Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A Froggish Fate by Sarah Taleweaver

Life as a frog, Gervais had quickly decided, had to be the most boring existence there was.
            He certainly hadn’t expected to end up here after the widow refused him, not that he’d really had any particular expectations about what had become of him. He’d just known that he’d have to find another way to repay his debts besides marriage to a rich woman. After that, one thing had led to another- as things often do- and he’d found himself here, a frog in a swamp ruled by a snake that also seemed to be a woman. Where he’d once occupied his time with hunts, travel, and court life, now he was limited to planning what he’d say once he found a women to kiss him out of his frogginess. Not that there was much point even in that. No one, man or woman, ever came here.
            They probably knew better.
            A commotion of splashing and voices some way off contradicted Gervais’s thought. He hopped into the water and swam towards the sound. Maybe he had a chance! Maybe he could get help from this person, assuming the serpent didn’t get whoever it was first.
            Then he saw the newcomer and all his hopes disappeared faster than his money had. He knew this man. The golden hair, the handsome face, the scarlet clothes- he couldn’t forget those. But, oddly, this man had bright golden eyes, while the knight Gervais remembered had worn scarlet patches.
            The man called out, confirming Gervais’s fears. “Oi! ChuMana, m’dear! Are you about, then?”
            There could be no mistaking that golden voice. Gervais sank deeper into the water. Maybe he could avoid the knight’s notice and slip out while the serpent was distracted. As quietly as he could, he continued swimming toward the two pillars marking the swamp’s exit.
            The serpent, ChuMana, arrived.
            Gervais froze as he felt her ripples in the water. Half his mind screeched for him to swim as fast as he could in the other direction. The other half remembered his plan, his hopes of escape. The serpent reared up out of the water suddenly-
            In front of the knight, scaring him into letting out a “meeeaaa!” that would’ve sounded appropriate from a terrified housecat. It sounded no less appropriate from this golden man, but Gervais couldn’t be bothered to think about that oddity just now. ChuMana, who currently looked like a woman with no arms, appeared to be focused on the knight. Good. Gervais redoubled his efforts to reach the exit.
            Somewhere very close behind him, Gervais heard a splash. A moment later, the serpent’s tail wrapped around him and plucked him from the water. He flailed, but could do nothing but given an alarmed “Graaaaaaup!”
            The tail brought Gervais face-to-face with the knight. He kicked, but at the same time, he knew with absolute certainty that he was probably doomed. For the first time, he noticed that the knight had a girl with him, a dirty, dark-skinned creature who appeared to be asleep.
            The knight took Gervais from the serpent and raised him to eye level. “Now, you know your part. Kiss the girl like you mean it and we’ll all be better off, understand?”
            No, Gervais didn’t entirely understand, but he supposed he had a better chance as a human than a frog. He let out an unenthusiastic “Graup” and let the knight turn him to face the girl. It’s your best chance, he reminded himself, as if he had a choice in the matter. Then his mouth was pressed against the girl’s.
            Instantly, his mind was filled with strange sights: a mountain path, dark maidens with bleeding feet, a dark sky, a grim-faced man. Gervais wanted to pull away, though he would’ve enjoyed the kiss if not for the eerie images. The knight, however, would not let him.
            Suddenly, the girl came awake. She flailed, smacking the knight’s chin and knocking Gervais away. He let out an alarmed “Graaaup!” and splashed back into the swamp a few feet away. A moment later, he felt his body stretching, straining, shifting-
            And then he was human, half-submerged in muddy water. Gervais scrambled to his feet, not gracefully, but with remarkable speed for one who’s spent two months as a frog. He made straight for the exit, splashing through the muck as quickly as possible.
            The knight and the girl stood in his way. The knight looked up and snarled. “Dragon’s teeth.”
            Dragon’s teeth indeed. What now? The knight must’ve recognized him; he couldn’t possibly not. What to do? Gervais could think of only one thing to do: pretend not to recognize the knight and enact his plan on how to thank the maiden who un-frogged him. So, he swept into a bow, more gracefully than he thought he could after all his time as a frog. The girl was obviously unconscious, but Gervais addressed her anyway. “Fair creature of untold beauty! How long have I awaited the deliverance brought by your sweet kiss?”
            The knight seemed to be trying to help the girl stand as he snapped, “Enough blathering. She’s unconscious and cannot hear you. Just as well if you plan to speak in clichés.” He shook the girl. “Come, this is ridiculous. One doesn’t faint upon waking from an enchanted sleep!”
            As the knight seemed too busy with the girl to recognize him, Gervais chose not to point out that girls liked clichés quite well if you said them like you’d just made them up yourself. Instead, he did his best to slip quietly past them. He hadn’t gotten very far before the knight turned on him again. “Here. Take her. I’ve had quite enough of this heroics nonsense. And have I mentioned that it’s none of my business?”
            Gervais blinked. Two thoughts whirled in his mind: he doesn’t recognize me? And he wants me to take the girl? Unsure what else to do, he said the first thing that popped into his mouth. “She isn’t mine.”
            “She is now. She kissed you out of your froggishness, didn’t she?” The knight took a staggering step forward, obviously planning to dump the girl in Gervais’s arms. “Take her and deliver her kingdom like a man, then marry her, why don’t you?”
            Marry? That girl? Gervais took a hasty step back and nearly fell into the swamp. “M-marry? Oh, now, Sacred Lights!”
            The knight fixed Gervais with an incredibly cold stare. “Don’t tell me you have any complaints?”
            Dragon’s teeth! Thunder rolled. Gervais jumped and instinctively hunched his shoulders. “Oh, I’m certainly not complaining. Much obliged for the rescue, of course. But-”
            “But what?” the knight demanded. His stare, if possible, grew colder.
            “Well, marriage . . .” Gervais could think of no other way to put it. “I am expected to marry well.”
            “To a princess, I would imagine?” The knight shrugged the girl in his arms. “This one is as much of a princess as you’ll ever find.”
            He had to be joking.
            “She drank from an enchanted River. Who but a princess does that? True, she’s not much to look on right now-”
            Well, that was true enough.
            “-but she’ll clean up well enough. And she rescued you, by Lumé, from a fate amphibian! Just the girl to bring home to mum and dad.”
            No, this was not at all the girl to bring home to his father. Gervais rubbed the back of his neck. A drop of rain plopped onto his nose, followed by others that splashed into pools around them. Honesty about his situation seemed to be the only choice in this predicament. Oh well. “The thing is, I need  to find myself a bride with a  certain amount of dowry. Never mind why. But this girl . . .” He made a helpless gesture. “I mean, look at her. Princess or not, one must wonder if she’d recognize the value of a gold coin if it hit her in the eye!”
            The knight no longer even pretended to smile. “You won’t take the creature because she had no riches?”
            Gervais sighed. “It’s a sad business, I know, but what is a man to do? So I’ll just be moving along, then. When she comes to herself, give her my thanks. It has been a pleasure, and her kiss was nothing to frown upon, take my expert word for it! Farewell, princess! Farewell, stranger! I must take my leave-”
            He turned to walk away and found himself face-to-face with the serpent. Though she still looked like a woman, she wore a snakish smile. “And where do you think you’re going?”
            Gervais backpedaled. “Oh, dragon’s-” The rest of his curse turned into a startled scream as the woman-serpent darted forward and bit his shoulder. He felt himself shrinking rapidly into a bullfrog again and knew that all hopes of escape were, for the moment, pointless.
            Dragon’s teeth.

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