by Heather Whiteside
Story and "Winged Man" Art: Both ©1999 Heather Whiteside
When Elisa flung the coarsely woven shirts of nettle over the backs of her brothers, who flew as six great swans in the air about her, the spell was broken. Five princes moved quietly, unthinkingly back into their world, the enchantment forgotten.
Elisa could not so easily shut away the past. Her delicate hands were cruelly scarred from the nettles. Yet, that sting was slight compared to the deeper pain she felt. Fate had not allowed the girl to finish knitting the last sleeve of the sixth magic shirt. There had been no time, and now it seemed that her heart would ache forever for the fate of her youngest brother.
Even as a child, Bram had been her favorite, and Elisa loved him still. He had grown tall and strong. Indeed, he would have been deemed quite fair, beautiful, and well formed, but -- for the accursed lack of a sleeve -- he was left with one swan's wing instead of a man's arm. It was both majestic and monstrous on his otherwise human frame. Elisa now carried her pain in her gentle nature and tender heart, but her brother, forgetting nothing of the power of witchcraft, carried it sharp and strong in his very blood and bone.
The townspeople and courtiers shunned him. When Bram walked in the Square, the common folk shrank from the sight of him, fearful of the taint of magic and awkward before his deformity, crossing themselves as they drew back into the doorways or, with bowed heads, busied themselves at their work in the market and merchant stalls. At times, the knights and noblemen gave, with eyes averted or showing only fear and pity, a certain silent deference to his rank as brother to their new Queen, but no one offered friendship or understanding. This silence and avoidance was too much for Bram to bear, and so, for a time, he shut himself up within the castle walls.
In the dark of the night, he would wander alone through halls too narrow for the sweep of his wing, feathers bent against the cold, harsh stone. The dampness would cling there, settling into his bones like the chill in his heart. Often, Bram struggled to climb the close, steep stairs which circled up to the high tower. There, he would spend long hours gazing out at the limitless expanse of dark sky beyond the window's border.
One night, Bram found himself in an unfamiliar part of the castle. Bewildered, he looked about, feeling drawn to the door before him. He labored against heavy oak, the door gave way, hinges swinging inward, and Bram stumbled into the clerk's quarters.
He found ink, liquid and black as midnight, and crisp parchment pages that whispered like the wind when touched and spoke of secrets yet to be written. Remembering golden slates and bejeweled pens, Bram made a sharp, bitter cry as he plucked a perfect white quill feather from his own wing and began to write.
The King's priest would have thought it a sacrilege just that such an abomination was able to produce so fine and beautiful a script, and he surely would have deemed it blasphemy that the prince copied neither hymns nor scripture -- for those words held no comfort or use to him -- but instead wrote out lines from his own tormented and melancholy thoughts. Still, Bram thought not of sin, but of the release he sought.
He began to long for space, for the openness of the fields, the green coolness of the woods, the mirror stillness of the lake, and the ocean breeze. Though he dared not name it, he yearned for the flight of the swan. Soon, he asked Elisa if he could move into the old groundskeeper's cottage on the edge of the lake, far out in the fields and woods of the royal estate. Though she would miss his presence in the castle, for Elisa truly loved her brother, she granted him his request and prayed that he would find some peace there.
Since there was something now forlorn and nearly feral about him, the prince soon settled into this solitary life. More comfortable than the confines of the castle, where walls and attitude alike had closed in on him, open air and thatch suited Bram, in that he could endure it. The Sun and Moon made their passes, light and dark, day and season and year fell away. Bram was lulled by such rhythms, and would have thought no further, until a hunter's stray arrow and his sister's gentleness changed his future.
Elisa brought her brother provisions, fresh ink, new parchment, and her love from time to time. Then one day, she brought the bird to him, saying "Heal her." The arrow still embedded in her shoulder, the bird quivered softly, barely alive. The prince touched soft feathers with the fingertips of his right hand, and wonderingly brushed his white feathers against the velvet black of hers. Stunned, Bram looked at his sister and then at the beautiful swan she cradled in her arms.
The swan was black as ink, but with a band of beaten and intricately worked gold encircling its neck, and a drop of crimson blood welled up from the wound.
"They wanted to kill her," Elisa said. "They wanted to kill her for the golden collar and for their fear -- for what ordinary swan wears gold? As Queen, I forbade them. How could they! They dare not kill any swan before me!" Elisa paused to calm herself and then continued, "Suddenly, there in the courtyard, an old woman appeared amidst the crowd. Tugging at the sleeve of my gown, she told me 'Mistress, they are like to like, as is day to night.' Then she was gone, but I knew I must bring the swan to you."
And so the prince cared for the wounded bird, and together they both began to heal. The bones knit in her wing, and just as gradually the sadness and dark anger lifted from Bram's heart. When he wrote now, it was of beauty and of the quiet, constant ways of nature. His writing was mere mimicry, or so he felt, for to see the black swan glide upon the water and eventually fly upon the wind again, that was to see true poetry being written in a most graceful and natural script. She was with him always and for a year and a day, the prince tended to the black swan.
Them he awoke one morning to find her gone. She was not blanketed under his wing, as they often spent the night; nor was she warming herself on the hearthstones waiting for him to wake. Bram stumbled from the cottage and made his way to the lake. But no bird rested on its bank or sailed upon its water. The sky too was calm, clear, and empty. Bram sank down in his grief, damning the fate that had left him with only one wing, alone and grounded here.
He was frantic, his mind racing. The prince had come to depend upon this gentle creature's company; indeed, he had come to love her. Bram was no coward, but he now feared the worst and berated himself harshly. Why should he be surprised if the black swan had left him to return to life among her own kind? Surely, he thought, no being would willingly choose to stay with a man, a monster like him. Bram groaned in anguish, further sickened by the sudden thought of another possible fate. Foolish, greedy men would still covet the gold collar she wore. What if such hunters had again found the swan, and what if she had not escaped the killing arrow this time? Bram felt as though he again wore the nettle tunic; he felt it sting his flesh and numb his very soul.
A small, soft murmur caught his ear. Nearby, in a shallow hollow of earth, a girl slept. Covered with a cloak like earth and herbs, he had not seen her before. As her body shifted, the cloak fell away. She was small and dark and lovely. The prince gasped as he saw, held in delicate hands and clasped at her breast, was a single black feather, and around her throat, a golden collar. Her eyes fluttered and opened. The prince looked into that embracing darkness and again sank to his knees -- but now in joy at his swan-maiden's return.
"Will you stay?" Bram asked. These simple words, spoken in a voice husky with emotion, were made rich as diamonds and sweet as honey by the love and devotion clearly shining in his eyes.
The dark maiden smiled just as warmly in return. "Yes," she answered, "but you must accept me as I am. My homeland is other than yours, a shade beyond this world. I am from a fey kingdom whose power you know and have glimpsed in dreams and memories past. For one year's time, I wear the skin of a bird and fly out in the world; then, I must cast it aside for this human form 'til Samhain comes again. This pattern is unchanging and unchangeable for me. It must be so, that I know both the realm of animal and man."
Bram sighed, "Indeed Lady, truly you are both. And I am truly neither."
She touched his cheek and stroked his wing. "Yes," she said, "you are trapped between the worlds, and it saddens me to see you struggle with your burden." The girl paused, lowering her eyes and blushing slightly. She drew a deep breath and then continued, "Yet, I can offer you this, a twinned life like mine, a life with me. I am powerful among the enchanted and those still more powerful would surely allow me this, for I have come to love you and my heart will never leave you. For now, you must be patient and strong."
"It is enough," Bram whispered, "that you are here."
She lay again in his bed, covered with his great wing at night. She again warmed herself on the hearthstones. She taught Bram much of the earth and of her ways, of herb lore to heal and cure, of which stones spoke, and of how the mirrored lake might offer up its secrets. Sun and Moon rose and passed, but now attended to, and the seasons' changing was always celebrated with much joy. When Spring came, sharing with him the rituals of her people, they were wed before the ceremonial fires which burn so passionately bright on the Eve of May. And when Autumn came, and a year and a day were gone, Bram was happy still to see her put aside the cloak of earth and herbs and take up the one of sky and feather. As maid or swan, she stayed with him, and though he longed to take wing and fly with her, the prince was content.
When she was once again in her human guise, she told her husband, "if you truly wish to become as I am, we can begin. It will take three more turns of this wheel, and during that time you must continue to write about what I teach you of the ways of the Sidhe, who are my people, as you must continue to celebrate the moons and the seasons. These things are easy, but you must also reach out again to the people of the castle and the village. We will help or heal them as they need. Lastly, while I am as a bird, I will prepare a nest. Each time you find an egg there, you must take it up and bury it within the ground at the ring of standing stones. This is what must be."
And so it went. Together they would take the herbs they gathered into town. At first, the people were suspicious. Then, Queen Elisa herself came, with her own small children, and they drank the herbal draughts and looked all the healthier for it. When the dark maid took Elisa's fair hands and stroked them with a fragrant salve -- and when the nettles' scars could be seen and felt no longer, Elisa knew that her soul as well as body was healed, for she saw her brother happy.
Among the villagers and the court, there was some whispering, but slowly the people began to seek out the wild pair for their own ailments and discontents. The common women especially came to trust the maiden, and they would seek her out if they were soon to bear a child or if their babes had a cough or fever. While they could not understand the long times when the prince came alone, they accepted his reason that "This is what must be."
While she flew as a bird, Bram did as she had told him, taking up the eggs three times and burying them in the earth. This was the hardest task of all, to steal those eggs from the tender-made nest, often still warm with her own feather heat, and to place them in the dark, moist hollow which he scratched amongst the stones.
When she was woman again for the third time, they returned to the ring of stones together. By moonlight and candle's flicker, she bade Bram to dig up the eggs. A the prince brushed away the last of the covering earth with his feathers, he saw not the ordinary swan's eggs which he had sorrowfully laid there, but golden eggs, heavy and shining. Over the next year, when they were not gathering their herbs, or attending -- with all the love in their pure hearts -- to those in need, the maiden took up her tools of bone and branch and worked the gold. In her strength, through winter and spring, she tempered, hammered, and forged; with a delicate touch through summer and into fall, she fashioned the metal into exquisite form and beauty.
The a pox came upon the village, and neither Bram for all his courage, or his Lady for all her knowledge and ways, could turn it from taking many of the young and the frail. In their grief, the people turned from them and listened to words they had not accounted before. The King's priest spoke bitterly against the prince and the dark maiden, "He is still bewitched, as he was before, and she is surely the devil's daughter! They have deceived us with their spells and vile potions. They are godless and have killed your children."
Elisa realized the ignorance and the danger. She tried to calm her people, but the priest sent a man to spy into the thatched cottage.
When he returned, he spoke of having seen gold more beautiful than human hands could work, and of reading strange passages and chants from the prince's books. The priest shrieked that it was a witch's book and demanded that the witch pair be destroyed.
Swiftly, Elisa ran to warn her brother and his lady. "You must go! Quickly, there is little time," she urged.
The Swan-maiden once again held Elisa's fair hands in her own. The Queen could feel the other woman's healing calm and love as she quietly responded, "Good Queen, know that if we go now, we cannot return to this land, but, know too, that we shall be happy. I shall be what I have always been and your brother will be as I am. He can become whole, a single soul in two forms but at one with his true nature."
Then do not waste time!" pleaded Elisa. She embraced her bother, "Go freely, and with my love."
"And know that mine remains with you," Bram answered.
The maiden took the gold she had been working and brought forth a finished torque, a collar like her own, which she set about the prince's throat. Bram was first aware of the gold's inner fire, a heat which spread and grew in power. He felt the rush of magic throughout his body as it changed. As the cloak of feathers rippled into place over shifting skin and churning muscles, he knew that his own transformation mirrored that of his beloved's. Together, they now shared this elegant and ecstatic rebirth of being. Bram's heart soared as it was set free.
Elisa watched the two swans, one shining white and one black as ink, fly across the sky. Their cries of joy, of flight, echoed around her.
The mob came. They burned the thatch, but they did not look up to see the gold-ringed swans or listen to their cries. Neither did they see Elisa slip back to the castle, carrying in her arms the pages on which her brother had poured out his anguish and found his love.
Though they were also schooled in the manners of the court, in times to come, Elisa would read to her daughters and sons at the lake's edge in the moonlight. There, they followed the story and the words of their uncle and his Lady, and they learned to love the earth and celebrate her seasons. With their mother, they watched for the flight of swans and they remembered.