no ordinary swan


An excerpt from THE HERO, OR, THE KNIGHT WITH THE SWAN. Prince Lukas, the Black Knight, has just slain a cockatrice after a terrible battle.

Lukas scrambled up from the snow and ran across the knoll. He slid to a stop in front of a high drift of snow that had a big impression at the top. Digging with his hands, Lukas pushed aside the snow and blocks of ice. He pulled out of the snow a black and bedraggled creature, still as stone. “Oh, Pooka,” whispered Lukas.

The eagle lay on his lap. Its feathers were all bent and ruffled. He stroked them, trying to smooth them back into place. The eagle stirred. It opened one eye. “You’re alive!” exclaimed Lukas.

The Pooka closed its eye again. “Not for lack of trying,” it said wanly.

Even so, Lukas smiled. He stood, holding the Pooka, and carried it back to where he had left the saddle and their gear. All around him statues came to life. Horses’ hooves thudded to the ground. Men finished their cries, cutting them short with astonishment. Voices asked with bewilderment what had happened, recognizing each other, each wondering what had happened to the monster they had been sent to kill.

The dead cockatrice lay on the knoll for all to see. A small crowd of knights had gathered around it. Lukas walked out to them, going right up to the cockatrice. “It is I who killed this monster,” he said.

“How were you not turned to stone?” asked one.

The Black Knight held up his shield and all could see the mirror inside. “Because I did not look directly into its eyes. Go, return to your court and Lord Cadigar. Tell him that the danger that threatened his court is no longer.”

“Will you not return with us to celebrate your victory?” asked another. He was young, like Lukas.

But the Black Knight shook his head. “No. I have miles yet to go. There are more fell monsters, and no time to waste.”

As the company of knights rode away, Lukas rejoined the Pooka. It had once more taken the form of a horse. Lukas saddled it, repacking his saddle bags. “Let’s get out of here,” he said.

The Pooka may have wanted to run, but it could only walk away from the den of the dead cockatrice. Its walked with its head down, its nose nearly dropping to touch the snow. Lukas dismounted when the Pooka stumbled. He walked alongside it, one hand resting on the Pooka’s shoulder.

The forest had awoken from the cockatrice’s spell. Animals that had been frozen by the cockatrice’s stony glare staggered through the snow. A bear passed them, but it paid them no heed, intent to find its own den to return to a more comfortable sleep. Ahead of them something white fluttered in the snow. When they came closer to it, Lukas saw that it was a swan, large and majestic.

“That’s odd. Is there water near here, do you think?” asked Lukas.

The swan swung its graceful neck, rolling its eyes at the knight. Lukas had begun to lead the Pooka away, but stopped. There was something about the swan’s eyes. They were human eyes.

“Hello Swan,” said Lukas. He approached it slowly. “You are no ordinary swan.”

The swan shook its head. It flapped its wings, struggling to step away from Lukas. He saw an arrow shaft at the base of the swan’s left wing. Fresh blood stained its white plumage and dripped onto the snow. “Wait, let me help you,” said Lukas. The swan fell onto its side, panting.

“We have to help it,” Lukas said, looking up at the Pooka.

“We don’t have to,” it said, its voice weary.

“But I will,” said Lukas. Neither the Pooka nor the swan protested as Lukas withdrew the arrow and bound the swan’s wound. He lifted the swan onto the back of the Pooka. With one hand steadying the swan, Lukas and the Pooka continued through the forest, taking the enchanted swan with them.

Photo: Two swans in Stratford-upon-Avon, England.