The Swan-Maidens / B R Sanders
CONTENT WARNING: references to assault.
Cygna transforms in a dance of white feathers and black hair. She rolls up her feather dress with human arms. I can see her swan grace beneath her human skin in this form, just as I can see her brute human vigor ruffle her feathers when she is a swan. She dresses from our hidden cache of clothing while I transform, but I can feel her eyes on me while the magic does its work.
I pass her my feathers; our fingers brush. To see my feathers in her hands gives me such a peace. She hands me my shirt, stolen from a clothesline two towns back. She smells of salt and wind and pine needles. There are so few of us left wild in the world. So many captured. I want to hold her tight and never let go. My Cygna, my other half, my mate, now and forever and always. She has made staying free easier.
I dress while she talks. After the long silence of days spent as swans, the words sound at first too loud, too harsh. “It’s time again,” says Cygna.
“You look thinner,” I say. We eat less as swans; swandom stretches the supplies. Swandom allows us to hide in plain sight. “Even as a swan you’re not getting enough,” I say, tracing her cheekbone. “How hungry have you been?”
A sly smile crosses her face. She takes my hand in hers and kisses my fingertips: a deflection.
“You’ve been letting me eat first,” I say.
“I don’t want you to starve, Ava.”
“I don’t want you to starve, Cygna.”
She only laughs. Her eyes are bright in her drawn face.
“You have to stop this, Cygna. You can’t keep—”
She kisses me again. “I know,” she says softly. “I know. I’m sorry. I worry you’ll starve yourself for me, so I. . . I do it first so you don’t get the chance. But it doesn’t matter now—”
“It does matter, Cygna—”
She grins, her sharp white teeth all in a row. She grins and presses her forehead to mine. “It doesn’t matter now because it’s time again. It’s time for a hunt, Ava.”
A giddiness surges through me. I lean into her and wrap my arms around her too-skinny ribs. “A hunt.” My teeth bite the end of the word, tear into it. A hunt: vengeance for those taken. She draws me closer. I drag my teeth lightly along her collarbone.
“A hunt,” she breathes, just before she devours me.
I scout a place where the river pools out into a still, deep chamber. The water there is cool and dark, bounded by fallen logs. It is surrounded by a clearing. Excellent for bathing. Good acoustics.
It’s my turn to play lure. The morning is crisp and cool when we fly to the pool. I transform and stand there in the dewy air naked, my feather dress slung over my arm.
Cygna transforms beside me. “Be careful, Ava. Don’t get yourself another scar.”
“I’ll be careful, I promise. You be careful, too.” Cygna kisses me on the nose. She promises. Cygna steps into her dress, and magic bursts her into a flurry of feathers. Her form shifts in a dazzling blink of an eye, the magic so startling and so unreal that not even my eyes can resolve it. Not even I can parse who she is or what she is mid-transformation. We are mysteries even among our own. She flies into the waiting arms of the forest. She is hidden from sight in seconds, but I feel her gaze around me: protective, enveloping.
There’s a trick to playing lure. I have to be visible, but oblivious. My feather dress has to look hidden, but be obtainable. Our hunters want to capture us, yes, but it can’t be too easy. They have to be able to spin our enslavement into a glorious, rousing, virile story back in their villages. They have to be able to talk about how they bested us, overcame us, tricked us. How we never saw them coming.
We have to be smart, but they have to be smarter.
We’re not hunting prey; we’re hunting predators.
I tried once, to offer myself up. The hunter wouldn’t take me. It was winter, and I was starving. But the magic—it was like the magic had me pinned in a forest, like it would not let me leave. It was an ache, a dull ache which only lessened in the boundaries of a wilted forest on the edge of nowhere good, and I was starving. I found a man, and I offered him a deal: a fortnight as a wife in exchange for food and lodging. But he wouldn’t do it. He thought I was mad. He spat on me, called me a whore, called me a deviless, told me to right myself with God.
But the magic grip did not lessen. It was unyielding as the demands of the flesh. I lingered there, half-dead, staying swan, scraping by.
I didn’t know Ava had come into my territory the next fall. I’d gained some strength by then when the river thawed and the fish came alive again in the streams. I heard Ava scream, and I knew she was like me. I knew she was a swan-maiden. I heard it in her voice, the magic, the siren song. It worked on me as well as it did the hunter who came for her. I flew right to her.
It was that same hunter who had turned me down in the bleak heart of winter. An offer, given freely, was suspect, but there he was capturing Ava against her own will. The rage I felt was this awesome, huge thing. I couldn’t let her end up like all the others. I attacked him. As a swan, I attacked him. With my beak and my wings and my feet. For the first time in my life I struck out, and I found out our wings aren’t like a regular swan’s. We can beat and beat a human man, and our wings won’t break.
He lifted his arms to shield against my great white wings, and in the doing, he dropped Ava’s feather dress. She didn’t hesitate. She killed the hunter with his own bow. We stole his money and ran. Sold his bow two towns over. That’s when we started hunting them back.
I stand naked now at the edge of this pond because of men like him. There’s one in every village, one in every forest—a hungry beast of a man wanting to capture and domesticate anything that doesn’t want anything to do with him. A beast of a man arrogant enough to think that he can overpower anything that stands in his way. It’s the arrogance we bet on.
It’s on the cusp of winter. The mornings are bright in their coolness. I step into the river; the coldness of the water shoots up my legs like snakes. My teeth chatter. Ripples from my footsteps break the glassy surface of the pool.
I slip under the surface when the water is up to my hips. The rhythm of the water toils in my ears, stirring up a song. I let out bubbled laughter, because as swans, we’re mute. Long, white-necked, be-winged, and mute. Yet all of us—every single swan-maiden I’ve ever known—all of us can sing as human women. It’s part of our magic, like the transformations. I stand up, break through to the open air again.
I draw the morning air deep into these wide, luxurious human lungs. And then I sing.
The song spirals out of me, loud and sweet, ricocheting off the leaves. I forget how terribly cold this water is. I turn my back to my half-hidden feather dress. I sway, trailing my hands through the water.
If there’s anyone in these woods, the song will draw them to me.
A woman’s voice shatters the monotony of my life.
Her song slinks into my heart from the north. The town is to the west. It is like birdsong, but richer and more melodic. It is rhythmic and rippling like a brook.
What makes a woman sing like that?
I leave the logs where they are. The song continues, unbroken, as I try and find the singer. I am off familiar paths.
A clearing opens up before me: a quiet pooling in the Foskan River. The clear morning sun pours in past the pine trees and glides along the water. The woman’s song fills the air, accompanied now by the music of ripples and splashes. The singer herself is a strange and beautiful thing, and wild, too, to be bathing on a cold autumn morning like this. She’s not from the village.
I watch her naked limbs slip through the water. I watch the heavy tangle of her black hair slap wet against her shoulders.
A twig snaps as I creep closer; I freeze. The woman does not turn. My heart drums in my chest, in time with her song. There is a weirdness in the air, something too still, like waiting. Something thick, like smoke, but there is no smoke, only this song.
From here, skirting the edge of the clearing, I catch a glimpse of something crumpled, something white. It is a beacon against the mud and the grass.
Feathers: a ball of feathers tucked up against a rock. A spray of pine needles dragged atop it like the dark evergreen pins could somehow block that brightness from sight. And I know, suddenly, what she is, why she can bathe in the Foskan on such a cool morning with such ease. I know what this weirdness in the clearing is. I know that I have stumbled across magic.
And I know that I can take her.
She trills a long note in her song. She scrubs her hair between her brown hands, the green water lapping playfully at her naked body, a body that, if I am careful enough and clever enough, I can keep in my house. A body that will never age. What a lucky man I will be to have a young wife all my years, even as I grow old myself. She will bear me a dozen magic-touched children, and everyone knows the children of swan-maidens are blessed with good fortune, good health, the girls always beautiful and the boys always the very best hunters.
One step, another, each one closer to this promised future. My palms sweat. My mouth is dry. I forget to breathe as I draw near to the feather dress. When I am within arm’s reach of it I steal one last glance at her, the swan-maiden who will be mine, to make sure that she is not watching. My hand flashes out, grabs the white feathers.
As soon as I take hold of the feather dress, the song stops. Her silence is thundering.
I clutch the feather dress to my chest. A smile plays at my lips. I look out at the water. The swan-maiden sees me now.
“You have my feathers,” she says. Her voice, when she speaks, is quiet and firm, but close, like the wind when it’s trapped beneath the boughs of trees.
“You did not hide them well, Miss. Makes a man think you wanted them found.”
She tilts her chin up, stares down her nose at me. Crosses her arms against her chest. This defiance will be easy to break in her. “So you are the kind of man who sees something you know is not yours and thinks it found? I think it theft.”
“The stories say you’re mine now.”
“They say you’ll marry me and do my bidding. The stories say you’ll do anything I tell you so long as I have your feathers.”
The swan-maiden wades out of the river and steps onto the bank before me. “That’s true, what the stories say. Still, you only grabbed my feathers. My wife still wears hers.”
“My wife still wears hers,” Ava says.
We savor this moment, Ava and I, her in her glistening human form, me in my feathered swan body. We savor the confusion on his face, his refusal to understand.
I leap from the underbrush, upon him in two, three beats of my great white wings. The claws of my webbed toes catch into the yielding flesh of his back. He screeches. I drive my hard, sharp beak into his throat, into his shoulder, all while beating his face and head and arms with my wide, strong wings.
The thief cries out in surprise and pain. He drops Ava’s feather dress. She plucks it from the ground, bursts into her swan-form, and flies off to find his weapon. They always have a weapon. They are always hunters or woodsmen or soldiers, these thieves who come to claim us, to steal us from our lives. They are always men with bows and axes and swords.
He makes to fend me off, but he is confused and bleeding, his arms pinwheeling. He curses me. I gouge his cheek with one of my feet.
He is so clumsy. They are always so clumsy. They think because they are bigger than I, with their vicious heavy arms, their wild rolling eyes, that they can overcome me. But I am practiced. His brute force is nothing compared to my malicious grace.
It is not long before Ava comes flying back. She’s found his axe, carries it in her feet as she beats her white wings, her long white neck undulating in the morning light. She drops it, lands, glides back into human form. Her strong wings become strong arms. She lifts the axe. “Move, dear,” she says. I leap off the woodsman.
He turns at the sound of her voice.
She swings the axe. It catches him in the skull, splitting his scalp and bone with a dull, wet thud.
He falls limp to the bank of the river, his own axe still buried in his skull. His blood mingles with the river water. My Ava stands there, satisfied, her hands on her hips.
I switch back to human form and come to her, kiss her on the cheek. “You were an excellent lure.”
“You were a valiant rescue.”
We pick his corpse clean. Ava returns again to his forgotten chopping and brings his pack. We stow away the valuables to sell in the next town over, but we eat his lunch right there, gorging ourselves on crusty bread and goat cheese. And then we leave, because there will be questions. We fly north along the edges of the human world, living together, happy and free, doing what we must to stay that way.
B R Sanders is an autistic award-winning genderqueer writer who lives and works in Denver, CO, with their family and two cats. B writes fantasy novels about queer elves and short fiction about dancing planets. They love drinking coffee and sleeping. B tweets @b_r_sanders.