Dedication: In memory of my grandfather, Lilbern Rutledge, (1925-2014), a man of humility, wisdom and courage, a man who opened my eyes through the use of touch, sound and scent.
His heroism as a medic during World War II serves as a beacon of hope in my life. I can never adequately express my love and gratitude.
The land pulsed with death, for the Dragon’s poison saturated the once vibrant soil. The acrid stench of the poison sank into unwary nostrils, and despair took root. Birds no longer trilled their jubilant notes upon the air, and all was still. Only the Dragon’s triumphant laughter could be heard.
Goldfinch knelt by the makeshift cot, trembling with pain. Tears coursed down her nut-brown cheeks, and she repeatedly rubbed the damp cloth along the old man’s fevered brow. “You can’t leave me,” she whispered fiercely, “I won’t let you.”
The man feebly lifted his hand, a small smile upon his parched lips. Water was scarce, for the Dragon’s occupation had lasted so very long. So much was lost, including the very liquid that sustained life. “Goldy, don’t hold me here. I have to cross the Final Water sometime. We all do, you know.” Grandfather’s voice, once so deep and majestic, a voice of the finest music, was now as crumpled as a falling leaf.
Goldfinch shivered. “The Dragon’s taken so much, Grandfather,” she whispered. “Now he wants you, too. I’m only thirteen. What will I do without you?”
“You’ll live, child, and you’ll make me proud.” Deergrace lay back upon the cot, his eyes closing in sleep.
Goldfinch emitted a soft whimper and shakily rose to her feet. She left the cottage, desperate to find some more water. She knew the search was pointless, but she had to do something. As Goldfinch strode through the overgrown grounds, she thought regretfully of how this land had once been so beautiful. Grandfather had worked with other groundskeepers to prune the mango trees that grew in riotous profusion around the Eldest’s House. Now, of course, the trees were dying. Deergrace lamented this fact constantly, and Goldfinch lamented it, too, for it meant that mango cider, her favorite drink, would be scarce from now on. She trudged through the weeds toward the well behind their cottage. She knew it was dry, but—
O-Lay! O-Lee! A strange sound stole upon Goldfinch’s ears. She recognized the trill of birdsong. She almost thought she heard words in the song. She scanned the area around her but saw nothing. Shrugging, she turned back to the well, lowering the bucket suspended above it. No splashing sound met her ears. The absence of the water’s reassuring chatter caused the girl to lose all vestige of strength. She crumpled to the ground, curling into a fetal position and rocking to and fro. The memories came, yanking her mind with vicious claws and forcing her to attend to them.
Goldfinch had been summoned to the Eldest’s House on her thirteenth birthday. The young prince was returning from his sojourn in the mountain country, and two visitors were accompanying him. Extra kitchen staff was needed. Deergrace was a groundskeeper, a loyal servant of Eldest Hawkeye. Therefore, it was only natural Goldfinch procured a job in the Eldest’s kitchens. She worked there each day and walked home with Grandfather when the day’s work was done.
Goldfinch remembered preparing tarts, puddings and pies for endless dinners. She remembered glimpsing a fiery-haired beauty of a girl, a girl whose face was so magnificent that Goldfinch was immediately drawn to her. She also remembered an oily-haired dandy of a boy, a boy she often saw writing in the library when she brought tea. The boy and girl never paid her any mind, of course.
“The fiery-haired girl’s so pretty, Grandfather.” Goldfinch sat before the hearth, peeling a mango Deergrace had brought her. She relished the days he brought her souvenirs from his work, and the fruit’s sweet scent wafted through the cottage, mingling with the clean, sharp scent of cedar. Deergrace was indulging in his favorite hobby of whittling. Goldfinch listened to the swish-clink of his carving knife as it scraped along the wooden log. Shavings fluttered to the floor like newly-fallen snow, crumbling into a fine powder. “She walks like a doe, so very graceful, and her voice is deep and flowing, like a river.”
“Sure enough?” Deergrace raised his head, brushing some wood dust from his palms. “And, how does she appear to you, Goldy?”
Goldfinch blinked. “I just told you. She’s so pretty. Her hair’s—“
“Now, you know what I mean, girl. Is she happy, sad or what?”
Goldfinch shrugged. “Happy, I suppose. Everyone knows she’s to marry the prince. I’d be happy if a prince asked to marry me.”
Deergrace laughed, resuming his task. “Well, I’ve seen her walking in the gardens, and believe me, she’s not happy. Nor, I might add, is that young lad who follows her with his eyes like a lovesick puppy. He just sits by the Starflower fountain and pretends to read, but he’s not.”
Goldfinch gaped. “What lad, Grandfather?”
“That slick-haired young one, my girl. They all think he’s at his writing and reading all day in the library, but we groundkeeper’s know better.” He smiled. “Don’t think just ‘cause they’re higher-ups in this world they’re happy, child. And, their looks don’t mean anything, either. Haven’t I told you what always counts? It’s character. Fine feathers don’t make a fine bird, you know.”
Goldfinch flushed. Involuntarily, her hand touched the limp, mouse-brown hair that lay against her neck in a tangled shamble. Unlike many Southland maidens, Goldfinch’s hair was unruly and decidedly unappealing. It was so vastly inferior to their land’s heroine’s luxuriant tresses. Goldfinch would never admit it, but when she was young, she loved reenacting Maid Starflower’s heroic battle with their land’s terrifying enslaver, the Wolf Lord. She’d arrange the wooden figures Deergrace carved for her, placing the hound in front, the maid in the center and the wolf behind. Then, she’d move the figures according to her wishes, reenacting that historic battle of bravery. She never wondered why Grandfather had made a hound instead of a wood thrush. The fountain in the Eldest’s courtyard depicted a thrush upon Maid Starflower’s shoulder, and it was a historical monument. Goldfinch simply took it for granted that, in Grandfather’s mind, a hound would make more sense as a guide for the maiden. After all, the villain in the story was a wolf.
Goldfinch often despaired about her hair, but that was nothing as to her nature. She knew she’d never be as brave as Southland’s most famous heroine. Nor would she want to be if she were honest with herself. She would never want to face a wolf.
The day the Dragon came was a day of magnificent beauty. The air was redolent with lovely fragrances, and the sun shone its buttery light. Goldfinch carried a cup of black coffee and a plate of mango muffins to the visiting prince’s room. She knocked upon the door. A muffled voice bade her enter.
Goldfinch stepped over the threshold, placing the breakfast tray upon a table. She heard someone moving about the room and glimpsed the sallow face and oiled hair of the visiting prince. Wasn’t his name Foxbrush? Clearing her throat, she said, “I’ve brought you your breakfast, sir.”
The young man turned toward her, his face even paler than usual. “Uh, I, um, that is to say, thank you. I-I thought I’d prefer a repast in here today, as it were. I have a headache and needed to be alone, you see.”
Goldfinch smiled. Why was he telling her this? “Yes,” she murmured. “If you need anything else, then—“
Foxbrush frowned, fingering his fancy dress shirt with trembling fingers. “I-I think what you’ve brought will suffice. I mean, how much food does one person need?”
Goldfinch laughed before she could stop herself. “Well, you’re nobility, aren’t you? I’ve known some visitors to eat a whole rasher of bacon and a whole two pans of muffins. I just meant if you needed anything at all, you only have to ask.”
“Thank you, but this food is more than adequate. That is to say—“ His voice trailed away abruptly, and his eyes strayed to a desk upon which was arrayed a profusion of paper. Hastily, he said, his voice tense, “I do need—That is, Do you serve Mistress Daylily?”
Goldfinch shook her head. “I’m merely a kitchen servant, sir. I—“
“Quite all right. It’s not important.” Once again, Foxbrush surveyed the paper upon his desk. “I hadn’t any intention of giving—“ He frowned, snatching a muffin and taking a small bite. His eyes widened in surprise. “They’re quite delicious,” he murmured, crumbs dribbling down his chin. He flushed with embarrassment.
Goldfinch smiled. “My grandfather doesn’t cook much, but he taught me to make mango muffins. My grandmother used to make them before she died. Grandfather always said, “Meadowlark, if the Song Giver summons you before he does me, I won’t let you leave until you show me how to make those muffins.” He taught me, and Cook lets me make them occasionally.”
Foxbrush nodded, a small smile upon his pale lips. “Mother made mango muffins for Father. He wasn’t home often, but they were his favorite breakfast whenever he was. She doesn’t make them anymore.” His smile faded, and he abruptly sat the half-eaten muffin down. “You may go now,” he murmured. “I have some work to complete.”
Goldfinch flushed with embarrassment. What was she thinking, talking to a superior as if he were an equal? Hastily, she curtsied and turned to leave.
A sharp intake of breath caught her attention. She turned back in time to see Foxbrush staring out the window. His lips were moving, but no sound issued forth. His cheeks were redder than blood, and he was trembling. From outside, Goldfinch heard the clattering of horses’ hooves and the happy chatter of voices. Softly, she said, “That must be Prince Lionheart and the lady. He was taking her riding today.”
Foxbrush turned from the window, and his voice was a broken snarl when he said, “I told you you could go. Leave me alone, can’t you? I-I don’t need any—”
The morning beauty shattered like a crystalline goblet. A roaring blaze of flame obscured the sun, and all dissolved into confusion. Goldfinch ran amid a maelstrom of panic-stricken people. She didn’t know where she was going or what she was doing. She only knew that danger was near, and she must escape it.
She felt someone push past her and saw a slight figure swathed in veils. Then she saw Foxbrush join a group of men. Trailing along in the throng, she could only watch as the men converged upon the castle doors. They thrust them open despite the Eldest’s desperate protestations, and the acrid, roiling poison surged inside the Eldest’s House. Goldfinch gasped and crumpled to the ground, her mind emptying of all thought but despair.
The scent of cedar was the first thing Goldfinch noticed as she awakened. The scent was clean and pungent. Although the scent could not keep the stench of Dragon poison at bay, it lessened it somewhat. She heard the sound of a carving knife against wood and Grandfather’s off-key voice singing:
“Beyond the Final Water falling,
The Songs of Spheres recalling,
When poison comes to steal your heart away,
Won’t you trust in me?”
Goldfinch raised her head, but Deergrace made her lie back down. “Where am I?” she whispered.
“In the cottage, Goldy,” Grandfather murmured gently. He stroked her hand with his strong fingers. “I found you in the midst of the confusion and brought you home.”
Goldfinch shuddered, asking what had happened. It was then that she learned that a Dragon had lain siege to the Eldest’s House. “He sought a princess,” Deergrace murmured. “He’s bound our land and won’t relinquish his hold.” He clenched his teeth, his features growing stony with anger.
Goldfinch learned that many people died the first day Death-In-Life came. Nothing in Southlands would ever be the same again.
Over the next few weeks, under Deergrace’s tender care, Goldfinch grew strong. Even as she did, Grandfather grew weak. He wilted like a starflower, and though his spirit never diminished, it was clear his body was failing. Goldfinch knew that he was dying because of her. He had breathed in a great amount of poison when he sought her out and brought her home. She knew that she couldn’t allow him to die. She just couldn’t. Grandfather had cared for her ever since she was little. He’d taken her in when her parents had died of fever. She owed him something, didn’t she? She loved him, and he mustn’t leave her
The memories receded, and Goldfinch stood, journeying back toward the cottage. She wouldn’t allow Grandfather to see her cry, for she had to be strong.
O-Lay! O-Lee! The strange song stole upon her again. It was as gentle as before but more insistent. Goldfinch turned toward the sound, her eyes alighting upon a majestic fig tree that towered above her. Grandfather had planted seeds years before she was born. Oddly, in the midst of so much devastation, the fig tree was as beautiful as ever. Its branches stretched toward the sky, and a profusion of golden fruit sparkled upon them. Beneath the tree lay a cluster of fallen figs, their sweet scent wafting upon the air. Without thinking, Goldfinch retrieved the figs and placed them into the folds of her garment. She looked at the tree again and blinked in surprise. Perched upon one of the branches was a brown-speckled bird. It cocked its head at her, notes of pure silver issuing from its beak. The bird was not impressive in appearance, certainly not as vibrantly plumaged as other species. Goldfinch smiled as she thought this, and even the bird seemed to smile, almost as if he could read her mind. “Fine feathers don’t make a fine bird,” she whispered, recalling Grandfather’s words.
Despite the unimpressive appearance, there was no denying the self-assurance and majesty of this creature. Goldfinch tentatively approached the tree, allowing the bird’s music to fill her mind. The music rang clearer than ever, and she realized that the bird was indeed singing words:
“Beyond the Final Water falling,
The Songs of Spheres recalling,
When poison comes to steal your heart away,
Won’t you trust in me?”
Goldfinch gasped, and she whispered, “That’s my grandfather’s song.”
The bird flew from the tree and hovered before her. Yes, it is his song as it is mine. I taught it to him.
“Y-You’re a bird. How can I understand you. How can you teach him songs.”
Oh, my child, I teach songs to all who will listen. Deergrace hears and understands as do you. I am the Song-Giver. The bird flew closer to her, rubbing a feathered wing against her hand. Soothing warmth filled her, bringing comfort that temporarily broke through the poison of despair. I have a task for you, my child. Will you trust me?
Goldfinch emitted a broken cry, her mind returning to Grandfather’s plight. Suddenly, she thrust the bird away from her, hissing, “Song-Giver indeed! Where were you when Death-In-Life came? Why did you not stop Grandfather from finding me? He’s dying, and it’s all your fault! You can prevent sickness, or that’s what the legends say? Why didn’t you let me die so that he would live?“ She sobbed yet again, hating herself for acting like an infant, especially in this creature’s presence. “Leave me alone.”
The bird vanished, and Goldfinch blinked, relief, regret and guilt pummeling her. Then she heard a whimper of sadness, and something stood by her side. Turning, she gaped as her eyes beheld a golden hound. Light poured from him in dazzling rays, and tears flowed from his eyes. He lowered his head, placing it against her leg. I was here, my child, as I am everywhere. I wept for my children even as I weep now, and I have appointed warriors to thwart Death-In-Life’s schemes. You are one such warrior. Even if I diverted the courses of the rivers and gave Lume and Hymlume new songs to sing, I would not stop love from being revealed. Your grandfather loves you, and he’d move mountains so that you would survive. He sees the warrior’s spirit within you. Deergrace knows that you are one of many who will fight.
Goldfinch shuddered, her anger continuing to pace within her like a rabid wolf. “I-I don’t know who you are, or what you’re talking about. I’m no warrior. I’m scared of my own shadow.“
You know me, for Deergrace has shown you to me. And, incidentally, Starflower was just as frightened as you when she faced the Wolf Lord. Being frightened is irrelevant. It doesn’t determine a person’s bravery. If anything, Fear is Courage’s forerunner. The battle is mine, and I have overcome. The only thing you must decide is whom you will serve. Then bravery will follow, for I will help you.
Goldfinch crumpled to the ground, burying her face in the hound’s glossy coat. This time, she wept tears of cleansing release. The hound lay down beside her, and he wept great tears of his own. Their tears mingled together, and the Dragon poison fled from Goldfinch’s heart.
When her weeping was spent, Goldfinch whispered, “Grandfather knows you, doesn’t he?” She thought of the wooden figures he’d carved for her, the majesty of the hound, the trustful stance of the maiden and the lonely, starved crouch of the wolf.
Deergrace has seen me in many forms, and he knows the true story of Starflower’s battle. He’s a knight in my service, one who always prefers a quiet life away from the battlefield. Yet that doesn’t mean he isn’t a soldier. His work involves the battles’ aftermath. He binds wounds and gives encouragement to other soldiers. He also fights here, his weapons of choice being his carving knife and voice. He’s taught you much, has he not?
Goldfinch nodded, knowing that the hound spoke the truth. After a moment, she said, “I cannot face a wolf like Maiden Starflower. I’m too frightened.”
The hound looked at her penetratingly, a slight smile within his golden eyes. My child, you will fight a Dragon. I’ll be beside you. Even as he said this, his hound form dwindled before her, and she felt herself being lifted into the air. A sound of rushing water filled her ears, and she realized the Song-Giver was carrying her. He had transformed into a stream of living water. As he bore her away, he gave her instructions as to what she must do.
The Eldest’s grounds huddled into themselves, drinking the despair their dark master gave them. They wept with pain even as the Dragon laughed. He sat atop the ruins of the Starflower fountain, imbibing the heady wine of pain. Even as he reveled in the death surrounding him, his dark heart throbbed with the desolation of thwarted desire. That cursed goblin princess! How long must he wait before she accepted his kiss? How long before—
Movement caught Death-In-Life’s roiling eyes, and he surged from his perch, his wings thundering as he advanced toward the castle gate. His prey was returning, and he must let her in, for he was a gracious host.
The Dragon approached the gate, hesitating as he beheld a slight figure with disheveled hair and trembling hands. He laughed, the sound reminiscent of an inferno of flame. “Why, a young maiden who’s come to present herself to her new king. And who might you be?” His voice rumbled like thunder. The tones were amused. He stood before the gate, grinning at the creature who stood outside.
Goldfinch trembled with terror, but she clutched the bars of the gate and whispered, “I’ve come to give you a message.”
“Indeed? And what might that message be?” Death-In-Life spoke condescendingly, but his eyes flamed.
Goldfinch swallowed. She had to be certain to say the words exactly. “Eshkhan has ordered that you leave the fig trees alone and that the future king not be taken into the netherworld.”
Death-In-Life flinched away from her when she said the hated name of his enemy, but he hissed, “Tell him the future king has been sent into exile. As for the fig trees, this is my demesne now, and I’ll do what I please. He has no power here, and—“
“The future king of Southlands is here.” Goldfinch did not understand what she was saying, for the Song-Giver had simply given her the message to deliver. He hadn’t explained what the message meant. She stepped back as the Dragon plowed into the gate, his face drawing even closer to her. Shaking, she reached into the folds of her threadbare dress, holding aloft a cloth-wrapped bundle. A sweet fragrance burst upon the air, so powerful that the Dragon’s acrid poison diminished before it. She tore the cloth open, revealing the cluster of golden figs she’d retrieved from beneath Grandfather’s tree. “He’s here, Death-In-Life, and you don’t even know it,” she whispered.
The Dragon flared the crest upon his head even as doubt shone in his eyes. “It’s not possible,” he murmured to himself, “I’ve admitted no one. Even so—“ Abruptly, the gate opened before him, and he flew from the Eldest’s grounds, leaving Goldfinch standing alone. The gate remained open.
Goldfinch entered the smoke-shrouded courtyard, holding the parcel of figs before her. She inhaled the figs’ sweet aromas, relieved that they kept more poison from entering her mind. She trudged through the ash-strewn ruins, observing the bare boughs of mango trees and the crushed starflower vines. The Song-Giver had said he’d be beside her, but when he deposited her before the gate, he’d vanished. Yet his instructions had been clear, so--
A sound broke upon her ears. It was coming from in front of her. Trembling, Goldfinch approached the ruins of the once majestic Starflower fountain. She gasped when she spied the sallow-faced young man she’d brought breakfast too only a few weeks ago. He huddled by the fountain, his head bowed and a look of utter despair upon his face. In his hand, he clutched a stone wood thrush, the only piece of the fountain that had been unscathed. He shook with sobs, and his eyes were wild as they surveyed the area around him. “My lady,” he murmured repeatedly, “where are you?”
Goldfinch approached him, compassion filling her heart. “The Dragon’s gone now,” she whispered, “but he’ll return any moment.”
Foxbrush surged to his feet, his eyes fastening upon her. Without warning, his hand shot forward, clamping onto her arm. He began pulling her toward the Eldest’s House, all the while speaking in an incoherent babble, “Y-You shouldn’t be—I mean, that demon will—I’ll help you—“
Goldfinch smiled at him, placing in his hand the parcel of figs. “They’re liquid gold,” she murmured. “They’ll stave off hunger, and you’ll never forget the taste. My grandfather grows them.”
Foxbrush blinked at her, his crazed, frightened stare diminishing slightly as he recognized her. “You were there when he came,” he whispered.
Goldfinch nodded, gently taking Foxbrush’s arm and propelling him toward the castle door. “I’ll get you inside, then I must—“
A volley of flame erupted in the courtyard as the Dragon descended. He circled the grounds, his rumbling laughter a pulse of pain that beat incessantly against Goldfinch’s heart. “You’re a devious wench,” Death-In-Life called to her, his wings thundering as he approached the open gate. “Thought to frighten me, did you? Well, I saw that whey-faced coward of a prince, and he fled from my very gaze. I think it best you leave here before I lose my sense of humor. Shall we do this the easy way, or shall we have some fun? I’ll give you a moment to decide.” He descended behind her, taking his seat upon the ruins of the fountain. He lowered his head and folded back his wings. He waited.
Goldfinch took only a moment to decide. Hoping the young man would understand, she lunged at him, snatching the wood thrush from his shaking hand. “Run,” she hissed. Then she turned toward the Dragon, stepping toward the demolished fountain that served as his throne. She placed the stone wood thrush upon the ground and began to run. Behind her, a roaring bellow rose higher and higher, but that sound of fury could not overpower the other sound she heard. A cacophonous roaring filled the air, the sound of a river bursting its banks or a sea at high tide. Goldfinch stepped through the castle gate, slamming it shut behind her. Daring one look back, she saw that where the small stone bird had fallen, now a towering jet of water spewed upward. It issued from a widening chasm. Death-In-Life hovered above the new fountain, his wings trembling convulsively. He sent forth countless flames, but still the water continued to flow. Then, slowly, the water receded. Death-In-Life smiled in triumph, but he flew from the center of the courtyard, keeping well away from the place the water had flowed. Goldfinch gasped as she saw the ground shimmer where the water had fallen. It gleamed like a handful of precious stones. The ash had crumbled to dust, and life-giving soil was now exposed. She turned and ran toward her home.
The cottage was silent save for intermittent gasps for breath. Goldfinch sat beside Deergrace. She clutched his hand, feeling it lie limply in her own. Grandfather had once had the strongest handclasp of anyone she knew. She whispered, “I love you.” It was all she could say, for her throat closed.
Grandfather feebly opened one eye. He couldn’t speak, but he blinked slowly and lay back on the cot.
Goldfinch thought of the stories Grandfather often told her. It was said that beyond the Final Water, the land was lush and green. “Fig trees of gold grow there as do mango and apple trees. Roses bloom and never fade. Living jewels grow as well, and the sun is not needed, for the prince and his father provide the light. There is no pain. I’ll see Meadowlark again, and each moment will be a new adventure.”
Goldfinch blinked as she thought of these stories, and she knew what she had to do. “I’ll be fine,” she managed to whisper. She remembered that Grandfather had told her she must let him go. Slowly, she took her hand from his and bowed her head. She heard a wood thrush singing outside the cottage and knew it was the Song-Giver. He called to his faithful servant, and Goldfinch watched as Grandfather’s pale visage smoothed into a smile. He sighed and lay still upon the cot. Even as his body lay still, Goldfinch knew Grandfather walked Eshkhan’s Path, the Asha lantern in his hand. It would guide him to his new home.
Goldfinch stood and walked to the cottage door. Outside, she saw the golden hound standing stock-still, and she knew he waited for her. She walked behind him, going she knew not where. Yet she knew that he would care for her. They trod many Faerie Paths until they emerged into a vaulted chamber. At first glance, the room appeared to be an ordinary room, but it was vast, and upon second glance, it appeared to be a glade of greenery surrounded by many trees.
A woman turned from a large desk. She held a quill in hand, and her face was weary. “Is that you, Cat? It’s about ti—“ She stopped, her face flushing with embarrassment as she saw the hound. “My Lord, I-Forgive me. I—“
“I’ve brought someone to help you,” the Song-Giver murmured. He had changed yet again, this time into a majestic man. He extended his hand, clasping Starflower’s own. He smiled at her. “She’s from Southlands, and quite an admirer of you, I might add.” The Song-Giver grinned at them and vanished.
Goldfinch’s mind reeled as she stared at the woman before her. Maid Starflower stared back at her, smiling and holding forth her hand. After a long moment, Goldfinch placed her trembling hand into the hand of her land’s heroine. Before she could stop herself, she blurted, “When you confronted the Wolf Lord, how did you feel?”
Starflower blinked and then murmured, “I was terrified.”
Five years passed, and, with Maid Starflower’s help, Goldfinch assisted displaced families ravaged by Death-In-Life’s occupation. When the Dragon fled Southlands, she returned to the Eldest’s House, helping in any way she could. Although much rebuilding was necessary, the place in the courtyard where the water had flowed had remained green and vibrant.
One day, frenzied preparations for a wedding were taking place. It was not the wedding that everyone assumed would happen, but another one, a marriage between Lady Daylily and Prince Foxbrush.
Goldfinch prepared muffins for a small repast. Once again, the prince had requested breakfast in his room.
Carrying the breakfast tray as she had so many years ago, Goldfinch entered Foxbrush’s chamber. The prince looked as dour as ever. In fact, new lines of weariness were etched upon his face. He perused a large book, riffling through the pages with fevered haste. “I’ve brought you your breakfast.“ Goldfinch began.
“Yes, yes. Just, um, just put it down.” He spoke absentmindedly, not looking up from his reading.
Goldfinch hesitated. “I had to use figs in the muffins since there’s not many mangoes left, but it’s the same recipe, and—”
“Of course. Quite all right. I-I mean, not much of an appetite today you see, and—“ He looked up, his features growing pensive. He lowered the book and looked at her more closely. “I ate figs one day during the occupation,” he whispered. “I almost forgot. They were so sweet.” He suddenly said harshly, “Fig muffins, did you say?”
Goldfinch nodded. “Yes, sir. Figs are the only fruit in abundance anymore, and I thought they’d suffice. The muffins really are quite good. I like mango ones the best, but--”
Foxbrush snatched a muffin from the plate she carried. He bit into it, his eyes growing wide. Cramming the rest of the muffin into his mouth, he snatched another book and scanned its pages. “I want you to get me something. Can you?”
Goldfinch nodded. “Yes, Your—”
“Never mind that. Some figs. Just get me a basket of figs.”
Goldfinch hastily sat the tray down and left the room. Soon, she returned with an overflowing basket of fruit. She may not have known it, but she delivered the seedling of an idea along with breakfast that day. She gave this idea to a future king. In time, a new fig tree would be planted. The tree would grow on the very spot the Starflower fountain had once stood.
More years passed, and Goldfinch served Eldest Hawkeye and his successors well. She eventually married and bore children who in turn bore her grandchildren. When the time came for her to cross the Final Water, she found the Asha lantern upon Akilun’s grave. It shone as a beacon, guiding her straight and true.
Goldfinch reached the Final Water and stepped within its swirling depths. Monsters of the Netherworld howled threats, but they kept their distance from the light. The water cradled her, bearing her in its gentle embrace toward the Farthest Shore. As she approached it, someone extended a hand and lifted her to her feet. As she stood upright, the pain and frailness of old age dropped away from her like an outgrown garment. She sank into her grandfather’s embrace. They wept with joy, for they had been reunited. Two knights of the Prince were home, and they would always be together.
Author's Note: “Fine feathers don’t make a fine bird” is not an original saying. The credit for that pearl of wisdom goes entirely to my grandfather. God bless you all.