. “I care for Begley, in a way, and… he does love me, doesn’t he?”
“Yes, he does.” There was so much Fee wanted to say to her, but couldn’t. “You will go through with it then, marrying Brogan?”
She stared up into the darkness another long beat. “You were a nobleman, weren’t you? A duke or lord… a prince? Maybe even a king? What would you do if your daughter didn’t marry the man you’d chosen for her? What would you do if you were commanded to marry someone you despised?”
Fee sighed, thoughts turning dour as he remembered how he’d come to be a frog in the first place. “I could not say what I’d do, in either instance.”
“You don’t want me to marry him,” she said, “do you?”
“What I want is of no consequence.”
“It is to me,” she said, rolling on to her side again and propping her head up on her hand. “You’re my closest friend. More than Begley. You gave me a sword, taught me to fight, forced me to study, made me see the importance of it. Because of you, I feel I could conquer the world. And what have I given you?” She frowned. “You are under a spell, aren’t you? There must be some way to break it. I’ve been so selfish. I haven’t tried to find a way to help you. But I will. I’ll turn you back, even if I have to go all the way to Gaidtach Tuath to find the answer.” She placed her fingers lightly on his back.
His tiny frog pulse redoubled its already rapid pace.
He wanted to tell her that she didn’t need to search for the answer, that she already had the power to break the spell.
But then he began to doubt… maybe she didn’t. The love between friends wouldn’t be enough. That bloody witch had been very specific. It had to be love of a romantic nature.
Even if Caoinlin had found her way to developing such feelings for him, enough to break his spell, what did he feel for her?
For so long, he hadn’t dwelled on it. She’d been a child when she’d found him. Which was why he’d first conspired to pass himself off to one of the Whiteplain children. He was fifteen years her senior. Or he had been. He didn’t feel any older than he had been when he’d been cursed. But then, he wasn’t in his body. More often than not, he couldn’t even recall what it felt like to be human. Regardless, he had a hard time seeing her as anything but a bullheaded child, even now.
Fortunately, as far as the curse was concerned, he didn’t have to feel anything for her, as long she loved him.
But how could any woman, even one as defiant as Caoinlin, imagine a frog as her lover?
In his heart, he didn’t believe it possible. And it was in this moment that he realized that he had been making his way toward this ever since he’d decided to stay with Caoinlin and help her.
His curse would never be broken.
The weighted shackles of impossibility mired him in a black mood that even her next words could not lift.
“I will break the spell, Fee,” she said, “I swear it.”