Chapter one-The Raven
Raven lived with his grandmother in a little house, deep in the forest. The forest was dark and full of very old trees. Their branches made a thorny roof overhead, and at night the cold blue stars beamed down into Raven's bedroom window. In the mornings, Raven would sit at the window while his grandmother swept the leaves from the doorstep. He liked to watch the birds that came pecking for the breadcrumbs he scattered on the ground. In the evening, when the shadows grew long and spindly, Raven's grandmother would read him stories from an old book with tattered pages. She would read him stories about wicked wolves, and clever huntsmen and king's daughters taken captive in secret forest castles. But Raven's favorite story didn't come from a book. His grandmother knew his favorite story by heart. It was about a brave wanderer with a silver sword and a black cloak. This man was Raven's father, whom Raven knew only from the stories his grandmother told him. Raven's favorite part of the story was about the treasure buried somewhere deep in the forest. Raven's father disappeared shortly after he buried it, before he could tell another living soul, and he was never seen again.
Every day, Raven's grandmother made him tea and sandwiches, and he buttoned up his little woolen coat and ran out into the deep forest to play He was allowed to wander as far as he liked, as long as he was back by nightfall.
"Don't ever stay out past dark," his grandmother said, "the wolves come out and they will eat you for supper if they catch you in the forest after dark."
One day, Raven went out into the deep forest to play, like he always did. For awhile, he skipped happily along in the sunbeams that found their way down through the thick forest-roof. He stood at a bend in the river and made little boats out of sticks, and watched them sail away down the stream to faraway countries. At midday he sat down on a mossy log and ate his sandwiches and drank his tea. A full stomach made him drowsy, so he stretched out in the sunshine and took a little nap.
He woke up out-of-sorts, and he sat up, unsure of what had woken him. The sun had moved to its late afternoon place in the sky, and the grassy patch where he lay had grown cold. As he sat still, shivering in the shadow, he heard a noise. It was a curious noise, not quite a bird, and not quite an insect. Raven followed the noise off the familiar path, into parts of the forest he had never been before. The trees were closer here, and the whispering leaves sounded a little more papery. The air was still and heavier, somehow, it smelled like stale fog and wet leaves, and the ferns grew thicker and bigger the further Raven went. It was clear that no living creature had stepped foot there for a long time. Raven came to a clearing, and there the noise stopped, as if to say: "This is the place."
Raven looked up and down, and all around. The sky was laced with thorny black branches, and the ground was carpeted with long green grass. Here and there bluebells poked up above the grass, and they seemed to glow in the dim sunlight. Their sweet smell filled the glade and made Raven dizzy. He stood still as a stone and listened to the silence. Through the still air he heard nothing at first, and then the tiniest sound, like the clear trickling of water. He followed the sound, which led him to some smooth grey stones. Out from the stones flowed a bright spring, flickering in the shades and light of the sun. Raven had been walking a long while, and when he saw the bright bubbling steam he realized how thirsty he was. He knelt down by the spring and drank some of the water from his hand. The water was sweet and icy-cold, and tasted of fresh rain and secrets buried deep beneath the earth. After he drank the water, Raven felt refreshed. He sat back and took a deep breath. As he rested, he noticed a faint, glassy tinkling noise, like distant bells. He looked around, and realized the sound was coming from the bluebells. He hadn't noticed their ringing before, but now it was as clear as the sound of the trickling water.
He noticed other new sounds, too, as he sat with his ears perked. He heard the little rustling and tip-tapping footsteps of insects scuttering beneath him in the grass, and he heard their tiny, voices, like tiny tin bells, as they squeaked about the newest ant trails and the trees with the most rotting apples. "Curious!" Said Raven out loud. It seemed to him as if the quiet of the forest had suddenly come alive with a million sounds his ears had never heard before: He heard the leaves sighing leafy green sighs. The wind whistled a lonely tune of its travels over hills and empty fields, and the river too, sang a song that went rippling over the rocks and slipping between the stones.
The falling leaves made sounds like gentle chimes as they flitted to the forest floor like papery butterflies. He could even heard the worms gurgling in the dirt beneath and the furry whispers of rabbits deep in their dens.
Raven felt as if he had stepped out of his life and into a dream: the forest was like a whole new world. Only in his grandmother's stories did the birds and beasts speak, yet here he was, hearing them all talk as if he had been able to do so all his life. And then, as he sat taking in all the new music of the woods, he heard quite a different sound: a deep, scratchy croak. It came from somewhere above him, and this croak stood out from all the other new sounds because it was saying a word that Raven recognized: HIS NAME.
"Raven!" The voice croaked again, and Raven got to his feet, speechless. He scanned the nearby tree branches carefully, trying to see where the voice was coming from. He wasn't sure whether to be frightened or inquisitive. The voice was harsh, but it was also kind, so after a moment or two he decided he wasn't afraid. He peered as hard as he could into the leaves, a cluster of shifting shades and sunspots, but there was nothing but a quiet rustling and then something shiny fell from the leaves right at his feet. Raven dropped to his knees and felt in the long, cool grass, and his fingers felt a cold, smooth piece of metal, and he closed his hand over it.
He opened his hand and inside gleamed a delicate, golden key. Raven had never seen a key so tiny and so perfect. Every corner was even and every edge was smooth. It caught the sinking sunbeams in its flowery carvings and made him blink. As he sat staring at the key, a voice right above his head croaked: "Do you want to know what it unlocks?" Raven looked up, and there, on a low branch, perched an enormous, ebony-feathered raven, his eyes as bright as berries, and his head cocked to one side. "You can talk?" Raven said. It wasn't a question, not really, but Raven was stunned that the bird was speaking to him, and even more so that he knew his name. It was all he could think of to say. "Well, you can understand me, can't you?" Said the bird. Raven blinked. "Yes, it's just that I've never met a bird who could talk before." "I wasn't always a bird, you know," said the raven. "I used to be like you." He sounded sad. "How did you become a bird?" Asked Raven. The bird ruffled his feathers like one might adjust a heavy winter overcoat. "Many years ago, a wicked forest witch put a spell on me, and I've been forced to fly around enchanted as a raven ever since."
"And the key?" Asked Raven. "Ah, yes, now we get to the point! The key unlocks a secret that I've been guarding all this time," replied the raven. "I've been waiting for someone like you to share my secret with, because as you may guess, it doesn't do me much good being a bird." He spread his wide, rich wings and glided deeper into the woods, melting into the shadows beyond. "Follow me!" Raven heard him cackle, and he picked himself up and ran after him as fast as he could go, the key gripped tightly in his palm.