Hope is the art of transformation.
"You wished for a wife who would love you," said the witch, waving one long-fingered hand, "not for one who would be happy." She sipped from her cut-crystal goblet and her mouth twisted, though the king knew the vintage was very fine.
He liked to go out into the marsh with his bow and a full quiver, where the borders blurred and he could vanish into the watery earth and reeds and the thrum of waterfowl flying over his head.
"Your Majesty," said an elderly councillor behind him, who tottered ungainly over the sods, lifting his scarlet velvet high to keep it out of the damp. He gestured to the guards in gaudy livery who held a frailer, drab figure firmly between them. "Your Majesty."
"Walk with me," he said abruptly, shoving his quiver into the servant boy's bound hands and stalking off into the marsh. The boy followed, his long spindly limbs awkward over the rough and shifting ground of the marsh. The king walked until they were alone in the marsh, and walked further.
He looked up as a wild duck whirred through the sky above them. "You were friends with my wife."
The boy said stiffly, "It is not given to commoners to befriend royalty."
Consider the humble arrow. Transformed from things that cannot fly - dead wood and dead feathers – it soars.
Yet, unlike the bird who chooses her path, an arrow will arc cleanly or be buffeted by wild air: once fired, it always lands where the world means it to.
The night they married, the queen sat on the cloth-of-gold bedspread and opened a chest of polished bog wood. She showed him narrow sheets of homespun linen, and shirts stitched with cheap floss embroidery. Lastly, she spread out a shawl, a drab thing sewn with small feathers of a hundred shifting shades of green and brown.
Later, he assumed that the Attendants of the Bedchamber tidied the chest away. But she never mentioned it, and he had not thought to ask. Not until later.
"They say hope is a feathered thing," the boy blurted, his dark, rough clothing smeared now to the hips with mud and torn reeds. He had shifted the leather quiver so that it rested in his gangly arms like a child, and lifted his chin high to keep his mouth clear of the goose-feather fletching of the arrows.
"Why did you pick her?" the boy asked. "Why her?"
And there were many answers to that question.
This was the proper procedure for bathing: sit with back against the cool curve of enamel and let the foamy water rise. Then, around two bony mountain-knees, the little wooden boats could perambulate on waves propelled by careful bats of his rough hands. On a good day, he could navigate the little scarlet pinnace through the tunnel under his right knee. (He hadn't mastered the left, yet. The left was tricksy.)
He looked up, and the queen was watching, pillowing her hands and chin on the edge of the tub. Her hair was like night, if night could swirl, and her brow creamy as the crest of a wave. The edges of her wide mouth lifted ever-so-slightly. Very slowly, she reached a hand forward and stirred up a whirlpool. He sent the pinnace to its doom.
The old councillor's voice droned on and on. "And for nobles of the first, second, and third degree the prescribed penalty for adultery is death by blade, though two precedents have been established for lifelong imprisonment. In this circumstance there is some question as to the appropriate degree in which to try the queen, when she is found. As to aiding and abetting-"
The king found his voice. "Why adultery?"
Surprise showed in the lines of the councillor's face. "What else could it be?"
Sometimes, she cried underneath him like a bird.
"... oh, and the child under her heart, of course," continued the witch with cheerful brutality. "However," she said, steepling her fingers, "a trade does present itself. Life for life."
"Whose?" said the king, harshly. "Mine?"
But the witch just smiled.
"You should have run that day," he told the boy kneeling in shackles.
The boy's black hair smeared like ink-strokes over his white face and a small trickle of blood ran from his swollen right eye – the king wondered seriously if it would ever see properly again. The boy bowed his head, and oh! the pride in that gesture. "I am loyal to the crown," he whispered.
"I will repeat the question to the accused," the councillor roared from his high chair behind the king's. "Did you or did you not assist the queen in her attempt to escape the castle?"
The boy's head came up. "I helped a prisoner escape," he said. His bloody gaze met the king's. "I found her feathers for her."
The king frowned. "Feathers?"
The boy blinked. "You mean, you didn't know?"
The witch was packing to leave, sending her personal servants this way and that with her books, and her clothes, and her glittery, magpie jewellery. The pink-haired servant held up a necklace from which dangled glass beads that looked disturbingly like eyes and flicked one curiously with a finger. The king looked away, to a worktable covered haphazardly with scrawled chalk symbols and a shabby wicker basket.
There was a cat in the basket, long as a drink of ink, blinking grumpy, mismatched eyes. He held out a gentle finger for the cat to sniff and it slashed him fiercely on the wrist and stalked away into the perfumed shadows of the witch's room. The king looked after it thoughtfully.
Borders blur in the marsh. Today the clouds have parted so that blue reflects in all the pools of water and it is as if he is standing in the sky.
A duck comes winging towards him, drab-feathered in a hundred shades of green and brown. She flies straight as an arrow shot from the bow, and it would be so easy to catch her in the heart with one of his own.
His bow creaks from the strain. Cool wind scatters hair across his forehead and cools the back of his neck. Sweat stings the scratches on his wrist into fire. You mean, you didn't know?
He realises his arms are trembling.
What is hope?
I was riffing off the old stories of swan-mays and selkies – women who would marry a man as long as he hid away the cloak or cap that let them transform to their beast form. The stories usually end badly. This one involved a duck, and I hope I left it open-ended enough for the happy ending bit.
a chest of polished bog wood... A tradition rather left in disuse in these days of easy Manchester, but it used to be that girls would own a hope chest which they spent their adolescence filling with hand-sewn bedlinen and other cloth items which would be useful when they set up a household.
If wood soaks in a bog for a while, it absorbs lots of chemicals, which both preserve it and colour it interesting shades.
hope is a feathered thing... I think it was Emily Dickinson who wrote that. Certainly not original, in any case.
her brow creamy as the crest of a wave... lifted (and paraphrased) from Robert Graves' "To Don Juan at Summer Solstice"
... glass beads that looked... like eyes... from the Tale of Volund (or Wayland). A crippled smith was captive on an island making treasures for the mainland king. Members of the royal family kept rowing over trying to get something special for themselves. Volund, who was in rather a bad mood, sold a princess a necklace with her brothers' eyes set in crystal. The story has a swan-may in it, which perhaps put me in mind. Also, CLAMP have certain recurring motifs...
Special thanks to Nayuki-bunny-chan for letting me continue her story (and the Himawari is pregnant bit).