Down to Feathers
Sequel to Ashes to Ashes and Dust to Dust.
A/N: Please see my author page for an ongoing poll at the top on lesbian fiction.
Also, see if you can spot the homage to the Indian lesbian film, Fire (1996).
All I can recall of the first transformation was a white cloud bursting from the tip of his outstretched finger and stretching over me. Everything was white and pink, and I remember streaks of gold flashing around, over, and through me.
When my vision stopped sparking and blurring, I was looking up at the sorcerer who had introduced himself moments before as Count Vandermeer.
"So," he said, lips curled into a triumphant smirk. "You thought to betray the boy and leave him penniless once you had found a good place to be, eh?"
The boy. I turned to find Roland, the second son of my noble neighbor Timotheus, unconscious—possibly dead—on the ground behind me.
"What have you done?" I said. Meant to say, tried to say. Instead it came out as a barely-musical honk.
And it was then that I realized what Vandermeer had done. My head, instead of being beautiful and round, with a heart-shaped face, was elongated and supported by a thin, strong neck that was covered in feathers. Feathers!
My arms were now turned and twisted backward, and my fingers no longer bent or moved much. My feet I could not bear to think about, and my face—ah, my face!—was no longer my own, or even human at all. I was a bird of some kind.
"Come," said the Count. "We fly." Beckoning once with the same finger that had changed me, he turned and at once changed shape into a massive white eagle.
Some compulsion beyond me ran though my form and lifted my body off the ground, skimming me through the air behind him as he took flight. The easy, magical hand under me vanished as soon as I took a tentative beat with my wings. I was then forced to flap for my life with arms that were unused to working, and fly so that I would not fall.
We flew far that day, stopping nowhere for a rest. His magic took us fast and far, over lakes and rivers--even mountains that I did not recognize—in a mere half-day.
It was as we were skimming over the first lake that the truth hit me like a mad bull.
The reflection in the water below me was huge and white, powerful and graceful, though the terror in my eyes was visible, even to me.
I was a swan.
Our final resting place was the grounds of a large manor estate.
It might have been a spell, or it might have been exhaustion, but it forced me down just the same, toward the pond in the back garden. I landed in a spray of orange crystal, nearly tumbling tail over head in the cool, clear water. The setting sun glowed through the trees, sending a bulging orange stream rippling over the pond's surface. I barely had time to paddle to the edge of the lawn before that same change crawled through my bones and my blood, and I stretched upwards on the pond's shore. My traveling clothes from before I was a swan draped over me, and I was a woman once again.
Vandermeer glowed with pride as I glowered at him. "It is such a pretty system, don't you think?" he gestured at the sun, which was rapidly vanishing behind the hills in front of the manor house.
I stared at him, confused.
"When the first light of dawn on the morning of the last day of the waning moon strikes you, you shall be a swan." I stared at him, uncomprehending. He continued as if he were blind. "When the last rays of the setting sun ruffle your feathers, you will change back into a woman. On the day of the dark of the moon, you shall be a swan for the day and the night. And on the first night of the waxing moon, you shall be a swan until the dawn."
No—how could this be? A swan, of all creatures? A silly, graceful swan? To be a swan was worse than being a Lady. At least if I were back at my father's mansion in the country, men would not be able to shoot, roast and eat me!
"Since this is the beginning of the month of March, and tonight is the full moon, you shall be a swan again in two weeks time." Vandermeer practically sang the words, and I hated him for it. He practically lit up the lawn by himself.
Then he clapped his hands and sang some more. "Ladies! Ladies, you have a new girl!"
I turned around, and across the pond they came. More swans, glowing white against the rapidly darkening water. They clambered onto the shore, looking at me with meaningful eyes.
Why were they all birds if the dark of the moon was two weeks hence?
One swan had a tiny silver crown on a necklace. It rested on her snowy, feathered breast, and unlike the others, she paraded imperiously up the shore, bypassing me completely as she waddled to stand in front of the sorcerer.
The swan glared up at him with beady black eyes, and the other swans made a hasty, shuffling exit to the other side of the garden, as far as they could get from Vandermeer and his challenger.
Vandermeer made a flippant gesture with his fingers, and after the swirl of mist had departed, a woman stood before him, scowling viciously. Rage was written in every muscle as she stood locked before him, unable to move through her wrath.
Her mouth suddenly unlocked, and the sweet night air was filled with screeching and wailing.
"Another one! Another trophy to add to your collection, and you bring no prince back for me! You bring back no prince that can break my spell!" She launched into a tirade, haranguing him about everything, from his appearance to how long she'd been there.
"And her!" she gestured at me haughtily. "You bring more and more maidens, but you never fulfill your promise to give me the chance to redeem myself. Me! A Princess!"
Recognition rippled through me. I'd only seen portraits drawn by head-over-heels-in-love painters, but this had to be the Princess Odette, the one who'd been missing for three years. She'd vanished from her bed in the night, and there had been heralds sent out to all corners of the Kingdom Trantalis, armed with pictures and a thousand-franc reward if anyone had news.
I could have used that golden incentive, had I known that she was here. Wherever "here" was.
But now it was too late. I crept away from the screaming Princess, off to where the other swans had gone.
They too were now maidens, though not huddled and miserable like I, or angry and loud like Odette. Instead they sat and lounged freely in a clearing some distance around the pond, clearly at ease with their situation.
"Sorry to bother you," I said when they looked up at my approach.
The oldest among them shook her head.
"It's no trouble," she said, looking me up in down. "Where did he find you?"
"Scotsburg, on the northern border."
Another nodded. "I'm from Hamsville."
Hamsville was not thirty miles from Scotsburg. "Why had I not heard of you?" I asked. Surely someone would have come asking about a missing woman.
"I dishonored my family," she said. "So they probably would not want to search for me. My brother intended to marry me off in exchange for a gift that my husband's family would have given him, so I left on the eve before the wedding. I did not get more than a mile from the village when Vandermeer stopped me and bespelled me."
A betrayal of men? But mine was so much worse than that.
"What made him chose you?"
Her shoulders lifted and fell in a gentle shrug. "What else? We've each betrayed a man in some way."
There were murmurs of assent from around the clearing. Maidens were perched on fallen logs, and on low tree branches—even on the ground.
"Why were you swans when I came here?"
"He likes to turn us all back into swans whenever he brings someone new," a girl said. "He says it heightens the atmosphere when we all turn back into maidens." Without waiting for me to ask another question, she posed one of her own. "What did you do?"
I told them the truth. Told them of how I told Roland I had to leave my father's land, how I had bribed him and seduced him with flirtations and winks, of empty promises that we would marry as soon as we were far enough away. And how I planned to keep none of those oaths and abandon him as soon as we happened upon a port city or town that could send me far away. While I was at it, I planned to steal whatever gold and provisions he brought, leaving him nothing. He was a man, and men could fend for themselves.
Their stories were much the same, when they came out. They all did something to betray a man in some way, whether by word or deed. Two had betrayed their husbands with each other. They were from the southeastern country of Kashmir, and had been stuck in loveless marriages to a pair of brothers. They had only just started to become lovers—lovers!—when Vandermeer had appeared in the bedroom they'd been in and changed them to swans.
Another woman had been like me, trying to get away from her father's land to something better, freer, when Vandermeer had taken her.
We had all "betrayed" men in some way shape or form.
Time passed in Vandermeer's enchanted garden, and I suppose it must have been years before there was a change.
Before I tell you that, I must tell you this: he never touched any of us; never took us to his bed. None of us, not even those women who had been married when they had been taken.
One day Vandermeer vanished for many months, leaving only his servants to take care of us. All of our needs were met; food, water, bathing supplies, and monthly issues were all the concern of by servants made from enchanted air.
The one thing they could not supply was company, so we had only ourselves to entertain. Except Odette. She was a constant source of amusement, always scheming to escape, or attack the servants. They would always gently restrain her in solid air and bring her back.
We could not fly, no matter how we tried, while we were swans. Vandermeer had always stopped us with his magic, and whatever charm he had on the sky held firm while he was gone.
We waited for him to return, waited for anything to break the horrible monotony.
And then on a chilly night one November, someone did.
A strange woman, garbed in white silks and light furs, appeared at the edge of our enchanted garden with a loud crack.
"You may leave," she said, gesturing at the sky above us. "Vandermeer is dead, and you are free to leave this place, for it is now mine."
Leave? I'm not sure any of us wanted to. It was safe here, and who knew how the world had changed in the time we had been trapped here?
I had changed drastically in my years in the garden. I was beautiful as a swan, though not beautiful as a woman. I had sought to change my appearance, to be as different as a woman from how I had been when I had been Lord Astely's daughter. I cut my hair short. I insisted that the air servants bring me pants to wear, and I stopped wearing cosmetics. I wanted to be as handsome as a human as I was beautiful as a swan.
"Are we still cursed?" I asked. Her attention riveted on me, and seemed to see through me. Her eyes were red like garnets, and something flickered there. "Yes."
"But you said we were free!" Odette cried, stamping her foot. "Free!"
"I cannot remove the curse," the woman said. "He has chained it to something deep in your soul. I do not know what."
"Hmph," Odette said. "I will find the greatest magician in the world to change me back to a Princess."
"You are no longer a Princess," another woman said. No, a girl dressed in black. She stepped from behind a tree, standing opposite the woman in white. "Your Kingdom passed into a collateral line some twenty years ago."
Odette opened her mouth to screech and the white woman gestured. A silver wire appeared, winding its way through Odette's lips and sealing her mouth shut.
"Do not yell," the sorceress said. "I cannot stand you already. As a matter of fact, you all may leave."
Well! It was all too sudden, but our freedom now stood before us. But what to do with it?
I saw some of the girls drifting towards the edges of the garden, perhaps only to test the invisible boundaries that had once held us here, but perhaps to leave entirely. "Wait!" I called. "Where are you going?"
An older swan, Aneille, turned. "Anywhere but here," she said. "Anywhere but this horrible garden."
She pushed through a screen of bushes. In the silence, we could hear high grass rustling as she pushed through. A wail of pure joy came from beyond where the walls of our prison had been, and then silence.
I never saw her again after that. Most of the girls stayed only a few days, then left to find their fortunes in the world beyond; to find family and friends, if any still lived. The girl dressed in black removed the wire from Odette's mouth, and the former Princess vanished. I never saw her again, either, but she didn't make me wonder like the other girls did.
Over the next few months, as the air servants dwindled to nothing, I was forced to find food for myself, and soon the other remaining girls, as it became apparent that through the years of living here those that had been used to scrounging for food had lost their skills, and those that had been ladies had never had them at all. I was very good at climbing the trees to pick out-of-season apples.
The spells keeping the manor in a perpetual state of mild weather also kept the trees and bushes perpetually in fruit, so we never went hungry for fruit. Meat was a problem, both to find and also because I could not bear to kill an animal since we were, two nights and days out of the month, also animals. Who knew whether any animal crossing the estate had once been a man, or a woman, and was now perpetually confined to the never-ageing, unvoiced body of a badger or squirrel?
The sorceress dressed in white ignored us for the most part, and from watching her and watching the girl when they would perform spells on the grounds, I learned to work a little magick. And the few times that someone had an injury, be it one of us or either of them, they would perform Healing magick. The girl in black noticed my interest and found in me a latent talent for magick. It would never be anything impressive, but it would be enough.
Funnily enough, she discovered that my transformation into a swan fed off of my magickal energy, keeping it low enough so that I couldn't do anything with it. A quick examination of the other girls showed the same thing, revealing that betraying men wasn't the only thing we had in common. I was the different one, though. I was the only one who wanted to learn how to use the Gift.
But I digress. The spells that the girl in black—I learned that her name was Harriet and that she was the daughter of the white sorceress—taught me left me drained and wanting for energy, but I reveled in my new power.
I stayed long enough to add to my knowledge the talent to change appearances, and the magicks that midwifes would kill for; that of womanly magicks that I didn't need herbs for.
And then I left.
I flew away on the first night I became a swan. I bid goodbye to the black sorceress and her white mother, and the other girls who stayed, now watched over by Harriet, turned my feathers to black onyx, and struck out on my own.
I soon learned that the world outside was a much darker place than I had pictured it when I had first become a swan…