The inspiration for this story came from a friend of mine named Sam Andrus. He had returned from a trip to London and had purchased me a postcard from the famous Tower of London. The postcard came in a brown wrapper that described the legend of the ravens there. I did a few Google searches to learn more about it, and the ideas started to flow. The idea I wanted to tackle was how a young man gains or loses his faith. The mockery of others is a powerful influence…
By Jeff Wheeler
As the sun first brushed a little pink in the smoke-choked sky, the ravens were loosed from Pent Tower. They fluttered with their hobbled wings over the ghastly siege and the strong men of the castle raised a cheer that swelled from voices hoarse with screaming, thirsty from drinking muddy water, and brave beyond measure. For the army of Dahomey was blocking the road to Syn Albans and relief was still a fortnight away. The Ravenmaster of Pent Tower stood on the battlement, raising his black glove in the air and the cheer shredded its cocoon and became a roar.
* * *
The lad was named Wilmont by birth, but the new scullion girl serving the tower called him Molesworth. It struck him as odd and cruel since he lived in Pent Tower – not deep in the castle kitchens as she did. But maybe her taunt referred to the fact that he slept under the Ravenmaster’s wood-frame bed on a mat of woven reeds and emerged from the dark corners each morning to mix the blood and biscuits and liver snippets that fed the ravens of Casta. This he did every morning while the Ravenmaster loosed the birds from the cages on the tower roof. He heard the trapdoor thunk and smoky light descended the steps hailing the old man.
The Ravenmaster suffered day and night from arthritic joints, wincing as he bent his knees and cradled the cages down, one by one, in his arms.
“Glad you are awake, lad. Come here and fetch Gorge. I don’t know why he’s so heavy this morn. There’s a good boy. Here you are.”
Wilmont grasped the beaten handle of the cage and hefted it over to the table inlaid with gold and rested the burden on the correct pedestal. He slipped a chicken heart through the slats and Gorge snapped it up.
“More please,” the raven croaked.
“Only one, Gorge.”
“Only one. There are the others yet to feed. Don’t be greedy.”
So many in the castle thought that Pent Tower was a quiet place. How could it not be when fowl outnumbered people there? But most days it was frightfully noisy. Each of the six ravens of Casta had different personalities, and two were clever mimics who could impersonate the Ravenmaster’s tone and voice so well that the scullions often fumbled around obeying their jumbled orders while Wilmont giggled at them beneath the bed. He enjoyed it when the scullions came, for they brought news from the castle and the country. Except the new girl. She made him uncomfortable. She brought a tongue barbed with gossip and haughtiness. Pretty, in truth, but worse than a pecking crow in how she treated everyone around her. The Ravenmaster was never interested in the affairs of men and kingdoms and several times during the siege had bade her to hold her tongue when she brought them bread and little meat. Though despite his censure of her, the old man carried on about the quality of bird feed since the siege began. How a man could make gossip of molting feathers disgusted him. Wilmont had begun hating him.
“Here’s Zig and Black, the two rascals.”
“The two rascals. Zig and Black. Rascals.”
“Rascals. Fetch the breakfast, lad.”
“Mop the privy.”
“Yes, mop the privy. Fetch the breakfast, lad.”
“Stop sleeping. Stop sleeping, lad. Ravenmaster you will be someday. Yes. The Ravenmaster. Someday.” And both birds began cackling as if they found the thought of it hysterical.
Wilmont grabbed the cages, a little ungently, and set them on the table as well.
“Fetch the breakfast, lad. Awk.”
“Awk. The breakfast. Biscuits are tasty. Biscuits are tasty.”
“More please,” chimed in Gorge, thrusting his beak through the bars.
Next came Shy and Nevar, and the teasing grew even worse. Wilmont ground his teeth, waiting for the Ravenmaster to come down with Proud. Whenever the master came, the birds’ teasing became more respectful.
“Mop the privy. Mop the privy.”
“Molesworth is ugly. Ugly and rude.”
He struck the scullion’s tone perfectly and it made his ears burn.
“Always a mess. Always so messy. The cook is messy. Messy and rude.”
“Molesworth is ugly.”
“Here is Proud. The last,” the Ravenmaster grunted as he said it, “of this beggarly lot. A princely lot. They eat better than we do during the siege.”
Wilmont scowled. “We don’t eat biscuits soaked in blood.”
“But they are princely still. How many ravens eat biscuits at all, lad? Hmm?” He coughed into his fist, his chest heaving after climbing down the ladder, then slumped into a chair by the table while Wilmont filled the porcelain bowls with the ravens’ breakfast. Each bowl bore their name.
“Tasty,” said Zig.
“Tasty,” agreed Black. “Mop the privy, Molesworth,” he added with a whisper and started to feast.
As he wiped his hands on a rag, Wilmont saw the Ravenmaster mop his brow, his chest heaving up and down. He tugged at the tight red collar that clasped the black tunic shut at his neck. The uniform was part of the position, and it was different than all the other servants of the castle. And the hat – Wilmont dreaded having to wear it for the scullion said it looked much like a muffin that had overflowed its pan.
“I can carry the cages up the stairs, Ravenmaster.”
A shock of dingy gray hair spilled out as the Ravenmaster flopped the hat on the table. The hair was wet along his forehead and nearly black where it clung like black quills.
“I know, lad. I know. The Ravenmaster…you will be someday. Three more years, probably. I think I can go that long. It’s just the ladder seems like it adds a rung every fortnight or so.”
Wilmont slammed the feeding bowl. “Three more years? The Fearsome Kings are laying siege to the castle. We’re down to one ration of bread a day. Three more years?”
The Ravenmaster said nothing about the outburst – instead, he fidgeting his thumb into his belt band to scratch his stomach as he spoke. “This has not been the first siege, lad. Nor will it be the last, I’m sure. The Fearsome Kings have long wanted to rule our island. I have lived through three others.” He scraped his chin, squinting. “And the Ravenmaster before me saw four himself. How odd. Four for each of us.”
Wilmont gritted his teeth. The Ravenmaster always seemed in wonderment at the little coincidences of life. To him it was just as interesting examining bird dung for what each had eaten during the day as it was for the stargazers to study the heavens.
“What if this is different, Ravenmaster? What if the castle falls? Shouldn’t we be…worried?”
“What is the need in worrying, lad? What is the cause? I worry when little Shy doesn’t eat as well as she should. I worry that Gorge might eat himself to death if he ever managed to unclip his wing. Don’t you see, boy? The castle cannot fall. Not while there is a raven nesting in Pent Tower.”
The boy scraped his fingernail in a groove of wood on the tabletop. He fussed with a napkin, watching the flecks and crumbs spatter as the ravens noisily ate.
“But what if it is only legend?” he whispered.
Wilmont shook his head, grinding his teeth again.
“What did you say?”
The boy shoved away from the table and fetched the wax and rag to begin polishing the cages. The Ravenmaster’s hand clenched on the bone of his shoulder.
“Legend? You think this is but a legend? Boy, have you flax between these ears of yours? Have you heard nothing I’ve taught you these six years?”
Wilmont stared into the old man’s eyes and twisted free the cap of the wax. “I’ve heard you, Ravenmaster. Everyone in the kingdom knows the story.”
“So they should! So long as one raven nests in the Tower, the king nor his keep will fall. Lad, this has been the way of it since Chobrid the Wise.” He released the boy’s tunic and grabbed his own, tugging at the black fabric, wrinkling the embroidered insignia of the raven on the front. “This is my charge, my honor, my duty.” He started to cough. “I am the Ravenmaster of Pent Tower, as my master was before me. As you will be if you are worthy of it. You heard the cheer of the soldiers this morning. Didn’t you? They look to us every day at dawn.”
And the scullions sneer at you behind your back, Wilmont thought savagely.
“And you think it nothing that mere orphans are granted this honor? Do you know the misery of an orphan’s life, boy? You’ve been taught to read. You’ve been given meat and cheese and beer instead of cabbage and soup. Your clothes are mended for you. Our duties are tedious oftentimes, but they are not grueling. Would you labor in the fields like the landless ones?”
“But how do you know the legend is true?” Wilmont scooped the rag across the wax and furiously started scrubbing Proud’s cage. “We are sheltered, yes. We are cared for, yes. We handle bird dung, yes! The only thing that makes this different than tending dovecotes is the legend. There are no pigeonmasters in Casta. We even kill the crows. How do we know the legend is true, master? Has a siege ever lasted this long?”
The Ravenmaster clenched his fist and for a moment, Wilmont though he’d earned it across his jaw. The old man’s lip trembled, his whiskers and beard straining, his eyes red from smoke.
When he spoke, his voice was hoarse with emotion. “When did you stop believing?”
Wilmont stared for a moment then turned back to his chore. “I’m not…I’m not sure I ever did,” he said over his shoulder.
He couldn’t face the look in the old man’s eyes, and he knew it.
* * *Pent Tower was one of several that marked the boundaries of the royal palace. From the vantage on the roof, Wilmont could see the seeding army of the Fearsome Kings. They had taken pains to hem in the entire fortress, with enough troops at the four cardinal points so as to be able to relieve one another, should the knights inside attempt to fight, and they equipped the river with enough of a fleet to prevent supplies from being ferried in or the king escaping. Though Wilmont thought that escape highly unlikely. It was the main fortress of Casta they wanted. For several hundred years it commanded the only high point along the river, which formed a natural moat around the rear of the fortress. Pent Tower rose from the middle of the wall along that side, well protected and isolated from the front walls and towers where the hives of fighting were thickest.At best, the King of Casta had three hundreds knights defending it. Word had come from court spies that the Fearsome Kings would land in Yuork to the north, and so the army had gone thither to defend the northern portion of the island kingdom. Some ailment had prevented the King from commanding it himself. Instead, the Fearsome Kings had landed in Shereff Hutton in the lowlands and quickly marched on the capital city of Casta herself. The townspeople had fled to the keep, as many as were permitted. But the king ordered the gates closed, for how many mouths his larders would feed was entirely unknown. Rather than endure the siege and starvation, he decided that the remnants would find solace from their brothers in Syn Albans, and hopefully follow the army hastening on its way to relieve the siege. From his vantage, Wilmont could see several of the Castaic knights down in the inner yard, laboring with the commoners to fortify the keep. Blacksmiths hammered out dents in armor and sharpened swords and spear points. The entire inner court was crammed with makeshift tents from the townsfolk that had been allowed to tarry. He saw a mother wiping her baby’s face with muddy well water. Several urchins pelted each other with stones. The air was so dense with smoke from the burning fields around the keep that his clothes absorbed it. Each night, as he lay his head on the pillow of his arm, he could smell the stench of it. Smoke had permeated his skin, made his eyes burn, and brought a horrible cough that echoed many chirping and barking below him.
He shifted his position, and opened the cage door, but Shy never left unless the Ravenmaster was there. Staring down at a crowd of rowdy boys, he wished he were among them. Though he enjoyed sitting on the roof with Shy, who never teased him, he also knew that the little raven was just a dumb bird. He could talk to her, share his feelings, but all she could do was mimic his words, and she rarely did. Reaching into the cage, he stroked her ebony feathers, then ran his little finger over her firm beak.
A walnut of guilt cracked open inside his heart. Here he was, seeking solace in the company of the very ravens he detested. Of course, he had not been completely truthful with his master, and recognizing that shamed him. He had believed in the legend as a child. He had believed it when his mother whispered it to him while lighting a candle to frighten off the ticks and bedbugs. Back then, before she’d died, it was an immovable truth. Shy fidgeted in the cage. He stared off the wall, thinking, and hating his thoughts.
When did the cracks of doubt first threaten his belief? He remembered it vividly. He was twelve at the time, still flush with pride at being the Ravenmaster’s apprentice. There were two knights, cavorting with the ladies of the palace. And one of the enormous men had whispered as they passed, “There goes the royal jester and his serf. They smell worse than the privies, do they not?”
“Hush now,” one of the ladies had said. “They believe their task is important after all.”
What Wilmont remembered most, though, was the look of scorn in her green-gray eyes.
He performed his duties, learned the rules of the Ravenmaster, and settled into the complicated routine of feeding, cleaning, training, exercising, and memorizing that comprised the Ravenmaster’s responsibilities. As he did these things, he watched the knights, the scullions, the butlers, the pages, the groomsmen, the shepherds, the priests, the rones, the criptmasters – he watched them all and observed that the Ravenmaster, the only duty where there was only one man and an apprentice, was regarded generally with disdain, abhorrence, and mockery.
If the legend were true and the position estimable, why did so many ridicule it? It had not been so many years since that day as a twelve year-old.
The trapdoor jiggled and lifted up, revealing the tawny head of the gossiping scullion. He did not know her name. He was too afraid of her to ask it again. When she first arrived months before, he had been too flummoxed to remember the introduction. He took great pains to conceal his lack of memory, such as always meeting her eyes before addressing her so as to remove any possible confusion that he was talking to her. As the apprentice Ravenmaster, he ranked higher than her in the castle hierarchy, yet with her airs she ranked herself higher than the Queen of Casta.
“Boy. Molesworth. The ration is here. If you aren’t going to eat it, then I will. My stomach never ached like this at least in the Dowager’s house.”
Wilmont wanted to ask her how many times the Dowager’s house had been put under siege. But he knew her tricks already. She only needed a little coaxing to torment him. It was usually best to ignore the insults.
She pushed the trapdoor the rest of the way open and climbed out on the roof, ruffling her simple skirts, and squinting at the sky. “The stench is dreadful up here. It reeks worse than the cages down below.”
The scullion had brown eyes that were in color, more like honey. The syrupy orbs observed Shy cradled in her cage in is lap, and a mocking smile turned up her mouth. “So here is the missing one. It’s the girl, isn’t it? I can’t wait to tell the others you’ve been nuzzling her up on the tower roof. Show me how you stroke her.”
He felt scarlet rush into his cheeks. “I was watching the army!”
“Watching the army and fondling the little beast, you mean. Ruffled your feathers, have I? How funny. Now are you going to eat your bread, or can I have it?”
“I’ll eat it,” he said petulantly. “You labor in the kitchens. Like as not you can steal anything that …”
“Drops on the floor? Like a dog?”
“No! That’s not what I meant. I meant the stealing part.” He grumbled to himself, discomfited. “Don’t stand there like that,” he said. “The army can see you. Get down.”
“The Fearsome Kings? I fear them not at all. I am not a child, like you.” She folded her arms, staring out at the army, her face impassive and regal.
“Get down,” Wilmont insisted, tugging at her skirts. “A longbow has great range. I’ve found several arrows up here since the siege began.”
“You have? Really?”
“Get down! Or I’ll call my master.”
She looked down at him imperiously. “Your master is drunk.”
Anger flared up inside him. “You are a foolish scullion. You know nothing. It’s against the order of the Ravenmasters.”
“I know a drunken man when I see one. And smell one. I see them all the time in this castle.”
Thoughts and confusion chased through Wilmont’s brain like so many gnats bewitching a pond. “You’re lying. He does not drink wine. We only get a little beer with our bread, but it’s watered down. We take no wine.”
She flexed down in a crouch, her nose near his. There were little freckles on her nose. “There is an open bottle on the table.” She sniffed at him. “You need to bathe. I heard only the queen is allowed to bathe right now. Think of it. How dirty the well water is, yet they allow her to bathe in freshwater while the brave ones die of thirst.” Her eyes narrowed. “He’s drunk. Go see for yourself.”
“He is not drunk.”
“It’s no use lying for him. Not to me, anyway. He’s passed out on the bed. When I tell the cook, she’ll laugh. Fine – if you won’t eat your bread, then I will.” With that, she ducked back under the trapdoor and scurried down the ladder.
Wilmont’s confusion made him dizzy. The Ravenmaster never drank wine. It was forbidden the order. The beer was tempered, so watered down it could do nothing to a man, no matter how much he drank. Wine was for the nobles. He’d heard gossip of servants who had been whipped for sipping from the cups on the trays as they carried them to the lords and ladies of Casta. The maid Ness had said that some nobles etched the inner rims of their cups with a band of gold, to provide a level marker for the wine. If there were any less wine in the cup than the marker, the servant was whipped, no matter if they had been jostled and spilled it. But the Ravenmaster did not drink wine. He had never, not once. He hurried to the trapdoor and went down.
It took a moment for Wilmont’s eyes to adjust to the darkness of the upper chamber and his ears were congested by the whirlwind of raven raucousness. His foot missed a rung and wood bit into his knees, making him grunt and the scullion laugh with scorn, and the sound was mimicked instantly by Zig and Black. She was already at the table, tearing a piece of the bread away. She laughed as she stuffed it into her mouth.
“Give off,” he snarled, his stomach roiling with emotion.
“More please,” Gorge insisted, thrusting his beak through the bars. His wings flapped with eagerness.
The girl, with a twinkle in her eye, licked her fingers and then stuffed some wadded bread into the bars.
That caused the ruckus to burst apart like a sack of flour. Gorge seized the bread, attacking it fiercely like some wounded rodent.
“No!” Wilmont shouted at her. “He’s eaten enough! Stop that!” He grabbed for the plate, but she was defter than he and brought it behind her back. She shook her head to get stray hair out of her face, her cheeks flushed, her honey eyes dancing.
“But I’m hungry,” she said, twisting away as he tried to reach around her for the plate. She bumped into the table, but steadied herself.
“Give it to me,” he said, standing so close he could see her swallow.
“What if I don’t?”
“Give it to me!”
“Give it to me. Give it to me.” And one of the ravens made a horrible kissing sound. It was the rascal Black, Wilmont was sure of it. He wanted to strangle the bird.
“Why should I? Are you going to tattle, Molesworth? Are you going to tell cook that I have been disobedient? And I shall tell her that the Ravenmaster would never have allowed that. Unless he was drunk. Who will she believe? Hmm?”
Wilmont ground his teeth, remembering that he’d left Shy up on the tower roof in his haste to come down. Had he closed the cage? Curses and fury, the girl was maddening!
“Give it to me!”
“Give me the plate,” Wilmont said in the most deadly voice he could muster.
The look in her eyes, the total apathy and ridicule, made him burn with shame down to his boots. She snorted, and flung the plate at him. “It would have been more interesting if you’d taken it from me.”
He snatched it from the air, too angry to eat, and set it down on the table. And there he saw it – the confirmation of her story. At the edge of the table, in its own crimson puddle that dripped through the slats and pattered on the floor, was the wine.
He stared at it, blinking rapidly. His stomach, already boiling with anger and humiliation, doused like a blackhammer’s tongs into a bucket.
“I told you he was drunk,” she said in his ear.
Looking at the bed, Wilmont saw the Ravenmaster lying still, his chest heaving. His leg dangled off the end. He was in his uniform still.
The scullion’s arm brushed against his as she reached for the bottle. Her fingers curled around the neck of it and he sidled away from her, anxious about her closeness. How strange she was acting. Never had she taken such liberties with her behavior. Never had she…
He noticed the stains on her bodice.
“You are drunk,” he whispered.
The ravens settled down, rustling in their cages, pecking at the bars.
Except for Gorge. “More, please?”
The scullion lift the bottle to his nose. “Have you ever smelled wine before, boy? I don’t know why so many fancy it at first, for it smells like something spoiled.” The heady aroma assailed his nose and made him want to gag. “But the taste is pleasant. Have you tasted it? Boy? Have you?”
Wilmont swallowed, a twitter of panic mounting inside him.
“I said no.”
“No. No. No.”
He looked into her eyes, into the honey swirls and felt the sense of panic turn into a lurch. Her lips were wet. Her forehead bedewed with sweat. She smiled at him, her teasing, mocking smile.
“You’ve never even tasted it? Then I shall pour you a cup. Or do you still drink from the raven bowls?”
He tried to speak, but he couldn’t.
She fetched a chipped cup from the table and filled it. “You never forget the first taste, boy. Bitter at first. Sour, yes. But it truly is the drink of kings. You are the King of the tower. No longer the Mole. Drink it.”
Part of him hungered to please her. Part of him desired nothing more than to flee.
“I won’t,” he stammered. “I…I’ve been taught…it’s that the Ravenmaster is forbidden to drink…”
“What do you fear? That you might like it? Drink. Just a taste.”
Her eyes darted to the bed when the Ravenmaster groaned and stirred. Wilmont wished his master would awaken. But no, the old man only wheezed once and fell quiet again.
“There is no one here but us,” the girl said. “I won’t tell cook that you did.”
“I know, but…I’m not supposed to…”
“I will not tell. Shall we share a secret, you and I?”
He wanted to believe her. He wanted to taste the wine. There was something in her disheveled look that was so appealing. His heart thundered in his chest. Dizziness and thirst in his throat. His knees started to tremble.
She pressed the cup to his chest, then raised it up to his chin. Then to his mouth.
Why? Did she want to get him in trouble too? If she and the Ravenmaster were drunk, they would be punished. A whipping was no small thing. There was blood and bandages and stinging poultices. And how could he forget what a gossip she was? A promise sworn in a stupor would not be honored later if at all. A secret shared? Why? Yet there was something else – something deeper reason that made him balk. Not fear of punishment. It was duty.
Something snapped inside of him. He batted the cup away, violently, and thrust her back. There was wetness on his lips; they tingled and burned. The taste and smell were horrible. The wine sloshed and doused her. She flung the cup down.
“You oaf! Look at me!” She pulled some of the sopping garment from her, the expression on her face too baffling to discern. At first, he thought he had seen triumph in her eyes, but now he saw vicious anger.
“Leave,” he told her coldly.
“I will not. You’ve ruined my clothes! Look at me. I’ll be whipped.”
“That may be. You should not have drunken it yourself. My master will be whipped as well. Or worse. So be it. But you must leave the Tower. Now.”
“You are cruel, boy. Cruel! Let me clean my clothes, at least. You have a little water? If I rinse and scrub, I can get the stain out.” Her fingers shook as she began unthreading the bodice strings.
“What are you doing? I said to go!”
“I can’t clean my dress while wearing it. Go wait on the stairs. It won’t be but a moment. Please, boy. I won’t tease you any more. I promise. I’ll bring you extra food from the kitchens. Please, don’t let them beat me. I saw the lashes when Noassi was whipped. Please, you must have compassion. I’ll only be a moment, I swear it. Only a moment. Let me just clean this.”
She began tugging off her dress, frantically, and Wilmont – dazed by what had happened – fled the tower before his eyes feasted on any more of her.
He ran down the steps, his mind’s eye whirling with the events. What had happened? What was going on? Why was she acting like this? The rhythm of the stairs came at him reassuringly. But then he stopped himself, nearly stumbling in the effort to halt.
The rules of the order.
The ravens must never be left unprotected.
But what would a silly scullion do to the birds? She was so frantic to avoid punishment, she wouldn’t have time to…to…to what?
His breath was harsh in his own ears. And then he remembered that he had left Shy’s cage open on the tower roof.
* * * Wilmont shielded his eyes as he pushed at the door. It was locked.Something inside him lurched and tumbled down his chest to his toes like a brick crashing to the bottom of a long stairwell. As he peeked in gap of the keyhole, he expected to see the scullion in nothing but her shift, using his drinking water to purge the stain of the wine. He did not expect to see her murdering ravens with a dagger.
Dumbstruck, he gasped.
She had not removed her gown, though several bodice strings must have torn in her haste to convince him. The slender dagger in her hand impaled Gorge. The other birds were feasting on crumbs, fluttering in the cages, unaware of the danger.
The pegs slid into nubs in his mind. The scullion was a spy.
There were only three keys to Pent Tower. One was around the neck of the Ravenmaster who lay on the bed. The other belonged to the king’s yeoman who inspected the towers at every season change. The third was on a cord around Wilmont’s neck.
He fit it into the lock and turned it swiftly, his has trembling as if he had the palsies. He opened the door and his eyes met hers, and what he saw there was cruel.
“I didn’t think I would fool you long, boy.” She had already yanked the dagger from Gorge’s stiffened carcass and plunged it into another cage, transfixing Black before he could mimic her voice. “Not when you had resisted me. But I thought you would bring soldiers with you. Very foolish of you to forget them.”
His throat parched and he wiped his mouth on his sleeve, stuffing the key into his pocket. His knees trembled as he entered the chamber. He knew he could run down the tower steps and that his screams would eventually fetch the soldiers standing guard at the base. But he also knew that the ravens of Pent Tower would all be dead before he reached the last step.
She plucked the dagger from Black’s breast and grabbed another cage as Wilmont gathered his courage. His mind was nearly numb from shock, betrayal, from fear and inadequacy. None of these things mattered at the moment. The keep would fall if all the Ravens perished. He knew it as certainly as he knew that nightfall was quickly descending past the veil of smoke outside. Legend or not, the soldiers would lose heart if the ravens failed to greet the skies at dawn. A spy. A Dahomey spy. How amidst all the ashes was he going to stop her?
There was no time for tactics. No time for wayward thoughts. He did the first thing that came to mind, and that was throw one of the heavy feeding dishes at her. The crockery thunderclapped behind her. She ducked. Another bowl, then a cleaver from a wall peg sailed at her. He lunged for anything he could put in his hands and hurled it at her with all the spite and energy he could muster. A ladle, a soup spoon, a chipped stein. All the while he angled around the large center table, trying to get at one of the cages.
She dodged another bowl and grabbed the next cage, plunging the dagger into Zig.
“No!” Wilmont heaved a cauldron at her, which she easily avoided. She lunged for him next, grabbing a fistful of his shirt and the knife came down. Somehow, he managed to block her forearm, his bones jolting with pain from the impact. She hefted again and Wilmont pulled away, dragging her against the table. Her grip was like iron and he saw the knife flash once, twice.
Pain slit down his arm as he tried to block it and failed. Blood spattered in his eyes, stinging, or was it sweat? They were nearly the same weight, he realized, and grabbed her arm and shoved her back into the ladder. Another slash cut across his shoulder. He felt the skin open like a fireprick, but his heart was hammering too much to feel any pain.
He screamed for help, pulling the sound from the depths of his stomach. He saw her eyes flick towards another cage and she feinted at him before grabbing Nevar’s cage. He lunged at her as she swung it around, smashing it against the side of his head. Lights dazzled in his eyes and his knees buckled. He couldn’t see her, couldn’t see what she did, but she heard the little squawk as the raven died. Gorge, Zig, Black, Nevar. Dead.
His eyes barely cleared in time to see her go for Proud’s cage. No, not Proud! Sputtering, Wilmont grappled at her skirts and managed a fistful of them. He was quicker than she that time, managed to pull himself up and cause her balance to falter in the same instant. He took advantage of the moment and crushed her against the table, watching the knife skitter away and flop to the floor on the other side. She was like a wildcat as he struggled to clasp his hands in front of her, squeezing his own wrists. He heaved her up, jerking her body away from Proud’s cage.
She gyrated, cursing in a language he didn’t know, kicked against the table and he suddenly lost his footing and went down again, still clutching her. He squeezed as hard as he could, but he was tiring quickly. Her smothering hair tickled his face, filled his mouth, and he lifted his chin to gasp for air. The motion saved his life, as her head came cracking back against his jaw instead of his nose. Then one of her arms was free and he felt her nails raking towards his eye. He grabbed her fingers to stop it, which broke the grip.
He covered his face as she twisted free. Their faces were so close he would see the flush of her skin, the sweat sheen on her cheeks, smell the breath of her that had no hint of wine in it. There was a desperate look in her eyes – a fear of failing. His sleeve was soaked with blood.
Then she left him, and raced for Proud’s cage.
Wilmont fumbled as he tried to stand. He charged after her as she hurried to unlock the cage. He was ready this time as she swung it around to crush his head again. He dodged it, but the cage crashed to the ground, bursting it open. Proud caw’d shrilly, flapping his wings, rising above the broken cage, confused, free.
She grabbed at the raven once, twice, then managed to seize on of his wings. A quick jerking motion and the bird flopped to the ground, still.
Wilmont flew into a fury, not caring for himself. He wanted to dash her head against the floor. He wanted to choke her. All the beauty he had seen in her lush, mocking smiles faded into cinders. All the pent up desire for her he had secreted in his heart was as empty as Proud’s cage. He grabbed her, snatching at her sleeve and raised his fist back to strike.
But she was trained in the ways of war much greater than the boy from Pent tower. An opening was all she had needed. His fist in her clothes. It happened so fast. Her thumb pressed against the back of his hand and then she peeled his fingers away, twisting his wrist in such a cruel way that he felt his arm go numb and somehow, impossibly, he was spinning down to the ground, his arm ratcheted up behind him, until he felt the bone break. The feeling of it, the horrible feeling of it. The agony that washed over him in a miasma. He screamed, sick to the core, awash in anguish. And he vomited from the pain. Then she kicked his back, kicked his stomach, kicked his head.
Bunching up tight was all his could do, and it was not enough. She could have stamped him to death, but he knew she had a higher mission. His attacker broke off and went for the ladder rungs. They both knew that Shy’s cage was still at the top of the tower.
Wilmont sobbed and choked. His left arm felt like a burning stump. While raising his head, he saw the smear of blood on the floor where his cheek had been. She was almost to the top, her skirts thrashed and torn, bedecked with scars from the violence of their fight. His lungs heaved with emotion, of loss, of despair, but he clenched his teeth and willed himself to stand. Somehow, his legs obeyed. Then one-handed, he grasped the ladder rung and started up after her. The scullion. The spy.
The trapdoor came down heavy, but he batted it up again with his good arm, not caring what noise it made, sick with fear that he was already too late. Dusk was settling over the ancient Castan fortress. And Shy lingered in her cage still, even with the door left open. His heart throbbed when he saw the little raven. The spy was already there.
“Fly! Shy, to me! Fly!”
The spy seized the cage, her skirts flapping with a wind gust.
The little bird only answered to the Ravenmaster. She was just a dumb little thing anyway. But somehow, she knew. Somehow, she heard something in Wilmont’s voice that attracted her.
“Ravenmaster,” she croaked and flew out of the cage as the spy lifted it.
Wilmont scrabbled to his feet, his hand outstretched and Shy lit on his finger. There was a wild rage in the amber eyes. Glaring, tortured hatred at the raven, her fingers tightening into taut bands around the empty cage. Using a motion he had witnessed the Ravenmaster use countless times, Wilmont flicked his wrist and sent her to the safety of the skies. “Fly!”
Black feathers exploded in a ruffle and she was soaring up in the air, swooning with the gusts of wind levying her. The spy from Dahomey stared up at the weak bird as she escaped, her mouth twisting with words yet to be spoken.
Wilmont knew he had only a moment to act. Shy’s wings were hobbled. She would not stay airborne long.
He rushed the girl as hard as he could, shoving the cage and her. Panic in her eyes, a shrill shriek of fear before her back struck the edge of the parapet wall. He had fixed his course on the toothed gap in the battlement as well as he could. The shove had unbalanced her. When he pushed again, she fell.
Panting and sobbing, he watched as she plummeted and struck the casement below. Only then, did he sag to his haunches, wrap his arm around his knees and weep bitterly even as Shy fluttered down next to him.
* * *
“Wake him.”A horrid stench filled Wilmont’s air and he gasped and revolted from it. His arm was bound to his side, wrapped in splints and bound with thick bandages. He recognized the bed. He recognized the table, though it was strangely askew. Never before had he seen so many men inside Pent Tower. The room was brim with them.
“Do you hear me?”
Wilmont found the speaker to be the king’s yeoman, sitting in an ordinary chair butting up against the bedframe, the gold threads of his tunic glinting from the lamplight. The yeoman’s hair was long and graying at the edges, as well as his short beard and round, bulbous nose and furrowed brow.
Wilmont’s voice failed as he tried to speak.
“Water. Fetch me water.”
He raised the cup and Wilmont took it, drinking it down. It was clean. It was fresh.
“Are you ready, lad? It is almost dawn.”
“Ready?” Wilmont asked, his mind throbbing with memories and pain.
The only sound in the tower were the men rushing to and fro. No chirps or caws. He saw Shy in a cage on the center of the table, pressing her beak through the bars at him.
“Release the raven, boy. It is almost dawn.”
“But the Ravenmaster…”
The yeoman shook his head, his frown very telling. “Yes, well he’s dead and can’t likely perform the task now can he? They are waiting for you lad. The knights. They know something happened here tonight. They are watching for the dawn and they are watching for you.”
“Quite so. A dagger thrust into his back. Just in the right spot to kill him slowly. I’m sure you watched him fidget a bit as he died and the smell of the wine convinced you the girl’s tale was true.” He rose from the chair and waved around the room. “And what a tale this room whispers! I’ve pored over it a dozen times tonight, retracing what happened. I can scarce believe it.” He turned back, pointing his finger at Wilmont accusingly. “Yet you did not drink of it. By the stains on her bodice and shift, you shoved the poisoned wine back at her.” A grin appeared on the yeoman’s face. “Even the chairs witnessed what happened here tonight. The crockery on the floor speaks to your defense. Five birds dead, yet the sixth got away.” He approached Shy’s cage and stroked it with a gloved finger. “Truly you are the Ravenmaster now.”
Wilmont’s heart nearly burst. The Ravenmaster was dead. So were most of his charges. “I have failed,” he whispered. “And Shy has never been the strongest. What if she dies too? What if…”
“To the grave with all that rubbish, boy! Do you see it as failure? I think not. Nor does the king. What more loyal steward is there among this entire household? We train our knights not to be fooled by the Dahomey spies. Yet they were. Oh, we know who has betrayed us, and the Dowager will earn her due for sending the spy here. An intricate plot, to be sure. Paid and fooled we all were, but not you.”
“No, but I thought she was a scullion. She came from the Dowager…”
“I know this already. I’ve questioned each member of the kitchens. She came to these shores before the war. Her goal was devious and specific. She earned a position in the keep’s household through the Dowager’s connection. She waited for the siege to come, waited for the stocks to run low. Soldiers say they saw her at the top of the tower and they admired her streaming hair instead of suspecting her motives. She wooed us all. No doubt the armies of Dahomey were watching for her as well, to know that this would be the dawn when no ravens would soar above Pent tower.”
Wilmont’s throat clogged. His heart beat furiously in his chest.
The yeoman came back to the chair, folding his arms as he sat. “But a boy…barely a man…thwarted her. The only thing these broken dishes, that shoved table, your bloody shirt cannot tell me is why. But I suspect the answer all the same.”
The trapdoor creaked open. “Master Yeoman, it is the dawn.”
“So it is,” the yeoman replied, looking at Wilmont expectantly.
Wilmont swallowed. His legs scarcely worked as he mounted the ladder steps. Memories were still too fresh. Still too painful. The air was above was cool, yet salty with smoke. A knight handed him Shy’s cage, and there was no scorn in his regard.
The sun blushed and the raven was loosed. Shy fluttered with her hobbled wings over the siege and the strong men of the castle – along with the scullions, the butlers, the pages, the groomsmen, the shepherds, the priests, the rones, and the criptmasters – and lifted their voices in a cheer that swelled from far below.
The Ravenmaster of Pent Tower stood on the battlement, raising his black glove in the air and the cheer shredded its cocoon and became a roar.
Less than a fortnight later the army arrived from Syn Albans. But the Fearsome Kings of Dahomey had already fled.