“Who are you talking to?” Nevan silently approached to stand beside her.
Caoinlin looked up at the old warrior.
The gnarled roots of his scars were shadowed by the bent of his head. She didn’t know how to respond to his question. Fee sat in her hands, almost stone-like, his eyes closed, motionless. Strangely, he seemed to be growing heavier.
“I know that voice,” Nevan said as if to himself. “I remember that voice.”
Caoinlin ran her thumb over the top of Fee’s head, where she’d kissed him. The usually damp, slightly pebbled skin there felt dry and smooth.
“Fee?” she urged.
“It sounded like . . .” Nevan continued his inner conversation out loud. “But no . . . no . . .”
“Fee?” Caoinlin nudged him a little. Even as she did, her wrists began to quail.
He was getting heavier, and bigger. From frog-sized to cat-sized to . . .
“Fee, talk to me.” She grimaced and was finally forced to lay him down in the grass.
“What’s happening?” Nevan asked, abruptly involved. “What . . .?”
Caoinlin’s heart began to hammer, anxious that Fee was not responding.
“He’s here,” Caoinlin burst out to Nevan. “Fiachrin. It’s him. He was a frog this whole time. He was bewitched by someone.” She reached out for him even as he continued to swell, now the size of a small dog. “Fee?”
“What?” Nevan dropped his spoon, groping for her, finally catching her shoulder. “The prince is . . . he’s what?”
“He’s not answering.” A reedy panic entered her voice that she had not heard from herself in years. “Why isn’t he answering.”
Nevan stared off at the distant trees, but his grip pinched her shoulder painfully. “What did you do?”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“Where is he?”
“He’s here,” Caoinlin said. “He’s getting bigger. He’s . . .”
Nevan her upright.
“What did you do? You did something,” Nevan said, digging his knotty fingers into her bare forearm.
“You did, you thanked him and you called him love,” Nevan said.
She nodded, though he couldn’t see. “I kissed him,” Caoinlin said, unthinking.
“You kissed him,” Nevan said, softly. “So this is Fee? All along, he was here. A frog? You knew? And said nothing? You knew the prince was alive and did nothing?”
“I didn’t know he was alive,” Caoinlin said. “Before I left he disappeared, I didn’t know where he was.”
“You spoke to him, in your sleep, you spoke to him,” Nevan said, “I never imagined—”
“I talk in my sleep?”
“What’s happening now?”
At that moment, the taut frog skin split, snapping and popping like a seed pod. Caoinlin and Nevan flinched back as one. A pungent odor, tacky and musky, rose from the cracks. The body beneath the skin continued to expand, though it was difficult to discern its form in the darkness.
In seconds it was as big as a full-grown sheep, its legs beneath it.
Nevan shook her. “What do you see?”
But Caoinlin could not find her voice.
Where there had been a frog, there was now a man.
Pieces of frog skin clung to the curve of his back, glistening where the moonlight touched it. He was curled up, slimy as a newborn, his forehead to the ground, his arms tucked in, his legs bent under him.
A second passed, in which it seemed he might continue to grow, when everything seemed to stop and nothing moved or breathed, and then a spasm kicked through him, shaking off the paralysis and he unfolded and crumpled to his side, limp, his back to them.
Dissected patches of frog skin slid off him.
Caoinlin snatched her arm away from Nevan and dropped to her knees.
She hesitated. Her hands frozen over his head and shoulder.
A human head. A human shoulder.
Her heart skipped a beat and then another.
“Is he breathing?” Nevan clamped down on her shoulder again and lowered himself next to her, reaching a palsied hand out for Fiachrin.
Caoinlin touched the back of Fiachrin’s head. Translucent, sticky goo matted the black mane to his skull. Gently, she rolled him onto his back. For some reason, she was holding her breath.
Nevan’s fingers found the prince’s forehead and trailed down the prince’s cheek. Then his breath caught.
“Thank you, Sinnsirean.”
Tough bits of dark frog skin were stuck to his face. She picked them away. She ran her thumb over his lips, removing a clot of goop. Her hand flatted to his chest. For a second, there was nothing.
A spike of panic.
And then, a faint thump against her palm, she couldn’t tell if it was her own heart or his.
“What?” Nevan asked anxiously.
Caoinlin waited, calming herself, slowing her heartbeat, as Conlan was so adept at doing.
And then she felt it again, stronger, in succession. Thump-thump.
“He’s not breathing,” she said, pulse picking up again.
“What—? Why? Open his mouth, is there a blockage?"
Placing both hands on either side of his face, his jaw was relaxed, she worked her fingers between his lips, tilting his head back, his mouth opened, full of mucus.
“Roll him,” Nevan instructed anxiously.
She rolled him back onto his side, leaning over him.
Thrusting her fingers into his mouth, she scooped out the gelatinous muck, flinging it into the grass. Her stomach lurched as the tips of her fingers touched the back of his palate as though she was sticking her fingers into her own throat. As they scraped the back of his mouth, her fingers pierced through a wobbly membrane. He inhaled sharply and she snapped her hand clear just before his teeth clamped shut. Jagged suspirations racked his body, as though his lungs had forgotten how to breathe.
Caoinlin grasped his shoulder and held him firm until his breathing eased.
He began to shiver, though the night was balmy.
“Help me carry him to the fire,” Caoinlin said, rolling Fiachrin onto his back once more.
“I’ll manage it, your arms are still injured,” Nevan pushed up, off of her shoulder. “Bring a blanket and heat some water.”
Caoinlin wanted to argue that even with her bad arms, she was more able than Nevan, whose health had been diminishing steadily over the years.
But now that his chest was rising and falling, now that he was moaning and stirring, a queasy swell rode through her, both hot and dizzying.
Suddenly, she wanted nothing more than to get away from this strange body that had destroyed the frog she’d loved.
Nevan dragged Fiachrin, with grunting and huffing, onto a blanket that Caoinlin had laid out next to the fire.
She stood back, on the other side of the fire, next to an iron pot she’d filled with water.
Nevan tenderly wrapped the blanket around Fiachrin’s pale, quivering form.
As Nevan fussed and flitted, the firelight fell upon Fiachrin’s face.
She’d known what it looked like, from the painting. But it was like when she’d seen Blackstone Mountains for the first time. She’d seen pictures before, but pictures weren’t real.
Now, Fiachrin was real.
And just like when she saw the mountains, seeing him stole her breath.
No doubt he was handsome: his brow straight and low over narrow eyes darkly lashed. His cheeks and jaw well defined, neither sharp nor blunt. The line of his lips etched in peaks. The slight crooked cant in the slope of his nose.
Despite the lack of color and the slackness, there was a set-in composure, the memory of an expression: sober and intense.
She had a sense that when his eyes were open that he would be difficult to look away from and so she did it now, while she could, and watched the water in the pot as it began to boil and steam.
“Don’t let the water get too hot,” Nevan chided, as if he could see what she saw.
She hefted the pot away from the fire, to Nevan’s side. She fetched a shirt (as she had yet to put on one) and a few scrap cloths from the wagon, which was Nevan’s favored means of transport in the last few years. He said that if the Mhasc Caoin now required a pavilion, with all its trappings, then it was his duty to ensure it arrived where needed. They only had a small tent with them, having left the pavilion back at base camp, but even it was unpitched, as the weather was warm enough and the trees were good enough cover for the occasional light shower.
In truth, she knew that Nevan was not well-suited to travel as he had once been. Neither by wagon or horseback. She’d already begun arrangements, without telling him. She’d purchased the property from a wealthy farmer. And paid a kind shepherd and his wife fix up the remote cottage and tend to the flock that had come with the hilly, temperate land once in the Kingdom of Birchwater. She didn’t know what Nevan would say to the idea of retiring, but she doubted he would be capable of putting up much of fight, though he had his moments of vigor.
She gave Nevan the rags and backed away.
Tender as a new mother, he began to clean the slime from Fiachrin’s skin.
They’d allowed the horses to roam a bit.
Her courser, Gauner, was dozing not far away, nearly invisible in the darkness. But she found him easily enough, bringing with her a brush and bunch of carrots, both of which he was happy to wake for.
She’d had to leave Flegel behind after the battle at the Channel, he had grown quite depressed, though she thought maybe he was merely feeling what Conlan could not after Cuana and Lasair’s deaths. Gauner, the rascal, had a far more serious temperament than the brat but was given to fits of obstinacy that would’ve made Flegel proud.
As she gave the rascal a thorough brushing, she tried to wrap her mind around the idea of Fiachrin and Fee.
It seemed impossible that the two were one and the same, despite what she knew to be true.
That a tiny creature who’d fit in the palms of her hands could grow to be a man that would shadow her, in height and weight. That the minuscule mind of a frog could contain the thoughts and memories and dreams of a man, a warrior, a prince. That every night, for seven years, he’d slept beside her, gone with her everywhere, been her most trusted companion and confidant and teacher, and all along, he’d been this . . . man.
How strange it must have been for him, to be so reduced, so altered, that a young girl wouldn’t think twice about allowing him to share her bed, to watch her change and bathe, to tell him her every thought and desire.
The air cooled as night deepened, but by the time she was done brushing down Gauner, she had worked up a good sweat.
She skirted the camp, the fire, Nevan and Fiachrin, who was cleaned and wrapped in dry blankets, still unconscious.
At the pond, she washed her face, though it hurt to do so and padded, still bare-foot through the damp grass to the wagon, where she found the waxy, faintly floral salve that Nevan made for her wounds. She patted her face dry and then applied the salve in daubs. A cool tingle replaced the raw stinging.
“You haven’t eaten yet,” Nevan said, after she’d replaced the salve but hadn’t moved.
She went around the wagon, taking the bowl of stew from Nevan’s outstretched hand and sat outside of the fire’s flames, which Nevan was keeping well-fed on Fiachrin’s account. She could barely make out the sleeping prince through the blaze and still, she found herself staring, seeing him clearly enough for that much and she had to force herself to look away.
Neither she nor Nevan seemed to sleep, though it was often hard to tell with Nevan, who had the ability to sleep sitting up and even seemed to prefer it. Deep into the hours past midnight but before dawn, Nevan started speaking, though when she came out of her daze to hear him, it seemed he’d been talking for some time.
“There’s no word for it,” he said, musing in a hoarse mumble. “Not yet. They’ll have to invent one. Not just a hero, what does that mean? It’s too small a word, too often heard, anyone, anyone can be a hero. No, it should be used once and only once, for you and no one else. After what you’ve done. The impossible. That’s what you’ve done. At every turn, the impossible. We didn’t deserve it. We had no right to it. What have we done? Nothing. We’ve done nothing but set the limits, dig our graves. Not you, not you . . .”
He might’ve gone on, Caoinlin didn’t listen. Her eyes watered from staring through the flames. Fiachrin had barely moved, but as dawn came closer, his mouth began to twitch and his brow furrow.
At first light, Caoinlin dressed and put her mask back on.
“What did I tell you?” Nevan said, this time though, there was no reprimand in his voice.
“I still have an army to lead.”
She moved quickly, as though there was some urgent matter waiting.
Her heart raced and her legs trembled so much that she was afraid that if she stopped moving, she might fall over.
As she mounted Gauner, her arms roared from their unhealed wounds and threatened to cease usefulness altogether.
She stole one more glance at Fiachrin, dimly illuminated by the hazy streams of soft morning light trickling through the trees. Her hands tightened on the reigns and recently revived sensation, a heated effervescence, roiled under her skin, chased away as soon as it appeared by an icy fog.
Turning Gauner, she set off at a fair trot, dodging the trees like armed enemies.
She had to get away. She couldn’t be there when his eyes opened.
She wasn’t ready for that yet.