Welcome to the April installment of First Sunday Short Fiction. Please enjoy the story, and remember, if you want to submit a story of your own, you can find instructions on our submissions page.
The Raven Girl by Michelle Simkins
These are the laws of death:
The bodies of the dead belong to the Ravens.
The souls of the dead belong to the Raven Girl, who carries them to the next life.
Leave the bodies, naked and clean, on the stones at the top of Ravenshill.
Don't look back when you walk away.
He was 18 when he became King . He read the laws before he followed the cart bearing his father's body up the hill. His father seemed smaller in death than he had in life, a shrunken husk on the granite slab. Black birds already circled overhead, waiting for the mourners to leave.
The young King looked back just once. He saw the Raven Girl emerge from the trees, the eye of a black-winged tornado. Their eyes met, and the air around him blurred as if he’d opened his eyes under water. He stumbled and lost sight of her as the path began its descent.
His dreams that night swirled with dark wings and sharp claws, around a pair of black eyes in a white face.
He climbed Ravenshill under the full moon. The stink of death and the noise of night creatures surrounded him. He was afraid, but determined.
She entered the clearing with an unkindness of ravens wheeling around her. Her black, tangled hair moved ceaselessly in the wind of many wings. She wore only a short, ragged tunic. Her pale limbs seemed to glow in the eerie moonlight. She paused several feet from him. The ravens, one by one, came to rest on the ground at her feet.
“What do you want?”
Her voice was harsh and guttural, as if she never used it. Or as if the ravens had taught her to speak.
"I saw you. The day we brought my father up the hill.”
She took another step toward him; the ravens at her feet rose and settled noiselessly, like a cloud of soot lifted and dropped by a gust of air.
“I've been dreaming of your birds since," he said. "And of you."
She tilted her face up to the moon. "So?"
“I think the dreams mean something."
“They mean you looked back when you shouldn't have."
"They'll drive me mad."
She held out an arm; the largest raven fluttered to her. "Yes."
"Isn't there something you can do?"
She finally looked him in the eye. "Can? Or will?"
She turned and slipped away into the trees.
He tried to stay away, but the dreams grew darker and wilder each night. He consulted physicians, witches, alchemists. Nothing banished the dreams; instead, the dreams chased him into his waking hours. During quiet moments he heard wings on the air, scrabbling claws. The soft brush of feathers lingered on his skin, a sensual contrast to the taste of fear in his mouth. His heart galloped in his chest day and night, and his hands shook.
Under the next full moon, he said only one word.
She circled him, ghosting through a sea of moving darkness. He bowed his head. Finally she stopped in front of him, her bare white feet inches from the tips of his boots.
Her eyes moved over his face.
She put her small, cool hand in his and tugged. He followed her away from the place of dead things to a tiny clearing in the woods, a bowl full of silver moonlight. She dropped his hand and regarded him solemnly.
One frog, then many, burst into chorus. An owl called from the trees.
“You should have read all of the old laws, before you decided to break them," she said. "There's only one thing to save you now."
"What is it?"
In one swift motion she drew the tunic over her head and threw it to the ground.
The day the King married the Raven Girl, she made no effort to hide the roundness of her belly. She wore a red dress, and red roses in her black hair. The ritual was held in a meadow. Every tree circling the tiny clearing hosted a party of feathered guests. The human attendees shot uneasy glances at the silent birds.
After the ceremony the birds departed. Nesting season had begun.
When the wheat in the fields was almost ready for harvest, border sentinels sent word that armies were approaching from the west. The King called on his army to prepare a defense.
"You don't need an army," the Raven Girl told him. "The city is already defended."
"By what?" he asked. "A bunch of birds?"
He hadn't meant to sound mocking. Worry made him harsh.
But his wife wasn't entirely human, and didn't understand his fears.
She left him. Later he heard she'd stormed through the city streets with a pair of ravens darting after her. Those who saw her pass shuddered and made the sign of protection when they saw the rage on her face. When she stepped through the gates, every bird in the city followed.
That night over supper the king told his men to be ready at dawn. By nightfall they saw the first enemy warriors assembling at the edge of the trees to the north. By the time the distant hills resolved themselves against a gray sky, the landscape around the King's army was black with his enemies.
The soldiers whispered goodbye to the families they would never see again.
The enemy captain met the King in the middle of the field.
"You can surrender," the captain said.
The King opened his mouth, then snapped it shut when a sound like every bird in the world crying out filled the air.
In the next breath the bodies of innumerable birds blotted out the sky. At the center of the storm of wings and talons, the Raven Girl strode toward the two armies, her red dress swollen with the child she would soon deliver. She stopped beside the King's stirrup and looked at the enemy. The largest raven, the one who never left her, settled on her shoulder.
"You can surrender," she said.
The King wanted to tell her to leave before she got herself killed, but he knew if he shamed her she would never forgive him. He clutched the reins until they dug into his palms.
The captain edged his horse forward until its nose was inches from the Raven Girl's chin.
“I don't negotiate with women,” he replied, and spat.
Before the spittle landed on her shoulder, the hovering cloud of birds erupted.
The Raven Girl stood in perfect stillness at the King's foot, and the whole world became a torrent of sharp claws and beaks. The King bent his head to the horse's neck and hid his eyes. Some day he would be ashamed of his fear. Today he just hoped he survived.
When silence fell, he raised his head. She was watching him without warmth.
"I was wrong," he said.
His voice shook.
"Carry them up the hill," she said. "Friend or enemy, they still have souls. And they still belong to me."
story ©Michelle Simkins, 2011
artwork, "Raven Brings the Light" ©Raevyn Carney. Used with permission. Raevyn Carney is a fine artist and illustrator who lives in the woods of Oregon. She is inspired by her deep connection with nature and interest in mythology and fairy tales. Her influences include turn of the (last) century book illustrators, and the Symbolist and Pre-Raphaelite art movements. She's been drawing since she could hold a pencil and graduated from the California College of the Arts with a BFA in illustration. To see more of her work, visit her on Facebook.
About the Author:
Michelle Simkins runs Hagstone Publishing from her home office in Portland, Oregon, where she writes obsessively about herbs, trees, and encounters with the numinious, creates quirky knitting patterns, gardens haphazardly, reads voraciously, clumsily attempts to learn the Irish language, and watches too many reruns on Hulu with her wife.
Learn more about her work and her various obsessions at her website or follow her on Instagram.