“I didn’t know a frog could eat that much bread pudding,” Caoinlin said, carrying him out of the palace in the warm dusky hours after supper.
Her new pet’s bloated girth filled up her hands, nearly overspilling her palms.
“Put me down,” Fee croaked suddenly. “Quickly.”
Caoinlin set him down near the stable’s well. He crawled around the edge of into to a clutch of weeds. A loud wet croak followed. When he hopped out again, he had diminished in size.
“You may pick me up again,” he said thickly. “Frogs are not made to eat bread pudding.”
Caoinlin grinned. With her grandmother broiling in her chambers, Caoinlin had been freed from her sewing lessons and had a couple free hours. It was better than she’d hoped for already. She pushed back the stable door and poked her head into the dim, pungent space. Lugh, one of the older stableboys, a whip of a youth whose hair looked like a cap of straw glanced up at her.
“He’s out in the pasture,” Lugh said when he saw her, then immediately returned to scrubbing the stone floors with a stiff bristled broom.
In the pasture, Begley was attempting to coax Gus’s war-horse, Barchen, back to the stables. Barchen flicked her ruddy-tinted tail at him and moved a little further away every time he came near, grazing along as if she didn’t see him.
At the fence, Caoinlin laughed. Begley turned and scowled at her.
“Nolan only sent me out here because he knows Barchen won’t listen to anyone but him,” Begley complained to.
He dropped Barchen’s lead rope and jogged over to meet Caoinlin at the fence.
“Hey.” His nose wrinkled at the frog. “What’s that?”
Caoinlin opened her hands and held Fee out to him. “Fee, this is Begley.”
Fee croaked and shuffled around so his back was to Begley.
Caoinlin scowled. “That’s rude.”
Begley smiled. “Cao, what you carrying a frog around for?”
Caoinlin prodded Fee’s back. “Be polite, please.”
Sighing, Fee bent his head back toward Begley. “How do you do?”
Begley flinched and stumbled back. “Holy Crow, Cao. That frog talked!”
“I know he did,” she said, smiling. “His name’s Fee and he’s my new companion. And grandmother finds him repugnant. Isn’t it wonderful?”
“I’ll bet.” Begley poked at Fee’s back end and Fee snapped at his finger.
Caoinlin pulled him back. “Fee? Why are you being so rude?” Then to Begley, she said, “Sorry, he’s in foul mood because he can’t eat bread pudding. It doesn’t agree with him.”
Begley didn’t seem bothered in the slightest by Fee’s behavior. “Does your father know?”
“Of course he does. And he’s going to let me keep him. I promised Fee I would keep him and care for him and let him eat from my plate and sleep on my pillow.”
“Speaking of which, is it not rather late?” Fee said.
Begley’s expression darkened. “You’re going to let him sleep with you?”
“I promised I would,” Caoinlin said.
“I thought you were going to run away,” Begley said softly.
Caoinlin lowered Fee down to her waist. “I am,” she said softly. “Soon.”
“Absurd child!” Fee said.
Begley stared down at the frog.
Begley poked his head between the wood fence rails to inspect Fee more closely. The frog stared unblinkingly back at him. “I’ll bet he’s bewitched.”
Caoinlin lifted Fee up again in front of her face. “Who would bewitch a frog so it could talk?”
Begley chuckled, shaking his head. Dust kicked up off his shaggy rusty-brown hair.
“Not so he could talk,” Begley said, “but to make him into frog. I bet he isn’t a frog at all, but a human cursed to look like a frog.”
Caoinlin’s mind blanked for a moment. She felt silly that she hadn’t thought of that possibility. “Is that true, Fee? Are you really a human?”
Fee blurped up at her. It was the most froggish sound he’d ever made.
“Sure,” Begley said, hanging his gangly arms on the rail. “I’ve heard of witches turning humans into all sorts of things, birds, fish, even trees. I think that would be the worst, being a tree. You couldn’t go anywhere and you wouldn’t have a mouth or ears or eyes.”
Fee watched Begley with sudden interest, his little frog head tilted to the side.
“You may be right,” Caoinlin said. “Fee?”
Fee croaked again.
“He probably can’t talk about it,” Begley said. “That’d be part of the curse. ’Cause if he could tell you about it, then you might be able to figure out how to break the spell.”
Caoinlin pondered this a moment. She didn’t know anything about curses or magic. She hadn’t listened much to the stories about them either, because they rarely had any real fighting to them. Just kissing and nonsense rhyming and warty old women who were cruel for no apparent reason. But she knew there were still witches about. There was one not far from them. Peasants spoke of her in hushed tones sometimes, but never directly. But she’d always been skeptical of the business regardless. Nevertheless, it seemed likely that something about Fee was magical. She didn’t know how else to explain his talking.
“We’d better not tell my father,” she decided, “he probably wouldn’t want Fee to be my companion if he thought he was a human inside. Though that would explain why he talks like he does and how knew all that stuff about marauders.” A thought struck her. “Do you think he could be a knight? Are you a knight, Fee?”
“Sure, that’d make sense,” Begley agreed. “Witches are always putting curses on men who refuse them. I’ll bet a nasty witch fell in love with him and he refused her and she made him a frog, to punish him. He knew about marauders? What did he say?”
“Tell him, Fee,” Caoinlin urged, pushing him toward Begley. But Fee didn’t speak. Frowning again, she lowered him. “He said that they were dangerous and that I shouldn’t want to run away to fight them. But I told him I wasn’t afraid.”
Begley gripped the splintery rail, leaning back from her. “You’re not even a little afraid, Cao?”
“No,” Caoinlin stated. But then, seeing Begley’s doubtful expression, she said in a hushed tone, “Well, maybe a little, but that wouldn’t stop me from fighting.”
Barchen blustered at Begley and tossed her mane.
“She’s making fun of me,” Begley complained.
“Here, hold, Fee.” Caoinlin held Fee out to Begley.
“What? He’s not slimy at all, you know.”
“It’s not that, Cao. He could be a human. A grown man or something. I don’t know if I can hold another person like that.”
Caoinlin rolled her eyes. “Whatever he was, he’s a frog now. Take him.” She thrust Fee at Begley. “But be gentle.”
Begley held out his hand and Fee crawled onto the boy’s palm.
Caoinlin marched over to Barchen, who sidled away from her.
Caoinlin stared down the giant war-horse until the mare dropped her head. Then Caoinlin picked up the lead rope and brought Barchen about without any resistance from the horse. She placed the rope in Begley’s hand and took Fee from him.
He gaped at her. “How do you do it?”
She stared back him blankly. “Do what?”
Caoinlin let him down on the silk pillow and hopped onto bed. Her handmaid, Ceara, wrinkled up her nose, which did nothing for her already squashed-looking features, but she kept her thoughts to herself.
“Goodnight, my lady.” Ceara blew out the lamp beside Caoinlin’s bed and closed the door.
Caoinlin rolled onto her side facing him, a sleepy droop to her eyelids. She was a pretty child, when her features weren’t fixed in such implacable defiance. He supposed, one day, she might possess some measure of beauty. But he had to agree with her father on the matter of the betrothal. For the sake of the kingdom, it was clear the engagement had to be fixed now, while her behavior could be attributed to the wild fancies of youth. And yet, he could not shake the anxious sense that she was entirely serious when she said she would run away before she was forced to wed. And that she might, somehow, find her way into the violence and bloodshed that plagued his own sleeping hours, night after night. All he could do was take advantage of this opportunity and pray that he could work his way into the affection of one of Adohan’s daughters. Pondering the challenge of it filled him with both gloom and fire, but he had to push his feelings about how he’d come to this point aside if he was to have any hope of reclaiming what had been stolen from him.
“Are you a human, Fee?” she asked.
Her question drew him out of his bleak thoughts. Whatever his opinion of her madness, he refused to feel anything but gratitude toward her for bringing him this far. Perhaps she was not completely hopeless. After all, she was still a child. In the time he had, he determined to try to influence her away from this plan that would surely see her murdered and taken advantage of. Righteous as her intentions were, it was clear she knew nothing of real war. If she had, she would have known that the women and children up north did fight. They fought everyday as fiercely and bravely as any man, because they had no choice. In his homeland, there was no one with breath in their bodies who was not a warrior.
He would do whatever it took to return to them.
“I think you must be human,” she said. “And you are trying to find a way to get back to being one, aren’t you?”
He lowered his head between his front legs and watched her, wondering what she would figure out on her own, wishing he could simply tell her the truth. But the wretched boy had been right. He could not speak of it. Whenever he tried, all that came out were croaks and he could feel his human thoughts pushed further and further away from him.
Rolling onto her back, she stared up at the dark underbelly of the canopy and closed her eyes. For a moment, she seemed to fall asleep, but then she murmured, “You must be desperately sad. To be trapped as something you’re not.”
A tear rolled down her cheek.
“To not be able to be who you really are.”