In a very few minutes all the huntsmen stood before the cave, and the handsomest of them was the king of the country. He advanced towards her, for he had never seen a more beautiful maiden.
“How did you come here, my sweet child?” he asked. But Eliza shook her head. She dared not speak, at the cost of her brothers’ lives. And she hid her hands under her apron, so that the king might not see how she must be suffering.
“Come with me,” he said; “here you cannot remain.”
— “Wild Swans” by Hans Christian Anderson
Over the hundreds of years Elisa lived, many came to consult with the Queen of Swans. Rarely did the queen seek out the counsel of others.
Long ago, the elves had once convinced her to pay a visit to their capital city. The young elves had impressed upon Elisa the importance of doing so. The elf king and queen of the garden were historically allied. However, more than hundreds of years had passed without communication between the former guardian of the garden and the king of the Golden City.
Her brothers immediately suspected mischief and urged her to consider waiting. They were still newly returned to the garden and had much on their minds. But the unicorn foundling had pressed his queen to consider the offer. The small creature spoke highly of the King Arin’s wisdom and kindness. Long before the elf became King, he himself had tended and taught unicorns on his own.
The pure hearted creature’s deep affections for the King and the elves’ whispers that Arin was a man of magic intrigued her. The lady of the garden wore down her brothers’ suspicions and accepted the guides’ offer to lead them to the Golden City.
It would take weeks to meander westwards, often proceeding through strange lands in order to avoid certain regions filled with more troublesome elves or creatures who disliked strangers.
They arrived at the capital city at night. To their surprise, a large crowd waited at the gates to greet them, waving brightly colored flags emblazoned with the crests of swans. Not only elves but the fairy folk that followed them everywhere appeared. Sprites and fairies danced or floated over the cobblestones intending to spy upon the two-legged visitors as they made their way towards the inner parts of the city.
Elisa was delighted by the attentions of these dainty creatures. Her brothers, however, appeared slightly unsettled by the frenzied response to their presence. Given how these siblings had suffered for many years at the hands of others, they could not help worry about some hidden agenda or hidden enemy lurking within the crowds.
And yet the siblings bore each of the elven ceremonies and introductions patiently. It would take several days of enduring long speeches and histories before they were finally presented to the elven king and his inner court.
In spite of their initial fears, the Swans liked the king immediately. His appearance was very much of a wise king. He was an older elf with a keen eye, a strong voice, and a magnificent white beard of curls. As the young unicorn had promised, King Arin was filled with wise and thoughtful statements informed by hundreds of years of adventuring and study.
Arin knew they were not there simply as a matter of protocol. He offered them assurances that he wished to help them. And, to their credit, it did not take long before the princes and their sister admitted that their real hope in coming here had been to seek out answers regarding a curse.
The old king was truly disappointed he could not directly provide them help. But he offered them a boon — he confirmed that a wiseman still lived in the city’s inner sanctuary who was famous for his deep insight into matters of the world. He would aide them in securing time with the legendary figure.
Several days passed before the arrangements were made and they were able to seek the place where the mages and mystics of the kingdom secluded themselves. It was the king’s guard that escorted them to the courtyard that led deep into the winding lair of the wisemen. There, they had to leave them — taking their weapons and all manner of other items with them. Before the guard disappeared, they also warned the siblings. This place was where many believed the true power of the elves lay and those who dwelled in the sanctuary were fiercely devoted to the preservation and acquisition of knowledge. The wisemen and their handlers did not take lightly any threat of fire or death and would expunge any troublemakers on the spot.
For half an hour, the siblings were left without chaperone or attendant in the courtyard. They were ignored while various personages in cowl and robe drifted past them without speaking a word.
Finally, a servant appeared to them and waved at them to follow.
The group proceeded through the maze of stone walls and brightly colored curtains, traveling up a stony pathway until they found themselves high above the town. As the morning sun began to peek out beyond the high walls of the city a figure appeared to be climbing down the steps that wrapped around a tall tower.
Before he disappeared back down the long pathway, the servant whispered instructions to wait for the man.
The man was old and not in a particular hurry. He took at least an hour to traverse those stairs. But in spite of all the effort he had exerted to come down from the tower, he appeared to be unwinded and cheerful.
The siblings bowed deep and politely. “Taliesin Ben Beirdd.”
The old man chuckled at the greeting. “I have not heard that name for many years. You hail from the East, I see. Tell me, why does the elven king send you to me?”
It was Elisa’s eldest brother, Rhys who spoke. “The shapeshifting curse that afflicts us — we thought it undone but it appears to have only partly revoked.”
The old man’s eyes searched them. He looked over each of them carefully before he continued to speak to them. “Yes, the black strand is very short and very weak, I can see. But it is managed, is it not? I see that you are able to hold your human shape even though the sun has come out. You could live almost normal lives–“
Elisa cringed. “Please, sir. The fairy at the lake had stated all would be restored if I followed her instructions. As you can see, it has not been. Perhaps she was mistaken.”
The old man raised a brow. “She was not the type to make mistakes. Perhaps it is your recollection of her commands that is flawed.”
She did not take insult at such a statement. Instead, Elisa pressed forward. “If so, then help us, please. My brothers have been denied a normal life and their birthrights as princes. They have been wronged.”
“Have you?” The old man frowned at her. “Many of your type come to me asking for my intervention.” His words were tinged with a bit of irritation. “Tell me have you truly been wronged? Let me see your hand princess; let me see your truth.”
She did not hesitate to hold out her hand — one still calloused and scarred by years of hard work and labor.
The old man ran his fingers over her palm and began to read the memories etched upon her skin’s surface.
* * *
Elisa was very young when her father had taken a new wife — a woman who had exuded beauty and virtue. The people of the kingdom were pleased for their king. They thought the fair-haired woman to be a picture of earthly saintliness, much like the queen before her. Neither king nor his people had any idea of the malice beneath that perfect veneer.
The ‘saint’ burned with hatred for her stepchildren who continually reminded all of her predecessor. She could not rest secure around the king until they were gone from her sight. And so the queen conspired to be rid of them.
First, the crying baby Elisa was sent away with a nurse. The new queen’s court physician had advised that the sickly princess would do better in the unsoiled air of the forest. The brothers would take far longer to deal with for they were both polite and kind to their new mother. But the queen was clever in how she maligned the princes, often using the courtiers’ complaints to her to illustrate how the young princes were noisy and unruly. Nor she would fail to praise the other lords’ children for their hard work. In time, the king could not help but see his sons as useless. He cast them out to seek out their own fortune, in hopes that they would someday be more fit to rule.
But the wicked queen did not desire such a possibility. She cursed them to fly away and never return. Her words were strong magic and the brothers woke to find themselves changed. Soon stories began to be told of six swans flying away from the castle with crowns upon their heads.
Elisa did not know her brothers’ fate. Years would pass until Elisa was summoned back to court to be presented to the king. Only then did Elisa hear the rumors of her brothers’ banishment from the kingdom from their former nurse. The princess grieved, for none of the other servants or lords who served her father would otherwise speak of them to her.
The princess also did not know of her stepmother’s role in their disappearance. She did not suspect that the woman hated her upon sight. Elisa had grown up lovely and noble while her stepmother’s heart had grown blacker with pride and insecurity. The queen feared losing her position as the king’s favorite and so plotted to be rid of the young girl.
But spell after spell the queen had cast would fail. Frustrated, the queen could only connive to tamper with Elisa’s appearance, bribing one of the maids to insert something into the princess’ bath and toilette. And so a wild-looking Elisa appeared before the court and the king. Mortified by what he saw of the girl, the king declared Elisa an imposter and banished her from sight.
Stripped of home and protection, Elisa wandered the countryside while lamenting the fate that had befallen her and her brothers. One cold winter morning, she could walk no more. She lay in the snow banks near a lake, crying.
A wrinkled old woman discovered her and asked the girl what might ail her. When Elisa sopke of her misfortune, the woman urged the girl to stop crying. The princes were not dead and gone. Six birds had been spotted roosting in a far off lake.
Elisa’s spirits recovered and she searched out the lake, nestled somewhere in the distant mountains. She did not know at times where to go but whenever she thought to give up, she thought she heard the trumpet of swans in the distance. Soon she stumbled into a warm, verdant valley and slept for a long time. When she woke, she found herself with six swans sleeping beside her.
The swans had been startled by the sudden appearance of a young woman who strongly resembled their mother. But they had heard stories, too, of a banished princess wandering the woods and realized that this girl was their sister, Elisa.
The brothers and sister shed tears of joy at being reunited and spent many hours talking of their adventures.
They assured their sister that they were indeed safe here. And so Elisa did not complain as they began a life upon the silvery lake.
It was upon this lake that Elisa could see that the curse laid upon her brothers was peculiar. They were birds by day but at night the curse seemed to weaken. As long as her brothers found water, they could shed their feathers and change back into the shape of men.
Over the next few months, they would come and go from this mysterious place. What they did while they were away she did not know. However, they told her that the outside world was not safe for her yet — and begged her not to venture beyond the garden.
They said nothing about wandering within the garden itself. As time passed, Elisa would find herself left alone for months at a time while the brothers pursued some adventure outside. It was in one such period of time that a fairy appeared to Elisa. At first, the fairy appeared as a small bird upon a flower but when Elisa drew near to offer it seeds, the bird hopped to the earth and grew into a lady.
This lady had a demeanor similar to the old woman in the forest. As such, Elisa believed the woman to be good and kind. They would talk often while Elisa’s brothers were away and Elisa came to see the great power of the woman. In time, she would ask this fairy whether she had the power to permanently undo her brothers’ curse.
The woman smiled and offered her hope, telling her to weave shirts from nettles that could be cast upon her brothers’ bird forms. However, Elisa would have to pay a cost — not speaking until the task was completed. She could not tell anyone what she labored for as well — for it would not do for others to know of her brothers’ weakness.
Elisa found herself troubled by the task. The nettles she needed did not grow in this place. In order to gather them, she had to disobey her brothers and leave the garden.
It was on one of her trips outside the garden that she was discovered by a party of men.
The princess made for a pitiable sight, sitting in cave while weaving the shirts. The men were hunters accompanying a king. They summoned him to the cave in order to determine what to do about this unfortunate maiden. Elisa could not speak and so had no ability to argue. Nor with so many hunters did she have the power to run away.
They insisted on escorting her out of the woods. She thought to slip away when the men weren’t looking but she could not do so. It would have been futile, for the king was already infatuated with the mute girl and kept his eyes trained upon her. He was curious about her and even more curious about how she might look if she was properly attired.
Had she not been a beautiful woman, he might have eventually forgotten her after they returned to his castle. However, he found himself determined to have her. He lavished her with kindness and provided the supplies she needed to weave her shirts. Soon she was wed to him. Elisa bore even this, for he promised he would not interfere with her weaving. And he was true to his word. So long as her bed was his at night, he ignored her daytime activities.
But the love this young king felt for her was shallow. At first he had thought her constant attention to weaving a charming sort of quirk on her part. He had been happy she was so industrious and hardworking. But now, the courtiers grumbled of how she neglected her duties. Neither Elisa or her king knew that these words had originated with the king’s mother.
Elisa continued to work on the shirts, even when she became heavy with child. She bore a son but was told that the seemingly healthy child died in the night. She grieved the lost child, wondering if this was a part of her curse as well, not knowing that the queen had conspired with the midwife to do far worse. The baby was taken away and replaced with an animal, pronounced a halfling, and slain as an abomination. While Elisa lay recovering from childbirth, the charges against her were mounting.
She had presented herself to her king a few days after the birth. Exhausted from labor, she was not quick to understand the looks of disdain and fear on those around her. It was not until the moment that the bailiff had forced her to kneel on the floor of the assembly room her that she fully understand she was being accused of a crime.
Her king, her husband, averted his eyes as he read the accusation against her. Elisa was declared to be a witch who had conspired to put a changeling on the throne.
Most of the court would not look at her, unwilling to be cursed by a witch’s gaze. Only the queen watched her, her eyes gleaming with resentment as the kingdom’s ministers pronounced her sentence and ordered her to be burned at the stake. Elisa knew then that Queen had betrayed her.
The young princess ‘ situation became increasingly desperate. She was cast into the dungeons while the town was prepared to carry out her sentence. She grieved most for her brothers who she had failed.
But not all in the kingdom were hard-hearted. A maidservant took pity upon Elisa, thinking that the shirts would comfort the doomed princess in her final hours.
Elisa worked in the darkness, pouring her every complaint into the shirts she wove. She had no visitors save that loyal servant — not even one from the husband who had sworn to love her. She did not know then that his heart had hardened against her. He did not visit her in the dungeon even in those final hours before she was to be burned at the stake.
The crowd mocked the princess who wove shirts as she was marched into the town square where murderers were often hung. But she did not listen to their taunts and jeering. Instead she worked feverishly to finish sewing the last sleeve of the last shirt. She would not even look at the torches hovering dangerously close to the pyre upon which she stood.
In her last moments, she was so intent on her task that she did not see the birds hovering in the sky. Only when the birds dived low and flew around the courtyard did she glimpse the familiar white forms of her cursed brothers.
Their wings beat the air, extinguishing the flames with a powerful wind. As the beautiful swans descended on the platform on which she was tied and stood at her feet, Elisa threw shirts over her brothers one by one. When the shirts touched the princes’ shoulders, the swan-skins began to disappear.
Her brothers stood on two legs, defiant and proud. Only the youngest had a swan’s wing instead of his left arm. They rushed to her aid, untied her feet from the stake, and then supported her as she tried to stand.
The brothers embraced their sister, some shedding tears at her half-dead state.
The crowd who was at first stunned into silence began to rumble in confusion. They whispered of legends of holy beasts. Of those beasts, the swans were never to be harmed because of their relationship to the divine. Even the guards knew of these legends and, in their fear of punishment, they did not rush towards the platform.
Rhys, the eldest of her brothers, spoke with a voice that pierced the winter air. He looked first at the king, half-standing from the seat from which he had watched the execution. “By what perversity of law would a husband slay a wife who cannot speak against the crimes against which she is accused. You let him mistreat her because she was foreign to you and you did not understand her. But he knew all these things when he snatched her from our woods. And he discards her like trash because of some false claims against her.” His voice rose in pitch, fueled by his rage. “Her acts until now have been to release us from a true witch’s curse. You would commit evil against such an innocent? Your rulers have led you astray!”
These words alone should not have swayed their hearts but perhaps they, too, doubted their rulers. Many looked towards the place where their king and his mother sat, waiting for a response. The court, however, was in chaos.
“Elisa,” her eldest brother spoke to her amid the din. “I do not think we can wait. That king makes his way towards this platform. Tell me, must I greet him? Do you love him still? “
She glanced at her king, her husband. He moved towards the platform, his face looking relieved. She could hear him call out to her, his love for her apparently revived.
She buried her head in her brother’s shoulder, not knowing how she was supposed to feel. The king had plucked her from the woods, promising safety. He wed her, promising devotion. And yet, her heart warned her, he had prepared to watch her die. In that moment, she began to understand the real truth of the world and the people who dwelled within it. “I do not think he loves me truly.”
“I see,” her brother answered. “This will not do. Forgive us, Elisa — ” he said as he took the shirt of nettles off and placed it in her hands. “Hold these a bit longer.”
Five more shirts followed. To her horror, her brothers became birds once more.
“Climb onto my back,” her eldest brother shouted.
She did so quickly before escape would be lost.
And then she found herself aloft in the sky, watching the courtyard below — watching the startled face of the man she had once called her husband as she left him forever.
* * *
The gnarled finger paused over Elisa’s hand as the old man studied the broken line upon the Queen’s palm. “A familiar tale,” he shook his head. “My dear children, it is a heavy weight you have carried so far. Nor did the fairy mislead you. Such a curse has appeared before and been broken, with varying degrees of success. I have heard and told many a story like yours. But–” he hesitated.
“But what?” Elisa pressed the wise man.
“Your hand speaks of two lives and two stories, closely aligned. She must have been ailing, that fairy,for her not to notice it. Had she, she might have advised you differently. You are on the same yet different path now — and one that I cannot foretell.”