This novel is limited to 100 free copies due to its part in Inkitt’s Novel Contest.
“What have you got there, Fen?”
Fenella von Rothbart, adopted daughter and protégé of the famous Aloysius von Rothbart, had been caught.
Six years old, and her fourth master plan to sneak her friend into their cabin had failed. Miserably.
The little girl was sat on the floor, legs crossed and her long, dark brown hair wild and frizzy. Vivid, icy eyes like a wolf’s peered out from her safe vantage point in the corner. Her skin had the typical Danaan shading— a warm shade of grey, tinged with blue.
She looked like a wildcat, and acted like one too; most of the time, she hated wearing shoes because she couldn’t feel the earth beneath her feet, and tonight was no exception. Two muddy feet and ten soil-filled toes had trotted dirt tracks across the old wooden floor.
The child was a curious creature, though. She might seem like a savage, but her heart was focused and pure. She would never sit on the soft and comfortable fur rug over by the embers of the fire. The pelts Aloysius tried to make her wear she would shun, even in the coldest of winters. Neither would she allow her father to bring back any of the animals he’d hunted to enjoy later. She was too young to understand that he still hunted them, regardless— but her priorities were still clear, for a toddler. No killing animals.
When she was fed chicken as her first meat, she’d spat it on the floor and howled in her highchair, a lamenting and sorrowful sound. She’d been vegetarian, albeit one that couldn’t even say the word, ever since. Her guardian, a powerful and ruthless magician, was rather bemused at his protégé’s instinctual dislike of cruelty, the one thing he understood.
And now the strange girl was cradling her one true friend in the whole world.
Aloysius sighed. His daughter’s best friend wasn’t human. In fact, none of her “friends” were human; not the wolf she’d strolled through the woods with last week, nor the bear she had climbed onto the back of a few months back. She could not yet Shift as he did, but he was certain that when she could, she would be powerful, and not resigned to the owl that was his only other form.
Usually, he paid no heed to her intense connection to the nature that surrounded their life here in the forest. Other von Rothbarts had been known to have Fenella’s wild heart. But he had a problem with this particular “friend” of hers. The damn thing was broken. A swan with a wing that would probably never fly.
If Fenella were as powerful as he believed she could be, the swan would fly one day.
And that wasn’t what he’d raised her for. No von Rothbart had ever been merciful. In fact, their ancestors— Fenella’s parents, may they walk with Dana along the Otherworld shore— would find him in the next life should he meet them there. He shuddered at the thought as though it was as dirty as Fenella’s feet.
The little girl looked at him with her huge glassy eyes, and blinked. She was a quiet one; never spoke unless she had something worthy to say, although the conversation she was having with the swan seemed entirely real. The two shrunk away from him, further into the corner.
“Fen, you don’t want me to remove that swan, do you? Not like that hedgehog you wouldn’t leave alone,” Aloysius cooed. The grin that split his face was from recalling the satisfaction of seeing him crack his daughter’s poker face. The child had screamed as he bludgeoned the creature as though he’d struck her himself.
The grin faded when he recalled that she hadn’t cracked from that punishment. If anything, her affection and her unity with the animals around them had only increased since the incident, as though the group had come together from the disaster. A vein throbbed in his forehead; never a good sign.
“Fenella von Rothbart, put that thing down. You are a Queen, do you hear me? You command these animals. You do not share a home with them.”
The little girl shifted, almost imperceptibly, but enough that Aloysius detected her arms shift the swan into a position of safety and protection. Her eyes narrowed, and she lifted her chin to meet his eyes in defiance.
“Odette is no thing,” she protested. “Odette is a girl.”
Aloysius was furious. ‘Odette’ was Illychian for ‘friend’. Although he had been forced to learn it in order to get by in the shambles of a once-noble country, Fenella often spoke first in Illychian than her mother tongue, Danaan. “Odette? Where have you been picking up this foreigner filth of a language, Fenella? We do not speak Illychian! We are proud Danaan.”
Fenella’s hackles raised. For a moment, Aloysius was not staring at a frail six year old, but a snarling wolf protecting a sheep. It was the first time he’d felt fearful of the slight wisp.
“I don’t care about Dana,” Fenella spat.
Slap. Aloysius’ hand moved faster than his own fury, wrenching across his daughter’s face with a thunderous clap.
“Never,” he roared, “Never say that again!”
Aloysius was terrified. Dana was not a goddess to be trifled with; if she had heard the girl’s blasphemy, there was likely to be an even greater punishment than the one the girl had already gone through— and had no memory of, it seemed.
He blinked, snapping back to the cabin. The little girl lay on the floor, unmoving. The fury vanished, replaced with fear: fear that his kingdom would disappear before his eyes. Quickly, he knelt, reaching for her dark curls.
“Fen? Fenella, I’m so sorry. I didn’t want to hurt you...but you know how naughty that is to say you don’t care about our people. Our country. The sacrifice.”
The girl twitched, alive, and he sighed inwardly, relieved that the spirits of his ancestors would not be coming down to claim him today. “Fenella, don’t scare me like that.”
A single eye fluttered open, squinting out at him from behind the mop of hair. Fenella still lay on her front, arms wrapped around the swan in a protective embrace. Aloysius brushed her hair away from her face, feeling his muscles move into the warmest smile he could muster.
“Fenella, my child, sit up for me? Let me handle the swan.”
He pulled her up, clamping her arms so that she couldn’t wriggle away. Fenella twisted and fought, but her protests were weak. The swan in her arms frantically began to flap with Fenella’s distress, and Aloysius’ temper flared once more.
So he Spoke to the swan in the language that only a Danaan could.
The bird screeched and panicked as he took hold of its mind, bending it to his own will. Concentrating hard, he focused on the swan until it flapped from Fenella’s arms and began heading for the door, which slammed open with the breeze Aloysius summoned. Outside, a storm was raging; rain splattered across the wood on the hearth, washing away Fenella’s mud. All the while, the girl watched as if her heart were being split in two.
Then the door slammed shut, and the howling wind and hammering rain were shut out once more. Only a silent cabin remained, with Fenella still curled in the corner and Aloysius straightening up.
“My little Swan Queen,” he said, “That bird is not your friend. One day, you will have a kingdom to make friends.”
Fenella did not look mollified. Her mouth had upturned, and her eyes remained fixed on the door. “How will I get a kingdom if I don’t have friends?”
Dana give me strength, he prayed. The child was going to need a fierce upbringing to turn her from this weak babe into a lioness.
“Fenella, you are a powerful sorceress. When you are powerful, people have no choice but to be your friend.”
Fenella looked thoughtful. “No choice,” she repeated, and the way she said it made Aloysius’ temper flare once more. It was as though she were looking down on him, at three foot tall.
He clenched his fists, said another prayer to the goddess, and then ordered the little girl to go to bed. He had never wanted to be one of the Guardians, but when there were so few of them still loyal, he had little choice. One day, the girl would see that nobody ever had a choice in the long run.
Only the small, daily choices were granted. Everything else was already written on your gravestone.
Aloysius grunted, grabbing his cloak. After such an argument, he was desperate to leave the confines of the cabin, and he swept from the room without looking back.
Fenella waited exactly nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds before slipping on her woollen overcoat and climbing out of her bedroom window into the storm.
Every night, her father Aloysius took his natural form and went hunting. She knew he much preferred his owl skin to his human one, and would be gone for hours.
And he never noticed her nightly wanderings to the lake.
She made her way there now, staggering against the horizontal rainfall and the battering ram of wind that was coursing through the trees. The deep, dark woods did not scare her; she was growing up surrounded by howling and creaking, and already knew the noises of the land by heart.
When she finally glimpsed the lake, she was soaked through and her teeth were chattering.
She slipped across the wet mud to reach the water, blurred by droplets of rain across its surface.
The lake was so large she couldn’t see where it ended. In the middle, an idyllic hideaway of a rocky, grassy island was nearly obscured by the weather, the gentle trees bent double.
But the swans were delighting in it.
The thunder, the lightning, the flashes across the surface of the lake— the horde of white feathers and honking circled one another, flapping their wings and dancing in their excitement.
The swans were in pairs, their slender necks forming beautiful heart shapes as they came close. Fenella didn’t understand what mating was— swan terminology, when they spoke to her, didn’t translate to human— but she could see one swan was alone, always alone, drifting in the storm around her.
Odette. She called out to her, the screech harsh against her throat, but it worked. Odette’s eyes flickered to locate the sound, and the swan moved to greet her.
At times like this, Fenella wished she was a swan so that she could swim on the lake with her friend. She had tried as a human many times, but had very nearly died of cold on several of those occasions, and had no wish to try again. Aloysius told her that she wouldn’t shift for a while yet.
Well if she couldn’t become a swan...
She stared at Odette, summoning the magic that sat in the pit of her stomach, the tips of her fingers, the circuits of her brain. The magic that thrummed through her blood and longed to connect.
At first, she thought it was just the storm; the wind howled harder, and the waves crashed higher against the birds. They streaked away, startled, as the water began to ripple around the lone swan.
The air whipped strongly, causing Fenella to step back and pray that she hadn’t harmed Odette. The swan had all but disappeared among the blur that was the weather and the lake, and the strong wind causing her eyes to tear and blink. Bright white light pushed between her eyelids, forcing her eyes away.
And as soon as it had come, the magic went away. The wind dropped, and the air stilled.
Where a pearly white swan had been before, a young girl of her age now stood, naked and knee-deep in the lake water. Copious amounts of white blonde hair poured from her scalp, falling in waves around her arms and down her back. She flexed her wrists tentatively, examining her pale, skinny arms in the moonlight with reverence. Turning to the other one, the girl paused and blinked, cocking her head in a swan-like fashion towards Fenella.
And that was how Fenella turned her best friend into a human.
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