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Feather & Nettle
a gender-swap short story retelling of The Wild Swans
by H. S. J. Williams

The tips of his blistered fingers were beginning to bleed, and for one moment he imagined how his sisters would fuss about blood staining all their clothes. With a dry laugh, he shook the silly thought away. “Never mind, sisters, you’ll only have to wear this once,” he whispered to himself. “And then it’s back to silk or whatever you like to wear. But no—” He gave a hiss of pain as the nettle pulp dripped into raw flesh. “No more feathers for you.”

The last of the nettle ground to mush under his fist.

A few months earlier…

 

Royal tables were always a thing of splendor, but few kingdoms boasted anything like the company seated before King Gerald. Twelve children, eleven of them girls! Gossips said he kept having children in hopes of a boy, and a boy finally came at number twelve, but it had cost him his beloved queen. Nevertheless, all twelve children, from Princess Garnette to Prince Topaz were the jewels of his crown, and thus he had named them appropriately.

It was no easy thing, being a boy with eleven elder sisters. Topaz had not even the advantage of being a thirteenth son! But he had met the challenge valiantly, and with the help of his father, he had somehow survived a childhood of doting females who thought him a perfect doll. But now at eighteen, he was a fine figure of a young man with an easy smirk and a sharp spark in his eyes.

Not all of his sisters were proper young ladies….Emerald was quite ferocious and fascinated by combat, and then of course his elder twin, Citrine, had been both his constant competitor and confident in crime.

But he could out-eat any of them, Pearl and Ruby combined, and he always liked to prove it at the dinner table. He’d just scooped up another serving of ham and yams when Garnette spoke to their father.

“How was your journey, Father? Did our neighbors agree to the trade?”

“Yes, yes.” The king’s voice was tired and distracted, not at all jolly as it usually was on the return from a trip.

 

Something small hit Topaz’s temple and he looked up across the table to see Citrine return her fork to the peas on her plate. “What?”

 

She glared at him and then jerked her chin towards their father. Tearing his attention away from the steaming food on hand, Topaz joined his sisters in studying the king.

Whenever he left on a journey, he would return in great spirit and give them gifts and then feast on the finest meat. But not only had he forgotten the gifts this time (no matter, they were all grown up now after all) but he was poking at his veal like it was nothing but bones.

“Are you sure everything is all right, Father?” Topaz asked, and his voice lifted the king’s eyes.

 

“Yes, I am quite sure, only, well, there is a matter I wanted to discuss with all of you. I did bring something back with me. Or rather someone. You see, it is high time that you have a mother again….”

“What!” They all stared at him in dismay and shock.

“Father!” Garnette exclaimed. “I promised Mother I would take care of you all and I have. For heaven’s sake, we don’t need a mother now; Topaz and Citrine are both eighteen.”

“Yes, well,” the King said unhappily, “I just feel guilty, Garnette, you should have been married by now. You are past thirty and you shouldn’t have wasted your youth on us.”

“I am with my family!” she cried. “I did not wish to marry into any other court; we are quite the merry company.”

 

“I would have married,” Aquamarie grumbled.

“You had th-th-three dif-f-ferent proposals,” Opal reminded.

“It was too hard to choose.”

“That’s quite enough!” Diamond, a librarian by nature and thus rarely speaking in a shout, startled them all. She turned her huge eyes to their father. “Papa, this is not about us having a mother. Do you want a wife? Is that it? If so, we quite understand, and we’ll do our best to welcome her.”

Somehow, the king looked yet even more unhappy. “It’s just a strange thing, my children. You see, I was lost in the forest passing over the mountains, separated from my men and quite near death. And then a woman helped me, but when I asked how I might repay her, she asked if she could become Queen, and seeing as there was no other—”

“What?” they all shrieked again and this time the majority of them leapt their feet, hands slapped to table.

“Father, you cannot be serious!” Peridot said, utterly white as snow. She shook a small book of fairy tales above her head.

“Please, don’t tell me you agreed! Why, this perfectly matches every description of old witches trapping young men in a curse!”

“You needn’t all shout,” King Gerald said, becoming very dignified. “Peridot, I am not a young man, and she is not an old witch, just a poor woman looking to escape from her poverty, and as I found her company and help quite pleasant, I did agree. We were married in our neighbor kingdom, and I have brought her here.”

Peridot’s book fell to the floor with a thud, and the princess sank back into her chair.

Topaz’s grip on the fork in his hand began to hurt, and he slowly uncurled his fingers. He knew exactly what each of his sisters were feeling; he felt it himself. A wild hammering of the heart, suspended in empty silence. This was not right, their father would not have gone and married a stranger, especially without their presence! It had to be an enchantment, and if that was true, then they were all of them in terrible dan—

The doors opened, and the new queen walked in.

She was not exactly what one expected a witch to look like. She was young and fair with hazel hair, and the royal clothes she wore bespoke that she’d settled into her new title quite comfortably. “Forgive me for being late, darling,” she said, walking to the king and giving him a kiss. “I only wanted to make a good impression on your sweet treasures.”

Garnette rose to the occasion, as she always did, but her hands were clenched tight and her shoulders were squared. “I am the Princess Garnette,” she said, and it almost sounded like a challenge. Topaz could have cheered.

“Oh!” The queen widened her eyes. “Oh, we are nearly the same age, how very awkward. Well, you needn’t call me Mother, you may call me Agnul, and we shall be great friends. And who is this?”

“Amethyst,” Garnette said.

But the second-born princess rarely talked to any of them, except Garnette, and she only looked at the new queen with a troubled expression and whispered something in her sister’s ear.

Aquamarie was introduced next, and then Diamond. Emerald refused to curtsy, and Pearl and Ruby (another set of twins) did their best to confuse Garnette in introductions as they always did.

When they came to Peridot, the princess had retrieved her book from the floor and hugged it to her chest like armor. She peered at the queen with unguarded suspicion, and Agnul frowned.

“And how about you, dear?” Agnul said, turning instead to Opal. “Aren’t you pretty as a bird! And I’m sure you like to sing?”

 

“Y-y-yes,” Opal said, in her lisping voice. “V-v-very m-much s-o.”

“Oh, she stutters,” Agnul gasped, clasping hand to heart. “How unfortunate.”

Citrine stamped her foot to the floor with a hard smack. “How dare you! She does not stutter when she sings, and what is it to you?”

Glaring and not even asking her name, the queen turned next to Topaz. Her eyes lit, and he instantly decided he did not like their sour green color. “Oh, a prince,” she purred. “Good. A kingdom always needs an heir.”

So! First words out of her mouth and she’d already managed to aggravate his pet peeve! It always seemed dreadfully unfair to him that only a male could inherit the kingdom. Oh, he taken the responsibility seriously enough and nursed no yearnings of running away, but mature Garnette or smart Diamond would have made perfectly wonderful queens and it was not right they should have been passed over.

“I am Topaz,” he said stiffly, bowed, and then sat in sharp end to any further conversation.

“Well.” She smiled. “It is a delight to meet you all. Such lovely individuals. Fly away, my pretty birds, and speak no more!”

The words she had spoken were so shocking and sudden that they did not understand them at first. But when she pulled a nettle from her hand and set it aflame, strange words spilling from her mouth, Peridot leapt up and shrieked. “Witch!” she cried. “Father, Father, it is a witch!”

Whatever enchantment had taken the poor old King vanished in that instant, and he leapt to his feet with a roar. Emerald pounced onto the table, brandishing the knives from her belt. Topaz, nearest the witch, grabbed a meat knife and attacked.

He fell backwards an instant later, vision swimming. Thousand spinning stars, he had not even reached her before striking some invisible barrier! He could hear the king and his sisters all shouting and trying to break through to the wicked woman, but the sounds of their fight turned strange and he began to hear a rush like many wings, and the shouts of anger turned to screams of panic.

“Topaz!” he heard his twin shout.

“Citrine!” Snarling, he wrested to his feet and looked up in time to see the last of his sister disappear in a flurry of white feathers. And then in a burst of light more harsh than lighting, all eleven princesses were seen no more. In their place were eleven white swans. With distressed cries, they rose on tremendous wings and burst through the glass window, vanishing into the sunset sky.

“NO!” Topaz reached after them, but a hand caught his arm. He swung around and found himself staring straight into those poisonous green eyes. “You vile—”

Her hand tightened, and he gasped as a paralysis took his body.

“I had originally thought I’d turn you to a bird as well,” she said, catching his chin and turning it as she willed. “But after seeing your handsome face, perhaps I’ll make you my king.”

Something hard thudded into her body. She reeled forward, breaking Topaz from his paralysis, and they all tumbled together onto the floor. The prince was the first one up and he looked down to see his father grabbling with the witch. “Run, my son!” the king roared. “Run, and do not stop! Save your sisters!”

For a moment, he hesitated, thinking to join in the fight and stop the witch then and there. But the sound of the swans was drawing further away, and in a panic, he turned on his heel and fled from the hall. He encountered no servants, no soldiers, no life at all. The entire castle was being overcome by shadow, chasing at his heels. He raced ahead of it, running from the walls and onto the hills, towards the golden horizon and the fleeing swans. Only at the hill’s crest did he pause to look back, and he saw then how the castle was already enveloped in night. And he knew that he could never return home until the enchantment could be broken.

~

He’d lost sight of the swans long ago but he kept onward in the same direction, chasing the dusk. But the day left him to darkness, and soon he was struggling through the woods with only starlight to guide him. He’d had his share of hunting, exploring, and camping in the wilds, but never alone. His skin crawled at every screech of an owl or snap of a branch. May mercy smile on him, because he had no weapon, not even the dinner knife.

The ground suddenly sloped beneath him, and he gazed out over a shining lake, mirroring the sky. Upon the waters, white as the stars, floated many swans.

“Sisters? Sisters!” He rushed down, praying it was them. And in that moment the stars shone especially bright, and the swans flapped their wings. Their wings became arms, and their feathers white gowns clinging to skin, and then all eleven girls were struggling to the shore.

“Topaz!” They ran to meet him, all gathering in one wet knot of an embrace. “You are safe! Where is Father?”
He untangled himself from a dozen arms long enough to breathe and to remember. Father....he had left him fighting the witch, but the darkness on the castle bespoke the witch’s triumph. Had their father died? Would it have been different if he had stayed to help? Or would there then have been no help for his sisters?


“I don’t know...all I know is that we have to break this enchantment.”


“I have all sorts of books on faerie enchantments and the cures to spells!” Peridot exclaimed, “I knew they would come in handy!”


“Do you know what can fix this?”


“Er, no, not by heart, I would need to look through the books.”


“Which are back at the castle.” Topaz ground his teeth.


“But I’m human now! It’s the midnight hour! We probably have a small window of time to be human each night. You’ll have to time us tonight and then I can sneak into my library tomorrow.”


“You’ll be doing no such thing!” Garnette cried.


“Not by herself anyway.” Emerald threw up her chin. “But I will keep her safe. We will fly nearby and wait so that we are human for as long as we need.”

“I would go if I could,” Topaz said. “But I don’t know what I would be looking for. And as swans they could fly up to her room and then fly out. Garnette, it’s our best chance. For Father.”

Their elder sister inhaled and wrapped her arms tight about herself. “Fine. But we have together tonight. We have to discuss this future.”

“Topaz,” Pearl began, “please bring us some proper food tomorrow night. Ruby has told me that we’ll be eating nothing but bugs as birds.”

“Honestly,” Diamond snorted. “Thinking of food at a time like this!”

~

When the following night came, Topaz did bring his sisters proper food…wild gooseberries, a roasted pheasant, and spring water. Emerald and Peridot were not with them, having already gone to the palace, and so they all waited by the shores of the lake in fretful suspense.

The time for their humanity passed, and the sisters again became swans, nestling into the sand around Topaz’s feet.

And then....a soft hooing call and the flap of white wings…

They looked up to see two swans glide in for a landing, and one of them was triumphantly carrying a book tied upon its back. Cooing muted sounds, all the sisters clustered around Topaz as he took the book from the apparent Peridot and began searching. He read aloud for their benefit.

“Reversing an enchantment of alteration…one must first know by what power the enchantment was cast. She….she used nettle, didn’t she? Is that famous for enchantments, Peridot? One must then create a robe of the same substance and cast it over the inflicted individual. What! I’m supposed to make you wear robes of nettle? Won’t that be painful?”

 

A large wing encircled his shoulders and he looked into soulful eyes that could only belong to Amethyst. She always did have a gift for silent comfort. “Perhaps we should talk about this tomorrow night,” he said. But he hated to wait. If his father was still alive, they had to act fast.

~

“Exactly how does one make robes of nettle?” Citrine, once again in her human form, stormed up and down the shore, her footprints angry little stamps in the sand.

“Much like you would with flax, I suppose,” Diamond answered. “You will have to rot it in marshes and then beat it till the fibers separate. And then it will be a long process of weaving it into a gown.”

“It…it doesn’t have to be a pretty gown,” Aquamarie said, and for her, that was very generous.

“We’ll help you, Topaz.”

“Not a chance.” He grimaced. “It’s bad enough you’ll have to wear them.”

“I’m afraid there’s another bad thing, brother,” Peridot said softly. “To give an enchantment power, one must sacrifice something. The same is true if one wishes to break it.”

“Sacrifice what exactly?” He was glad his voice didn’t shake.

“It’s usually deeply personal. Memories. A talent. Your voice…”

“Voice doesn’t sound so bad,” he said hastily. “We’ll go with that.”

“Not p-permanently?” Tears sprang into Opal’s. “He has such be-beautiful harmony!”

“No, not forever. He just must not speak until the curse is broken.”

Garnette touched his hand, and the sisters followed suit till their arms formed a star. “We will help you however we can, Topaz.”

“I’ll work as hard and fast as I can,” he promised. “And then we’re flying—running—home.”

~

But oh, the task proved far more terrible then he feared. The nettle he found in the forest was hard to break free, and the gloves he wore for protection soon shredded. Then there was nothing between his skin and the stinging plant. He dared not shred his clothes for wraps for he needed them in the cold nights. So when the work began to rub his hands raw and the nettle burned into open wounds, he clamped cries of pain behind his teeth and uttered not a sound. The nettles rotted in the murkiest water he could find, and then he would go and wash his hands in the clearest, coldest streams to clean and numb the wounds.

For days and nights this continued, all alone, and he went less and less to the lake to see his sisters for he did not want them to see how he suffered, and he feared what should happen if he took too long in the task.

When at last he had gathered, beaten, and dried enough, he took them to an abandoned cottage he had discovered in the woods. The cottage was built of rotting wood, but there were still the appliances of living inside. The rocking chair and loom in the corner bespoke at least a woman had lived here, and Topaz often wondered in his work what had become of her. On hard days, he thought she must have died in some tragic way, and on hopeful days, he suspected she had been found by a king and carried away to his shining land.

But the cottage was his now and the loom well suited to his purpose. So he combed the fibers and spun them into a coarse ugly yarn and then he began to weave. The exhaustion and pain often brought tears to his eyes, but still he bore it silently. He remembered the happy years of his childhood and his favorite memories with each sister and their dear father. As a boy, he had plenty of friends among the sons of guards, servants, and stablemen, but as he’d grown older, he’d learned there was no one loyal quite like his sisters, and there was nothing he wouldn’t do for them.

When enough cloth had been woven—and a rough, ugly cloth it was—he began the task of sewing them into gowns. This proved to be swift progress, but still, he had eleven to finish. The whole time dread clutched his heart, fearing some terrible thing would stop him.

And on the day he finished the last dress, knotting the final thread with a shaking hand and a gasp of relief—something did.

The door slammed open and he leapt to his feet. In the doorframe stood none other but the witch Agnul. “I thought I felt a threat,” she snarled. “Do you think yourself clever, boy? Think you can defeat so powerful a witch as I? No, you shall burn, you and the nettle.”

He rushed her, but the door slammed in his face and it rattled as he rammed it with his shoulder. Even at a second run and slam, the door did not break open.

He could hear the witch laughing outside and he gave up on the door to try for the walls, for there was no window in the little cottage. But although the walls were rotten, they did not give, perhaps by the witch’s magic.

Then he smelt smoke and heard a crackling of brush and tinder. No, he thought in despair, as he watched a glow build through the walls. No, this could not be how it ended! Not when he had come so close! He could not cry out lest he break his oath, and he had never let his sisters follow him to the cabin. He could only hope the smoke would draw them before it had burned him to death.

So he huddled in the middle of the floor and scraped at the ground, burying the gowns as best he could in an attempt to save them. Then he lay upon them and prayed for rescue.

Then he heard it, above the crackling! The strange cry of swans and the flapping of wings! Agnul’s laughter turned to shrieking, and something began to tear at the roof. He covered his face as the sparks rained down, but something soft touched his face instead. He looked up into the black eyes of a swan and nearly cried out her name, but bit his tongue just in time. Instead, he lifted the dresses and threw one over her.

The fire roared, the wood splintered.

And then the cottage came crashing down upon them.

~

“Topaz, Topaz!” Many voices were calling his name and a hand was aggressively patting his cheek. Fighting past the red ache in his head, Topaz forced his eyes open.

The ache fled as he beheld his sisters—all of them, alive and human again! “Garnette!” he cried, throwing his arms tight around the one who held him. “Is it done, is the curse broken!”

“Yes, you did it, Topaz! You saved us all!” Tears reddened her eyes and she caught and kissed his blistered hands. “Our brave little brother!”

“Wait,” he frowned, panic momentarily setting in. “Where’s the witch?”

“That was….” Aquamarie shuddered. “Awful.”

“She burned to ash,” Peridot said solemnly. “When we cast the gowns over ourselves, she turned to nothing but ash. It seems she had powered the enchantment with her very life, and high was that cost.”

“Good riddance!” Citrine declared and she threw herself across Garnette to give her twin brother a proper hug. And yet it was not quite the proper hug for as Topaz leaned into her embrace, he felt the brush of feathers.

“What?’ He pulled back in horror and stared at her arms. One was whole and human. The other….the sleeve had burnt away and from it dangled a swan wing. “No…no,” he whispered, turning winter pale.

Citrine wrinkled her face ruefully, but gripped his hand with her good one. “It’s all right, Topaz. It burned when I went in to save you. But I don’t mind. You know how I love to dance, and with a white dress…this…will be quite elegant.”

 

They all embraced another, glorying in the moment of family and peace. When they pulled apart again, it was Amethyst who spoke.

“Father,” she said softly, staring away to the hills where the castle blinked in the fading light.

“He may yet be alive!” Topaz scrambled to his feet. “Let’s go.”

“Bother it,” Emerald said, tripping over the awkward skirt. “Flying is so much faster.”

~

The shadows of the enchantment had lifted from the castle but the shadow of dusk was descending upon the towers as the siblings raced through the small town and charged through the doors of their home. The guards and townsfolk were wandering around in confusion, befuddled to be awoken from whatever state the witch had left them in, and many of them called out to the royal prince and princesses in surprise. But the siblings did not stop, they kept on faster and faster, bursting through each door and down the steps, till finally they reached the castle dungeon.

The dungeon had not been used in the past few generations and it was very dirty, but Topaz lit a torch and led the way through the rusted cells.

“Children?” A dust-crusted voice wavered in the shadows and hands reached out to grip the bars of a far cell. “Oh my children, is that you?”

“Father!” The sisters screamed and Topaz shouted, and they ran to the old king. He wept to see them and touched their faces, and then there was a flustered moment of finding the correct key to let out him out.

But at last, the proper key clicked and the door creaked, and they were all together again in each other’s arms, as it should be.

When they finally came up from the dungeon the servants were lighting up the house and beginning a marvelous meal, for while they were not quite sure what happened, they knew that a terrible fate had been averted and such called for celebrations.

~

That night at their new feast, the king’s children told him all, and his eyes glistened in pain and pride as he heard what they’d endured. He kissed Peridot and Emerald for their bravery in discovering how to end the curse. He held Citrine close to his side, remarking how well she wore a swan wing. And he looked often at the bandages on Topaz’s hands and would cup his boy’s cheek and smile. “You are a true prince,” he would say. “And you will make the bravest of kings.”

Rumors of the tale would spread in days to come, but no one ever was quite sure of the truth. Only Topaz, his sisters, and their father knew the truth.

It was said that in the days afterwards, the family often went to a lake in the country to have picnics, and they always brought breadcrumbs for the princesses knew all the birds there by name.

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