The Raven's Secret
Chapter Two-The Raven’s Secret
The cool twilight wind rushed past Raven's ears as he darted after the raven through the flickering trees. The raven weaved to and fro through the branches, always up ahead, never looking back. Just when Raven thought he couldn't run another step, the raven came to rest in the boughs of a great, gnarled oak tree. He perched there like a bird of evil omen, silent, solemn, eyeing Raven with a long face as Raven stood there, panting. The tree was as old as the hills, and its twisted branches seemed to scrape the sky, and it seemed to have a face, that stared out at him from the knotted bark, a face that was all furrows, but still kindly. "You must dig," said the raven. "At the base of the tree. Three feet down. Hope you don't mind. You'll find a spade inside the tree, as you can see, I was well-prepared." Raven found an old rusted spade stowed inside a crack in the trunk of the tree, just as the bird had said. "I'd do it myself, but it's nearly impossible for wings to wield a shovel, as you may imagine."
"I can imagine," said Raven, "but what I don't understand is why you chose me." "Why? It's very simple, really," replied the raven. "My secret should only be revealed to someone whom I can trust, someone with a kind heart."
"And you think that person is me?"
"I told you I've been watching you," said the raven. "I have sharp old eyes and I know that you brew your grandmother's tea in the cold evenings without being asked, when she is plagued by her rheumatism. You go out into the forest and gather sticks for the fire when her old bones are too tired."
"Grandmother and I live alone," said Raven, "she's taken care of me for as long as I can remember and even though I'm small, I try to help her whenever I can."
"I know," said the raven, nodding his glossy black head, "and that's precisely why you are the excellent heir for my secret."
Raven was already digging. The earth around the tree was soft and relatively loose, and as he dug, he unearthed layers upon layers of leaves, the leaves from many summers past, red and brown and golden. The raven watched as he dug, and once, when Raven stopped for a moment to rest, he thought he saw the bird's eyes full of tears.
After he had dug a hole almost deep enough to bury him, Raven's spade knocked against something firm and hard, like wood. CLUNK! The thud shook his bones. "There! That would be my secret that we hear!" Squawked the raven, his voice cracking in excitement "my nest egg is hatching!"
Raven set the spade down and began scraping the dirt away on his hands and knees. As he brushed leaves and dirt away, something golden gleamed out at him, and he saw that what he was uncovering was a heavy box. And SUCH a box! It was made of rich, dark wood, that gleamed magnificently out even through the dirt and moldy leaves. The box was clasped by twin dragons with sapphire eyes, each of them swallowing their tails. Their golden bodies were slender, and plated with hundreds of tiny, fitted scales, that glowed as he revealed more and more of the box.
Raven's little hands shook. He was hardly able to contain his wonderment. "It's glorious!" He whispered. At last he took hold of both sides of the box and lugged it up from the hole. Out in the open the box was even more enchanting. The dragons had fangs as sharp as thorns, and they almost seemed ready to spring off the box and pounce on him. Their clockwork wings embraced the box protectively, the tips interlacing with each other at the center where the keyhole should be. "You must spread their wings," said the raven in a hushed voice. He too seemed bewitched by the magnificence of the box, the box that until this moment had been a secret under the forest floor. Raven put his hands on the top of the box and let his fingers slide down over the golden wings. The metal was silky but icy-cold, and it spread chills through his whole body. With one gesture, he lifted the wings at the same time. The box gave a shudder and the wings sprang apart. Beneath them was a small keyhole, rimmed with mother of pearl, that gleamed like the silvery panes of stained glass. "Don't be afraid, child," said the raven gently. He could see that the little boy's nerves were unsettled, and his pale hands were shivering like white leaves. "I'm not afraid," said Raven, "only I feel excited, like something wondrous is about to happen."
"And it is," clucked the bird, coming right up next to Raven for the first time. He wrapped one fringed wing over Raven, who noticed for the first time that he was chilled, and he huddled in closer to the wide, warm wing, so close that the raven's feathers brushed his cheek. Raven was surprised at how much more downy and enormous the raven's wings seemed than they had before. There was a steady gleam in the raven's eyes, a burning glow that came from deep inside.
The raven just stood there for a few silent moments, alert and attentive as a watcher dressed in black. He seemed to be drinking in the moment, as if he had been waiting for this very moment for a very long time. The atmosphere between the bird and the boy was filled with a quiet joy and a deep, calming peace. It seemed to thicken the very air. Raven could feel the bird's glowing energy like a a heat from a burning coal radiating off him, and it filled him with wonder. The raven's feathers moved gently in a breath of wind, like silk might move under water. The edges of his feathers almost seemed to glow like gold. It was a breathless, magic moment, as Raven watched his feathered companion get lost in wonder.
Raven was marveling because he, too, had felt this same way when he had stood watching the morning dawn, when a thousand tiny moon-jewels of dew made the green fields and the trees tremble with a milky magic, he stood in this world, a boy alone in the chill of the morning's youth, and clutched a single stalk in his hand-dandelion clocks-a single, frozen frame of an eyeblink-caught in the rich thud of his heartbeat-and in that moment he had felt completely at one with the world.
"It's time." The raven's voice broke the stillness at once, like the crisp crack of a brittle twig in a midnight forest. His voice was like a crack of thunder in a speechless sky, loud even though he spoke softly, and it brought Raven to life as if he had been a stone statue. As he knelt, he felt like he did in dreams, not in control of his movements but rather as if some higher force was moving his limbs. He knelt, and reverently grasped the key with a steady hand. It burned like an ember in his palm. Through a glistening tunnel of mist he gazed steadily at the box.
Everything-his surroundings, and his mind, seemed strangely clear as he fit the key into the lock. It slipped in as smooth and as silent as silk, as though it had been waiting to be one with the box once again. With a flick of his wrist he turned the key, and then there was a soft, rustly purr, and a buzz of energy came from the box. The rumble made the box shake like a compact earthquake in his hands, and lit Raven up like a lamp from the inside out. Raven lifted the lid of the box.
Time stood still, and Raven and the bird were suspended inside it, forever. As the lid lifted, bright, strong, burning beams, like gleaming strands of gold, escaped from their dark wooden prison. For a moment, Raven was struck blind, as if the sun itself was kept prisoner inside. His whole world was blinding light. Then, the light dwindled and slowly grew gentler, subduing at last to a gentle, smokey glow.
"I've lived this moment many times before in my dreams," spoke the raven. "but never has it been so glorious as this." Raven heard what he said in the back of his mind, but the bird's voice was faraway. He was transfixed by the box. As the light diminished, a whole world glowed out from inside the chest. It was a treasure, but it was more than that, it was a king's treasure, a fairy fortune, a priceless inheritance that was far too vast and valuable to belong to just one man. Raven was dumbfounded by the glory. The inside of the chest seemed bigger and deeper than it appeared from the outside-so many wonderful things glistened inside, and the treasure seemed to burn of its own light. There was silver, and gold--so much gold, but the treasures inside exceeded far beyond mere gold. Sparkling gems of every color, magical items, and ancient odds and ends-there was wealth enough inside this one box for an entire kingdom.
The gold and silver was like a nest for jeweled birds and sparkling daggers, opal and moonstone eggs nestled next to silver snuffboxes and miniature books encrusted with emeralds, rubies and sapphires, their pages pale as milk. There was a tiny, perfect golden bird cage with a diamond bird inside, and iridescent dragon scales. Wooden tinder boxes carved with runes and flowers lay half buried in pools of gems that glowed like deep blue water. Clockworth moths with velveteen wings perched on stacks of old, rusted dwarf-coins, and in one corner amber bees clung to a rippling, golden cloth, spun so fine it was nearly invisible. There were pearls as glossy and bright as little moons, and a twinkling stone as big as Raven's fist that seemed to have the light of a star captured inside.
Raven sat deaf and dumb, and drank in the beauty of the treasures before him. His grandmother's stories often had magical treasures, but none even came near to this, and even his most vibrant imaginings could not have prepared him. This was not one man's treasure. It was the fortune of an entire kingdom. He noticed a delicious smell coming from the box-it was an earthy, papery smell, like the essence of a locked-up book closet, wild like a winter forest, a little sharp and warm like ink, with sweet hints like apple leaves and caramel. It was a beautiful fragrance, and Raven recognized the smell from somewhere, though he could not remember where.
"And now you know my secret," said the raven in a reverent tone, as they both gazed at the fairy treasure together. It lit their faces with a golden glow as if it had been a fire. "The treasure that was in my safekeeping, until the time comes..."
"But I don't understand," said Raven, "even if this treasure were evenly divided and spread among half the kingdom, there would still be plenty wealth to spare."
"That may be true," "said the raven, "ravens are renowned for their collections of shiny objects, but this--this is truly the ultimate shiny collection, and its value goes beyond words or comprehension, but it is not mine to give or divide. I am only the guardian, and it is in my safekeeping until a certain day. But now that we've put the hardest part behind us, you had best get home to your grandmother, because it's already growing dark."
Raven broke his eyes away from the treasure and looked up. When his eyes adjusted from the glare of the gold, he felt his heart sink. Dusk had crept up between the trees, and shadows lurked in the hollows like sneaky beasts trying to stay out of sight. The sun had already sunk beyond the horizon and a damp chill settled in the air. "I don't remember which way is home," said Raven in a small voice. He felt a panic rise inside his chest, but he quickly swallowed it down. Besides, it's dark already! Grandmother says that the hour just after darkness is when wolves begin to prowl." Just thinking about ferocious, foul-fanged wolves made Raven's skin crawl. He looked at the bird. "What should I do?"
"Hmmm," said the raven thoughtfully, cocking his glossy head to one side, "your grandmother was right to warn you about wolves. They come out after dark and they are the hungriest after nightfall. The forest at night is no place for a little boy, you should be safe at home by now. But darkness is already upon us, and there's no time for you to make your way safely home. Let's let that be my fault, shall we?" The raven put his wing comfortingly around the little boy's shivering shoulders.
"Don't worry, said the old bird kindly, "I won't let any harm come to you, you'll be as safe as a chick in its nest as long as you do what I tell you. Now, first of all, let's get the treasure covered back up for the night, at least. It must remain a secret to any bird, beast or man that passes by this way." Raven and the bird lugged the chest back down into the hole and covered it over with dirt, covering the top with a heap of leaves. The raven spread his wings and stamped up and down on the leaves. "There! That should hold at least for a night or two," said the raven. "Now, the next order of business is to find you a bed for the night! I know a nice hollow tree nearby that will make you a perfect nest. Follow me, and try not to make a sound."
The darkness was getting deeper now, the shades between the trees grew blacker, like a deep stain slowly spreading. The forest's silence was suddenly brimming with night noises: Crickets and tree frogs were chirping in the hollows and the crisp wind rustled through the leaves like it was searching for something it had lost. Even over all the din, Raven could hear his heart knocking around inside his chest. His ears were pricked for the slightest hint of a growl or crack of a twig. The forest did not seem like the same world at night. It was not the friendly forest he knew. It was ominous and seemed to ooze with a sinister atmosphere, as if every dark leaf that stirred in the wind was a spy following his every footstep.
The raven flew ahead, but he kept circling back so raven could make him out in the darkness . The bird seemed to know the forest like one knows a familiar room-he lead the boy steadily on a straight path until Raven found himself in a small, sheltered circle of trees. He stopped and looked at the raven, shivering. "Do you see that large tree in the middle?" said the bird, "there you'll find a snug little nook for you to curl up in for the night. You will stay warm as long as you don't come out. Just keep yourself and your nose inside-for your own safety. I will be a little distance away, hidden in the branches, where I can keep a good eye on your secret hiding place as well as a good perimeter around so I will spot any wolves if they are coming."
Raven hesitated. "Well? what are you waiting for, my child? Are you afraid?" said the raven. "You needn't be, for I won't let any evil befall you, and you have my word of honor on that."
"It's not me!" Burst out Raven, and the tears came like a thunderstorm. "I'm worried about Grandmother, you see, when I don't come home she'll think the wolves got me for sure! Oh, poor Grandmother!"
"Now, now, Raven," said the bird in a voice that instantly made the little boy feel calmer, "you must trust me. She may worry for one night, it's true, but straightaway in the morning I'll have you safely back, so there will be no harm done. Creep inside the tree-trunk now, and snuggle down, there's no time to lose. Try and get some sleep. I'm going to have a breakfast made for you outside the tree in the morning, but supper is too risky unless you'd like the wolves to join us for tea."
"I'd rather not, thank you," said Raven, and he squeezed himself into a great jagged crack in the trunk of the old oak tree. To his surprise, the inside was not at all wet, or sticky with cobwebs. Instead, it was dry and warm, and lined with soft leaves and grass and thistledown, like a rabbit's burrow. It was quite a nice little nook, for an old tree, and even though he had only just fit through the mouth of the crack, Raven found that the inside of the tree trunk was almost roomy. It had dependable bark walls, and Raven curled himself up into a sleepy little ball in the nest of warm leaves, and snuggled up.
He could hear the night noises faintly outside of his burrow-the wind gently rocking the tree trunk, almost like a cradle. Normally, Raven would have been terrified to be in the forest at night, but somehow, the fact that the kindly, curious bird was keeping watch from the trees nearby made him feel quite safe.
Raven could see the stars piercing the leafy forest roof above. They shone down through the cracks of the tree trunk, and reminded Raven of his bedroom window at home. He was soon lulled to sleep.
The night brought disturbing dreams. Raven heard loud snuffing noises around the outside of the tree and then a bitter howl shattered his ears and made his skin tingle. He burrowed his face down into the leaves and as hard as he could, tried to imagine himself safe at home in his own little house sitting next to the fire with his grandmother.
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