Chapter 19:

Hey everyone, I know it has been literally months since I last updated, and I owe you all a big apology! I had major writer's block, once again, and then with school and work... well I'm jus making excuses now but I'm sorry it took so long and to show just how sorry I am, I've written and EXTRA long chapter, 25 pages compared to my normal 6-8! See how special you all are? And it's not a b.s. chapter either, some key things happen! I hope you like it, don't forget to let me know what you think! If you see any grammar mistakes, please let me know also. I'm getting a lot better since Chapter 1, but I'm nowhere near perfect yet so please point out my mistakes!

A big thanks goes out to all who read, old and new. I lost a lot of readers when I went on hiatus, and I appreciate the ones who stuck with me and I especially love the new ones!

One more note before I let you go... I recentely saw the movie Ella Enchanted (no, I had not watched it before, and I wish I hadn't now.) and let me just say it a hideously atrocious monstrosity, nothing at all like the book! I cannot believe that Gail Carson Levine would let them mutilate her book that way! I am appalled by that movie - it's the worst disgrace since ... since... well since ever! If you've only ever seen the movie and you haven't read the book, I strongly, strongly suggest you run to your library and get the book, ASAHPTYVM. (as soon as humanly possibly, thank you very much) The book is amazing and the movie is... well... it's polar opposite and nothing like the book at all. They didn't even keep very important parts in it! I'm just... gr... I have every intention of writing a very strongly worded letter to Miss Levine to tell exactly what I think of 'her movie.'

That'll do,

Sorry for the rant.

Chapter 19:

Crossing Bridges

One thing I could say for the gypsies? Their gifts were amazing. Horses! Why hadn't I thought of them before? It was glorious, not having to try to hop, not worrying about food or dropping that creepy mirror… Even if I never understood what had happened back at that camp, I would also cherish it. No more walking!

It'd been a few hours since we'd left the gypsies and the sun was just beginning to rise. Owen and Tobin, despite having been up all day and night, refused to stop and sleep so in those few hours, we'd covered a lot of ground. The safe covering of the forest was far behind us, replaced by thigh-high grass with the random flowered tree providing a shock of brilliant color ever and then. It was all very serene, especially with the first rays of sun casting through the early morning fog. Why was I noticing all of this pointless scenery?

I was bored.

The adrenaline rush was over (since no one would talk about it), and my boys were being extremely uneventful.

"Owen I'm bored. Entertain me." I announced, climbing to the top of my horse's head and perching between its ears. Owen grunted and his head bobbed forward. So much for his 'men don't need sleep theory.' Stupid boy.

"Toby dearest," I called sweetly, peaking his way. He was slumped over on his horse, hanging on by one arm, drool dripping from his wide-open mouth. "Tobin!"

His nose crinkled as a particularly loud snore escaped.

Stupid, stupid boys! I sighed, absently flicking at a flea that was crawling through the horse's hair. I rolled onto my back and watched the fluffy white clouds float by.

So boring.

I blinked, and when I opened my eyes again the sun was high in the sky and we were stopped in the middle of a quaint little town. A little girl, no older than four, was running in circles around us, screaming like a little monkey.

"Ok there is no way you two are sleeping through that," I rolled over and looked around only to find empty saddles where my boys should have been. Morons! How could they just leave me there with nothing but a screaming guard monkey?!

I was furious. I wanted to hunt them down and throw rocks at their faces until they bled! Of course… frogs can't lift rocks… but I didn't care! I'd hurt them somehow! I could have been eaten by a fricken hawk, or a vulture, or a snake or… anything! Then they'd be sorry. Oh yea.

I hopped off the horse's head and down onto the saddle, slowly peaking over the edge. My heart jumped into my throat – it was a really long way down. Have I mentioned I'm afraid of high places? I might have. I don't remember. I swallowed the lump that had formed in my throat and backed away from the edge, to the middle of the saddle. It was then that I noticed the little girl had stopped screaming. She was about two feet from the horse, just standing there, staring stupidly with her mouth wide open. I rolled my eyes, trying to ignore her and figure out how to get off the stupid horse.

Well, if I couldn't jump down, I'd climb. I inched off the saddle and toward the horse's backside, hoping it had a nice long tail. Of course I couldn't look down – then I'd be right back to ground zero, shivering like a little baby - so I wrapped one of the long strands of hair around my middle, squeezed my eyes shut, and started my descent. My pace was slow since, well, frogs don't climb so well. But at least I wasn't plummeting to my death. Yet.

My arms were shaking wildly, partly from fear and partly because the stupid horse wouldn't hold still. At what I thought was about halfway down, I had to take a break. My little arms ached and for a frog, I was pretty out of shape. To put it in simply, I was dying! I held on tightly and opened my eyes ever so slowly, hoping the ground was closer than it felt.

"Froggy!" The little girl's scream echoed in my ears so loud I almost forgot to hang on. She was bent over next to me, her face level with mine, so close to me I could smell her breakfast still lingering on her sticky breath. Mmm, sausage, anyone? "Froggy plays with me!" She clapped her hands, giggling excitedly.

Froggy play? With her? Um… thanks but no thanks.

"Froggy play! Froggy play! I know… we can have a tea party!" She giggled again, her brown curls bouncing wildly. She would have been cute any other day.

"Look, I -" I started to protest, but before I could she'd scooped me up and was rocking me back and forth, cradling me like a rag doll and cooing.

"Shhh… don't be afraid little Froggy. Play will be fun!" She giggled and stood, skipping off towards one of the many identical brick houses.

This was worse than being eaten. Definitely worse.

"Look kid, I'm not a frog!" I screamed, trying to free my arms from the vice like grip she had me in. She stared in me in utter amazement… I guess she'd never actually heard a frog talk before. A second later, however, the huge smile had returned to her face and she was skipping along merrily, blushing ever so slightly.

"Don't be silly, Froggy. You're little and you're green and you have a long, long tongue. That's what frogs have. My mommy taught me that." She said matter-of-factly. I was doomed.

It wasn't long before she'd climbed a flight of wooden stairs and entered a room which clearly belonged to multiple children. Three beds lined the walls, one pink and two yellow. Each wall had been stained a different color, and toys lay strewn about everywhere. In the middle of the room was a plain wooden table, surrounded by four chairs. Three seats were taken – a group of rag dolls were waiting to be entertained. The girl scoffed at this, setting me down on the table, grabbing one doll by its ratty red hair and throwing it somewhere behind her.

"Masi can't play today, she was bad." She declared, pushing me into the seat the doll had previously occupied and placing herself in the seat across from me. "That's no good!" She jumped from her chair, dug quickly around the room and returned with a stack of children's books. I was plucked from the chair, the books were plopped down, and I was returned. Peachy.

She scurried back over to her own chair and picked up a cracked teapot, expertly pouring pretend liquid into two white cups. I glared at her. Kids can be so insufferable. "Drink Froggy!"

"I'm really not thirsty." I crossed my arms and rolled my eyes, watching her closely. Her bottom lip stuck out and started shaking, her eyes watered… oh no. It took about two seconds for the tears to start flowing, and then they just wouldn't stop. At first they were quiet – just little sniffles – but they quickly turned into wails and soon she'd thrown herself down on the ground and was kicking and screaming so loud I knew someone would hear.

"F…frog…Froggy won't p…play with me!" Her face was turning red and blotchy, like she'd been out in the sun too long. I leapt from my place upon the books, landing safely on a soft toy, and took off towards the open door. I didn't want to be around when her parents found her like that…

"Ariel!" The nasally voice of a big man echoed up the stairway. Footsteps quickly followed. "Ariel, stop that racket! What are you crying over now?" The man was getting closer, his footsteps ominously louder – I dove behind a toy on the floor just as the door swung open the rest of the way and I got my first look at what I assumed was the girl – Ariel's – father. He was big, just as I'd thought, and hairy. He had hair everywhere – on his face, his arms. His beard was long and bristly, like it could scratch skin. And his eyebrows were thick and bushy.

"Bab-ba, F…Froggy w…won't… play with…m…me!" A whole new round of wails started at the sound of my pet name, and she was soon in even more hysterics than before. The man looked around the room, an unusually calm look on his face, as if this happened all the time. For some reason, I really wasn't surprised.

"Honey you don't have a frog." His voice was calm now, soothing for her sake, I guess.

"Yes I do, Bab-ba, I found him! He talked to me and I wanted to play tea, but he wouldn't and then you scared him and now he's gone!" She sniffled, wiping the snot off her face with her arm. Kids.

"Oh that was just your imagination. Frogs don't talk and you know that. It's nothin' to cry over, now is it?" He set a big hand on her shoulder and tilted up her chin, making her look him in the eyes. "Why don't we dry our tears and find a new game to play, ok?"

It was weird, seeing such a big, burly man speak such sweet words to a small girl like Ariel. I, however, didn't have time to enjoy the moment. I wanted to get out of there and this was sure to be my only chance. Slowly, I inched my way towards the door. After that there were stairs that I was sure I could hop down fairly quickly and then out the front door and finally, freedom! All I had to do was get past the door.

"There he is! There he is!" The squeals of an excited little girl and the sounds of her little feet pounding across the hardwood floor filled the room, and I was scooped up yet again into her loving arms. "See Bab-ba, I told you! Here he is!"

"Well I'll be," He bent down slowly and pulled me from Ariel's hands, placing me into his own dry, cracked ones. I winced, not expecting the texture to change so much, and realized that I now had no way down as the man stood to his full height once again. "There is a frog. Where'd you find the little feller?"

"Outside, Bab-ba, by the strange man's horses. He was trying to get down, and I helped him!" She smiled wide and stuck her thumb into her chest, proud of her accomplishment.

"Huh. That's mighty strange; frogs don't need help off 'a horses! What was a frog doin' up there anyways?" He looked at me with a puzzled look on his face; as if the answer to that question was just gonna jump from my brain to his. Well I wasn't about to talk. For once. "Where'd them boys go, anyhow?"

"To the diner." Ariel had already lost interest in the conversation and was picking through her other toys, looking for a new doll to fill my place so she could resume her tea party. I, on the other hand, was ecstatic and infuriated. They were talking about my boys, yay! But Owen and Tobin, the stupid blokes, they'd left me all alone to fill their guts with hot food. I couldn't believe how insensitive they were! When I got back, I was going to kill them. And hit them with everything I could lift. And kick them just for good measure.

Since I couldn't hardly call the man Bab-ba and I had no intention of letting him know I could actually talk (who knew what they did to talking frogs around here?!), I decided to call the big man Hairy since he was, in fact, extremely hairy. Hairy groaned and shrugged his shoulders before patting his daughter's head gently and leaving The Tea Party of Doom. He carried me down the wooden stairs, pulled a hat on over his wild hair, and walked out the front door. I smiled, a satisfied 'ribbet' escaping my throat.

The diner wasn't far away at all. In fact, it was across the street from where our horses were tied up. Through the front window I could see the boys, arguing over something as usual and eating from a bowl with steam rising out of it. I didn't realize how hungry I was until I saw that steam. I hadn't eaten anything but flies in a whole day, and it didn't look like I'd be eating anything else anytime soon. I sighed, pulling my eyes away from them and looking up and Hairy, who'd stopped in the middle of the road and was just… staring. It seemed like he was watching Tobin, in particular, but I really couldn't be sure. I really didn't care. I just wanted his legs to start moving again.

Hairy reached up, stroked his beard, and kept right on staring. I held my breath, silently willing his legs to move. One at a time, left foot, right foot. It wasn't so hard. Even babies can do it! Aha, success! I was finally able to breathe again as Hairy grunted and started once again towards the diner. It only took him a few strides to get through the door, and we were soon standing next to their table, interrupting a heated argument about… well, I couldn't be sure, but it sounded like radishes. Yea, they were definitely arguing about radishes.

"… Besides, it'd never pan out. They take forever to grow and half of the time they die anyways. It's a dumb idea, as usual and – can I help you?" Owen was the first to notice Hairy standing there. He stood, a look on his face that I'm sure was supposed to be intimidating but really just made him look like he need a washroom, fast. I did my best to stifle a giggle.

"This yours?" He asked gruffly, holding me up to eye-level and poking me in the side. I glared at him, knowing he knew full well that wasn't necessary at all. I don't go around poking him in the side, do I? I don't think so! Imbecile.

"Tali?" He asked, looking closely at me. I smiled and shrugged. He didn't need know how; he just needed to take me from Hairy's scratchy hands. "Yea she's ours. Thanks." He nodded at Hairy and reached for me, only to be slapped away as I was suddenly snatched from his reach. The look on Owen's face was a mix of confusion and annoyance; I might have even detected a little anger in his cocky grin, who knows. Whatever the case, he stood to his full height (about a foot shorter than Hairy, here) and pulled his shoulders back, trying to look tough I suppose. Of course I never thought Owen looked tough; his eyes were too green and his hair too floppy for tough. The thought was sweet though. Tobin, either out of fear or courage, stood as well, pulling back his shoulders and flexing the muscles in his arms.

"Not so fast, boys. My daughter found this frog, she thinks it can talk and calls it her bud. Say I wanna keep it? Then what?" He took one step closer to Owen, closing the small gap that had been separating them, pushing his face as close to Owen's as he could. I felt his muscles tense up and his breathing became heavier, forced. The whole aura of the room seemed to change with this simple move, causing everyone else in the diner to stop in the midst of their meals and stare our way. I had the distinct feeling that Hairy here had a thing for causing fights.

"First off, 'it' is a she. Her name is Talia. Second, she's no ones property, definitely not yours, and third -" his blow must have surprised Hairy as much as it did everyone else, because for a moment, he just stood there, his entire face turning at least ten different shades of ruby. The entire place erupted in excited murmuring, each person on the edge of their seat, whispering to their neighbors 'did you see that?' and 'I can't wait to tell so-and-so about this!' I swallowed the ever-present lump in my throat, looking from Owen to Hairy and then back again, just waiting for the next move. Of course any sane frog would have taken this opportunity to jump from her captors hands and seek refuge in the arms of the one she did not love, but, alas, I am no saner as a frog as I am as a girl.

So, as a low rumble began to form in the pit of Hairy's stomach, I sat there like a bump on a log, just staring. I wasn't sure how I actually felt – I was scared to death, of course, but at the same time… he was sticking up for me! He did a stupid, stupid thing – striking a man twice his size square in the jaw – all to defend my honor. I wasn't sure if I wanted to kiss him or hurl the closest fruit at his big, pompous head!

The rumble that had been forming in Hairy's gut had moved through his bones and into his muscles. With a loud, inhuman scream he lunged at Owen, hurling me across the room in the process. It was then that I got my first real look at Hairy since we'd left his house, and the sight made my breath catch somewhere between my heart and my stomach. The man was beast compared to Owen! He was at least a foot taller and the difference in weight could have easily equaled a small horse. Every visible part of his body was a deep, terrifying shade of burgundy and veins were sticking out all over his arms and neck, but the worst part was the look on his face – I'd never seen someone so incredibly angry in my entire life. His eyes were on fire, and his mouth hung open, that beastly scream still filling the air... I am not ashamed to admit that had I been wearing pants, they would have been thoroughly soaked.

Within seconds he'd had Owen pinned to the ground with one arm while the other thrashed at him relentlessly. I knew that Owen was getting in some good hits of his own – Hairy would cry out in what to be agony every so often – but all I could see was the deep crimson liquid that was flying everywhere. Blood… Hairy's blood, Owen's blood… I felt faint.

"Mahon!" the unfamiliar voice of a woman filled the room, followed by the heavy footsteps of many men running towards the battle before everything went dark.

My head was killing me. That was the only reasonable thought floating through my head as I sat up slowly, taking in the darkness that surrounded me. I had no idea where I was or what had happened... all I knew for sure was that my head hurt something awful and I was alone in a room I'd never seen before.

The walls were dyed dark, maybe even black, and the curtains on the windows were drawn so tight no moonlight would ever seep through. I blinked hard, trying to focus my eyes, and after a few times I was able to make out a small table on the bed next to me and what looked like an occupied cot across the room.

"Oh!" a man moaned and the cot creaked with his movement as he tried to sit up. His hand shot to his head – it must not have felt much better than mine. In fact, I soon realized that he was much worse off then me. It seemed like every one of his muscles ached and just the effort of sitting up wore him out. I felt terrible for him, so bad that the pain in my head seemed to disappear just by staring at him. He groaned once more before collapsing back on the cot, and, if I'm not mistaken, began to weep slightly.

"Sir?" I called quietly, fully aware of how my voice seemed to echo in the room. It sounded different, even to me, though I wasn't quite sure why.

The man seemed to tense, his leg stopped bouncing and the small, whimpering noises he'd been making ceased immediately. I did feel bad – a man who must resort to crying should be allowed to weep in private – but I needed answers, and I needed them quickly. All I could remember was blood, a lot of blood, and that was never a good thing to remember. "Who're you?" He whispered, as though he was a small boy who'd been caught doing something utterly shameful by his mother.

"My name is Talia," I said slowly, inching my way to the end of my bed. I wanted to get a closer look at the man, but I feared if I moved too quickly he'd run away. Not that there was anywhere to run – I couldn't make out a door on the wall, and the windows seemed to be bolted shut – but nonetheless I wanted to be careful. "Can you tell me where we are?"

"Talia? Oh right, Jace got out. Well girly, you're in the Acacia Infirmary. Don't ask me why, I couldn't tell ya. Nurse should be in soon, she might know." He rolled over then, making it obvious he didn't feel like talking and leaving me to my own thoughts.

My body felt suddenly chilled and goose bumps formed all over. I was in an infirmary? What kind of infirmary had black walls and bolted windows? Something just didn't seem right… and where were Owen and Tobin? There had been so much blood… another chill shook my bones. Just the memory of it made me weak. I'd never seen either of my boys fight so hard, and just to get me away from Hairy, or Mahon, or whatever his name really was. That made this my fault… my head hurt again. I pinched the bridge of my nose, hoping to make the pain go away, but it seemed futile. It was so weird, feeling this way… I'd fainted before but each time I'd woken up just fine. Maybe a little dizzy at first, sure, but perfectly fine in just a few minutes. This time was different. Something wasn't right.

A blinding flash of light filled the room, followed by the robust form of what I had to assume was the nurse. I jumped to my feet, ignoring the throbbing in my head, and charged at her.

"Now, now, now," she said, pushing a metal cart towards the other side of the room. "Calm down, you're in no state to be charging around what with the shape changing and all. Just sit down and I'll be with you in a moment. Warm tea, Mr. Stanton?" The man shrugged and I was left standing there, twirling my hair, dumbstruck. Shape changing?

I looked down at my hands, completely sure I was the same shape as I was before. Wait… hands? I was a frog! Frogs didn't have hands! I was suddenly very aware of every bit of my body. My hands, my fingers, my toes… my hair! It was all I could do to stop myself from leaping into the air with the nurse and waltzing with her, right then and there! I wasn't a frog anymore! The crazy gypsies' plan had worked! How? I had no idea and rightly, I didn't care. It was just so nice to be me again! No more flies, no more hopping… it was glorious! I did a little spin, just to make sure my legs worked right, before skipping over to the nurse and Mr. Stanton.

"I already told you, I'll be with you in a minute." She shrugged me off and went back to preparing what I could only assume was tea. I crossed my arms, pouting indignantly. She had terrible bedside manner, and I was not about to sit there and wait for water to boil to find the answers I was looking for. I may have been easy to push around as a frog, but as a girl I would never be. I am stubborn. I was born stubborn. And I was not about to stop being stubborn, then or ever.

I jabbed her in the shoulder, a forced yet hopefully pleasant smile on my face. "Excuse me," I said. My voice was so sickeningly sweet I reminded myself of Margie. I had to fight from blowing chunks right there, and I hoped the effort didn't show on my face. The nurse turned to face me, an impatient and entirely too annoyed look upon her pudgy little face. "What am I doing here? And where are my friends?"

"You're here because you fainted in the middle of a bar fight as a frog and turned into a stark-naked girl on the table of my sister's diner before God and everyone!" Her stare was unnerving; especially the way her eyes lit up when she mentioned I'd been undressed… all I wanted to do was leave. But I had to find out where Owen was, even if it meant spending more time with this creepy nurse.

"A dragon sneezed on me, what can I say? Where are my friends?" I demanded, crossing my arms over my chest as she eyed me peculiarly. She was glaring at me, as though my questions were wasting her time and I was better off as the frog.

"Your friends? You mean the ones who were fighting," She laughed at this, her face lighting up ever so slightly, "in the diner? Those boys, well… Mahon is a beast and not much escapes him alive. But those boys, they know where to hit and when to hit hard, I'm guessing, because while the blond one was pinned down the dark haired one jumped on Mahon and threw him all off balance. Course then Del came in and saw Mahon beating the snot out of them boys and she can't stand fighting in her diner so she pulled 'em apart. Mahon made a fuss of it, he wanted, well, you I suppose, for his little girl. Something about new toys, I dunno I didn't pay too much attention to what he was spouting –"

"– Not to be rude or anything Miss, but I really don't care about the details. Just tell me where they are." My foot was tapping impatiently; I hadn't pegged this woman as a talker but… obviously. She and Tobin would get along nicely under different circumstances. Tobin… the thought of him and Owen, fighting like that… I took a deep breath and gave the nurse what I hoped was an incredibly stern get-on-with-it look.

"I'm getting to it! Kids today, never patient" She mumbled, shaking her head and looking at the ground for a second. "The dark haired one, he's in the room next to this one. He needed a few bandages and a lot of rest but he'll be fine. The blond one, though, he needed some special care – Mahon beat him up something terrible. It'll teach him though… you don't deny Mahon's daughter anything. Still though it was wrong of him to beat the boy that way… he ain't from around here, and Mahon knows that… he's just got a temper on him is all. When that little girl cries, all hell breaks loose I'll tell ya. Anyways the blond boy, he's still out cold. Rumors going around that he won't wake up." My breath caught in my throat when she said that, and I was pretty sure I was going to faint again. Not wake up? What was that supposed to mean, anyways? How could Owen not wake up? I tried not to let my worry show on my face, but that nurse caught it and her features immediately softened. Now she would try to make me feel better, but it was too late. I was already falling apart inside at just the thought of losing Owen again so quickly… "Oh not to worry your pretty little head off, dear, those are just rumors, after all, and he is at the best hospital this side of the mountain! He'll be fine, I'm sure. Just needs some rest and some fluids in him is all. You'll see."

I stumbled back to my bed, trying to keep a clear mind and remember to keep breathing. All I could picture was him, laying a dark, dreary hospital room just like mine (though it had brightened up considerably after my eyes became used to human light again) blood caked to his face, hooked up to all sorts of tubes with mean nurses shoving herbs and spices down his throat… I couldn't stand picturing him that way. I had to know for sure…

The nurse was just about to leave when I leapt to my feet and blocked her path to the open door. She looked startled, but only for a second… then a kind of sadness registered in her eyes and I knew she was feeling sorry for me. I hated that, people feeling sorry for me – and it gave me the courage to ask the relatively simple question I needed. "Can I see him?"

"See who, sweetie?" what kind of a question was that? Who did she think I wanted to see, the Wizard? I wanted to tip her cart over and shove her face in the boiling liquid left in the teapot… but instead I was kind and sweet. I'd learned how to get what I wanted from people like her a long time ago.

"The blond boy, Owen. Can I see him?" My voice was stern even though I was terrified she'd say no… I'm not sure why I let her frighten me so. After all she was just a nurse. But her answer could lead me to reality or leave me to my imagination. And to be honest, I'm not sure which the better option was.

"Well dear, I'll have to check on him, make sure he's allowed visitors but I don't see why not… lets be optimistic, even, darling. He may have woken by now and you may even be able to talk to him! Would you like to visit the other boy as well?"

The other boy? Oh, right… Tobin. Did I want to see him? Honestly, no. I knew he was alright… by now I could hear him talking to his roommate through the wall. And the last thing I wanted was to sit there and have Tobin talk my ear off for no apparent reason. "Yes, if I can." What?! Oh no not that again… the worst part of being human, my mouth never listens to me! I rolled my eyes and followed as she led me to the room directly adjacent to mine.

"Sounds like he's up and raring to go… have fun sweetie, I'll be by shortly to take you to… what did you say his name was? Owen. I'll be by to take you to Owen." She gave me a sweet yet far too sad smile and patted my shoulder lightly before pushing her cart away and turning a corner at the end of the hall. I turned to the door in front of me and pushed lightly on it.

The hinges creaked as the door swung open, grabbing the attention of Tobin, who was standing on his cot pumping his fist in the air and jumping excitedly, and his roommate, a girl no older than I who was watching Tobin intensely, laughing at his every movement. If I didn't know better, I'd even go so as to say she was flirting with him. But I knew much, much better.

"Ah, Talia! You're human again, and may as I say you're as foxy as ever, Love! Glad to see you're fairing well enough to grace me with your magnificent presence." Ah I see, we were using the accent again. I've never met a person more fake than Tobin De Loncre…He jumped from his cot and swept a deep bow, his eyes locked on my face the entire time. He looked well – not at all like someone who'd just been in an incredibly terrible bar fight – and he seemed unusually chipper. I could only imagine the herbs they'd given him…

"Yes, I'm human again. I – what are you doing?" He'd risen from his bow and was now crawling towards me on his hands and knees, his tongue out, panting like a wild dog. He stopped and me feet and rose to his knees, taking one of my hands in his own and licking it, filling it with his disgusting spit.

I ripped my hand away, trying to hide the disgust from my face, though I suspect it was very clear. I'd only been a frog for a short time, but frogs can't rightly control their expressions and I was terribly out of practice. It was hard not to let my emotions take over my face at every second… that was gonna have to change.

"I'm your pet, your dog, your slave… do what you will to me, Dearest Talia, don't be afraid of an audience! Audrina doesn't mind, do you Love?" he shot a quick look towards the girl, who was gripping the edge of her bed and staring at us. Her face turned red and her giggling fit increased when he looked at her… I could only imagine the expression on his face… "She doesn't mind. Come, Tali, come as you are and do what you will! I am yours!" He howled and stood to his feet, stumbling backwards in an awkward attempt to fall gracefully on his cot.

I couldn't help but laugh at the poor bloke. They'd given him far more spices and herbs than necessary, he couldn't help how he was acting… but it was hilarious! I was still in the doorway, doubled over laughing as he tried to persuade me into his bed. He looked hurt, but I knew it was just the herb talking, and so I felt no guilt at all when I walked saucily into the room and gave him a flirtatious wink. This, of course, sent him wild and sent me into a whole new fit of laughter, one that landed me on the floor with a hard thump. Audrina was laughing too, though her giggles were high pitched and her gaze never left Tobin, except to shoot me a few jealous daggers. She didn't understand that he didn't really like me that way she thought. He was just incredibly overdosed.

"I have loved since first I met you, Talia; Love… when you leapt from the burning tower, when you called me hallucination… I knew we were meant to be! Come to me, my love. I'll be your everything, I'll do your bidding, and I'll carry that mirror on my back alone! All for you, my Love. Say you'll be mine?" He rolled onto his stomach and stared at me pitifully, clutching the bars of his cot so hard his knuckles turned white and his fingers red.

I laughed harder. I was rolling on the floor, tears were streaming from my eyes, and I had to pee really, really bad. Tobin loved me? Oh the things that herbs could make you say! Thankfully he wouldn't remember any of this after the herbs wore off… if he would, I would have felt much worse than I actually did. But I'd worked with herbal medication before, to cure Madame and her Wenches of colds and pimples, and once I watched Maggie use them to cure a traveler of a slight sprain. It wasn't magic – they were all natural, herbs found in the ground or grown in gardens – they were simple to use and in the right combinations, could cure virtually any ailment. And for some reason, they always wiped the patients' memory clean, at least for the duration of use. He won't even remember being here, I thought.

"Honey?" the nurse's raspy voice tore me from my fits of laughter, and I was immediately sobered at the thought of seeing Owen. Tobin had provided good distraction – Owen hadn't crossed my mind the whole time I'd been there. But now he was back, sobering my mind and causing a slight burn in the pit of my stomach.

I shot to my feet and ran over to her, praying desperately that she had good news. I couldn't read her face – there were too many emotions plaguing her. Curiosity, sadness, happiness… I couldn't tell which was for me. She gave me a soft smile, different from the one I'd gotten before, but still I wasn't sure what she was thinking. I didn't say anything, just waited for her to tell me the news and lead me to his room.

"Talia, Owen's been asking for you." She smiled again. I looked at her so sure that my confusion was written all over my features. He'd been asking for me? But he wasn't even conscious, how could he… the realization hit me like a runaway melon cart. He was awake! He'd woken up, and he'd asked for me! I bit my lip to keep myself from leaping on the poor woman and spinning her around and around and around.

"He's awake?" I had to be sure; I had to hear her say it. She needed to say 'yes, he's awake.' And I had to see him, right that very second! "I have to see him, where is he?" The sentence spilled my mouth before I'd even thought it.

The nurse laughed, a sort of low, hollow sound, and held up one hand. "Calm down, Sweetie, you'll get to see him. He woke up a little over an hour ago and he hasn't stopped asking for you. There are a few rules for his kind of room though." She started walking at a pace incredibly too slow for my liking, though in reality it was probably quite brisk. I followed, keeping up surprisingly well for someone who was just getting used to two legs again. "First, remember he has a roommate. Be considerate and keep your voice down… it's a special care room; you never know what his roommate has been through. So be quiet. Second, you have to wear these –" she handed me a pair of cloth boots and stopped for me to put them on. "They're sterile so your feet don't go dragging in germs that aren't necessary. Finally," she stopped now; put both hands on my shoulders and looked me straight in the eye. "Try not to get too emotional, for his sake. He's in pretty bad shape, but he's out of the dark since he woke up. Most of the stuff you'll see is just flesh wounds – they'll heal up in a week or so but he looks pretty bad right now. Don't scare him, ok?"

I nodded and realized we'd stopped outside a door with a number and three letters stamped into it – 29, S.C.R. I swallowed the lump that had formed in my throat and forced the tears that were just dying to spill out as far away as I could. This was his room… behind that door, my Owen was lying in a bed, in 'pretty bad shape.' I didn't know if I could bear to see it… but I had to. He'd asked for me. Of all people, he'd thought of me as soon as he woke up. How could I not go?

I took a deep breath and gave the nurse a weak smile before pushing the door open slowly. It didn't creak like Tobin's had, but it drew just as much attention. The Special Care Rooms were very different from the normal rooms. Everything was dyed white, the walls, the floor, the ceiling… everything. In a cushy looking bed on the left side of the room, a man lay sleeping. He had bowls of herbs sitting around him, boiling to provide an airborne medication, and tubes of other herbs were attached to him. I wondered what he was there for… I'd never seen so many herbs being used at the same time! But I didn't focus on him long, for on the right side of the room was a green-eyed boy with dirty blond curls, sitting up in bed, reading some book that the doctors provided.

His head was wrapped in fresh white wrapping and thick, gauzy bandages covered parts of his chest and arms. I could see where purplish-black bruises were forming in places, and where they'd missed some blood that was still caked on his face and shoulders… it was all I could do not to weep right there. It wasn't that he looked so bad – he was better than I'd expected after the nurse's cautions – it was just seeing him there, looking so weak, so… unlike himself. It caused a pain in my chest I'd never felt before. I choked back a sob, trying to force a smile on my face when he looked up from his book.

"Talia." A smile spread across his lips and his voice was much stronger than I'd expected. It was comforting to hear him sounding like his old self, contrary to the image before me. I walked over to him, fighting the urge to run and fling myself into his arms… "Hey."

"Hey." I smiled down at him. I wanted to say something funny, something to make him laugh at me just like he used to, but I couldn't think of anything. I wasn't sure if I wanted to beat him for scaring me like he did or wrap him in my arms and never let go… it's so confusing, not loving someone. "How do you feel?"

"Better than I look, don't worry." He laughed, grinning in a way I hadn't seen in a long time before taking one of my hands in his own and shaking it gently. "Look at you, all grown up. I guess gypsies aren't so crazy after all."

"No, they're crazy. They just know how to work it." He smiled, laughing at my pitiful joke just to make me feel better, I guess, and moved over on his bed. He patted the newly opened space and nodded at me, so I climbed up next to him, careful not to touch any of his bruises or bandages. The bed was plenty big enough for two, thankfully, and though the nurse clearly didn't approve, she didn't say anything about it either.

"Have you seen Tobin?" he asked, trying to get comfortable without hurting himself too much. I nodded, wondering if he'd even noticed I'd left of if he was still in that dark room, trying to get me to be his master.

"He tried to seduce me." I smiled mischievously, glancing at Owen before looking away quickly. He laughed, a good, full belly laugh, and I knew he understood. It was strange, how he didn't seem to be in too much pain even though he looked so dreadful. I was glad for that, though.

"And did you let him become your seducer?" he was trying to be serious about it, but I could see the hint of a smile escaping his eyes and I knew it was only seconds before he would burst out laughing.

"I thought about it… but then I decided fake accents just aren't my thing." This set him off, and he was quickly doubled over, laughing so hard I knew it had to hurt. But he didn't seem to notice, he just kept on laughing, so loud that the nurse had to 'shush' him and remind us of the roommate rule. Of course that didn't help anything – it just set Owen into a new fit of giggles. His laughter was contagious and soon I was laughing just as hard. It was good, laughing with him again.

"What happened to hating me because I'm an insufferable bloke with a terrible smell and no manners?" I hadn't expected that question… it seemed so long since I'd actually hated him, I'd forgotten that I once had. But he didn't need to know that. As far as he was concerned, I still hated him and I most definitely did not love him.

I turned to face him and gave the most serious and hopefully convincing look I could muster up. "I still hate you. I was just being nice to you because I was a frog and now because you're in the hospital. Rest assured now that I'm human again, as soon as you get better I'll be pelting you with rocks and throwing any shoe I happen to have at your head." My faced locked in my expression and I could tell that he wasn't sure if I was serious or not. A strange looked passed his eyes, ever so quickly, and I had no clue in the slightest what it had been... we were both silent for a second.

"Don't lie. You know you love me." My breath caught in my throat for the third time that day and I struggled not to let my expression give me away. Love him? Why would he say that? Why would he choose those words, of all the words in the dictionary, why those? I was panicking… did he know? How could he? "Well… ok maybe not love. That's a bit strong… but you at least like me a little. Come on, admit it Talia." He playfully punched my shoulder and I was able to breathe again – it was just an expression! Duh, Tali pull it together, girl! Besides, you don't love him, remember?

"Oh… ok… fine." I stuttered, trying to calm my racing heart. I don't know why I reacted quite that way to one little, untrue word. Must be all the herbs floating around in the room… "I like you a very small, miniscule amount. Happy now?"

"You like me more than that." He declared, crossing his arms and looking me square in the eyes. Luckily my expression didn't falter. I had control of my thoughts, at least for that moment, and I was able to give him a 'yeah, ok' look. "If you didn't, you wouldn't care if I was happy."

"I don't. I only asked because you're in a hospital bed. I feel sorry for you, don't get used to it." I shrugged and looked away from him, catching a glimpse of the amused look on the nurse's chubby face. "Besides, if any one here likes any one more than a little, you are the one who likes me."

"Ha! I could have a good laugh at that one! Why would you say I like you? You throw rocks at me, for good sake!" he chuckled, not even bothering to give me the scathing look I'd expected. He wasn't very good at this game.

"I would say that, in fact I would know that, because you were ready to kill a dragon because he turned me into a frog, you fought a giant bloke because he wouldn't give me back, and as soon as you woke up in the hospital I was the one you asked for." I said this all very nonchalantly, not even looking at him and twirling a strand of my long brown hair around my fingertip all the while.

I heard him suck in a deep breath before I finally glanced at him, finding his face confused and slightly annoyed. I smiled, knowing I'd won. "I didn't ask for you, you asked for me!" what?! He wasn't supposed to know that! And that nurse had said… she'd said… I quickly turned my gaze to the nurse, who had a sheepish grin on her face, amused at our bickering but not revealing any answers.

"She told me you were asking about me as soon as you woke up! That's the only reason I even came down here. I was just about to let Tobin seduce me, as a matter of fact. Him, I like." Ok so that was a complete and total lie. I liked Tobin less even than I liked being a frog. But Owen didn't need to know that.

"Ha, now I know you're lying because you hate Tobin and would never, never in a million years let him seduce you! I win, you like me and you know it. I know you won't admit it. You don't have to. I already know." He started doing a happy dance, right there in the bed, bobbing his head back and forth and doing a little jig with two fingers. I screamed from the back of my throat – he really was insufferable – and jumped from the bed. The nurse chuckled, coming to my side and quietly suggesting I go back to my room and would I please refrain from screaming in the Special Care Rooms. This made Owen laugh and he was soon holding his stomach, forcing the nurse to try and quiet him while pushing me out of the room, telling me to wait for her to escort me back to my own room. I crossed my arms over my chest, quietly seething and glaring at the floor.

Stupid bloke! I did not like him! Who did he think he was, telling me that I did? Well I'll show him how much I don't like him as soon as we get out of this intolerable hospital. Did I mention I hate hospitals? The smell, the patients… none of it works for me.

The nurse appeared a few moments later, giggling to herself and wiping a few stray tears that had escaped her eyes. She pulled me from the wall, wrapped her arm around my shoulders and squeezed me tight. "He's a keeper." She said simply, then walked me back to my room, silently giggling the whole way there.

I hated her, too.

Of course she provided me some useful information, like the fact that we can leave in about a day and that Tobin's herb overdose was wearing off nicely. She also told me the whereabouts of our horses the mirror and the cartful of food (which, unfortunately, had been raided and was now left with nothing but the mirror itself.) When we arrived at my room, I found it empty. My roommate had apparently been released and I was told I could expect another if I stayed longer than two days. I had no intention of doing that – we were leaving as soon as Owen was deemed well enough.

Spending endless hours in a hospital, confined to a room with no one to talk to, was torture for me. I'd pace back and forth, letting my mind wander to random things. More than once I found myself thinking about Sir Marlin Troy – if he'd figured out which way I'd run, or if he'd told Madame about my disappearance, or even if he was out looking for me himself. That was one benefit of being a frog… I'd known I was safe from that fat, dirty bloke. He'd never guess that I'd get turned into a slimly little creature. I never would have been bothered. But as a girl again, I'd have to be careful. I didn't where he was or if there were wanted posters with my name on them posted somewhere… after all, I was technically a fugitive, as far as he was concerned. He could have alerted the knights he once knew of even the kingdom guard… I could be wanted!

I tried not to let these thoughts worry me too much. He was a lazy old bloke, and he'd probably just go buy another bride and forget I'd ever been there. He wouldn't take the time to write to Asha Belay and tell her I'd run away, and he definitely would not bother to chase after me himself – he was just too lazy for that. At least, that's what I told myself, over and over, waiting for the nurse to come tell me I was free to go and my boys could go as well.

I was asleep when that finally happened. It was early in the morning – before the sun had even risen – when my door burst open and I was woken up with a rough shake and a sudden blast of cold air. I growled and pushed Owen away from me, rolling over so I could get a few more minutes of precious sleep. It'd taken me hours to fall asleep, who was he to come charging in here, shaking me so hard my head was going to roll off and taking my covers away?! The jerk…

"Talia, get up, it's time to go." He said, his shaking more gentle this time but just as annoying. I groaned. I didn't want to get up yet, why couldn't we leave when the sun was up? There's an idea… "I'm warning you, get up now or pay the price."

I laughed and stayed put. I wasn't getting up yet, and that was that. There was nothing he could do about it, and he could 'warn' me all he wanted. I wasn't moving until I could feel the sun warming my skin.

"Ok, I warned you Kiddo." His voiced sounded amused and I really had no idea why, and I didn't care to look. He was so annoying sometimes! I wanted so badly to throw something at him, but that would require moving and I had no intention of that. I could hear him moving around, messing with things in the room, but there wasn't anything there I cared about. I closed my eyes and let sleep take me once again.

The freezing splash of ice water on my skin woke me up. I shot out of bed, screaming at the top of my lungs and lunged at Owen, who was laughing merrily, a metal pale hanging from his fingers. I screamed again – he was so unspeakably infuriating!

I was dripping wet and absolutely freezing, but that didn't stop me from charging at him furiously and pounding on him as hard as I could. I was surprised to see that he was actually wincing a little bit… until I remembered where we were and why we were there and I immediately stopped my rampage and backed away, shivering from the cold and my ice-drenched clothes. "I… I'm… I…" I stuttered, not sure what to say.

Owen, despite my obvious distress at beating his bruised body, was laughing. Yes, once again, that bloke found my disdain simply hilarious! I screamed indignantly, crossed my arms and stomped my foot down, glaring at him while I waited for his uproarious and completely obnoxious laughter to end. "Don't be, it was worth the laugh." He said finally, wiping the sweat from his brow and standing up straight. How dare he assume I was apologizing! I was not apologizing to him, and I definitely wouldn't be thinking of doing it ever again! That… that… he was impossible!

"Oh come on, Tali, it doesn't even hurt any more. I swear. Come on, let's get Tobin and blow this joint." I rolled my eyes and stormed past him, vaguely wondering where he came up with such ridiculous phrases before barging into the room next to us only to find Tobin already awake, his ear to the wall we shared. Of course he'd be listening; he wouldn't be Tobin if he hadn't been.

"Good, you know it's time to go then. Up, up, let's go." I snapped my fingers and backed towards the door slowly, bending at my waist and indicating he should follow. He threw his pillow at me in response but I was quick to dodge it and he was soon following, telling me about the crazy dream he'd had the night before. I couldn't say what it was about – I wasn't listening – though I do admit I was wondering if he remembered anything that had really happened. I would've asked him, but then I would have to have care that much. And I didn't.

Owen was waiting for us outside, our horses and the cart all ready to go. The nurse was there too, only this time she wasn't in her gray nurses' garb. Instead was wearing a tent – well, at least it looked like a tent. Maybe it was supposed to be a dress. I couldn't be sure as she was quite large, and it was far too early in the morning for me to care. The water had made my skin numb by now and all I wanted to do was curl up somewhere warm and go to sleep.

Tobin poked me in the side and walked away. I took a deep breath and followed, fighting so hard to keep from throwing something at him. The only thing that really stopped me was the severe lack of things to throw, but I'd like to chalk it up to my amazing self control and call it a day. Ha.

"Ready to go then, Love?" Tobin was already mounted on one horse and Owen and the other, forcing me to realize something terrible – we were a horse short. I'd have to ride with one of the boys, neither of whom I was currently happy with. I don't know what Tobin had done, rightfully nothing, but I just felt like hating him. He was a boy, after all, and I'd decided after last night that I was giving up boys. They confused me and I was much better off without them, especially the dirty blond one staring down at me, waiting for me to choose who I was riding with.

"Climb on up, Tali, we need to get moving. We lost a lot of time here." He was right, of course, and that just made me loathe him more. I can't believe I'd missed him so much when I was locked in that tower! Right then, I couldn't think of a place I'd rather be.

"I know that." I was being stubborn and uncooperative, but I didn't care. I didn't want to ride with him and it was so presumptuous to assume that I would! Maybe I'd ride with Tobin. Sure, my ears would fall off (he was currently chatting to Owen about… something…) but at least I wouldn't be able to smell the dirty hay I was sure still clung to his hair. "But I'm not riding on a horse."

"You're not? And why's that?" Owen was getting impatient… I could tell, even if he wasn't going to show it on his smug little face. He knew how he taunted me and he enjoyed it!

I tried to make myself appear as insulted as possible while I tried to think of some dumb reason why I wouldn't get on a horse. I tried to say that it was because I didn't want to ride with him, but my mouth just wasn't cooperating with me. Every time I tried to say it, the stupid thing just hung there, wide open, waiting for the flies. Owen sighed, exasperated. I really had no idea why I was acting this way.

"Are you afraid of them now that you're big?" a smirk spread across his lips and I felt my face burn red. I was not afraid! Not of horses, at least… I was afraid of a lot of things, but horses were not one of them. But of course when I tried to protest, my head nodded instead and Owen climbed off of his horse, embraced in a quick and oh-so-warm hug, and escorted me to the cart where he said I could ride if it made me feel better. I hated how sweet he was being, it only made me want to hit him more. But I couldn't because he was bruised at that was because of me too… inside I was screaming but outside I was watching silently as he took the time to cover the mirror – every last inch of it – so I wouldn't be petrified the entire trip.

Oh what a completely unbearably, infuriating bloke he could be! He even found a blanket to lay over me – perhaps his way of apologizing for splashing me with cold water? I wasn't sure. I was too busy trying to notice.

Something bit me. That's what woke me up hours later, still rolling along behind Owen and Tobin in the surprisingly smooth-riding cart. I slapped my arm, noticing a small red welt that would surely itch like crazy later.

The sun was high in the sky and little puffy clouds were scattered here and there. It was entirely too nice of a day for the way I'd acted this morning. I felt so stupid… and yet, I couldn't help but wish there was a nice pile of rocks to throw at the back of either boys' head. I felt more like my old self than I had in days… but it felt so strange. Confusion is quite the little bugger, isn't it?

"… so I says to him, I says, ain't you a little old to be at a bar like this? And you want to know what he said back? He said, aren't you a little young?! Get that, an old fellow like that, telling me I'm not the right age to be in a pub! Don't know what's happening to the world."

"Tobin, pubs don't have age limits. Any one can get in, so long as they can handle their ale." Owen shrugged and I could tell he was rolling his eyes. He still wasn't Tobin's biggest fan, no matter what he wanted me to believe, and it was obvious he'd been listening to pointless stories for hours on end. I actually felt bad for the poor boy… well, a little bit sorry.

"Well they should! Men that old should not be allowed in. As a matter of fact, no men should be allowed in, except for me. Then I'd have all those pretty ladies to myself and Toby would be a household name. Well… maybe not a 'household' name." He laughed at his own ridiculous joke and wiggled his eyebrows for added effect. I knew he was a pig, but I had no idea he was so crude! You'd never guess by the way he acted around actual women… guys were so weird when they thought no girls were around! I rolled my eyes and groaned, crossing my arms over my chest and praying he'd shut up soon.

"If the only man allowed in any pub were you, the ladies would run for the hills." Tobin shot Owen a venomous look before laughing off his comment and changing the subject quickly.

"Talia is awake." He declared. I bolted upright, not sure how long he'd known I was up or if he was just bluffing. I closed my eyes, hoping it was the latter. I didn't want them to know I was awake, not yet. I needed a few more minutes of peace and quiet I …

"Yea I know. I heard her eyes rolling a while back. She thinks you're a pig, you know." Owen didn't look at me and neither did Tobin. They just kept on talking like they didn't know I could hear every word they said. Maybe they didn't think I could…but that was just ridiculous. They had to know!

"What makes you say that?" Tobin seemed genuinely insulted by this, like he thought I actually liked him as more than an annoying person I didn't really like. His voice got slightly lower and his muscles seemed to tense slightly… like it actually mattered to him if I liked him. I felt my eyes roll again.

"She told me so. She said you tried to seduce her, too." His tone was matter-of-fact as he said this, navigating his horse carefully around a hole in the road. I wished I could see the look on his face even though I could picture it clearly in my mind: He was grinning ever-so-slightly and a mischievous glint sparkled in his eyes. He was just trying to get Tobin mad, and it seemed to be working.

"Oh did she now? She said that?" Tobin's head shook up and down rapidly, and I had to wonder if it was going to fall off. It was actually pretty amusing. "I'll have you know that she wanted me. She winked at me and called me a stud. She would have been all over me if that nurse wouldn't have come in and ruined it all!"

"I did no such thing!" I shouted, turning on him even though I'd told myself I wanted to enjoy his anger. I felt my face flush red all over, and the amused expression on Owen's face didn't help matters. I deeply regretted messing with Tobin the way I had – I'd just assumed he wouldn't remember! Apparently he hadn't been as overdosed as I'd thought.

"Oh, Tali, there's no need to hide our love! I'll confess it on the mountainside and write it on the moon! You wanted me. Admit it, sweetheart." He blew a kiss to me and I scowled evilly. What was with these boys? They were being so obsessive with me, and I didn't like either of them! I glared at him, refusing to even grace that absurd accusation with a response.

"Ok Tobin, cool it. She's grumpy today." He said this last part in a baby voice, so I stuck my tongue out at him and glared even harder. Of course this just made him laugh so hard he almost fell off the horse, and left me wishing that he had. I didn't have much time to ponder the outcome of it, however, because a few moments later we'd stopped and both boys were climbing off of their horses.

I scurried out of the cart and ran to catch up with them before finally looking at the scene around us. We were stopped at the bank of a massive, rampaging river. It was beautiful, but not good enough to stop the horses for, so I knew there had to be a better reason why we'd stopped. I was about to ask when I noticed the thick wooden bridge before us and the ropes and that tied it off.

"Well that's just great." I pouted, leaning on a tree and watching Owen examine the knot that held the ropes together. I couldn't say why they were there – the bridge looked sturdy enough. In fact, it looked brand new… there weren't even any wheel tracks on it!

"I don't get it," Owen was just as confused as I was. He dropped the knot and stood, running a hand through his curls. "The bridge is perfectly fine. There aren't any holes, and all the joints look sturdy. Why is it closed?"

"Some kids probably tied the rope there to… prank travelers or something. Let's just untie it and go. " Tobin was impatient, pacing back and forth like there was somewhere he actually needed to be. I grinned, wondering what his problem was.

"We shouldn't –" Owen tried to protest but Tobin shoved him out of the way and tore away the knot. He hesitated only a moment before stepping onto the bridge and grabbing both railings firmly. He took a few more steps, incredibly slowly before –

"– Ouch!" a cry that seemed to come from the bridge itself echoed in the air and all of us – Tobin included – froze where we stood. None of us had made the cry, we were sure of that. But then… who did? I stared at the bridge… could it have? No… bridges can't…

"Why would you step on me?! Didn't you see the ropes! They're there for a reason, nitwit!" Oh. My. God. The bridge was talking to us. The wooden bridge that lay before us was actually talking! And it was mad at Tobin for walking on it! My mouth fell open and I ran to Owen's side. This was too weird.

"I'm… sorry?" Tobin tried, backing up gently until he was back on solid ground. He seemed much more at ease, his body less tense, even though he'd just been yelled at by a bridge.

"You should be sorry!" The bridge yelled, its voice raising an octave or two. "It was so much work, getting those ropes put up, and you just come along and untie them like they're nothing! That's so rude… why… why would you do that?"

"I… I didn't know… I mean, I've never seen a talking… living… bridge. Before." The bridge laughed at this, a sincere laugh that would have come from its belly had it had one. I was quite enjoying that sound when I noticed an ugly gray head poke up from the side of the bridge. Horns sprouted from his head and a wiry tuft of black hair rested on top. As he came out more, I was able to see he was big… very big. And his teeth were incredibly yellow and… sharp. His body was gray, like his head, and covered in random tufts of black hair. His nails were long, four inches at least, and he was garbed in torn up rags of shirts that I knew had never fit him.

"You think I'm a bridge?" His voice was even louder now that he wasn't concealed beneath the bridge and it echoed loudly, hanging in the air. Tobin backed away, joining Owen and I, clearly frightened. The… thing, I wasn't sure what… only laughed, however, and rose out of the water to join us. "Let me assure you, I am not a bridge. I am an Under-the-bridge Troll. We live, well, under bridges. And I chose this one."

"I see, good…uh… Troll." Owen stepped forward, smiling submissively at the troll and holding out one hand awkwardly. "My friend here meant no harm. We aren't from around here, and we couldn't have known that was your home. We'd only like to cross, if you'd be so kind to let us."

The troll rubbed his hairy chin, as if deep in thought at our humble request. He scratched his head and looked around, taking his dear sweet time before finally crossing his arms over his chest and focusing his attention on Owen once more. "I'll let you cross, on one condition."

"What condition?" Tobin stepped up, asking his question carefully and slowly. He was scared, and I knew the troll could tell, but he just had to act manly and so I let him. I wasn't about to get any closer to the disgusting thing, but if they wanted to… well…more power to them.

"The condition," his voice raised in warning, clearly unhappy that Tobin had interrupted his speech. He glared at Tobin, sending his two steps back before continuing, "is quite simple. You'll each have one guess – that's three – and you must use that guess to guess my name. If you fail to find my true title, the girl will become my queen and live under this bridge with me."

I was shocked just long enough for Tobin to grab my waist and keep me from knocking that stupid Troll back into the river where he belonged. His queen?! I don't think so. I don't even like the water; I'd never survive under a bridge! And frankly, if I had to wake up to that every morning, I'd have to drown myself. I'd never seen a troll before, but I'm sure even for what he was, he was hideous.

Owen stepped forward protectively, a stern look on his face. "How are we to guess your name? We have no clue what it could be! And I'm sorry to burst your bubble but Talia isn't for trade. We're crossing this bridge, with or without your permission." He turned from the troll and marched over to Tobin and me, took my hand and pulled us toward the bridge. Of course the troll wouldn't have that – he blocked our path and let out a gruesome scream that tore through my very soul.

"You'll guess my name or I'll pick my teeth with your bones!" he roared, trudging to the middle of the bridge and planting his self firmly on the ground. "I will give you a hint. You can see my name from where you stand. You each have one try, and I will not wait all day." A loud grumble filled the air, and I could only wonder if it'd come from his stomach.

What he wanted was impossible, and I knew it. The morons thought we had a shot, but I knew what he was doing… playing with his food. Let me just say that I am so sick of almost being eaten! How many times is that, like six? I plopped down against a smooth tree and started examining my fingernails. There wasn't anything better to do, anyways, and the boys were busy trying to actually guess his name.

"We can see it from where we stand? What, is it something like river or tree or bridge? Because that's all I can see from I stand." Tobin was whispering to Owen, his accent gone once again, a slight tone of panic in his voice. Owen was deep in thought – I could tell by the constipated look on his face. His hand was on his chin and his brow was furrowed, causing deep wrinkles to form on his forehead. I had to admire the fact that he thought he could figure it out but… well… that troll could be named anything! I felt bad for the poor boy, and for some crazy reason I wanted him to think that I thought we had a fighting chance. I rose from my place under the tree and joined their party.

"What are you thinking, Owen?" I said softly, not wanting to break his 'concentration' but at the same time dying to do just that. He gave me he strangest look before holding up one finger, as if to say hold on a minute. So Tobin and I waited, watching the troll sunbathe on our only path towards the Morgan Mountains.

"Troll," Owen called, turning abruptly and taking three even steps forward. The troll sat up from his spot on the bridge and an evil grin spread across his face, just waiting to shoot down our first guess. I had no idea what Owen was doing – we hadn't talked about any ideas – but he seemed to have a plan of some sort, so I just stayed back and kept my mouth shut for once in my life. "If we are to have three guesses, shouldn't we have three clues? One apiece, as the case is. It's only fair."

"Three clues?! You're sure to guess it immediately with three clues! Do I look like a bumbling fool?" He pounded his great and hairy fist against the bridge, breaking a nail in the process. I watched it fall into the river, finding it more interesting than his rant. I realized that I don't like trolls, and I especially hate under-the-bridge trolls. "I will give you one more clue. That makes two, in case you can't add. I'm letting a meal and a queen slip away by giving a second hint, however, so you must give me something in return. Perhaps one of those juicy looking horses… one would give me dinner for tonight and tomorrow night as well."

He wanted one of our horses. He wanted to eat one of our horses. Just the thought of it made me want to vomit! But Owen, ever-sensible as he was pretending to be, quickly handed over the reins of the horse Tobin had claimed. Surprisingly enough Tobin didn't argue – the troll was more frightening to him than walking, apparently.

The troll smiled in return, taking the reins at the end of the bridge and leading the horse below. He returned a moment later, retook his place and the center of the bridge, and started sunbathing again. Owen cleared his throat, but the troll still just lay there, soaking up rays. "Sir… Troll… our clue?"

"Oh? Oh right. Not quite the nitwit I'd thought you were… maybe you're just a halfwit then. Alright your stinking clue. Hmm… well I've never had to give a second clue before… let's see…" He took his sweet time, looking around and scratching his chin. I paid attention to his every move. He seemed to look at random things, like he wasn't really focusing on anything that would give away his name. It was strange… I watched him curiously and realized he was just spinning his head in a circle! He wasn't looking for another clue at all! But what did that mean, exactly? "Your second clue is this: My name rhymes with a whole slew of words."

"That's not a clue! Everyone's name rhymes with many words. Unless one's name is Orange, but I don't guess that there are many people named Orange… now give us a better clue. We gave you a whole horse, for good sake!"

"And I gave you a second clue, as promised. You never said it had to be a good clue. You never even said it had to be a true clue. I could be lying and you wouldn't know, now would you? You still have three guesses, don't bother me again unless you intend to use one." He rolled onto his back and closed his eyes, letting the sun warm his grotesque body once again.

"So that's it, then? You're a liar? You're a lying liar who lies aren't you. You're just playing with us, making us think we have a chance! Well that just isn't right, Troll, and I assure you we will guess your name you will have to watch mournfully as we walk across your bridge!" Owen wasn't happy but I have to admit, watching his face turn red as he screamed sweet nothings at a troll was just… hilarious. I fought back my laughter and tried to focus on something I could see from where I stood that rhymed with many words.

Owen and I were discussing this avidly when Tobin leapt to his feet and marched over to the edge of the Troll's bridge. "I have a guess." He declared and waited for the creature to sit up. It just looked and him, a bored glaze forming over his eyes.

"What is it?" he asked uninterestedly, rolling his hand in the air and yawning loudly.

The burst of courage Tobin had had a minute earlier seemed to wear off when the troll sat up, but he took a deep breath and a step forward nonetheless. "Your name," he started shakily. He cleared his throat, trying to make his voice sound stronger. "Your name is Tree."

Tree?! What kind of a name was that? That boy needed slapped silly, guessing a name like tree… what rhymes with tree, anyways? Tree, free, me, he, she, see… ok a lot of things. But that doesn't make it right! Owen slapped his forehead and shook my head mournfully, wondering if we'd be able to make it in two guesses. The troll, however, looked surprised by the outrageous guess. He stared at Tobin a long time before he burst out in laughter, slapping his knee and struggling to catch his breath.

"That is the most amusing guess I've ever heard! For that, I'll give you another hint. But I'm not promising that it will be a good hint, nor a true hint, and if you argue it I'll take away one of your remaining guesses. My name, tree! That is precious." He continued to chuckle a moment longer before wiping a tear from his eye and catching his breath. "Your new clue is this: My name consists of four different letters."

Tobin sauntered back over to us, his thumbs hooked in the hem of his pants, looking proud of his self. Owen slapped him in the back of the head, wiping the smug grin off of his face, and we got back into our little huddle. It seemed like a simple riddle. We can see it where we stand, it rhymes with many words, and it has four letters. I thought hard – I'd always been good at riddles. I'd fooled my stepsisters with them many times when my father was still living with us… my favorite had been this:

What gets wetter as it dries?

A towel!

Simple, yes, but I was young. I hadn't done a riddle in a long time, and the harder I thought, the less I was able to figure out. I plopped down in the middle of the circle and stared at the ground, wondering if I would find my answer written in the dirt. Of course the only thing there was our footprints… but it was worth a shot, I guess. Owen joined me there and together we spent another five minutes at least silently thinking of answers.

The Troll's stomach growled again and something clicked in my head. Don't ask me how, I couldn't say, but I suddenly knew the answer to the riddle! I smiled at Owen mysteriously and he looked at me, realization spreading across his inherently dumb face.

"You've got it, haven't you? I knew you were smart. What is it?" He smiled, leaning in close as though I were about to tell the most juicy secret he'd ever been told.

"The answers to riddles are always painfully obvious, that's why they're so much fun. They make the riddler feel smart, and the riddlees feel dumb." I declared, building up to my ingenious discovery. Owen raised an eyebrow at me. "What?"

"Is 'riddlee' even a word?" He asked. I slapped him softly and gave a sweet smile.

"It is now. Anyways, what would be a painfully obvious name for a troll?" I was trying to lead him to it, let him think he was a little bit smart, but he just wouldn't take the bait. He looked even more confused now, as a matter of fact, and I knew it was useless. I wasn't about to just tell him what it was, so I stood and walked slowly to the edge of the bridge.

"Troll?" I called. He sat up, rubbing his eyes. I knew he hadn't really fallen asleep, he was just being obnoxious. But he yawned and stretched for a minute before finally acknowledging I'd spoken nonetheless.

"What's your guess?"

"That is my guess. Your name is Troll. I can see a troll from where I stand, and troll rhymes with 'whole.' That's your name." I knew I was right, I could tell by the fleeting expression on his face. But still he looked stern and stood to his feet.

"Are you a complete nincompoop? I told you my name has four different letters. Let's count, shall we? "T" one "R" two "O" three "L" four and "L" five. You lose." He shrugged his shoulders and started to lower himself back under the bridge, but I wasn't giving up that easily. I knew I was right.

"You said your name has four different letters. You never said one couldn't repeat." He stopped mid-lowering and glared at me. I knew I had him; he'd have to let us pass! It seemed so simple; I couldn't believe it'd taken us so long to figure out. We were calling him Troll the whole time, weren't we?

"Oh…fine! Halfwits…" He growled, pounding his fist on the bridge and disappearing below it for good. A pair of arms embraced me from behind and soon I was spinning in circles so fast I thought I'd throw up… we collapsed just in time and Owen gave me another squeeze as we lay on the ground together. He was looking at me so weird… I got up and brushed the grass off my skirt. He gave me his hand and I pulled him up and before long Tobin was loaded into the cart and I was made to ride on the horse with Owen. I didn't to… trust me; I fought it as hard as I could. But in the end they won with the argument of not wanting to squeeze two men into one saddle and I was forcefully lifted onto the horse and held there while Owen climbed on behind me.

Crossing the bridge was the sweetest victory we'd had thus far, at least to me, and I relished every moment of it. I even made us stop in the middle to jump up and down and do a little dance! That troll had tried to trick me, and I wouldn't let him. I felt… I don't know… empowered or something. Even though it'd been the easiest and least painful thing we'd encountered, it was definitely my favorite.

Of course the boys quickly got sick of my antics and drug me across the bridge, kicking and screaming, into the forest on the other side.