The Swan Princess: A Horse's Tale

AN: This is a fairly old work, and one of my 1st fics ever written. Criticism is welcome, and I don't currently have a Beta-reader. All mistakes, misjudgments, and misinterpretations are my own. Characters belong to their respectful owners, no copywriter infringement intended.

The darkened woods cast deep shadows that cloaked Rothbart in an anonymous shroud of safety, shielding his pitted face from recognition as he watched from the tree line. Oh sure, that fool princeling, Derek, had shot him with an arrow-plunged it into his beastly chest- but that didn't mean he had died.

He was a magician, and he was resourceful: the only two reasons he was currently living.

The sorcerer shuddered as he recalled the sensation of the cold steel of the arrow tip slicing viciously into his abdomen, tearing his beastly form asunder and the shape-shifting spell shredded from his body like a pall. Rothbart had been forced to think quickly- something he strongly disliked in comparison to well formed and planned attacks- and he had conjured up a large explosion to give the appearance of his death, hoping to slip away back into the safety of his castle and have the dirty old hag treat his wounds.

However, the arrow's shaft had been buried deep in his body, tearing deep into muscle tissue and causing extensive internal bleeding. Rothbart had barely managed to pull himself away from the battlefield and into a dank but sheltered cave, before he realized it was impossible to even fathom reaching the castle. It was only through the hag's desperate search and dedication to her master that he had been discovered teetering on the brink of death. And when she had dragged him to the nearest town to heal him, he knew he was eternally grateful for her faithfulness.

After nearly a month of tedious bed rest and living incognito, Rothbart had discovered from a portly and bigmouthed pub owner that Odette and Derek had taken his castle for their own. There, they were living within the walls, blissfully unaware of his survival.

So here he stood, staring at the very stone parapets he had controlled only less than a year before, shut out of his very home. But not for long. He was Rothbart, ingenious schemer and master of the forbidden arts…let them try and avoid his wrath. He was ready, and he had a plan.

Odette tossed and turned in her large bed, the silky sheets twisting and constricting around her legs and torso. Her dreams were as dark as the shadows tonight. She was still plagued by the face, the hooked nose, the red hair and beady eyes that had held her captive for nearly five months.

Rothbart's features, rough voice, and grim smile were still sharp in her subconscious mind making each vision seem more intense than the last, as her blood turned to ice and her heart pounded in the silence of the night. Derek had offered to sleep with her, to guard and comfort her, but Odette had politely refused by reminding him that he was often up late with the political affairs of the kingdom and she did not want him to lose even more sleep on her account.

Tonight she nearly wished she had taken his offer. She awoke with a gasp, and the dark tendrils of the dream fell away as a chill griped her spine. She carefully unwound her shuddering form from the sheets and slid out from under the covers, rubbing her arms vigorously to chase away the sick sense of dread that coupled the shivers. She sighed gently, and focused on her breathing.

In. Out. In. Out. Steady.

It calmed her nerves to hear the gentle beating of her human heart, its constant and slow pulse allowing her to assure herself that the last year had not been a complete romantic fantasy beyond the reaches of cold reality. Derek really did love her, she was no longer a swan, and best of all she was free.

She relished the last concept. Freedom, something that Derek had given her and would die to protect.

Odette stood in the empty room, staring at the silent white walls and listening to the rhythm of her own heart beat. The stillness was maddening. The four walls seemed to peer down at her, lording over her with judgmental eyes. Suddenly even the expanses of the castle seemed too small. She was a bird in a cage. With the sudden prickle of claustrophobia, Odette pulled on her cloak-not bothering to change out of her nightgown- and slipped into a pair of worn riding boots.

Perhaps a midnight horse ride might calm her nerves and cool her head? She grabbed a small candle from her bedside table and lit it quickly, depending on its luminescence for guidance in the hushed darkness. She passed silently like a ghost through the halls, the pastel colored nightgown fluttering gently behind and boots silent on the carpeting. She paused at the large oaken double doors on the right-hand end of the hall, Derek's quarters.

Should she tell him where she was going? Should he know about her nightmare?

She chewed her bottom lip as she deliberated, a small crease forming between her brows. No, Derek would only worry himself needlessly and send the royal guard to escort her to and from the castle, a prospect she disliked compared to the opportunity for adventure. She carefully padded away from the door and down the corridor.

"I won't be foolish, though." Odette rationalized, a thick hunk of guilt settled in her stomach's pit. "I'll bring Puffin and Jean-Bob with me, that way if anything should happen they can alert Derek."

The castle main-doors creaked as she pushed them open and slid out into the night. She crossed down the grand outward staircase and found herself by the side of the great Swan Lake.

"Hello, Puffin! Jean-Bob! Speed!" she whispered, calling out into the reeds. The turtle and frog crawled up from the lake bottom and sauntered up, while the puffin flitted to her side from the trees.

"Hey Odette" Speed's slow reply came, as he clamored up onto the bank. "Why are you outside so late?"

"Aye, Princess, it mightn't be very safe for ye out here at this late hour all on your own." Puffin said, his Scottish burr tinged with a sleepy slur.

"I know, Puffin, but I just needed some fresh air. I was hoping you and Jean-Bob would come with me for a little adventure." She whispered with a smile.

"No sank you, I am goeeing back to bed." The frog replied with a poorly stifled yawn and started towards the reeds. He was quickly intercepted and scooped up by the bird.

"We'd be happy to go with ye, Odette." Puffin replied as he dragged the struggling Jean-Bob and flew along towards the stables.

Odette reached the Royal Stables first, collecting minimal amounts of tack for her horse before entering the main barn followed by Puffin and Jean-Bob. She set the saddle over the partition between the stalls, and paused for a moment, trying to decide which horse she wanted to take out into the woods.

She considered Bay, her old palomino horse whom had acted as a companion since childhood. Bay was known for her calm temperament and even disposition, but her older age and hip dysplasia hampered the old nag from moving any faster than a slow and stiff canter.

Odette moved to the next stall. It held a young horse, a beautiful white base coat dappled with dark brown spots that matched the chestnut mane and tail. The only mar to the young horse's beauty was a savage scar that sliced across her lower neck, darkening the white fur and flesh with an ugly line.

Derek had found the young mare wandering about aimlessly in the forest nearly a month ago, and had asked the horsemen to nurse the beaten and half-starved creature back to health. He had planned to present the appaloosa to Odette as an anniversary present, but the surprise had been spoiled when the Princess had seen the beautiful creature out in the pasture and had pointed it out to Derek, who was then forced to reveal his planning.

The mare was then named Anya by Odette and Derek had asked that no one mount the horse until she had been tested by the seasoned horsemaster and deemed safe to ride. Odette now moved slowly into the shaded stall making her presence known by softly calling the horse's name.

"Hey Anya," she cooed gently and the animal sleepily lifted her head and nickered quietly, rich brown eyes sparking with intelligence and focused on the Princess. Odette moved slowly, so as not to startle the beast, holding out her hand to gently stroke Anya's velvet soft nose.

The horse eyed the hand cautiously at first and then, step by step, she plodded over and stood by Odette's side, pressing her muzzle against the open palm and welcoming the tentative touch. Odette again proceeded slowly, brushing the horse down gently with a curry comb to loosen any dirt that might rub and cause sores on the short ride, before lowering the blanket and saddle onto Anya's back. The youthful horse stood perfectly still, shifting only slightly under the weight of the thick western saddle. Twisting her head back only once, Anya observed the saddle, sniffing at the large horn and straps of leather. She nickered and snorted at the small green Jean-Bob who had leapt upon the seat and was leaning casually against the pommel.

"Zis iz crazy! Why do I alwayz get dragged along wiz you guyz and your schemez?!" he protested loudly as Odette leaned down to tighten the girth strap around the horse's lean belly.

"Aww, Jean-Bob, this'll be fun. Nuthin' like the tinge of a nighttime escapade to get the blood movin'. Besides, what do we have ta worry about? No Fear, remember?" Puffin reminded with a smile and Jean-Bob shot him a lethal scowl. The bird didn't seem to notice.

Odette finished buckling the bridle over Anya's face and led her slowly out into the barn, guiding gently until they reached the open paddock that signaled the beginning of the fields. Anya balked and hesitated slightly as they stepped out of the barn, turning her horsey head towards the stars and snorting nervously, as if she expected something above to be looking down upon her. Odette stayed by the horse's side caressing her neck and speaking soft words of encouragement until Anya proceeded forward again.

Once they had reached the edge of the open fields that encircled the palace, Odette decided to try her luck and mount Anya. It was a risky decision, but tonight seemed to be the perfect time for such a dangerous gambol and it made the Princess's heart thrill with excitement.

"Careful now, Princess." Puffin warned gently as he hovered above, scrutinizing Anya for any signs of uncertainty or sudden bolting.

Anya stood still, her head twisted 'round to watch as Odette placed her foot into the first stirrup, tested the weight carefully, and then swung up into the saddle. There was a moment of tension as Odette gripped the reigns tightly, expecting the horse to bolt and race off like a whirlwind, and Anya slowly adjusted to the added weight of a passenger. Moments ticked by, still the young filly did not break for the trees, and the trio let out a collective breath.

"Good girl, Anya." Odette praised, patting the horse gently on the neck and eliciting a happy whiny. "Alright girl, let's see what you can do! Hah Hah!" Odette coaxed, snapping the reigns lightly against the filly's shoulder.

Anya first started at a walk, then as she gained momentum she was urged to a trot, and moved into a gently rolling canter before finally, with Odette's agreement, breaking into a full out gallop. Anya's hooves pounded the ground, tearing up the field's lush grass as they sped in wide arching circles. Anya whinnied with pure rapture of the run while Odette broke into giddy laughter and Jean-Bob clung to the pommel and screamed for dear life.

A sudden shadow flitted beneath the tree line and caught the attention of both Princess and horse, as the dark specter kept pace with them, following just on the fringes of the circling woods but never venturing into the field.

Odette urged Anya faster, as the odd speed of the shadow greatly disconcerted her, and the filly complied by pumping her neck quickly as her hoof beats gained speed. The shadow still followed, but as it recognized that its prey had perceived its presence, it broke from the cover of the trees and tore across the clearing after the Appaloosa and her rider. The dark shadow was revealed by the moonlight that barely crested the trees, the pale light shimmering across the black coat of the Quarter Horse that galloped forward, its broad chest heaving 'neath its master's whip.

The rider was garbed in a dark cloak, a mottled mixture of blacks and green shades specifically chosen to blend in with the dusky shade of the forest. The hood was pulled back to reveal the very face Odette had imagined in her nightmare, its hooked nose and beady wolfish eyes trained upon her and its cruel lips pulling into a sneer. Rothbart was alive and he had been waiting. Odette gasped, each nerve in her body trembling like an electric wire while her hands felt thick and numb, causing the reigns to slip through her fingers. Anya whinnied, sensing her rider's fear, tossed her head and veered into the forest's edge still at a full gallop.

The agile creature dodged trees and jumped downed logs as if she had been trained as a trail horse, her skill so refined that for a moment Odette felt the false-sensation of flying through the trees and foliage. The dappled shadows and light blurred by as Anya tore through the brush, followed by a loud chortle that was amplified by the empty wood and reverberated off every tree.

"I'm coming for you Odette! You can't run forever…"

Odette whimpered slightly, and the cold sting of the night air forced hot tears to come unbidden.

Anya redoubled her efforts, her lungs undoubtedly aching and her breaths coming in gasps as she frothed at the bit. Another peal of hellish humorless laughter echoed, and this time it was much closer, and the hot breath of the predator almost palpable. Anya skidded to a stop, her eyes rolling white and frantic as she snorted, sending plumes of fog into the chill night.

Odette, having been pulled from her nightmarish reverie by Rothbart's sadistic humor, reached for the reins which were dragging on the ground and had somehow miraculously not tangled themselves around the horse's front legs. Anya fidgeted and shifted her weight nervously as the Princess pulled her foot from the first stirrup in order to lean low by the horse's chest and stretch precariously to grip the reins. Fingers wound tightly around the straps of leather and Anya whinnied in terror as a dark shadow coupled with the sound of approaching hoof beats began to take shape out of the deep forest shadows. Odette deftly swung herself back into the saddle and snapped the reins.

"HAH!" She called and Anya sprang forward like a shot, spraying up the soft leaf-litter and peat-moss of the forest floor. Odette pulled hard to the right, knowing there was another field nearby that might be able to allow her to find a familiar landmark and make her way back to the castle if Anya sprinted.

The Appaloosa responded to her touch immediately, spinning on her heels like a trained war horse and temporarily losing the dark shadow of Rothbart as he sped off further into the woods.

The trio exploded out onto the field, Jean-Bob still shrieking "Zis is not zee proper way a Prince should be treated!" and Puffin circling overhead.

Odette urged Anya across the field, using the moonlight to guide her eastward towards the castle, when Anya suddenly halted. Jean-Bob was nearly thrown from the pommel as the horse came to a standstill.

"Hurry up! We are all going to die just sitting 'ere!" Protested the frog. Anya rose slowly, meaningfully, to her back legs, rearing upward and forcing Odette and Jean-Bob to clamor off the saddle and roll onto the grass as the Appaloosa mare was bathed in moonlight.

"Wat iz she doing!? Ve have no time to be playing ballerina!" Jean-Bob complained; his disposition was cross, and agitation masked the fear in his croak.

"Shhh" Odette hushed him "Look!"

The wind in the trees suddenly began to howl and a fountain of light erupted from the circle of the moon-drenched grass. A terrifying display of sparks and light nearly blinded the onlookers for a moment, and when the radiance had faded and the wind had calmed, the horse was gone.

In place of the youthful Appaloosa lay a woman, perhaps the age of 19 or 20, nearly stark naked in the grass. Odette stood tentatively, knowing that she was looking upon another victim of Rothbart's spells and his craving for power. The heavy saddle lay atop the maiden, shielding her mostly from view and preserving her dignity along with a few ragged pieces of stained cloth that clung to her form.

The Princess moved closer to the girl, kneeling and studying the freckled face that was framed with chestnut colored hair, the same color as Anya's mane she noticed, before removing her own cloak and wrapping the semi-conscious woman in the warm thick fabric.

The being-that-was-formerly-Anya sat up, clutching the cloak around her chilled shoulders and looked into Odette's gentle face, mahogany eyes flaring with a mixture of fear, confusion and thanks.

The two women stood and the maiden suddenly seemed terrified, her eyes dilated and her head whipped back and forth in search of the pursuing Rothbart. Her mouth moved frantically, but no sound came out to match the words forming on the lips. Odette's momentary bewilderment was put to rest when she realized that the dark throat scar had remained through the transformation, and it now scored from the girl's jawbone down and across her throat, slicing through the area that may have once housed vocal chords. The maiden caught Odette staring at the ugly mark and she stopped scanning the woods, closed her mouth with a snap, and sadly traced a finger along the garish fissure.

"Oh no, I didn't mean to…" Odette began to apologize, embarrassed by her rude staring and afraid that she had hurt the girl's feelings.

The maiden held up a hand and shook her head. She wasn't looking for apologies. Swiftly she reached out and clasped the Princess's soft hand, tugging urgently and racing towards the opposite band of woods that fringed the field and seemed to lead eastward towards the distant spires of the castle. The message was easily received and Odette scooped up Jean-Bob before running for the trees.

They reached the shade in a matter of seconds, as Anya had galloped them nearly 2/3rds of the way across before changing from horse to human. The maiden led them into the woods, her eyes flicking vigilantly. She stopped at the base of an oak tree and pointed upward, indicating that the small party should climb into its branches and hide. Odette nodded in agreement and quickly scrabbled upwards with Jean-Bob clinging to her shoulders and Puffin perched nearby.

Once she was settled on a firm limb, Odette prepared to scoot over and make room for Anya, but the girl shook her head with a smile. Anya pointed to the ground, where a muddy footprint could barely be discerned beneath the leaf-litter. She quickly smudged the print beyond recognition, effectively effacing any evidence of the fugitive's presence.

"Oh, she's masking the trail, eh?" Puffin observed "Aye, well thought girl! That'll give the ol' man something' ta chew on!" he chortled happily at her cleverness and she answered with a sharp military salute before marching off to finish destroying the tracks. Odette clung to the branch in silence as she watched the woman pace through the forest, wrapped in only a cloak.

"How do we know we can trust her?" Jean-Bob asked, suspicion and a hint of distain in his voice.

"Why would she go through all the trouble to help in order to betray us? We just have to have a little faith." Odette whispered in reply, watching Anya's form turn after erasing the last footprint and proceed back towards the tree. Jean-Bob harrumphed.

"Well I, for one, am not sure she deservez our trust." He muttered.

Anya was just reaching the base of the tree, when a shadow leapt out of the adjacent foliage and pinned her back against the thick sycamore in which the trio sat silently hiding. Rothbart's bald head and bristling red beard were just visible in the dappled moonlight.

"Ah! Leah, my pet, I see you have survived all these years…and you haven't changed a bit. My, my it has been a while hasn't it. Shame you haven't found a remedy for that scar…or that spell." He sneered. She grimaced at his closeness and clenched her teeth at the word 'pet'.

"But now I find myself in need of your help, funny how such things happen that way isn't it. Your rider, a woman by the name of Odette, she seems to have gotten herself lost and I have come to show her the way back to her beloved prince. Where is she?'' the gravely tone had slipped gently into a slimy sweet sound, greatly resembling the hiss of an eel. Leah shrugged cluelessly, her face a mask of innocence.

"Don't lie to ME missy!" he snarled, shaking the girl violently as the sweetened tones dissolved. "You wear her cloak around your shoulders! Now tell me where she is, you must know where she went!" he growled. Anya (or Leah, whichever it was) cringed and whimpered piteously–evidently one of the few noises she could utter without her vocal chords- her back was pressed hard up against the stony bark and her fingers dug into the tree's flesh. She chanced a quick glance upward, spotting the terrified face of Odette who was watching from above. Jean-Bob was struggling to keep Puffin from charging into battle and effectively blowing their cover. For a long moment time itself paused, and no one dared breathe. The scene became a tableau of tension. Then, shakily, Anya lifted a trembling finger and pointed southward into the depths of the forest. Rothbart grinned wolfishly and released the maiden before evaporating into shadow.

Odette waited for a long time, clinging to her branch and remaining perfectly still, and was only able to be coaxed down to the ground by Anya's silent promise that the coast was clear.

"Still think we oughtn't trust 'er? Puffin asked, and the frog rolled his eyes stubbornly and did not respond.

The group plodded silently along until the bright lights of the castle's windows came into view, and minor shouts could be heard echoing within. Derek had discovered Odette was missing and had no doubt called in the armies of the kingdom to search.

The Princess sighed. She loved her husband with her whole heart, but sometimes he could get a bit…overprotective. Hopefully running from a mad magician and finding out that one of the horses in the stables was really a woman who had been trapped under a spell warranted a decent excuse for sneaking out of the castle in the middle of the night and not even leaving a message with the guards.

-X-

"Scour the forest, leave no stone unturned. As long as that mad-man is out there, no one is safe." Derek ordered his Capitan of the Guard, who responded with a quick "Yes sir." and marched off to carry the orders to his officers.

The prince sighed and re-trained his focus on the charts that lay upon the library desk, each portraying a different view of the geography of the kingdom. He rubbed his face, in an attempt to remove the weariness in his limbs and bleariness in his eyes.

He'd been overjoyed when his princess had returned, embracing her and kissing her passionately at the threshold, tuning out all other worries the world had to offer as their lips met. He had dreamed the worst would have occurred; perhaps she'd been kidnapped and spirited into the night, or had gone for a walk and gotten lost and would wander the darkened woods in confusion until some fierce animal attacked her, but now his fears were gone and his lovely swan had returned. A strange weightlessness came over Derek as the kiss continued. He felt like he was floating; and began to enjoy the sensation until he realized that he'd forgotten to breathe.

It was only when they broke apart gasping from the intensity of the kiss that he sheepishly noticed a poorly clothed woman standing in the fringe of light behind Odette, her dark eyebrow cocked and a mischievous smile pulling at the edges of her freckled features. Derek had cleared his throat and blushed slightly at his passionate public display of affection.

"So, who is this…?" Derek asked, extending a hand toward the girl, who shied slightly but eventually took it.

"It's fairly hard to explain. Derek, we need to talk, I met Rothbart in the woods tonight. He is alive." She said urgently, her azure eyes worried.

"Come inside, we can figure this out together. I won't let him harm you Odette, I promise you that." Derek had said solemnly, his dark brow a hard line and his jaw set in protective determination.

This was why she loved him. She had pulled the maiden in towards the door, and it was only as she was whisked past the Prince and into the castle that Derek noticed that she was wearing nothing other than Odette's cloak. The half-naked woman had waved innocently over her shoulder as Odette pulled her up the stairs and out of sight, leaving Derek with the invariable task of planning to inform the guards and alert the kingdom of the Princess's return and the danger of Rothbart's resurfacing. He sighed and rubbed his eyes once more, resolving to finish the arduous task by the nights end.

-x-

Meanwhile, upstairs Odette was attending to Anya. The young maiden had now been garbed in an old dress of Odette's which fit a bit snugly and dragged the ground. Odette had also procured a slate and a piece of chalk and handed them to Anya, allowing her to express her thoughts in written word.

Anya's smile was all the thanks Odette needed, as the girl practiced writing on the slate. At first her hands were shaky and clumsy, but the fingers soon grew used to gripping the chalk, making her handwriting steady and confident. Odette decided that now would be the best time to understand Anya's hidden past, and the Princess led the girl to a window-seat and sat herself down across from Anya. Jean-Bob and Puffin, who had followed, alighted upon a chair. Odette began curiously,

"How long have you been under the spell?"

Anya quickly held up 3 fingers in response.

"3 days?" Jean-Bob asked

"3 months?" Puffin guessed.

"I think she means 3 years…." Odette murmured and Anya nodded sadly and wrote on the slate before holding it up. Horses are always stabled during the night, so it's been a long time since I was human.

Odette pondered how to phrase the next question."How…did you become acquainted with Rothbart?" The chalk sped furiously.

He originally found me on the streets at 10, took me in, and raised me…I was told that my form was lovely and my voice even more so. It was only when I turned 16 that he showed any interest. I ignored his advances, but he refused to take no as an answer. I tried to run, but I did not know the woods. He caught up quickly.

She erased the slate and continued scribbling the rest of the abbreviated tale.

He dragged me back to the castle, and I screamed for help, he placed me under the spell and sliced out my vocal chords so I could never speak or sing again.

Anya dropped the chalk and ran her fingers over the scar, tears welling in her eyes and silent sobs caught in her throat. Odette hugged the girl close, hoping to calm and protect the poor creature; much like Derek was able to do for her. After a short time the ragged gasping and tears abated. And Anya continued to write.

When he saw that you were the daughter of his sworn enemy, King William, his sudden interest in me faded, but the magic did not. I ran and he did not pursue. He waited, planning his attack on your family and fulfilling his promise to William to take everything your father loved. It is because of you that I was able to escape and wander the wilds for the last 2 years, happy to be away from Rothbart and his magic.

She erased the slate again.

If I had known that you were in a situation similar to mine, I would have returned in an instant to prevent Rothbart from cursing another.

Odette was surprised by the woman's written vehemence on the subject, but suddenly had to ask a nagging question that had pulled at her since they had been in the forest. "I realized, I really don't know your name…Do you prefer Leah? I suppose you don't want to keep Anya…"

She began to write again. I've never really had a name. Leah was what Rothbart called me, and I never liked it. Especially not since it is associated with my servitude to him. Anya is nice. I like it. It sounds warm, friendly.

A gentle smile warmed her features. Odette was pleased by the evident happiness that the name gave the girl, but a strange certain sadness was hidden in the smile. Odette cocked her head curiously, and Anya wrote the answer to the unspoken question.

In a way, I cannot help but feel connected to Rothbart. He is, in his own twisted circumstance, my father. The only parent I have ever known. I feel I owe him something. Loyalty perhaps and companionship since he has had none for so long…

Anya set down the chalk and thought for a long time, leaving Odette sitting in silence as she watched the confused and conflicting emotions play across the freckled face. The sun began to rise and the first golden rays shafted over the trees and through the windows of the palace, touching Anya's skin and beginning her transformation back into equine form.

In an instant she was returned to her dappled coat and dark mane. Though she was small for a horse, Anya was still large for the room, and didn't mind having to trot out of the castle and return to the stables upon request. Odette left the stable door open, allowing Anya to go where she pleased and draped the cloak and slate over the partition, in the off chance that the girl should transform and find herself chilled again.

Odette returned to the castle, and found Derek waiting to embrace her. She welcomed his touch.

"Don't worry, Odette. Everything will be fine. You'll see."

Though he didn't really believe the words, he tried with all his might to pretend that they would somehow be true. Through the mere power of his will, he pretended, he might see into the future and know without a shadow of a doubt that everything would turn out alright. He wanted nothing more than to protect his bride from any further harm, but with Rothbart out in the forest, things were becoming steadily more dangerous and complicated. The stakes were rising, and Derek doubted if he could measure up. He sighed and looked up into the clouds that were painted pink by the sun's early rays. If only things could be as simple as the sunrise.

-x-

Odette spent the rest of the day recounting the specific events of the previous night to Derek, who fastidiously marked the locations she mentioned on his maps and ordered the soldiers to focus their search as indicated. Puffin often winged through the window to peer over Derek's shoulder and advise him on military tactics that could be improved upon and any possible routes that might provide disadvantages for battle, if it should come to such matters.

Night came quickly for the group, and the sun set as the search parties returned, shaking their heads at their fruitless labor. Not a single clue had been found, not a single footprint. Derek was greatly agitated by the lack of news, and the lack of sleep he had received during the night made him edgy. Odette, understanding that her husband needed to be alone, decided to go and see Anya, as she had most likely returned to human form beneath the full moon's glow by now. She hurried down to the stables, and called out.

"Anya! Where are you!? Derek is already organizing a search party for Rothbart and thinks you should stay inside tonight and…" Odette rounded the corner into the stables, but found nothing but empty straw, an open gate, and a missing cloak.

"Oh!" gasped the Princess as she saw that she was alone in the stables. She raced back to the edge of Swan Lake and called to her friends Jean-Bob and Speed who soon surfaced from the bottom of the lake.

"Have either of you seen Anya? I need to talk to her." Odette asked, a tinge of worry hinting her voice.

"Naw, we haven't seen her." Drawled Speed slowly and Jean-Bob shook his head.

"I have not seen her. She is probably grazing out in ze fields or somesing."

Odette thought for a moment, and then gasped in recognition. "No, Anya would be a human by now if she were in the fields…Though, she did say she felt as if she owed Rothbart something…he was her only parent…She must have gone back to him to try and remove the spell!" the Princess leapt to her feet.

"We have to stop her!" She raced down the hill and back to the stables, finding her old horse Bay, and not even bothering to saddle her, Odette mounted bare-back and shouted "HAH! HAH!" winding her fingers securely in the pale palomino mane as the horse reared, whinnied and cantered out of the barn.

Anya lifted her head as the sounds of hoof beats approached, and a chill of fear gripped her belly. She hunkered down in the field, drawing the cloak tightly about her dressed shoulders hoping to blend into the grass, thought it would be impossible given the brilliant shade of the navy cloak. She trembled slightly, knowing that she was no longer in the field alone.

Stupid, stupid, STUPID! She shouted internally, scolding herself. The only reason she was out in this blasted field was to retrieve Odette's saddle which was left behind during her transition from horse to human. It was her own common courtesy that had brought her here. She trembled and pressed herself to the ground trying to become invisible, as the hoof beats grew closer. Suddenly a form could be discerned from the shadows, a pale horse with a mane that was almost like silver in the moonlight, galloped stiffly through the trees and bearing a rider.

Anya gaped as she watched the blonde hair tossed by the wind while the unmistakable form of Odette urged the horse faster and harder towards the eastern depths of the woodlands, the inevitable lair of Rothbart himself.

What the hell was she DOING?!

Anya stared as the horse and rider remained under the cover of the trees nearly 500 feet away and veered into shadow. Derek, that was it, she'd tell Derek. Odette was riding straight for a trap, and on the account of the foolish courtesy of one mute maiden.

Tying the small slate to her sash Anya leapt to her feet and began to run, slowly at first because of the odd sensation of running on only two legs, then picking up momentum as she found the natural rhythm of her human body. Her feet ate up the forest floor as the legs and muscles pumped hard towards their goal. The castle came into site after about ten solid min. of sprinting. The throbbing ache of running was beginning to set into her leg muscles just as Anya skidded up to the gate and realized that the doors had been locked for safety at night.

Damn. Ok, think Anya think…what's another way to get into a castle…ditch? Broken wall? Water pipes? Wait, yes! Water pipes! The castle had to get its water from the lake, so there'd be some way for the water to drain into the stone walls. That was the solution.

Anya raced to the lake shore, and without losing any inertia she took a flying dive straight into the depths, spewing droplets and bubbles like stars into the black night. She paddled through the water, searching in the murky depths of water along the stone castle walls for a break in the smooth facade. Her fingers skimmed the mossy surface blindly, until they struck a jagged edge of stone that had somehow been blasted away.

Without a second thought Anya swam back up to the surface, breaching and gasping in a large gulp of air before plunging back down and finding the fissure and clamoring through. She squeezed the top half of her thin human body through the break and tried to wriggle through further, but as she reached within a few inches of the placid surface of the water within the dungeon chamber she found herself wedged into the wall's fissure.

Stuck firmly at the hips she jerked and pulled, struggling to yank herself free but to no avail. Anya began to feel lightheaded as her supply of oxygen was used up by her lungs. She reached for the slate at her hip, scribbling quickly under water and praying that the chalk was not water soluble. In big capital letters she wrote:

HELP! Odette in trouble! Running out of air…

She felt along the wall and found a miniscule crack barely within reach. She wedged the slate into the crack and pushed, watching as her message floated to the lake surface while she sunk into the watery depths of unconsciousness and the last bubble of air floated from her mouth.

-x—

"Wat do you sink it meanz?" Jean-bob wondered, peering at the smudged lines of chalk on the slate that had been found floating in the middle of the lake.

"Looks to me like a message of sorts, but the words are all smudgy." Speed replied as Puffin swooped in and lit on the great turtle's shell to observe the cause of the hubbub.

"Let me see that there, Speed. I'm a master of readin' gibberish." Puffin said, holding out a wing as the slate was passed to him. "Hmmmm…." Murmured the bird as he turned the slate this way and that, inspecting the markings. "It says 'Help, Odette wants a bubble. Running out of hair…' well, that doesn't make a lick of since dose it." The bird scratched his head, baffled.

"No joo idiot! It says 'Help! Odette in trouble! Running out of air.' It's an S.O.S message!" Jean-Bob shouted.

"Well why didn't ya say so?" Puffin asked with a shrug. "Where'd you find the slate? It looks like Anya's."

"In the lake." Speed replied.

"Well then, let's go! Odette needs us! No Fear!" Puffin shouted as he dove head first into the lake followed by Speed. Jean-Bob remained on the bank muttering something about the stupidity of the phrase 'No Fear'.

It took only a short amount of time before the puffin and the turtle saw the body wedged in the crack of the foundation, its form cold and unmoving. It took all the strength of the pair to move the drowned maiden from the crack, dragging her body up to the surface and hauling Anya up on to the bank.

"She doesn't look too good." Speed said, his wrinkled tortoise face creased with distress. The girl's form was pale and unmoving.

"I'll go get Prince Derek." Puffin said, his voice grave as he took off, winging quickly through the foliage and through the windows of the palace. "Derek, I think you should come see this. It's important. Odette's in trouble." Puffin reported to the prince, who immediately grabbed his sword and bow in urgency.

"Lead the way Puffin!" he ordered and followed quickly behind, taking the stairs three at a time.

He was soon on his knees, grass staining his pants as he examined the slate by the motionless woman. He touched the cold skin, checking the wrist for a pulse and finding a very weak throb. He placed his heavy hands on her abdomen, and carefully pressed own firmly.

Anya's chest sunk and she coughed and sputtered, choking up water and saliva. Slowly a flush returned to her cheeks and the gentle rise and fall of her chest strengthened the pulsing of her heart with each breath. Derek removed his hands from the woman's chest, not wanting to seem too forward or unfaithful. Anya's dark eyes fluttered open and she gagged and choked up a second torrent of lake water. Panting, Anya pulled herself to a sitting position and looked into Derek's face, bleary and waterlogged.

"Anya, where is Odette. What has happened to her?" Derek asked, panic tinting his voice. Anya grabbed the slate and leapt to her feet, grabbing a fistful of the prince's shirt and dragged him along with her to the stables, jumping on the one of Derek's roan stallions and twining her fingers into the hair on the withers of the beast, before kicking it to a gallop. The Prince was quick to follow and leapt upon his strong chestnut and quickly matched pace with the roan. They tore into the forest, urging the horses faster, and breaking the sounds of the night with the thunder of hooves.

-X-

Odette had reached the opposite fringe of the lake in less than 20 min. of relatively quick riding on the swayed back of the elder palomino mare. It was there that she had nearly collided with the bristle-bearded enchanter that had haunted her dreams. Bay reared at the sudden appearance of the man, causing Odette to fall backward onto the ground at Rothbart's feet. The wizard cackled evilly and began to gather the forbidden arts in his palms, fiery orbs of magic curling between the fingers.

"Ah, Odette, I always knew you would return to me, and here you are. Alone, and beautiful if I do say so myself." He purred advancing and letting the magic fall from his fingers, sparking and licking at the princess's dress like hungry flames. "But, I have to keep you from alerting your little 'knight in shining armor', as I want to take my revenge on your pathetic Derek. Everything he loves will be mine…"

Odette was about to scream, run, and curse the magician for his heartless plan and sick seduction, when she felt her body tingling and an eerie light enveloped her. Her form was lifted from the ground and torn asunder as the magic took effect and she was turned into a swan. Rothbart grinned devilishly and Odette nearly felt like crying. Her worst nightmares were beginning to come true, and the only hope she had was to warn Derek of the horrid trap that was being laid.

The swan opened her wings, spreading the feathers wide before she thrust downward in a heavy stroke, launching herself into the air and over the lake. Each snow-white feather glossed with a silver sheen as the lovely Swan Princess was silhouetted against the moon.

"I hate to do this to you Odette, but it's just business. This is how it has to be." Rothbart pulled a heavy crossbow out from his cloak, shouldered it, took careful aim and fired. The bolt flew straight and true, and before he had taken another breath, the shaft pierced the wing of the swan causing her to plummet downward and into the lake with a splash, shattering the reflection of moonlight on the water. He waded out into the lake, and gathered up the limp form of the swan princess. Then he returned to the shore, and bound the bloody swan with ropes, the arrow still protruding from her shoulder.

He procured a dagger from his belt, raised it up and chanted "Love is everlasting, as is the bond of man and wife. But ours shall be…" he drew the sharpened steel blade across his palm, slicing the flesh easily and beginning the flow of blood. "A bond much deeper…a bond from blood to blood and life to life." He whispered placing his bleeding slice to the swan's wounded shoulder, pushing the arrow aside and letting the couple's lifeblood mingle along with a tinge of magical arts. The thunder of hoof beats tore through the silence, as Derek and Anya skidded to a halt and leapt off their steeds, Derek with his bow drawn and Anya with an infuriated scowl.

"Don't you touch her, monster!" Derek snarled, notching an arrow and leveling it at Rothbart's chest.

"Ah ah ah," Rothbart admonished, shaking a finger at the prince. "I don't think you want to do that, young prince Derek…" his focus shifted back to the still form of the swan which was curling with glowing tendrils of the arcane arts, again licking the body like flames until swan was again replaced by princess. Derek saw that the arrow had remained, and the sight of Odette's bloody shoulder with the brutal arrow protruding from the muscle made him pale and feel sick to his stomach.

Odette rose to her feet, slowly and unsteadily, and the clink of chains suddenly filled the air as the manacles seemed to materialize out of thin air. The cold, hard iron clamped around Odette's wrists and a two foot chain connected her to Rothbart's own manacled hands. He cackled cruelly and Odette struggled against the bondage, rattling the heavy chains.

"Let her go, or I swear I'll…" Derek's voice was dangerously low and his arm was drawn back, the arrow taught against the bow string.

"Oh, just try." Rothbart taunted, laughing at Derek's infantile fury. "If you shoot me, and I die, then so will she. We are bonded by blood. These chains cannot be broken, and now she is mine." The villain snarled, yanking the iron links and dragging Odette so that she fell against his broad chest. She tried to pull away, but his firm hold on the chain's links kept her close as he nuzzled his face into her hair and breathed deeply. His long hook-nose tracing the gentle arch of her jaw while she squirmed desperately against the warm breath on her neck.

"Derek…" she whispered desperately, pushing Rothbart away and meeting his gaze. Her azure eyes brimmed with tears and terror as she looked at her lover who stood helplessly by, torn by his desire to run the magician through and his fear for her safety. She looked longingly into his face, attempting to express that all the passion in her heart was for him and him alone.

"Now, none of that missy, you belong to me." Rothbart snarled and yanked the chains again, sending Odette slamming into him and driving the arrow further into her shoulder and eliciting a cry of pain. Derek gritted his teeth and had to fight with every fiber of his being to keep from tackling the magician and tearing out his throat.

Anya, who had stood by and watched the scene unfold silently suddenly leapt upon impulse and snatched the sword from Derek's belt, sliced her arm and drew blood, and slapping her own blood into Rothbart's blood-drenched hand. White hot fire blazed through her veins while the magic took its effect, bonding the magician and the maiden to each other eternally and the chains upon Odette's wrists fell away and dissolved in to smoke and cinder.

Derek ran to his love, sweeping her off her feet and lifting her in the air spinning with the sheer joy of having her returned to his side and safe in his arms. He quickly used the tip of an arrow to prick his finger and pressed it to Odette's shoulder, feeling the warmth of her blood mingle with his own and relishing in the feeling of gentle warmth, like light, spreading through his veins as the pair were bonded rightfully with each other.

"NO!" roared Rothbart, as he witnessed the glow that enveloped the lovers when their blood touched. His dark red mustache bristled and his beady eyes screwed up in rage as he watched his carefully laid plan unravel. "Well, if I can't have you, then nobody can…" He snarled, gripping the hilt of his dagger and preparing to drive it into Derek's exposed back.

Rothbart leapt quickly, but Anya was quicker, as she swept up Derek's sword and drove it, swiftly into her own bosom causing a fountain of blood and a gasp before she fell to her knees, dying.

"RAWG!" Rothbart cried in agony as light sliced through his chest in the exact place that the sword rested in Anya's own breast. He writhed in pain, scrabbling on the ground like a rabid animal as he embraced the throws of death.

"No!" Odette gasped as she watched the light fade from Anya's eyes and the pale skin grow cold and ghostly in the fading moonset. The princess rushed to the woman's side, and held her friends hand as she passed into the afterlife with the touch of the rising sun.

"She sacrificed so much for us…" Derek muttered, placing a hand on his wife's shoulder and looking upon Anya's cold skin.

"Yes," Odette agreed tearfully "she wanted so much for Rothbart to never harm another soul that she gave her own to prevent it from ever occurring….She should be honored and respected. Let's give her a proper burial." Derek nodded in agreement.

The sun set beneath the trees, its richest rays brushing the hills in golden light and painting the small gravestone in a prosperous orange tone. Beneath the name read a short and simple epitaph. "Here lies a woman willing to sacrifice herself for the sake of others, a beloved friend and a kindred spirit to all who have suffered for the good of a cause. May she find her voice and sing with the angels in heaven forever."