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; see Author's Notes at the end for more information.
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, while others are drawn in just as unwillingly. Small corrections 1/19/11.
Always a Price-ch.8
Rue paddled aimlessly, after a night of aimless flights. It was calming. Goodness knew the others didn't need her around them, fretting. Duck was still foraging in the shallows, for much the same reason, Rue thought.
Overhead Elsa flew, working off her own nerves, mostly circling the castle and its tower, then going as far as the limits they had found last night. Rue watched, of course, as did Duck, but tonight she was behaving herself.
Rue was proud of her daughter. This afternoon had only been the latest achievement, figuring out more than she and Duck had been able to about their situation. Elsa had more than earned back her wings, Rue felt, for as long as they were available. So long as she used them safely, of course.
The moon was full tonight, and would set around sunrise. The sky was just beginning to show a shade lighter than black when something jolted Rue out of her reverie.
Duck cried out, taking to the air as swiftly as possible, and Rue followed as she saw Elsa coming in, pumping her wings as hard as a swan could. They all headed for the tower.
Duck reached it first, landing clumsily; Elsa was next, backwinging as hard as she had been flying, and came down just as hard. Then Rue–
She nearly didn't make it. She stumbled as she landed, and came up against the wall, upright and human, well ahead of time and with the wind knocked out of her.
Elsa had reached Duck, who seemed to be hurt– feathers? She was still covered in white feathers? Duck was pleading with someone they couldn't see: don't give up, you're still alive, I haven't left you...
Rue was almost certain that Duck was not quite referring to herself. Feathers...
"Frau Schmidt! Can you hear me? Mother, what's wrong with her?" Elsa was crying now, terrified.
"I don't know! Du–" Rue swallowed that. If I call her a duck, what happens if she believes me? Is she half swan, or half duck? Is this what Autor was thinking of, before she left, telling Fakir not to try to turn her into a duck? He never acts without a reason, Duck says...
"Frau Schmidt! What's going on? What's happening? Stay with us! You're not a bird, you've been a human for years!"
At that, it seemed, Duck's hand moved, trying to reach her throat. Rue saw it. She clasped the hand, moving it, helping Duck grasp the ring on its chain.
"There, take hold of it! It's yours, you need a hand to wear it! Fakir gave that to you! Hold on to it!" Something seemed to be happening. Feathers were falling off, pinfeathers being reabsorbed into her skin. Rue unclasped the chain and worked it out of the ring and Duck's hand, found the ring finger, managed to put it on her without dropping it.
"There you go," said Rue as Duck went limp. "A bird doesn't have fingers to wear a ring. You're a woman, not a bird."
Duck was breathing regularly now. Rue and Elsa, relieved, saw her open her eyes– but the eyes weren't focused on them. Suddenly Duck tensed again.
"No! Don't give up, Mytho, you're still alive! I'm with you, you're whole, all of you, all here..."
The cries subsided into mumbling, but it didn't stop.
Elsa looked at her mother, stunned and still frightened. "What's wrong? Mother, what's wrong with her? It's like she isn't in there! Where is she?"
Suddenly it hit Rue, and she began cursing Drosselmeyer roundly in every language she knew. Not only had he left her a duck when his story was done, he hadn't even left the duck a heart to call her own, not entirely. Heart shards... and the last had been Princess Tutu's, the one who picked up the pieces and kept them together, and perhaps had never quite distinguished between Prince Siegfried's heart and Duck's...
"Wow, Mother," said Elsa, "can I use some of those?"
Possibly nothing else could have shut Rue up. "Elsa, I want you down at the bottom door. Try to get it open and don't stop until it does open. When that happens, yell and keep yelling until at least one of us gets there. Just keep that door open. Use some of that firewood to block it. Here, let me up there." Rue moved, taking Duck's head into her lap.
"But what's happening?"
"If you were right yesterday, the story is ending. Your father is somewhere here fighting it, and it had to stop wasting attention on us after we landed. Frau Schmidt is with Mytho, in a way–"
"Princess Tutu, you mean, don't you? That's why she's here and she was a swan instead of a duck, the white swan."
"Yes. Now go."
"I'll get a blanket first. She's cold."
Rue nodded. Elsa was right; it might still be a long wait, and Duck's hands were indeed cold. Elsa ran.
The candle, if it had ever existed, was out. The King was hunched with his knees to his chest. He should be lying flat, though, shouldn't he? The dead were laid out in such a grave. There would be a huge mound piled over this chamber, with a carved stone pillar set on the top to show that a king slept here. Wouldn't there be food and drink in here, and gold, and a well- crafted couch for him to lie on, covered in furs and fine cloth? If he opened his eyes, surely that was what he'd see.
He could almost feel the darkness enveloping him, just as he had felt intense cold press against his clothing when he had been alive...
A voice arose, he didn't know from where: you are still alive, I am with you...
Your heart is still whole. You still live. Don't give up.
He should know it. It seemed to be a woman's, but not Rue's; someone he loved, in a far different fashion from the way he loved his wife or his daughter, someone who knew the heart she spoke of...
Why could he not put a name to her?
He didn't have to, did he? It came down to this, that he had to believe one or the other: the evidence of his eyes, or the voice of his heart.
He uncoiled himself, but not to lie flat. He stood, and opened his eyes.
Princess Tutu, he suddenly remembered. How long had he been on the floor, letting darkness consume him? On the far wall, a sliver of gray light was almost gone, its edges jagged from the lines of the carved spiral.
Oh no you don't, he thought. He drew his sword, adding his left hand to his grip. Still saying nothing, he advanced to a place where he was certain of his range, and lunged.
He didn't know what to expect, but a broken sword was high on the list, or at least a blunted tip. Not a thunk. It still jarred his weary arms and shoulders. He followed the blade carefully with one hand, and felt wood. Honest wood. It took a fair amount of effort to work the tip of the sword free from an ordinary door.
He found his pack, lit the last candle. The walls of the small, bare room were ordinary dressed stone, ready to be plastered over. The door he'd stabbed was one of two. It led into the partly- finished Great Hall of the Round Tower; stairs led down from the one behind. The postern he'd come through would be at the bottom.
It was over.
Duck's eyes came open an instant before Elsa's call echoed up the spiral staircase.
"Rue. What happened?"
Rue sagged with relief as Duck sat up, then she ordered Duck to stay put while she answered her daughter.
"Now. Can you walk? If not, just stay here."
"I can walk. Go ahead, I'll follow. Go find Mytho. I'll be fine."
It was dawn, the moon just setting, the sun not yet showing. Duck stood unsteadily, bundled the blanket under one arm in case Mytho needed it, and made her shaky way carefully down the stairs.
Mytho remembered to pull the cloth from his face. It was dirty. He was dirty. Filthy. He needed to know that Rue and Elsa were all right, then he needed a drink, and a bath, and a meal, and sleep. Maybe not in that order.
He tried to remember the layout of the room. Those were the main Hall doors to an anteroom, then outside. Were his guards still waiting for him?
A door slammed open. "Mother, there!"
He managed to sheathe his sword before the two of them collided with him. His voice startled him; it sounded like nothing he remembered– but he could use it now.
"Rue," he said, "Elsa." They were all right. He could hold them again. Rue was crying. Elsa's arm was touching one of his burnt places but it wasn't important just now.
He was vaguely aware, even as soldiers in livery heaved the main doors open, even as the lieutenant led others from the storage room he had vacated, that a third woman had advanced to join them. She was hanging back, smiling. He raised his eyes, not at all surprised to see her now.
The brother was apparently under no vow of silence. Mytho didn't interrupt; the man was interesting enough to distract him from the pain of the burns as they were treated. There was history to his own castle that the King had never heard, for all that he had been raised there.
"The Count who began the Round Tower was somewhat of an antiquarian, almost unique for his day," the man said as he wrung out a cloth. "His third son was sent to the Church, and served as a scribe here. He drew pictures in the margins like any novice rather than embellishing his script. It's a wonder his record of the building of the Round Tower survived. I believe the Abbey has the only copy there ever was. But before they could start on the foundation, he drew the standing stones that had to be removed.
"I believe they were used as they were to pave the inner courtyard, and are still there, not far from the original site. The villagers thought it was unlucky to move or break them. What the picture shows is several uprights with a huge slab roof balanced on top, and there were other stones just as large lying nearby. He drew also the markings he could make out."
One of them would be a close- coiled spiral, meticulously carved, the King was certain; but the man was continuing.
"The villagers assured him that it was the tomb of an ancient king, and there is a tradition that another, later king was entombed there alive, in a most barbaric fashion, to try to lay an evil haunt."
"I believe," said King Siegfried, "that I recall something about that part." How many stories were ready to pounce out at them? he had asked Rue that morning. At least two, this time, but so tangled at that one place that to have one was to have both.
"There you are. I'll leave what you'll need with Her Majesty, unless you have your servant with you? No? Well, I have no doubt she'll organize the treatment you'll need." The King had no doubt of it either. His ears still rang from her– discussion– of his phrase 'a little worse for the wear,' from all those days ago, and of the fact that he had apparently confused the consequences of success and failure from the story.
"What I fear," added the brother as he packed away his supplies, "is that the destruction caused by the demonic Raven might become no more than a note added to the margins of this Kingdom's history. I was a novice when it happened. Those with the stomach to do so could watch part of it from the wall. Others, myself included, could only pray at the altar, knowing that we could offer no better help or defense. I remember the sudden silence, and all of us knowing nothing for certain until a runner came from the village and said that the beast had vanished and you with it, and that the King your father was dead, and the Queen with him, may they rest in peace."
The royal party had been offered the hospitality of the Abbey until they were fit for travel in a day or two. The morning after their arrival a thick letter had arrived addressed to the King. Duck's page had been short and to the point: Gottfried and Kat send their love; so do Raetsel and Hans, who looked after them for a few days when she heard that Mytho and Rue needed you. Mytho and Autor and I are going to work on an easier way to bring you home than turning you into a bird, so please accept their hospitality for a time...
And so on. She read it several times over, intensely homesick.
There was a concert in their honor later, perhaps the oddest she had attended. The carillon was played that afternoon. One sat in the sun or the shade, or wandered about the grounds and gardens as the brothers went about their business, but it could be heard plainly as far as the village. The ordinary services in the church, the plainsong echoing through the high nave, were another pleasure; so different from the music she danced to.
The day after, they went back to the castle for a few hours. Several young soldiers had taken the King up on his offer of a bonus for spending the night there. Nothing had happened, nothing had been seen or felt. The King and his party toured the works and gave the workmen something to talk about, then they all entered the Round Tower once more. When they all filed out the front door again, the King had two bird- skins over his arm. Dormant, he said, sleeping. With the story ended the skins were safer, though likely never completely powerless.
By the next morning there was a coach ready to take them home to the Palace.
"How does she do that?" Her Royal Highness the Princess Elsa asked Duck in an aside. "They found that for her in the village on the way here, it's what the women wear for market day. I can't pull it off in full regalia."
'That' was Rue seeing to the King's comfort, arranging a seat so that he could lie down if he wished, making sure cushions wouldn't just slither and scatter about. Even the competent presence of the King's body-servant wasn't stopping her. She wasn't being loud or bossy or even particularly in the way. Things were just getting done to the Queen's satisfaction.
Duck laughed. "That's Rue. She could be like that in the ugliest school uniform you've ever seen too, especially where he was concerned."
"And she looks good in anything."
"And we don't," agreed Duck. "I can't begin to wear bright oranges and reds well. You will, though, in a few years. Your hair just won't be as dark." Elsa's hair would probably have been called chestnut by a court poet and plain brown by anyone else.
Elsa looked sidelong up at Duck. "They want to send me to your Academy, don't they?"
"That will depend on a few things. Do you want to go?"
"I want to dance," said the Princess, determined. "I know what happens when I come of age. My parents won't force anyone on me, I'm sure of that, but it won't be the 'done thing' for me to take anything seriously but princessing and making myself into the perfect bride until I'm married off. I'll have to be perfect, too. I was born here, I'm who the whole Kingdom will be looking at, unless I manage to be, say, studying abroad. Then Sigmund will get all the attention. It might straighten him out."
"And if you go, and fail?"
"I won't," said Elsa. "You didn't. It just took you a little longer."
On the Kingdom's part it meant the construction of a road, or rather the clearing of an appropriate old track long abandoned. Connecting the road to someplace that could be reached from Goldkrone would take more time than was wanted, though, and so the King took Princess Tutu back home, flying in the swan- boat. They weren't sure when the road from Story to Story, as Elsa put it, would be ready, and so it was likely that the swans would be imposed upon once more to take Elsa to the Academy for next term.
Memories whirled about Duck's mind. Being a royal guest, and treated as a Princess, was a bit more than she had been prepared for, but she had managed not to disgrace her friends.
What had been a little unnerving was an unscheduled stop on the way from the Abbey to the Palace. On the second day someone had hailed them from the roadside. Wrapped in an unseasonable and faded black robe, he had bowed to their Majesties, and presented Duck with 'a gift for a writer,' and then simply turned and walked away. "That was him," the King said calmly. "The hermit, the first one to ever give me any information about Princess Tutu. Did you see his face?"
"Not really," Duck had said, quite shaken. "But what I did see–"
The King had nodded. The hermit had oddly protuberant eyes, of an impossible, familiar color. Duck had unwrapped the gift in private. It was a single acorn. Fakir and Autor, she knew, must be the ones to decide whether to use it.
What she remembered best was the School, and practice, getting back into her routine after days of having to make do, learning afresh from an instructor she didn't know and who didn't know her, and dancing with Rue and Mytho after all those years. Yesterday, she should have known something was up when Elsa and Rue wanted her to join them in wearing real costumes, and then moved the session to the stage where the orchestra was practicing. She had gotten to dance a pas de deux with the King, as she had wanted to do all those years ago with the Prince, as herself. It had been the Nutcracker Prince and the Sugarplum Fairy; it had been great fun.
There had been rambunctious Sigmund, and shy and bookish Gunter, who just might want to follow in his sister's footsteps, and who would certainly want to meet Fakir and Autor and Gottfried; when, as he told Duck in a matter- of- fact tone, he got over being shy.
There had been sorting out everything that had happened. What no one else need know was that Elsa had been the one to reach for her swan- skin, atop the tower, and found that she no longer would fly. Silently she had handed it to her father, and he had picked up the black one, and so they had left. The skins were locked in the treasury now, in an underground vault, safe until they could be sent back safely to their home in the Round Tower. Both Elsa and Rue felt the loss of their wings, Duck knew.
There were many questions about the story, or perhaps stories, in which they had been caught up; questions that might never be answered. Hopefully it was all over now, and unimportant, mere fodder for recollection and debate. Hopefully.
In time they had asked Duck what had happened atop the tower, that last morning; had she still been a swan, or trying to change back into a duck? What she had felt, Duck recalled, was the last time she had been Princess Tutu, and a story's ending. She had almost turned back into a duck. Without Rue and Elsa there, reminding her, and without the ring she'd refused to leave behind, she might have lost herself entirely.
"So, is that a magic ring?" Sigmund had asked, impressed.
Duck thought about it, amused. "It wasn't supposed to be," she said. "But I won't say it isn't." It wasn't big, or impressive, or expensive; but Fakir had not known, when he'd gotten it, of Edel's jewel named Courage. He'd just gotten the one that had a tiny ruby beside the equally- tiny diamond, remembering the pendant that she'd worn once; and when she had needed to remember who she was, it was what she'd had to remind herself, the only object she'd been able to think of that a bird could carry so far.
Maybe that did make it magic. She'd have to tell Fakir that.
It was cold up here without her down, just blankets. Behind her feet was jammed a bag; there was no excuse not to have a few presents for the children, and Fakir and Autor and Raetsel and Hans. Beside her the King had his attention on driving the swans. He would stay in Goldkrone for a day or so, a proud father arranging for his daughter's admission to the Goldkrone Academy. And there it was, the church tower on the horizon; there would be a man waiting on the dock at the lake, and her own family waiting for her when morning came.
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.
If anyone figures out some music, let me know... Dvorak's "New World Symphony" is still bouncing around my head.
FFN does not allow the quotation of web addresses, but the first result of a Google search of " D. L. Ashliman swan maidens" should lead to a page with several stories, including the one from Germany used throughout this story, and several others.
My 'Hermit' is an extrapolation from aorphiusrex's much- appreciated translation work on the readable text that appears in the Princes Tutu anime. It was posted in June 2010 to the Princess Tutu community on LiveJournal. The pages in question appear in AKT 5, and are from Prinz und Rabe; the translation reads:
" 'Where is she?'
" Prince asked the old man. [blocked]
" 'Nobody knows that.'
" 'But she appears to people [blocked]
and rescues them through their heart[s] of great/large [blocked]
" 'I wish she would become my princess(1) [blocked]
and rescue [the?] sadness of the people together (2) [blocked]
Prince said and thought her depiction [blocked]
" 'Dear prince, your wish [says?] nothing. (3)'
The old man simply smiled and said."
The second page:
" 'Dear Prince [offscreen]
The old man [offscreen]
'Princess Tutu? Who [offscreen]
Prince asked the old man [offscreen]
'People say about her [offscreen]
She has shining [offscreen]."
1 – the original German word ("warden") doesn't mean anything to the extent of my knowledge, and the way this sentence is used, I'm pretty sure it's supposed to be "werden," which means "to become."
2 – another "I don't know what they mean so I'm just gonna translate it literally" moment.
3 – "Erspricht" is another word that doesn't have a definition to my knowledge. They could have just meant "Spricht," meaning "speaks/says", or perhaps "Verspricht," meaning "promises" (as in "Your wish promises nothing.") "Nicht" ("not") should probably also be "nichts" ("Nothing")