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Prince Henrik was a frog. It wasn’t his idea, but he was one. There were worse things he could have been enchanted into, of course. The flies he ate, for one; it was bad enough how the wings tickled on the way down into his gullet, but to actually be a fly would have been horrible. A disturbingly short lifespan and an unnatural attraction to animal droppings were not at all on his list of must-have experiences.
Still, there was the mud between one’s toes; that wasn’t as bad as it could have been. At least, not on a warm summer’s day like today. It was soft and squelchy, and satisfying in a way he hadn’t felt since he was a lad. The only problem was, he wasn’t a lad, and feeling like a lad was what had gotten him into this predicament.
Prince Henrik was doomed to remain a frog, unless he either married the Fairy Tilda—who was more than twice his age, and Henrik just couldn’t bring himself to marry a woman who had been born before even his own mother—or find a young woman willing to fulfill the fairy’s codicils.
I shouldn’t have said to her face that I didn’t need a “second mother.” That wasn’t well done of me. Nor did it help when my father’s chief counselor pointed out she was surely in the last gasp of her childbearing years and thus unlikely to bear a suitable heir…and I definitely should not have agreed, let alone concurred so wholeheartedly.
I also should have paid more attention to my geography lessons as a lad…
Part of the Fairy Tilda’s curse had been to translocate Henrik to a foreign land. Instead of the birch trees he was familiar with, this forest boasted a plethora of broad-trunked oaks. The only tolerable things about it were the mild weather and the large, tasty flies. One full month of life as a frog had taught him the different flavors of a variety of insects from spiders to gnats, and the fat, fuzzy, flies were the best. Except they tickled when they went down. Tasty, but disturbing at the same time.
If ever a frog could pray to the ears of the angels in Heaven, Henrik certainly tried. Every single meal, he offered up a prayer for deliverance. Every single mouthful, he worried he would never again be a man.
A strange, beautiful sound tickled his ears, or what passed for them. For a moment, the transformed prince wondered if he was hearing angels laughing. It was coming from the far bank of the river he had been deposited by, the river which was his temporary home. The near bank had a gentle slope to it, green and mossy with the occasional thicket of bracken ferns. The far side was steep and cliff-like; had he been a man, it would have been taller than his head, counting from the rippling surface of the water.
The noise echoed across the little valley again; his wide, blinking eyes swiveled and focused as three pastel-clad figures came into view. One of the three maidens—for they seemed to be young and lithe and full of laughter, though he couldn’t be completely sure at this distance—was holding aloft something gold and glinting in one hand. She twisted and turned in her attempts to dodge as the other two leaped and grabbed, trying to wrest it from her grasp.
Cries of “No, it’s mine!” and “Oh, please!” and “I just want to hold it!” echoed across the water, along with a particularly odd, almost lasciviously voiced, “—Just hold it? Iwant to try it!”
Intrigued, but unable to make sense of what the golden thing was, Henrik cursed his amphibian eyes. They were good enough for seeing things clearly within a few yards, but not so good for viewing things at a far distance. Hopping along the edge of the water—he never went far from the water, as his skin seemed to prefer being moist—he twisted his eyes this way and that, trying to focus on the object in the dark-haired maiden’s hands.
The three of them dodged and grasped, laughed and shrieked, begged and protested, until an accidental bump and an unexpected trip sent the owner of the gilded whatever tumbling to her hands and knees. The gleaming object, flung free of her grasp, tumbled over the edge of the low cliff and splopped into the river.
The other two girls, with their brown hair and their giggles, caught themselves before they also fell. Huddled together, they gaped at the water, dark with the thick mud coating the river bottom. From the disappointed, rueful looks on their faces, he guessed they couldn’t see whatever had been dropped. The way they sheepishly backed up as the other maiden struggled to her feet told Henrik they weren’t about to help the girl look for her fallen treasure, either.
“Wonderful. Just wonderful!” the grass-stained maiden muttered as she dusted off her gown. “Well, don’t just stand there. Help me get down the bank!”
The other two girls warily eyed the muddy edge of the cliff and backed up. Henrik heard them muttering something about “chores” and “embroidery” as they shook their heads. Without further ado, they hiked their skirts and ran up the slope, heading deeper into the woods. The young woman they left behind dropped to her knees and stared glumly at the river below.
Mindful of the terms of his enchanted imprisonment, Henrik hopped into the river. Whatever the girl had lost, if he could help her find it, she might consider herself indebted to him. It was a slim chance, but the only one he had. All he had to do was find a golden, metallic object in the mud of the riverbed.
It didn’t take long to find it, since logic dictated the object had fallen straight in, given the heavy splash it had made. Though it hadn’t been swayed more than an inch or two from its trajectory by the river’s current—geometry had been one of his favorite classes as a lad with his tutors—the bottom was very muddy at that point, giving him only a glimpse of polished gold. Orienting himself underwater, Henrik made sure he could find the spot again, then stroked up toward the surface.
His wide-swiveling eyes spotted the maiden gingerly picking her way down to the river’s edge several yards away. Letting the current carry him toward her, he watched her test the water with a hand, flinching at the chilly temperature. He was used to it, as it was one of the hazards of amphibious life, but she was clearly dubious about getting wet in search of her lost treasure. Leaping onto a head-sized rock at the water’s edge, Henrik cleared his throat.
“Ahem. Good afternoon to you, fair maiden!” he called out.
Startled, she lifted her gaze from the water. This close, Henrik could finally make out the details of her features, since as a frog he was woefully shortsighted. She had lovely light blue eyes and curly brown hair, a slightly turned-up nose, and a hint of freckles on her otherwise creamy complexion.
“Who..who’s there? Who spoke?” she demanded, twisting to look up and down the bank.
“Down here, on the rock. The frog,” Henrik clarified. She turned and peered his way.
Executing a courtly bow wasn’t easy in an amphibious form, but Henrik did his best. “Greetings, fair maiden. I am, as you see, an enchanted frog, capable of speech, including intellectual discourse and helpful hints.”
She blinked at him.
“I believe you have lost a golden object in the muddy depths of this river, yes?” he inquired politely.
“A…talking frog,” she muttered.
“Yes,” Henrik repeated patiently. “My name is Henrik. About a month ago, I said the wrong thing to a fairy—for which I am ever so sorry—and now I am stuck in the body of a frog. But I still have the wit and courage of a man. I noticed how you lost an item to the river, and I just happen to know exactly where to find it.”
She blushed. It wasn’t a shy, maidenly, becoming blush. It was a bright red, full-faced, all the way down onto the sternum blush, as revealed by the square neckline of her gown. Henrik wondered what could have embarrassed her so much.
“Would you like my assistance in recovering it?” When she said nothing, he prompted, “Or would you rather leave it in the mud and forget the expense of its fine gilding?”
She buried her face in her hands for a moment. “My mother is going to kill me… And a frog! A frog offers to help me!”
“A talking frog,” Henrik reminded her. A gnat buzzed into range of his tongue. Gnats were tasty, if not very filling. He carefully ignored it so as not to upset this maiden with too much froggish behavior. “Do you want my help, or would you rather splash around in the cold water and squishy mud, trying to find your lost item on your own?”
Face still red, she lowered her hands and gave him a tight-lipped look. Hitching up her skirts, she gingerly waded into the water. Henrik stifled the urge to point out that the knee-deep section she was sloshing through was a good eight feet or more from where she needed to be wading. Instead, he mustered his patience and waited. She finally gave up after several more minutes, shivering as she crawled out of the water.
“Oohhh! It’s no use! I’ve lost it forever!”
“No, you haven’t,” Henrik countered. At the sound of his croaking confidence, she started and glared at him.
“Haven’t you gone away, yet?” she asked, struggling to wring out her skirt without baring too much more of her lovely pale legs.
“My offer still stands…if with a small price,” Henrik stated. “I know exactly where your lost item has fallen. In fact, it can be done in a mere handful of minutes, with the assistance of your belt. And I will gladly help you retrieve it…if…”
“If?” she asked warily.