(Originally published at https://www.journeymouse.net/ on 13th October 2018)

I

In the beginning, the world was a swan’s egg floating on nothing as if nothing were a nest by a river. Inside the egg was everything, outside the egg was nothing. Inside the egg were the First Born, growing slowly until there was no more room inside, growing slowly as they fought for space.

As the First Born grew, the egg began to glow with an inner light and shadows could be seen beneath the surface. The shadows writhed and wriggled and wrapped around the light until at times it looked like the glow would disappear altogether but, somehow, the light was never beaten.

Then the shell cracked, a fraction of a hole in the shell, releasing the inner light to shine upon the emptiness that surrounded it - and a glowing hand extended as if reaching for freedom. The rosy hand became a fist that crashed down upon the shell, widening the hole until the whole of the First Light was revealed in all Her shining, swan-winged glory.

The shadow in the egg screamed in pain and hid itself, at first, in the remains of the shell before gaining enough courage to resume the fight. Then, with tongue flickering, the serpent shape of the First Darkness wrapped Itself around the First Light once more. Though She fought bravely, the First Light was unable to stop the wriggling coils covering her almost completely.

“Surrender,” the First Darkness hissed.

“Never!” the First Light shouted and, as She shouted, she struck the Serpent’s great head, dazing It.

The First Darkness collapsed, unconscious.

Seeing that the eggshell fragments were drifting away into the nothingness, the victorious First Light the Serpent’s unconscious body to tie the fragments together in one place. Later, She shaped the world but that came after her Children were born.

II

It was prophesied that the Sky-Father would be both father and mother to his heir, who would be greater still than the Sky-Father himself. When the Sky-Father heard of this, he called all his children to him and made them swear fealty so that he might never fear their revolt. They swore their loyalty to him but that fear sat in him, regardless, for there were still children unborn and even unconceived who might yet grow to be this heir and the presence of an heir means replacement is possible.

“Peace,” said the Earth-Mother, who was no happier about the idea of her husband being replaced by his child if the child was not also hers, “You cannot be mother to a child and you will never have a child more powerful than ours.” For their son was the Striker, beloved by all of the people who worshipped them as the protector of all.

Despite her rough comforting, neither the Earth-Mother nor the Sky-Father were any happier, for he still feared the prophesy while she still hated that he dallied with others and made a footholder (for Sky-Father must have his feet held from the ground if he is not at war and no-one wishes to fight Sky-Father) of anyone who turned his head. However, she did her best to restrict those who might become footholders to minor gods and goddesses with lesser powers so that any offspring would be weak in comparison to her son, the Striker.

One she put forward for the duty of footholder was her daughter, River, whose magic she considered a pitiful thing in comparison to her own and whose divinity was a pale glow in comparison to any of the other gods. But the Sky-Father was taken with River and kept her as his footholder long after her belly began to swell. He was also so taken with her that he mentioned the possibility of taking her as a second wife when she was no longer capable of holding his feet. Furious, the Earth-Mother chased River from the hall and the settlement and across the world.

The desperate River changed her shape to a horse and cantered across the plains to lose her pursuer, but the Earth-Mother became a great, thundering aurochs chasing after her. Then River became a silver fish swimming through the waters, but the Earth-Mother became an otter that came so close scales were lost. So River became a falcon flying across the open sky, but the Earth-Mother became an eagle and grasped her tail feathers in her talons. River fell from the sky, landing in the reeds on the edge of a lake, where she became a swan and, fortunately, her mother did not find her.

The Earth-Mother thundered back to the Sky-Father’s hall and River stayed a hidden swan. But, in time, she laid an egg that glowed so brightly with divinity that it could not be hidden and the Earth-Mother thundered back across the plains and the waters. River fled, knowing that she was too weak to defend her unborn child, leaving the egg behind. The Earth-Mother crowed her delight at finding the egg unattended and plotted further revenge against the unborn usurper. She took the egg back to the hall and had it served to the Sky-Father for his dinner.

The Sky-Father enjoyed his meal but it did not sit well with him. He took to his bed for many years, complaining of stomach pains until he could no longer bear them and he demanded that someone, anyone, remove the thing that pained him from his distended belly. None of the gods around him were willing to undertake this work until he became so pained that he cursed them all. Then the Great-Mother herself stepped forward and cut him open from throat to hips.

From the gap sprang a swan-winged woman in polished armour and a great spear and shield in hand, singing of dawn and hope and wisdom and love. The Great-Mother stepped back, terrified, for this woman’s divinity was stronger even that the Sky-Father’s, but the Twice-Born laughed at her fear. With gentle hands, she set aside her weapons and healed her parent.

III

The All-Father had never been faithful to his wife, the Great-Mother, but his dalliances were generally with his footholders, who are chosen by his wife and under her control. She chose those with lesser powers or no powers at all so that no false heirs may result from his indiscretions.

But despite this, there came a day when the Great-Mother saw a footholder, a mortal woman, heavy with a child so brilliant that the divine light shone through her swollen belly. Mother-Earth had the footholder sent from the palace and replaced but that was not enough. She raged and fumed until the ground shook.

“What is wrong, Mother?” asked her children.

“There is a child who will steal your inheritance,” said the Great-Mother. “If you value your place in the world, if you wish to be as great as your mother or your father, you must kill them.”

So the children of the Great-Mother raced to kill the footholder and her child.

But the other gods, particularly the other children of the All-Father, had no wish to see this new god killed and aided the fleeing mortal woman. They changed her into a swan and hid her among the reeds of a great lake where no-one could find her, and there she laid two golden eggs.

The first of these hatched to reveal an evenly matched pair of semi-divine sons, full equals in their powers and beauty. The Lord Sun took them into his care and raised them to be great warriors in the fight against the Darkness. When their strength and divinity failed them, he had the All-Father raise them to the heavens as the Morning and Evening Stars.

The second of the eggs hatched to reveal a mismatched pair of daughters, one glowing with divinity so strong it made her hands rosy with light and the other shining with beauty so bright it took the breath away. The swan-winged goddess was given to the care of the divine twin until she was old enough to take her place among the divine as Dawn, the herald of the Lord Sun. The mortal beauty was left to her mother to raise and grew to become a great queen among the mortals.

IIII

In the days before Man went in search of the golden apples of immortality, there was a woman - an ungrateful daughter - who chose to leave his city behind to make her own life. She made that life in the marshes, among the biting insects and soggy reed beds.

One spring, her attention was called by a golden light among the reeds. After much scrambling through the stinking mud she found it came from the only egg in a swan’s nest, the shell grey-blue from the damp despite the inner glow. As she looked at it, she saw the flickering with the shadows of inner movement.

She was desperate for food so she had no choice but to take the uncanny egg and she put it in her pocket to carry back to her hovel. The egg rocked in her pocket and she hoped that the gods would not be angered by her eating the egg or the cygnet it surely contained. Yet when she broke the shell, there was no cygnet nor yolk.

The first crack allowed a black vapour and horrendous smell to escape but, still desperate for food, the woman ignored these warning signs and cracked the shell again. The black vapour became a mist that clung to the floor of her hovel and the stench became so strong that she fell, coughing, away from the egg.

Then, a black Serpent’s head pushed through the cracks in the egg. Hissing, the head pulled through a long sinuous body that should not have been able to fit into a swan’s egg, all the way to a tail tip that flicked away the shell remnants. The Serpent looked about the hovel that barely contained it and pulled the black mist around it like a cloak.

“Surrender,” it hissed at the woman.

From the pile of egg-shell fragments, a quiet, frail voice whispered, “Never!”

The Serpent laughed and coiled itself around the woman.

The shell fragments stirred and, then a glowing hand pushed through them. That rose-coloured hand pushed aside the pieces, scattering them to reveal a glory of golden skin and white swan wings. Despite her obvious weakness, her light was so bright that it burned off the black mist and the woman’s heart lifted as the Serpent screamed in pain.

“Leave us,” whispered Hope.