A Raven's Request
A Raven's Request
A Raven's Request
Nika I, the
A Raven's Request
by M.A. Dosser
A Raven's Request
by M.A. Dosser
One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Paloop.
“Darn it,” Sophie said with a sigh. “Nine again.” The ripples extended from each spot the skipping stone had touched. Ridge after ridge of sun-kissed blue collided, until all were consumed by the small waves made by the splash.
Sophie sat down in the soft loam near the lake’s edge. She kicked off her shoes and cuffed her mud-caked pants so she could dip her feet in the water. The sunlight bouncing off her already graying hair made the remaining red strands glow like embers in a dying fire. Had more strands turned since yesterday? It looked like it. Her soft blue tunic was loose fitting and undone slightly farther than her father would approve of. But she was on her peninsula. No one would see her here.
To even find her, a person would have to travel miles through the forest that stretched behind her family’s farm. Weaving through the fallen oaks, skirting ponds, and bypassing not one, but two lake inlets before coming to her spot. How she found the peninsula was mere luck.
Though, calling it a peninsula might be misleading. It was just a small bit of land—roughly the area of a barn door—that stuck out into the water. The only reason it hadn’t washed away over the centuries had to be the old maple. It was as tall a tree as Sophie had ever seen, and wide enough around that it would take three Sophies to hug it properly. And she had tried. The old maple’s roots kept the peninsula in place, and the broad, green leaves sprouting from the many branches kept Sophie shaded from the hot sun.
The whole idea of running through the forest and finding a secret spot reminded Sophie of her favorite novels. It didn’t seem real. It felt magical. And Sophie reasoned that if she was in a magical place that no one else knew about, she could wear her tunic however she pleased. Also, that she could skip a stone into the double digits. That, however, proved more difficult than the unbuttoning. No matter how hard she tried, she could never make it past nine.
Willing herself to toss again, Sophie reached over and grabbed a stone from a pile she had made. The stones ranged from flat to slightly less flat. She had gathered them from all over, bringing them here with the intention of skipping one across the lake onto Lord Meron’s land. Though she would settle for ten skips at this point.
She stared at the stone in her hand, shook her head, and muttered, “Not yet.” Placing it beside the pile, she stood and grabbed another one. It fit almost perfectly between her thumb and middle finger. Keeping her back straight, she angled her body askew to the shore. She inhaled deeply, exhaled, then with a flick of the wrist as quick as a viper strike, threw.
One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Paloop.
Sophie threw her hands up and let out a frustrated grunt.
“That was impressive,” said a low, croaking voice. Faster than a thrown stone, Sophie snapped around. Standing behind her was a knight. His armor was a deep black, as if crafted from obsidian. Claws extended from the end of his gauntlets. In one hand, he held a helm decorated with metal feathers that protruded out the back. His shining hair, as dark as his armor, hung past his ears and framed his slender face. His features were sharp and should have seemed terse, but his smile softened them. He had a narrow mouth, and above it hung a long and broad nose. It was so long, Sophie started to glance back at the helm, as it appeared too tight to accommodate such a face, but she was distracted by his eyes. They were a deep brown. So deep it was hard to tell where the irises ended and the pupils began.
“Throwing the stone, I mean,” the knight continued.
“How did you get here?” Sophie asked, more accusatory than she meant. Then she remembered her station as a farmer’s daughter, and added, “Sir.” She curtsied, then feeling the breeze on her exposed chest, pulled her tunic together with both hands.
The knight didn’t appear to notice. Pointing behind him, he said, “Just through there.” Off Sophie’s unsatisfied expression, he continued, “I heard splashing and ladylike grunts and shouts. I thought you might need help, though I seem to be mistaken.”
Sophie didn’t say anything. The knight’s explanation answered part of her question, but only in the way “food” answered the question “What do you want for dinner?” Based on the knight’s smile, he knew it too.
He limped over to the pile and picked up a stone. Examining it, he asked, “Why did you put this one back?”
“What happened to your leg?” Sophie asked without thinking.
“Oh, just a squabble. It will heal in time.” While his voice sounded relaxed, his body tensed. “So, this stone?”
“That one’s special.” It looked like an ordinary stone, but for Sophie, it was perfect. It fit in her palm as if it had been crafted with her hand in mind, it was neither too smooth nor too rough, and she found it the same day she found the peninsula. It was fate. One day, it would be the stone she skipped to the other bank. She just knew it. “I can’t use it until I know I can make it to ten.”
Sophie reddened and clutched her shirt tighter. “Ten skips.”
The knight, to Sophie’s surprise, didn’t laugh. He nodded as if it was an admirable goal. Rather than shifting his eyes from the stone to Sophie’s face, his entire head jerked so he could stare directly at her. “I’ve never skipped a stone before. Is it hard?”
Sophie started to answer, then stopped. “Wait. How did you know I put that particular one down? Were you watching me?”
Rather than a flustered response or an attempted cover, he said, “I may have been in the woods longer than I implied, but I just couldn’t look away.”
It felt like she stepped in front of a furnace. New blood rushed to her cheeks with such alacrity, she was afraid there wouldn’t be any left in her legs to keep her upright. Men didn’t look at her like that. No one looked at her like that. She was a farmer’s daughter in her thirties, unmarried, and with hair already gray. The most loving look she received was from her mother’s old hound Jarl when she fed him the wrongly sliced parts of tenderloins. And, besides, no one actually said things like that—only in stories and plays—but his eyes seemed so sincere.
“Oh,” was all Sophie could manage.
After a moment, he said, “My name’s Raan.”
“Nice to meet you, Sir Raan,” Sophie said with another curtsy. “I’m Sophie.”
Raan nodded, maintaining eye contact. The gaze lasted for what felt like hours, though the sound of the geese honking meant it was still midday. Raan broke the moment when he eyed the stone and asked, “Could you teach me?”
Sheepishly agreeing, Sophie walked over to the stone pile. She picked up two, making sure to tuck her special stone out of sight. Handing one to Raan, she said, “You’ve got to grip it between your thumb and middle finger. Yes, like that. Though it may be easier if you take off your gauntlets.”
Raan removed the claws to reveal strong hands. A smile split his face as he flexed and clenched his fingers, and Sophie wondered when was the last time he had been out of that armor.
She continued, “Okay, now, and this is important, you’ve got to turn your body so you’re not facing straight at the lake.” She got into position, and Raan mirrored her. “Then snap your wrist and release.”
When Sophie did this, the stone hit the water seven times before the angle altered, it arced too high, and splash.
For Raan, the splash came instantly.
Sophie laughed then covered her mouth, afraid she would offend him.
With another jerk of the head, he turned to her and said, “I may need more lessons.”
His expression made Sophie want to laugh even more. “No, no. You had great form. It’s just more about speed than strength.” Sophie picked up two more stones. “If you throw it too hard, well.” Rearing back, Sophie hefted the smooth rock and produced a noisy splash. “But if you throw it fast.” Taking the other, Sophie flicked her wrist and the stone flew across the lake, sending out eight ripples before plopping into the water.
“Remarkable,” Raan said. “I’ve never seen a stone fly before.”
“It’s nothing,” Sophie replied, hoping the modesty would tame the redness flooding her face. It didn’t. “I have a lot of time to practice.”
“Would you mind if I practiced with you?”
Sophie, ecstatic, agreed, and the two spent the next few hours skipping stones. The hours were mostly filled with sounds of splashing, the occasional honk or quack, and Sophie’s instruction, but they also found time to talk. Well, Sophie did. Raan mainly responded with looks and nods, but Sophie knew that he was truly listening to what she was saying. It was evidenced by his performance. By sunset, Raan had managed four skips.
Sunset. Sophie, who felt as if she hadn’t laughed so much since her father took her into the town of Piekes to see a performance of The Prejudice of Boars, gasped and darted around to find where she had kicked her shoes.
“What’s wrong?” Raan asked, jerking his head from the latest splash to the scurrying Sophie.
“I need to get home. I didn’t realize how late it was.” She stopped and regarded him. She didn’t want to leave quite yet.
“Come back tomorrow. Please.”
A grin broke across her face so wide her cheeks burned. “Of course!”
“I can’t in the morning. I have to help my father, but I’ll come back as soon as I finish.”
Sophie, as giddy as could be, ran through the forest, only pausing to avoid the holes and thorned branches along the way. By the time she arrived at the little home she shared with her parents, they had already gone to bed. It wasn’t the first time she had been out at her peninsula past dark.
Despite her parents being asleep, Sophie didn’t open the front door quietly. Bursting through the green-trimmed entryway, she danced across the wooden floors. She traipsed to the right and scratched Jarl behind his ears, releasing some of the natural aroma all old dogs possess. Then she spun in circles over to the window and let out a longing sigh as she stared at the forest separating her and Raan. Other than the pain from tweaking her back while trying to spin like one of the dancers from Piekes, she felt younger than she had in years.
Crossing the sheepskin rug, she went into her small bedroom. Her father had left a candle burning beside her tiny twin bed. A lopsided stack of books rested on the handmade table to her right—her entire library. Their covers were worn and cracked from being read over and over. Sophie didn’t touch them that night though. She wanted to go to sleep as soon as possible, so she could reunite with Raan. But sleep wouldn’t come. She laid awake for close to an hour before dreams overtook her. Dreams of skipping a stone to the other side of the lake, where Raan stood. Dreams where he grabbed it and skipped it all the way back to her.
* * *
The next morning, Sophie awoke before the sun was more than a pink bloom on the horizon. She rushed out the front door and over to the barn house. That day, she was responsible for hauling water from the well, mucking the stables, feeding the pigs and chickens, and milking Beattie, the family imlad. Sophie still didn’t know why her family had an imlad, as the yak-like bovines were rarely seen south of Mount Melda, but Beattie was a part of the family. She was also the most cantankerous animal Sophie had ever encountered.
Normally, Sophie would carry one bucket of water at a time, but she wanted to finish as swiftly as possible. She grabbed one of the many wooden shafts strewn about what she called the lumber shack. Hoisting the shaft over her shoulders, she carried four buckets at a time to and from the well. She knew she would be sore later—she was sore now and her back hadn’t completely forgiven her for her frivolity from the night before—but in a fraction of the time it usually took, she hauled enough water to last for days. She proceeded through the next tasks just as efficiently.
Her father was only just pulling on his pants when she finished feeding the chickens. From the front door he asked, “Something on fire or are you just hurrying for the sake of hurrying? I haven’t seen you move this quick since ... Hmm. I’m not sure I ever have.”
Sophie smiled at her red-faced father, who had decided that that morning was a good one to leave his pants unfastened. He tried to hide the gap with his belt, but it didn’t fool her. It never did. Her father was tall and covered in coarse, curly orange hair. Much to Sophie’s chagrin, he had far less gray hair than she did. And he was right. Sophie hadn’t worked this hard in years. But Raan made her feel like she was a teenager who could work all day then stay up too late writing romance novels in the candlelight. Like she hadn’t passed the prime marrying age. Like there was a chance she had finally found someone.
“I’ve got places to be, Father! Things to do!”
“And stones to skip, I’m sure.” Her father barked with a laugh. Sophie shot him a joking scowl, then scurried over to the barn where Beattie was sleeping.
It wasn’t until she was midway through milking the shaggy-coated imlad that she wondered why she was in a hurry. What if Raan wasn’t there when she arrived? Or what if he didn’t come at all? Had it been a dream? The thoughts caused her to pull a bit too hard on Beattie’s violet udder, and the imlad stomped her white hooves and craned her neck to glower at her torturer.
Sophie let out a regretful oof and patted Beattie on her black furry stomach. Apologizing and promising not to let it happen again, she almost immediately drifted into another swirl of thoughts. It had to have been real, because otherwise what had she done all day? Skip stones alone? Okay, that wasn’t unrealistic or even uncommon, but he had to be real. He would be there. As soon as she was finished with Beattie she would put on her best bonnet and run to the peninsula. Maybe she should bring a book just in case. She wouldn’t need it, but it would be a nice conversation piece. “Have you read this novel, Raan? It’s simply marvelous.” Then they would laugh about the villainous Count Larkyn failing time and time again to unmask Sera for the commoner she was. Maybe he would have insights to themes she never even thought about, with his knightly sophistication and all.
By this time, the bucket of milk was nearly filled to the brim. Sophie released Beattie’s udders, and Beattie let out a groan that mainly signaled relief but carried some undertones Sophie chose to ignore.
Sophie hefted the bucket inside and set it down beside her mother. The thick brown dressing gown her mother wore looked as if it had been sheared off a bear, and she was still rubbing the sleep out of her eyes.
Before her mother could ask, “Already done?” Sophie had run into and out of her room, then out of the house.
* * *
Ducking and weaving through the tree branches and spider webs, Sophie made it to her spot in record time. On the way, she had prepared herself to be disappointed. To wait all day and have no one come. She didn’t allow herself to hope he would be standing there waiting for her, which made it all the sweeter when he was.
Raan stood beside her pile of stones, smiling widely at her. The morning sunlight gleamed off his armor, and his black hair hung behind his ears. Everything was exactly as she had pictured. “Hello,” he said.
“Hi,” Sophie said, holding back tears of joy. It was real.
They spent the day much as they had before, skipping stones, listening to the fish leap, smelling the tree’s autumn fragrance. Raan was getting better at skipping. He had made it to five skips—though he claimed five and a half—in just two days. It took Sophie weeks to make it that far. His aim, however, still wasn’t the best. Sometimes his toss would go completely sideways. Other times he managed to toss it backwards, as if he didn’t know how to use his arms. Sophie found it adorable. One time, it slipped and skipped diagonally into some reeds. After a trumpeting of unhappy quacks, the flapping of wings heralded two mallards as they flew from their hiding place.
Sophie watched the majesty of their flight in awe. She asked, “Do you ever wish you could fly?”
Raan didn’t respond immediately. His face was contorted into a sorrowful expression. “They fly wherever they want to go, but does anywhere truly want them? When the winter comes where will they sleep? What will they eat? I would trade a warm bed for the consequences of their freedom any day.”
The pain in his voice surprised Sophie. When Raan’s head jerked towards her, his features brightened. “But that’s just the practical side of things. Flying is a true joy. If I could fly like I am, I would never walk again.”
Sophie laughed, letting the confusion and tension fade. “I’d be afraid I would get too high and fall. Some birds must make the clouds jealous.”
“Most certainly,” Raan said with a mischievous grin that made Sophie’s knees wobble more obviously than she would have liked. “That’s why it rains. Clouds are notoriously pouty.” Sophie laughed again as the ducks flew higher and higher. A loose feather floated down towards them. “Though, of course, it takes a lot of work to get that high,” Raan continued. “Most birds wait until they can find a warm draft to challenge the clouds.”
“You know so much!” Sophie said too excitedly. Here was the perfect segue for the moment she had been waiting for since milking Beattie. “You remind me of a character in this book.” With a flourish, Sophie pulled her worn copy of A Father’s Folly from beside the old maple. The faded blue cover was cracked, but the gold embossed title was still visible.
“I’ve never heard of that one,” Raan said before Sophie could ask her question. Her spirit fell. A man like Raan wouldn’t read drivel like this. It was ridiculous to think he would.
“Is it good?” He asked.
“Oh, I mean, it’s just a story about a girl who masquerades as a noblewoman in order to save her father’s shop. It’s silly, really.”
“Do you like it?”
With a blush, “Well, yes. I do.”
“Would you read some of it to me?” Raan asked. Sophie started to protest, but he interrupted, “Your voice is beautiful.” Blushing harder, Sophie agreed and sat by the base of the tree. Raan stood beside her, putting all his weight on his good leg. He was close enough that she could almost feel the heat radiating from inside his armor. At least, she chose to believe that’s what she was feeling and not just the sun rising as the morning turned to afternoon.
Sophie read to him until the sun set. She stopped a few times when the novel seemed to veer into too romantic of territory, but Raan urged her onward.
When Sophie stood up, Raan asked, “Will you come back tomorrow?” With a huge smile, Sophie agreed.
* * *
The next two days were much the same. She would wake each morning feeling sorer than she could ever remember being, ignore the pain, finish her chores, then rush to see Raan. They skipped stones, she read to him, and they shared more about themselves. She thought about asking if he served in Lord Meron’s army or if he was a knight errant. She didn’t recognize his armor. But she was afraid the mere mention of it would remind him he had to business to attend to and he would leave. She wasn’t ready for that. Things were going too well to end now. Besides, Raan rarely touched on his past other than to say he had many siblings. Twice, Sophie asked about his leg, and each time, he dismissed it. Despite Raan’s reticence, her knowledge of who he was grew each day.
On their fourth night, Sophie capered home humming a melody with no particular meter. Outside, her mother scrubbed wooden pails. Her mother truly was beautiful. When the light hit her eyes, they seemed to shine whatever color her mother fancied. Her blonde hair had begun to turn white instead of gray. In the moonlight, her hair looked as if the sun had started its morning climb, but the stars weren’t ready to fade away just yet. The sight made Sophie painfully aware how much she took after her father.
“What are you doing awake, Mama?” Sophie asked cheerfully.
“Just getting ready for the morning.”
Sophie started to ask what was special about tomorrow when she remembered: it was Slaughter Day. Once every year they gathered the meat from the pigs. The money they made from selling the pork and tenderloins in Piekes, along with the chicken eggs and Beattie’s milk, helped them make it through the winter months.
“Oh. Oh no,” Sophie said without meaning to. “I can’t help this year. I have to-”
“Help your father with the pigs,” her mother finished.
Sophie started to protest but stopped herself. Acting like an adolescent over Raan had gone to her head. The stiffness in her father’s hands had grown worse year after year. It was part of the reason she still lived with her parents. After an incident two years ago where he cut himself so deeply they nearly ran out of thread, she thought she always would. Sophie had promised her father she would be there to help. Her mother couldn’t, so she would.
“He needs you.”
“I know,” Sophie said. Her mother nodded and continued cleaning, angled so she kept her back to the pen. Her mother hated Slaughter Day. She would stay in bed, covering her ears so she couldn’t hear anything. Not that it would have been possible over her own sobbing.
Sophie squeezed her mother’s shoulder, kissed her on the cheek, and went to bed.
* * *
The slaughter took all morning and part of the afternoon. Her mother mixed poppy in with the feed the night before, as she thought it more humane if the pigs went to sleep and never woke up. Her father said it tainted the meat, but he didn’t stop her. He would never admit it, but if they made enough money selling eggs and Beattie’s milk to last through the year, he would give up the pigs altogether.
By early afternoon, Sophie was getting anxious. She was ready to leave. She had finished the hard part alone, then she helped her father butcher the meat. All that was left was to transfer half the meat to the smoker. The rest would air dry in long term storage. Normally, moving the meats took a few hours, but not that day. Sophie was determined, and while her new technique for hauling water left her muscles perpetually angry with her, they were also much stronger. Within an hour, she was rushing through the forest.
When she finally made it to her peninsula, Raan was pacing back and forth. His limp more pronounced than ever. Upon her approach, he turned. “I was afraid you weren’t going t-.” He stopped as his eyes drifted down her front.
Self-conscious, Sophie looked down and realized in her haste, she had forgotten to wash herself off. Dried blood coated her arms in a pale brown. Reflexively, she wrapped her arms around herself, but it only made the blood more prominent.
“But you couldn’t ha-. No. What happened?”
“I’m so embarrassed,” Sophie rushed past Raan and dipped her arms in the cool, clear water. Her reflection was ghastly. The blood wasn’t just on her arms, but on her face and clothes as well. She always brushed her hair in the mornings and before bed, but now it was wild and unkempt, like a burning briar bush coated with ash. No wonder Raan was shocked.
Scrubbing, she glanced back and said, “I’m so sorry.”
Raan continued to gape at her. He opened his mouth then closed it again, as if there was something he wanted to ask but couldn’t put into words. After a pause that felt like it lasted forever, he said, “I didn’t realize the slaughter was today.”
“Neither did I until last night.” Sophie turned around. “How did you know about Slaughter Day?”
“You must have told me about it.”
“I can’t imagine I would bring up killing pigs to the man I fan-” Her face flushed a deep shade of red. “To the only man who has ever skipped a stone as well as me. Well, almost.” She turned away and scrubbed more vigorously. Maybe she had mentioned the pigs. She remembered bringing up the lumber shack, Beattie, Jarl, how no matter how thoroughly the stables were cleaned they were dirty again the next day, and almost falling in a well as a child, but she couldn’t remember bringing up the pigs. She didn’t feel like pig slaughtering and Count Larkyn’s wife attempting to seduce Sera while she was in disguise would have fit in the same conversation, but she must have.
Glancing behind her, Raan’s handsome face was taut with worry. She needed to lighten the mood. Standing up with her arms mostly clean, she said, “If you thought that was bad, you should be glad you don’t have to see me after I milk Beattie.”
Raan let loose a peal of laughter unlike anything Sophie had ever heard. It was deep, gurgling, and came out in distinctive syllables of Ha Ha Ha. It almost sounded fake. Sophie started laughing as well, which only made Raan laugh harder. Raan laughed so much that he tottered and grabbed onto Sophie’s shoulder to steady himself.
Instantly, they both stopped. It was the first time they had touched. The electricity crackled through his strong hand into her shoulder, up her neck, then down her spine. It was almost too much, while simultaneously not nearly enough. Sophie never wanted it to end, but Raan eventually moved. She would have been disappointed, but a faint blush rose in his cheeks, which made her do the same, though much more obviously.
They passed the remainder of the afternoon the usual way: steadily depleting Sophie’s stone pile, reading about Sera’s triumphs in the King’s Court, and chatting. That afternoon, Sophie felt as if Raan stood closer to her. As the sun set, Raan said, “I know it may be improper, but...”
Sophie somehow managed to very cooly say, “But?”
“Well, I would very much like to kiss you, Sophie.”
Sophie wanted to say, And I would very much like for you, Sir Raan, to do just that, but all that came out was a little squeak.
Raan waited expectantly, and Sophie realized he needed some kind of confirmation. A true gentleman. She nodded her head, and the 32-year-old Sophie received the most magical first kiss just as the stars began to shine.
* * *
The next morning passed by without Sophie noticing. She was still in a stupor from the night before. Her mother and father may have spoken to her and the mud Beattie kicked may have been intentionally aimed, but Sophie didn’t care. She just wanted to get back to Raan. They were almost done reading A Father’s Folly, but Sophie hoped she and Raan would be too distracted with other activities to finish it that day.
After breezing through the rest of her work and nearly floating through the woods, Sophie arrived at her peninsula. Raan started toward her, but two steps in, he stumbled. Sophie reached to catch him, but it was too late. Raan hit the ground, face first and hard, then he was still.
Rushing to his side, Sophie asked, “Raan? Raan! Are you all right?”
The reply was muffled, so Sophie gingerly rolled him over. He was lighter than she expected. When she touched his left leg, Raan cringed and reached to grab it.
“Your leg!” Sophie cried. “I should have brought you medicine or fetched a physician. I’m sorry.”
Raan waved her concern away, then stared at her deeply, his nearly black eyes piercing her heart. “Sophie. I have to ask you something.”
“Ask me anything.”
“Do you care for me?”
Sophie sat back in surprise. What? She felt she had been fawning over him for the past week. Was she more enigmatic than she thought? “Of course I do!”
“No, I mean do you truly care for me?”
“Raan, I love you!” Sophie nearly shouted. Saying it out loud left Sophie lightheaded.
Raan’s lips twitched, but his eyes remained intense. “And would you, no matter what?”
Raan’s gaze softened, and he placed his hand on top of Sophie’s. “I need to tell you something. I haven’t been completely honest.”
Sophie tilted her head but said nothing as he unhooked the greave from his left leg. The putrid stench of rotting flesh struck Sophie. His knee was muscled but largely ordinary. As the knee became shin and calf, however, his leg transitioned to a thin, pale black. Rather than skin, it was covered in dark, flaky scales. If there was any meat on it, it wouldn’t have satisfied even the smallest of dogs. Across the shin were three bloody streaks, as if from a bear attack. Below the streaks, a splint wrapped with bloodied cloth held together a broken ankle. The wounds were purple on his dark leg.
Too many thoughts ran through Sophie’s mind. She needed to clean the wounds, needed to find a physician to resplint his ankle, needed to fashion a crutch, needed to know why his leg looked like that. She needed to do so many things, but most of all, she needed Raan.
Not knowing what to ask first, she remembered his first comment about his leg and asked, “Were you lying about the squabble?”
“No, that was true. This came from a quarrel with my siblings.” Raan said, indicating his leg. He took a steadying breath then continued, “You see, I’m what they call a Valvra. I was a raven before. I guess I still am. Somewhat, at least. I only changed a week ago.
“You see, some ravens are different. We’re smarter than you give us credit for. We watch. We learn. We desire. And my family desired to truly live. Among the humans, because you have everything. You have places to sleep, you always have food to eat, you can go anywhere provided you have a horse or a strong will.
“One night my mother gathered us together, and she told us of a raven who became a human knight. The knight served as a guard for a Count. When the Count discovered what the knight truly was, he wasn’t angry. No, he was pleased. He created an entire army of Valvra and always wanted more. My mother told us it was a simple process, really. Provided you were lucky. All one needed to do was eat the heart of a child.”
Sophie gasped and started back, but Raan rushed on, “No! It’s not what it seems. You see, well, my siblings and I found a child who had been left for dead. She was dead in fact, and recently, so the heart was fresh. Carrion eat corpses, so we assumed it was safe. My brothers and sisters pecked at the body, trying to uncover its heart, but I was the one to take it. That didn’t please anyone.
“The legend said one had to consume the entire heart, so we couldn’t share. With the heart hanging from my beak, they attacked. Terrified, I screamed, and it fell to the ground, so they turned on each other. Familial love was nothing when humanity was on the line. Eventually, I clawed my way through and tore the heart from my sister’s beak and escaped, but not without a few wounds.”
Sophie looked at his wounded leg then back at his face. The harder she stared, the more similarities she saw between Raan and a raven, though she was sure they hadn’t been so obvious before. His eyes hadn’t been so far apart. Nor his skin so dry and flaky.
“But I didn’t know where to go. I knew with my injuries, I wouldn’t be able to get another heart.”
“Another heart?” Sophie cut in. “Why?”
“The transformation only lasts for a week. I need a new heart or I will become a raven once more.”
His story raised more questions than it answered, but only one escaped her lips: “So why are you here?”
Raan’s head jerked away from her, only for a moment, but Sophie knew that look. Shame. “We knew about you and your family. We had seen the slaughter. I, well, I hoped you would help me.”
Sophie pulled away. Tears continued to fall from her eyes, and though they looked the same, they couldn’t have felt more different. “You used me.”
“No!” Raan said a little too forcefully. “It may have started that way, but when have I asked for anything?”
Sophie opened her mouth then closed it. Sophie hated him. She was furious. He was a monster! He had wanted to use her from the start, but still she loved him. Despite everything. And he was right. He had never asked for anything before. He still hadn’t. At least, not yet.
“I’m sorry, Sophie,” Raan said, the solemnity returning to his voice. “I wish I hadn’t done this to you. I wish it wasn’t like this, but I need you.” He waited. Sophie didn’t look at him. “You see, if I turn back into a raven, I may never be like ... this again. Mother said some ravens could go decades before the hearts work a second time—some never could—and I can’t be away from you that long.”
Sophie could barely last half a day. “You need me to find a dead child?”
Raan shook his head. “A corpse would be preferable, but I only have until tomorrow at sunset. It took my siblings and I months to find one suitable.” He pulled a long, jagged, black dagger from his belt. He extended it to Sophie.
Sophie gasped and shook her head. “No. I, I can’t.”
Raan turned his head from Sophie to the dagger and back. He exhaled. “Please, Sophie. I need you.”
* * *
Sophie ran through the forest, the dagger clutched in her left hand. The nearest town was Piekes, a half-day’s ride away. If she was lucky, she would make it there by nightfall. It would be mid-morning if she rode there and back without stopping. She needed to hurry.
It was after noon by the time Sophie made it to the stables. Other than Beattie, the only animals there were a pair of horses. The dappled workhorse, Sophie called Greta. Her father had referred to the grey’s color as “flea bitten,” so Sophie named him Jarl II, since the old hound was the only animal she knew who was well acquainted with fleas.
Within minutes, Jarl II was galloping toward Piekes. Her parents poked their heads out of the house as she rode past, but there was no time to explain. They wouldn’t understand.
Sophie had made the trip to town with her father so many times, she barely had to think about directions. The ride gave her time to reflect on her foolishness. She should have known about Raan. Maybe not that he was a raven—that kind of thing didn’t happen in real life—but why had she never asked him who he served or if he was a knight errant? Because she didn’t want to appear foolish, that’s why. Stories were the extent of her knightly knowledge. His comment about the slaughter should have tipped her off, though. If he hadn’t seduced her afterwards, she would have pressed him and he would have had to tell her. Then she could have gotten help. Or at least had time to think. But no. He would leave her unless she got him a heart. Unless she killed a child.
That was crazy, though. It would never happen, could never happen. How would she even do it? She barely managed the pigs. It must have appeared different from the skies, because she didn’t enjoy the slaughter. She was just a dutiful daughter, though maybe that was it. She loved her father and would do anything for him, so if Raan could make this lonely woman fall in love with him, she would do anything for him. But was he right? She knew he had manipulated her, and yet she was flying down the road, covered in sticks and mud, tear stained, and in love.
She couldn’t kill a child. Raan said it had taken his family months to find a body, but they were ravens. As a human, Sophie had more access. There had to be a graveyard. Raan had mentioned the heart being fresh though. How fresh did it need to be? She should have asked him more, but there hadn’t been time, and she hadn’t wanted to. She just wanted things to be like they had been before. Maybe they could be, but she had to do this first.
A graveyard. That’s what she’d search for. A graveyard with recently dug graves. If she couldn’t find any of those, well, she didn’t know, but she knew she couldn’t lose Raan.
* * *
A sliver of moon hung high in the sky when she made it to Piekes. Sophie’s experience with the town was mainly confined to its hectic market. There, some men and women wore gaudy robes while others wore almost nothing, and the sensible-looking people were always the ones to spend twenty minutes bargaining only to admit they had no money.
Piekes was a town harkening to an older time. The people had yet to give up mysticism and still preached of elves, goblins, and trolls living in the north. The majority of children’s fables were written in Piekes. Sophie knew those tales to be false. Or she had. With Raan, what was real and what was fantasy had collided. Now she had no idea what she believed, let alone knew.
Tying Jarl II’s reins to a tree outside of town, Sophie made for a side entrance. As she crept closer, the ground changed from dirt to loose gravel to an odd array of cobblestones. Sophie knew from experience the trouble the cobbles gave wheeled carts and heeled shoes, so she was glad she was still in her light leather boots.
Even at this late hour, the people of Piekes roamed the streets. Vendors called out to customers, trying to make a sale or steal them from a competitor. Perfumed vapors and incense poured out of stalls, assaulting Sophie at every turn. The crowds did as well as they jostled past her, seemingly unaware of her existence. The night was when charlatans began selling their trinkets and spells out of wooden stands. People flocked from merchant to merchant, exchanging coins, recently purchased ornaments, and often what appeared to be self-made charms.
Sophie steeled herself and got up the courage to ask about a graveyard. If they grew suspicious, she could play it off as being from out of town to honor a relative, and if she said it was a nephew or niece, they might provide more specific information. They didn’t. No one cared, nor did they provide useful information. The only helpful thing anyone said was that it was near a church. The rest was contradictory or predicated on knowing town landmarks. Most people just wanted to sell her things, and all lost interest when she told them she had no money.
Maybe it was because it was so late, but Sophie was surprised she hadn’t seen any children yet. In a town as large as Piekes, there had to be at least a few children pickpockets. They should be rampant in markets like this, or so Sophie assumed based off books like Sleight of Handsome and Raiding the Sun. They were usually dirty scoundrels but inevitably had kind hearts. Sophie tried to focus solely on the former.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw one. A young boy with blond hair so dirty, it was streaked black. There were more gaps in his mouth than actual teeth. The boy reached into a woman’s bag and pulled out two silver coins as she spoke to an abnormally tall salesman. Sophie watched as the child repeated the act on three other shoppers, then, without knowing why, she followed him. Weaving through the crowd, she drew closer and closer as he pilfered more coins.
Sophie was near enough to smell his mildewed clothes when he ducked around a corner. Pressing herself against the wall, Sophie slowly sidled forward. Three loud knocks resounded, a door swung open, and a wrinkled face stuck through the opening.
“Ah, Lendon! What do you have for Mommy today?”
“Six silver, nine copper, and a smushed carrot,” the boy said, holding out his haul.
The woman, who was clearly too old to be Lendon’s mother, sifted through the contents, picked up all but the carrot, and dropped them into a deflated sack tied to her waist. “That’s a good boy! Now bring that carrot in here. We’ll add it to the stew.” With that, she ushered Lendon inside, the door closed, and the alley was empty.
Breathing hard, Sophie slumped onto the ground. What was she thinking? Had she been planning on killing him? No, of course not. She was just following him to see if other children were nearby. Urchins died when food was scarce, and a single carrot seemed scarce. She would never, but then why was Raan’s dagger clutched in her hand? She tossed it away, disgusted, then a thought struck her. Knowing that Lendon filched a smushed carrot made Sophie nervous. Money wasn’t the only thing thieves wanted. She scurried over to the discarded dagger and tucked it into her belt. She would need it when she found the corpse.
Slinking to the door Lendon and the woman had just entered, Sophie peeked through a window. Inside, a motley crew of dirt-coated children bustled around a kitchen. The old woman sat in the corner, hefting her coin purse up and down, ordering her workers around. Unfortunately, despite the filth, the children appeared healthy and happy. Unfortunately? Sophie turned away and began her search for the church, feeling guilty and sick to her stomach.
The sounds and smells of the market died away as Sophie wandered further into Piekes. The streets were sparsely lit by hanging lanterns, and the feeling of unease grew in Sophie. She passed three churches without finding any sort of graveyard. She hadn’t even run into another person, which, truth be told, she didn’t mind.
The night sky had begun to lighten by the time Sophie slumped on the steps of the fifth church. There was no graveyard. Burying her face in her hands, she let out a scream. Afterwards, in the silence that follows a woman’s scream, she heard a small voice.
A little girl in a white dress stood in an empty courtyard down an alley. Between the moonlight and the several lanterns artfully arranged around her, she danced with a troupe of shadows. Her black, curly hair bounced as she leapt from twirl to pirouette humming the theme from the musical The Melodious Griffin.
“Hello!” Sophie called out to the girl, who stopped and cocked her head. “Do you know where the graveyard is?”
The girl didn’t respond. Instead, she started humming again.
Sophie hurried down the alley, trying not to seem too eager or too frightening. At the end of the alley, a tall cobblestone nestled in the shadows tripped her. With a loud thump, Sophie fell face first and the dagger skittered out of her belt. The humming girl’s hair bobbed as she looked at the woman sprawled on the ground, then at the dagger, then at Sophie again. She beamed.
The mop of curls ran forward, grabbed the knife, and bolted down an alley on the opposite side of the courtyard. Sophie, in pain from riding Jarl II so hard, struggled to her feet and started after the girl. The alleys wove a labyrinth through the city. It was clear after the third turn that Sophie had lost her. She didn’t know these alleys. She didn’t even know how to get back to the market. Tears welled in Sophie’s eyes, then she heard it.
A giggle. A sweet, melodic giggle. Raising her head, a round face stared back at her. Picking up the chase, Sophie made it five turns before she lost the girl again. She stopped, turned around, and listened. A stifled titter came from around a corner to her left. Sophie ran. After ten minutes of the game, Sophie was soaked with sweat and unsure if she could take another step.
Stumbling forward, supporting herself on a wall, she saw the girl standing in another courtyard. The familiar calls of the vendors were back, so the two had run all the way back to the market. No graveyard. No dagger. No heart.
A tall woman wrapped in a tight green dress sauntered from the direction of the market. She rubbed the girl’s head and said, “Jonna. Where do you keep getting daggers from? Drop that thing and help your mother carry these talismans.” The woman swung two sacks from over her shoulder and plopped them on the ground. One sack was filled with wooden carvings. The other with glittering coins.
Jonna tossed the dagger to the ground and lifted one sack high above her head using both arms. Her mother laughed, picked up the coin sack, and the two walked down the alley where the red-faced, sweat-soaked Sophie stood. The mother nodded in Sophie’s direction and Jonna grinned. Then Sophie was alone.
Sophie lolloped forward and grabbed the knife. The lanterns wouldn’t be necessary to see for much longer. Even if she found a graveyard now, she might not have enough time to dig up the heart and make it back before sunset. She sat in the middle of the courtyard, heaving in air. She had no idea what to do. Closing her eyes, she wished it was over.
Then, the world quieted.
One by one, sounds faded. Without the loud auctioneers, clanging of metal, and rolling carts, Sophie was able to hear something new. A small cough.
Sophie jerked her head in the direction of the sound, but as she opened her eyes, the cacophony of the market returned. Squeezing her eyes shut, she tried to block everything out like she had before. A moment passed. Then another. Then the noise faded, and Sophie waited. After a tense minute of darkness, Sophie heard the cough again. Faint. Somewhere to her left. She kept her eyes shut and held her hands out, feeling for walls to guide her to the noise. The metallic scrape of the dagger against the alley’s brick wall nearly made her shout, but once she calmed herself, there was the cough again. Louder than before.
Every step made her heart beat harder until it was almost unbearable. Just when she thought she couldn’t take the darkness, the not knowing, any longer, she kicked something.
Opening her eyes, Sophie saw a child sleeping on a broken crate. The split wooden slats were just long enough that the child could fit on top, provided he curled himself up into a ball. Not he. It. She needed to dehumanize the child. It was what her father said about the pigs. It’s why she had never named them. It would be too much. But this child appeared half dead already. It would be a kindness. Like putting down a horse who was no longer able to walk, though this wasn’t a horse. It was just a kid.
The stench of feces, human and otherwise, was overwhelming. The child was so thin its ribs were as prominent as its little nose. A rattle like a wagon with a loose wheel came from its chest. Each breath caused visible pain. Dirt and white plaster mottled its ember red hair. It may have even looked like Sophie. It could have been her, if she had had a different life. His face was elongated, like he was nearly a teenager, but his body was so small.
Sophie stared at the dagger still gripped in her fist. The black was so deep it was like glass, but the reflection looked nothing like her. Mud and sticks knotted her hair into a nest too tangled even for rats. Tracks of tears smudged the rouge she had applied that morning. Her face was haggard, her eyes were red, and her dress was covered in dust from the road. She was a wreck. She didn’t look far from being at home in this alley. With this child. This child who could give her the love of her life. This child she would have to kill.
When she tore herself away from the dagger’s reflection, the boy was staring at her. He sat up, glanced to either side of Sophie, but made no move to leave. His eyes were pale brown, glazed but steady. In them, it was clear the boy was almost gone. Death would take this boy within days. Sophie would be moving up their meeting by hours. Not years.
Shifting his glance to the dagger, the boy closed his eyes and grimaced as he inhaled deeply. When his lungs were filled, the rattling in his chest stopped. The only noise in the world was the pounding of Sophie’s heart. Sophie raised the dagger. The boy exhaled and opened his eyes.
Sophie’s arm thrust downward, and she wrapped the boy in a hug, the dagger clattering on the ground behind her. A cascade of tears fell on the boy’s head and shoulders as Sophie repeatedly muttered, “I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.” The boy cried too, though Sophie didn’t know if they were tears of joy or of sadness, and that only made her cry harder.
When Sophie finally let go, the boy’s eyes were dry. Standing, she wished she had something for him. Food, coins, a blanket, some clean clothes, but she didn’t have anything. Other than Raan’s dagger, which still rested where she had dropped it. She didn’t pick it up. She merely walked away.
As she left, the boy curled back into a ball and his breathing resumed its sleeping rattle.
* * *
Finding her way back to Jarl II took Sophie much longer than it should have, but the tears hadn’t stopped flowing and she had been awake all night. The market was still open when she wandered through it. The pungent smells of fish indicated the vendors had changed from mystics to seamen and fruit vendors. Worried that her appearance would attract attention, Sophie stuck to the shadows, but it didn’t matter. The people of Piekes were used to oddities. Sophie went unnoticed, a fact for which she was beyond thankful.
The sky was a warm shade of orange by the time Sophie climbed on Jarl II and began her long journey back to Raan. To tell him she failed. That she couldn’t go through with it. That they wouldn’t be together.
Sophie thought she would eventually run out of tears, but the slow ride home proved her wrong. Every time she came close to finishing, Raan’s face, the little boy, or the knife’s reflection returned to her and she started again. This lasted until she reunited with Raan, as the sun was waning on their seventh day.
“Sophie!” Raan called as he saw her emerge through the clearing. “Are you all right? What happened?”
Sophie regarded Raan, still lying on the ground. His features were even more bird-like than before. His mouth had moved up his face and his nose was longer and broader than she remembered. His voice was a gurgling croak, yet she somehow still found it sweet.
“I’m sorry. I, I just ...”
A look of disappointment darkened his visage. She expected anger, but instead he said, “No, Sophie. Please.” His eyes gleamed with concern, for her or himself she wasn’t sure. “It’s okay.”
“It’s okay? How is it okay? I’ve ruined everything.”
“No, you haven’t. I shouldn’t have asked. It’s not your burden.”
“Why aren’t you angry with me?”
“Because I love you, Sophie,” Raan said as his lips pulled upward. “I didn’t mean to, but it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”
Sophie collapsed to the ground and cried on Raan’s chest. He ran his bony fingers tenderly through her hair.
When the sobbing quieted, Raan spoke again, “May I ask you something? Do you still love me? Even after this?”
Sophie wished she needed to think about her answer, but she didn’t. She hadn’t needed to for longer than she cared to admit. Turning her head to gaze into his eyes, she said, “Of course. Forever.”
“And I, you,” he said. “I have one request.”
“If it involves a dagger, I’m not sure I’m up to it,” she quipped through a hitching sob.
Raan chuckled and rubbed Sophie’s back. “No, no. No more daggers. Just you and me.” He took a deep breath, then asked, “Will you wait for me?”
Sophie’s reply was the same, “Of course. Forever.”
“It may be as short as a year. But it could be far longer.”
“I don’t care how long.”
Raan smiled. “My leg will heal after I change back, and next time we’ll be able to take care of things together.”
Sophie’s eyebrows lifted. “Take care of things?”
The memory of the little boy flashed in Sophie’s mind. The way the moonlight glinted off the knife. His pale, brown eyes. Her crying with arms wrapped around him.
Her entire body went cold.
“And we can start our own family,” Raan continued. “You and I can run the farm with your parents. Or we can move into the city. I’ll take work as a city guard and you can read all the books you desire. It’s more than a raven like me deserves.”
Sophie swallowed hard and stared at the horizon. The waning sun hung inches above the green canopy. Raan had maybe an hour left. Two at most.
Raan asked, “Do you think we have enough time to find out if Sera saves her father’s shop?”
Sophie gave a sad smile and went to grab the worn book from beside the scant scattering of stones. Over the past week, the pile had shrunk so only three remained. One being her special stone.
There was little light remaining when Lord Charl told Sera that if her station was the only thing keeping them apart, he would gladly give up his title and live a life as a bookkeeper. The novel ended with Sera and Charl’s first kiss as Lord and Lady Charl. For what felt like the thousandth time, Sophie cried over the final scene, but this time was different. And she knew she would never be able to read the book again.
Sophie and Raan lay in silence, Sophie still on Raan’s chest. Raan’s rapidly blackening hand clasping Sophie’s fingers.
Raan broke the silence. “Are you sure?”
Clearing her throat and wiping her eyes, Sophie replied, “About what?”
Raan grinned his same handsome smile. “Come back here. In one year. I may not be back yet, but I will be eventually. I promise. When I am, we can be together. Forever.”
“Okay,” Sophie said, the pain palpable in her voice. Turning to look out over the lake, she asked, “Did I ever tell you about my dream?”
Cocking his head just as a bird would, Raan said, “No, I don’t think so.”
“I had a dream that I was able to skip a stone all the way to the other side of the lake. You were there. On the other bank. It landed right between your feet. You picked it up and skipped it back to me.”
Raan rubbed the back of her head. “I’d like that.” A moment passed as the two watched the setting sun. “Why don’t we? Skip one over there now. When I come back, I’ll skip it back. That’s how you’ll know.”
“I can’t do that. I can’t even make it to ten.”
“You can. I know it. When the stone lands between your feet, that means we get to start our life together. Go on. Do it now. You won’t want to watch what’s about to happen.”
His human features were nearly gone. The man she knew as Raan was quickly fading. She got to her knees and kissed him deeply, afraid for it to end. After not nearly long enough, it did.
Walking to the edge of the peninsula, Sophie picked up one of the three stones. She got in position and tossed.
One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Paloop.
Without stopping, she picked up the second stone. Adjusting slightly, she tossed again.
One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Paloop.
A soft, trilling caw sounded from behind her. Turning, Sophie saw a raven standing where Raan had lain. Its black beak was curved, with a point that could gouge out an eye. Or a heart. The legs were smaller versions of the black, skeletal shin Sophie had seen under Raan’s armor. The only thing that was the same were the eyes. The darkest brown eyes Sophie had ever seen.
The raven nodded, then flapped his wings. He flew into the air and headed in the direction of the other bank.
Sophie looked down at the one remaining stone. Her special stone. And she knew, without a doubt, she could make it. Clutching it to her chest, Sophie got in position. She whispered, “I love you,” and her stone flew.
The air where Raan had flown moments ago was a cloud of feathers. Even in the creeping darkness of sunset, Sophie saw the water turn a dark red as the waves dispersed the blood and floating plumage. Luckily, it was too dark to see her reflection.
Sophie turned, tears leaking from each eye. She put a hand on the big tree and said goodbye. Goodbye to Sera. Goodbye to Raan. Goodbye to her peninsula.