Flight of the Five Swans

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Flight Chapter 14

Cliodne

Cliodne leaned back in her chair, the words of the rhyme reverberating through her head. Her mind was racing as she tried to work out its meaning.

“’All at once’,” she repeated slowly, “’or none at all’.”

Eurielle threw her hands up in the air. “Whatever in the world that could mean!” she cried, frustration clear in her voice. “You know, I’m really sick of riddles! Why can’t they just say what they mean, and mean what they say? Go here, do this, eat a piece of pie! See?!? Easy!”

Petra coughed, and Cliodne could have sworn she was hiding a smile. Callia, on the other hand, was looking at Eurielle as though she had grown two heads.

“But riddles—and rhymes—are classic.” She insisted. “They’re great strategies for writers to add an element of drama to any story.”

Thaleia’s voice was dry. “I think our story had quite enough drama before, to be perfectly honest. Adding a riddle we have to solve is just plain mean.” And for all her love of puzzles, Cliodne could not help agreeing with her sister. They certainly had enough to be getting on with in planning their escape without adding a vague rhyme to the mix.

“So what could it mean?” Raia asked, and the princesses all turned their attention back to the piece of paper. Cliodne saw Petra’s lips moving as she read the rhyme silently to herself. She reached out and tapped a finger on the second line.

“Well, it certainly seems as though this is what we’d need.” Petra said, nodding approvingly at Callia. “After all, ‘to change a form to man’—or woman—‘from bird’ is exactly what we want to do.”

And,” Cliodne added, “in order to accomplish that, it seems we’d need to knit…something…from nettles.”

Raia was already shaking her head, her voice a mixture of confusion and exasperation.

“But you can’t knit with nettles. You need yarn to knit. And no one would choose to use nettles, anyway, even if you could knit with them. Nettles hurt. That’s why they’re called stinging nettle.”

Cliodne rubbed the palm of her right hand with her left. She knew from firsthand experience how much nettles stung, having stuck her hand into a patch once when gathering flowers as a young girl. Yet somehow she felt no surprise at the idea of this unpleasant plant being a requirement to break their curse. It seemed almost expected that they would be asked to undergo a little pain to complete the ritual, and she told her sisters as much.

“But that still doesn’t answer the question of how we’re going to knit with them.” Petra argued. Callia tapped her chin with one finger.

“Actually,” she began slowly, her eyes out of focus as though she were remembering something from long ago. “I’ve read about a process used to spin yarn from different kinds of plants. I don’t remember nettles being among them, but I think we could adapt the process easily enough to include it all the same.”

Eurielle jumped in eagerly, and Cliodne marveled at her enthusiasm for the riddle, following so close on the heels of a complaint. “And the riddle doesn’t specify what we need to knit! It just mentions some kind of garment that’ll cover us when we’re swans! That shouldn’t be too hard, right?”

Raia seemed thoughtful.

“You’re a little bigger than normal swans,” she mused, and Cliodne felt a stab of surprise. She hadn’t realized before how her size when transformed compared to the size of the actual birds. Raia continued. “But…I think a large shawl of some sort might be able to cover each of you. And each one would really only take maybe a couple weeks to make.”

Thaleia seemed to catch the excitement now as well. “And with all six of us working, it shouldn’t take very long at all!”

“No.”

Cliodne’s voice was firm and almost regretful when she spoke. Her sisters turned to look at her. She pointed again at the page, this time indicating the third and fourth lines. “It says that only one of us can touch the nettle yarn. That means only one of us will be able to knit the garments to complete the ritual.”

The other five princesses seemed to deflate at this new and most unwelcome revelation.

Eurielle’s voice was small when she spoke. “But that could take ages.” Her sisters echoed her disappointment.

Cliodne hated to add even more bad news to their load, but felt that it needed to be said. She dragged her finger back up to the first line of the poem. “And the one who knits the garment isn’t allowed to speak.”

Eurielle stared at her. “We couldn’t speak while knitting?” she asked, seemingly horrified at the very thought. Cliodne cleared her throat.

“Actually,” she said reluctantly, “I think it means that that person can’t speak at all. Not until the whole task is done, and the spell is broken.” She looked around at her sisters. Callia nodded in confirmation of her words, while Thaleia and Raia merely stared at her. Petra seemed to be considering the possibilities of such a restriction, her eyes fixed on the youngest sister. Eurielle looked as though she might faint at the idea, and her voice rasped when she spoke.

“But that’s more than a sacrifice! That’d be torture! Getting your hands stung by nettles and all the while you can’t say a word? Who would do that?”

“I will.”

Silence filled the room as all the princesses turned their heads to look at Raia. Her expression was determined, and her gray eyes looked remarkably like steel as she stared stubbornly back at them all.

“Why not?” she asked them. “I haven’t been able to do much up to now. I want to.”

Thaleia gaped at her twin, seemingly at a loss for words. Then she burst out, “Ray, we’re not talking about watching the guards for a couple hours, or looking for holes in the walls. This…task…will probably take weeks! Maybe months! And you wouldn’t be able to speak that entire time!”

Raia’s response was as fierce as her twin’s. “And until this task is done, you won’t be able to escape the castle! None of you can! Not without becoming swans forever and ever!”

Cliodne’s heart clenched at her words, but her mind was already processing Raia’s suggestion. Her voice when she spoke was much more logical than either Thaleia’s or Raia’s had been.

“On the one hand,” she said slowly, choosing her words carefully. “Raia would have more time to knit than the rest of us, since she’s human all of the time instead of just at night.”

And I’m the fastest at it!” Raia added, and Cliodne conceded her point.

“On the other hand, though, you’re also the only one of us who ever sees Soran.” Cliodne warned her younger sister. “And he might become suspicious if you become a mute all of a sudden.”

“Yeah, something tells me he’s probably familiar with this type of counter curse already.” Callia chimed in. But Raia shook her head.

“I’ve already been giving him the silent treatment, anyway!” She argued. “So it’s not like I would have to explain that I’ve taken a vow of silence or something. If anything, I think he’d be more suspicious if I suddenly started talking, rather than if I stopped.”

Cliodne pursed her lips and nodded. Her other sisters followed suit—all except Thaleia, who still seemed reluctant to agree with her twin sister’s sacrifice.

“And Raia is the only one who would actually be able to do it.” Petra said practically. Cliodne saw Thaleia bristle at her words.

“How so?” she asked, her voice almost aggressive. Petra looked at her, her expression calm.

“Think about it.” She said. “If we all have to transform at the exact same time, then someone else will have to throw the shawls over us to cover us. Raia’s the only one who can do that.” Thaleia’s shoulders slumped, and Raia placed a reassuring hand on her arm.

“But it’s not like we won’t be able to help.” Petra continued, her voice surprisingly reassuring. Cliodne furrowed her brow and opened her mouth to argue, but Petra continued before she could even speak a word. “Yes, only one of us can knit the garment. But the rest of us can collect the nettles, and even help spin the yarn as well, as long as we don’t actually touch it after it’s been spun.”

Cliodne saw Thaleia perk up at that, but only slightly. Her younger sister was still clearly far from thrilled about Raia’s involvement in such a difficult task. But Cliodne knew that she also saw the necessity of it. They all did.

She sighed and looked again at Raia’s determined expression. Raia’s shoulders were back, and her jaw jutted forward.

“Any other objections?” she asked, clearly more than ready to defend her case in any way possible.

There were none.

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