Note: This is my third letter of Advent 2019, but part 11 of me and my brother’s Advent Letters project. For an explanation of the project and to get caught up on past letters, click here.
Matt couldn’t decide if he was frightened or offended.
“What do you mean we’re in danger?” Matt asked. “Ansa and her father have been really friendly. And Ansa is the most beautiful and—”
“Yes, yes, at first,” said the swan. “But that’s not how it ends.”
More swans appeared, gathering in an ominous circle around Matt.
“Wait there, men,” the lead swan said. “The boy deserves a full explanation.”
“Men?” Matt said. “You mean you…”
“We were men. Once.”
The other swans fell back. The lead swan took a deep breath, and began his tale:
“My name is Oisin. I am…I was a Chieftain of the Celts. It was the third year of my rule. Though still a young chief, I had just led my warriors to victory in a battle with a rival clan. To celebrate, I threw a feast—the grandest our clan had ever seen. Hour after hour, we gorged on boar and cake and mead. While still raged with mead, I called for venison, only to be told we had none left. So I readied my horses and my warriors for the hunt.”
The swans behind Oisin nodded. Oisin continued, “The hunt went badly. We went hour upon hour without sight of game. Then, just as my frustration boiled into rage, I saw the most wondrous sight. A stag as white as new-fallen snow. It stood, wreathed in fog, before a tree of silver. A prudent man would know not to trifle with an otherworldly creature. But in my lust for the hunt, I led the chase after it.”
“I don’t know how long we pursued the stag. Long enough that I should have turned back. But I had no sooner lost the trail when we heard the most wondrous music. Bells. Harps. Lyres. And it wasn’t just me. The music grew louder as we rode. It lead us straight to this castle. The Faerie folk gave us a hearty welcome. They threw a feast, and said we were welcome for as long as we wanted. I couldn’t believe my good fortune.”
“That first night,” he continued, “We were like you and your brothers. Lost in the food and the games and the Faerie company. Same the second night. And the night after that. And the night after that. I was a fool, a great fool.”
Oisin hung his long neck against his breast. One of the other swans placed a wing on Oisin’s back. “We were all fools, my Lord.”
Nodding wearily, Oisin continued, “The Faerie folk may say they are giving out of hospitality. But they wanted something in return—us. But not us as we were. Us as…” Oisin beat the water with his wings. “What fools we were! We were so taken with their food that we didn’t notice that our mouths were turning to beaks. So taken with dance that we didn’t notice our feet become orange and webbed. So taken with the Faerie ladies that we didn’t notice the arms we put around them were sprouting feathers. That’s right…” Oisin gave a bitter smile to Matt’s widening eyes. “The Faeries were turning us into swans. Pets for their courtyard. Oh, we eventually caught on. But it was too late. They threw us—still plump from their food—out of their hall and into this cursed lake. And here we must remain. An endless stream of days to curse our own folly.”
Matt shook his head. “You’re wrong. You have to be wrong. Ansa was so caring and—”
“You think the Faerie people care about humans? We’re their playthings. Pets in their menagerie.”
“She would never—”
“She already has,” Oisin said. “Lift up your sleeves.”
Scowling in defiance, Matt thrust his sleeve up to his shoulder. When he did, his stomach wretched. Along his forearm, small but undeniable, was a row of white feathers. He tried wiping them off, but it was no use—they were growing out of his skin.
Matt fell to his knees, the world reeling around him. “What should I do?” he whispered.
Oisin grabbed Matt’s shoulders. “Flee. Take your brothers and flee this castle. It is too late for us. Perhaps it’s not too late for you.”
“But how? This castle is so big and confusing. I can’t find my way back to the entrance.”
“On the far side of this courtyard is a small crimson door. It leads outside. You’ll have to crawl on your hands and knees, but you should still fit.”
A swan warrior pointed to a light processing through the halls. Oisin groaned.
“There’s no more time. The Faerie servants are leading your brothers to their bed chambers for the night. You must join them or you’ll arouse suspicion.”
“But how can I—”
Oisin and his warriors pushed Matt toward the hall door.
Matt opened the door and slid back into the dense miasma of the castle.
“Oh, there you are.”
It was Brian, his mouth filled with cake. He held a platter overflowing with desserts. Beside him, Jer held a ball in one hand, and pins in the other. They were led by a Faerie servant, who stared at Matt with icy eyes.
“Sorry about that,” Matt said, trying to force a chuckle. “Needed some air.”
The Faerie said nothing, but his eyebrow rose in obvious suspicion. Not knowing what else to do, Matt followed the Faerie and his brothers to their bed chamber.
Once inside and by themselves, Matt shared everything Oisin had told him.
His brothers only laughed.
“Are you even listening?” Matt wailed.
“We’re listening,” Jer replied. “But what you’re saying doesn’t make sense.”
“Then I’ll make it even simpler: if we don’t leave now, we’ll turn into swans!”
“You’re just jealous because I’m better at Faerie ball,” Jer said.
“You just practiced more! I’d be way better if—” Matt shook his head. “That’s not the point! We could be trapped here forever!”
“So what?” Brian said, licking frosting off his lips.
“You’ll be a swan!”
“Swans still have mouths.” Brian at a pie in one giant bite.
Matt shouted in frustration., slamming his fist on a cushion. He took a deep breath. Then another one. He forced a smile.
“Okay. That’s fine.” Matt reached out his hand to shake Brian’s. “If you both want to stay here, that’s your decision. I won’t bother you—”
Grabbing Brian’s hand, Matt jerked him to the ground. Matt took Brian’s dessert platter, and threw it out the window. Wailing, Brian watched the desserts crash into the lawn five stories below. When Jer turned to look, Matt stole the ball and pins. He threw them out the window, too.
Jer and Brian pounced on Matt with a fury. Matt knocked Jer to the side with his shield, and pinned Brian to the ground. Though Brian chomped and scratched, Matt was able to pull up the sleeve on Brian’s tunic just before Jer knocked him to the ground.
“See! See!” Matt pointed to the line of tiny feathers along Brian’s arm. “It’s starting already!”
Jer let go of Matt. He rolled up his own sleeve, and gaped at the feathers. Both boys looked out the window, where their food and pins lay scattered on the grass. Shaking their heads, they looked at Matt with newly clear eyes.“Okay,” Jer said. “How do we get out of here?”
Illustration by Kay Nielsen, from The Widow’s Son, 1914