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Grade
9

There’s a place in the forest. A little clearing with a silver pool that reflects the moon. It’s hidden, deep within the woods, with darkness and distance and magic. You won’t find it if you look. But if you’re lucky, or desperate, you might catch a glimpse.

Maybe you’ll only see a bank of white swans, or maybe a group of girls in white robes. There are six of us here—six girls without a care in the world.

 

It’s a night like any other, my sisters and I alone in our moonlit clearing, speaking of little things. Marija plucks irises from the bank and weaves them into her hair. Koa hums to herself.

Quinn presses a finger to her lips suddenly, and we fall silent.

A bird cries alarm from the trees. Someone is here.

We glance at each other. Then, quick as a blink, each of my sisters slips on her cloak, trading flesh for feathers. I reach for mine, but freeze at another sound from the trees. Too late.

A girl steps into our clearing, staring in wonder at the crystal pool. She’s surprised when she sees us—one girl and five swans.

“Hello, lady,” I say. “What brings you here?”

Her clothes are fine, but ruined from running through the woods. Her hair falls loose around her face, a cloud of dark curls.

“Who are you?” she asks, looking me over. I’m perched on a stone beside the pool. Her eyes stray to the feathered cloak beside me.

“No one important, lady. You look like you’ve come a long way.” Slowly I stand and step toward her. “Where have you come from? Perhaps we can help you home.”

“We?” she asks, and I wince at my mistake. “I thought I heard voices. Are there others here?”

“Only the swans, lady. I talk to them,” I offer, a fragile explanation.

She’s still wary, but she’s drawn in, as many are, by the magic of this place. “I’m thirsty. If I could have a drink before I go?” She eyes the clear water and takes a step nearer.

I raise my hands to stop her. “Don’t touch the water, lady!”

She looks at me, surprised. “Why not?”

“It’s not safe for you,” I say firmly.

“The swans don’t mind it,” she says, and steps closer again to kneel by the water’s edge.

My sisters, watching serenely until now, lunge from the water with a flurry of honks and flapping wings. The lady screams and falls backward, tripped by a stone.

I hurry to her aid, my sisters quieting, but still on alert. “Lady, are you alright?”

“They let you near!” she exclaims angrily. “Why not me?”

“They don’t know you, lady, and they aren’t fond of strangers.” I help her to her feet. “I’m sorry, but I can’t offer you a drink. What are you looking for?”

“Somewhere to hide,” she says, her voice trembling. “Do you know somewhere no one can find me?”

Before I can answer, Rozalyn honks once from the pool, a warning. I can hear voices, and heavy footfalls drawing nearer.

Again my sisters erupt in panic. There are soldiers coming, and they must not find us here. The lady looks at me, frantic. “Please, you must help me.”

I’m torn between the cries of my sisters and the terror in her voice.

“I’m sorry, lady,” I say, and reach for my cloak. I pluck a feather, feeling the sting on my skin, and fold it into her hand. “But come back if you wish. Perhaps we can help you then.”

“Please—” she begs, but I pull the cloak over my shoulders. My sisters take flight, winging towards the moon. She turns to watch them, and I join them the moment her eyes leave me, spreading snow-white wings to lift me away.

I wonder if she counts six swans, and not five, slipping between the dark trees. Either way, when she turns, the girl beside her is gone.

 

Three guards in green livery find the lady alone and distraught in a strange clearing. They don’t linger long before bundling her away, back to her father’s manor. It’s clear from their gruff voices that this isn’t the first time they’ve had to search for her in the forest after dark.

When they’ve left, we return, alighting on the surface of the pool and sloughing off our feathers to sit atop the water in our robes. Swans don’t swim—we float.

“She’ll be back,” Koa says, looking into the woods, the way the lady and the soldiers left.

“She’s certainly desperate,” Quinn says with a thoughtful frown.

“Desperate enough to…?” Marija asks, leaving her thoughts dangling in the air like a breath on a cold night.

“I think she is,” I say.

We used to be like the lady. Girls who couldn’t find our way in the world of mortals, of strict rules and expectations. We turned to each other to escape. One by one, we found this pool, found our place among our sisters. Stopped wearing armor and covered ourselves in feathers instead, to guard us from the world outside.

This place is a haven. If that’s what the lady needs, we won’t turn her away.

 

Koa’s right. The lady comes back, clutching the feather in one hand as she steps cautiously from the trees. This time we’re all in feathers by the time she appears.

“Hello?” she calls, searching the clearing for a girl in white, but finding only six swans paddling calmly in the pool.

She draws closer and sits on a stone beside the water. When her toes dip too close to the surface, Zahra snaps at them. The girl frowns at her, but lifts her feet. “Yes, I remember. Why mustn’t I touch the water?”

We offer no answer.

“One of you must be the girl from before,” she says desperately. “Please, show yourself? So I know I haven’t imagined it all?”

She watches us for an answer. She ought to know better. We won’t shed our feathers, not with her watching.

“What do you want?” she demands of the clearing. “You said to come back if I needed help. Well, I do. I’ll get in trouble again just for coming to look for you. My father can’t wait to wed me to a lord so I’m someone else’s problem.”

She pauses again, waiting for a reply. When none comes, she slumps, putting her head in her hands.

I glance at my sisters and then shed my feathers, sliding out of the pool beside the lady to lay a hand on her shoulder.

She looks up, afraid to believe her eyes. “I didn’t imagine you?”

“No, lady,” I say with a soft smile.

She shakes her head at the title. “Why do you call me ‘lady’?”

“It’s your title, is it not? And it’s all I know to call you by.”

“Why not ‘my lady,’ like everyone else says?”

“Because you aren’t anyone’s, least of all mine.” I give her shoulder a gentle squeeze. “My name’s Aurora, lady. What’s yours?”

“Grace.” A name a lord would choose, hoping she’d grow to fulfill it. She says it like she thinks she’s failed him.

“Hello, Lady Grace.”

She shakes her head, more sharply this time. “Just Grace. Please. I don’t want to be a lady. I’d rather be anything else.”

I meet her eyes. “Would you rather be a swan, Grace?”

She doesn’t hesitate. “Yes. I’d rather be a swan and live here in the forest with you than let my father marry me to a man I don’t know, to be boarded up in his house away from the sky.”

“We can help you,” Zahra says. She’s shed her feathers, and she sits atop the water as if it were glass.

Grace gasps as, one by one, my sisters shed their feathers, until five white-robed girls rest atop the pond—Zahra with a white scarf over her hair, Quinn with her sharp features and russet hair cropped short, Marija with flowers woven into her pale hair, Koa with golden skin and inky locks, Rozalyn with designs inked down her arms like sleeves.

And me, Aurora, hair golden as the dawn I’m named for. Six of us, ready to add another sister to our number.

“Do you know how to sew?” Marija asks, and plucks a feather from her cloak, holding it out to Grace.

“We’ll teach you if you don’t,” Koa says. She twists a moonbeam into thread around her finger, extending it along with a feather of her own.

Grace only nods, accepting the feathers along with the one she already holds. “I can sew. But what?”

“A cloak, of course,” Zahra says, stroking hers as she teases a feather out.

“You won’t finish tonight,” Quinn says. “You’ll have to come back. But we’ll give you what you need.” She screws up her face in anticipation of the prick when she yanks a feather free.

Rozalyn nods as she holds up a feather. “We’ll help you, Grace. You can be free of your father, free to live under the sky.”

“All you need is a feather cloak,” I say, pressing another one of my feathers into her palm.

Grace smiles, eyes brimming with gratitude. “Thank you all so much.”

Zahra says it best. “Anything for a sister.”

 

Grace returns nearly every night, slipping out to come sit with us and sew our feathers together with thread we spin from moonlight. She learns our names, and we talk and laugh and do our best to welcome her in. After a few days, she laughs with us. When a week has passed, she can tell us apart even in feathers, and we no longer hesitate to shift forms in her presence. After a fortnight, she tells her own jokes and stories, till our faces are flushed with laughter and she grins triumphantly, already seeing us as her sisters.

One night, three weeks since she first stumbled upon our clearing, she arrives later than usual, the moon already high, and sits down to sew with more urgency than before.

“What’s wrong?” Koa asks her softly as she passes her another feather for the nearly-finished cloak.

“My father’s chosen me a husband,” Grace says, piercing the quill with her needle so fiercely she pricks her finger, leaving a speck of red on the white. “The wedding’s in three days.”

We offer comfort and condolences, but Quinn speaks clear truth—“You’ll be done tomorrow night, and then you’ll have nothing to worry about.”

Grace nods, strengthened, and returns to her task with fervor. We keep her company until the moon begins to set and she goes on her way.

 

The next night she’s early, eager. She gathers the feathers we hand her, adding a final row to the cloak. When she’s finished, she knots the thread and holds up her cloak, shimmering in the moonlight.

“What now?” she asks, breathless.

“The pool,” we answer. “Drink.”

She bends over the shining water, no longer forbidden, cupping it in her hands and raising them to her lips.

A shadow emerges from the trees. We don’t notice until it’s too late.

“My Lady Grace,” says a voice from behind us.

Grace raises her head in shock, and we turn as one to see a man, a lord, Grace’s betrothed, standing beside the pool with a feather cloak in his hands.

My cloak. My feathers.

My sisters reach for their cloaks, clutching them tight. Grace holds onto her own like a lifeline. “My lord,” she gasps.

“So this is where your father says you sneak off to. Come here, my lady.”

When she doesn’t move, he holds up my cloak and snarls, “Here, my lady, or this little swan loses her wings.”

Grace stands, shakily, and moves to his side, holding her own cloak behind her back. He smiles, all teeth.

Fear hollows me out at the thought of being without my feathers, wingless and trapped, unable to join my sisters in the sky.

“I think we’ll be going now, my lady,” the lord says, still holding my cloak in his bony fingers.

Grace lifts her chin. “Give Aurora her cloak.”

“This?” he says, pretending to consider it. “It’s awfully pretty. I think I’ll keep it.”

“I’ll give you mine,” Grace says, barely a whisper.

“No,” I cry. She’s worked so hard for this—she doesn’t deserve to see it snatched away. “Grace, don’t—”

But the lord smiles cruelly at the chance to take something from her. “You have a bargain, my lady.”

He throws my cloak toward the pool and snatches Grace’s from her hands.

I catch it on instinct, but it doesn’t comfort me to have my feathers returned, not when it’s Grace’s he clutches now. Grace blinks back tears, clasping her hands behind her back to keep from reaching out to take what’s hers.

The lord fists his hands around Grace’s cloak, stitched from feathers and moonlight and hope, and grins as he tears it in two.

Grace cries out. He drops the pieces in the dirt and she falls to her knees, reaching for them and gathering them to her with a sob.

As one, my sisters and I fling on our feathers and rush at the lord, a fury of beating wings and sharp beaks, driving him away from her. He raises his hands to shield his face, stumbling back. We pursue him, and he turns and flees into the trees, with a last glance at Grace over his shoulder.

We fall back, shedding our feathers to gather around Grace, who kneels on the ground with the halves of her cloak. We brush away her tears, pulling her into our embrace.

“I’ll never be free of him,” she whispers, voice shaking. “He won’t let me come—and I’ve no time to make another, and—”

“You needn’t make another,” Koa says, reaching up to the moonlight filtering through the trees to pluck a thread of it.

“You’ll mend it.” Marija gently extends the silver needle.

Rozalyn puts her hand on Grace’s shoulder. “We’ll help you, if you need it.”

Grace looks at the needle and thread we’ve pressed into her hands. “But will it mend? Won’t it always be scarred?”

Zahra says it best. “All beautiful things have scars.”

 

The lord comes back that night, with soldiers. He speaks of jealous spirits who kidnapped his bride-to-be. He leads them to our clearing, bids them help him rescue her.

They find only a calm silver pool and seven white swans.

When the lord insists that his betrothed is here, the soldiers shake their heads. She’s gone, swallowed by the forest. They move on, searching for her, but Lady Grace is nowhere to be found.

When their footsteps no longer trouble our forest, we shed our feathers to sit laughing on the pool with our new sister, and watch the moon set behind the trees.

 

There are seven of us here—seven girls without a care in the world.

State
MI
Zip Code
48105