Flight of the Five Swans

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Fate Chapter 32

Ayden

As Ayden had suspected, Svana’s arrival at the palace and continued presence as his personal guest had unleashed no end of rumors and conjectures among the palace staff—not to mention the surrounding villagers. In addition to being a stranger invited to stay in the royal palace, rumors flew all around the kingdom of the foreign girl’s odd ways—her inability to speak, her affinity with swans, and her persistence in knitting the days away.

From what Ayden could tell, the majority of these rumors revolved around the existence of a romantic attachment between himself and Svana, though the stories varied in regards to the exact nature of their relationship. Several of these rumors he had had the opportunity to quash himself when they were raised in his presence. Others, however, he only knew about from hearsay. There were some, Ayden knew, who said that Svana was a mere forest girl with whom he’d fallen in love after she had saved him from a rampaging boar. This rumor was perhaps the most innocuous version of the story—and not too far away from the truth. It was the most popular version told among the palace staff, many of whom had met Svana, and rather liked the girl.

The other variations, however, were not nearly so benign.

The worst version that had reached Ayden’s ears thus far asserted that Svana was a forest witch who had ensnared the Ithcarian prince—him—and enchanted him into falling in love with her. Ayden had yet to attempt refuting this strange story in person. Truth be told, he felt at a loss as to what he would say, anyhow. Despite its implausibility—or rather, because of it—this rumor was the most difficult to refute. How did one argue that a person was not a witch if there was no legitimate way to prove that Svana wasn’t a witch?

Particularly when her actions were so strange.

Several servants had personally witnessed Svana picking nettles from the palace gardens only a couple days prior. The same day, she also requested the use of a spinning wheel in her bedchamber. Svana’s hands were red and swollen when she emerged the following morning, and the supply of yarn with which she knitted her shawls had mysteriously doubled. In the following days, new gossip spread quickly that the foreigner knit with nettles, which seemed to all but confirm some of the suspicions that Svana was a foreign witch.

But in spite of the wild tales floating around, Ayden had yet to regret inviting the girl to stay. In fact, the majority of his days were spent sitting beside her on the same bench, overlooking the swan pond in the garden. They sometimes spent hours conversing, he with his voice and she with her slate and chalk. On other occasions, they would simply sit in a comfortable silence, with the only sounds being that of her knitting needles clinking together. Several times, Ayden would play a tune on his rhaita, filling the gardens with the haunting sound of the instrument. At least one of Svana’s swans—the smallest one—would invariably approach and listen to Ayden play; once or twice, he had managed to attract the entire flock by the time he had finished his song. Ayden honestly did not know which of all of these pastimes he enjoyed the most. No matter how they spent their time, he found Svana’s company charming, and her presence calming.

The tenth day following their arrival, Ayden felt in a rather melancholy mood as he sought out Svana in her usual place in the gardens. His mother had had another of her spasms the previous night, and her nightly tonic was proving to be less and less effective in combatting her pain. Still, his spirits rose considerably on seeing Svana sitting on her bench as always, her hands busy with their knitting. The girl glanced up at his approach, and Ayden’s heart lightened at the happiness that filled her face at the sight of him.

Svana bolted from her place on her place on the bench to meet Ayden halfway. She pulled at his hand eagerly and he settled down next to her, slightly surprised by her excitement. She rummaged in her pouch frantically, and Ayden got the distinct impression that she wanted to show him something important. At last, she pulled a small bottle from her pouch and triumphantly placed it into his hands. Ayden looked down at the clear glass, which housed a rosy-colored liquid. He looked up at her curiously.

“What’s this?”

Svana was already writing on her slate. She held it up so that Ayden could read the explanation.

Butterbur root. For the queen.

Ayden looked between Svana and the small bottle in slight confusion. For his mother? What could Svana want to give the queen?

“What does it do?”

Again, Svana showed him her slate. For her pain. Better than valerian root.

Hope filled Ayden’s chest. He rubbed the clear glass with his thumb, but then exclaimed in surprise when Svana snatched the bottle from his grasp. He watched incredulously as she removed the cork, pouring a small drop of the pale pink liquid onto one finger and then tasting it. She replaced the cork and then handed the bottle back to him.

Now you can say you saw me drink some, she wrote. And that I’m not trying to poison the queen.

Ayden was about to protest the idea that anyone would think her capable of poisoning his mother but hesitated, thinking of the nature of some of the rumors that he had heard. Some Ithcarian citizens were so superstitious; he wouldn’t put it past them to accuse anyone of witchcraft, let alone someone who they already suspected of the craft. Ayden was at a loss as to what to say, and then he noticed the amused twinkle in Svana’s eyes. She was joking, he realized with relief. He knew in that moment that at least some of the stories had reached her ears, and that she found them laughable—at least those branding her as a witch.

Ayden couldn’t help wondering how she felt about the rest of the rumors.

He gripped the bottle tightly in his hand. If this tonic worked as well as Svana seemed to think that it would, it would free his mother from no end of pain. He looked into Svana’s eyes.

“Thank you.” He told her gratefully, using his free hand to grip her own. Svana smiled and nodded at him once, then her gaze dropped to their clasped hands. Ayden’s fingers suddenly felt very hot, as though they had caught fire just from mere contact with her skin. Quickly, he let go of her hand.

Svana bent her head over her knitting once more, and Ayden had the suspicion that she was trying to avoid his gaze. He shifted uncertainly on the bench. He really should deliver the tonic to his mother immediately. Yet, he reasoned, she would have no need of it until the early evening. Surely telling both of his parents now about this possible new pain relief would prove more torture than kindness, as there was still so many hours to wait until they would even have the chance to test its effectiveness. Surely, Ayden told himself, it would not hurt to linger in the gardens just a few moments more.

Thus decided, he turned his gaze on Svana’s profile. Her movements were practiced, but Ayden noticed that her fingers were perhaps a little clumsier in their actions than they had been a few days prior. His brow furrowed, he studied her hands. They did look a little swollen, he realized in some surprise. The story about Svana’s nettles ran across his mind, and for the first time, Ayden wondered if that aspect of the story was, in fact, true.

His eyes drifted to the shawl that she was knitting. The yarn that she used was certainly not the prettiest color; it had a light green tint to it that Ayden had never seen before. He could also see from a glance that the yarn had been inexpertly spun. Small fibers stuck out at odd angles, as if either the spinner had been inexperienced, or her material of an unusual origin—or possibly both. The yarn looked far from soft, though Ayden did not reach out and touch the thread to test his theory. The swans and Svana were all extremely particular in regards to those who were allowed to handle the yarn, needles and even the finished shawls. Namely, only Svana herself.

Ayden leaned forward and placed his elbows on his knees, so as to watch Svana’s hands more closely at their work.

“You know, I’ve never actually asked.” He said, keeping his voice casual. “But what are you making?”

Svana did not look up, though Ayden noticed that her hands had paused in their motions. Her brows were furrowed, and she looked as though she were considering something. Suddenly, she looked up and directly into his face, her eyes searching. Ayden had the distinct impression that she was trying to decide whether or not he was trustworthy.

He held her gaze, and waited.

At last, she nodded and began to write on her slate once more. Ayden felt a twinge of excitement. Svana was going to tell him. She trusted him enough to tell him the mysterious secret of her knitting, for mysterious it certainly was. The temptation was strong to read over her shoulder as she wrote, but Ayden refrained. He waited for her to finish and hold up the message as had become their custom.

They’re for the swans, to turn them human.

Ayden read and reread the words several different times over in an attempt to interpret their meaning. At last, however, he understood. He felt let down. Maybe she didn’t trust him enough after all.

Svana smiled at him tentatively, and he responded with a full grin of his own that was slightly forced.

“There’s no need to feed the rumor mongers even more.” He told her with a small laugh. “I assure you, they’re capable of making up stories about anything. They don’t need any help coming up with the impossible.”

Svana’s smile dimmed slightly, and she lowered her head to stare at her knitting. Ayden immediately felt a twinge of guilt. Yes, he was disappointed that she didn’t yet trust him enough to reveal the truth to him, but all the same, he truly hadn’t meant to ruin her fun.

“But,” he said in a desperate attempt to save the situation. “If you want to tell me the story all the same—“

Svana shook her head. Ayden felt disheartened. Clearly, he had lost his chance. He somehow sensed that he had really stepped in it this time, and he had no idea how to go about making amends.

“Well, then.” He said a mite awkwardly. “You don’t have to worry. I’ll keep your…your secret. Unless you don’t want me to?”

Again, Svana shook her head, her expression adamant in her refusal.

The two sat silently for a few moments, and for the first time, a hint of awkwardness marred the once comfortable silence between them. Ayden was mentally kicking himself. Their afternoon had started off so well, with Svana so eager to pass along the tonic for his mother.

The tonic.

Ayden stood, the small clear bottle clutched in his fist. “Thank you again for the tonic.” He said to the top of Svana’s head. “I should probably bring this to Mother. It won’t do her any good tonight if she hasn’t drunk it.”

He tried to insert a hint of his standard joviality into his words, but Svana still did not look up at him. She simply nodded, keeping her face hidden, and her needles moving.

Ayden left her then, still sitting on the bench in the palace gardens. Just before re-entering the palace, he glanced back behind him towards Svana’s bench and saw that she had risen to her feet, her knitting forgotten for the moment. Her five swans wandered all around her, poking their beaks into the reeds around the pond to look for food. Yet Svana’s slim figure stood still as a statue. Her face was turned in his direction, and even from this distance, Ayden could see her disappointment and sadness as clear as day.

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