A raven landed on the rock, released a deep-throated cry then rose into the air and wheeled away, blending with the night. The priestess watched his form against the stars until she could not see him anymore. Then she picked up the knife. ~ From Ascarion, Chapter One
I live in the woods, and my vegetable garden is fenced in to keep the wildlife from eating it. For two years now, some creature has maintained a tunnel to my well-stocked compost pile despite my best efforts to thwart it. I’ve never seen this mysterious sapper; it comes in the night. Amazingly, it doesn’t bother anything in the garden, so I concluded the compost is a good first line of defense. The beastie doesn’t bother to venture beyond it.
Watching over my garden with the patience of a plastic thing is a big black corvid. A puzzling ornament, he is big enough to be a raven but has the beak of a crow. He stands in a stately pose. I dubbed him Edgar. He doesn’t deter night raiders, blue jays, cabbage moths or mice. But he is good company.
In traditional animal lore, crows and ravens were given the honor of belonging to both the seen and the unseen realms. They are creatures of the hinterlands, mysterious, powerful and devious. This is a natural association given their intelligence, which is formidable. That these birds tend to accompany death also makes them ominous, both feared and revered by their ubiquitous presence on the carcasses of animals, the condemned, or fallen warriors. They are omens, heralds of death and bringers of information from the other side.
The Vikings had great respect for ravens, and a symbiotic relationship with them similar to that of wolves, as the birds led them to prey and shared in the spoils. The Norse god Odin, the one-eyed, all-seeing god of war, magic and wisdom, keeps two ravens named Hugin (thought) and Munin (memory) which fly over the land and whisper to him of all they see and hear.
These birds fascinate me to no end and they have found a special place in my work, both visual and literary. I have dedicated an art gallery to them, given their names to high-ranking wizards’ orders and made characters of them in their own right. One such character is a raven called Nightshade, who plays a major role in Ascarion, Book Four of the Chronicles of Ealiron.
Nightshade is no ordinary raven, if any raven can be called that. Marked by a single white feather in her tail, she is a messenger kept by wizards for times when their powers of otherworldly communication do not serve. She does this on her own terms, however. Nightshade finds someone lost at sea without the help or instruction of her keepers; she disappears for days at a time on mysterious errands; has been known to hang about with war gods telling them who knows what; and even appears to one startled wizard as a warrior lost to memory.
In the following excerpt, an exiled princess lost at sea meets Nightshade for the first time.
She jumped as the squawking repeated outside. Gasping with pain, she pushed herself up and crept to the gaping crack between the hull and what used to be the cabin hatch. Clouds drifted across a hazy sky. The diluted orb of the sun shone like an eye shrouded by age.
A raven fluttered into view and alit on the broken mast.
“You,” Rhinne rasped. Something like this had awaked her earlier. The bird preened its glossy black feathers. It had one white feather in its tail. What was it doing out here? Rhinne pushed herself through the crack like a timid cat and scanned the horizon in every direction.
No land. Nothing.
The bird took off and flew out of sight. Rhinne had no clear references by which to mark the direction of its flight.
She lowered herself back into the cabin. Trust the water. She abruptly broke into laughter. She slammed her fists down and then shoved her face in her hands, laughing like a wild thing, tugging at her hair and rocking forward, clutching at her salt encrusted clothes. This was absurd. She had just died following the advice of a delusion and now a raven was harassing her. She was nothing but a weak, stupid creature that had been crushed by a bigger, stronger, smarter creature. So it was.
Three days passed.
In the clutches of hunger and thirst, rocking in the cycles of day and night and the swells and movements of the sea, Rhinne decided she was not dead, but living and stranded somewhere in the Sea of Derinth. At night, the gibbous moon told her that over a week had passed since her departure from Tromb. It rained once, giving her a brief respite from thirst. But her throat ached and every part of her body wept with too much noise.
She had seen the raven twice more; once at sunset the first day and again the day after, in the evening. She had not seen it since. Wherever it had come from, it undoubtedly knew she would die and planned to feast on her remains. She thought long and hard on how she might turn the tables, capture and eat it herself.
It had also occurred to her that the bleak creature served Ragnvald or Dore, and was giving them reports as to her whereabouts. Unfortunately, she had no bow or arrows, not even a knife. And a raven would not be easily ensnared.
Hooded crows also play a part in Ascarion. No one sees them coming, not even the one who summons them. But that’s another tale.
Ascarion, Book Four in the Chronicles of Ealiron.
An epic swords-and-sorcery tale of what the gods are willing to do for love.
© F.T. McKinstry 2014. All Rights Reserved.