Six fingers interlaced with five. Leif opened his mouth to speak, not quite knowing what he would say, when he was interrupted by a booming voice from outside the grotto.
“Human! Come, face me and meet your death!”
The voice was so loud that it made the mirrored walls shiver. An eyeglass was shaken loose from its moorings and fell to the ground, where it smashed into pieces. Rojin gave a squawk of indignation as they rushed over to it, and became almost immediately absorbed by the task of picking up the shards. They crouched, their cloak of feathers spread out around them, and gingerly began sorting the shards into five little piles, according to a series of criteria that were apparent only to them.
Leif, still stunned at Rojin’s proposal, dithered for a long moment before he picked up his sword and peered cautiously outside the entrance.
Outside stood a monstrous toad demon, as tall as a hawthorn bush. He was dressed in the traditional winter garb of his kind: a thick, ornately embroidered robe of living moss buttoned up to his yellow throat with carved acorn buttons, and a cap of mouse fur. His enormous eyes, as pearlescent as two liquid opals, held sideways pupils within their depths which widened when they landed on Leif.
“Aha!” the toad boomed. “So the rumours are true! How the willows touch the waters, eh? Ha! I have come to slay you, little Prince!”
Leith readied his sword, and immediately dropped it.
“Whoops!” he said. Then, “What rumours?”
“An unprotected little tadpole, sent into our depths! How the bubbles rise! A little royal gift, eh? A little offering from the Order of Perspiration!” The toad flicked his moss robe aside, revealing his weapon of choice hanging at his hip – a large and ornate flyswat. He brandished it menacingly.
“Protection!” said Leif, rather hotly. He picked the sword back up and waved it about thoroughly.“My family serves the Order of Protection.”
“That’s what I said. All those human orders, they’re all the same thing really, ain’t they?”
“NO,” said Leif, indignantly. He gave the sword another good wave about. “And I’m not a gift! I’ve been sent out on a mission, as it happens. An important mission! Not that it’s any business of yours!”
“That’s not what I’ve heard. How it all ripples out, eh? I’ve heard they want you dead!”
“Dead!” The road raised the huge flyswat above his head. “Say your prayers, little prince! The pond shall dry around you!”
Leif, seeing that a conflict was inevitable, squared himself. He pointed the sword directly at the belly of the toad demon, and held himself quite still. The blade was heavy and dull, but the clouds had parted, and a thin beam of winterlight seemed to strike its edge just so and set it gleaming. A feeling of great dread and heaviness seemed to settle on his heart, but with it came an intense stillness – and below the stillness, the sense of something unseen, tumultuous, seething below the surface somewhere but rising, rising -
At this moment, Rojin stuck their head outside of the grotto. “What’s all the racket?”
“Rojin!” said the toad. He lowered the flyswat.
“Oh! It’s Nigel! Hello Nige! How are the kids?”
The toad demon touched a great webbed finger to the brim of his fur cap. “How do! Didn’t think you was home! Look what I’ve caught!” He gestured affably to Leif. “A little snack! Want some?”
“Oho! Watch yourself! That little snack is my fiancé!” Rojin said. They hopped out and came to stand next to Leif, their chest puffed out with pride.
Leif lowered his sword at last, his heart pounding. The strange, still feeling had broken with the moment and disappeared.
“This little snack’s not for eating!” he said. He wished that something a little more impressive had come out, but there it was. He continued, hurriedly. “And it’s got no quarrel with you! I’ve got no quarrel with you.”
“Goodness!” said Nigel, peering down at him. “Well! How the lily drifts! Fiancé, is it? You and Rojin - undecideds?”
“That’s right,” said Leif.
“It’s true!” crowed Rojin.
“A human fiancé! Well, I never! And a royal to boot! Well, Rojin, it’s about time! Congratulations! Ha! Ha! Ha! And here’s me about to make a little elevenses of him! Ent it lucky I didn’t swallow him up, eh?!”
Both Rojin and Nigel laughed heartily at this thought – even Leif joined in, although a little uneasily.
“Apologies, Prince Leif,” said Nigel. “I had no inkling you was associated with Rojin. As the rushes bow to the wind, I hope you’ll forgive me.”
“Think nothing of it,” said Leif. He was rather struck that Nigel appeared to know his rank, and even his name. “Have you heard of me, then?”
“Oh yes, yes,” said Nigel, with a careless wave. “Well now, you absolutely must come and meet the missus! And the little hoplings have been asking after you Rojin, won’t you both come for a spot of supper?”
“The thing is,” said Leif, a little timidly, “I’m on a mission. I haven’t found a single Divine Relic yet, and I really should try and find just one, just to get started.”
“Leif’s looking for calamities,” said Rojin, cheerfully.
“Is that right? Ent you humans funny! Well, why not ask my ma about them? She’s lived round these parts for over a thousand years – if anyone knows about afbrigati, it’ll be her! Come, she’d love to meet a human! And Rojin’s undecided, to boot! You must come, say you will!“
And so, they went. It was not a long walk – Nigel lived beside a pond nearby, not more than a couple of miles. He led the way, and was very talkative, entering into a lengthy monologue about his family history, which could be traced back over fifty thousand years. Leif and Rojin walked behind a little ways, listening. They were a little shy with one another and did not speak very much at first.
“It’s good you didn’t kill Nigel,” Rojin offered, at length.
“Yes!” said Leif. “Yes, that would have been awful, wouldn’t it?”
They walked along a little more in silence.
“I’ve never been betrothed,” Leif blurted out, unexpectedly. “My family didn’t think it was proper, what with my constitution. I have the falling sickness, you know – I’m much better with it now, but – well. I thought you should know. I was unwell for ever such a long time, as a child. They sent me away to the seaside for many years, for the good air – so I really haven’t seen much of the world. I’m a little stronger now, and better, and I haven’t had a fit for many months. But I did think you should know. In human circles, at least, I have not been judged to be suitable husband material. And I would hate to mislead you. And I would understand completely if you withdrew your proposal.”
Rojin stopped dead. “What!” they said, aghast.
“I know,” said Leif, miserably. “I can’t apologise enough, I would have said so at once, but we were interrupted.”
“This is quite wrong,” said Rojin, seriously. They put a hand on Leif’s shoulder, and looked hard into his eyes. “You are very fine husband material. Understand? Very fine. Who has told you this thing?”
“I have the falling sickness,” Leif repeated. “I have fits, sometimes, Rojin. I’m afraid I’m not well.”
Rojin stared at him in disbelief. “Not well? Many of our finest shamans and witches have this gift! What’s it to do with being a husband?”
Leif stood mutely for a moment, twisting his hands together. “I’m not very strong,” he offered, at last.
“That’s alright!” said Rojin, brightly. “I’m very strong! Strong enough for both. Anything else?”
“I might be unwell, sometimes.”
“So might I be!” said Rojin. He patted Leif’s shoulder. “Everyone gets unwell sometimes! I’ll look after you, and bring you little mirrors if you like. Would you like that?”
“Yes,” said Leif, thickly.
“What! Are you sad? Oh dear! Are you crying?” In their alarm, Rojin flew into their small magpie form, up to Leif’s shoulder, to his crown, to his other shoulder, fluttering their wings in agitation.Nigel came back along the path to see what was happening.
“Deary dear, what’s all this then?”, he said, when he saw Leif’s face. He patted his pockets and pulled out a large green handkerchief. “There, there, little human,” he said. “Are you sad about…” he paused, consulted his knowledge of humans, and hazarded a guess. “Weapons?”
Leif could not immediately answer.
“You’ll have lots of weapons soon, I expect,” said Nigel, soothingly. “Lovely big swords and things. You’ll like that, won’t you?”
“I don’t know why he’s sad! He was only telling me he has seizures,” said Rojin, greatly perplexed.
“Well! A real all-rounder, isn’t he?“ said Nigel. He looked at Leif with renewed respect. “You’ve done well for yourself there, Rojin. Now, what are you crying for, eh? What’s the matter?”
“I’m happy. I’m just happy.” Leif rubbed his eyes with the back of his sleeve.
Rojin flew into their human form in order to peer closely and anxiously into his face.
“Yes! He’s just happy!” Rojin announced, with great relief.
“Goodness me, you young things! All sunshine and storms, eh! Come on, it’s not far now – Ma’ll have tea on.”
Leif and Rojin walked hand in hand the rest of the way.
Soon they reached the toad demon’s dwelling, which was set below ground in a hollowed out burrow beneath an enormous boulder. The boulder was set at the edge of a fishpond, and stood many spans high. It was covered from the bottom almost to the top with the painted outlines of many hundreds of webbed hands in varying shades of green and yellow paint.
“My ancestors,” said Nigel proudly, seeing Leif’s interest. He stooped and pointed at some of the faded handprints at the bottom of the boulder. They were much larger, and the webbed fingers had the suggestions of talons at the ends.
“Periphemus the net-weaver,” he said, modestly. “Yes, THE Periphemus! We were much larger back then. There at the top – that’s my oathmark, and next to it there’s my wife’s.” His own handprint was smaller than the huge prints of his ancient ancestors, but just as distinct. Next to it, in yellow paint, was the more slender print of his wife – an unwebbed marking with rounder toes.
“My girls are too young yet, but come next season their oathmarks will join the rest!”
As if on cue, a little crowd of young toad demons came clamouring and hopping out from under the boulder, having heard their father’s voice. There were four in all, and although they were still children each one was as tall as Leif. Being children still, they all took the form of natural toads, lacking the inclination to adopt the more tiresome, upright demonic form of their father, and lacking the sophistication to adopt a human form, which was a very complex and unnecessary business. They preferred to clamber and jump around as little toadlets, and so they did, each little demon still retaining their tadpole tail as a mark of their young age.
“Papa’s back! Papa come and look!”
“Oh look, it’s Rojin! Rojin’s come to visit – Mama! Mama, Rojin’s here and they’ve bought a- a-!”
A sudden hush fell across the pile of toadlets as they all stared at Leif.
“A human!” Rojin announced.
One of the toadlings gave a little shriek, turned tail and scrambled back beneath the boulder, wailing at the top of her voice. A second followed quickly, after giving Leif a long and doubtful stare. The third hopped forward excitedly –
“A human! Like in the stories? Is it a real one? Does it have lots of weapons with it? Is it true it can’t transform? It’s much smaller than I thought. Humans only have FOUR fingers papa, plus a toe! Humans can ride on the backs of horses! Papa, did you know that? Horses aren’t scared of humans – that’s right, isn’t it?” She addressed Leif directly.
“Yes, that’s quite right,” said Leif, mildly. “They’re not afraid of us, once we tame them. We can ride camels, too. And donkeys. Even elephants.”
The toadling gaped. The fourth toadling, who had been mute up to this point, came forward and gently but quite determinedly took Leif’s elbow into her mouth with the intention of eating it. She gummed at it a few times before Leif politely extracted it.
“He’s not for eating!” said Rojin. “Can you guess why I’ve bought him to visit?”
The toadling considered. “Is Nana to cook him first?”
“Children, children,” Nigel said sternly. “The human is Rojin’s guest – I want you on your best behaviour. His name is Prince Leif, and he’s not for eating. I do apologise, Prince,” he said as an aside, “we’re not used to seeing humans around these parts, you’ll forgive us, I’m sure. These are my girls – that’s Mully, the peckish one’s Buss. That was little Nullrush and her sister Shrulia what just ran inside.”
“That’s quite alright,” said Leif, and put his hand out. “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, mademoiselle,” he said to Mully, using the high tongue.
Mully stared at the hand, then burst into a peal of laughter. Buss seemed to be debating inwardly whether it would be appropriate to attempt to eat the hand – she opened her mouth tentatively and cast a querying look at her father, who shook his head.
“Now girls, that’s a proper human greeting!” said Rojin, delighted. “Come, shake his hand! That’s what the humans do to say hello! Take his hand in yours – no, not with your foot, your hand, your hand – that’s right!”
Leif gravely shook the large, webbed hand of Mully, and then of Buss, to their extreme interest and gratification.
A slender newt demon put her head out from under the boulder at this point - a tearful-looking Nullrush and a wary Shrulia could be seen peering out from behind her.
“I’ve bought company, dear!” said Nigel, and went to kiss her. She was a very beautiful newt, with feathery gills around her face and an orange-spotted throat the colour of a satsuma. She was dressed from head to tail in dark grey mole-velvet, and wore a long, narrow cloak of woven dried rushes along her dorsal crest. Nigel must have murmured a few words of explanation to her, because she came over to Rojin at once with sparkling eyes and embraced them, and Leif heard her say a few quick, soft words.
She then came and greeted Leif with wonderful composure, although she had never met a human before and must have been exceedingly curious about him.
“Welcome, human!” she said. “I am Lucellia, of the Deep-Waters-of-Golden-Rushes-Below-The-Open-Stone-Hand-Where-The-Duwla-Lily-Flowers.”
“The human placename is Hemmemskän,” Rojin supplied. “North from here. Quite far North.”
“I know it well!” said Leif. In truth, it hadn’t occurred to him that any realm on the island would be called anything other than the human-given name that he was familiar with. He glanced rather guiltily at the oathmarks on the boulder, stretching back fifty thousand years through generations of demons. His own recorded family history stretched back just three hundred years.
“Any friend of Rojin’s is very welcome here!,” said Lucellia of the Deep-Waters-of-Golden-Rushes-Below-The-Open-Stone-Hand-Where-The-Duwla-Lily-Flowers. “Come in out of the cold, and join us for supper.”
The space beneath the boulder was not what Leif had expected. He had judged from the outside that the toad family had dug out a bare earthen burrow beneath the rock, but as they neared the entranceway he perceived that this burrow had actually been lined with an enormous drawstring bag, the gaping open mouth of which they stepped into by way of a front door.
Then something ineffable and slight seemed to shift as they crossed the threshold; it was as if they passed through the surface of a bubble, and Leif saw to his amazement that the interior of the bag was impossibly huge, and contained a great, old wooden-style manor house and grounds within it. The path to the front door, and all the gardens either side of it, were submerged comfortably under a foot or so of water, and bog strawberries and pond lettuce were being cultivated in the submerged beds. Leif waded gamely onwards, his boots gradually filling with water. Looking upwards Leif perceived a sky that appeared to stretch up endlessly, and a sun that shone down but seemed somewhat veiled, as if it were being viewed through a piece of silk.
The manor itself wallowed indulgently among the lilypads; a low, massive, ornate building made of carved teak. As Leif waded inside, he saw that the entirety of the manor had been carefully flooded inside also – this was precisely how the demons liked it. The family splashed inside in a jolly mood, chattering away. There was no natural light inside, but the manor was lit throughout by a strange and beautiful green light, emitted from hundreds of domesticated glow-beetles.In the sitting room there sat an ancient old grandmother toad demon with a tadpole on a sling at her back, sitting on her haunches in the water and stirring a bubbling pot that sat upon an elevated hearth in the centre of the room.
She raised her eyes when the party entered, and nodded contemplatively.
“Rojin has bought a human with them today!" She croaked to herself, or perhaps to the sleeping tadpole on her back. “My, my, my. How the lilies drift!”
“Good afternoon, toad-grandmother!” said Rojin, and bowed very low, not straightening again until she croaked “that’s all very good. Come and sit.” She patted the surface of the water beside her, sending out ripples.
Rojin did not come and sit, but instead touched a hand very lightly to Leif’s back, indicating discreetly that he too should bow. Leif, perceiving that he was in the presence of a very ancient and very respectable demon, knelt in the water at once and kissed her webbed hand, an action which was met with much interest from the toad family, and which was received with grave dignity by the grandmother.
“What’s he doing that for?” Buss asked, staring.
“The humans have many greetings,” croaked the old toad. “As many as a day of mayflies. They have greetings for children, and for friends, and for elders. And for mates. Is not that right, Rojin? Heh, heh, heh. I speak the truth, do I not, Prince Leif Berranek?”
“You do, madam,” said Leif. He rose, dripping - a little startled at being so directly addressed. “May I ask - how is it that your family knows my name?”
“Hm, hm!” said the old toad. “Your coming to this realm has been foretold.”
The fire crackled and spat. The smoke rose to the high ceiling in a thin, grey column, and hung there, stirring softly about upon itself.
“Foretold in a legend?” Rojin asked, in hushed tones. “Foretold in a dream?”
“In a pamphlet,” said Nigel, coming to sit down with a splash. “They’re in all the pubs.”
“What?” said Leif, amazed. “What pamphlet?”
Lucellia remembered suddenly - “we got one in the post the other day, didn’t we love? Nullrush, be a minnow and see if it’s still in the recycling bin, won’t you?”
Leif and Rojin and the children sat themselves down around the cooking-pot while they waited – Leif lowering himself rather gingerly and wincingly, for the cold water immediately soaked through his trousers and submerged him up to his waist, while Rojin threw himself cheerfully down with a splash.
Nullrush soon returned, triumphantly holding a slightly damp pamphlet aloft.
Leif took it and read it.
“FREE MEAL!” The pamphlet read on the front. Inside, there was an engraving of Leif, labelled “the delicious Prince Leif Berranek”
The booklet outlined, briefly, that a young prince would be entering the region around the first day of Icewhile, dressed in low quality armour and armed with a blunt sword. Readers were assured that this was a limited time offer and were encouraged to “snap him up while he’s good and fresh!”
Leif read this with the greatest confusion and perplexity. Rojin, looking over his shoulder, became immediately very excited and snatched it up.
“What’s THIS!” they exclaimed. “There’s a picture of you, Leif! There’s a picture of him! Have you seen the picture of him, Nigel?"
Nigel assured him that he had.
“What a likeness! Did you see, Lucellia? Here, just take a look!”
The pamphlet was passed around and the likeness was greatly admired.
“I shall cut that picture out!” Rojin announced, smilingly. “I will carry it with me! Can I borrow some scissors, Nigel?”
Nigel went off to get some scissors.
“But the content,” protested Leif. “Where did this come from?”
“There’s no author marked down.” Lucellia turned it over, thoughtfully. “But it came in the post by seabird, and ours is all delivered by bats, usually.”
Leif turned pale. Several different sorts of birds were used across the island to send letters between human-kind, depending on the length of the journey required, but seabirds were the exclusive couriers of the Order of Protection.
“You’re quite sure?” he said, faintly. “You’re sure it was a seabird?”
“I… I see.”
Lucellia saw that he was dismayed and shocked, and wished to comfort him. She went directly to a dresser in the corner, rummaged around and returned at length with a large blade. “I know you humans like weapons,” she said, tenderly. “Would you like to hold this for a bit?”
“Um. Thank you,” said Leif, who had been raised with very good manners.
The knife was demon made, and to Leif was as large as a broadsword. As Leif hefted it over towards him he became suddenly aware of a tremendous power surging through the handle, and was so surprised that he almost dropped it.
“This blade –“ he stammered.
“It’s only an old butter knife,” Lucellia said, apologetically. “We don’t really have any weapons around here. But it’s got a blade, and I know you humans like those!”
Leif stared at the butter knife, the blade of which, although quite blunt, was glowing fey-hot. It crackled softly with the fire of a thousand suns.
“It warms the butter up lovely!” said Nigel, who had returned with some scissors.
To Leif’s great consternation, Rojin at this point reached over and actually picked the knife up by the blade to admire it for himself. Rather than spontaneously combusting, he said “oh, it IS warm! Good for crumpets!”
“It’s hot!” cried Leif, excitedly. “It’s blazing hot! This sword is a divine relic, I’m sure it is!”
The children giggled – the old toad grandmother laughed softly to herself, and shook her head. “Sword, he calls it!” she chided. “You humans see everything as a weapon. It’s a butter knife, is what it is, child. Demon-made. Now, if you humans had forged it, I’m certain you would have made it into a sword, or a helm, or something else to carry into a battle, as sure as the pond is deep. There is a reason we call them calamities when they are human made.”
“This is a calamity!” Leif took the relic up cautiously by the handle to admire it more closely– he could not touch the metal as Rojin did.
“In your hands, perhaps,” said the old grandmother, severely. “In ours, I assure you, it is a butter knife.”
But Lucellia was charmed by Leif’s obvious delight, and by the quickness she observed in the changing of his mood, which was believed to be a very human trait. “Oh, just look how happy he is,” she said coaxingly to the grandmother, and she came over to help serve the bubbling stew into bowls. “I tell you, that old butter knife never made me so happy!”
“Hmph!” said the old grandmother, but she did glance at Leif from under her furrowed eyebrows, and indeed saw how radiantly happy he was at that moment. She saw, too, how Rojin shared in his delight. She huffed.
“There is a tradition among our kind,” she said, as she passed around the bowls of hot stew. “We shall make you a gift of that little butterknife, if it pleases you so. In exchange, we ask for the gift of a story.”
There was a general outbreak of delight and pleasure at this pronouncement, particularly among the children, who ribbeted and splashed and chattered all at once –
“A human story!”
“Will we give him the butterknife -?”
“It’s only an old one –“
“what sort of story?”
“What’s he want old cutlery for?”
“Quiet now, dearies, settle down!” said Nigel. He was feeling very proud that his wife had so deftly chosen such a perfect thing to comfort the human. He kissed her as she sat down. “What do you say, Prince Leif?”
Leif smiled around the party with shining eyes. The mystery and unpleasantness of the pamphlet was quite forgotten: a problem for another time. For now, he held victory itself in his hands! No matter that it was demon-forged – it had certainly been forged from a true Divine Relic – altered, a little, but there was no mistaking its power. The relief that he felt was indescribable – he would be able to send this home to his royal house as proof that his mission was underway – he had not failed, not yet!
“Thank you,” he said. “It would be an honour, a real honour! Yes, I agree with my whole heart! As for a story….” He paused to think for a moment.
“A human story,” said the children, eagerly.
“He only knows human stories,” Rojin remarked, with a touch of pride.
“Let me tell you the story – the human story – of how the Divine Relics came to be.”
And so, he began.