On the day Queen Roseanna gave birth to her first child, she asked Avelina, one of her ladies in waiting, to go to bedroom’s balcony.
“What kind of bird perches on my bird feeder?” she asked her.
She hoped for her favorite bird, which she thought most like herself, with bright orange and yellow like her royal robes and black plumage the same as her long, shiny ebony hair. If so, she would call her infant daughter, Oriole.
Avelina stood at the window for a while but said nothing.
“Well? What do you see?”
“Only a common house sparrow, my queen.”
Roseanna sighed. Well, after all the child was not a boy like she and her husband, King Frederick, had desired, so the name Sparrow would suffice.
Sparrow understood from an early age she was not what the fairy godmother had ordered. When no more issue appeared with the right sex, her mother turned inward, only finding pleasure in watching the birds and dressing up for court appearances.
Trying to bond with her mother, Sparrow would come to her room in the morning and together they would identify the warblers, the finches, and wrens from their distinct colors and songs.
However, even while indulging in this pleasant pastime, she would feel her mother’s disapproving gaze on her when she thought Sparrow was not aware. She had not inherited her looks from her elegant mother or her dashing father. Probably, some distant relative had bestowed the lank brown hair, pale skin, and faded blue eyes. Roseanna’s constant comments about her appearance made Sparrow’s mirror an enemy.
“Get Francine, your dresser, to do something with your hair. That gold dress makes you look sallow, wear the blue one. Pinch your cheeks to put some color in them.”
The birds never judged her. Happiest when outdoors, she read romantic tales while listening to their trilling notes. She made up her own songs.
Sparrow’s dreams were filled with feathered friends. They landed on her finger and sang melodies just for her. Sometimes, she was a bird, swooping and soaring far above the castle and criticisms. Flying with a flock that accepted her.
When Sparrow was twelve, a minstrel troupe arrived at the palace and entertained visiting dignitaries. From her usual place seated in a corner, she thrilled hearing the fiddle sighing, the lute strings resounding, the tinkling sounds of the small harp, and bittersweet ballads of past great deeds and loves lost. A troubadour spotted her tucked away and approached, bowing deeply.
“Princess, I hear you are well-named. I am told by the servants here who have heard you sing that your voice is equal to the sparrow’s. Will you favor us with a verse or two of The Dawn Song?
Sparrow shook her head. Singing before these distinguished guests from a nearby country? But then, she noticed her mother smiling at her and nodding her head. For once she could please her.
She stood. Starting softly, her clear voice began climbing to a high crescendo. describing the lovers parting at dawn. When she finished, there was a great silence. She sat, thinking she had failed. But then there was a thunderous applause, not only from the guests, but from the performers.
“If not for your nobility,” the troubadour said, “I would ask you to join our troupe.”
After Sparrow’s seventeenth birthday celebration, Queen Roseanna had a frank talk with King Frederick behind closed doors in their bed chamber.
“Time is running out. We need to find a suitable marriage mate for our daughter. But who will be interested? She’s still as slim as a boy and cares little for her appearance.”
Frederick contemplated his monogrammed slippers.
“I have heard there is a kingdom just to the north of us with a marriageable prince. Their treasury is lean, and they would benefit with an alliance with our government. Who knows, he might be enchanted by her lovely voice?”
Roseanna clapped her hands. “Please send our minister to their land. Invite the family to visit and I will make certain Sparrow practices with the court harpsichordist.”
A date was set for the meeting of the two royal families. In advance, Roseanna, paid her seamstress extra gold coinage to make her daughter more presentable. Sparrow submitted to being trussed into a silver bliaut, a form-fitting garment with tight sleeves that flared out at her wrists. The wide blue velvet skirt would cover her thin legs and a cincture, a silk belt, was knotted across her flat stomach.
On the day of the arrival, Francine wore herself out trying to fashion Sparrow’s hair into the latest mode.
When King and Queen Baruch and their son, Prince Morgan the Third, entered the throne room, Sparrow felt her heart flutter like hummingbird wings. The prince’s regalia reminded her of a peacock, deep purple, emerald green, and cerulean blue. His jaw was square, his nose patrician, and his figure noble and straight. She had no idea how long the young man had preened before a mirror before coming.
“I will not swoon,” she muttered under her breath.
After a sumptuous feast, her stomach in turmoil, she stood beside her accompanist. Her voice emerged breathless, but then she thought of the plain wood thrush whose serenade rivals other more colorful birds. The fulsome notes filled the room and floated effortlessly to the frescoed ceilings.
The king and queen were impressed, and Morgan the III clapped. But he was not “enchanted” as Sparrow’s father had hoped. He saw an unremarkable woman whom he was obliged to marry. However, a huge castle, inherited land, a promised generous loan, and a connection with influential rulers, would suit him well. Anyway, a buxom maid caught his eye when he toured the castle’s rooms.
In the days that followed, Morgan stayed behind. surveying his future domain and spending a little time with Sparrow. He spoke extensively of his exploits.
“I am a falconer. I have trained a tercel, a male hawk, to hunt rabbits and squirrels. He lands on my leather glove at my command.”
“I like birds too.” Sparrow said, shyly. “My favorite is …”
“Humph,” he interrupted, “Well, your little songbirds are nothing in comparison with birds of prey.”
As he droned on, she had the opportunity to peer into his dark eyes, fringed with eyelashes any woman would envy. She vaguely understood that with this man she had been pledged to, she would be able to become a mother. Her fascination with the twittering nestlings mother birds fed so dutifully caused her to yearn to have chicks of her own. They would love her, and she would love them. no matter who they resembled. Perhaps, after they married, he would come to love her. How wonderful it would be to be loved.
When Morgan traveled back to his homeland, she dreamed of flying into his arms and kissing him. Sometimes, he was a mighty hawk with piercing eyes. She sang love songs as a nightingale. They spiraled together into the air on updrafts.
Queen Roseanna revived her enthusiasm for life making plans for an elaborate wedding. But months before the nuptials, a messenger dispatched from the Baruch kingdom brought devastating news.
When King Frederick read the missive, he shook his fist.
“How dare they?”
The queen snatched the letter from his hand and read the traitorous words.
“He’s marrying who? Why the Princess Gisela is at least ten years older than Prince Morgan.”
“Yes, but the Maddox Dynasty of rulers is the wealthiest of them all. Gisela as their only daughter will inherit everything.”
“Frederick, Sparrow is besotted with Morgan Baruch. How will she react?”
“Not well, I am afraid. Do you wish me to tell her?”
“Yes, I have all the merchants to inform that the wedding is cancelled.”
For many days, Sparrow lay weeping in her bedroom, refusing to eat. But one morning, she arose, dressed in black widow’s clothing, and stepped out onto her balcony. She leaned far over the iron railing until the force of gravity pulled her over the edge. But instead of falling to the brick courtyard below, her body hovered in mid-air. She spread her arms and flapped, the wind buoying her upward.
As she sailed over her parent’s estate, she glanced at the black material of her dress. Each panel was turning into feathers She felt her whole body transforming. A piercing cry came from her throat. Her dreams were now a reality. Free at last, she knew what she was becoming, a formel, a female hawk.
A kettle, a group of hawks, joined her in flight, wheeling together as dusk settled over the land. They flew toward the sinking sun and spent the night in a huge tree. In the morning, she shook out her pinions and the group headed north to the Baruch’s land. There in a field below her, her superior eyes spied Morgan and his hawk. Swooping down, she called to the kestrel. He abandoned the gauntlet on Morgan’s arm and joined her and her new family. Morgan never saw his hawk again.