Author's Note: This story was also slightly inspired by Chapter 9 of my WIP When the Moon Fell in Love with the Sun, as some details may suggest. If Katniss's bird dream from that story is a delicate nod to "The Nightingale," this is a love letter of a retelling.
A thousand thanks to DandelionSunset and sponsormusings for moral support and much-needed feedback! This fic might have been forever stuck at a certain critical juncture if not for you guys! ;D
Prince Peeta and the Mockingjay-Maid, or The Prince Who Loved Birds
"I love your heart better than your crown; and yet something holy lingers round that also."
– Hans Christian Andersen, "The Nightingale"
There was once, at the heart of a vast and glorious wildwood, a kingdom. And that kingdom had, as so often kingdoms do, be they in a wildwood, upon a mountain, or hemmed about by the sea, a good and just King with three fine sons, each of them strong, handsome, and golden as the dawn.
The eldest was the strongest, broad and brawny as a young bull, with a ruddy complexion and thick curls as pale as flax. The second, lean and proud, was the handsomest, with hair like the burnished gold of his father's crown and a smile that could melt stone. And the youngest, with hair the color of spun honey and long-lashed eyes to rival those of the fairest ladies at court, was the kindest.
The youngest prince was smaller and less striking than his brothers, being not above medium height and stocky in build, but there was something in him – a deep inherent goodness – that somehow surpassed their superior strength and beauty. All three princes were admired and beloved, but the youngest was the favorite, of the people and of his father.
Apart from the noble pastimes required of one in his station, this prince had two passions: painting and birds. His chambers contained a quiet menagerie of his favorites – doves, finches, wrens, sparrows, a soft-whiskered nightjar, even a pretty kestrel – and he himself had painted his walls to simulate the wildwood, so that, upon entering those rooms, one might scarcely know one was indoors. Most magnificent of all, though, was the prince's bed. It had been fashioned like a thicket in the autumn wood, with tangled golden branches at the head and foot and a canopy of leaves overhead, cunningly crafted from gold and copper, which rustled at the slightest breeze.
The palace, of course, had many balconies and passages leading into the wildwood, and the princes often rode out together, for solitude or scenery or the merry pursuit of game. And one spring day the princes were returning from just such a hunt when they were caught in a bitterly cold rain.
Now it happened on this day that there was a maiden of the wildwood on her way to the palace. Her good father, a woodsman, had died some weeks before, and she had done all she could to maintain their cottage, but there was a great hole in their roof that required both thatch and timber, and a crack in their oven, and many other disrepairs, and the maiden had neither coin nor supplies to begin. And it had occurred to her that at the palace work might be found and a small income earned, and in time she might herself repair the cottage that she loved so dearly.
It was for this purpose that the maiden was journeying to the palace, but the rain had come swift and cold and, wearing only a much-patched dress of green linen and her father's ragged cloak, she was forced to take shelter beneath an apple tree.
In due course the princes rode past the place where the maiden was hidden. Now the eldest prince, mounted on a fine black horse, was intent on his empty belly and the stag slung across his brother's saddlebow. The second, astride a chestnut-coated steed, was chiefly concerned with a dark-eyed courtier who had wagered a kiss if he should be the one to fell the stag on their hunt. He was not renowned for his archery, but he had succeeded, and triumphantly bore the proof of it.
But the youngest prince was, as I have said, passionately fond of birds, most especially those gentle species who are drabbest in color, and therefore he was also accustomed to lagging behind his brothers in the wood, ever watching for a bright black eye or the subtle shifting of patterned feathers against bark. This prince rode a milk-white mare, with his beloved kestrel perched on the saddlebow, and as they drew near the apple tree he glimpsed the maiden beneath its branches, for her gray eyes shone like silver in the rain.
She was as dark as he was fair, with fine olive skin and a black braid that hung to her waist, and wet through and shivering, and at once the young prince slipped from the saddle and went to her. Seeing her ragged clothing and thin form, he offered her the bread and cheese from his saddlebag, and the maiden being more hungry than proud, she ate heartily of it. Then, having ascertained that she was journeying to the palace, he lifted her onto his mare and mounted behind her, wrapping them both – and his much-dampened kestrel besides – in his heavy cloak.
The maiden inquired about the little falcon but did not shrink from her, and as they rode she let the backs of her slim fingers stroke the barred feathers. And the prince smiled, for his birds were like his children, and the kestrel was chief among those treasures.
The prince's arms were about the maiden's waist, and the warmth of his body soon dried the rain from hers, but his breath came a little short against her dusky neck. Unlike his brothers, the youngest prince had not yet sought for a sweetheart among the maidens of the court, nor showed an interest in doing so, and thus the elder princes were greatly surprised when they turned upon entering the courtyard to see their brother with a maiden in his arms.
The young prince parted from the maiden at the stables, far more reluctantly than he had anticipated, and bade her go to the lord high chamberlain, who would find her a place in the household. He imagined that such a maiden might do well in the spinning or weaving rooms and secretly hoped he would see her again, and soon.
The maiden did as the prince had instructed and at length was presented to the chamberlain, a pompous young man with ostentatious moustaches. He saw no reason to elevate a mudlark, much-dampened and smelling of loam, to any sort of noble occupation in the household, and so he sent the maiden to the cook with a dismissive wave of his scented handkerchief.
The cook was a stout woman, nearly as wide as she was tall, and boisterous but kind. She found the maiden to be unexpectedly suited for kitchen work, for she had hunted alongside her father for many years and plucked and cleaned much game, and could simmer a fine soup besides. The maiden was offered a place near the kitchen fire for her pallet and a copper penny each month: small wages for some, but a fortune for one as poor as she. She would visit her father's cottage each evening when her work was done, for the walk was not a long one, and in a year, she imagined, she might have coin sufficient to begin repairs.
But before this could be done there was a debt to repay, and the kitchen maid – for so the maiden was now – could not let it stand. The following morning, she woke when it was still quite dark and slipped into the wildwood to snare a young rabbit, and she brought it to the training grounds, for she had heard that the princes sparred every morning before breakfast.
She found the youngest prince with the armsmaster, his kestrel on his shoulder, and gave a little curtsey. "A rabbit for your kestrel, your highness," she said, presenting it with a quiet flourish, "in return for your kindness to me."
The armsmaster gave a gruff bark of laughter at this, and the prince laughed as well, but without mockery. His laugh was golden, unexpected and full of joy. "Precious one, my kindness need not be paid for," he told the kitchen maid, accepting the rabbit with a small bow of his own. "It is a free gift, and perhaps more so to you than any other. But I thank you for the rabbit, and Rue does as well."
The kitchen maid, feeling her debt repaid, departed with a spring in her step, and if the armsmaster marveled that the young prince did not look away until she was out of sight, he did not remark upon it.
Meanwhile, the cook had decided that her new kitchen maid was comely enough to serve at table, and so the young prince saw her next at luncheon-time, her silver eyes glinting at him over a haunch of venison, and he smiled. She now wore the apron and cap and red linen gown that was the uniform of the palace kitchen maids, and he thought it became her more than might the rarest silk.
And he found that his food tasted all the better after a glimpse of silver eyes in a dusky face and a long black braid dancing against a narrow back, and he called for more bread and cakes and cider than any prince could consume, simply in the hope of seeing her again, and the palace hounds grew fat and lazy beneath his chair. But far too soon this became insufficient, and the prince decided to make a pest of himself in the kitchen, rising even before his birds and beseeching the cook to teach him to bake, so he might have more glimpses of silver eyes and a dancing braid.
The prince was possessed of large, strong hands – well fit for kneading, the cook said, even as she winked at the maids and playfully swatted the prince's backside – and he found pleasure in the work as well as the company. He had not the nerve to address his kitchen maid outright, but from time to time he plucked apple blossoms in the wildwood and laid them where she might find them. All of the household chuckled and tittered behind their hands and said the gentle prince had at last found himself a sweetheart, and many guesses were made to that end, but no one had the right of it. And some of the more enterprising of the court maidens adopted red gowns and white caps, for it was well known that the youngest prince passed his mornings in the kitchen, elbow-deep in flour and dough, and they dared to hope that their elegant imitation of the maids' dress might win his attention.
The prince made the most delicate of inquiries and discovered that his kitchen maid's name was Katniss, and he thought a lovelier word had never been uttered. He traced her name on the floor of the wildwood on his ambles and twined it with his own upon sheet after sheet of parchment, even whispered it to the gold-and-copper leaves above his bed as he lay in sleepless anticipation of another morning's labor in the kitchen.
The kitchen maid knew not of the prince's admiration, nor would have believed it if she did. She spoke very little and nary a word to him, save in greeting, but she found she cherished his smiles, though of course she did not know they were intended only for her. She admired, far more than she would admit, a prince who rose before dawn to mix and knead and lighten the hearts of the lowliest in his palace; a prince who worked among his servants, and a prince who baked. And it may be assumed that she admired the sight of his strong arms and broad shoulders as well, for sometimes a blush crept up her cheeks as he bent over the dough, his brow damp from the heat of the ovens and his pale curls tumbling into his eyes.
The kitchen maid was happy, for each day was spent in good strong work, and in the evenings she ventured into the wildwood to wander the paths much trod by herself and her father and to return, however briefly, to their ramshackle but beloved cottage. Now, she was surpassing lovely – leastways, if one were to ask the youngest prince – but her greatest beauty was a secret that she had not known she kept. Like her father, the kitchen maid had a voice as clear as crystal, sweet as honey, and warm as the afternoon sun; a voice to rival any in the King's court – indeed, any bird in the wildwood – but she knew it not. She knew only that her voice had been pleasing to her father, and that she enjoyed singing, and on her walks to and from the cottage, and in the cottage most of all, she sang till her very heart danced in her breast.
And as she sang, she thought of the youngest prince, the gentle boy who loved birds so much that he filled his rooms with them and went about always with one on his shoulder. Even his name, she had learned, was a bird call: Peeta. She whispered it to herself sometimes as she sat in her father's chair, and thought of strong arms and tumbling curls; of blue eyes and floured hands. And she found herself singing the sorts of silly rote-songs that very young children are taught, such as have a chorus of Cuckoo! Cuckoo!, only rather than Cuckoo!, she sang the prince's name:
Green are the leaves and the violets blue
My father's mare has thrown her shoe
The kitchen maid laughed a little as she sang but she did not cease, for nowhere else would she dare even to speak the prince's name, and she delighted in its feel upon her tongue. She passed many pleasant evenings in this fashion, wandering her old haunts and singing of apple trees in flower, of newborn fawns and robin's eggs and all the beauties of the wildwood in spring, and always she wove through her song the golden thread of the prince's name.
Now it came to pass one fine morning that the prince came to the kitchen uncommonly weary and subdued in manner, and though the cook and her maids made great efforts to cajole him to merriment, he could scarcely smile, and the light in his eyes was at once dimmed and intense. The kitchen maid was not bold, but the prince's grief tore at her heart, and she awaited a moment when all were else occupied, then drew near the quiet prince to ask what ailed him.
"I was in the wildwood yestereve with my nightjar," he said. "And we had not strayed far beyond the apple tree – that beneath which you and I met – when I heard a song, more beautiful than any I have ever heard before. It came from the very depths of the night wood: a bird that sang with a maiden's voice; a voice so exquisite it stilled all the other birds in the wood. A voice like silver and gold, it was, like apple blossoms and honeysuckle and green leaves, bright with dew. And more startling than this," he told her in a hushed voice, "the bird sang my name, over and over again, as though it chimed the beating of its heart. I could not sleep last night for the thought of it."
Had anyone else spoken these words, the kitchen maid would have tossed her black braid and laughed them off as fools or madmen, for though strange things indeed dwelt in the shadows of the wildwood, there was nothing so wondrous as a bird that sang with a maiden's voice. But this was the young prince, who had known bird calls before he could speak and who loved nothing in the world so well as his birds. Mistaken he might be, but never a fool.
"There is no such bird as sings with a maiden's voice," she told him gently. "There are mockingjays in the wood, as your highness knows, who imitate the pitches of human song. My father was deeply fond of them, for they would echo his own melodies back to him in their own pretty voices. Perhaps that is what you heard: a mockingjay echoing a maiden's song."
"And does a mockingjay sing words?" the prince asked her, his voice growing passionate. "For this one sang many; a minstrel's repertoire, and chief among them my name. I cannot close my eyes but I hear it again, and my heart takes leave of my breast. I must find this bird," he said, "for I would cherish it above all others, even the favorites of my menagerie. I shall pay a vast sum of gold to the one who brings it to me."
The kitchen maid despaired at these words, for she knew the prince sought what did not exist and could never be found, but he was in earnest. At luncheon-time his father the King announced to all and sundry that his son sought a new bird, the rarest of all, who dwelt in the depths of the wildwood and sang with a maiden's voice. A bushel of gold, he said, pressed down and running over, would be the reward for the one who could bring this bird before the court.
This was no small sum, neither to noble nor servant, and many turned their eyes and hands to the wildwood to seek the bird that had captured the prince's attentions. The court ladies kilted up their skirts and took to carrying lace nets instead of fans, and even the lord high chamberlain muddied his satin slippers, mincing down many a wildwood path in search of the rare bird, but it was not to be found, and the prince grew pale with longing. He heard the bird twice more, trilling his name like a merry song, and soon could neither eat nor sleep, so enraptured was he by the elusive voice. He ceased to spar with his brothers, and though he came still to the kitchens, his mind was elsewhere, and deeply troubled.
The kitchen maid saw this and ached for the prince, for she had told him straightaway that what he sought did not exist. And yet he claimed to have heard the bird twice more, and he knew birds better than any person in the kingdom. Perhaps he was right, and she should try her hand at the search, for in her turn she knew the wildwood better than anyone. Should she succeed, the prince would have his bird, and his wits again, and she should have the bushel of gold. With such gold she could hire a strong man to thatch the roof of her father's cottage and repair the cracked oven, and all the countless other little damages to which her coppers did not yet extend. She would seek, she decided, for only good could come to all, if she found the bird.
That night she slipped away before the supper tables were cleared to search the wildwood while there was still some light. She began at the apple tree, for it was near there that the prince had first heard the bird, and without meaning to, she soon found herself at her father's cottage. This cannot be, she thought, that the bird the prince longed for should live so near her old home. For she went nightly to the wood, and to the cottage, and sang beneath the hole in the thatch, and never had she heard a bird with a maiden's voice who sang the prince's name.
There is only me, the kitchen maid thought, who gives voice to his name in song.
And then the truth came upon her all at once, with the force of a thunderclap. The prince heard a song in this place, a maiden's voice singing his name in the night wood, and thought it a rare bird. And he was mistaken, as she had known he must be, for what he heard was a lowly kitchen maid in the ruins of her father's cottage, singing silly folk songs to pass the time.
The kitchen maid wept with grief at the realization. It did not occur to her that the prince thought her voice beautiful beyond compare and longed above all things to hear it again. She thought only how she had unwittingly misled him with her foolish songs, so that he was like to die from longing for that which did not exist.
But it could, she realized, with a bright flame of resolve, and she made her way swiftly to the very heart of the wildwood, where there dwelt a hedgewitch. The hedgewitch was a good-hearted hag who had been kin to the kitchen maid's father and had now and again traded small charms for the herbs he and his daughter brought her. She greeted the kitchen maid warmly and asked how she might be of service.
"The young prince needs a bird, old auntie," the maiden explained quickly. "A bird that sings with my voice."
"The prince seeks the voice," the witch corrected her, for she was wise to all that took place in her wood. "He expects a bird, 'tis true. But perhaps a maiden would be a pleasant surprise."
"Not I," the kitchen maid told her, "for I am small and plain, and as dark as the prince is fair. Where should he display me?"
"On his arm, I imagine," the old woman said slyly.
The kitchen maid shook her proud head. "He has no wish for a maiden's company," she said, "but longs for a bird to carry upon his shoulder and saddlebow. I seek a spell, that I might become that bird, and bring cheer to the prince's heart once more."
"My magics are small, girl," the witch warned. "I can change you easy enough, but changing you back is another matter."
"I need never change back," the kitchen maid declared. "Indeed, what shall I lose by it? A kitchen maid's life, full of long days, chapped hands, and an aching back. I have no lover, nor will ever birth babies for one."
"There is one, I think," mused the old woman, for as I have said, she was wise to all that took place in her wood, "who very much wishes to take you to wife. Who longs to share his bed with you and kiss your little hands and joyously seed your belly, if you but had the courage to acknowledge it."
"You speak nonsense, old auntie," the kitchen maid chided, and her cheeks burned crimson, though she knew not why. "Give me the spell, and in return you may deliver me to the palace and receive the King's bushel of gold."
"I have no need of gold," the witch said. "But I will give you the spell for free, for you are my favorite nephew's daughter, and I confess myself keen to see how this plays out."
With the kitchen maid's help, she prepared a cauldron of many woodland things: pinecones and willow bark and bird egg shells, cobwebs and catkins and mockingjay feathers, every last one they could find. Then she bade the maiden climb naked among the detritus, and when she had done, the witch poured three buckets of rainwater over her, heavy with loam and sage and musty cinnamon. Last of all the witch scattered the cauldron with a full bushel of apple blossoms and one rare cardamom seed, but ere she spoke the words of power, she cautioned the kitchen maid a final time. "I thought it was your father's cottage you loved above all things," she said. "Its tending requires much coin, and you will get no gold this way."
"The prince is like to die from longing," the kitchen maid answered bravely. "I shall save his wits and his gentle heart, and perhaps his life as well. That is a prize much greater than gold, or any cottage in the wood."
So saying, she plunged her dark head beneath the water, and the witch spoke her incantation. The charm was complete, and where before had been a naked maiden in a cauldron of forest sweepings, there now rose up a small bird, feathered in glossy black, with the underside of its wings all downy white. The kitchen maid had become a mockingjay.
"You shall sing, my chick, in your own voice, and as sweetly as you ever did," the witch told her. "But you will not be able to speak, save in the whistles and chitters of bird-kind. That much is beyond my power, but as you go to a boy who loves birds, perhaps that will be no bad thing."
The mockingjay-maid, for so she was now, flew to the palace with all haste. She had, of course, never been to the young prince's chambers, but she had previously discovered the location of his balcony, owing to the constant soft bird-sounds from within, and had more than once lingered below with her portion of bread, listening to his heavy tread and gentle voice as he kept company with his beloved birds.
It was nightfall when she arrived this time, and she did not hesitate but flew over the balcony and into the prince's chambers, and she marveled at them, for the walls were painted as like the wildwood as to be indistinguishable, and about them were hung many cages, from which now and again came a sleepy coo.
The prince sat at his drawing-table, much despondent, and worked at a parchment with charcoal. He was endeavoring to sketch a bird – the bird he longed for – but as he had never seen it, he could scarcely think where to begin.
The mockingjay-maid flew to the desk and alighted upon it, and began to tell the prince that she was the bird he sought, but her speaking voice, as the witch had warned, was now a bird's, and she could only chitter earnestly to him.
The prince, who loved all birds, and no less new acquaintances, smiled sadly at her, and stroked her glossy breast with one finger, and sighed. "It is good of you to cheer me, little one," he said. "I confess I am too much consumed with this rare bird, who in all likelihood does not exist. I have neglected my duties and my own birds in pursuit of it, and mayhap I should acknowledge that I was wrong, and a great fool besides, and give up the search."
At this the mockingjay-maid opened her beak and sang her cuckoo-song, the first in which she had ever dared to sing the prince's name:
Green are the leaves and the violets blue
My father's mare has thrown her shoe
The prince stared at her in awe, and tears sprang in his bright eyes. "It's you," he breathed. "My darling mockingjay."
He fell to his knees like a supplicant and opened his arms to her like a lover. "Stay with me, sweet bird," he begged. "I will give you anything you desire, and more besides. You shall be my confidante and constant companion, for already you are precious to my heart, above all others."
The mockingjay-maid's tiny heart swelled in her feathered breast, and at once she flew to the prince, who caught her to his chest and pressed kisses to her crested head. Always, she chittered ardently, though he knew it not.
The next morning the palace was agog with the news: the prince had his bird at last, and she had come to him! The lord high chamberlain used many unrefined words as he cast his ruined slippers upon the fire, and the court ladies traded their nets for fans once more, lamenting that, yet again, they had missed their chance to woo the prince.
From the first, the prince and his mockingjay were inseparable. There would be no cage or perch for this one: she lived on the young prince's shoulder, behind his right ear, and sometimes, to his great delight, tucked back his curls with her beak. She was with him at every meal, and took food from his gentle hands, bread and seed cakes and nuts dipped in spicy pine honey from the wood. He even blew on his tea and offered it to her, that she might also drink from the cup.
The young prince took her on his ambles through the wildwood, on hunts, even to the training yard, where the mockingjay-maid watched his powerful back and shoulders flex at swordplay. When one or the other of his brothers got the better of him, however briefly, she flew in their faces, beating her white-lined wings and squawking angrily, to the amusement of all the fighting-men and the bashful pleasure of the prince.
And even when he bathed, the prince brought the mockingjay-maid to join him. The first time he disrobed, the little bird quickly turned her head, for beneath her feathers she was still a maid, and wholly unacquainted with a man's body, but the prince laughed gently and said, "I care not if you see me, little one. Now we are both reduced to our skin and feathers."
The mockingjay-maid blushed inwardly, for the prince was no less magnificent without his clothing, but she turned back as he bade and perched on the tub's edge, and she sang a little, albeit in becomingly hesitant tones. And in time she grew braver and hopped to one of the prince's knees as he bathed, and even grew so bold as to splash a little where she perched and, in a bird's fashion, share his bath.
At night the mockingjay-maid shared the prince's pillow, curling on the golden silk, tucked into the curve of his neck. Night was when she sang best, and oftimes the prince lay on his back and bid her perch upon his chest, and she sang his name to the night air as the gold-and-copper leaves whispered above them. And spring stretched gloriously into summer, and the prince and the mockingjay-maid were unmatched in their bliss.
The prince had desired her for a companion, not a concert bird, and thus did not command her to sing, neither for him nor for others. The mockingjay-maid sang when it pleased her – which was whenever she thought he wished it – and the prince never grew bored, for her voice shimmered like a treasury of diamonds; moreover, she knew a thousand and one songs and could mix them together to make even more. She sang for him only, but neither was jealous if others should hear as well. If they noticed that people lingered where they passed, especially near the prince's chair at supper or beneath his balcony at bedtime, in hopes of catching even one jeweled phrase in the mockingjay-maid's beautiful voice, neither remarked upon it.
But there was much joy in the court after she had come. At her simple songs of flower and vale, lovers mended their quarrels and children minded their parents. The armsmaster drank less ale and smiled more than he scowled, and even the lord high chamberlain tilted his head to one side and reflected that there might be something lovelier in this place than his elaborate moustaches and vaunted position.
Only the Queen did not rejoice at the mockingjay-maid's song, nor grow the gentler for it, but we will return to her in a moment.
The elder princes teased their brother good-naturedly for his devotion to the mockingjay and bade him get a hound instead, but he shrugged away their gentle mockery. "She is all the company I require," he told them, but the mockingjay-maid noted a sadness in his bright eyes at these words.
When next they were alone she nuzzled the prince's cheek with her small crested head – her wordless gesture to bid him speak – and after a great many sighs, he unburdened his heart. "A maiden went among the company that sought you, and she has not returned," he said. "A slim, dark girl, surpassing beautiful, with silver eyes and a braid of black silk – Katniss, she was called. I met her beneath an apple tree in the coldest rain of spring, and gave her bread and cheese, and brought her to my father's palace. She repaid the kindness with a rabbit for little Rue," he said with a sad chuckle, "for she wished not to be indebted to me. And since then, she has never been far from my thoughts. She found a place in the kitchens, and I followed there and busied my hands at baking to be near her, even leaving her tokens of apple blossoms now and again, though I foolishly never dared to speak my heart.
"She told me that you could not exist, and she was wise in the ways of the wildwood," he said. "And I cannot help but think that she is in some way responsible for your appearance, for of all in the kingdom, she knew the wildwood best and went oftenest there, and I have not seen her since your arrival. I would you could speak as you sing, little bird," he sighed, and there was a plea in his sweet voice. "And tell me where my love has flown. I would pay much gold – indeed, the same reward as I offered for you – for her return."
The mockingjay-maid could scarce countenance these things, but the young prince was as honest as he was kind, and he had no cause to invent such a tale. Could it be true? Had he thought of her – cared for her, even – all this while? Of a certain, he had returned to the kitchens only once since she came to the palace as a bird, and had left swiftly again, and in an unhappy manner. He spoke of the kitchen maid as his "love" so easily, as though that was how he thought of her; moreover, he knew her name. And she had never thought twice about the apple blossoms but tucked them into her braid as she found them, for they reminded her of the wildwood, and her father's cottage, and – were she truly honest – the day she met the prince in the rain.
She looked about her now with her keen bird's eyes and saw what she had not noticed before: her own name, woven about the painted trees and mosses and flowers that covered the prince's walls. Katniss, Katniss, everywhere Katniss. He had even carved it into the wood of his drawing-table, twined with his own name.
And though a bird has no tears, the mockingjay-maid wept inwardly, for she realized now what she had lost. The prince had cared for her as a maiden; surely he would not have been disappointed to learn that hers was the voice he had heard and loved in the wood. In the telling he would have learned that she sang his name in the woods; that she – for she could deny it to herself no longer – loved him in turn, and had kept it as secret as he did his own affections.
She imagined the conversation that might have followed, and her bird's heart ached with regret. Perhaps by this time they might have been betrothed. How fine it should have been, she lamented silently, to cradle his beloved face and trade kisses beneath the stars!
And she sang, for the first time, a sad song: of a lady and her lover, separated by thornwoods and mountains and an ocean, for good measure. Of the kisses and handclasps they should never share; the love letters they might write by the dozen but could never exchange. Her jeweled voice broke with emotion as she sang, and tears streaked the prince's face. "You know something of such love, I think, little one," he whispered, and stroked her crested head with a fingertip. "I think you have sacrificed much to be my companion. Mayhap we can comfort one another in our sorrow?"
This, of course, was little consolation, but the mockingjay-maid sternly reminded herself of why she had forsaken her human form. The prince had longed for a bird that sang with her voice, and she had provided one. He would forget his kitchen maid soon enough, for he was the prince who loved birds and had never before sought a human sweetheart, and he would find himself as pleased, if not more so, by the company of his mockingjay.
That summer was endless and golden, and the mockingjay-maid took to leading her prince into the wildwood, nearer and nearer, till they reached the place she loved best: her father's tumble-down cottage. "I think there was once much happiness here," the prince observed softly, caressing the hand-hewn furniture with his strong fingers, and it brought joy to the mockingjay-maid to see her love so at home in her father's house.
"But this is quite near where I first heard your song!" he cried suddenly. "Can it be: this was the home of my love? Or, mayhap, still is?"
To this, as to all his questions, the mockingjay-maid could give no reply, and the prince continued eagerly, "Perhaps she was a fairy, and she returns to this place at night. Come! we shall set the house in order for her, and await her return."
The prince repaired the hole in the roof, both timber and thatch, and cleared the stout chimney, for though the days were balmy in that season, the nights remained crisp and cool, and he wished to light a fire, in case his love should return and feel the night's chill. And the mockingjay-maid saw she had found her strong man to repair her father's cottage, and he had done all – and more besides – without a single coin in return.
The prince found her father's axe and split many logs, then he and the mockingjay-maid sought out berries and tender greens and roasted a plump rabbit on the fire. The prince set the scarred old table with chipped plates from the cupboard, and he took as much care as if they had been made of the finest crystal and edged in gold. He laid out the meal and took portions for himself and the mockingjay-maid, and after they had supped they remained at the table, watching over the rest, till the moon was high in the sky, awaiting the kitchen maid who would not come, for she was there already.
"It was a silly dream," the prince confessed at midnight, blushing a little, as he moved to the maiden's father's chair. He loosed the laces of his shirt, that the mockingjay-maid might crawl beneath and warm herself against his heart, then he wrapped them both in a tattered blanket that had once covered the maiden's cot, and they slept.
After that, the prince and the mockingjay-maid spent every night in the cottage. They returned to the palace every morning, of course, so the prince might feed and tend his other birds, take meals with the court, and occasionally spar or hunt with his brothers, but every night at sunset he donned rougher garb and went into the wildwood with the mockingjay-maid. The roof and chimney being seen to, he repaired the cracked oven and made bread with his own hands, letting the mockingjay-maid knead alongside him with her small clawed feet. They shared the bread while it was still piping hot, and the prince slathered their portions with butter and honey secreted from the palace kitchens, and the mockingjay-maid thought she had never tasted, nor smelled, anything so wonderful.
After some small nagging from the mockingjay-maid, who knew her love's back and neck would pain him otherwise, the prince bedded them down in what had once been her cot, instead of her father's chair. They slept well in that place, the prince's strong body curled around the mockingjay-maid's, and oftimes still she perched on his chest and sang him to sleep.
As summer dozed on and on, the prince stocked the larder of the cottage, partly for himself and the mockingjay-maid, and partly because he still dared not believe that the kitchen maid was lost to him forever. He swept and scrubbed and polished the cottage till it shone, and chopped firewood aplenty, and tended the maiden's former garden, which put up sweet lettuces, berries, and hearty root vegetables, and many wholesome herbs besides. Had there been any to observe these activities, they would have chuckled and said the young prince was feathering his nest.
When all these things had been seen to, the prince brought his paint-pots and covered the walls of the cottage with paintings, joyous golden paintings filled with children, both dark and fair, and every sort of bird imaginable. He painted himself into that world here and there and chuckled as he showed his figures to the mockingjay-maid, but two elements, painted with equal fervor, appeared in every last picture: a maiden with silver eyes and a black braid – here young and slender and laughing, there serene and rounded with child – and the mockingjay herself.
This wrought an even deeper sadness than the prince's confession of love, for the mockingjay-maid now realized all that she had given up with her human form: those things which the hedgewitch had urged her to reconsider. She loved the prince: not as a bird loves her master, nor even as a girl loves a boy, but as a woman loves a man. And as a woman, she longed for her husband's strong hands at her waist; for his body, warm and heavy over hers, in the sweet, close darkness of midnight; and for his babes in her belly. That the prince longed for it too – for the kitchen maid as his wife, and for their children – made the grief no easier to bear.
Meanwhile, the nightly absence of the prince and his mockingjay had not gone unnoticed at the palace. Many whispered that he went to the wildwood to tryst with a lover, and would have been astonished to see him keeping house with his beloved bird. A few brave souls followed them into the wood, even to the cottage, though they dared not peep inside, but only the prince and the mockingjay went into the little house at sunset, and only the prince and the mockingjay left at dawn.
Finally the Queen herself went to discover the truth of the wildwood cottage and the nights the prince spent there. She was, as so often Queens are in tales such as these, a cruel woman, handsome but spiteful, and she hated her youngest son as much as his good father loved him. Unlike others of her court, she did not hesitate to look in the windows of the cottage, and she saw the prince and his mockingjay, as loverlike as you please, sharing food and songs and little caresses – even a kiss, here and there. The prince kissed the mockingjay's small clawed feet as she perched upon his hand, and her downy breast and throat and sleek feathers as well, and as they settled upon the rude, narrow cot to sleep, the prince closed his mockingjay's bright black eyes with a tender kiss to each one.
The Queen fumed and paced as they slumbered unawares. It was not to be borne, that any son of hers – even this youngest, least-loved – should prefer the company of a drab songbird to his father's court. It galled the Queen particularly that the mockingjay was so very plain, though anyone with eyes could have told her that her youngest son preferred such things: beauty that must be sought, and sighted, and oftentimes such plumage came with gentler songs.
She waited outside the cottage until the lovers had gone, then she crept to the door, for she wished to see what else they hid here, as well as the nature of the paintings that covered the walls. But the hedgewitch was no fool, and she had laid upon the cottage such protections as prevented the Queen from entering. It had been the home of her favorite nephew, as you know, and she was not unaware of the purpose it now served for the mockingjay-maid and her prince. Her magics were small, but in this case quite powerful, and the Queen found she could not go in, neither by door nor window.
The Queen returned to the palace, furious and scheming, and went first to her two elder sons. She told them that their youngest brother had grown indolent and they should take pains to keep him on the training grounds as much as possible. But to this both princes shook their heads, for they had observed their brother all this while, and had noted as his hands gained woodsmen's calluses and oven burns and soil beneath the nails. Whatever their brother did in the wildwood – and both brothers were too polite to inquire, let alone attempt to discover for themselves – laziness had naught to do with it.
The Queen, now enraged, knew better than to attempt this same argument with her husband, for the King adored his youngest son and would be wholly content if the prince chose to remain in his chambers and paint his birds to the end of his days. So being a crafty woman, she endeavored instead to distract with worrisome hints. Was there not an enemy that needed watching? An ally in need? Surely it was time to rally his knights once more, for they had not ridden to battle since before the youngest prince was born.
Meanwhile, the endless drowsy summer ripened into a rich and vibrant autumn – the young prince's favorite season of all, when the wildwood turned to orange and gold and apples hung like rubies from their branches – and what joy filled the cottage! The garden yielded a bounty of squash and pumpkins, and the prince made them into soups and pies and cakes, along with honey-seed breads and plump chestnuts and apples, roasted over the cottage fire. And all of this he made for the mockingjay-maid, and minced finely for her small beak, and fed to her with his own hands.
The nights grew colder, and soon frost painted the garden at dawn, and the prince moved their cot nearer the fire. "You will not leave me for the winter, will you, my little one?" he implored of the mockingjay-maid as he stroked her downy breast with the backs of his fingers. "I think I should shatter to bid you goodbye, even for a season."
The mockingjay-maid could not reply in human speech, of course, so she gave him an answer in song. She sang first of steadfast love, which is not altered by the turn of seasons or a change in the wind, then she sang a sweet and silly song of winter, of lovers in a wood amid holly and evergreens, and the white-berried mistletoe that demanded a kiss of every pair who passed beneath it.
"I require no such command to kiss you, sweetling," the prince teased, though it was clear her songs had eased his mind, and he surprised the mockingjay-maid with a sound kiss upon her beak ere he drew up the covers and wrapped them tightly for slumber.
The following morn they returned to the palace, dizzy with happiness at the thought of the winter ahead, only to be met upon their arrival with disastrous news. There was warring beyond the wildwood, and the King was raising his army at this very minute – yea, even his sons – to go to the aid of their unlucky neighbor.
The prince and the mockingjay-maid went directly to his chambers, that he might bid his other birds farewell, but when he had done so, the prince sank to his knees, cradling the mockingjay-maid in both hands. "I am a wretched creature," he told her. "For I am half in love with a memory and half in love with you, and I can bear it no longer. When I return from the wars, I shall forsake the palace and my crown and lead a hermit's life in the woods – with you, if you will have me."
Though there was grief in his words, the mockingjay-maid felt she might burst with joy. She had never dared to dream that the prince might love her as a bird, and while he could not have her thus to wife, her heart danced at the thought that he should wish to spend every moment of his life with her, and only her – to say nothing of giving up his crown that he might do so. She was too overcome to sing, and so she gave him many ardent chitters in reply, and fluttered up to tuck herself against his neck. The prince raised his hands and cradled her there, as it was what passed for an embrace between them.
But the Queen, for all her grandeur, was not above listening at keyholes, and at her son's blatant confession of love for a mere bird – to say nothing of his intention to abandon his rank and live in the woods with her – her rage knew no bounds, though she knew she could do nothing till the company had departed.
The prince left the mockingjay-maid but briefly to assemble his arms, and when next they met she saw that he had set her as a sigil upon his shield and breastplate: a mockingjay, her wings spread to reveal the white undersides, upon a wooded field spangled with silver stars. From beneath his collar the prince drew a silver locket, and at his request, the mockingjay-maid happily plucked three small black feathers for him to place within. As he did so, she fancied she glimpsed a maiden's portrait painted upon the locket's interior and dared to wonder if it might be herself as she had been once, and whether it was the prince's own hand that had painted her there.
The prince and the mockingjay-maid parted before the company as lovers, with many coos and caresses and kisses, and the prince, now arrayed in all the glory of a King's son, chipped a pearl from his crown and bound it on a thread from his cloak for the bird to wear as a token until his return. And the wisest of the court considered whether the lover he had met in the woods these many months might not have been the mockingjay after all.
When the company had ridden out of sight, the mockingjay-maid returned to the prince's chambers, thinking she might lie upon her love's pillow for a time while his absence ached like a new wound, but the sight that awaited her there was one of horror. For the Queen was in the prince's rooms, driving his precious birds off the balcony with great fierce swings of a broom and smashing their pretty cages to splinters in the courtyard. "He will have no need of these things when he returns!" she shouted to the horrified servants below. "My son will return a warrior, with no time for such childish pleasures!"
She spied the mockingjay-maid then and cast aside her broom to charge that bird – the most hated of all, for she held the prince's heart entirely – with knife and flame, but even a mockingjay can be dangerous when her nest is threatened, and already the Queen had wreaked unforgivable devastation. The mockingjay-maid flew straight at the Queen, the white of her wings flaring in the light of that woman's torch, and raked the Queen's face with her small clawed feet, again and again. This for the wrens and the doves! she cried silently. This for the kestrel and nightjar! This for my love's heartbreak, when he sees what you have done!
The Queen swung out blindly with her knife and torch, but the mockingjay-maid was too swift, and when she flew away at last, the Queen turned her bleeding face and cried to the servants, "Only see what the prince's bird has done to me! She has spilled royal blood, and she must die for it! Summon archers to shoot her down!"
Of course, no archers came, for all but the most ancient had ridden out with the King and his sons, and it is worth mentioning here that it was nothing short of miraculous that those servants who did come out to the balcony did not immediately push the wicked Queen herself over the edge. The prince was beloved by all in the kingdom, as I have said, and so, in turn, was the silver-voiced bird who had brought him such joy and won his tender heart.
"None will shoot that bird, majesty," the lord high chamberlain said stiffly, "not the least because she still wears your son's token upon her breast. If there are charges to be addressed, this will be done when the King returns, and it may be that the greater of them shall be laid at your door. But come now to the healers, and we will see what can be done for your injuries."
The mockingjay-maid fled into the wildwood, her claws still red with the Queen's blood. She had heard the lord high chamberlain's words, but she did not trust such a primped and posturing man to stand long against the Queen's fury, which would surely only increase as her wounds healed. There was no longer any place of safety within the palace, neither for the mockingjay-maid, nor for any of the prince's birds.
It may please you to hear that every one of the prince's birds survived the Queen's fury and that all but the mockingjay-maid followed the wise little kestrel to the home of the hedgewitch. The old woman did not hesitate to find them baskets and perches and corners to nest in, for she knew they were much beloved of the young prince, and not the least of them would perish without him knowing and grieving deeply.
The mockingjay-maid took refuge in her father's cottage, for the prince had stocked it well in anticipation of colder days, and lived upon dried fruits and nuts and seeds as she awaited the sounds of the company's return. She sang every song she knew, then sang them again to pass the endless, lonely hours. Oftimes she nuzzled the figures of the prince where he had painted himself upon the walls, or toyed with the pearl about her neck, and every night she nested deep in the blanket under which they had slumbered together, for it smelled of him, and was at once a comfort and a torment.
As snow fell thick and heavy outside the cottage, the mockingjay-maid took to envisioning the life that would follow when her love returned from the wars. The prince would leave aside his finery and cease to shave, and he would spend many hours with his prayer-book and psalter. He would turn his skilled hands to the art of illumination, she thought, and weave in images of his beloved birds wherever he could. And she would be with him, of course, to share his humble meals and the work of his hands. The mockingjay-maid knew a few sung prayers and holy chants, and she would contribute these to the daily devotions her love would practice. It would be a pious life and simple, but not altogether different from the one they had already enjoyed in the cottage.
The new year came, and those gray, brittle months that follow it, and one morning the mockingjay-maid woke to the sound of distant horns. The company was returning at last! The prince – her love – could leave behind his crown and the royal duties that accompanied it, and they would be together in the cottage to the end of their days.
She took wing and flew through the wildwood, for she would watch them arrive as she had watched them depart, and her tiny heart would beat with love and pride at the sight of her prince, grandly arrayed. But as the company came into view, she found it a subdued one. Their grand banners, though held aloft, were tattered from battle, and here and there was a horse without a rider. The King, whose helm rested on his saddlebow, seemed to have gone gray in a winter's time, and his sons – but wait, there were only two! The youngest prince's saddle was empty; the white mare carried his arms, but no rider.
Her heart like to beat out of her breast, the mockingjay-maid flew nearer to see the second prince, head downcast and plumes limp, and the eldest, his armor forsaken entirely, as he braced the youngest prince – yes, he was there, and he lived! – against his chest. But the young prince was far from well, for his right leg ended at the knee in a stump of bloody bandages, and his face was gray as he slumped against his brother.
This much the mockingjay-maid could have borne, but for the other rider closely flanking the two princes, as though unseen. A dark-robed figure it was, seated upon a lean horse the color of old bones, and as the mockingjay-maid drew nearer still, she saw it was a small, slight man beneath the hood, with hair the color of new parchment, and a funerary wreath of white roses upon his brow.
It was Death who rode among them, and the mockingjay-maid knew him well, for he had come, nearly a year ago now, for her father, and some years before for her mother. She knew the chill of his presence, the soft shiver of his voice, and the stench of leech-drawn blood that was his foul breath. He rode close to the two princes, so close he might reach out to touch the younger with one bony hand.
He will not have him, thought the mockingjay-maid fiercely, for in her short life already she had given Death far more than his due. I will have my cottage and my love! And she flew among the company, swift as a hummingbird, startling as many horses as she could and spurring them with shrieks and sharp stabs of her beak to move faster, to carry the prince beyond the reach of Death.
The horses knew Death well, for he had taken many of their riders, and they raced through the wildwood, half-frenzied, to escape him. The palace gates were open and awaiting the company, but the mockingjay-maid had done her job too well, for all hurried inside and bolted the gates again, and all the doors and windows besides, for fear that Death should enter. None yet realized – not even the mockingjay-maid, who had been locked out herself – that he had ridden in among the knights and was inside the palace already.
Death himself chuckled at these mortal measures, for so often the more one tries to escape him, the swifter they deliver themselves to his hands. It was winter still, but spring was on its way, and by sealing up the palace as tight as a drum, the people had sealed out the warmth and life that was to come and sealed in Death instead.
The eldest prince lifted the youngest in his arms and bore him to his chambers, and they found a guard posted there, for the lord high chamberlain had shown some strength of character after all, and taken measures to ensure that the Queen could not return to destroy any more of her son's treasures. But when the young prince entered the room in his brother's arms, at once he cried out, for all the windows – even his fine balcony – had been barred against Death, and yet the room was still as the grave, for every cage and perch was gone, and nary a feather remained of his former companions. "Where are my birds?" the young prince cried. "Where is my mockingjay?"
The Queen, her fine face now scarred from the mockingjay-maid's claws, was brought before the King to answer for her actions, and she was banished accordingly and sent forth into the wildwood, where the prince's birds set upon her like angry bees and drove her before the hedgewitch, whom, it may be assumed, had a spell or two awaiting her. But the damage had been done. The banishment of his gentle birds struck the prince as fierce a blow as that which had taken his leg, and the absence of his mockingjay, whom he loved as his own flesh, was like to kill him. His eyes darkened and his flesh burned, and he raved and wept in his fever, now and again clutching the silver locket that hung about his neck, while Death patrolled the corridors like a grim sentinel.
The mockingjay-maid flew ceaselessly over every inch of the palace, for she could feel her love's pain like a dagger in her breast and was half-mad with desperation to reach him, but of course it had been sealed, every window, door, and chink in the walls, to keep out Death. And little good that had done, for the young prince grew steadily worse, and Death took to lingering outside the door to the prince's chambers.
"He needs his mockingjay!" the people cried, but the King would not hear of any leaving the palace and opening its doors to Death, for he did not know that already the black-cloaked reaper walked within his walls, and was nearer the prince than any might imagine. Instead, the King commissioned the royal clockmaker – an absent little man, and very gray – to craft a bird, something like the mockingjay, made all of gold and precious stones, with a voice something like the prince's beloved. But when the clockwork bird was presented to the prince, it had scarce chimed a few notes when he seized it in a burst of feverish might and threw it from his presence. "Where is my love?" he wept to his canopy of gold-and-copper leaves, his hand closed tightly around the locket. "Why does she not come to me?"
The mockingjay-maid heard his cries, for she was then almost constantly at the prince's balcony, and she shrieked and beat her wings against the shutters, but the healers declared it was the wind, or worse yet, the fingers of Death, seeking entrance, and they brought in paltry minstrels to cover the sounds with their songs. But the prince remained ill, and sickened further, for Death was patient, inexorable, unbothered by human needs for food and rest. And one evening he opened the prince's door for himself.
"I had heard your heart was strong," Death said, almost sadly. "But perhaps I was mistaken."
He sat at the bedside, unseen by the healers and, all too soon, priests who came to the chambers, psalters and censers in hand, and he spoke almost companionably to the dying prince. "It will not be long now," Death told him, tucking back a curl from the prince's cold cheek, as gently as a mother might do. "You shall come with me, and look after the shadow-birds in my realm, for many came to me this winter."
The elder princes noted their brother's swiftly increasing pallor and went before the King. "Let us take him to the cottage," they beseeched their father. "It may heal him, or if not, ease his passing, for it was there he was happiest. And mayhap the mockingjay will find him in that place."
But the fear of Death was too strong in the King. Even as his son lay dying, with Death's pale hand at his brow, the King thought Death waited outside the walls, and would not give his elder sons leave to move the youngest.
And one evening Death opened a window, the very smallest in the prince's chambers, which always before he had left open for the coming and going of his birds. "We shall leave this way, I think," Death told the prince. "Very soon now."
At that moment the mockingjay-maid, who had not left the vicinity since the foolish healers had denied her entrance, heard the lifting of the latch and shot through the window like an arrow. She went to the prince at once and nuzzled his face with her small crested head, but his skin had gone cold and was near unto the waxy pallor of Death himself.
The mockingjay-maid tucked her warm body against the prince's throat, even pressed a dozen kisses to his cracked lips with her beak, but he did not stir. She prodded him more forcefully then, frantic jabs with her beak, for he must wake, but he barely breathed now, and did not open his eyes. At last the mockingjay-maid spread her wings and lay over his heart, for surely what little heat her body possessed would be enough to save him. He was so cold now, her prince, whose flesh had once been warm as a stove.
"There is a little life yet in him," Death told her from his place at the bedside, "but too little, you shall see. His heart beats no stronger than yours now. It would be well for you to bid him goodbye, for I shall take him soon."
At this the mockingjay-maid flew in the face of Death, shrieking and chittering in fury as she beat her wings with all her might and lashed out with her tiny claws, as she had done to the prince's brothers on the training grounds and to the cruel Queen in her turn.
Death laughed at her vehemence, but in a kindly manner. "I know you, I think," he said, chuckling. "The little mockingjay from the training grounds, so fierce in your prince's defense. It was good of you to come," he told her, "to bid this one goodbye, for he loved you dearly."
The mockingjay-maid returned to perch upon her beloved's chest once more, for she knew she had but one chance left to save him. Too many had Death taken from her already; he would not have her sweet prince as well. And it might be folly, even madness, but she opened her beak and sang the prince's cuckoo-song in her jeweled voice:
Green are the leaves and the violets blue
My father's mare has thrown her shoe
Beneath her, the prince stirred and gave a little groan. He lives! she thought wildly. He lives and will not die! She sang the cuckoo-song again, and a dozen more like it, always with a chorus of the prince's name, and behold, a rosy flush began to supplant his pallor.
"Sing no more, little bird," Death said suddenly, looking strange, but the mockingjay-maid did not cease, nor take her eyes from the prince's face. She sang of sunsets and hot tea and shyly shared baths, of chipped plates and chopped wood and apples roasted on a fire.
And finally she sang a new song, the truest one of all: of a kitchen maid with a black braid and chapped hands, and a love so great that she gave up her human form, so her prince might have the bird he longed for. As she sang this song, her feathers began to fall, and all about her rose the odors of spring: long-decayed leaves and damp earth, rustic spices and apple blossoms by the bushel.
I am dying, thought the mockingjay-maid, but in my death my love shall live. And the thought made her heart burn with mingled grief and joy, for if only one of them might live, she thought, anyone could see it should be the prince. With his hands, both strong and gentle, to wield sword, spade, broom, and paintbrush, he would protect his own and create beauty around them. He would restore his birds to the palace, and a hundred more besides. He would live and father children, and again the cottage in the wildwood would be filled with happiness and laughter.
She sang all these things to the prince and thought her heart must surely burst, for such feelings could not be contained in the tiny form of a bird, not even a mockingjay. Then the prince's eyes flickered open at last – the very blue of Heaven! thought the mockingjay-maid, so welcome was the sight – and grew at once wide with wonder. "My love," the prince whispered, his voice rough from disuse and yet awestruck. "My mockingjay and maiden in one."
The mockingjay-maid's eyes followed his, and she saw to her astonishment a woman's body beneath her, at once slender and curved and quite naked, seated upon the prince's chest, with a bent leg to either side. Neither a bird nor a girl was she any longer, for in the prince's care her lean body had blossomed beneath its feathers, and now was enhanced here and there with small yet becoming curves, of the sort that cry out for admiration and the caress of a lover's hand. About her neck hung the prince's pearl, as it had these many months, still on its golden thread.
And the kitchen maid, for so she was once more, blushed crimson from brow to bosom and turned her face away, for she was covered only by her black hair, which had grown so long that it pooled about her thighs as she perched upon the prince's chest.
"Pray, do not, Katniss," the prince pleaded, lifting a weak hand to her cheek. "I have suffered so long without a glimpse of your eyes."
The kitchen maid turned back as the prince bade her, for he had addressed her by name for the first time, and the sound was wondrous sweet to her ears. "Peeta," she whispered in reply, leaning into his palm. "My lord and my love."
The prince sighed with pleasure at the sound of his own name, spoken this time and not sung. "I wondered," he said, raising his other hand to trace her features, so tenderly. "I wished every day that you and my mockingjay might prove one and the same. I went half-mad," he confessed, with a ragged sort of laugh.
"Only look," he said, and brought one of her hands to his chest to take hold of the locket. "I carried a token of you both," he explained, "to the wars and after."
He popped the clasp to show her, and inside was a portrait of the kitchen maid, delicately executed and precise in every detail – and, quite unmistakably, painted by the prince's hand – but where there should have been three feathers on the other side, a lock of black hair lay instead, smelling of apple blossoms and sage.
"What miracle is this?" gasped the prince. "For the locket has not left my breast since I bid you farewell these three months past, and each time I opened it, feathers lay within."
"There will be time and plenty to marvel," the kitchen maid told him, for she recognized the hedgewitch's hand in this. "But for now, my love, we are still in the presence of Death, and he will not have you. Not while I guard your heart."
The kitchen maid then turned her fierce gaze upon Death once more, who had been watching them all the while, and saw a tear wink upon his wan cheek as he bowed his head in a silent salute. "Well done, woodsman's daughter," Death said, for he knew her now, and felt something of a fool for not having seen through the feather-cloak of a humble hedgewitch. "For this day you have won a prince from Death by the power of a cuckoo-song."
At these words the kitchen maid gave a little cry and bent to press a dozen and one kisses to her prince's face, her lips wet with tears of joy.
"I shall return, you realize," Death reminded her. "But many years hence, and for both of you at once, I think, since it seems I cannot separate you." Then he folded in upon himself and became a carrion crow, and flew out the window through which he had meant to take the prince, leaving a single white funerary rose upon the floor as a sign of his presence.
The kitchen maid had had her fill of such roses long since, and she leapt from the bed to cast Death's rose upon the fire. For the space of ten heartbeats the room smelled of a churchyard, of freshly turned soil and damp stone and roses, a staggering reek of many blooms laid upon a grave, then the last of the rose flared to ash and the room was as it had been once more.
The kitchen maid blushed crimson, for now she stood naked at the prince's bedside, and surely she should depart and clothe herself, or at least inform a servant that the prince was no longer in danger, but he stretched out a weak arm to her, as he had so often when she was a bird, and she twined her fingers with his and kissed them lightly – oh blessed fingers, and lips to press them! – then sat on the bed beside him.
"I should much like to kiss you," the prince said, and at once his own cheeks grew scarlet, for he had kissed the kitchen maid a thousand times when she was a bird, and in places she blushed deeply to recall. Her beak and cheeks and eyes, yes, but just as often his lips had caressed her soft throat and downy breast, and while she had experienced those kisses as a bird, she recalled them now as a woman, and felt both mortification and a longing for more, much more.
"I would never have taken such liberties had I know you for a maiden and not a bird," the prince said, as though reading her thoughts, and the kitchen maid teased in return, "Would you not?"
The prince smiled. "Indeed no," he assured her. "Though I should have been sore tempted." He raised his other hand, almost in wonder, to touch the dark peak of one small breast, and the kitchen maid gave a gasp at the ensuing rush of pleasure.
"Forgive me," the prince said, quickly withdrawing his hand. "You have grown even lovelier since last I saw you as a maiden. Though I confess myself pleased," he added with a small, abashed smile, "that you have not forsaken all your feathers." He freed his hand from hers for a moment so he might stroke the fine hairs on one slim leg, and the kitchen maid shivered deliciously beneath his touch.
"Would you lie with me for a little, sweetling?" he asked shyly, raising his eyes to hers. "I am weary and needs must slumber awhile, but I have not slept much – nor indeed, half so well – since last you shared my pillow."
"Nor have I," the kitchen maid confessed, with a tender touch to his cheek.
The prince drew back his silken coverlet a little ways, and the kitchen maid slipped into bed beside him. Beneath the covers he was as bare as she, and they both colored a little at the discovery, but the prince recovered first and said, or rather recalled, "Now we are both reduced to our skin and feathers."
At this the blushing kitchen maid brought a hand to his chest, and the dusting of soft golden hairs that had sprouted since last she had seen him. "And such feathers," she sighed, pressing her cheek to his heart.
The prince groaned a little and cradled her head to his chest, his hand buried to the knuckles in her long black hair. "I made you an offer when you were yet a bird," he said, "and will not dishonor it now that you are a maiden once more. Of the cottage in the woods, which I take now to be your former home: I asked you to live there with me when I returned from the war."
"Indeed," she murmured. "In your absence I have thought of little else, and the promise of that happy future played no small part in my desperation to save you from Death."
"I offered a hermit's existence," the prince said. "The shared solitude of a pair in love –" his voice trembled a little at those words – "who cannot be wed. Only now that you are a maiden once more, I wish above all things to have you to wife," he confessed, his voice hushed and fervent. "That we might lead the life I painted upon the cottage walls, and of which you sang as you drew me back from Death: filled with children and birds and laughter. But if your affections for me are chaste in nature –"
The kitchen maid raised her head then and silenced him with a kiss, their first as prince and maiden – indeed, the first either had ever exchanged – and though it was an unfamiliar thing, and impulsively done, their uncertain mouths contoured swiftly to one another. Another kiss followed, and many more after that, where hands tangled greedily in each other's hair as tongues ventured hesitantly and limbs slipped and twined, till at last the kitchen maid lay half-across the prince's chest, her dusky face flushed with both mortification and ardor.
"My love for you is pure, but hardly chaste," she whispered, her cheeks flaring hotter still. "I should like nothing more than to share your table, and your bath, and your bed, and I care not whether you should be prince or peasant for the doing."
The prince gave a small, broken laugh. "No words have ever pleased me more," he assured her, caressing her flushed cheek. "But remember, sweetling: I am not whole." He gestured down at his right leg, which he had lost below the knee in the war. "I should think no less of you if you wished an unscarred husband, with two strong legs," he told her.
At these words the kitchen maid scowled at him – an expression he had missed dearly, and in fact had loved from the first – and threw back the coverlet. She had not seen his war-damaged leg before this moment, but she looked on it now without repulsion or disdain, only tenderness, and pressed a hundred lingering kisses to the healing stump.
"I became a bird so your heart might not break," she told the prince, looking fiercely into his astonished eyes. "Can you imagine I would love you less for having suffered such a wound? I ache that I could do naught to prevent it, and my heart breaks at what you have endured. But I love you all the more for your poor damaged leg, and will do everything in my power to heal you."
This time it was the prince who kissed her, though being still weak from his illness, he could manage little more than to tug the kitchen maid over him once more and lean up to capture her lips. This kiss was hungrier, as though a fire was kindling betwixt their bodies, and the kitchen maid gave a little start as something firm and smooth nudged her thigh.
"Forgive me," the prince said for the second time that eve, his fair face a painful crimson, and gently shifted her to lie beside him. "Let me hold you, sweetling, and we shall sleep awhile."
The kitchen maid tucked herself into her prince's arms and found it a thousand times more exquisite than the embraces they had shared when she was a bird. Both were unclothed, of course, and innocent in it, and they confessed shyly as they lay, thus entwined, that there was something fair wondrous about holding another skin-to-skin.
Despite the prince's good intentions, what sleep the pair obtained was brief and frequently broken, for every half-hour or so one of them would wake and stir the other in their wonder. The kitchen maid had not seen or felt her human body in nearly a year, and might wake with a gasp at something so simple as a movement of her hand or leg, and the prince in turn could not imagine how he had gone from the very presence of Death to the woman he loved, both mockingjay and maiden, slumbering naked in his arms, and woke her more than once in disbelief, certain he lay in a dream or feverish state.
The kitchen maid had never before touched the prince with her own hands, and she did so now at every opportunity, eager fingers whispering over warm skin, savoring every precious ridge and hollow. As the hours slipped by, they traced each other's beloved features, first with fingertips, then with lips; they matched up their palms, one small and dusky, the other large and fair, then wove their fingers together, trading countless soft and drowsy kisses before drifting off contentedly once more.
And while they slept, every last one of the prince's birds – and its mate, for that season had arrived during the prince's decline – returned through the little window Death had opened and, greeting their slumbering master and mistress with feathery nuzzles and beak-kisses, they built their nests in every corner of the prince's bedroom. And when that was done, the birds began another work, this one for the sake of the kitchen maid, but that is a secret that must keep for a few moments.
Early the next morning the dour priests came, and the King and his two elder sons and the lord high chamberlain (who wished not to be left out of anything), and what a sight there was to greet them! Two dozen bright-eyed birds were perched among the golden branches of the prince's bed, singing the sun up in merry harmony, and in the bed, naked and innocent as two babes, with their arms wrapped about each other, lay the young prince – quite alive, and flushed with sleep – and the kitchen maid, her dusky face nestled into the curve of his neck, as so often prince and mockingjay had slumbered before.
There was, you may imagine, much astonishment at this, for all had expected to find a corpse in the prince's bed, not this pair of turtledoves, so entwined. The second prince gave a laugh and asked why they had not thought sooner to try the remedy of a maiden to warm the prince's bed, and the eldest shushed him and asked in turn why no one had thought to locate the kitchen maid whom their brother loved, for surely this was she, tangled in his limbs and blinking sleepy silver eyes at the company.
The King, seeing that his son lived and breathed, called at once for every window to be opened wide, and the prince's balcony unshuttered first of all. And this brought a further wonder, for where just days ago had been gray skies and frost, bitter wind and barren branches, in poured golden sunlight and dewdrops, birdsong and warm air heavy with blossoms. It was as though spring had come overnight, and the young prince opened his eyes at these delights in joy unbounded.
"This is the lady Katniss," he told those assembled, and cradled the kitchen maid to his chest, both out of affection and to preserve her modesty. "Late of the wildwood, with whom I have fallen in love twice over. Ready the chapel and choristers, for we shall be wed without delay!"
This, in truth, surprised no one, not after the sight of the living prince asleep in her arms, though: how could a wildwood maiden without a dowry or bride-clothes – indeed, without a stitch of clothing about her fair person at all! – hope to wed their prince? But they had factored without the cleverness of the hedgewitch and the devotion of the prince's birds.
The birds, you see, loved the kitchen maid who had loved their prince so much that she became one of them for his sake. And in the night, upon the most delicate of prompting from the hedgewitch, they had made her a trousseau: gowns fine enough for any court, woven of feathers, lined with down, and all stitched together with spidersilk. Each imitated the quiet plumage of the birds the prince loved best, from the barred feathers of his kestrel to the dusty gray-brown of a robin, complete with an underskirt of paler gray and a stomacher the muted orange of sunset. Even a circlet they had made for her: a wreath of supple willow twigs, with apple blossoms to serve as jewels.
As the kitchen maid sat in bed, blushing at her unclothed state, the four-and-twenty birds descended upon her, dressing her gently and more swiftly than any lady's maid. The gown they chose was made of speckled brown and cream feathers, in the semblance of a wren and plain indeed, but against the kitchen maid's dusky skin and black hair – now woven into a coronet of braids by many deft beaks, with her willow-crown at her brow – the effect was magnificent, even queenly.
"A wildwood princess!" cried a healer.
"A fairy!" breathed another.
But the kitchen maid shook her head to all of this and looked with a small smile to her prince, who gazed on her now with awe. "I am unworthy of such beauty," he whispered, kissing her small dark hands. "And yet I find I cannot refuse a bride arrayed in feathers, and by my own birds besides."
The pair exchanged a few tender kisses in the sight of those assembled, then all but the prince's brothers departed so that they might aid him in dressing. And the kitchen maid found, to fierce blushes and the great amusement of her future brothers-in-law, that it no longer occurred to her to look away from the prince's unclothed form, and that she had, in fact, been staring quite openly at the muscular contours of his body; indeed, caressing him with her eyes, in a manner at once innocent and longing.
"'Tis as well you mean to wed without delay, little brother," jested the second prince. "For I think your blushing wood violet knows a different kind of hunger now, and only a certain princeling might assuage it."
The eldest prince quelled this teasing with a look, though the youngest blushed crimson to the roots of his hair, and the kitchen maid hid her burning face in her hands. All about them rang the chuckling titters of the prince's birds, who had known this long ago, and over the balcony came the distant cackling laughter of the hedgewitch who, as I have said, was wise to all that took place in her wood, and had anticipated this moment for quite some time.
Arrayed in quiet brown velvet, so as to complement his feather-gowned love, the youngest prince shyly offered his arm, not merely out of formality, which was passing strange to a pair who had shared a bed and baths and meals for nearly a year, but also because, having lost half his right leg, he could not presently walk without aid. His brothers pressed a makeshift cane into his hand, and the kitchen maid, slippered in soft bark and mosses, propped her shoulder beneath his and braced his broad back with her arm which, while slender, had grown strong from her many months of flight.
"I cannot regret the loss of my leg overmuch, if it brought us to such an embrace," the young prince murmured happily as he kissed her dusky cheek.
They descended to the court together and were met by cries of amazement and joy. The prince, alive and very nearly well, and with him this breathtaking wildwood maiden! Everyone was sure they must know her, though they could not think from where, and at the sight of her feather-gown, the court ladies blushed with shame over their bright silks and hid behind their fans. Somehow or other, the young prince had found the very princess of his beloved woodland birds, with plumage as drab as theirs, enrobing human beauty both subtle and unparalleled. To such a maiden, no court peacock could ever compare, and they saw now that they had been fools to try – and accordingly transferred their attentions to the elder princes, of course, for neither was yet formally attached to a maiden, of the court or otherwise, and surely one of the two would prove an easier catch than their youngest brother.
The King proclaimed that his youngest son would marry "the lady Katniss" in one week's time (for even a prince recovered from the very brink of death cannot have everything he wants), then he and his elder sons embraced the kitchen maid and bid her welcome in their court. Next, the lord high chamberlain came forward with a grand bow for the princess-to-be, who could not resist asking him whether the wife of the youngest prince was a fit occupation for a mudlark who first came to the palace much-dampened and smelling of loam. The young prince raised a brow at this, for he had not previously heard of the chamberlain's dismissive treatment and had, in truth, wondered how his love came to be employed in the kitchens, when it was he who had sent her to the chamberlain in the first place.
The chamberlain burst into tears in his finest scented handkerchief, fearing he would be flogged or beheaded or, worse still, removed from office, but the kitchen maid only laughed gently and said she would have preferred no occupation to that which he had assigned her, and it had led, among other things, to the prince discovering his own gift for baking.
The royal clockmaker, who had been in disgrace since the profound failure of the clockwork mockingjay, was returned to favor and began at once to craft a new leg for the prince: a limb of apple-wood, polished silken-smooth, with joints of brass. And the prince filled many of the long hours before the wedding on the training grounds, learning the weight and maneuverability of his new limb, from walking to horseback to swordplay. The kitchen maid accompanied him in this, of course, helping whenever he would allow, and found she was not quite cured of her mockingjay behavior of rounding fiercely on a sparring partner who got the better of her prince, especially now that he was impaired by his leg.
After more than one knight left the grounds, pink-cheeked and thoroughly tongue-lashed, the armsmaster took the kitchen maid aside and handed her a bow. Archery was considered an elegant pursuit in this kingdom and suitable as a leisure pastime for court ladies, and the gruff old warrior thought she might be distracted by a lesson or two. But the kitchen maid, to the surprise of all, proved herself a superior archer already, far beyond any thus employed by the King, courtesy of many years' hunting with her father in the wildwood. The elder princes looked on her with a new respect then, and the youngest loved her more than he had previously thought was possible.
Every day the prince and the kitchen maid stole away to the cottage for a little: to bake and sweep and tend their budding garden once more, but also to escape the curious courtiers and wedding plans and, were they wholly honest, to exchange increasingly fevered kisses that no longer seemed quite adequate. At dusk the prince returned to the palace and the kitchen maid remained behind in the cottage, both of them breathless and flushed with longing and aching for the end of the sevennight, for their bridal bed and further exploration of those intimacies they had unwittingly brushed against the night that she saved him from Death.
The day of their wedding dawned bright and clear, and the kitchen maid was roused by a flock of the prince's favorite birds at the cottage window, bearing the bridal gown for her. Every morning of that week, they had presented her with a fine new dress, made entirely of feathers and spidersilk and down, and the kitchen maid had found them both beautiful and comforting, for she missed her own feathers more than she had expected, and much appreciated the warmth of down against her skin once more.
But the bridal gown was the cleverest and most exquisite creation of all, for it had been made in the semblance of a mockingjay: a stately gown of velvet-black feathers, with deep sleeves lined with swansdown and a little crested hood that perched upon her hair like a veil. She wore no jewelry, save for the prince's pearl about her neck, nor shoes of any sort, for what bird goes about shod? Her bouquet was of apple blossoms, many fragrant clusters thereof, bound together by the strings of the apron she had worn as a kitchen maid.
She met the hedgewitch, elegantly turned out in her finest rags, as she was leaving the cottage, and together they came to the chapel, borne along by every bird in the wildwood (who had, naturally, been invited to the wedding by the prince who loved them). And all the court caught their breath at the sight of her, a mockingjay-maid once more, and bowed low as she processed, for they saw the full truth of it now, which the kitchen maid and her prince had neither declared nor truly hidden.
The prince's bride – the wildwood princess, as many thought of her, with her willow-crown and feather-gowns – had been the kitchen maid he loved last spring, true enough, but she had also been his mockingjay, whom he had loved ever since. As she walked the length of the chapel, her wing-sleeves fluttering softly, tears fell as first one, then another, grasped the enormity of what one humble girl had done for love of a prince. More than the prince had heard her songs the night Death nearly claimed him, you see, and knew the debt they owed the little mockingjay for coming to his aid. But how much greater the courage of a kitchen maid in feathers, to repel Death with no more than the jeweled tones of her voice!
When she reached her prince at the altar, the kitchen maid gave a little gasp, for in his turn he wore the King's wildwood green and brown, but over all was his breastplate with its mockingjay sigil. "Sweetling," he whispered through tears of his own, and drew her to him. "My darling mockingjay."
Now weeping a little herself, the kitchen maid nuzzled his cheek with hers, so that the little black crest of her veil-hood brushed his face, and he pressed a dozen or more kisses to her nose and cheeks and her precious silver eyes before any part of the ceremony could be attempted. At this there were yet more tears from those assembled, for none had been ignorant of the affectionate gestures of prince and mockingjay, and to see them echoed by prince and maiden, both weeping themselves, left no one unmoved.
Afterward there was much feasting, and many cried for a song, having determined that this maid was the embodiment of the bejeweled voice they had heard before only in stolen snatches, and the princess, for so she was now, promised them a song or more on the morrow at her husband's pleasure. Then, as fresh casks of cider and ale were sent for, the prince and his wife found their hands shyly twining beneath the table and, at a glance, slipped away to the prince's chambers.
There they found that the prince's birds had not been idle, for the floor was strewn with violets and the bed deep with apple blossoms. Indeed, into every corner of the room had been woven flowers or greenery of some kind, though the birds themselves were absent – a fact for which the prince blushingly confessed himself grateful.
They undressed one another carefully, even removing the prince's false leg – indeed, all but his locket and her pearl – and this time they looked their fill. The prince's hands went eagerly to his wife's small breasts, now circling the peaks with his broad thumbs, now gently squeezing the curves in his palms, now yielding to an inexplicable yet overwhelming desire to explore their contours with his mouth. The princess indulged him in all of this, for each action was more pleasurable than the last, and the heat it kindled in her belly was at once delicious and insufficient. At length she laid herself among the apple blossoms and bade him join her.
Wrist-deep in fragrant petals, they explored one another, first with fingertips, then with lips and halting, curious tongues. Their bodies were to each other a wildwood in themselves: an expanse of stunning natural beauty, filled with many wonders which might only be found by a thorough and patient lover, and the prince and his wife, so long denied the pleasures of each other's touch, were unhurried in their love-making. Now they laughed, now they wept; here discovering a sweet hidden pool in the hollow of another's collarbone and drinking deeply of it, there venturing fingertips into the thicket of curls between another's thighs and finding warm, exquisitely sensitive flesh within.
The princess cooed with pleasure at her husband's touches and repaid him with moans, her small, strong hands delighting in the feel of the thick shaft between his legs, with its petal-soft skin and tender mushroom-cap beaded with slickness. It grew firm in her palm and very warm, and with a little cry the prince beseeched her that they might couple at once, while still some endurance remained in his body.
The princess lay back, raising a cloud of apple blossoms – a stunning contrast to her dusky skin – and bade the prince lie over her, and there were many breathless moments of shifting and situating, for both were wholly uncertain in their innocence and knew only that the most sensitive, intimate parts of themselves longed, inexplicably, to merge. The prince gently parted his wife's thighs and settled himself between them, then, with a sound like a sob, he eased his length slowly inside her, his powerful body shuddering with restraint and relief as he did so.
The princess whimpered a little at her husband's entry, for her innocence, unlike his, came with a maidenhead, and its breaching, though done with supreme gentleness (for such as he could never be otherwise, neither as a prince nor as a lover), still pained her, like the piercing stroke of a hot blade, and wrought small tears and a broken sob or two. Once sheathed in her fully, the prince stilled his hips and lowered his face to hers, that he might kiss her lips and the tears from her eyes and promise, through tears of his own, that he would never again hurt her in any way.
As they lay, his mouth returned to the little hollows and hillocks he had discovered earlier, in hopes that many small pleasures might banish pain. He savored her temples and eyelids and beautifully slender throat, then lingered over her pretty earlobes with kisses and suckling till her breath grew even, then uneven again, in far more pleasured a fashion.
The gestures of coupling were unfamiliar to them both, but the prince's body cried out for movement and, guided by instinct, he began a deep rapid pulse between his wife's thighs; plunging his length into her entirely, over and over again, and in so doing, stroking their most sensitive flesh in a breathtakingly intimate manner. The princess's pain quickly faded to wonder, and she leaned up on her elbows in awed disbelief to watch their joining: her husband's thick length, now red and glistening, disappearing into the black curls between her legs, then reappearing, again and again, in a steady, sliding motion that made her belly flutter deliciously.
Of a sudden the prince's mouth sought her breasts again, hungrily this time, and the princess gasped and gripped his curls with both hands as he latched onto one brown nipple and began to suck, fierce and lusty, without ceasing the now vigorous pumping of his hips. It was something broaching ecstasy, she thought, near-senseless with delight, then all at once it was over. The prince pushed deeply into her, so deep that his back bowed, and he stilled again, this time with a whimper that sounded like pleasure and pain in equal measure. A little flood of wet warmth spilled inside her, and his body sank onto hers, heavy and spent and welcomed.
His length was soft inside her now, but he made no move to slip out, nor did she wish for it. Rather, she twined her legs about his hips, keeping him deep and close, and caressed the quivering muscles of his back. Here and there an apple blossom had clung to the sweat on his warm skin, and she chuckled as she took a handful of the flowers in which she lay and sprinkled them over his body like a soft, perfumed rain.
The prince grunted against her shoulder. "What mischief are you about, wife?" he murmured, his parted lips leaving wet kisses on her skin.
She leaned up to kiss the top of his golden head, now dark with sweat. "A wildwood princess requires a wildwood prince," she told him, a smile in her silvery voice. "And as I recall, husband, you are most becoming beneath an apple tree."
He sat up a little then, balancing on his forearms, to gaze down at her. "You, my love, are most becoming in naught but your skin and feathers," he said, kissing her mouth tenderly. "But this nest of apple blossoms is a fine setting for such a jewel."
They lay and caressed and dozed a while, but neither truly wished to slumber with such pleasures as they had lately discovered. They fitted together twice more, each time with a little more finesse, but the prince's leg grew sore from the persistent pressure on the stump, and he shyly asked his wife if he might take a turn on his back in the apple blossoms.
The princess was brave but not bold, and she blushed crimson at the request, for there was no way she might modestly mount her husband, nor could what he asked be done shyly. But he gave her a dozen kisses of reassurance and bade her take all the time she wished to consider and caress, and she soon found, to her shame, that she preferred his warm length between her thighs to between her hands. She splayed her legs over his hips and carefully guided him inside her, and within moments both were whimpering and weeping with pleasure, for this pose wrought angles new and more exquisite and brought the prince somehow even deeper inside her, while also giving him abundant opportunity to caress and stroke and suckle. Together they rocked, their hips fusing on every beat, and the prince felt himself drowning in cascades of black hair and snowdrifts of apple blossoms.
Just before daybreak, amidst many blushes, the prince asked his wife if she might perch upon his chest, as she had done the night she regained her human form, for it had occurred to him – in a trembling corner of his mind which dared not give voice to what it desired – that there might be a unique pleasure to be found in it, for both of them. This she did with little hesitation, for it was a pose scarcely different from their later love-makings, though she did pause for a few heartbeats before settling her weight, however slight, upon his heart. But no sooner had she done this than the prince cupped her hips and urged her higher up, toward his neck and further still, so that her thighs might part over his mouth.
This, the princess refused outright, her whole body mottling with blushes at the very thought, but the prince stroked her hips soothingly and swore all would be well. He understood as little of this as did she, of course, but he ached to attempt it. He had touched between her legs already and discovered a pace and pressure that would make her sigh, and he yearned to imitate those caresses with his mouth – and to taste her as well, if he were honest, but that much he dared not confess to his wary bride.
Shaking a little, the princess obliged, and balanced on her knees, a little lower down than her husband had hoped for, but it was a great boldness for her already, and it more than contented him. With careful thumbs he ventured into the black curls between her legs, opening her gently to the slippery heat and tiny rose-bud he had discovered hours earlier with a timid caress, and lovingly brought his mouth to her. First to kiss, then delicately to trace; his tongue now savoring every contour with slow and thorough strokes, now enticing with playful, minnow-like flickers.
The princess felt as though the tendons in her legs had been severed, so acute was this new pleasure, and she grasped the tangled golden branches of her husband's bed-canopy so she might not fall, but the prince braced her hips with his strong hands and brought her to rest fully against his mouth. There he proceeded to lavish her more deeply, suckling wetly at her sweet pink bud, even dipping his tongue inside her a little ways, and the princess gasped and wept as waves of bliss crested and threatened to overtake her. And as the sun rose, she gripped the golden branches with shaking hands and sang the prince's name, like a moan upon the wind, and the gold-and-copper leaves trembled above them.
Thus began the happiest union ever seen in that kingdom, before or since, and inspired by their brother's radiant bliss, the elder princes soon took brides for themselves. The second married his dark-eyed courtier, who proved a sharp-tongued wife, ever chiding, and yet passionately devoted to her husband, and the eldest, to the surprise of all, wed a golden-haired dairymaid, on whom his affections had been quietly fixed for some time.
As the hedgewitch had predicted, the youngest prince was indeed overjoyed to seed his wife's belly, and made subsequent attempts, both plenteous and pleasurable. Many a night was filled with their caught breaths and eager pants, the soft creaking of bed-timbers and the music of their mingled sighs and moans, and by midwinter a daughter had been born to them. A tiny thing she was, with her mother's olive skin and black hair, though her eyes swiftly brightened to the celestial blue of her father's and her lashes, too, were as long and tangling as his. She seemed to chirp rather than cry for her mother's breast, and the prince and his wife called her Wren.
A son followed just over a year later, a plump little boy with rose-petal skin and a haystack of dusty brown hair, which fell out entirely and grew in again as fat curls of palest gold, and his eyes were as silver as his mother's. He was a merry thing that laughed and warbled almost without ceasing, and his parents named him Robin.
As the years passed, the prince and his wife and their children took to spending days, then weeks, in the cottage that had once belonged to a humble woodsman, the father of the kitchen maid who became a mockingjay and at last a princess. The prince built more rooms to accommodate their growing family, for Wren and Robin were followed by Sparrow and the twins, Lark and Linnet, and lastly a tiny owlet-girl with creamy skin and a riot of black curls, whom the princess insisted upon naming "Rue" after her husband's faithful and beloved kestrel, at whose passing he had grieved deeply.
The prince took pains to build their home around the trees, rather than hewing them down and setting four walls in their place, and thus here and there a room might have an earthen floor with a great trunk at its center, with branches above in which many birds might perch and sing, and lumpy roots below, among which their children delighted to play. The cottage grew to resemble a hunting lodge, albeit low and rambling, where the halls rang with children's laughter and birdsong and, oftener still, the jeweled voice of the princess, who had never imagined such joy could be found. The prince painted each new wall with the figures of his wife and children and birds, and always there was a mockingjay hidden somewhere in the image, which the children sought with giddy squeals. He baked bread and cakes for his family and his wife hunted game in the wood, and together they tended their garden.
Years passed, and the prince and his wife forsook the palace almost entirely, save for holy days and special feasts and the birth-days of his brothers; so happy were they in their cottage. The King, though not yet old, passed his crown to the eldest prince, so he might enjoy a little leisure among his grandchildren, both within the palace and the wildwood, and under the new King's wise rule, the lands and people flourished.
As promised, Death gave the youngest prince and his wife – and their children, for good measure – a wide berth. In time he came for the hedgewitch, who chided him as "young man" and made him wait a good long while till she finished tidying her kitchen, and shortly thereafter he came for the old King, who by then had lived a long and rich life, full of the laughter of many grandchildren. Decades passed and he came for the prince's brothers, both at once: old men now, boasting of their accomplishments as they hunted together in the wildwood. Their wives were despondent upon each other's shoulders and, soon enough, Death came to console them as well.
Over sixty years had passed since the night in the prince's bedchamber, when Death had been cheated out of a prince – indeed, banished – by the cuckoo-song of a common girl guised in feathers, and it seemed a most fair and fitting time for him to return. The prince and his wife lived in the wildwood entirely now, and Death fancied that he would come not as a reaper but as a friend, bringing roses rather than wearing them, and sharing a cup of tea at their fireside before they departed together. Their leave-taking from this world would be gentle and leisurely, he decided, for they had defeated him once and merited a certain honor for it.
Death approached the cottage in silence, near the breaking of day, but the prince and his wife were already out-of-doors, for it was the very pinnacle of autumn, and there was much for the couple to harvest.
"Shall you see to the pumpkins today, old man?" the princess asked. She was no longer young, of course; far from it, but as Death had avoided their presence all this while, she was quite hale in her old age, with a long braid of spun silver and a figure lean and limber beneath her lark feather-gown. At the base of her throat still hung the prince's pearl on its golden thread.
"Indeed I shall, if you bring me a pair of rabbits," her husband replied, winking one still-bright blue eye. He too had reached old age in a youthful fashion, for there was clearly much strength in his broad shoulders and large hands, though his curly hair had long since turned the gray-white of ash, as had the beard upon his face. About his neck still – always – hung the silver locket with a portrait of a kitchen maid inside, and a lock of her black hair as well. "I'll make a pie of one and a kettle of your father's stew with the other, for later," he said, "in case Robin should come by for the cradle."
The princess picked up her bow and quiver and leaned up to press a kiss to the tip of her husband's nose. "No further kisses shall you get till you've made me pumpkin tarts," she teased. "Nor rabbits neither."
She turned to go then, but her husband drew her back to kiss her soundly on the lips. "Bring apples as well, I think," he said as though she had not spoken, grinning. "The cidering kind, for the nights are growing cold, as are your toes in my bed."
"I think I know a manner or two of warming your bed, old man," she bantered back, raising a silver brow playfully. "With or without cider."
They kissed again, a lingering, leisurely kiss of winding arms and easeful sighs that had in it all the time in the world, then the princess turned again to depart, this time with an impish swat on her backside from her husband. But she had not taken more than five steps into the wood when her eyes lighted on Death, himself not twenty paces from their garden gate, a bouquet of white roses in his hands. The princess stilled as she met the eyes of her unexpected visitor, but her expression was neither fearful nor angry. If anything, she seemed quietly put-out.
Can you not come another day? her silver eyes asked. For my husband wants cider, and my son may come to call, and for supper we shall have rabbit stew and pumpkin tarts, and later warm each other in our little cot, head-to-foot, with kisses.
Death returned her gaze with tears in his hollow eyes, and he gave the feather-gowned princess the sort of bow one reserves for the Queen of a great nation. He let the roses fall to the forest floor, and at once they took root and became living blossoms of gentle fragrance. Then, with a nod of salute to the prince, who did not see him, Death turned his back and departed from them forever.
Some say that when Death turned his back, the prince and his wife became young again, and remained so forever. Others believe they simply aged no further, but remained always as he had left them: gray and weathered somewhat, but otherwise hale and hearty.
One thing, however, is certain: if ever you wander a wildwood thick with apple trees and heavy with birdsong, in due time you will come upon a great hedge of white roses, whose fragrance seems the very breath of Heaven. Behind that hedge, should your venture be so bold, you will find a cottage, ancient and yet untouched by time, the home of a prince who loves birds and the woman who became one for his sake.
It is unlikely that you shall see them, for in the centuries that have come and gone, their cottage has become something of a rabbit warren, ever expanding with new nooks and crannies, and the couple themselves shy of company, save for each other's. But you will know they are there by the smell of fresh bread and paint-pots, and the dozens of birds that line the windowsills.
And if you are very, very lucky, you may even catch an echo of the rarest prize in a thousand woods: a voice like silver and gold, like apple blossoms and honeysuckle and green leaves bright with dew, singing folk songs and love songs and, every now and again, a silly cuckoo-song, chorused on all sides by the name of Peeta, as the princess who once was a mockingjay chimes the beating of her heart.
Author's Note: I have long wanted to write "The Nightingale" as a love story where the kitchen maid loves the Emperor and becomes the nightingale for his sake, and when applied to Everlark, this fit beautifully. The characters of the Emperor (here, the prince), the kitchen maid, the nightingale, Death, and the lord-in-waiting (here, the lord high chamberlain) are original to the fairy tale, as are the silly courtiers and, indeed, the clockwork bird.
I'm very much a fan of nameless (but, one hopes, clearly identifiable!) characters, especially in a fic such as this, but as some readers might be uncertain, the cast of this story is as follows:
Peeta and Katniss are, of course, the prince and the kitchen maid/mockingjay-maid. Peeta's father is the King, Peeta's mother the wicked Queen, and of course, Marko and Luka are the elder princes (and written as close to my personal headcanon as I could manage in the context). Snow is Death and was fascinating to write as such.
Greasy Sae is the hedgewitch, Rooba the cook (stout, boisterous, and kind), and Haymitch the gruff armsmaster. Seneca Crane (always a delight in AUs!) is the foppish lord high chamberlain, Beetee the gray little clockmaker, and Johanna the dark-eyed courtier who marries the second prince (Luka - I might ship them in AUs, just a bit). The dairymaid who weds the eldest (Marko) is from an old headcanon of mine, but if I ever get back to working on "Something Good," you'll learn more about her.
Rue is an American kestrel or sparrow hawk, imported to the wildwood for this story, as it's smaller and "cuter" than the common or European kestrel. :D (Though I once went on a Hawk Walk in the English Lake District where a female American kestrel was part of the programme, so I think there's precedent for an American kestrel in Europe. ;D) My family once took care of a young male kestrel, and he was about the size of a small parrot and very affectionate (downright cuddly!) with beautiful markings. And I can very easily see Peeta, a la "the prince who loved birds," preferring such a small and friendly falcon.
Peeta and Katniss's second child is named after the plump, friendly European robin, which is (again) smaller and cuter than its well-known American counterpart (which is, in fact, a thrush). :D Said European robin is also the inspiration behind Katniss's "robin" feather gown, hence its muted gray-brown and orange.
Finally: thank you a thousand times for reading this very precious story. This piece hit me deeper than anything I've ever written before (I cried when I first reread the completed fic and have teared up several times since), and I would dearly love to hear your thoughts.