Flight of the Five Swans

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Feathered Chapter 25


After weeks of silence and isolation from other people—not counting her sisters—Raia felt exhausted listening to another human talk again. It wasn’t as though Ayden was exactly garrulous; he was nowhere near as chatty as Eurielle, even on her quietest day. Nor was he even as talkative as Thaleia could be when she started discussing—or ranting, really—on one of her favorite subjects. Yet Raia found it difficult to concentrate on following Ayden’s one-sided conversation; she’d quite simply fallen out of practice when it came to listening to someone—anyone—speak. And while there was nothing really forcing her to pay attention to Ayden, she couldn’t help feeling a sense of obligation to remain at least polite enough to make the effort to listen.

Darn her manners.

Not that it was entirely a sacrifice. Truth be told, Raia was pleasantly surprised by how quickly the rest of the day passed after Ayden joined her and her sisters as their walking companion. Once he understood that the swans—and Raia—preferred that he keep his distance, he was scrupulous in trying to put all of the princesses—both human and swan—at their ease. He made sure to keep a respectable distance between himself and Raia at all times, so as not to be attacked by her territorial companions. While this meant that Ayden had to travel behind the group of princesses, he did not seem overly bothered at having to raising his voice just a tad in order to be heard by Raia.

Though he initially began by trying to ask questions of Raia, Ayden quickly realized that the effort was futile. She responded to his yes-or-no questions with a noncommittal shrug—if she responded to them at all. Seeing that this form of topic was going nowhere, Ayden began to tell her stories in order to fill the silence as they walked. Many of the stories he told were ones that she recognized as slightly different versions of bedtime tales she’d been told as a girl in Kyoria. She supposed that the variations between the Kyorian and Hiallan versions of the fairy tales were reflective of the different cultures of the people shaping and telling the tales. Whatever the case, Raia found the stories fascinating—and she was not the only one. After only a couple of hours, Callia had taken to walking nearest to Ayden, head cocked as though listening to him speak. Eurielle had also begun riding on the back of Ayden’s horse to be spared the task of walking, and Raia was certain that the youngest swan princess was listening avidly to all of the stories being told. Ayden had a natural gift for storytelling that was almost equal to Callia’s, and Raia found herself mentally painting in her mind’s eye some of the most vividly described scenes. Her fingers—knitting still—seemed to develop a phantom cramp, as if they longed for the paintbrush that they hadn’t held in so long.

With such entertainment, Raia was almost surprised to note that the sun was beginning to set—a clear indication that it was time to make camp for the night. Here, too, Ayden proved to be a more valuable companion than Raia had initially realized. He was very proficient at lighting a fire for warmth—something that Raia had not attempted for the entirely of her journey, due to her fear of the light being spotted from afar. He also carried a small supply of food in his saddlebags, which included a strange type of flat bread and some kind of dried meat. Raia’s mouth watered as Ayden offered her some of the jerky. She had not had any such protein in her diet since near the beginning of their journey, when Petra had still been pilfering food for her from houses and farms on the edge of the Deturian forest.

Raia sat with her back against a tree as she ate, with her sisters foraging around her for their own dinner. Ayden settled himself on the ground a good five feet away from the princesses. He did not dare to approach any closer; Raia was sure that the man’s kneecaps were already well covered with bite marks courtesy of the swan sisters.

For the first several minutes, the strange company sat in silence, with the only audible sounds being the sound of chewing, the wind rustling through the trees and, occasionally, the soft clickety-clack of Raia’s knitting needles. Even the swans seemed to have taken on the same silent vow as Raia, as not a single one of the five emitted so much as a peep, let alone a honk.

It was Ayden who broke the silence at last. “I have to say that it’s rather unfortunate that I don’t know your name. Isn’t there any way you could write it down for me?”

Raia spared him a quick glance, but made no response. There was no way on earth that she was going to give her name to anyoneshe’d known for less than a day, not unless she was absolutely certain that he was an ally. And in spite of how pleasant a companion Ayden seemed to be, she still had a couple of doubts in regards to how trustworthy he actually was.

“I’ll take that as a no, then.” His voice was regretful.

Clickety-clack, went Raia’s needles, and nothing else for a long moment. When Ayden spoke again, there was a hint of eagerness in his voice.

“Then…would you mind if I chose a name for you? Just to have something to call you?”

Raia paused in her knitting, a mite shocked at his presumption. He wanted to choose a name for her? What was she, his pet? Still, presumptuous though he may be, she couldn’t deny the inherent logic in his request. There was really no reasonable excuse for him not to call her by something, even if it was by a fake name of his own invention. She shrugged noncommittally, her hands moving once more.

“Great!” The smile in Ayden’s voice was evident, though Raia did not look up at him to see it. “Then I’ll call you by…let’s see…”

Raia could only guess that Ayden was having a hard time deciding by what name to call her, for he did not offer any suggestions for a full ten minutes at least.

“Svana!” he said at last in a triumphant tone. The five swans had become accustomed to the silence around the group, and all jumped at the sudden reemergence of Ayden’s voice. Again, Raia paused in her knitting. If her basic language lessons served her correctly, ‘svana’ was the word for swan in several different languages. Her eyes flew to her sisters waddling beside her, and she smirked a bit. It had taken the man ten minutes to come up with that? He might just as well have called her ‘Birdy’ for his lack of originality. The artist in Raia highly disapproved.

Still, she shrugged again, and Ayden took this as indication of her agreement—or at least, as a lack of disagreement.

“So, Svana.” he began conversationally, and Raia raised her eyes from her knitting, lifting them up towards heaven. Mercy, could he not let her knit in peace?

Ayden must have glimpsed her exasperated expression, as he did not finish his sentence. The subsequent silence bothered Raia more than she expected, and she found herself wondering what he had been about to say. At last, her curiosity got the best of her. She lowered her knitting and glanced up to look at Ayden, her eyebrows raised expectantly.

He seemed to be waiting for just such an opening. He grinned and patted the saddlebag resting at his side.

“I have my rhaita with me. Do you mind if I play?”

Raia’s eyebrows furrowed in confusion. A rhaita? She’d never heard the word before, and could only assume that the differences in culture were once again revealing themselves.

Ayden evidently read the unspoken question on her face. “It’s an instrument.” He explained to her, reaching into his saddlebag and removing the item in question. “I take it they don’t have rhaitas in Deturus.”

Raia shook her head and stared at the instrument curiously. The body of the instrument was rather long and thin around the middle, and then widened to a bell-like shape at the end. It was a beautiful model, made of a reddish wood and polished to a shiny finish so that it gleamed by the light of the campfire.

The sight of the strange instrument seemed to have awoken something in Eurielle. The swan immediately stopped foraging, and nestled herself on the ground facing Ayden, her expression almost expectant. Ayden regarded the bird’s actions with more than a little surprise. Raia, however, was heartened by her sister’s evident eagerness to hear the music that Ayden was offering to play. She welcomed such obvious evidence that Eurielle hadn’t become entirely swanlike; the youngest princess still maintained her love of all things musical despite her avian form.

Ayden needed no other encouragement than a willing audience, be they human or bird. He began to play.

The tone of the rhaita was haunting, and the melody of the song even more so. Raia felt goosebumps rise up on her arms, and her knitting lay forgotten in her lap as she let the music wash over her. She closed her eyes as she listened to the melancholy air.

Raia’s eyes were slightly damp by the end of the song. She blinked them rapidly to dry the moisture. A quick glance around the campsite told her that she had clearly not been the only one to be moved by the music. The sound of Ayden’s playing had caused all five of her sisters—not just Eurielle—to pause in their eating in order to listen to the beautiful melody. Eurielle had inched closer to Ayden as he played, putting her within his arm’s reach—far closer than any of the swans had dared to venture thus far, apart from when they were attacking. Ayden had closed his eyes as well while playing his instrument. On reopening his eyes, he was startled and looked slightly apprehensive to find one of the swans sitting so close to him.

Raia applauded softly but genuinely. The sound of her clapping echoed slightly. Finding the noise slightly jarring in the night stillness, she stopped after bringing her hands together only a couple of times. Still, Ayden seemed highly gratified by the indication of her appreciation. He smiled softly at the instrument, then at her.

“That’s my favorite tune.” He admitted quietly. “My mother would often sing it to me at night.”

Raia bunched her hands around her knitting, almost welcoming the slight sting of the nettle yarn to which she had become so accustomed over the last month or so. For the first time since meeting Ayden earlier that day, she felt the heaviness of their silence. She wished that it were possible for her to break it. She wanted to be able to talk about the music, and to ask—gently—about his mother. She sensed from his tone that he had perhaps also experienced the loss of his mother as she had hers, so long ago. Raia would have liked to comfort him somehow, or simply to share their experiences with each other.

But she couldn’t. Not without speaking.

She caught Ayden’s eye and smiled slightly, before gesturing towards his rhaita in a silent invitation to play the same song again. He nodded at her gratefully, seeming to understand her meaning perfectly, before taking up his instrument once more. Raia picked up the forgotten shawl and resumed knitting as the strains of music rang out across the clearing, echoing deep into the night.

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