“You have got to be joking,” I said. Well, not quite like that. Those words are never spoken in the presence of the Witch-mother Audryn. Crone is another term it’s as well to keep to oneself, though today I was hard pressed to do so. “I was born in Dampenrook, Mother,” was what I said after several seconds of chilling silence. “I ran away when I was fifteen to join the Order…”
“You ran away,” Audryn corrected, dry as autumn leaves. Her chamber was winter grey; grey stone, grey desk, grey robes and blood freezing cold. Rumour had it that she kept spellfire under her desk where it warmed her but left everyone else shivering. “And then you made the mistake of trying to steal from a sorceress.”
“And enlisted – discovered a vocation,” I continued miserably. “Yes, Mother.”
“We were surprised to find that you actually had magical talent,” Audryn acknowledged. “But if you are to progress on the way, you must clear from it the obstacles of the past that clog your thinking. Your relationship with your family, the people of your town, continue to hurt you, Amber. In any case, Dampenrook’s difficulty is real and immediate.”
She shuffled papers on her desk, found the parchment she wanted and read, “The ravens have descended on our town in such numbers that the markets have been closed and small children kept inside for fear of attack. The guano levels are…” She shrugged, putting the paper down. “The mayor goes into somewhat explicit details, which I think we can do without. Anyway, Amber, I am without an experienced priestess to send. You have studied here two years, so consider this an examination. Solve the problem to the satisfaction of all concerned – including mine – and be back by the end of the week. Do not break the law of the land in any way – you know what it means if you do.”
“Yes, Mother,” I said, fear touching me for the first time. The law was not vague on this point. Let any member of a sorcerous order defy the law and the witchburners will be unleashed.
So I set out aboard one of the Order’s donkeys, of the entirely inappropriate name of Angel, for Dampenrook, a day’s journey from our home base of Skarrel. I would like to relate heroic happenings which prevented my ever reaching my home town and left me smelling of expensive perfumes beside, but unfortunately Angel’s reluctant plod brought me into the main square of the dear old town by the evening.
My brother, to be exact. He was standing with his back to me, directing in a very loud voice a clean up crew, who were shovelling guano off the steps of the town hall. Above them I could see the causes of the debris. They were huge, glossy ravens, beady eyes watching the antics below. You could tell they were just waiting for a space to be cleared.
So I rode forward in my green robes aboard my scruffy little mount and stopped next to him. “Henric, son of Kevan, you sent for a sorceress to assist your town?” I intoned.
It worked – for a hilarious five seconds, it worked. Henny spun around like a coin cast to the cobbles, blinking furiously, for a moment seeing only a sorceress of the order who incredibly knew who he was. Then he recognised me. It wasn’t that hard; two yars is not so long and my hood had fallen down from my head so my cropped hair was visible, the same muddy brown as his, my eyes the same greeny-hazel.
“This is a joke, right?” the current mayor of Dampenrook asked.
“I wish,” I informed him glumly, reaching into my nearest saddlebag to produce Mother Audryn’s authorisation. “I was sent to see about your ravens. If it’s a joke, it isn’t mine.”
There came a scream from above us, avian, not human. Angel tried to bolt and simply succeeded in shoving into Henric, who stumbled into some guano. Gods as my witness, I tried not to laugh, I truly did. Then I saw the raven and lost all desire even to grin. The crossbow bolt had got it right through the chest and it was still struggling pitifully to extend its wings and get off the ground, but even as I became aware of it, the brilliant eyes glazed. The rest of the birds were making low noises, ruffling the wings but otherwise not moving.
“Where is that fool who shot it?” I screamed at Henric. “Did you authorise that?”
“We’re not just sitting on our hands waiting for someone else to fix this,” Henric growled back at me. “Kev! I didn’t say shoot, with me still standing on the steps. Can’t you wait until the council elections?”
A man in brown, carrying a crossbow, called something back at Henric as he crossed the square, heading away. He did not even look at the dead raven, which one of the clean-up crew picked up by the feet and threw on to the guano wagon nearby.
“I suppose we’d better see you settled,” Henric said at last in my general direction. It was either Angel or me he was talking to. “Just don’t let our parents or any of the aunts or cousins see you, all right?”
“That’s half the town, brother dear.”
He didn’t bother answering that.
After a few minutes of walking Angel beside Henric through he main street, I gave up counting ravens. Everywhere a bird could sit, three were squashed together, eyes blinking. Occasionally one would launch into flight, giving out its long, winter-haunting cry as though lamenting the descending night, but there was no sign of attack or any consternation among the birds. This was a marked contrast to the citizens, whom I noted ducking quickly in and out of doors, hurrying along the street with blankets held over their heads and staying as far from the ravens as they could.
I noticed that Henric carried a sword and wondered whether he could use it. My brother, fifteen years my senior, had a clerical mentality from day one, or so the aunts told me. I had not known he was mayor before I saw the letter from Dampenrook but it didn’t surprise me.
“Here you are,” he said, stopping in the street and pointing at a small brown house squeezed on to a plot of land about half the normal width, between an alehouse and a vegetable market. Though the house bore the Order’s mark, indicating it was indeed the official residence of any sorceress visiting the town, it didn’t look as though any of us had taken up Dampenrook’s hospitality since the house was built several kings’ reigns ago. “There’s a stable around the back somewhere.”
He paused before leaving. I hoped he would not feel the need to embrace me or worse, kiss me, but instead Henric only said, “Can you really do something?”
“I’ve been studying with the Order ever since I left,” I said, trying to forget sibling rivalry and just concentrate on facts. “Mother Audryn believes I can help.”
“True.” He was still frowning. “We’ll talk tomorrow.”
Huh. He’d learned that one from father and for father tomorrow just never turned up.
The house was all right; dusty and full of rats, but a keepaway spell ensured they wouldn’t bother me and that was all I cared about right then. I spread my blanket out on the bed and sat down on it – since the bed was the only furniture the house had, barring a cloak-rack – to think about the ravens. My keepaway, drawing as it did on my own energy, wasn’t strong enough to encompass the whole town and repel the black horde that had settled. I’d need something else.
The first task was to find out whether they had actually been called, either by accident or on purpose, and for that reason I did call one of the ravens from the roof of the house to come sit in the window. It arrived with a dark, discontented flurry of wings, fixing me with its baleful look. Perhaps it didn’t like the incense I’d set to burn in its holder on the floor.
My spell-sense is very short range still. I had to touch the thing and was so nervous I let go of the damn bird’s mind long enough to get pecked. Not a vicious peck, just a “leave me be,” that I could well understand. Mind, ravens are obstinate, curious and very smart. Flock leader might just have decided that Dampproof looked like the ideal nesting site and then heaven help any human who tried to convince the ravens otherwise. Not that heaven was helping. I was supposed to do that.
I released the raven, which sat there a few moments longer as though to show me who was boss, then hopped around and flew across the street to the eaves of the house opposite.
Someone knocked on the door and I went out of the bedroom, through the one other room to the door. A young townsman stood on the porch, his cap under his arm.
It took me a moment, but then I was expecting a skinny youth a little shorter than I was, with spiky black hair. Tom Arrowsmith still had the spiky hair but his length had practically doubled and so had the weight. Pity about that last. “Tom,” I managed at last. “Uh, good to see you. How have you been?”
“Helping Dad in the smithy,” Tom shrugged and that was it for the past two years. He grinned down at me. “So you went to school with the witches, huh? Know any spells?”
I shrugged carelessly. “Nothing so much.”
We moved back into the room. There was nowhere to sit. The last two chairs had fallen apart by the heath.
“I hear about them witches,” Tom said after a long pause. “They can teach a girl to be, y’know, even better than the women in the Red House. Steal a man’s mind.”
With great effort, I was generous enough not to answer. I turned towards the hearth, thinking a fire would make the place a bit more homey. “I saw a kettle somewhere and I brought some tea with me. Would you like….oof!”
The “oof” was because Tom had grabbed me around the waist and pulled me against him. His other hand had roved around to the front of my dress and was fumbling with the lacing.
“Let me go, you idiot! The Order is not a training ground for high class whores, no matter what you heard – and you don’t seem to have learned anything in two years!”
Despite my struggling, he had grabbed a breast. I had an immediate, painful insight into what it must be like for the Arrowsmith family cow. But then Tom let me go, with an indignant yell, pushing me back as though I had burned him, which in fact I had. Just the tiniest speck of spellfire pushed into his palm. He stood there, breathing hard and wearing an expression one would expect to see on the features of a confused pig.
“We was walking out, before you left. Why did you do that?”
“’We was walking out’ when I was fourteen years old and only until you grabbed at me the way you just did,” I retorted. “Now leave me to get on with my work!”
Tom did, with much stamping of boots and slamming of the door. I could expect that bit of town news to do the rounds, suitably revised, but it really didn’t bother me that much.
During the night, I vaguely hard people passing in the streets – boots on cobbles and the clattering of horses and a wagon or two – and the cawing of hundreds of ravens in the immediate area as they roused.
I woke ravenous at dawn, got dressed and washed at the pump by the stable. Angel was restless so I found the feed shed and scrounged enough from the bottom of the barrel to temporarily satisfy one small donkey, then walked around the house to see if there was maybe a bakery close at hand.
The mood hit me before I even reached the street; a heavy, brooding emotional darkness completely at odds with the clear morning sunlight. With thoughts of raiders and a sacked town, I went cautiously on until I got to the road.
There were dead ravens everywhere I looked.
They were flopped gracelessly on the road, on the front steps of houses and shops. The grocer was busy carrying ravens and dumping them in a pile to the side of his door. None of the birds bore any wounds except those sustained from crashing to the cobbles. There was a scrap of meat directly in front of me. Good meat, not a rejected scraping of gristle and fat. Now that I knew to look, I saw the bits of meat scattered everywhere.
Above me a living bird cawed balefully. Counting quickly, I ascertained that the living still outnumbered the dead and that these survivors showed no signs of going for the remaining scraps.
It is perhaps not the most diplomatic and self-possessed way for the emissary of a magical order to summon the mayor of a petitioning town to her presence, but it did work, after a fashion. The grocer scuttled away and evidently went straight to my brother.
“You,” I said to Henric when I saw him approach, “have given orders to poison these birds.”
“What do you expect?” Henric demanded. “It was already under way before you arrived. Are we supposed to just sit back and wait for you to do whatever you do?”
“You’re supposed to give me a chance. The very night I arrive, you shoot them in my presence and now you poison them outside my door!” Our yelling was unsettling the birds, who cawed and fluttered their wings but didn’t rise. “If you plan a solution of violence, you don’t involve the Order! If I get rid of the rest for you now, that means I condone the means you’ve used already.”
The choice of words owed more than a little to the elder Sisters of the Order, but Henric didn’t know that.
“Yes, I’m your sister. Yes, you’re a lot older than me. But you’re the mayor and I’m the sorceress they sent and you were supposed to give me a chance.” With that I stalked into the house and banged the door. Whether it looked dramatic, I didn’t know, but I barely got away from him in time before the tears burst out.
As soon as I was calm enough and the shouting outside had finally stopped, I got to work.
To any curious eyes, had any been there to see, I was merely sitting in the dusty floorboards in the bedroom, eyes closed, breathing deeply. The ravens were all about. I could feel their confusion and anger and grief at the loss of their flock-mates. Going deeper, I was aware of some of the townsfolk going about their business. Most of these people would have had nothing to do with killing the birds, although they certainly wanted them gone. Unfortunately, as a little town called Hamelin knew, that didn’t make any difference. They hadn’t done anything to stop the killing either.
My searching had gone very deep now, my thoughts calmed and still as though I slept. I felt the wind brushing around me, my roots strong and firm, reaching down to the cool lifegiver stream that flowed below the town. Deeper my memory sought, deep into bark and earth and water. A forest had grown here, hundreds and thousands of trees about me when I had been a sapling. The burgeoning green life slowly reaching for the sun, vaguely aware of the fathered life that hopped and flew about its branches.
Yes, the flock knew this place. The ravens collective memory went back as far as the flock had existed, growing and changing along with the chicks as they were born. They had flown away when most of the trees were destroyed and Dampenrook, the town, was founded.
And then, lifting up, I was a raven, my thoughts bird thoughts, sharp and curious, flitting from idea to idea. I caught images of trees falling, of horses pulling wagons laden with logs, two men on either side of a tree, hauling an immense saw back and forth. No names, no scenery that I could recognise, only brief snatches. It was enough, though. Somewhere else, somewhere in a forest, nesting sites were being destroyed and this flock had tried to come home, drawing from the knowledge in their heads, remembering places these living birds had never seen.
I lifted out of the trance, slowly, my breathing gradually lightening and returning to normal. The ravens would leave on their own, I knew, probably quite soon, when their chicks flew. What had happened here would be over for the humans, but to the raven flock, was something on the scale of a god breaking a promise. A forest was supposed to last forever.
I couldn’t leave it there, not after what my own dear hometown had done to the birds. Witch-mother Audryn had left it up to me, and our code allowed retribution as long as no one was harmed. Much as they deserved it! I had to keep within the law of the land and that was when it came to me. Justice it would be.
This would be the one spell I had never expected to have to cast. I’d studied it, under classroom supervision and debated with the rest of the group about what it implied.
As I set out candles, incense, salt and water, the spell was already activated in my mind. I set the scales out on the cleared and swept floor and weighted the bowls with salt and water. It was not dark, not even afternoon, but for this spell it mattered not that the consciousness of Dampenrook’s several thousand souls was awake and buzzing. This would get them but good.
The spell took some time. It had to spread out over the entire territory under the control of Dampenrook’s town council, led by my brother Henric. I wasn’t too sure how long, but was sure the book had said by the next day. As I waited, I remembered the scrawled note in the margin of the old book, written by the wizard lord Ronalwil, the last words he ever wrote. “Re the spell Blind Justice, you get a completely fair outcome, but…”
Too true. I had no idea what it would do, apart from balancing injustice.
I awoke from an intended sleep there on the floor with my four candles burning about me, hastily got up and headed out of the window into the evening sky to find out what had happened.
As for what Witch-mother Audryn thought of my solution, I haven’t found out. It wasn’t as though going back was really a viable solution. The spell invites the Earth Goddess to take a hand and once she has, her decision is final. There was nothing the Order could do to help me or the people of my home town, who seem perfectly happy as they are.
My only problem is Henric. He keeps flying bright behind me and pecking whrever he can reach if I slow down enough. The flock-sentries do what they can, but he’s sneaky. Still, my parents and I made up not long ago and even Tom Arrowsmith doesn’t look so bad these days.
As soon as we get to the new nesting site, I’m going to see what I can do about a good area protection spell. I haven’t lost my magic.
This story originally appeared in She's Fantastical, edited by Lucy Sussex and Judith Raphael Buckrich.