11.21.2017

Thomelisa Taken, Pt XXI

(Rough night for writing: it took me nearly fifteen minutes to churn out the first 300 words... but yay me for working even when I'm exhausted... ::pats self and also offers up a piece of chocolate, which self gladly accepts::)

***

He had released her- but where?  And there was no one left to ask- or rather, there were plenty of creatures to ask, but I couldn’t ask them, because my current spell, which would dwindle and fade to nothing within the hour, only allowed me to speak with insipid butterflies and bloody cockchafers- all of which were dead.  Lightning flashed overhead, turning everything to stark black-and-white.

Thunder roared almost immediately, and I let out a scream of rage in return, the two sounds blending together so that it seemed to me the very elements shared my grief.  The sound was still ringing in my ears when the next bolt of lightning snaked down out of the sky to skitter along the magical perimeter I’d thrown up.  The thunder roared again- and the Shield, overwhelmed with raw power, blew apart, letting the rain and wind rush back in.  I screamed again into the darkness, pummeling the tree with my fists until my knuckles were raw.  It was a waste of blood, but I didn’t care: anything was better than remaining still when I wanted to tear the world apart.

Think, Skovy, think!  She can’t be far- he couldn’t have carried her far, because he wasn’t that strong, and he was dying.  I took a shuddering breath and looked around the little wood again.  She would be sheltering from the rain- rain was unpleasant and potentially deadly when every drop was bigger than your head- but would she be in a tree?  Under a leaf?  Had she covered the distance to the corn field?

I sat down on the now soaking earth, ignoring the rain that was rapidly plastering my hair to my head.  There was nothing for it- I would have to craft a Greater Spell- one that would allow me to understand every creature.  But a crafting of that size… I dropped my face into my hands.  It would take months.

For a brief moment I considered just staying right where I was, and going over every last inch of the copse on my hands and knees.  Surely it would take less time for me to locate her doing that, than it would for me to craft the spell?  But… what if she wasn’t even there anymore?  She’d been taken by a toad, by a stream, by a thrice-damned cockchafer!  Who knew what else might get it into their mind to take her?  No, crafting the spell was the better path, painful as it would be to let all that time pass.

But if she was still here… I must think of some sign to leave her, to let her know that I would return, and that she should wait for me… but what?

11.20.2017

Thomelisa Taken, Pt XX

There, clinging to the bark of the tree not inches from my nose- was indeed a cockchafer.  Or, rather, the corpse of a cockchafer.  And there was another- and another- in fact, the more I looked, the more of their sad little shells I found.

“No,” I breathed.  No.  I couldn’t have come so far just to find nothing but death and silence!  I looked around the base of the tree and found more dead bodies- and evidence of the little burrows in which they’d lain their eggs.  “Please,” I said, hoping against hope to find some trace of Elisa-

“Please what?”

The voice was tiny, and it stopped me in my tracks.

“Please-” I said again.  “I’m looking for my daughter.”

“Well she isn’t here,” said the voice, irritably.  I honed in on the direction and saw a small cockchafer on a branch not three feet away, its antennae spread in a curiously lopsided manner.

“But she was here,” I said, moving closer.  “And I need to know where she’s gone!”

“How do you know she was here?” it asked.  It sounded almost… drunk.

“Because the butterfly said a cockchafer flew off with her in this direction.  Surely you must have seen them go by, a cockchafer carrying a girl no larger than my thumb-”  I held the digit up to demonstrate.

“Oh that fellow,” said the cockchafer, waving a foot dismissively.  “Crazy old Stargazer.  He’s dead now,” it gestured down to the scattering of carapaces at my feet.

“I don’t care about him!” I snapped.  “I want to know what happened to my daughter!”

“Your daughter, eh?” the cockchafer’s head wobbled as it looked at me.  “Huh.  We all told him she looked like a human, didn’t we?  Thin-waisted, leg-lacking, and ugly as the day is long.  But no, he kept insisting she was the loveliest thing he’d ever seen.  Poor mad creature was already halfway dead when he snatched her, I’ll tell you that.”

Tell me what happened to my daughter,” I said, fingers digging into the trunk. “Or I will end you.”

The cockchafer gave a little coughing laugh.  “Human, I’m already ended!  Or hadn’t you noticed the shells of my brethren littering the woods?  We were never meant to last so long as I have.”

I narrowed my eyes.  “Alright then.  I’ll make it so you can’t end, not ever.  You’ll spend the rest of eternity dying.”

The cockchafer gave another laugh.  “I like your honesty,  human.  Nasty on the outside, nasty on the inside.  You don’t have to threaten me with anything, I’ll tell you free enough.  We finally got Stargazer to see sense, and he took the creature back down out of the tree, to release it.  Lucky for her he did- he died not an hour later, and none of us would have touched.  And then where would she have been?  Stuck in a tree, with no way down, because she was too useless to have wings.”

I reached out and crushed the creature between my thumb and forefinger, just to shut it up.  A small part of me protested that I could have used it to charge a spell, but the larger part of me pointed out that there isn’t much life-force in a nearly-dead cockchafer, anyway.

11.19.2017

Thomelisa Taken, Pt XIX

(By the way, if you're still scratching your head thinking, "What the heck IS a cockchafer, anyway?" here is a nice little video about them.  I, personally, think they're cute, and think it's terribly unfair how Andersen was all, "Soooo ugly!")

***

I moved silently up the hill and through the grass to the little copse.  It seemed unlikely that your average cockchafer would be disturbed by my presence- most insects only took notice if you actively threatened them in some way- but there was no point in taking the chance.  The kind of bug that would snatch a girl might just be smart enough to realize someone might come looking for her.

The sky continued to darken as I climbed, and the wind began to pick up, carrying with it a wet, heavy scent.  More thunder rumbled, closer this time.  It was just as well I’d be in the trees soon, although it didn’t seem to me that they were thick enough to provide proper shelter.  Clover and daisies grew in riots among the trunks, which meant they received plenty of sunshine.  Just beyond the trees I could see a rich green cornfield stretching out, neat and orderly, for as far as the eye could see.  This land was owned, then.  Well, hopefully I wouldn’t encounter the farmer- I had no time for human nonsense at the moment.

I came within three feet of the trees and halted, eyeing them warily, and listening more carefully still for the low drone that might indicate the passage of a cockchafer.  There was nothing, however- at least nothing I could hear over the rising wind.  I fought the urge to use a Summoning spell- too many cockchafers in the world for that to do me any good- and instead took a steadying breath, and entered the wood.

The trees, although not particularly close, did act as a bit of a windbreak, which was nice.  Above me their branches danced, and the occasional leaf was pulled free to chase the its destiny to far off lands.  I thought of how light my daughter was, how light the cockchafers were- and what poor fliers- and realized that while rain might not interfere with my hunt, this wind certainly would.  I frowned, and pulled my pack off my back.  Interfering with the weather was always tricky- and honestly it was a bit late to stop anything.  But perhaps I could use a Shielding spell, writ large enough to encompass the trees?  That seemed like it might do the trick.

I had a pair of shielding spells ready in my gloves, charged and ready to cast- I’d need to do a bit of tinkering, to get what I wanted, but it was certainly do-able.  And thus, a few minutes later, I was suddenly surrounded by silence.  And then, not three heartbeats later, the decidedly odd sound of a summer downpour hitting (and streaming down) an invisible, magical shield, just above the treetops.  For a moment I stared, taken by the prettiness, and then I refocused on the task at hand.

I began to walk slowly around each tree, looking closely for any sign of insects.  And insects I found in plenty, but no cockchafers.  Not until the third tree I inspected did I find any trace of the bugs- and then what I did find made my heart sink like stone.

11.18.2017

Thomelisa Taken, Pt XVIII

(HAVE TO REWRITE THE EARLIER PART, TO SHOW MORE TIME GOING PAST- SKOVY SHOULD KEEP FOLLOWING THE LILY PAD FOR A FULL DAY, NOT JUST HOURS: FAR, FAR OVER-SHOOTING WHERE ELISA IS STOLEN.)

Sometime during my short sleep, clouds had rolled across the sky, and now that the sun was up it felt low and sullen, heavy with the threat of rain.  I had a spell that would hold it at bay, if need be- but then, did I really need to worry about traces being washed away?

I pulled the leaf-wrapped butterfly out of my pocket, fed it another bit of fruit, and let it fly about at the end of its tether.  While it stretched its wings, I crafted yet another spell for Understanding, this one more complex still, to allow me to speak with any cockchafers we might find.  I had to drain the life force of a small tree to charge it, and it took no small amount of my own power, as well.  I was quickly coming to realize that, if I did not find Elisa soon, I would need to figure out a way to cast a more permanent, all-encompassing spell of Understanding.  I had met no people on my journey, only animals and insects- and when it came to noticing the passage of a girl less than two inches tall, it made sense that they would be my primary witnesses.  I would need quite a bit of life force to charge that one, and quite a bit of power.  I had the power- but once I crafted the spell I would be depleted for a long, long time.

Well, hopefully it won’t come to that, I thought grimly, and rang the bell once more.

As the tinkle of the bell faded, I realized that the butterfly was singing- and singing a song it had learned from my daughter, no doubt.  I ignored the stab of pain that pierced my heart, picked the lilypad up.

“Alright, butterfly- help me find the place where my daughter was stolen, and I’ll release you.”

“Well it’s very difficult to tell from up here,” it said reproachfully.  “It’s not at all the proper angle.”

I clenched my jaw, but had to admit that the butterfly had a fair point.  “Alright,” I said stiffly, “Give me a moment and I’ll remedy that.”  So saying, I descended to the water- here it came only to my ankles- tied the lilpad with a bit of string, and gently placed it on the water.  Once I was satisfied that the string would hold, I began to walk slowly upstream, trailing the lilypad behind me.

“Call out if anything looks familiar,” I instructed the butterly.

“It all looks familiar!” it laughed.  “Except backwards.  I say, what fun!  I’ve never flown backwards before!”

“Focus, butterfly, or I’ll release you downstream once more,” I threatened.  The butterfly made a huffy sort of noise, but did settle down a bit.  I walked on, eyeing the world around us for any sign of cockchafers.  After half an hour of this, a great grumble of thunder rolled across the sky.

“Stop!” shrieked the butterfly, and I sighed with exasperation.

“It’s just thunder, butterfly.  It can’t hurt you-”

“No!” said the butterfly.  “Here!  This is where I heard his horrible buzzing wings!  So vulgar.”  He turned around so that he was facing upstream.  “There!  He flew off that way!”

I followed the direction of his gaze.  “Towards that clump of trees?” I asked.

“I suppose that’s what they are.  Cockchafers don’t eat nectar like civilized creatures, you know,” it sniffed.  “They chew on the plants themselves.  Can you imagine?”

I refrained from answering, but instead pulled the knife from my boot.

“Thank you, butterfly, for your friendship to my daughter.”  I severed the thread as close to its body as I could.  “I’m sorry I cannot remove the girdle entirely.”

The little creature immediately began to flutter this way and that about my head.  “That’s alright- it was a gift, and a lovely gift at that, and anyway won’t all the others be jealous over how dashing I look and how I heroically saved the little maiden?”  Before I could reply it had darted off, winging a meandering path this way and that towards a patch of clover.

I turned back towards the clump of trees.  My Elisa had never been in a forest before, could not know of the dangers it held, even if she did manage to escape the cockchafer.  Please, I prayed to the Triple-Faced Goddess, please let me find her.

11.17.2017

Thomelisa Taken, Pt XVII

“A horrible old cockchafer,” the butterfly shuddered.  “So ugly and unrefined!  Put his little claws around her waist and flew right off with her, without so much as a bye-your-leave, and her shrieking indignation!  Disgraceful.”

A cockchafer.  Bugs were often employed by witches, but not usually one so short-lived as a cockchafer.  Why, even if he’d been born at the very end of their season, he’d not live more than another two weeks, at the absolute most!

“When,” I managed to say.  “When did he take her?  And where?”

The concept of “when” seemed to be beyond the butterfly, but at last I got it to say that the kidnapping had occurred further upstream, where it had been small and brook-like.  I fought the urge to scream in frustrated rage; I’d come miles too far!

“But why?  Why would a cockchafer take my daughter?”  I wasn’t really asking the butterfly, just trying to find a thread to follow, any thread, but he answered nonetheless.

“Probably because she’s so beautiful!  Cockchafers are ugly and stupid.  He probably saw the two of us together, so beautiful in the sunlight, and thought that if he had one of us for his own he would become beautiful!  Ugly things always want to possess beautiful things, or else destroy them to keep others from possessing them.”

Destroy them?  No!  I surged to my feet.  There was no time for further conversation- I must retrace my steps immediately!  But…

“Sleep now, butterfly,” I said.  “And when you wake you can help me rescue my daughter from the cockchafer.”

“Of course I will,” the bug said sleepily.  “Beautiful things are always noble and good and heroic.”

I did not answer this silliness as I broke what little camp I’d established- there was a definite irony to the shallow little butterfly calling the cockchafer stupid.  I didn’t even find them particularly ugly, myself, but then I’d never been one to put value on appearances.  Ugly, beautiful, or somewhere in between, if the insect had harmed my daughter, I’d turn it inside out in the name of testing the “beauty is skin deep” precept.

It was slower going, back upstream.  I desperately wanted to rest, but I felt it made the most sense to get as far as I could tonight.  I also wanted to cry, but decided to wait.  A witch’s tears can be useful in certain powerful spells; there was no point in crying if I wasn’t also going to take the time to harvest them.  The butterfly, carefully wrapped in the lilypad and tucked into a pouch at my waist, was presumably sleeping the sleep of the dumb and righteous.  I tried not to envy him.

In the end I stopped a little downstream of where I felt the stream was small enough to be considered a brook.  Dawn wasn’t far off, now, and I needed to sleep for at least a few hours, so that I would be alert when I searched for… for whatever trace of passage a winged thing might have left.

I sank to my knees in despair, fighting the tears with every ounce of my willpower.  I had to sleep.  Once I had slept, my brain would be sharp again and surely- surely I would come up with something.  Was I a powerful witch, or wasn’t I?  Retired or not, reported dead or not, people still knew and feared my name.  I was not someone to be trifled with, and I would find who had taken my daughter.

11.16.2017

Thomelisa Taken, Pt XVI

Or, rather, didn’t stop, per se, but redirected towards my feet rather than somewhere in front of me.  Above me a gibbous moon gave more than enough light to see by, so I scanned the blue and pewter undulations of the bank for a way down.  I didn’t find any obvious trail, but I did notice a little pool, formed where a log had gotten trapped.  And there, caught between some rocks and a branch from the log, was a lone lilypad floating on the silvered surface.  And on that lilypad a small, white shape fluttered lightly in the evening breeze.

“Elisa!” I cried, lunging down the bank towards my daughter, completely disregarding the pain of stones and plants snatching at my flesh.  “Thomelisa!  I’m here!”

The white shape did not move, however, and as I came at last to the water I realized it was not my daughter at all.  It was… a butterfly?  Why on earth would a butterfly be sleeping on a lilypad? I wondered.  Don’t they sleep in flowers?

Perhaps it was dead, not sleeping.  I reached out a finger to nudge it gently, and it raised it’s head weakly.  As it did so, I realized there was something about its torso- something very familiar…

I gasped when I realized what it was: a girdle, braided from three fine threads.  Elisa had woven it for herself this past winter, from the scraps of my embroidery.  The colors were lost in the moonlight, but I knew that during the day one would be red, one blue, and one yellow.

I followed the length of the girdle with my eyes, and found that the other end was tied to the lilypad.  I frowned: that made no sense.  My daughter loved butterflies, and even if was a less-beloved creature, she was not cruel; why would she bind a living thing like this only to abandon it?  The poor thing would die of starvation before the next day was out!

I dropped the mass of lilies in the little pool, and carefully scooped up the lone lilypad that held the butterfly.  The poor thing had laid its head back down, antennae drooping.  I’d need to craft another spell to speak with it, Goddess providing it could live long enough.  Perhaps I should feed and warm it first.

And myself, for that matter.  I would be no good to Elisa if I passed out.

I carried the butterfly back up the bank, far enough away from the water that I could find a reasonably dry patch to settle us in.  I conjured fire from a match, and pulled a bit of honey from my pantry at home.  It wasn’t the same as nectar, of course, but the butterfly didn’t seem to mind overmuch when I offered it some.  I did not untie it yet, however: first I needed to discover what had happened here, and how long ago.

I used the bell again, charging it with my own blood.  The crafting went faster than I expected this time, even tho’ it was a more complex spell, designed to make the understanding go both ways.  Perhaps it was because I had so recently emptied the vessel, but no matter the reason, I was able to once again ring it sooner rather than later.  This time it sounded soft and tinkling, like how you might imagine a butterfly would laugh.

“What happened to you?” I asked.  The butterfly’s wings quivered in surprise.

“Oh!” it said.  “You can speak!  Oh my!”

“For now I can,” I said, trying to keep the desperation from my voice.  “But it won’t last for long, so I need to know what happened- how did you come to have my daughter’s girdle?”

“Oh was she your daughter?” the butterfly sounded delighted.  “I must say, I never would have guessed.  She was so perfectly formed, and you are… very large,” it ended, embarrassed.  I fought the urge to roll my eyes.

“I am aware that my daughter is beautiful.  That does not answer my question- how did you get her girdle?  And where is she now?”

The lovely white wings drooped.

“Taken,” it said, sadly.  “Taken away, and I could not follow because I was tied to the lilypad.  Not that I minded!  She was so delighted by the way I was able to steer the lilypad, and it was a delight to bring her joy.  I just wish she’d had a chance to free me.  I was afraid I was going to starve to death.”

It took every ounce of self-control I had not to snatch at the butterfly.  “Who,” I said.  “Who took her?”

11.15.2017

Thomelisa Taken, Pt XV

The very thought snapped me out of my dizzy spell: I didn’t have time to be overwhelmed.  I needed to get moving.  And in spite of my momentary lapse, I had the perfect tool immediately to hand.

But it would require yet another spell- one that was, perhaps, worthy of a witch’s life.

“You may go,” I told Ofrse’s son.  “But if I see you again, I will kill you, make no mistake.”

“My mother-”

“Her life is already ended,” I said coldly.  Your choice now is merely whether yours will also end here, or instead go on.”

I was surprised when he hung his head and considered.  Perhaps I shouldn’t have been- the bond between a parent and child was a strong one, as I well knew.  But Ofrse surely would have taught her son greater pragmatism than to throw his life away on nothing.  He was not a witch, could not challenge me with spells- and so long as he wore a toad’s form, he could not challenge me physically.  It was ridiculous that he should even briefly entertain the notion of not following my orders.

In the end, he did obey.  He said nothing- merely slipped into the water, and disappeared.  As he left my sight, so too did he leave my mind; other things needed my attention now.

I reached into the water where the lilypad had been, and groped about until I found the gnawed-off stalk.  The fish had gnawed it off perhaps a foot beneath the water, and once I had it in hand I dove beneath the water and followed it to its roots.  It took longer than I’d anticipated to achieve my goal, and I had to surface twice for air before I managed to work the root system free.  That accomplished, I dragged the whole dripping mess back to the shore, and got to work.

Things that have once been one piece don’t like being separated from the whole- that’s one of the basic principals of the Universe, and it’s why it’s easier to use magic to deconstruct an existing cake than it is to use magic to create a wholly new cake.  The ingredients retain loyalty to their original shape.  Of course, if you have ingredients that were once used to bake a cake, that has been deconstructed using magic, it’s nothing at all to cast a spell that will recreate that cake.  Which is, without a doubt, an extremely frivolous use of power and blood, but how else will a young witch learn if not by experimenting?  And at least there was a cake to help celebrate the knowledge gained.

My point is that the lily plant I now had draped across my lap would be perfectly willing- eager, even- to be used as a means to track down its missing pad- and hopefully thereby my Elisa.  I had the basic components of a Seeking spell already in pair of eyeglasses; I could transfer the spell to the plant, along with extra power, and charge it with Ofrse’s life.  With such a vessel, and such a charge, there shouldn’t been a corner in the Kingdom that the lilypad could disappear to, that I couldn’t follow it.

It was not quick work, although my impatience was soothed somewhat by the satisfaction of charging it with Ofrse’s blood: my theory had been correct, or nearly so- her toad body didn’t have quite the same amount of life energy that her witch body would have had, but it was not that diminished, really.  That was an interesting bit of information I’d keep in the back of my mind for later consideration, perhaps even experimentation…

I swatted the thought away.  I was retired, damn it, and anyway the spell was ready, and not a moment too soon: the sun was already approaching the treetops to the west.  Time to cast.

I stood, streaming pond water and blood, holding the great mass of vegetation in my fist, and said the words.  Immediately the lilies jerked in my grasp, towards downstream, and I bared my teeth in a savage grin.  I would find her.

I followed the stream south and east, as the sky gradually grew full of flame, and then deepened to violet, then cobalt, and at last a rich, velvety black.  I would have been weary, if I hadn’t had spells to refresh me.  Even with those, however, I was feeling the weight of my pack, and the strain of hiking miles over uneven terrain.  Beside me the stream had diminished to a babbling brook for a span, then become larger once more, until it was practically a river, the current moving faster than I could walk.  I tried not to think about that, focusing instead of what sorts of meals I would cook to celebrate my reunion with Elisa.  In my hand, the lilies continued to pull.

An hour or two after sunset I heard the distant rumble of a waterfall, and my blood ran cold.  I took a deep breath, trying to calm myself even as I quickened my pace.  Elisa was smart; if she’d heard the falls she’d have steered her vessel to shore.  True, she’d never seen a waterfall, but we’d talked about them- she understood about them.

And then the tugging in my hand abruptly stopped.

11.14.2017

Thomelisa Taken, Pt XIV

They came.  Perhaps because they were curious about me, perhaps because they wanted to brag about what they had done: it didn’t matter to me, so long as they came.


I could see their little mouths opening and closing, and the way they flipped their fins and shimmied their bodies, and I had to assume they were saying something to Ofrse’s son.  Before I could grow impatient, he turned to me and started speaking once more.


“I was right; they set her free because they didn’t think she should have to marry me.  They’re extremely proud of their own cleverness.  It’s quite annoying.”


“Did they push it to shore?” I asked.  Ofrse’s son croaked at the fish again, which started them up into much agitated darting and leaping.”


“No,” he said, reluctantly.  “They say they started to push her to shore, but she asked them to push her into the current, instead.  They say she said that she’d stand a better chance of truly escaping us that way.”


“Of course she did,” I said, my heart swelling with pride.  Elisa could handle herself on the open water, and the current was surely strong enough to sweep her far from the toads, whereas if she’d tried to go overland they’d have caught her in no time.  My brave, clever daughter.  If only it didn’t complicate my own task!


One of the fish shot a small stream of water at the toad, and I could swear I hear laughing.  He ignored them, and continued, “They say that once the current caught her she waved goodbye, and that was that.  They didn’t follow her, not even to the current.  They’re stupidity is due in no small part to their short attention spans.”


I gazed downstream, but could not make out any distant specks floating on the water.  “Ask them how long ago that was.”


Ofrse’s son shook his head.  “They don’t know time like we do.  I could give you my best approximation, tho’.  Mother had me haul the bed into the state chamber- that’s when I heard the fish talking about how ugly I am, and started to realizing what Mother had in mind- and that was a little after sunrise- fish are very active that time of day, you know-”


“Yes but when did she disappear,” I asked through gritted teeth.


“I’m getting to that,” he shifted nervously from one set of feet to the other.  “I was going to say… I stayed in the state room after that and Mother accused me of sulking and maybe I was but really I was trying to think how I could get out of it, and then not too much later I heard her shrieking ‘she’s gone!’ which of course she meant your daughter… so maybe two hours ago?”

Two hours!  I felt dizzy.  My daughter had a two-hour head start, in a swift current no less.  Would I ever be able to find her?

11.13.2017

Thomelisa Taken Pt XIII

Ofrse’s son did not try to run- or to swim- but I had not really expected him to.  With a witch for a mother, he knew what I was capable of.  Or at least he thought he did, although with Ofrse for a mother he really only knew the half of what I was capable of.  Still, it was enough to keep him in one place while I pondered how best to craft- and charge- the spell I needed.

I decided the newly emptied bell would be the best vessel for my needs.  A summoning is a kind of message, and a message is meant to be understood.  It would work nicely.  To charge it I was tempted to use Ofrse herself- she was about the right size for it, but I was curious about whether or not she might contain the energy of a full-sized witch in her tinier form.  Her aura indicated that she might, in which case I’d rather store it, and save it for later.  So I decided to drain one of the crystals I’d stored energy in many years ago.

It took time, but not nearly as much time as it might have taken, had I not had energy at hand, and a pre-used vessel to work with.  Because I was right; the similarity in purposes was close enough to ease the crafting, which sped things up considerably.  The sun hadn’t moved more than a finger’s-breadth by the time I finished, and I felt confident the spell, improvised as it might be,  would achieve my purpose.

I rang the bell, and said the proper words.  This time it was a lower, almost croaking ring, which made sense: I’d spelled it specifically to let me understand toad, which took far less power than if I’d wanted a more general understanding of animal tongues.  For that I’d have certainly needed the blood of at least two bears- and what a waste of meat that would be.

“Now,” I eyed Ofrse’s son, “Say again what you were trying to tell me.”

His throat swelled up, and he began to croak- but this I heard only dimly, as though music were being played in a distant room.  Above that, over that, I heard him speak.

“I didn’t want to marry her- I certainly didn’t want to- to do that to her!  But Mother didn’t care, she was determined to break the curse, which isn’t even a curse, but she-”

“Back to the point, child,” I said, for his voice put me in mind of a youth, not a man.  “What were you trying to tell me about the movement in the water?”

“Oh!” he gave a little hop, then shook himself.  “I was trying to tell you that they did it- the little fish.  They nibbled her free.  Or at least, it was probably them, because I heard them talking about what a shame it was for such a beautiful maiden to be married to such an ugly thing as me.”

This came across matter-of-factly, with no trace of sadness or anger.  I raised an eyebrow, and he made a movement that I somehow understood as a shrug.

“I don’t care what they say: fish are deeply stupid, and anyway the lady toads think I look just fine.”

I frowned.  I would need to talk to the fish- but I didn’t have time to craft another spell and this one would only work on toads.  And only for another hour or so.

“Can you call them up for me?”  I said, “And tell me what they say?”

“I can call- they might not come,” he said.  “Like I said, fish are deeply stupid, and they might not realize that making a witch angry is a lot worse than talking to a potential predator.”