Keeper of a Secret
Mother Dorga, formerly the Duchess Saribeth Rian Dars, averted her eyes from where two of the more youthful Elders of the Reef were producing another two thousand eggs. Right there. Where all the Mothers and Matrons could see. Not that the Mothers and Matrons were much bothered or even interested. But Dorga was still new.
Disgusting, she thought. And yet... part of her admired the efficiency of the process. A ten minute affair produced several thousand eggs, and in just a few weeks the Reefkin had a new batch of heirs. When she thought of all the fuss and bother she’d had to go through as a human: finding an appropriate husband, negotiating the marriage, the event itself, the bother of getting pregnant and then the hell of carrying a baby while trying to maintain power in her own house against her husband, siblings, and in-laws -- let alone the other duchies. Well. The Reefkin way was simpler.
Dorga glanced down at her new amphibious form. She wondered if this body had produced eggs. If it had any children. If any of those children survived. Whatever mind had inhabited this body was suppressed by Dorga’s presence, however, and Dorga had no way to speak with it. Not that she wanted to. She wanted nothing to do with these slimy, backwater creatures. She just wanted to survive her exile with the so-called Elders of the Reef so that she could go home and get her revenge for this humiliating punishment.
Irritated, Dorga strolled along the path around the edge of the spawning pool. The so-called pool was actually a good half-mile across -- the pure azure waters crowded with thousands and thousands of wriggling black eggs. It had been a volcano’s mouth once. The rich dark earth around the crater was full of brilliant green bushes, flowering in bright red and yellow blossoms. From the path, Dorga had a view of the ocean. She could see the sharp line where the reef ended -- the waters going from aqua to indigo. Small verdant islands and other craters dotted the waters between where she stood and that line. It was beautiful.
Dorga could not wait to go home, but what did the duchies have that compared with this view? As she scanned the horizon, her annoyance melted away in the face of all this beauty. Perhaps, when she was free of this frogfolk body, she would leave the duchies and travel. Find somewhere tropical to live in splendor. Perhaps.
Staring out to sea, Dorga caught sight of a ship rounding another island. Its white sails billowed in a strong wind, and it was cutting towards them at unnatural speeds. The Reefkin did not use that sort of ship.
“Duchess Saribeth Rian Dars,” proclaimed Duke Augustan Rian Dars, her husband. “What do you have to say in your defense?”
Duchess Saribeth was still wearing silks, but they were the same ones she’d been wearing for almost a week now and they were quite soiled. They had not let her do her hair. Her extended family stood around her, and not one of them had the decency to seem ashamed or regretful about what they were doing. Her hands were tightly bound to keep her from doing any magic.
They were deep underground, in the cavern Duchies of Telema. Her home.
“Did we win the war with Duchy Maris?” she snapped.
The Duke shook his head, sadly. He wasn’t saying ‘no’, he was pretending that it wasn’t the point.
“Well, did we?” she said.
“We’re here to speak about the way you won,” said the Duke. He was enjoying this. Her husband had been trying to get rid of her for years.
“Efficiently,” said Saribeth. “I did it efficiently. How many did we lose? In the last battle?”
“Just two of your own kin,” said her son, Rikar. He was pretending to be upset, but his position had been greatly strengthened by the death of his younger, smarter, and more charismatic sister. Saribeth snorted. He wasn’t doing an especially good job of seeming upset. His eyes flashed with excitement, and he couldn’t quite keep the corners of his mouth from lifting. What a nest of vipers they all were. Saribeth should have let them all go to war properly. Maybe she’d have lost a few more of these snakes.
Saribeth’s family had been flirting with an inter-Duchy against Duchy Maris for years. They were just on the point of a formal declaration -- the point where the assassinations would break into open conflict -- when Saribeth defeated them with one move. She’d tricked the antagonized Duke and Duchess into appearing in person, along with several of their brood, by bringing her own most effective heir and grandchild to the meeting. She’d have brought Augustan, but their loathing for each other was not a secret. No one would think she’d avoid a conflict to save him.
She killed both Duke and Duchess and their heirs, sacrificing most of her own party too. It didn’t matter though -- the Duchy Rian Dars had a much, much larger ruling family than Duchy Maris. They could afford a few loses. Maris could not. They surrendered the next day -- but Saribeth only knew that because she’d cajoled one of her jailers into telling her so. Her family had rebelled and tossed her in prison, for the crime of having won their war before it began.
Saribeth flexed her bound hands. She itched to pull the life out of everyone in the room -- age them all to infirmity and let them suffer through a few years of dotage before they died. A few of the witnesses looked uncomfortable, as though they could read what she was thinking.
“So, so,” said Saribeth. This wasn’t a real trial. It was all show. They’d made up their minds. “What have you decided to do with me?” She wondered if they would execute her, or leave her to languish in prison, or age her. It would be unpleasant, whatever they’d come up with.
Duke Augustan raised a hand, and a servant appeared -- carrying a stone box. With relish, he revealed a small jade frog statue inside. The grotesque creature was standing on its hindlegs, wearing a simple robe.
“For your crime,” said Augustan, with the benevolent smile she hated so much. “The crime of sacrificing your own kin and children for political advantage, we the Duchy of Rian Dars sentence you to exile. In a form of our choosing.”
He held up the jade frog, and Duchess Saribeth’s family began to cast a spell.
Mother Dorga hid with the other Reefkin, staying out of sight of the foreign ship. Dorga did not think this was going to go well. The ship should have been stopped by the watch posts. Or the Reefkin at the breeding crater should have had some warning from said watch posts. No word had come, however, and the ship had dropped anchor by their beach. A small fleet of rowboats were coming ashore. Several Reefkin had gone to sound the alarm, but no help would come quickly.
Leading the group from the ship was a human in burnished plate armor. He would have fit in nicely in the Duchies: handsome and strong and wealthy. His helmet sported an enormous plume, but the fool didn’t have it on. He carried it resting on his knee. Could it be so that his luxurious black hair rippled in the ocean breeze? Impossible. But then why was he striking that pose in the prow instead of sitting like all the others who were not at the oars?
Closer to, Dorga could see that the plate was inlaid with gold and jewels -- as was the hilt of the broadsword that a servant carried for him. The weapon was too long to wear at the waist.
When all the little boats had landed, the humans lined up in ranks. Dorga did not like this at all.
The handsome armored human stood at their head and drew his fancy sword. It glinted in the sunlight. He must be sweltering in that armor, thought Dorga. But there wasn’t so much as a glisten on his smooth forehead. Definitely magic afoot there.
“Come out you devil’s spawn!” cried the man. “We are the first and last of the Anuran Company! Come to free this passage of your harassment, and open it to the fair trade of the City of Commerce and the Light of Kassandra! I am Sir Torom Vansire, Lord Commander of the Anuran Company and I bring your doom!”
The Matron in charge of the crater was one Orgug. She was crouched next to Dorga. She was a very old frog, with purple lines on her wrinkled face.
“Hmmm…” rumbled Matron Orgug. “We need to keep them talking so the Ancient can send help.”
“We could run,” said Dorga. There were small rafts and canoes on the other side of the crater. They might make it.
“And abandon the eggs?” asked Argug. “It is not such a loss for a hundred or a thousand eggs to perish, but there are nearly a hundred thousand there now. Besides. We are a bulwark defending the beach of the Ancient,” And she glared at the humans. “And Elders do not run from such youths.”
Dorga refrained from pointing out that Orgug had already sent others running, and returned her attention to the soldiers on the shore. She had never heard of this Anuran Company, but judging by the neat black and gold uniforms and the practical armaments they’d chosen -- their commander excepted -- they knew their bloody business. They were wearing light armor that suited the tropical climate and carried short, thick blades that would be good for butchery.
Dorga wondered what would happen if she died here. Would her soul return to her body, forcing her family to come up with a new punishment for her? Or would she simply die? In her little hut she kept a mirror that connected her to the duchies -- would her family try to speak to her, to revel in her humiliation, and realize she was gone that way? Or would they forget entirely and never know?
“What do we do, then?” Dorga asked, staring down at the mercenary company arrayed against them. This was not how she wanted to die.
Orgug’s throat worked, and then she said: “We keep them talking.”
She stood up from her hiding place, lifting her clattering staff as she did so. All the human’s eyes were immediately drawn to her -- and to Dorga’s chagrin the other mothers and matrons did the same. She followed suit more slowly than the others.
Orgug walked towards the humans with dignity, and Dorga was relieved when none of the others accompanied her.
Orgug waited, patient, for Sir Such-And-So to approach and speak with her.
He did, stalking across the beach. Dorga counted up the other side, to keep herself steady. Two hundred mercenaries against fifteen amphibious midwives. She swore under her breath and hoped that Orgug could keep them talking.
Orgug had hardly opened her mouth however, before the human swung his massive sword, and cut the frog and her staff in half.
“No mercy for devil spawn!” yelled the commander, and then he started to charge up the beach towards Dorga and the other frogfolk.
Dorga turned and ran for the crater as fast as she could. She couldn’t die here. She was truly Duchess Saribeth Rian Dars. She needed to survive and take back the duchy. She needed to…
Dorga wasn’t the only mother racing along the path as fast as they could. The shout of pursuit was loud enough to drown out the constant wash of the ocean. Ahead of Dorga, some of the frogfolk leapt right into the pool -- swimming out away from the crater’s rim into the middle of the blue waters, pushing past hundreds and hundreds of eggs. It probably wouldn’t save them -- Dorga had seen archers among the mercenaries -- but there was nowhere else to go.
Dorga followed, wading and then swimming through the eggs. So many of them. Dorga stopped swimming. She had an idea.
She had not tried to use her magic since she’d been exiled. She didn’t even know if it would work. However…
Carefully, while the other Mothers passed her and swam for the far side, Dorga lifted an egg in one webbed hand. She pulled the age out of it, making it older. In a moment, it was a wriggling tadpole. Then a half formed frog. And then a fully formed one.
Dorga pushed it towards the shore and off it hopped… only to be cut down at the bank by that wretched raven-haired knight.
Dorga snatched up another egg, and another. She continued moving backwards while she worked. In a moment, she was surrounded by twenty young frogfolk. They went leaping towards her enemies, mouths open and hungry, tongues reaching out for the humans.
Horrified, the mercenaries slashed and hacked with their weapons, but Dorga saw a few fall, overwhelmed. She kept pulling the time out of the eggs, aging a hundred frogfolk in hardly five minutes. They swarmed the crater’s rim: trampling and biting.
One of the mothers came back past Dorga -- returning, after having fled towards the center of the lake. She carried a long, wicked bone knife. Dorga’s youths overpowered the humans and the mother followed -- slitting their exposed throats and stabbing through the gaps in their armor with precision.
Dorga nodded approvingly. Efficiency. She liked that. She sent another wave of the new frogfolk to where the archers were forming up -- overrunning them before they could get more than a few arrows in the air.
This was so simple! In the duchies, dealing with humans, it took so much more energy to draw the time out of a person. She could only age perhaps five or six to their deaths before she needed to rest. But the frogfolk had such a quick early lifecycle that they sprang right to semi-adulthood at her merest touch.
The humans were wavering, unnerved by Mother Dorga’s attack. But they were held together by their knight in his fancy armor. He was yelling encouragement from the center of the line. Mother Dorga focused on him. She waded deeper into the pool and put out her hands on the surface of the water -- spreading her fingers to touch as many eggs as she could. Then she pulled as much time out of them as she could. Like ghosts rising from the catacombs, a horde of young frogs lurched into adulthood all at once -- hungry and vicious.
Mother Dorga yelled and drove them forward with the other mothers and matrons. The new-made warriors struggled over their fellow frogs, stepping on each other and the crater’s rim, gabbling and biting and writhing like the sea come to life. Mother Dorga saw the armored hero struggle to stay standing.
“Devil spawn!” he cried, swinging that ridiculously large sword of his. It cut through two frogfolk, and then stuck in a third -- and that was the end for him. As he tried to free his blade, the frogfolk overwhelmed him. They tore off his armor and then began to rend him apart. He screamed as he was born down and vanished beneath a mass of green limbs and open pink mouths.
The mercenaries struggled to save their leader -- but he was torn to pieces before they reached him.
The Anuran Company broke then, and tried to run. Some made it back to the boats. Some.
Dorga stood on the crater rim, surveying the human’s terror and her victory with satisfaction. Until her eyes moved over the corpses of young frogfolk. So many of them. Hundreds. Perhaps a thousand. Where had she found the strength to raise so many? They were strewn along the edge of the pool, the path around the crater’s rim, and down across the beach.
Fear tightened her belly. She’d sacrificed so many.
Another of the matrons came to stand beside her, a wrinkled old crone of a frog. Her smile nearly split her face in two.
“That was well done,” the old one said, nodding to the carnage around them. “I don’t know how you did it. But it was well done, Mother Dorga.” Then she moved away, nudging the bodies out of her path with her staff.
Mother Dorga looked around, astonished to find that the other matrons and mothers approved as well. It was a fair trade -- those hundreds for the fourteen remaining Elders and all the other eggs. It was an odd day, an odd circumstance, but for the first time in her life, Dorga felt like she might have found people who thought the way she did.
Some months later, Mother Dorga woke from a deep sleep to find that she was being contacted from the underworld, from the duchies. A voice echoed from the small silvery mirror she kept under her pillow. When she picked it up, however, it was not one of her family there to mock her. It was not even a human. In the mirror she saw a cavern elf.
“Well,” said the elf, thoughtfully. “I guess I didn’t know what to expect… but this is still surprising. Who are you? What are you?”
Mother Dorga did not answer. She wanted to ask questions too -- but the elf’s presence answered the most important one. If there was a cavern elf inside her palace, then the Duchy of Rian Dars was no more. In fact, she would be willing to bet that all the Duchies of Telema were gone. The cavern elves were known for their thoroughness. She wondered why they had chosen now to attack. How they’d won. She knew the elf would not tell her though.
“I suppose it doesn’t matter who you are. Or were,” said the elf. She smiled then, and held up the jade frog. The one that had been used to cast Dorga into her exile. “All that matters is that you’re a frog now, and will stay that way.” With inhuman strength, the elf smashed the jade figure on a stone table.
With the statue broken, Mother Dorga -- formerly the Duchess Saribeth Rian Dars -- was stuck as a Reefkin forever.
“You’re lucky in a way,” said the elf. “There’s nothing here but ashes.” She seemed to consider the mirror. “Perhaps you’ll feel like talking some other time. It is a surprisingly inventive punishment for your kind. You so rarely have imagination. Enjoy your new life.” She finished with a cruel smile, and then Dorga’s mirror went dark.
Mother Dorga smiled to herself in the night. Nothing there but ashes, eh? She chuckled. The joke was on all of them, really. She was meant to be Reefkin. Without another thought about her scheming family, Mother Dorga wrapped herself in a thin sheet and soon fell back to sleep.