This short story was written in my first year at university, and was featured in Vortex, Winchester University’s yearly (and competitive!) anthology of student creative writing. I hope you enjoy it.
The Other Swan Queen
The lake was a beautiful prison. No one could contest that; not even us, the poor creatures trapped there. In daylight, the water reflected the surrounding pine trees as though they’d been captured in shattered glass.
Resting snugly in between a circle of hills, the lake looked as if a giant had reached down, scooped out a hollow in the earth and filled it with water. The landscape was quiet and natural, the woodlands filled only with the soft noises of animals. It was the sort of place that people dreaded because they knew that there were no people there, and christened as ‘Lost’, ‘Forbidden’, or ‘Enchanted’.
No matter what time of year, no matter the weather, there were always white swans on that lake.
The lake might have been lovely in the daylight, but it was the middle of the night when the prince from far away over the hills came down to hunt the swans. In the dark, the lake was black as raven feathers, with white slices of the moon rippling on its surface. The water was louder at night, each wave a whispering breath.
We watched the prince creep around the edge of the trees, and we saw the crossbow that he cradled to his chest. We knew that our bright feathers would catch the moonlight, making us easy targets in the darkness. He could see nothing but us, and strove to feel his way and to listen.
He found a place on the lakeshore that satisfied him. The golden clasps on his tunic glittered and clinked as he drew the string back and fitted an arrow into place. The other swans ducked their heads in fear. I stretched my wings out and shook them, but I couldn’t lift myself out of the water. I couldn’t fly away.
The man had his crossbow up and ready, pointing at the largest of us, the most beautiful. She glided towards him over the lake. She was not fearless, but she knew how to stop him. She was Odette, the Swan Queen.
The prince still hadn’t shot his crossbow. He hesitated, confused, as Odette stepped up on land.
The transformation was immediate. In one flowing motion, her wings arched upward and her spindly legs lengthened into a sweep of hips, thighs and calves. Her feathers fell from her skin like drops of rain and her beak clattered to the ground. Odette the Swan Queen stood as a human woman before the prince, tall and white and naked.
The prince lowered his crossbow, staring. ‘My God—!’
Queen Odette had been a swan for a long time, and barely knew what clothes were any longer. If she ever took to the land, she wore only her skin and let her gold hair fall wet and loose around her shoulders.
Putting his crossbow aside, the prince slipped his own cloak from his shoulders and held it out for her.
‘Thank you.’ She wound the material around her body. She wore it better than most women could wear a ball gown.
With the crossbow safely laid down, I began to move closer. The other swans followed me, all curious. No one had ever stumbled across us before. Our approach did not go unnoticed by the prince, who glanced at us, perhaps thinking that we would all turn into naked women. He only had one cloak, and I felt a sting of jealousy that I wasn’t the one wearing it. Odette was always loved best.
‘Who are you?’ he asked.
Odette bowed her lovely head. Her damp hair tumbled across her forehead. ‘We are captives,’ she said.
I was not always this way.
Once, so long ago I can barely remember, I was a princess. I wore expensive silk gowns and painted my lips red as cherries. I was young when my father, the king of a small province, held a grand ball. It was the first I ever attended. The bright music, the colourful gowns, and the smell of roasted meats and sweet cakes all had my head spinning.
I’d spent months learning all the dances, yet I was too shy to take a single step. At the far end of the hall, away from the dancers, I rested my back against the stone wall and watched them.
The name announced at the door was ‘Von Rothbart’. I never knew if that was his real name. He was handsome, if a little old, and had a long, slightly aquiline nose, which he looked over like a hawk glaring over its beak. He fidgeted with his clothes as though they itched, yet held himself so tall and walked so smoothly his feet scarcely seemed to touch the ground.
His eyes flicked to meet mine as though he’d felt my stare as a physical force. I cast my eyes down, ashamed. Knowing he now walked towards me, I wished I could shrink into the wall rather than face the man I’d stared at so rudely.
‘Your name?’ he said, when he was close enough. His voice was scratchy and thick with an accent I couldn’t place. He smelled musty and dirty, even though he looked clean.
‘Princess Odile.’ I curtseyed.
‘Don’t be afraid to look at me, Princess Odile.’ He smiled with his lips pressed together, as if he didn’t want to show his teeth. He offered me his hand. ‘Never be afraid to look at me, and never be afraid to dance.’
I took his hand and he swept me into the dance. I stumbled at first, lost, not remembering where my feet were meant to go. Then the musicians played a familiar note and I picked it up. For a while I bit my lip and furrowed my brow, struggling to remember, but whenever I looked at Von Rothbart, he made me smile. I danced as easily as I walked; as easily as if my feet never needed to land on the ground.
The other swan princesses, and even Queen Odette, say that Von Rothbart captured them the night that he led them away from their fathers’ palaces. When oil-black feathers sprouted from his skin and a beak grew out of his wide-open mouth, and they felt their fingers turn into feathers and their feet web together. That night he showed his true, grotesque form, half-man-half-bird. When he transformed them into swans and locked them to the lake forever: that was the moment he captured them.
I was captured the instant I took his hand at the ball. Von Rothbart’s feet never seemed to touch the ground, and for many years after that dance, neither did mine.
In the morning, Von Rothbart spoke to me for the first time since he’d stolen me away. He only ever spoke to Queen Odette; only ever let her up on land. The rest of us rarely saw him, but we were often aware of his eyes on us. He liked to look at us, because we were beautiful.
‘Odile.’ His voice was the same as it’d been at my father’s ball. It made me shiver from my beak down to my bones. ‘Odile, come to the shore and speak with me.’
I wanted to ignore his call, to pretend I hadn’t heard, or to swim away. Instead, I paddled over in the water, as close to him as I dared. He no longer concealed his true form from me: he wore his greasy feathers like a fancy fur coat. His yellow eyes bored into mine.
‘You saw the prince last night,’ he said.
I opened my beak to reply, expecting to hear only a swan’s trumpeting cry, but at a wave of his wing I was given speech.
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘He means to steal my swans from me. I will not have it.’ Von Rothbart’s clawed toes clenched, drawing six small trenches in the dirt. ‘He will marry Odette, despite her feathers, and my spell will be broken. She has betrayed me, and she will be punished.’
I shivered. He may have captured us, but Von Rothbart did not hate us. We often heard him tell Odette he loved us, and kept us safe in this lake. Perhaps we missed our freedom, but we’d always be young and beautiful here. The other swans and I hated him, but he never hated us back.
Now he hated Queen Odette, and for once I didn’t envy her.
‘If you will not help me, I will kill the prince, and Odette, and you,’ he said.
I shrank into my feathers as though I could shield myself from his wrath. He noticed, and his tone softened.
‘Do as I say, Odile, you will have Odette’s powers. You will be allowed to step up on land and shed your feathers; you will be allowed to fly freely from the lake. You will be the new Swan Queen.’
I hated Von Rothbart, but his fury was as real as his power, and I knew he’d do anything – give me anything – to strike at the prince.
I was quiet for so long he must’ve thought I’d lost my ability to speak again, because he gestured once more with his wing. Still trembling, I spoke,
‘What must I do?’
With a repulsive drumming, clicking sound, Von Rothbart’s grey beak retracted back into his face. The gaping hole it left behind closed up into a mouth that smiled with its lips closed.
‘Marry the prince.’
I barely knew my human feet anymore, but I forced myself to stand on them. From the forest floor, a white swan watched me transform. Her wings and beak were bound. Broken and dumb, Queen Odette was a graceless creature.
I stretched my wings and watched my fingers grow out of them. Except they were not my fingers. They were someone else’s: longer, paler. The hair that spilled around my face was not mine either: it was lighter in colour and softer in texture. Odette watched with despair as I took on her beautiful form.
Von Rothbart inspected me like a hunter watching prey. He wore his human form like a mask, but he was not human. He was a bird, and felt no more about a naked girl than a human would about a swan with its feathers plucked. Still, his gaze made me cringe.
I remembered how it felt to dance with him at my father’s ball so long ago, and tried to dance again on my own. I tumbled through the woods without balance or direction, and everywhere I went white feathers fluttered from my skin. They turned black before they met the ground.
By the time I reached the crest of the hills, I’d found my legs again, and I could dance with elegance to rival even Odette’s. From here, I saw the white stone walls of the prince’s palace. Von Rothbart hurried to stand beside me. He held in one hand a dark gown, which I put it on, although it made my skin itch. There were a few feathers, black as oil, still on Von Rothbart’s shoulder. He brushed them away and they turned to smoke.
The doorman called out names that were not really ours when we swept into the palace. At the bottom of the arching staircase stood the prince of this kingdom. He recognised me and smiled.
For a moment, I was happy. Odette wasn’t the Swan Queen anymore. Odile had taken her place. Then I saw my reflection in the glass windows: Odette’s pale hair, her long, graceful figure, the curve of her smiling lips. I shuddered, suddenly cold without my feathers in this stranger’s skin. I was not Odile anymore. Odile was dead, and Odette would be the Swan Queen forever.