Corbin's going to fly this time. He knows it.
He's been trying all week, and he knows that if he'll be in trouble if he's caught at it again. That's okay, though—he just won't get caught. This is something that he has to do. He's watched enough of the fledglings to know that you have to just keep trying until your wings learn how to work. Keep trying, and don't be afraid to go high. That's how you learn.
He should be safe here, anyway, almost at the edge of the Crow Clan's territory. Safe from being found out, that is; not so much safe from what will happen if he's wrong and he doesn't fly after all. It's a long drop from his perch down to the ground. A long, long drop.
It's fine. He'll be fine. He's definitely going to fly this time, just as soon as he lets go of this tree trunk.
Deep breath. Count to three. One . . . two . . . thr—
He hears the footsteps just as his fingers are loosening his grip, and as he scrabbles to regain his hold there's a sharp, breathless moment where he thinks he's going to fall. Then his fingers find purchase on the rough bark, gripping tight again despite the sting of abraded palms and a fingernail torn down to the quick. Lips pressed together tight, he swallows down a cry and keeps quiet, blinking hard until the tears clear from his eyes. There are people below, and he has to keep quiet and still, just like the other crows do when they don't want to be spotted.
For a moment he can't hear anything but the rushing thrum of his own heartbeat in his ears, his attention narrowed down to his grip on the tree trunk, his careful perch on the branch, the strange feeling in his stomach like an echo of the fall he almost took. Then slowly, gradually, the rest of the world filters back in.
There are two humans below, headed roughly in his direction—not part of the Crow Clan, he can tell now, judging from how much noise they're making. His people know how to move through the forest; this pair clearly doesn't know anything of the kind, though it's obvious they're trying. Still, every step brings a new rustle, a crunch of leaves, the crack of a snapping branch.
Corbin wonders who they are. They must be from the city. Maybe they're lost. He lets go of the tree trunk without thinking, hunkering down into a steadier position to watch them, and hey don't even glance up at the movement.
“This is far enough.”
It's the man who speaks, bringing both of them to a stop beneath a tree only two away from Corbin's perch. He turns to the woman with him, and there's something strange about him. About both of them. Something in the way they're standing, the slump of their shoulders, the way neither of them seems able to look at each other for more than the space of a single breath. The woman glances down at the bundle that she's carrying, wrapped in blankets and large enough that she has to partially rest it against one shoulder.
“Are you sure?”
“It's as good a place as any.” The man glances around, feet shifting like he's eager to be moving again. “Calla, we talked about this. We both agreed.”
“I know that.” Her voice is sharp. Irritated. “It was my idea, wasn't it? I just want to be sure we do it the right way. I'm not . . . I'm not a monster, Draeden.”
“I'm not saying—I'm sorry,” he sighs, reaching out to lay a gentle hand against her cheek. She leans into the touch, and he steps in to press a kiss against her forehead, carefully avoiding the bundle in her arms. “It's for the best, right?”
“It is,” she says, so quietly that Corbin almost can't hear her, and he wonders if he's imagining the hint of uncertainty in her voice. “We're not ready. And there's something wrong with it.”
“I know, Calla.”
“It's cursed, or addled or something. We're barely nineteen, we can't spend our lives tied to some—”
“I know,” he interrupts, though his voice is still gentle. “Here.”
He takes the bundle from her arms and lays it down, nestled in the curve of a tree root. He takes the woman's hand when he straightens up again, and for a moment they stand there in silence, watching the burden that they've just set down.
“They'll find it.” Her voice is still quiet, and not altogether steady, but her back is straight and her feet still firmly planted. “They'll know what to to with it, how to . . . they'll know better than we would.”
“C'mon.” He lifts her hand, pressing another kiss to her knuckles. “Let's go home, see what we can put together for dinner. I'll make you some tea.”
She leans gratefully against him, and without another word they start to walk again. Back the way they came, with not so much as a glance behind.
There's a sick, twisting feeling in Corbin's stomach. He can't move for the space of a breath, two breaths, three. He stops counting after that, so he isn't sure how long it lasts—this sense of paralysis and the dark, oily feeling that seems to be working its way up his throat. He isn't sure how he gets down to the ground, is vaguely aware of new abrasions on his hands and the echo of impact in his legs, but he's across the space between his tree and theirs now, because he couldn't take his eyes off that bundle of blankets and he would swear he saw it move—
He isn't seeing what he thinks he is. It's another weird brain trick, like when he daydreams about flying so hard it's like he's actually done it, or when he has that dream about the falling fire and thinks he still smells burning when he wakes up. This isn't real, he's sure it isn't. It can't be.
People wouldn't just leave a baby alone in the woods like this.
He knows that sometimes people bring their children to his clan, that they leave them and never come back. Children with something wrong with them, children they think will be better off without them. Children they just don't want. But this is something . . . this . . . he's never seen anything like this.
No matter how long he stands there, though, the sight remains stubbornly the same. The blankets are an indifferent, dun-colored weave, and the baby's nut-brown skin and dark hair stand out like a jewel against them. The baby's awake—big, dark eyes blink up at him, staring up without a hint of distraction. Corbin stands there, staring back, waiting for them to realize that they're lying on the cold ground, that their parents are gone, that there's a stranger standing over them. Waiting for them to cry. The baby seems perfectly calm, however, no hint of tears or a smile or anything but that ceaseless, unwavering regard.
“Hey,” he says softly, and earns only a blink in return. “Okay. Okay. It's gonna be okay.”
He leans down to pick the baby up, a little surprised by the solid weight of them when he gets them resting against his shoulder the way their mother had. They smell nice: warm and sweet, with a hint of milky sourness. The heat of them sinks into his chest, and something threatens to break loose inside of him.
“You don't have to cry,” he tells the still-silent baby, and definitely not himself. The sick, oily feeling is still there, pressing against the backs of his eyes and making his throat go tight, sending his blood pounding in his ears again. “It's gonna be okay. I'm gonna take you to a grownup, they'll know what to do. Okay? It'll be better for you with us anyway.”
It takes him longer than usual to get back home—he's never held a baby for this long before and his arms are aching, and every step comes with a new, terrifying vision of dropping them. With no shortcuts and only deliberate, careful movements, it's well past lunchtime by the time he makes it back. Demora must have been waiting for him, because he's barely stepped foot into camp before he sees her storming up, tight-lipped and furious.
“Corbin! Where have you been, you were supposed to start your lessons four hours ago! How many times do I have to tell you that being a Guardian means . . . Corbin?” Her frown shifts to something more like concern as he only stares wide-eyed back at her. “Corbin, what is that you have there?”
“They just . . . left. I don't—”
Demora leans down, and he lets her lift the baby from his arms, shaking a little now with the strain of carrying them for so long. He hears Demora's stifled gasp, sees the shock on her face, and suddenly he can't pretend anymore. She sees the baby, she's holding the baby, and that means it's real , like really, definitely real. Everything goes blurry and he realizes distantly that it's because his eyes are wet again. There's a sharp, twisting pain in his chest, in his stomach, and it's more than just his arms that are shaking now.
“They just left.” That doesn't sound like his voice. He wonders who it is that's talking—they sound really upset. “Why would they do that?”
“Corbin.” Demora sounds sad now, too, and Corbin steps back as she steps forward. “Sometimes, people . . . sometimes people who shouldn't have children . . . do. And sometimes, when that happens, they bring those children here. People tell stories in the city, and they know that we can care for children that they might not be able to.”
“I know.” He wraps his arms around himself to keep them from shaking. “I know that. But . . .”
“Well.” She hesitates, as though she doesn't want to say what she has to say next, glancing down at the baby in her arms. “Sometimes . . . sometimes people aren't quite brave enough to make it all the way here.”
“Oh.” He takes another step back, his eyes still locked on the baby, as well. He doesn't want to see whatever expression might be on Demora's face right now. “Will the baby be okay?”
“Of course. I'll take them to—”
“Okay. Good.” Another step back, and then another. He's still shaking, why is he still shaking? “I feel kinda sick, I'm just gonna . . . I wanna lie down. For a little bit.”
“Don't you want to—”
“I'll do today's lessons before dinner.” He's already five feet away, then ten, heading for the ladder up to the sleeping platform. “I'll come find you later, I promise.”
No one else is sleeping at this hour, so there's no one but Bergerjerger to see when Ula finds him there, curled in on himself to hide his red, tear-sticky face.
“Child.” Her voice is a comforting croak, and her beak slides through his hair, pushing it back from his forehead. “I heard you saved a tiny human girl. Today should be a proud day for you. Why do you cry?”
“They didn't like her.” He can barely get the words out. His throat is still thick and tight with tears. “They didn't want her. Just because . . . she's d-different.”
Corbin's chest heaves another bone-wracking sob. He doesn't even know that kid, this is stupid. He's stupid.
Addled . For some reason, that word keeps echoing through his head. He doesn't know what it means, except . . . except he thinks he does, somehow. He knows that somebody left him, too. He knows what people think of him.
“Why didn't they want her?” he chokes out. His fingers clutch at Bergerjerger's feathers as he buries his face in them. “Why didn't they want . . .”
Why didn't they want me?
“Humans are awful. I hate them.”
There's no answer for a moment, no sound but his own crying. And then:
“Did you know,” Ula creaks, “that I was the one who found you under the trees?”
“Huh?” Corbin lifts his head, squinting at her with swollen eyes. “You were?”
“I found you, and I guided the clan to the clearing to collect you. When you were very small, I watched over you as much as they did.”
“Yeah,” he sniffles, sitting up a little bit more. “I know.”
“The day that you were given your amulet, I was so proud.” She rests her head on top of his for a moment, the weight of it heavy and comforting. “Chosen as a guardian of the Goddess. I would expect nothing less from a child of mine.”
Another sob hiccups its way out of Corbin's chest, and his arms lift to wrap around Ula and Bergerjerger both.
“Yours,” he mumbles into Ula's feathers, and holds on tighter.
“You are mine, child,” she says firmly. “No matter where you came from, you are one of us now.”
Corbin feels more tears sliding down his cheeks, but they feel cleaner now. More like a release. “I'm a crow?” he whispers, an Ula lets out a caw that sounds more like a laugh.
“Yes, child. You are one of us, in every way that counts.” She smooths her beak through his hair again, a gentle preening. “You are a crow.”