Excerpt from The Swan Maiden
An angel flew out of the inferno and sank into the water. Surely it was the most beautiful and terrifying sight he had ever witnessed. Gawain ran forward, water lapping at his boots.
He searched, but did not see the pale slip of a girl who had leaped from the burning tower. Scores of swans glided on the flame-bright surface of the loch, but the girl did not emerge from the water, even as several birds launched upward.
Behind him, the bellow and crackle of the fire grew louder. He heard the commander, Sir Walter de Soulis, demand that the lady of the castle give up her home to him.
Bastard, Gawain thought. He hoped those inside the castle had found an escape somehow, though he doubted it. He was not certain that the girl who had leaped free had survived either.
"You—Avenel! Did the girl come out of the water?" a knight called out as Gawain went past.
He turned. "Nay. Likely she's drowned."
"Or killed by those birds. Swans can fight like demons. If she survives, Sir Walter wants her captured. But we may find the girl's body tomorrow."
Gawain looked up at the swans flying overhead. "The Scots claim that when someone drowns, their soul enters the body of a swan," he said.
"Where did you hear that?"
"When I was a boy. My... nurse was Scottish. There is a legend about enchanted swans on this very loch, if I recall. Each new swan is the soul of someone deceased, they say. Tell Sir Walter she went into the water and is gone," Gawain said.
"Edward of England owns this loch now, and he wants rebels, not children or swans. I do not want to tell Sir Walter the girl has drowned, I swear it." The man looked up at the white birds circling overhead. "How could she change into a swan? The longer I serve in Scotland, the more I believe anything can happen here," the knight drawled, and then walked away.
Glancing away from the burning castle—yet another raid by King Edward's knights on the Scots, yet another injustice that turned his stomach, even though he was part of it—he looked toward the hills for a moment. His boyhood home was somewhere among those slopes. Years ago, he had vowed to find his home again and claim his inheritance, but he had become, by necessity, a knight of King Edward—and so his secret dream seemed remote and impossible now.
He walked along the rocky edge near the burning tower and looked down into the loch. The water lapped at the promontory and sparks sizzled down into the loch like fallen stars. He searched, glancing here and there, not ready to give up on finding the girl who had thrown herself from the tower.
Then he saw the lift of a pale arm, glimpsed a face amid a few swans rippling the water's surface as they swam in agitation. She was there, he was sure—but he did not know if she was drowned or living.
He yanked off his red surcoat, pulled at the leather ties of his chain-mail hood and hauberk, threw off his belt and sword scabbard and struggled out of his gear. Piling all but his trews on the rocks in the fiery light, he slipped into the water, and swam toward the swans with strong, steady strokes. Pausing to tread water, he saw that pale form again, moving among the birds. She was swimming toward the shore. He surged after her.
Swans lurched upward, clumsy leaving the water, lovely in the air—grace lost, grace regained. When the commotion of swans cleared, he saw the girl again, nearing the reeds along the shore. He lunged forward, a few strokes more, and grabbed her. She struggled, but he got an arm around her and tugged her toward shore. When she began to scream, he cupped his hand over her mouth and stilled in the water, holding her close.
"Hush," he breathed out. "Easy! I have you!"
She twisted in his arms and gasped. Shouts sounded on shore. He saw the glare of torches and the glint of armor. Cradling the girl in his arms, he glided into the shelter of the reeds, his feet on the soft bottom of the loch now. He held her with him, low in the water.
"Let me go!" She spoke in Gaelic, but he understood, retaining the language from his childhood.
"Quiet," he hissed in English. "Be still."
"Sassenach!" she spat out. He tightened his hand over her mouth. His arm banded her, encountering soft breasts.
"Let go!" she snapped in English, and kicked his shin. Struggling, she sank, and he tugged her up. She rose sputtering.
"I only want to help you," he muttered.
"Then do not drown me!" she gasped. When she drew breath to scream, he clapped a hand over her mouth again.
"Sweet saints, hush—be mute, like a swan."
"Not all swans are mute," she mumbled behind his hand, and squirmed like a hooked fish.
"So I see, Swan Maiden," he grunted, wrapping a leg around her thighs, tucking her against him like a lover, though passion was the last thing on his mind. "Quiet, if you value your life, or they will catch you. Hush, now."
She stilled then, and slipped her arms around his neck. Her face was silky and wet against his bearded cheek. He felt a fine trembling all along the length of her.
The commander and a few knights walked along the shore and pointed toward the swans, and then at the window from which the girl had escaped. A few swans flapped their wings and hissed loudly. The men backed away.
One bird, huge and gorgeous in the fierce light of the fire, rose from the water and took to the wing, flying so low overhead that Gawain felt the breeze and ducked as it passed.
The girl laughed. "He will not hurt us."
"Hush," Gawain said between his teeth, embarrassed that he had thought otherwise. "You talk too much."
Two knights waded into the reed bed and backed away as the swan circled over their heads, fast and low. Gawain watched, astonished. The bird's protective action could not be deliberate, but he was grateful for it nonetheless.
The girl looked up, her hair streaming around her face. Her eyes were large and dark, her head and shoulders delicately shaped. Her body was lithe and lean in his arms, her breasts lush against his chest. He held her, breathing in tandem, water lapping around their necks.
"They are gone," she whispered after a moment. Her mouth was close to his. Feeling a strong, misplaced urge to kiss her, he pulled away slightly.
"The knights are there, just over the hill," he murmured.
"The swans are gone, too, farther down the loch. Look."
He turned and saw that most of the swans had disappeared. The remaining few glided elegantly over the water. The shore was empty, though shouts continued on the other side of the castle.
Gawain stood cautiously, holding the girl in his arms. The soft floor sucked at his feet as he waded to shore. Water sluiced from them as if they were kelpies rising from the depths. Slung in his arms, sopping wet, she was yet a light burden.
Glancing uneasily toward the castle, he ran along the bank away from the burning tower toward the forest. People waited there in the shadows. A woman stepped between the trees.
"Mother!" the girl said. "Set me down." He did, sweeping his arm around her to hurry her toward the trees.
The shadowed figures came closer, reaching out. A woman pulled the girl into her embrace and swathed her in a thick plaid. Someone offered a blanket to Gawain. He refused it.
The girl turned to look up at him. Her eyes were luminous; in shadows and moonlight, he could not tell their color.
"I am Juliana Lindsay," she said. "Tell me your name, so that I can ask the angels to watch over you."
He frowned. If he told her the name given him at birth—Gabhan MacDuff—she might know him for a local Highlander, and despise him for being with the English. If he told her his English name, Gawain Avenel, she would loathe him for that.
She shivered, waiting, her cheeks pale, hair like strands of honey. He touched her chin with a fingertip.
"Swan Maiden," he murmured. "Call me your Swan Knight in your prayers, and the angels will find me."
She nodded, watching him. Her mother drew her back.
"They are coming this way, knight," the mother said.
"I will lead them away from here. Go! All of you—go!" He waved them back into the forest and turned to run toward the castle, where the inferno still raged, bright and ferocious. As he went, he felt keenly as if the girl and the others watched him from the cover of the trees.