In between times I HAVE been writing more of my current favourite work in progress, The Swans of the WasteWoods (working title). Here is an excerpt to prove that I haven’t just been facebooking and reviewing and generally messing about frivolously on the net. Ahem.
Anyway, the story so far, in my retelling of the Andersen fairy tale The Wild Swans, is that the eleven brothers have been turned into swans by their wicked step mother. Their sister (and, in a little twist added by moi, their sister-in-law) is in the process of breaking the enchantment by remaining mute and spinning and knitting flax into jackets that when thrown over the swans will return them to their human form.
Enjoy. I’m more than half way through, so hoping to have it edited and off to the publisher by March. Hoping.
He seized her then and kissed her fiercely, silencing her thoughts. The new-risen sun pierced through the window and across them both, and with a cry of frustration and pain he began the change. She had never watched the transformation and it was both beautiful and terrible to see the fusion of man and beast for a moment before the transition was complete. A swan now perched upon the deep window ledge, while Achlys threw on her gown over her shift and packed the spools of yarn into a secure bundle for him to carry away to Elaine. Before he took it, the swan touched her cheek gently with his beak. Then he was away, soaring into the brightening sky to the Kingdom of the West.
No tears. The voice faded from her head as he became a speck that disappeared in the distance.
She brushed the tears from her cheeks and went down to breakfast. She was ravenously hungry, and made a good meal before taking up the spindle and distaff again. Restless still, she went outside, pacing around the clear space before the tower, using the rhythm of the spindle against her thigh to pace her steps. The tangled roof of trees over all seemed to be thinning for she was sure there was more light and stronger coming through the gaps. Or perhaps spring is closer than I know. Easy to lose track of all time in this place. So she continued her pacing and spinning far into the day, stopping occasionally for a drink, but anxious to send as much yarn as she could possibly spin with the next prince who arrived.
When the sunlight had stopped angling through the branches and the daylight was faded, she went inside once more. She did not even sit but made a quick meal of bread and meat. Then she took a tray and loaded it with viands and took it upstairs to Elaine’s room. She returned to collect the inevitable spindle and distaff and again mounted the stairs to wait. Who will it be, she mused idly, biting into an apple as she waited, sitting on Elaine’s bed and listening for the noises that heralded the swan’s arrival. She would be glad to see any of them. But she yearned for only one. She had laid a robe and mantle over the chair near the window for the prince, and soon after sunset, the door opened, and Lucien was revealed.
“Achlys!” He saw her and strode over to her and seized her in a bear hug and swung round with her in his embrace. After planting a hearty kiss on both cheeks, he put her down again. “I have such news to impart to you, but I’m famished. Any chance of food first?” She smiled and gestured to the table where she had laid out supper.
He set to with a will. “I will bank that Blaike has told you no news. His head is filled with nothing but romantic dreams of late.” Lucien grinned at her as he swallowed bread and meat, and she felt her cheeks blush.
“But this is the big news. You will not believe me when I tell you this story. Did you know you are a half-princess of the south, Achlys?” She stared at him and then slowly nodded her head. “And you said nothing! I cannot tell you how angry I was when I found out. All those years a servant to us, when you were as good as any of us. Certainly more than good enough to wed Blaike in all honour.
“The king of the south sent ambassadors to father after son died of fever and left him with no heir. He was asking after his half-princess daughter, whose mother had been banished to father’s court long ago.” He took a generous slice of a substantial game pie. “And now the king of the south has died of the fever also. The vizier sought the throne now there is no heir, but the nobles voted him down and imprisoned him –” He looked over at her. “You are a half-princess, you have claim. The nobles of the south wish to have a true heir upon the throne of the SouthKingdom, Achlys.” She shook her head violently, jumping up and backing away from him waving her hands agitatedly. “It is your right. You with Blaike beside you as consort. When all this is over.” He shook his head in his turn, slowly. “It would be a great comfort for father at least to have south and west secure.”
He finished the bread and ham, and scanned the table for more. As he helped himself to another wedge of the pie, he spoke again. “All around us the kingdoms are in flux, our friendships thin and doubtful. The prince of the north watches. And waits. There seems no love lost between him and his mother since she cut him out of marrying Elaine. She refuses to cede his kingdom to him, and seeks to rule his kingdom and ours.”
“There is so much gone awry at home. The king ails and the queen plots.” He gestured with a leg of chicken. “I tell you, the sooner those shirts are finished the better, Achlys. That woman and her mewling spawn.” He snorted and took a bite of chicken, then pointed the half-eaten leg at Achlys. “That child is no son of my father’s. Ill-begotten imp born of some witchcraft. The twins watch the queen day and night as she croons and fusses over the ugly little creature. But at least she leaves father alone more now.”
He stuffed ham between two hunks of bread. Achlys came to the table and sliced cheese and pickled cucumbers for him, and he nodded in thanks and added them, then lifted the whole to his mouth and took an enormous bite.
“But he still seems bewitched by her. There is no accounting for it.”
Achlys smiled a little sadly in response, and shook her head slightly. You do not know love, brother. I understand the king now when I did not before.