We called them the Gildenfaere. The golden horse-birds. Once there were thousands upon the earth and in the skies. On the earth they galloped and in the skies they soared. And always they were wild. And we who have only two legs and two arms could never tame them.
Legend has it though that one of us befriended one of them. A child and a foal.
Most stories agree that they met by chance when the foal became lost and was found and protected by the child. For that gift of kindness, the golden mare who was the foal’s mother allowed the two new-made friends to see each other again. She grew to trust the child. Child and foal grew closer and they grew up together. Thunder and Rain they were called. Thunder was the horse-bird’s name. Rain was the boy’s. And they lived happily enough.
The stories vary on how the first ride came to pass. Mischief may have been involved. They were both mischievous as most young are. Rain was almost a young man then. Thunder had become a young stallion. All the stories agree that there was some danger that came and Rain was not fast enough to flee it, so his friend let him onto his back. As Rain laid low and held on tight, Thunder galloped away, spread his wings, and launched them both into the air, into the clouds, past the reach of spears or arrows or whips or whatever the danger was in any particular version of the tale.
A man riding a Gildenfaere. It was the horse-birds’ fear and our folks’ desire.
Thunder only bore Rain because Rain had once carried Thunder. But in Rain’s village, his people saw and they coveted.
It was not the first time our people had tried to tame and ride the wild horse-birds. But we had always failed. Flight was not their only advantage. The Gildenfaere were strong and clever. But now we committed a greater folly. We tried to steal their young, so we could train the foals to obey us. The Gildenfaere, who elsewise ignored our efforts, became enraged. They would have waged war on us were it not for those friends, Rain and Thunder. Thunder pleaded on behalf of our people. Neither he nor Rain were blind to the greedy desires of those who wished to use the horse-birds. They offered themselves as champions to the king of the land. Thunder’s condition was that Rain be the only man whose weight he bore. And that the rest of the Gildenfaere be spared from any more attempts at capture and conquest.
The king of the land agreed and was good to his word. Any who tried to steal a Gildenfaere, especially a foal, was punished. Many adventures did Thunder and Rain have in service of the king. Many dangers did they face and overcome.
One danger proved their undoing. And Thunder was lost. Rain, imbued perhaps with a supernatural strength, pulled his friend, his companion, his brother away. He carried Thunder’s body over vales and mountains. He found the Gildenfaere and gave them back their son.
As a reward and a remembrance for his loyalty and love, Rain was given all of Thunder’s golden feathers. It is said that Thunder’s body vanished into a misty amber light and all that remained were his feathers. Rain gathered them up and made of them a cloak.
He continued his service for the king. He was knighted and became the Knight of Golden Feathers. It was said that the cloak of golden feathers gave him the power of flight and protection from evil spells. And he lived through the years of his service and retired in peace.
When he passed, his cloak passed as well, into the hands of his son, who aimed not for knighthood but a simple life. He heeded his father’s warnings of the cloak’s great powers and his responsibility to guard and tend it. He hid the cloak and passed it on to his daughter. And she to her son. And on and on each inheritor passed the gift on to his or her eldest child. The Gildenfaere were soon forgotten, and knowledge of the cloak’s origin and powers faded. Family legend spoke only of a gift from a king. Most wished to gaze upon the gift. Some pondered selling it. Pride and prosperity kept the cloak in the family’s possession.
And then it came into the hands of a blacksmith.
He had heard the feathers on the cloak seemed like hammered gold. So fascinated was he when he finally saw the cloak, that he dared to pluck a feather from it so he could study it. It seemed indistinguishable from the gold he sometimes worked into jewels and decoration, save that there was some enchanting quality to the feather that he could not quite understand.
The cloak he hid away again, but the feather he fashioned into a cloak pin and gave as a gift to his wife. His most delighted wife. She wore the pin and danced about all day. They celebrated a quarter century of union and yet she swore that she felt as light on her feet as the day she first spied him. A shy girl stealing glances at the blacksmith’s apprentice and dashing off before he could notice. But he took notice of her then and he took notice of her now. For she was right. There was something in the feather beyond just her love for the gift and for her husband.
The blacksmith was curious. He plucked several more feathers from the cloak. And this time, he fashioned them together into a slim chain. He wore the chain beneath his collar for a few days and observed that he did indeed feel light on his feet. He felt light enough to float in the air in truth. And so one day, when no one was watching he walked out upon the lake near their house. The first step he took was hesitant, but it floated above the shallows. The next step did as well. And the next. He began to feel heavier as he went our farther and farther. And at one point, he simply dropped into the lake and emerged dripping and laughing.
Already it was a time when fewer wore cloaks and more wore long coats. And aside from questions of the present day’s styles, a cloak made of golden feathers was striking and far too conspicuous an article for one to wear even on grand occasions. And even kings and queens did not wear crowns and cloaks save on the day of coronation.
So the blacksmith did not think it was such a blasphemy to dismantle the cloak and forge something new from it. For it was his cloak and none in his family had worn it since the one who had first made it. If he fashioned jewelry from some of the feathers, that jewelry might serve to display their legacy in a manner not quite so garish. So he took one feather after another and reshaped the slim chain into a ring. No matter how many feathers he added, the ring remained the same size. The weight of the ring grew no heavier, but as each feather was added, so was added some burden that he sensed but could not describe. He worked until not a single feather was left on the cloak.
When he was done, he was so exhausted that he set the ring aside after cooling it and went promptly to sleep in his smithy. His wife found him there the next morning. And she found the ring. She woke him gently and showed him what he had made.
The blacksmith soon discovered that the ring was far more powerful than the slim gold chain he had made with a mere handful of feathers. He could run as fast as a gazelle. Leap over vale and hill in one bound. He could bound high enough to touch the clouds. To breathe them. Many a bird did he startle with his hurtling into and out of clouds.
If it was known he had the ring, for its gold alone, he would be robbed. And if its power was known, worse might happen. He would bring down upon himself and his family the attention of the royals and nobles, for how could a commoner have such an uncommon gift? They would claim the ring for the crown. And the blacksmith would have no choice but to surrender it. He knew he should hide it away.
And yet, he felt compelled to use it, to soar, to fly. He was raised to work with earth and metal. But now he sought the air.
He looked back into his family’s history and learned of Thunder and Rain and all their deeds. He was not one to seek glory, but nor was he one to shirk his obligation.
He was strong and the ring made him quick as well. So he donned a dark hooded long-coat and patrolled his village when not at his forge or with his family. And so grew the legend of the Leaping Hood, who would rescue a kitten from a tree, or a babe from a burning tower. He faced brigands on the crossroads and thieves in the village shops. He hid the ring beneath his glove and none learned the source of his power.
The blacksmith knew that a time might come when a dishonorable descendant would inherit the ring. And use its power to commit crimes or rise above others and oppress. He spoke to his wife and they decided that the ring and the cloak pin should be inherited not by blood but by worth.
To their pride and fear, the first of the worthies was their own daughter. She was a bright girl, highly lettered. She became a scholar and she learned of her family’s history and asked after the cloak of golden feathers. After she was done being horrified by her father’s deed of hammering a ring from the golden cloak she had dreamed of seeing and touching and trying on, she asked to see the ring and the cloak pin.
She was the first to wear both. And to discover that she could do more than her father could do. She could do more than run across the waters and leap over tall towers. When she wore both, when all the feathers were reunited, she could fly. She first learned this when her father taught her to jump. Her mother had lent her the cloak pin for luck. She leapt into the sky and just as her father had described, she ascended farther and farther than she’d ever imagined she could until she passed through a cloud. She shivered from the sudden chill and damp, took a breath, and braced herself for a descent that never came. For when she lifted up her arms, she hovered in place.
From below, her father saw her disappear into the cloud. He waited for her to reappear below it. The first twinge of worry came when she did not. But then he saw a flash as of lightning and she emerged from the top of the cloud and soared higher. The blacksmith’s worry became a pang of pride and joy. She was faster than her father. Being a scholar, she learned the trick of making her own clouds, among other illusions. And so she did when she flew above the towns and villages of her lands. And folks claimed there was a heavenly spirit guarding their land. And those who saw her claimed they saw the flash of her lightning and the outline of wings. And she was known as Flashwing.
Over the years, the decades, the generations, the ring and the cloak pin passed from worthy to worthy. It passed out of the family that once held it and passed back into the family. It went where it was needed. The ring and the cloak pin were kept separate, for even though each worthy chose an equally worthy successor, still they feared that the gifts might fall into the wrong hands and they judged it wise to separate the powers.
But then it came again into the hands of a metal-smith of sorts. It was the dawn of a new age, for we had just harnessed the power of lightning, and soon all would have that power. As it so happened, the ring and its powers had not been used for a generation either for pleasure or heroism. The smith heard vague stories about the powers that the ring and cloak pin held, but did not believe them and did not test them. No one had worn a cloak in ages, save for costume balls and the like. So he hammered the cloak pin, the final feather, into the ring. And though he hammered it smooth, an etching of a feather remained along its outer face. It was only then that he wore the ring, proved its powers, and realized what he had done. Or rather undone. He had undone the wisdom of his predecessors by combining all the feathers into one object. To make amends, he created a strict code of conduct for each worthy and rules for how to choose successors. He rarely used the ring himself. And he sought to find a man or woman who was better than himself by far to be his successor.
He found that person in the unlikeliest of places. She was an acrobat for a traveling carnival. Surrounded by the strange and the scandalous, she should have been strange and scandalous herself. And so she was. But she was also honest and compassionate. And she was strong, of character, of body, of spirit. He came to love her and to wed her. And the gift he gave her upon their union was the gift and the burden of the ring of flight.
His judgment was true. She became a great hero. The first who was not golden. For she hid the ring beneath black gloves. She wore a black suit that stretched like her skin so she could move and contort. Light black boots and a black mask to cover her head and her face so only her shimmering eyes were seen. Rarely did she fly. She loved to leap and land. And with the ring, her natural talents were all the more enhanced. Where the carnival traveled, so too did the hero who was seen only in shadow and smoke. The Black Ghost, she was called.
She too found her successor. And on and on. Some only hid the ring. Others used it. Once and only once thus far, has the successor tried to destroy the ring. Believing it to be evil and blasphemous, he tried to melt it down, but Gildenfaere are born of fire and light and air, and the ring glowed a bright orange and yellow, but it would not melt. He tried to cut it and succeeded in separating the ring into three pieces, before his strength and resources were spent. He sent each piece far away.
But they were found. Each piece by a different person. The new worthies. A warrior. A merchant. And a cleric. They agreed to share the gift. And each third was hammered into its own ring. They could not fly, but they could run and leap. They became fast friends and loyal allies. There was such harmony in their movements when they acted, they were called by some the Chorus.
When they were done with their work, they decided to re-forge the three rings into one and they chose their successor. And again some worthies chose to use the ring and some to hide it and protect it. The few who chose not to use the ring were tasked with finding lost records and assuring the next worthy would know all of the ring’s history, the truth, the legend, and all in between.
And so at last, it has come into my hands, this legacy of flight, this gift of the Gildenfaere. My predecessor said I earned it, but when I think of those who have borne this burden before me, who have leapt into the sky and soared, I have doubts. Even knowing that I am not the first scholar to wear the ring, I feel I am not worthy. At least not yet.
To put on the ring and bounce about the ground takes only curiosity. To put on the ring and stand in a clearing and hurl yourself up into the air with nothing to hold you or guide you, freed from the grasp of gravity, takes courage.
And to put on the ring and fly up into a burning building and bear the weight of another person to bring them down, or give chase to a thief, or fly higher and higher to test the limits of the ring, to breathe the rarefied air, to dash past enemies who mean to and aim to harm, that will take training.
It has been two generations since the ring has been used. My predecessors were keepers. And I…I should be a keeper too. Else I should hand the ring over to one who can use it and use it well. But before I do that, before I surrender my chance, before I surrender the gift I’ve been given, I should at least try to use that gift.
I need not be a fighter or a soldier. There are other ways to save. Other ways to honor all those who have come before me.
It is difficult, in this present age of complex machines and vast knowledge, to believe that such creatures as the Gildenfaere once roamed the lands and skies. That one of them befriended us and bequeathed to us the power he held in life, the gift of flight.
And yet, when I wear the ring, I can fly. I can run faster than the fastest person I know and not be winded. When I wear the ring, I am changed. I seek to find out why and how. Perhaps if I do, my legacy will be that I can build more rings, and put them in the right hands so that those hands can save more lives.
Is it folly to think I can be so clever? Is it greedy to want and to have more than one ring? They gave the one gift. Have they been watching to see how we use it? To see if we still deserve it?
Whether I am watched or not, I must be worthy. If I keep flying—and I want to keep flying—I must pay the price, I must bear the burden.
I must help those who cannot fly.
Copyright © 2014, story by Nila L. Patel. Artwork: “Gildenfaere Gift” by Nila L. Patel. “Thunder” by Sanjay Patel. All rights reserved.