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The (Un)Kindness of Ravens

Chapter Text

The raven found the necklace in a huge, twisted rowan tree that grew on the highest ledge of the highest cliff above the Moors. There was a natural hollow where the thick branches met the trunk, and he only caught sight of it because the branches were so bare.

The pendant was a smooth blue stone veined with gold, taken from the waters of the Moorlands. It had a small hole through it at the top, so it could be strung on the length of vine. Wrapping around the cord on either side were carefully made spirals, tied off with strips of tanned hide. It was simply made; likely the work of a child.

He cached it in his nest in the ruins of a tower castle on the other side of the border of the Moors, with his other treasures scavenged from both the humans lands of Perceforest and Ulstead, and the faery Moorlands. The tower and surrounding walls had been in ruins, forgot by the humans who had built it, ignored by the faeries, as long as the raven had been alive.

As hoards went, it was a fine one, if meagre. He'd only just begun building his nest from stout sticks, lined with soft grasses, bits and scraps of silk, linen, waxy raw wool, and other fabric he'd found (stolen), as many kinds of hair as he could find caught on branches, even his own feathers that had been shed as new ones grew in. It was snug and warm, protected from the wind and rain.

There was a silver ring that he'd found on the dressing table of fat, ugly man in a large house in Castletowne. A bit of blue ribbon from the dress of a pretty girl who had danced barefoot at Midsummer on the village green in the Meadows. A collection of wooden, bone, and metal buttons of all shapes and sizes. A smooth birch branch with the end bent into a hook, that he used to get especially tasty grubs and beetles from the spaces between the rough bark of trees. A bit of gold wire that had been worked into a filigree pattern that might have once ornamented a faery's horns. The last of his cache of treasure was a single glass acorn, so cleverly fashioned that he could not tell if it had been made by faery magic or human craft.

The first snowfall of winter had come early, and the raven caught a gleam of gold winking in and out between the forest branches. He swooped in circles, lower and lower until he saw it came from the sunlight hitting the bracelet of a woman. Then he spied the delicate curve of her pointed ears, and realised she was a faery, though he had never seen her like before.

She walked across the highlands, leaning heavily on a staff of twisted oak topped with a blue-green stone shot through with gold and copper. The raven had never seen a faery leave the Moorlands before, nor had he seen a faery without wings, and was curious. So he followed her slow and halting progress across frost-cover fields and rocky rises, occasionally her steps faltering so she had to rest her weight on her staff before resuming her climb.

She continued at a snail's pace until she reached the ruins where he had made his nest. Finding one of the only dry corners in the ruins, sheltered by the overhang of broken stones, the faery huddled there in her moss-green cloak. She sat, staring out at the sky until the shadows grew long and the moon came out to paint the stones and her sweetly curving horns with threads of silver. She was barefoot, and thought she did not shiver from the cold and damp, her skin was pale as skimmed milk and her hair had been tangled into knots by the wind.

Cawing to announce his presence so as not to startle her, the raven landed on a stone opposite her. He could see the tracks of tears on her pale cheeks, but was caught by the green-gold of her eyes. Brighter than any gem. She blew a puff of air, as if she was blowing seeds from a dandelion head. Her magic swirled around his talons as the stone he was perched on became hot to the touch. With a startled cry of pain, he launched himself back into the air, circling the ruins until he came to rest in his own nook, out of her sight.

They orbited one another in silence for a few days and nights, warily. However, the raven soon grew accustomed to her presence. As the time went by, he spent most days searching for food which was becoming scarcer as the winds became bitter. He was in a farmer's field, chasing field mice that huddled in the long grasses when a heavy hemp net weighted with stones pinned him to the ground. Before he could work himself free, using his sharp beak or talons to slice through the knots, the dogs came.

Ravens were no friend to dogs, and the raven cawed frantically, thrashing in blind panic as the farmer danced around him. The man was crowing with triumph at having caught a wicked bird who had never even once stolen a single stalk of the man's grain in all the days of his brief life.

(Other men's grain, surely. But this was his first visit to this field.)

The raven flapped his wings, hopping from side to side, as the man raised a blackthorn cudgel to try to smash his skull in.

That was when the magic took hold of him. He writhed in its grasp as primaries became fingers, talons feet, his sleek black feathers disappeared leaving him plucked like a chicken in an inn-yard, and hair sprouted all over his head where his sleek black feathers should have been. His beak shrank and then was gone entirely, transformed into a pointed nose and strange, mobile mouth. It took only the span of a breath, but it seemed to him to be an eternity. As the black smoke vanished, he stumbled to his feet as a man instead of a raven.

He tossed off the net while the farmer and his whining dogs fled in fear. But the raven could only look down at his human body with complete and utter dismay. How would he get back to his nest like this? What other raven would recognise him in such a state?

Where were his wings?

Then she walked out of the wheat field, and they circled one another once more. She was no less imposing from his new vantage point.

"What have you done to my beautiful self?" he asked, not even questioning how he knew to speak. Magic was magic, and he was caught up in it now; there was nothing for a common raven to do about it.

"Would you rather I let them beat you to death?" she asked.

"I'm not certain," he said truthfully. The new shape felt awkward and ungainly, even if he could see some advantages of it. He wasn't sure if he'd been given a choice that he would have willingly traded away his wings. Also, the wind was so much colder to a man's skin instead of a raven's feathers.

"Stop complaining," she chastised him. "I saved your life."

The raven was immediately contrite. "Forgive me," he said, lowering his eyes.

"What do I call you?"

"Diaval," he said, and it was odd hearing his name falling from human lips, shaped by a human tongue. But it was his true name. He owed her that and more. "And in return for saving my life, I am your servant. Whatever you need."

He bowed his head. Strands of black hair fell in front of his eyes, obscuring for a moment her brilliant gold eyes and their ring of eternal summer green.

"Wings," she said, her jaw twitching. "I need you to be my wings."

"I can hardly be your wings like this, now can I?" he said frankly, and she eyed him the way he would a nice juicy mouse.

"You'd be surprised," she said, and beckoned for him to follow her.

He wasn't sure the clothes stolen off the wicker scarecrow were any improvement over his nakedness. They were nothing like his beautiful, sleek feathers, but at least he was no longer shivering from cold. She tilted her head, as if inspecting him, and twisted her fingers.

He was enveloped once more in the warm tickle of magic, this time the black smoke remaking him. The mud and dirt that covered him from head to foot was washed away, the simple black garments he wore fitted to his new shape. The ragged coat became finer, longer, tanned leather to keep off the rain, and covered the simple black shirt and leather trews that protected the rest of his fragile, naked human form.

He stamped his feet, trying to get used to the black leather boots, wiggling human toes inside them, and fought to keep the frown from his face. The leather belt kept the black shirt from hanging halfway to his knees, but the fabric itself was of good quality. The feel of the laces was too much like a noose around his neck, so he untied them immediately, leaving it open at the throat to show raised markings in the shape of bird tracks.

"Thank you," he said, waiting for her to offer her name. When she did not, he simply bowed, "...Mistress."

She smiled, and with another twist of her fingers, he was back in his own shape again, relief flooding him as his broad wings caught the updraft. So he had not lost his wings; only traded them at her whim for a new shape. He could get used to being a raven-man, the raven thought.

For one thing, it would be much easier to fight back, should a farmer and his dogs threaten him again.

When they arrived back at the ruins, she changed him into a human once more. This time the transformation was swifter, and his clothes appeared even as (most of) his feathers disappeared. Running his hands through the strange hair on his head, he'd encountered a few sleek, iridescent black feathers among the strands. So it seemed that even as a man, he was still in some ways still (always) a raven.

Looking around them, Diaval saw their home through human eyes for the first time. It looked gloomy, dark, and as if it was about to fall off the edge of the world. However, with a twitch of her fingers, tree roots rose from the soil, creating a beautiful leafy shelter from the elements using the mossy half-destroyed walls as their guide. Ripe fruit hung from some of the branches despite the winter chill. He watched in silence as his new mistress gathered enough for herself and, casting him a measuring look, him as well.

They sat and ate a feast of pears, plums, sour blackthorn berries, and even glossy black cherries. The thick green moss that covered the stones had grown as well, deeper and richer, the clean scent of peat rising from it. It kept the chill from the stones from leeching all the warmth from their bodies, even as the trees blocked the bitter wind.

He tilted his head, watching her with open curiosity. She moved awkwardly, and he saw her flinch when she attempted to rest against the curving trunk of a tree that continued growing slowly as they ate. He wondered if she had been somehow injured in the battle at the edge of the Moors. He hadn't been there, but news of battles reach carrion birds quickly.

"Do you know who I am?" she finally asked him, and he nearly choked on a chunk of sweet pear.

"Only that you are a faery, and I am your servant."

"I'm Maleficent," she said, watching him intently. "Protector of the Moors."

Diaval fitted this piece of the growing puzzle into place as he continued to eat. He had heard of her. Birds were gossips, and even the ravens of the wintry North had heard of her. But he had never thought to meet her. His forays into the Moors were few, and quick. The faeries could do just as much damage to a raven as a human could, if they felt threatened.

"Mistress, you're a long way from the Moors, if you don't mind me saying so."

"I do mind," she said, and he bowed his head once more, chastised. "My wings were stolen from me."

He itched to ask how such a thing was possible, why anyone would do such a terrible thing. But raven or human, he could see the depth of her pain and what the price of this admission of betrayal cost her. So Diaval kept silent. She was proud, his mistress. Prickly as a rosebush, temperamental as the weather. But ravens were patient. So the silence stretched between them as the stones from the fruit he had just eaten slowly began to sprout at their feet. He wondered if in a hundred years there would be groves of fruit trees on this rocky outcropping, instead of a mouldering pile of stones from some forgotten kingdom.

Maleficent sighed, wincing as she squared her shoulders, her spine straight as a new sapling. "I cannot be Protector of the Moors like this. I need time to heal, and think. The king's army will return, knowing I am not able to protect the Moors as I once did. But that does not mean I cannot lead my people into battle against the humans, if I must."

"I am at your command," Diaval said, wiping juice from his chin and straightening his coat. "How can I serve you?"

"I want you to fly to the castle from whence the king's army came, and tell me everything you see. I need to know how much time I have to prepare."

He nodded, and with a twist of her fingers, his vision was filled with smoke as he shrank back into his proper size, glossy black feathers sprouting all over his body just in time to catch the wind before he could fall. With a raven's eyes, he could see her more clearly, and saw the naked envy in her eyes as he rose in the damp, cold air.

"And one more thing," she added. "Seek out news of a servant who lives in the castle. A man called Stefan."

She spat his name as if it were a curse, and perhaps to her it was.

He cawed twice as he circled the ruins, and then, aimed like an arrow, flew toward the castle as swiftly as his raven's wings could carry him.

Diaval wished he could have seen her wings. He had no doubt that she had been sublimely glorious.