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This is part of Jane's series of "Twelve Days of Stories" for Xmas 2007/2008.

Seven swans a-swimming

"Hiording. Also sometimes called the "Swansons," this clan are descendants of Hiord and Safeela, a swan maiden. He stole her magical wrap, and so she stayed with him for 7 years, and their children head the main bloodlines of the clan." Or so they say....

They slid down from the sky in a long glide, then stalled hard as they neared the water: feet forward, great wings curved to brake, then easing forwards as they settled onto the surface, seven wakes spreading across the lake, crossing each other in a diamond pattern. To an onlooker, they glided smoothly towards land, no motion visible, and as they glided onto the shore, they changed, blurred, grew taller. The feathers shed themselves into seven white piles on the beach, and seven beautiful young women stepped onto the land. But there was no on-looker. They had made very sure of that before they landed: they knew the tales of ancestors of theirs whose swan robes had been stolen, and had been used to bind them into servitude.

There was no-one watching. Yet.

Safeela wondered, at times, if it was really so hard to be a human for seven years. She rather enjoyed the freedom of having hands to pick berries, the voice to exchange gossip and tell tales. Her older sisters spoke of marriage to a human as the worst of all possible fates, but she wasn't sure: if being a human was so bad, why did their father, and master, keep to his human form? Of course, flying was also fun.... It was a good afternoon. They ate blackberries, swam, enjoying the totally different feel of the water against unfeathered skin, and with arms instead of webbed feet, told tales, wove daisy-chains, did all the things that mute, handless swan maidens could not. And then it was time to return. Seven swan maidens, eldest first, herself last, would pick up their robes and.... change. The intoxicating feeling of the change always drowned the disappointment that it was over.

But this time, six swan robes lay on the beach. Six, not seven: that much they could see at a distance, and when they reached them, they knew. Each robe was as intimately personal to its owner as a body part: that was, after all, what it was. Safeela's robe was missing. She looked around at her sisters, wide-eyed, horrified, needing guidance and the safety of the flock, and met only hostility. No speech. Swans did not speak, but the words in those black, beady eyes did not need speech. "You lost it." "Careless." "Father will be angry - with you." The flock gathered together, but she, a human, was no longer part of it. Wings spread, beat the air - a threat to this outsider, to retreat. She backed away, confused, suddenly lonely, and the great birds took off, wings beating over her head as she cowered under the bushes. Gone - only six silhouettes against the evening sky. She was alone.

She knew the stories. She knew, with deadening inevitability, what would happen next. Man, threats, servitude. She wasn't even surprised when a man stepped out of the woods, though part of her mind noticed that at least he was good-looking. She almost missed his first words: she knew so well what they would be that what he actually said was hard to take in.

"My lady - are you all right?" She couldn't answer: as mute as any swan with the weight of unshed tears. He came closer: slowly, gently, as careful not to frighten her as if she had been a timid bird he was tempting to his hand. "You must be cold. Here, take my cloak." She stared at it, dumbly, as he held it out. She had never worn human clothes before. Her swan robe made her a swan - would this make her human? If so.... she reached out, took it, put it around her shoulders. She was cold, she realised: cold with fright, and shock, and loneliness.

"Now," he said gently, "what happened? I saw the others leave, without you. Do you need help? Shelter for the night?"

That wasn't how the story was supposed to go. She was relieved, but at the same time scared of this step into the utterly unknown. "My robe... you didn't take it?"

"I? No!" His shock seemed genuine: but how would she know, with so little experience of human speech? "Where did you leave it?"

She pointed miserably at the grass where one stray white feather now blew, and he knelt, examined the area carefully. "There's tracks here. An animal took it, I think - look, you can see where it dragged on the ground. We could follow that easily enough, if that's what you want to do?"

She didn't realise, for a moment, that he was asking her permission. No-one had ever done that before. "Yes. Yes, I want... that is, I need.... Father will be so angry, if I don't find it and go home."

"Will he, now?" He stood, took her hand. "Tell me about your father, as we walk."

She barely knew what to say, as she followed him into the woods. Father was just - there. Like the sky, or the mountains, or the lake. You obeyed him without question, because if you didn't - well, just because. She tried to explain, realising as she did so just how little she knew herself.

Far ahead, Russell the fox stopped for a rest. A swan! A whole swan, and he had taken it himself, and carried it all this way. He must be even stronger than he'd thought, it seemed as light as a feather. Awkward, though, being so big, and it kept dragging.... he put the bird down, examined it more carefully for a better way of carrying it than simply pulling it by the neck. And, a short while later, left, his tail between his legs.

"Is that it?" The pile of white feathers on the ground looked so forlorn. She could feel it calling to her, wanting to take her back to her old entrapment - what was she thinking? Back home, safe, with her sisters.

"Yes." Such a small word, impossible to carry all that meaning.

"And when you put it on, you turn into a swan, and fly away?" There was nothing but awe and wonder in his voice, none of the greed she'd been warned about.

"Yes, but..." Why this strange reluctance to do just that? "But not here. The trees are too close, I won't be able to take off."

"Of course, I should have thought of that. Back to the lake, then?"

By the time they reached the shore again, it was dark, and she was very tired, and limping. She had never walked so far on human feet before, but it had felt good, walking with him, talking, his hand supporting her towards the end. She was still reluctant to change, leave, return home, but it had to be done.

"Safeela." He was holding out a fine gold chain. "You wouldn't be able to wear a ring, in your swan form, but this... it was my mother's, once. A token, no more. If your father is angry with you - I will come for you, I promise."

She took it, unsure of the meaning, but sure that whatever it was, she wanted it. "Don't anger Father. You won't even be able to reach his stead, don't try."

"I'll manage it. If you need me, I'll manage it."


It was a week later when he came: one of the worst weeks of her young life. The chain had been taken from her within moments of her homecoming, then her every fault derided, her stupidity lamented, by father and sisters. She had known what would happen, it was inevitable, there was no point in questioning it. Now she stood quietly behind her elders, as she had been told. But Hiord was there, his very presence a breath of fresh air. He had not done the inevitable before. Perhaps he would escape the inevitable now, somehow.

"So, warrior. It is rare enough for my daughters to bring a hero to my attention: for one to seek me out himself is almost unheard of. Almost, but not quite. You know what I will demand of you?"

"In principle, yes, else I would not be here. I ask for your daughter's hand in marriage. Tell me what quest I must undertake, what monster I must slay, to be worthy."

"I slay my own monsters." The single cold dark eye was almost amused. "A simple question for you, no more. All you have to do is answer truthfully. You seek my daughter's hand. I have many daughters. Which one do you seek? Point her out."

As they had been ordered, the seven white swans walked forward, the first, and eldest, wearing a thin gold chain around her neck. Seven white swans, identical to human eyes. She saw Hiord's eyes go to the chain around her eldest sister's neck, and despaired. And then he frowned, and looked more carefully at each of them. "The last. Safeela, the youngest - who still limps from her long walk through the forest. That is who I would wed." She had almost forgotten the pain in her feet, forgotten that she was limping: but he had not.

"That is correct. I have given my word, and so you may take my daughter - for seven years, only. At the end of seven years, you must give her back her swan robe, and she will be free to fly home. Swear it - and do not break your oath."


Safeela was working in the garden, the new baby safely in the care of his older sisters, the toddler solemnly helping her by inspecting every pebble, when Hiord came out to her, carrying her old robe, and for a moment she did not understand.

"It's time, love. Seven years. I promised, and it shall be done. I give you back your swan robe. You are free."

She took it from him, as she did every morning. "It doesn't feel like seven years."

He put an arm around her. "Seven children. Seven fields under the plough. I've kept track, love - that's not an oath I would break."

"And so... I must fly home?"

He nodded. "That was the promise I made."

"I made no such promise." Seven years ago it had not occurred to her that the choice might have been hers to make. She had changed, in seven years, but the inevitable was still inevitable, he knew it as well as she did. She swung the robe around her, over her ordinary clothes, with the ease of long practice. White wings stretched, beat, as she climbed into the upper air. The cold, unforgiving North Wind blew from the mountains and the lake. She circled, looking down at the stead below. "I must go..... home?"

Feathers blew up dust from the vegetable garden as she landed. He was still standing where she had left him, smiling slightly.

"Our promise is kept, Hiord. This is my home."