THE GOLDEN FEATHER
by Christina Ladd
Content Warnings: None
Once there lived a prince who yearned to fly. He brought the greatest minds of his court together, but although they created many clever devices, they could not grant him true flight. He scoured the land for the wise and the mad, but they could only teach him to loose his spirit or his mind, leaving his body firmly grounded. No consolation would he take from wealth or wonders. He wanted only the sky.
The King and the Queen watched their son in growing sorrow, for he was wan and listless. The King sent to his neighbours and begged them for their daughters, brides comely or clever enough to entice the prince back to the ground. The Queen sent to her people, far away in the deepest part of the Wood.
The King’s neighbours sent seven princesses, each prettier and slyer than the last. The Queen’s people sent an old woman riding upon a donkey and a little girl riding upon a stag.
‘Our son desires the power of flight,’ said the King. ‘Whoever can grant him this shall be his bride and inherit the kingdom alongside him.’
‘Our son desires the power of flight,’ agreed the Queen. ‘Cure him of it, and I shall allow the Wood to take root in our kingdom.’
The first princess went North, seeking the North Wind.
The second princess went East, seeking the Rising Sun.
The third princess went South, seeking the High Summer.
The fourth princess went West, seeking the Setting Moon.
The fifth princess went Up, seeking the hermit of the Highest Mountain.
The sixth princess went Down, seeking the Last Breath.
The seventh princess, prettiest and cleverest of all, requested a suite at the palace. Then she stretched out and had a nap.
Meanwhile, the old woman and the little girl each set to work brewing a potion. They gathered ingredients from across the kingdom and beyond, chanted spells, and consulted charts for the position of the stars.
The old woman’s potion would bring remembrance of the past and cause the prince to forever bear up under the weight of history.
The little girl’s potion would bring forgetfulness of the future and cause the prince to live forever without care.
The seventh princess woke and stretched until the kinks in her back were gone. Travel by horse was a nuisance; no wonder the prince wanted to fly.
Speaking of the prince…
The seventh princess wandered about the palace until she found the prince, who was sitting in a tree staring up at the sky.
‘Why do you want to fly?’ she asked.
No one had asked the prince this before. ‘I want to be free,’ he said.
‘Oh. I thought it was because you were a ninny who enjoyed upsetting his parents and subjects. My mistake.’
The prince glared at her as she climbed up the tree and took a seat next to him. ‘I don’t want to upset them.’
‘I don’t want to be beautiful as a spring day, but here we are.’
The prince looked at her askance. ‘Yes, you do.’
The prince wasn’t sure, but he thought he had been outmanoeuvred and insulted at the same time. ‘You don’t understand. My whole soul yearns for this.’
‘Congratulations. My whole soul yearns to decipher the secrets of Rygric Stones, but I can’t spend all my time studying ancient grammar.’
‘It’s not the same.’
‘Oh, fine, you’re the most special boy who’s ever lived. Tell me, your unique highness, have you ever considered what’s going to happen after you go flying?’
‘Well—I’ll be flying.’
‘And then what?’
The prince, who had clearly never considered this, was silent.
‘All right,’ said the princess, unfastening something from her hair. ‘I didn’t want to do this, but you’ve left me no choice.’ She held out a golden charm that sparkled in the sun.
‘It’s a magic feather. It’ll let you fly.’
He snatched it greedily. But then he hesitated. ‘How does it work? And why didn’t you give it to me immediately?’
‘Because it’s mine? You’re really spoiled, you know that?’
‘I am not!’
‘No “please” or “thank you.” Oh yes, you’re the epitome of humility.’
The prince took a deep breath. ‘I apologize for my rudeness. Many, many thanks for your peerless gift, princess. But how does one invoke the charm?’
The seventh princess nodded. ‘Better. You can awaken the charm by falling – like falling out of this tree. But,’ she added when he began inching forward. ‘But. Once you start, you can never stop. You’ll never rest on the ground again. That’s a kind of freedom, I suppose.’
Then the princess shimmied down the tree, gave a sardonic little wave, and disappeared back into the castle.
The prince sat looking at the golden feather for a long time.
The King and Queen were overjoyed to find that, after a day and night during which the prince had seemingly disappeared, both he and the seventh princess were found in the kitchen, sharing a piece of cake and a pile of books. The Queen believed he was cured; the King believed he had flown.
‘Not yet,’ said the prince. ‘But we’ll get there.’
And they went back to their cake and their books.
The first princess found a magic mirror and caused a great deal of trouble before she was done.
The second princess met a djinn and took up residence in his palace of quartz and bone.
The third princess acquired an army and became a great warlord.
The fourth princess discovered that she did not like princes, thank you very much, and married a courtesan.
The fifth princess remained with the hermit and attained enlightenment.
The sixth princess returned from the underworld with a golden harp and no desire for royalty or kingdoms.
The old woman and the little girl went back to the Wood none the worse and none the better, as the Woodfolk so often are.
And the seventh princess and the prince continued their work.
Christina Ladd is a writer, reviewer, and librarian. She will eventually die crushed under a pile of books, but until then she survives on a worrisome amount of tea and pizza. You can read more of her work at Strange Horizons, Vastarien, Speculative North, and others.
You can also find her on Twitter @OLaddieGirl.