Squeezed in between the cold rock wall and the body of the man sleeping before me, with my knees propped up to catch the moonlight through the tear in the tent, I flipped through the pages of the book. It wasn’t a long book, but I read slowly without my companion to help me with the new words. Sounding them out loud, I could recognize a lot of them like “pond” or “trees,” but the rest of them I underlined with a piece of charcoal to ask Carden about in the morning.
I edged the curled point of my claw under the page and turned. “P-r-i-n-c-e-s-s…” I whispered, considering each letter, before I remembered that it was one of the words I had underlined just a minute or two earlier. It must have been getting late, but the book was almost done. “Prin-cess. The princess smiled to the f-froog. Frahg. And—k-i-s-s-e-d—k…kissed him…”
I traced my lips with my finger. I had kissed a frog once, I think, a long long time ago. So long ago that I’m not really sure. It must have been before Carden, or he would have certainly mocked me for it. I think maybe it was a young frogman. There are a lot of those in the swamps, living alongside all manner of strange creatures—goblins included. She was pretty—much prettier than the warty old frog in the book. With big round black eyes and a fin like tail that extended past her webbed feet and waved gently in the ripples of the water. She swam up to meet me, her face still submerged and a crown of water lilies on her head. Her lips were soft and they tasted like swamp water. I’d seen frogmen since—in the distance. They didn’t like the way Carden smelled, and we only caught glimpses of them before they hopped into the water to hide, but I had never seen one pretty like her. Maybe I just imagined it, or I forgot how ugly she really was, but it didn’t matter, the taste of pond water was ruined for me forever and I couldn’t remember her without remembering the taste of pond water fulling my lungs.
SNORT! Carden sucked in a huge breath, and I jumped back, slamming the book shut between my knees.
He rolled over to face me, his eyes squinting suspiciously at my face, unable to make out much of the details through the darkness. Finally he sighed. “What in the name of Sol are you doing muttering in the dark like that?” he asked, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
My face went hot. “I’m sorry,” I mumbled. “I didn’t think you could hear me.”
“Couldn’t hear… Couldn’t hear you?” he snorted. “You’re two inches from my face. How in the nine hells would I not be able to hear you? And why aren’t you asleep?”
“I was r-reading the book you got me.”
“Hmph,” he grunted. “Alright then. How far have you gotten? Read me some.”
I thumbed through the pages and picked a sentence to read to him with the fewest number of underlines. I sounded out each word slowly, stumbling over some of the harsher sounds. His eyes narrowed with ever mistake, making my tongue twist and flub up the next word.
“Stop, stop, stop.” He closed the book on my fingers, grumbling something under his breath that might have been “That’s pitiful.” He yawned and continued, “Ah, whatever, I suppose I can’t be too critical, I never thought you’d be able to read anything. We’ll work on it, in the morning, if you really want to learn how to read. But please go to bed, kid. We have a long walk tomorrow too, and you know I’m not carrying you. You’re nearly an adult now, which means you sleep when I tell you to sleep, and you carry your own weight.”
“C-c-c-c-carden?” he said in a high pitched, squeaky voice, mimicking my own. It was a little impressive, he even got the whistly sound the gaps in my teeth made.
“C-c—” I swallowed a lump in my throat, trying to squeeze the sound out. “Carden.”
“Alright…” he paused, and rolled back over. “You’re doing much better.” He said, and I curled up on the ground next to him, listening to the sound of his even breaths until I fell asleep.
“Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers.” He scraped down on the burnt tree bark with his knife and I had to rush to catch the burnt bits of wood in my bag before they fell on the ground.
“P-pete-r…P-pip-r…hmmm.” I stared into the bag, “Peter Piper Pi…”
“Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers,” he repeated and moved to the next tree.
“Peter Piper. P-picked, uh, picked a p-peck of…pickled. Peppers.”
Carden fit his knife back into its slot inside his jacket and grabbed a piece of bark to chew on, grimacing at the taste. Bark wasn’t the tastiest food, but it was the only one we could find during inferno season.
About a month before the continent froze over and covered itself in a blanket of powdery snow for winter, the fire spirits sparked up in the ever-grown forests across the northern reaches of the colonies and burned through the year’s growth to make room for the seedlings to take over and grow a whole new forest. The forest floor was covered in two inches of ash now and a cloud of foggy smoke rose from the still burning embers.
No doubt, if I tried digging into it for a few hours I could find a tubor or two that were still edible down there, but the smoke masked their scent so I didn’t know where to start looking for them and Carden didn’t want to waste the time looking when we could just take the bark off the trees to eat. “What if there was some hunter wandering the woods and they saw your face?” he’d ask. “It’s better to keep moving.”
I tried again, “Peter p-picked a peck of pickled peppers.”
Carden grunted an approval, that made me smile. “I wish I had a peck of pickled peppers,” he muttered through the bark in his mouth. “Here. Eat.” He shook the bag in front of me.
It was rough and bitter and it cut into the sides of my mouth, leaving clumps of ash stuck in between my sharp needle-like teeth. Carden said the bark was fine to eat, though. Something about the fire burning the bark and making it nutritious. He said he’d read about mountain men surviving the winters high up in the Gelu Highlands where the food was scarce, by eating ever-grown bark alone. It didn’t make much sense to me, since it still just tasted like bark, but if he said it was true then it was. I just tried to imagine I was eating a hard roll and smoked cheese instead and kept chewing.
He swallowed his, and tied the bag to the back of my pack. “Keenly cleaning copper kettles,” he said.
“K-k…K-k.” My eyebrows knitted together. My tongue was too fat, and the noise kept getting strangled in the back of my throat.
“Keenly cleaning copper kettles,” he repeated.
He grabbed me by my jaw. “KEE-nley,” he repeated very slowly, like he did when he started teaching me the alphabet.
He shook his head. “K-AR-den.”
He nodded, and repeated the phrase again. After a few dozen tries I could stutter my way through it, and Carden resigned himself with the lackluster result of our hour of work. He went quiet for a few minutes, and pulled out the small, tattered, pink book for me to read from while he continued chewing on bark.
“The…p-prince. App-eared in f-front of her. A frahg no…longer.” Above the words was a picture of the princess in her bright pink ball gown, standing astonished in front of the newly re-princed frog amidst a cloud of sparkly, magic smoke from where he had appeared. Both were smiling widely at each other—admiring his new beautiful body, and I couldn’t help but to smile to. His green skin was replaced with a deep human brown, his small lumpy body was now tall and graceful, his big yellow froggy eyes were changed into the nice well proportioned brown almond-shaped eyes. Finally he was beautiful and he could live happily ever after.
“This is a stupid book.” Carden said finally.
My lips pinched together.
“Magic doesn’t turn men into frogs, you know. And it doesn’t reverse because of ‘true love.’ Once magic is cast it’s cast, alright? That’s why wizards like me are so careful to use our power only for necessities.”
“If the witch really hated him so much she would have just dropped a pile of rocks on him or set him on fire and be done with it.”
I nodded. I hadn’t much cared if the book was accurate of not before. It had just seemed easy enough to practice my reading with. Then I realized the pictures were nice to look at and then I really just wanted to know if the princess would trust the ugly little frog and save him from his curse. “Yeah…” I closed the book. “I g-guess it’s a little silly.”
“Whatever. It’s a story for little girls. I shouldn’t be so hard on it, it’s not meant to do anything but entertain you. And I guess it’s doing that.” He paused to pick a bit of bark out of his teeth. “I suppose when you can read I should get you some real books. The classics, histories, and what not.”
“I can r-r—” I stopped and let the words catch up to me. “I can read now.”
He shrugged, “You’re still learning, kid. One day you might be able to read something like this,” he patted the spot in his pack where he kept his great big spell book.
Now that was a book. It was about the size of my entire torso, bound in a cracking leather cover with so many pages that it wouldn’t close unless he put his whole weight on it. Carden had written the book—slowly adding each page as it was needed and sewing them into place at the back of the book. The pages were all different sizes and each in a varying state of yellowing. Dented and torn on the edges from their time in Carden’s pack.
Carden stopped and squinted into the distance, “We’re almost there.” He pointed at the horizon, and the low morning sun which was starting to break it’s way through what was left of the burnt trees. I squinted as well, at the shadow of buildings far off in the distance on the great, grassy plateau. “We should get you covered up before anyone sees you.” With that he turned me around and grabbed the long length of red fabric and bandages from my bag and handed it to me.