Lyliliana watched the flock glide and dip and soar. It was her favorite thing to do when her chores were done. The birds were blue and red and white against the black and gray of winter. Not much snow had fallen this year, and they had stayed for the fallen fruit and hidden berries on and around the farm.
Another flock filled the sky at times, but this one was not as pretty to watch as the other. Great black ravens had chosen this forest to live in many years ago, before Lyliliana had been born. She was now approaching fourteen, and she had grown up on stories of them, and their leader the Golden Raven.
He was not really golden, just the same glossy black as the rest of the flock. Some stories told that he was a princely Aeld, trapped in a raven body by a cruel spell, and when his true love broke the spell he would burst forth from his feathery prison in a golden garment studded with costly jewels. The glint of his eyes was said to be the sheen of his crown.
It was also said that he commanded ice and fire, and that he was the forest’s protector. He was bigger and more clever than the other ravens, and not a single one had been trapped or killed since he had brought his flock here. Nor had the farmers in this area had to contend with missing small livestock to aerial predation. Her practical father grunted when such stories were mentioned, and just said the bird knew what was good for it. “Let us alone and we’ll let them alone. One of the clever buggers figured it out, is all.”
Lyliliana leaned against the fence and dreamed. Her mother always scolded her for daydreaming away her spare time, instead of learning a new skill or finding another chore to do. Her dreams were wild and magical, and in them she was a fierce warrior queen or a beautiful princess on a dangerous adventure. She always won, naturally, but sometimes only by the slimmest of margins. She leaped back from the precipice just before it collapsed, loosed her last arrow to kill the evil beast, and kissed the prince just before he was lost forever. Her dark eyes sparkled as her imagination took her far away from the colorless winter farmyard.
“Lylee!” came a strident voice from behind her, “Lylee! Get yer head outta the clouds and bring us back some kindlin’!”
“Aye, Mum!” she shouted back, then climbed through the fence and wandered towards the edge of the forest, idly kicking clods of earth as her pale hair whipped around her face. She tucked it back into her hood as best she could, but strands escaped regardless.
She hummed a nonsense tune while she walked, letting her eyes wander for sticks on the forest floor as she walked further in. It was late in the season so all the easy wood was already long used. Suddenly she grinned and ran forward.
“A raven feather!” she cried triumphantly as she held her prize aloft. It was as long as her forearm and jet black at the tip, fading to dark grey at the base. The delicate fluff before the sturdy bare shaft was a much lighter grey. It reminded her of her father’s thinning salt-and-pepper locks. She touched the sleek, glossy feather to her cheek, reveling in its graceful strength. She would cherish it forever.
A hoarse croak from above startled her and she gasped as the foliage parted and a huge black shape dominated her view. It shuffled along a branch towards her, bobbing its tail for balance as it fixed first one piercing yellow eye on her, then the other. She took a step back.
The bird stopped as she moved away, and tilted its head, with an almost gurgling sound. Lyliliana’s heart pounded in her chest. The creature stretched one wing out to settle the feathers on it, and she was sure if both were spread, the span would be as wide as she was tall. She swallowed nervously – this could only be the leader of the raven flock. The Golden Raven!
She had expected to be elated, but was terrified. Girlish dreams of freeing the mythical bird from its flesh prison and riding away into a blissful eternity as a hero and a princess faded away into nothingness before the frightening black reality that gazed at her. His beak was as long as her hand, and as sharp as an axe. The claws that gripped his perch could easily crush a small animal and would certainly pierce her flesh.
She suddenly felt very small, very vulnerable and very alone.
Girl and bird gazed at each other in silence for a few moments. Gradually Lyliliana realized that she had been hearing an odd cooing, almost like a mourning dove. The bird tilted its head at her again and fixed one large eye, the color of a coin she had seen once, on her right hand. The feather she had found was in that hand. She ventured to speak.
“Do … do you want this?” she asked timidly. The cooing changed to an almost musical gurgle and the bird stretched its beak towards the object. Her beating heart sank a little.
“Oh but it’s so pretty. Please may I keep it?” The gurgle became less musical, and the raven stretched a little further. The jet black beak snapped a little, like a cat snapping its jaw at the sight of a mouse. She shrank back a little. The beak retreated, and the bird was silent a moment, peering at her again. Finally, it gave a soft, almost polite croak, and waited.
It took the girl a few breaths before she blinked in sudden wonder. “I… I do believe you just … did you say ‘please’ in raven-talk?” There was another short span of silence, and the bird repeated the sound, then waited again.
The pause gave her the time to look more closely at this creature. It was huge, but it also somehow looked quite old. The tuft of feathers above its beak was nearly white; the beard of feathers on its neck was dusty looking, not grey but not quite black. The talons gripping the branch moved slowly and perhaps even stiffly. If this bird had been the leader of the flock for all of her life, then in bird years it must be ancient! And it wanted its feather back?
She had been taught to respect her elders, and she thought perhaps this should count even though the elder in this situation wasn’t even her species. She held out the feather.
“I’m sorry. You can have it back. It was just so lovely, I hoped I could keep it.” One bold step forward brought her close enough to the raven that its outstretched beak easily grasped the feather, and though that maw could have crushed her hand, it wielded the plume with surprising dexterity and gentleness. She watched as the bird preened the feather from tip to tip, setting every barb into perfect, shining order.
The girl sighed and smiled. He seemed so happy to get his feather back. She wanted it very much, but it was obvious she had done the right thing in letting it go. She backed a step away again, intending to continue looking for kindling, as she was supposed to do.
The bird stopped preening the feather at her motion, and hopped down onto the forest floor. He then walked towards her with some dignity – though all birds look odd walking on the ground – and held the feather out to her. She was taken aback.
“Do you… do you want me to have it again?”
The bird pulled his head back, tilted it, then thrust the feather at her again, abruptly and decisively. She reached for it and took it from his beak. He raised his head with a peculiar jerking motion and looked expectant. She grinned, suddenly knowing what he wanted.
“Thank you, Sir Raven, for the gift.” and she gave a curtsey, dropping one of her kindling sticks in the process. The raven hopped back and peered at the bundle in her other arm, then tilted his head again, looking around beneath the trees. He began to hop about picking up sticks and bringing them to her. She laughed a bit and added them to her collection. She had already tucked the feather safely into the seam of her cloak. The raven shifted his weight from claw to claw at the sound of her laugh, tilted his head, and made a noise to imitate her. It was a rough noise, very unlike any laugh she had ever heard or made, but she understood the intent.
When she had as much as she could carry, she thanked him again. He hopped close enough and she made bold to touch him, like she would pet a cat. He dodged her first attempt and snapped lightly at her hand, but she tried again and felt the warm feathers of his neck and back smooth beneath her hand. She thought she saw something flicker behind his near eye, but it was gone in an instant and he hopped away again.
With dignified bird steps, he escorted her to the edge of the forest, hopped out of range, and launched himself heavily into the air. She watched him until he disappeared behind the trees.
She arrived with her load out of breath and glowing with her news. Her mother waved aside all her stories but praised the amount of kindling she’d brought, saying if pretending she had help got her to work harder she should pretend more help next time. Her father patted her on the head and told her to keep the feather for luck, because you never know.