Once upon a time in a land far away, there was a girl with hair as silver as the starlight.
Every day she crept out of her village and walked to the hills just behind, to watch a flock of six swans fly above her and on towards the great river. And while she watched she collected nettles and stitched them into shirts. Every night when she crept back home, her hands red and itching, there were villagers there to tend to them.
She never spoke, this girl. She hadn’t spoken a word in the six long years she had lived there.
But to each person in the village she showed kindness. To each of them, she had shared a smile, and every person who saw it knew behind the gentleness there was a sadness.
So they looked after her without question, and they hoped that one day, she would trust them enough with her secrets, trust them enough to break her silence.
But she never did.
Sometimes when she was up on her hill, the children of the village ran around her, their laughter dancing in the air. She always kept an eye on them, the smile on her face, and she let them braid her hair while she worked.
But still, she never spoke.
Sometimes the young men who thought it upon themselves to give her their hearts strolled up the hill when the sun was high, baskets of food in one hand and a blanket under the other. The girl would smile and nod to them, and carry on with her task.
And still, she never spoke.
The villagers never knew what to do- but other than her hands each evening, the girl never frowned or looked hurt, she never cried or screamed. So they left her to her task- maybe when she finished it, she would speak.
The day she finished the fifth shirt, a stranger rode into the village.
A King from a distant land, one who had heard of the beautiful girl with silver hair and sorrow in her eyes. He believed himself smart enough, handsome enough to break her silence and get her to talk.
He walked up to her on the hill and sat down beside her.
Come and be my wife he said and you will never need to wear anything like this.
Her only reply was a frown.
Come and be my wife he said and you will never need to work like this again.
Her only reply was to turn back to her work.
Come and be my wife he said, and this time it was an order from a man not used to being refused.
And how could she refuse, the girl who never spoke?
He took her hand tightly in his, and stood up, pulling her down to the village where his horse was waiting.
And when the girl tried pulling back to her house, he only laughed.
You need nothing from there anymore he said.
And, tears dripping from her face as she thought of the shirts she had left behind, the girl was dragged from her home and to a Kingdom she did not know.
The swans followed. Each day on their travels she would look up, to see the six not far behind. But she could never say what she wanted- to the king that had stolen her or the swans that kept her secrets.
And when they got to the strange and distant castle, the girl was thrust into plans she had no words to stop.
What colour would you like the dress? What flowers do you like? What month do you want to wed? What vows would you-
The last one stopped the question, much to her relief, but they did not stop the other plans the King had ordered.
He loved her, he told her, he was blinded by her beauty.
But how could he love her when he did not even know her name, how could he love her when he did not know her voice? To him love was a sight, an object on his arm, and that was all he wanted- not her voice, her thoughts, her heart.
The day before the wedding, no one noticed her slip out of the castle, and run to the forest around it.
Her swans met her there, and she cried into their feathers, still careful never to make a sound. Then she met their eyes, and in her own was an apology that would never end.
Until one plucked a feather from his wing, and handed it to her.
She needed no words for this- she remembered the vow she had taken six long years ago, to never swap one life for another, but to break a curse the slow way, the long way, the way that never cursed another.
But she was as trapped as they were, more lost than she had ever been. She wanted her home back, her fire, her friends that never asked for more.
So she held her hands out, wordlessly, and the six swans filled them with their feathers.
And long into the night, she hid, her back against a tree, to make a shirt of swan feathers, not knowing if it would work.
But as the sun rose, on the day she was to become a queen, she clutched in her hand a shirt that was as soft as a cloud, and weighed little more.
She crept back up to the castle, and made her way to the King’s great rooms. No one stopped her- why would they- as she knocked on the door and was let in.
Her eyes went first to the window where she could see the swans gathering, then to the man stood by the bed. She held out her gift to him, a smile on her face- a smile she knew no man could resist.
You made it for me? He asked her, enchanted as he took it. I will wear it today, and treasure it forever.
She waved her hand to his chest, and he understood without words what she meant- to try it on now to make sure it fitted.
And he did. She turned away as he took off his shirt, and she heard his low laugh as she did. So modest, she heard him mutter as she walked to the window and opened it.
Then she turned back. She waited, worried nothing would happen.
But with seven blinding lights- one in front of her, six behind- she knew her curse had been broken.
You stole me She cried, her voice music even in anger You took me from all that I knew. You didn’t care for my sorrow, my tears, my secrets, you didn’t care for me at all. You wanted my beauty and nothing else. But here, King, is what I wanted. I wanted my voice back. I wanted my life back. I wanted my brothers back from who they were. I was so close when you took me- but you never even asked… and time was running out.
She heard the steps behind her, and hands on her shoulder
Little sister. Six voices as one, and she turned to smile at her brothers- who, for six years had been trapped in the bodies of swans- before turning back to the King.
To the only swan now in the room.
I had one more year and one more shirt to make, when you took me from my home. The curse was going to be broken forever. But you took me without asking what I wanted. So now, the curse is yours.