The Swan Curse

By Circe

 

            Odette cursed under her breath in a most unladylike way as the carriage took another bounce on the rutted forest road.  Her head snapped forward, and Odette’s headache throbbed to let her know it was still there.  It had started within moments of the start of their journey, and showed little sign of improving.  She wished she could ride her horse, instead of this rattling carriage.  She looked out at the two mounted soldiers that escorted the carriage, more than a little jealously as the carriage thudded across another dip in the road.  She cursed again, a little more loudly.  Her mother gave her one of those looks that said “we will talk about your manners later,” her eyes glancing at her court advisor Hubert, the other occupant of the carriage.  Odette, for once, was happy for the company of the Prelate; his presence had at least postponed a lecture.

            Odette fidgeted with her heavy skirts.  The fabric was richly embroidered, with stylized birds flying across the royal purple weave.  She sighed.  These so-called traveling clothes would suit most people for formal wear, yet her mother insisted that a princess must dress the part at all times.  Odette looked out into the trees that rolled by the carriage windows, remembering simpler times as a child in these woods and smiling.  Escaping the Queen’s Own Guard for a romp amongst the trees had seemed grand sport to the giggling child princess.

            Her mother noted the smile and smiled as well.  Her clothes were even more formal than Odette’s, her stiff bustier and skirts more suited to a ballroom than a bouncing carriage.  “I am so pleased to see you happy, Odette – and you have made Prince Derek very happy as well!  We must start the plans for your wedding as soon as we return to the palace.”

            Odette blinked, her smile fading a bit.  She forced it back into place.  “Yes Mother,” she said.  “We do have a long time before the wedding, though, and—“

            “Oh nonsense!  You can never start to early.  Why there’s a dress to design, meals to plan, and we will have to commission new dance music…our little kingdom will see the finest celebration in memory!”
            Prelate Hubert, the Queen’s advisor, looked up from the obscure religious text he was reading and smiled.  “Her Majesty is right, Odette.  The two months we have left before the blessed event will pass in the twinkling of an eye – and there is much to do.  Why, just writing the prayers that must be said will take nearly that long!”  The princess gave him a cool gaze from her pale blue eyes.  The prelate shifted uneasily,  his ludicrous peaked hat tilting dangerously.  He self-consciously straightened himself, fiddling with the voluminous robes that hid his thin, aging form.

            Odette batted her eyelashes at him and gave him her sweetest smile.  “Why, of course Your Holiness.  I am certain your prayers will be as important to my happiness in married life as they have always been.”  The advisor looked even more uncomfortable at the lightly spoken words, but nodded slowly and tugged on his beard.

            Odette smirked, despite another look from her mother.  She rolled her eyes, an expression she knew her mother hated, and returned to the view outside the carriage.

            “Thank you Hubert,” her mother said.  “Everything must be perfect, like the ball was last night.”  The queen’s tone became dreamy.  “The music, the wine, the guests…”  Her tone hardened.  “Well, all save one.  I still cannot believe that scoundrel of a sorcerer was allowed to intrude on such a fine evening!”

            Hubert puffed up his scrawny chest, barely discernible through his yellow and blue robes.  “Not to fear, Your Majesty.  Even a magician cannot hope to stand against the might of the Church.”
            “Not to mention twenty or so of King Andrew’s guards,” noted the princess.

            “Well...yes, His Majesty’s men were most helpful,” the cleric agreed with a spiteful glance at Odette.  She bit her tongue, thinking to herself “How could you tell, quivering as you were behind a column?”
            The queen muttered under her breath, a habit that she had acquired since her daughter had metamorphosed – seemingly in days – from a shy, thin little girl into a beautiful, sharp-tongued young woman.  She tapped a fingernail against the polished wood of the carriage seat for a moment and tried a new direction.

            “How it was accomplished is not important,” she declared.  “The rogue was chased off and the ball returned to normalcy, or very nearly to normalcy.  What was his name?  Rothbart?”
            The princess nodded, absently, realizing she had pushed her mother far enough for one day.  Even Hubert seemed to recognize the warning signs, poking his nose back into his book and pretending intense interest in what he found there.

            “What sort of name is that?” the queen continued.  “Some foreign extraction, no doubt.  Such boorish manners!  He burst into the ball, not even dressed – looking like a woodsman in those leathers and that atrocious hooded cloak, not at all like a proper magician.  And that wild hair and those whiskers!  You’d think he had never heard of a barber.  Apparently his magic does not extend to personal grooming.”

            “Yes, Mother, quite the picture of a rogue,” Odette said softly.

            “I should say so.  As if that weren’t enough to create months of gossip amongst the courtiers, he had the nerve to stride across the floor and – and – demand your hand in marriage!   Why, Prince Derek had barely gotten off bended knee from his gallant proposal!”

            Odette blushed lightly.  Her mother patted her hand.  “No need to be embarrassed, my dear.  I am very proud of you!  You looked that scoundrel right in the eye, and set him straight.  ‘I will marry Prince Derek, and no other.  Both kingdoms know this – why do you not?’  Ah, daughter, I was so proud – and so worried!”
            “It was what I had to do,” Odette said in a small voice.

            “And well done it was,” smiled the Queen.  “The look on his face as the guards chased him away was something I shall remember for a long time.  Sorcerer indeed!  Madman is more like it.  Whoever heard of such a thing, accosting a stranger – and a princess – like that!”
            Prelate Hubert gave what he thought of as his stern, righteous face.  “Rothbart was dealt with, Your Majesty, as all who trifle with gods-fearing folks ought to be.  It is unfortunate that he escaped, but he will be found and brought to justice.”

            The princess raised an eyebrow.  “Justice?  For what – proposing to me?”
            Hubert harumphed into his beard.  “Disrupting the peace at the very least, trespassing upon the King’s palace grounds, oh, and refusing to submit to the arrest of the King’s Guard.  Those charges alone merit a nice long stay in the dungeon, I should think!”
            Odette managed, just barely, not to roll her eyes again.  Silence descended once more over the travelers as each busied themselves with their own thoughts.  Odette smiled as the road neared a familiar pond, curving along its bank. 

            The peace of the journey was interrupted by a sudden outcry from the carriage’s driver, echoed by whinnies from the horses.  The carriage jerked to a halt, as did the mounted soldiers, and in the sudden silence its inhabitants could hear muffled voices outside.

            “Clear the road you lout!” cried the driver.

            A calm voice replied, “Is this the Queen’s carriage?”
            “That’s none of your business, now off with you – or I’ll set these men on you!”  The hooves of the escorting guardsmen’s horses clopped on the hard dirt road as they moved forward, drawing even with the carriage windows.  The soldiers loosened their swords in their sheaths and dropped the visors on their helmets.  From ahead came that calm voice once more.

            “Men?  I see no men.  Only some deer that have wandered out of the forest.”  The horses suddenly stopped in their tracks, and reared.  The surprised guardsmen tumbled to the ground in a clash of armor and weaponry.  The rearing horses pawed the air with their forehooves – and began to change.  The flashing hooves split and shrank, becoming almost dainty.  Dark equine hair lightened to a light brown along forelegs that rapidly became slim, delicate limbs.  Streaming manes vanished along thinning necks.  The horse’s whinnies ceased as their heads assumed doe-like shapes.  Odette watched with wide eyes as the sheath of the stallion nearest her withdrew into its rapidly changing hindquarters.  The former horses dropped to all four hooves, blinking as though astonished by their transformation into does.

            The inhabitants of the carriage gasped in one breath as one of the soldiers staggered to his feet.  He seemed disoriented, fumbling at his helmet.  He tore it off, revealing that he now sported long furry ears.  His fingers stiffened and extended, and in a moment were cloven hooves.  The soldier moaned as he looked at his new hooves, then looked up at Odette as though to speak.  What he might have said would never be known, as his eyes widened, blue irises becoming brown and then black as his face pushed out into a muzzle.  The man’s armor and gear vanished into a deer’s brown spotted coat as he fell to all fours.  In a moment, two more does joined their former mounts in milling about the carriage.

            “Now then,” said the intruder, voice louder as though closer to the carriage.  “Perhaps you will tell me whose carriage this is?”
            “Please…please, don’t hurt me!” stammered the driver. “’Tis the Queen’s carriage!  The Queen’s!”
            “Very good!” came the jovial reply.  “That wasn’t so difficult was it?  Now, as a reward for your honesty…I believe these does need a leader for their herd.”
            The driver gave a strangled cry, and the carriage rocked as he leapt from the seat and ran towards the woods, coming into view of the carriage windows.  Antlers sprang from the man’s head, pushing away his cap.  He stumbled and fell as his feet became hooves within his boots.  He attempted to push himself up, but his hands were now hooves and his arms were soon legs.  He whimpered, and then a stag stood where the man had been.  The new deer looked back at the carriage for a moment, as though wondering what it might be, and then bounded away into the trees.  The foursome of does followed, hooves flashing as the forest swallowed all sight of them.

            Hubert whimpered, shrinking into his robes as though looking for sanctuary.  The queen’s eyes met Odette’s,   mother and daughter mirroring each other’s fright.  In the shocked silence, the three inside the carriage cringed at the sound of footsteps approaching along the road.  The carriage’s horses whinnied, and the carriage jerked as they reared in there traces.

            “Be still,” suggested the voice, and the horses settled in their traces.  The sound of the intruder’s steps never paused, until their owner came into view.  The party’s assailant was a thoroughly average looking man of slim build and modest height.  He wore simple clothes, like those of a woodsman.  Soft leather breeches rose from worn boots.  A wide belt with an odd metal buckle was snug at his waist.  His shirt was a dirty-looking white cotton affair, and an equally disreputable dark green wool cloak was wrapped around his shoulders.  A shock of red hair and beard framed features tanned deeply by years of exposure to the elements.  The man grinned as he looked into the carriage and its cringing cargo.

            “Ah, there you are, sweet Odette!  My apologies for my abrupt exit last night, but it was starting to feel a bit crowded in that ball room.  The King’s guards, I think, were not there for the dancing.”

            “Rothbart!” exclaimed the queen, at last finding her voice.  “What is the—“

            “Silence,” Rothbart said in the same calm, mocking tone.  The queen’s mouth remained open, but no sound came forth.  He smiled pleasantly at her and stepped closer to Odette’s side of the carriage.  He leaned casually on the carriage’s door as he winked at the Prelate.  Hubert made appeared to be gestures to ward off evil.  Rothbart chuckled and turned to regard Odette.

            “Now then, my dear princess.  I asked you a question last night, and I hope that you will forgive me if I say that I was less than pleased with your response.  I have come here today hoping that you will reconsider.”

            Odette stared at him for a moment, then at her mother, whose mouth still hung open in silent protest.  “I cannot…I am promised to another.”  She looked at Rothbart with what she hoped was a royal glare.  “You know this.  The prince and I are to be wed.  Treaties between our two kingdoms will be established and—“

            “Treaties!” roared Rothbart, his hand smacking the wood of the door.  “Treaties?  Bah!  Treaties are things for men, and I have no use for them.  You, on the other hand, I want and I shall have you – or none shall!” Rothbart’s hand tightened on the door, and despite his slight build, the it popped off its hinges and he tossed it aside.  Reaching in he grasped Odette’s slim fingers in his and pulled her, stumbling over her skirts, from the carriage.

            The queen moaned, unable to move or speak as Rothbart pulled her daughter to the shore of the pond.  Hubert’s voice rose and fell in an endless stream of prayers, incantations, and chants.

            Rothbart held Odette close to him, each of her wrists in his hands as he looked into her eyes.  His voice no longer seemed calm, breaking with some emotion.  “Once more, I ask you Odette.  Will you marry me?”

            “No!  I will marry Derek!” said the princess, lifting her chin.

            “No you shall not!” shouted Rothbart.  He raised his arms to either side, Odette’s captive hands following.  The queen’s eyes widened in her frozen face as she saw that her daughter’s arms were growing thinner and yet longer.  Her hands bent backwards at the wrist and the fingers lengthened.  A membrane of skin appeared between the fingers which was quickly covered in a fine white fuzz.  The fuzz became feathers, ivory white with black markings, and covered her arms as they became wings.  Odette’s clothes vanished, revealing the ivory skin of her firmly curved body.  Her slim legs grew even slimmer as her toes spread into large webbed feet.  Feathers sprouted above her buttocks into a spreading tail.

            Rothbart smiled down at the odd creature that Odette had become.  “Last chance, my dear.  Marry me!”

            Odette trembled as she looked at her new wings.  She moved them gently, wrapping them around her nudity.  “I cannot!” she said firmly.

            Rothbart said not a word as Odette’s changes continued.  Her hips bent at an odd angle as her lower body assumed a bird’s shape.  She began to shrink as her neck lengthened, arching over her body.  Mouth and face collapsed into a long beak as her eyes became round and black.  Odette, now a swan, looked up at the magician and gave a defiant honk.

            Rothbart’s face twisted into an odd grimace and he made shooing motions at the transformed princess.  She honked once more and glided out into the pond, webbed feet propelling her smoothly.  The magician turned his attention to the carriage.  Tears streamed down the face of the paralyzed queen.

            “Do not come this way again, my queen, unless you wish to join your daughter!”  Rothbart muttered something at the horses, and the carriage leapt forward.  In a few moments it was gone down the forest road, even the hoofbeats of the horses fading.

            “Are they gone yet?” asked a strange voice from the pond.  It had a slight lisp, and a very nasal quality.  Rothbart turned and smiled at Odette, who was looking at him expectantly.

            “Yes, my dear.  Alone at last.”
            “Finally!” The swan gave an odd honking laugh.  “Did you see the expression on Hubert’s face?  I think he recited every prayer he knows!”
            Rothbart chuckled and nodded.  “I thought of changing him into something appropriate, but nothing came to mind.  Besides, someone will have to be there to support the Queen’s story.”
            The swan tilted her head at him.  “Was it really necessary to change those guards, and the driver?”

            “Well, I had to do something with them.  Perhaps I’ll change them back after mating season is over – if they are not carrying any young.”

            Odette’s laughter rang out once more.  “Those poor men…”  She paddled experimentally about the pond.  “This is interesting,” she said.  “You’ve never made me into a bird before.”

            “Oh?” he smiled.  “I’m sorry my love, I should have done so before.  Do you like it?”
            “It is…very peaceful,” she mused as she glided on the water.  “I’m not sure I want to know what I’m supposed to eat though.  I’ve eaten enough strange things since I met you in the woods, and you changed a curious young girl into a fox.”

            Rothbart smiled, but seemed a little nervous suddenly.  “Well, swans are like most water fowl…they eat small fish, tadpoles, various insects and so on.  Really quite tasty, so long as you’re a swan.”
            Odette craned her neck around to look at Rothbart.  “Thank heaven I won’t have to find out.  Now change me back, dear.”
            Rothbart found something interesting to look at near his feet and said nothing.

            “Rothbart?  Change me back now.  They’ve seen the transformation, the wedding will be off, and we can leave.”
            “I…can’t change you back right away, Odette.”  At the swan’s gasp he held up his hand.  “I know, I know, the plan was for us to leave now.  But I had to change the plan.  You see, the King has hired a mage; I saw him at the ball.  I know of him and his skills.  He will come here to investigate, and would be able to track you or I easily enough and expose our little scheme.”

            Odette blinked, swimming close to the edge of the pond.  “Then what will we do?”
            “I made a slight change to the plan.   I did not just change you, I cursed you.”
            “You what!” Odette cried, wings flapping.

            “Settle down, please, settle down, my dear.  I have it all worked out.  I’ve cursed you with the form of a swan…the only way to break the curse is for someone to declare their true and undying love to you on the night of your marriage to Prince Derek.  If a person who doesn’t love you makes that declaration, they’ll receive the same curse.  Anyone who tries to remove the curse will suffer the same fate.  Only someone with love in their heart can break it.”
            Odette took all this in, unconsciously preening at the feathers along one wing.  “Why a curse?” she asked finally.

            “Because it cannot be broken by the other mage, though he will see it for what it is.”

            Odette sighed and shook her head.  “I love you, but you can be so obtuse sometimes.  Why not just change Prince Derek into something?  Or bribe the other mage, or challenge him to a duel or whatever you mages do?  You’ve trapped me like this for two months!”

            Rothbart hung his head.  “I…I was worried.”

            “Worried?” she asked in a dangerous tone.

            He nodded.  “I thought, perhaps, if Derek had two months to court you, you might—“  He yelped as Odette bit him on the thigh.

            “Idiot.  I love you, not that muscle-bound oaf!”
            Rothbart hesitantly touched the swan’s soft feathers along the crest of her head.  “I know, I’m sorry.  It won’t be so bad though.  It’s only two months, and this is a very nice pond.  I made sure of that.  Oh and one other thing…”  Rothbart waded into the pond, stretching his arms out into wings.  In a moment another swan floated by the first.  “I can also keep you company,” said the mage as he rubbed his feathered neck against hers.

            Odette chuckled to herself.  “Men…” she said, wishing she could roll her eyes in this form.  The swans swam into the pond’s rippling waters, sunlight glinting and dancing along the wakes that marked their passage.

            “Rothbart?”

            “Yes, my love?”
            “Teach me to fly…”