Azalea sank down onto the grass outside her family's cottage with a little sigh. She'd been hard at work all day, and was quite happy to seize on the chance for a little fresh air and free time.
Flopping onto her stomach, she rested her chin on the bank of the tiny stream that ran by the cottage and dangled her hands in the cool water. Little silvery fish zoomed this way and that beneath her tired fingers, and a large, smooth, green frog hopped out of the lazy current onto the damp ground.
Azalea sat up, watching the frog with alert interest; it didn't seem to be at all afraid of her. The amphibian blinked at her, just once, and then turned it's back, not paying the slightest bit of attention to her. The young girl sighed again.
"Oh Frog, if only you were a prince in disguise," she said wistfully. "I could release you with a kiss, and then we'd get married and go live in your palace, and Mother could come and be a lady of the court, and we'd never have to be hungry again...if only it could happen."
The frog ignored her.
"Oh, but it can happen," said an unexpected voice. There was a slight buzzing noise, and Azalea gave vent to a shrill shriek as a tiny creature zoomed down in front of her - an exquisite little person, only a few inches tall, with sharply pointed wings and ears, slanted eyes, and long, white hair that defied gravity and swept upwards into an artistic peak above her small and shapely head. It was a fairy.
"Wh- who are you?" Azalea asked. Her voice came out in a high squeak that made the fairy giggle.
"I'm Pimma," said that person, zipping around energetically. She couldn't seem to stay still for more than a few seconds. "I was watching you from that tree over there-" a long finger indicated an old oak tree off to the left, "and heard you make your wish. It was a good wish - nice and long. And the best part is," she did a neat pirouette, "it can happen." She swooped downwards, bouncing on a blade of grass briefly before zinging back upwards and darting in circles around the young human girl. Azalea, dizzy with trying to keep her in sight, gave up and sank back on her heels. She realized her jaw was hanging slack and hastily remedied the situation.
"And...can you...make it come true?" she asked hesitantly, her voice still unusually high-pitched. (She was was talking to a real fairy!) That's how it happened in most of the fairytales her mother used to tell her, but she wasn't sure if it was true in real life.
Of course, she'd never expected to meet a fairy in real life, either.
Pimma skidded to a mid-air stop in front of her, looking indignant. "Of course not!" she exclaimed, shooting Azalea a reproachful look before executing a series of lightning fast figure-eights . "I'm not a genie! You can make your own wish come true - I'm not going to go kiss some slimy frog just so you can have the prince! Do your own dirty work."
The young girl's heart leaped, but still she hesitated. "Are you quite sure it'll turn into a prince?" she asked imploringly. She hated to think that she might make a fool of herself in front of the only fairy she'd ever met, but hated still more the thought of letting a poor enchanted prince hop away from his glorious release and her happy ending without lifting a finger - or puckering a lip - to do anything about it. "That's how it always happens in stories, but does it really work that way?"
"Sure," Pimma said brightly, hovering upside down in front of Azalea's anxious grey eyes. "Otherwise there wouldn't be stories about it, would there? I mean," she righted herself and pulled a face, "would you think of making up a story where a girl kisses a frog of her own free will, if it didn't already exist?"
"Probably not," the peasant girl admitted, fiddling with a lock of her wavy black hair. She paused again. Then, "Have you seen it happen?" she inquired in an anxious voice. Pimma huffed.
"Of course I have. Lots of times." She twirled impatiently, her pointy wings humming. "Hurry up! There's one right over there." She pointed to the large frog that was still sitting peacefully with it's back to her.
Azalea gulped. Now that the time had come, she was beginning to lose her nerve. She still wanted to free the poor prince and move to his shining palace, of course, but all the same...
"Hurry up!" the fairy shrilled again, zipping around her head. "Before he hops away and you lose your chance!" She grabbed the girl's finger in her tiny hands and tugged fruitlessly for a moment before giving up and dancing impatiently in the air. "I want to watch!"
The young girl took a deep breath, steeled her resolve, and stealthily crept forward, careful to keep her shadow off her quarry. Gently, ever so gently, she knelt down, cautiously inching her hands towards the unsuspecting amphibian. Thoroughly engrossed, Pimma stopped her whirlwind activity and hovered, watching with keen interest.
Azalea bit her lip, holding her breath for a second - and then swooped down, making a quick, precise snatch. The frog emitted one terrified croak and wriggled in her grasp, kicking it's back legs against her wrist in a desperate attempt to escape.
"It's alright, Your Highness," she said in a reassuring voice. "I won't hurt you, I promise. I'm just going to give you a kiss, and you'll be completely free in a minute."
Unsurprisingly, the frog did not look at all reassured. It croaked again and squirmed harder, making helpless motions with all four legs, as if it were trying to swim out of her hand. Azalea stroked it's head gently, and then, while Pimma looked on and jumped around in excitement, she raised it to her lips and bestowed a soft kiss on the slick, blunt snout before setting in back down in the grass.
Immediately, something started to happen.
The frog gave one last, unhappy croak, and then started shaking violently. It's smooth skin began glowing, and tiny golden lights started popping out of it, surrounding it and hiding it from Azalea's view.
Then it began to change.
The shadow inside the cluster of lights humped up, then stretched out and broadened, straightening upwards and widening at the bottom.
It was rather like watching a small mountain grow.
A sound, like a thousand tiny, beautiful bells, filled the air, just before a flash of brilliant white light erupted from the center of the golden glow, temporarily blinding the girl. Then it faded, and all was silent.
Azalea rubbed her dazzled eyes and gasped at the sight that greeted her when her vision returned. Where the frog had been mere moments before, there now sat the most beautiful boy she had ever seen. He appeared to be her age, perhaps a year younger, with pale skin and tousled, dark brown hair that curled all over his head every which way, among which two slightly pointed ears were visible. He had a slender, almost elfin build, but his features were full and softly rounded, with a bow-shaped mouth and a light showering of freckles across his nose, which tilted up ever so slightly at the end. He was simply clad - reddish-brown pants that reached his knees, a sleeveless, dark green jerkin, and bare feet. The plain clothes seemed to fit him far better than royal attire would have. But it was his eyes that held Azalea spellbound. Large, round, and bright, clear green, they held her almost enchanted.
Then she realized that the beautiful eyes were, in fact, glaring at her with something that could be called extreme dislike.
"Why", the boy demanded furiously, wiping a hand across his mouth, "did you do that?" Azalea gaped at him. It wasn't exactly what she had expected his first words to be.
"I...I don't..." She fumbled for words, unable to think clearly while under that indignant green gaze. "Are you a prince?" she blurted out finally.
The boy snorted, dipping his hands into the stream and rubbing dirt off his knees. "I am now, thanks to you," he said rudely.
"Are you going to marry me?"
The boy looked at her, and Azalea felt a blush slowly creeping up her face. Why had she just said that?! Why? And why couldn't she go back, just a few seconds, and unsay it?
"Why on earth would I do that?" the boy demanded. He poked the ground several times, as though looking for something. Azalea watched him curiously.
"Well...that's how it always happens in stories," she explained, somewhat lamely. "And Pimma told me the stories were true!" she added in an aggrieved voice. The boy turned his bright green glare to the fairy hovering over Azalea's shoulder. She giggled impenitently.
"All I said," she announced, her tiny, pointed face alight with devilish mischief, "was that the frog would turn into a prince. I never said he'd actually marry you and take you away to live in his palace." The boy snatched a pebble out of the stream and flung it at her, but she dodged it with ease and zoomed away backwards with her tongue out at him.
"I trusted you!" wailed poor Azalea. "I thought you meant everything in the stories was true!"
"I think you must be a very stupid girl," the boy said unsympathetically. "Didn't your mother tell you never to talk to strangers?"
"Ye-e-es, but, she's a fairy!" Azalea replied pleadingly. The boy stared at her.
"So? Just 'cause she's four inches tall doesn't mean she's as innocent as you," he said bluntly. "You're very silly." He walked purposefully towards a wildberry bush and poked his head into it, peering around. The peasant girl frowned slightly.
"You might be just a bit more grateful," she said pettishly. The boy pushed aside some branches and leaned farther into the bush.
"Why?" he demanded.
"Well, I did just release you from the spell that had you trapped in frog form," Azalea pointed out. The boy pushed even farther into the wildberry bush, till only his rear end and feet were visible.
"I didn't ask you to," he retorted, his voice somewhat muffled. "I was quite happy as a frog, actually." His bottom hoisted into the air suddenly as he burrowed downward. "And I wasn't under any spell, all frogs turn into princes if you kiss them." He rose up on his toes slightly, bent almost double in the bush. Azalea stared at his brown-clad rump, which was almost all she could see.
"Then...I could have kissed any frog at all, at any time, and gotten a prince?" she asked, astonished. The boy withdrew from the bush, holding a bow and quiver of arrows.
"Yes," he confirmed, picking leaves out of his hair. "But that doesn't meant we want to be princes - yours, or anybody else's. You're very selfish." Azalea frowned, getting rather tired of him pointing out apparent flaws in her character.
"I didn't know animals had feelings like humans do, O Frog Prince," she said testily. "How was I to know that you didn't want to be kissed?" The boy glowered at her.
"I tried to get away, didn't I?" he demanded, slinging the quiver of arrows over his shoulder. "And don't call me Frog Prince."
"But you are a Frog Prince, aren't you?" Azalea asked.
"Of course not." The not-frog prince looked affronted. "When I was a frog, I wasn't a prince. And now that I'm a prince, I'm no longer a frog." He shouldered his bow and started poking the ground again. "I was right, you are stupid." The young maiden sighed.
"Well, do you have a name?" she inquired wearily.
"Prince Rummgrukkadacheumcree." The owner of that dubious name poked a finger into the damp ground and wiggled it around, apparently searching for something. Azalea stared at him.
"Does that mean something in frog-language, or is it...just a name?" Prince Rummgrukkadacheumcree glared at her.
"The word is Fribbergibbet. Not 'frog-language'. And it means 'Swimming Webs'." He pulled his finger out of the dirt and licked it, then wandered over to a hollow log that Azalea liked to sit on and stuck his head inside. Azalea blinked after him.
"Can I call you Prince Rumm?" she asked plaintively. "I'll never remember your full name."
"That's not my full name," Prince Rummgrukkadacheumcree responded, his voice echoing emptily in the log. "My full name is Rummgrukkadacheumcree Fliggledablomere. But I guess Rumm will do." He stuck himself farther into the log. "I'd like to make a withdrawal."
Confused, Azalea opened her mouth to utter an inquiry - and then forgot to close it as a small man dressed all in green with a little pointed beard and tiny rock-crystal spectacles raced out of the open end of the log, threw her a roguish wink, and scurried up the old oak tree to disappear into the thick foliage above. Prince Rumm retreated from the log, a jingling, brown leather bag in his hand.
Utterly bewildered, Azalea could only look between him and the oak tree. "Was that...a...leprechaun?" she whispered, hardly believing it. Her home was teeming with fabled creatures, and she never even knew it!
Prince Rumm looked at her strangely. "Of course it was," he replied. His tone indicated that he thought her rather slow - which, Azalea remembered, he did. "Who else would be allowed to take care of money matters?" He tucked the bag in his belt and went back to poking the ground.
Azalea watched him morosely. Her fairytale didn't seem like it was going to have a happy ending, after all. She and her mother would probably be stuck in the little cottage in the middle of these woods till they died. Although, now that she was faced with a real, honest-to-goodness prince, the idea didn't seem altogether dreadful anymore. Still, perhaps there was a slim chance that he'd warm up to her, and they could have a Happily Ever After after all.
"Are you...quite sure you don't want a princess to come to your palace with you?" she asked somewhat hopefully. Rumm stuck his forefinger and thumb into the small hole he had made and pulled out a perfectly smooth, round, transparent, cream-colored pebble.
"Not unless mayflies are your favorite dish," he said bluntly, and Azalea looked horrified.
"You're going to eat bugs?" she exclaimed. She had been hungry many times before, but never that hungry.
Prince Rumm threw her a dirty look. "Not anymore. I guess I'll have to eat person-food." The girl felt a stab of guilt, and not for the first time she wished that she had never kissed him.
"But surely you'd rather be human than amphibian!" she pleaded.
"Arrogant human." Rumm stuck his tilted nose to the ground and sniffed it. "Have you ever drifted in a slow current on a lilypad? Or sat on a toadstool in the middle of a spring shower? Or competed with Spring Peepers to see who can sing the highest note? Or danced in dewy fairy rings under the full moon?" Accidentally inhaling some dirt, he sat up and sneezed. Azalea was looking down at her fingers, feeling more and more guilty.
"No," she mumbled, trying to hide behind her black curls. "I never thought frogs could have that much fun."
"Well, we can. Could. I could. Did." Rumm scowled, peering around the bank irritably. "Before you got it into your head to kiss me and turn me into a prince. Now I have to go live in a human castle and eat human food and do human..." he waved his hands around, searching for the right word, "stuff, for a hundred years before I can be a frog again." The peasant lass, by now getting used to the clearly enchanted state of affairs, merely gazed at him beseechingly.
"I never would have done it if I'd known!" she cried. "Pimma lead me to believe-" She stopped, maintaining a miserable silence. Prince Rumm softened, but only a trifle.
"Pimma is a pixie, and pixies live to make trouble. Why on earth did you think you could trust her just because she was a tiny little person with wings? Don't you know anything?"
Azalea opened her mouth to make a retort, but then realized that she had none. His logic - or rather, his clearly-stated common sense - quite floored her. "I...I guess I didn't think at all," she stammered. "I was s-so surprised to see a fairy, I just didn't stop to think that she might not be...good. She seemed perfectly friendly," she added defensively. "I thought she was a nice fairy."
"She's not," Prince Rumm said unnecessarily. "No pixie is. And neither are will-o'-the-wisps or trolls." He slipped the cream-colored pebble in his pocket and stood up. Azalea looked alarmed.
"Trolls?" she said, her voice shrill with fear. "Are there trolls around here?"
"Not around here, no," Rumm replied. "They're farther down south. And you don't have to worry about will-o'-the-wisps, either, unless you're in a bog." He pushed a lock of his unruly curls out of his brilliant green eyes and glared at her again. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go start living as a human." Shouldering his bow and arrows, the not-frog prince set off into the woods, his bare feet leaving no prints.
Azalea watched him go, suddenly feeling very lonely and depressed. Prince Rummgrukkadacheumcree might not have been the most polite of companions, but he had been someone to talk to, and he was by far the most intriguing person she had ever met - even more than Pimma.
A slight buzzing behind her announced the fairy's arrival. She hovered by the human girl's shoulder, munching a junketberry that was almost as large as herself.
"Grouchy, wasn't he?" she said, staring after Prince Rumm. Azalea, too downcast to even care that the pixie had tricked her in the first place, nodded.
A large brown toad distracted her attention as it hopped through the long grass near her. Pimma glanced at her and followed her gaze. Immediately, her slanting hazel eyes lit up with mischief, but her voice remained perfectly calm.
"Don't bother with toads," she advised. "Unless you're willing to settle for a merchant's son."