“The air is foul,” Fee said.
Caoinlin smirked. “You’re a frog.”
“What does that have to do it?”
“Don’t frogs usually live in fetid swamps?”
“Are you trying to be amusing?”
“When have I ever tried that?”
Fee jeered up at her, though she could not see it.
Before them, the little hut, constructed of mud-and-straw bricks, smelled as if it were rotting. Humidity hung around the place. Geese with gray-blue feathers and black eyes hissed as they approached, but kept a wary distance from the horse, Flegel. The palomino had been a sixteenth birthday present from Brogan. Caoinlin had done her best over the last year to loose Flegel of the prancing habits that had been broken into the brat and had done well, but Flegel didn’t seem particularly interested in learning any new habits, either.
Caoinlin let go of the reins.
“You should tie up that beast,” Fee said.
“He’s not haltered,” Caoinlin said. “He won’t go anywhere, will you, brat?”
She stroked the brat’s flaxen forelock. The creature bowed his head to receive the affection, something he seemed to have an unquenchable thirst for. Caoinlin snagged Flegel’s cheekpiece and turned his head so she could look the brat in the eye.
“Don’t wander, understand?”
He yanked at her grip, but she didn’t budge. After a time, his ear rotated toward her in seeming defeat. She released him and held her hand out to Fee. He crawled out of his pouch and into her hand. Despite five years of rich food and a sedentary lifestyle, he’d not changed at all. He fit, as he always had, in the bowl of Caoinlin’s palm. She held him at her waist and ran her finger over the smooth skin between his eyes. His half-webbed toes curled over the edge of her hand and held him firmly in place.
“You don’t have to do this,” he said, when she hadn’t moved for a long minute.
She lifted him up to speak to him directly.
“I never believed in magic,” she said. “I mean, I never did, before you.”
“Since when does a thing need to be believed in order to exist?” a light, sing-songy voice asked from behind them.
They both jumped. Fee landed some distance from Caoinlin, on the edge of a mucky puddle that seemed to have been left from some spring rain and not dried up over the summer.
“It usually goes the other way round,” the young woman said to Caoinlin. She peered around the princess and waggled her fingers at Fee. “Lots of things exist for a long time before anyone believes in them, Your Highness.”
The perk, apple-cheeked girl curtsied, her faded blue woolen skirt fanned out from her plump hips. Her tight walnut colored curls bounced over her short, pale forehead. The top of her head barely crested Caoinlin’s shoulder.
“Are you Aislinn?” Caoinlin asked.
“I am, my lady,” Aislinn said.
Caoinlin bent to receive Fee as he hurried back to her. All the while he kept an eye on Aislinn, who kept an eye on him. She smiled at him warmly. And when Caoinlin stood, he was able to look right into her eyes. The right one was a strong blue, the left, a green ring with a liquid center of brown. While the blue eye had the quality of a calm, reflective pool, the left seemed to contract and expand of its own wild accord.
Both incited a minor upheaval within him. Her eyes were alive in a way that he’d seen before and had hoped never to see again. They saw things that most people could not, and thus, had no way to believe in.
He curled tightly into Caoinlin’s hand.
Aislinn dropped her gaze, as if she understood the source of his recoiling. She reached down to retrieve her basket of flowers.
“Won’t you come in, my lady?”
Caoinlin, for perhaps the first time ever, sounded nervous. “Um, I don’t—”
“Oh, please?” Aislinn walked around Caoinlin. Ss she did, the decayed-flesh stench evaporated. A fresh breeze pulled the robust scents of rosemary and peppery sage from the bushes wreathing the cottage, which he now saw was stone, only smeared with mud and straw. Aislinn’s arms swung, as if she were dancing. A feathery quality marked her stride. It gave her the appearance of walking on tip-toe.
Caoinlin strayed, cautious, after the girl, who might’ve only been a few years older than her.
Through her palm, he could feel Caoinlin’s pulse quicken.
At last, he’d found something that inspired fear in her. But then, he could hardly blame her. He was terrified.
Inside, Aislinn hummed, giving the drowsy fire a few pokes. She threw on a couple chords and hung a kettle.
After a moment of hesitation, Caoinlin ducked into the small cottage. Sturdy wooden planks covered the floor. A comfortable amount of clutter filled a large cupboard and the shelves above table. Drying herbs hung from the smoke-darkened beams under the thatch. To one side of the fire place sat a round table. An assortment of rather ordinary objects littered it—stones, feathers, flowers, except that they were many and varied and had a sense of purpose to their placement, though what that purpose was wasn’t clear. To the other side of the fire was a tidy bed, covered by an old patchwork quilt, though each faded scrap of cloth seemed to resonate with some enigmatic importance. Beside the fireplace, a kitchen board held many large onions and a black covered pot. Another large cupboard stood next to the bed, but its contents were sealed behind heavy doors.
Aislinn gestured to a straight-backed chair with a woven seat at the table.
“Please sit, my lady.” Aislinn pulled a pair of heavy, darkly glazed cups from the board and set them on the table, in empty spaces that seemed left there specifically for the cups. She stepped back and pressed her hands to her tiny waist. “Will you please introduce me?”
“Huh?” Caoinlin, who seemed to be in some sort of dream-state since she’d met Aislinn, looked down at him. “Oh, this is Fee.”
Aislinn’s head tipped to one side. Her smile held its place, but her left eye kept contracting and dilating. Fee’s stomach churned. He held perfectly still beneath the witch’s inspection.
She was a witch. He had no doubt about it.
Aislinn curtsied again. “How do you do, my lord?”
Fee wanted to burrow into Caoinlin’s skin.
Aislinn laughed, a bird-like jingle. “Please don’t fret so. What could possibly do to you that is worse than what has already been done?”
Caoinlin finally seemed to snap to attention.
“You can tell?” she asked. “That Fee isn’t really a frog?”
“How could I not?” Aislinn laughed again, her hand pressed flat to her belly. “I’ve never met a haughty frog.”
Fee shifted, turning from her. Not that his gaze ever left her.
“You know, then, how to help him?”
“Help him?” Aislinn went to the kitchen board and returned a jar stuffed with dried, ash-hued, spear-shaped leaves. She dropped a few into each cup and set the jar on a shelf crammed with many similar jars.
Caoinlin slid to the edge of her chair. “To change him back to what he was.”
The witch swung the kettle away from the fire and gripped it with a thick pad of cloth. She poured the water over the leaves. A subtly sweet, dry aroma wafted on the steam. Tucking her hands underneath her, she sat in the chair beside Caoinlin. Her knees almost brushed the princess’s.
“Oh, I can’t do that.”
Caoinlin sagged. “You can’t?”
Aislinn chuckled. “Oh, no.”
Caoinlin wasn’t giving up yet, though. “But do you know how it can be done?”
“Oh yes,” Aislinn answered brightly. She rolled a dried sprig of dark green mistletoe between her fingers, watching the cluster of waxen white berries as they spun. “I know as well as he does.”
Caoinlin dropped a startled look down at him, but he kept most of his attention on the witch. “I don’t think he can talk about it.”
“Oh, no,” Aislinn agreed. She placed the mistletoe gingerly next to Caoinlin’s cup and fixed her electric eyes upon the princess.
Caoinlin ran her thumb along Fee’s back. He felt he could sob, yet all he could do was huddle deeper into her hand.
“How can he be restored?”
Aislinn’s smile dampened. She picked up another plant, the pale blue flowers of flax.
“Regretfully, I cannot say,” Aislinn replied, and to her credit, she did sound regretful. Not that Fee put much stock in his ears. Witches could fool the ears, the eyes, even the heart. He knew that, too well.
“But you do know how it could be done?” Caoinlin pressed.
“Yes, but you see, if I tell you, then it will not work.” The witch rested the flax upon the mistletoe. “For him to return to his true form, the one who breaks the spell must be ignorant of that intent.”
Caoinlin stared at the coupling of plants Aislinn had placed by her cup. “But how can someone break such magical bonds without knowing that they are breaking them? Can’t you tell me anything? I promised I would help him.”
Aislinn’s smile grew wider than before. “Then I am sure you will, you haven’t broken a promise yet.” She plucked a cluster of dusty purple lavender buds and added them to the others. Her eyes roved over the table for a moment and the smile froze to chilling affect. She picked up a virtual bouquet of long stem crowned with big bluish-purple petals. “Monkshood, do you know what it means, Your Highness?”
An oppressive weight settled in the room. The birdsong ceased to flutter through the window, the crackle of the fire muted.
“Deadly foes,” Aislinn said, “Many of them. Some will appear as allies.” Her voice was the same, on the surface, but beneath it were new tones, deep echoes that hadn’t been there before. She gathered a strange bright orange flower in the same hand and held it up for Caoinlin to see. “Great victories. Great conquests.” And then she lifted dusky flowers of hyacinth. “Deepest sorrow.” And a delicate pink flower with long petals. “Painful pride.”
Suddenly, she crushed the plants, crumpling them in her hand. They crumbled like ash onto a bunch of delicate pink-edged flowers on the table.
“Oleander,” Aislinn said, “warns you. Conquest, victory, sorrow, pride, at their end is the true test. The final battle. When the mask is removed . . .”
Aislinn’s fingers hovered over the Oleander for a moment and then lifted it, underneath it was a tiny blue star. Aislinn’s features softened and warmed.
Her hand seemed to move over the table of its own accord. She took up a long, gold striped feather. “The Golden Hawk flies from one sea to the next and back. Across the land from icy northern cliffs to sun-lit southern sands. And back.”
Caoinlin’s hand cupped around Fee. He felt petrified.
“Ivy,” Aislinn said, “and Iris. Fidelity and valor.” She picked up an airy sprig of white buds. “Baby’s Breath.”
She sighed and closed her eyes. The air lightened. Sounds returned. Caoinlin’s hands shook and sweated. Fee stretched his arms and gripped her hand, hugging it.
“Drink this.” Aislinn nudged the cup closer to Caoinlin. Caoinlin drank and was calmed. Aislinn drank as well and then sprang to her feet and danced to the window, where there hung many finely woven leather cords, each with small leather pouches. She selected one and brought it back to the table, where Caoinlin was breathing shallowly into her tea.
Aislinn held up a flat bright green stone before she dropped it into the leather pouch. “Malachite will guard what you have, though do not know it.” She took a round, smooth stone variegated with stripes of burnished gold and honeyed brown. “Tiger’s Eye. To protect you in battles to come, so that you might return to what is true enough to endure the wait for you.” She cinched the bag shut and tied the necklace snug to Caoinlin’s throat. She stepped back and smiled so that there seemed nothing unusual in anything she’d done or said.
Caoinlin slid the cup back onto the table and touched the necklace lightly.
“But how does this help him?”
Aislinn’s smile widened. “I cannot help him, I can only help you.”
She knelt before Caoinlin and looked intently at Fee. He squeezed into a tense blackish-green stone. When she looked back up at Caoinlin, he resumed breathing.
“You may ask me one question about him, that I may answer, but it cannot touch on what has been done to him or how it can be undone.”
Caoinlin bowed her head to Fee inquiringly
Aislinn’s fingers stopped a close inch from Caoinlin’s lips. “It must be your question.”
Caoinlin didn’t move for a moment, frowning. But then she asked, “What was his name?”
Aislinn waved a cheerful goodbye. “Safe journeys, Your Highness! Eyes are your only true enemy!”
Caoinlin walked Flegel all the way back to the Palace.
For once, the horse trailed behind her without attempting snack along the way. Caoinlin didn’t put Fee back into the pouch, but laid her other hand over the top of him and stroked his head with her thumb. Not that he would’ve let her release him. He clung to her palm, shaken by the witch’s magic. It was worse than broaching the black realm of death, which he’d done more than once. He felt as though the many layers of his being had been unstacked and rifled through. He feared that if he moved or spoke, the layers would catch in the breeze and float away and he would be lost in the vast chaotic tumult of the universe. More dreadful than unnatural, it was too natural. The witch’s presence re-proportioned the world, so that Fee felt as small and insignificant as he was, and all the great world precarious and composed of infinite unknowns.
The sky was darkening by the time they reached the stables. Flegel didn’t even whiny in protest of Caoinlin’s departure. She bypassed Ceara, who wrung her hands and wished to know where Caoinlin had been and why she’d missed dinner. Caoinlin didn’t respond. She retired to her rooms and closed the door. She sat on the floor in the threshold of the balcony doors as the last of the light dribbled from the sky. A fat full moon squatted low, close to the horizon, just out of reach of a dense cloudbank. In the distance, flashes of cold blue lightning accompanied rolling drums of the thunder that grew to threatening roars as the storm neared. The wind shifted, turning cold and damp and greedy. It pushed and shoved, making Caoinlin’s hair to swirl and whip around her face.
Fee held on as tight as he could, not saying a word. He was wise enough to know that there was nothing he could say to halt a storm. No matter how much he wished there were.