April 1, 2018

Swan Daughter - Jane Dougherty

Memories of broad white wings,
unfolded and spread...
The hounds were gaining on the White Hind, and her breath came short and painful. She leapt like a pale shadow among the trees, zig-zagging through sunlight and shade until she reached a clearing. In the clearing was a cottage, and in the cottage garden was a girl. The baying of the hounds was so loud, even the girl raised her head to listen. Her eyes were wide and full of compassion.

“Help me,” the hind pleaded. “Hide me from the hunters.”

The girl did not hesitate but let her into the cottage and hid her beneath the pile of wool she was spinning into thread. Minutes later, hounds were running around the cottage and scratching at the door. Hind and girl held their breath. There came a pounding of fists on the door.

“Open to the royal hunt,” an imperious voice commanded.

With her heart in her mouth, the girl opened the door and closed it behind her even though the hounds bayed and jostled to get inside. Horses stamped and snorted in her vegetable patch, and their haughty riders glared down at her impatiently.

“Where is the White Hind?” a young man with hard, cold eyes demanded. “You must have seen her.”

The girl recognized Crown Prince Florian, and though she trembled with fear, she said nothing.

“You’re hiding the beast!” Prince Florian beckoned to the Master of Hounds. “Let the dogs in.”

“No! I mean, please, Your Royal Highness, there is no one in the cottage. I am the White Hind.”

“You?” Florian, who was not a man of great imagination, narrowed his eyes suspiciously.

The girl curtsied. “I was under an enchantment.” She searched wildly for an answer to the question he would surely ask.

“But now you’re not? How so?”

“You have broken it, Your Royal Highness,” she replied eagerly, “by finding this magic glade and driving me into it.”

Florian looked about him at the poverty-stricken cottage and the little vegetable garden his company had mostly destroyed. He shrugged.
“The hounds lost the tracks of the White Hart and followed the White Hind instead. As you say you are, or were, that beast, I claim you as my property. What’s your name?”
The girl could barely control the trembling in her voice, but she thought of the terrified eyes of the White Hind and spoke up bravely. “My name is Eala.”
“Bring her a horse,” Florian barked, and a huntsman led up a spare saddle horse. Eala knew better than to disobey and let the huntsman help her into the saddle. With a heavy heart, she looked back at the little cottage that had been her home, and followed the hunt back to the castle.
* * *
A little while later, a scraping and pawing at the door told Saba the White Hind that her consort had found her. She nosed open the door where a stag was standing, his head bowed with weariness. She nuzzled his neck and Sabino the White Hart nibbled her ear.
“Are they gone?” he asked.
“They are, but they took the girl who sheltered me,” Saba answered. “We must save her. Prince Florian is evil personified.”
Sabino pawed the earth thoughtfully then raised his head. His eyes glittered. “Rufus!”
Saba snickered softly. “Perfect.”
Together, they moved off into the forest, flank to flank, Sabino limping, but overjoyed to have found his consort alive.
* * *
“Wash her and tidy her up,” Florian ordered a couple of ladies of the bedchamber. “If she cleans up well, she may make a concubine. Perhaps even a wife,” he added thoughtfully. “She must be a princess. Only princesses have enchantments cast on them.”
The two servants brought Eala a basin of hot water and new clothes to replace her own poor rags, for that evening, she was to be presented to King Rollo, Queen Guinevere, and the courtiers. Eala had never seen herself in a mirror, nor ever had a mother to tell her she was beautiful.
“She was the loveliest woman who ever lived,” her father used to say, “with hair as pale as moonlight and skin as white as swansdown.”
He could scarcely bring himself to look at his daughter after his wife’s death and died when Eala was twelve years old. No mother, no father, and certainly no young man had ever told Eala how lovely she was. When she appeared before the court, there was an audible gasp—of approval from the men, of jealousy from the women. Prince Florian got to his feet with an avid gleam in his eye.
“Sit,” he said, and pulled out a chair himself without calling for a servant. “If you know how to use a knife and fork, you’ll do very nicely. And mind—your name is Liliana. They tell me Eala means swan in the common speech. Ridiculous name.”
Eala barely touched her food. She could only guess at what would be her fate if she were judged coarse and common. She had a much clearer idea of the awfulness of being chosen as a bride for the crown prince. At the end of the evening, Queen Guinevere nodded and gave a slight smile. King Rollo nodded and gave a broader smile. As for Prince Florian, he announced his intention of marrying the ‘Princess Liliana’ in no more than a fortnight. Just as soon as a dress could be made and the invitations sent out.

No one had asked Eala what she wanted, and no one ever would. That night, she cried herself to sleep.
* * *
The moon shone down on the castle walls and on the two deer standing beneath, turning their white coats to silver. The castle slept, and from the kennels came the sound of snuffling and snoring as the hounds dreamed. Sabino tapped with a hoof at the kennels door.
“Rufus,” he called quietly.
“We have a boon to ask,” Saba whispered.
The door opened, and a boy with hair the russet colour of autumn leaves slipped outside. His eyes were bright and not in the least sleepy.
“It’s about the princess, isn’t it?” he said. “I saw her. She’s special.”
Saba nudged his hand. “She is a very brave girl,” she said, “and doesn’t deserve to be locked up with that horror of a prince.”
“Is she one of ours?” Rufus asked.
“She has all the hallmarks of a swan, if you ask me,” said Sabino. “Will you help?”
“With all my heart,” Rufus said. “Let me wake the hounds. And get ready to run when the prince looks out of his window.”
Saba snorted in alarm. “If there’s going to be any running—”
Rufus smiled and his teeth glittered. “Don’t worry. The hounds will do as I tell them. They’ll race off into the forest and run Florian round in circles for a while. There’ll be bones and all the leavings from last night’s feast for them when they come back.”
Sabino snickered and trotted onto the lawn beneath the turret where Prince Florian slept. Rufus beat on the castle doors, waking the sentries.
“The White Hart! The White Hart!” he shouted. There was a clamour as bolts were pulled back and stable boys were kicked awake. Horses snorted and stamped and courtiers clattered into the courtyard.
“I see him!” Prince Florian shouted from his window, and Sabino leapt away into the shadows.
“Remember,” Rufus said to his hounds, “Remember who I am. Do what I tell you and there will be rewards at the end of the night.”
The pack leader licked his hand. “Don’t worry, Fox Brother. Hounds hate the men who make us hunt our kin.”
The Master of Hounds made his way sleepily to the kennels and took the dogs’ leashes without a word to Rufus, who was only the kennel boy after all. The hounds began to bay immediately and strained to follow an imaginary trail that would lead them far away from the castle.
Rufus slipped inside the castle and sniffed the air. The scent of loveliness and bravery was so strong he could almost see it. He followed it to the door to Eala’s chamber that glowed with a rose light to Rufus’s foxy eyes. He tapped gently.
“Eala Swan Daughter, wake up,” he called. “It’s time to leave.”
Eala woke immediately. The voice was one she had heard in her dreams, a husky bark of a voice that reminded her of the woodlands of home and the fox she had released once from a trap the hunters had set. Memories ruffled white feathers in her head as she opened the door. The boy who stood in the doorway opened his eyes wide and she saw herself reflected in them. She blushed and the boy took her hands. They were rough and strong and dependable.
“Quickly,” he said. “The court is off on a wild goose chase. We have only to walk out of the door.”
“And go where?” Eala asked, though she would have followed the russet-haired boy anywhere.
“Home,” Rufus said with a foxy grin.
Eala smiled back. “Where Fox and Swan may live in peace?”
For reply, Rufus took her in his arms and kissed her tenderly.
In the shadows of the forest eaves, Sabino and Saba were waiting for them.
“Time to go home, Swan Daughter,” they said.
Memories of broad white wings unfolded and spread, and Eala followed her new family to the enchanted garden where they all lived happily ever after.
Jane Dougherty is Irish, brought up in Yorkshire and now living in South-West France. She writes stories where the magical and the apocalyptic mesh, where horror and romance meet, and the real and the imaginary cohabit on the same page. Her first YA post-apocalyptic fantasy trilogy is published by Finch Books. She has self-published a collection of folk tales, “The Spring Dance”, and has poetry and short fiction published in anthologies, literary journals and magazines.
The Spring Dance: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0764BPF53
Blog: https://janedougherty.wordpress.com/

Cover Layout: Amanda Bergloff @AmandaBergloff


AMOffenwanger said...

I think this is my favourite of this edition. It has everything I love - including a lovely, satisfying "Happily Ever After".

Jane Dougherty said...

Thank you! I loved writing it, especially the happy ending :)