Midsummer's day was the date of the competition. The king, wishing for a warrior to marry his only daughter, planned a series of athletic games to determine her future husband. The invitations were sent to every man thirty-five and younger. The man who won the most games and could defeat the crown prince in a fight would be declared the winner. Once the competition was announced, men across the kingdom and neighboring kingdoms trained for the event.
Nadia, the king's daughter, spent her time alone in her tower. Her father's concern over her safety was so great that he rarely let his daughter venture out in public. She could not cheer for any particular suitor nor have a favorite. She wasn't allowed to see any of them. The king had made his daughter a prisoner in a pretty cell.
During the day, Nadia sang by her sole window. It was the only way anyone would hear her voice. Sometimes, men came by the bottom of the tower to catch a glimpse of her, but the distance that separated them was too great for either to see one another. At night, she thought over ways to escape the tower, but could not find a plan that wouldn't drive her father into deeper madness. Only the servants ever saw her. They took care of her needs, bathing her and feeding her, but they were not her friends. She wished her mother were still around, but the absence of her mother is what started her father on his descent into paranoia. When she was ten, an assassin killed her mother and one of her brothers. After that day, her father made her remaining brother train every day to be the strongest man alive and Nadia was placed in the tower for protection. Nadia used to have friends when she was a child, but her father's fear was so great he forbid even young girls from visiting his daughter. Her brother, a year younger than her, rarely saw her. Her father made him train so often that he too lost all friends. Her brother wasn't allowed time to do anything but train and sleep.
There was one more thing Nadia dreaded about the coming summer. If no man could defeat her brother, he would be declared the winner instead and she would be forced to wed her brother. No one could change the king's mind on the matter. Members of the court sent for every religious man they could find to persuade the king away from his decision, but nothing would change his mind. They shifted their attention next to her brother and convincing him to intentionally lose if none could defeat him. Word of this got to her father's ears eventually, and the rules were changed again. Should the prince be suspected as having lost on purpose, the prince will be declared the winner anyway. While many wished to marry the king's daughter for the prestige and power it might bring them, a new group emerged--those wishing to save the princess and prince from their father's madness. Priests and monks trained alongside peasants and knights in an attempt to stop the possibility of an incestuous marriage from unfolding.
Nadia heard from her servants about everything that was happening, but she could do nothing about it. She sat by her window, unable to free herself. Some nights, she considered jumping from the window. Her father was always going to choose her husband for her. Nadia accepted she would have no say so in that matter. She only hoped her husband would be a nice man. But now with her brother as a potential option, she couldn't allow that. If it came to that, Nadia told herself, she would find a way to die before the wedding no matter what it took.
Lonely, Nadia talked to the little bird that always came down to her window when she sang. "Hello, Little Bird, have you come to see me again?"
The yellow canary chirped at her. It hopped over a little closer. Nadia cupped her hands and held them out for the bird. It hopped into her palm and sang for her.
"You're the only one who stays with me. He can't keep you out." Nadia smiled at the bird. She petted its head. "Where do you live, Mister Bird?"
The bird said nothing. The bird sat down in her hand.
"My wedding will be in the summer. I won't be here anymore after that." Nadia said, sadness in her voice. "I suppose I won't see you anymore after that, will I?"
The bird titled its head.
"Oh, you don't understand anything I'm saying. You're just a bird." Nadia sighed. "Would that I could become a bird, I'd fly far from here and never return. You're lucky, Little Bird. You can go anywhere. You're free to sing as much as you please wherever you go. When you leave my window, the world is yours and I stay here in my pretty prison."
The bird sang another song for her. Nadia thought the song sounded sorrowful, but she knew that couldn't be. Canaries don't know sadness, she told herself.
The days passed by too quickly, and the day of the competition was tomorrow. Men from all over the lands had come. Many stood down below her tower and shouted up at her their boasts and declarations of love for the princess they had never seen. A few priests yelled that they had come to save her. She couldn't distinguish one face from another. Nadia sang, not for them, but for herself, as she planned her own death should none of the men below her win.
The canary came to sing with her and sit for a while. Nadia saved some leaves from her dandelion salad for the little bird to eat. The bird happily ate the leaves.
"This is it, Mister Bird. After the competition ends, I will be immediately wed and leave this place. Thank you for keeping me company all these years." Nadia said to the bird.
The bird hopped over to her and rubbed against her hand. She tried to smile, but she couldn't.
"This is our final goodbye, Mister Bird. Farewell." Nadia picked the bird up. She kissed it on the head.
The bird glowed with a bright yellow light. The light grew brighter and bigger. It floated out of her hand and into the center of the room until the light burst. In the center of where the light once was stood a young man with long, golden hair and golden wings. His eyes glittered like polished amber. His clothes were made of yellow and light orange silk. Around his neck were many necklaces, all covered in shining gems. Around his head was a crown of gold, twisted branches, dandelion flowers, and sunflowers. The young man, wings spread out wide, sat in the center of the room looking as confused as the princess was.
"Who are you?!" Nadia asked, cowering by the window.
The young man stood up. He looked over his body, then back at her. "You freed me. Finally, I'm free!"
The young man bowed to her. "Thank you. I've been trapped in that form for ten years now. I may have accidentally offended an old wizard and he put me in that form as a punishment."
Nadia calmed down somewhat. "Then...you are Mister Bird?"
The young man nodded. "I'm sorry. I hope I didn't scare you. I couldn't exactly tell you what was going to happen when you kissed me while I was like that."
"Then, the kiss broke the spell?" Nadia asked.
"Yes, someone needed to kiss me for the spell to end. But I couldn't tell anyone that. I've been trying to befriend kind people in hopes they might one day, but no one ever did until today." The young man walked over to her. He held her hands. "Thank you so much. I know some magic. As a show of my appreciation, is there anything I could do for you? I know you don't want to get married tomorrow. Do you want me to help you escape? Should I kill your father?"
Nadia shook her head. "No, please don't kill him! I hate that he's done this to me, but I understand why this happened. He isn't evil. His mind is ill, and there's no one powerful enough here to reign in his delusions. My mother used to hold him back from his wildest ideas, but now that she's gone...he's become so very unwell..."
"Then should I help you escape this tower?"
"No, no, it can't be like that. If I vanish over night, his delusions will only worsen. I'm afraid the only way I can be freed is if..." Nadia stared at the young man. He was the first man who came to her tower that she had actually seen the face of. All her servants were women. He was a handsome man. His amber eyes reminded her of the sun, but Nadia wanted to know something else about him. "I have an idea, but could you sing for me first? Like you've always done? I want to know what Mister Bird's real voice sounds like."
"Sing? As you wish." The young man smiled at her. He sang for her.
His voice was more beautiful than his face. Nadia sat in her chair by the window and listened to his performance. His voice too, she thought, reminded her of the sun. Nadia clapped for him when he finished his song. "That was wonderful. Where are you from, Mister Bird? Do all the people there sing like you?"
"Many do. I'm not bad at it, but there are many performers better than me." He said.
"What does your home look like?"
"My home?" He sat down beside her in another chair. "I live in a very hilly place, with lots of flowers. The weather doesn't change much. It's usually about this warm most of the year, so the flowers bloom nearly all year long. The sea isn't far, but there's no sandy beaches. It's pretty to look at from above."
Nadia touched his wings. "What about these? Does everyone have them?"
The man nodded his head. "Yes. Do you like them? I could give you wings. Then, you could fly from here."
Nadia shook her head. "I told you, that won't work. My father will only get worse if I do that. I have to leave in a way that makes him less paranoid, not more, for my brother's sake. I must leave here as some man's bride."
"Is there a man you fancy that I could rig the games for?" He asked.
"Well, I was thinking...Mister Bird, are you married?" Nadia asked.
The young man's eyes widened. He grinned. "No, I am not. I am not betrothed to anyone either."
"So then, it would be possible for you to enter the competition yourself, wouldn't it?"
"That I could, should someone want me." He said. "But if it ends with a wedding, that wedding would be seen as valid if we left to my home too. Are you alright with that?"
"What vows do men in your home uphold?" She asked. "Will you care for me for all of my days, no matter what? Will you remain loyal?"
"And what vows must women uphold?" She asked.
"Women must be loyal and caring too. If I am hurt, you must care for me. If my name is tarnished, you must defend it--by sword or by words." He said.
"Then, Mister Bird, will you enter the competition on my behalf and ensure that I am your bride by the end of tomorrow?" Nadia asked.
He caressed her cheek and kissed her. "It's a promise."
The next morning, the competition began. For the first time since her mother's death, Nadia was allowed out of the tower. The king presented her to the large crowd to show them their prize. Nadia didn't bother memorizing any of their faces. She looked for her little bird. She found him by his shining golden hair. They made eye contact. He smiled and waved at her. Nadia sat in a throne beside her father. On the other side of her father's throne sat her brother. She hadn't seen him in years. He was a man now, though he had taken on only their mother's features the same as Nadia had.
"Hello, Sister." He said. "May fate not curse us once again. Pray for a miracle."
"What should we do if you win?" She asked.
"I wish that lightning strike me dead if that happens. Or Father. Forgive me for saying so, but I may turn my sword on him if that happens." Her brother said.
Nadia sunk down in her seat. She hoped she wouldn't have to see her brother do such a thing to their own father. Nadia didn't want any more pain to continue in their family.
Their father announced for the crowd all the rules of the competition. The top three people in each game would get points based on their rank. Once all the games were done, the three who had won the most points based on this scoring method would go on to fight the prince. Each would get a turn, and if more than one defeated the prince, they would then fight each other. Whoever won would become the princess's groom and marry her immediately. The first game was an archery competition. After that was a foot race, then a joust, followed by a horse race. A throwing competition would then be held, then a climbing race. Last was a lifting competition before the final three fought the prince in a sword fight.
Her co-conspirator hid his golden wings and dressed plainly for the competition. She tried her best to hide her excitement as he won first place in game after game, but the longer the competition went on, the wider she grinned. By the last competition, she was cheering for him. Her father noticed right away.
"Do you fancy him to win?" The king asked her.
Nadia blushed. "Um, well, he has been winning every game...and he is quite handsome..."
Her brother laughed.
"Oh, is he?" The king asked.
"Certainly more than some of these other men who came." Her brother said. "Some of them look like trolls."
Nadia laughed at her brother's words. "Brother, it's not nice to say such things."
The last game was won. The young man had managed to win first place in all of the games. The men who came in second and third place by points were both tough looking men. Nadia wondered if one of them might also be able to beat her brother too. The king announced it was time for the final part of the competition. The prince got up from his seat and went down to the arena where the final fight would occur while the king reminded the contestants that they were forbidden from killing the prince. He then announced that the men would face off against the prince in order of least to greatest points, with third place going first.
Nadia watched nervously as the first match began. Her brother effortlessly defeated the man in third place. The match between them lasted under a minute. The king shook his head and called up the man in second place to fight the prince next. He lasted thirty seconds longer than the man in second place. The king called the young man forward.
Nadia's heart raced as he unsheathed his sword. Her brother swung first and missed. He swung and missed again.
Her brother stared at the man. He sensed something was off about his own movements. The prince watched the man careful as he swung again. Then, he saw the answer to his question. Underneath the plain cloak the young man wore, the prince caught a glimpse of gold.
He lunged at the man. Their swords clashed against each other. Knowing his father could not hear them, the prince said. "Fairy, if you must use magic to defeat me, do so. Please, spare us from this horrid fate. No other man can defeat me."
"I promised already that I would win this to your sister." The young man said. He knocked the prince's sword out of his hand and the arena. Then, he pointed his sword at the prince's throat. "Stand down. You've lost."
The prince backed away and looked at his father.
"He's beaten him, Father." Nadia said. "He's won. There's no chance my brother could pretend to lose like that."
The king stood up in awe at how easily his son was defeated. He called the young man up to where he and Nadia were. The young man bowed to the king.
"I asked for the strongest men in all the lands to come here and compete to wed my daughter, and you have bested all of them, including my son. You are the rightful winner." The king waved for Nadia to come over. "And now, my daughter's hand is yours. Tell me, who are you and where have you come from?"
"You could say I am but a peasant farmer, a commoner among your borders. Many have called me Nemo." The young man said. "Today, I become your son-in-law."
Nadia couldn't contain her joy. She hugged him. The young man hugged her back.
"You've certainly won her heart, at the very least." The prince said, sheathing his blade.
The young man smiled at Nadia. "I am sure our days will be very happy together. And I swear to you, your majesty, I shall never let anyone harm her ever again."
The wedding was held shortly after the competition. The holy men said prayers of gratitude that the horrid union was avoided, as did many others. Others were disappointed at not being victorious, but enjoyed the feast after the wedding. The young man and Nadia left the kingdom behind at nightfall. His disguise was tossed aside. He glowed in the darkness. Nadia walked with him, arm-in-arm, through the deep woods.
"Many have called you Nemo? Nonsense. Mister Bird, what is your real name?" Nadia asked.
"My name is Énna, my dearest." He said.
Nadia touched his wings. "Your wings are so pretty."
"Oh, speaking of that, since you're my wife, you'll need your own." He put his hand on her back. Nadia's body glowed. When the light dissipated, Nadia's clothing had changed. She wore the same silk fabric as her husband in orange and yellow. A crown matching his adorned her head, and wings the same as his were on her back.
She touched the crown. "What is this?"
"Oh, I am a prince. Since you're my wife, you need a crown too. I may have been untruthful to your father about saying I was a peasant." Énna said.
Nadia laughed. "Oh, that was quite obvious, but I heard your words clearly. It was not as if you lied either. When will we be home?"
Énna flew a few feet up into the air. He offered his wife his hand. She took his hand and flew. They reached his home sometime just before dawn, when all the flowers were covered in dew. Énna didn't introduce her to his parents until the following day. They were both too tired from the trip and most were still asleep anyway. He brought her to his bedroom and watched the sunrise with her. Nadia rested against him.
"What becomes of me now? You won't make me your prisoner, will you?" Nadia asked, half-asleep.
"How could I ever do such a thing to the woman who freed me?" He asked her back.
"Tell me the truth, did you use magic to beat my brother? Could you have beat him without it?"
Énna shook his head. "No, I doubt many in this entire world could have. I'm afraid, if I hadn't used magic, you would be his bride instead."
"Then it's for the best, for once, that Father never thought much about anything. He never said you couldn't use magic to win." Nadia laughed at her father. She put her hand to Énna's face. "Could you sing for me again, like you always did before?"
"Of course." He took hold of her hand and kissed it. Then, he sang.
Nadia drifted off into a pleasant dream in her new home, surrounded by hills and flowers, without a single tower.