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Original Science Fiction and Fantasy every weekday. Welcome to Daily Science Fiction, an online magazine of science fiction short stories. We publish "science fiction" in the broad sense of the word: This includes sci-fi, fantasy, slipstream-- whatever you'd likely find in the science fiction section of your local bookstore. Our stories are mostly short short fiction (flash fiction) each Monday through Thursday, hopefully the right length to read on a coffee break, over lunch, or as a bedtime tale.

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Toadwords

Nathaniel Lee's fiction has appeared in dozens of venues around the web, including Strange Horizons, Ideomancer, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. He also serves as the Assistant Editor of Escape Pod, the premier science fiction podcast, and Managing Editor at the Drabblecast, the premier... Drabblecast. He lives resentfully in North Carolina and dreams of snow.
They said they'd driven her out of the village and into the woods, and that wasn't a lie. But she found that she preferred the woods. Things were easier out there. A curse means less when you're alone. And her toads could roam where they liked. Not that they often did. Toads don't ask for much, and they know how to appreciate a good place to sit.
At first, she still spoke several toads a day, in shock or boredom or just to hear the sound of her voice. But speaking turned out to be a kind of habit, and as time wore on and she had no one but other toads to talk to, she spoke them less and less. Which was just as well, since the forest was hardly limitless and could not have tolerated an unending deluge of invasive toad-words.
She didn't blame the villagers anymore. Not more than they deserved, at any rate. Nor did she blame her mother, though she could have. She knew she'd made her own share of the trouble, and with enough time and enough bitter toads, she'd accepted that. The toads didn't care, either way.
She kept house in a rickety wood shack, mostly built herself. (Some of the village men had come out later to help her shore it up and show her how to keep it. They told her they were sorry and wanted to help if they could, and she spat snakes at them until they left. She had regrets, but the men had fled and the snakes had crawled into the brush and none of them, to her knowledge, had ever come back.) Her shack was in the thin part of the woods, near the wetlands, for the toads' sake, and also because it was furthest away from the village. The ground was soft and the wind smelled of rotten fish and moldering plants, but there was a nearly inexhaustible supply of midges and mosquitoes and flies and roaches. It was not especially pleasant if you were not a toad, and certainly less pleasant than wherever it was her sister was living now. At first it galled her, then it infuriated her, then it smothered her, then it soothed her, and now it was just where she lived. She gathered mushrooms and herbs. She eventually gained a nanny goat that watched her with its alien eyes and never came when it was called. The toads stayed out of its way.
Once she had carefully spoken the toads "I'm" and "sorry" and sent them to find her mother. They came back the next season. Whether that meant her mother was dead or unwilling to listen or just hard to find if you were a toad, she wasn't sure, and she did not particularly wish to find out. The toads settled happily into the mud and ate beetles, and they offered neither explanation nor hollow comfort.
Toads aren't very smart, but they have their own wisdom, if you know how to listen. She appreciated that about them, and tried not to speak serpents, which tended to eat the toads. The snakes may also have had wisdom, but they kept their secrets, even from her.
About thirty years later, the blind prince crawled into her clearing. The toads had warned her he was coming, had heard from the serpents, who scented his blood on the wind from miles away. She'd been expecting him or someone like him for years, however. He put his hand onto a slick toad's back and shouted a startled oath when it croaked reproachfully and clambered away. There was a chorus of fat plops as toads abandoned the shore of the silty pond. Most of the toads, being born of words, had little love for unproductive conversation.
For a few moments, she watched the man struggle to stand. He was obviously a prince, despite his bramble-torn cloak and scraggly beard and the red ruin of his eyes. Some things are obvious from context. He was on a quest.
"I'm not a witch," she said. Three tiny toads, barely more than pollywogs, and a great warty behemoth the size of a spread-fingered hand tumbled from her lips as she spoke. The witch-toad croaked punctuation. "I won't be one." Four more toads dropped to the mud. More toads already than in the two years before.
The prince managed to pull himself to his knees. Red rivulets like tears ran down his cheeks. He turned his sightless face toward her but did not quite find her. It was mildly unnerving, a feeling like being hunted. At last he spoke. "Help."
She sighed. "Yes," she said. It was bright green and so smooth it might have been a frog.
A toad will endure. Come drought, come winter, they burrow into the mud and muck and simply switch off, sometimes for years, even decades. When the rains come back or the ice retreats, the toads know, and they come back up to sit and watch and catch bugs.
She did not ask about his past life, and eventually he quit trying to tell her. She allowed him to call her Frances and called him Rudy after he said his name was Rudolph. He retaliated with Fanny, and she did not complain. Rudy did manage to tell her that he was a prince, the youngest of three sons, and he hinted at the existence of a princess to be won through some sort of feat of daring. Fanny didn't recognize his mother's name when he said it, but of course she would have changed it to fit in at court, anyway. She recognized her sister's features in him, at any rate. Rudy often mentioned needing to continue his quest, but he was too weak at first. Fanny checked his eyes three times a day and changed the poultices when necessary. Soon Rudy was walking as whole and hearty as a newly-blind man could be. He worked on her house, lifting and cutting and repairing what she could not by herself. He said sometimes that he owed her for her care. Other times he only said that he liked the work. Fanny sewed his cloak into a new seat cushion so as not to waste what good cloth remained, and it was lovely and soft.
"You could have been my son," she told Rudy once. He smiled, by then willing to take such a profligate use of words as a compliment. He didn't know how true they were, and they hopped away when he tried to pick one up.
When her sister gained her gift, well, it hadn't been the first time the local lord had visited Fanny's village. Not by a long shot.
But faeries had other ideas, as they generally do.
Rudy hadn't known he had other options. Fanny noticed that he never mentioned the princess by name. She had only been an object, and not one that he'd wanted. She asked about her until Rudy realized he should be embarrassed that he did not know more. Rudy hadn't known a lot of things before he set out on his quest, but he was learning.
There were more toads around the house than there had ever been, coming in shimmering golds and ochres as well as the usual mud-brown and algae-green. Some of them were almost ornamental.
It took them two years to find Rudy. Fanny assumed they'd made allowances for how long it would take to finish a quest normally, but even so she'd started to wonder what was keeping them. They came in a pack, because they didn't know it was possible to do otherwise. They chopped down the brush and laid rollers for the gilt-encrusted carriage, and the men-at-arms in their snappy red-and-white tunics and shiny muskets filled the clearing from side to side. All of the toads had retreated to the pond. Toads are not smart, but they are not stupid, either.
The queen emerged from the carriage, one dainty, milk-white foot at a time. She looked younger than Fanny had expected. Fanny was the elder of the two, of course, and certainly had led the harder life, but even so, even so. It never was entirely fair, was it? Her ladies-in-waiting held her skirts for her, and a young page wafted a fan with all his might, not that any breeze in the stagnant marsh was any sweeter-smelling than any other air in its bounds. Behind her stalked a taller and even more regal woman the Lady clad in a long black dress that slithered along the ground of its own accord, untouched by the mud. Fanny stood before her hut, squat and brown. Rudy hovered in the doorway, head cocked to listen.
"You have something of ours," said the queen. Three diamonds, an emerald, and a ruby fell from her lips to the mud. No one even bothered to pick them up.
"Take him, then, if he wants to go. Else leave." A flurry of toads scampered for the pond as fast as they could. The last two words were vipers. They lept at the queen, but the Lady struck them down with a glance. No one picked them up, either.
The queen frowned. A single small wrinkle showed in her forehead, but it only highlighted her beauty further. "That's not how it works."
"Why?" There were already a great many why-toads in the clearing. The new one joined its brothers and watched silently.
"We're making something beautiful," said the queen, stamping a single foot and spattering the page with mud. "We have a plan. But everyone needs to do their part for it to work."
"Did you ask him? Did you ask her?" Snakes do not share their thoughts, and these were no exception, but they flicked their tongues to taste the air.
"No," said the queen and the Lady together. They arched their brows and smiled, perfect mirrors.
Fanny had lived her life surrounded by all the words she had ever spoken. They filled the pond and the hut and the woods in every direction, and she had never had any choice but to look at them. Most of them were ugly. She couldn't hide that. Some of them had been in the wrong place or came too late to do any good. She couldn't change that. But they were here now. If it had only been her, as it had been for so long, she might not have bothered to try.
Rudy, trembling, stepped forward, one hand on Fanny's shoulder to guide him. He opened his mouth to speak. "Mother, I--"
The Lady moved then. She must have moved. She was behind Rudy now, behind Fanny. Toads died under her heels, skewered and crushed before they could make a sound. She held Rudy by the throat. She leaned in.
"I am going to give you a gift," she whispered to him, nuzzling his neck and leaving tiny red pinpricks behind. "Say 'thank you.'"
The toads leaped.
Toads do have teeth. Cylindrical, generally, little cones lining their mouths. Mostly these are used to hold struggling insects in place while they use their eyeballs to push the chitinous morsels down their throats and into their bellies. Snakes, of course, are always ready to bite. Or at least they look like they are, and for most people, that's enough.
A wave of toads rose from the pond, a damp, croaking fury. Toads struggled up from the mud and dropped from the trees. Serpents darted from the bushes and into pant legs. The battle was on, and if you had asked them in advance how they would have fared in such a contest, the soldiers would have given a very wrong answer.
The Lady reeled back, slimy amphibians clinging to her fingers, her sleeves, her perfect, shell-like ears. She shrieked, and the toads were blasted to ash, but there were more, more, always more. Fanny had had a lot to say about the Lady.
The men fled down the path, uniforms in disarray. The page had locked himself in the carriage and would not let the queen in, no matter how she pounded on the door. The toads were nipping at her delicate ankles, making her hop and squeal. Rudy knelt on the ground, coughing and clutching his throat.
The Lady sat in the mud, face streaked with ichor and blood. She was inhumanly beautiful. She couldn't not be.
"I know you," Fanny told the Lady. "I won't say I recognized you then, but I know you now." She stepped forward, and the Lady's flat gaze followed her silently. Fanny knelt in the mud. "I'm sorry," she said. "Thank you." She put the toads into the Lady's hands. The Lady held them, uncertain.
"This isn't over," the queen said, spitting rough-cut quartz and a cubic zirconium.
"There is a word for something beautiful that isn't true," Fanny told her.
The queen turned to the Lady, but the Lady was gone. The mud boiled where she had sat.
"It will happen as we want it to," said the queen. She looked less certain. "A gift given can't be returned."
"Sometimes life isn't fair," Fanny said. The four new toads sat calmly in her arms. They didn't say whether she'd been agreeing or arguing.
The queen wrenched the door open and boxed the page's ears. "Enjoy your toads and snakes," she snapped.
"Yes," Fanny said.
The queen drove away.
Rudy was still kneeling, head down. He looked up, turning his ear toward Fanny as she approached. He lifted a hand to his throat and swallowed heavily. He opened his mouth.
Fanny--and all the toads and serpents--watched with interest to see what would come out.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, October 31st, 2014


There's not much more than you would probably guess to it, actually. I was thinking about fairy tales and recalled one of my favorites (just for the weirdness factor), called most commonly "Diamonds and Toads" but appearing in a variety of forms and versions. The "good" sister is quiet, polite, and compliant, and she gets roses and diamonds whenever she speaks. The "bad" sister is then sent out--generally against her will--to try and get a gift of her own, and she ends up spewing amphibians and reptiles. I thought about just how creepy and repressively authoritarian (and explicitly patriarchal) the whole thing was, with the "bad" sister's sin mostly just being a little mouthy and not complying instantly with a stranger's weird demands, for which she is cursed for her whole life. She'd have to have some anger issues to work out. But after the (wholly justifiable) anger, then what? At which point Fanny showed up and gave me a knowing, jaded stare, and my focus shifted from retelling to getting Fanny's story told properly.

Many thanks to my friends at the Escape Artists' critique group (and the Ides of Butt in Chair) for giving me some focus in my eventual revisions.

- Nathaniel Lee

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