Free Fiction Monday — The Third Raven

The Third Raven
On July 9th, my new novel, The Guardian Hound, is being published by Book View Cafe.

I AM SO EXCITED!

Ahem.

In the five weeks leading up to the novel release, I plan on publishing a short story a week, and having each available for free for that week. All the stories are about the world or somehow involved with The Guardian Hound and the raven clan.

I wrote this story, The Third Raven, in December 2011. When I was about halfway finished with it, I realized I had an entire world in my head and I could easily set a novel there.

In 2012, I attended a workshop where one of the assignments was to write a short story about a first date, set now–it couldn’t be historical or future. I couldn’t figure out what to write for the longest time, and finally chose to tell a story about a modern day raven warrior trying to get a date.

That short story turned into the novel The Raven and the Dancing Tiger, which I will be re-releasing through Book View Cafe, also on July 9th. It’s the prequel to The Guardian Hound, though they each stand as separate books. (I’m also dropping the price for The Raven and the Dancing Tiger for the month of July to $0.99.)

So here is the short story that started it all. Next year, I’ll write the third and last book in this world, called, War Among the Crocodiles.

Enjoy!


The Third Raven

Pedrek pulled his long raven cloak tighter across his shoulders. The wind blew more coarsely here, high on the cliffs overlooking the town of Sulwyn. Pedrek wondered if it was an omen, the cold wind foretelling a chilly reception in the town below.

They wouldn’t deny him entrance, of course. The wood and earthworks surrounding the town couldn’t stop him, and though they didn’t get many of his kind up here, they might even make him welcome, at least at the start. The novelty of a visiting raven warrior had gotten him two or three nights’ stay for free in other small villages. Maybe there was work here as well—bandits, unscrupulous tax collectors, or even a rotten Lowen or spell-worker—that the town would pay for Pedrek to clean up.

The steep roofs below told Pedrek the snow likely to come in the winter. He’d be long gone before it came, going south if he could, to islands where ice never clipped his wings. It would be a long, cold winter without Ebril, his mate. He sighed and looked out again.

A river coursed through the far edge of the town, next to the hills, large enough for merchants and their ships. From Pedrek’s high perch, the town looked peaceful and prosperous, just the kind of place he needed, at least for a while.

Harsh winds pushed at Pedrek, whipping the edges of his cloak. He should just leave now; give into the change and fly true. He stubbornly kept off his wings and instead returned to the trail, stomping the dirt with his very human feet, reminding his feathered soul that his human half had needs as well: companionship, cooked meat, warm fires, and four walls of safety at night. And maybe a few more coins to line his purse: Ebril had been sick a long time, but none of the expensive spells or potions had worked.

As Pedrek drew closer to the town he realized the earthworks hadn’t been maintained: They crumbled on the sides and the main gateway sagged. No one challenged him as he walked up the road. Likely there would be no work here for him, either. He’d just stay the night then, and continue his travels in the morning. He only needed a few more shiny coins before heading south.

Pedrek was used to the stares he received in small villages like this. He kept his back straight as he marched toward the piers, figuring any inns would be near there.

What Pedrek hadn’t expected was how startled the people seemed, pointing and whispering as he passed. He wondered what a previous member of the raven clan had done to garnish so much attention.

Before Pedrek got to the river, an old grandmother put herself directly in his path. “Have you come for Corin?” she demanded. Though she only came up to Pedrek’s chest, her fierceness matched that of the great mountain cat he’d seen defending her young. “Finally going to take care of your own?”

“For who?” Pedrek asked.

“Figured. Mighty raven warriors,” she said disdainfully. “This way,” she added, walking the direction Pedrek had been going, toward the water.

“What do you mean?” Pedrek asked. Raven warriors were usually treated with fear or drudging respect. Not dismissed by grandmothers with curls arranged by the wind and faces covered in wrinkles.

“This way,” was the only response he received.

Not two blocks away, on the boardwalk of inns and shops that faced the water, the old woman stopped and merely pointed. “There,” she said, spitting once before stomping away.

Mystified, Pedrek walked toward the shop she’d indicated, not seeing the boy until he was much closer.

Most of the raven clans manifested their human side with shock white or silver hair, nearly colorless eyes, and tanned skin. This boy had raven dark hair and eyes. He stood in the shadows, the sun casting wan light on his pale face. He wore the brightest white shirt Pedrek had ever seen.

It wasn’t until the boy moved—Corin, Pedrek assumed—that Pedrek saw what else the shadows had hidden.

Instead of two arms, the boy only had one.

The other was a raven’s wing, black as a nightmare.

Pedrek shivered, but bit his tongue, refusing to name his fear: half-breed.

# # #

“What happened?” Pedrek finally asked after the pair of them had stared at each other for long moments. Maybe people passed them on the boardwalk, but Pedrek didn’t pay attention to them, keeping all his focus on the boy.

Corin looked like he was about to take flight, but he stayed. “Cursed,” he said. He jerked his chin at the cloak Pedrek wore. “Is that what they’re supposed to do? Turn into a cloak you can carry around?”

“No,” Pedrek admitted. It was a popular myth, one that the raven clan didn’t discourage too much, giving the warriors more mystique. “It’s primarily just a cloak.”

The boy seemed disappointed. “So it can’t help me change all the way back?”

Pedrek shook his head. “But maybe I can help.”

Corin scoffed. “Told you I was cursed. I need some kind of magic. Not mere words about listening to my feathered soul.”

“Do you talk with your feathered soul?” Pedrek asked.

“No such thing,” Corin declared, staring at him.

Pedrek blinked, surprised. Corin was old enough—at least seven, he guessed—that the boy should have had contact from his feathered half. “Who cursed you?”

“Old Lowen up in the hills,” the boy said, looking at the ground.

Pedrek was certain the boy lied, but he wasn’t sure about what. “Who taught you about the raven clan?”

“Ma did. She’d known about them.”

“She’s dead?” Pedrek asked, wanting to be clear.

“Yes.” Corin looked up and glared. “Might not have been the same old Lowen, but it had to be something like that. She just—wasted away. As if something ate her from the inside out.”

That time Pedrek knew the boy spoke the truth. “Did she ever make plans for you? Arrangements to go into the guard?”

“No, why would she?”

“It’s tradition,” Pedrek replied. “And you need it—you need the teachings of Raven’s Hall for your raven soul.”

“But I’d have to leave here!” Corin exclaimed.

“Don’t you want to?” Pedrek asked, looking around. The river offered some open air, but there were still too many buildings, too many people. He was already longing for clear skies.

The boy shook his head, puzzled.

Pedrek suddenly was struck by how the boy may have been cursed: The Lowen witch hadn’t stolen his arm, or left him halfway between states. It wasn’t anything as obvious as that.

No, she’d stolen the boy’s raven soul, and left merely a wing in its place.

# # #

Pedrek had been born in a town far to the south and west. His father had been a well-known warrior, lost in a battle just after Pedrek had been born. Mama sold the lamps she and her sisters made out of pottery. Pedrek helped dab designs into the soft clay, his tiny fingers making patterns around the pouring hole. He loved making his own shapes, and if he hadn’t been born so blond and tan, maybe he would have become a potter, too.

On one particular day, when Pedrek was maybe four or five, he’d been playing in the back of the market stall all morning. He was too little to help Mama, but too big to be strapped to her back all day. He’d found a line of ants to play with. He used a stick to divert the line, making them march around the obstacle. Then he got two sticks and tried to make them march down between them, but they kept crawling over the sticks, keeping to their line.

When one crawled over Pedrek’s fingers, he brought it closer so he could see it better. Its antenna waved a lot and it marched across his hand, looking for something to eat, Pedrek assumed.

Pedrek was suddenly hungry as well. He looked at Mama, busy with a temple buyer, haggling over a sack of lamps. Then he looked at the ant.

Something Pedrek had never felt before pushed at him. Do it, it whispered.

Peter flicked out his tongue and easily picked up the ant, swallowing it whole.

More, said that quiet voice.

By the time Mama looked over, Pedrek had eaten a dozen ants or more.

“What are you doing?” Mama squawked, grabbing Pedrek by the arm, lifting him off the ground and shaking him. “You’re not supposed to eat ants!”

Pedrek, ashamed, looked down at his chubby fingers, at the ant bodies crushed between them, a few ants still blazing trails across his palms. He suddenly felt sick to his stomach.

“Ma’am.” A stranger called to them from the stall counter. He was a blond as Pedrek. “Is he raven-get?”

“Oh, lord, yes,” Mama said, brushing the remaining ants from Pedrek’s hands with an edge of her skirt.

“He’s ready for the training,” the man continued.

“He’s—he’s young,” Mama said, kneeling and looking Pedrek in the eye. She pushed the hair off his forehead, then cupped his cheek. Pedrek leaned into the contact, comforted that while Mama was still mad, she didn’t seem to be that angry.

Pedrek wanted Mama to keep looking at him, like he was all she saw, because when she turned away she looked both frightened and sad.

“No younger than I was,” the stranger said. “You must send him to the guard. Before he hurts himself.”

Mama nodded then crushed Pedrek to her, holding him tight. She didn’t let go all the rest of the day, holding his hand or cradling him close. That night, though he had his own pile of blankets, Mama let him crawl up into her big bed.

The next morning, the guard came, and it was a year before Pedrek saw Mama again.

# # #

“Can you help me?” Corin demanded.

Pedrek slowly nodded. “Yes. But we’ll have to go see the old Lowen.”

“Why?” Corin looked wary.

“I think she stole something from you,” Pedrek admitted. “We need to get it back.” He didn’t want to admit exactly what just yet.

“Really?” Corin asked, suspicious and skeptical. “Why would she listen to you when she wouldn’t even talk with anyone else?”

“Did any of them accuse her of stealing something specific of yours?” Pedrek countered.

Corin shook his head. His human hand reached across his chest and he slowly stroked the feathers of his raven arm, thinking.

“Then we will go see her in the morning,” Pedrek announced. “Now—you need to help me. Which inn should I stay at tonight?”

Corin led Pedrek a few blocks off the piers, walking along the high boardwalks to avoid the mud and muck of the street. The buildings were all wood, no brick or stone. The town was prosperous; Pedrek could tell by the number of specialty stores, not just a general mercantile but cloth, leather, and lamp vendors. The buildings were all wood, no brick or stone, with high, steep roofs and murals of folktales painted on the walls.

Pedrek booked a bed for two nights. Brae the innkeeper only charged him for one. “You do well for our Corin there and maybe I’ll drop a few more coins off.”

“Thank you,” Pedrek said, surprised. The room was a dorm with six cots. The wooden floors were clear of mud and the mattress smelled clean. It wasn’t as clean as any room in Raven’s Hall, but Pedrek was used to that now. He dropped his pack and spread the raven cloak over it. Most wouldn’t dare touch his belongs, afraid of spells that didn’t exist. All Pedrek did was smooth his palm over the feathers, leaving some of his raven’s awareness behind. If anyone did bother his things, he’d at least have a clear impression of him, her, or it.

Satisfied, Pedrek went back to the common room. A fireplace dominated the shorter wall, with a working hearth. A pole ran from the floor to the roof of the firebox, arranged with several iron arms that could swing over the fire for cooking, then back into the room for serving. Long tables with benches filled the floor. When he’d been younger, he’d often just slept in the common room of whatever inn he stayed at. Now his older bones appreciated a mattress. A tall bar stood in the other corner, next to the door. Pedrek put in his order for dinner as well as a pint of a local beer before sitting down at the main table.

Pedrek didn’t have to wait long until other patrons started to file in. Loud conversation filled the room and the scents of a spicy fish stew wafted from the hearth. Pedrek primarily listened to his companions, trying to spot ones who would talk with him.

After he’d eaten, he went up to the bar, ordered three pints, then sat down next to the two best candidates. They both thanked him with a grunt, a silent toast, and a long drink.

“Here for Corin?” asked the older man with silver hair. He had a rough, scrubbed face, as if the wind had scoured it and left it ruddy and pale.

“Yes,” Pedrek said. “Was looking to hear any tales of his da.” He knew Corin’s mother had been a local, and knew better than to ask about her, especially since she was dead.

“Not much to tell,” said the other. He was darker, with dirty blond hair and hazel eyes. “He wasn’t here long, two or three weeks maybe.”

“Really?” Pedrek asked, surprised. Most members of the raven clan mated once, and for life. “What happened?”

The men shifted and the quiet grew between them, until the first man spoke again. “Some say Morna’s father ran him off. Others claim it was the old Lowen, the same as cursed the boy.”

“He wasn’t driven off,” Pedrek said with certainty. None of the raven clan would have left his mate behind, no matter how hastily the match had been made. He wondered if it had just been a boy passing through, practicing his mating techniques and not expecting to be answered so quickly.

Pedrek took a deep draught when he had another thought: Had the Lowen stolen that young man’s soul as well? “What can you tell me of the Lowen?”

“She lives up Red Peak, near the pass. Some of the women in town use her as a healer.” Both men took large drinks, as if washing the taste from their mouths.

“Could she have had an earlier incident with Morna?” Pedrek asked finally, hoping the men wouldn’t take it wrong.

“She swore she only went up the once, to confront the Lowen after what happened to Corin. Came back more pale than a three-day frost. Wouldn’t hear of anyone else going back up,” the first man confided, nodding seriously.

The darker man scoffed. “Of course that didn’t stop some fools. Marched up the hill and got lost for days before they made their way back. Men born here,” he emphasized. “Lowen can’t be found if she doesn’t want to be.”

“Think she’ll see me?”

The two men considered the question so long Pedrek feared they wouldn’t actually form an answer. Finally, as one, both men drained their pints and stood.

“Aye. She’ll be curious enough to see you,” said the first.

“Just make sure you see her, too,” said the other. Then the pair of them turned and walked out the inn, leaving Pedrek to ponder their words alone for the rest of the night.

# # #

The first prevailing fact young Pedrek noticed when he came to Raven Hall was the warmth: Each walkway and room had either a fireplace or a stove. Window wells and walls wore blankets so drafts couldn’t get in. Candle stands stood beside each desk in the classroom so no one took a chill.

Pedrek’s raven soul basked in the tropical, sheltering heat. Though the youngest students were frequently seated farthest from the flames, Pedrek never really felt cold.

The next omnipresent fact about the hall was the writing. Every student, no matter what age they entered, learned their letters. Not just to read, but to write as well, diligently marking up clay tablets or using chalk on freshly cleaned slates. Day after day they learned until all in Pedrek’s class could be called literate.

The third fact, which Pedrek never mentioned to another soul even decades after he’d left the hall, were the recitations. They’d started simply enough: Every student had to write down the verse their tutor said, quickly and correctly. When they’d reached a certain accuracy their tutor announced a guest visitor.

Old prefect Aderyn stomped her way to the head of the classroom, leaning heavily on a cane. One eye stared at them, clear as morning skies. The other was merely a hole, empty and scarred with black skin and red veins. She wore a misshapen gown, and it was whispered it hid other deformities.

Aderyn thumped her cane to make sure everyone in the class was paying attention. She announced the recitation and waited a moment while students got ready.

Into the poised still air, Aderyn began a different recitation, one the children had never heard before but would hear many times afterward.

“I will not eat bugs or insects.”

A couple of boys sniggered. Aderyn silenced them with a thump of her cane. “I will not eat bugs or insects,” she repeated.

Pedrek felt nauseous suddenly, but he wrote out all the words.

“I will not eat the dead mice in the yard,” Aderyn recited next.

The older student at the end of the bench shifted nervously in his seat. Pedrek exchanged glances with his friend beside him. They’d both heard the rumor, of course, but none of the younger ones had dared asked what had actually happened.

“I will not eat animals rotting in fields or forests,” Aderyn instructed.

Pedrek wrinkled his nose. He found this one easier than the first two. He’d never do such a thing, he was certain.

“I will not eat the dead.”

The words rang ominously through the hall.

“I will not haunt the battlefield or feast on human flesh.”

Pedrek shivered and tried to write the words down, though his raven soul stirred now, needling him for attention.

“I will not pluck out a corpse’s eyes,” Aderyn announced to the now silent classroom. She stared at them, her one remaining eye unblinking. “Because that corpse might rise up to slaughter me like the half-breed I am.” No one even pretended to keep writing, the words ringing terrible and true.

Half-breed was the worst insult the children could fling at one another. It meant someone who wasn’t fully human or raven and who had their human and raven souls misaligned; half here, half there, and never truly whole.

“I will not suffer the half-breed.”

# # #

The morning brought winds that promised snow before night. The cold made Pedrek draw his cloak tighter across his shoulders as they started up Red Peak. Corin didn’t seem to notice the bite in the air: either he was too used to the cold or too excited. Possibly both.

They followed rutted dirt roads out of town, passing from the boardwalks to the ground, detouring around wide frozen puddles. The lands stayed pretty even as they passed the fall fields, barren but fringed with trees still holding their colors.

Pedrek tried to talk with Corin, but the boy had lost much of his brashness from the day before. As they took their first break from walking steadily up the hill, Pedrek asked, “So what really happened with the Lowen?”

Corin’s scowl returned. “She cursed me. What else do you need to know?”

Pedrek shook his head. “She stole something. And I still don’t know why. Or why your mother didn’t fight harder to get it back.”

“What do you mean?” Corin asked, worried. “She fought. She fought really hard.”

The uncertainty of Corin’s claims echoed around them. “No, she didn’t, and you know why,” Pedrek accused the boy.

Corin pressed his lips together and mulishly raised his chin. After treating Pedrek to a few moments of silent glaring, Corin finally muttered, “Doesn’t matter. You’ll likely find out soon enough.” He refused to say anything more, but marched away, back up the hill.

As they walked further away from the trees crowding the road and back into true hills with craggy rocks, Pedrek longed to take wing. He wanted to float up and see the cliffs from afar. His legs ached from constantly climbing and the silence of the boy chafed him. However, he dared not leave Corin, and he wasn’t sure how the old Lowen would react to his raven form.

Just before midday, the road veered to the right. Corin picked the trail to the left, across the face of the peak. It was clear and flat, a welcome change to the winding road they’d been following.

The trail suddenly ran into a large grove of trees. Pedrek saw a glimmer and stopped Corin with a hand on his arm. “I should go first now,” Pedrek said, drawing Corin behind him. He took a few steps, then realized the boy had stopped. He turned to look.

Corin stood in the center of the trail with his human arm akimbo and his head tilted to the side.

Pedrek’s soul lifted. It was the first birdlike gesture Corin had made.

“Why are you all fluffed up like that?” Corin finally asked, his human hand gesturing toward Pedrek’s cloak.

“There’s some sort of magic there,” Pedrek said, indicating the trees.

“Where?” Corin said, staying where he was but staring hard at the trees.

“You’re young yet,” Pedrek lied. “Too young to see.” Corin’s raven soul should have detected the charm in the trees, though it wouldn’t have been trained to identify it: a simple spell to make the location seem darker and more ominous.

Corin looked a bit more, then shook his head, crestfallen. “Her place is just through there,” he said, indicating the trees.

“Are you frightened of the woods?” Pedrek asked.

“Of course not,” Corin claimed boldly.

“If you think they’re dark while we’re walking through them, you should touch my cloak,” Pedrek told him. It didn’t have a lot of magic, but just enough that might clear the boy’s vision.

Midway through the trees, Pedrek felt cautious fingers along his back.

“This is better,” Corin admitted softly after a few more steps.

Pedrek merely nodded and kept walking.

The trail opened up into a fair meadow. The grass shone summer green, the winter-weighted wind clamed, and the sun shone clear and blue. Conifers circled the meadow, dark prickly guardians. A tiny creek burbled across the center, and on the far side stood a picturesque white cottage.

Charms twinkled here, too. Pedrek recognized the ones to increase the beauty and bring calm, but the others were too advanced for him. He would have little recourse if it came to a battle of magic.

As they walked across a figure exited the cottage and began toward them. Pedrek knew it had to be the Lowen, but she appeared to be a young girl. Given the warnings from the night before, Pedrek stopped and asked his raven soul to help. The squawked reply came so quickly and so loudly it startled him, causing him to shake once from head to toe.

When Pedrek’s vision had cleared, he looked around again. Most of the color had bled out of the day. The charms lost their sparkle, and instead, seemed like dull dolls made out of hair, yarn, and twigs. The woman approaching them now looked stooped and ancient. Pedrek stared at her. She met his gaze from across the meadow and gave him a death’s-head grin.

A tug on his cloak made Pedrek swing around. It was merely Corin though. “Your eyes are black,” Corin exclaimed.

“Yes,” Pedrek replied, the word coming out in a birdlike croak. He cleared his throat and pushed back. He needed his human voice. “Yes,” he said again, stronger this time. “Let’s go meet the Lowen and find out where’s she’s hidden your raven soul.”

The boy looked startled by Pedrek’s declaration, then threw his shoulders back, determined, marching across the field, raising first a human arm, then a raven’s wing, in time with his feet.

Pedrek threw a quick prayer to both Wynne, goddess of the ravens, as well as Tamsin, god of lost causes.

# # #

“I know why you’ve come,” the old Lowen cackled from her side of the creek. “And I’m not changing him back.” She wore a patchwork quilt as a cloak, spells woven into each section. A bright blue wimple captured most of her iron gray hair, but long wisps still hung down beside her face. Her eyes matched the blue of the wimple, as piercing as a summer sky. She leaned heavily on a stout cane, the head gnarled and rubbed smooth with age.

“Why did you take his raven soul?” Pedrek asked, determined to be as polite as he could be. He knew he could still escape if it grew nasty, but he’d never get the boy away unharmed.

“So those eyes see more than just worms,” the old woman muttered. “He didn’t know how to control it,” she accused, indicating Corin with her chin. “Came up here and caused mischief most every day. Wouldn’t stay away.”

“He was just a boy, not even a teen,” Pedrek pointed out reasonably. “No one had trained him yet.”

“Because you always care for your own, right?” the Lowen said, pointing her cane at Pedrek. “None of you even knew he was here.”

“If his father had lived until he’d been born, we would have known. And someone would have come,” Pedrek insisted.

“‘Twasn’t me who shot the fool,” the Lowen growled. “Idiot hunters from the other side of the pass had done it for sport, then come running to me when the bird turned into a man on the ground.”

“Why didn’t you say anything to his wife?” Pedrek demanded.

“Weren’t married now, were they?” the woman asked slyly. “They’d just been playing house. Didn’t know about it for years, until his young’un come to pester me.”

“He needs to be whole,” Pedrek insisted.

“Not gonna give it back,” the Lowen said, crossing her arms across her chest and staring hard at him.

“Why not?” Pedrek asked into the growing stillness on the hill. Even the bird song from the nearby trees had died. “What happened? What did he do?”

“He won’t tell you?” the Lowen asked.

Pedrek shook his head.

Corin turned his back on both of them.

“Got hungry while him and his friends were playing, didn’t he? Had a knight here, proper warrior of the king. Had done what I could to save him, but he’d been brought to me too late.”

Pedrek had to swallow hard against the sudden dryness in his throat. “Go on,” he directed her, though he didn’t want to hear the rest.

“This one and his two friends decided to snack on the body. By the time I came back the other two had snagged his eyeballs, and this one, his tongue.”

Pedrek held himself very still, reminding himself that Corin hadn’t been taught his letters or his recitations, hadn’t been schooled about his raven soul, didn’t know how to placate it.

Corin wasn’t a half-breed.

“Now, I don’t blame critters for doing what they’re born to do, but he knew better,” the Lowen finished, pointing at Corin.

“I did not!” Corin said hotly, turning around. “I thought it was fine when I was a raven!”

“He was never trained,” Pedrek said. “His human soul knew better, but couldn’t share that.”

The old Lowen shook her head. “He knew. He sat and laughed at me, daring me to do something after I chased his friends away.”

“He didn’t know,” Pedrek maintained, unsure if he spoke the truth. It was possibly Corin’s raven soul had known, but just not cared.

# # #

The first time Pedrek saw battle, neither his human or raven soul rejoiced. There was too much fear, too much nervous exhilaration, too much boredom, and then, finally, too much dirt and blood. It was impossible to know who’d won the first skirmish. After the violent clash both sides were allowed to treat their wounded and carry away their dead.

Everyone had looked strangely at Pedrek when he’d volunteered to help clear the field. He’d been paired with an older man named Reece, who had bright cooper curls and white skin covered in freckles. They carried corpses between them on a stretcher, stacked two and three high.

“He working all right?” people asked every time they came back with a full load. To which Reece always cheerfully replied that he’d only thrown up once, which was kind, because Pedrek had had to stop more than once to settle his stomach.

“Why do they keep asking that?” Pedrek said after the third time.

“Your kind tend to stay away after the fighting,” Reece told him with a grin. “Seeing the state of your stomach, I can see why.”

Pedrek nodded, not bothering to tell Reece the truth. The recitations had been drilled into him, into every person in the raven clan. He didn’t fear breaking those laws: his human and raven selves were better aligned than that. The reason he’d volunteered was because he’d still had to know what it felt like to be so close to the newly dead. His raven soul had awakened hungry, but Pedrek had soothed it with visions of clear skies, promising a good long flight the next day, as well as digging out the shiny glass beads hidden at the bottom of his pack and keeping those under his pillow that night.

As the night grew longer and fewer men moved about the field, scavengers came. Reece and Pedrek worked as quickly as they could, but they were always shooing them away.

More than once Pedrek recognized the birds.

The next day Pedrek went to the chief of his line. “I volunteered last night to help clear the dead.”

“I heard. Good man,” the chief exclaimed. Then he paused. “Ah. You’re curious about the ones who visited the dead not in human form.”

Pedrek nodded, angry and afraid.

“You’ll see. We always take care of our own, son.”

Before the last battle, Pedrek noticed that only one of those who’d eaten the dead were still alive. He didn’t know if it was fate or the chief’s hand directing the others into the heat of battle. Pedrek searched out the one who remained, finding him looking out over the field as if he were already dead. “Why did you do it? Break the recitation?” Pedrek hissed at him quietly.

The man shrugged and looked at him with all black eyes. “Don’t care,” he squawked.

A welcoming nod came from Pedrek’s own raven’s soul. It didn’t care, either. However, it let itself be consoled with smaller things because it did care for Pedrek in its own, small way.

# # #

“The boy is my responsibility now,” Pedrek told the Lowen. The beautiful summer day had grown cold and clouds now covered the once-clear sky. Wind coursed through the trees surrounding them, tossing the heads of the pines.

The old Lowen’s eyes grew crafty. “You’ll take him with you?”

“I will,” Pedrek vowed. “I swear by my raven’s soul.”

“So you do take care of your own.”

“You’d take me with you?” Corin asked.

“To Raven’s Hall. You must be trained,” Pedrek said, intending to get the boy the help he needed. Belatedly, he remembered Corin only had a single soul. “You might be able to come back later.”

“I don’t want to leave,” Corin said. “But if she gives me my raven’s soul again, I can learn to be a warrior like you?”

The Lowen snorted, but Pedrek nodded solemnly. “Yes, most of the raven clan earn their keep, hiring out as warriors for a while.”

“Then yes, I’ll go with you,” Corin said. He finally turned and addressed the old Lowen. “Please.”

“Ah, didn’t think you knew that word,” she said. She lifted one side of her quilt, reached into a deep pocket and pulled out a raven-black egg. A golden web of strings bound it tightly. “Here,” she said, tossing it to the boy. “Swallow it.”

Corin glanced wide-eyed at Pedrek, who nodded. He suspected the Lowen wouldn’t hurt the boy now that Pedrek had promised to take him away. The boy was now his responsibility, and the raven clan did take care of their own.

“Do as she says,” Pedrek told Corin as he continued to hesitate.

With one last shudder, Corin closed his eyes, opened his mouth, and shoved the egg inside.

The egg collapsed as soon as it touched his tongue, flowing dark and pure out of the eggshell, down Corin’s throat as well as out of his mouth. It dribbled down his chin and across his shoulder to the one raven’s wing. The droplets sucked the darkness into themselves as they rolled down, leaving a pale boy’s arm behind.

Corin’s hair also grew pale, and when he opened his eyes, they’d changed to the color of morning mist. After his raven’s soul had settled, only a shock of black hair remained, dripping over Corin’s eyes.

“Thank you,” Pedrek told the old Lowen, heartfelt and warm. It was good to see the boy whole.

Corin lifted first one arm then the other, staring at all ten fingers.

“Don’t be thanking me yet,” the Lowen cackled. A cloud quickly gathered around her. The next moment, she was gone.

“Where did she go?” Corin asked, looking around, seeming frightened.

“Away,” Pedrek assured him.

“I’m glad you chased her away,” the boy told him before taking a running leap into the air and changing into his raven form, leaving his clothes behind.

“I didn’t chase her anywhere,” Pedrek muttered. “And I’m not chasing you, either,” he added after he picked up the clothes and began walking back to the trees.

By the time Pedrek had reached the road, Corin had joined him in human form. The natural grace of the raven clan had returned and Corin walked light on his feet. After he dressed, he still shivered. Pedrek had him walk beside him so they could share the warmth of his cloak.

Before they reached the town, Corin had started listing every sight in the kingdom that he just had to see.

“Won’t you miss here?” Pedrek asked softly.

Corin looked up toward the darkening sky. “I—we—don’t belong here.”

“Then let’s go tomorrow,” Pedrek replied, getting a bright smile in return.

That night, under not just piles of blankets but his cloak as well, Pedrek slept deeply, dreaming of open blue skies and easy meat.

# # #

They left town quickly, both of them anxious to get on the road. More than one of the locals shook Pedrek’s hand as a thank-you for taking care of their Corin.

Corin promised to visit when he could, though Pedrek made certain that he made no such vows. He knew Corin meant well, and maybe he’d fulfill them.

Pedrek remembered how awkward it was every time he’d visited Mama after he’d gone into the guard. How little she knew of the world while the ravens shared news from all the different kingdoms, even those across the sea. Their old house was so cold compared to Raven’s Hall, and dirty as well. Growing up he’d never been aware of how many bugs shared their quarters; after the recitations, he couldn’t think of anything else.

Their packs were fully loaded with dried meat, bread, and cheese, their flasks were full when they started their journey. As they walked, Pedrek encouraged Corin to regain his raven form, fly, and save his feet. Pedrek even carried Corin sometimes, a squawking bird on his shoulder or nestled under his cloak.

Every night, by the light of the fire, Pedrek made Corin draw letters in the soft dirt. He knew he had to rush things for Corin, so he also started with the simplest of the recitations as well. He could never be as impressive as Aderyn, but he did his best to impress Corin how important it was to not eat human flesh. He made the boy repeat the lessons until he’d memorized every line. As a reward, he answered Corin’s questions about being a warrior, cleaning up some of his battle stories. There were a few that had been more exciting than terrifying.

As they reached the rolling hills that spread out into the flatlands, the wind carried the scent of lime, decay, and dark spells.

When Corin asked about it, Pedrek didn’t think to lie. “It’s the smell of battle. At least a few days old.”

“Can we go? Can we see? I’ve never seen a battle before.”

“All right,” Pedrek said, pushing down on his anxiety, telling himself that it was merely the thrill of the battle, not the lure of the corpses that was drawing Corin.

On the far side of a scorched field, workers still buried the dead in a long trench. Healing tents sat not too far off, with only a few soldiers remaining behind. Pedrek hadn’t been asking the local birds for the news; he vowed to do so in the morning, see if there were roads or lands ahead that weren’t safe for him and a boy.

That night, the sound of wings woke Pedrek. Corin had changed form and gone.

It was easy enough for Pedrek to get to the battlefield quicker than Corin, a touch of magic aiding his flight. He waited in human form for Corin to arrive, hoping he’d been wrong. He had to breathe out harshly as the raven delightedly tore into the waiting flesh, playing with entrails and flapping skin.

When Pedrek could finally control himself, after he’d quieted his raven’s soul enough, he stepped into the opening. “Come here, Corin,” he called softly.

The boy was still young. He didn’t recognize the glimmer in Pedrek’s hand as the enticing magic it was. He hopped his way over to Pedrek, then looked at him, tilting his head one way, then the other.

Pedrek kept his movements steady and gentle, bending down to give the bird a lift up, stroking its body tenderly, whispering to it, “It’s all right. It’s all right.”

Before he suddenly snapped the raven’s neck.

The next morning another grave had joined the others on the battlefield, and Pedrek continued his journey by himself.

The raven clan always took care of their own.

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Free Fiction Monday — The Third Raven — 5 Comments

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