Three nights before her birthday, Caoinlin tossed and turned and finally fell asleep to dreams that she had often. A terrifying warrior, face hidden behind a mask of gold, in command of a great army, tens of thousands strong, besieged the palace. Her father mounted his steed and prepared to lead the last of their battered soldiers, Caoinlin begged him to let her help. She was the only one who could stop the masked rider, if they would let her join them. But her father would not listen. Instead he locked her into a tower with the other women. From there, they watched as the last of Redthorn’s army was slaughtered. And when her father met the masked rider, the fierce invader looked up at Caoinlin, his eyes empty and black, and then he cut her father’s head with one sure stroke. Seized by rage, and with her mother and her grandmother tearing at her skirts, Caoinlin climbed into the window and jumped. Not to her death, but to fight, to gut the masked warrior and revenge her father.
In dawn’s trembling light, she woke, soaked through with sweat, to find her mother at her bedside, a small red box tied with a fat gold ribbon in her lap.
“This is your father’s gift to you, for your birthday,” her mother said.
Caoinlin sat up, pushing back the damp tangles of her hair.
“But it’s not my birthday yet.”
Saorla smiled and set the box beside Caoinlin.
“It is does not have the shape of a sword.”
Saorla folded her hands in her lap and watched her daughter with patient blue eyes. Caoinlin yanked the note from under the ribbon. She read it aloud in sour notes.
There is nothing a princess appreciates more than a rare and beautiful object. This is what I give to you, my rare and beautiful daughter.
She dropped the note onto her rumpled bedclothes.
“Whatever it is, I don’t want it.”
Saorla continued to watch her, not speaking.
“Take it back, give it to a princess who will appreciate it.”
Saorla bowed her head. Her long eyelashes caught the early morning light and lit up like fine threads of sun. Caoinlin grit her teeth. This was why he’d sent her mother to deliver it, because if he’d given it Caoinlin personally, she would have placed it back in his hands and turned away.
Huffing, Caoinlin held out her hands. “Fine.”
Her mother placed the box into her hands. Caoinlin ripped the ribbon off the box and tossed the lid aside. Within the gift box, a sturdier wooden box. The wood was strange, foreign. The grain was rich reds and golds that curled like waves. She lifted it. It had more weight than a simple box should. She frowned at her mother, who watched without comment. Caoinlin opened the box.
Inside, a golden sphere.
Caoinlin lifted the ball from its velvet cushion. It was gold, that much was evident, but not solid gold, as it was far too light. It must have been hollow. She examined the smooth, polished surface. It was engraved with her coat of arms, which was the same as the Redthorn family crest, with the addition of a rose. There was no sign of how the golden ball had been constructed, no hole or seam or any hint of how the goldsmith might have crafted such a thing. She knew it must have been a very rare and valuable object indeed, but this did not soften her in the slightest.
She met her mother’s eye, placed the ball back in its box and, firmly, closed the lid.
She snuck away from her grandmother, as soon as Draigen was distracted by the fendersmith who had come in to take away the fireplace grate. While Draigen attempted to bully him, Caoinlin grabbed the little box, slipped out the door, and ran for the forest—her father’s hunting grounds.
When she reached the pond, she scooped the golden ball out of the box, and whipped it into the reeds with all her might.
A large, dark green frog leapt in surprise from the nest of grasses and dove into the water, flailing in agitation before sinking beneath the surface.
Caoinlin fell to her knees in the soft pond’s edge. “Oh, Sir Frog, forgive me. I didn’t intend to disturb you. I only—” Her fingers dug into the muck, her head hanging.
What had she intended? What did she think she was accomplishing? Forsaking her father’s gifts wouldn’t be enough to save her from her fate as a princess and a pawn. “There’s only one way,” she said helplessly, her stomach clenching as the acid within churned, “I’ll have to run away.”
The frog popped his squat head out of the water and seemed to look right at her as if he was much aggrieved, though Caoinlin had never seen a frog look anything other than . . . froggish. He dipped back beneath the water and Caoinlin slumped to her side and cried.
She didn’t want to be hateful or hurtful. She didn’t want to run away, but what other choice had she? They simply didn’t understand and never would until she could show them. If only they would give her chance. She knew all about strategy and tactics and had studied all the books on swordplay. They didn’t need to marry her off to strengthen the kingdom against Giabrial, all they needed to do was to give her a sword. Then Redthorn could remain autonomous as it had for more than three hundred years.
“You very nearly killed me.”
Caoinlin sat upright, tears drying on her checks, and looked around her, but saw no one. “Who’s there?”
“Have you very nearly killed any other innocent creatures today?” The frog climbed out of the water and into the grass. His black eyes stared up at her. His black throat stretched white and then retracted.
Caoinlin opened her mouth and then closed it. She shook her head, rubbing at her ear with her finger. Frogs didn’t speak, at least, she’d never met one that did.
“I can assure you that I am speaking to you now,” the frog stated. His voice was not what a frog should’ve sounded like or what she thought a frog should sound like, it wasn’t at all croaky.
She lowered her head so that she could look at him more closely.
“I do apologize. It’s only I’ve never met a frog who could talk before.”
The frog tucked his legs in closer and settled into the thick grass with a sigh.
“No, the species is not generally considered conversational.” He stretched his glistening green lump of body toward her. “But please, tell me, what is the name of this place?”
“Oh.” She sat back on her heels, head still ringing with surprise at this unexpected turn of events. “We call it Clearspring.”
“Not the pond, child,” he said with a sigh. “The land. Who is king here?”
Despite her earlier mood, she felt her spirits lifted by the sheer novelty and magic of the encounter. “My father is king. Ruairi of Redthorn.”
The frog muttered something under his breath.
She leaned in closer again. “I didn’t know frogs knew about kings and things like that.”
“I suspect there is much you don’t know,” the frog replied haughtily. “You say you are a princess?”
Caoinlin frowned and folded her legs under her, straightening her spine. “Yes.”
“Indeed,” the frog said darkly, “who else but a cosseted daughter of a king would be so careless with an orb of gold?”
Fire licked up Caoinlin’s spine. “I wasn’t careless, I knew just what I was doing,” she told him fiercely. Her mood fell again and she inspected him more intensely. “Are all frogs so rude?”
“Rude? As I recall, you were the one who nearly killed me with that metal toy of yours. I might’ve been crushed.”
“I am very sorry,” Caoinlin said sincerely. “I didn’t mean to hurt you or any of the frogs. I was just . . . angry.”
His black throat distended in a grayish bulge. “I may forgive you, if you answer a few more of my questions.”
Caoinlin cocked her head. “What sort of questions does a frog have?”
“Well . . .” the frog shifted his little body uneasily. “First, would you care to offer me your name?”
“I am Caoinlin. What’s your name?”
The frog croaked. A strange strangled noise, but then she thought, perhaps, he was clearing his throat and not croaking like other frogs at all. “You may call me . . . Fee.”
“Fee? That’s a strange name.”
His protruding black eyes shone up at her, keen and clear in their focus. “I am a frog.”
She settled back. “I suppose so.”
Again, the frog seemed to sigh. His whole bumpy body rising and then falling. “How old are you, Caoinlin?” He gazed up at her speculatively. “Thirteen?”
“No,” she answered. “I’m not yet eleven.”
The frog’s head tucked back into his body as though disappointed. “You are large for such an young age, but then . . .” He shrank inward, nearly disappearing into the grass, “most people are large to me.”
In that moment, he looked terribly sad to her. And she wondered, vaguely, what a frog might have to be sad about. And what could make him speak in the first place. Magic, she supposed. A witch, maybe. But why?
“Yes, I guess people would seem large to you.”
“What of your siblings? Do you have any elder brothers or sisters?”
Caoinlin shook her head. “There’s only me. But Begley, he’s like a brother.”
“What is a Begley?”
“He’s not an ‘a’, he’s a he. A stableboy.”
“A stableboy is like your brother?” The frog glanced around as though thinking of hopping away. “Are you certain you’re a princess?”
She ignored his condescending tone. After all, he was a frog. It was hard to feel insulted by something so small and green. Besides, she was sure she’d never meet another frog who could talk. She’d heard of animals that could speak, in stories, but they were usually horses or cats or birds, useful animals. What use was a frog?
“Have you any cousins?” he asked.
“Oh, yes, many,” she said. “My father’s sister married King Ross. They have five boys, but his kingdom is along the western shore, and they haven’t come to visit since I was four. My mother’s sister recently had a baby, a girl. She had two before, but they both died.”
“I don’t suppose you have any other nobility come to call very often?” he asked.
Her spirits darkened again. “Not often.”
The frog flatted again to the ground, clearly disappointed in her answers for some reason.“Although . . .” she said grimly, “King Aodhan is coming.”
“Aodhan?” The frog grew in size again. His black eyes lighting up. “He has children, hasn’t he?”
“Three daughters,” Caoinlin said, ripping grass from the ground in clumps, “and two sons.”
“Will his children be coming with him?”
“They must because I am to be betrothed to his eldest son, Brogan.”
The frog puffed again and stared at her through the shiny black pearls of his eyes.
“I gather you are not pleased with this arrangement,” Fee said with obvious reluctance.
“Why should I be?” She could barely hold down the thunder that built within her at the thought of her betrothal. “Not that it has a thing to do with me. Father’s only done it to fortify Aodhan’s kingdom against Gaibrial. Father is afraid that if Gaibrial defeats Aodhan’s and conquers his kingdom that ours will be next. But he forgets that Aodhan aggrieved Gaibrial’s duke when one of his lords sent a hunting party into the duke’s land and killed a ten-point buck and two does. And then the lord refused to force pay recompense. Gaibrial doesn’t have enough soldiers to hold his kingdom, expand into Aodhan’s, and to launch an offensive against our kingdom. Especially since his northern lands have had three straight seasons of floods and his people are practically starving—”
“Did your father tell you this?”
“Ha! My father would rather I play with silly golden balls than teach me anything useful or important.”
“Then how do you know all of this?”
“I listen. They don’t think I do, but I do, when it’s important. They want me to listen to silly poems and think of boring things, like marrying some stupid prince.”
“Stupid prince Brogan?”
Caoinlin chuckled. “I guess.”
“How old is he?”
“And you are not yet eleven.” Fee fell into a thoughtful silence. She watched him, fascinated.
At last, he said, “You will not have to think about the wedding for many years.”
“I don’t want to think of it ever.”
“You said he had sisters, how old are they?”
She shrugged. “The eldest was married two springs ago. I think the second one is about fifteen and the other one is older than me, too, perhaps thirteen?”
“Do you think they want to think about their weddings?”
She rolled her eyes. “I’m sure they do. Isn’t that what a princess should think about? Marriage and being head of a household and making babies? Yes, I’m sure that they make their father very happy and always think only just as they are expected and told to think.”
“But you don’t?”
“No.” She felt the tears sting her eyes again. “I shall have to run away.”
She nodded, biting her lip against the tremble working at it.
“North,” she said stoutly. “To lend aid against the marauders.”
“You don’t think I can either, but I will.”
“I’ll take Begley with me. I promised I would and a Redthorn never breaks a promise.”
“When will you leave?”
His frog face, which seemed to be set in a permanent scowl, drew into a definite scowl.
“Do you have any notion of what those barbarians would do to a rash, ill-tempered little girl such as yourself? The horror of it your fevered brain cannot fathom. If you were to see what they are capable of, your mind would go mad with fear, your stomach would wrench in disgust, and if you were lucky, you might have the strength left in your legs to carry you away. But it would not do any good to run, because they are three times your size and they would scoop you up with one hand, use you in a manner that is indecent for me to even suggest to you, and they would then slit you from groin to gullet and feed your insides to their dogs. So, I think it better, princess, that you return to your father and his castle and allow him to manage his kingdom as he sees fit without injecting your opinions which have not been solicited and are not welcome. If he believes it best for you to marry a silly, stupid prince, then you would be ungrateful and ignoble to defy him.”
Caoinlin’s mouth fell open, a growling rage rumbled to life within her. As it sometimes did, like a violent storm rolling in off the coast, rattling her bones with its thunder, its undeniable force. It was all she could do to do contain it. Not to let it consume her and unleash and consequences be damned.
“How dare you speak to me in such a fashion?” she said to him, her voice quaking. “And how do you know about the invaders? Not that it matters you know, or think you know, because I am not afraid. And you cannot make me afraid! Why should I not slit you from groin to gullet and let my father’s hounds eat your guts? They would, too, I’ve seen them eat frogs before! You’re worse than my father, worse than all of them. You think because I am a child, I’m ignorant. Because I’m a girl, I’m weak. Because I am both, I ought to live in fear of the world and hide myself away and think only of protecting myself. But what of the ones who can’t? What of the children and the girls and the princesses who cannot run, who cannot hide? Why are they not taught to defend themselves? To fight for their own lives? Rather than waiting for a man, either he’ll come to save them or take their lives from them? Always a man, isn’t it? It makes no sense. Neither you nor my father nor anyone, human or not, can use the tool of fear to twist me away from what I can see plain as plain. This land does not need more fear. It doesn’t need any more princesses or children or little girls being told what they can’t or shouldn’t do for the greater good. I do not require my father’s or your permission, sir frog. I will do as must. What I know is right. No one can stop me. No one.”
Fee’s lids slid over his eyes and seemed to draw inward, his fist-sized body clenching. A soft gurgling noise quivered through him as though he might be choking.
She didn’t care if he did. Ability to talk aside, she wouldn’t give consideration to anyone or anything, that attempted to stand in her way.
But then, after a long moment, the frog relaxed his green-black body and gazed up at her solemnly. “Forgive my insults. I did not intend offense. My wish was for you to consider, perhaps, that you are being incautious and that you might grant your father’s judgment a greater measure of respect. But it was not my place to speak. I entreat to you accept my most humble of apologies.”
And then the frog bowed his head, which was such a strange thing to see a frog do that she could not help but be amused. As quickly as it had built, the tempest of her rage dispelled.
“Your apology is accepted,” she said generously, “but only because you’re a frog. I’ve never met a frog who could talk and I suspect you haven’t much practice at it, at least with humans and probably not at all with nobility, though you are well-spoken.”
Fee seemed grim. “Thank you.” He shifted a again, his body rocked from side to side. “If you’d like, I will retrieve the golden ball as furtherance of my contrition.”
She crossed her arms. “I don’t want the ball.”
“But surely, it is valuable.”
“What if it is?” She lifted her chin. “I told him I didn’t want anything if it wasn’t a sword and so I don’t.”
“The ball was a gift from your father?” Fee’s tone was disapproving again.
“For my birthday. He wrote that princesses appreciate rare and beautiful objects, but what could be more rare and beautiful to a princess than her own sword, which no other princess has? I don’t think that princesses would need to be saved all the time if they knew how to defend themselves. And if women were allowed to train and fight, the armies could be twice as big.”
Fee considered her thoughtfully, but said nothing.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “Father will not allow it and Grandmother is so cruel. She does nothing but watch me all the while like hungry cat watches a bird in cage. She corrects me no matter what I do and is never kind. She thinks she can punish me into being a proper lady. Father allows her to because he thinks I should start acting the part of princess, too.”
“Hm.” From Fee the sound was a throaty croak. “Even so, would your father not be aggrieved that you have thrown his gift away, even if it was not that for which you asked?”
She frowned, chewing the inside of her cheek stubbornly..
“And . . .” he ventured, “would it not be vexing and highly unladylike for a princess to have a pet frog?”
“You want to be my pet?” she said, at first a bit thrilled by the idea and then, remembering his gruff temperament, leery.
“I will make a bargain with you,” he said. “I will retrieve the ball for you, as I’m sure in your heart, you’d hate to incur your father’s displeasure by losing it, and in turn, you shall promise to make me your companion. To allow me to eat off your plate and sleep on your pillow. To take me with you wherever you go, even if it is disagreeable to your family, your grandmother, or anyone else.”
As much as she was inclined to argue about the point of incurring her father’s disfavor on account of the losing the gift, Caoinlin grinned, enchanted by a much more pleasing prospect in arrangement. “My grandmother would hate that.”
“Yes.” He bobbed in head in a nod. “It would be inappropriate for a princess to have a slimy, ugly frog as your constant companion, but these are my terms and if you make such a promise, you cannot retain your honor and break it.”
“No . . .” She agreed, smile spreading. “I couldn’t break a promise, even if it was to a frog.”
“Quite right. Do you accept my conditions, in exchange for my assistance in locating that most valuable gift from your father?”
Caoinlin mulled it over only a moment. But all her doubts were crushed beneath the image of her grandmother’s certain disgust and disapproval. It was too good an opportunity to miss.
“Yes,” she said. “I accept and promise. You shall be my constant companion and go wherever I go and eat from my plate and sleep on my pillow, no matter how upsetting it will be to Grandmother, if you can find and return my father’s gift to me.”
“Very well then, princess.” The frog rose on his slender legs and hopped away, turning as he went, back to the edge of the water to retrieve the golden ball and bring it back to her.