Swan’s Grace

- by Tony Pi -

 

Princess Jovansya descended through the Gate of Skies in the shape of a swan, her swan-maiden coterie in formation behind her. She had rehearsed many times what she must say to her father, knowing well he’d rage when told. But if she could not conquer her fear of the king, how would she find courage at all?

Jovansya and her fellow fledglings arrived upon the long pool of the court, throwing off their snow-pale bird-shapes as they alighted. King Eyan glowered from the clutch of the Taloned Throne and silenced his advisers.

Jovansya remained standing as her compatriots bowed low.

Eyan’s own immaculate feather-cloak rustled over his iron armour as the titan's hand clenched.

The fledglings hushed and flocked to the shadows, their courage fled. Jovansya faced her king alone. “Father, it’s time I seek my grace-plume. Let me take a token of power from the cockatrice and prove I am a woman grown among windlings.”

“The cockatrice?” Eyan’s brow crinkled beneath his faded silver circlet. “I forbid it. You are but a cygnet. The world abroad is no place for you. When I lost your mother I promised I’d never let you come to harm.”

The king’s Counsels crowed their agreement and the lorekeeper thumbed through his bestiary. “Best leave legends be,” the lorekeeper trilled. “A cockatrice plume may promise power, but it also delivers death.”

“Of those who touch it all perish in stone,” added the king’s augur. “Many who leave on the same foolish quest never return.”

“Settle for speed from a swift or wisdom from an owl,” said her godmother, Solveja, the royal midwife. “My own tutelar is the nightingale, and I need only her song to fill my heart with joy.”

Jovansya listened, standing still as stone, but their counsel could not sway her to find her grace-plume in a common bird. “I fear no dangers beyond this isle. Should any draw my blood in malice I know a hex to hold them still.” She doffed her cloak with a flourish and reshaped it into a razor-edged fan, her fingers laced through the ivory ribs. “I have mastered seven cuts and seven parries with the war-fan. I am ready.”

Without warning, the king drew two regal feathers from his swan-cloak and flung them like knives at his daughter.

Jovansya batted the first dart from the air with her fan, but her wrist twisted too slow and she missed the second quill. The feather-blade sliced through her right sleeve and grazed her upper arm. Jovansya gasped and touched her wound; her fingers came away bloodied.

King Eyan stood and descended from the dais. “You will remain here and learn your obligations to the Taloned Throne. I will hear no more.” The king strode from the hall, his courtiers flocking behind him. Her timid companions hid among the departing mob, unable to meet Jovansya's reproachful glare as they passed.

Solveja paused at the grand doors. Solveja who had taken on the burden of raising Jovansya when the queen had died birthing her. “Have patience, goddaughter,” she said to Jovansya as she crossed back to the princess. “Your father will not always see you as a fledgling.”

“I will need to make him see,” said Jovansya. “He considers only my royal beauty and youth; no earned qualities, only those inherited.”

“Not true,” Solveja said. “Today, you showed courage. In that, you are your mother’s daughter.”

“Then courage is another inheritance thrust upon me.” Jovansya shook her head. “I must choose a tutelar that is entirely mine–one that proves I am the equal of my forebears.”

“You’re eager to have your freedom, I understand. But sleep and consider your father’s words. Perhaps in dawn’s light you’ll see Eyan’s wisdom.” She embraced her goddaughter and left the court, leaving Jovansya alone in the vaulted hall.

Jovansya looked to the tapestries of the great kings and queens of her bloodline alongside their tutelars: Fenisya and her firebird. Chernon riding his roc. She would risk all to add her legend to theirs.

Alone in the immense hall, she ascended the steps to the Taloned Throne and brushed a single, crimson-smeared finger along its white claws, leaving a long stain.

“I will have my fable, even if it costs me in blood.”

Jovansya penned a letter of farewell, promising her triumphal return. She left the letter amongst the loremaster’s papers, knowing it would eventually reach her father.

That very night, she fled her watchers and abandoned the isle of swans.

East the swan-maiden flew, over copper cliffs and serpent rivers, in haste knowing she would be pursued. When the land gave way to ocean and the Meligonian Isles gleamed upon the horizon, Jovansya began her search.

She flitted from isle to isle in the Sunlit Sea, seeking old songs that might lead her to the cockatrice. None would sing the epics for her lest gold crossed their palms. To pay for the tales, Jovansya sold baubles stolen from the Citadel, though the merchants paid her but a fraction of their true worth. Only then were the fishermen swift to sing of tides and fortunes, and their wives to sing of lovers and drownings.

One evening, after many tales of no use to her, on a high island precipice a grizzled mariner consented to recount a saga passed from grandsire to grandson for twice-nine generations. He sang of the cockatrice’s long-ago epic battle with a leviathan. At song’s end, the sailor pointed a bony finger at an islet edged by morning’s first light. “Them’s the remains of that sea-beast, turned to stone. The cockatrice spread its wings and crowed a thunderin’ cry that shook all the stormfolk isles. Then he soared above the clouds, leaving these isles for the western lands.”

At the end of his tale, Jovansya dove off the cliff and changed into a swan so she could circle and marvel at the tombstone islet. It did indeed resemble a majestic, carapaced drake, whose twin stone heads howled when the sea-winds blew. She rode those same winds back to the mariner. “So the cockatrice is real!”

The tale-spinner nodded. “Follow the fables west, windling.”

From first thaw to first frost Jovansya roamed the world, and lessons of the dangers of the human world came fast and hard: Charlatans cheated her. Ruffians hounded her. Only her wit pierced their lies, and her hexes and skill with the fan-blade protected her.

Far to the northwest, she came upon a resplendent tsardom where puppetmasters brought shadows to life against silk. It was the thrice-tenth tale, told by the shadow-witch Vissenya in Gronyev, that gave Jovansya hope.

In the dusk, Vissenya sounded her witch-pipes and promised the villagers an epic told through lamplight and silhouette. Jovansya sat with the crowd in the dirt while the witch and her apprentices strung their canvas between two trees. Unlike other shadow-witches Jovansya had seen, Vissenya did not powder her skin corpse-white or ink her teeth coal-black. Instead, the mistress of shadows flaunted her amber skin and her fanged, pearly smile. From it, Jovansya guessed her dustbrood, a shifter like herself but of fox blood.

Nightfall hushed the audience and Vissenya lit a hanging flame to cast a sunset glow upon the silk. She raised a thimble over the fire and tilted her hand, pouring the tributes forth.

“A dreg of wine for Fortune-Dreaming, a pearl of honey for Hag-Rid-Rapture, and a drop of blood for Death-In-Sleep,” Vissenya sang. While her apprentices took hide puppets from a cedar ark, the witch laid her nine-stringed gusli upon her lap and plucked Death’s chord upon the catguts.

The shadows came alive as Vissenya told the legend of Hrowan, the Selkie Prince who had sought the cockatrice’s lair upon the shores of a sea under stone, so that he might give his life to unite his people. She sang of how Hrowan’s sacrifice granted his lover powers beyond imagining, and that his Grey Widow ruled still over the stormfolk isles.

Jovansya listened rapt. If she could retrace Prince Hrowan’s path, she would find her prized plume.

When the shadowplay ended and the performers were packing away their gear, Jovansya approached Vissenya. “Please, Mistress, do you know where the Sunless Sea lies?”

“Myself? No.” Vissenya blew out the lamp’s flame. “But I know one who has seen the sea and lived. Come, and I will tell you of him.”

Jovansya followed the witch to her straw-thatched abode, her apprentices trailing behind. And when the witch had sent her apprentices to bed, she bade Jovansya sit at her table. “Tea, child?”

“Please.”

The tea tasted of mint and honey, and Jovansya closed her eyes to savour it as she drank.

“You must seek Renyar Sharp-Ears, who dwells in Malbruge, far to the west.” Vissenya’s eyes glittered like emeralds set in a mask of burnt gold. “He’s a recluse; he might not consent to show you the way.”

“How do I persuade him?”

“I’ll pen a letter of introduction. But bring him tributes.”

“What can I offer?”

Vissenya smiled and revealed the carved stones in her palm: a malachite molar, a jade canine, and an agate incisor the colour of moss. “Teeth, my dove.” The witch slid scissors across the table, eyeing the long fall of Jovansya’s black hair. “For a price.”

After leaving the dustbrood’s shack Jovansya sought an alley out of sight, and there stashed her riding hood in her satchel. She slipped her fan from her sleeve and fashioned it once more into a feather-cloak, donning its length. She swirled and let the cloak’s magic shape her into a swan, and took to the sky.

The spine of the Diamondance Mountains led the way west, their snowy peaks and shadowed valleys ridges of great teeth. For three days she flew, stopping only to eat and sleep. By the third dusk she found Malbruge nestled in a lazy valley, and alighted in a secluded grove nearby where she traded her arcane trappings for the mundane hood.

Sharp-Ears’ ramshackle hut squatted on the edge of town. Jovansya rapped the door once. Twice. Thrice.

The door opened a crack, revealing a golden-haired man. He crinkled his nose. “What do you sell?”

Jovansya bowed. “I am Jovansya. I bring greetings for Master Renyar from Vissenya.”

“And . . .”

She slipped Renyar the scroll that bore the witch’s vixen seal. “Please, sir, I beg your aid.”

Renyar read and crumpled the note. “Come in.” He nudged the door open with his sword and she slipped inside. Though to Jovansya’s eyes a young man, Renyar’s body was hardened and scarred by numerous battles, and his blade’s sword-hilt encrusted with yellowed teeth from diverse beasts, as was its scabbard.

“Will you sheathe your sword?” asked Jovansya.

“As you wish.” He put his blade away. “Don’t worry, your virtue is safe from me. Mostly.” He bared his teeth for a smile, his upper left canine missing.

The hovel was furnished with nothing but a cot and a skewed, tusk-backed chair. Scrimshaw baubles hung along the walls among claw-like iron implements. Renyar tossed the letter into the hearth-fire, then sat cross-legged on the floor and gestured for Jovansya to join him. “So you wish to see the sundark sea. To adore what remains of Hrowan, or to avenge him?”

Jovansya sat. “Neither.”

“Then why risk your life? I barely escaped with my own. And will your ambitions thwart mine?”

She didn’t know why Renyar had gone to the sea under stone, but she could guess. “If you seek the glory of the kill, then no.”

Her answer appeased him, and he relaxed. “There remains the matter of payment.”

Jovansya shook the three lustrous teeth from a pouch into her hand. She flicked the malachite molar to Renyar, who caught it with a deft motion. He appraised it in the light. “Magnificent workmanship.”

“One now. Another when you've shown me the path.”

Renyar laughed. “Didn’t Vissenya tell you? I only have use for living teeth. This false one’s for you.” He gestured at the chair.

Jovansya tensed. If Renyar shed her blood in malice she could use her hex to twist that wrong into punishment. She only hoped she could still speak the spell if the time came to use it. With no other choice, she eased herself into the chair. “So be it.”

Renyar showed his gap-toothed grin, then plucked an instrument off the wall. “This will hurt.”

The wracking pain in her jaw had subsided a little after the false tooth had been put in place, but not by much. Jovansya sat by the fire and wiped blood from her jaw with a rag. “Now, tell me the way,” she slurred.

Renyar found a bare spot on the pommel of his sword for her tooth. “The way is treacherous. Only those strong in body and magic can hope to reach those shores. How will you fare?”

“I can hold my own.” She pushed back her cloak to reveal a dagger tucked in her belt. The blade was only for show, her real weapon safe in her sleeve.

Renyar laughed. “I thought as much, girl. Listen, the way is long: East of here lies a vale where a shaper’s tree grows. You’ll know it by its fleeting changes. Suffer through its metamorphoses till it mimics the rowan, then anoint its roots with your blood. Pray to the sleeping gods for a dream, then rest beneath its boughs. Be sure to wake before dawn.

“The morning light will bring a golden hare. Give chase; do not lose him. He’ll lead you to a hidden valley where the chameleon trees conceal a deadly maze.

“Sleep there as well, and the second sunrise will bring a golden wolf. Tail him through the twisting woods to a long-drowned mine.

“The final dawn will bring a golden otter. Follow him but do not distract him. He’ll take you through the flooded tunnels to the shores of the sea at the heart of the world. There, you’ll find what you desire.”

“Will you come with me?” Jovansya asked.

Renyar stroked his chin. “If I go, you’d wish I hadn’t. When you face the cockatrice, remember that only two living things can bear its touch: the weasel and the meadow rue.”

“How did you survive?”

“I too can hold my own.” Renyar grinned and gestured again at the chair. “Once more. This one should hurt less.”

Jovansya handed him the jade canine but kept the last. “When I return, you will earn the incisor.” She sank back into the chair.

Renyar wiped down a pair of blackened claws. “I’ll hold you to it.”

The pain kept Jovansya awake through the night. In the morning, she left Renyar's hut to seek the shaper’s tree.

She spotted it from the sky, the tree shedding its shapes and lives: first cherry, then oak; willow, then fir. Landing, she quickly lost count of its varied barks, leaves, and blooms. But remembering Renyar’s instructions, she knelt by the root, drew her dagger, and watched carefully for the rowan shape.

When the tree took on the blaze of red autumn rowan, Jovansya sliced her palm and fed blood to its roots. Her offering held the tree in rowan-shape, but still it wore and shed the seasons in their turn.

Jovansya prayed to Fortune-Dreaming, Death-In-Sleep, and Hag-Rid-Rapture in whispers for a dream, but her jaw ached and sleep would not come. So Jovansya huddled beneath her feather-cloak and watched the hollow beneath the rowan, waiting.

When first light came, a golden hare bolted from the hole. The hare bounded away so fast Jovansya almost missed him. She rose swiftly and took wing. From the air, she circled and kept her quarry in sight, not daring to soar too high lest her prey vanish beneath the canopy of trees. Only the glint of gold told her she had not yet lost her game. And at sunset the hare ended his mad dash, grazing on the grass at the edge of a dense wood.

Jovansya alit near the woods and took human form once more. She might have missed this vale from the air, so much did the foliage of the chameleon wood resemble mountain stone from above. She collapsed under a tree, ravenous, and raided her pack for fruits and berries. She shared some with the hare in thanks.

The autumn air chilled as the sun dipped behind the peaks, and Jovansya bundled herself in her hooded cloak, curling up to rest with the hare. With her war-fan in her grip, she fell into an uneasy sleep.

She dreamt of a creek in winter, a golden fox beckoning from the other bank. Curious, she approached. And as her dream-self dipped her toe in the icy stream, a gentle touch on her shoulder woke her. She flared her fan open in reflex and slashed with its razor-edge before she opened her eyes.

The moonlight revealed the shallow cut she had dealt to Solveja’s arm. Her father had sent the one windling who could find and trap her. Jovansya cursed beneath her breath at the damage she had done.

Solveja looked to the blood trickling down her forearm. “Is this how you welcome me, goddaughter?”

“My apologies, godmother.” Jovansya sat up, careful not to wake the hare. “You startled me.”

“Blood wasn’t drawn in hate, child.” Solveja embraced Jovansya, careful of the hare nestled in against her goddaughter. “You worried us all. Come home, Jovansya. Come back to your duty.”

Jovansya frowned. “Is that an order?”

“A suggestion. For now.”

“Then I refuse. The end of my quest is so near. How can I turn back?”

“Because you’re still a fledgling, and still mine to mind for all you’re grown. When your mother died who pulled the caul from your face so you might draw breath?”

Jovansya turned away to whisper: “You.” Magic had etched forever in her mind the image of Solveja’s ice-blue eyes, the glow of her golden hair, even the patch of umber dapples upon her godmother’s snowy cloak.

“Who made your wings from your caul, so you might learn your shape?”

Jovansya didn’t reply. She didn’t need to.

“Who did you see when you first opened your eyes?”

“I know you love me as you do your own daughters. As I love you,” said Jovansya quietly. “Do not force me home and break that love.”

“First sight forged a sacred bond between us. When you hurt, I hurt. Whither you fly, I must follow. So long as you are fledgling, my commands you must abide, by our most ancient magic.”

“When I have my grace-plume, I’ll be a fledgling no more,” Jovansya said. “Let me choose which winds to ride, and which quills fall to fate.”

“Do you truly know what a grace-plume signifies? Neither elegance nor dignity as the young are wont to believe.”

“I know grace goes beyond beauty,” Jovansya answered. She drew back her hood, revealing the bare scalp where her lustrous locks had been shorn.

Solveja shook her head.

“Payment for the dustbrood witch.” Jovansya opened her mouth wide to show Solveja her false molar and the gap of her missing canine. “I’m not the vain girl who left home at winter’s end.”

She told Solveja everything, and when she finished Solveja was silent. Nervous, Jovansya added: “Renyar kept the jade tooth, to ensure I would return. He said the humility would do me good.”

“You shouldn’t have trusted the dustbrood. They’re thieves, those foxes; they sully the name of all shapeshifters. It worries me that the witch would help you on this quest.”

“Why?”

“You've heard the tale of Hrowan and the cockatrice from the shadow-witch, but beyond that romance there's a darker truth no dustbrood dare tell. You need hear it now.”

Jovansya sat stroking the slumbering hare at her side as Solveja told her a story seldom spoke:

“The gods are not what you have been taught. Once the gods of chaos walked among us by their true names: Death-Marching, Cruel-Fortune, and Rabid-Rapture. And in their name, the dustbrood wrought terror, indulging in excesses and wasting the lives of men like coins. The fox-lords hunted both windlings and stormfolk, slaying those who challenged them. Chernon led our people into sanctuary, but no such hero rose to unite the stormfolk. Using deception, the foxes poisoned the sealskin clans against each other.

“Their meddling sent the stormlord Hrowan and his grey clan against an isle of mottled selkies, slaying them to a man. The women they spared.

“There Hrowan erred, for the mottled selkies practiced the secret rite of nectar and gold, bonding husband to wife even beyond death. When the men died defending their women, their sacrifice fed power to their widows. The women took the hides of their men for their own and with their newfound power set forth for the grey isle to take revenge.

“The vengeance magic of the mottled selkies let them capture their foes, and the widows cried for the greys’ deaths. But a young widow, a woman of wisdom and power, kenned that the grey selkies were only pawns of the dustbrood who set them against one another, tribe after tribe, and implored the others to spare the greys. ‘We are all stormfolk!’ she implored them. ‘This tide of vengeance must turn to mercy, here and now.’

“Many heard her wisdom and agreed, but some still demanded a death: Hrowan, the lord of the greys; his death to atone for his people's sins.

“Yet the young widow would not let them execute Hrowan.

“‘Your husband died by Hrowan’s own sword! You of all people have most cause to hang him!’ they cried.

“Instead, the widow knelt by the prostrate lord. ‘I forgive you. Make of this new beginning what you will, but let us shed no more our kindred blood.’

“Hrowan took her words to heart. In gratitude for her mercy, he devoted his life in service to the widow, crusading to unite their people. In time, love blossomed between them, and they married.

“But the gods of chaos and their agents worked still against the stormfolk. Hoping to stem the extermination of his people, Hrowan sought out oracles. Seer after seer told him that his wife would defeat the gods; that she would, through his sacrifice, wield power to challenge them.

“Then Hrowan understood the purpose of his second life. By nectar and gold, a stormwife widowed gained vengeance magic. How strong would a stormwife become if the man who slew her first husband gave his own life freely, out of love and repayment for her mercy?

“He could not tell his beloved what he intended, so he sought a quiet death in a faraway place. There, on the sea at the world’s heart, he found eternal rest.

“His widow felt the moment of his death, and tasted the pure, raw power that coursed through her. She collapsed in grief, knowing herself twice widowed.

“It was a simple spell for her to find him. She mourned him, and claimed Hrowan’s sealskin, vowing to wield the power he had given her in the cause they had shared.

“Through that power came the chaos of the Shaper’s War. And at its end it was the Grey Widow’s great ritual that bound the gods in torpor, chaining them with sleep stripped from their dustbrood servants.

“To this day, the Grey Widow still rules the stormfolk isles of Meligon. By the Widow’s curse, the dustbrood can survive only seven days without stolen sleep, else they go mad or die. The dustbrood had no choice but to scatter, stealing sleep from dreamers when they can, or sell their talents in exchange for a dream. And in time the world forgot the true nature of the old gods, and prayed to them anew under other names. We windlings let fade the truth of our exile in our teachings, so we might live with our shame. And ever the dustbrood scheme the fall of the immortal Grey Widow, hoping to reawaken the gods of chaos.”

Her tale done, Solveja sat back and rested, Jovansya struck mute with shock. “There’s a dark scheme here, I fear. You've given them hair and teeth; no good will come of this.”

“I’ve chosen this path,” said Jovansya, still staggered by the enormity of what she’d learned. “I’ll follow it to its end.”

Solveja sighed and nodded. “What do you know of the grace-plume?”

“It gives us the full measure of our power. Without them, we’re limited to change from mortal to bird. With grace-plume woven into our trappings we gain the power of our tutelar: ‘seek owl for wisdom, swift for speed, and daw for cunning,’” Jovansya parroted from Solveja’s lessons. “But Fenisya took her grace-plume from the firebird and mastered flame. Chernon’s roc-plume bestowed on him its strength.”

“You say seek and take. But it must be freely given. The tutelar must find you worthy. Ask yourself what boon the tutelar you seek would grant. When you know, you’ll understand how a plume can be both gift and curse.”

“Gift and curse?”

“To use your power is to reap the consequence of your actions,” said Solveja. “Realize that if you find the cockatrice, you cannot simply thieve a feather; you’ll need earn it. What merits will you tell the cockatrice?”

“Isn’t it enough that I’ve risked so much to find it?”

Solveja took Jovansya’s hand. “No. Tell me, how did you intend to claim the grace-plume with only fledgling magic?”

“The transformation spell is the key. The cloak that powers it; it need not change only us, it can change birds to men as well.”

Solveja arched an eyebrow. “A new spell?”

Jovansya nodded. “There’s much hidden in plain sight. More if you study the tales to unriddle what they don’t say. I’ve practiced the spell on vulture and gull. It ought work on the cockatrice as well, and safely seal its power.”

“A gamble. I don’t suppose I can dissuade you?” Solveja touched Jovansya’s cheek. “I will not force you home, yet you remain my duty. I will go with you, to good or doom; show me that you deserve the grace-plume you seek.”

Jovansya smiled. “Thank you, godmother.”

Together, they waited for the hour of the wolf.

The hare had slipped away before morning broke.

Solveja had slept little, Jovansya not at all.

“Wings will hinder us in these woods,” Solveja said as she conjured her war-fan. “If the wolf attacks, at least we have our blades.”

“He won’t,” Jovansya said.

Then they saw the golden wolf among the trees. The beast lingered a moment before it loped down a gnarled, narrow path where only dim light reached. The two of them kept the wolf within sight as they followed, but never strayed too close. Sharp roots jutted from the forest floor, shadows writhing like vipers, and glowing eyes watched them from the undergrowth. But so long as they kept to the wolf’s trail, the unseen creatures let them be.

The wolf halted at the base of a cliff where gaped the mouth of an abandoned mine. The lupine glared at the women, then darted away.

The swam-maidens built a fire to warm themselves and ate by its light to renew their strength.

“Rest, cygnet,” said Solveja, and lulled Jovansya to sleep with her nightingale voice. With the power of her grace-plume she sent dreams of the selfsame song to her own daughters far away.

The next morning, the windlings caught sight of a golden otter lurking in the gloom of the mine entrance. Solveja lit a torch and together they followed the otter into the tunnels. Ever deeper into the dank earth the passageways wound, until the otter dove into a plunging shaft. Jovansya peered into the hole. In the dark water, the otter waited.

Solveja jammed the torch into a wall brace. They restored and donned their feather-cloaks. As two white swans they braved the dive into the black waters. The otter swam down a flooded tunnel, and without the torch, only the sound of the otter's splashing led them forward through the well-shaft labyrinth, sliding down small cascades and diving through sunken channels. It seemed an eternity before they emerged from the watercourse into a great cavern. The grotto’s pool became a stream that cut through to sandy beach, bleeding into the sea at the heart of the world.

A glow far down the littoral gave light enough for the swans to glimpse the sundark sea: ancient, fearsome, vast. The ocean’s surf roared, the winds in the hollow mountain above howled, and a bitter frost crept through their flesh and froze their hearts.

The otter had disappeared.

The swan-maidens shed their trappings to don their cloaks, and walked towards the glimmering light. As they made their way down the shore the shadows in the sand became more distinct, focusing into statues of men, foxes, and wolves. A few were caught mid-shift, all their own tombstones. Jovansya shuddered.

“Be on guard,” Solveja said.

Transfixed by the source of the luminescence, Jovansya didn’t hear her godmother’s warning. A diamond the shape and size of a man stood in the distance, pearlescence shining from its heart. “Hrowan,” she breathed. She had so longed to see a true legend with her own eyes that she threw caution to the wind and ran toward the diamond prince.

She was not a dozen paces off before Solveja shouted from behind her. “Jovansya! Stumble! Roll!

Compelled by Solveja’s command, Jovansya fell upon the sand and rolled to the side.

An enormous winged creature smote the ground where Jovansya had been. A perfect chimera of rooster and reptile, the cockatrice hissed in fury.

Startled, Jovansya scrambled to put distance between herself and the beast. But the great bird twisted upright and fanned his opalescent wings, bellowing a war cry, and rushed her. There was nothing Jovansya could do but throw her arms up to shield herself.

Yet the killing blow did not come.

Jovansya heard the cry of a swan as it rammed into the cockatrice. Solveja turned to crystal the moment she touched the beast, but the force of her impact knocked it away from Jovansya. Only a soft blue light shining from within the gemstone swan to prove she had ever been more than carved gemstone.

“Solveja!” cried Jovansya. Her godmother’s sacrifice had bought her only a few moments; she had to make those precious seconds count.

The cockatrice swept aside the crystal swan with the flap of a mighty wing, and reared on Jovansya.

The windling tore the feather-cloak from her back and held it before her with both hands, quills outward. Waiting.

The cockatrice charged her once more.

Jovansya caught the cockatrice with the inverted cloak and shouted her secret spell before he could petrify her trappings. “Skin upon down, down beneath skin!”

Her cloak enveloped the cockatrice as it swept past her, the clawing beast forced into the form of a meek and bony man. The cockatrice-turned-man crashed to the ground, still thrashing in the sand.

Jovansya raced to his side, no longer fearing his touch. The transformation had indeed robbed the monster of his terrifying power, and she calmed him in her arms.

“What have you done to me?” he hissed, looking up at her.

She choked back tears. “Given you ears to hear my plea, and a tongue to answer me. Will you listen?”

The cockatrice scrutinized his gnarled, human hands with cold eyes. “Give me back my true form,” he rasped.

“I never meant to harm you. Please, hear me.”

He wriggled from her grasp, planted himself in the sand, and wrapped himself in her cloak. She sat cross-legged opposite him and he mimicked her. Crystalline Solveja bathed them in her sapphire light.

“I am Vasilscu,” said the cockatrice. “This mortal flesh demands much from me. What will it take to restore my wings to me, young one?”

“I am Jovansya. I came for a plume, old one. I thought it was a power I could take,” she said, glancing at Solveja. “But I know better now. How can I prove to you I’m worthy?”

“Tell me what you have sacrificed to find me.”

Jovansya told him, his eyes never leaving her face. “And now we’re at an impasse. You’re trapped as long as I hold my spell, and I cannot escape this place unless I release you. If I free you, you kill me. If I don’t, we both starve.”

“A dilemma,” agreed Vasilscu. “You’d coerce me into giving you power?”

She shook her head. “How do I prove my earnestness?”

“Hear my history, then decide if you still desire my power.”

For a time, Vasilscu told tales of his life to Jovansya, from the strange circumstances of his birth to the details of his first vengeful kill. But the tale that beguiled Jovansya most was Vasilscu’s encounters with Hrowan and the Grey Widow.

“I was young when the mountains were young, a pawn of the gods of chaos,” said the Cockatrice. “I wreaked havoc upon the world as they willed, revelling in it. Power was all I loved, then. It took a mortal wise beyond her years to show me the errors of my way.

“To atone for my crimes, I chose exile. No more would I laze in sunlight’s caress, nor deal death under the scrutiny of moon's eye. Never again would I gamble on falling stars. I delved deep into the earth until I found this realm without sky.

“I had hoped my solitude would hold. And it did, for a time. Yet somehow Hrowan found me, even in this darkness. The seal prince swam ashore and shed his skin, then shouted his challenge to me: ‘Great Cockatrice, hear me! I am Hrowan, prince of the Grey Isle, and I seek an honourable death.’” Vasilscu spat. “Honourable.” He shook his head.

“I hissed, understanding him but unable to answer. His words intrigued me.

“Hrowan told me of the turmoil above and I crowed in rage at the atrocities the dustbrood committed in the name of my old masters. ‘You have forsworn the same gods they worship. You know better than I why my beloved Sirine must vanquish that dark trinity,’ called Hrowan. ‘There lies no honour in suicide. Thus I give my life freely to you, cockatrice, that you might be my death and shape me into sharpest vengeance for my widow to wield.’

“I crowed my approval and led him to an isle in the sundark sea where he hid his sealskin well. ‘For Sirine, when she comes,’ he told me. Swimming back to these shores in human shape, he struggled to his feet and held his head high, awaiting death.

“I bowed my head and shrouded his face with my wings. To my surprise, the prince did not turn to plain stone, as had the other victims of my power. The stone reflects the soul: an innocent becomes alabaster; the vilest becomes obsidian. But Hrowan turned to purest diamond and sunlight shone from his jewelled heart. With his sacrifice, the selkie prince had brought me the gift of illumination.

“It wasn’t long before Sirine came in search of her husband, bringing with her a tempest to this sea under stone. The queen’s tears conjured warm rains and her fury brought crashing waves. She was magnificent.

“Out of the dark waters the queen leapt, shedding her mottled sealskin. Sirine embraced her husband, not caring that his diamond edges cut and drew her blood. She wept and whispered her undying love.

“I endured the hot rain that fell and waited in the shadows to leave Sirine to her mourning. When the storm turned to drizzle, she called to me. ‘Cockatrice! Free Hrowan, I beg you!’

“Her magic let her understand what I crowed: 'What of Hrowan’s boon to you, Selkie Queen? He sacrificed his life so you might save the world. Will you squander his gift?’

“I brought her to the isle where Hrowan hid his trappings. Sirine held the pelt in her arms, contemplating its slick shades under a conjured light. ‘So be it, husband,’ she whispered to the skin. ‘With no heir, our legacy will be instead peace among our people.’

“She let her mottled sealskin slip from her shoulders and donned the grey, and her countenance changed. Wrinkles deepened and her sable hair turned iron-grey. Likewise those eyes of deepest blue once speckled with gold. She gazed at the pinpoint of light in the distance before she spoke again. ‘My enemies will come for him.’

“‘They’ll meet only stony death,’ I promised her.

“And come they did. Dustbrood soldiers in the shapes of foxes, wolves, and worse. By these statues that litter the sands you can see I’ve kept my word. Only one has ever escaped my power, by taking weasel-shape.

“I never saw the Grey Widow again, though Prince Hrowan keeps me company still.” He reached a mottled hand to Jovansya. “Do you still wish my power? I’m not what people think, the spirit immutable, preserving things in stone forever. I am the spirit of change.”

Jovansya considered his words. “What you did for Hrowan changed the world. That’s why I was drawn to you, though I didn't know the whole of the truth of it at first. I too hope to change the world for the better, Vasilscu. Teach me.”

Vasilscu shook his head. “There’s a spark in you that intrigues me, but you’re too impatient for power. That lesson you still have to learn.”

Jovansya’s heart fell. It had indeed been her impatience that cost Solveja her life. “Forgive me,” she said to the crystal swan. “Is there no way to save her?”

“One. But you must decide: Save her, or learn my power. You cannot have both. Think on it.” Vasilscu stretched his legs. “In the meantime, let us catch ourselves a meal.”

While they hunted in the shallows for blind fish, Jovansya reflected on Vasilscu’s words. He tempted her with the power she desired, but in taking it she would lose Solveja forever. What would she tell Solveja’s daughters, that she sacrificed their mother for a grace-plume?

In the end, Jovansya chose to honour Solveja’s sacrifice: “If I’m to embody change, I must learn to accept consequences,” she told Vasilscu. “When the Grey Widow spared Hrowan’s life, he chose to use that gift to help their people. When Hrowan sacrificed himself, Sirine didn’t refuse his selflessness. Without her sacrifice, and his, you and I might never have found peace. Cruel though it is, I can’t revive Solveja.”

Vasilscu smiled. “You pass the test.” He led her back to Solveja’s crystal with their catches, and they sat down to descale their fish with shards of stone. “Learn this, apprentice: A victim of my curse can only be returned to life with the blood of my death. A single death for a single life: no more, no less.”

As he spoke, a shadow loomed behind him. Jovansya shouted a warning, but it was too late. The golden wolf seized Vasilscu in its jaws and dragged him by the neck into the shadows.

Jovansya drew her dagger and chased after Vasilscu’s cries. The wolf had dragged him towards Hrowan’s light. If only she could see more clearly. If only she had her wings!

By the time Jovansya found Vasilscu, the wolf had mauled him and left him for dead. Even in the dim light she could tell his wounds were mortal. All because she had bound the cockatrice and denied him his power.

Wolf shape abandoned, a laughing Renyar dashed toward Hrowan’s statue.

Jovansya cradled Vasilscu in her arms. “I’m sorry, I should never have come.”

“My blood, on his sword,” Vasilscu gasped. “Stop him.”

Jovansya understood Vasilscu’s fear. If Renyar revived the prince with cockatrice blood, then the Grey Widow’s power would be broken and the curse on the dustbrood would be lifted. The gods of chaos would awaken.

How?”

“Change,” whispered Vasilscu. “Be true to what you are, windling.” He closed his eyes and was still.

“Sleep, my tutelar.” Jovansya kissed his forehead and spoke the spell of undoing. "Skin be shed, to down return.” Vasilscu’s skin fell away and became her cloak again, he becoming once more the great cockatrice. She plucked a crystalline quill from Vasilscu and wove it into her feather-cloak. “By the grace of the cockatrice, be mine,” she whispered, and all the feathers of her cloak shimmered and turned crystal-pure. She had her grace-plume at last.

She donned the cloak. The ancient power of the cockatrice coursed through her veins like ten thousand ants tunnelling beneath her skin. Jovansya bore the pain and changed into a crystalline bird: her body clear as glass. She hurtled toward the light, beating her wings until she took flight.

Jovansya beat Renyar to Hrowan’s statue, thundering down to the sand before the selkie prince, and took human form. She conjured and flared her war-fan, positioning herself between the statue and Sharp-Ears. She counted on the brilliance of Hrowan’s light behind her to dazzle Renyar.

Renyar slowed and halted ten paces from Jovansya, his bloodied sword raised at the ready. He inclined his head at her. “Swan-girl. Time to collect my final fee.”

His hair shone gold in Hrowan’s light, and she realised then how she had been used. “You were the beasts who led me here.”

“Indeed. For I am the Fox-King, lord of the dustbrood,” said Renyar, squinting against the light. “My sword lets me use any tooth embedded for that shape, from fox to weasel, rat to shark. When my sister discovered your quest, Princess, she knew you’d be the key to the cockatrice's secret.”

But how had Vissenya—the tea. Who knew what the witch had wrung from her in the throes of that drugging.

“I knew you’d ferret out the cockatrice’s weakness. When you made him as weak as a man, I didn’t even need to take my weasel-shape to foil his power.” Renyar circled her, slowly spiralling in for the kill.

Keeping the light at her back, Jovansya mirrored his motion. “I won’t let you revive Hrowan.”

“Oh, child, you don’t know the pain of living on stolen dreams! My mother lost her mind, starved for them. My father died from it, too. When I give Hrowan back his life, my people will be free. I’ll have that at any cost.”

Renyar lunged without warning, thrusting his sword at her neck. Jovansya spun her fan and parried his thrust. Renyar disengaged, but kept the sword’s point in line with her heart.

“A fan against my blade?” Renyar laughed. “Go home, foolish girl.”

Jovansya ignored his words. If she could touch Renyar perhaps she could invoke the cockatrice’s power and turn him to stone.

Renyar closed the distance and tested her fan with his blade. The Fox-King feinted and struck repeatedly, but she held firm against his attack, and the cockatrice’s blood on Renyar's blade smeared across her war-fan.

His blade had the longer reach and at this distance Renyar could slice at her and easily dodge her attacks. She was on the defensive and needed an advantage to turn the tide of battle.

The freezing hex leapt to mind, but the spell would only work if Renyar had drawn her blood in a malevolent act. When he pulled her teeth days ago, he’d shed her blood, but the strength of the spell was greatest while the wound was fresh.

Renyar feinted twice, almost tricking Jovansya into dropping her guard. She stumbled and her back pressed up against the diamond prince.

She couldn’t wait for a better advantage; she’d have to let him cut her. The memory of her father’s quill cutting her arm brought a grim smile to her face. It was a gambit that could get her killed, but if she timed it right . . . She drew her dagger with her free hand as Renyar renewed his attacks. Jovansya fought with both her weapons, blocking the Fox-King’s cuts and his attempts to touch Hrowan with the bloodied blade. When he came in for another strike, Jovansya twisted her hand, leaving Renyar the planned opening.

He took the bait. Renyar’s blade slid in and cut a line across her arm, drawing blood along the same line her father’s feather-dart had done months before.

Jovansya fought the pain and forced his blade aside. She shouted her hex, willing Renyar to freeze. “Blood was drawn. Blood must obey!

But the spell had no effect on Renyar. Instead, Jovansya felt her own spell overwhelm her, paralyzing her limbs.

Renyar laughed and lowered his sword. With his left hand, he tugged at a golden chain around his neck, showing her what hung from it. Her molar!

“I can do so much with teeth. Turning your own magic against you, for instance.” He came closer, the scent of blood on his breath. “You never should have let me set that malachite tooth, swan-girl.”

He pushed her against Hrowan’s statue and forced his lips on hers. Jovansya squirmed under him. She desperately wanted to petrify Renyar with the cockatrice's gift, but so long as he wore her tooth as an amulet he could likely reflect that power and turn her to stone.

She had failed Solveja and Vasilscu.

She had failed the world.

Renyar broke off the kiss and raised his blood-stained sword. “Remember this moment, the waking of the gods!” He anointed Hrowan’s forehead with Vasilscu’s blood, and waited.

Nothing happened.

He tried again. Hrowan’s statue shone in defiance.

“It should have worked!” Renyar glanced to where Vasilscu lay. “His wound was fatal, wasn’t it?” Renyar growled. “If he isn’t dead, he soon will be.”

Jovansya’s mind raced to understand why the resurrection failed as Renyar stalked back to Vasilscu’s corpse. When she held Vasilscu, his power had passed to her. Was Hrowan’s restoration now tied to her lifeblood? If so, she had to escape before Renyar came to the same conclusion.

She closed her eyes and concentrated on the power roiling through her. It was the essence of change. She had to make this power her own. Flesh to stone might have fit Vasilscu, but stone ill-suited her; she was a creature of the wind.

Jovansya opened her eyes. Renyar was returning, blade further wetted.

Hrowan’s diamond body had cut into her back, and Jovansya focused on the gem pressing against her. Wind from stone. Gale from jewel. Hrowan, break free!

Renyar was only steps away now.

Like a breath exhaled, Hrowan vanished, the light that had shone from him extinguished. Only the far-off light from Solveja’s swan remained as a gale began to blow. Without Hrowan to support her, Jovansya toppled to the ground. Storm-flung sand stung her eyes, but she hoped it blinded Renyar as well.

Next, she concentrated on the malachite tooth and transmuted it, hoping to break his hold on her. The change turned it from stone to a foul breath that she hacked out. Her entire body free to move again as she purged it.

Renyar fought the wind, slowly advancing on her.

Jovansya returned her fan to a feather-cloak and struggled against the wind to put it on.

“What did you do to Hrowan?” shouted Renyar. “Tell me!”

“I have released him,” Jovansya called over the howling gale. “I am windling and cockatrice both now. I am the essence of change.” She tightened her cloak and become once more a swan. Spreading her wings, she let the wind lift her high over Renyar. There was another she still had to free: Solveja. She swooped down toward the remaining light cast by Solveja’s crystal, her wing-feathers grazing the quartz swan on a down-stroke, transforming it into a song on the wind; in so doing, the last light within the hollow mountain was extinguished.

“No matter how long it takes, swan-girl,” shouted Renyar, “I will find you and pry that last tooth from your head before I feed your blood to the sea wind!”

But Jovansya heard the Fox-King no more, his cries drowned by nightingale-song and the roaring wind.

The breath of the sea carried her aloft. Higher and higher they bore her, until the winds ushered her out a secret tunnel and into the blinding sky. Sunlight shone through her crystal body and broke into a rainbow gleam as she wheeled and slowed. She came to rest awhile on a snow-capped peak, listening to her godmother's nightingale song. And wept.

At last, Jovansya understood truly the blessing and curse both of power. Vasilscu’s burden—safeguarding Hrowan’s sacrifice—was hers now. Renyar and his dustbrood would never rest until they caught her and spilled her blood. Though she couldn’t fault the Fox-King for trying; they were each of them rulers doing what was necessary for their people.

“Prince Hrowan,” she called to the sea wind, “return to the stormfolk isles where you belong. Whisper to Sirine your regrets and your love.”

Then she turned to the nightingale wind. “Solveja, beloved godmother! I cannot free you from this fate. I will make restitution to your daughters. But I beg you: Always stay near, for when I die it must be you my blood returns to life.”

When she spread her wings to soar again, the salt-breeze howled and bore her east, while the song of birds lingered a whisper away.

 

© 2017 by Tony Pi

8250 Words


Tony Pi, a Canadian citizen originally from Taiwan, has a Ph.D. in Linguistics, specializing in semantics and dialects of Canadian English. His fantasy and science fiction stories have appeared widely and been nominated for various awards, and he is a past winner of an Aurora Award for Best English Poem/Song. He currently lives with his partner in Toronto, Canada. Visit his website at www.tonypi.com.