Save for an occasional foray to the moat’s inner edge, where she crushed toads with cobblestones, the Little Princess stayed within her castle’s walls. She had no curiosity about life outside; those peasants who appeared before her father’s Court showed her quite enough. She found them brutish and ugly, and because of their ugliness, deserving of the injustices they so loudly complained about.
Sometimes, when a local serf plowed the fields close to the castle, she brought a sling and a bag of small stones to the parapet, and shot at him. Usually she missed, the range too great and the intervening winds too unpredictable. But on occasion she struck, and the yelps and slapping of hands on injuries, the wild looking about for the attacker, brought a grin to her face and a subdued giggle to her voice. Only once had this game caused her to laugh aloud: a solid stroke that knocked the target’s rude hat completely off.
The man’s arms pinwheeled in a parody of swimming, and he fell sprawled, limbs pointing to the four winds. He got up slowly, and stumbled about drunkenly before falling again. The Little Princess found his gait hilarious, and shrieked with laughter. The serf stood a second time, with more difficulty, and looked about desperately, his head wobbling as if his neck bones had gone slack.
The Little Princess imagined his looking for the source of laughter, and called to him, but his gaze never quite found her. He fell and tried to stand but succeeded only in getting to his knees. She saw his face as he open-mouthed stared at the sky. Then he cried out—she did not catch the words—and dropped for the last time. He lay quite still, and after two stones struck his back and failed to revive him, the Little Princess bored of the game and went to her chambers. The next day the man was gone.
She thought of that serf sometimes, and the memory made her smile. If only the moat toads could be so entertaining.
She was outside the walls, squishing toads with cobblestones, and remembering fondly the stricken serf, when her next intended victim spoke to her. Its words were corrupted by the basso-staccato typical of its kind, but words they unmistakably were.
“Help meee,” it said.
The Little Princess had her arm cocked, ready for the death stroke, but the amphibian’s speech stilled her intent. For a moment she thought the utterance a trick of the air, an auditory illusion—who has not imagined intelligible sounds in the chirping of insects, the songs of birds, the burps of toads?—and she drew her arm back again, but the toad spoke a second time, and drove all thoughts of illusion from her.
“Please dooon’t kkkill meee.”
She blinked, unmoving, until she realized how un-Princessly she looked, her arm over her head and frozen by indecision. She kneeled and set the cobblestone beside her, ready should she bore of this phenomenon.
“A talking toad,” she said.
The toad, pumping its throat, answered affirmative.
“And to what do you attribute this?” she asked. “Are you a prince run afoul of a witch?”
“Indeed I am,” said the toad.
“And as a prince you were terribly handsome, of course.”
“Ladies found me so.”
The Little Princess sniffed. “Why do witches curse only the handsome?” she asked no one. “Why do they never choose ugly princes?”
“Witches are discriminating.”
The Little Princess reached for her stone. “You mock me,” she said.
The toad’s legs bunched.
“Ppplease don’t kkkilll meee,” it whimpered.
“And if I do, what then? Your kingdom will seek you, and find not, and some lesser relative will be placed in line for the throne. Maybe there will be contention over the succession, and even civil war. But it will not affect us: our crown prince—my soft-headed older brother—is not missing, our line is safe. Your kingdom—if indeed you are a prince, and not some commoner spinning lies—could be one of our rivals, and to kill you would be to our gain.”
The toad bounced up and down on its front legs. The Little Princess interpreted this as its readying to leap into the moat’s dark water. Once there, the toad would be beyond her ravening stones. She reached for her weapon, and the toad spoke again.
“To rescue me would gain you more.”
She considered that. Indeed, were the toad a witched prince from a rival kingdom, her saving him would put said rivals in her debt. She set the rock back down, though keeping her hand on it.
“Could be true,” she said. “And I suppose, to lift the curse, I must kiss you.”
“That is the traditional arrangement.”
The Little Princess’ face twisted. “How disgusting.”
“The kiss need not linger. The lightest brushing of lips would suffice.”
“And suppose I develop a great wart on my mouth?”
The toad made a long croaking noise, the first truly toadish exhalation to come from it.
“Forgive me, milady,” it said, “but the idea is ludicrous. The lumps on my skin are but patterns like the stripes of housecats. They allow natural toads to recognize each other, and are inherited as the housecat inherits its stripes. I can no more pass these knots on to people than cats can pass on their fur.”
The Little Princess thought on that. She had seen her brother handle many toads—only to touch them, and he always let them go, the unimaginative lump—and his hands were as soft and smooth as a ruler’s should be. The toad’s speech made sense.
“Yet should I kiss you,” she said, “would I gag in that moment, and be sick from the taste?”
The toad burped again, and its lipless mouth curled into a toothless human smile.
“There is an ichor,” it said, “foul of taste and smell, that I and my unintended brethren can exude when touched by predators. Often, when small boys grasp us, we mistake their intent and release this revolting substance. Should you kiss me, I will withhold this discharge.
“I am a toad, milady, not a frog. My skin is dry and tasteless. And, if you fear the contagion of warts—groundless though this fear is—I would point out that my underbelly is quite smooth. If you hold me in your hand, and turn me on my back, you will be afforded an expanse of dry and wartless skin.”
“Suppose I take you in my hand, and turn you over so that you are helpless, then crush you?”
The toad took a moment to reply.
“Milady, in this form I can sense many things that, as a prince, I could not. It is as though I had a third eye, one that sees in a different way. Natural toads have this eye, I am sure of it, but they have not the intellect to properly interpret its visions.
“You could indeed crush me in your hands as I lay helpless, but my third eye sees no such intent within you.
“You wonder whether you should kiss me or not. If you decide ‘yes’, you will lift me and do so. If you decide ‘no’, you might attempt to smash me with yon rock. But I would detect your murderous resolve, and be under the moat’s water before you could act upon it.
“No, milady, if you decide to kill me, you will do so straightway. You haven’t the natural evil for treachery.”
The Little Princess, on hearing the words, first felt insulted, that this toad should find her lacking in anything, even wickedness. Then she realized what a profound compliment it had paid.
“Oh, pooh,” she said. “Perhaps you are a handsome prince, turned into a toad, and a kiss will set you free. I will kiss you then. If you speak truly, you will return to your princely grace, and I will have a future husband, or at least a kingdom’s gratitude. If you lie, I will own a talking toad.”
She reached and grasped. The toad shivered once as her hand closed, but, holding to its word, did not wash her fingers in foulness. She held it up, and with her other hand turned it on its back. The skin beneath was indeed white, and free of warts, and quite dry to the touch. She brought the creature to her face and, lightly, touched her lips to its throat.
Before she could pull her head back, the toad grew. Legs exploded lengthwise, the feet twisting. Its head pushed from its shoulders, spooling a sudden neck.
She dropped it and backed away, horrified but fascinated, as the transformation took place. For an instant it occurred to her that the toad wore no clothes, and though the body would be restored to its former self, its clothing was likely still piled at the place where the curse had struck. Her prince would be royal, and handsome, and quite naked.
The front legs blew out and thickened, became miniature arms, then larger arms. The torso stretched and widened, developed rippling musculature. The face melted and warped, grew a nose, the eyes moved from the top of its head to the center. The mouth grew teeth.
Too many teeth.
She screamed at what formed, and backed away, biting her fingers.
It grinned at her.
“You said you were a prince!” she shrieked.
“And I am,” the ex-toad replied.
She gagged, her eyes wide and wild, and ran for the castle wall. She clawed at the stones, trying to climb to safety, shelter, normalcy. But the barrier she assaulted had frustrated armies. Her efforts only gained her broken fingernails, and a laugh from what had once been a toad.
“I am also quite handsome,” it said, “to other orcs.”
And the orc prince leaped.
Bob Mann lives in the Houston area, has a Masters in Chemistry, and detoxifies hazardous waste for a living. When he’s not defanging poison, he spends his time writing, reading, going to the Museum of Fine Arts, and brewing beer and wine, not necessarily in that order. Quote: “You want to see real horror? Scrap the EPA and repeal the Clean Air Act.”