~The Caged Bird’s Song~
The breath of a haunting melody drifted towards the traveler’s ears. It far surpassed any song he had ever heard: it was so full of longing, so full of life.
Where is that coming from? he wondered as his feet seemed to carry him towards the music. The more he traversed through the wilderness, the louder the song grew until he could clearly make out the voice of a girl singing past the thick trees.
It’s not too far now…
What lay beyond the trees was unlike anything the traveler had ever seen: a cage wound of steel bars molded into intricately curved designs complete with lush greenery, a dainty little bed, and in the center of it all, sitting on a tall branch in a tree like a tame bird, was a girl.
Unlike her song, this girl was plain. She did not have the fanciful garments that matched her voice. No. She had nothing but dull brown silken fabric blowing softly in the spring breeze, and her hair did the same.
For a while, all the traveler did was stand there and listen to her sweet songs. She sang of the mountains and the power they carried; she sang of the vast seas and the mysteries they possessed; she sang of the sun and the moon and the sadness they overcame to be able to only watch the wonders of the world from above.
How would she know of these things out here? the traveler wondered. She is far from such sights, and yet she still sings of them as though she has known of them all her life.
Curious, he thought to speak to her.
“H-Hello?” he called from beyond the trees. Immediately after the wary word left his lips, the thicket stilled, and the girl jumped up in surprise. Her song was over.
“Who’s there?” she asked in a startled voice, her head jerking back and forth, frightened beyond immobilization.
“It’s alright,” the traveler said carefully stepping out into full visibility. His bright red hair would most likely be the first thing that caught her eye, and it was.
Upon laying her sight on him, the girl’s eyes softened, and she leapt gracefully down from her perch without ever so much as disturbing the moist grass beneath her bare feet.
“Your hair is so red,” she breathed and walked towards him and extended her arms as far as she could past the sharp twine ensnaring the cage. Her face was riddled with wonder, yet jumpy with fright from having her song cut short by his greeting.
“If I may,” she timidly spoke, “may I touch it?”
The traveler smiled and lowered his head just enough for her delicate fingers to reach out and stroke his bangs. Where he was from, red hair was a sign of lower standards, of common blood. Hearing her voice filled with such awe at the color of his hair was enough to make him look past all of the other names he had heard before.
“It’s beautiful…” she giggled and retreated her arm back into her cage as soon as she was done examining it. The traveler was finally allowed to look upon her features again.
“What is your name?” he asked.
The girl shook her head. “I was never given one, as I don’t need one.”
The traveler quizzically arched his eyebrows. “And why would someone with such a lovely voice as yours not have a name?”
To his question, the girl shrugged. “It was never important, and I have never minded.”
“Why are you inside this cage?” he then asked looking at the bars for a possible way inside. “Did the one who built this want to keep people away from being with you?”
“No,” the girl quietly answered, her hands hugging her waist. “It was to keep me in.”
What a cruel fate, thought the traveler. To sing of such wonders of the world and never have a chance to see any of them is a terrible shame.
“If I find the key, may I come inside?” he asked.
The girl’s eyes widened. She appeared to be taken aback from such a question, not because she was frightened, but because she couldn’t understand why anyone would want to join her in her steel prison.
“Yes,” she finally answered. “I would like that very much.”
“Then I will find it,” the traveler said, his spirit renewed at the thought of being able to meet her from beyond the bars.
And so, the traveler searched far and wide asking people from village to village, from town to town if they had heard of a key to unlock a cage that held a girl captive. Many had mistaken the cage for a large prison saying they should just ask the police about it, but they hadn’t been any help either. Nevertheless, the traveler persisted ever eager to be able to open the girl's cage, and while he searched, her song began to change into a different tune.
The traveler’s quest finally took him back to where he had started: a dark estate filled with stuffy pacing jobs, high-society upbringings, and magic he couldn’t fully understand. It was here that he had taken nothing but the clothes on his back and left without saying a word to any of his family members—save for his youngest brother who had caught him sneaking out after staying up to do his studies.
He has to be grown up by now, the traveler thought as he pushed the gates open and walked down the compacted dirt road to the place he had once called home.
When he went to his room, he noticed that nothing had been changed except for the void feeling it left from his absence. The halls that had once been filled with laughter were silent now, and the hollow winds leaking from the cracks made the entire building moan under its settling weight.
Just as he was about to be convinced that no one was home, the traveler heard a voice that he had not heard in years.
“Allistor?” This voice was deeper. It was not the voice of the teary-eyed brother he had left behind. It was that of a young adult. “Allistor, it’s you!”
He knew this person. It took a little while for him to remember his name, but the word came to him, eventually.
“Arthur,” he said. “It’s been a while.”
His brother snorted. “Been a while? Allistor, it’s been five years! Do you know how much you worried Mum and Da when you just left without telling us like that?”
“Extremely?” he guessed.
“Extremely!” Arthur repeated. “And I don’t suppose you have something to make up for all of your years of absence?”
“No, but I have something I’m looking for.”
His brother sighed. “And what would that be?”
Arthur furrowed his caterpillar eyebrows. “A key? What in the world are you babbling abo— ? Wait. A key…a key to where?”
Allistor couldn’t be sure what exactly provoked his brother into acting the way he did, but he knew that if he hadn’t moved out of the way in time, it wouldn’t just be his cheek that was stinging from a fresh cut. When the fury and noise had stopped, he saw that his own brother had grabbed the empty candelabra from the nearby shelf and had swung it with full force at his head.
“She saw you, didn’t she?” he asked in a low voice.
“And if you’re here, then that means you must have heard about what she really is.”
“…She will die if she leaves that cage.”
“No, she won’t. I will keep her safe. I will make sure she continues to sing. I promise you that.”
“And if you can’t keep that promise?”
“Then I will take full responsibility.”
Arthur sighed and set the candelabra down. “I suppose it can’t be helped at this point, but if you do convince her to leave the cage, know that when she sings, her songs must be pure. If not…”
“I know, but you don’t have to tell me what won’t happen.”
His brother didn’t look convinced. “Can I really trust you to keep it safe?”
“No,” Allistor answered, “but you can trust me to keep her safe.”
“After guessing what you’ve been through, I don’t doubt that,” Arthur grumbled and led him to the key’s safekeeping.
At long last, Allistor returned to the same place where the girls’ song had captured his heart. He didn’t have to ask for the directions towards the lonely thicket where not even the darkest dwelling creatures strayed. His own determination led him right back to the cage.
When his eyes fell on her again, she was still the same unchanged girl with the plain clothes and the plain features on her blemished face, but her very existence hadn’t failed to stop capturing his attention. Just the thought of being able to be in the same place with her made his heart beat faster as he walked right up to the cage with the key.
As he approached the cage, the singing stopped, and the girl came into view.
“You came back,” she smiled. “I was afraid that you had left me here.”
“I could never do that,” Allistor replied. “You said you would be happy if I came inside.”
“I did.” Then she looked around. “Where is the key?”
“Right here.” Then, Allistor took his index finger and pointed it straight at her throat. The girl looked confused.
“It’s a song,” he explained. “The key is actually a song, the song longing for freedom. The people who put you inside this cage made sure that you would not be able to get out of here—not without the desire to leave, at least.”
The girl placed a hand over her chest. “Freedom?” she whispered. “I don’t understand. I only wanted you to be able to be with me. I never thought of leaving.”
Allistor took her hands through the bars. “That’s because you don’t know what’s out there yet,” he said. “The places that you sing of: they’re real. They’re out there just waiting to be discovered if only you would have the courage to leave your cage. Haven’t you ever wondered why you sing songs like the ones you have?”
“Sometimes,” the girl admitted, “but I don’t know where they come from. I just know the words from within my heart.”
“That’s because you desire these things. You want to be free. You just don’t know that yet.”
Even through Allistor’s explanation, the girl was still hesitant, and he couldn’t blame her. She had lived in solitude her entire life destined to never be seen but only by the people who shared the blood of the ones who had locked her up: Allistor’s blood.
“There is a beautiful world waiting to be discovered,” he continued. “It’s bigger than you could have ever imagined it to be. I can’t stay with you inside this cage, but if you come with me, then I will promise you that I will take you to the places that you sing of, the places you’ve always been wanting to see.”
The girl’s eyes lit up. “You really promise you’ll go with me?”
“Aye,” Allistor nodded. “You won’t have anything to fear. As long as you’re with me, I’ll make sure nothing happens to you. You’ll be much happier outside the cage than if you stayed here for the rest of your life. Even your songs say so.”
At this, a faint hint of color began to rise to the girl’s cheeks. Allistor had heard her singing of him long before he found his way to the cage. She had been eagerly awaiting his return. The sheer power of her desire carried out by her song was strong enough to lead him back to her.
“But if I leave the cage, I was told that I will die,” she murmured.
Allistor shook his head. “That’s only if you were on your own. I’ll be here to protect you every step of the way. We’ll have each other for company. Together, we’ll have nothing to fear.”
The girl blinked her large eyes. They were glistening with wonder at the sound of his words. Allistor hoped it would be enough to make her sing.
“Still…” she said. “I don’t know if I’m ready.”
Allistor squeezed her hands. “If you aren’t ready now, then you’ll never be,” he said in a low voice. “I cannot stay here forever. I am a traveler, and like all travelers, I’m never around in one place for very long. If you wait, I will be gone.”
“No,” the girl whispered. “Stay here. I don’t want you to leave me.”
“Then come with me.” But despite that, he felt her hands slip through his fingers.
“I’m sorry,” she apologized. “I don’t know if I can.”
“You’ll never know. You just have to try.”
However, try as she did, the song would not come out, and the girl remained silent. It was different than the times she had longed to see the world beyond her cage, even more so than when she had longed for the redheaded traveler to return. This was a bigger step she would have to take, and it was the strongest lock coming in between her and the outside world.
Allistor didn’t bother to find out if she would sing or not because he had already left.
It’s tough love, he thought. If I don’t leave, then she won’t know what’s she’s missing. She will sing, but it won’t be for the mountains, or the oceans, or the stars, or the sun, or the moon.
The farther he went, the louder the song grew and the stronger it pulled him, begging him to return. The notes rang with such sorrow and beauty that it brought tears to his eyes. It broke his heart, but he knew this was for the best. If he didn’t leave her, then she wouldn’t continue to desire. She wouldn’t continue to sing. She wouldn’t continue to live.
No, he realized. She’s not singing for freedom—not yet.
She’s singing for me.