Flight of the Five Swans

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Fear Chapter 6

Petra

On the final morning of their six-week voyage, Petra was woken quite suddenly from a deep sleep by the sound of a cacophonous commotion just outside of the camp. What seemed like all of the horses in their party were whinnying frantically, as though they were being led straight into the jaws of wolves.

“It’s settled. Someone’s dead meat.” Petra grumbled angrily under her breath, grabbing her dressing gown from beside her bedroll and donning it. A low groan came from the other side of the tent. Rubbing her eyes, Eurielle sat up, her blonde hair tangled around her head like a bird’s nest.

“Whassamatta?” She yawned, blearily looking around.

Petra’s only response was to throw Eurielle’s own dressing gown towards her, a silent command for her sister to rise and check out the commotion for herself. Not bothering to linger and see whether Eurielle had taken the hint, Petra opened the tent flap and stepped outside.

She and Eurielle had not been the only ones disturbed by the horses. Callia, Raia and Thaleia emerged from their tents as well, all shivering slightly from the early morning chill. Several guards rushed to check on the horses. Most of them still wore their nightshirts with trousers hastily pulled on over them. From the position of the sun, Petra guessed the time to be not long after dawn. Had it not been for the interruption, she could have slept for at least another hour before they resumed their journey.

‘Yeah, I’m definitely killing someone.’ She thought fiercely.

Behind her, Petra heard the tent flap open as Eurielle exited. The five princesses stood together in sleepy silence, watching the activity around them. After minutes that felt like hours, Alexandre finally approached. Unlike some of the other guards, the captain was already fully dressed and seemingly ready for their final day of travel. He gestured apologetically to where the horses had been tethered for the night.

“I’m sorry, Your Highnesses. It seems something bothered the horses, though I don’t know yet what that could have been. MacLeary was on guard duty, but one of the mounts pulled loose from its tether, and he had to go after it. We’ll get his full report when he returns.”

Petra yawned, then stuffed her hands into the pockets of her dressing gown, irritated. ”So, you have no thoughts at all on who’s to blame for spooking the horses?” Hearing the hint of accusation in her voice, Raia shot her an exasperated look.

The captain shook his head. “As I’ve said, I hope MacLeary’s report will shed some light on what actually happened. For now, you can all return to your tents if you like and get some more sleep. We won’t be packing up to leave for another couple of hours.”

Petra thought longingly of her bedroll, but then banished the thought. She was up now, for better or worse. Callia shook her head and shrugged.

“Thank you, Captain, but I believe we’re all thoroughly awake now. And who knows? Now we’re up, we might be able to get an early start on the day once we’re all ready, and arrive that much sooner.”

Alexandre nodded in approval. “I’ll tell the cook to start breakfast.”

Despite the intention to gain an early start, their scout did not return with the missing horse until well after they were meant to have been on the road. Shortly after MacLeary’s arrival back at the camp, the captain of the guard once again sought out the princesses.

“Nothing to worry about, Your Highnesses.” He reassured them. “According to MacLeary, there wasn’t much of anything to report. Just some swan that got under the horses’ feet. “

Thaleia glanced at Eurielle, the slightest hint of a grin on her face. Seeing the movement, Petra recalled the story her sister had told them a week prior. Two crazy swans in the course of two weeks? It was really quite a coincidence.

Alexandre glanced up at the sky, his brow furrowed. “We’ll be mounting up now. We’ll arrive a bit later than anticipated, but we can still get there before dark.”

Petra was not in the best mood as she mounted her horse and joined the other travellers trotting out of camp. She had wanted someone to blame—an actual person—for her untimely awakening that morning. Blaming an animal wasn’t nearly as satisfying. You couldn’t play a prank on them, or permanently confiscate their favorite hairbrush. In fact, as far as Petra could see, there was no viable way to get back at them at all. And that, she felt, was a definite problem.

Her mood improved as they rode. She couldn’t help it—the anticipation of their arrival could not help but raise her spirits. Just before midday, the Deturian palace came into view. Her sisters cheered at the sight and while Petra did not join in with their celebrations, she was thrilled all the same. After six long weeks on the road, the end of their journey was finally in sight.

The last few hours of travel were spent weaving in and out of small towns that got progressively larger the closer they came to the castle. Many of the townspeople gawked as they passed, and the youngest Deturians waved gleefully at the procession. The princesses waved back, though some more exuberantly than others. At one point, Eurielle nearly fell off her horse in her enthusiasm, and had to be pushed aright by Petra, who was riding beside her at the time.

As Alexandre had predicted, the company entered the gates of the Deturian palace just as the sun was setting on the horizon. Petra looked around with interest as they rode into the palace yard. The yard was expansive, with hedges running to either side of the path they followed. To the left of the path was a dense grove of trees, as though a mini forest had been planted solely at the whim of the Deturian royal family. On the right side, Petra saw a large pond, its surface dark and glassy. She was surprised to see guards stationed all around the edge of the body of water. She snickered a bit. What could they possibly be guarding? The fish?

The castle itself was slightly bigger than their palace in Kyoria, and it was imposing to the extreme. The gray stone was weathered and had clearly survived many a thunderstorm, and possibly a siege or two. Out of habit more than anything else, Petra immediately started looking for weak points that one might exploit should they want to enter secretly—purely hypothetically, of course. Though there was little to be seen at first glance, she was certain of her abilities to uncover some—if not all—of the castle’s secrets before long.

Adding to the imposing impression of the Deturian palace was the welcoming committee waiting to greet them. As far as Petra could see, all but one were royal guards, facing each other in two straight lines all the way up the steps. At the very top was a young man with a wide smile gracing his boyish face. He was tall and blond, and Petra knew immediately that this must be the Lord Soran that Cliodne had mentioned in her letters. She frowned. Now she thought of it, where was Cliodne? Petra had fully expected her elder sister to be among those present to welcome their arrival.

Lord Soran held his arms open in front of him as though to embrace them all from afar.

“Welcome, princesses of Kyoria!” He said, slowly descending the stairs towards them.

Alexandre held up one hand, and the entire Kyorian company came to a stop directly in front of the steps. The princesses were the first to dismount, and they waited for their escort to do the same before advancing.

Lord Soran didn’t stop until he was standing right in front of them at the bottom of the stairs. He bowed. “Your Highnesses, it is my honor to welcome you to Deturus. I’m Lord Soran.”

As one, the princesses curtseyed. The eldest of those present, Callia stepped forward in front of the rest to present herself as spokes-princess. She presented her hand, and Lord Soran kissed it.

“We are gratified to be here, Lord Soran,” she said after introducing each of them in turn. Petra hid a smile. She was sure that Callia’s choice of words had been lifted straight from one of her many stories. “But I must admit, I had expected Cliodne to be here to see us as well.”

Lord Soran’s smile grew wider, and Petra felt a stab of apprehension that she couldn’t explain.

“Your sister insisted on being the one to oversee the preparation of the bed chambers for your arrival.” He said.

“Can we see her now?” Eurielle piped up, and Thaleia nudged her with her elbow.

Lord Soran glanced almost nervously at the sun, which was now completely hidden by the horizon but for a small sliver of gold. “If you like, I can take you straight to her.”

Petra was the first to notice the animal flying towards them, a speeding patch of white out of the corner of her eye. With an exclamation of surprise she ducked, pulling Raia and Eurielle down with her. A large swan swooped down directly above their heads, banking around before landing in the pond with a loud splash. Mouths agape, the princesses stared at the bird, the largest of its kind that they had ever seen.

And then, before their very eyes, the swan changed. The head tripled in size, corkscrew curls growing out of it like ivy. Wings stretched, becoming long and thin, while the swan’s legs thickened and grew. The white feathers ruffled, then melded together into what looked very much like fabric.

In less than a minute, the swan had disappeared entirely. In the middle of the pond was a young woman as familiar to the princesses as their own names. She lurched out of the water and attempted to reach them.

“It’s a trap!” Cliodne shouted.

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