"Madness, that's what it is," Kortland the butcher growled. "The winds at this time of year? It's like nothing we've ever seen in Solaceton Vale. Not in all my years."
Miika the shepherd nodded. "It's got my flocks all worked up. They're so skittish, they hardly even want to go out into the pasture."
"Hey, but at least it's warm in here!" Petrusha shouted, wiping down the bar and tapping another brew for the latest round of arrivals.
Kostya laughed as he downed his sixth tankard. "Oh, you're just saying that to keep us all in here and spend more coin, you are!"
"Like you need any help with that!" Petrusha called back. "I swear, some nights I think you're going to leave your wife altogether and just come marry the tavern! Anyway, there's no sense in leaving now, the ghost of the Black Swan and his exile army will get you! Everyone knows he's prowling the skies on nights like this!"
"I heard," Kortland rumbled, lowering his voice, "that he flies on the back of a horse as dark as midnight, with the wings of a crow!"
"That's stupid!" Ivan replied. "Everyone knows it's a white stag with golden antlers! And the cries of his hounds can be heard in the mountains on the nights when there's no moon! I know, I've heard them with my own ears!"
"You're all wrong," the mysterious traveler in the back corner said suddenly. Vanya threw his cloak back and unbuckled his belt, allowing the leather strip to clatter to the tavern floor, the knives strapped to its length making an unearthly racket. "On many a point." He stood up, and walked over to the bar. "First. The Black Swan didn't lead an army of exiles, it was prisoners and slaves. Really, it was only five years ago and only two kingdoms away, surely you remember. Second. The Black Swan never rode an animal, stag or horse or anything else. Third. You said the Black Swan's ghost would get us. Well, that'd be a feat, seeing as the Black Swan is still alive.
"And finally, the Black Swan isn't a he at all. She's a woman."
Ivan leaned in. "And how do you know all this?"
Vanya smiled. "Well, there was a time when I flew with the Black Swan. Her right wing, if you will."
"You're lying!" Kostya gasped, but his very tone betrayed his interest. Even if Vanya was lying, it would make for an interesting tale.
"No, I swear it's true!" Vanya replied. He sat down at the bar. "Buy me a drink and I'll tell you about the Black Swan…"
He remembered the night like it was yesterday. He sat cooling his heels in a tower cell, awaiting his sentence for killing one of King Tharlund's deer. As far as Vanya was concerned, the forests of Frostgard were for everyone to share, and all it's bounty open to whoever needed it. King Tharlund wasn't using that deer, so why shouldn't Vanya?
Of course, the soldiers who arrested him weren't half so logical.
Tomorrow, he would learn what his fate had in store. He was faced with two choices, more or less. Either he was in for a short fall from a taunt rope, or he would have an iron collar fitted around his neck, sent to work in the silver mines until he died of sickness, exhaustion, or nature's fury. Vanya had a hard time deciding which was worse, a quick, horribly painful death, or a slow, agonizing one. He leaned his head against the wall of his cold, dark cell, and tried to sleep until the gaoler came for him in the morning.
A sudden commotion roused him, a muted boom from the corridor outside and the shouts of imprisoned men and women from all around. Vanya fell into the mob mentality, and began pounding on the heavy oak door. "Get back," someone on the other side hissed.
Vanya complied, and the door was suddenly blown from his hinges. A figure in a long hooded cloak stood outside, hands black with powder. The figure shoved several small barrels into Vanya's arms, an unlit candle and a piece of flint. "You take this floor," the voice, definitely feminine, hissed. "Disrupters of the king's peace, my arse. Get the people outside as soon as they're free. Meet me by the stairs in ten minutes. I'm off to free those who couldn't keep up with the taxes."
"Wh-Who are you?"
The woman turned away, her cloak billowing. "You can call me… the Black Swan."
Vanya hastily followed her orders, liberating all fifteen people in his cellblock with the black powder capsules. The liberated people piled out of the prison tower, and from the sound of it, the Black Swan had freed prisoners on other floors as well. He waited for her at the stairs like she had told him. When she barreled down, the first thing she asked was, "Are the people out?"
Vanya glanced down the staircase. "They're safe. But the guards are coming…"
"Forget the guards, come on." She dragged him up the spiraling staircase, up to the very top of the tower. Vanya teetered on the edge. "Uh… Miss Swan, forgive me if I don't see how this changes anything. Dying here or dying in the morning, it makes no difference to me."
The Black Swan dragged out a strange contraption from the shadows, built from lashed together wooden posts and a canvas sail. It rolled on lightweight cart wheels. "Honestly, foolish man, do you think the Black Swan wouldn't have any wings? Now hold on tight to me." Vanya complied, and she strapped herself into a crude harness. Then, with a slight running start, they launched off the edge and sailed into the sky.
As they drifted out into the night air, the angry shouts of the prison guards echoing after them, Vanya gasped. "We're flying! Miss, we're really flying!" He saw the troop of escaped prisoners racing through the forest below; their awed pale faces staring up at them.
The woman seemed to smile under her hood. "Well, of course we are. That's what swans do, you silly man."
Several months later, in the height of what passed for summer in the Northlands, Vanya was shooting arrows into a line of seven targets. His breath steamed in the air as he slowly concentrated, focused, and released. Irina was hacking a scarecrow to pieces, her Black Swan persona discarded for the time being. Her bare arms were covered in goose bumps from the cold, but there was a slight sheen of sweat on her flesh.
Her guerilla army was camped a quarter mile away. Even from this distance, the scent of wood smoke and the slight hum of a thousand voices permeated the air. They worked in silence for a time, until finally Vanya ran out of arrows in his four quivers. He sighed.
"Why do you do it Irina? Aren't you afraid of getting caught?"
Irina sliced her straw man in two and leaned on the pommel of her sword. "Everyone knows King Tharlund is barking mad. The people were suffering. I couldn't live with myself if I didn't do anything."
"But if they capture you, they'll kill you!" Vanya shook his head. "And they'd be within their rights to do so. What you've been doing is treason. What I've been doing is treason."
Irina strode over to the next practice mannequin, and began to hack it apart. "I'm going to break the laws of the realm because they deserve breaking. Mad King Tharlund can't touch me out here in the woods, where the only laws I have to worry about are my own."
"Maybe it's not Tharlund we have to worry about," Vanya murmured. "What about the gods?"
"The old ones or the new one?" Irina snapped back. Before Vanya had the chance to respond, she cut him off with a curt wave of her hand. "Doesn't matter, I don't believe in any of them."
"Then what do you believe in? Irina, do you even have a religion?"
"Of course I do, don't be stupid." The head of the dummy thudded to the ground. "My religion is spirituality. I believe that there's a foundation and a roof and four walls around these little lives of ours. I believe in a reason. I believe in a force for overwhelming good that all those other religions touch." She stabbed the decapitated scarecrow through the midriff, spilling straw on the packed dirt of the clearing. "It just seems we've all lost sight of that good. Someone needed to bring it back. That someone is me."
People admired the Black Swan because of her military prowess, her courage, her skill with a blade. But Vanya? Vanya loved her because she had the sharpest mind in the northern reaches.
More time had passed, two years or more. He remembered the bitter cold of the mountaintop that frigid evening.
"You don't have to do this," Vanya murmured as he held Irina's hand in his. "The army is marching. Please, don't. You'll die if you go there."
Irina sadly shook her head. "I'm sorry, Vanya. The Black Swan has to spread her wings. The people need her. But yes… This may be goodbye." She pulled Vanya close for a brief, tight embrace. But when Vanya tried to kiss her, she pushed him away. "No. No time for that. I have to fly."
"Irina, please, don't…"
"Goodbye Vanya. And thank you. For all your help." She strapped herself into her glider. "Now, remember all I taught you. If things go well, the army won't be necessary after tonight. Make sure they disband peacefully. I'll leave orders, somehow. And always remember…"
"Treason is sometimes just another word for truth."
"Exactly. Farewell, my friend!" She raced off the rocky precipice, her glider sailing up into the air as it was caught by a wind current. The mottled gray and black cloth of its wings merged with the low hanging clouds, and the Black Swan vanished from sight.
The next morning, King Tharlund's corpse hung outside his castle gates, and the land of Frosthold was free. On the walls of his throne room, words were written in the king's blood.
Establish a council of the people. Let no single man rule and corrupt. United, the people will prosper. –Black Swan
Irina's sword was embedded in the stone floor at the base of the message. Her glider was nowhere to be found. As the people of Frosthold gathered together and formed the council. In short order, a monument was erected to their hero, the Black Swan, who died to save their freedom.
But Vanya knew differently. The Black Swan wasn't dead. So he left the castle, never to return. Not until he found her. Because this wasn't the end. No, the legend of the Black Swan had only just begun.
The traveler placed his empty mug down on the bar. "Believe me or not, every single word's the truth. Now, it's late and I really must be going." He shrugged on his cloak and cinched his knife-belt around his waist. "I thank you for your hospitality. Good night."
As the other patrons staggered out into the cold night air, Vanya glanced up at the nearly full moon hovering just over the trees. Somewhere, a black glider was sailing in front of that same moon, liberating the people of the entire known world from a cold, heartless tyrant. Vanya smiled, and tossed his hair back from his face.
"You always did play by your own rules, didn't you, Irina?" He scoffed. "I don't think even the underworld could have held you. No, I'm sure of it. You're out there somewhere, aren't you?"
As he wandered down the empty forest path, he murmured the mantra the Black Swan had taught him. "Sometimes, the rebels do win. Sometimes tyranny does fall. Sometimes ideals shake an empire.
"And sometimes traitor is just another word for truth."
A/N: This is my entry for the April Writing Contest Challenge, sponsored by the Review Game forum. The prompt this month was: "I break your laws. Note that: your laws, not mine. But if I am bound by laws, they are of my own making, and I believe that is my right - to choose which authority to submit to and in what way." fromVictor Pelevin, 'A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia'. If you enjoyed this piece, make sure to go and vote for it between April 8-14.