05 July, 2006

Cinderella and the Proud Curse: Chapter 3

The fairy godmother snuck a slender little wand from the many folds of dress, and began to chant,

Lost in a house
Lacking in length
Throw off this mouse
Burst forth with strength

With the slightest little touch of her wand to Cinderella’s head, and the tinkling sound of little fairy chimes, Cinderella sat up as a falcon. The whole world was suddenly different. Falcons and mice see the world very differently. She could see each hair on her fairy godmother’s head, and the whole room suddenly seemed to be filled with moving things. Every rustle of the drape, every buzz of the fly in the corner, and the slight wiggle of the little mouse next to her all were like candles flickering in her eyes. She could not help but see them.

She put out her foot, and it moved like lightning. She caught Fluffy before he could even think about running away. She had to be very careful, because her claws were so strong, but she could not bear to hurt Fluffy after all she’d been through. She lifted her claw to her fairy godmother, and made her promise to take ever so good care of him.

Her godmother put Fluffy into a safe little box with air holes, and promised to come back to look after her. Then she wrapped a sturdy cloth around her arm and waited while Cinderella hopped up there. She took Cinderella to the falconer.

As they walked, the talked a little bit. The fairy godmother explained that Cinderella must not attempt to cheat true love. She could not try to let the prince know who she was. If the prince kissed her because he knew who she was, the curse would not be broken. She would have to live out her days as a falcon. The prince would know who she really was, but she would never be able to hug him again. Cinderella took this rule to heart, and vowed never to give a clue who she was. She would just be the best fun her prince had ever had in a falcon.

When they arrived at the falconer’s, the fairy godmother told him that this falcon had just flown into the castle, and needed a good home for a while.

The falconer was baffled that such a stunning specimen of a bird had been let free, but he accepted her willingly. The female peregrine falcon was the perfect rank for his prince, (A king would have required a gyrfalcon, at least, and a lesser noble would have required a lesser bird.) The falconer was shocked, but not so shocked that he forgot to tell the fairy godmother that he would suggest the prince try her after he had tested her skills himself. He took her up to the mews, hooded and jessed her, and let her grow comfortable with her new mew-mates. That is to say that he took her up to the most elegant set of birdcages in the castle, put a hood with a bell on it over her head, and tied her down to her perch. Falconry is a very fancy sport, with a lot of very fancy names and customs. Cinderella would not be good at it right at first.

Over the passing days, Cinderella was asked by the falconer to pursue a lure, and each time she brought the lure back to her falconer, she was rewarded with a small chicken, or a mouse. These she ate with great gusto (after making sure that the mouse was not Fluffy!) Chasing a lure was hard work, and very tiring, so she was always hungry for even the smallest reward. These she ate whole, and every part tasted good to her now that she was a falcon. The bones, brains, fur, and teeny little claws all tasted like ice cream to her, and they were good for her, too. She grew stronger and better at hunting every day.

One day the falconer came a little later than usual. She always had a hood on, but that was OK. She had gotten used to knowing everything that was happening around her just by listening, so she knew that breakfast had long been served before her falconer came. He finally came, though, and he talked to her a little more than usual. His words made her heart leap, “Well then, my little chicky. Let’s see whether you can make your prince and his falconer proud today.” Cinderella was going to hunt for her prince!

She could hear a dozen horses mulling around, and guessed that this was a large hunting party. She had never heard such a ruckus. All the voices were those of young boys, though. She was beginning to become confused when there was a sudden hush.

The sound of laughter came from behind her.

This laughter was not that of the boys. These were men, and they laughed with the sure confidence of rulers who had earned the right to rule. It was odd, because they did not laugh as friends, and she could tell. These men might even be enemies, but they weren’t sure. Everything they said and did was calculated, and every laugh was tuned to be polite without giving more credit than necessary.

There! That was the sound of her prince’s voice! It was so strange to hear him in this world. He was a prince, but a prince among those who were princes and more. She could tell that he was worthy to be in the group, but that some of the other men were her husband’s superiors.

Gradually, the men mounted their beasts, and Cinderella was transferred to her prince’s arm. She was so close to him, and this was her chance to earn his everlasting love. She wanted to hop down and scratch some words in the ground, or something else that would tell him who she was, but she knew she could not do that. Instead, she stood there, still as death, and waited until the hunt would begin. If only her hood could be removed, and she could look at his face, and look into his eyes again. She knew they would melt her heart. It had been two long, hard weeks, and she really just wanted to be held in his arms.

Cinderella fought the urge to collapse. She pulled herself together, and waited in the dark, listening for every time her prince spoke to the men around them.

Gradually, a new voice began to take over her prince’s attention. She did not know this voice, but it had the crackle of a man who was almost old. “So, my young prince,” he said, “I have heard that your commoner wife has gone missing. What of that?”

“Thank you for your concern, Lord Farris,” answered the prince. “Yes. My dear Cinderella has been missing under the strangest of circumstances for two weeks now. Even as we ride, my palace guard is turning the castle upside down, but I don’t believe that they will learn anything new.”

“Then you must consider the future of your little realm,” Lord Farris said.

Cinderella was horrified that this old man would write her off so quickly, and felt the blood boil in her veins when the Lord emphasized how her prince’s realm was so “little.”

“As you will recall, my Lord Farris, Cinderella was no commoner, but only raised as if she were one by her father’s second wife. That stepmother’s offense was fully repaid, and Cinderella was simply returned to her rightful state when she consented to marry me. As for the realm with which my father and king has entrusted me, I have done and will do what is right in his eyes.”

“Yes,” agreed Lord Farris, “but when a due period of mourning has passed, imagine what good could come to both of our realms should you marry my fair daughter. It is not every day you receive a second chance to right such a mistake as marrying for the pleasure of a single clever dance.”

“Thank you, my Lord for your careful thoughts and forthright telling of them,” said the prince.

With that, she felt her prince’s horse slow up slightly, and heard the Lord Farris ride on ahead.

Even the stable boys had overheard Lord Farris’s proposition. In no time, the entire world would be setting wedding dates for her prince and Lord Farris’s daughter. It was awful to hear and terrifying to imagine, and Cinderella could not do anything about it but sit there on her prince’s arm.

Eventually, they arrived at a little stream, judging by the bubbling sounds, and everyone stopped. Each of the minor dukes, earls, barons, and knights hunted first, in reverse order of rank. Each hunter’s bird eventually returned with a mouse, or a chipmunk, or a songbird and cheers were shared all around.

Eventually, only Lord Farris and the prince had yet to launch their birds. Right of rank lay with the Lord, but right of property was with the prince since they were on his land. They stared at each other, and neither was willing to loose his bird first. Cinderella kept waiting for her hood to be removed, and for her jess to be loosed. The quiet was unsettling, and threatened to become frightening.

Lord Farris let out a sudden laugh, “Well played, young prince!” he declared. “I admire your spunk. Let us loose together, and see which bird shall return the victor!”

She felt the prince’s body move as he nodded, and prepared to take flight. The prince removed her jess first, and then the hood. She looked over to see Lord Farris and his bird ready to fly as well, and almost didn’t take off as both men raised their arms. She was looking across at a gyrfalcon easily twice her size. Her fairy godmother had made Cinderella a peregrine falcon. She was faster than the gyrfalcon, but very much smaller. Cinderella could almost as easily end up that bird’s prey as her competition.

When the gyrfalcon launched, though, Cinderella was up in the air right behind her.

Both birds started circling higher and higher to get the best view.

The stable boys were beating the bushes trying to flush some quail, while one of the hunters was releasing his best ferret into a rabbit warren, hoping to scare out one or two. Cinderella kept climbing. So did the gyrfalcon. It was a way of seeing the world she had never known before. As she looked down, the horses and people of the hunting party were just a bunch of specs, but she could see every little move they made. A horse flicked its tail, and her eyes tracked it instantly. One of the stable boys pointed up at the gyrfalcon, and she knew it. It was like every smallest motion made in the whole world was under her complete domain.

That was why she knew the instant the rabbit broke from the hole at the back of the warren the ferret had invaded.

The gyrfalcon knew it too.

Cinderella began her stoop, plunging into the headlong dive all hunting birds are famous for. She was flying fast, faster than the gyrfalcon, but the gyrfalcon had started closer to the rabbit. Cinderella would not beat her there, so she pulled up and started gaining altitude again. She could see Lord Farris celebrating, standing in his saddle, and cheering his hunter on with a cry of, “Ho! Ho!” It tore her tender little heart, and brought the start of a tear to her eyes.

Fortunately, her eye remained clear enough, because out of nowhere a flight of ducks was nearing the hunting party. She waited for just a second before she dove. She wanted Lord Farris to see what the prince’s falcon could do.

The gyrfalcon hit the rabbit hard, and grasped his rear haunches in her iron talons. It was not a good hit. Even her massive legs could not reach the rabbit’s neck to break it from that far behind. The rabbit kept trying to flee to a new hole. One that would hide it from large birds, and that would not have hungry ferrets in it either. The gyrfalcon was trying to figure out what to do, when it saw the ducks as well. It quickly calculated that the rabbit was probably going to get away anyway, and that the ducks were better catch, so it took off again.

Cinderella was in full stoop now. She fell through the air as fast her sleek feathers would allow. The wind washed back the tears from her eyes.

She targeted the lead bird.

Flying faster now than any other living being on earth could ever hope to move, she still had a split second to see the confusion in Lord Farris’s eyes as he tried to figure out why his bird had left her prey, and the disgust as he saw that the prince’s bird would get the first kill after all.

Cinderella hit the duck with mighty, outstretched talons at 200 miles per hour. The duck felt no pain, and Cinderella felt the purest elation of her life. As she swung the duck back under her body, the better to carry it back to her prince, she saw the gyrfalcon hit one of the ducks that had dodged her way when she saw Cinderella’s strike. This one was a clean hit, and she quickly took it back to land near the hunting party.

The proud gyrfalcon mantled over her kill, spreading her wings over the duck, and protecting it from any who would steal her prize. Cinderella, however, was not just a falcon. She flew directly to her prince, and deposited her kill in his hands as she resumed her perch on his arm.

Lord Farris looked from his own mantling, defensive bird to the prince’s willing and almost loving bird, and back again. While he waited for his falconer to coax the duck from his bird, he admitted to the prince, “You certainly have a way with women, young prince.” Anyone standing a little closer, though, might have heard him mutter under his breath, “That old witch had better have done her job well.”

Lord Farris might have wished to hear the prince’s words. He whispered to his hawk, “You, dear lady, have shamed a man who desperately needed it. I will see to it that the falconer feeds you this duck tonight. You earned a hundred ducks with that strike.”

Back in the mews later that night, Cinderella glowed in the memory of her triumph, and of the prince’s wonderful words. She had been forced to wear her hood the entire way home, but she would never forget the look on his face when she dropped the duck in his lap. She was proud of her prince, and how he had stood his ground against the Lord Farris.

Cinderella ate her duck that night, but the next days did not bring her prince back. Gradually over the following days, as she did her lure drills, and ate her reward mice, it began to dawn on her that she had not won her prince’s true love. The prince did love his game, and did love to play. He even loved her after a fashion, but she had been wrong about him. The game of hunting was both a great game and more than a game to him. He played to establish his reputation with his peers, and so it was important, but it was still just a game. He loved watching his falcon hunt, but he would never love his falcon.

She understood that she would never win the prince’s true love as a falcon.

With that revelation, she spoke to the walls of her wonderful birdcage, “Godmother, I was so wrong. I will never earn my prince’s love as a toy for him to play with. I need to choose again!”

No sooner had the words left her mouth than her fairy godmother was there.

“There, there darling,” she said. “I know it’s hard, but the story of your great hunt has filled the castle. You truly did your part well.”

“I know,” Cinderella said, “but doing my part was not good enough. I must find another way to try to win my prince’s heart.”

“Then you must think of what the prince truly loves,” her godmother said.

Falcons are a uniquely quiet kind of animal, and when Cinderella started thinking, nothing came out. Her face betrayed none of her thoughts, and her eyes still looked like they were focused a mile away, looking for dinner.

Her fairy godmother understood, as all fairy godmothers do, that it was a time to wait quietly. Eventually, Cinderella spoke again. She said, “I will become a warhorse. My prince cares more about his people than anything, and he loves to be able to help them. I can think of no other animal that could serve him in his work, but as a good warhorse I will be there when he needs me, and that will make the difference.”

Her fairy godmother really frowned this time, “Do you think you have the time, child, to earn his love as a warhorse? It could be years before anything happens that would cause him to call on you.”

Cinderella just stared back with those clear, piercing, unfeeling falcon’s eyes. Her heart was breaking behind them, but you would never know by looking at her. Again, a tear tried to form, but then she reflected for a moment. She assured herself that this was the best chance she could think of, and she told her fairy godmother, “Yes. I am willing to take that risk. My other choice is to wait here in the mews with a plan I now know will not work.”

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