~ epilogue ~

The city thrived. Save for some half-hearted attempts by the trolls to rally, and strike back, the first weeks were uneventful, and the frogloks were shaping the city to their liking. It, like the frogloks themselves, had been transformed.

Another sort of transformation was taking place within it. The females were swelling, bearing the eggs that would be the hope of their people. Any doubt that they would breed true was gone, by the time the first was led towards the river, where, into a waiting pool dug for the purpose, she deposited the first eggmass of the breeding season. If three eggs could be called an eggmass. The males were dumbfounded. No instinct had driven them to follow her, and catch her, and hold tight. There was no impulse to repel other males, to lay claim… There was a discussion, before one finally stepped forward, to fertilise the eggs.

The second female to be ready made sure she didn’t have that problem. She approached a male, and told him – in no uncertain terms – that he would be going to the pool with her. He agreed, and that ended any confusion, as they now knew what to expect.

By the second day, the people were ready, and the new way was known by all. Those chosen felt honoured that they would father the next – the first! – generation, while those who were not were glad that at least their work was not interrupted by some instinctual need to fight.

The eggs were large, much larger than the eggs of the people that they had been, of their cousins. These eggs looked much the same, but for their size, as well as for the fact that there were so few of them. No female laid fewer than three, but neither did any lay more than a dozen.

M’jou became a centre of interest, as other females came to her, to question her about the development of the eggs she had cared for. She answered as best as she could, but it soon became apparent that her heart wasn’t in it, and they would depart again, warning off others, leaving her to gaze down into the water where the single tadpole waved its feathery gills weakly.

The other had never hatched. They had awoken one morning, to find that it had ceased to struggle in its gelatinous prison. A healer, summoned immediately, had shaken her head sadly. It had been far too late.

It seemed the city held its breath, as the life of the final one hung in the balance. But it had hatched, and sank to the bottom of the tub, resting from its exertions in freeing itself from the egg. A great yolk-sac still clung to it, and it had no need to feed, and would not, for several days, while it gained strength.

Grägok was stopped in the street as he went to and from the council chambers, and had questions put to him. He was surprised, it seemed everyone had come to care what happened to the tiny tadpole.

But that wasn’t the thing uppermost on his mind. M’jou was. She had sunk into despair, and for all that he had tried, she had not responded.

He pondered, as the session closed, and turned to catch up with the Master Shaman, who had become a close friend through the trial.

“Arglug?” He shifted in embarrassment. “Can I ask you a favour?”

“Of course you can,” the shaman replied. “How can I help? It’s the little one, isn’t it?”

Grägok nodded. “It is. But more then that… it’s M’jou.” He looked up, and nodded politely as the High Priest joined the two, as he exited the council chambers.

“M’jou? Is she alright?” Gloorg’s kindly face took on an expression of concern. “She has been in my prayers.”

“Thank you,” the warrior said, with a slight bow. “But the answer is no, she isn’t.” He frowned. “It’s as if the life has been sucked out of her.” He lowered his head. “She hasn’t eaten for days. She doesn’t speak unless you ask her a question. I’ve tried to tell her that there will be seasons beyond this one. That we will try again, if hope fails us. But she… I…” He swallowed. “I love her, Arglug. I’m afraid for her. I don’t want to lose her. If it dies…”

The two holy-men stood, listening, and they looked at each other.

“Come on, Grägok,” Arglug said kindly. “Let’s go see her. We’ll talk to her. Perhaps our blessings will help. And maybe I’ll try a scrying, to see if Lord Marr might have something to show us.”

She looked up from her work as they entered, and nodded politely, but it was apparent to both the cleric and the shaman that Grägok’s worries were not misplaced. The despair she tried to hide was all too clear.

They sat down with her, and Grägok reached out to take her hand. He held it between his own tenderly. She looked at him, and the resonance he had come to treasure vibrated with her pain. His own heart ached in response. No words were adequate enough to give her, so he kept his silence and let his eyes speak for him.

“M’jou.” Arglug smiled warmly at the wizard. “The little one hatched two days ago, now, yes?” She nodded, as he bent down to peer into the tub, and studied the small life within it. He held his hand out, and it glittered blue for a moment. “It’s healthy,” he said quietly. “Very small, though. I imagine it’ll do a lot of growing. Those extra weeks, before the others begin to hatch, will come in handy, won’t they, little one? You’ll need them to catch up with the others. They’ll all start out bigger than you, I think.” He dipped his hand into the water, and smiled as the small shape wiggled away from his touch. “I’ll have one of my Yun find some good algae-covered rocks for it. To make sure it has something to eat, when it needs it. From the size of that yolk sac, you’ve got another day before then. Would you like me to find out if it’s male or female? It might help with choosing a name.” He looked up at the wizard’s stricken face.

“M’jou?” Gloorg reached down to take her other hand. “I think that’s an admirable idea, myself. Find out if you have a son or a daughter.”

She shook her head, and closed her eyes. “I don’t want to know… I can’t bear to love it, not when…” Her face twisted, as she struggled to hold her emotions tight within her. “Not when it will be taken from me too.”

“Oh, my dear lady,” Gloorg whispered, and settled his arm around her. “Don’t you see that it is that self-same love that will give it strength? You have so much to give, do not withhold it for fear. If the worst should come, would you rather have given that infant life some joy in knowing it was loved, and treasured, or have it never know the touch of your hand or the feel of your love?”

“Master Gloorg…” She bowed her head. “I don’t know if I have the strength…”

“Of course you do,” Grägok told her. “Your children will grace this city, and we will be proud of them. They will be strong, and beautiful, as their mother is.” He stroked her cheek. “Where there is life, there is hope.”

“Do not lose your hope, M’jou,” Arglug said gently. “This little one shows no sign of illness, no weakness that time will not cure. It just needs to grow.” He rubbed his chin. “Perhaps a scrying is a good idea, after all. At the very least, I’ll find out if you have a son or a daughter.”

He settled himself down beside the tub, watching the movements of the tadpole. He rubbed his chin again, as he thought. “Well, then. Let us see…” He reached out a finger to touch the surface of the water, whispering an incantation. A single drop clung to his fingertip. He lifted it, and touched it to his eye. A second drop was lifted to his other eye, and he blinked them deliberately, then leaned over the tub, and gazed down into the water.

For a long time, he sat motionless, waiting, and M’jou stirred, about to speak, to tell him to stop, that it wasn’t necessary. But she froze, as his eyes widened suddenly, and he leaned closer, nearly touching the water as he stared. He opened his mouth to speak, once, but stopped, and sat silently, watching images only he could see.

After a time, he raised his head, to look at the faces of the three who sat waiting.

“He will live, M’jou,” the shaman said, finally. “He has a destiny. He will be…” Arglug’s mouth worked, and a strange expression flicked across his face. He tried again, then shook his head. “He will do great things.” The Yun Master looked to the priest, whose own eyes had widened. “I can’t say more than that.”

“You can’t say…?” Grägok frowned, and looked from the Yun to the Kor, and back. “But…?”

“He cannot say, because he is prevented,” Kor Master Gloorg said gently. “Some things are not for us to know. But your son has a destiny, Grägok. Arglug speaks true. And he will do great things. There is no lie in those words. And if Lord Marr wishes to keep secrets, that is surely his right.”

“My… son?” Grägok blinked. “I have a son…” He turned to M’jou, who was still staring at the shaman. “We have a son,” he told her, as she looked at him, her eyes veiling themselves.

“And he will live,” she said, her voice breaking “He will live!” She leaned on him, letting his strength support her as she wept. “I have been so afraid. I could not bring myself to hope again…”

He wrapped his arms around her, and held her. “We should think of a name,” he said to her, stroking her cheek. “A name for our son.”

Arglug stood up, a little shakily, and looked back down into the tub at the tadpole that hung there, then reached down again, dipping his hand into the water. He touched the tadpole with a gentle finger, and spoke a word, and a shimmer of light shone from the water. “Be strong, little one,” he said. “Lord Marr bless you, and protect you.”

He waited in silence as the priest did the same, then led the way outside, looking back to see the wizard and the warrior still clinging to each other. He smiled sadly, and waited for Gloorg, who closed the door, and joined him.

“He will have a hard time of it?” the priest asked, as they set out together.

Arglug nodded. “It will be a long, hard path. And we will not be able to help him. Outwardly, at any rate.” He shook his head. “And yet, if he holds true…”

The cleric sighed. “I was afraid of that. I will see what I can do. It will be interesting to see if we can be both sneaky, and honourable.” He walked in silence for a time. “How long do we have?”

“Not that long. He leaves us young.” Arglug sighed. “It will be hard on them. We’ll have to be ready for it.”

Gloorg nodded. “Will it end happily?” he asked at last.

Arglug stole a glance at the cleric, and smiled a little. “Now, that would be telling,” he said. “You’ll have to wait and see.”

A & Ω

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