The Duck and the Puppeteer

The day of the wedding dawned with a brilliant splash of red across the pale sky. Fakir stood at the window, watching the sun rise; having been unable to sleep. Ahiru lay on the bed behind him, restless as she slumbered on.

He turned to face her as her restlessness resulted in a small quack. Concerned, he approached the bed. Ahiru was curled round as usual, her head tucked under one wing, but her small body was racked by shivers. Her feathers were losing their glossy shine as she trembled, and he could feel heat leaking out of her.

The door swung open behind him, startling him as he reached for her and she woke. Her eyes looked weary and she seemed disorientated as Ebine and Carl approached.

"What's wrong?" Ebine asked, as Fakir gathered her into his arms.

"I don't know." He replied helplessly, cradling her close, "She's burning up."

"Yet another thing…" Carl grumbled under his breath as he packed Fakir's possessions into his bag. He held out the boy's cloak, "We have to leave now, before the sun rises higher."

Fakir nodded, turning to leave as Ebine slipped back into the room, holding out a shawl for him. Gently, trying not to disturb her more than necessary, the two wrapped Ahiru in the soft, blue material. Carl waited impatiently, warily watching the forest through the window, before hurrying them out of the room, and the inn.

Keeping to the shadows, the trio left the forest and skirted the village, approaching the Church from the rear and slipping inside a back door under the watchful, rheumy eye of the priest.

The wedding would start in one hour and almost the entire town had turned out to see it. Many of the elderly residents were loathed to approach the church, tainted by the handless body mouldering on the grounds, but the spectacle was enticing.

After all, it wasn't every day a man married a duck, and in a church sanctioned union no less.

Fakir sat in a small room near the altar, Ahiru's small body cradled in his lap. He pet her constantly, trying to steel his nerves and offer her comfort at the same time. The heat that radiated off her was alarming and she continued shivering, despite the material he'd wrapped her in.

The door opened suddenly and Ebine bustled in, allowing the raucous chatter outside to enter with her. Fakir jumped at the startling amount of noise in the church. He could only sit and stare as the door closed quickly and the noise was cut off.

"How is she?" She asked, peering down at the huddled form of Ahiru in his lap. He looked down blankly, as if remembering that she was there.

"No change." He murmured.

Ebine's hand landed on his shoulder, trying to give comfort in the contact and he turned back to the older woman.

"What's all the noise?"

"It seems the entire town has turned out to witness this wedding." Ebine said softly, "Father Amsel was trying to keep them out but they've forced the doors open and spilled inside." She patted his shoulder and took a seat across from him. "Father Amsel won't be able to hold off much longer. Are you ready?"

Fakir looked down at Ahiru as she wearily raised her head. Her life force seemed to be leeching out of her, the longer they waited. Already, she seemed half the size and the colour was fading from her feathers. She let out a quiet quack, offering a weak nod, which he echoed firmly.

"Yes. Let's go."

Hushed silence fell over the church as Fakir stepped out into the hall. Quiet murmurs started as he turned resolutely away from his audience, growing louder as he strode purposefully toward the priest. He stopped in front of the altar and looked the priest in the eye.

"Let us begin." He said quietly.

Father Amsel nodded, raising his weak, old arms as he began the standard wedding ceremony. The crowd erupted.

Disbelieving laughs echoed into the high ceiling, mingling with rude calls and disparaging remarks. Carl kept watch as the priest continued the service. He'd already noted the presence of the infamous Bookmen; their representatives stood silently in the crowd. Their stern faces and folded arms creating small drops of silent rebuke amidst the ocean of the townsfolk's haranguing.

Fakir kept his back to them, ignoring the clamour; focussed instead on Ahiru's still shivering form. His head snapped back to the priest when his name was called.

"Fakir, as a man of this town, eligible and willing, do you commit to this act of marriage?"

Fakir didn't hesitate, "I do."

Silence swept through the church, for the briefest of moments, before the laughter began again. A few men sought to stop the ceremony but the aisle was barred. A small group of people had pushed forward, preventing anyone from reaching Fakir and his avian bride.

The scuffle had caused the priest to pause and Fakir risked his nerve to glance back. Ebine stood behind him, joined in his defence by two other young ladies: Rachel and Malen.

He turned back to the priest and nodded. Father Amsel returned his nod, raising his reedy voice to continue the ceremony.

"Do you take this…" He paused, inciting further laughter as he stumbled over the traditional wording of the service, "Do you take Ahiru to be your wedded bride, of your own free will, gladly and without coercion? Will you love her, care for her and stay with her, through all the joys and sorrows of this life and the next?"

As the priest's questioning voice continued, the crowd stilled, waiting for the final moment; anticipation growing to see if Fakir would really go through with it.

Fakir swallowed, barely hearing the words being spoken but knowing that the time of reckoning was here. Ahiru tensed in his arms as he inhaled.

"I will!"

Shocked silence followed his exclamation, the audience further stunned as the small, frail body of the duck, tumbled from her bridegroom's arms to the floor.

Fakir cried out in shock and alarm as he lost his grip on her, hands reaching, grasping, to prevent her from hitting the floor.

What his hands touched was not the small body of a duck.

As her avian form fell, the blue shawl unravelled and the lithe form of a young woman emerged. Clothed in a white gown of soft feathery silk, the shawl resting on her slim shoulders, a smiling Ahiru faced her husband to be, ignoring the gasps of the audience.

The priest, too, was stunned, taking a few moments to compose himself before asking her the same questions.

"I will!" She breathed happily, entwining her fingers through Fakir's as he held on tight; his joy transforming his usually sombre face.

Father Amsel breathed a sigh of relief, as he finished, "I witness your vows and hold you to them, and now pronounce you husband and wife."

Members of the crowd were starting to recover as the priest wrapped up the service but there were darker forces at play. As Father Amsel moved forward to bind them with the matrimonial cord as a symbol of their union, the light disappeared from outside. The great, old, cracked bell in the churches steeple rang out and the stained glass window above the altar cracked and shattered, raining down on the priest where he stood.

Fakir moved, sheltering Ahiru from the shower of glass, as the townsfolk raced from the church in a panicked mob. Shouts rang out as people pushed and shoved, some becoming caught in the rush as they strove toward the doors and the safety of the yard. The bookmen were pushed against the walls, their attention trained not on escaping but on the two large, body-less hands suspended above the newly married couple, moments before they were torn from each other.

"Poor, poor duck!' A disembodied voice spoke over the clamour as Fakir and Ahiru were pulled up on invisible strings. "You thought you own your story, but you have always been my character."

"No!" Fakir shouted, his muscles quivering as he fought the power of the puppeteer's strings. "She's mine!"

"Foolish boy!" Fakir spun backwards, away from Ahiru, who was pirouetting slowly into the air. "You seek a happy ending, but that's not how the story works. There are no happy endings!"

"Fakir!" Ahiru called mournfully, still spinning gracefully, now just below the white-gloved hands, while he watched helpless from the floor.

"No one wants to read a happy ending, do they, little duck?" Ahiru was jerked sideways unmercifully, as shrieks echoed from outside and the door of the church was filled with the silhouette of a familiar character. "Suffering and tragedy make for an interested audience. And the story must continue!"

"Fiend!" hissed the bookmen, advancing on the figure in the doorway. "Is there no end to your evil?"

"Oh, you have tried before, miserable inciters of hate, but what will you do when my hands are up there?" Drosselmeyer gestured with lace shrouded stubs as his hands maneuvered through the air, "And you are down here?"

The bookmen faltered, their eyes darting between the macabre figure before them, still shrouded with the grave, and the gruesome aerial ballet Ahiru was being subjected too.

"Perhaps you should join her!"

Shouts of alarm rang out as the bookmen lost control of their arms and legs, bladed weapons that had been brought for Fakir, swinging wildly as their bodies danced through the air.

As the bookmen rose, ungainly, into the air, Ahiru stopped spinning. As their limbs were spun, with long blades cutting indiscriminately, Ahiru looked down, surrounded by a bubble of peace.

"And the bride walked down on steps of air and light, to meet her beloved." Fakir spoke quietly, his eyes still on Ahiru as she began her descent. Though the church was held in Drosselmeyer's sway, the air between them was clear, bathed in light and their shared love.

"NO!" Drosselmeyer's hands jerked wildly, trying to retain his control, causing the bookmen to slice into each other with increased cries of pain. Fakir's eyes narrowed and the injuries vanished, with leaked blood falling as flower petals to the floor.

"She only had eyes for her beloved and her steps never faltered." Fakir's voice held steady as Ahiru continued down airy stairs towards him. "He opened his arms for her and her light touch swept away his worries and fears."

Ahiru's fingers reached out for his; the moment they touched, a wave of air spiraled out, sweeping around the church. Petals flew through the air around them in a floral shield, lining the growing space under Fakir's spell.

Drosselmeyer's hands twitched above them, the stumps of his arms gesturing wildly, trying to regain control of the scene unfolding before him, but to no avail.

Fakir smiled down at the beautiful young woman in his arms, her upturned face full of love for him. He felt a surge of joy sweep through him, sending flurries of petals around the room once more. Then, he drew a braided cord from his pocket.

Drosselmeyer's fingers danced frantically, as he growled in frustration, unable to interrupt the young couple before him. The bookmen looked up from the floor, unable to identify the most present threat, as Fakir, speaking confidently and calmly, wound the cord around his wrist.

"I have given you my heart, my Ahiru, and I bind myself to you."

Ahiru's laced her fingers through his as she wrapped the cord around her own slim wrist.

"As the cord was tied, the last of the Raven's evil spell was broken. His power could no longer haunt the little duck, the woman she was and had become, or her beloved. Not to the end of their days!"

Another wave of light and air burst out from them, once more stirring the petals and pulsing through the distraught remnants of Gold Crown Town's premier puppeteer. On his knees, he saw the last of his descendents, one who had inherited his skills to their fullest, share a kiss with an inconsequential character whose importance had been overlooked and hidden behind so many others.

"It won't end that easily." He rasped, feeling his tenuous grip slipping as they strode confidently towards him, "That's not nearly tragic enough!"

"Our story is not a tragedy." Fakir replied, his fingers tightening on Ahiru's as they smiled at each other. "And we will make of it, what we want!"

And together, they walked out into the sunshine.

"But that's too boring." Drosselmeyer's dismayed voice could be heard, echoing, as his shade faded away.

"Oh, I doubt their life will be boring." Father Amsel murmured, as he watched Fakir twirl his Ahiru through the sunshine and enter the next chapter of their lives.

But that's another story.