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THE WILD SWANS
James Richard Henry Michael Bledgabred Taillefer, King of Avalon, Darian, Longshore, and the Western Isles, Duke of Lemaire-Over-the-Sea, Count of Borghame, Chosen of God and, By His Gracious Might, Anointed Among Men--affectionately known among his people as King Jim, though he was just plain Richard to his friends--shifted uncomfortably in his saddle and glowered at the road ahead.
Women were the bane of a man’s existence. From the moment he was breached until the moment he went to the grave, there was a woman around somewhere doing her damndest to make his life miserable.
And young, beautiful women were the worst of all. Worse than a prating priest any day of the week. Worse even than hives under chain mail, and after that bout at the tournament on St. Stephen’s Day when he’d damn near gotten killed because he was thinking about the itching more than he was about the opponents who were trying to bash his brains out, he’d have sworn there wasn’t anything in the world worse than hives.
But that was before he’d met Her Royal Highness, Princess Graciella Antoinette Elizabeth de Belmaine.
His glower darkened. Just the thought of the Princess Graciella gave him a pain.
Oh, she was beautiful enough, he’d give her that. Beside her, the sun grew pale and stars turned dull. And her breasts--!
At the thought of her breasts, the King of Avalon, Darian, etc., raised slightly in his stirrups so he could scratch at his crotch and shift his John Paul to a more comfortable position. He shouldn’t be thinking about the Princess Graciella’s breasts when he was riding--the resultant pressure on the crown’s most precious jewels wasn’t good for his future as a father.
“Thinking about the Princess Graciella, are you?”
Richard sat back in his saddle and glared at the grinning, golden-haired man who’d ridden up beside him.
“Trying to adjust these damned tight hose. I swear, Harry, I don’t know where Thurgood gets the damned things. He’s had the dressing of me since I was twelve and he’s still finding ways to make me miserable. Said he figured these would be more comfortable than braies and laced hose.” Richard’s expression darkened as he slumped lower in his saddle. “Much more of this and I’m likely to be singing soprano.”
Harry’s grin widened. “It couldn’t be any worse than your singing now. The only time I can bear to listen to you is when I’m too damned drunk to care.”
“Hah!” said His Majesty, but his heart wasn’t in it. He gloomily resumed his study of the ground in front of his horse’s nose.
The two rode for a way in silence, sunk in their thoughts and as indifferent to the looming forest through which they were riding as they were to the crowd of noblemen, huntsmen, servants, and miscellaneous retainers that rode in their wake.
“Tell me, Harry,” the king said at last, unable to keep his misery to himself. “How long is it now that we’ve known each other? Twenty years? Twenty-five?”
Harry’s eyebrows shot up at the question. “What the devil difference does it make how long we’ve known each other? And why do you want to know?”
Richard’s mouth thinned in irritation. He glared at his friend.
Harry’s eyebrows abruptly reversed direction. “All right, all right. Let me think.” His frown deepened. “You were seven and I was almost nine--I remember how angry I was that you were a good inch and a half taller than I was, even then--and I’m thirty-two now. Or am I thirty-one? So that makes it...”
He chewed on the corner of his mustache as he considered the question, then tried ticking the years off on his fingers. His frown turned to a scowl when he lost count for the third time. He threw up his hands, disgusted.
“Hell, I don’t know how long we’ve been friends! Long enough for me to know there’s something bothering you, and it isn’t the Glorious Graciella’s breasts!”
“Forget the breasts.” Richard waved his hand to indicate that he’d forgotten them. “In all the years you’ve known me, Harry, have you ever known me to be unreasonable?”
“Hmmm,” said Harry, consideringly. “Well, there was that disagreement we had over that saucy little serving wench in--”
“Harry...” said His Majesty.
Harry got back to the subject at hand. “Well, then, no, I can’t say I’ve ever known you to be unreasonable.”
He threw a quick glance over his shoulder at the mass of people following them to make sure no one was near enough to hear. His eyes narrowed and his jaw set with sudden determination. “If anything, you may be a little too reasonable. For a king, that is.”
“What the hell do you mean by that?”
“I mean this business of letting old Archie push you around like he--”
“He does not push me around. And that’s Bishop Archibald to you!”
“The hell he doesn’t push you around! Just because you promised your father on his deathbed that you’d keep the peace and call a truce with his old enemy doesn’t mean you have to put up with the man’s arrogance. You think you’re being considerate of his pride, but he just thinks you’re a fool he can rule if he maneuvers things cleverly enough.”
Richard shrugged in irritation. “He can’t maneuver me, you know, even if he thinks he can. I won’t let him.”
“That doesn’t stop him from trying! Your trouble is you’re too damned honorable. You’re clever--smarter than all of them put together--but you’re not devious, and you’re not good at spotting someone who is.” Harry lowered his voice and leaned toward Richard. “I’m telling you, Archie is a devious toad and you’d do well to get rid of him while you still can!”
Richard waved away his friend’s concerns. “Forget Archibald. I don’t want to talk about him.”
Harry hesitated, as if weighing the risk of pressing further, then regretfully settled back in his saddle.
“What I need to know,” said Richard, “is what I should do now. About a wife, I mean.”
“You’re going to give up on Princess Graciella? You’re really going to give up those incredible breasts?” Harry’s mustache twitched. “You’re running out of choices, you know.”
“I know.” Richard sighed. He seemed to be sighing a lot these days. “It’s not the breasts. It’s not the legs--they’re perfectly reasonable legs. Really. I even like what’s in between. Makes a nice little package, you know? Boobs. Butt. Legs.” He sketched an outline in the air to show what he meant.
Harry nodded. He knew. He’d tried to look up Graciella’s skirts, too. Richard had seen him. Twice. And that wasn’t counting all the times he’d tried to look down her front.
“Trouble is,” Richard continued glumly, “that package comes attached to a mouth that won’t stop. You heard her. Hell, everybody heard her! Graciella would talk the ears off a dead man!”
That was no less than the truth. The Princess Graciella had a tongue that flapped at both ends. She got up in the morning chattering and she went to sleep at night, still chattering, and she never stopped talking in between. Not even to draw breath.
Richard was still dizzy from the battering his ears had taken. After five days of it, even Graciella’s breasts had begun to lose their appeal. At last, in desperation, he’d pleaded a war on some border or other and fled.
It hadn’t done his pride any good to run, of course, but he wasn’t as particular about his pride as he was about his peace of mind...and Graciella had given him no peace whatsoever.
“Old King Torvan isn’t going to be too happy about your leaving, you know,” Harry said. “He seemed to take it for granted you’d never get past those breasts. Especially not after you turned down Princess Thessia and Princess Mirabelle and Princess Alice and--”
“I couldn’t marry her, Harry. She’d have driven me mad with her constant yammering. They all would! Not one of them knows how to keep silent for longer than it takes to blink. Not one! Folks wouldn’t like having a madman for a king.”
“Mmmm.” Harry didn’t look convinced.
Richard brightened, though. If you looked at it that way, he hadn’t run--he’d had to leave. For the sake of his subjects, so they wouldn’t have a madman for their king.
Knowing he’d done it for the good of his people made him feel a little better. Not much, but a little.
“I’m not an unreasonable man, Harry,” he said. “Really I’m not. All I want is a wife. You know, someone beautiful and kind and sweet and clever. But not too clever, mind! It wouldn’t do to have a wife who was cleverer than me.”
Harry shook his head. “Wouldn’t do at all.”
“But clever enough. Can’t have a stupid queen, either.”
“Of course not!” said Harry.
“She’ll have the face of an angel, of course,” said Richard, warming to his subject. “And golden hair down to her waist, and eyes as blue as the bluest sky.”
Harry nodded in agreement.
Richard narrowed his eyes and stuck out his lower lip, considering. “Or maybe she’ll have brown eyes and black hair.”
“Brown eyes are fine,” said Harry agreeably.
“She’ll have legs that go right up to there,” said Richard, a little dreamily. “Long legs. Long, slender, shapely legs with fine ankles and a dimple on her knee and thighs--”
He sucked in his breath. There wasn’t any need to expand on the thighs.
“And she’ll have breasts like Graciella’s.”
“Mrrumph,” said Harry.
Richard glanced at him questioningly.
His friend shrugged. “Not much chance she’ll have breasts like that,” he said with an apologetic grimace. “Stands to reason she wouldn’t. There can’t be another pair like ‘em in ten kingdoms.”
Richard considered the possibility of finding another pair like Graciella’s, then nodded regretfully. “You’re right. That is asking a little much.”
“It’s not impossible, mind,” said Harry. “Not likely, but not impossible.”
“I can be flexible on the breasts,” said His Majesty, to show he was reasonable.
Which didn’t mean he was giving up on the breasts entirely. Even a reasonable man could hope.
“Anyway, what I really want is someone who’s warm and gentle and soft and cuddly and eager and...and...and what not. And quiet, damnit!”
He threw up his hands. “Now I ask you, is that too much to ask for? Is that really too much to ask for the King of Avalon, Darian, Longshore, and the Western Isles? Not to mention all the rest of it? Is it really so unreasonable to want a wife who knows how to keep her mouth shut?”
“Not at all,” said Harry. “Perfectly reasonable.”
Richard heaved a weary sigh. “That’s what I thought. So why is it so damnably hard to find a woman like that, Harry? Is it me?”
“Of course not!” growled Harry.
Harry just stared at him.
Richard slumped in his saddle, shoulders drooping.
“I swear, Harry, if ever I meet a woman who doesn’t talk my ears off, I’ll marry her straight away. I don’t care if she’s old and ugly or still toddling around in short coats. If she can keep her mouth shut, I’ll make her my queen. On my honor, I swear it!”
Her Royal Highness, Princess Arianne of Montavia, dropped the shirt she was knitting to suck at the bright blood welling at the tip of her finger. This was the third time this evening that she’d pricked her fingers on the nettles she was working, and she was getting downright tired of it, thank you very much!
It would have been easier if she could have cussed over the accident, but not a word could she say, vulgar or otherwise, and it was all her brothers’ fault. All twelve of them! If they hadn’t ignored everything she’d ever taught them about studying hard and minding their manners and always being polite to their elders they wouldn’t be in this mess, and neither would she.
Arianne glared at the prickly lump of knitted nettles in her lap, then sighed and leaned back in her chair.
The fire in the hearth crackled comfortably, warming the room and casting a pleasant glow that kept the night at bay beyond the cottage’s curtained windows. She could hear the rain drumming on the thatching overhead, but not so much as a drop had worked its way through. Small comforts, but she was grateful for them. Especially since she hadn’t had much else to be grateful for lately.
Scarcely a week had passed since all the trouble had started, but she could remember every detail, right from when little Gunelda, the second kitchen maid, had burst into the castle still room where Arianne was inspecting the latest batch of ale. The maid had been gabbling like a demented duck, but Arianne had no trouble grasping the point of it all--her brothers had invaded the kitchen and all hell had broken loose.
Arianne had abandoned Gunelda, still gabbling, and raced out the door and down the stairs in the hope of stopping them. She’d been too late. By the time she hit the kitchens, the boys were long gone and Cook was screaming for their heads, princes or no.
It didn’t take long to sort out the details. A dozen angry people were anxious to inform Arianne--in passionate detail--of the princes’ manifold sins, beginning with their tying up their tutor, then sneaking down to the kitchen to steal a dozen tarts that had been intended for the king and his guests at supper. On their way out of the kitchen, they’d frightened the kitchen cat, upset the scullery maid’s bucket of soapy water, and startled the kitchen boy so that he dropped the load of firewood he was carrying.
The firewood had landed in the dirty water spreading across the newly scrubbed floor and splashed everyone and everything within reach--but not before one good-sized hunk had clobbered Cook’s aching bunions and another had banged the shins of the under-cook, who had started after the errant princes armed with an enormous wooden turnip masher. At the sudden blow to his shins, the under-cook had abandoned his quest for vengeance and grabbed for his wounded ankle...and dropped the turnip masher on his other foot in the process.
Judging from his frothing diatribe, no justice short of hanging, drawing, and quartering their Royal Highnesses would be good enough. Cook, he’d said, could have their heads afterward.
Cook’s eyes had gleamed at the prospect.
Arianne had escaped from the outraged kitchen staff only to run smack into an angry mob of castle folk intent on their fair share of vengeance. She’d listened with growing dismay as they’d recounted, loudly and with feeling, the continuing saga of her brothers’ assault on the castle.
From the kitchens, the princes had moved to the poultry coops, where they’d snitched all the new-laid eggs, most of which they’d used as ammunition against the hulking stable boy with whom they had a long-standing quarrel. They’d used the rest against the irascible old gardener whose protests over their raids on his strawberry beds had led to their incarceration in the schoolroom in the first place.
Not content with that, they’d further enraged the hen wife by kidnapping a goose and a turkey cock, then staging an impromptu race out of the coops, past the stables, and across the bailey to the main gates, which had caused the castle guards to forsake their duty posts, upset a score of passersby, frightened the horses, and spooked one of the milk cows so she broke her halter and galloped about wreaking more havoc than the boys and the goose and the turkey cock combined.
And everyone wanted to tell Arianne about it.
Princes or not, the old Master of Horse had said, he’d tan every one of their backsides--twice!--if ever he got his hands on them. Spooking his horses like that! Why, he had a good notion to tell the king what they’d done! And if that new colt had taken hurt from Prince William trying to ride him--without bridle or saddle, too!--he’d personally make sure His Royal Highness didn’t sit down for a month!
What about her cow? the dairy maid had demanded shrilly. And my pig? shouted another. And the baskets of vegetables Prince William ran over with that damned colt? the gardener had cried, brandishing his big-knuckled fist under Arianne’s nose. She’d carefully refrained from commenting on the raw egg that matted his beard and stained his leather jerkin and mud-caked hose.
Only the guards and the wayward princes were missing--the guards had gone slinking back to their duties and the boys had fled through the castle gates the instant they’d grasped the full extent of the disaster and the awful retribution that awaited them the instant they reappeared.
Nobody seemed to know what had become of the goose or the turkey cock.
And so it had gone, out the castle and through the village and down the road that led into the forest. It hadn’t been hard for Arianne to trace her brothers’ progress--all she’d had to do was follow the trail of destruction they’d left in their wake--but it hadn’t been nearly so easy to fob off the angry folk she encountered along the way, all of whom expected her to set things right immediately.
Arianne was deep into the Dark Woods before she’d managed to escape from the last of her brothers’ angry victims. At the time, she’d been grateful for their retreat since she hadn’t wanted anyone throttling her brothers before she had a chance to do the job herself.
Of course, that was before she’d found out just how much trouble they could get into when they really tried.
At the memory of her solitary progress through the Woods, Arianne shivered, then tossed the nettle shirt she’d been knitting on top of the heap of nettles beside her. Her fingertip throbbed where she’d pricked it, but the throbbing was only slightly more noticeable than the dull aches of all the other pricks and gashes and bruises she’d acquired over the last few days.
As soon as she finished these damned nettle shirts and had set everything to rights, Arianne swore she really was going to throttle her brothers. Every one of them! Even little Dickie, who was only five and sweet and who wouldn’t have thought of any of it if his older brothers hadn’t led him into it first.
At the thought of Dickie, she blinked and sniffed--just a little sniff because she was a princess, after all!--and scrubbed at her nose with the back of her hand, remembering.
Despite the approaching night and all the frightening tales she’d heard about what happened to solitary travelers caught in the Dark Woods after dark, she’d forged deeper into the forest alone. She’d had to. Dickie didn’t like the dark, and Tryffin was prone to catching cold if he didn’t keep his head covered, and Geoffrey needed to have that bandage on his finger changed. He’d cut himself the day before trying to whittle a wooden spoon for her, and though she’d fussed at him for being careless, she’d been touched by the gesture and worried that the cut would turn putrid if she didn’t watch it.
Besides, she’d hated to think what everyone back at the castle was saying about her brothers’ latest escapade. She could almost hear them, chattering in the Hall and whispering in the corners about how something like this was bound to happen, sooner or later---all those troublesome boys, you know, and Princess Arianne spoiling them, and hadn’t they always said she was too young to take on such a responsibility and couldn’t be trusted to keep them in line? And now look!
No matter what everyone said, Arianne knew she couldn’t have done anything else. From the time she was little, she’d fussed over her brothers and bossed them around. Her father was too wrapped up in his studies to think much about them and her mother was too busy breeding them and popping them out to have time to spend worrying about them once they were past the diapers-and-wet-nurse stage.
Arianne hadn’t minded, really, even though her brothers annoyed her at times. She’d been twelve when Rheidwn was born and delighted to have a real live baby to play with. Her mother had gotten pregnant again almost immediately. Eleven more boy babies had followed Rheidwn in quick succession. There’d been two sets of twins and one set of triplets, which considerably speeded up the process, but they’d been doubly and triply hard on her mother.
When her mother had died giving birth to little Dickie, Arianne hadn’t hesitated--she’d taken over the job of coddling her father and running the castle and its people. Most important, she’d taken over mothering the twelve motherless princes. Despite the trouble they caused, they were good boys and they were her brothers, and Arianne loved every one of them.
And that’s why she hadn’t turned back to the castle when the villagers had left her alone in the Dark Woods. She’d had to keep going. Her brothers needed her, and that was that.
After what had seemed like hours of wandering through the gloomy forest, Arianne had come at last to an ugly little thatched cottage. The cottage had surprised her because she’d traveled through the Dark Woods before--with her father’s knights and servants as escort, of course--and she didn’t remember ever having seen it. But there it was, hunkered under a towering pine tree like a mushroom. A poisonous mushroom.
It had been grimly unwelcoming. There’d been no lights in the dusty, dirty windows or smoke from the chimney, and no sign that anyone was around.
Arianne had crept closer. Her heart had pounded in her chest. Her hands had grown cold and clammy and demonstrated a strong tendency to shake in time with the shaking of her knees. She’d circled the cottage, trying to peer in the narrow windows. Nothing. She hadn’t been able to see anything except the squat, dark shapes of chairs and a table that occupied the center of the single room. It had looked as if no one had lived there for a long, long time. She’d knocked at the door. A hollow echo had answered back.
Cold and tired and growing more worried by the minute, she’d been about to go on when a sudden beating of wings had stopped her. Like angels in her dreams, a dozen beautiful swans had flown out of the forest to circle over her head. She’d gaped at them, startled, then shrunk back against the cottage door when they abruptly swooped down to land at her feet.
To her amazement, as each swan landed, it shed its white feathers and changed back into one of her brothers. They’d fallen on her, laughing and crying and hugging her until she was breathless--but not so breathless that she couldn’t laugh and cry and hug them right back.
Eventually, amid the tears and the scoldings and the hugs, she’d heard the whole story. How her brothers, not content with having upset the peace of castle and village, had wandered into the forest and found the cottage. How they’d peeked in the windows, as she had, and knocked at the door. They’d been very hungry by that time, despite the purloined tarts they’d gobbled up earlier, so when they’d gotten no answer, they’d decided to break in and look for something to eat.
That’s when things had really gone wrong. The cottage’s owner, an ugly, ill-tempered crone, had returned at precisely the moment when they were scraping the last of the jam out of her jam jar with the intention of spreading it on the very last scrap of bread from her bread box. Enraged at the princes’ presumption, the crone had cursed them and turned them all into swans, then vanished.
There was a way out of the mess, her brothers had hastened to assure her when Arianne had exclaimed at the tale, but it wasn’t going to be easy, and she was the only one who could help them.
“Anything,” Arianne had said. “Anything if it will set you free.”
“You can’t go home until we’re free, and we can’t be freed until you’ve knit twelve shirts out of nettles you’ve gathered yourself,” Rheidwn had explained. “The shirts will break the enchantment and we’ll turn back into princes.”
“Nettle shirts?” Arianne had demanded, aghast. “I have to knit twelve shirts out of nettles?”
Rheidwn had nodded glumly. “And you can’t say a word till you’re finished. Not even little bitty ones, like ‘no’ or ‘yes’ or ‘please pass the butter’.”
“I can’t talk?” She’d stared at them as if they’d gone mad.
“No, nor sing, either.”
Arianne had almost choked. “I can’t even sing?”
All twelve of them had shaken their heads.
At least they’d had the grace to look abashed. They knew how much she liked singing.
Before she could ask another question, the little time allotted them to be in their human form had run out. In the blink of an eye, they’d magically changed back into their swan shapes and, with a great whoosh and flap of wings, disappeared into the forest. The swan that was little Dickie had looked mournfully back over its shoulder, but it had flown away with the rest, leaving her standing alone on the cottage’s stone step as the evening shadows faded into night.
Arianne hadn’t had any choice. She’d moved into the crone’s abandoned cottage and set about trying to put things right.
Gathering enough nettles to make twelve shirts was bad enough--for boys who were growing like weeds, no less!--but the crone had made things as miserable as possible for her.
The shirts couldn’t be knit out of just any nettles. Oh, no! These nettles had to be gathered by the light of a full moon, which was just enough light to find the nettles, but not enough to keep from getting her hands ripped to pieces as she picked them.
Arianne sucked at the finger she’d pricked, which was still throbbing, and glared at the mound of nettles she’d heaped on the floor beside her chair.
She’d had to wait two days before the full moon rose. She’d used those two days to clean the cottage from top to bottom--from the look of the place, the previous occupant hadn’t used a dust rag in years--and to bake bread and make three kinds of soup so she wouldn’t have to waste time cooking once she had the nettles.
It had been hard work, but she’d been grateful for the distraction. Every time she started thinking about her brothers, out in the cold and the wet and the dark without her to take care of them, or of her father, lost among his books and without her to make his coddled egg just the way he liked it in the morning, she wanted to cry. And she was absolutely determined that she would not cry. Not even a little bit.
An occasional sniff or two or a little moisture in her eye didn’t count. She would not cry. Not even when her poor hands hurt as much as they did now--and after a night spent gathering nettles and two days spent knitting them, they hurt a lot.
None of that mattered. Feeling sorry for herself didn’t get Rheidwn’s shirt done, let alone the other eleven. She couldn’t repress a slight grimace, however, as she picked up her brother’s shirt, then retrieved the second set of knitting needles so she could finish off the sleeve she was working on.
She was just casting off the cuff when the silence in the cottage was broken by a peremptory knock at the door.
“Anybody home?” a deep, masculine voice loudly demanded.
Arianne started and dropped the needles she held. She barely managed to bite back a curse.
The knock came again, louder this time. “I know you’re in there! I can see the smoke coming out of the chimney!”
Arianne hesitated. She was all alone here in this cottage in the Dark Woods. Who knew what kind of man might be wandering around out there, and on a night like this? Thank God she’d remembered to lock the windows and bar the door.
“Open up in there! I’m the King of Avalon and all my followers have gotten lost and I’m cold and wet and damn near half-starved. Open up, I say, and let me in!”