Written for twinenigma, my LJ Secret Santa recipient, who suggested a version of the "Swan Maiden" tale for a prompt, and may be getting a lot more words than expected. It's a very good prompt.
The tale was true long before the Kingdom existed. Fifteen years ago, the Prince returned, having defeated the Raven and won the hand of his daughter. Now the King and Queen and their family confront a far older power than Drosselmeyer's hand in their story.
Whether the Royal Family was living in a school, or had built a school in their home, was a conundrum that the Princess deemed unanswerable; but the arrangement suited her. She liked this palace, even though the old family castle had caught her imagination recently.
Although Father had been rebuilding the old fortress at the opposite end of the Long Lake off and on for several years now, it was still not ready for occupation, and somehow the Princess Elsa doubted that she would ever have to live there for more than a few days at a time. Castles were inconvenient places, cold and cramped and drafty, with narrow, worn, uneven stairs everywhere. It was just that the country seemed to expect the fastness on the Swan's Rock to be a Royal Residence again, someday. Father had insisted upon finishing with the towns and the farms first. That still took up time and money, even though some of the cropland had been wrested back from the Desolation of the Raven while he had been– elsewhere.
Somehow, though, the oldest tower in the castle had acquired a reputation for being haunted, but only mere months ago, as major repairs were finally completed and some of the interior restored. The Princess's grandparents and a lot of the castle folk had died in the great Battle that the older adults still talked about. Though everything movable had been hurriedly salvaged after the fight, and all the dead laid to rest, few people seemed to want to climb that last long, steep mile up the Rock unaccompanied now, to disturb the uneasy peace of the battle site. Workmen came and went, of course, but they hiked up and down in groups, arriving after sunup and leaving well before sundown.
The few that did stay after dark, came down with stories to tell. The Princess had heard some of them. Strange tales of disorientation and visions from a happier past, of becoming lost in rooms that had only one door and no furniture, or following stairs that led to places that hadn't existed for centuries. She wondered how much remodeling was going on as the place was being rebuilt; quite a lot, from some of the hints Father had let drop. Perhaps, she thought fancifully, the tower didn't want to be redesigned.
But the Kingdom had more than one royal residence, of course; and this huge Palace, practically at the far end of the lake from the Swan's Rock, had answered the desire for a place to put an arts school. Now the country had a ballet again, and an orchestra, and was working on an opera company. The setting was lovely; from here the view, across the deep water to the land laid waste by the Raven, was softened and colored by the lake- mist and partly hidden by tiny islands. It had been fifteen years since the Prince had returned with a victory and a Princess, and yet the poisoned forests and fields were just beginning to show green in the warm weather.
It might all have been hers to reign over one day, but that was pretty much okay.
Elsa was thirteen, the eldest of three. It galled a little, now and again, that her little brother was Crown Prince and heir; if nothing else, because he enjoyed bullying and pulling rank. At least she was still bigger than he was, and Mother and Father didn't like the outbursts of his attitude any more than she did.
The best tactic was avoidance: if he couldn't find her they couldn't start fighting, which brought them both trouble. Sigmund never seemed to mind punishment if it meant that she got disciplined too. Honestly, better her than ten- year- old Gunter, who would lose his temper, charge in flailing and get hurt. He wanted to be a danseur like Father, and Sigmund wasn't above tromping on his toes.
So Elsa had taken to breaking into every unused room and closet she could find in whichever house or palace or castle they were in, so long as it was one of the Crown's. She wouldn't be that rude to a host.
This morning, between early practice and lunch, it was a room that made her feel a little guilty because it was in the School, not the private areas of the Palace; when she had first peeked under the dust- sheets on her first visit, it proved to be full of trunks and boxes– clothing and furniture, things brought from the castle that could be used as props or costumes or sets, or cleaned and moved into the Palace proper for more mundane purposes.
As always, she first made her way to the window and looked out. The ground was four stories down on this side of the building, and then it dropped steeply to the lakeshore, too steeply for more than a carefully- planned wilderness footpath among the rocky outcrops with their flowering vines. She was sure this side of the Palace faced the old castle on its crag, but it was far too distant to see. Two days by hard riding, three or more by foot around the shore, the same by coach on the high road that wound behind the ridges. Or one could sail all the way to the base of the Swan's Rock and its harbor, but the picturesque rocks dotting the shore here made it long work just to reach clear water.
She turned away and set to work on a new trunk this time. It only took a few moments; she laid the little leather roll of lockpicks on the box beside her and lifted the lid.
Inside were feathers. Granted, they were old and worn and even the best needed steamed back into shape– but this grayish- brown cloak, fletched so that the shoulders were huge, with embroidered feathers repeated on the thin silk below– surely that was for a Rothbart! Beneath it, a dozen, no, more than that– flattened headgear for Odette's swan- maidens. There was more underneath. She went to the far side of the room and retrieved a sheet, shaking the dust off outside the wide window, folding it inside out and laying it across crates and the end of a sofa, then turned back to the trunk.
Rothbart's cape was gone. Another set of footprints in the dust, a soft shuffle–
Couldn't the little pest leave her alone for an hour? "Take it off, Sigmund. It doesn't fit and you'll damage it."
"I like it. I think I'll be crowned in it."
"You would. You know who it's for, of course."
"Yeah. Rothbart is cool. "
"You haven't seen a scary one yet," she shot back. Father could dance the role either way; any way he liked, in fact.
"I'll be a scary one."
"You have to practice first, moron. You don't work at it enough, not like Gunter and me, or Father and Mother. You're too busy planning your own coronation," she snapped. Something was missing. Had she put the sheet down over the lockpicks? She hoped so. Maybe he wouldn't know what they were if he saw them.
"What are these?" At least he was distracted by the costumes. She held up one of the headbands, then others. Who had packed feathers so carelessly? she wondered. These should never have been squashed together like this. Not that it was much better letting Sigmund handle them.
Bits of special costumes– maybe Odette's and Odile's, matching styles but two white, one black. Of course; there were always two Odettes; one had to appear upstage at the ball, behind Odile. Beneath those–
Another cloak? No, it was far too small. There seemed to be no particular shape to it, no ties or arm-holes. It was made differently, the feathers packed tightly into a roughly egg- shaped leather base. It would disintegrate during the first performance if it went onstage, though; the leather was dry and crumbly. It wasn't big enough to go around an adult. It was hardly as big as a bath towel.
She looked into the trunk. Two more, one smaller and white, one far larger and black.
Maybe they weren't completed parts of costumes, but fabric, as it were. Of course. They were real bird skins, not made by people. But for that they were huge. Geese? Big geese?
Suddenly she blinked, disoriented. A thought crossed her mind, a feeling of vertigo, a memory of woods and water from above...
"What are these, anyway?" said Sigmund. To her horror, he was holding up the lockpicks.
"They're mine, give them here." Stupid stupid stupid, you know how he reacts to that–
"Not until you tell me!" His singsong voice was one of her buttons he loved to push.
"Just give them back!"
"All right, you two. What are you doing in here? I thought this place was locked. I heard you the whole way from the studio." Father was in practice clothes, ready for his own session with Mother.
"It was locked, I bet," said Sigmund gleefully. "I think these are her keys." He held up the rolled pouch, and their father took it.
"Just out of curiosity, where did these come from?" the King inquired mildly, examining the crooked rods and skeleton keys. Elsa was glad it wasn't Mother asking. For some reason such a question from Mother would have irritated her; somehow, lately– for a year or more– there was the intimation that whatever it was, she should stop it.
"The fair market, last fall. They were cheap, someone had them in a box with old tools and things and didn't know what they were."
"And you knew. How?"
"I watched the locksmith once when he was here fixing the school doors."
"Ah. And you worked out how to use them yourself."
"Mytho? Are they in there? What are they doing?"
"Yes, they've been exploring. You, boy, front and center." The feathery cape hung off the Prince's nonexistent shoulders and drooped to his hands, the silk dragging on the floor. The King stayed behind him. Elsa knew not to react when the pouch was pressed into her hand, behind his back. Mother would have caught a guilty expression immediately. She turned back to the trunk and the crumbling whatever- it- was hide, using the motion to hide the lockpicks as she slipped them into her pocket. Again the feeling of weightlessness as she was bent over the trunk... It made her curious. Could one of those bird- skins really show her what it was like to fly? She started as Mother's voice reached her from far away.
"Rothbart. Not inappropriate, I'm sorry to say," said the Queen, amusement in her voice. "You'd have to grow into it, though. No, I doubt it would last for a performance any more, you'd molt all over the stage."
"I want to see Father in it, then. Before it falls apart." Little suck- up, thought his sister rudely, wanting to see that too.
"Out into the hallway, I think," said the King, threading his way through the covered furniture, his older son before him.
"Can I keep it?" asked Sigmund hopefully, as they reached the door.
"I don't think so," said his father. "But I think I'll take it to the wardrobe- mistress and see if she can get a pattern from it. We might get one made to fit you. A very short one, with fake feathers."
That distracted him nicely, thought Elsa, even if it spoils him rotten. At least she had her picks back. She tried not to think that her little brother was getting a present for being a tattletale.
"What else is here?" asked the Queen. "Swan maidens, headdress for Odile, nothing usable, that's a shame..." The Queen's voice trailed off as she saw the piece of hide, then reached into the trunk. "What are these? Skins?" she asked, her voice suddenly sharp.
"I didn't get that far," said Elsa, keeping her voice even. "Just this one, and it's in bad shape."
Through the door they could see Mytho, shaking out the dull cape and indeed shedding dust and feathers all over. Suddenly he moved, but the cape obscured him; he stopped himself, one arm high, letting the silk billow. Sigmund laughed. The Queen hmph'd most unmajestically. "Elsa, don't touch them. Mytho, get back in here. What are these? I thought hunting swans was illegal."
"What are what? Yes, legally it's as bad as treachery." His voice and his face changed as he saw what they were looking at. "Elsa, wait, don't..."
The warning came too late. The small white skin had started to slide off the sheet where the Queen had placed it, and Elsa had grabbed for it. She tried to drop it at his tone, but it didn't fall. Instead it rolled up and wrapped itself around her arm. She went down to her knees in shock. "Mother?" she said faintly, "I can't–"
Horrified, Rue saw the impossible happening. The thing had grown, covering Elsa from neck to waist in the space of a second or two, and the feathers were pushing their way past her clothing, into her skin. As they spread they changed, turning from white to gray. "MOTHER!"
Rue tried to pull the thing off her daughter, feeling it move and cling as if it lived. Elsa heard her scream for Father, felt the usually- gentle hands try to pull feathers off and felt them tear at her skin.
Elsa writhed, curling up. She heard, as if from a long way away, her father shouting a command that made a wave of pain blaze across her body. Then she rolled upright, shaking them both off; they were all getting in each others' way in the junk- filled room. She extended her arms– what were arms?– realized she needed clear space and charged, ready to flog either human as she gained the window, and leapt for the sky. Instead of ascending, though, she dropped toward the rocks. She remembered just in time how to spread her wings and glide toward the water, and then how to fly.
The King was the first to turn away from the window. Rue heard him shout for Sigmund to fetch the guard officer and whichever of his advisers was hanging around today. Then he put his own hand on the remaining swan- skins.
"Nearly nothing left in this one," he muttered as Rue strode back. "Why the others?"
"What are they?" asked the Queen in a tightly controlled voice. "What just happened? And why?"
"Swan skins," said the King. "An ancient curse of my family, of sorts. I never expected that story to come alive again, and I don't know how the skins can still be..."
"Mytho! I just want to know what's happening to Elsa!"
"I'm telling you! She's turned into a swan," he said. "The spell has her now. She might be able to take it off, but she always must put it back on if she does. From now on, if the curse isn't broken, she'll always have to come back to that skin, no matter how well- hidden it is. It can't be destroyed without hurting her too."
"What about these others? How can you touch them?"
"Because I'm a man," he said shortly. "The story was about swan- maidens. A man isn't affected by these."
"This curse. How do you break it?" It had been minutes now. Where was Elsa? Would she just circle around until she came down in the water and joined the flocks of waterfowl among these islands? Would she fly right out of the Kingdom? Rue almost missed her husband's reply.
"The curse is bound up with the old family castle. That's as far as she'll go, I'm sure. In the story– in my family's story– a hunter took a swan- maiden's skin while she and her sisters were swimming without them, so she had to stay human, and he married her. But there were three maidens. She had two sisters cursed the same way..." At the wild look on Rue's face, Mytho forced his frantic recollections back to the point. "The hunter kept the skin hidden, but that didn't do anything to end the spell. He never tried to break the curse until they'd been married for years, and had children of their own. Even so, she took up the skin again as soon as she found where it was hidden. The husband was able to end the curse for all three of them in the version of the story I read at school, but I'm not sure what happened here, in my family. No one ever said if or how our curse was broken, but these things are still powerful, obviously..."
He finally met his wife's panicked face. "It's why I'm the Swan Prince, why the royal line is tied to the swans. I'm guessing that the spell was never broken at all. It must have been waiting for centuries for a chance to capture a new victim."
Running feet in the corridor. The King went to confront the Guard and the government, in the person of a few officers and officials. Rue listened, but did not comprehend for a moment.
"Mother?" whispered a voice at her side. Gunter was there, and so was Sigmund. "What happened to Elsa? Where's Father going?"
Rue knelt and held both boys close as the meaning of the words, Gunter's and Mytho's, finally sunk in. Mytho was going. Elsa was too young to have anyone else to break the curse for her, even as Sigmund was volunteering to his mother to go do it, that he was sorry he'd teased her. She looked at her son, at his unwontedly serious face, and in that moment realized that a spoiled eleven- year- old boy might be a Princess's next- best hope. And the Queen couldn't allow it. He belonged to the Kingdom. So did Mytho, and herself, but Elsa's father was brooking no argument. Rue made up her mind. She was not going to let her husband go alone, guards or not.
"You two will have to make do with your aunt and uncle for a few days," she said then. Which was not unusual; Mytho's mother's brother and his wife had headed the Council that ran the Kingdom during Mytho's absence, and were still Mytho's closest advisers and relatives. She hugged the boys again, awkwardly in the cramped space, and told them that she and Father would leave very soon to bring Elsa back, but they had to go out of the room now. She moved to the window as they left, confused. Trying not to be afraid. Trying to be princes, when it mattered so suddenly.
How appropriate, part of her mind noted, that the last skin is black. Odile. The substitute princess, the illusion. The raven.
"Rue?" Mytho was at the door, holding his hand out to her. "I have a few things to take care of. Then I'll go. I'll have a few guards with me. But I have to find someone first, the hermit who first told me about Princess Tutu. He'll know more than I do about the old story."
"I'm sorry, Mytho," said Rue, meeting his eyes and shaking her head. "You aren't going without me. You'll need me. Elsa needs us both. But then you'll have to break the curse for both of us."
The last words were strained. Rue had been able to restrain the black swan- skin for a moment, but when she released her control the change was very fast indeed.
The black swan flew away from the Palace, the cry of her husband and her King still in her ears, blending in her mind with the cries of their daughter.
Disclaimer: Princess Tutu and all related characters and elements are the property, copyright and trademark of HAL– GANSIS/TUTU and Ikukoh Itoh and no ownership or claim on said property, copyright or trademark is made or implied by their use in the work(s) of fan fiction presented here. This fan fiction constitutes a personal comment on the aforesaid properties pursuant to doctrines of fair use and fair comment. This fan fiction is non-commercial, not for sale or profit, and may not be sold or reproduced for commercial purposes.
I've tried, but none of the music I've thought of really fits this one. Something will eventually turn up though.
I couldn't seem to avoid a resemblance to a similar kidnapping/ spellbinding situation from another work of mine, but here I can plead that it's from the Swan Maiden story. Which it is; in a slightly different version retold by Grimm, there's an effort to account for the mother leaving her family at the first sight of the swan- dress, which seems to be absent from many versions, including at least one Scottish mermaid tale; reclaiming the animal form seems to drive all other considerations out. Since this site is persnickety about giving other web addresses, I may not be able to direct the reader to the site of the prompt, but I will try.
I reserve the right to totally change things around once I finish the story, to make it all fit together. But for now this fits what I have in mind for the remainder of the story.