It was late afternoon, and the daffodils cast long blue shadows across the dusty road. A sharp spring breeze ruffled Molly’s riding cloak; she adjusted it, and tried to ignore the smell of fresh-baked bread rising from her gray mare’s saddlebags. It wasn’t so much further to the lake, was it? If only the innkeeper hadn’t been so rude.
“Not much further,” Schmendrick said, echoing her thoughts. He flashed her a brilliant grin from the back of his own brown mare. “It’s been a while since we had a picnic, hasn’t it?”
“Not so long,” Molly said.
“A real picnic,” Schmendrick clarified. “With real food, and decent weather.”
That, Molly had to concede. They had just come from town, where they had bought fresh strawberries, and fresher bread, and soft goat cheese, and four golden little pastries to share—a far cry from the hard traveler’s bread and harder cheese and wizened little apples they usually got in winter.
“I hope the lake’s pretty,” she said. “I still think you should have turned that innkeeper into a rabbit. Wicked wizards, indeed.”
“It doesn’t sting so much now that I’ve got real magic,” Schmendrick said. “Besides, she wouldn’t like it.”
“Still,” Molly said, but the thought of the unicorn softened her, as it always did. “Still.”
Soon Molly glimpsed blue between the red pine trunks. The gray mare jogged faster, as eager for the sight as Molly herself. They passed beneath the cool, shady pines, and emerged onto the bare lake shore, and Molly gasped.
The lake glittered like a sapphire in the slanting light, ringed with bare granite, and crowded pines. The gray mare’s hooves clopped against the stone. Molly dismounted and led it. It had bruised its foot earlier that week, and she didn’t want to make it worse.
“There,” Schmendrick said. “That looks like a likely spot.” He pointed. Beyond his billowing sleeve Molly saw a granite outcropping that overlooked the lake. “Let’s tie up the horses and—”
“Help! Help!” someone shrieked. Molly flinched, and felt the gray mare dip its head, pawing the sandy granite. Then she saw it: a girl running down the shore, her brown hair streaming and her green dress hitched up around her knees. Half a dozen white swans pursued her, running with the ungainly waddle of landed waterbirds, wings half-spread and necks stretched long in front of them.
Molly hastily looped the gray mare’s rein through its bridle, grabbed a stick, and ran toward the swans. Schmendrick ran beside her like a huge bat made of knees and elbows and flapping cloth, shouting down curses both prosaic and magical, along with the names of several quite fictitious demons. The swans retreated along the shore. Molly could hear them hissing at one another, as if personally offended by the girl’s escape.
She turned back to the girl, who regarded her with large blue eyes above a sprinkling of freckles. Molly felt old and baggy, looking at her, but she pushed the feeling aside. It got easier every time: a nice side effect of getting older.
“Do you need any help?” Molly said.
“I just need to catch my breath,” the girl said. “Um. Thank you.”
“Swans can be nasty,” Schmendrick said. “You’re lucky you didn’t trip. A flock of swans can skeletonize a cow in under three minutes.”
“They’ve been chasing me for days,” the girl admitted. “If I didn’t know better I’d think they had some kind of grudge.”
“Days? How long have you been out here?” Molly said, appalled.
“A couple of weeks? I’m looking for my brothers,” the girl confessed. Then she brightened. “Oh! I do need some help with that. They’ve been lost for weeks—maybe you’ve seen them? There’s six of them, they look like me but older. And men, obviously.”
Molly and Schmendrick looked back at the swans. There were exactly six of them.
“How long have these swans been chasing you?” Schmendrick said.
“I don’t know, maybe ten days…? Oh. Oh, no. That’s silly, that—that doesn’t happen—”
“You don’t know anyone who might have turned your six lost brothers into six unusually persistent swans?” Schmendrick said.
“No!” Then the girl paused. “Well. My stepmother. But no one else.”
“Fairytales,” Schmendrick muttered.
“That’s what you get for being the greatest wizard in the world,” Molly said, lightly. “Would you take a look?”
“And risk getting bitten?” Schmendrick said. “Fine, fine. Bury me with my sword.” He trudged toward the knot of swans.
“This doesn’t happen,” the girl fretted. “I don’t even know any witches or wizards or sorcerers. Or at least I don’t think so.”
“Well, you know one now,” Molly said. “I’m Molly, by the way. And he’s Schmendrick.”
“Emma,” the girl said.
The swans clustered closer at Schmendrick’s approach. When he spoke they flapped in surprise, and then replied all at once, in a gabble of half-heard words. Molly didn’t understand any of it, but Schmendrick stood still as a stone and listened.
“Come on,” he finally called back. “I’m not sure about brothers, but they’re definitely humans, and they want us to come with them.”
Molly sighed. The picnic would have to wait, it seemed. She glanced at Emma, then picked up the gray mare’s rein.
“Let’s go, then,” she said, and followed the swans.
For nearly an hour they walked down a forest path hardly wider than a deer-trail. Sunlight dappled the dry pine needles that carpeted the forest floor. The six white swans waddled in single file, and the three humans went behind them: Emma first, then Schmendrick leading the brown mare, and finally Molly leading the gray, which liked to think of itself as the mare in charge, and therefore entitled to bring up the rear. Molly kept a careful eye on the brown horse’s hindquarters: it had a regrettably practical sense of humor.
At last the forest opened onto a small cabin, perched between the woods and a steep, rocky hillside leading down to a narrow mountain stream. Moss stained its clapboards green, but the windows were unbroken, and the roof sound. In the clearing before the cabin’s door, the white swans crowded around Schmendrick, whose alarmed eyebrows almost disappeared beneath the brim of his pointed hat.
“What do they want?” Molly said, anxiously.
Schmendrick spoke to the swans—Molly didn’t hear what he said—and they gabbled back in that same eerie chorus, not quite words, and not quite swan-talk.
“They want me to make them human again,” he said at last.
“I can try,” Schmendrick said. He lifted his hands. Molly felt the magic gather in the air, like the silence before a song. But after a moment he let his hands fall, and shook his head.
“Amateurs,” he said, with disgust. “The curse is all tangled up. I think I could take it off, but... better not to risk it.”
“Not even for a moment?” Emma said. “Just so I can speak to them and see their faces?”
Schmendrick sighed and glanced at the sinking sun.
“I suppose,” he said. “There’s a spell for it. But it won’t be for very long, you understand. From the moment the sun touches the horizon, until the moment it passes out of view. That’s how long you’ll have.”
“I understand,” Emma said. The swans clustered around her.
This time Schmendrick didn’t raise his hands, but Molly saw the tips of his fingers twitch, and his mouth move with silent muttering. The swans shone pink in the long red light of the sun. With a shock Molly saw that their shadows were the shadows of six young men, their elongated limbs streaming away from the sun’s fire.
The sun’s circle touched the edge of the world, and the swans were men.
It wasn’t really a transformation, Molly always thought later—more like a change in the light that revealed new dips and cracks in a wall plastered smooth. The six men stretched their arms like wings and shuffled from foot to foot, twisting their necks—as if, Molly realized, they didn’t quite fit into their human skins anymore. She couldn’t help but roll her own neck in pained sympathy. Beside her, Emma squeaked.
“Ebba,” one of the men said, after a moment. He swallowed and tried again. “Emma. You found us. Or, well, we found you, I suppose. And you found a wizard.”
“Don,” Emma murmured. “What happened? Why are you swans?”
“Oh, it was Stepmama,” Don said, and then the other five young men drowned him out as they attempted to explain their stepmother’s perfidy, all at once. Don waved them back.
“It doesn’t matter why. We’re swans now,” he said. “And it is a curse, and I’m not surprised it’s a clumsy one, I think she must have got it out of a book. Anyway, I know how to break it. But you won’t like it.”
“How?” Emma said. Molly cast an anxious glance at the horizon, and then looked away, green and purple half-circles dancing before her eyes.
“You have to make us all shirts,” Don said. “Well. Coats, really. With long sleeves.”
“That’s not so hard,” Emma said, but he waved her silent.
“Out of nettles,” he said. “Not just any old nettles. Nettles growing from human graves. And you have to pick the nettles with your bare hands, and stamp them out with your bare feet, and if you say even one more word while we’re still swans we’ll die. All six of us.”
“Oh, that’s nasty,” Schmendrick breathed. He sounded almost approving. Molly glared at him, and he subsided.
“Oh,” Emma said in a small voice. She glanced west. “I… of course I will, but… oh…”
Molly took a deep breath, and cleared her throat. The swan-brothers looked at her. As did Emma, and Schmendrick, and the two horses.
“Does she have to do it alone?” she said.
Don stared at her, and Molly stamped her foot. The sun’s red edge bled away like a sliver of butter in a hot pan. “Does she?” she insisted.
“No,” Don said. “No, she doesn’t.”
And then the sun vanished, and in its shadow the men were swans again, surrounding a scared girl in a green dress. Emma sank to her knees among them, opened her mouth, and then closed it again, and threw her arms around the neck of the nearest swan. It flapped, taken off balance, and then twined its long neck around hers.
Molly looked at Schmendrick. Schmendrick sighed.
“It’ll take ages, you know,” he said. “Traditionally it’s seven years, or a year and a day.”
Molly’s heart thumped, unpleasantly. “Schmendrick!” she hissed. She looked at the swans, but they looked back, unperturbed and not at all about to keel over.
“Oh,” Schmendrick said. “I think we can still talk. I mean, here we are, talking.”
“And it doesn’t...?” Molly gestured at the swans. “It counts?”
“She has to follow all the rules,” Schmendrick said. “You and I could probably even wear gloves to pick the nettles, if we wanted. Although it’s a clumsy enough curse that I wouldn’t recommend it.”
“That’s fine,” Molly said. “I just think she shouldn’t have to do all that alone.”
“Oh, I agree,” Schmendrick said. “It just means I’ll keep picking at the curse. It’s good practice.”
Foolish affection welled up in Molly. She threw her arms around him.
“You do care,” she said into his chest, and felt him wrap his arms around her.
“Of course I do,” he murmured. “You goose.”
Molly let go, and turned to Emma, who picked her way out of the crowd of swans. When she emerged she took two steps forward, and grasped Molly’s cold hands with her warm ones. She pressed her lips together, and squeezed. Tears shone in her eyes, lit by the faing sunset.
Molly squeezed back, and let herself hope for a happy ending.
The cabin turned out to be part of the curse, and was furnished with two wide beds and a well-stocked kitchen. Emma slept in one bed while Schmendrick and Molly took the other, and Schmendrick grumbled at Molly to keep her cold feet below his knees, please.
In the morning they rode into town, Schmendrick first, Emma riding pillion behind Molly, and the swans bumbling behind. At last they reached the graveyard at the edge of town. Molly and Schmendrick tied up the horses and unhitched the empty saddlebags while Emma dithered before the iron gate. It creaked when she opened it, and again when Molly closed it behind them, shutting out the swans.
The town was small but old, and the graveyard showed its age. Near the gate the epitaphs on the stones were crisp, and the grass short, except where one dark scar showed fresh against the sod. But the stones at the back of the graveyard were weather-worn, tipped and tilted like stained, crooked teeth. Thistles snarled them, and plants that left spiky little burrs on Molly’s skirt as she stamped a path, and along the back wall a tangle of nettles rose past Molly’s shoulder, all sawtoothed leaves and frilly green florets and deceptively furry stems. Emma paused again before the thicket. Molly couldn’t blame her.
“At least we won’t run out,” Molly muttered under her breath. She rolled up her sleeves, knelt beside the nettles, and began to rip them up with her bare hands, twisting the green stems to break them. The nettles stung, and burned. Molly’s eyes watered, but she bit her lip and kept going. Beside her Emma knelt as well, and grabbed at a nettle. The moment she touched its stem she squeaked and jerked her hand back.
“You have to really grab them,” Molly said to her. “Don’t shy back. If you grab them tightly you’ll crush most of the spines, and it won’t be as bad. If you’re shy about it they’ll sting you worse.”
Emma pressed her lips together, but she nodded. She rubbed her hands on her skirt, then closed her fist on a nettle and yanked, ripping it up by the roots.
“Well, in for a penny,” Schmendrick muttered, and knelt as well, his sleeves rolled up to the elbow. “Ooh. Ouch.”
By noon the saddlebags were crammed with stripped green stems, and they rode back to the cabin. Schmendrick went straight inside to make a healing paste out of dock leaves. Molly would have preferred magical healing, but Schmendrick hated to use magic on himself, now that he was mortal at last, and she couldn’t blame him. She distracted herself by showing Emma how to soak the nettle stems in water so that the nettle-fibers pulled away from the tough, woody parts of the stem.
“Soak overnight, then drain them, and then soak again for a few days,” she said, helping Emma submerge the green, mostly-de-spined stems. The cold water soothed the nettle-stings. “It’s called retting. Rotting, really.”
“How do you know all this?” Schmendrick said from the cabin door.
“Please,” Molly said without looking up. “I lived with Cully for how long?”
“I didn’t know you made the clothing for all those pathetic outlaws,” Schmendrick said.
“Not all of it,” Molly said, though her ears burned with embarrassment for her younger self. “I gave it up soon enough. But it was part of the romance.” Emma looked away, and Molly patted her arm. “I suppose whoever made the curse thought it was romantic too,” she said.
“Curses usually try to be romantic,” Schmendrick agreed, and held up the poultice he’d made for their blistered fingers.
After a few days Molly pronounced the nettles sufficiently retted, and they laid them to dry in front of the cabin, weighted with rocks so the cliff winds wouldn’t take them away. A week saw them dry and then came the beating—with bare feet, of course—and then scraping the broken stems with the blunt side of a knife to strip away the slender, silky fibers. They visited the graveyard over and over, bringing back bags of stripped nettle stems to be retted and dried, beaten and scraped.
The townsfolk noticed, of course. More than once Molly found herself arguing with some shiftless young man who’d followed her into the forest, certain that she was stealing souls, or voices, or that the swans were her familiars. More than once Molly returned to the cabin to find Emma halfway up a tree, throwing pinecones down at the same young man or one of his friends, as they coaxed her to run away from the witch in the woods.
“I don’t understand why they insist we’re witches,” Molly complained to Schmendrick and Emma. “I’m not even the one with magic. I’m the least magical of the three of us.”
“Don’t sell yourself short,” Schmendrick said, fondly. Emma shrugged.
“Oh, you know what I mean,” Molly said. “I even tried to tell them about the curse, but would they listen?”
“Humans often see magic in the mundane, and fail to see the real magic before them,” Schmendrick said, and they both fell silent, remembering a unicorn. Beside them Emma sighed, and fretfully scraped nettle stems. It was going to be a long year.
When winter came the six swans flew south, and the young witch-hunters—thank goodness—left off their visits. By that time Emma had bundles upon bundles of nettle-fiber that needed only to be carded and spun and knitted up—‘only’, Molly thought, in comparison to the pain of picking the things in the first place. So Molly taught Emma to knit, and all winter she and Schmendrick carded and combed and spun to keep Emma supplied with nettle yarn. Bit by bit Emma knitted, and bit by bit the snow deepened and melted and sank into the earth in icy crumbles. Only the last sleeve of the sixth shirt remained by the time the daffodils came again.
“It’ll be just about a year and a day by the time we’re through,” Molly said to Schmendrick as she fed nettle-fibers into a drop spindle.
“Fairytales,” Schmendrick muttered. He slapped his carding combs together. Fibers snapped; Molly bit back a rebuke, but Schmendrick had already noticed his mistake, and resumed combing more gently. In the corner Emma sighed, and flopped back onto her bed, knitting needles still clicking. Molly sighed too, and so did Schmendrick.
Then something outside sighed as well, and the hairs on Molly’s neck stood on end.
“Did you hear that?” she said. Schmendrick and Emma blinked at her like owls. Molly set down the spindle and rose. Her hips sent a warning twang up her back, and she cursed herself, and the weather, and the relentless march of mortal years as she hobbled to the door, and opened it.
Warm woodsmoke blew against her face. Molly blinked away sudden tears, and through the smoke saw flames rising at the forest’s edge.
“Schmendrick,” she said, and only then saw the three young men with torches in their hands. They stumbled as they walked, and elbowed each other, but when they saw Molly they shouted and ran toward the cabin. Molly picked up the rock they used as a doorstop.
Then she shrieked and dropped the rock. With a loud thump, a wall of fire bloomed between her and the young men, swiftly encircling the cabin. Blindly Molly held out her hands to keep it away. The heat pressed on her palms like a solid thing.
“I’ve got it,” Schmendrick murmured in her ear. Molly whirled about, and he caught her in his arms as she staggered.
“The forest,” she said.
“Under control,” Schmendrick said, and then something huge and white flashed down, and Schmendrick yelled.
The six swans had returned, and now fluttered down and beat at the flames with their wings. Molly smelled burning as their feathers singed. From the cabin Emma screamed, and then shoved past Molly and Schmendrick. Her arms were full of nettle-shirts.
“Emma, don’t!” Schmendrick called, but it was too late. Emma flung the first nettle-shirt over a swan. It dropped to earth as a man with outstretched arms, who stumbled and fell. “Oh, that ninny—”
“Emma, you’re not done,” Molly cried, but Emma cast one wild look back at her, and threw a shirt over a second swan, and a third. The ring of fire flamed up, and then dissolved into roses, and the roses burst into petals and then scattered, blowing away on a sudden wind that flapped in Molly’s skirts. Emma threw a shirt over a fourth swan, but the fifth and six flapped up in alarm, startled by the sudden roses.
“Grab them,” Schmendrick instructed, and lunged. Molly copied him, and wound up with a double armful of hissing, panicked swan. It beat her with its wings, but she held on grimly, until Emma threw the shirt across its back. Molly’s skin crawled as the curse unraveled, and then she found herself holding onto a young man. Hastily she let go.
“You did it!” one of the swan-brothers exclaimed. “You did it, I can’t believe you—” He forced his way past his brothers, lifted Emma up, and spun her around. Emma shrieked, but when he let her down she hugged him.
“I can’t believe this,” another brother said. “Look.”
He held up his left arm, and for the first time they saw that it wasn’t an arm at all. Huge white primary feathers fanned where his hand should have been, and continued up his arm, finally disappearing beneath the ragged edge of his unfinished sleeve.
“My arm,” he said, plaintively. He touched the soft white swan-feathers. “Look at it.”
Emma opened her mouth, and then closed it. She swallowed.
“I’m sorry,” she croaked, her voice rusty from disuse. “I—I did my best…”
“I’m crippled,” he insisted. He fanned the wing at her, kicking up ash. She backed away.
That was enough. Molly stamped forward.
“It’s been a year,” she said to the young man, who took a step back in the face of her anger. “Your poor sister has just spent an entire year turning nettles into shirts with her bare hands, and because of you the first words out of her mouth are ‘I’m sorry’?”
The young man blushed red, but apparently shame wasn’t enough to deter him.
“Your pet wizard could fix it in a minute,” he said.
“Conn, leave it,” Don said.
“I could,” Schmendrick said. His voice was hard in a way Molly rarely heard. It didn’t suit him, and for a moment she was almost afraid. “But first I think you ought to thank your sister. She did get you most of the way back to human, after all.”
“This is worse than being a swan,” Conn protested. He looked about. “Fine! I’ll just go then. Clearly no one cares! Thanks for the curse, Emma.”
“I didn’t mean to mess it up,” Emma said, as Conn tried to storm off, and was physically restrained by his five brothers. “Schmendrick, couldn’t you please—”
“He’s being insufferable,” Schmendrick said.
“He’s upset! You’d be upset if someone turned your arm into a swan wing, wouldn’t you?”
Schmendrick opened his mouth, and Molly recognized the look on his face. It was the look he got when he was frustrated and about to say something silly.
“Schmendrick, can I speak with you for a moment,” she said, and without waiting for an answer she grabbed his arm and dragged him into the cabin.
“Of course I’m not going to leave him with a swan wing,” Schmendrick said, as soon as the door shut. He tugged his arm out of her grip.
“I know,” Molly said. “But I’ve traveled with you long enough to know when you’re planning something silly. Spill it.”
Schmendrick opened his mouth, and then closed it. He sighed.
“I thought I might send him on a quest,” he said.
“A quest,” Molly said.
“To teach him some kindness. Something about helping forest animals, maybe. Or a bridge guarded by a cranky troll.”
“Schmendrick, he isn’t Lir,” Molly said. “I know I started it, and it’s hard on Emma, but she’s right, he’s upset and he’s not thinking. And who knows what could happen if you put a spell on someone with a swan-wing for an arm?”
Schmendrick’s green eyes widened, and then he laughed.
“I’m rubbing off on you, aren’t I?” he said. “All right, all right. No quest. But he needs to apologize, all right? I don’t have to put up with being called someone’s pet wizard.”
“That’s fair,” Molly said. She stood on her toes, and tugged him down a little, and planted a kiss on his lips. He hesitated, and then kissed her back. He started to slide his long fingers through her hair, but Molly disentangled herself, reluctantly.
“What happened to the men?” she said, as an afterthought. “With the torches?”
“Turned them into rabbits,” Schmendrick said. Molly scowled at him. He spread his hands. “You said to. Remember?”
“I do,” Molly said. “They’ll change back? Eventually?”
“Eventually,” Schmendrick said. Molly sighed. It was the best she’d get out of him. And more than they deserved, probably.
“Come on,” she said, and opened the cabin door.
Outside, the brothers had evidently just finished delivering a sound scolding. Conn’s face was still red, but his head was bowed. He glanced up as the door opened, and then the swan-wing fanned in front of him as he tried to clasp his hands, and failed.
“I’m sorry,” he said to Emma. “They’re right. You’re right. You’ve sacrificed a lot for my sake, and all I did was shout at you for not doing it perfectly. I’m ashamed.”
“I forgive you,” Emma said. She hugged him, and he hugged her back, one-armed.
“And I’m sorry for the way I treated you as well,” Conn said to Molly and Schmendrick. “You were absolutely right to scold me, and I was a fool.”
“Next time perhaps you’ll take a few minutes to calm down, before you go shouting at people,” Schmendrick said. Molly could hear his mouth trying to be stern, but his smile softened it. “Just because your arm’s a wing, doesn’t mean you can take it out on your poor sister.”
Conn had the grace to blush.
“At least it’s the left wing,” he said ruefully. He touched it again. “And it’s a good conversation starter.”
“It is, at that,” Molly murmured.
“Oh, no,” Emma said. “Schmendrick, you can fix it, can’t you? Please?”
“Is it still tangled up?” Molly said in a hushed voice. “Can you not…?”
Schmendrick peered at the wing. The young man blushed, but held it out straight, the primary feathers spread.
“It’s worth a try,” Schmendrick said. He cracked his knuckles and spread his hands. “Ready?” The young man nodded, and Schmendrick closed his eyes and began to mutter.
The muttering went on for a long time, and Schmendrick’s eyebrows knotted and leapt on his face as he moved his hands in strange patterns. Twice Molly could have sworn his wrists moved through one another, deft as a juggler’s. The air grew tense, like the air before a thunderstorm. She held her breath.
But then the tension vanished like a pricked soap-bubble, and the wing was an arm, so perfectly, prosaically normal that Molly instantly forgot what the wing had looked like. Conn blinked, and flexed his fingers.
“Huh,” he said. “You really are a wizard.”
“Conn!” Emma said, and Conn blushed again, and then bowed.
“Thank you,” he said.
“Think nothing of it,” Schmendrick said, but Molly could hear that he was pleased.
In the morning they rode away, Molly on her gray mare, and Schmendrick on his brown. They never saw Emma or her brothers again, but a few years later they heard a song—authored by the famous Cully, no less!—about a maiden and her swan brothers. The song called her Elise, and said there were twelve brothers instead of six, and that the weaving had taken seven years instead of one, and omitted Molly and Schmendrick entirely—but it had the nettle-shirts, and the muteness, and the missing sleeve. Molly sighed when she heard it.
“That’s not at all how it happened,” she said. “And there wasn’t a king or a pyre, just a couple of silly, drunk men with torches. Isn’t that frightening enough?”
“Well, that’s how songs are,” Schmendrick said. “Look at it this way—if she had to suffer for seven years, it’s better to do it in a song, isn’t it?”
“Typical Cully,” Molly muttered, but she listened when the minstrel played the song again, and in the morning when they rode away, she joined Schmendrick as he sang it, her rasping alto rising to complement his tenor, among the daffodils and the long blue shadows.