The Raven's Caw
Inside the walls of the castle, Mara ran as fast as her shaking legs would carry her through the gardens for the door that led into the castle itself. Once she got inside the hall, she slowed to a jog and then down to a walk before stopping altogether. She braced her hands on her knees, trying to catch her breath. She tried to wrap her head around what had just happened outside.
Her eyes fell to the sword hilt, still tightly gripped in her right fist. It wasn’t vibrating anymore, but her hand still felt numb from the intensity of the shaking. The vixen had almost lost her grip on it.
As she gathered her wits about her, she found her emotions even more scattered than before. She felt angry for letting an animal frighten her away like that, not that she had ever really encountered an animal. She had a weapon. What was she so afraid of? She also felt perplexed as to how a creature could howl that way. Did all wolves have the ability to make metal tremble from just a howl? Worry set in as she tried to think of how she was going to explain this to the countess. Had she plundered her mistress’ first command?
She suddenly remembered the woman that had been with the wolf. She had felt something familiar about her, but she couldn’t imagine why she would feel so. What had she been going on about? Of course, she didn’t know her. They had never met before. Although, they did seem to look alike. She huffed at the thought of how she might have just escaped a witch’s grasp. Michael had told her about how witches could cast spells to disguise themselves. With a wolf familiar that could howl like that, she shivered at the thought of being sacrificed by a witch to keep her youthful another lifetime.
“I should pay closer attention to Michael when he teaches me lore,” she said with a light laugh.
It didn’t last long, for she paused, listening to her voice echo down the hall. Standing upright once more, the vixen looked down the stretch of gray stone and tapestry. She had never been up and about during daylight, so this was the first time she had seen the castle lit by sunlight rather than torch and moonlight.
The shadows weren’t as large. That was the first thing she noticed. She had been afraid of the shadows since she was little, clinging tighter to Michael’s leg the darker the hallway was. The next thing she noticed was the difference in color. The tapestries looked much brighter in the golden sunlight. She reached up to touch the woven depictions she had never really looked at before now.
She gasped as she realized there werewolves in the sewn images. She withdrew her hand, backing away from the cloth. Shaking her head, she looked back the way she’d come. She felt drawn to the gardens for some reason, feeling her feet move on their own to the door once more, sheathing her saber.
Walking outside, she gaped in awe at the vivid colors. How had she missed this the last time she had come through there that day? The flowers were in full bloom under the sun’s light. She smiled as she reached out to touch some bright yellow ones that looked like bells. Her anxiety began to melt as she walked around the ring of flower bushes that surrounded a lovely bush in the middle. White roses were blooming all over this one, but despite their beauty in the daylight, Mara felt that they looked far more lovely under moonlight. She flushed as she remembered seeing Michael stand by this very bush before. If only he could be by her side to admire the roses with her right now.
“Mm? What’s that?”
She blinked at something in the distance. She’d never noticed it at night, but with the sun illuminating the area, she could see something on the other side of the walnut tree she loved so much. Leaving the company of the rose bush, she walked over to the massive tree. She stepped over the large roots, partially exposed due to their size. On the other side, she noticed that the grass on the other side of the tree and brush only reached a few more paces before an all earth courtyard began. Where had this come from?
“I would bet everyone in the castle could fit out here with room to spare,” she said, gaping at the vast space. “I wonder why Michael hasn’t had us practice out here. It beats that crammed armory hall.”
Glancing to the wall directly across from her, she saw a particularly strange sight. There was something wrong with it. She could just feel it, but she decided to walk up and see it up close anyway. That was when she saw the rusty red, stone wall was covered in holes. Not just weather-worn ones either. Reaching a hand up, the hole was larger than her spread palm, and it went further inside the wall than her arm could reach.
“What good is a wall full of holes?” She snorted as she tried to grasp a purpose for such a thing. “Is it some kind of a game they once played? It must have been terribly boring! Hahaha!”
She grasped her abdomen as she laughed, but after a while, the laughter began to die slowly. Now that she was more aware of the color in the light of the sun, she noticed how the dark red stone looked in comparison to the gray stone further down. This was stone, not brick, so what could make stone stain such a color?
She started to reach out to touch it again, but a sudden, croaking caw of a raven made the vixen scream. It was swooping down from the top of the wall toward her. Mara quickly turned to run back for the walnut tree. She could see the greens of the garden, her paradise, just ahead. Once she came to the foot of the massive tree, she paused to look back at the courtyard. The bird was still chasing her, and it cawed loudly again, making her jump and stumble over a massive root. She barely kept herself from falling to her face, but her side took a beating, landing sideways.
She growled as she tried to sit up on the root, rubbing her bruised side. She looked up at a third caw from above. Looking up to shake her fist at the persistent bird, Mara gaped in shock at how large the raven was, perched on a branch of the walnut tree, staring back at her. She had already had a run-in with a wolf that could howl loud enough to make her ears ache. What else would she discovery today? Watching the bird ruffle its feather as it shifted its weight on the branch, the vixen found herself holding her breath, waiting for something to happen.
Her blood ran cold. Did ravens talk? Even if they did, why did this one have such a creepy voice? The raven stared down at her. Was it amused by her reaction? The beady, black eyes locked onto her crimson ones. As Mara swallowed a lump of nerves in her throat, the bird swept its wings to their full length, flying down toward her.
Mara screamed in terror, scrabbling away from the tree roots. She gripped her side as she ran back for the door. She could hear the bird’s wings flapping behind her, but she moved around the bushes and flowers well enough to make it for the door to the castle. Once she got inside once again, she used every ounce of strength in her to slam the door closed. That split second before the large wooden door shut, she saw the raven halt, flashing its talons back at her while its wings flare widely.
“Darkness!” The last thing Mara heard before the door closed with a thud.
After Mary stopped trembling, the wolf led her back to the forest. They walked some ways before they came to a clearing, where the wolf sat down. He must have noticed her weariness, for he lied down near a tree, lowering his head to his paws. Mary stared at him for a moment before slumping beside the same tree to start weeping once more.
Everything was so wrong. She had imagined her sister had been held against her will all these years, waiting for her to rescue her. After their parents’ deaths, she had searched, hoping to find some kind of closure with their reunion. She was supposed to be scared and alone, like her, but seeing a sword in her hand and that inhuman behavior, she wasn’t sure what to do anymore.
The wolf at her side looked up at her, reaching his paw out to her hand. The pad of the paw made Mary look back at the ice-blue eyes. The gaze looked sad again. Had he known Mara was that way from the beginning, or had he been just as surprised to find her that way? Either way, she felt some comfort in the gaze just as she had earlier when he let her pet him so affectionately. Part of her wondered if this wolf was really a man under a curse of some kind, giving him the ability to understand the pain she was feeling right now. She stroked the furred head lightly, sniffling softly.
Mary looked up at the voice. Where had it come from? Had Mara come back to attack them? Her crimson eyes found a raven sitting in a tree across from the wolf and herself. She gaped at the size of it. This felt like a scene from an Edger Allen Poe piece. As the black eyes stared back at Mary for a while in silence, the fear gripping her chest eased. She felt no danger was going to come to her from this creature. The animal must have noticed the change. Spreading its wings, it jumped up to fly straight down at her.
At that moment, the wolf leaped up to catch the bird in his mouth. Mary had not moved, but her heart was still racing from the intensity of the situation. She watched the bird flap its wings frantically, but the lupine just sat down calmly. The young woman blinked in shock.
Just what kind of animals lived in the Carpathian mountains? Wolves with humans reflections and now talking ravens? She wasn’t sure she dared to wonder what else she might find. After a brief, futile struggle, the bird finally stopped moving, and a less suspenseful voice chirped, curiously.
“Is that you, Anselm?”
The wolf leaned down to widen his jaws at last. The raven stumbled away a few paces, shaking its feathers free of the saliva. Once it finished shuffling about, it paused to pick out the last droplets with its beak. Looking back at the lupine, a silence fell upon the clearing as the raven eyed the wolf closely before flapping its wings excitedly.
“That is you, Anselm! You’re the only wolf that would let a bird like me go! I’m so glad you found the other one!”
“Excuse me for disrupting your reunion,” Mary spoke up with a confused tone of voice, “but might I ask how you can talk? And who exactly is Anselm?”
“Well, aren’t you just full of questions, Sun Dweller?” The raven craned its neck about to look at Mary. “Obviously, I’m not a typical bird, so I’m not bound to typical birdie behavior. How can you not know Anselm though? You were just being sweet on him before I spoke up. You really make him happy if you hug him around the neck...” The wolf narrowed his eyes down at the raven, making it giggle like a child. It even covered its beak with its feathers, making Mary raise both eyebrows curiously.
“You mean...” She pointed to the wolf, pausing to mouth an apology for the rude gesture, “The wolf’s name is Anselm then? He hasn’t exactly explain things to me. Though, we’ve met before.” The lupine whined slightly. Maybe he felt a bit guilty about what she’d said. She had no way of knowing though since his lack of voice left him silent.
“That’s just how he is. He’s always been a quiet guy,” the bird said at last. “Don’t worry though. He wouldn’t lead you astray. Anselm always tries to help the Sun Dwellers.”
“And what exactly is that? I’ve never heard that term before,” the young woman said, finally warming up to the animal. If someone was willing to explain things to her, she was all ears right now.
“Oh gosh! You couldn’t even tell her about that, Anselm?” The raven cawed up at the wolf, who was still looking away. “Well, Sun Dweller, they are the greatest weapon against the Darkness. You are one yourself, if you hadn’t already noticed since you can walk around during the day and all. Sun Dwellers are born to fight the Darkness that threatens to engulf the world, and it just woke up again.”
“You mean the Darkness that the wolf... I mean, Anselm tried to tell me about some kind of Darkness that held my sister. Please,” Mary leaned forward to get closer to the raven, “can you tell me about this Darkness? It’s done something to Mara. I have to get her back... I’ll do anything! Please tell me why it’s targeted my family!”
“Uh...” The bird looked over at the wolf. It was looking for some backup, but the lupine just looked back at it, as if to say ‘you brought it on yourself’. “I really think Anselm would be the better one to tell you. I’m not good with long explanations. I lose my train of thought way too easily. Ahaha...”
The blonde gaped down at the bird. Her chest felt tight, and her face felt warm. Was this bird here to help her or toy with her emotions? The failed attempt to frighten her with that whole swooping down into her face seemed to be the length of its original intentions. If they weren’t going to help her, she wished they would just come out and say it. Her nerves were already frayed from her earlier encounter. She didn’t want to deal with any games or pranks right now.
That was when the wolf stood up and began to walk away. Mary gasped, reaching out for the creature. Was he going to leave her again? Was she supposed to follow him? She didn’t know what to do.
Nothing was making sense right now. This bird was blundering on about Sun Dwellers and Darkness, and her twin sister was brandishing weapons in front of her. Whatever world she had fallen into, she was unsure of where to go from this point, and if what this raven said was true, she had been born into it, regardless of her sister’s kidnapping or parents’ deaths. She was scared of her own ignorance. She needed answers of some kind. The bird had said this Anselm helped people like her, right? He couldn’t just walk away from her like this, could he?
“Anselm...” The wolf paused, hearing his name called. “Please... Won’t you help me...?” The lupine looked over his shoulder at her. The ice blue irises held their sad expression as he looked into her crimson eyes. Just as he had done the day he led her to Gabriel, the wolf bobbed his head, waiting for her. A smile spread across her lips as a few tears of relief fell from her eyes. Wiping her eyes with her sleeve, she stood to follow. The raven flew up to her shoulder, startling her a bit. “What do you want now?”
“I’m just curious is all,” the bird replied in a creepy tone. “I want to see what this generation can do. I want to know if you have what it takes.” As disturbing as it seemed to have a talking raven on her shoulder, the bird still didn’t feel dangerous to Mary. Maybe it really was just a prankster, but the young woman was learning not to underestimate the animals of the Carpathians.
The wolf, Anselm, led the young woman and raven back to the river. Leaping up onto a nearby boulder that had sunk into the water, he plopped down once again, staring down at the reflection of the man on the surface. He was seen seated on the rock, supporting himself with one hand behind him this time. The other hand was on his thigh. Mary wasn’t sure she would ever get used to seeing the man. He had a presence about him, yet seeing him this time, she saw that the sad eyes were the same as the wolf. He looked so unhappy. He had to be under a curse of some kind. Maybe he would tell her about it...
“Mary Black,” the man said in a regal tone, “I beseech thy forgiveness. In mine own haste, the knowledge thee did seek wast left unsatisfied. Verily, I wast once called Anselm, long ago. I am but a lone wolf in these times, a cousin unto the Sun Dwellers. The raven upon thy shoulder anon is a cousin in kind. Lu, I dare sayeth, hast cometh to behold the returneth of the Sun Dwellers.”
“Aw! You can’t go telling my name without asking, Anselm!” The bird flapped her wings in protest.
“I believeth thee bequeathed mine own to Mary ere.” He gave the raven a blank look that silenced the tantrum.
“Yes, master sent me here. He said he sensed movement in Romania again.” The bird sounded as if it were pouting. It even hunched its shoulders for effect.
“Lu?” Mary blinked at the name, rolling it around her brain a moment. “That sounds to be of Asian origin. Are you not from the mountains then?”
The raven swooped down from Mary’s shoulder. In the blink of an eye, the bird’s form shifted to that of a human. Standing from her hunches, a petite girl looked back at Mary with a childish grin. Her black hair was twirled up in twin buns on either side of her head with only a few stray strands falling around her obsidian eyes. Her skin was pale as cream in a short, purple, Chinese cheongsam with silver trim. There was plenty of flesh to be seen. She giggled at the blush on Mary’s face.
“I’m Lu, a shapeshifter.”
“Lu serves a cousin thee shouldst meeteth, Mary,” Anselm motioned a hand toward the girl, who was stretching her limbs in an unladylike fashion. “Though the lady may not appeareth it, Lu can beest of holp to thee. I giveth mine own word to thus.”
“Very well,” Mary said, a bit disapproving. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust the changeling. She just had trouble taking her seriously when she acted so crudely. Although she now lived with a man and her only friends were male, Mary still considered herself a lady. Her parents had raised her to be such after all. This Lu had nearly exposed herself several times to both Anselm and her. It just wasn’t proper. “When do we leave then... Anselm?” She was still getting used to that name.
“I shall not accompany thee. Lu shall escort thee to the master well enow.” Anselm looked down after he said that. He had purposely broken eye contact. That was the first time he had diverted his eyes from her. Why would he do that? What was wrong now?
“Why?” Mary asked in surprise. “I thought you helped Sun Dwellers.”
“Thither is not time anon. Thee shouldst seek him out. Thy sister dependeth on thee to learneth all thee can. A rescue may cometh to light through his knowledge.”
“I can’t just leave you here! I still need your guidance, Anselm! Please...”
She trailed off as he looked back at her. His eyes looked even sadder than before. She felt as if he shouldn’t be alone. The affection he had shown her when she arrived that morning and later in the clearing, she felt he too was suffering. She wanted to help him in return for all he had done for her. Even if he was accustomed to being alone, that didn’t mean he had to be.
“Mary,” Anselm leaned forward from where he sat, “moo is at stake than thee knoweth. With e’er passing moment, the Darkness stealeth Mara Black further from thee. I knoweth thus cannot beest thy desire. Thee cannot tarry long lest the lady beest lost e’ermoo.”
“Hey, Anselm,” Lu raised a hand like a child in a classroom, “master didn’t tell me anything about bringing anybody back with me. You know he doesn’t like surprises. I don’t want to get on his bad side.” Her face looked solemn. Was her master that horrible? Mary didn’t want to leave Anselm now.
“Mine own lief cousin shall pardon the intrusion for mine own sake, Lu.”
Anselm gave a small smile. It was similar to a nostalgic smile. How long had it been since he had seen this person? They seemed to get along for the most part, but Mary wasn’t sure how they were cousins...
“Okay, but if he ruffles my feathers, I’m selling you out quick,” the changeling replied, folding her hands behind her head with a pout. She winked though, huffing a brief laugh.
“I shall accepteth the censure with honor,” Anselm replied in a light voice. Was that almost a laugh? “The Sun Dwellers are depending on thy wings, Lu. I bequeath mine own whole faith in thee.” Lu blushed with a grin, giggling bashfully. Just how old was she?
Mary glanced back at the man in the river. His attitude toward this whole situation was so serious. She had seen a taste of this Darkness in her sister today. Could she truly get much worse? Was her life in danger? Maybe she should take his level of concern to heart a bit more. After all, she knew nothing of this world they lived in. Her collapse came to mind. She hugged herself, recalling how empty and lonely that dream had felt. Was that the Darkness? Those green eyes staring down at her gave her a chill.
“I seeth fears bind thy heart, Mary. What troubleth thee?” Anselm tilted his head, noticing her body language. For a moment, she thought she saw her late father looking back at her with concern. The icy blue eyes held such care and affection, just as her father’s had. Had Anselm been a father once?
“I... I want...” She stopped, closing her eyes a moment to collect herself. “I need answers. The Darkness, the Sun Dwellers, Mara, my family, even me, there are so many more questions I have than before. I... I wish you would just tell me. You’ve already helped me so much. Can you not just tell me, Anselm?”
“Mary...” His eyes grew sadder than ever, wounded even, “He would knoweth better than I.”
“I don’t understand,” Mary cried softly. “You must know something. You knew where to find Gabriel. You knew where to find Mara. You know about the Darkness and the Sun Dwellers. Why can you not tell me anything now? Right now, there is no one I trust more than you!”
“Tis not mine own ignorance of events of yore,” he said calmly. His eyes fell down to his hand as he continued. “I doth not wish to blind thee to the sooth. The master of Lu is moo wis than I. I believeth he canst giveth thee the answers thee needeth. Though Lu speaketh ill of him, he hast been a lief cousin to me and the Sun Dwellers. I knoweth he shall guide thee down the true path to reclaim what thee hast lost.”
“Anselm...” Mary gaped back at the reflection in the water. She was speechless. Was he trying to say he was unfit to guide her? How could he say that? What was he keeping from her?
“He can’t come with us anyway, Sun Dweller,” Lu spoke up, scoffing tiny pebbles on the riverbank with her little slippers. The changeling’s patience had run out, leaving her bored. She didn’t seem to care for serious talk either.
“He can’t? Why not?”
“Nope, I get so used to seeing him as a wolf that I forget he used to look like that,” the girl pointed at the water.
Mary thought about how he had only been able to communicate through his reflection. Even though he seemed to walk by their side in the wolf’s body, she realized how she was just assumed he was within the creature. Could he be a ghost, trapped here until he found closure? Maybe he was cursed to the form of a wolf, forced to remain in this area. Whatever the reason, Anselm was trapped in this place she called a paradise. Was that the reason he told her not to look to him for answers, or was he covering up some other weakness?
“Lu, tis I that request thy silence anon.” Anselm’s voice was stern this time. He sounded as if he were giving a command. His eyes hardened as a ruler passing judgment. Had they struck a nerve?
“I’m sorry! I forgot you don’t like to talk about that!” Lu hid behind Mary, whimpering like a scolded child. “Master usually just ignores me if I talk too much. I really am sorry, Anselm...”
“If it be true thee recall,” Anselm said in a regal voice, “tis nothing to forgive. Thy mind doest wonder. I shall only remind thee.” From his posture and demeanor, Mary thought he looked like a leader of some kind. His clothes were older than the Feudal Europe, making class or ranking difficult to discern, but the Brit could just feel the presence of a lord from him.
“Is that why you said you won’t come with us?” Mary asked in a hurt voice. “You could have just said that. I wouldn’t think less of you for being trapped here. You could at least tell me that much...”
“Nay,” he replied, grimly. Standing from the rock, the wolf and its human reflection looked back at her with a serious expression. “I am a fool that remaineth in penance. One such as I couldst only leadeth thee to ruin, as I hast hath brought mine own.” After that, the wolf leaped past them, disappearing into the trees.
Mary turned to stare after him. Had she offended him somehow? She hoped not. The thought wounded her to think the person that had tried to comfort her moments before had been driven away by her thoughtlessness. She hoped she would see him again. She felt they shared a connection that she wanted to understand better.
“Hey, Sun Dweller,” Lu drew Mary’s attention back from the forest, “don’t fall behind cause I don’t slow down for anyone.” The young woman nodded sadly. “You do know how to fly, right?” The changeling couldn’t help poking her baggage in the cheek. She didn’t want to deal with angst.
“Y-Yes,” Mary replied. Her tone was irked. Did she have to be so irritating? It was as if she wanted to see how long her patience could last.
“You looked a little lifeless, so I was just making sure you hadn’t lost your nerve just cause Anselm gave you the cold shoulder.” Lu sighed lightly, smiling back at the blonde. “Don’t worry about him so much. He just needs his alone time. The really old guys usually do. I’ve brought my master pretty far though. He stopped kicking me out of his room when he gets annoyed. Hahaha!”
“You called him old, but you both seem to know one another well,” Mary said. “Are you not as old as he is?”
“Well, that’s a little complicated,” Lu said rolling her eyes up at the sky. “You see Anselm is old, but he doesn’t change cause he’s been stuck next to this river forever. Me? My age doesn’t really matter. I’m not a shapeshifter for nothing. My specialty is blending in. Even my speech changes! You see, I’m just talking how I normally do, but you hear me however you’re used to hearing people talk. Anselm hears me in his at the same time! Pretty cool, huh?”
“That is impressive.” Despite her immature and crude behavior, Mary couldn’t deny that Lu was gifted. Though her actual age was still something she wanted to know, just to see how disappointed she should be. “Where is your master anyway? How far is he from here?”
“Oh, master’s back home in China.”
“China!” Mary cried, making a flock of birds scurry from the trees nearby. It already took hours to get to Europe and back to the States, but China was practically the same distance she’d taken already. It was already afternoon at this point, meaning they would arrive in China by late evening, if not early morning. “But I have to get back home by Sunday night! I only have so many days off work!”
“Days off?” Lu tilted her head at the new term. She did like to be in the know about things, so she figured she needed to know more. “Why do you get days off? How do you get them on? Is it like a spell or something?”
“No, I only have some many days I don’t have to be at work,” Mary leaned backward as the changeling leaned closer to her. She was beginning to understand Wes and his feelings on his bubble. “I have to be at work on Monday, or I won’t make enough money toward my check. I don’t have to work on Saturday or Sunday. Those are my days off.”
“Work? You work for someone else? But you’re a Sun Dweller! Sun Dwellers have always been of noble blood! I’ve never heard of a Sun Dweller living in servitude! Master isn’t going to believe me when I tell him about this!”
As horrified as she sounded, her face looked like she might burst out into laughter. Mary just stared down at her with an unamused look on her face. If Lu was anything like the rest of the people she was going to meet, she wondered how much more detached they could get.
“So you can fly! That’s great!” The quick recovery made Mary’s head spin. Was this thing bipolar or something? “I have to be back soon. Master told me not to be gone long, so we need to get there by evening. That way he won’t be up too long waiting on us.”
“We’ll never make it in time,” Mary protested. “It’s already afternoon now. We still have hours ahead of us.”
“Sure we’ll make it,” Lu said with a wink. Shifting back into her raven form, she flapped her wings, heading east. “Like I said, I hope you can keep up!”
“Hey! Wait up, Lu!” Mary cried as she pushed off the ground quickly. Levitating over the river, she glanced about, trying to spot the bird. How hard could it be to see a big, black bird in a blue sky? It wasn’t until Lu shot passed her face that Mary was able to fly after her at last. “Lu, hold up a moment! I don’t know where to go!”
“Don’t fall behind, Sun Dweller! We’ve got a long way to go, and we’ll be going fast enough to be unnoticed,” Lu called back as she sped up.
Mary gaped in awe. No bird could fly that fast, but she did her best to speed up. It was one thing to run quickly, but flying, this was much trickier. She tried to hold her body as straight as possible, hoping it would help with the aerodynamics. This master had better be worth the trip.
“I always wondered what a round trip was like...” She muttered to herself as the wind beat against her face. “Now, I’m getting a trip round the world, only I don’t have eighty days to pull it off!”