Long ago, when the world was young and the forest stretched as far as the eye could see, a young Raven-Maid lived in the branches of an old oak tree. Her feathers were of purest white, of ivory and old bone, as were the feathers of all her kind, because they were beloved of the Moon. In the darkness of the night, she flew like a ghost from tree to tree and cried her song to the skies.
One summer’s evening, when a warm breeze carried the scent of honeysuckle up to the very tops of the trees, the Raven-Maid’s song was drowned out by the silvery chimes of hundreds of bells. Curious, she spread her wings and followed the sound.
The further she flew, the louder the bells rang and the more beautiful they sounded in her ears until, at last, she reached a river and a road that ran beside it. On that road ran a sled, pulled by five grey horses, each gaily caparisoned with a hundred singing bells.
And in the sleigh sat a man.
He was beautiful in the moonlight, all color leached from him. Pale skin set against dark hair and brows, his jaw firm, his slender hands wrapped around the reins. Entranced, the Raven-Maid followed him for miles, gliding silently above him, eyes trained on his face, until he reached a palace and vanished inside the high gates.
Shearing off, the Raven-Maid alighted in the very top of a rowan tree and cried for the loss of his beauty.
The Moon noticed her tears and leaned down to stroke her downy head. “My child, whatever is the matter?”
“I have seen the most beautiful man in the world,” the Raven-Maid replied. “But he has gone into the palace, where I cannot follow him.”
A cloud slipped across the Moon’s face like a frown. “But you have the whole forest, my love. You do not need him. Fly home to your family and be happy.”
“I cannot,” the Raven-Maid said, tears running down her beak. “I cannot be happy without him.”
The Moon sighed and shook her head, but she loved the Ravens who were her children and so she said, “Very well, my child. I will grant your wish.” She dipped her head low and kissed the Raven-Maid’s brow. “While I am in the sky, you may take the form of a human. But keep your feathers close to you, for if they are lost, you will be trapped as a human for ever.”
As she spoke, a whirlwind of feathers spun around the Raven-Maid and when at last they settled, the Raven-Maid was gone. In her place stood a beautiful human woman with pale, pale skin and pale, pale hair and pale, pale eyes, all the color of spider’s silk and milk, wearing a cloak of white feathers.
“Thank you,” she whispered but the weak ears of her human body could not hear the Moon’s reply and her weak eyes could not see the Moon’s tears.
“Be careful, my love,” the Moon whispered as she pulled herself back up into the sky. “Don’t lose your self as well as your heart.”
Prince Alexei threw off his heavy cloak and stamped toward the fire roaring in the hall’s hearth. Despite the warmth of the early summer sun, the nights were still cold this far north and he warmed his hands gratefully before the blaze.
His trip had been a waste of time. He needed a bride, a consort—someone to rule the wild Forest beside him.
He had visited every Earl, Count, Margrave, Knight within his kingdom and none of their daughters would do. They were pretty, but they were also insipid. Preening girls with no backbone and no fire, their soft hands could never stand the work needed to protect his people.
And yet, he must marry one of them, or see his lands lost to his cousin.
The click of bootheels announced the arrival of his Seneschal. “No luck, my lord?” she said.
Alexei turned his head to study her. Eowynn was tall and strong, brown hair swept back from her temples and grey eyes watching him keenly. She had been by his side for as long as he could remember, not afraid of hard work or of pain.
“Beautiful dolls, all of them,” he said, sighing. “I could have a hundred jewels to hang on my arm, when all I need is a sword.”
Eowynn raised an eyebrow. “A sword? You wish for a wife to be a weapon?”
Alexei shook his head. “Perhaps that was the wrong comparison. But I need a wife who is strong enough to rule. Someone useful and practical. A shield, maybe. Or a hammer?”
“Or a shovel to clear up the shit you spout?”
Laughter bubbled up in Alexei’s chest and he felt the weight of his search for a bride lift for a moment. “Yes, a shovel would do. Ah, if only I could marry you, my friend. You would be the perfect wife.”
Eowynn chuckled at his joke, but Alexei thought he saw a tightness about her eyes. “Very good, my lord,” she said, half-bowing. “As if the daughter of a blacksmith could ever marry a prince. Your cousin would take your throne in an instant.”
“Very true.” Alexei turned back to stare into the fire. “And we cannot break tradition, can we?”
The creak of hinges forestalled any response his Seneschal might have made.
Alexei turned to greet his guest, wondering who could have arrived so late, and gasped aloud. He stood frozen as the most beautiful woman he had ever seen walked through the doors and into the hall.
Her eyes locked with his and a soft smile spread across her face. Her skin and hair were as white as the fresh winter’s snow and, lit by the light of the moon behind her, she seemed to glow with an ethereal light. A cloak of pure white feathers fell from her shoulders to sweep the floor behind her.
Alexei found himself hypnotized by her. He couldn’t move or speak, not even to beg her to come closer. He could only look on her loveliness and ache to touch her.
The click of Eowynn’s bootheels crossed the floor and she closed the door, shutting out the moon and the cold night air. The stranger’s radiance dimmed to something bearable, although her beauty still bewitched him, and Alexei stepped forward to meet her.
“Greetings, my lady,” he said, bowing over her hand. “Won’t you come closer to the fire? Take a seat. Be welcome.”
She stared at him with bright eyes, then nodded and allowed him to lead her to a chair.
“Can I get you anything, my lady? A glass of wine perhaps?”
A shake of her head and a soft smile were his only answer.
“Then, will you tell me your name, lady? To what honor do I owe your visit?”
She tilted her head sideways like a bird, her eyes still never leaving his own. “I am called Branwen,” she said so softly that he had to bend forward to hear her. Her voice was low and sweet and pierced his heart. The sound of it enough to bring tears to his eyes.
He was half-aware of Eowynn standing behind him, unspeaking. He wanted to scold her, to tell her to welcome their guest and bring her food and drink, but he couldn’t bear to look away from Branwen or release her fair hand.
Alexei did not know how long he stood there, enraptured. He thought Eowynn spoke to him, but he did not hear her over the sound of his own heart. A glass of wine was pressed into his free hand and he drank it, but he did not taste it.
Some time later, the glass was empty and the low moon that shone through the windows dimmed as it dipped behind the palace walls. For all that time, neither Alexei not Branwen spoke. Her gaze and the feel of her fingers in his was enough.
But, as the moonlight faded, Branwen finally looked away, glancing out at the night’s sky.
“I must go,” she said in her soft voice, and she rose from her chair.
Alexei walked with her to the door, still holding her hand in his. “But you mustn’t. There are wolves outside and the night is dark and cold. Won’t you stay here until the sun rises?”
Branwen smiled and shook her head. Rising on her toes, she pressed her lips to his cheek. Then, her fingers slipped through his and she disappeared through the doorway as Alexei stood dumbfounded.
Throwing off his stupor, Alexei threw open the great door and stepped out into the courtyard, calling after her. But there was no sign of her, just a raven soaring over the palace, its lovely song spilling from its beak.
The chill of the night wind cut through his thin shirt and Alexei hurried back inside to the dying fire. Eowynn came to sit beside him as he stared into the flames.
“Are you all right, my lord?”
“No.” Alexei shook his head. “I am bereft. I am empty. How could she just leave me like that?”
“She has enspelled you. My lord, listen to yourself! This is not like you.” Eowynn’s voice was harsh and angry, but Alexei ignored her. She didn’t understand.
“If the Lady Branwen returns,” he said, “you must bar the doors. She cannot leave again without telling me who she is. I must find her and make her my bride.”
Eowynn let out a heavy sigh. “Yes, my lord. As you wish.” She rose and walked away, heels clicking on the flagstones, but paused at the bottom of the stairs. “You should go to bed. Sleep. It is nearly morning.”
Alexei waved her away and returned his attention to the fire. He could sleep later, when the feel of Branwen’s lips on his cheek had finally faded. Once he had seared the feel of them into his memory.
The Raven-Maid landed in the rowan tree and flipped her wings back with a sigh. She had visited her prince, gazed upon his face for hours, and her heart was full.
But his palace had been stifling and airless. The ceiling hanging above her head oppressed her and the fire’s crackling fury sent shivers down her spine. As had the daggers thrown at her by the eyes of the prince’s companion.
She should not return. Yet, as the day passed, the discomforts vanished from her memory and all that was left was the image of his beauty.
As the moon rose high in the sky and transformation raced through her body, the Raven-Maid told herself that it had not been so bad. Whatever uneasiness she endured trapped within four walls was worth it to gaze upon him. His presence drew her like a magnet and, once again, she found herself opening the door to his hall.
The prince smiled when he saw her and bade her sit in a chair before the fearsome fireplace. She leaned back in the chair away from the devouring flame and fixed her gaze on his face once again.
He talked non-stop and she let the music of his voice flow over her to vanish into the darkness outside the glow of the fire. It didn’t matter what he said. She couldn’t understand the humans’ obsession with endless words. The Raven-Maid was merely content to gaze upon her love.
The fire in the hearth grew low, its light failing before the brightness of the moon that shone through the hall’s high windows, casting shadows across the floor. The shadows lengthened as the moon set and the Raven-Maid’s skin tingled with the oncoming change, her feathered cloak fluttering in a non-existent breeze.
She tore her eyes from her prince and rose to leave, although he still chattered away, clinging onto her hand. His grip was too firm now. He didn’t want her to go, but she must. The night and the forest were calling to her blood and the Raven-Maid hurried to the door.
She pulled on the handle but the door would not open. Fear jumped in her throat and she spun around. She was trapped.
The prince stood behind her, smiling. “I can’t let you leave yet, my lady. You must tell me who you are and where you live.”
The words lost all meaning as the world spun away. The transformation raced over the Raven-Maid and she panicked, plunged once more into raven-sight and raven-thought. The oppressive walls and ceiling became unbearable and she launched into flight, pale wings beating against doors and windows.
The prince’s servant moved toward the door and started to pull it open, but the prince stopped her with a shout. “No, she must not leave!”
A hint of fresh air reached the Raven-Maid’s nostrils and she banked, wheeling across the room. There. The fireplace. That was where it came from.
Caught between her fear of the fire and the terror of being trapped, the Raven-Maid plunged toward the hearth and dove into the chimney, wings beating hard as she rose vertically up the long, dark channel to the stars.
She burst out into the cold night air, lungs sobbing for breath, and glided away from the palace to rest in the rowan tree. How could her prince have done this to her? She could never return. Never see him again.
But a raven lives in the moment. Despite their intelligence and long memory, they do not dwell on their experiences and, gradually, the fear ebbed and was forgotten. The Raven-Maid calmed. She had seen her prince and she was free again, so it could not have been so very bad after all.
By the morning, she had set the memory aside as a bad dream and was waiting for nightfall to return to her prince’s side.
“That was unexpected,” Eowynn said once their beautiful, silent guest had turned into a ghostly white bird and vanished up the chimney. “I don’t suppose she’ll come back now.”
Alexei shook his head. “No, she must come back. I won’t let her get away again.”
“My lord, how are you going to stop her? She’s obviously a witch or a spirit of some kind.”
“But I must,” he shouted, running his hands though his hair. “She must stay and be my wife. I cannot let such beauty escape me.”
Eowynn frowned. “I thought you wanted a practical wife. A shield, or a hammer. Someone who could care for the people and protect them.”
Alexei waved her words away. “That was what I thought before, but I was wrong. She is the only wife for me. She is perfect.” He leaned on the mantle and stared at the dying fire, his words harsh and broken. “Send your father to me. He must build me a grate for the fireplace that she cannot break through. She will be mine.”
“In the morning, my lord. It’s past three. You must sleep.” Eowynn took his arm and piloted the unresisting prince to his bedchamber, and shut the door on him. Sagging back against the doorframe, she allowed herself to sigh, then headed to her own room.
Martha was asleep in their bed but woke as Eowynn slipped in beside her.
“Did she come back?” Martha asked, blinking sleep from her eyes.
Eowynn nodded, pulling her love into her arms. “Yes, and the prince is more besotted than ever.” She stared at the ceiling for a few moments, then spoke again. “But I don’t think she means to make him so. She doesn’t speak, or answer any of his questions. She seems content to look at him.”
“He is rather handsome,” Martha murmured against her shoulder.
“You’ll make me jealous if you talk like that,” Eowynn replied, and Martha let out a sleepy laugh.
Soon, Martha slept, her soft snores muffled by Eowynn’s arms about her, but Eowynn stayed awake for a long time, seeing trouble coming and unsure how to stop it. At last, she slept and dreamt of the moon and the forest and flying through the endless night.
Alexei’s day was busy, filled with workmen and orders and preparations, but at last night fell and he sat by the fire awaiting his lady’s appearance.
He did not need to wait long. Almost as soon as the moon rose, shining its light through the great windows of the hall, the creak of hinges announced the door opening and her arrival.
As before, she was silent and unresponsive to his questions. Alexei gradually grew quiet and basked in her otherworldly beauty, but part of him was constant in its awareness of the moon’s passing and the night slipping away.
The moon disappeared behind the great tall trees of the forest and the hall grew dark. Lady Branwen rose to open the door but Eowynn had barred it again as per his instructions. A shadow of a frown passed across her luminescent face and she turned back to the fireplace.
As she walked, a shiver seemed to run through her, the feathers of her cloak rustling like leaves in the wind. Between one step and the next, she had vanished, leaving a bird the color of moonlight in her wake.
The bird flew to the fireplace and up the chimney, but was trapped by the web of iron the blacksmith had installed that afternoon. It panicked, wings beating faster and faster as it threw itself against the iron, dislodging centuries of soot from the inside of the chimney. The fire beneath blazed to life under the influx of air and reached up to snatch at the bird’s feathers.
Its cries echoed around the room and Alexei heard Eowynn gasp with horror as the poor creature beat itself against the metal. But he stood firm. This was the only way to keep her here and make her his. He would not let the beautiful Lady Branwen escape from him a third time.
At long last, the bird tired and flopped down into the ashes. Its wings were burnt, loose feathers spiralling around it as it fell. Gone was the ghostly white creature and, in its place, was a blackened monster coated in soot.
Alexei rushed forward and bundled the bird into a sack before it could recover. He swung it over his shoulder and unbarred the door leading deeper into the palace. At the very top of the stairs was the room his workmen had labored over all day. Each window was barred, with grates small enough to hold even a bird. There was only one door and every chink and crack had been closed up to prevent his love from running away from him again.
In the middle of the room was a huge oak bed. Alexei tipped the dazed bird out onto the counterpane and hurried from the room, pulling closed the huge iron grate in place of a door.
He had done it. She was his now, and soon she would be human again. He would be able hold her in his arms and make her his bride.
Behind him, Eowynn’s bootheels clicked against the floor as she climbed the stairs more slowly. He heard her sigh as she reached his side. She was unhappy, but she would understand eventually. He was only doing what needed to be done to keep Lady Branwen by his side.
The Raven-Maid lay on the bed and gasped for air. Her whole body ached, every muscle strained from her desperate attempts to escape, and the ice-fire throbbing of burns drove away all rational thought.
As soon as she could move once more, she flew circles around the room, seeking a way out. She threw herself against glass and iron and stone until she was exhausted again. Then, with one last gasp of effort, she found herself a perch high in the rafters to sit and sob and tend to her wounds.
There was no hope for her, no help coming. She couldn’t even call to the Moon for help. It had set long ago and now the hot sun was rising bright in the eastern sky. She was alone.
The day was long and friendless. A bowl of water and crusts of bread were pushed through small gaps in the iron door, but she ignored them. Hunger and thirst were nothing, even the burns were nothing, compared to the pain in her heart. She had been betrayed by her prince.
At long, long last, the cruel sun set and the Moon began to rise. The Raven-Maid felt the onrushing transformation reaching its greedy fingers for her and she retreated into the darkest part of the rafters. She didn’t want to be human anymore. She just wanted to be herself and to be free to fly over the moon-bathed Forest. But there was no hiding from the magic and, before the Moon had fully raised her head, the Raven-Maid stood in the middle of the room on human feet, her cloak of now-blackened feathers falling behind her.
Her skin and hair, that had once been so pure and pale, were now soot-streaked. Her nails were broken, damaged in her attempts to wrestle free from the iron entrapping her. Even her dress was torn and stained.
She turned to the window where the Moon shone bright beams of light through the glass to caress her feet and cried out to her friend to help her but, if the Moon replied, she could no longer hear its voice.
A deeper voice called out behind her and the Raven-Maid spun to see her prince standing there. But his beauty had faded from her eyes. He was no longer her love, only her captor.
“My lady,” he said, advancing toward her, the iron door carefully closed behind him, “you’re awake.”
The Raven-Maid retreated from him, shuffling backward on unfamiliar feet across an unfamiliar floor until her knees hit the heavy oaken bed. She froze there as he came ever closer, until she could feel his hot breath on her cheek, his hands heavy on her shoulders.
“You are mine,” he whispered. “I will not lose you again.” In one motion, he tore her feathered cloak from her shoulders, tore her wings and her essence from her, and strode from the room with it clutched in his arms.
The Raven-Maid fell back on the bed screaming, blood flowing from the wounds where her wings were a part of her no more.
The iron door screeched open and booted feet ran across boarded floor toward her, and still she screamed. Cool hands held her, inspected her wounds, bound them in linen, and still she screamed. A soft voice whispered comfort in her ear, but there was no comfort to be had. In the pitiless light of the silent moon, the Raven-Maid screamed until her voice gave out and she collapsed into restless slumber.
Eowynn sat on the great bed and stroked the Lady Branwen’s hair. The lady, witch, raven—whatever she was—lay in Eowynn’s lap, finally silent though she tossed and turned restlessly in her sleep.
The setting moon shone through the window and bathed the dark room in silvery light. Under its glow, the bloodstains on Branwen’s dress, seeping through the linen that wrapped her wounds, pooled on the bedsheets, and coating Eowynn’s strong hands, all looked black as night. Black as sin, because that was what this was. Her prince had fallen from grace and committed an act for which he could never be forgiven and there was nothing she could do to fix it.
Whoever she was, this poor creature had not deserved to be trapped and defiled. She had offered no malice, beyond bewitching his senses with her beauty, and Eowynn couldn’t think that was deliberate. If the raven-woman had known the effect she had, she surely would have used it to protect herself from this destruction.
As the moon slowly set, Eowynn waited for the woman to transform, to heal. Surely whatever magic let her turn from a human into a bird could also heal her wounds, but nothing happened.
The woman whimpered slightly in her sleep as the moon disappeared and the last silvery rays vanished, but she still lay there—human and broken.
With a sigh, Eowynn slipped away and went in search of the prince.
She found him in the great hall, slumped in an armchair before the fire, the raven-feather cloak clutched in his lap.
“Did she…change?” he asked as Eowynn reached his side, not turning his head to look at her.
“No, she’s still human.” Eowynn paused, her eyes fixed on the prince’s face. “I don’t think this is right, my lord. She is in pain.”
Alexei raised one hand to wave her comment away. “She will live. It is for her own good. For the good of the kingdom. She cannot rule by my side if she will not stay, can she?” Now he turned, looking up at her with imploring eyes. “I am doing the right thing, Eowynn. For us all. I promise.” He turned slowly back to stare at the fire again.
Revulsion rose in Eowynn’s stomach. The prince had been her friend for her whole life. They had grown up together and she had always thought him the best friend and the best man she had ever met. But something had changed in him. This wasn’t the Alexei she knew. This wasn’t the Alexei who had sat here just a few days before and laid out what he needed in a wife—so calm and sure and thoughtful of the needs of his people.
This Alexei was a monster.
Eowynn tried once more. “My lord, please, let her go. She is not meant to be here. The people need a real princess, not this creature of magic. Give her back the cloak and let her leave here, before things get any worse.”
“No,” Alexei shouted, pushing to his feet. “I need her. Can’t you see that? And if I need her, the people do too. She is the only one I could marry. I will not let her leave me again.” With quick steps, he strode to the fireplace and cast the feathered cloak upon the flames.
The fire raced to claim it with unnatural speed and, as black feathers ignited into dark-crimson flames, a keening wail rose from the room at the top of the palace, sharp enough to bite.
In a few seconds that felt to Eowynn like hours, the flames died back down and the Lady Branwen’s cries ceased. Alexei finally stepped away from the hearth.
“It is done,” he said and walked away into the heart of the palace.
Eowynn slumped into his empty chair, silent tears spilling down her cheeks—for her prince, who was broken in heart and mind, and for the Lady, broken in body and spirit. If she could only go back and stop them from ever meeting, but that was a futile wish.
The fire was almost out, smothered by the ashes of feathers, but a draft played with the embers, sending fragments of charcoal tumbling from the grate to patter on the tiles of the hearth. The noise pulled Eowynn from her thoughts and she stood to rake the coals when a flutter of movement caught her eye.
At the very back of the grate, a single feather danced in the draught, miraculously unburnt.
With a swift glance around the empty hall, Eowynn plucked the surviving pinion from its resting place and slid it into her pocket. She wasn’t sure why she did it, but she couldn’t see the very last fragment of the magic cloak burnt or lost. Perhaps it would soothe Branwen to have something back, no matter how small.
With a sigh, Eowynn turned her back on the fire and headed to her bed, and a few spare hours of sleep before a new day of work began.
The Raven-Maid woke late the following afternoon, disoriented. The wounds on her back throbbed and the room spun as she tried to rise on spindly human limbs. Why had they done this to her? What had she ever done to hurt them that they must treat her like this? All she had wanted was to visit her prince and gaze upon his beauty. Was that a crime in the humans’ strange world?
Someone had left a jug of water by the door and the Raven-Maid struggled to pour it into her mouth. Her hands trembled, splashing water down her front, but she managed to slake her thirst.
She slumped back onto the bed and stared out of the great, barred windows at the forest, waiting for whatever the humans would do next.
She was woken again by the tickle of the Moon’s light falling on her feet and the sound of booted steps in the corridor outside. The Raven-Maid swung her feet to the floor and wobbled to standing to face whatever was coming.
The iron door creaked open and a human woman slipped inside, the same one who had been with the prince each time the Raven-Maid had visited. She looked nervous, hands fluttering at her sides as she crossed the room.
She stopped a few feet away and reached into her pocket. “I came to give you this,” she said, holding out a single black feather. “It was all I could save.”
The Raven-Maid pounced on the feather, holding it against her cheek. The Moon’s light tugged on her legs and she turned to the window to see the Moon hanging above the dark forest, smiling sadly down on her.
“Please,” she begged. “Please help me. I was wrong. I should never have asked to become human.”
The Raven-Maid could no longer hear the Moon’s voice, but she could see the Moon lean down toward her, feel the kiss land on her brow, hear the gasp of shock from the human woman stood behind her. And, above all, she could feel the power swirl through her, transforming everything it touched.
She was herself again. Her ghostly white feathers were still seared black, but now they shone in the moonlight—shiny and healthy, the sheen of rainbows playing in every plume.
The Raven-Maid cried out her thanks to the Moon, but snapped her beak shut as she heard what had become of her song. Gone was her beautiful voice and in its place was a harsh cry of warning. A single tear rolled down her glossy cheek at the loss.
“I’m sorry, my child,” the Moon whispered. “I have fixed all I can, but some things are too deep to heal easily.”
The Raven-Maid bowed her head, speaking in her rough voice. “It is a fitting price for my pride and my foolishness. Thank you, Mother, for restoring my wings.”
“You’re welcome, my love,” the Moon said, and levered herself back high into the sky where she belonged.
The Raven-Maid hopped onto the windowsill and cawed to the human woman who still stood frozen behind her.
“Yes, er, I guess I’d better let you out then,” she said, stumbling over her words as she fumbled with the locks and catches on the window grating. She paused as they finally opened. “For what it is worth, I am sorry,” she said, then the grating fell to the ground with a crash and the Raven-Maid leapt out to soar into the night sky.
Eowynn stood in the empty room and stared out at the disappearing shape of the bird that had been Branwen, unsure whether she had done the right thing after all. Whatever else happened, Branwen would not return and, perhaps, the prince would recover his right mind.
She hoped he would.